A brooding, stolid city is Prague; the sombre capital of a restless, feverish people. It is the hotbed and “darling seat” of all Bohemia; and Bohemia languishes for her lost independence as Israel did by the waters of Babylon. She does not, however, pine in hopeless despair like the Hebrews, but nourishes a keen expectation of regaining her lost estate, and grits her teeth, in the mean while, with fiery impatience. She points, and with reason, to the fact that the Slavs – Czechs, Slovaks, and Moravians – easily outnumber the Hungarians; yet Hungary is free, and she in bondage. And so Bohemia, for all her exterior of gracious courtesy, is bitter and hard at heart; a people of a passionate, thwarted patriotism; a people that has suffered and been degraded, but that has never for a moment forgotten. Prague is an expression of all this; in her sullen, gloomy architecture; in the persistence of national types and characteristics; and peculiarly in the wild, reckless Moldau, which visualizes the traditional, savage intolerance that is bred in the bone of the fatalistic Slav.
There are too many daws about for Prague to wear her heart on her sleeve, so while she bides her time she presents a smiling mask. It may sometimes be a rather weary smile, and the forests that engulf her are gloomy and sinister; but her skies are not always lowering and overcast, and the peace of her fatigue from the national struggle is profound. It is just this deep, brooding peace that appeals to the stranger within her gates; and along with it he senses here a wonderful charm and underlying subtility that invests this curious old city with a lambent play of the imagination.
It was of Prague that Alexander von Humboldt said: “It is the most beautiful inland city I have ever seen.” And it must have been of some such spot that “R. L. S.” was mindful when he expressed the paradox that “any place is good enough to live a life in, while it is only in a few, and those highly favored, that we can pass a few hours agreeably.” Restfulness is surely one of the prime essentials of the “highly favored” few; and there is no restfulness at all comparable with that we feel in some venerated spot whose present hush and quiet is a reaction from its other days of fever and turmoil. One finds these qualities in Prague, whose calm and serenity seem doubly intense in contrast with its history of tumult and savagery and the hatred and violence that racked and convulsed it for hundreds of years. It has frequently been lightly disposed of as being an “out-of-the-way place”; but no place is more delightful than an “out-of-the-way” place, and particularly when it has the natural and architectural beauty of this one, or has been the theatre of such unusual and stirring occurrences.
Had we but one hour to spend in Prague we should certainly choose the charmed one between four and five o’clock of an afternoon. The sunshine is then most languid and golden, and the day declines slowly over the castled tops of the Hradschin-crowned slope, and the lengthening shadows of towers and turrets creep out on the river, and the copper domes and ruddy tiles of the Neustadt glow in bright spots against the darkling green of the wooded hillsides. If one does not then feel a profound and elevating sense of tranquillity and translating beauty, it will be because he has eyes to see yet sees not.
Since Prague rests under the imputation of being “out of the way,”- and even Shakespeare set this inland kingdom down as “a desert country near the sea,” and lost his compass completely in the shipwreck in the “Winter’s Tale” with Antigonus exclaiming: Our ship hath touch’d upon the deserts of Bohemia”; and a confused mariner replying, “Aye, my lord; and fear we’ve landed in ill time,” – we may, perhaps, be pardoned for observing that in general appearance it is a wooded valley traversed in its full length by a swift, turbulent river, which follows a northerly course excepting where it bends sharply to the east in the very heart of the city. This stream, the Moldau, rushes along as if in desperate haste to throw itself into the Elbe, and seems to have the one idea, as it dashes through Prague, of getting done with its business and on its way at the earliest moment possible. It has scoured its islands into ovals, slashed the rocky bases of the hills, and continually assailed its bridges and quays. But through all its exhibitions of ill humor the Praguers have indulgently condoned and even extolled it; it was only when the beloved and venerated Karlsbrucke fell a partial victim to its violence, a dozen years ago, that patience ceased to be a virtue and the unnatural marauder was comprehensively anathematized with all the sibilant fury of the hissing tongue of the Czech. Speed apart, there is little to complain of with the Moldau; it is broad and of a pleasant deep blue, and the beauty it supplies to the setting of the city is supplemented by the importance of its traffic, the amusements on its many little wooded islands, and the delights of its boating and bathing. In a word, it is a noble stream – and none the less Bohemian, perhaps, for being a little proud and headstrong.
As the afternoon sun lies heavy over Prague one notes with delight how snugly the old city nestles along the river and up the hillsides of the valley, and with what a natural and comfortable air; not at all as though trying, as newer cities do, to shoulder its suburbs out of the way. It seems a perfect type of the mediaeval town, with buildings of solid stone of an agreeable and universal creamy tone, four-square and enduring. It abounds in quaint, high pitched roofs; in curious, turreted spires; in red tiles and green copper domes; and in objects of antique and archaic fascination. Shade trees are everywhere. Indeed, from the thickly wooded heights of the surrounding hills right down to the river quays the gray of the houses and the red and green of the roofs make beautiful color combinations with the feathery foliage.
