A walk down the cobbled streets of Prague to discover the drama and detail in its architecture.
If tourist brochures are to be believed, it ought to be a sunny summer afternoon in Prague. Instead, a freezing wind blows all over the city, prompting travellers to let go of their maps and button up their jackets. Even though my hotel is centrally located, within walking distance of the Old Town Square – one of Prague's biggest tourist spots – the shiny, cobblestone streets that are still damp from a drizzle acquire a maze-like quality when I attempt to navigate them. After several hours of going in circles (I pass the same statue thrice), it becomes evident that if there is one European city worth getting lost in, it's this one.
The ancient city
The best thing about a city so ancient is the drama and detail in every work of architecture. Stone sculptures protrude from buildings, surprising onlookers with a sudden flash of gold or the appearance of mythical figures, and the path to Old Town is punctuated with shops featuring marionette puppets that beckon from the windows. When the Square finally presents itself, it is night-time but fortunately, darkness falls much later in this part of the world. Tourists throng the space near the baroque-style St. Nicholas Church and across the world's only functional Astronomical Clock, a spectacular 600-year-old clock that measures planetary movements. The crowd swells and recedes every hour on the hour, before and after witnessing the clock strike.
My travel companions and I squeeze into a corner and watch, as a skeleton near the dial moves its arm and rings the bell, while each of the twelve apostles makes an appearance. After learning the hard way that only a few Czechs speak English and that the routes are not half as easy as they look on a map, we sign up for a guided tour.
Our guide Diane reveals that she was a child when she and her family fled to Australia to escape the communist rule of Czechoslovakia. As she takes us on a walking tour of Old Town, the city's painful past comes alive. Josefov, the Jewish quarter has been witness to the horrors of the brutal Nazi occupation in 1939. The Jewish community (that was forced to restrict their residence to this quarter) built some of Europe's most exquisite places of worship, making the old city a treasure of synagogues. Later, many of these people were victims of genocide. We're shocked to learn that the synagogues were spared from destruction not due to any benevolence on Hitler's part but because he wanted Josefov to be the “museum of the extinct race”.
On our way back home, we stop at the sprawling Wallenstein Palace gardens where giant peacocks wander around and shake out their feathers theatrically, as tourists fling pieces of bread in their direction. Further down is the delightfully creepy Grotto Wall, an artificially constructed stone collage of spooky faces that appear to drip from the surface.
We return to Josefov the next day to see the Spanish Synagogue that's famous for its beautiful interiors. It's breathtaking, quite literally, for visitors enter, look up and gasp at the Star of David and the ornate designs that line the walls. Prohibited from taking photos, it becomes a challenge to memorise the beauty of the domes that can only be described as indescribable. What we were unaware of at that point, is that the synagogue also maintains a sobering exhibit of one of history's darkest points. The staff guides us to a section with pictures of Jewish children alongside their creative works, including a gut-wrenchingly optimistic poem titled - “It all depends on how you look at it”. The boy who authored the poem perished in Auschwitz shortly after. Also encased in glass is a ration card that has ‘Jude' stamped all over it. While all of this is terrible to remember, it is so much more dangerous to forget, which is probably why the Czechs are committed to their efforts to record the past and give it a face.
We exit through a souvenir shop that stocks lovely Hanukkah lamps and picture postcards and head to our last stop, the Museum of Decorative Arts – a storehouse of pretty things and a treat for anyone with an aesthetic bent of mind. The museum features exhibits like antique clocks, intricate white lace and jewel-studded utensils. The section devoted to centuries-old wedding dresses is a prime draw. I stop at one particularly eye-catching satin dress and admire the flowing outfit until a fellow tourist jolts me out of my reverie by pointing to the curator's note. It reads – “This dress was custom-made to suit the client's specifications. The wedding did not take place.”
Hours later, we drive through the cobblestone streets past baffling signs advertising hot wine, towards the train station. En route, it is impossible not to be amazed at the people's capacity to build a city from scratch time and again, through the war, the Nazi rule and an oppressive communist regime. For a nation whose independence is brand new (The Czech Republic was formed in 1993 after splitting peacefully from the Slovaks in the Velvet Divorce), their impeccable infrastructure and transport system, their spotless roads and their liberal, tolerant society are an inspiration. The gloom of bidding Prague farewell is worsened by the chilly wind that starts up yet again. We button our jackets all the way up and leave, promising to return.
What to see: Spanish Synagogue, Museum of Decorative Arts, St. Vitus Cathedral, Wallenstein Gardens, Nerudova Street
What to carry: A jacket, practical footwear (some of the tours involve an entire day of walking), umbrella and a map. Some shops accept Euros but many will only accept the Czech koruna
What to buy: Marionette puppets, babushka dolls