Pickled camembert and drowned-person-sausage. It may not sound like a promising start to a week in Prague, but if you factor in the beer that went with it, sitting right on the waterside in what must be one of the world’s prettiest cities, then the picture gets a lot brighter.
I was in Prague for a meditation seminar, with a group of around forty people from places as far-flung as Canada, Brazil, and New Zealand. This in itself was a fascinating prospect, but as it was my first time in the city, I was also determined to do my share of sightseeing. On the first evening we had some free time, so I ventured out on the public transport system to meet some Czech friends in the Old Town.
The Old Town has been flourishing since the fourteenth century, and its architecture reflects this. I found it impossible to move around Prague without my mouth periodically dropping open in awe. From the intricacies of the Astronomical Clock with its hourly parade of apostles, to the monumental Baroque-Rococo buildings with their lavish decoration and gilded name signs, Prague is a feast of photogenic architecture, dominated by the iconic St Vitus’ Cathedral and Prague Castle ever-present on the skyline.
Having failed pitifully at navigating the public transport system, I finally arrived at the Charles Bridge (built in 1357 by Bohemia’s most celebrated monarch, Charles IV) and my friends Michaela and Jerry, waiting patiently, took me across the river into the Kampa district. There we found the John Lennon Wall, a gloriously anarchic tag-fest, which has developed since the1980s as a symbol of peace and protest – it became a rallying point for dissent under the Communist regime. A living thing, it is constantly changing as new graffiti overwrites the old.
During the rest of the week, I enjoyed odd moments exploring the centre of the city, particularly in Malá Strana (Lesser Town), situated below the Castle and venue for many of our seminars. Quieter than the more popular areas, it nevertheless contains the lofty St Nikolas’ Church, as well as narrow cobbled streets, open squares and hidden gardens.
A guided walking tour was also organised by our hosts, led by Zdeněk, a young Czech with flowing hair and a very large umbrella. An assistant minister for one of the local churches, he is also a professional tour guide, and apparently possessed of infinite patience as he shepherded a huge group of chattering, middle-aged individuals with very varied walking abilities around the steep cobbled streets. Herding cats would have been a lot more straightforward.
He regaled us with many historical stories: established by Prince Wenceslas (of Good King Wenceslas fame) in the early 10th century, Prague became the capital of Bohemia under Charles IV in the 14th century. It thrived, and continued as the capital until, according to Zdeněk, it lost out to arch-rival Vienna a couple of hundred years later. Further expansion was then prohibited, for fear it would become larger than the new capital. For this reason, so we were told, the existing city was preserved almost unchanged until relatively recently. (I became less confident in his historical accuracy when he also told us that Mozart and Casanova once partied together in a house in Malá Strana. This seemed unlikely given that Casanova was thirty-one when Mozart was born.)
Preservation makes the city sound like a museum, stuck in time, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its vibrant heart is its people: in cafes, on the streets, strolling with families in the gardens on Petrín Hill, or relaxing on the mid-river island of Střelecký.
I found them genuinely friendly and welcoming, with an undercurrent of stoicism born of recent history. During a lecture by Professor Ivana Noble, of Prague’s Charles University, she spoke of a people who, until very recently (1989) were forced to adopt two personalities, one for public consumption and one reserved for trusted friends and family. It is difficult to comprehend how that must impact on the way people live and love, and carry on their daily lives. I felt privileged, in all senses of the word, to be among them.
The sausage, by the way, is utopenec, a Bohemian delicacy, and according to my Czech friend Jerry, it does translates literally as ‘drowned person sausage’. I want to believe it.
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