Prague is more of a dream to me now. Charles Bridge partly wrapped in scaffolding, angels and demons in the architecture, the Vltava sweet and slow, a highway diverted through time. We stayed in Mala Strana, a hundred yards from the bridge. It’s an island in the stream, insulated from the sturm und drang of the city flowing all around.
The Old Town sucks in a constant pilgrimage crossing the bridge, serenaded by snappy jazz and classical combos, confused by the street theatre amongst the stone statues. There is no let up in the sinuous streets of the Old Town, opportuned at every step with offers of classical recitals, drinking and dining experiences, and the amiable chancers who will show you all those things that you can see. The streets flow sporadically into cobbled squares. The eye is drawn upward to ornate spires, a fold-out picture book of images culled from Bosch and Brueghel. Mobile drinking groups push by propelled by tough cyclists. The pavement restaurants are packed. Advice abounds; a tall black man dressed as a leprechaun sullenly advertises an Irish Bar. It’s hectic but fun.
This is the perfect city to explore on foot. If somewhat over-touristic in the Stare Mesto or Old Town, fact is we’re tourists too. We go with the flow. The Old Town Square features the Old Town Hall with its Astronomical clock. Towering to the east are the incredibly ornate spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. Central Europe in the Middle Ages is tangibly real. Illuminated at night, the spires seem to float against the sky. The dream goes on while no-one sleeps.
In the Square there is a gallery housing exhibits of Mucha and Dali. Alfons Mucha is amongst my favourites. His sinuous Art Nouveau has adorned my walls on posters and mirrors. I imitated his statuesque women. Goddesses culled from myth or personifying the seasons, sophisticated smokers and drinkers, their extravagantly flowing hair, dubbed, a bit scornfully, as Mucha’s spaghetti. A local boy who made it big in Paris especially with his commercial work, I come across his artwork and influence throughout the city. His ornate interlaced lines recall Celtic art and have become emblematic of Art Nouveau and its zeitgeist.
The Powder Gate is the eastern limit of the medieval city. Nearby, the Municipal House is an art nouveau complex featuring museums, galleries, restaurants and cafes. Beneath is the American bar. Descending to the cellar, the giddy feeling of being one of Escher’s elves. Mucha graphics peep from the stone. The American Bar glimmers beyond doors of chamfered glass. The tiled chequered floor gleams, lightbeams angle from arched windows at street level. All tables are empty. I am served by a liveried man. A tall local lager is a work of art. While there, a small group of tourists gather at the door, looking in and around and at me. They talk amongst themselves, give me one last envious look and depart. I think they’re Americans, but this is my bar.
South of the Old Town is the Nove Mesto, though it was laid out in the fourteenth century. The New Town Hall dates from this time. It faces out on a park frequented by vagrants. The view from the top windows was sometimes the last thing seen by those chosen by enraged citizens for defenestration, the medieval Czech’s extreme example of the Big Brother House. The real Big Brother held sway here for half the twentieth century. The main drag, Wenceslas Square, was the rallying point for opponents of the communist regime. They almost carried Dubcek in the Prague Spring, but the Soviets intervened. Vaclav Havel led the ultimate revolt as the Iron Curtain fell. It is not so much a square as a broad rising street. Above the commercial, and increasingly tatty, street facades, art nouveau architecture blossoms into the sky. The National Museum dominates the vista, though it is isolated beyond a broad, busy traffic thoroughfare.
In the sanctuary of the Clemintinum we step out of the throng. It is huge baroque complex including churches and the National Library. The Astronomical Tower is where Kepler and Tycho Brahe unravelled the secrets of the heavens. After Copernicus, more and more we came to realise we were not the centre of the universe. Silence gathers and we buy tickets for a classical recital off a Bohemian Girl. This returns us to the riverside and the Church of Saint Francis for teatime contemplation. That’s Baroque and Roll.
There are pilgrimages to be made. My childhood home always had as a centrepiece of the altar, the statue of the Infant of Prague. My mother venerated this miraculous icon. The original came from Spain in the sixteenth century as the Catholic Reformation took root under the Hapsburgs. It was donated to the Carmelites of the Church of Our Lady Victorious in 1628. The nuns change the vestments according to the liturgical calendar. When I call, the statue is clad in blue, which pleases me greatly.
The Castle floats above the city. We wind our way up from Mala Strana into the high area of Hradcany. To the Castle! Parkland and woods, market gardens and flowers, shield us from the city spread out below. The Castle complex is vast. At one end is a torture museum, at the other, St. Vitus Cathedral marks the high point of Prague’s skyline. From screaming to dreaming spires. The Cathedral has been a thousand years a-growing, but remains convincingly gothic. Inside, the stained glass gallery evokes Czech nationalism in the early twentieth century. Mucha’s stained glass depicts the legendary rise of the Slavic tribes.
An afternoon and evening is spent messing about on the river Vltava. We cruise beyond the city limits into an unexpectedly bucolic landscape. Returning after sunset, Prague’s fantastic spires and turrets are illuminated against the night. Good wine and company, the city seems remote. The black water stretches out of sight, in both directions. Our metaphor for life, and death.
In the spirit of existential angst, on the last day, it is time to pay homage to Franz Kafka. The Kafka Museum is only a short distance from our hotel. Inside Kafka’s head there is another route through Prague. Gothic, gloomy and fantastic, this is to explore the deeper psyche. Looking through a tinted window to the back of a display panel, the Vltava is black syrup beneath a burnishing sun. My eyes slip upward to the pewter sky until its blueness seeps through. Above Prague’s skyline, a white balloon takes its passengers ever upward towards heaven