One stands on the old Karlsbriicke and looks upstream and there he sees the rocky heights of the Wyschehrad Hill on which the fair and wise Libussa reared her castle when she laid the foundations of the city, thirteen centuries ago, and which he will want to visit later to look over the fortifications and to study the glowing frescoes on the cloister walls of the Benedictine monastery of Emmaus. In the elbow of the Moldau, downstream, he will observe the old sections of Prague huddled together in cramped confusion, with no sign left of the ancient separating walls that once defined the original seven districts, though he is to learn, by and by, that the early names remain unchanged – the Aldstadt, and the Jewish Josephstadt, and around and above them the Neustadt, which, of course, from an American time-point, is really not “new” at all. On his left, along the river, he sees the Kleinseite spread out, and on the hillside above it that far-famed acropolis, the redoubtable Hradschin, with its dusty, barracks-like royal and state palaces, and the great bulk of the cathedral of St. Vitus rising out of it like some man-made mount. Such is the first bird’s-eye impression of Prague, set in its wooded slopes, stolid and softly colored. Later on one can scrape acquaintance with its rambling, flourishing, modern suburbs, to the eastward and downstream, and wrestle at his pleasure with such impressive nomenclature as Karolinenthal and BubnaHoleschowitz.
Between four and five o’clock the visitor will find an especial pleasure in noting the activities that prevail in the several little green islands that fret the impetuous Moldau as it hurries through this “hundred-towered, golden Prague.” The dearest of these to the sentimental Czech is bright Sophien-Insel, that you could almost leap onto from the stone coping of the neighboring Kaiser-Franzbrucke. It always wears a gay and inviting appearance, with cafe tables set under fine old oaks, but precisely at four, summer afternoons, the leader of its military band lifts his baton and launches some crashing prelude, and the noisy company instantly stills and with nervously tapping fingers and glowing eyes abandons itself to that music passion which is the deepest and most intense expression of the Bohemian temperament. It gives the dilettante a new conception of the power of this inspiring art to observe the significant and varying expressions that play over the faces of a Prague audience under its influence. He witnesses then the profoundest stirring of the Slavic nature and the moving of emotional depths beyond the conception of the reserved and impassive Anglo-Saxon. Especially is this so when the music is of a national character, such as the “Ma Vlast” symphonic poems of Smetana, or a Slavic dance of Dvorak’s. These Bohemian masters, with their fellow countryman, Fibich, constitute a trinity that is reverenced in their native land to an extent that almost passes belief, and that has done so much in making Prague one of the foremost centres of Europe.
The music from the Sophien-Insel floats down the river to our vantage-point on Karlsbrucke, mellowed and softened, and contributes just the right pleasing note to the agreeable mood these picturesque surroundings excite. The ponderous, antique old structure on which we stand has the appearance of some full-page color illustration for a charming Middle-Age romance. For half a millennium it has dug its broad arches into the bottom of the Moldau, stoutly defiant of flood or storm. Its massive buttresses are crowned with heroic statues so deeply revered that pilgrimages are made by the faithful to pay their devotions before them. For a third of a mile this old veteran strides the stream, and at each end he lifts an amazing mediaeval tower well worth a journey to stare at. These ponderous structures, weathered by centuries of storm to a rich brownish black, are pierced by a deep Gothic archway through which the street traffic pours all day. Their sides are decorated with colonnades and traceries, armorial bearings and statues of ancient heroes of the city, and their tops are incredible creations of slender turrets and of pointed roofs so desperately precipitate that they seem like long narrow paving-stones tilted end to end.
Catholic legend and ceremonial run riot on the old bridge. The statues are almost altogether of a religious character, and two of them, the Crucifixion Group and the bronze one of St. John Nepomuc, are practically never passed without the sign of the cross and the raising of hat or cap; in the case of the latter the devout will touch the tablet that marks the spot from which he is said to have been cast into the river, and then kiss their fingers and bless themselves. For St. John Nepomuc, of all the holy martyrs, was Prague’s very own. The legend is dramatic. Father John was the queen’s confessor, five hundred years ago, and when he declined to oblige the king by revealing what the queen had told under the seal of the confessional, his Majesty had him summarily cast into the Moldau, from just where we are standing at the centre of this bridge. The result was far from the expectations of the king, for not only was the poor priest preserved from sinking, but – which is quite as hard to believe of so swift a stream as this – he actually remained floating for four days at the very spot where he fell, and five bright stars hung above him all the while! When they took him out he was dead, and to this extent only did the king succeed. As was perfectly natural, the amazed Praguers could see nothing in all this but an astounding miracle; and when Catholicism had finally displaced the Protestantism that followed the Hussite wars for two hundred years, their clamor for the canonization of Father John eventually resulted in placing the name of St. John Nepomuc in the catalogue of Rome. Equipped with a saint all their own, they adroitly converted the statues of the Protestant John Huss, that stood here and there about town, into St. John Nepomucs by the simple expedient of adding a five-starred halo to each.
Now, if today were the sixteenth of May, St. John Nepomuc’s special day, we should behold the greatest festival of all the year. An altar would be erected beside his statue, here on the bridge, and mass celebrated before enormous kneeling crowds. Bohemian peasants would flock into town from miles and miles around, in all the picturesque finery of the national dress, gala performances would be given at the theatres, an especial illumination of the city made at public expense, and fireworks displayed tonight on Schutzen-Insel. It would be an orderly celebration, too, for the Czechs are more fond of dancing than drinking; and religious enthusiasm would be practically universal, for Prague, which for two centuries was exclusively Protestant, now numbers at least nine Catholics out of every ten of its people.