Prague, Mother of Cities

Prague, Mother of Cities

“PRAGUE, MOTHER OF CITIES,” reads the city’s coat of arms. One is disinclined to object. Intricately gorgeous; uniquely patinated; etched, dented, colored and jumbled by the varied tides, thunderclaps, and grindings of history, this city just goes on and on—physically, I mean. It’s huge!

Prague was the seat of two Holy Roman emperors and a principal city of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it was capital of Czechoslovakia and, now, the Czech Republic. Rumblings of Reformation found their epicenter here, sending their aftershocks throughout Europe. The city’s castle occupies the top spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Prague Old Town, from the Vltava River

Prague Old Town, from the Vltava River (click any photo to enlarge)

Once again, our tour operators have planted us in a comfy hotel just beside the Old City, where the great sights are just a stroll from our door. We arrive early enough today for a late-afternoon foray into the Old Town square and across the 14th-15th-century Charles Bridge across the Vlatava River—descending to its banks just short of the Castle District, which we will visit tomorrow.

Monument to Jan Hus

Monument to Jan Hus

Old Prague’s great square is dominated by an imposing monument to Jan Hus, its great Protestant reformer and martyr. As a reformer and instigator against Roman Catholic dominance, he was the first—before Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. Prague everywhere bears witness to the struggles he sparked—and their centuries of spreading consequences.

The Empty Niche, Tyn Church

The Empty Niche, Tyn Church

On the face of the Tyn Church, between the twin spires of this towering structure set curiously behind a row of buildings on one end of the square, a high niche sits prominently empty, below a second niche, which displays a shining golden statue of the Virgin. When the Hussites held the church, situated as it was to conform to a Catholic-inspired law that forbade Protestant churches any entrance on the square or a street, a large golden chalice filled the now-empty lower niche—a symbol of Hussite Protestant insistence that lay people, and not only the clergy, must be served the wine of the Communion as well as the bread. The Hus monument itself is only a recent (1915) addition to the Square.

Celebrated Astronomical Clock

Celebrated Astronomical Clock

At the far end of the Old Town Square stands the Old Town Hall, where crowds gather hourly to witness the elaborate changing of the hour. An astronomical clock, mounted on the South wall of the Hall, marks the positions of the sun, moon, and other features of the sky on one dial, and the calendar on another dial below it. Above this, a clockwork parade of figures of apostles and other characters—including a prominent skeleton representing Death—passes before the crowd of observers as the hour sounds. As in Krakow, a trumpeter here sounds this city’s fanfare four times in four directions from windows in the belfry above, to the applause of the dispersing crowd.

Segway through the Square

Segway through the Square

Across from the astronomical display sits what? A Starbucks—which our tour guide forbids us to patronize—and a large glass merchants’ cooperative holding showrooms for famous Bohemian crystal makers and artists.

Substantial (and controversial) reconstruction of the Charles Bridge, which has seen many repairs and reconstructions over its centuries, was completed only last year.

The Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge and Prague Castle (click to enlarge)

This is no mere passage across a river; it’s a bridge to live on, to stroll on, to hawk wares on, to gawk on—at musicians, artists, mimes, and prostrated mendicants—not to mention the architecture and the statues mounted on every pillar.

Bridge Sculpture

...and Another

Another Bridge Sculpture

a Sculpture...

Swordsman on the Charles Bridge

Swordsman

None of the sculptures are original anymore; some fell into the river or met various other violent or accidental ends.

 

Locks and Locks of Lovers

Locks and Locks of Lovers

We are led off the bridge down a side stairway near its far end to take in a couple of local curiosities. The first is the “Lock Bridge,” where lovers have clasped hundreds of padlocks —as tokens of their never-ending devotion—to the wrought-iron staves of the bridge, and thrown the keys into the river. Their variety is impressive: from an old, rusting, cast-iron model that calls for a skeleton key, to a multitude of bare brass or colored-enamel-coated rectangular specimens, to a single combination lock (presumably, they threw the combination into the river—how romantic!). Space on the wrought iron rails ran out some time ago, but newcomers have clasped their locks to the hasps of other locks, and someone has added a plastic-covered bicycle chain spanning two iron uprights; there’s still room for several more on that contrivance. The bronze sculpture of a fierce-faced Samurai warrior (was he cast from melted keys?) guards this display of immutable affection from his perch atop a piling that rises from the canal below.

