by Kate Dernocoeur, guest blogger
During two month-long visits to Prague (Czech Republic), I always enjoyed encountering new and various designs in the ubiquitous cobblestones. I found myself enchanted by them on my first visit (2008), and was able to add to my collection of photos on my second trip in 2010.
A recent (not-very-sincere) effort to research the art and history of cobblestone design led nowhere. This leaves the subject open to conjecture. In Prague, the most common stones are charcoal and white, although sometimes brown enters the picture as well. Maybe cobblestone art came about as the human search for beauty extended to the most pedestrian place: city streets. I wonder if the people who I’ll call cobblestone artists have “signature” patterns that they like to use. Maybe shopkeepers sometimes request a certain pattern.
Of course, Prague is just one of many cobblestoned cities, especially in Europe. What a great improvement the concept of cobblestones would have been in the evolution of urban management over time, compared with the sea of mud and dust that would have preceded them.
The many different cobblestone patterns create a delightful mosaic for the eyes! The geometric designs might be small or large, diamonded or squared. Symbols (especially crosses) show up now and then. Sometimes, gifted stone setters create beautiful circular patterns. This has to be very challenging, given their medium: squared-off stones.
Cobblestones are usually about two inches square on the sidewalks, but street stones may be as large as eight inches cubed. The inevitable unevenness of cobblestone leads to various challenges—not the least being how to shoe horses so they can draw carriages without wrenching their legs. Also, on my second tour as a Teaching Assistant for WMU’s Prague Summer Program, one of my workshop participants was an Olympic wheelchair athlete. It took all her strength to manage the streets of Prague (and the city’s still-backwards system of “accessibility”). The bumpy, wheel-grabbing demands of the cobblestones, especially at street crossings, were horrendous for her, and led me to realize how something I viewed blithely was a real burden for her.
Many times, I paused to watch repairmen resetting both large and small cobblestones. It is an art that involves careful preparation of the undersurface, the proximal layer being fine, packed sand carefully leveled and smoothed. What looks like an ancient street or sidewalk can be repaired to look just as ancient the next day. I’m happy these cities aren’t defaulting to the (no-doubt easier and cheaper but much less appealing) modern convention of asphalt or concrete. Cobblestones are a distinctly charming and captivating part of my memories of Prague.
In order to enjoy cobblestones best, I think, a person should wander on foot, and not be in a hurry. Ambling allows full appreciation for the pleasures cobblestones offer. One word of advice, however: I can report with absolute authority that the situation demands good walking shoes!
Kate is pictured here with her friend, Sherry Ramsey. Prague 2010.