Prague for me has always been more of a city of the imagination than a real place. Real places tend to disappoint, especially if you spent your impressionable teenage years fantasising about them. I was brought up on books like Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘The Witch of Prague’ (1885) and ‘The Golem’ by Gustav Meyrink (1914), which was set in medieval Prague and became a classic of German surrealist cinema in 1915. The Prague that I encountered on a recent visit was perhaps understandably less than saturated in the atmosphere I’d been expecting.
I’ve had the same unreasonable sensations of disappointment in Budapest, Rome and Vienna recently, the actual cities being something of an anticlimax following my madly romantic imaginative broodings. My adolescent preoccupations were probably so charged with primal energy that everything afterwards has felt inevitably like a bit of a let-down. Why bother to travel at all, then? I could save money and retain my immaculate visions by simply refusing to leave the house.
Having said that, a few days in a foreign historic city where everything is different does take you out of yourself. If there were no witches or Golems in Prague there was at least the familiar background canvas of astronomical clocks, cobbles and medieval synagogues. A little psychological assaying filters out the unwanted elements such as souvenir and sex shops, and leaves you with a decent approximation of your precocious vision.
If you can manage to studiously ignore the rudeness of many of the locals that certainly helps too. In one gift shop I said a loud and clear ‘Good evening!’ to the miserable looking young woman behind the counter, who responded with a ‘What?’ When I repeated myself she replied with some energy: ‘We say ‘Dobry vecer’ in Czech!’
But to be fair to them, the French are just as bad when it comes to customer relations. I met the same attitude in cafes, too – a general impression that nobody wished to appear in any way subservient. Perhaps it’s a reaction against their days on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and the relative novelty of being able to say and do as they please, like teenagers away from home for the first time.
The Golem is a precursor of Frankenstein’s monster, made of clay and brought to life by placing a magic formula in its mouth. There are actually detailed instructions on how to make one in a 12th century manuscript preserved in Wurms. After being sent out to kill the magician’s enemies it is deactivated by subtly altering the formula. Many shops and businesses in Prague make reference to this exotic and deadly creature, there are books and operas about it and it’s even a character in Discworld.
The trinket shops are in on the act too, of course, but I don’t think the comic-book terracotta figures they churn out have much to do with the original. The idea that there’s still a Golem in Prague, inert in a basement somewhere and just waiting to be brought to life again, is an intriguing one. There’s a story that the original Prague Golem is stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, which is suspiciously not open to the public.
These sorts of tales and legends inevitably accumulate in such an ancient city, which has witnessed so many colourful and often terrible events. This was where Hitler’s darling Heydrich, variously known as The Blond Beast, Butcher of Prague and Himmler’s Evil Genius, was assassinated. But it is also where the eccentric Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II held court, collecting mechanical toys and patronising the likes of the astronomers Kepler and Tycho Brahe, and alchemists and magicians like Elizabeth I’s John Dee.
I experienced only two disappointments on my visit to Prague. One was when I rushed across the Old Town Square to the Astronomical Clock on the Town Hall as it was about to strike 2.00pm. I worked my way to the front of the gathered crowd to watch the wooden painted figures make their procession, camera at the ready, and – nothing happened.
This clock, by the way, has been in place since 1410. There were many such mechanisms across Europe at the time, but none of them reached such levels of perfection. The twelve apostles do their parade on the hour – except for me, of course – and you can also apparently see them from inside the mechanism itself. Some incidental figures did admittedly come to life despite my presence. They include Death ringing a small bell and turning an hourglass to a Turk standing beside him, to indicate that his time is up.
The next day, and in the same square, I asked for a plate of the traditional Prague Beef and a glass of beer, and was given five times the amount listed on the front of the stall. It was very busy and being English I didn’t like to complain and hold up the queue, so I spent a good half hour working my way through a small mountain of the stuff. It wasn’t too bad, but I’ll give it a miss next time, if there is a next time. The beer certainly helped, as it always does. I much preferred the goulash I had in a Budapest market a few months back.
Once again, I have to thank Just2Travel for giving me a lift and organising my accommodation, and generally taking care of me in foreign parts.