Prague: The City of 100 Bridges with an 1,100 Year History
I traveled by train from Vienna, Austria, to Prague, a four-and-half hour greatly needed respite after wandering the streets of Vienna, looking for music and longing for fabulous architecture. And, yes, the Vienna architecture was beautiful, but, personally the design in Portugal and Spain is exquisite, more my cup of tea. Could it be that I am now satiated with astonishing sights, sounds, smells and tastes of eight months abroad?
I arrived at Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, the busiest train station in all of the Czech Republic, walked 30 minutes over the Lisbon-like pavement to my Airbnb apartment. Try as I might, I have not been successful at reducing the weight of my back pack, suitcase and guitar to anything less than 75 pounds. I remind myself: This is so good for building my core muscles. When all is said and done, I tell myself: It is also hell on my neck and back, yes, worth it. Why? Because it’s free and I see everything up close and personal.
Finally, I reached my destination and my non-English speaking host, the tall and beautiful Marketa, greeted me with exuberance, immediately indicating non-verbally that she wanted me to play my guitar. Happily, I obliged while she video taped with glee.
We talked...yes, even though we didn't speak the same language. I learned that this fiftyish-blonde woman has three daughters in their 20’s, two granddaughters, and had been married for 37 years, when her husband left her for a twenty-something woman, just 5 months ago. I barely detected her sadness, but, when I did, her pain was unmistakable. Women are women, the same language, all over the world. We bonded.
Thanks to my prayer to Desna, the next four days were filled with typical mouth-gaping touristy awe. I let loose, oohing and ahhing, craning my already painful neck, tripping over lava stone slabs, mesmerized by it all...the Charles Bridge with its 30 mostly baroque statues and statuaries added between 1683 and 1714, the Vltava River (the longest in the country at 270 miles), astonishing castles and palaces, gold tipped towers and cathedrals, and sculptures crowning everything, everywhere.
For the last 1,100 years, the City of “100 bridges” has been the shining example of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. And, oh, the music….the live music, from jazz to folk to classical, is everywhere, on the streets and bridges, in the churches, and in pubs and restaurants.
Getting around town was uncomplicated and varies from metro, tram, bus, taxi, rented bicycles and segways, motorcycles, scooters, self peddled and electric skateboards, and foot power. Shopping galore is virtually bereft of pushy retailers and I saw few beggars.
Czech food is mostly pork or beef with sauce with a side dish of “knedliky,” dumplings made from wheat or potato flour, boiled in water as a roll and then sliced and served hot. Chicken, duck, turkey, fish rabbit and lamb are prevalent. And, beer, beer, beer! The house red wine, my beverage of choice, is excellent and sells for as little as 80 cents a glass. And, lots of ice cream served in warm sugar coated, freshly baked cynlindrical cones. My thighs are swelling just writing this...but, I’m compelled. I indulge, for sure!
With over a thousand years of history and so much to learn, what speaks to me is the vivid backdrop at the end of World War II which still affects the mood of this city today. When it became clear that Hitler was headed for defeat, Russia and the Western powers raced against each other to claim territory in Europe. Russian troops were the first to reach Warsaw, Budapest, and Vienna. Most observers expected that the Russians would also be the first to reach Prague. It looked as if all of Eastern Europe was fated to fall under Soviet sway. At the last minute, however, it almost didn’t turn out that way.
Igor Lukes tells the story in a chapter of his his 2012 book, “On the Edge of the Cold War.” At the end of April in 1945, America’s Third Army, under the command of General George Patton, secured the western border of Czechoslovakia and discovered that German forces there had become so demoralized that it would have been easy for the Americans to continue their advance.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Patton to take Karlovy Vary, Plzeň, and České Budějovice, three of Czechoslovakia’s westernmost cities. Patton quickly took the cities, and he wanted to keep marching—all the way to Prague. After all, the capital was still under German control; in fact, the SS were committing atrocities there. At that point, Russian forces were two hundred miles away from it, and the Americans, only fifty.
If Eisenhower had given Patton permission, the Iron Curtain of the next half-century would very likely have had a very different shape. However, Eisenhower consulted with Moscow before proceeding, and the authorities in Moscow didn’t like it. During the few days that Eisenhower hesitated, the Russians liberated Prague.In 1948, Czechoslovakia embraced a Communist regime, which quickly became a totalitarian one.
It wasn't until 1989, during the Revolutions of 1989, sometimes called the “Autumn of Nations,” that Communist rule ended.*
Indeed, despite my initial impression after the long train ride, Prague proved to be astonishing. I want to go back for an extended stay!
*The New York Times Review of Books, a review of “Almost History: Plzen, May 1991 by Igor Lukes” by Caleb Crain.
Click HERE for a pictoral view of Prague.