In 2006, I enrolled in a month-long intensive course to learn Teaching English as a Foreign Language at a language school in Prague, where a teaching position was promised to those who achieved the TEFL certificate. Once I started working, I found a small flat with just two rooms, a kitchen and living room with a futon, in a charming, older, centrally-located neighborhood called Vinohrady, a twenty-minute walk from the National Museum. Newly redecorated, it looked as though I lived in an Ikea showroom, with brilliant walls that could keep you awake at night: the living room chartreuse, the kitchen crimson.
The Vltava River winds through the city of Prague, effortlessly flowing like slow moving clouds. The older areas of the city hug its shores, the two halves tied together with bridges like laces hooked on a tall boot. An effective network of public transportation moves people in the metro or subway, the tram with its web of lines hovering over major streets, and buses filling in the gaps. My flat was near a metro stop.
Karlov Most, the Charles Bridge, the king of bridges, reigns in the center of Prague. Dark statues—historic, religious, artistic—mark its edges at regular intervals, watching over the multitude, blessing or threatening, peaceful or bellicose, some with golden halos, others with outstretched arms and knobby fingers; pigeons perched on their heads and streaked their shoulders, as if ridiculing their pompous poses. The bridge’s sturdy promenade was a lively place to walk, crowded with tourists, buskers and vendors; no cars allowed. Musicians played and stalls offered jewelry, postcards, t-shirts, beaded bottles and pillboxes, toy-sized pastel buildings, and miniature astronomical clocks. Local artists displayed photographs and watercolors; I was drawn to the ones of the bridge at dawn, when no one was around, the statues appearing in shadowy shapes obscured by fog and, one morning, I was able to capture that image myself. Beggars humbly knelt on the ground face down, seeking no eye contact, crouching at the feet of passersby, hat extended in outstretched arms.
I often wandered the twisty streets lined with historic European architecture. Cobblestone streets and sidewalks winding in the canyons of ornate buildings in Staré Město, the Old Town quarter of Prague, opened up to the wide L shaped Old Town Square. Around one corner, marked by a crowd of tourists with uplifted faces, hung the famous astronomical clock, affixed to the Old Town Hall tower. A series of revolving overlapping circles in blue and gold represented the movement of the sun, moon, and planets, as they were understood when the clock was created five hundred years ago. A brown and gold circle underneath the clock depicted pastoral scenes, saints, and zodiac signs around a castle at the center. Symbolic figures—a skeleton, an angel, and others—stood by the disks, evoking the forces of life, the spirits that protect, threaten, guide. On the hour, two doors opened above the clock, allowing twelve beautifully carved apostles to emerge; they paraded by, each pausing to look out at the crowd below, who looked up at them, their faces rapt.
A spiral climb to the top of the tower revealed perhaps the most picturesque view of historic Prague, red roofs defining the curving streets, fading into the distance, towers and steeples poking up here and there. I thought of the quaint, adorable hamlets surrounding a toy train set and of the unseen lives in motion under all those roofs. The Tyn Church rose behind lower buildings in the square, its dramatic black towers looming, lit at night, looking like a foreboding apparition. A massive sculpture of Jan Hus, a Christian critical of the Catholic church, burned as a heretic in 1415, years before Martin Luther, dominated one end of the square, where tourists and lovers would sit on the steps of the monument, people-watching.
Wenceslas Square, a broad cobbled avenue, always full of people, has the feel of New York’s Fifth Avenue with an uphill slant. Stately structures house blocks of upscale department stores and restaurants. The grand National Museum sits at the top of the hill. A memorial cross embedded in the stone walk in front of the museum marks the place where, in 1969, at the end of the period known as Prague Spring, when a brief period of liberalization during the Communist rule ended in a crackdown by the Soviets, student Jan Palach burned himself in suicidal protest. A fresh single rose lay there whenever I passed by, to show that he was never forgotten, always honored. At either end are major metro stops, Muzeum and Mustek, the places to transfer between metro lines, a vast subterranean city crossroads I would frequent daily as I travelled between lessons, sometimes more than once a day.
Despite the exceedingly convenient transit system, Prague is a beguiling city for walking. It was easy to follow the tram lines or just wander down meandering streets. Green parks and welcoming squares graced every neighborhood. In the old parts of the city, every street was quaint and interesting, every building unique, sporting artwork, ornamentation, stone figures. The buildings were tall, like the Czech people, roof tops red and tiled or black and pointy, sculptures adorning tops of building and doorways, a fantasyland of European architecture spanning the ages with styles I couldn’t hope to identify. The streets of so many other European capitals seemed so busy and expansive in comparison. Prague was cozy, welcoming, comfortable, like an old piece of clothing, a little worn, but exactly right.
Prague’s enduring charm is owed in part to the fact that it was spared the bombings that leveled historic buildings in so many European cities. As the Germans marched through eastern Europe, and as political entities in western Europe negotiated away Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty, it became evident to the Czech government that they couldn’t win a military resistance against that relentless force, so they didn’t resist. The German occupation lasted until 1945, followed by decades of Soviet Communist rule. The buildings survived, but so many people did not. Fortunately for me and my family, all four of my grandparents fled Jewish pogroms from their eastern European countries to America in the 1890s.
A few more images to leave you on a more positive note:
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Email me at: Ruth@RuthRosenfeld.com