Prague: Away From The Bridge

As we look about us this afternoon we derive a vivid consciousness of being very far from home, set down in an environment that is, for Europe, oddly foreign and unfamiliar. The soft, sibilant prattle of the Czechish speech is heard on every hand, and the names on cars and corners are outlandish to us, with their profusion of consonants and curious accent marks like our o and v. One sees a great disproportion in numbers between the German and Czechish population; only thirteen to the hundred are said to be German, but in the opinion of Bohemians that is too many, for the stubborn struggle for the existence of the old national speech and spirit against the threatening usurpation of the Teutonic invaders is a real matter of life and death. As we watch the crowds throng along the bridge the prevalence of the Slavic type is very noticeable: short of body, heavy of head, and with high cheek bones and coarse features. The general expression is one of settled melancholy, bred of their peculiar fatalism. Having heard the “Bohemian Girl” and read the foundationless libels of popular French literature, one looks about for gypsies; he will be lucky if he finds one. Bohemia, as he should have known, is one of the leading industrial countries of Europe, and Prague is made up of hardworking, skillful mechanics. Energy and resolution are stamped on these serious, rugged faces; on the powerful men, the tall, strong women, and even on the little blackeyed children. And they can do many worthy things well: they market the country’s rich coal and iron deposits, make garnets to perfection, and manufacture beet-sugar by thousands of tons. Who has not heard of Bohemian glass, or Pilsener beer? And shall we belittle the resourcefulness of Bohemia, with the prosperous resorts of Karlsbad and Marienbad well within the western boundary of the Bohmer Wald? If this does not convince, one has only to run over to Dresden, seventy-five miles away, which he can reach by rail in four hours at an outlay of but eight florins, and ask any one where the finest farm produce comes from and what section yields the best fruit and honey, butter and eggs, milk and cheese.

If now we can manage to look away from the bridge and its crowds, we shall observe that the afternoon activities of the river-life of Prague are manifold and highly interesting. There is a prodigious bustling about of longshoremen on the fine, broad quays, and boats of many descriptions and diversified cargoes are laboriously struggling upstream or drifting guardedly down. From time to time huge, unwieldy rafts pass along to the din of vigorous shouting and hysterical warnings. Bathers at the riverside establishments are adding their share of laughter and frolic, their diversions watched with vast amusement by the afternoon idlers loitering along the embankments. On our right the shaded walks and trim lawns of the popular RudolfsQuai are comfortably filled with a leisurely company of promenaders and of nursemaids airing their charges. All this contributes an agreeable note of homeliness and contentment and seems eminently in harmony with the prevailing serenity and peace of the surrounding groves. There is at hand a little chain footbridge which they call the Kettensteg, and in a beautiful clump of lindens at its end rise the sculptured porticoes of the classic Rudolfinum, Prague’s noble home of the arts and industries. Enter it, and you find whole halls devoted to the work of Bohemian artists, with the school of old Theodoric of Prague represented in surprising completeness, an entire cabinet filled with the engravings of that famous Praguer, Wenzel Hollar, and many of the most beautiful paintings of such celebrated Bohemians as Gabriel Max, Vaclav Brozik and Josef Manes.

With artistic bridges arching the river in whichever direction you look, with music and soft voices welling up from the gay islands, and with a full and virile life at cry along the quays, you find yourself about as far removed as possible from the atmosphere of Longfellow’s “Beleaguered City”.

“Beside the Moldau’s rushing stream, With the wan moon overhead, There stood, as in an awful dream, The army of the Dead.”

Assuredly, there is no “army of the dead” at this hour beside the Moldau, whatever there may be under the “wan moon” in a poet’s eye. On the contrary, there is an army of the living, a quarter-million of them, and it marches without resting, day in and day out, along the Graben and the stately Wenzels-Platz, and through the venerable Grosser Ring and the narrow, crooked alleys of old Josephstadt.

