Last week's article featured a
castle, a cathedral, Kafka and
the Infant Jesus of Prague in the city's Hradcany and Mala Strana districts. This week we cross the Vltava River into the heart of this Baroque wonderland.
The Charles Bridge
I f you enjoy history, religious statuary, architecture or just people
watching, then plan on spending a few hours on and around the Charles Bridge which connects Prague's two halves. Over 600 years old, it's been rebuilt several times after floods washed parts of it away. Wars have been fought on it. Coronation processions have traversed it. John of Nepomuk, later canonized, was thrown to his death from it.
Now, it has taken on a Jackson Square atmosphere as tourists go back and forth on it, hawkers sell souvenirs and musicians entertain all. (I heard a jazz band playing "Sweet Georgia Brown.")
Thirty statues of saints line the bridge, put there by the Catholic Hapsburgs after they began their rule of the land in the seventeenth century. Some of the statues are quite intriguing; others merely stand there sullenly. Go early in the day to see them unobscured by the crowds that will appear later on.
The bridge has towers at both ends that are well worth the climb for the splendid views they offer of the city. Inside the Mala Strana tower, a small permanent exhibit tells the history of the bridge. The Stare Mesto tower has rotating exhibitions; currently, old musical instruments are on display.
At night, a romantic glow envelopes the bridge as couples stroll and smooch. The illuminated Hrad (Castle) and St. Vitus Cathedral in the background provide an unforgettable sight.
Heading into Stare Mesto ("Old
Town"), you'll see nouveau
boutiques housed in Renaissance buildings. Chic Czechs jostle Japanese sightseers on the main drags, while the cobblestones of some streets will transport you back to the seventeenth century.
Any of a number of routes lead from the Charles Bridge through the Stare Mesto to the Staromestske namesti. On any one of them you will see interesting sights, structures and shops. If you get a bit lost, as I did, it hardly matters. At worst, you'll have a pleasant detour off the beaten path; at best, you'll ask some cute Czech man for help and who knows where that can lead.
Once in the Staromestske namesti, you'll be surrounded by one of Europe's grandest town squares. You'll also be surrounded by the legions of backpackers who have converged on Prague in recent years. Ignore them. They don't bite, though some could use a bath.
Arrive at the Staromestska radnice ("Old town hall") on the hour, when its Astronomical Clock's figures do their song and dance routine. (of its four threats to the city, I have no problem with "Death" and "Vanity," but I question the political correctness of "the Turk" and "the Jew." Aw, heck, it was done in 1490.)
After the clock has finished chiming, ascend the town hall's tower for a bird's-eye view of the Gothic Tyn Church, a glorious symbol of Prague. By now you might want some refreshment. Go down, pull up a chair at any of the cafes in the square and enjoy the passing scene.
Three blocks away stands a highlight of Stare Mesto, the Stavovske Divadlo (Estates Theater) where, in 1787, Mozart conducted the premiere of his Don Giovanni to rousing acclaim. Nearly two hundred years later, Milos Forman filmed scenes for Amadeus in this dignified Neoclassical building, the only opera house in Europe that remains intact from Mozart's era.
Try to attend some performance at this theater. Its inside is breathtakingly beautiful, all powder blue and gold leaf. I saw a charming production of Smetana's comic opera, The Two Widows. A seventh row orchestra seat cost me less than ten dollars. Gotta love it.
Two of this district's nicest churches are St. Francis, a jewel box of Baroque splendor, and St. Jacob whose high ceilings and long, narrow nave create an imposing environment. Legend has it that four or five hundred years ago a thief tried to steal the gems of the church's Madonna statue. The figure, not wishing to part with its jewels, came to life, grabbed the varmint's arm and either yanked it off or held on until the monks chopped it off. In any case, there was a lot of blood, the (now) one-armed bandit repented, and his limb has hung in the church as a cautionary symbol ever since.
Within Stare Mesto lies
Josefov, the former Jewish
ghetto. You might recognize this area from news coverage of Madeline Albright's recent visit there to reconnect with her roots. For over 700 years, Prague's Jews have been enduring the vicissitudes of history, enjoying periods of prosperity while suffering times of persecution.
Although the Nazis tried to destroy this community, it managed, barely, to survive. Before the war, approximately 55,000 Jews lived in Prague; currently, there are about 1,500. Hitler planned to create an "Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race" here and so Prague became the dumping ground for Jewish artifacts collected throughout Europe. Ironically, these and other treasures now allow for a fascinating exploration of a people and their culture.
You can buy a ticket at any of three former synagogues that now form the Jewish Museum of Prague. Best to begin at the Klaus Synagogue where there is an overview of Jewish customs and religious traditions. From there proceed to the Maisel Synagogue which showcases the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia (the present day Czech Republic).
Go down the block to the Pinkas Synagogue whose inner walls are inscribed with the names of Czech and Slovak Jewish victims of the Holocaust. (Albright discovered her grandparents' names here.) Upstairs, an exhibit of paintings done by young prisoners in the Terezin detention center/concentration camp demonstrates their tremendous spirit while facing ineffable horror.
Finally, tour the old Jewish Cemetery whose oldest tombstone dates from 1439. Rabbi Low, associated with the Golem legend, is buried there. Nearby, Sabbath and holiday services continue to be held at the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest in Europe.
N ove Mesto ("New Town")
surrounds Stare Mesto and
contains both brash commercials areas and quiet residential stretches. Its wide range of architectural styles emerged from nineteenth century urban renewal. For a close-up view of stylish interior decor, go into some of the banks along Na prikope, which runs from Namesti Republiky to the foot of Wenceslas Square.
