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Pure Gold


© St. Petersburg Times

It was a mellow, golden mid-summer evening my last day in Prague, so I lingered over my cappuccino at the sidewalk cafe, soaking in the sensual images. Just below, birds were swooping after debris among specks of gold that bounced off the dark waters of the Vltava River. At the next table, a not-so-young actor by the name of Vaclav was in the mood to talk. Since gold seemed to be everywhere, the conversation quite easily flowed onto the subject of color.

"How do you like my city?" he inquired.

"I can see why they call Prague the City of Gold," I said.

"I think it has changed. Prague has turned green now."

He proceeded to tell me an old joke that he said shed light upon the Czech character. It seems that God appeared to an American and a Czech and offered to grant each of them one wish. The American said his neighbor had a brand new Oldsmobile and a big house with a swimming pool. He would like the same.

"And what would you like?" God asked the Czech.

"My neighbor has a nice, fat pig. Let it die."

Vaclav explained that before the 1989 revolution, no one had anything, so in the pubs people could feel more or less on an equal footing with everyone else. Now the man at the next table might be wearing an expensive Italian suit and have his BMW parked outside. Envy has become a national pastime.

For Vaclav, as an actor, things are not so great these days. Cultural subsidies have disappeared and most of the films being shot in the Czech Republic are made by foreigners, here to take advantage of cheaper crews and locations. Vaclav, once a leading man, now gets bit parts.

Whatever its ultimate destiny -- capitalist or some Czech variation thereof -- since the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, Prague has been a city in the throes of a miraculous transformation. Today, everywhere you look you see cranes, scaffolding, drills, carpenters, painters, masons, restorers. Statues and facades have been patched and scrubbed clean of industrial soot. Fading buildings have been repainted and repaired. On one street, I saw a small group of men methodically laying cobblestones to replace the ugly Soviet-laid asphalt that had covered the original stones.

Hand-in-hand with its remodeling from the Soviet command economy to a post-mortem, market-driven society, the city is also returning to the past. It is restoring the glory it once had in its Golden Age.

In the 9th century, Prague Castle was founded on a ridge overlooking the Vltava River where international trade routes converged. Markets sprang up and the city became one of the most prosperous trading centers in Europe.

Prague's Golden Age began in the mid-14th century during the reign of Charles IV, who seems to get credit for just about everything ancient in the city. Charles was a "builder king," who not only made Prague the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and founded the first university in Eastern Europe in 1348, but who also turned the city to gold. As an advertisement for the city's power and glory, Charles ordered that all the lead roofs of the towers and defensive walls be gilded in gold.

What makes Prague so unusual is that it has moved through the centuries virtually unravaged. It has survived revolutions and counter-revolutions, three centuries of Hapsburg despotism, six brutal years of Nazi occupation and four soul-less decades of Communism. How it has done this while other European cities were obliterated is due to a uniquely Czech survival tool.

Canadian author Peter C. Newman (who was born in Czechoslovakia) explains that the Czechs perfected what they call pod fousky, or laughing "under one's moustache." Since dying got you nowhere, they chose instead a kind of bittersweet passive resistance whenever their city was invaded. During all the occupations over history, they became masters at wearing down officials by obeying orders to the letter but treating it all with endless levity. Since pod fousky made it appear the Czechs were cooperating, the invaders never bothered destroying and pillaging.

The result is a city with much architectural wealth. A good place to begin viewing it all is the city's revolutionary heart -- Vaclavske nam, or Wenceslas Square. When moments of great patriotism happen, they seem to start here.

It was here that the nation of Czechoslovakia was declared in 1918 and where in 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest the Soviet intervention after the Prague Spring of 1968. Wenceslas Square also launched the Velvet Revolution, when hundreds of peaceful protesters were beaten by the police Nov. 17, 1989. After the brutality, Vaclav Havel and others began their campaign of speeches and press releases that eventually toppled the Soviet regime.

No matter how many times I walk along the ancient cobblestone streets, there's always something I missed before -- a building, a frieze, a detail, an inscription. During this most-recent visit, it was on the Charles Bridge, one of the oldest stone bridges in Europe and perhaps Prague's most famous landmark. At one time, four horse-and-carriages could thunder down it abreast; now only pedestrians, tourists, hawkers, buskers and pink-robed Hari Krishnas weave through the bridge's 30 stone figures.

Gothic architect Peter Parler laid the first stone on the bridge in 1357, but it wasn't until the 17th century that it began to collect the long procession of statues that makes it so famous.

The first statue was installed to commemorate the legendary hero Jan Nepomucky (John of Nepomuk) who was tossed off the bridge by King Vaclav IV. John had been confessor to Queen Sofia, whom the insanely jealous Vaclav suspected of infidelity. When John refused to betray what the queen said in her confession, the king ordered torture by hot irons and finally death in the icy waters of the Vltava.

