Unlike most cities in Europe and America where modern and high-rise buildings abound, Prague’s skyline seem to come from a different time. Countless spires line the sky and makes one believe for a second that he has been transported back in time. Often thought of as an ancient part of the world; Prague is indeed a place beyond time.
Walking down the city streets, I felt like I was inside a maze. Pebbled streets seemed to go on forever, each one branching out to some irresistible place to another. To get the most of my visit, I figured getting a little help from the local tour guide was my best bet. With that organized, I set out on my adventure with a good pair of walking shoes, a bottle of water and great energy.
First on my list was a walk through Golden Lane. Pebbled streets made the walk both warm and cheerful, what with the sight of small colored houses that lined the street. Originally called Goldmakers Lane, the area’s first few inhabitants were supposedly goldsmiths until around the 1600s when the houses were demolished. These were later rebuilt by the soldiers and craftsmen who worked at the Prague Castle nearby. The German writer, Franz Kafka, is said to have lived here during World War I.
Today, Golden Lane has become a pretty sight for tourists. The colored houses have been turned into a variety of craft and souvenir shops, offering wandering tourists an assortment of trinkets, magnets, figurines, vases and knic-knacks. A little boy’s piercing eyes peered at me from a window as we walked past one of the houses. I couldn’t help but think if Kafka felt as suspecting as the little boy’s stare when he lived here. Had he been so lonely that he grew up to view people as burdened with guilt, anxiety and isolation as his novels portrayed them?
As if hearing my unuttered questions, my walk along Golden Lane surprised me to a halt with a strange piece of art; a skull on top of a crouching and begging man. Known as the Parable with a Skull, this interesting piece of sculpture, designed by Jaroslav Rona in 1993, represents a character in one of Kafka’s surreal works.
Walking on, another fascinating piece greeted me. This time, it was a statue of Franz Kafka himself. I found out later that the statue is based on Kafka’s story “Depiction of a Struggle” where a young man rides on another through the streets of Prague. Finding such pieces along the street made a bizarre setting. I almost felt like one of the characters in Kafka’s mad world.
Much to my relief, our next stop was the majestic Prague Castle, known as the biggest castle in the world. It stands at 570 meters high and 130 meters wide. The castle goes back to more than a thousand years when it used to be the seat of Czech royalty. The same tradition continues today as the castle remains to be the seat of the president of the Czech Republic.
Prague Castle combines a great variety of architectural styles. It houses St. Vitus Cathedral, the most beautiful cathedral in the Czech Republic. Massive in structure and archaic in design, the cathedral reflects the history of Bohemia. It also houses a mausoleum for Bohemian kings and stores the ever-priceless crown jewels.
A walk around the castle gardens surprised me with a colourful display of flowers and birds. It was such a sight to behold that for a moment, I once again thought I was transported back in time. Walking around the castle’s courtyard and dwarfed by its ancient towers, I felt like I was in the company of its noble residents.
Connecting Prague Castle to the city’s Old Town is Charles Bridge, the historic bridge that crosses the Vltava River. The bridge once made Prague an important trade route between eastern and western Europe. The sun was setting when we walked along Charles Bridge and clicking at my camera for a couple of souvenir shots, I felt an overwhelming but quiet feeling of solitude, accompanied though I was by thirty baroque-style statues that lined the bridge. It was uncanny, but I almost expected these statues to come to life and protect the bridge from any prowlers throughout the night.
The next day, the city of a hundred spires comes alive again at daybreak as vendors, kiosk owners, traders, painters, artists and musicians get ready for another busy day.
Standing in the middle of what is believed to be one of the most beautiful historical sights in Europe, I couldn’t but be awed by The Old Town Square. The square dates back to the late 12th century and used to be the central marketplace of Prague. At the center of the square is a statue of John Huss, a Czech religious thinker and reformer whose beliefs, together with John Wycliffe and Martin Luther, eventually led to the Protestant Reformation.
