Presidents are our proxy for history in the United States. Names like Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Washington call to mind an era as much an individual. And our presidents, with FDR's exception, never served more than eight years. European history, by contrast, is royal history. Kings and queens often ruled for decades, their children after them, and the same families for centuries. Even a world away in miles and years, their names carry weight: Hohenzollern, Romanov, Habsburg. Their art and their music have become ours: Mozart and Bach, Bruegel and Durer. Ostensibly classless Americans are often seduced by century after century of royalty and nobility, nearly limitless wealth and taste.
Prague has all of this in abundance. Better still for the tourist, Prague has all this in a particularly attractive size. Although the city is home to 1,250,000 people, the old city--which contains almost all a tourist will want to see--is compact. It is a city conducive to walking; nothing seems to be more than fifteen minutes' away. Although that's not true, the city's cozy familiarity encourages a sense of intimacy. Perhaps some of it derives from the architecture. Not only are most of the buildings comfortably worn, nothing except steeples rises higher than a few stories. Prague's buildings confer upon it a sense of scale that doesn't exist in most urban landscapes. The height of a human being reassumes meaning; scale becomes understandably relative. Medieval churches reached unimaginably high into the heavens to convey a message. And their outsized scale carried true meaning. As hundred-story towers have become common, architectural height has lost any meaning beyond the unimpressive sensation of tallness. Prague is a city where you can see the sky over the buildings. Streets do not feel like canyons. Even the tallest buildings have the space around them that allows you to take them in without having to crane your neck or look straight up. It is a city for people to live in.
The architectural jumble is also unimaginable to most Americans. There aren't many modern buildings: storefronts, yes, interiors, yes--buildings, no. And the old ones aren't a mere hundred or two years old but five and six hundred years old and more. This is not history, it is History. It is impossible to walk these cobbled streets without absorbing a feeling for the lovers' quarrels on street corners, the lives lost over bridges (and out of windows), the daily commerce. And the streets are quaint-at least to look at. Yet as undeniably charming and picturesque as cobbled streets may appear, they are misery to walk on. No step is ever truly level. Walking without glancing down frequently is an act of faith, faith that is frequently shaken. The occasional paved sidewalk is heaven-sent and reached gratefully.
We stayed at the Pension Dientzenhofer, named after father-and-son architects among the most famous in Czech history. Kilian Dientzenhofer was born in our out-of-the-way building in 1689. He and his father Christoph designed a number of baroque buildings, most quite large, throughout the city. Kilian's birthplace is a smallish building with six guestrooms, four on the second floor and one each on the first and third floors. Most of the first floor is given over to a dining room, tiny bar, kitchen, and office. All was spotless, neat, and 1970s modern. The rooms are nicely, if sparsely, furnished. I had my own bath and Mom and Dad were across the landing with their own bath and their own sitting room. (The "sitting room," truth be told, was a long narrow room with two stuffed chairs at one end (that opened into beds), a desk, a wardrobe, and a pair of windows.) Down a winding flight of stairs was the dining room.
The pension is located in Malá Strana, the "lesser town," across the Moldau from the heart of the city. On our side a portion of the river is diverted to create a large stream. That stream, which rejoins the Moldau again after several hundred yards, creates a small island known the Kampa. The Kampa has its own little square surrounded by buildings, mostly restaurants and souvenir shops. Like so much else in Prague, it evokes an atmosphere, a sense of time stood still. The buildings on the Kampa are largely from the seventeenth century or earlier and some appear to be in marvelous shape. Beyond the Kampa, where the stream rejoins the Moldau, is a large park that runs along the river's banks.
The "Lesser Town" is the quieter and more park-like side of town. Rising on a promontory behind it is Hradcany Castle, a startlingly scenic sight. Most foreign embassies are in the Malá Strana, several within a few minutes' walk of our pension. Our narrow street has virtually no traffic; an hour might go by with only one or two passing cars. The street, like so many in the older part of the city, is cobblestoned, evoking the spirit of the movie "Amadeus." And for good reason: though set in eighteenth-Vienna, the movie was filmed largely in twentieth-century Prague.
