Of Gargoyles and the Flaming Green Fairy- Czech Republic, October 2013

My latest post comes from the Czech Republic whose lands were known in the Middle Ages as the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Moravia. While travelling through Eastern Europe has often given me pause to digest the sobering events that marked the 20th century history of the region, it has also given me many chance discoveries that have delighted. One of my flights of fancy in olde Bohemia has been the gargoyles of St Vitus cathedral at Prague Castle.

The essential elements of a gothic cathedral seem to include vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, numerous tall spires, spiky decorative elements and compulsory gargoyles. For a period (14th to 15th century) marked by religious austerity I am fascinated by the personal and artistic expression conveyed by the sculptors of these medieval down pipes. Quite simply the function of a gargoyle was, sitting at the extremity or corner of a building, to direct water flow from the roof via a gutter in its back to spout water away from the building proper. Symbolically they had a role in warding off evil spirits and were commonly made in the form of mythical beasts and grotesque animals. Squinting up at the gargoyles of Prague Castle I found the most intriguing array of fantastical creatures snarling back at me – from ugly maidens, vagabonds, winged monsters, toads, sozzled lute players to beetles and capricorns. I have to smile at the playful, humorous renditions by olden day stone masons whose freelance tidbits are often hidden among the solemn detail and decorations of the gothic style.

Prague is perhaps the most spellbindingly beautiful city I have ever visited. The old town has a romance and charm – if one must be trapped within a man-made enclave then Prague’s maze of esplanades and lane ways along the banks of the Vltava river would happily be my prison. The main square is a tangle of dark gothic towers and the enchanting astronomical clock (at a glance is the time, the phase of the moon, the planetary positions and the saints day calendar). The buildings are renaissance and baroque in style – embellished with statues and various flourishes in a pastel palette that dares you to look away. Elegant bridges span the river with the waters reflecting the autumnal shades of the trees lining the banks. The imposing silhouette of Prague Castle sits high on a mount above the old town.

In the lane ways of Prague I have discovered a quirk of Bohemian culture – the flaming green fairy. Skip to the 19th century and a fashion sweeping European cafes and bistros was the alcoholic spirit Absinthe. Distilled from wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) it was traditionally blended with anise and fennel resulting in a green colouration. Absinthe was claimed to have hallucinogenic properties, but most likely its effects were simply related to the up to 70% alcohol it contained. Most commonly it was served with iced water dripped through a sugar cube balanced on a slotted Absinthe spoon resting on the rim of the glass. Complex rituals of Absinthe preparation evolved and the drink was favoured by artists and the literati who nicknamed it the ‘green fairy’. Such was the social scandal that followed this craze it was subsequently banned in several European countries. It has made a recent revival but the Bohemian style of preparation involves setting fire to the Absinthe soaked sugar cube.

Ah – so even cities become an adventure waiting to unfold if you’re open to the new and the old. When next you’re in Bohemia try flirting with the flaming green fairy and watch out for the gargoyles!

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