Walk east across Karlsbriicke, pass under the Gothic arch of the somnolent Aldstadt Tower, with the stony statue of Karl IV on your left, and you will shortly emerge on the Grosser Ring and can settle the matter for yourself. This fantastic Ring is the oldest and most famous square of the city, still preserving its ancient appearance. You find it an irregular quadrilateral, surrounded by quaint, gloomy, colonnaded houses, churches, and dilapidated palaces. There towers in its centre a sombre memorial column, called the Mariensaule, commemorating Prague’s liberation from the Swedes at the close of the Thirty Years’ War. The very first thing to catch the eye is the singular Teynkirche – the old Gothic church where John Huss so often preached, where the astronomer Tycho Brahe lies entombed in red marble, and in whose shadows, through five centuries, many of the bloodiest events of the city had their inception and execution. The influence of Huss on the Europe of his day was so great and has continued so long that it is hard to realize that he had only reached his forty-sixth year when the Council of Constance sent him and his friend, Jerome of Prague, to the stake. The old Teynkirche, where he so often attacked the doctrines of Rome, still rears its battered and darkened bulk from behind a melancholy row of colonnaded houses and gazes solemnly and patiently over them at the noisy Ring, its lofty spires curiously clustered with airy turrets like hornets’ nests on some old tree. Directly opposite, the modern Gothic Rathaus shoulders up to the moldering tower of its predecessor whose famous clock has delighted its thousands with the surprising things the automatic figures do when the hours and quarters roll around. Just at hand, a portion of the old Erkerkapelle still stands in excellent preservation, and you could not find more beautiful Gothic windows in all Prague, nor finer canopied saints nor more richly sculptured coats of arms. Before this building – a place of hideous history – the best blood of the city was spilled after the fall of Bohemian independence at the fateful battle of the White Hill, three centuries ago, when twenty-seven nobles were butchered here on the scaffold. A dozen years passed, and again blood soaked this earth, with the stony-hearted Wallenstein executing eleven of his chief officers for alleged cowardice at the battle of Lutzen. Prague still shows the palace of Wallenstein, and those of the other two famous generals of his period, Gallas and Piccolomini. The Clam-Gallas Palace is just at hand, in the Hussgasse, distinguished for its beautiful portal flanked with colossal caryatids and sculptured urns, and surmounted by a marble balustrade wrought with the perfection of life. A final note in the Old-World charm of the Grosser Ring is contributed by the ancient Kinsky Palace, adjoining the Teynkirche, in the elaborate baroque architecture despised of Mr. Ruskin. People in the manner and seeming of today walk and talk, barter and sell under the nodding brows of these historic buildings, but the visitor stands among them unconscious of their noisy presence in the spell such storied surroundings cast on every phase of fancy and imagination.