We spent our first afternoon getting settled and debating what to do about dinner. We chose a restaurant in the neighborhood recommended by both of our guidebooks, U Maltézských Rytírü ("At [the sign of] the Maltese Knights"), a name even harder to pronounce than it appears. Josef, our host, provided simple directions and we proceeded (map in pocket, just in case) around the corner and down the street. After all, it was only five minutes away. After asking directions not once but twice more from people who spoke no English, we found ourselves in a cozy little restaurant, among the first patrons of the evening. The building, like so many we would come to discover, was old and we descended a spiral staircase to the dining room. Our table was set in a little alcove with one other, in a catacomb-like area. Our waitress spoke a bit of English and the menu had descriptions both in Czech and in English. Dinner was excellent; one this fancy at home would have cost per person what this meal did in total.
The Malá Strana is connected to the rest of the city by the Charles Bridge. This six-hundred-year-old stone bridge, with thirty larger-than-life Baroque statues along the sides, is closed to traffic. During daylight hours it hosts a tourist bazaar: dozens of (mostly young) Czechs set up card tables or small displays with crafts, photographs, or other souvenirs. At night, the bridge is a popular stroll for locals and tourists alike. Ducks, geese, and even swans can be seen in the waters below. Best of all, the bridge offers a marvelous view of both sides of the city: looking west, back toward the Malá Strana, Hradcany Castle dominates the horizon and looking east is a magnificent skyline, little changed in several hundred years. Each of the statues has its own fascinating story. They celebrate everyone from Johann Nepomuk (a local saint) to Jesus Christ. Arching over the latter's crucifix in gleaming gold letters is the Hebrew word kadosh ("holy") repeated three times. The legend is that a local Jew blasphemed the statue; his fine paid for this exquisite lettering.
As advertised, Prague is a meat-and-potatoes city. Servings are hearty and filling. Vegetarians are welcome, just not catered to. And Czech not being an easy language to master, what you get is not always what you (thought you) ordered. In one restaurant we found for lunch, they were clearly unused to tourists. The menu was unusual because it was entirely in Czech; Dad's order went in as a plain omelet and came out as fried shrimp! As in any foreign country, it pays to study the menu (assuming you can decipher it) and think about what you're about to order. Seasoning is appealing, though unfamiliar to American palates. Beer is the beverage of choice in Prague, not wine.
We had a few mediocre meals, but the best ones more than made up for them. The rule of thumb was one of inverse proportion: the poorer the English, the better the food. I had done some research and one night urged my "find" on Mom and Dad. U Matouše ("At Matthew's") was an out-of-the-way restaurant, located not quite where the guidebook had said. As we walked (and walked), I began to wonder whether such an untouristed area could be home to a tourist-friendly place. Tourist-friendly it turned out to be, though more from the novelty of having tourists than anything else. The small restaurant had a bar at one end and perhaps a dozen tables set up at the other end of the room. We hung our coats on pegs and seated ourselves. When the waitress came over and welcomed us in Czech, our English-language "hello" brought an enthusiastic Czech-flavored echo (conveying clear panic at the thought of English-speaking guests). She spoke no English. The bartender's English vocabulary consisted of approximately ten words (of which beef and pork were his proudest accomplish-ments), but he stuck with us and the linguistic impasse didn't matter: the meal was marvelous. So much so that Mom's first glass of wine became a second, unintentionally if happily.
We never ate in a touristy spot with the possible exception of Bohemia Bagel, a spot that could fit in nicely on any block in any mall in any big city in America. All kinds of bagels, all kinds of fillings. Nothing more, nothing less. And the bagels were good. Besides, a dollar bought a remarkably good large bagel with a shmear of cream cheese and tea. One of the nice discoveries in Prague was the attention paid to food. Even if the quality was not top-notch, presentation always received careful attention. Every dish, no matter how inexpensive the restaurant, was carefully arranged, garnished, and beautifully presented. The kind of presentation we are used to seeing in only the fanciest restaurants in the United States is a matter of custom in Prague whether you spend $50 or $2.50.
