Some places are bound to be beautiful, and Prague is one of them. Soiled as it might be by the triple plague of stag dos, hen nights and Segway tours, its handsomeness it’s undeniable.
Prague’s medieval core features heavily in the city’s marketing materials, but the Prague I get to know first is solid, regular, Mitteleuropean. Orderly tenements follow one another along straight, well-kept, streets bisecting each other at precisely 90 degrees, running past a wooded hill on the left bank of the river where, following my Budapest habits, I’ve decided to spend the night.
I walk along the river, and the city of thatched roofs, winding alleys and alchemists’ alcoves is nowhere to be seen. Wealthy condominiums parade before me, built in that fin-de-siècle style that reminds me of civil servants in three-pieced suits, Habsburg eagles and trams. The city of the Haredi Jews busy putting together the Golem could very well be in another planet.
Slowly, as I walk through this quietly prosperous city, Prague becomes, in my mind, less a city and more a person. Actually, a group of persons; a family. One of those high-middle-class families of the kind I see driving Skoda saloons or Volvo SUVs, harmonious and pleasantly content with themselves. Mom and Dad are quietly beautiful, have respectable jobs, the kids are well behaved and they all live in a nice apartment, comfortable but not too flashy if you forget the Bang & Olufsen home theatre, perhaps.
I enter the medieval centre as Friday night starts and punters are getting ready for another night of boozing. Youths are already chugging cans of beer – it’s Faxe, I recognise with an acute pang of nostalgia – and, from the depths of some bars, I can hear gangs of Brits rehearsing the choirs they’ll repeat, like mantras with an alcoholic volume, throughout the night. Above us, the medieval buildings loom like surly plotters. My mental image of the city gathers depth, with another son joining the cute and studious two I concocted before; this time, however, he is a teenager, living through the rebellion period that comes with dyed hair and piercings, benevolently tolerated by Mom and Dad. It’s only a phase.
I was, by then, safe in the knowledge that I’d understood the whole city, and decided to call it a night, opting for a tram ride home. If only I didn’t choose a convoy going in the wrong direction, delivering me to Lipanska by the time I’d realised my mistake. Standing in the wet street, at the foothills of Liptkov hill, I look up and find something that makes me realise that, no, I hadn’t understood Prague at all.
The TV tower dominates the roofs of yet another solid, Central European, neighbourhood. Its 1950s-sci-fi looks – half Space:1999, half Ray Bradbury – look as if it belonged to somewhere else and was staying in town only for the time it took to recover and start the next leg of its journey.
I stand under the tower, in the driving rain, nurturing my mental image of Prague. They still were there, with their Volvo SUV and the jobs and the Bang & Olufsen thingy, but Dad hid Japanese tattoos under his turtleneck, and Mom had a past as a MMA fighter, and perhaps she still ventured on the ring every now and then. I give another look at the tower and, for the second time, realise I’m wrong again.
Scattered on the tower – crawling impossible up its leg, gazing from the observation decks – are the gigantic sculptures of jet-black toddlers. Designed in the act of moving on all four, they have concave spaces where their faces ought to be. In the driving rain, I find this infestation of faceless infants particularly sinister and threatening, like the children jurors that roamed Munster during the Anabaptist heresy.
I was wrong. Mom and Dad weren’t only into MMA and Yakuza tats. They also organised Sabbaths on weekends.