Prague Travelogue: From Kafka to Lennonism
Friday August 27, 2010
After a grueling travel day that takes my traveling companion and I through three countries – Reykjavik to Amsterdam’s airport to Prague – we are picked up at the airport by Gastone, the charming Italian co-owner of the ApartHotel (http://www.aparthotelprague.com/), which will turn out to be a highly convenient and comfortable place to stay. His driver was busy, so he came himself. He has upgraded us, without charge, to a suite, complete with full kitchen, dining/living room and bedroom. These are the kinds of attentive accommodations Gastone and his business partner Kristina will make throughout our stay.
Saturday August 28
Gastone whips us up a full breakfast for $5, including grilled cheese toasts. The ApartHotel is close to the Metro and the trams, one of which we hop towards Old Town to join a free walking tour with New Europe Tours, who offer them in about a dozen European capitals. www.NewEuropeTours.eu. Our guide Michalis (“I’m half-Greek, half-Irish”) is a student from Dublin with a rapid patter and long striding legs. Keeping up with his pace for over three hours of visiting Old and New Town, as well as the Jewish Quarter and the riverside keeps me gasping: I am quite easily 30 years older than anyone else on the tour.
Michalis rushes through the long history of Prague – covering one conqueror after another, and peppering his recitation with gems such as: “The Germans make the most beer in the world, but the Czechs drink the most. Three bottles of beer for every man, woman and child per day.”
I am just finishing Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir Under a Cruel Sky which traces her life in Prague from 1941 – 1968, including her escape from a concentration camp and her desperation during the darkest days of her country’s Soviet-style Communism, full of paranoia, injustice, anti-Semitism and state murder. Michalis says, “The difference between a Democracy and the People’s Democracy is the difference between a jacket and a straight-jacket.” Having been raised during the Cold War and having come of age as a socialist in college, I still feel a bit defensive when I hear talk of the nightmares of state Communism, but then I remember the righteous social fervor of those fighting for freedom – the exclamation point for which was the self-immolation of Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I will pass many markers of that struggle while in Prague. To the others on the tour, it is a piece of moving history: I personally well remember the day in January, 1969.
Michalis only briefly covers such tourist disappointments as the Astronomical Clock, telling us that when it was completed the people of Prague put out the eyes of the inventor with hot pokers so that they’d be the only ones possessing such a wonder, only to have the clock stop for a couple of hundred years since the only guy who could fix it was blind.
Our group gallops past the historical and cultural landmarks – mostly left untouched by WWII – from Gothic to Rococo. We see two of the eight Cubist buildings (only the Czechs translated Cubism to architecture) and they are stunning, especially the House of the Black Madonna from 1912 which houses a store, museum and restaurant. A quick visit to the restaurant is an amazing Cubist experience, from the iron handrails up the staircase to the exceptional rectangular bases of the dining tables and the magic Cubist chandeliers.
Our guide loves Czech heroes, not the least the composer Dvorak, and recounts this anecdote. When the first astronauts landed on the moon, the men were Americans but the music they were listening to was by Dvorak. The Czechs, Michalis assures us, were in no doubt which – between men or music – was the most important first presence on the moon.
Finally, he tells us about the floods of 2002 when the renowned Prague Zoo was completely flooded and many animals escaped into the Vltava River. Gaston the sea lion swam up the river towards Germany and swam and swam as cheering Prague citizens followed his flight to freedom on the news. He was caught just 60 miles from the ocean and died on the helicopter ride back to the zoo.
After the tour, we wander back to the Old City, where tourism feels exceedingly dense, despite Gastone’s report that tourism is down 50% from two years ago. One odd thing we note is the total lack of translation of any signs, even those leading to a “turisticke centrum” (tourist office, I presume).
Back at our hotel we get a recommendation for a local Czech Restaurant, Zlaty Klas, just a kilometer’s walk away, where two of us eat fried chicken schnitzel, all the side dishes we want and walk away with a total bill, including a generous tip, of $30. Admittedly we don’t drink, but the beer in Prague is cheaper than Coke or bottled water.