Legend says that just as John plunged into the icy water, a halo of five golden stars appeared. I had never noticed them before, but between the fifth and sixth statues on the bridge there's a cross with five stars.

From the bridge, it's only a few blocks to Old Town Square and Prague's second most famous sight. Every hour, on the hour, a group collects around the Town Hall, staring at one wall on which rests the famed Astronomical Clock, built around 1410. This phenomenon of clock-watching has been going on for more than 500 years.

When "the show" begins, twin doors open and 12 apostles march out of the mechanism, a grim figure of Death turns an hourglass upside down and rings the death knell, Vanity looks into a mirror, Greed shakes a money bag and finally a cock crows.

The huge square is dominated by an overpowering bronze statue to the martyr Jan Hus, a 14th century theologian who challenged the authority of the Catholic church. Hus was burned at the stake for his heresy. But his death touched off the Hussite Revolution, the first movement toward a Czech Protestant Reformation.

In the square now, a towering statue of Hus rises out of a sea of blackened bodies who seem to writhe below him. And on the steps below these each summer there's another sea of quite-lively bodies -- some writhing, others eating, sleeping, hugging, playing instruments or talking about how nice it is to be young and in the city of Prague.

Just north of the square and past a long line of art nouveau mansions, Maiselova Street leads to Josefov, Prague's historic Jewish neighborhood, where poignant artifacts recall a once-flourishing medieval Jewish world. During the Nazis' relentless decimation of the European Jews, Hitler collected Jewish objects and documents from all over Europe and transported them to Prague. His morbid idea was to create a museum to a race of people he made extinct.

Of the 35,000 prewar Jews in Prague, five-sixths were annihilated. Josefov, however, remains a stunning memorial to all those who perished here and in the rest of Europe.

Parizska Street, the main boulevard of Josefov, is the ultimate in 19th century bourgeoisie, a street of art nouveau mansions, spikes, turrets and today's airline offices and glitzy boutiques. In the 19th century, it was decided to transform Prague into an eastern version of Paris, so medieval houses were ripped down to be replaced by five-story mansions. The Old-New Synagogue on this street fortunately survived. This is the oldest synagogue still in use in Europe; it dates back to the 13th century.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, about two centuries younger, is probably one of Europe's most photographed cemeteries. Headstones lean this way and that, one on top of the other. In some parts, 12 graves lie on top of each other; it's estimated that more than 20,000 Jews were buried here. The oldest stone dates from 1439, but the most famous is that of Rabbi Low, who created the fabled Golem, a Frankensteinlike creature fashioned of clay.

Hradcany, the Prague Castle, is more than just one building -- it's a whole district of courtyards, cathedrals, chapels, gardens, basilicas, museums and palaces. To see it all properly would take a week.

The castle rose from a simple pagan fortification and over the centuries witnessed a multitude of ideological struggles, battles and tragedies. If you can see only one thing, don't miss the soaring Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, which evolved over 600 years. John of Nepomuk's tomb is here: two tons of glistening silver crowned by an angel holding what is said to be John's actual tongue, recovered from the Vltava and later encased in silver.

Among other sights are the gem-encrusted walls of St. Wenceslas' chapel, one of the loveliest parts of the cathedral. The Basilica of St. George is considered the most important Romanesque building in Prague; and it dates back to 915 A.D.

Another photographic must is Golden Lane, once thought to be where the king's alchemists lived. The great Czech novelist, Franz Kafka, lived briefly in one of the houses (No. 22), now a museum.

Of all the city's favorite sons, perhaps the ones who loved it most were its musicians. Anton Dvorak spent most of his life in Prague, as did Bedrich Smetana. Mozart lived in the city while composing some of his greatest works. Beethoven came here, as did von Weber and Liszt.

For all of them, like all of us, the stunning architectural beauty of Prague is like a symphony in stone. Helena Zukowski of Abbotsford, British Columbia, annually visits her son, who lives in the Czech Republic. If you go

Getting there: Numerous airlines from U.S. gateway cities to Europe, where connections to Prague can be made from London, Frankfurt and other airports.

Where to stay: Hotel prices are now on a par with those of the rest of Europe, with everything from super-deluxe hotels such as the Inter-Continental and Esplanade to a range of private bedrooms and apartments. In the summer months it can be difficult to find hotel accommodation, so reservations are mandatory. Usually, it's possible to find last-minute accommodation by checking ad boards in the train station or with people waiting at the airport. For budget travelers, the city has a number of hostels; among the best of these is V Podzamci, a little out of town but right on the bus and subway lines. This is a real home away from home, with plain but comfortable rooms, down comforters and pillows, a kitchen and the friendliest two managers in the city. Write Eva Cibulkovi at V podzamci 27, 140 00, Praha 4, or phone 011-2-472 27 59.

For more information: Contact the Czech Republic Tourist Information Office, Czech Center, 1109-1111 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10028, Attention: Zdena Ehlova: (212) 288-0830.

Originally published April 13, 1997

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