City of Velvet

Source: The Nation / / By Carleton Cole /

A surreal smoothness infuses the history and heart of Prague with the power to delight, like a fairytale come true

ONCE UPON a time – exactly half a century, to be precise – the audacity of hope bloomed in the Prague Spring. In the heady first seven months of 1968, a noble if naive resistance in Czechoslovakia’s government and civil society prodded at the forces that wanted the Iron Curtain kept drawn.

The likeminded citizens advocating for a freer society would finally triumph in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which sparked to life in the same sacred space where the Prague Spring had occurred.

Wenceslas Square commemorates the legacy of the Czech state’s patron saint of royal lineage, also known as “Vaclav the Good”.

“Havel to the castle!” shouted the demonstrators alongside Prague Spring vets a generation older. Within a year, playwright Vaclav Havel, a dissident who had come to personify the pent-up demand for change, went from civilian to prisoner to president, taking up residence in Prague Castle.

The Charles Bridge over the Vlatva River captures the spirit of this fantastical city best. Amid artisans selling curios, statues of saints peer from their perches, as they’ve done for centuries.

Legend has it that, when danger looms, the stone likeness of King Wenceslas atop a horse in Wenceslas Square will leap to life. The mounted statue is said to thunder down to the bridge and stumble over a stone, revealing beneath it the hidden sword of Brunvick.

The beloved king’s destination is an army sleeping under Mount Blanik, which, upon learning the time has at last come, will re-emerge into life as well, ready to do battle against enemies foreign or domestic.

Further stoking the city’s endemic sense of drama are enthused musical bands that perform evergreen classics and modern tunes like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme. The rousing soundtrack seems designed to remind the lives trapped in statuary that it’s time to wake and join the resistance.

You might think of the Jolly Roger flag again when gazing at the Orloj – the Old Town Astronomical Clock. Visitors gather there to witness the arrival of each new hour, heralded by a parade of the Apostles and other colourful figurines twirling in time. Among them is a skeleton seen as a sign of hope, death, or some mix of the two.

The complex mechanism of the clock, like a miniature planetarium, began ticking in the 1400s. It tracks the conventional time, lunar cycles, sunrises and sunsets, star time and Old Bohemian time, when the new day starts at sundown. That’s “beer o’clock”, and the Czech Republic boasts some of the world’s smoothest beers – as well as world-beating consumption rates.

Recently, the clock stopped, though only for a seven-month tune-up that should be completed by August. Still, by tradition, the oracle-like Orloj is regarded as a barometer of the nation’s wellbeing. When it stops, grave uncertainty begins.

Regardless, the last century is easy enough to track with precision. One hundred years ago, the country was formed in the aftermath of World War I. Fifty years ago came the Prague Spring’s fleeting experiment with openness. And 25 years ago marked the consequent Velvet Divorce and the creation of the separate Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Prague somehow seems steeped in dreams and destiny, a reflection of Czechoslovakia’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy at the end of the Cold War, the only Eastern European country to do so, and it was done with relative ease.

The air of conviviality is catching in a town that has long bustled with foreign visitors. The locals mostly congregate in riverside parks, where there are concerts in the summer. They laze and they gaze on the Vltava, perhaps contemplating the Republic’s subtle national character. You don’t sense any of Hungary’s sadness cloaked in joy or the frankness of the Austro-Germans.

On the greener pathways that converge at Prague Castle, the town’s soothing nature works its charms.

Golden Lane was once a warren of writers’ hovels, artists’ garrets, goldsmith shops and watering holes. An historical sign piques interest in medieval life: “The taverns in Golden Lane were really lively. Often wandering jugglers and musicians would meet here. When the merriment erupted, there came to the pubs smejdiri – peddlers or hawkers – and various swindlers luring people with their dice or cards.

“Although, according to the magistrates of Prague, the tavern businesses were operated only by men of integrity, complaints and accusations of moral debauchery had no end.”

While history often melts into happy endings in this roguishly blessed city, which at times can feel like one big sprawling fun fair, the Charles Bridge has been the scene of sheer cruelty. Criminals were publicly executed here, lowered into the river from its ramparts in wicker baskets.

Wencelas Square similarly reflects both Prague’s spirit of the possible and its darker currents. It’s where philosophy student Jan Palach burned himself to death in 1968, in one of the catalysts for the Velvet Revolution and for Havel’s last period of imprisonment in the breathtaking lead-up to his presidency.

While the action is non-stop at the city’s main international entranceway, Vaclav Havel Airport, the Vaclav Havel Library is in a quiet, less-visited lane near the theatre district. Computer screens and wall displays tell his story. His police mug shots are shown alongside more flattering portraits, some featuring other celebrated history makers, and you can see and hear excerpts from his plays.

The library movingly relates the marvels that a spirit of service and compassionate sacrifice can accomplish. This was demonstrated for decades by a public servant who shunned publicity and forewent the Nobel Peace Prize so that Aung San Suu Kyi could have it instead, so that light would be shed on the sufferings of the Burmese people.

Havel was the first leader of a nation to meet the Dalai Lama. The library’s modest size is fitting for Havel, who died in 2011 soon after receiving final blessings from the exiled Tibetan leader.

“Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim,” Havel once wrote. “For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.

“Without a revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans.”

Places for contemplation are plentiful in Prague, as are excellent vantages for people-watching in the plazas. Near the Havel library is a former hangout of Velvet Revolution activists.

The Reduta Jazz Club is casual, intimate and historically charged. Bill Clinton, when he was president of the United States, blew some tunes here on the saxophone Havel gave him during a 1994 visit.

A wonderful room for appreciating what Miles Davis called “the space between the notes”, the dimly lit Reduta, like Prague, provides ideal conditions for allowing the soul to breathe – and for drinking in all that smoothness.