Monday, September 22, 2008

Dude, where's my Prague?

Prague doesn’t let go…This old crone has claws.


Having recently returned from a holiday in the Czech Republic, I’ve been wondering what happened to Prague. I first went there during my gap year in 2002 and remember it as a dark, icy city, slightly inhospitable, but also just a little bit magical. In my head, Prague was the city of Kafka and Faust, a fairytale enclave filled with alchemists, necromancers, astrologers and star-gazers. In the bitter spring cold, feeling lonely and far from home in the dreary but cosy suburb of Holešovice, I felt comfortably cheerful in my gloominess. So I admit, it was foolhardy to expect a similar experience in 2008, when I returned in a joyfully sunny August, staying within spitting distance of the astronomical clock, having shared my easyjet flight (delayed) with weekend drinkers and randy stags. But still, I was alarmed to find no disconsolate charm. No hot chocolate and whisky at 3am. No gloves. No snow. No teary conversations down the payphone to my old boyfriend back home.

I was significantly happier in Prague this time around, but it was altogether less satisfying, and with my new boyfriend to share it with, actually less romantic. There’s nothing like being alone in a cold, beautiful city, missing someone back home, to make you feel dreamily melancholy. I walked Prague that first time, dolefully wishing I was walking in the sunshine with my boyfriend, drinking cold beer and throwing off my winter coat. This time, I walked Prague, holding hands with my boyfriend, drinking cold beer in short sleeves, and though I was much happier, Prague had lost something.

Prague has certainly changed. Its centre feels much like a glorified film set, set up almost purely for the purposes of tourism. Staying in a soulless, grotty, party-hostel near the grossly overrated clock only compounds the sense that, although everybody’s here, the real business of life is happening somewhere else, and with fewer digital cameras. But like all cities, Prague’s heart is not to be found in its centre. You’ll learn no more about Prague from standing in front of its astronomical clock than you will gawping up at Big Ben. (However, I’d suggest that you’ll learn a little more about Prague if you learn of the fate of the clock’s creator, Hanus, whose work was so prized that the town councillors, fearful that he would make a replica elsewhere, had him blinded. Such ruthless cruelty always cheers me immensely.)

Now only a short walk from the castle, I quickly realized that all my affection for the wintry city of six years ago was centred around its outskirts; Holešovice and its wide, empty streets and quirky streetlamps; Vyšehrad with its restrained gardens and introspective silence; Kutna Hora and its creepily mesmerising ossuary, a compelling combination of the sacred and the sacrilegious. Last time, my travelling partner and I downed absinthe in basement bars in the suburbs and whiled away hours trudging through parks on the outskirts. Tours of the castle, of Wenceslas Square, of Mala Strana, were solemn and dutiful; justification for our being there, but conducted quickly, perfunctorily nevertheless. There is much to see and do as a tourist in Prague, but none of it feels real or breathing. Rather, it is the preserved elegance and severity of a long-gone past, polished up for its tourists and running on the sale of postcards, overpriced marionettes and cheap beer. This summer, wandering around the city, exhausted and desperate for lunch away from the crowds, I couldn’t help but think of Mme de Staël’s identification of the predicament of the tourist: “What I see bores me, what I don’t see worries me.”

I didn’t return to Vyšehrad on this trip. We didn’t have time, and besides, I didn’t feel any urgency to return, because I’m secure in my feeling that Vyšehrad, unlike the Hradčany, will remain as it ever was. Prague’s “other” castle, the one hardly anyone visits, is where its old, historical, majestic heart sleeps. As John Banville points out, it is best approached from the metro station, where you pass some chunky, brutalist gigantism in the form of the Palace of Culture, and some grimy commercial leisure, in the form of the Corinthia Towers Hotel. This glossy building of luxury and respectability overlooks a prison. Apparently its exercise yard had to be roofed over to spare the hotel’s guests the sight of the prisoners plodding miserably in circles. Brilliant.

