Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Wandering Through Prague

Prague the most beautiful of the cities we visited, and by far the most interesting to navigate.  Unlike Budapest and Vienna, it was relatively unharmed by World War II's bombings and shellings—the damage inflicted on Prague by the Nazis and Soviets was deep, lingering, and thoroughgoing, but the architecture remains intact. 

So finding your way from spot to spot in the city is, I would imagine, not far from what it was like in early Modern Prague—1910-1930 or so, when there was adequate streetlighting and trams.  Full bus service was introduced in the '20s, so the assertion of my friend Mark Blum that traveling Prague is "like walking through a silent movie" has a great deal of truth in it.  But the buildings, of course, are much older. The side streets 17th-century narrow, renaming and vanishing into each other, so that a novice traveler guides himself by sound and steeple (sometimes by smell in the Christmas season, because the Winter Markets are glorious not only with light, but also the whiff of mulled wine, kolbasa, and trdelnik—a amazingly good, if touristy, pastry, made with grilled rolled dough flavored with sugar and walnut). 

I planned too much for each day, but early on surrendered to the passion for side road and distraction we had found in Budapest and Vienna.  Where Budapest is taken in through a slow emergence from fog, and Vienna through the unveilings of alleys and architecture, Prague seduces you along narrow streets: eventually you just give in and enjoy.  This city inveigles you in a kind of retrospect: a destination you reach by backtracking and accident, by an hour's journey egged on by the hieroglyphics of Czech signs and a street map you're always tilting and turning about, never certain of its accuracy or whether you're holding it in the right direction, turns out to be scarcely three blocks from your starting point, visible as you return by familiar spires or Baroque towers.  So you go further back in time, past the UFA lights and Studio-Babelsberg sets, back to the other heyday of this beautiful city, its 18th century blossoming, and you steer by landmark. 

Or by a knowing guide.  Conducted by a dramatic young woman on a Christmas Night ghost tour, we slipped down passages into damp courtyards, the music from the squares muffled behind us as we surrendered to Prague's intricacies and shadows.  So many of the stories she told ended with the soon-to-be ghost's tumble or leap from a window—part of Prague's eternal fascination with a particular form of dying that, in its readiness to blur execution with possible suicide, reflects the city's history of being under the control of oppressive and often secretive foreign powers ( I think not only of Jan Masaryk, but of Costa-Gavras' film Z, in which a character "falls from a 4th story window while being interrogated").   Cafes carefully hidden from public view, clean and safe alleys (one homeless man sleeping it off in an alcove was the only one we saw in Prague), and the music from the squares (sometimes jazz, other times a strangely Celtic Bohemian folk music) drifting in and out depending on the way a courtyard was set or the turn of a narrow lane, we passed through Prague's ghosts and emerged into modern streetlight, making our way back to lodgings as we steered by a skyline that Kafka, Dvorak, or Mozart would have found familiar, our imaginations haunted and historical.  ©2014 Michael Williams

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