Prague is jammed with tourists from everywhere, even in rainy April, and no wonder – it really is a historical wonderland, a city of incredible beauty, mile after mile of graceful buildings painted ice cream colours – lots of pale pink, cream and yellow – and loaded with pretty details. So much gold paint and gold leaf, so many nooks and crannies, turrets, porticos, carvings, wonderful doors, Juliette balconies; there’s Art Nouveau everywhere except when you’re looking at the Middle Ages or the Baroque 17th Century, not to mention parks and gardens and the wide fast-moving river. Every street is still cobbled. Apparently, Prague, so well located at the centre of the continent, was once bigger than Paris or London – and it’s now a UNESCO protected heritage site.
Before setting out today, I finalized my travel arrangements, which were worrying me so. This may be mad, but instead of entrusting myself to the stress of an unreliable cheap flight, I am taking the overnight student bus from Prague to Paris, which leaves here at midnight and arrives at 2 p.m. the next day. Unfortunately there was no bus leaving Saturday night to get me in on Sunday, which is when I move into my Paris place, so I am leaving at midnight Friday, will arrive Saturday afternoon and spend one night in a miniscule room at the hotel I was in a few weeks ago, bus and hotel the same price as a flight. Believe me, a great deal of agonising went into this decision, and I think, for various reasons, it’s the right one. Ask me again after a 14-hour bus ride.
So, out into the day; it was cold, and the sky, like yesterday, was heavy and dark. I’m starting to know my way around. The good citizens of Prague, especially the store-keepers in the heart of the tourist district, are obviously heartily sick of being asked directions, but it is a very confusing place, with a tangled maze of old streets and signs only in Czech. But I’m getting my bearings. Went first to the box office for local music – every church in Prague is offering concerts, but I wanted to see the old theatres, so for a very reasonable price, I am seeing Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the State Theatre – which is where it premiered in 1787, directed by Mozart himself! The theatre is featured in “Amadeus,” as is this whole town – I want to watch the film again at home, to see how it showcases the city. And at the National Theater, which apparently is truly splendiferous, I’m seeing “Aida.” Wow.
I followed an itinerary Helen had given me, which included seeing the spectacular Art Nouveau Municipal Hall where her parents met, and stopping at her recommended Italian place for a pizza and salad lunch, with a view over an old square. A huge amount of food for $20, with a Pilsner Urquell, of course. Continued meandering in wonder, finally found the famous Charles Bridge, crawling with tourists and touts, wandered over and around the Mala Strana, the Little Quarter, which is one of the oldest parts of this very old place. Stunningly beautiful, little medieval squares with the loveliest houses, bridges over streams, water wheels, the magnolia trees all about to burst into bloom, in colours to match the walls behind.
The grand Wallenstein Palace is only open on the weekend, for some reason, but I was able to walk in the extensive gardens and admire the pure white peacock. Explored the vast Baroque church of St. Nicholas – hard to imagine more marble statues and gold leaf anywhere. I noticed that the statuary and art in this church was mostly of men, huge saints murdering evil with their staffs, as opposed to the gentle suffering Marys we encounter in France.
Exhausted by now, time for the slow uphill walk home. Only had to ask directions once. I have next to explore Kafka’s feared castle, always visible high above the city, and the old Jewish quarter. But now, I have my feet up and am looking out Helen’s windows at the pouring rain, which very kindly waited to start, today, until I got home.
I note that Prague in all its great beauty has a few small flaws: cigarette smoking is allowed inside everywhere, which is strange to see and smell now that I’m so used to it being outlawed. And dogs, even huge dogs, are also allowed in restaurants and everywhere, though in public the big ones seem to have to be muzzled. But picking up after your dog, though the city has put hopeful signs and bags around, has not filtered into local consciousness yet. So that, besides the very rough cobbles on sidewalks and streets, means being very careful as you walk. Particularly as you tend to walk looking up at the high facades of the magnificent buildings.