Notes on...

The glorious bohemia of Prague

A playful city, and above all, a writer’s city.

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

Prague, ‘Golden Prague’, is rich in music, architecture, glassware, pilsner and natural beauty. It is one of those places where laughter — innocent laughter, not laughter in the dark — seems a natural response. It is a playful city, and the people are playful, gentle, ironic. Above all, it is a writer’s city.

The Czechs, be they Bohemians or Moravians, have literature in their blood. Tomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, was a philosopher. Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, was a playwright. And the most famous Czech of all, Franz Kafka, whose name has entered the language, was a novelist; a Prague novelist.

‘The spirit of Prague’, Ivan Klima has called it. You can sniff it in the streets and the squares, in the taverns and by the banks of the Vltava, the river hymned into being by Smetana in his epic ‘Ma Vlast’ (‘My Country’), which concludes the annual Festival of Music. Smetana’s statue overlooks the river, near the Charles Bridge, as it should.

Cross that lovely bridge, to Mala Strana, ‘the small side’ that nestles beneath the castle and St Vitus’s Cathedral, and you can enter the world of Jan Neruda, the 19th-century writer of short stories. Kafka came later, with Jaroslav Hasek, the creator of the good soldier Svejk, and Karel Capek, that man of many talents. After them came Bohumil Hrabal, Klima and Josef Skvorecky, who went to live in Canada. Milan Kundera, a Brno man who hopped off to Paris, and who writes in French, fits less snugly into the Prague writers’ club.

For many Bohemians, Neruda is the miniaturist who distils the spirit of Prague. Walk through those streets now, one of which bears his name, and you are transported to Steinitz’s bar, where two rivals in love, Rysanek and Schlegel, shared a table each week for 11 years without looking at one another until one day they shared a bag of tobacco.

Despite three centuries of occupation by Habsburg rulers, followed by the worst efforts of the Nazis and the Communists, Prague folk are not bitter. This was, remember, the city that welcomed Mozart. It continues to welcome any visitor with ears to hear and eyes that read. A wonderful restorative, Golden Prague.

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