On a recent visit to Prague, long overdue among many travels within Europe, I learned that Smetana’s “The Moldau” is the unofficial musical anthem of the Czech Republic. There is a lot of Prague’s history and civic personality caught up in that observation. First, the music: nowhere else, anywhere among the many places I’ve visited, is music so appreciated and so ubiquitous…on the streets, in the many squares filled with tourists from around the globe…and especially in the many baroque churches and oratories at night…at least a dozen offerings within a few steps…every night.
Moldau is the German name for the river which brought Prague to life many centuries ago, The Czechs call it the Vltava. The Czech language is a complex Slavic tongue (the furthest West edge of the Slavic blanket of Eastern Europe) that was repressed during the long Hapsburg rule. Only German could be taught in schools and spoken in official public discourse. The ultra-Catholic Hapsburgs were no less intolerant of the strong underlying Protestant theme among the native Czechs. The Peace of Westphalia’s cujus regio, ejus religio was in effect in Prague. Finally, the place itself draws its name from the Czech word for “steps”, praha, wooden beams across a very shallow ford in the river that brought traders and settlers to this place at its beginning.
Once a major capital, in its own right and as a key center of the Empire, and home to the ancient Charles University (1342), Prague is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. While this intends to capture its medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture and human sense of scale in the older parts of the city, there is a sadness in the sacrifice this makes in stilting its ability to grow and evolve as the rest of the world moves well beyond those eras…like a precious gem whose beauty can never escape its setting. Still a few art deco landmarks and even a daring Frank Gehry building are to be found.
Like a form of temporal bookends, the gleaming Vaclav Havel airport and the King Vaclav (Wenceslaus…of Christmas carol fame) statue mark the boundaries (in time and in geography) of what most visitors see. The most famous strutures, Hradcany Castle (literally the castle on the hill, overlooking the main town) and the monument-festooned Charles Bridge, crossing the river, are overrun by tourists, but still well-worth the obligatory visits. More serene, but in a chilling way, is the nearly abandoned Jewish Quarter, with two synagogues and an incredible, small cemetery, with many layers of gravestones stacked upon each other, marking thousands and thousands of graves of the Prague Jews who were not permitted burial grounds elsewhere. The Nazi invaders exterminated the last of Prague’s Jews and those dead have no markers. Only a few Jews have taken up residence since, but solemnly preserve remembrance of the places of their forebears.
As you leave the Jewish Quarter you emerge onto very fashionable Pariser St., where elegant shops and restaurants lead you to the central square of the old town. If you look back, however, across the river, and up a gentle hill, you see a very large Metronome, in constant motion, occupying the site of a long since removed monument to Stalin. One is thus reminded that yet another great historical event occurred at this place: the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968, twenty years too early to witness the final collapse of Communism (at least in Europe). Where it had once been a crime to be without a job (no bourgeois rentiers allowed!), the Metronome sways in permanent mockery of a system where everyone “worked” but no real work was ever done.