18 April 2023
On our last night in Prague last week, Charlotte introduced me to the Café Slavia, once the traditional hangout of Czech writers, artists, intellectuals, and political dissidents.
Although those days have long gone, the Café Slavia – or Kavarna Slavia – opposite the National Theatre, remains a national institution in Prague. The wealth of traditional coffee houses in Prague is a legacy from the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Café Slavia is probably the best-known in the city.
Café Slavia, on the corner of Národní street and Smetanovo nábřeží, is across the street from the National Theatre and overlooks the banks of the Vltava River. This legendary Prague institution first opened its doors in August 1884. When the National Theatre was built, the plan was to have a coffee house across the street from it. Theatre audiences came during the intervals and the actors and musicians arrived after the performances.
The place has changed in appearances over the years – from Art Nouveau to Social Realism, leaving us with the Functionalist interior with Art Deco wall decorations of today. The walls of the 300-seat café are lined with photographs of many of the writers, artists, revolutionaries and intellectuals who once came here for coffee and to debate with one another.
The café quickly became a cultural place where writers, poets and intellectuals met to talk and debate. The original regular clientele included the composer Bedřich Smetana, the actor Jindřich Mošna, the poet Jaroslav Seifert, avant-garde writer Vítězslav Nezval, Josef Čapek and many others. The list of guests and visitors has been described as ‘a who’s who of Bohemian culture at the time.’
During the era of the First Republic, the interior was changed to the popular style Art Deco style and it has remained unchanged since then. The original Tonet chairs, the dark wood tables and the green marble walls continue to evoke the 1920s.
During the communist era, the café became state property. But it continued to draw artists, writers and intellectuals, even after the Prague Spring and the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, and became the meeting place for dissidents.
The coffee house has found its way into literature. Jaroslav Seifert refers to it in his book Halleyova Kometa, and Ota Filip published a novel, Kavárna Slavia, in 1985.
During the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the regular guests included the poet, playwright and human rights activist Václav Havel, who later became the Czech president, and the poet and artist Jiří Kolář. More recent guests have included Hillary Clinton and the writer Arnošt Lustig.
The café closed in 1992 because of a complex legal dispute, but re-opened in 1997 with a glittering ceremony that also marked the eighth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
President Havel, who was in hospital with pneumonia, sent a message saying the re-opening of Cafe Slavia was a victory of ‘reason over stupidity.’ He said its reopening was a step towards renewing the natural structure of Czech spiritual life, stressing the café’s role as a meeting place for different artistic streams and currents of opinion.
The café is also known for ‘The Absinthe Drinker,’ a copy of the large painting by Viktor Oliva, and measuring 2 meters by 1.80 meters. The original hangs in the Zlata Husa Gallery in Prague, but this copy has been on the wall of the artist’s favourite café since 1920.
Viktor Oliva (1861-1928) belonged to the ‘Parisian Bohemians’, a group of Czech artists who lived in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was there that he discovered the joys of absinthe.
In among the chairs and tables of Café Slavia, a man sits alone sipping a glass of absinthe, with an open newspaper to one side. In the background, a waiter is approaching to serve him. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the figure of an alluring but transparent young green woman perched on his table.
Is she his muse?
Is he reminiscing about a past or lost love?
Or, has he fallen in love with the ‘green fairy’ – another name for the strong hallucinating drink?
The present owners of the Café Slavia have tried to recapture the atmosphere of the 1930s, when the café was in its hey-day, and n the evenings, a live piano player helps to create a romantic atmosphere in the evening.
and from the windows, as we looked across the Vltava River, we could see Prague Castle and Saint Vitus Cathedral lit up against the night sky, high above Malá Strana.
This is the second week of Easter, and Sunday (16 April 2023) was Easter Day in the calendar of the Orthodox Church.
Later today, I hope to have a post-troke consultation with John Racliffe Hospital, Oxford, which has been reschedules on two occasions. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.
As this is Easter Week in the Orthodox Church, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:
1, Short reflections on an Orthodox church in Crete;
2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
The Church of the Four Martyrs, Tessaron Martiron Square, Rethymnon
Immediately outside the old town of Rethymnon, at the Porta Guora Gate, one of the largest churches in the city is the Church of the Four Martyrs, which stands in a busy square of the same name, Tessaron Martiron.
The church is often mistaken as the cathedral of Rethymnon and is a fashionable venue for baptisms and weddings at weekends. It was completed on 28 December 1975, but stands on the site of two previous churches, the first from 1905 to 1947 and the second, which was demolished in 1972.
The church stands on the place where the four martyrs of Rethymnon were executed on 28 October 1824. Throughout Greece, 28 October is a national holiday, ‘Οχι’ Day, recalling Greece’s trenchant ‘No’ to Mussolini that brought Greece into World War II on 28 October 1940. In Rethymnon, 28 October is also the day when the city recalls the Four Holy Martyrs who give their name to this church. The four were Crypto-Christians, all from the Vlatakis family and from the Melambes region, who were executed by the Turks on this spot in 1824 for standing up for their Christian faith.
For four months, Manouil, Nikolaos, Georgios and Angelis Vlatakis were held prisoner in the building at the old harbour that later housed the custom house. As they were taken to their place of execution outside the Porta Guora gate, with their hands tied up, they saw their executioner holding his sword, and heard him ask: ‘Will you adopt the Turkish faith?’ The standard answer was a humble ‘Yes, my Lord.’ But instead the first man in line surprised everyone with a scornful ‘No.’ A few seconds before his head was cut off, he added: ‘I was born a Christian and a Christian I will die.’ One by one, the others did the same. As each was executed, his dying words were ‘Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy.’
The central aisle of the church is dedicated to these four local saints. But the northern aisle is also dedicated to the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste – Roman soldiers, martyred in Armenia during the reign of Licinius in AD 320. The southern aisle is dedicated to the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete who were beheaded by Decius in 250 AD.
John 3: 7-15 (NRSVA):
[Jesus said:] 7 ‘Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10 Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Safeguarding the Integrity of Creation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by USPG’s Regional Manager for East Asia, Oceania and Europe, Rebecca Boardman, who reflected on ways to get the climate justice conversation started, in the light of this week’s International Earth Day.
The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (18 April 2023) invites us to pray:
Let us pray for a spirit of openness. May we have courage to hear the voices of those speaking from the frontlines of climate change and the conviction to carry the message.
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him:
deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org