Kafka's Prague: surreal moments in Old Europe

Looking out from Prague's 14th-century Charles Bridge to the hilltop castle.
  • Looking out from Prague's 14th-century Charles Bridge to the hilltop castle.

Prague is a strikingly beautiful baroque city and the prime gateway for Americans into Eastern Europe. The city has intrigued me ever since I became enamored with Franz Kafka’s books as a teenager.

An Old World introduction

Arriving on a stiflingly hot summer day after a long red-eye flight, I waited to meet my host, Dana, at a cafe adjoining a metro stop. Joyous, squealing local kids splashed in a nearby fountain to keep cool.

Dana, a tour guide, soon arrived following her shift.

“No time to waste,” she offered to my approving ears and weary limbs. “Let’s explore Prague.”

Bird's eye view of Prague.

Bird's eye view of Prague.

I perked up from my lingering jetlag as we caught a quick tram ride up the hill to sample the local beer. (Ah, Czech beer – that’s the way to start!) We relaxed near Strahov Monastery, conversing over what Dana said was the best beer in town, St. Norbert’s, brewed at the monastery. Dana reminisced about her Servas (Google it!) experiences, good and bad, traveling around the U.S. We then walked to the back of the monastery, where I paused to savor a panoramic view of the city before ambling down the hill to the tram stop. Along the way, we passed some intriguing absinthe shops which I couldn’t resist investigating (although I didn’t dare imbibe after downing a few of those Czech beers).

The architect Frank Gehry's shape-shifting Dancing House.

The architect Frank Gehry's shape-shifting Dancing House.

I quickly discovered that, unlike most American cities, Prague is a walker’s delight. It’s also suffused with efficient public transportation. Frequent metros and trams whisked us around town quickly and with little waiting time.

Gehry’s Dancing House & Wenceslaus Square

I mentioned to Dana that I wanted to visit Frank Gehry’s Dancing House (originally named the Fred and Ginger House) before leaving Prague. Seemingly a few minutes later, we were there. The building’s undulating curves seemed to me a stroke of genius. Dancing House is closed to the public with the exception of the Celeste restaurant, one of Prague’s best, at the top. Diners here are awarded another magnificent view of the city.

A few blocks away, Dana pointed out the apartment of former Czech president and national hero, Vaclav Havel. “He was my hero, but he disappointed me with his affairs,” she remarked.

We then ventured over to Wenceslaus Square, where thousands of locals gathered in 1989, jangling keys in the air to signal to communist leaders it was time to leave. Amazingly, they did, in what turned out to be a quick and bloodless revolution, known here as the Velvet Revolution for its peaceful nature. Democracy had returned to Prague after fifty years of occupation by the Nazis and communists.

Old Town Square

On our way to the Old Town Square we checked out another unusual modern building, the House of the Black Madonna, a museum of Czech cubism. Prague has one of the most varied collections of architecture in the world, including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, Cubist, Neo-Classical and ultra-modern buildings, all accessible within an afternoon’s walk.

Týn Church rises up behind Old Town Square at dusk.

Týn Church rises up behind Old Town Square at dusk.

As dusk settled in, my mind swirling from all I had seen in just a couple of hours, we arrived at the pedestrian walk leading to Old Town Square. The summer twilight lent a magical aura to this

centuries-old setting. I looked beyond the sea of tourists to the 700-year-old gothic structures, Tyn Church and Old Town Hall, bathed in a light glow of moonlight.

Black Light Theater

I took a few moments to soak it in before Dana signaled, “Time for the Black Light Theater.”

She offered up a free ticket to this curious form of entertainment I’d read about in my guidebook on the flight over. This particular black light show, WOW, was just one of nine black light performances throughout Prague and had been described as “the best show in Prague.”

Dana, however, did not get my hopes up.

Advertisement for WOW.

Advertisement for WOW.

“I went to the performance of Aspects of Alice in Ta Fantastika and it was quite boring”, she warned. “The performer just gets naked at the end and I think you have to be a little dumb to like it. I think this one will be better though.”

As the performance of WOW opened, dancers in fluorescent clothing and an innovative use of lighting set the scene. I was immediately entranced. The show involved a combination of dark, eerie elements (which elicited some screams from the audience) and light, playful ones. The audience was invited, seduced, and cajoled (sometimes kicking and screaming) to enter a person’s dream – one that’s not always pleasant.

