Stand on the Charles Bridge (Karluv most) in Prague, and you can feel like you are in a gothic fairy tale – spires and domes surround you, the cold cuts through, the Vltava river flows beneath. The bridge itself is an immense artwork replete with arches, cobbles and terrifying statuary, holy guardians and holy warriors watching as you go on your way. Dark, stained, the bridge is an historic causeway witness to hundreds of years of passing inhabitants and occupiers, whose footfalls, hooves, tyres and wagon wheels are ingrained in the stone they rode over.
Along the walls of the Bridge are a number of decorative plaques, depicting scenes in the history of the city. For some reason, many of these plaques– like the Soho noses in London and the “love padlocks” on the Pont des Arts in Paris, and endless ranks of statues, steps, trees, fences and shrines around the world – seem to have attracted a talismanic reputation. If you touch it this way/rub it here/kiss it there you will become rich/fall (or stay) in love/return to the city/have a happy life. On some of these plaques however, the constant rubbing has had an alluring effect. Normally I very deliberately avoid this stuff, but on certain “lucky” areas the constant abrasion has resulted in a highly polished halo around some of the figures on the otherwise deeply tarnished illustrations. Most attractive of these is the figure of a dog looking up at his master (possibly King Charles himself), and it is the dog who has a halo around him rather than the great king.
But the polish reveals nothing – it just draws the eye to different areas of the picture. You could argue that it restores at least part of the picture to what the artist intended, but no insight is gained into any story behind the illustration.
This is the same with Prague itself. It must take longer than our three days there to gain insight into the place, because Prague is hidden, as the eye is drawn to the highly burnished, ornamental sites on the tourist map. Each of these places is incredible in its own right, and certainly worth seeing, assuming you have the tenacity to ensure you can see past the crowds. Actually, I take that back – Prague is crowded. Be patient. If you don’t like crowds, don’t go. But when you are there, don’t get hung up on how crowded it is – just do your thing, enjoy it for what it is. And what it is, is a Great Big Tourist Site.
The Art Nouveau of Wenceslaus Square is an introduction to the city and initiates a rewarding encounter with a trdelnik stand, the delicious cinammon & sugar encrusted snack that has become a staple since we were introduced to it in Pilsen just a few days before. Walking the back streets of the Old Town we are nearly run down by a fast moving carriage, driven by what looks like a highwayman from old times.
The Astronomical Clock – the Orloj – in the Old Town Square is an incomprehensible, wondrous piece of visual, scientific and mechanical design. There is comedy in the clock, as the ghoulish figure of Death, represented as a skeleton with a beer mug dances to time’s rhythm on the hour, reminding us that his hand is now one hour closer to its final resting place upon our shoulder. Hundreds of slack-jawed visitors gaze at the clock, as the dance of the Apostles concludes above it. The Tyn Church imposes itself over the square, it’s spires as sharp as the spindle that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s youthful finger. It’s easy to imagine her locked away in a bed-chamber somewhere up in one of the great towers.
Across the Charles Bridge, the immense Prague Castle complex rests malevolently overtop the city, a seemingly endless confusion of palaces, cathedrals, gardens and residences. Here occurred the 2nd Defenestration of Prague in 1618, an almost comic and seemingly innocuous act that nevertheless sparked the 30 Years War.
The Castle has seen greater and lesser occupants. In the Second World War, the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich – tenant of the castle from 1941-1942, is said to have donned the crown of Bohemia, a cursed and fatal mistake. Any common fool who wears the crown is fated to die within a year – he obligingly did so, succumbing to the wounds from an assassination attempt by a group of Czech heroes. This incident is wonderfully exposited in the book HHhH by Laurent Binet and a shrine to these heroes can be found in Saints Cyril and Methodius` Cathedral on Resslova Street, in the cellar where they died.
On an evening digression to find some night life, the tram driver asks us if we know where we are going when he drops us off. We find ourselves at the Exhibition Ground in Prague 7, in search of a restaurant that appeared in a guidebook, but has disappeared off the map and apparently fallen of the edge of the world. It has become a very quiet, solitary and dark place since the tram pulled away. The gates to the Exhibition Centre loom, imposing, padlocked, so we start to walk back into town in the hope that we might find somewhere to have a drink, a seat and a meal. We walk for miles and barely see a soul.
None of this makes me feel like I am getting to know Prague at all.
Our only contact with Praguers (the singularly unappealing name for the inhabitants of this most entrancing of cities) are the people we share a tram with each morning and evening as we make our way into the tourist centre. They get off the trams and seemingly disappear into gaps between the buildings. You follow them with your eyes as far as the door, and then something out the window nabs your attention for a moment. By the time you’ve realised they’ve gone, they’ve gone.
It all seems so active and wilful on the part of these Praguers. It’s indicative of an observer effect in tourism, that the place is changed and the people act differently, simply because they are being observed. They’ve gone and placed a wall between us. They look through you, or just over your shoulder to the next person in line. They are by no means rude, but this constant flood of tourists – violently ticking off their lists, furiously getting their things done, marching in a great column of excursionist humanity – these people gazing open-mouthed every hour at the Orloj, this constant flood that means that even if you did want to connect – well, any potential connection is fleeting and gets swept away to the next clock, or tower, or church, or memorial.
There is an entire life in the city that visitors will never see. Despite the temptation to seek it out, maybe we just should not. People have a right, in their homes as well as their cities surely, to maintain private spaces where they are autonomous, where they may just be themselves. For Praguers – their city has essentially been hijacked by the rest of the world, and leaving work means getting out of the city and going home. The solution must be to retreat, back into the areas where the tourists don’t go, where there is a Prague that does actually belong to the Praguers.
I won’t go back to Prague to seek out it’s “real” life. The city is beautiful, an open air museum. And like a museum, there are roped off sections where the public are not allowed. Because a rope barrier is hardly impenetrable there are always going to be the bad eggs who step over it, but this gentle barricade is generally enough to keep most people out. And over the barrier is where the people who live and work there can relax, loosen their ties, have a coffee and a chat, and mouth off about the visitors and the annoyances visited upon them.
I’m going to leave them alone to do it.
Further reading: HHhH, Laurent Binet