Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The spectacular blur that was Prague

If there is a place in the world where one is not so vain to maintain delusions of grandeur that they will one day be a famous writer, it is Prague.

The city of books, crystal, statues and strip clubs drew me in from the moment we stepped out from our hostel, in the humid evening after the rain, ready to wander into the twisting streets and find the bar we’d meet our friends at. You must always be looking up in Prague – every building has a story written in the statues at its’ rooftop. You can feel the years of occupation and Soviet closed doors here, in the stains along the sidewalks, in the chips in plaster on corners. But you get closer to Old Town Square and everything feels cleaner, the history well maintained.

I always want to keep walking when I’m in cities like this. No matter how tired I am, if I go back to the hostel for a break, I feel anxious to get back out and see more and more, take it all in. Something must be happening out there, even if it’s just daily life, it’s worth bearing witness to.

I loved everything about Prague, including the Irish tour guide whom I talked to briefly about Donegal. He said “Sure it’s lovely, but stay there long enough and even you will want to break some fiddles.” He doesn’t speak Czech – his teacher told him after eight lessons “you can survive here without it. You’ll be fine, Declan” – and he does fine, loves it in fact. You can feel the footsteps of the artists, the scientists, the engineers who were invited here to make a beautiful, cultured city everywhere you walk: the oldest university in Central Europe, statues featuring Franz Kafka’s nightmares.

You can feel resistance in these streets: see the faces of men who stood up, got killed but are commemorated, looking upon the churches they inspired, watching the square where they set themselves on fire to protest communism. You can feel resistance to the Soviets, the willingness to stay quiet until the precise moment when the door for revolution opened, then the grandeur of their breakthrough here, the Velvet Revolution, named for the band the Velvet Underground.

Segway tour guides are everywhere here. Kafka lived on nearly every corner, if the guides are right. The Charles Bridge was begun at 5:31am on 9 July 1357, making a perfect bridge in time: 1357 9, 7 5:31. Among the thirty saintly watching figures, there is a statue to rub and to make a wish upon, another to touch so you will be back in Prague one day. Mozart played here to a 30 minute standing ovation, when in Vienna they fell asleep in the same opera.

The Astrological Clock in Old Town Square was my favorite. It’s been rated the 2nd most overrated tourist attraction in Europe (after the Mona Lisa), which broke my heart even before I knew the story of the four men standing on either side of the clock; the fears of the time. Death rings the bell every hour, vanity looks down upon you. There is a spinning list below of names that Czech people are allowed to name their children as well, and each name has a day of the year: if you are Czech, you get a birthday and a name day, both to be celebrated with similar ferocity. The astronomical chart spins, leaning into Leo the day I visited. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of living artwork I have ever seen. The rulers at the time it was completed thought so to: they blinded the man who made it so he couldn’t recreated the piece for another city. So the cured the clock, and every time it stops the city floods.

Each corner is a story. This mark? That is where the executioner would sharpen his knife. Here: a window where man after man was thrown out by unhappy clerics, over a few hundred years. There, the Disneyland church of Our Lady Before Time. In this building, the art of hundreds of Jewish children in a concentration camp, clinging to childhood and humanity in the last days. Across the street: the Synagogues still standing in the Jewish Quarter here. Hitler had plans that this city would be a museum to an extinct race.

This country has been owned, traded and shifted between so many hands, their national anthem includes “Where is My Home?”

Then, after only two days, I’m on the bus, traveling beyond the places were 6-lane highways connect cities. We snake on back roads of the Czech Republic, held up by farm equipment making its way slowly across the countryside. Hills, thick with forests rise all around, drop off into valleys of sunflowers and rolling grain, ready for harvest. The bus driver chain smokes the whole way, listening to American music. Houses in villages press up against the road, barely two lanes. All the opulence of Prague is gone, these cracking houses are all shades of orange and beige. Lace curtains are drawn tight over each window.

On the bus, I’m already sad we’re leaving Prague for Vienna. Only a few hours in Austria and it feels expensive, modern and all the bars are filled with smokers.

I could have stayed in Prague, I think, for much longer. 

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