. Czech for 'ice cream'. Although it was still March and cold, I decided I might need it. I like ice cream. But how to pronounce it? Google provided the answer in both Czech and Slovak. Zi-mir-zi-lina
. Simple. A moment's reflection reminded me of a Russian phrase: Dyed moroz
. Father Frost/Father Christmas. Three of those frosty consonants are buried in the Czech word.
Preparing for a short trip to Prague, I couldn't hope to acquire any fluency, but I thought a few basic phrases might help. Dobre dyen
and Dobre vecher,
'Good day' and 'Goodnight', for instance, just as in Russian. Prosim
for 'please' and Dikuyi
for 'thank you'. Not like Russian. I found a lively, flirtatious young tutor called Monika on YouTube. 'It's not really so difficult,' she declared in her charmingly accented English. 'You can even use Dik
for thank you,' she said. I decided to pass on that one. Introducing yourself: Ja jsem z Skotska
. The 'j' becomes a 'y' in the first word, and an 'i' in the second. Then just zizz the z. 'Goodbye' was straightforward when broken down by syllable: Nashle da nou
. And if all else fails, 'I don't understand': Nerozumim
. Monika's enthusiasm was so infectious I got my husband to watch. He was entranced. So entranced, I don't think he took much in.
Greetings are useful. Faces brighten if you use them, even if you then immediately launch into English. Tourist signs in the city centre are in English. You can generally rely on hotel and tourist information staff, most shopkeepers, even the man in the main post office who sold me stamps (I still send postcards rather than post photos on Facebook) to speak enough English to get by. Otherwise Czech seems as impenetrable, as full of consonant chains as Polish, to which it is related. At the airport the information boards flick regularly between Czech and English. Unaided, one might be baffled by Prilety and Odlety for'Arrivals' and 'Departures'. Up the Vltava without a paddle for sure.
I didn't know what to expect of the city, given its turbulent 20th-century history. 2018-19 encompasses several significant anniversaries. Czechoslovak independence from the former Austro-Hungarian empire in October, 1918. The introduction of its own currency, the korona, still used today, in 1919. 1938-39, Hitler's Nazi takeover. 1948 the communists' turn. 1968, Alexander Dubcek's short-lived, liberalising 'Prague Spring'.
January this year marked the 50th anniversary of the suicide of Jan Palach – the student who set himself alight in protest at the passive response of the Czechs to the Soviet military re-invasion. A plaque with a tribute poem in Czech by Miroslav Holub memorialises this at the spot on Wenceslas Square. Vaclav Havel, satirist and playwright, imprisoned for dissent, emerged as the first leader of the post-communist Czechoslovakia in the 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989. Unlike Dubcek, he wasn't in thrall to a political ideology. He disliked the formality of office so much that he used to navigate the corridors of power in Prague Castle on a scooter. We liked that subversive, quasi-surreal humour. Very Czech.
A friend who visited with a group in 1978, when it was still under communist rule, recalled an impression of shabbiness and a repressed, unresponsive populace. It's all changed today. You could be anywhere in Europe. Wenceslas Square, an avenue despite its name, is still a broad vista, with the national museum and the imposing statue of the saint on horseback at one end. The rest exhibits the usual high profile capitalist takeover by Starbucks, Costa Coffee, McDonalds, Burger King, and the like, interspersed with hotels, casinos, tourist information kiosks and bus shops, money exchanges, street food stalls and souvenir shops. There's an M&S and an H&M and some other fashion stores. It has, however, two bookshops, including a very good academic one, where they wrap up your purchases, speak excellent English and sell stamps.
Souvenir shops are legion, peddling the fridge magnets we love and despise wherever we go. The Prague shops feature Bohemian glass, porcelain, puppets and items in wood. Jaroslav Hasek's 'Good Soldier Schweik' tankard of foaming beer in one hand, pipe in the other, featured in various forms and sizes. I was intrigued by the high visibility of absinthe and rather pretty absinthe spoons.
