BUMMING AROUND PRAGUE
We arrive in Prague pretty much on time. I don’t know about anyone else, but I had been squirming the last three hours of the flight to ease the discomfort in my lower back. Saw a couple of interesting movies on the flight – The Eagle and Appaloosa – but cursed the earbuds which were apparently designed for everyone’s ear canals but mine. Or maybe the earbuds were from Venus whereas my auricles are from Mars. The upshot is that I’ll have to Netflix the flicks to enjoy them properly.
Taxiing to the terminal, awaiting a rush of anxiety that never really materializes.
No time to wonder: must get the luggage and then run the gauntlet of the TSA-paid goonies with their Czech-accented English. Well, at least they’re asking Israeli-style questions. That’s progress.
Outside, cousin-in-law (is there such a word?) Jirka (pronounced yirkah) and niece Eliška (elishkah) are waiting for us, grinning. Jirka will drive us from the airport to their home in Hostivice, a small town that is now more or less a suburb of Prague. While on the way, I rubberneck, watching buildings, people and cars, reading signs and adverts. One ad surprises me so much that I read it aloud. It says LUXUSNĚ JSEM SE VYKADIL (“I took a luxurious dump”). Both Jirka and Eliška exclaim, as one: “Where?” I first howl with laughter, then have to explain that I’d just read an ad. I’m not sure that they believe me, but a few days later Jirka did report that he’d seen the same ad, so I assume he took me off the family head case list.
We drop off the E-fox (“liška” happens to mean “fox” in Czech, hence E-liška = E-fox) where she can catch the tram. She needs to turn in paperwork to get new ID, and the deadline is close. She’d had her wallet stolen some weeks ago, and getting everything new is a real paper mill.
Jirka, who works for a major civil engineering firm that is busy digging up Prague everywhere, provides a steady stream of explanation of everything around us. There is the new tunnel, a part of the almost complete freeway ring around the city. The tunnel will take a substantial portion of Prague’s traffic even farther away from the city center but, in the meanwhile, causes nasty congestion everywhere. Then there is the uncertain fate of the rotting, antediluvian Strahov stadium (biggest stadium acreage in the world) where the Communist Spartakiad spectacles used to be enacted. Then there is the refurbished Sparta soccer stadium near where I used to live as a kid. Sparta, Jirka’s favorite team, is a powerhouse that always has a shot at the national and even European championships.
I used to root for Sparta. Of course, in the bad old days of socialism, it was called Spartak Praha Sokolovo, to give it a proper militaristic flavor. (Sokolovo was a World War Two battle in which Czechoslovak units under Soviet command had taken a major – and heroic – part.) Oh, for your information, socialist militarism was not really militarism at all (only capitalists do that) but an eternal readiness to engage in kinetic military action to defeat the class enemy and the ever-present threat of international capitalist/imperialist/Zionist/neo-Nazi/revanchist conspiracy. (Don’t laugh, they really talked and wrote like that!)
Speaking of city center… Everywhere there are signs that read CENTRUM. The Czechs aren’t really multivitamin pillheads: the signs merely direct you to City Center.
Cousin Marcela (Jirka’s wife) is at a clinic today: some kind of testing. She is not supposed to drive (or operate heavy machinery or tools, or climb every mountain etc. etc., as the standard shpiel goes). Jirka has to pick her up. I come along so I can do more rubbernecking. On return to their apartment, we decide to do a kind of introductory hike through the center of Prague, just to get our bearings again.
The Prague Castle is the logical starting point. We drive to within walking distance, meet up with the E-fox again and slowly hike through the Castle under the overcast sky. This, I’m told, is good to bring out true color in photos. (A photo fanatic or an artist would refer to it as “diffused lighting.”)
The Prague Castle, which has dominated the city’s skyline for centuries, is completely restored, and if at all possible, still more beautified. All the familiar landmarks greet me: the ever-visible high Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the spacious courtyards, the statue of St. George slaying the dragon, (isn’t he done yet, after all these years?), the seemingly modest but imposing Romanesque St. George’s Basilica.
BTW. this is just scratching the surface. Many more pictures, and more history, are coming in later posts.
There is also a statue of Thomas G. Masaryk (TGM), the primary founder and first president (1918-1935) of Czechoslovakia. I don’t think it was there in 1995, and I know it wasn’t there under the Communists. TGM had been that rarity: a statesman with an uncompromising dedication to democracy and a man of genuine vision. He and his allies had founded the only genuinely democratic state on the ruins of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was universally known as the Grand Old Man of Europe. (Needless to say, Hitler hated his guts, and so did the Communists.)
Down from the Castle, then, slowly down the steep slope, through the terraced Baroque Ledeburská zahrada (Ledeburg Garden) that descends toward the Little Town Quarter, with its historic houses and palaces and the expanses of red tile roofs. Nowadays, wherever you go, you pay – something that wasn’t there in 1995. And so it is that, to go down the intricate stairs, pathways and grottoes of the Ledeburg Gardens, you have to pay a shekel or two. So it is.