Next, we hear we’re going to a famous wall commemorating, ugh, Lenin. No? Turns out that’s Lennon—John Lennon—not Vladimir Ilyich. Lennon Wall, located in Mala Strana and owned by the Knights of the Maltese Cross, has been covered with several layers of graffiti and graffiti-like objects sparked by the memory of John Lennon since the 1980s. Anti-communist-regime students used to write complaints on the wall; this once led to a conflict on the Charles Bridge, between them and the security police, who denounced the students publicly as “Lennonists!”

A Prague Castle Gate

A Prague Castle Gate

Prague Castle, past the other end of the Charles Bridge from the Old Town, is called the biggest castle in the world, and has housed the Bohemian Kings, two Holy Roman Emperors, and the offices of the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. This mother of all castles has seen many ups and downs since its late-9th century beginnings. Basilicas and a convent were founded in the 10th century. In the 14th, a 12th-century royal palace was rebuilt in the Gothic style, and six centuries of work on the cavernous and surpassingly opulent St. Vitus’ Cathedral began. During the early 15th-century Hussite wars, the castle was abandoned, to await rebuilding, expansion, and defensive reinforcement in the late 15th century—only to see much of its contents burned in the great fire of 1541. The Habsburgs were next to take up residence and re-development, until the Second Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Bohemian Revolt.

What's a Castle without a Crossbow?

What's a Castle without a Crossbow?

Bohemian radicals repeatedly indulged their curious propensity for ousting officials they believed oppressive and corrupt by throwing them out of the windows of government buildings! There have been at least four de-fenestrations, but only two made enduring headlines. The first, in 1419, saw the town council, the mayor, and the judge pitched out of the town hall windows into the street, where they met their end in collisions with either the cobblestones or the mob outside. The Hussite Wars ignited by the event—five consecutive papal crusades against Jan Hus’ posthumous followers—lasted until 1436.

Use Window Guards!

Use Window Guards!

The gang of three flung seventy feet out of a third-floor window of Prague Castle in 1618’s Second Defenestration landed on a softer surface—a large, well-placed pile of horse manure, actually—and managed to survive. To recompense him for this indignity, one of the projectiles was made a noble by the emperor and given the title “Baron of Highfall.” This second tossing helped light the fuse for the infamous, depressingly-destructive Thirty Years War.

The ubiquitous Habsburg Queen Maria Theresa undertook the last major rebuilding and renovation of the castle in the late 18th century.

The Carp

The Carp

When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in World War II, Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s “hangman,” the SS General, Gestapo head and host of the meeting where the infamous “Final Solution” was presented, seized Prague Castle as his headquarters in his new role as Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. It is said that he put the crown of Bohemia on his head, unwittingly thumbing his nose at old legends declaring that any usurper who presumes to wear that crown was condemned to die before a year had passed. Heydrich was attacked by a team of soldiers sent by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and killed in Prague, less than a year after taking power. 

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral, begun in 1344, finally was finished in 1929! A visitor is likely to agree that it was worth the wait.

St. John Nepomuk Tomb

St. John Nepomuk Tomb

Among the many grand architectural features, the rich, stained-glass windows, statuary, and rich decorative elements, the elaborate gold-trimmed silver shrine tomb of St. John of Nepomuk uniquely seizes a visitor’s attention. In accounts that surfaced some time after John’s death, it is recounted that, as the confessor of the Queen of Bohemia, John refused to tell “good” King Wenceslas, her husband, the secrets she confessed. The king reputedly then had him drowned in the Vltava River.

Faux Crown Jewels

Faux Crown Jewels

The Czech crown jewels (sorry—they’re put on public display only every seven or eight years) lie behind a small door locked with seven locks in the St. Wenceslas Chapel, which itself is not open to the public.

 
 

A Golden Lane Crypt

A Golden Lane Crypt

THE GOLDEN LANE is a narrow street just outside the walls of Prague Castle, lined on the side opposite the castle with three stories—more or less—of small, colorful and picturesque houses, compacted together and connected by corridors leading to various flights of steep, narrow, or winding stairs. Their chambers and hallways hold a variety of historic displays and quaint shops.

 
 
 
 

Alchemist Shop

Alchemist Shop

On the lower levels, a visitor finds reconstructed alchemists’ laboratories—the likely reason for the Lane’s name (before the alchemists arrived, earlier houses held goldsmiths and, later, fusiliers). On the upper level, one discovers other historical reconstructions and an armor shop, where medieval-style helmets, chain mail, and swords are offered for sale.

Medeival Superhero?

Medieval Superhero?

