The weather continues inhospitable as we arrive in Prague, mid-May, after 10 hours on the night train from Amsterdam. Now there’s a great experience! Bunk beds made up. Tiny shelves to get suitcases off the floor. A fast, quiet ride, most of it through the German countryside. Most of it after dark. The 3 am train separation in Hanover woke us but as the bright station lights faded, back to sleep. At 8 am the steward arrives with hot coffee, bread and jam. Supplemented with our banana we are happy campers.
A taxi shows up, takes four of us and baggage to the dead-center of tourist Prague. As Hank Williams sings “Honky Tonkin'” (1948) on his radio, followed by a Czech version of “Green Green Grass of Home” we get our first impression of Prague’s endlessly cobbled streets and tiled sidewalks.
He makes it as far as he can and deposits us at the city side of the Charles Bridge; our hotel is 30 yards down Karlova street — both named for Charles IV who ordered the bridge construction in 1357 when this was Bohemia and he was the Holy Roman Emperor. Until 1841 it was the only bridge across the Vltava river.
The hotel is dark inside, as are almost every place we go into during the next 5 days — dark wood, draped curtains, low lights. It’s comfortable and warm. Too warm. We open our double windows to the 54 degree air to keep us cool. The rain comes in bursts. The barn swallows with their impossibly long tails, sit outside the window and preen in quick starts. Then, it must be dinner time, they are off across the river.
Prague itself, as we begin to find our way around it, is a very odd mixture of old (18th century) and very old (14th century) with modern assault-style consumer merchandising.
Blow out Sale! Everything goes! 40% off!
A Leggo Man in the street beckoning
A Man in a Green Duck in the street waving happily
A youngster with two batons and string slopping great soap bubbles across the cobbled old plaza.
Living Statues posed in squares and trafficked corners — some as coal-black men, some as 17th century dandies.
McDonalds, Burger King, TGI Friday,
Worst, from my point of view is that tens of thousands seem to be enjoying it. Two American young women, reading a brochure promising non-stop drinking, are enthusiastic in their approbation. The line of young men, dateless, being frisked before entering the Music Club in the basement of our hotel can barely contain their enthusiasm for the show they expect to see — and which will get better, the more they drink.
There are high-end shops of course and a small area that might be Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles with Chanel, Vuiton and Burburry occupying sumptuous glass fronted spaces that were once the heart of the ghetto. My favorite juxtaposition is a glittering Swarovski luxury crystal store next to a Tattoo and Piercing establishment whose clientele run to the low down and desperate side of the spectrum.
Prague, and the Czech people have been through unimaginable times, from the torture of innocents in medieval times to German occupation during WW II to communist nomenklatura and tanks in the very streets we are now walking. A 5 day visitor is a good candidate for keeping his mouth shut about the choices now being made. Nevertheless, decisions have been made, or left in abeyance and if the tide of more! things! fast! is not turned back by the same integrity and skepticism that got them this far, if the sense of proportion Ivan Klima praises his countrymen for in “The Spirit of Prague” [available in Prague: A Traveler’s Companion, reviewed here] does not prove true, yuck will follow. There are moments already in which the push of tourists, press of attractions, clamoring for attention seem ready to shatter into a million pieces, propelled outward from the Old Town Square like a mini-big bang.
When musical attractions featuring Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart have touts on every corner pressing full color handbills into your hand, stamped Tonight! you know this is a very special place.
We did accept the handbills and we did go, our ears at attention while our eyes roamed the marvelous walls and ceilings of one venue after another. The Mirror Chapel in the large Jesuit built complex, the Klementum, astounded. We revisited later to get a walk-through and hear the story of its 1724 fresco work and hear that Mozart himself had played the organ, still there, in one of his visits. He also wrote his famous comic-tragic opera Don Giovanni, 17 87, while in Prague and dedicated it to the music delirious citizens. We took in a side-show version with marionettes playing the parts while a 1998 Covent Garden version played. The buffa beginning scenes worked well, not so much the culminating tragedy.
I’m falling behind. Experience is overwhelming re-experience in thought and memory. There is much I want to talk about: Franz Kafka, The Good Soldier Sjeck, the awe-full Pincaas Synagogue with its walls of names. The John Lennon Wall where the Czech young practiced defiance of their Soviet overlords.
I”ll get back to you as soon as I find ten minutes….