There is a peculiar fascination about aimless rambles in Prague. Modern improvements have come, of course, but many an old and rare landmark has been reverently preserved, with the result that you can scarcely turn a corner or cross a square without coming face to face with some fantastic and blackened architectural fragment that holds you spellbound with wonder and delight. Whole sections, indeed, are of such a character; as you would find were you to fare forth from the Grosser Ring and seek adventures by crossing the Kettensteg and invading the region beyond the Rudolfinum. With almost the suddenness of tumbling into a river you would find yourself groping, even at this bright hour of the afternoon, in the black and twisting mazes of the old Jewish Ghetto that still goes by the name of Josephstadt. Here you have at once all the detail and color of a romance of the crusades. Everything appears aged and eccentric. The time-weary, saddened, ramshackle houses project their upper stories feebly and seek to rest their wrinkled foreheads on one another; tortuous, winding alleys that you can almost span with your outstretched arms reel giddily all ways from a straight line, plodding wearily uphill and sliding helplessly down. On all sides there seems to be a general feeling that nothing matters, that everything comes by accident or caprice. Over the frowzy heads of slovenly children quarreling in the doorways, glimpses are to be had of dark and filthy interiors, from which foul odors escape to the street. Long-coated, unkempt patriarchs of Israel lope solemnly by, with rounded shoulders and hands clasped behind; and if you follow in their wake you will sooner or later arrive at a curious, melancholy Rathaus that is a rare jumble of architectural orders and has an extraordinary steeple that might once have done time on a Chinese temple. This very inclusive structure, persisting in its oddities to the end, makes a great point of staring down at the gaping crowds out of a big belfry clock that has one dial Hebrew and one Christian. But a single marvel is as nothing in this old wonderland where, as Alice would have remarked, things become “curiouser and curiouser.” If your eyes popped at the Rathaus what will they do at the gaunt, barnlike synagogue next door! Here is the thing that every visitor to Prague goes straight to see. Its early history is lost in legends, but you will be disposed to credit them all – even to that one about the Prague Jews fleeing from Jerusalem to escape the persecutions of Titus – once you have seen its doleful walls and breakneck roof, and have passed through the narrow black doorway into that shadowy tomb of an interior. Brass lamps depend by long chains from the smoky ceiling, but they only intensify the gloom with their feeble light and deepen the feeling of creepy depression. Visitors are told that during the horrors of the Hussite wars this black hole was literally packed with the bloody corpses of Jews and that, in a bitter spirit of defiance, no attempt was made for three hundred years to efface the frightful stains. Little wonder that the Prague Jews evolved out of their hatred an ancient malediction that ran: “May your head be as thick as the walls of the Hradschin, your body grow as big as the city of Prague; may your limbs wither away to birds’ claws, and may you flee around the world for a thousand years!”

It is like escaping from a sick-bed to come out of this, chamber of horrors and cross the street to the quiet and hush of the wonderful old Ghetto cemetery. Here we have another of the “sights” of the Josephstadt. In the refreshing coolness of its elder-trees one looks about on as extraordinary a three acres as can be found anywhere in all Europe. The Jews insist that they have buried here for twelve or fourteen hundred years, and inscriptions can be found that date back at least half that far. By the simple process of spreading new layers of earth, this plot has been packed with graves six deep; and all that was accomplished a hundred and fifty years ago, the cemetery not having been in use since the middle of the eighteenth century. The closeness of the black, mossy tombstones, and their toppled and huddled look, suggest the troubled shouldering of some gigantic, ghoulish mole at work deep down in the horror-crowded darkness underground. The ancient tribal insignia of Israel are found graven on these tottering slabs, – the Hands of Aaron, the Cup of Levi, the Double Triangle of David, the Stag, the Fish, etc., – and here and there you come across those little piIes of stones heaped on graves that mark a Jewish act of reverence for the resting-place of some long-buried ancestor.

Hold to a generally southern direction in your afternoon stroll through the narrow Ghetto alleys, and shortly you will meet with a fine reward in the shape of a face-to-face contemplation of one of Prague’s most cherished antiquities, the Pulverturm. They may have once stored powder here, as the name implies, or they may not; but almost anything looks to have been possible to this sturdy, brown survivor of the Middle Ages, under whose broad Gothic archway the twentieth-century crowds are passing day and night. Set solidly down in the thickest stream of traffic, it has the look of those unconquerable obstructions that have to be tunneled through. It looms above you, a great, dark, dusty mass, out-of-time in every particularity of design and decoration. Stubbornness and defiance are expressed in every line; and with its atmosphere of drowsy aloofness and mystery there is such an element of loneliness among such modern surroundings that one could almost believe he sometimes hears the old veteran sigh. Certainly you would say it is brooding over memories centuries dead, so incongruous and distrait is its seeming, so anachronous are its whimsical turrets, fantastic roof, statues, arms, and sculptured traceries. This impression of isolation is enhanced as one reflects that the most ultra-modern of Prague’s new buildings all stand within easy range, could one of the Pulverturm’s ancient archers take up a position in any of those lofty turrets and wing an arrow from his stout crossbow toward what quarter of the heavens he chose.