Sunday August 29
We take a tram on the advice of Gastone (our hotel host, not the dead sea lion), but my eye is caught a stop or two before our intended destination and we hop off. Above us is the St Nicholas Church in Mala Strana (Lesser Town), ultimately my favorite quarter of Prague, and below us is the Charles Bridge. We stop at the former, a Baroque masterpiece started in 1703. It is constructed of uniquely green and rose marble and enriched with the most sumptuous statuary, by Ignac Platzer the Elder. Throughout, the gold leaf is unstinting, not the least on the massive statue of a saint holding what looks like pure gold handcuffs. I am not going to make any innuendos here, but B did get a couple of great photos.
As we cross the Charles Bridge I am arrested by the incredible “New Orleans style” (they’ve never been there) Bridge Band, the centerpiece of which is a washboard player of prodigious talent and exceptional performance style. Turns out they are playing tonight in a small jazz club nearby and I take their leaflet with all intentions of attending.
But first we are off to Prague’s Jewish Quarter, a huge tourist draw, although it embodies a fundamental contradiction. The Ghetto was purposefully (and unfortunately) leveled after the war and rebuilt with luxurious, even ostentatious apartment and commercial properties. Expensive designer and jewelry shops populate the streets, replacing the viciously crowded hovels of the War period. All that is left are the synagogues – which ironically enough Hitler himself intended to keep and use as museums of Europe’s eradicated Jewish life. Each of them is, in fact, a museum; perhaps the most famous is the Pinkas Synagogue where the walls are covered in hand-painted names of the 77,297 Czech Jews killed by the Nazis. I find many of the Katz clan there. Equally moving are the drawings done by children imprisoned in the deadly Terezin ghetto camp, near Prague. The children were taught by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an Austrian Bauhaus artist who died in Auschwitz in 1944. The children also died there.
For downright beauty, no building in the Jewish Quarter is more decorative than the Sephardic Synagogue, painted in elaborate Moorish design, and accessorized with filigreed metal work. Nowadays concerts are held (Gershwin this week) in its main hall. Nearby is a statue of another Czech hero, Kafka, sitting atop a headless, armless character from one of his short stories.
At the still-functioning Old New Synagogue, I meet a couple of congregants who tell me what is happening in the community today.
First, some context. There are about 1,700 Jews in Prague today and anywhere between 5,000 – 15,000 in the Czech Republic, numbers swollen by Russian immigrants. In the inter-war period, 360,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia and things were looking up: the Jewish Party even won parliamentary seats in 1925 and 1935. By the time the Nazis controlled what they called the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, there were over 118,000 Jews in the country and only 26,000 managed to flee. 80,000 were murdered and only 10,000 returned, only to suffer the treacherous anti-Semitism of the Czech Communist Party in later years.
The religious women I met said that inexpensive kosher meals were provided to Jewish elders in the Community Town Hall; that a nursing home named HaGibor (the Hero) with 60 rooms had been set up, mostly for Holocaust survivors and a few for temporary respite for caregivers; and that there is also an assisted living facility with 20 rooms.
Only this Orthodox synagogue – among the others in this quarter – continues to serve as a house of worship (the longest active synagogue in Europe, they claim), with the women relegated to their annex listening through slits in the wall. The post-war Jerusalem Synagogue in another part of Prague is the other active congregation.
But of all the six landmarks constituting the facility, the Old Jewish Cemetery is by far the most staggering. Limited in the land granted for its burial grounds, the Jewish community was forced, generation after generation, to lift up the tombstones in the crowded space, lay down a new layer of earth, and bury the next generation on top of the last. The cemetery is now quite elevated, held far above street level by strong walls.
As a result of this unavoidable practice, there is a jumble of 12,000 ancient stones ranging from that of Rabbi Avigdor Karo (1389) to that of Moses Beck (1787), leaning against each other, the dead as squashed together as when they were living in the Ghetto.
What a shame that the custodians of these museums have decided that “permission” to photograph – even in the cemetery – requires a payment. Luckily my companion – and many other visitors around us – managed to record this haunting sight nonetheless.
Our feet are aching and we settle on a restaurant just outside the Quarter because the menu looks decent. The food at Il primo ($25 for two before tip) was accompanied by the cigarette smoke of about half the people in the place. There’s an enormous amount of smoking everywhere here – the Czechs clearly haven’t received the memo.
There’s some time to kill before going to the “Blues sklep” club (www.bluessklep.cz) to hear the Bridge Band, so we begin to wander (or more accurately, to get endlessly lost in) the streets of the Old Town. Why don’t I get this lost at home? Because I don’t wander around and when I do, I’m in my car using my GPS. But it’s not all bad. We stumble across the Cubist building that houses a store, museum and restaurant, only the latter of which is open. Gorgeous everything. We run into a folk festival, of which there is a never-ending stream – it’s Czech Identity Festival – and watch some sweet local group go through their musical and dance paces.