We were also surprised to find thin bars of cannabis chocolate on sale everywhere. A trader in the Havelska Market assured me that it was herbal, not narcotic. It's actually hemp seeds. Perfectly legal. You can buy packets of them in Holland & Barratt. We were amused by rows of mass-produced witch puppets on speed who flash vampiric eyes and cackle fit to burst if the trader claps her hands. I nearly bought one, but the remorseless high voltage merriment would soon drive you nuts.
You can't avoid the crowds. Cheap air travel, abundant accommodation and there we all are. A veritable Babel city. Groups of Chinese tourists led by guides with flags. Packs of clamorous Italian schoolchildren, more or less under control. Crowds massed around the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, smartphones clicking, to witness the parade of apostles on the hour.
On the square's main concourse the entertainers were out. A giant panda, much hugged and photographed for the price of a coin tossed into his bucket, was doing a roaring trade. A giant gorilla was less popular. Likewise, a polar bear hopping hopefully from one foot to the other. Different characters coated in metallic paint posed, impossibly airborne. 'Don't you get tired?' I asked one. 'Maybe later,' he admitted a touch hoarsely. With all this distraction on hand you scarcely notice the massive black statue to Jan Hus, the Protestant reformer burned alive for his beliefs in 1415 that dominates the north end of the square.
Later we took advantage of the generous seniors' discount to climb the clock tower and enjoy a four ways view of the city, its spires and green onion domes. My stomach lurches looking down from that height, so I'm glad there's something preventing me from pitching into the void. There have been too many defenestrations in Prague over the centuries. People looking antlike fed Orson Welles's character's scorn while high on the Ferris wheel in Vienna in the film of 'The Third Man'. I wanted to pick everything up and have my own Lilliputian city to play with.
Among the crowds, the gorilla had disappeared and the panda was worming himself out of his costume. It fell away from him in coils and out skipped a thin young man in red from head to foot, lithe as a whippet, like a devil from Dante's Hell. Carefully he folded up his costume, laid it on the ground and strolled off for a comfort break.
You could only escape the crowds if you turned off the main streets and squares into side streets and alleyways. I found a wonderful puppet shop on Jilska Street, on our way to the Charles Bridge. The real deal, its walls hung with individually carved characters. Pinocchio and Charlie Chaplin figured prominently and some very ugly witches. A little girl with her mother wanted a dog puppet, but there weren't any. The lady seller tried to interest her in a three-headed green dragon instead.
Prague is a city of music. Dvorak, Janacek, Martinu and Smetana. There's an opera house and a large museum to Smetana overlooking the Vltava. That symphonic movement of his from 'Ma Vlast'/'My Country' that celebrates the river, known alternatively as the Moldau as it enters Germany downstream, has a haunting beauty. The churches in the Old Town hold concerts nightly. We were always being handed flyers. We attended one on our last night in the former Jesuit church of St Salvator by the Charles Bridge, a vast, baroque, chilly edifice. Fortunately the pew cushions heated up and they played Smetana.
The musicians on the pedestrianised Charles Bridge soon have you tapping your feet, and artists display their wares, overlooked by the sooty patinaed statues of the city's long-suffering guardian saints. Beneath the arches that have witnessed floods and been repaired many times since they were raised during the reign of Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century, the tourist river cruises ply their trade. We kept encountering beggars, posing turtlelike, still as statues, at pavement edges, hooded heads bowed, hands grasping the cups they hope you will fill. My husband, intrigued by their uniformity, asked a young Czech guide about them. He was dismissive. 'They're junkies,' he said. 'They've no shame. They just want your sympathy. They can make a lot of money in a day from tourists. More than we earn from doing a proper job. It's a form of prostitution.'
We took a tram up to the castle. Over 70s go free. Even us, as long as you have ID. The Gothic St Vitus Cathedral impressed with its dizzying height, its vivid stained glass windows, the baroque silver memorial to St John Nepomuk and the sombre chapel to St Wenceslas. Visitors were kept moving. The pews cordoned off. Nowhere to sit down. 'It's because of the Italian schoolchildren,' said one of the guides with a shudder. 'They take their food and drink into the pews and make a noise.' Behind stands an older, more modest Romanesque cathedral to St George (Jiri in Czech). Here there were fewer visitors and you can sit down in the pews.
