Prague, Top to Bottom (May 29, 2015)

_MG_5286Written by John Watters

If you prefer your travel destinations undiscovered and serene, Prague is not for you.

I think we passed most of humanity on our two-hour walking tour from the cathedral that overlooks the city down to the Small Town district below, and they were all talking at once, in an astonishing variety of languages.

All of which made hearing our guide, Marcella – or even keeping up with her – problematic. Throughout the tour, she gamely tried to keep us together, wielding high over her head a peach-colored bit of chiffon tied to a pointer, which she flicked back and forth as she went. We followed along like trout chasing a fly.

But still, even hewing close to her side, we were surrounded by so many other groups with guides both live and recorded, and by so many exclamations of wonder in a dozen different tongues, that following Marcella’s narrative was virtually impossible.

As a result, I don’t have a lot of history to report about Prague, only impressions – and they are all good.

As I mentioned, our tour began at St. Vitus Cathedral, a startingly enormous structure situated on one of the highest points of the city. You walk through a small archway outside the cathedral, and immediately your eye is drawn up – and up, and up. The twin towers before you are 82 meters high – just a little less than the length of a football field. The main tower is forty feet higher still. A restored mosaic adorns just part of one wall, yet still contains over one million pieces of glass.

This epic scale continues on the inside, where the cathedral’s vaulted Gothic ceilings loom high overhead and extend far back to the distant altar. This is not a church one would describe as cozy.

Surprisingly, while parts of the cathedral date to the mid-1300s, war halted construction on the rest in the 15th century, and it was not finished until 1929, some 600 years after it began. (I’ve dealt with contractors, so I understand.)

We learned from Marcella that the cathedral’s namesake, St. Vitus, was a 3rd-century martyr who was tortured to death (at a very young age) for his faith. Marcella said one of the versions of his death holds that he was boiled to death in oil, during which his bones started to shake, giving rise to the name “St Vitus Dance” for a disorder with similar symptoms. (It was a little too close to lunch to be hearing stories like that, so at this point I decided to put some distance between me and Marcella.)

From the castle, we descended a long series of stairways toward New Town, whose name we initially took to be ironic, given that most of the buildings are from the 15th and 16th centuries. But then we reached Old Town, where some buildings date to the 14th and even 13th centuries.

Every turn on the trail revealed another stunning church, beautiful house, mysterious alleyway or quaint tavern. It was a delightful stroll, and, I should add, one much better taken from top to bottom than vice versa.

At the base of this winding route is the St. Charles Bridge, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare begun in the 14th century under the auspices of King Charles IV, beloved king of Bohemia. Over a third of a mile long, the bridge features dozens of statues of saints and nobles, including one of St. Norbert, which of course warranted a group picture in front.

We’d heard that the best time to experience the bridge is early morning or evening, when the crowds are far smaller, but we found the midday bustle very festive.

Statues aren’t the only fixtures on the bridge. Entrepreneurs are much in evidence as well. Marcella, who lived quite a long time under Communist rule, was of decidedly mixed feelings about the move to capitalism and democracy. In the main she approved, but she also noted many of the growing pains experienced in the process. But I suspect the vendors on the bridge – and up and down our entire route from the castle to the town square – are strongly in favor of a free economy. Opportunistic performers were absolutely everywhere. If you had a few kroner, you could pose with a guy in a knight costume, or with a maiden, or a palace guard, or a gold-painted living statue, or a (presumably less pricey) silver one, or a firestick juggler or a gorilla. Photographers, painters and caricaturists dotted the bridge. Jewelry vendors and glassblowers occupied every storefront that didn’t house a souvenir stand or a restaurant. There were jazz combos, classical quartets, Dixieland artists, and a woman playing a saw. If you could make money at it, someone was doing it.

One of the statues on the bridge, of the crucifixion, has a controversial but ultimately reassuring history. In 1696, a local Jewish leader was accused of blasphemy, and his “sentence” was to raise funds for an inscription in Hebrew to be placed beneath the cross, reading “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts,” a degrading endorsement (for him) of Christian belief. In the 1970s, an American rabbi raised the issue of the inscription’s impropriety with local officials. National preservation laws prohibit the alteration of historic landmarks, but a compromise was reached, and a plaque explaining the history of the inscription was installed in 2000.

With religious intolerance on the rise throughout the world, and in particular with anti-Semitism again surfacing in Europe, such examples of respect and compromise are to be celebrated.

One other quick story about the bridge: At the opposite end is a tower dating from (I believe) the 15th century, with statues depicting five figures, including national hero King Charles IV. This depiction of the king, who was short and slightly hunchbacked, is the most accurate one known to exist, according to Marcella.

To the side of the bridge, however, is a statue, constructed centuries later, offering a highly romanticized version of the king – tall, moustachioed, dashing and steely-eyed – Robert Goulet in chain mail. This is the match.com profile picture of King Charles; the scrawny, humpy guy on the tower is who you meet on the first date.

With all the throngs of international tourists and near-equal numbers of vendors, “real” Czechs were in short supply on our walk, so it was wonderful that evening to experience a raucous cultural dinner, complete with music, dancing, skits and way too much wine. It gave us welcome insight into the traditions of the Czechs – as well as a gander at the mad mazurka skills of our own Fr. Jay Fostner. (Mazurka is Czech (also Polish) dancing, and about as far as is conceivable from twerking.)

To a person, everyone who offered an opinion on our trip before departure told us Prague would be our favorite city. With our deeply satisfying walking tour and dinner serving as bookends to a lovely, sunny afternoon strolling the streets and lounging in cafes, I have to say they were right on the money.

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