My idea had been to detour in Slovakia and maybe hike more hills. But after our week in Budapest we decided to go straight to Prague. Slovakia is therefore the New Brunswick of this particular journey; I only saw Bratislava from the train. Ah well, must leave something for next time.
It was great to be in a new city, and not only because it was Czech, and cooler! T. found beer for something like 25p a bottle in the supermarket, and promptly declared that she LOVED the Czech Republic. In case you didn’t know, Czechs are proud of their beer, which they have brewed for a thousand years, and that it’s cheaper than water.
If you want to be inspired, Prague is a great city to visit. We started at Wenceslas Square, where there were a film and posters commemorating Soviet tanks rolling in in 1969, but also permanent reminders of the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. That was when Czech troops refused to fire on their own people to enforce the Soviet system, and it basically collapsed. After this peaceful revolution, Václav Havel, a writer who had been imprisoned as a dissident, became the president of a democratic Czechoslovakia. No bloodshed; can you believe that?
Then we walked to the Old Town Square, where the oldest astronomical clock in the world still operating can be seen with figures popping out of it on the hour. The show is a little underwhelming, but the clockwork is complicated, and to think it’s still working after six hundred years!
Further along the square is a statue of Jan Hus, a reformer who translated the Bible into Czech (a heresy in the fifteenth century). We visited Bethlehem Chapel, where Hus preached in people’s native language. It’s a reconstruction (1950s), because the original was torn down by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century. Hus, whose academic and clerical career predated Luther’s by a hundred years, was burned at the stake.
At the Rudolfinum concert hall, where the baton was first lifted by composer Antonín Dvořák, we heard an amusing story about Reinhard Heydrich. That’s a phrase I never thought I’d write. Anyway, when Heydrich occupied the building as his headquarters after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, he ordered the statue of Felix Mendelssohn to be removed from the roof. No composer of Jewish origin was going to adorn Nazi HQ. Problem was, when the guys he’d given the orders to went up to the roof, they realized none of the composers’ statues were labeled. True to the stereotype they’d heard about Jews, they picked the statue with the biggest nose, and destroyed it.
You know where this is going, right? It wasn’t Mendelssohn at all, but Richard Wagner, the Nazis’ favorite composer.
Then we enjoyed Czech food (sour cream being one of my favorite food groups) at Café Slavia, a beautiful Art Deco place where Havel and associates used to hang out. As in other cities we’d visited, our walking tour guide had been a hit. He told us that in 1990 when the Rolling Stones performed a concert at Prague Castle, to celebrate the country’s opening to the West, he was seven years old. “I remember my parents crying,” he said, “and they don’t even like that kind of music.”
(“Maybe that was why they were crying,” T. said to me.)
Not to be deterred completely from climbing, I chose another day to walk up Petřín Hill in the center of Prague, then climb the stairs to the top of its tower—a similar tower to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but a fifth of its size. Thanks to being on top of the hill, though, the top of Petřín Tower is the same height as the Eiffel Tower.
|View of Charles Bridge and Prague from the tower|
Since we were in the Malá Strana, “Lesser Town,” we also checked out a couple of churches: St. Nicholas (Baroque) and the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The latter is famous for having a Spanish waxwork of Baby Jesus on the central altar, known as the Infant of Prague. Yeah, I don't get it either.
Our penultimate stop was a secluded wall opposite the French Embassy, known as the John Lennon Wall. After Lennon’s murder in 1980 someone painted his picture there and it became a place of pilgrimage (and graffiti) for young peace-loving Czechs.
Prague Castle is across the Charles Bridge, the iconic place that everyone in Prague wants to be. Actually it wasn’t too crowded the afternoon we crossed it. It’s a beautiful bridge with arches that withstood wheeled traffic for centuries, and statues of saints all along it. One of the amazing things about Prague is that unlike most European cities, it wasn’t heavily damaged in World War II, so these types of structures still exist. The center of Prague is home to over a thousand years of layered architectural styles, and the best preserved complex of Jewish monuments in Europe.
|14th-century Gothic gravestones, Old Jewish Cemetery|
The former Jewish ghetto was once several meters lower than the level we walk at today. That was so the Jews got flooded first.
The Staronovou or “Old-New” Synagogue is the oldest working synagogue in Europe. It was “New” in 1270! On the site of the Old Synagogue sits the “Spanish” Synagogue, so called because of its beautiful Moorish interior. This was a Reform congregation and, before World War II, a center for Zionism. Many Jews in a more optimistic time felt that their future was as equal citizens in Europe; they were comfortable enough to install an organ and even use the German language in their synagogue.
|Interior, Spanish Synagogue|
Onward and upward to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals, especially this summer, but this was one of my favorites. Even the fact that it’s named for the patron saint of actors, comedians, and dancers (and people with epilepsy; St. Vitus’s dance was named in a less enlightened time). There’s a fourteenth-century mosaic of the Last Judgment above the Golden Gate, art nouveau stained glass by Alfons Mucha, gargoyles, and my favorite, flying buttresses.
In the Prague Castle complex one of the gems is the Lobkowicz Palace, a privately owned art collection. We went there to hear classical music, specifically my favorite piece from Bedřich Smetana’s My Country. It’s often called “The Moldau,” which is the German name of the river that flows through Prague, but obviously Czechs call it Vltava.
We stayed to look at the art, which has quite a remarkable history. It was stolen from the Lobkowicz family, for obvious reasons, first by the Nazis and then, as soon as the war was over, by the communists. Amazingly, the Lobkowicz descendants returned to Prague after 1989 and live there now. One of the most interesting items in their collection is a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, annotated and arranged by none other than W. A. Mozart.
Traveling around Europe all summer has brought us face to face with many centuries of history. The overwhelming impression, though, has been of World War II history—a period that is really quite recent. Both my grandfathers served in the Second World War, and logically, so must have the grandfathers (or fathers, depending on age) of many people we’ve seen all over Europe. Which side depends on where we are.
In a way, the whole time I’ve been circling back to Berlin, a city I first visited (and enjoyed) in 2008. From Spain, where Hitler’s ally Franco ruled until the 1970s, through France which was occupied and Italy which was Fascist, the annexed Austrian territories, Hungary which tried be on the Axis side without actually fighting for it (or killing Jews), to Czechoslovakia which was the first victim of Nazi invasion. Everywhere we’ve gone, there were reminders of ghettos, deportations, concentration camps. What happened to the Jews here, what happened to the inhabitants of Lidice there.
And now we’re in Berlin. Where it all started, with a democratically elected party that didn’t have much support at first, but took advantage of people’s fears through lies and misinformation, eventually upending the rule of law. Not that anything like that could ever happen again.
But here’s why Berlin is a good place to end up, after all that history: Today’s Germany is a democratic leader in Europe. Elections will be held here soon, but for right now, Chancellor Angela Merkel is still the leader of the free world.
Which brings me to what we’ve been able to do these past three months. Since the end of May, we traveled from Ireland to Slovenia without having to change currency—the much-maligned euro. Whereas the first time I visited Europe, going to a new country meant piling up, say, lira by the thousands. No one has scanned or stamped my passport since I entered the continent.
In other words, Europe is working. No one’s saying it’s perfect—like a national health care system, you get out what you put in. But this is a continent that for almost all of its history was riven by endless wars: sectarian, city-state, imperial. In my own lifetime Europe had fascist dictatorships and communist states behind the Iron Curtain. Now I sit happily in what was East Berlin, having traveled freely through both.