Before you leave you have to visit Golden Lane. A street of tiny cottages, originally built in the 16th century to house the Emperor Rudolf II's palace guards. Goldsmiths exercised their trade here in the 17th century, the source of its present name. Later the houses were rented out to small-scale entrepreneurs. Some of them remain as museum pieces, a seamstress's house, for instance, and a fortune-teller's. She was executed for criticising the Nazis. There's even a torture museum, not the only one in Prague, should your taste run to that. Others are shops, including No. 22, rented by his youngest sister, Ottilie, where Kafka wrote during 1916-17, seeking peace and quiet from noisy neighbours down in the city.
Speaking of Kafka, I found his traces somewhat elusive. If you look up Wikipedia on Czech literature you won't find his name. My Berlitz guide has only a brief paragraph. Born in 1883, when Prague was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he was Jewish and wrote in German. His father, who disparaged his literary ambitions, ran a successful retail business in women's fashionwear on the edge of the Old Town Square. The family moved frequently, but always within a short radius of the business. Kafka worked, reluctantly, as a lawyer dealing in workers' insurance and continued to live mainly in the family home. A book I bought, 'Kafka in Prague', has endpaper maps of the city centre. At the front you have Prague in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, all its streets and landmarks in German. At the back they're all in Czech.
Publishing little in his lifetime, Kafka wanted his unpublished works burned after his death, but his close friend, Max Brod, refused to comply. He died in Germany in 1924 of TB, tended by the last of his lovers. His body was returned to Prague for burial in the Jewish cemetery. A tombstone shaped as a crystal in stone marks the family grave. His three sisters were later victims of the Nazi Holocaust. One was, apparently, last heard of in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, while the other two perished in the concentration camp of Terezin/Theresienstadt, now a museum, north of Prague.
We found the premises of the Franz Kafka Society in Siroka Street in the old Jewish Quarter, facing the Jewish Cemetery. Established in the 1990s to celebrate the heritage of German literature in Prague, it combines bookshop, a conference centre and a replica of the contents of Kafka's library. In 2003 it funded the surreal statue of Kafka by Jaroslav Roná outside the Spanish synagogue and each year it awards a prestigious international literary prize. Distinguished recipients include Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Vaclav Havel, Amos Oz and Harold Pinter.
As we wandered past the synagogues and bourgeois apartment blocks in the Jewish Quarter I said to my husband, 'Imagine you live in one of those apartments. Your life is comfortable and stable. Then one day soldiers come knocking, loudly and brutally, and take you away. Your whole world is turned upside down. You are deprived of everything, herded like cattle. You starve, you fall ill, perhaps you die. How will that feel?' Ever since I read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' that dreadful fate has haunted my imagination.
During our few days in Prague we didn't have time to visit the Kafka Museum on the castle side of the Vltava, or to view the large metal kinetic sculpture by David Cerny of Kafka's head that twirls in mesmerising slices outside a shopping mall, representing the turmoil inside the author's mind. I did, however, drop into the basement experience of Franz Kafka World, just a step from the Old Town Square. Here you follow a journey, through the ruins of two Romanesque houses, into a multi-screen theatre that enacts imaginary Kafkaesque journeys, episodes from history and real life dramas. I spent a confusing but not unpleasant hour there. Would I recommend it? Perhaps not.
We bought a clutch of mementoes but my best souvenir is a puppet. Not one of the mass-produced, mad-eyed, cackling witches, but a Little Red Riding Hood with an expressive face, hand-carved and painted in wood. She's small and isn't on strings. Her scope for movement is dictated by a handle that turns her head in various directions and expands her neck. I saw it in that puppet shop in Jilski Street and loved it, but it was expensive and we were on budget, so I held fire. However, when I got home I ordered it online and am delighted with it. There's a wolf too, dark grey and evil-eyed, with toothy jaws that open wide. I'll leave him for now though.
And I did have some ice-cream, as our last two days were like summer. We found a small café near the Old Town Square, staffed by young girls barely out of school who spoke good English. The zmrzlina accompanied a plate of sweet pancakes drizzled in chocolate and decorated with strawberries. Every mouthful was as delicious as it sounds.