Since becoming director of the Czech National Gallery three years ago this month, Jiří Fajt has secured exhibitions by major international artists and helped make its numerous buildings in the capital more accessible to the public. Our tour of “his Prague” begins at the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia on the edge of the Old Town. It houses the National Gallery’s impressive medieval collection and was headed by the Prague-born Fajt himself in the late 1990s.
“We are now sitting in the church of the St. Agnes cloister, which was a double cloister – it had a women’s part and a men’s part.
“This church served or was built not only as a cloister church – it also served as a burial place for the kings of Bohemia and their entire families.”
Do you remember when you first came here?
“It must have been in the 1980s. At that time the National Gallery presented a collection of 19th century art here.
“I was somehow a little bit shocked because of the competition between the installed art – the historical, big, monumental paintings by painters like [Václav] Brožík from the late 19th century – and this very refined Gothic architecture.
“It somehow disturbed me and that’s why when I was responsible for this building, during the late ‘90s, I simply decided to change the whole content of this building and decided to place the collection of medieval art here.
There are a lot of sacred buildings in the Czech Republic, but people say the Czechs are one of the most atheistic nations in the world. Do these sacred buildings still have resonance for Czechs even though they tend to be atheist?
“I think they do. I think they present something that doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to the institution of the Church.
“The spaces are very attractive and from an emotional point of view serve as a place for contemplation, actually.”
You mentioned that the Bohemian kings were buried here. It seems to me that a lot of Czechs take great interest in that part of the nation’s history.
“I think so. Because there are specifically a couple of historical personalities that attract great attention from the general public.
“Let me just mention Charles IV, who was the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the third quarter of the 14th century.
“At that time Prague became the capital of the whole continent. With the court of Charles IV and the fact a lot of people were invited or attracted here, Prague was actually the melting pot of Europe.
“You can recognise this if you look at the collection on the first floor here, because we have some of the most important and, from the quality point of view, best painting from that time in this building and in the collection of the National Gallery.
“And that is because of Charles IV.”
The next stop on our brief jaunt around “Jiří Fajt’s Prague” is at a small green area on the street U Lužického semináře in the beautiful if touristy Malá Strana district. Sitting on a park bench on a lovely sunny afternoon, our guide explains his ties to the historic area on the left bank of the Vltava.
“If you look around us you see Baroque houses combined with Renaissance attics and so on and so on.
“This is something that I admire a lot. I love it, actually.
“The Lesser Town, Malá Strana, is in my opinion the most beautiful district in the whole historical city of Prague.
“On top of that, I actually live here. Close by, behind us, there is a house on the embankment by the river where I stay.
“This is my personal like to this district.
“And furthermore we are close to the Charles Bridge, which was built shortly after the middle of the 14th century, which I can say is maybe ‘my century’, from the professional point of view, of course.
“So there are many aspects of this place that are very typical and familiar to me. And that’s why we are here.”
You were telling me earlier that you acquired your apartment just after the revolution. How has Malá Strana changed over those years?
“Before the revolution, Malá Strana was somehow, I would say, even more romantic than now.
“And that’s actually the case of the whole historical part of this city – that now it’s totally overcrowded.
“I think the municipal authorities should be aware that they are obliged to control this mass tourism.
“Mass tourism is something that already damaged Venice or Barcelona, but fortunately the local authorities in Barcelona realised and recognised the danger of this development and they started to control the city.
“And that’s something that Prague needs to do as well.”
Are there practical difficulties of living in Malá Strana? For example, I presume there aren’t supermarkets or bakeries.
“I have to say that I cannot imagine living here with the family, having two small kids and being just focused on this small district.
“Because your presumption was totally correct – there is nothing like a store where you can food of a reasonable quality.
“The infrastructure is very bad.”
Has the community changed a lot? For instance, are many of your neighbours people who have been here since the early 1990s? Or are a lot of the people here relatively new?
“All of the neighbours have changed a lot, actually. Many people left these houses.
“Above all the original people who were living here for generations were somehow, well not forced because they expected money – they decided to sell and newcomers came in.
“But still that is the better case, actually, because there are also people who are leaving their apartments in order to offer them on the free market as Airbnbs or short-term accommodation.
“That’s totally damaging the whole society which is living here.
“It’s very disturbing from my point of view, and I think there are many people who would agree that this is something that’s actually very dangerous for the whole city.
“Because the people who come to Prague would love to see normal life here. They are not so interested in seeing Disneyland, or something like that.
“I’m pretty worried about further development because I can see this tendency to create here a sort of Disneyland for tourists who come to Prague and stay two nights and are then somewhere else: in Vienna or Dresden or Berlin.
“I think this sort of development is very problematic and the local authorities must deal with this issue.”
From U Lužického semináře it’s just a five-minute walk to the pretty café Cukr káva limonáda, which is also in Malá Strana. Jiří Fajt’s family are based in Berlin and he commutes there at weekends. Before we get on to comparing the two cities, the National Gallery chief and art historian tells me why Cukr káva limonáda is part of “his Prague”.
“In my opinion, this is one of the best coffeehouses in this neighbourhood.
“It’s very cozy here. It’s small, but the cook is very good. They have a great bakery here, so you can enjoy everything which is totally fresh. The cakes are really very famous here.”
The café has a lot of elements you’ll find in other places in Prague, like the blackboard menu. But what it has that’s different is this painted ceiling – do you know if it’s original?
“Yes, this is an original ceiling, wooden, painted in the 17th century.
“It’s a late Renaissance ceiling of a kind that was widespread in the whole historical part of the city, specifically Malá Strana was well-known for the usage of this kind of ceiling.
“So this was a very typical part of every interior in Malá Strana.”
As a regular, who do you observe coming here? Who are the clientele?
“But of course many tourists also pass by and come in and enjoy their very nice coffee and cakes.
“So it’s a very reasonable mixture of both.”
I first came here I guess around 10 years ago. In those days it was an unusually nice café, but now I think there are a lot of places that are similarly nice. Would you agree?
“I think so. The landscape of cafés and restaurants is improving very quickly.
“We have a couple of restaurants that have already got Michelin stars, and so on.
“I think that the local society, local people, are paying much more attention to fine dining and such things, which wasn’t so important in this country before.
“So the general culture is improving and the standards are getting higher.”
You’re partly based in Berlin. How do you find going to cafés or bars in Prague compares to in Berlin, even in terms of price?
“It’s still very different. And the differences are not only from the financial point of view.
“I have to admit that many bars and restaurants in this city, although they are nice, the prices are too high, actually, compared to the situation in Berlin.
“In Berlin you have plenty of very good restaurants, very good bars, with quite low prices. Berlin is actually famous for this.
I get the impression that a lot of young Czech people today regard Berlin as the kind of capital of everything that’s cool. Do you think that Berlin is in some ways influencing Prague?
“I think there are a lot of people who are watching Berlin as a model for what’s happening here in Prague.
“In my view this is actually a wrong way, because we are different. Prague is different.
“Prague is a historical city, which is not the case of Berlin. The urban situation there is totally different.
“So I think Prague should do its best in order to develop its own strategy, its own culture, its own way of living.
“That will be something that will attract many more people than creating here a second Berlin. Who is interested in creating a second Berlin? I wouldn’t do so.”