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.

12 thoughts on “The metamorphosis of Prague

  1. You know how you open several posts and you start reading one and fairly soon you realise it can only be one of yours? Probably not since you’re on the giving end. 🙂 This pulled me in to such a degree that when I saw the babies I had to zoom in saying something like Whooooo. You’d appreciate the sound.

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  2. Ah, you ventured to the grungy Zizkov neighborhood. I’m proud of you, even if it wasn’t deliberate. 😉 Even though your visit was short, you picked up the idiosyncratic vibe of this city. It’s a surreal labyrinth. I make an effort to walk down new streets in lesser known neighborhoods every week, but the more I discover, the more I realize that I’m not even close to knowing it all. This is Kafka’s realm for sure. The sculpture babies are really creepy, but fascinating. There are more on Kampa island, crawling around in the park. I think the faces are supposed to be USB drivers.

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  3. I’ve seen those babies in various blog posts and am so creeped out by them that I’d have to venture into that neighborhood just to see them in person. I love your family analogy and your deeper, stranger portrait of this city that does seem to always present the same face in most blog posts and, certainly, promotional materials. I’ve wandered some of the less-seen cities of central and eastern Europe and the Balkans (but have inexplicably never been to Prague or Vienna) and have always felt that slightly “off” undercurrent there.

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    • I agree Lexi, this ‘off’ feeling that you can feel there, as well as elsewhere (Krakow springs to mind, but also Tbilisi, of the places I’ve seen) is one of the reasons why I love Eastern Europe, the Balkans and on and on… Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if WWI and II didn’t happen and Prague, Sarajevo, Budapest, Belgrade and so on remained the diverse cities they were!

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  4. Interesting that you referred to Prague as a person. I’ve been living here for 8 months now and I recently had the same thought… and that living here has truly been a lesson in self love. I love this city for all that it is. The first impression (old town) is one of well-kept outer beauty, but the deeper you go, the more you uncover its flaws; the scars of Communism. I have grown to love even the tattered, unkept streets of the less travelled, less notable areas (the grunginess of Zizkov, the in-process gentrification of areas like Chodov, or Liben…)
    I’m glad you enjoyed your visit here. The city really does have an enchanting power about it. Thanks for the great read. I agree with one of the commenters above – your writing style is very unique. Keep it up 🙂


    • Hi there, thank you so much for commenting!

      I’m genuinely jealous of you living in Prague, or for that matter living in a place where different districts have different, let’s say, souls.

      Liked by 1 person

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