This kind of attention to detail spills into other walks of life. Fashion is as important to young people there as it is anywhere. I can't remember ever seeing so many attractive, slender young women with such impossibly long legs. Always in black. And always immaculate. Even in jeans. Sometimes, though, attention to detail leaves an unexpected bigger picture. So it was that I found myself walking around town one night on my way toward Wenceslas Square. One of the main thoroughfares leading there is, I discovered, also the street where Prague's hookers hang out. Scattered up and down the block, a number of women in dress ranging from fur coats to miniskirts and tanktops stood in front of fancy stores, offering their services. And at the end of the block, they congregated at the corner, while half a dozen Prague police were investigating a car driving with only one headlight. The hookers and the cops might as well have existed in separate universes. Neither group paid the least attention to the other. Each pursued its calling without even acknowledging the other's presence. (I only later found out that prostitution is legal in the Czech Republic.)
Prague is organized around its old town square, the center of the city for one thousand years. The square (which isn't) is an immense open space surrounded by churches and other remarkable buildings and is always busy. Although souvenir stalls line one edge of the square, the only real intrusion is a massive statue portraying Jan Hus, a fifteenth century religious reformer considered the spiritual father of Bohemia. The statue sits on a large, irregularly-shaped base and the steps leading to the statue are a popular meeting place for tourists and Praguers both, who fill the square around the clock. Especially around the Clock. A superb creation and a major tourist attraction, the clock is a part of the Town Hall. The building dates from the early fourteenth century and an immense clock was added one hundred years later. The clock displays the Twelve Apostles, who pass along two little windows every hour on the hour. The oldest part of the clock, the Astronomical Dial, has survived in its original form since 1410. This dial shows all the planets, the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars moving around the Earth, according to the popular scientific theories of the time. The position of these heavenly bodies in relationship to the Earth and each other indicates the time of day and the day of the year. Four statues were added in the seventeenth century: Death upends an hour glass, tolls the bell, and nods his head in the direction of a Turk who, in turn, refuses to acknowledge Death by turning his head away. Vanity admires himself in the mirror while the Miser shakes his bag of gold. A second, calendar, dial was installed below the Astronomical Dial in 1870. It contains twelve medallions signifying the months and twelve medallions of the signs of the zodiac....but my description does not begin to convey the size, detail, and sheer magnificence of these creations. About ten or fifteen minutes before every hour, crowds begin to gather along the side of the clock to watch and listen.
Prague is a city for listeners; it oozes music. From its walls, its windows, and behind its closed doors. We found it hard to walk more than a few blocks without hearing music. Violinists, pianists, whole orchestras playing (usually) classical music. And that has been Prague's way for centuries. Mozart's Marriage of Figaro premiered in Prague in 1787, in a concert hall still used today. He and his music don't permeate the city the way they do in Vienna but the spirit is just as strong. Though we were never able to find time to attend any formal concerts, our eight days there seemed an informal, if constant, concert of a different sort.
Prague's Jewish quarter is home to two world-famous institutions: the golem and what may be the most famous Jewish cemetery in the world. A golem-the word is Hebrew for "unformed mass"-is a robot made of clay. The story has attracted writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel. In a famous medieval tale, Rabbi Loew of Prague brought his golem to life by placing a piece of paper inscribed with the name of God under its tongue. Later, after it had run amok and fearing that the creature would desecrate the Sabbath, the rabbi destroyed it. The Jewish quarter contains a well-known statue of Rabbi Loew.
The cemetery's oldest gravestone dates to 1439 and the graveyard was closed to new burials in 1787. Because the ghetto was walled off from the rest of the city, there was nowhere for the cemetery to expand over the centuries. So when the cemetery filled, the community did the only thing possible: they laid a new layer of earth over the whole thing and started a second round of burials- bodies on top of other bodies. And again a second time. And a third. Ultimately, twelve layers of earth (and bodies) were added. Each time, tombstones were taken up and placed on the top, marking the spot a layer or two down where the original grave lay. Over the centuries, natural subsidence, aided by the weight of mourners' and visitors' feet, meant that twelve layers came to be no higher than the surrounding area. But more and more gravestones in the same space became increasingly jumbled and tightly packed. Walking through the graveyard became so difficult (and dangerous) that it is now prohibited. Some 12,000 gravestones are crammed close together, often tilted crazily askew. They lean to left and right, rest on their neighbors, and defy mourners or visitors to walk among them. The dead control the living.
