The woods around Prague are in full autumn splendour right now, the whole range of colours from rose madder to white-gold. The taxi whips us past them; when the tree-cover breaks, we catch glimpses of the city in the distance, coming in from the castle side of the river. Prague is a place I’ve never seen, although I must have been shown it a hundred times in films, where it’s played both itself and a dozen other eastern (and non-Eastern) European cities. I was convinced until a few moments ago that Woody Allen had filmed Shadows and Fog there, but apparently not, although he did intend the film as a homage to, among others, Franz Kafka, the city’s most famous son (for me, anyway). According to Wikipedia, it was made on the largest film set ever built in New York (26,000 sq ft). Still, that’s what I had in mind when I thought of Prague. Angles, shadow, alleys; something dark and jagged and elusive. Oh yes, and beer.
Cities are what they are and what we bring to them, of course, and the shorter the visit, the less chance the place has of wriggling out from under the weight of one’s expectations. Given that my expectations were coloured by NY faux expressionism and perhaps the 20th century’s most disturbing writer (and beer), it may not have been a brilliant idea to book into a hotel that had once been a convent occupied by (and built for) the Grey Sisters of St Francis. I’d imagined something medieval, characteristic. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the convent might have been built in the 1930s in a style known as (and I quote from the brochure) Prague’s constructivism. Its first use was as a hostel for homeless girls, who were rescued from the streets and set to work as rosary-makers for Latin America, or co-opted into the Order. In 1950, the building was taken over by the Communist police and, following the Velvet Revolution, by the regular police department of central Prague. The mood of the place, which must have seen more than its fair share of human misery and interrogation, both spiritual and otherwise, in the past 80 years, has been lightened a little by a beige and maroon colour scheme, and some rather modest pastels on the stairs. It’s now an entirely adequate three star hotel, but its greatest asset is its position, roughly equidistant from Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square (and no more than ten minutes’ brisk walk from the Prague Beer Museum). It’s also a spit away from the Bethlehem Chapel, where a woman who might have been trained in one of the earlier manifestations of the hotel spots us hovering outside the building, orders us to buy tickets and marches us into the chapel itself. Jan Hus used to preach here, we’re told in two languages, and we’re directed towards a fresco that illustrates his fiery end, but is otherwise undistinguished. Severe middle-aged female custodians, it turns out, are a feature of Prague’s cultural venues.
Our first evening we eat in a place called Lokal, a long narrowish dining hall, cadenced by arches, with wooden tables along each side. It has a slightly industrial air to it, enhanced by enormous metal beer casks lying supine beneath a glass-walled bar counter. It’s packed and we’re lucky to get a table. Beer arrives, and then arrives again, carried by a hawk-eyed waiter bearing an ever-replenished tray of half-litre glasses, who scouts the hall with a kind of frenzied zeal. We eat sausages of various kinds, Prague ham, goulash, pork neck, sauerkraut, all of it excellent; Giuseppe discovers that sufficient quantities of horseradish have a similar effect on him to a certain type of chilli pepper and very good grass: unpredictable hilarity. I realise after a while that part of the atmosphere of the place is due to the presence of cigarette smoke, and then, to my surprise, that it’s an element I’ve come to miss. Beer halls just aren’t the same without it. It also makes a nice change to be able to eat inside; one of the penalties of travelling with a smoker is that any temperature above zero is tolerable if it comes with an ashtray. Although I notice that here, as in Berlin, blankets are thoughtfully draped over the back of most alfresco chairs. Walking past Lokal a couple of nights later, we see a light show and some ghostly illuminated figures strung up high above the street. As usual, when surprised, I wish I lived in a city where this kind of thing happened on a regular basis, without the intervention of some local saint.
Music is everywhere in Prague, and a startling amount of it is good. Charles Bridge is full of musicians, a reminder of just how European a music jazz has become. Bars employ singers with guitars and a thorough knowledge of the Bob Dylan songbook, which can be rather karaoke, although here too there are surprises, such as the talented singer/guitarist at Motto Bar in Franz Kafka Square. But the star has to be the man in the photograph. His name is Jiří Wehle and he’s been performing for many years now, alone or in a series of bands. He used to play on Charles Bridge, but appears to have had problems with the people who run it, who banished him some years ago. He’s now in Old Town Square, or was this week. The instrument he’s holding is a hurdy gurdy and the music it makes feels almost as old as the human voice, and as heart-wrenching. You can buy his CD, as I did. His repertoire ranges from Goethe to Tolkien to traditional folk music from all over Europe. He sings in Czech, and he’s special. (If you visit his site, and you really should, stay with the Czech version; the English one, for some reason, doesn’t have audio or video links.)
