I think that Prague is the most beautiful city I have been to. The Gothic spires throughout the Old Town, and the charming Astronomical Clock with its show at noon each day; the bombastic Baroque churches, which are too gaudy to contemplate further; the naturalistic and sparkling Art Nouveau; and the bizarre experimental Modernist Cubist buildings give a walker a chance to move through time. One extreme building is “Rondocubist,” and houses a bank. It’s exactly what it sounds like, rounded forms softening the blow of the characteristic sharp geometric planes and angles of the Cubism. Across the Vltava river from the Old Town is the ancient and sprawling Prague Castle which houses the government and museums. There are many parks and green spaces strewn across the city. There are plentiful cafes, galleries, garnet shops (be careful to go to
a certified jeweler so you don’t buy red glass), and breweries. Beer is a way of life in Prague, and it is very rich and flavorful compared to American style beer. It is also the home of the original Budweiser. The food is heavy Central European, your meats, breads, goulashes, but tasty. Prague has even become chic enough that it has some really good vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and a huge night life.
What is so beguiling about Prague is that it is so much more than its glittering façade. I find that its modernity and loveliness hide its tragedies. It is a city that has never fallen, never been rebuilt because of utter destruction, like so many other European capitals. But one must know Prague’s secrets; after all, a city never forgets. People may move forward, but they leave memories embedded in the very walls and streets of a place.
Preeminent Czech writer, Daniela Hodrova’s I See Prague delves into this. She takes us into the dreamscape that is Prague. Memory becomes fiction, becomes history, becomes myth. Foreigners view the sites with awe. But she knows about the defenestrations. She intuits the mysteries of the golem, and the all but disappeared, but yet somehow still present, Jewish quarter. She sees the Roma and their silent but ever-present plight. Or is it even a plight? Is that just our close-minded view of their ancient situation? They entered Europe a thousand years ago, leading a semi-nomadic life ever since. I see them almost everywhere I go.
My city tours, and long walks have also opened up the secrets of Prague. The monuments to the victims of the brutal Communist regime pepper the city. They are often simplistic, but very moving. There is the disembodied hands displaying peace signs protruding from a spare plaque with the date 17.11.1989, symbolizing the student rebellion of the Velvet Revolution. Famous Prague provocateur, David Cerny’s sarcastic statue of St. Wenceslas riding an upside down dead horse is probably the greatest public art criticism of a government anywhere. In the beautiful Stare Mesto (old town) is a sculpture of Freud dangling from the roof of a building, contemplating if he should let go or not; another Cerny treat. (Cerny is also a benefactor, he created the Meat Factory studio for local artists to display their creations, furthering the importance of art’s place in the city.) These are just some examples of how citizens of Prague are constantly in the presence of their history and the cultural commentary about it.
My favorite public monument provides a real critical challenge: it is a massive red metronome on the hill in Letná Park overlooking the Vltava river and the city center. It is situated on the plinth that used to hold a massive statue of Stalin. Some people told me it deliberately means absolutely nothing, in reaction to the oppressive symbolism of the statue; others told me it shows the march of time and progress; still others said it represents the absurdity of Czech history; and finally, it could represent Prague’s immense musical contribution to the world. Wikipedia lists 144 composers born or trained in Czech lands! The most famous are Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, and of course, Mozart named a symphony after Prague. I suppose like a dangling Freud, there are an infinite amount of interpretations.
The most heartbreaking memorial is the one dedicated to Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest to the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. He was crying out against complacency. Czechoslovakia was becoming less repressive and more open. Artists and students were starting to breathe. But then the Soviets had enough and they brought their tanks and soldiers for a “friendly” visit, and ended the revitalization known as the “Prague Spring.” Richard Burton in Prague: A Cultural History discusses the Czech habit of living quietly and scuttling around instead of standing up for themselves. The easiest way to get through the many oppressive times of their history is to not fight back. This is what Palach was challenging people to leave behind. His impassioned sacrifice has touched the hearts of people, and every January there is a gathering (often broken up by police) on the anniversary of his self-immolation. There are usually flowers decorating it throughout the year. It is located in Wenceslas Square, near the steps of the National Museum, and up the street from the balcony where Vaclav Havel announced his presidency. Keeping with the theme of cultural enrichment, Havel was a poet and playwright of the absurdist genre, a great tactic to criticize the Communist government. After spending time in jail, he went on to uniquely become the president of two countries: first Czechoslovakia after Communism, and then, after the “Velvet Divorce,” when Slovakia split from Czech, the Czech Republic.
