A picturesque city teeming with cafes, bars, bookstores, churches, palaces, red haired women and hordes of strolling tourists; a city framed by two majestic citadels – Prague Castle and Vysehrad – between which snakes the Vltava River dividing the Lesser Town (now filled with embassies and lesser nobility) and the old town Stare Mesto, with its shadow, the Jewish quarter Josefov.
A city•state withstanding multiple colonial handovers between various dynasties over the centuries that left its mother country, the Czech Republic, dazed and dissected. Prague has managed to emerge intact as a city with a distinct character and stands as no less a gem compared to its bigger European cousins Paris, Barcelona and Rome.
I was interested in the Jewish quarter, from where 110,000 Jews were displaced, approximately 70,000 dying in ghettos and concentration camps, and a remnant 10,000 returning to Prague at the end of WWII. At first, we had trouble finding the Jewish Quarter; the street signs weren’t very helpful. My wife urged me to walk to the edge of the old town – that is where Jews were normally housed, she educated me. Sure enough, after getting lost a couple of times, we came to a spot where the streets were exceedingly narrow, and the synagogues, within close proximity to each other, began to appear. They were well restored and a museum was housed within the Spanish Synagogue. It was almost a given that every notable artist or intellectual, whose photograph was memorialized within the glass cases, had a life termination date between 1941 and 1945. And yet, ironically, Franz Kafka was the most famous personality in the city, having died unpublished, and before the Holocaust. The cemetery adjoining the museum was a clutter of gravestones hemmed in by high•rise houses and commercial buildings; some of the gravestones went back five hundred years. Visitors placed pebbles or pieces of paper, signifying pledges or requests, on select stones – it was refreshing to note that dreams could be kept alive today, unlike for those poor folk and their mementos residing inside the glass cases in the museum.
The history of the Christian cathedrals and the local saints were no less bloody: St John of Nepomuk, tortured by Wenceslas IV for siding with his mother; St. Wenceslas I (patron saint of Prague, it appeared), murdered by his brother in the cathedral; St. Ludmila, murdered by her nephew the king. St. Vitus’ Cathedral itself (a must•visit for any first timer) is dedicated to a young saint who was boiled in hot oil, fed to the lions and stretched on the rack before they could kill him. Of course, the humorous bit was the story of Dalibork who learned to play the violin while in prison, and to whom is attributed the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”; he kept his captors at bay for almost two years. The poor guy finally copped it when his jailors tired of his fiddling.
I liked the beer, cheese, weather (10•18 degrees Celsius and sunny every day), Moravian wines, coffee, the all•English bookstore we happened upon, the choice of restaurants and the general leisured pace of the city. I was not too enamoured with the native high calorie diet – meat and potatoes. Therefore, the Lebanese restaurant we fell over one day was a welcome find; I literally overdosed on the baba ghanoush, falafel, tabbouleh and hummus. That restaurant even had one menu item of bread and spam – for those nostalgic for a Communist•era dining experience!