Prague Overtures

The Czech Republic: So stunning are the architecture, the setting and the music of the thousand-year-old capital city that any minor carping about food and service is quickly forgotten.

August 08, 1999|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The question has been asked more than once: Which of the human arts has the strongest impact on people's lives?

Music, you say; painting, literature, drama. You can take your pick, of course, follow your inclination. But remember, these are not always with you, not always there.

If you visit Prague, you'll have your answer in a minute. Architecture.

Prague is a thousand-year-old city, the capital of the Czech Republic in Central Europe. Unlike many other European cities, it was never reduced to rubble by war, as, say, Warsaw or Berlin were. Much of what was built here over the centuries still stands. It presents itself as a living museum, in a way, and a repository of the high arts, old and new. It offers the music of its great composers: Smetana and Dvorak; the work of its innovative Art Nouveau painters, Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha; the literature of Franz Kafka and Max Brod, the profound contemporary novels of Ivan Klima, the expatriate Milan Kundera. Even the schlock sold along tourist-clogged Karlova Street is higher-toned: Kafka T-shirts, Haydn coffee mugs.

Young men in powdered wigs and 17th-century dress stroll about handing out fliers advertising chamber music that afternoon in the Clementinum, the Baroque Jesuit College, or a Mozart "Requiem" at St. Nicholas' church in the evening. These Renaissance sandwich men will remind you, as if it had slipped your mind, that Mozart previewed "Don Giovanni" here in 1787. Prague hasn't changed all that much since then, except for the electricity, of course, the trams and metro, and all the tiny automobiles that crowd the warren of its streets, which no doubt are a lot cleaner.

Prague has its effect. It makes you deeply concerned with what fills your eyes each day as you emerge from your home or hotel room. It is possible that you could get accustomed to this voluptuous bounty of stone and mortar, of Gothic arch and Romanesque arcade, the steel and glistening brass of Art Nouveau hotels, the spear-like church spires that puncture the sky, and the frescoes painted on antique facades, which assert themselves in ocher, cream, faint pink, street after sinuous street, like envoys from another time, like strong ideas from the deep past still vibrant.

But you could never become indifferent to it unless you are made of stone yourself.

"Nothing I know about this other city of the seven hills has prepared me for its extravagance and abundance and endless visual surprises," wrote Eva Hoffman in "Exit into History," her book on Central Europe. "The eye cannot move without encountering a stunning piece of statuary, or painted decoration, or ornate architectural detail, or a Cubist thket of chimneys. The parts meld into a whole that yields a sort of aesthetic overcharge, an organic effect that is more than the sum of its components."

Prague's beloved river

The Vltava River reaches Prague after its long journey out of south Bohemia. It bisects the golden city, as Prague has been called, cuts east from west Mala Strana (the Little Quarter) from the Old Town. Then, by virtue of a sharp 90-degree turn where the stately Rudolfinium (home of the Czech Philharmonic) rises, it again divides the city: the Old Jewish Quarter with its archaic synagogues to the south, Letna Park to the north.

The Vltava (pronounced VUL-tah-vah) is majestic and dangerous, as the dams and locks here and there designed to constrain it, and the heavy log fortifications built to protect the stone piers of Prague's bridges, attest. It is busy with fishermen who troll from small boats and angle from the banks; canoeists and paddle boaters test its rushing current; ponderous sight-seeing yachts cruise up and down. There are cafes along the Vltava's banks, and the islands in the stream are parks for concerts and youth fairs and puppet shows (Czechs are big on puppets).

This broad, copper-colored highway of water is known more widely outside the country as the Moldau, the German name rarely used here. It is the river whose spirit was captured by Smetana in his symphonic poem of that name, which you will hear over and over again as you meander through Prague's twisty streets, checking out the rare books and print shops, or the frequent emporiums offering the ethereal Bohemian glass.

Of the many bridges that knit the Czech capital together, none is the equal of the Charles Bridge, a graceful Gothic span begun in 1357. It took 50 years to finish. It is a national cultural monument. It is also a busy pedestrian bridge, and the commercial and social activity it encourages -- puppeteers, caricaturists (there is even a mad artist, who wears horns on his head, a perpetual look of insanity and paints crazy pictures), buskers, photographers and such -- is carried out under the gaze of 30 enormous sculpted saints erected upon the balustrades. From the start, the bridge was a center of communal affairs: in medieval times they used to bring dishonest bakers there to dunk them in the river.

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