The roofs of Prague

March 1993: Friday

The morning was spent writing a lengthy explanatory letter to V. Marek on the pros and cons of producing an Oscar Wilde show at the Divadlo Na Zabradli, preferably before Sunday evening. Admittedly, it was now verging on the impossible to perform the play before the flight home on Monday, but you never knew.

Walking out near the Charles Bridge, I saw a street artist sitting beside a row of completed portraits of John Lennon, who appeared to have reached virtual sainthood in Prague. The only problem was that all the portraits depicted Lennon as wearing a bowler hat. About as un-Lennon a piece of apparel as could be imagined. The Czech logic seemed to be that Lennon was English and that all Englishmen wear bowler hats. So that was that.

1pm. Trudged into the Divadlo – “Mr. Marek is in Bratislava till tomorrow” – trudged back out again.

With not much alternative, I decided to surrender to the full tourist treatment and booked a ticket for the ‘Grand Tour of Prague’. I climbed aboard a small and very rickety coach. The only customers were a young German couple and myself. Then the tour guide arrived, a gentleman of about sixty-five, equipped with a mackintosh and umbrella, who looked like a defrocked and embittered philosophy professor. His face sank even further when he realised that he would have to repeat all his information in both German and English – for a total of three people.

As we drove off, the guide unleashed an automatic flow of facts in a relentless monotone. He seemed as unstoppable as a clockwork toy. I was convinced that if the coach had smashed into a wall, his only reaction would have been to continue without any change of tone: “Ve haf now crashed into a wall which, you vill notice, has fifteenth century plaster work adorning the outer pediment.” And then to repeat it in German.

The main destination of the tour turned out to be Prague Castle, the structure that unavoidably dominated the city skyline. The coach crossed over the river and zigzagged up the steep hillside streets. We parked near the entrance and found ourselves right in the middle of a film unit. Two hundred extras milled round the forecourt in Regency costumes, some on horseback, some lolling around in landau carriages, some impersonating straw-chewing yokels. It is a truth universally acknowledged that you are never more than ten miles away from a bloody Jane Austen adaptation.

Our anachronistic little group strolled through them, amidst the hostile growls of production assistants.

The sense of cinematic illusion continued when we reached the Castle entrance. Beneath some startlingly visceral statuary depicting castle guards in the act of stabbing some earlier visitors to death, two very smartly dressed sentries stood to attention. I assumed that that they were wearing the original uniform of the Danish Army (circa Napoleon), until the guide explained proudly that the uniforms had been created last year by the costume designer of the 1980s film ‘Amadeus’.

The entrance to Prague Castle

Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in Europe, spread along the hilltop ridge for almost half a mile, and consisted mostly of halls linked by courtyards. The site also included St Vitus Cathedral, the building of which had taken over one thousand years to complete. (‘Well, mate, you can’t get the materials, see’.) The view over the city was superb: the red slant roofs of the Mala Strana district below, then the curve of the river, then the spires of Old Town.

We walked through the enormous Vladislav Hall, large enough to be the scene of indoor medieval horseback jousting. It was used if the knights thought the weather was too wet outside. Traditionally the windows of the hall were employed by the Czechs for hurling unpopular leaders out onto the rocks far below, a procedure known as defenestration.

A legend claims that if any pretender places the crown of Bohemia on his head, he will be dead within a year. While occupying the Castle in 1941, the Nazi ruler of Bohemia Reinhard Heydrich, (he of the Mendelssohn/Wagner contretemps), appears to have ignored the curse and tried on the diadem for size. Within a year he was shot to death by Czech partisans.

Golden Lane, Prague Castle

In 1989, over 100,000 people marched up here from the city demanding that Vaclav Havel be installed as President. The police, realising the game was up, allowed them through. His offices were now visible in the first courtyard.

Back on board the coach, we circled down the hill and then around the old Jewish quarter, finally to disembark in the Old Town Hall Square. The guide pointed out a stretch of lawn beside the Town Hall. The missing building was once part of the Hall itself and was one of the few casualties of the Liberation of Prague. However, a small plaque on a side wall commemorating the deaths of 30,000 Russian and Czech troops at the Battle of the Dukla Pass in October, 1944, showed that the Liberation took a heavy toll elsewhere. Again, Prague was just damn lucky.

It also proved the extraordinary differences about national myth. Almost every Western schoolchild (quite justifiably) has been educated on the heroics of the D-Day invasion of June 1944. That famous battle, however, claimed about 4,500 American and British lives. Yet here was an almost contemporaneous battle claiming 30,000 lives only a few hundred miles away, and I, for one, had never even heard of the Battle of the Dukla Pass?

Street in Old Prague

We halted by the Astronomical Clock where our guide/professor spent twenty minutes explaining its mechanics in German. There was now an evilly cold wind blowing in from the east, presumably clear from the Urals. I wasn’t even wearing a sweater.

He finished his lecture, the Germans departed, then he turned to me and restarted in English. We were now both numb with the chill. The facts and figures flew over my head. His false teeth began to chatter as he spoke, and I couldn’t feel my nose any more.

However, he stuck grimly to his task and I just hadn’t got the heart to interrupt him. Despite the growing risk of pneumonia, we were both entirely trapped – he by duty and me by politeness. Finally he stopped, we shook hands, and rapidly disappeared in opposite directions.

As I sat de-freezing and eating dumplings in a bar, I watched an ice hockey game on the TV. Although I could not understand a word, I noticed that the Czech commentator had exactly the same intonation as the British football commentator John Motson. There must be a Pan-European training centre for sports commentators somewhere?


Next week – Fourth and Last Post from Prague – Capitalism, Sausages, and a Bad Hangover.

Charles Bridge, Prague

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