Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Aditional photo LuxuryWeb Magazine
Ghosts, Golems and Heroes in Prague
Proud of its past, Prague celebrates it at every turn… period restaurants, hotels, and buildings sport century-old deco and art nouveau; splendid structures that date from the 1700’s as well as early monasteries and churches are found along its winding streets. Rounded spires pierce blue sky; a sea of red roofs spread below them; a hot air balloon glides above all. It feels like something out of a fairytale, but it is a real city with authentic heroes plus a famed other-worldly creature, now just a footnote in history. Pursuing Prague’s heroes and their haunts makes for an intriguing tour of this Mid-European capital.
Prague’s historic center -- Old Town, New Town (started in the 1400’s!) and the Prague Castle area -- is a World Heritage site. If you stick to the right streets, you can get around this part of the city in a snap, it’s that compact. You can hit those cobblestone streets… and there are many… in about two and a half hours by plane from almost anywhere in Europe.
This is a city that can have a quirky irreverence and an off-beat sense of humor… witness public sculptures that may make you blush. But I’ll get to that. Prague is where you may see one man dancing with a doll, another levitating on a street corner, violinists playing classical music in rock style at the riverbank, a woman in art nouveau dress and hat riding the subway, horses-drawn carriages, plus 1920’s deluxe open air motor cars spiriting around tourists.
Buildings near one another despite differences in color, height, and time – anything from the Renaissance through the early 1900’s – manage to harmonize. And there’s musical harmony, too. On a typical day there may beseven classical music, six jazz, and three rock concerts going on in a city of 1.3 million… this in a country where, under Communism, rock music was forbidden. The embrace of music in all its many forms is a testament to the spirit of a people that can be battered but not broken.
The elaborate Wallenstein gardens on the way to the Prague Castle illustrate the beauty and power that this city has had. You can appreciate its history by visiting the Prague Castle complex, billed as the biggest such complex in Europe. The president of the Czech Republic has his office in the castle. St. Vitus Cathedral, splendid in itself, is where national hero Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s founder Thomas Masaryk, and the original King Wenceslas are buried. The cathedral is a gigantic Gothic structure started in the 14th century. The castle museum, Golden Lane’s small shops, plus palaces of nobles round out this vast complex. The compound leads to the famed Charles Bridge, adorned with statues and busts of figures significant in Prague’s earlier days. The bridge is short, but filled with history and a few surprises. It is adorned with statues. One is a crucifix, curiously surviving the Second World War, from 1629, with Jesus surrounded by Hebrew words.
From the other side, you can make your way to many places of importance for Prague’s native sons. Influential novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka created startling, scary work, critical of his times and predictive of the future. An ever-so-quirky museum, dedicated to him is a ten minute walk from the bridge; it explores his Jewish beginnings, his creative years, up to his death from tuberculosis at age 41. Expect strange sounds, screeches, and bursts of violin music.
Display cases about Kafka’s relationships with women actually sway back and forth, just as his relationships seem to have. Several times engaged but never married, his letters, photos, and documents offer a portrait of a man, barely published in his lifetime. As Kafka is a “favorite son” of the Czech Republic, cafes offers Kafka Cakes, a chocolate covered cookie with his photo on its gold foil cover. Talk about souvenirs!
At the entrance to the museum is a sculpture of two men urinating on a map of the Czech Republic… irreverent Czech sense of humor, indeed! The statue is by David Cerny whose sculptures get attention for their political statements.
On a small street in the Old Town area is Café Montmartre. This was one of Kafka’s favorite haunts, where Prague intellectuals gathered. Upstairs is a tribute to Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel. A former writer and intellectual, he defied the dictatorship that imprisoned him for his political beliefs. Havel became president, to wide acclaim, when Communism crumbled during the Velvet Revolution. One has to appreciate a man who writes, “Being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself.” Family photos and many of his own personal books are found inside.
Another famous Praguer is 16th century chief rabbi, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. The highly-respected rabbi’ statue stands like an apparition near "Josefov" the Jewish part of the city. The synagogues that still remain after the WW II are exquisite buildings, one Moorish, one Oriental, one late 19th century art moderne; another, the Old-New Synagogue dating from 1270, is the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe. The Pinkas Synagogue now functions as a memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s grandparents’ names are on that tragic list of 77,297 names. The famed Old Jewish Cemetery is layered with graves, one on top of another; its mysterious twists and turns seem never-ending. It is a profound experience to be in this place where the oldest grave dates from 1439. Kafka is buried in another more contemporary Jewish cemetery not too far away.
Nothing seems too far in Prague. Get around on foot or take buses, trolleys, an excellent subway, or taxis. You can tour in new but old-style Dusenberg convertibles or take a guided tour on a segway -- battery-driven two wheel scooters -- if you dare. Those who do say they can cover in three hours a day’s worth of walking. Others warn of safety. A boat tour on the Vlatava River offers a floating way to appreciate the city’s architectural grace. And a bird-s eye view, via balloon ride, is available.
Few heroes can be memorialized at the Museum of Communism, which documents those dark days for what then was called Czechoslovakia. Jan Palach, a student who set himself on fire to protest Communist rule, does receive recognition here. Big posters, artifacts, films, even a full-size interrogation room show life under the Communists from 1948-1989. Upon emerging from that era, the city revitalized. Now there seem no limits to the number of places where you can celebrate this city. The Czechs consume more beer than any other nation in Europe. So raise a mug to celebrate the Velvet Revolution which ended 41 years of Communist Rule and led to the establishment of the democratic Czech Republic!
IF YOU GO:
Delta Air Lines flies direct to Prague in summer; most airlines have connecting flights to Prague from major cities in US and Europe
Kafka Museum-Cihelna 2B, www.kafkamuseum.cz
Corinthia Prague Hotel-Kongresova 1, modern hotel with swimming pool, www.corinthia.com/hotels/prague
Golden Well Hotel-U Zlate Studne 166/4; Walk to Prague Castle, www.goldenwell.cz
© September 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.