The “John Lennon Wall” is still another rebellious monument, this time rebelling against Communism and Prague police. In the 1980s someone painted a picture of John Lennon and some Beatles’ lyrics, and it took off. It became a massive symbol for the disaffected. All kinds of people wrote and painted on it as a sign of their frustration with their limited freedoms. The police would come and whitewash it, and the people would start over. I talked to a Czech woman who described how when she was young, she used her little sister as a look-out at 6:00 a.m. so she could inscribe her message. Eventually the police gave up and it became an unofficial official way to air grievances and provide hope. Now, anyone who knows me knows I do not like “street art.” But there are exceptions to every rule, and this wall is one of them. It is tasteful and the art stays on the wall, it doesn’t drift to nearby buildings, and it isn’t tagging. In a reversal of the Universe’s pattern, in early 2014 a group of artists whitewashed the wall and then painted “The Wall is Over” on it. I was enraged when I heard of this effrontery. The naiveté of these student artists! All of them were too young to know the significance of this wall. None of them suffered through the disappearances and silence of the Communist regime. They literally whitewashed history, and over people’s shared pained experiences. The wall is attached to the Knights of Malta church, and their bishop was so enraged he filed a law suit. But sure enough, Prague citizens have repainted the wall. More John Lennon, more Beatles’ lyrics, more hopeful paintings. Maybe the wall doesn’t hold the rage that it once did, but it is still a symbol of hope. And I hope it is also a warning about covering up history, which is always a dangerous precedent.
Rebellion runs deep in Prague’s veins, it was not started by Palach and Havel. In the 14th century, Jan Hus essentially began the Protestant Revolution, 100 years before Martin Luther (who was deeply influenced by Hus). There is a statue in the Old Town Square commemorating Hus and his sacrifice. He was executed in 1415 as a heretic. While European wide reform didn’t happen for many decades and a Thirty Years War later, to this day there is still a Hussite Church in Czech Republic.
Religion is complicated in Czech Republic. Most Czechs are atheists, a hold over from Communism and a devastating 20th century. Yet, there are churches everywhere, and some with the most outstanding Gothic architecture I have ever seen, pointy towers and all. St. Vitus Cathedral is a must see, it is highly meaningful to the people of Prague because its saint suffered painful martyrdom, and maybe their collective passivity was a way to prevent that fate for themselves at the hands of the Nazis and then Soviets? It took centuries to complete and is influenced by many cathedral styles throughout Europe. There is a beautiful Alphonse Mucha stained glass window that captures his Art Nouveau glory, while not looking out of place.
While most Christians are protestants, there is still a Catholic community. One of the most interesting churches holds the imperiously dressed Infant Jesus of Prague statue. Dating from the 16th century from Spain, he is a little wooden statue covered with wax, and clothed in costly vestments. He has been fetishized to such an extent that he has had outfits donated from all over the world, in different cultural styles. In 1913 the Pope created the Confraternity of the Infant Jesus of Prague; and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI delivered an ermine cape in recognition of his Apostolic visit. My tone may be a little sardonic here, but it is spiritually moving to see the emotion and devotion that people give to this little statue.
Judaism also plays an important role in Prague. Over 90,000 Jews lived in Prague in the Jewish Ghetto, and about two-thirds perished in the Holocaust. The ghetto was dismantled in the late 19th century, and since the War the Jewish quarter has been assimilated into the city. Tragically, Communists also persecuted Jews. Today about 1600 Jewish people live in Prague, but their community is thriving again. The Jewish museum is housed in some synagogues in the Jewish quarter. It is a precious but viciously ironic collection. The Nazis collected Jewish artifacts from around Europe, and along with Prague’s treasures, they created this museum. They wanted to celebrate their success of annihilating a people. Thankfully the Nazis did not succeed in their evil plans, but they did leave behind a monument for the Jews who were able to return to Prague. Their tragic history pervades the otherwise cheery part of town, just one of Prague’s many contradictions.
I cannot recommend Prague enough, though if you have the chance, go during the shoulder or off season, as it can get extremely crowded in season. But don’t let the crowds get you down, Prague is fascinating and deserves the devotion it receives. For all of its heavy history, Prague has a youthful and happy feel to it, and I find it to be a very comfortable and welcoming city.
One thought on “Prague: City of Beauty and Contradictions”
Another very well-written piece. I’ve long thought that Prague – and other middle European cities – would be fascinating places to visit. I’m glad you posted this because I was surprised that, till now, you hadn’t commented much on your trip. I hope the food was good!