Chasing Prague – a traveller’s account

I stood watching Kafka’s face metamorph, glistening, from something recognisable to something wholly the opposite; layer by layer, David Černý’s playful ode to the city’s greatest writer perfectly captured the absurdity of the writer’s prose. I was in Prague and up to this point was rather taken aback at the city’s beauty; to give birth to such existential angst in a young Kafka, to be the setting of myths, legends, revolutions, and sacrifice – well, there wasn’t a hint of such turbulence here, not in the cobbles and pastel grandeur of the Old Town.

Delve deeper then. Round the corner from Kafka’s face lies one of his old haunts – Cafe Louvre. Prague’s coffeehouse culture easily rivalled Vienna’s at the turn-of-the-century; the scene is glamorous, old-fashioned at heart, but certainly set to make you feel every-bit bourgeois. This, after all, was the home of the intelligentsia, sipping rich Viennese coffees and mumbling about the treachery of modernity. Best of all, my traditional Czech breakfast (complete with cake, of course) was a steal – a theme, you’ll be glad to read, that continued throughout my trip. Down below, the trams trundled through the streets; their vintage looks had me totally in awe, offset by the grand art nouveau buildings on Národní.

The street was the setting of a great stand-off during the Velvet Revolution, the days when the citizens took back the city from the chokehold of the communist regime, electing a dissident playwright as their president. Their banners read “Havel na Hrad”, Havel to the castle – following suit, I left Cafe Louvre and made my way across the Vltava.

I crossed the 14th-century Charles Bridge. It’s a fitting entrance to Prague’s Lesser Town, lined with judgemental baroque statues peering at the ebb and flow of visitors; their stony gazes anguished, juxtaposed by the joy of the tourists posing for selfies – John of Nepomuk, who was thrown from this bridge and now immortalised in bronze, seemed particularly unhappy.

An imposing gothic tower marked the entrance; what followed was a delicate chalk picture of baroque and rococo buildings, twisted around a cobbled street that led high into the castle complex. Prague is a remarkably intact city; it was never overhauled like other cities in the early 20th century, survived the wars, and by some marvel Soviet rule didn’t reduce it to an angular concrete mess. It’s a striking asset; the climb through the Lesser Town was like stepping back in time.

The castle complex, a sprawling collection of architectural riches, was suitably charming and grandiose. I continued, aiming for Kafka’s sister’s place on the Golden Lane, a narrow collection of postcard-perfect cottages. Fittingly, hers was now a bookshop piled high with copies of Metamorphosis, The Castle, The Trial and so on. This is where Kafka escaped to, quite regularly, avoiding the noise of downtown so as to find the solitude needed to piece together his existential musings. Strange; the tourist trail made it hard to imagine such anxious prose finding its maker here.

Onwards. Leaving the Golden Lane, the views from the hilltop were wonderful. It added weight to the old moniker ‘city of a hundred spires’. The gothic theme continued into Wenceslas Square, a dazzling, medieval astronomical clock marking my arrival – the tourists were gathering like a flock of pigeons. On the hour the clock does something; I knew it most likely wasn’t worth the wait, and these poor visitors were 20 minutes early. Kafkaesque? Not quite.

Lunch was a rich, hearty affair (in fact, I still dream about Czech food) at the industrial, canteen-like set up of Lokal. It’s a small chain in the city (donating food to in-need locals) dishing out Czech favourites; think roasted meats and dumplings strung together by the most gorgeous sauces you’ve ever tasted – something the Czech’s are masters of. I gorged myself on the overly-generous helpings, washed down with that Czech speciality – the wonderfully smooth pilsners that are, by some godly intervention, cheaper than a bottle of water. Feeling the slumber set in, I dragged myself into the old Jewish Quarter.

This was a district filled with stories; a golem stuck in an attic, a treasured rabbi’s tomb laden with pebbles, and dark echoes of pogroms and ghettos. The tour of the old synagogue was filled with poignant moments; names, neatly written, cataloguing the lost residents of the city filled the walls and ceiling of two rooms. The volume of names was heartbreaking, but nothing was quite as touching as the collection of childhood drawings from the Terezín ghetto. The crude, playful images portrayed lives filled with hope and innocence; as the series goes on, this spirit is slowly and cruelly extinguished under the weight of ghetto life.

I stepped outside to catch some air; the path was now winding through the cemetery. It’s Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery, a sea of jutting headstones (many hastily added after other sites were closed) with dates stretching back to the 15th century. It’s here that Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel is interred, the creator of the mythical golem. As I left, walking past the Old-New Synagogue, I glimpsed the attic in which the golem is said to lie; the iron steps jutted from the side of the synagogue, only starting half-way up the wall and leading to an ominous-looking door at the top. It was a perfect choice to perpetuate the myth, a mysterious, rather odd-looking sight. But then again, it seemed for all the city’s grandeur, Prague was full of odd sights.

A remarkable cubist lamppost tucked behind a thoroughfare, Sigmund Freud apparently hanging off the top of a building, a dancing house, a mummified arm of a thief in a church, a statue of two men pissing; I could go on. For all Prague’s civilised beauty and charm, there was a palpable undercurrent of eccentricity, energy, and revolt. Maybe it came from the fact that the beer was cheaper than water. Or maybe it was the character of a city that infatuated my wanderlust in a way that Paris or Rome couldn’t hope to; for here, it was all so real, authentic, unchanged and utterly, utterly inviting.