I had wanted to go to Prague for years. Ever since I started traveling in Europe, I had heard stories of this fantastic gem in the middle of Europe that was the imaginary dividing line between east and west.
Everybody I had met had told me of the wonders of the Czech beer and the amazing architecture that dominated the skyline of one of the few cities in Europe that had been spared the horrors of bombing and revolution during both world wars.
While winding across the middle of Western Europe for 17 hours on the train from Amsterdam, I thought about what I would see in Prague. Years of news coverage floated through my head as I remembered stories from other travelers about the secret police and the constant checking of papers.
I finally hit the outskirts of the city early in the morning. Passing through the suburbs of Prague, I could see what years of communism had given the people of the Czech Republic. Massive factories with broken windows and piles of slowly rusting pipe littered the landscape; it looked like some crazed post apocalyptic world where all industry had suddenly collapsed.
Getting off the train only reinforced what I had been thinking about on the train. There on the filthy platform, were the policemen and soldiers I knew we would see. Even though communism had been dead and buried in the Czech Republic for almost 20 years, a vestige of the past remained as soldiers and police were checking papers with AK 47s slung casually over their shoulders.
Then I passed through the doors of the station and a world I had never glimpsed before announced itself to me in a mix of snow, cold, and spires.
Prague opened itself up in ways I never could have imagined. Scattered over the distance were magnificent spires sprouting from every twisted city block like a forest of trees that were shorn of their branches by some great scythe. As I drove to my apartment, the tires bumping along the ancient stone streets, everywhere I looked were massive stone buildings that shone with the by-gone grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As the car moved quickly through the traffic of an early Saturday morning, all the sites of this ancient city lay before me like a snapshot of times gone by. I shot by the Charles Bridge with its statues marking the path across the Vltava. There on the hill above the town, the bulk of Hradèany Castle showed itself on a massive rise that dominates the city with the spire of the cathedral of Saint Vitus reaching to the sky.
After this quick trip through a city straight out of the age of empire, getting to my apartment was like a dream. I drove up to a building that stood in the middle of a long, narrow block of grey stone buildings and went through a door marked by cryptic red graffiti. A dark chasm with brown and yellow tiled floors layered in decades of rubbed in grime revealed in the dim light from the glass roof six stories up. As I slowly ascended the wide staircase with its curving iron banister and wide stone steps, I wondered what I would do if my apartment turned out to look like the soiled hallway.
After ascending to the third floor I came to my door. It looked as if it had been carved out of a solid piece of oak. The skeleton key to open it was at least four inches long. After struggling a bit with the archaic lock I finally was let into my home for the month.
The apartment was a complete shock from the cold outer stone walls of this art nouveau building that had been built in the early 20th century.
The cold walls hid an apartment of bright yellow that stretched 30 yards from the kitchen to the far wall of the front room. In the living room, on the opposite wall from the little bedroom nook, were windows that stretched at least 15 feet from floor to ceiling. The windows looked out onto a courtyard with small trees and old horse stables leftover from the First World War.
The neighborhood I lived in was a never-ending dream. The streets filled with cobblestones worn smooth with the passage of thousands of feet and hooves hid little secrets like a book that reveals its plot sentence by sentence while the reader turns each page with giddy expectation.
On the corner was my local bar. One and a half liters of creamy Czech beer were served side by side with fried cheese and pickled sausage that bit the tongue and cranberry covered Brie that exploded with flavors of soft cheese and ripe fruit. Opposite was the restaurant Novak that served specialties like fried rabbit and wedding schnitzel that accompanied bread dumplings that were as heavy as stone.
Down the street, next to the Chinese shop, was the seminary with its swirling Vatican flags where I caught glimpses of the novice priests through the iron gates and the absinthe house that tempted with its sign depicting the green fairy. Across from that was the Greek Catholic church with its bell that calls out all the hours with its mournful tones.
Prague is a revelation; it's like a fairytale that never ends. Just walking from my apartment to the local metro stop in the morning would take me past the Café Louvre where Freud and Kafka enjoyed coffee. Just down the street from that is the imposing modernistic fortress of the national theater with its photographic exhibit of the solar system in the open courtyard.
In front of the metro station are the busy tram stops with their electric wires that hummed as the morning trams stopped and started to a symphony of bells. In the square forecourt of the metro station are flyers and posters showing everything happening in this city of culture. Each week new information goes up on the walls advertising every manner of cultural activities from plays to ballet and opera, all eagerly anticipated and heavily attended by the local populace.
The metro in Prague is one of the best ways to get around. A local ride to almost anywhere costs less than a dollar and provides fantastic episodes of people watching. On every trip, you see all manner of people from musicians carrying violins and cellos on their way to some performance to skiers and hockey players loaded down with equipment as they head to the mountains or rinks and hordes of forlorn expat Russians looking around in dazed wonder at what had become of their Prague.
In the summer, Prague can be stifling. Hordes of tourists come from all over the world to marvel at its perfectly intact old town and to wander the cramped alleys of the Jewish quarter. But in the winter, Ialmost had the place to myself. The streets were empty of crowds as the cold wind of winter swept little swirls of snow through this living museum and the shops and restaurants were empty thanks to the season and the global recession.
One evening, ambling down the back streets of the old town, just down from the astronomical clock, I heard a haunting, medieval melody bouncing off the walls of the five hundred year old church that stood on the corner. I followed the sound and finally came to a little square with a small man hunched over an instrument I had never seen before. I stood before him as he cranked an ancient handle and sang in a low mysterious voice a song from the depths of Bohemian history.
After he was finished, I went up to this little man, with his wispy white hair, patched coat, and battered suitcase and asked what instrument he was playing.
He looked at me like I was some sort of idiot and said, "Why, it's a hurdy-gurdy."
Completely entranced because I had never seen one before, I looked at the long wooden case with its slightly curved cover and crank that had been worn smooth long before this old man had even been born and pressed on, "And you, what do you do?" I said, thinking that he would admit what I was thinking, that he was an unemployed factory worker out making some cash in the only way he could.
"I am a hurdy-gurdy man,", was all he said with a twinkle in his eye.
As I said, Prague is a revelation.