After hours of foot-squashing searching, we find the little basement club and are surely among the only tourists to patronize it. The music is upbeat and toe-tapping and I am thrilled to be able to interview the leader, lyricist and singer Jan Kritel Novak via the translation services of his friend Eva Kasparova. They are so pleased with the “media” attention that they are convinced they will soon be touring the States, with me as their manager. As I am leaving, later, Eva thrusts a copy of their CD into my happy hands.
Monday August 30
We make a very late start, stopping to cash some Amex Travelers Checks only to discover that no Prague bank takes them anymore. (It will turn out that no country wants them, just as few places abroad want to deal with an Amex card. They must’ve hiked up their charges to vendors something fierce.) By coincidence, we run into Kristina the co-owner of ApartHotel on the street with her friend and their children; she insists on taking a substantial chunk of her own time to force a bank that openly advertizes that they cash travelers checks to deliver on their promise. It is just one of many gestures from these proprietors that are far beyond what most hotels would do for a customer.
We return to Mala Strana (Lesser Town) for lunch and for a personal photo op in front of the John Lennon wall, a riot of graffiti and quotes from Lennon and the Beatles. In 1988, the police of the repressive Communist regime attacked young people who used the wall for rebellious graffiti – the students described themselves as “Lennonists” – and it has remained a symbol of youth culture.
The Czech people have a rather amazing history of creative forms of resistance to both external and internal repression. I remember only too well the excitement around the “Prague Spring” – those seven months between Alexander Dubcek’s rise to power in January, 1968 with his incremental reforms of life under the severe Communist regime – and then the harsh invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, 1968 by Soviet tanks. I was an activist in the New England Resistance (against the Viet Nam war) and there was a bitter divide among our members between Communist Party apologists for the Soviets and the rest of us – mostly anarchists.
The Czechs used every non-violent, ingenious means they could imagine: from turning around all the street signs in the country to point back to Moscow to refusing to give or sell food to hungry invading soldiers. They painted out all the house numbers so individual leaders couldn’t be picked off. In Bohemia they paralyzed a tank division by having some folks engage the Warsaw Pact crews in chatter while others ripped off the tanks’ antennae. They operated according to a large, hand-painted slogan in Prague: Hate intelligently.
We leave the Lennon wall, something of a shrine for political pilgrims, and continue exploring Mala Strana, an area full of tasty 17th C Baroque palaces in a labyrinth of cobbled backstreets, before mounting up, past the faux marijuana ice cream store, to the Prague Castle complex to see one particular building: the superlative Cathedral of St Vitus. It was started in 1344 (although earlier versions were constructed on this spot since the 10th C), but only finished in 1929, resulting in the distinction of being the only Gothic church that sports both baroque gargoyles and sculptures of men in business suits. The final architects and builders carved themselves into the facade right under the glorious rose window, dressed in ties and jackets and holding a model of the Cathedral on one side and a design plan on the other.
It was too late in the day to get into the Cathedral – surely one of the glories inside the castle walls – but a stroll around the massive structure revealed a hind end of flying buttresses, always a special delight. I just love me some flying buttresses. I think I identify with the look.
Tuesday August 31
Our last stroll in a rain that fills the streets and whips us around the bridge we are crossing in order to see the controversial Fred and Ginger building is more like a Gene Kelley than a Fred Astaire experience, more like singing in the rain. The building is a collaborative project between the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunic and the well-known Canadian, Frank Gehry. When its design was revealed in 1992, there was a lot of noise about how this whimsical structure that looks like a dancing couple and seems in constant motion could possibly fit into a street of Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, but now it is just another photo op for tourists. The international businesses housed inside didn’t give access to tourists.
My last hour in Prague is spent trying to dry out, opening my suitcases for a change of clothes and drinking the cappuccino Kristina makes for me before Gastone drives us to the airport. My eyes say the visit has been too short; my feet and joints are begging for respite from the distinctively decorative but jarring cobblestones.
Prague Kafka Statue photo by Barry Hock.
Sue Katz publishes the blog Sue Katz: Consenting Adult at http://www.suekatz.com/.