Prague is home to a number of synagogues, the best-known of which is probably the Alt-Neu (or "old-new") shul. Continuously in use since it was built in the thirteenth century, it is a surprisingly small space, perhaps twenty by forty feet. Most of the room itself is taken up by the bimah-the centrally located pulpit from which the Torah is read; some of the little remaining space was used to line the walls with uninterrupted built-in wooden stalls. As a result, there are only a few rows of folding chairs behind the bimah. As befits an orthodox synagogue, there is no place for women in the main sanctuary. Carved into the two-foot thick walls are openings that look more like the arrow-loops in medieval castles that allowed defenders to shoot arrows at the invaders. These openings allow the women to hear. Two or three exceptionally lucky women might even be able to see the interior of the synagogue.
Another moving synagogue, though no longer in use, is the Pinkas. Built in 1475, it is large space divided into a series of small rooms separated by thick stuccoed walls. There is nothing to see in the synagogue except the walls. They are whitewashed and covered with names. The name of every Czech Jew who perished in the Holocaust is painted in black, organized by towns, in alphabetical order. Every inch of space in the small synagogue is covered with the more than 77,000 names. No ark, no chairs, no ornament or scrap of any kind. Just names. And dates.
Mom and I took one side trip during our stay in Prague. We visited Terezin (or, as it is perhaps better known by its German name, Theresienstadt) in a small group led by Susan, a survivor of the camp. This site, about 45 miles outside of Prague, was a transit camp during the war. As part of their effort to deceive the world, the Nazis permitted extraordinary things there: lectures, theater, music, and art. The adults made certain that the children had things to do, whether classes or other activities. Some of the classes were art classes; the childrens' drawings and poems were collected after the war and some of them published as I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Terezin hosted a well-publicized visit from the International Red Cross in June 1944 as part of the Germans' plan to showcase the model camp. The Nazis spruced the camp up, even to the point of installing a roomful of new sinks and plumbing in a room that was never used. They were intent on showing the world what good care they took of their prisoners and Theresienstadt was where they did it.
The camp was, however, a transit camp. It was not a death camp, merely a way-station. Most inmates from Terezin continued their journey, usually to Auschwitz. Although there is a large Jewish cemetery at Terezin (and another even larger non-Jewish cemetery there as well), there were no gas chambers and prisoners were not sent there to be killed. Next to the Jewish cemetery is a small white building containing the crematoria. Although bodies were burned there, the victims perished from other causes, overwork or malnutrition or poor sanitary conditions. Terezin also housed a fortress built centuries ago and named after the Hapsburg empress, Maria Theresa. The fortress itself is large and contains, among other things, numerous prison cells. This is where Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned for life after assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and plunging the world into war. His cell (and those of his compatriots) were tiny, earthen-floored cubicles. Iron manacles sprouted from concrete walls; surely not a shard of light could penetrate the six-inch-thick wooden door. The sight was straight from Hugo's Man in the Iron Mask, only real. Most of the walls in the fortress are painted a bright earth-tone orange. Above one of the prison archways is the exhortation "Arbeit Macht Frei" in black block lettering on a painted white background. The barracks here are much like I would find them later at Auschwitz and Birkenau: crudely constructed wooden "bunks" running the length of a room. Straw is spread over them.
There is also a small museum in Terezin containing several rooms of exhibits. Enlarged photographs, documents, and physical remnants of the camp: uniforms, eating utensils, camp newsletters, programs for the concerts and other cultural programs. And most poignantly, many of the children's drawings that were collected and published. Just as colorful and vibrant as the day they were drawn. The last touch is a modern annotation; where possible, each child is identified and his or her "outcome" noted: "survivor" or, more likely, a set of dates, "11/14/36-5/9/44" and a place name. Usually "Auschwitz."
(If you liked this, the next "chapter" is on my Budapest page)