Immediately outside the shop begins a long corridor lined with display cases containing old suits of armor, in great variety. One memorable specimen of heavy haberdashery has its wearer resembling a falcon—with beaked helmet and feather-edged shoulder guards. While most of the houses on the Lane were offered for rent during the 19th and 20th centuries, important Czech writers, notably Franz Kafka, lived there.

We are instructed, following our stroll through Golden Lane, to meet “at the statue of a naked young man.” Before this sculpture, we (with a protesting exception or two) pose for a photograph. The statue’s bronze has aged to a characteristic patina—save for one popular part, which gleams brightly, as if polished.

 

Maisel Synagogue

Maisel Synagogue

Our visit to the multi-part JEWISH MUSEUM OF PRAGUE focuses on the Maisel Synagogue in Josefov, the Jewish quarter. Built starting in 1590, and rebuilt following a fire in 1689, the synagogue was again rebuilt in 1893-1905. This was the intended site of Hitler’s outrageous, and never-to-be “museum of the extinct race,” for which he ordered the accumulation and extensive cataloguing of treasures stolen from Jews across Bohemia and Moravia. It is reported that once the Jewish archivists and curators assigned to catalogue the items had finished, they too were sent to their demise in the death camps.

Prague Jewish Cemetary

Prague Jewish Cemetary

Today, the synagogue, with its extensive and adjacent Jewish cemetery, belong to the museum, which includes, among others, the Spanish Synagogue. The latter house of worship never actually was used by a Spanish or Sephardic congregation, but was built in a Moorish architectural style, with gorgeous, Moorish interior decoration.

Spanish Synagogue

Spanish Synagogue

It appeared obvious to this untutored traveler that there is a direct relationship between the colorful patterns of this Moorish interior’s graphic design and design elements found in the later Art Nouveau style and displayed prominently in this most Art Nouveau of cities—but a tour guide registered no recognition of it.

OUR OFFICIAL GROUP TOUR NEARLY AT ITS END, we return tonight to the Castle, and to its Lobkovicz Palace, for our farewell dinner. We dine on a balcony of the Palace, overlooking steeples and rooftops spread along the valley down to the river and the mountains beyond the city. All seem to agree that this has been a tour group for our personal record books; our Tour Manager is quick to add her agreement, calling us the “best ever.” We begin to talk of a reunion, and find several members in the Northeast who are willing to give it a try…

Farewell Dinner...

...at Lobkovicz Palace...

...at Lobkovicz Palace...

...with the whole Group

...with the whole Group

 

The Missing Marx Brother

The Missing Marx Brother

We stay on after most of the group have left, and decide to take a stroll into Prague’s Communist era, the latest of the extended trials from which the city, the nation, and the region are still emerging and recovering.

Prague1968

Prague 1968

Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square

Walking through the pleasant (new city) downtown pedestrian and shopping promenades, we take lunch at a café and progress to Wenceslas Square, where an extensive exhibition commemorating the 20th anniversary of the end of Soviet army occupation of Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact has been set up in anticipation of Prague’s Week of Freedom celebration, June 20 – July 1 (sure, that’s 12 days, but who’s counting?).

The colorful display of posters chronicles the rise and fall of Communist domination in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and East Germany, nearly year-by-year. Following the Czech thread around the two sides of the long display takes us three quarters of an hour.

 

StalinThink

StalinThink

To supplement our education-by-poster, we backtrack to the second-floor Museum of Communism—a low-budget display of artifacts, everyday objects, well-translated informative placards, and a video presentation of the 1968 Prague Spring uprising crushed by Soviet Tanks, and the final 1989 liberation of the city.

Commie Yard Sale

Commie Yard Sale

 

Many of the objects and artifacts here look as if they have been assembled from a series of Communist yard sales and visits to Soviet-monument junkyards for display here. Nevertheless, it forms a coherent and poignant display making a lasting impression.

 

Korea Poster

Korea Poster

Here are busts and portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, with bookshelves lined with their works. Here are countless examples of Socialist Labor art, in painted works and, especially, inflammatory political posters. Not meaning at all to connect Occupy Wall Streeters to the ideologues whose ideas find expression here, one wonders how much attention the current movement might gain if it managed to find compelling expression in popular graphic art. The Communists—and particularly in this part of the world—had a notable talent for it.

 

 

De-hyphenation of Prague

De-hyphenation of Prague

Soon, we’ll leave Prague and board a train for Ostrava—described by some as the Czech Republic’s Pittsburgh…

 

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