Prague fixed itself indelibly in my imagination because of two early memories. As I child I would gaze at the statue of the Infant of Prague that my grandparents kept on top their television. For anyone not versed in Catholic iconography, let me describe the statue: a child, clothed in flowing robes, holding in his left hand a globe and raising his right hand to give a benediction (little and ring finger closed into the palm, middle, pointer, and thumb stretched out). He is also wearing a very large crown. On the Castle side of the river is a church dedicated to the Infant. And of course, every souvenir shop in Prague features several versions. The Infant actually originated in Spain, supposedly as an apparition to St. Theresa of Avila. A member of the Spanish royal family, being married to a Bohemian noble, brought the statue of the Infant to Prague.
The other detail that made Prague seem so real to me came from a world history class I took in high school; of course, it was called “world history,” but it really meant European history. We were studying the Reformation (major lesson: protestants bad, catholics good) and a chapter on the Thirty Years War mentioned, as a major cause of the war, the “defenestration of Prague,” when protestant citizens threw catholic officials out a window. Naively, I imagined a rowdy scene during which people were tossed out of a first floor window onto the grass, like a bunch of kids at over-exuberant play. I’ve learned since that the Bohemians used defenstration to show their displeasure at those with whom they disagreed. Walking the streets of Prague, I came to appreciate that being tossed out a window onto the cobblestones below could cause serious injury and death. Those officials tossed out at the defenstration are rumored to have been saved from death either by angels or by landing in a dung heap. I expect your choice salvation depends on your doctrinal leanings.
Walking through the old city of Prague is a bit like eating marzipan. The first taste is amazingly rich and luxurious; the second pleasant, and the third cloying. On our last day, we walked away from the old city toward Wenceslas Square, needing some more common fare, and found a long boulevard lined with stores ranging ranging from elegant and expensive to every day and commonplace. The shoppers moved quickly and with purpose, buying what they needed or would use; they didn’t dawdle and window shop for knick knacks as they did in the old city’s narrow winding streets.
I learned on this excursion that Wenceslas, the figure in the Christmas Carol was not a king, only a duke. But he was good.
Once away from the dense city center, we drifted along more open streets, slipping in and out of doorways, discovering gardens, small remote squares, and surprising buildings. I realized that roses were still blooming in Prague, smelling them before I could locate the origins of the scent.
And we found a garden, just a block off the main boulevard that offered a contemplative view of the Church of St. Mary of the Snows.
Walking toward the river, we paused at this reflection of the old in the new.
The building turned out to be the Czech Academy of Science, which opened into an ornate reading room and offered an unusual exhibit of French modernist and advant garde art. Guarding the extrance were two mounted lions, more aggressive than those posing at the New York Public Library.
Prague is a city of bridges and today we took a third one across and caught a different perspectives of the Castle and the roofs of the old city.
On the Charles Bridge, heading back to the old city, was a bit like swimming up stream into the crowds still pressing toward the Castle district.