The best bits of a holiday are the places you stumble on, restaurants that aren’t in the guidebooks, street markets with cackling festive witches on strings, gardens that, inexplicably, not even Lonely Planet sees fit to mention. The photograph to the left is a view from inside the Vrtba Garden (this is the Anglicized version of the name, by the way; you don’t even want to see the Czech word), an extraordinary Baroque garden in Mala Strana. We found it because I can’t walk past a door opening onto a courtyard without walking through it. It’s a UNESCO site, but the only people there, apart from us, were two or three other gay couples. In passing, I should say that this was the only moment I felt that Prague was, well, gay-friendly; the rest of the city was indifferent, which is fine but somehow needs testing; we were offered free entry to a number of strip clubs, which suggests a certain, possibly wilful, cultural blindness. But back to the garden. It’s a lavishly tiered affair, with all the topiary a boy could want, and this must be the best time of year to see it, as Virginia creeper dyes the surrounding walls a shocking deep red. From the top layer, you can look down into the heart of the garden or out across the city, from St Vitus and the dome of St Nicholas to the impressively ugly Žižkov Television Tower. It’s a skyline and a half, with Gothic, Baroque and Russian onion domes jostling for space. And Gothic doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer Disney-like spiky weirdness of some spires, notably those of Our Lady in front of Týn, as though someone had asked Tim Burton to design a church and then actually allowed it to be built. It’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief, though, when you pass through the Baroque façade of St George’s basilica inside the Castle and find yourself in a stripped-bare Romanesque nave, without a single gilded cherub in sight.
Kafka. It’s hard to avoid him in Prague (or maybe not; a gang of teenage kilted revellers didn’t seem particularly aware of the writer’s presence, although I was certainly aware of theirs). So let’s start with a place called Café Franz Kafka, possibly the worst bar in Prague, and beyond. You can read what I thought about it here. The building that houses it was Kafka’s birthplace, although his family later moved to the second floor of the extraordinary House at the Minute, a hundred yards away on the other side of Old Town Square. Kafka pilgrimages are easy because they coincide with the places you would probably visit in any case. He lived much of his life within a mile of his birthplace; this included a spell in Golden Lane, in a tiny blue-painted house that belonged to his sister and that can be described as both cute and oppressive, according to one’s mood. Golden Lane is now mostly shops, from one of which I bought a small jointed metal Golem, another of Prague’s famous sons. The woman I bought it from said, ‘Always men buy Golem, never women buy Golem,’ which was interesting. Maybe women know how unreliable home-helps can be. Kafka would have used, although not assiduously, the Old-New Synagogue, where the Golem is reputedly still stored in the attic, a building the Nazis had planned, with their usual thoroughness, to transform as part of a museum in commemoration of an extinct race.
Our last morning, we visit the old Jewish cemetery. I’d thought Kafka’s grave might be here, but he was buried in the new Jewish cemetery, outside Josefov. To reach the cemetery we pass through the Pinkas Synagogue, the walls of which bear the names, along with their dates of birth and death, of those people from Prague who died in concentration camps. It’s an epitaph that occupies rooms spread over two floors, and it’s a work of harrowing dedication, both intimate – because how can one not begin to calculate the age of this person or that person, and to say their names to oneself, and to wonder how that life might have been? – and enveloping, annihilating. In some ways it does the work an ordinary cemetery might, except that an ordinary cemetery commemorates the awful, but entirely natural, work of death, while these rooms, light-filled, shocked into silence, are a monument to the human will-to-power at its worst. The actual cemetery offers, in an odd and unexpected way, a sort of relief from the evil the synagogue is witness to; it’s a jumble of stones, lop-sided, sloping, stacked against one another that brings to my mind at least, if this isn’t too belittling a comparison, Anthony Gormley’s Fields. There’s a sense of crush, of proximity, of promiscuity even, but also of variety, and improvisation, and making do. The work here is also human, but it’s a work of acceptance, a work that takes annihilation to its heart and finds that there is more, after all, than that; that the deaths remembered here occurred, for the most part, as most of our deaths do if we’re lucky, in their own good time. It’s an antidote, in its way, to the rooms filled with names and dates, and I leave it with a sense of completeness I hadn’t expected, glad that I’d been to both. As Kafka once said: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”