“Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off…If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”
~Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1923”
Three a.m. and wide awake.
Jet lag had reared its sleep-depriving head, making it impossible to feel even the slightest bit drowsy. It was our second morning in Prague, a nine-hour time difference that had my internal clock spinning backwards, forwards and every which-way.
As my mind seemed to leap from one topic to the next, refusing to quiet itself even for one more hour, I remembered something our guide Katarína had mentioned the day before as we walked across the Charles IV Bridge. She had talked with great fondness about getting up at 4 a.m. to pick up a client who had wanted to be on the bridge at sunrise. “It’s a wonderful time for getting photos,” she had said. “If you try taking pictures at sunset, the crowds will make it impossible.”
It was one of those ideas that immediately took hold, somehow making sense and sounding quite intriguing to our foggy states of mind. A couple of hours later, Herb and I headed into the early morning streets of Prague, cameras in hand, excited about the promise of this newly-concocted adventure.
The city outside our hotel door was bathed in an inky blue-black world, silent and still. We could hear our footsteps hitting Malá Strana’s cobblestoned walkways in a tapping sound that ordinarily would have been muffled in daylight hours. We spoke in whisper-like tones, not wanting to disturb the serenity that surrounded us. I’ve always loved the early morning, and I don’t know when I’ve loved it more than at that moment, on those streets, in this city.
We reached the Charles IV Bridge, where lanterns lining each side provided a pathway toward our destination. The statues we had paused by a day earlier now appeared in silhouette, a backdrop for the soon-to-be-rising sun. We joined dozens of others, everyone spreading out to find their own viewing spot. We knew the sun would be rising over Old Town, but that was about all we knew.
Katarína was waiting by the Charles IV statue at 8 a.m., prompt, smiling and bubbling with enthusiasm for her beloved city. We were ready to take on the day as well, fueled with a hearty breakfast and a strong dose of left-over adrenaline from chasing the sunrise.
We headed to Old Town Square, making our way through winding lanes that spill into the historic 12th century town center. Old Town Hall anchors one part of the square, and the soaring spires of Church of Our Lady Before Tyn (pronounced teen) dominate another. Colorful houses line the perimeter, each distinctly decorated and marked with signage that was once used instead of a numbered address to identify the building. Old Town Square impressed me as the heart of this city that overflows with an abundance of heart.
The most extraordinary views of Old Town Square are visible from the top of the Old Town Hall Tower. We bought tickets as soon as it opened at 9 a.m. and hopped on the elevator to the viewing platform. Getting there early offered an immediate reward of no lines for the elevator and plenty of time to take in the views without rushing or feeling elbow-to-elbow on the small observation deck.
Old Town’s Jewish Quarter
Our touring time with Katarína was quickly coming to a close as we headed to Old Town’s Jewish Quarter. The community dates back a thousand years and is filled with an enormous amount of history that is almost impossible to absorb in a short visit. As a licensed guide, Katarína was able to jump to the front of the ticket line, buying us a little more time.
Prague’s Jewish Quarter is a somber place, filled with poignant reminders of the brutal reality of Hitler and World War II. At Pinkas Synagogue, names of more than 77,000 Czech Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz and other camps are handwritten on interior walls. Artwork made by Jewish children imprisoned at the Terezin camp north of Prague is displayed in a separate room – a heartbreaking exhibit that at first glance looks like typical children’s drawings. And then there is the cemetery. More than 12,000 graves are squeezed into the Old Jewish Cemetery, piled on top of one another, crooked and toppling over, many graves deep. Katarína said it is estimated that as many as 100,000 people may actually be buried there.
Our final stops in the Jewish Quarter were two equally historic but vastly different synagogues. The Old-New Synagogue, built in 1270, is considered the oldest active synagogue in Europe. It has a medieval feel – dark, Gothic, with its entrance below street level. The mid-1800s Spanish Synagogue, designed in the Moorish Revival style, is bright and grand, with a gold-and-blue interior and spectacular dome.
We said good-bye to Katarína and began making our way to New Town. The rest of our time in Prague would be at a more relaxed pace on our own, but we knew that Katarína’s voice would remain in our heads for quite some time, reminding us to look up and notice every detail, prodding us to go beyond the first impressions of what we were seeing, challenging us to be better travelers in the best possible way. Katarína is one of those people I will always be grateful to have known, even for a brief moment in a city half-way around the world.
After spending the past day-and-a-half in the oldest sections of Prague, I was curious to explore New Town and Wenceslas Square. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the edge of Old Town down a long boulevard that ends in the square. Prague’s “Velvet Revolution” took place here in 1989, freeing Czechs from Soviet control. The square itself is named after Wenceslas I, the country’s most revered patron saint.
The boulevard is busy – cars, crowds, modern shops and restaurants – a sharp contrast to the red roofs and winding, narrow streets of Old Town, Malá Strana and Castle Hill. Lovely Art Nouveau structures mix with contemporary buildings. The National Museum marks the end of the avenue at Wenceslas Square, with a statue of Wenceslas on a horse standing front and center.
We stopped for a coffee and headed toward the river to our final destination of the day, Dancing House. Created by architects Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić in the mid-1990s, the landmark building is said to look like Fred Astaire (stone tower) and Ginger Rogers (glass tower) dancing their way down the street.
* * * * *
The sun was hanging low in the sky as we walked along the riverfront toward our hotel in Malá Strana. A dozen or so white swans lingered on the water against a backdrop of golden-toned trees that were starting to mix with their summery-green neighbors. It seemed like ages ago that we had headed out in darkness to watch the sunrise. And yet we had only been in Prague two days.
Before we left home, whenever we’d mention that our trip would start in Prague, we’d always get the same response from people who had traveled here. “Ah, Prague,” they would say, speaking with such certainty and reverence, as if no other words were needed.
And now whenever anyone tells me they will be traveling to this captivating city, I will smile knowingly and offer the same two words.