In my last post, I wrote about the advantages of discovering a new city without a map. However, there’s an obvious downside to it: most of the time, you don’t know whether you’re headed in the right direction, until you actually reach your destination!
(Read the previous post of the Prague series, about Wenceslas Square)
When we set out for our first walk in the centre of Prague, my partner and I decided to reach Old Town Square from Wenceslas Square. As it often happens to map-less tourists, we took a longer route than we should have: the detour allowed us to explore Republic Square and its surroundings, before another wild guess directed us back to the Old Town. By then, it was seven in the evening: while we were expecting a lively city centre to unfold at every corner, all we saw was an array of closed shops and empty streets. We couldn’t help but wonder: is this really it?
Of course, it wasn’t – and I should have known better. All the Eastern European towns and cities I visited shut down after six or seven in the evening. Those without a touristic hub can leave you stranded, wondering where all the people have disappeared, and how they fill their evenings after their earlier-than-early dinners. Fortunately, this is not the case of Prague: the empty alleys we were treading were really just a few steps away from Old Town Square, with its busy souvenir shops, restaurant marquees, and food stalls selling typical fares.
Prague’s magic struck me again when we arrived at the Powder Gate, which marks the entrance to the Old Town. Looking at the church of Our Lady before Tyn, with its two towers outlined against the dark, foggy sky, I felt like in a fairytale: one where the hero wanders around for days, and finally reaches the enchanted castle after dusk, heading for a well-deserved night of rest after his many vicissitudes around the world.
We stopped by in Old Town Square many times during the following days, and realised that its charm is not just a nighttime illusion. The Square is stunning by daylight, with the two towers of Our Lady before Tyn outlined against the blue spring sky – and it’s equally beautiful when the sky is grey. Not something you’ll hear me say very often!
While exploring Old Town Square, we ran across many of the characters that usually gather where tourists are. Even so, the contrast with other European capitals couldn’t be more evident: as I had already noted in Wenceslas Square, I noticed an unusual composure in Old Town Square’s crowds, which had nothing to do with the joyous chaos of Barcelona’s Rambla, or the loud masses of London’s Leicester Square. We weren’t approached by any pushy restaurant owners looking for business, or street pedlars selling overpriced event tickets and plastic toys. Instead, we encountered a diverse crowd of street performers, engaging with passers-by in a playful way.
The surroundings are as charming as Old Town Square itself. The iconic Charles Bridge is a short walk away heading West, leading to Malá Strana (“The Lesser Town”), perched on the steep, tiny streets that lead to Prague Castle.
Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Josefov, flanks the North side of Old Town Square. At first, I was somewhat surprised by its rows of austere, elegant buildings: they didn’t seem to match anything I had read about the tragic history of Prague’s Old Ghetto. I couldn’t picture any wrongdoing or oppression happening in the posh-looking streets around the Spanish and Old New Synagogues; not where the luxurious shop fronts of Parizska and the neat cafes of Dlouha currently stand. I thought of this as further proof of Prague’s ability to conceal all evidence: something we had already noticed with regards to the Communist era and the Prague Spring, of which we saw little but a few leaflets pointing us towards the Museum of Communism (located above a McDonald’s. Oh, the irony!).
I had spoken too soon, and Prague surprised me once again. As we walked down the passage of Kozi, the refined facades and wide streets gradually gave way to shabbier buildings and unkempt, narrow alleys. On the walls, murals from today, and remnants of signs from a long-gone past.
Much more than the surrounding streets, this setting reminded me of the familiar sights of Rome and Venice’s Old Ghettos, and inspired me very similar sensations. The feeling that history goes beyond a few words printed on a textbook, or a travel guide’s glossy page; the consciousness that it has really happened; and finally, what every traveller longs for: the fascination of seeing for yourself.
(Coming up: Part 3 – Malá Strana)