Monday, April 7, 2008

Prague, 27.6.03: At the Sign of the Red Lion

An expression sticks in my head from yesterday: Tomas, son of the proprietors of our b and b, Jan and Charlotta Rippl, says to us, explaining the danger of pickpockets in Old Town, “Here, you’re as safe as in your mother’s belly”—meaning here in the b and b.

I also now realize that the bistro in which we had beer yesterday was at the Carolinum, and a faded mural on the wall in the courtyard outside was the astronomical clock, in some mystical stylized fashion.

The winding narrow lanes with mysterious slips leading into unexpected courtyards: these create that impression of a mystical city written about by Joseph Wechsberg (and, in his own way, by Kafka and many others). It’s a city in which you feel there are many secrets: each garret has a story, a hidden life, both past and present. And the people sitting and drinking beer at cafés in “their” courtyards or pubs: they each have their secrets.

This tendency, rooted in the bloody religious history of the city, can only have been accentuated in the communist era . . . .

Kelley’s Tower, turns out, must be named for Edward Kelley, and if we can understand a German book on esoteric Prague we’ve bought, was an alchemist who convinced Rudolph II he knew the secret of changing lead to gold. He lived and did alchemical experiments in the tower.

Strange we’d end up there, “by chance,” on our first evening in Prague. Me with my own Irish roots bumping into a strange Irish magician who came to Prague after the Reformation…. The mystical city drawing us into its maze of spells? Alchemy beginning for us on this trip?

My account of the overlook as you approach Hradcany hardly does justice to its beauty. The cascading red-tiled roofs, the green hillsides, one terraced with vineyards, the many church spires and domes, the sparkling river—it’s truly enchanting.

And Nerudova St., running down from the castle—gorgeous and interesting. We saw restaurants that really attracted us, one with lots of game dishes, the other with fish.

Morning spent crossing Karlovy Bridge again, this time, while air was still fresh, sun not yet high, and, most important of all, the throngs of (other) tourists still at bay.

We walked in the Old Town Square, with its wonderful buildings—the astronomical clock, old town hall, the Stork House with its art nouveau drawing of St. Wenceslaus on horseback. Found a nice little bookshop with a Kafka theme, where we got a number of books, especially one of his meditations with nice pictures of men in Old Prague occupations. I bought two copies so I can plunder one and frame its pictures.

In the Clam-Gallas Palace (City Archives), we went to an exhibit of the theater landscapes of Otakar Schindler (1923-98). Amazing work combining media including watercolor, papier mache, applique, in a beautiful building of finely proportioned rooms, each with different colors and moldings and unique stove in the corner. All the houses and other buildings have the tiled stoves (Kachelofen) we’ve seen in the Bavarian Oberpfalz, but taller and many very elaborate.

Then in the Kinsky Palace of the National Gallery, we attended a special exhibit of an amazingly talented family (multi-generational), the Manes family of Prague. Brothers Antonin and Vaclav painted landscapes and portraits (the latter brother more of the portraits) in the early 19th century, and Antonin’s children Amelie, Quido, and Josef carried on the tradition.

Then back, with a stop at a glitzy modern marble and glass café before we reached the bridge, where we had a lunch I needed—vegetables!—but got ripped off, I believe. I had tomato, olive, cucumber, and onion salad, Steve that ubiquitous tomato and mozzarella salad (insalata caprese) northern Europeans seem to have discovered all of a sudden, which makes them feel very Italian.

Then a nap in the hot part of the day, from which I’ve just awoken.

Dinner—rather undistinguished, and yet not bad—at the Red Lion off Nerudova St. in Jansky Vrsek in the Mala Strana. Steve had pork, sauerkraut, and Speckknödel, and I trout baked in butter with (too few) almonds and a carrot, cabbage, and walnut salad.

We’ve walked again to Hradcany, past the forbidding guards and through a closed park—not through, but along a bridge overlooking—that felt dangerous. The linearity of these national buildings complemented by the archbishop’s palace, guards everywhere and two soldiers with a large-boned and muzzled German shepherd, is all frightening. When will they come for me?, is what it makes me feel somewhere deep inside.

Prague has few green spaces compared to other European cities its size, few sitting spaces. It’s a city where you feel history, and history is burden, not blessing. We’re sitting at one of the few benches we’ve found, around the plague column (out in the open atop the hill with a view of the city between two buildings across from the Museum of Weaponry).

This lack of privacy, of sitting spaces, of open parks: a vestige of communism? Or of the much deeper history of oppression and torture? On the spot where we sit, commemorating the end of the plague, rebels against Ferdinand I were executed in 1547, just as the Old Town Square saw Hus and Hussites burned.

Yet in the midst of death, life. Some bird I can’t identify—we saw it, many of it, roosting on sumac beside the steps leading up here—sings very sweetly, as it does at a particular tree beside the Karlovy Bridge. Sumac in the old world? . . . .

An unhappy young woman who has been here since we arrived has now been joined by her soldier boyfriend. As a thin, dark-haired boy in black passed, her eyes followed him. Her hand is now against her face, head bowed. The slouch of her body bespeaks defeat. Soldier, beware.

A gay couple, one in black, dumpy and bold as a Speckknödel, the other tall and thin with a bright orange-flowered shirt, have just passed by wheeling a baby in a buggy. A young black-haired woman has joined them, taken the baby out, a boy of about three, and he now pushes the buggy as she watches. They’re joining the couple and walking downhill.

The other couple are quarreling quietly, she passionately, he looking heavy and sad. Her arms are folded, her be-ringed index finger up to her face. Is he married, and she wanting him to leave his wife? Is it an abortion, he not wanting the baby lost? They are now as still and frozen as the statues on the column. The bell of St. Vity rings 3 for 7:45. Life.

I’d like to think I could go and ring the doorbell of the bishop and meet him, but something tells me no. His residence is open one day a year—Maundy Thursday. Our bishops show that they follow Jesus when they invite us into their palaces once a year to wash our feet.

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