Fantastic Cities (2004) edited by Lucy Harrison, Kent Institute of Art and Design ISBN1-870522-38-9

Spring in Prague

An early murky fog settles into the buildings, curls at the windows. This city is well known for it, well behaved in it as it circles the streets. The locals like it on their way home after a night fuelled with discussion and beer. Laughter lingers in the dense damp air. This city keeps late or early hours, keeps awake when the stars are out. The dusky dawn light doesn’t reveal much except the outlines of half timbered coffee houses with ornate medieval signs.

At one point anyone who was anyone came to Prague; bohemian, an inhabitant of Bohemia, a vagabond artist’s irregular unconventional life, a wanderer, free spirit, unconformable.

The old town is nestled right by the river, houses tightly woven into the hillside, tall and thin. Half timbered buildings with thick heavy doors jostle with sixteenth and seventeenth century grace and splendor.

The women are reputed the most beautiful in Europe, young and old, an elegance and poise found only in the rich elsewhere; a kind of come and look at me I am from Prague the place of intellectual and artistic sophistication. Heads high they have a panache, a charm which makes you want to follow them home with bunches of roses and promises.

There is an old town, a newer old town, a lesser town with golden lanes, a castle an old walled ghetto and in between these, the river Vtlana, painterly swollen from the snow.

People come to Prague for the buildings, the river its banks stitched together with graceful bridges. Some for the quick laughter, ironic, satirical, quirky, open hearted, alive. They come for a city of grand gestures and small statements.

A cow on an island chews watching the water flow between two bridges.
By the bank fishermen longing for a sky with an elegant spring sun.

-

Taciturn sinuous dark humour barks in the streets and small alleys.

This city has done a Faustian deal. The buildings hold their shape and grandeur long after their sell by date. Time tumbles down narrow steps in twos or threes.

Narrow uterine walls, with small shops tucked away between tightly packed windows, doors all leading to somewhere impenetrable; somewhere between low ceilinged rooms, crooked floorboards and sloping walls.

The task is not to get lost.

Occasionally it is possible to see through a window into a living room.

They say Prague died when Kafka did; a way of life that haunts the narrow twisting passageways turned to stone and served up for tourists in T-shirts.

There is a contrapuntal rhythm that dissects the time ticking of the clock .
A figure running in the small twisting alleys trying to get out.

-
The Golden Mile is called thus because it once housed the alchemists of King Rudolph.

Charles bridge, the subject of so many pictures. The creative soul of Prague, packed with people, sandwiched synchronized in two columns, marching backwards and forwards. It takes an hour to get across.

The sunshine on the river, wide soft swaying slowly like a wide hipped woman through the city dividing and shaping it.

Half way along the bridge is a statue whose feet we touch for luck. The saint once mortal drowned to save us. His death for our salvation. We touch a shiny bald spot and hope. Luck is brought about by changing things to shining metal and we are all transforming our luck to golden dreams in the night here.

And the big cafes, two hundred tables filling the large room. Waiters with big white aprons carrying large trays of beer on their shoulders, plates of pork and dumplings. In the afternoons cake and strong black coffee. There is animated discussion at the tables, laughter and finger pointing obscured by a thick cigarette fuelled film.

Or the pavement temptation of a cold beer on a hot spring day condensation running down the glass light golden fizzy. And so many women here to watch…

-

Small details: these cobbles need re-laying; the blue paint in the house in the Golden mile need retouching. It is flaking off. There are cracks everywhere for things to creep in.

Wenceslas Square, memories of resistance and transformation. Tanks rumbling, gunfire and repression; more recently a square full of people, silent with placards and banners.

Two months after the Velvet Revolution, two Macdonald’s slip into through the cracks when no one was listening or watching. Now the new imperialists speak English.

If you head out of town to the edge of Prague, long gray Soviet style tenements line boulevards leading nowhere. Empty streets, few cars, children playing in parks. There are no longer any bright lights here. The images of the old communist days are always monochrome and, of course, life under capitalism is always full of colour. The colour of your money picked from your pocket before you’ve had a chance to turn. The best palaces are the trams, if you are a pickpocket that is.

What do you do when the rebellion no longer has a cause, has left you like a shadow puppet boxing the air? The new story has tourism in it, big parties of drunken men roaming the streets; the prostitutes from further east are ready and waiting.

Prague is now top destination for British stag and hen parties. A place where in the dark corners of cafes or alleys a few last flings of freedom are gasped at or tasted.

And up above, the shower clouds are gray and gathering.
Black silhouettes move through streets glistening from the rain.

-

Paranoid moments of a ghetto. Eight hundred years of almost uninterrupted worship in the Old/new Synagogue, the oldest in Europe. The walls and a cemetery still here, bones twelve deep, stones jostling for space, for more air.

A statue of a martyr in the old town square. People criss cross, a slow, slow quick amble stroll, guide books in hand. It is quarter to what time chiming? The astronomical clock, apostles on the hour, here the sun still revolves around the earth.

Prague spring, melting snows, a swollen river, the first flower; history thawing counter and pointing across city images.

And everywhere too, high camp baroque. The cherubs in the church are plump and smiling rising amongst the gold brocaded vaults. Gold and black marble columns on the altars swirling in dizzying numbers. Glory be to the cherubs and up they go narrowly missing the contrapuntal notes of choristers amongst the soft pastel ceilings. The devil lurks here too. Too many cherubs are bad for you.

We can’t tell when the last bell tolls if we don’t know the time.

There are important paths that looking up may make us miss.