I looked around me and sheepishly imagined how, back then, the place was abuzz with wealthy merchants trading their wares while priests, bishops and enlightened thinkers sat around debating the wonders of faith versus the great contributions of science.
Old Town Square is a like a museum of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic buildings. Alongside them, one could sit under the glorious sunshine, enjoy a cup of coffee, feed the pigeons, and simply take in the many awesome sights found in one place.
Most striking in the square for me though was the Old Town Hall Tower. Built in 1338, the tower offers locals and tourists alike a splendid view of the square and the rest of the Old Town. Of course I had to go up the tower and get my share of the view.
Looking down, I remember thinking to myself how small and insignificant everyone looked from above. From the tower, I could see the castles and cobbled stone streets we visited the day before. From where I stood, the view was awesome! With one glance, I saw people walking under the heat of the sun, a couple kissing under the Astronomical Clock, a lone man playing his violin in the middle of the square, people laughing while sharing cold bottles of beer, a couple of kids playing tag.
On the other side of the tower is the Astronomical Clock from the 15th century. Our guide told us that crowds would usually stand at the foot of the clock every hour to wait for Christ and his disciples to march out of the window above the astronomical dial while a skeleton rings the bell to the chagrin of a defiant Turk. Like everyone else, I was fascinated that I also waited under the heat of the sun for the hour to strike and have a look-see at this popular tourist attraction.
Like other old European cities, Prague is also home to synagogues, most of them dedicated to the Jewish victims of the holocaust during the Second World War. One of these is the Spanish synagogue. One only needs to look up its gigantic and Moorish-style dome, and agree that it is indeed, the most beautiful in the whole of Europe. The synagogue was built in 1868 on the site of the oldest Prague Jewish house of prayer (“the Old Shul”).
The interior, together with the stained glass windows, were later completed in 1893. Interiors of the synagogue use the arabesque style of Islamic motif as do the walls, doors and gallery balustrades. The synagogue was closed during the Nazi occupation but was re-opened in the late 20th century. Today, the synagogue forms part of the Jewish Museum and on some occasions, is a perfect setting for early evening classical concerts.
A smaller synagogue but no less as powerful an experience is a visit to the Pinkas synagogue. Funded by Aron Mesullam Zalmn Horowitz and named after his grandson, Pinkas Horowitz, Pinkas originally was a private house of prayer for Aron and his family.
Names of holocaust victims are inscribed on the walls and drawings of children prisoners from Terezin, a concentration camp, are on exhibit on the first floor. The museum possesses more than 4,000 of these drawings. As we paused to admire and reflect on the children’s works, I heard my friend gasp as her wandering eye saw a familiar name among those inscribed on the wall. The name was her great grandfather’s and like a couple of other visitors who made similar discoveries, the room was suddenly wrapped in hushed whispers and silent tears.
Just as moving and as powerful as the synagogues was our visit to Terezin. Built in the 18th century as a fortress, it remains to be a symbol as well as a remembrance of the tragic events during the Nazi occupation that led to the sufferings of thousands of innocent men, women and children who died here.
As we entered the camp, I noticed how immediately everyone fell into silence. Whether it was out of respect for the memories of the place or for the quiet peace that its former occupants now hopefully enjoy, only one thing was certain. This was no ordinary tourist attraction. It was a place of reverence.
Scenes from holocaust movies came into mind as I moved from one room to the next, each one a cruel reminder of man’s brutality laid on another, indeed, on many others. I had taught about the world wars so many times in my class but nothing prepared me for this.
Entering what used to be the sleeping quarters; I could not even imagine the pain and suffering that the victims must have felt as they awaited their fate. Terezin, I learned later, was “home” to 32,000 prisoners, 5000 of whom were women. Most were Czechs though they were also joined by Poles, Russians and Yugoslavs who were arrested for different signs of resistance to the Nazi regime.
Walking into the National Cemetery where 10,000 bodies of Nazi victims are buried, guests are invited to pause a while and bow their heads or perhaps light a candle or even say a prayer. I did the same as many others, thinking at the same time how counting my blessings suddenly became so easy.
