Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jewish heritage brought to life in tour of synagogues and cemetary

Today we headed off down a very busy street just off the Old Town Hall Square passing the abundant Neo Baroque and Art Nouveau facades of multi-story blocks of flats with very high-end shops below. We were headed towards the Jewish Town, a unique complex of Jewish monuments. The original ghetto formed by a maze of streets and lanes and small houses was destroyed by the urban renewal at the beginning of the 20th century, but the Jewish community managed to save the most precious buildings.

We started off on our walking tour of Josefov neighbourhood, site of Prague's Jewish Ghetto — and still one of the most evocative Jewish districts in all of Europe. For a thousand years one of the leading centres of Judaism, the neighbourhood is studded with thought-provoking museums, fascinating synagogues, and a Kafkaesque, dream-like cemetery. Some of the synagogues are still used for their original purpose, while others are museums showing the history of the religion, neighbourhood and its people.

The Old Jewish cemetery is the largest and best preserved Jewish cemetery in all of Europe. It is a mass of higgeldy-piggedly gravestones. The oldest preserved gravestone dates back to the 1400s. More and more land was acquired for the cemetery but it was still not enough and the terrain covers many layers of graves. There are twelve thousand tombstones in the cemetery but many more graves. The oldest gravestones are made of sandstone while in the 16th and 17th centuries this was replaced by marble. Eventually a new cemetery was opened nearby.

After a lovely lunch in an Italian restaurant overlooking the Old-New Synagogue it was time to head back to the hotel. Fortified by a salad, pasta with shrimp in a delicious wine sauce and for Seamus pasta with freshly grated white truffle, a glass of red and an excellent espresso it was definitely time for a vigorous walk and rest because we had a busy evening ahead of us.

In the early evening we again walked past all the designer shops to the Rudolfinum, a stunning Neo-Renaissance building built in the 19th century. It was originally designed as an art gallery but from 1918-1938 and for a short period after WWII, it housed the Czechoslovak Parliament. Today it is the seat of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra and centre for cultural events.

Arriving early we had a drink in the beautifully decorated lounge complete with very high ceilings and comfy chairs. It was time to enter the main hall for our concert with the Parnas String Ensemble. It was lovely listening to Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, Dvorak, Bizet and Brahms. The group enjoyed themselves as they were playing and so did we.

Now it was time for a change of pace. We headed to the the Ungelt Jazz Club for a live concert. The Club was housed in a building almost a thousand years old. Throughout the centuries all goods imported from abroad had to pass through this area where tradesmen paid the duty called "Ungelt." As the importance of the area declined it became a warehouse in communist times. The current owners have attempted to restore this ancient architectural jewel to its former glory.

We went down into the basement of the club, where we sat at a trestle table. It was quite a different audience from our last concert. The concert was actually R and B with the band, Eric Stanglin and the Juke Joint Heroes. The music was pretty good but Eric was a bit intimidating, becoming somewhat angry at a group of young Italians, who were having quiet conversations while he was singing. The drummer was a Quentin Tarantino look alike, while one guitarist played with a completely blank expression on his face while the other guitarist, who played really well, looked like he had just rolled out of bed. All this and a drunken German, who tried to conduct the band, made for an interesting but fun ending to a busy day.

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