PRAGUE – Leave the Charles Bridge and its postcard-like view of steeples, turrets and towers on both sides of the river and Old Town to the tourist hordes. On my third visit to the City of 100 Spires, I was on the prowl for stranger things.
In the Museum of Miniatures, I gazed at a camel caravan and palm trees inside the eye of a needle. A menagerie, complete with giraffes and a rhino, on a mosquito leg. The Lord’s Prayer inscribed on a hair. A gold bicycle on a needle. A flea with golden horseshoes.
I’d seen miniature art before — in India, an artisan explained the delicacy of detail in the miniature paintings on display was because “our brushes are made from the eyelashes of camels.” But the Prague museum took the word to a whole different level: its two rooms were filled with microscopes, the only way to view the wonders inside. Most were by a Siberian artist, Anatoly Konenko, who invented instruments for eye surgery, before deciding it wasn’t a sufficient outlet for his artistic talent,
A man from the same town, Omsk, Siberia, Konstantin Kinol, opened the museum, a short walk from Prague Castle in Mala Strana, after buying the exhibits from Konenko, one of two micro-miniature masters exhibited.
In one of those cases where digging into something strange elicits things far stranger, I later learned that he wasn’t alone in his passion to design golden footwear for fleas: in the weird world of micro-miniature art, it was practically a competitive sport. St. Petersburg, Russia has its own museum of ultra-tiny art with a similarly-clad flea by another artist from Siberia, and so does Moscow (must be something about those long dark winters, and Russia’s fabled precision in fields from space, tech to ballet).
Since my tour with Collette Vacations allowed lots of free time, I spent an afternoon on a beer tour I booked with Eating Europe Tours. The Czechs are crazy about beer (they have the world’s highest beer consumption per capita, higher than Germany), and my well-informed guide described the breadth of their passion. He didn’t need to: I’d seen the signs for beer-infused cosmetics and cannabis beer (not to mention cannabis-absinthe ice cream) in Mala Strana.
If you go to the doctor with a kidney problem: “They say have a Pilsener Urquell every day for six months.” If you’re a woman who has trouble breast-feeding: “You’re told to have a dark beer.” Prague even parallels New Orleans: “It’s legal to walk on the street with a beer here.” My guide, Robert Avakian, added, “I’ve never seen anyone going for just one beer. If they raised the tax on beer, the government would be gone within a year. The last time they raised it was 1987.”
If you wonder how an American millennial expat ended up as a home-brewing beer geek and tour guide in Prague, the answer is: get your planned Foreign Service career derailed by the 2008 recession. Become a search-and-rescue scuba diver in New Jersey. Form a suicide-prevention non-profit. Then, fall in love with a Czech girl, and move to Prague.
I admired a spectacular view of the Old Town from the rooftop terrace of one beer garden, T-Anker, which we reached by taking the elevator inside the Kotva shopping center in the New Town, Novo Mesto. Prague’s biggest terrace, with flourishing flower boxes and lots of tables offering a dreamy view of spires and towers, it was totally invisible from the street.
Fond as I am of the word Kafkaesque, I was delighted the hotel was in the workplace of its famous literary son: Hotel Century Old Town, the former Workers’ Accident Insurance Company. In fact, Franz Kafka’s office, Room 224, was on my floor.
Prague is a music-loving city (Mozart commented its audiences were much more responsive than those in Vienna), so I visited the music-themed hotel I read about, the Hotel Aria. Each floor is devoted to a music genre, like jazz, classical and contemporary, each guest room to a composer or performer, from Billie Holliday to Mozart (the Presidential Suite, where Bill Clinton once stayed) and you can borrow any of 5,000 music CDs (and over 800 movies) to play on the Apple TV in your room.
Musical note mosaics lead up to the Aria’s lobby, a music concierge is on hand to tend to your musical needs, and restaurant plates show caricatures of musicians from Mozart to Jim Morrison. There’s even a beautiful 13th century garden (free to guests, paid admission for non-guests) for humming an unforgettable melody.
At Prague Castle, Lobkowicz Palace, one of many buildings in the huge complex, is extra admission, but worth it. I was awed to see music-related items and art masterpieces owned by the Lobkowicz noble family, whose ancestor was Beethoven’s patron, at this museum. He dedicated the Fifth and Third (Eroica) Symphonies to Prince Lobkowicz, after tearing up his initial dedication to Napoleon for the Eroica in a rage, after hearing he declared himself Emperor. Beethoven’s original manuscript for the Fifth Symphony is here, as is Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s “Messiah.”