Today, the Memorial commemorates the destructive and evil consequences of the suppression of freedom, democracy and human rights. Looking at the gravesite, I suddenly found it difficult to breathe. The atmosphere was just so heavy it gave me an eerie feeling; it was as if these people were still there, watching and waiting.
Towards the end of our visit, our tour guide suggested that a trip to Prague wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Konopiste Castle. Ideal for a half-day trip, Konopiste Castle is like taking a peep into grand art collections, numerous statues and one of the world’s most extensive collection of historic weapons.
And just who is the proud owner of such numerous collections? The proud owner is Francis Ferdinand d’Este, successor to the Hapsburg throne. Konopiste Castle was Ferdinand’s residence until his death in Sarajevo which triggered the First World War. Despite the Castle’s grand design and remarkable weaponry, the place didn’t quite make such a big impression on me. Perhaps I was just not a fan of heavy artillery. Deep inside though, I felt a deep repugnance for anything or anyone that brought so much cruelty and death.
Next stop was Kutna Hora, a medieval silver-mining city which used to be the second richest town of the Bohemian Kingdom. Registered in the UNESCO heritage list since 1995, this place is not without its own surprises.
Walking through town is a walk down memory lane with its well-preserved monuments, Gothic cathedrals as well as renaissance and baroque burgher houses. The most famous though in this quiet town is St Barbara´s Cathedral, built between the 1300s to the 1500s by the town´s miners, St. Barbara being their patron saint. Outside, the cathedral is decorated with buttresses and gargoyles. Inside, it is home to many Baroque works of art and Gothic frescoes.
Part of the tour to Kutna Hora took us through the process of silver mining. Equipped with a lamp, helmet and mining coat, we were taken through a medieval mine filled with equipments and the original mining machine. The tour finally brought us to an exhibit room where silver ore and minted coins were on display. Not exactly sure if I enjoyed going underground as miners do, but the processing of raw silver and minting coins was quite extraordinary. Now, if I could only do that in the comfort of my own home, I’d surely be rich!
Equally interesting though strange was our next stop. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that burial places could be a tourist attraction. But Kutna Hora was no ordinary city. In it was a small village chapel, called Kostnice (Ossuary), which was decorated by more than 40,000 human bones! Some were made into chandeliers while others had the ingenuity to use it as crest of a noble family. Our tour guide laughingly told us that a monk who had gone mad was supposedly responsible for forming the bones into chandeliers, candlesticks, coat of arms among others.
After gargoyles, going underground and standing in the midst of human bones, Kutna Hora would undoubtedly be a place I’d never forget.
On a much lighter note, we went on an evening cruise on our last day in Prague. The cruise took us through Charles Bridge crossing from the Old Town to Vysehrad Castle, the oldest in Prague. A band played on board and it couldn’t have been a better timing as the Dancing Building came into sight.
Prodded to look closely, I smiled, realizing why it was called as such. The building looks like that of a dancing couple that locals have aptly called it “Fred and Ginger”. I continued to study Fred and Ginger long after we had gone past it. This odd structure, which houses a French restaurant on the top two floors, made me reassess my own concept of beauty. But beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder as Fred and Ginger makes for a delightful yet amusing object for camera aficionados like me.
The delicious meal and live music on board, the company of friends and the rich blend of old and new buildings in the horizon, made the cruise truly memorable. Soon, evening came and aided only by the light of the moon and far-off street lamps, Prague was quiet and peaceful, even as we continued to enjoy the magic of its beauty under the watchful eye of the heavens above.
That night, I packed my bags with a grateful feeling in my heart. Prague had been different from other cities I’d visited. It was not just malls and shopping and pubs and drinking. Far from all these, I experienced the rich culture of Eastern Europe. It also provided me with the rare opportunity to witness life as it was, as well as, appreciate life as it is now.
by Anne Organista