When you have passed under the arch of the Pulverturm, you have entered the Graben, and so reached the business heart of the city. The Graben has nothing today to suggest the “Ditch” that its derivative source implies, unless you fancifully regard it as a moat of the modern commercial ramparts. On the contrary, it presents a busy array of all the leading hotels, shops, restaurants, and cafes. Overhead-trolley cars splutter along it, and you see gray stone buildings of irregular roof-lines with skylight dormers in the tiles, and Venetian blinds in the windows, narrow sidewalks decorated in mosaic designs, and active throngs of strong-featured men, and bareheaded, vigorous women whose chief pride of dress concerns itself with capacious aprons elaborately embroidered. Were you to visit the second-story cafes, whose gay window-boxes look so inviting from the street, you would find games of chess and checkers in progress at this hour, and more than one merchant who had stolen from his shop to have a look at the “Prager Tagblatt” over a glass of Pilsener or “three fingers” of the plum brandy they call slivovitz or a dram of tshai – which is tea and rum – or a cup of tee – which is just plain tea and cream. Coffee and chocolate, of course, would be found in general demand.

One passes out of the Graben into the fine boulevard of the Wenzelsplatz, and at once exchanges bustle and uproar for the quiet and dignity of the most beautiful and stately avenue of the city. It is broad and wellpaved, with buildings of elaborate design, with shop fronts protected by bright awnings and with fine shadetrees every few yards along its entire length. At the corner of the Stadt Park, one finds a beautiful cascade fountain, and beside it a noble building which is the centre of all that is best and most intense in the new movement for the reviving and vitalizing of the national spirit among Bohemians – the new Bohemian Museum. Were you to enter it you would doubtless be astonished to see how many souvenirs of Bohemian history have already been assembled there, – autographs and documents, ancient musical instruments, art objects, flails of the Hussites, and scientific collections. Such is the intellectual Bohemia of today.

From this pleasant stroll one wends his way back to the Karlsbriicke, and as he passes the buildings that still remain of the ancient famous university, thoughts are kindled of the wonderful renown this institution had, six centuries ago, when it was easily the foremost educational institution of the world. Fifteen thousand students, from every quarter of the earth, gathered to hear its celebrated savants, and the revels and achievements of those days have gone down in prose and rhyme. Five thousand students still attend, two thirds of them Czechs and the others German; but the revelry of today is largely the bitter and bruising encounters that are continually arising between these conflicting hot-heads. The intellectual impulse is strong in Prague. It has polytechnic institutes, art schools, and learned societies, and one of the most famous conservatories of music in the whole of Europe.

The west bank of the Moldau, the Kleinseite district, was royalty’s region in the olden time when Bohemian kings and queens dwelt in the huge Hradschin on the ridge of the hill. Seen from the Karlsbrucke, toward five o’clock, the long slope rises toward the declining sun with many more suggestions, even now, of the pomp and circumstance that have departed than of the modernism that has taken their place. There is a dreary and saddening array of closed and boarded palaces, arcaded and many-windowed, whose owners are rich and powerful Bohemian nobles with a preference for the gayeties and frivolities of the court life of Vienna. One regards with especial interest the long, rambling one of Wallenstein, to make room for which one hundred houses had to be torn down, where this rival of royalty retired in the interval of imperial disfavor and held magnificent court with hundreds of followers and attendants. Among the many chambers of that great honeycomb was one equipped as an astrological cabinet – for Wallenstein always had faith in his star. How vividly it recalls the Schiller dramas and the operations of the uncanny Ceni ! “Such a man!” exclaims a character at the conclusion of “Wallensteins Tod.” Born a Protestant, he well-nigh became their exterminator; turned Jesuit, the Jesuits distrusted and hated him. With his sword he made and unmade kings and carved out principalities for himself – and yet he was but fifty-one years old at the time of his assassination!