Third of Four Cities: Prague

Our hotel in Prague, The Diplomat, though very good, was located far from the center of town, but just steps from a subway station. Nothing like riding public transportation to give you a sense of place. Coming to Prague from Vienna, there had been a lunch stop at a highway service area just inside the Czech border, and a fine lunch it was, complete with a large draft of Pilsner Urquelle, the national beer of the Republic. As in Hungary, we were no longer on the Euro, but both Hungary and the Czech Republic are scheduled to join the Euro zone.

We had signed up for a group dinner and a night at the opera; there are neither Marx Brothers nor Marxists left in Prague. Back on the bus through heavy traffic for dinner at the Opera Restaurant, and then a few steps to the Prague State Opera House for a performance of Bizet’s Carmen. The sets were dramatic and ingenious, and the orchestra and company seemed, to my untrained ear, more than up to the task. There were three of us seated in a box for six, all quite upscale in an old worldly way. Unfortunately during the Habanera, I suffered a violent leg cramp and began knocking over empty chairs in my efforts to escape the pain in my calf.

The first morning in Prague, like the first mornings in each of the cities on our trip, was given over to a guided tour, which we did the first day in each city, a good way for first-time visitors to get bearings in a strange town. Prague Castle, another contribution to my sense of architectural overload, is the center of government and is protected by unsmiling, but unserious-looking Czech soldiers in baby blue, comic opera uniforms.

The Czech Republic is like a divorcee recently freed from an unsatisfactory, loveless marriage. In 1919, with the collapse of the Hapsburg empire, the Czechs and the adjacent Slovaks were cobbled together for two decades until the Nazis grabbed the Czech Sudetenland, then took Moravia and Bohemia, leaving the Slovaks to fend for themselves. Humpty-Dumpty was put back together after the Second World War. The Communists stood over it until 1989, after which the Czechs and the Slovaks, who believe themselves to be two very differing peoples, went their separate ways.

Prague is one of the few major cities in the region to have escaped damage in the wars of the twentieth-century. Much of the medieval character of the town has survived intact. The walk from the Castle area on the west side of the Vltava (Moldau) River that separates the city is steeply downhill through cobbled streets with views of the red-tiled roofs of the old town and of the Gothic towers of the Charles Bridge that connects the two sides of the city. It is a lovely walk on a sunny Spring morning.

Mentioning the Moldau River, brings up the unavoidable. In the Czech Republic, no matter when or where a tour bus stops, or a plane of Czech Airlines prepares to take off or land, the PA system breaks into Smetana’s “The Moldau.” Fortunately the selection last but a few minutes. I found the public absence of Dvorak’s music puzzling and suspected he was a Slovak, but no, he too was Czech.

Our local tour guide and I talked hockey. He grew up in the same village with New York Ranger Captain and superstar, Jaromir Jagr. The guide was quick to point out that although Czecho-Slovaks comprise over ten percent of the U.S. National Hockey League, there were no Czechs on either of the two teams that competed for the 2007 Stanley Cup. No being Czech, that nugget had escaped my notice.

We struggled our way across the Charles Bridge jammed with tourists and vendors until we got to the Old Town Square, also mobbed, and this during the off-season. Another fine lunch with more Pilsner beer was followed by a tour of the old Jewish Quarter. A guy in our group, himself Jewish, noted the presence of a Chinese restaurant, the defining sign, he said, of all Jewish neighborhoods. One of the synagogues has been turned into a sobering memorial listing the names and municipal origins of the 60,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis. So much of what once made the cities we visited culturally and socially fascinating has been lost; the Vienna of Freud, the Prague of Kafka. The historian, Fritz Stern, himself an assimilated German Jew from Breslau and a third generation Lutheran, noted that the perverse genius of Nazis ideology lay in defining Jewishness in racial rather than religious terms.

We had been told by many to save our shopping for Prague. My wife, a world class shopper, demurred. Other than outrageously priced, high-end baubles, the stuff offered in Prague, as in each of the cities we visited was not unique, and most of what is directed at tourists is, as everywhere, kitsch. The global economy now assures that the vendors in Prague or Berlin offer much of the same Chinese-manufactured crap that has come to dominate retailing in the States. We stumbled upon very good small restaurants and cafes away from the main tourist areas. And compared to Vienna, and to what we were to find in Berlin, the Prague prices were reasonable.

Prague, like most European cities, and maybe more so, is a walking city. We put in some marathon walking days, and wondered how our fellow seniors, those with physical problems could stand the rigors of these kinds of tours. Changing planes in hub airports quite often required treks through seemingly endless terminals.

Our final day in Prague was given over almost entirely to shopping. We got ourselves to the famed St.Wenceslas Square, a broad commercial avenue that in too many places was shabby, dirty and shopworn. Again as in Budapest, the residual effects of four decades of forced collectivism, may have frayed the civic sense of the Czechs, though not quite as badly as what we saw in Hungary.

On a perfectly dreary, wet Sunday morning, we left Prague for Berlin with a scheduled stop in Terezin, the site of Theresienstadt, the Potemkin Village concentration camp used by the Nazis to hoodwink the Red Cross and other conscience organizations into believing that interned Jews were being humanely treated. I opted out of the tour believing that I am already over-haunted by what happened, and fearfully suspicious that something like it, in some new way with new victims, could happen all over again.

Then, as the Red Army of 1945 would have put it, on to Berlin!

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