When we are finally out of the maze of the gardens we continue through the winding streets of the Little Town Quarter, where there is always something unexpected to be discovered, like this plaque commemorating the stay of the American writer Marcia Davenport. Davenport, a prolific author who also wrote a best-selling biography of Mozart, had been a close friend of Jan Masaryk, the first president’s son. Jan Masaryk, a tragic figure, was the Foreign Minister in exile during World War Two. His regular radio transmissions from London had given heart to his unhappy nation during its darkest years. He had retained his post after the war but died under mysterious circumstances soon after the Communist putsch of 1948. He had been too beloved a figure to kill outright or arrest and subject to a political process, and so he was assassinated by the Communist secret police who’d shoved him out of the bathroom window of his official Castle apartments.
On weary feet, we reach the 650 year-old Charles Bridge, with its fabulous statuary. The statues aren’t as old as the bridge: a few date from the 17h century but most from the 19th. The bridge connects the Little Town under the Castle with the Old Town on the opposite side of the Vltava River. (I know Vltava is not easy to pronounce, but pleeeeez don’t use the German word “Moldau!”)
I remember heavy traffic, including trucks, rumbling over the bridge as late as 1965, the year of our escape. In 1968, during the Soviet invasion of the country, even tanks tore up its ancient cobblestones. It wasn’t until 1970 or so that the bridge was finally closed to any but pedestrian traffic.
Today, the bridge is full of artists plying their trade and displaying their wares. In 1995, the bridge had also featured unkempt groups of guitar-strumming American longhairs who sat around singing dreadfully off-key 1960s songs. These, thank G-d, are completely gone now, since Prague is no longer a dirt-cheap novelty, and anyway the Czechs don’t much like aimless loitering. (Maybe the longhairs, now perhaps balding, had moved on to Romania or Bulgaria. Or maybe they now have jobs.)
Down on the Little Town (Castle) side of the bridge, far below it and on the embankment, is an artificial island called Kampa. Kampa is separated from the city by a channel called Čertovka (Devil’s Stream) that was constructed in the Middle Ages by the Knights of St. John (Templars, Hospitalers) as a raceway for waterwheels. It’s a quiet place where artists loved (and love) to hang out. Since it lies so low, it had been massively damaged during the 2002 flood. (Note the water level mark on the side of the pub.) But it’s already fully restored, and a lovely place to bum around or just sit. For the museum-minded, there is the Kafka Museum and the Kampa Art Museum, the latter in an old restored millhouse.
By the way if you look at the water wheel carefully, you will see a statue of a vodník (water sprite) sitting there. Any river, stream, rill, pond, lake or other body of water worthy of its name may be expected to be home to a vodník. (Rivers may have one practically in every river bend!) A vodník is usually a malevolent character who loves to pull folk down below to drown them, and then be stores their souls in little jars, like this pipe-smoking character from southern Bohemia. (Note the jar!).
Yes, they all do smoke pipes, but even they cannot change the laws of physics and must come ashore to smoke. Occasionally, a vodník turns out to be a pretty good guy who actually befriends and helps people who live near his domain. He might even come out regularly to enjoy a mug of beer with the men. Such, I believe, was the case with the Kampa vodník. Unfortunately, since he was immortal and his human friends mortal, he watched them age and die over time. He appeared less and less frequently until he stopped showing up at all. And now he stuff of mere legend.
Today, you can take a nice boat ride along the Čertovka, without any worries.
Of note, Kampa is a favorite place to shoot movies; Amadeus, for instance. (Great flick, lousy history, by the way.)
Across the river and to the south is the National Theater, now closed for renovation. This opera house had been built in the 1800s almost entirely by subscription: I used to read stories of little Czech village children dutifully depositing their pennies in subscription boxes so that “our theater” could be built. Leading Czech artists contributed their work, and the theater finally opened in 1881, only to be severely damaged by fire after less than 20 performances. More money was collected for reconstruction, and the National Theater was reopened in 1883 with the performance of Smetana‘s grand opera Libuše. (Libuše, by the way, was a ruler from Czech mythology who, had the gift of prophesy. Among others, she prophesied Prague’s greatness (“I see a great city whose fame will touch the heavens.”)
Not that I’m a chauvinist or anything, but there truly is no greater place to hear a Czech opera than the National Theater. One day, I will go back there just to see The Bartered Bride performed one more time, in its native tongue and on its native soil.
Across the Charles Bridge we walk and then around the Old Town Quarter, soaking in the atmosphere, the architecture and even the signs. When our feet finally begin to protest too loudly, we take a streetcar back to Jirka’s car and drive “home” to Jirka and Marcela’s house.
More Prague tomorrow, a bit more systematically. Until then, blessed sleep!
Publishing Day 1 pics as a separate post…