The castle is quiet, serene and regal, like the long-suffering, better looking, nicer queen to the stroppy, bullish, slightly tasteless king of Hradčany. Although he overwrites, John Banville describes Vyšehrad excellently in his contribution to The Writer and the City series, Prague Portraits:

What do I recall most clearly from my last visit to Vyšehrad? I draw up an inventory. Dead, damp leaves beside a gravel pathway. A mother and her toddler wandering through the cemetery in a vaguely questing way, as if these were not graves on either side but supermarket shelves. A nun in the Rotunda of St Martin, lighting a candle and smiling blissfully, angelically, to herself. Black spires seen through the bare black limbs of a winter tree. That soft-spoken man in a blue jersey sitting at a small square table selling entrance tickets to SS Peter and Paul’s – of the church itself I retain practically nothing…

The question I am addressing is the one that historian, tourist and essayist alike must grapple with: how and where to locate the “real” Prague, if, indeed such a singular thing may be said to exist. Those dead leaves that I remember beside the path on the heights of Vyšehrad, what is there about them that makes them particular to the place? When I think of Golden Lane I see far more vividly the snow under my feet, compacted to grey glass, the first time I walked there with the Professor, than I do the house where in the late autumn and winter of 1916 Kafka wrote the stories that would make up the collection A Country Doctor…These are the things we remember. It is as if we were to focus our cameras on the great sights and the snaps, when developed, all came out with nothing in them save undistinguished but maniacally detailed foregrounds.

This is exactly what I experienced returning to Prague’s centre. All the big, important monuments were still there and probably just as they ever were. But that wasn’t what I remembered. I expected to return and find myself nineteen again, cold and playing up my self-appointed role as melancholy-poetic-(but v pretentious and impossibly grumpy)-English-girl-du-jour, continually peering at the city from the furry hood of my parka, unable to grip anything beneath my woolly gloves with my numb fingers.

I did experience fairytale moments in the Czech Republic, but none in the winding alleys of Hradčany or Mala Strana. This new Prague was dazzling, hot, optimistic, a little bit brash and full of surreal and absurd tourists, as opposed to dour, thoughtful Czech men, grumbling and smoking as they practised their English on me. Now everyone speaks English. (bugger)

Instead of finding romantic, radical, supernatural Prague in darkened cobbled alleys and smoky basement bars, I think I found another bit of it in the calmer, grubbier streets of Žižkov, as we stared up at Cerny’s mimenika, the strange mutant babies that crawl across the giant Soviet rocket that is Prague’s TV Tower.

Here, again, but differently, life felt aesthetically pleasing; clean, shiny and beautiful. The sun was so achingly bright, the sky a perfect blue, the streets so cinematically wide, sloping and gorgeously empty, this private little district became momentarily ours. Žižkov’s laidback elegance rubbed itself against us, and we too became briefly gorgeous and carefree.

Trudging up Klet mountain in the Blansky Forest as I emerged from a childish strop brought on by drizzle and disappointment (this forest hike is not forest-y enough!) my boyfriend and I started to talk about Kafka’s A Country Doctor. Paddington pointed out its folkloric structure and symbolic set-up and events, and soon our talk turned to fairytales, storytelling and minor literature. It was only as we neared the top of the mountain that we realized we had spent a good half an hour, walking through a deserted forest in central Europe, happily talking about Baba Yaga and Sleeping Beauty, sacrificial daughters, penitent fathers and vengeful fairies. I didn’t feel nineteen again. I was nine, walking through a forest and watched over by princes masquerading as bears and witches cackling from gingerbread houses. We even saw a creepy abandoned Baba Yaga hut. I was truly enchanted.

What I got from Prague had as much to do with what I was like when I visited it, as it had to do with what it was actually like. Prague has changed, but then, so have I. And the Prague I loved, (still love really) was a place in my head, as opposed to actually being on a map. It was a moody inland city where I could find bohemia, rebellion, radicals, spies, Kafka, fairytales, torture, alchemy, castles, snow, Golem, gypsies, absinthe etc. Of course, that Prague has never existed (at least, not as I conceived it). And now, Prague’s centre is really like any other major European city centre; a gaudy pantomime of commercialism, exploitation and consumption.

But the rest of the Czech Republic?

Now there’s a place where bears really do turn out to be princes, and fairies really do tumble into your shot glass. Honest.


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