The most interesting aspect of the performance to me was how it melded elements of ballet, dance, theater, drama, magic, Cirque de Soleil, even performance art into a non-verbal, visual spectacle. I came out of the theater feeling I had experienced something quite unique. Even Dana, after the show, concluded that WOW was a higher-quality experience than Aspects of Alice. Oh, and no one got naked in this one.

Theater is a significant part of the Czech identity, and Black Light Theater in Prague dates back to 1961, the brainchild of artistic director, Jiri Srnec. Vaclav Havel was himself a playwright and did some work at Laterna Magika, one of the main black light theaters.

Responses to Black Light Theater performances are usually either strongly positive or negative. Some locals complain Black Light Theater is only a “scam for tourists” and does not represent Czech culture. Others disagree just as vehemently.

It’s clearly not for everybody, and those who want to attend something more traditional and familiar are better advised to attend a local ballet, opera or standard theater.

The next day: Vlatlava & Charles Bridge

The following morning, I climbed to the top of Old Town Hall Tower for a panoramic view of Prague’s historic center. Hordes of tourists, sipping coffee from the Old Town Square Starbucks, gathered below near the Astronomical Clock for one of the “free” (actually tip-based) tours that have gained hype.

Another view across the Vltava from the Charles Bridge.

Another view across the Vltava from the Charles Bridge.

After meeting up with Dana and her clients, a woman from Hong Kong with her daughter visiting Prague to celebrate the girl’s graduation, we took a boat ride on the Vltava River. We were shown a black-and-white photo of the massive 16-meter-high statue of Stalin that towered imposingly over the river from 1955-1962, years of the Czech Republic’s (formerly Czechoslovakia’s) domination by Stalin and the Soviets. Quite a contrast to the magical carefree setting of this balmy June afternoon.

We then walked across Charles Bridge, built in the 14th century, and worked our way through crowds of tourists and beggars, admiring the numerous statues of saints that lined the bridge.

Franz Kafka: museum & castle

A visit to the nearby Franz Kafka Museum was a treat for someone like me with an appreciation for the writer. Numerous documents and interactive exhibits made this a worthwhile visit. The museum also offered an interesting look at Prague during Kafka’s years here.

Making our way back up the hill to St Vitus’s Cathedral, we visited the castle and checked out where Kafka lived and wrote a book or two (presumably The Castle). We were treated to another bird’s eye view of Prague before I set out on my own to further explore the city.

Search for the John Lennon Wall

I decided to look for the John Lennon Wall, a symbol of freedom to the locals, particularly during the 1980’s when it was also a subversive symbol of rebellion against the communist regime.

My quest became more complicated as, despite some detailed directions, I could not find the wall. Deciding to change my bearings and appreciate the moment, I relaxed in a park alongside the Vltava River and struck up a conversation with a young local who spoke excellent English. He had heard about the JL Wall but had not seen it.

I asked him if he had always lived in Prague. He told me he grew up in a rural area of the Czech Republic, and had just come to Prague a few months earlier because “this is where the jobs are.” He spoke optimistically about his hopes for the future. We talked about our lives and enjoyed the beautiful view of Prague across the river. I was in no hurry to leave. What does the song say? “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Up close at the John Lennon Wall.

Up close at the John Lennon Wall.

Finally, I asked for directions from another local, whose face lit up when I asked him about the John Lennon Wall. He pointed out the way, a walk of just a few short blocks. The brilliantly colorful wall made me catch my breath at first sight. It hearkened back to the 60s with its peace symbols, colors, and Beatles lyrics and images.

Ironically, the 60s was a drab period for the Czech people. I thought about what Dana had told me about the inability of locals to travel when the Czech Republic was Czechoslovakia, one of the Soviet-bloc countries: “We could not travel to a non-communist country. There were severe restrictions on our ability to travel.” This gave added poignancy to such inspired quotes on the wall such as “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

An excess of graffiti by tourists suggested that, years earlier, this was a more relevant and impressive sight. Yet clearly it was an important outlet for public expression, and was worth the jaunt for me.

To me, the spirit of Kafka will always remain here, hovering over Prague like the dawn mist that cloaks Charles Bridge, but life here does not seem quite as Kafkaesque as it once was.

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