Prague: Fear and Beauty – Writers On The Run
The Czech capital guards its secrets.
We came late to Prague. By the time we made our way to the red-roofed city, the path to the east was already well-beaten by hordes of budget travelers and lairy British stag parties. An influx of foreign tourists has pushed Prague close to the top of the list of Europe’s most visited cities, with all the opportunities and problems that kind of popularity creates for the local residents.
But Prague is every bit as beautiful as it was back when it seemed so exotic, smiling shyly behind the Iron Curtain. The Haussmannian grandeur of the Old Town buildings invites comparison with Paris, but Parisiens would never allow their buildings to be painted like this. Bright yellow next to powder blue beside terracotta. And while tourists gape at the astronomical clock that jerks into life twenty-four times a day, the sun — when it shines — gilds the dark spires of the Church of Our Lady of Tyn and makes the old stones glow as brightly as the painted buildings.
The same force that makes a person wander the world pushes flowers from the ground to salute the distant sun. The artists of Prague don’t stop painting the old buildings just because they can no longer afford to own them. Among the graffiti of the Old Town, two themes recurred: the Golem, as played by Paul Wegener in the 1920 horror film he directed. And the simple phrase, in English: Life Is Beautiful.
Flowers bloom and die and never leave a mark, and for most of us, this beautiful life is the same.
Few of us shape history, like the dead kings in their cold tombs on the high hill where Prague’s castle stands. But that doesn’t keep us from trying. For an additional fee that’s as steep as the stairs, you can climb the tower of St Vitus Cathedral and look out across the river at Prague. And up there, in the teeth of the wind that rises from the Vltava, you can see the old stones scored with the initials of decades of visitors, the merged letters in a dozen languages forming the ridges and valleys of an insensate fingerprint.
Prague isn’t as cheap as it used to be when the first intrepid tourists arrived from the West after the fall of Communism. But it’s still an absolute steal compared to the likes of Paris or London or Barcelona. Two nights at the gorgeous five star Art Nouveau Palace cost 166 euros after tax. Dinner and drinks for two at a Michelin starred restaurant for 200. Prague still represents a great deal for a budget traveler and offers a chance to splash out on high-end experiences at a price you could never hope to pay in other European capitals.
Prague has other marks, too. Scars with gloomier origins than the vandalizing initials of bright and brutish tourists.
On the day we visited, a young woman was lighting a candle in front of the narrow window of the church basement. The stone is still pockmarked with holes, where Nazi bullets once struck sparks from the walls. Seven hundred and fifty soldiers launched attack after attack on the church, but couldn’t dislodge the men hiding inside.
After hours of fighting, the Germans brought in the fire brigade and ordered them to flood the basement. Not one of the Czech freedom fighters was taken alive. The mission cost them their lives and the lives of anyone connected to them. It also prompted Nazi massacres in villages entirely unconnected with the plot. But it was the only successful assassination of a high-ranking Nazi officer. The war would continue, of course, with or without Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s ‘man with an iron heart.’ But at the cost of their lives, Josef Gabcik, Jan Kubis, Adolf Opalka, Josef Bublik, Jaroslav Svarc, Josef Valcik, and Jan Hruby proved that despite their military prowess, even the highest-ranking officials of the Nazi government could be killed. And 70 years later, Czechs still honor the bravery of men willing to die for their country.
Some fights are worth having. And life is beautiful. So beautiful that sometimes it’s worth losing.
Prague feels like the kind of place with secrets. It’s still relatively new to modern mass tourism, having been shut off behind the Iron Curtain within my lifetime. You can see it in the bullet marks, or in the creepy statue of the Commendatore outside the theater where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered. You can see it in the frowning face of the ubiquitous Golem.
Stories make cities what they are, just as they do for people. We become the sum of what we experience, our cathedrals and our bullet holes. Our spires and basements. We may be the wealthiest and most fortunate group of people in human history, and yet so many of us are afraid. Afraid to lose what we have. Afraid to fail. Afraid of others who are themselves prisoners of fear, that makes them lash out and bite anyone they can reach. Fear lives at the heart of our culture, the magic word written down and stuffed into the hollow clay skull of the Golem to make it live.
Tyranny comes in many forms, and fear has always been one of its favorite weapons. Prisons without bars are the hardest to escape. I’m living proof that you can spend your whole life making what seems like the right decision and never get any closer to what you really want — the raw experience of being alive. Inside each of us, an iron-hearted voice commands caution, and while we hoard worthless tokens and live in fear of losing, we miss the bright imperfect world sailing by.
And yet we all want to make our mark. That brief blaze of light across an immensity of darkness, to say in some way to the uncaring universe that we were here. This is mine, a few words held out into the world like writing on water, vanishing even in the act of creation. The rough wind whirls the ticket from my hand, and I carry on without it, lighter for the loss.