Wenceslas Square is Nove Mesto's focal point with hotels, shops, theaters and, of course, fast food restaurants. Eight years ago, the Square (actually a long boulevard) saw 200,000 people demonstrating nightly against the Communist government. Now, it hosts spandex clad go-go boys and girls heralding a new Japanese energy drink. Progress? I guess.
Since May, the newly reconstructed obecni dom (Municipal House) has been open. Occupying one corner of Namesti Republiky, it is the highlight of the many art nouveau buildings in the area. Paintings by Mucha, stylized ornamentation and lots of gold leaf (Prague's motto: "When in doubt, gold-leaf it.") adorn this social gathering place. Its exquisite restaurant, concert hall and art salons definitely merit a visit. Not far from here at Na porici 7, Kafka worked as a clerk for an insurance company.
At the other end of Nove Mesto is yet another reminder of the devastation caused by World War II. On March 29, 1372, Emperor Charles IV consecrated the Emmaus Monastery. On February 14, 1945, the Monastery was bombed by the Allies intent on driving out the Gestapo who had overrun it. Precious gothic frescoes mostly survived. The pseudo-gothic spires did not and their modern style replacements are now part of Prague's skyline. A caretaker was kind enough to let me in to the Monastery's church. Sadly, I don't think it's changed much since that terrible day in February 1945.
Opera queens and balletomanes
can pig out on a daily-changing feast of eclectic fare. The Estates Theater (see above) and the National Theater, which overlooks the Vltava, share a box office one block from the National Theater. Both offer classic and modern ballet and, while emphasizing Czech opera (Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek), others appear on the schedule as well. (You can occasionally see Don Giovanni in its original home.) The Prague State Opera, near Wenceslas Square, offers more standard operatic repertory.
Just outside Nove Mesto, not too far from Namesti Republiky, lies the Hudebni Divadlo Karlina (Musical Theater of Karlin). If you have a hankering to see La Cage aux Folles, My Fair Lady or Hello, Dolly in Czech, this Broadway-sized, award-winning theater is the place to go. Unless you've brushed up your Czech, I'd stay away from the dramatic productions at the Estates and National Theaters. You might take a chance, though, on one of Shakespeare's plays.
You don't need Czech to enjoy the black light (or laterna) theaters' multimedia performances. I'm not a huge fan of puppetry and so didn't attend any of these. They're very popular, however.
Also popular are evening concerts in churches all over town. Mostly organ recitals, some feature singers and other instrumentalists. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the door, though during summertime sellouts do occur. Tickets cost about eleven dollars and the performances last about an hour.
Another fun way to pass an hour, and considerably less touristy, is at the Krizikova Fountain in Vystaviste, site of the 1891 (and 1991) Prague Exhibition. Two dollars get you a fountain that mists, foams, shoots, sprays and twirls while lit by boldly colored lights. The accompanying music may be either classical, Czech folk or, as when I went, Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe's Barcelona songfest. Very camp, kinda like watching an hour's worth of technicolor cum shots.
If all else fails, just wander around and keep your eyes open. You might come on something like the ultra-mod fashion show I discovered in the square behind the Estates Theater or the band concert that filled the promenade beneath the Hrad. It's that kind of a town.
Prague's Gay Scene
If I've saved the gay scene for last,
it's because, well, there's not that
much to say. Prague has no gay center like our Bourbon/St. Ann crossroads. It's all very spread out and, other than Friday and Saturday nights, things stay rather quiet.
I also found it a bit difficult to meet Czech guys. Yes, Czech is a hard language to pick up, but most younger guys speak some English. If you speak some German, that'll help communication, also. But language isn't the main problem.
Rather, Czechs in general, while nice, are a little dour and standoffish. Kafka's angst, while extreme, seems to be a shared characteristic here. Other non-Czechs I spoke to, gay and straight, who live in Prague concurred-the locals are tough to get to know. They're certainly not the wild and crazy type we're used to in N'awlins. Still, with a little luck, you just might find Pan Napravo (Mr. Right). Here are some places to check out:
The Rainbow Cafe (Kamzikova 6) is in a small passageway near Staromestska namesti. Look for a sign saying "Gay Club" opposite the Versace store for directions-because of construction, one end of the passageway is temporarily closed off, making it a teensy challenge to find the place. A nice, clean atmosphere prevails both upstairs in the mixed bar and downstairs at Rainbow proper. The whole shebang is run by Americans Ron Vaccari and David Beveridge who'll helpfully answer any questions you might have. Of course they're helpful-David used to live in New Orleans and knows what Southern hospitality is all about.
Tom's Bar (Pernerova 4) requires a cab from downtown, unless you're up for a long walk. A classic disco/bar, you're as likely to encounter other tourists as locals at Tom's. Open till the wee hours, come here to hear "Y.M.C.A."-in Czech! (Prague cabbies are notorious for gouging. Agree on a fare before getting in.)
SAM Club (Cajkovskeho 34) is in Zizkov, a short tram ride from Namesti Republiky. This "leather & jeans club" seems to be the best place to meet folks. Perhaps it's because of their festive Underwear (Sept. 5 & 26, Oct. 17) and Absolutely Naked (Sept. 14) Parties. They'll call a reliable cab for you when you're ready to depart.
There are about a dozen other bars and/or discos around town but the scene changes rapidly. A copy of Amigo-with its invaluable map-will tell you what's going on and where. And, no, towards the east, Prague's tallest building is not a futuristic phallic symbol, but the old Commie TV tower. Let it serve to inspire you, though, and have fun.