For years I’ve heard from many people, “Oh, you HAVE to go to Prague!” Well, now we have, and I can see why people say that. The city has a unique charm thanks to a deep history that’s well-preserved visually throughout. It was spared the widespread destruction of World War II and other wars, allowing centuries of buildings and streets to coexist in what’s still a modern city.

For us, the experience was tainted a bit by unseasonably cold weather. We knew late March might not be exactly springlike, but even the locals were wincing about the bitter cold (“below zero” as they say, meaning in the 20s Farenheit), accompanied by a brisk wind. At least the sun shone and by late afternoon, walking the city was pretty tolerable.

Some highlights of treading the old cobblestones:

Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge, pedestrians-only, over the river that runs through the city, with 30 large statues of saints, all sorts of folks just hanging out, street artists, an ever-changing scene, mighty scenic.

Historic Church

The Old Town square, with historic churches, statues, a big clock tower, food and souvenir stands, and even an Easter celebration, with local kids dancing and playing music on a large stage.

Old Jewish Cemetery

The Old Jewish Cemetery. I wondered why this is called a “must-see” designation, but upon learning the history (100,000 people buried — in 12 layers — in a fraction of a city block) and seeing the place with its innumerable ancient grave stones, many of which had self-exhumed over the years… it was indeed a moving and memorable place to visit.

Our nights in Prague were well-spent as well.

Piano Contest

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Sunday following the Bluegrass Summit: A… Piano Contest!? Rosta, our host for the Bluegrass Summit, requested our presence as guests of honor at a special event, a piano contest for which he was one of the three judges. The event took place at a quite-fancy downtown hotel, with the piano the contestants all played a maximum-size (8-foot) grand piano by the world-famous Petrof company, local to Prague. I was introduced to CEO Zuzanah Petrof, a statuesque friendly lady with a lovely smile, who welcomed us, and we enjoyed hearing seven contestants with a great variety of skills and performing styles.

The players were not so much of a “classical” type of piano playing, but more about solo, “bar” style piano. So the pieces ranged from Girl From Ipanema and Besame Mucho (twice each) to various classical pieces. The contestants’ clothes choices were interesting, ranging from too-large to too-small suits, and one contestant dressed all in white. Demeanor ranged from scared-witless to flirtatious. One contestant played almost always with his eyes closed, and to add a bit of showmanship, played his last piece after being ceremoniously blindfolded.

For a bit of variety, I was requested to play a piece with the reigning champion, a friendly and huge youngish guy named Peter. We had Sweet Georgia Brown as common ground, and had a little 4-minute international piano/banjo jam on the old standard.

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Tuesday night jam at a Prague pub

Peter Ruby, host of a weekly jam at a nearby pub in Prague, invited us to come and pick with the locals, so we got to mix it up with some talented folks who crammed around some tables and kept the music going for a few hours amid the consumption of a fair amount of bubbly beverages. A good band, Twisted Timber, whose members had met at this jam, played a few numbers for us, including some impressive originals. It’s inspiring to see good young pickers carrying bluegrass along, from this outpost so far from the bluegrass heartland. A few people had made a point of coming, one said from as far as 200 kilometers. That’s a haul!

Click here to watch a video of the Prague Pub Jam.

Visit with Prucha

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I’ve known Jaroslav (he goes by Jarda) for over 10 years — we met at, and he regularly comes to IBMA. He’s a maker of fine instruments including one I have, and… speaks good English, always a nicety. We were both excited about the opportunity to get together on my first visit to Prague. Though time was in short supply, Joan and I made a point to have a visit and see his small factory.

Jarda picked us up at a prime sightseeing location by the river, at 5 on the dot, as planned. Fortunately, central Prague is fairly unclogged with cars– a pleasure for both noise level and pedestrian convenience. We drove maybe 20 minutes to the south outskirts, and down a small avenue not unlike what you see in the states… and walked into Prucha Banjo central! Only a few specimens were on the premises, but I did play them, and they do the maker proud. I even got a few sounds off a lefty model, made by Jarda’s son who showed us his very fine work on necks-in-progress. We also met Jarda’s girlfriend and her daughter, and drove with them into the hills to an upscale restaurant, recently converted from a barn! A most unique and delicious dinner ensued, good times!

And on to the Svornost for the first Europe-Wide Jam Camp!