Autumn in Prague
Facts and myths from the revamped Czech capital and one of its most fascinating neighborhoods: what was once a walled ghetto is today a luxurious cultural epicenter.
TEXT: Roberto Schiattino
It was inevitable. When I learned that the Jewish Museum in Prague had the names of the Czech victims of the Holocaust inscribed on its walls, I wanted to see if I could find my mother’s maternal last name. Searching for yet another Jewish surname is not quite like looking for a needle in a haystack though, since the names are grouped according to town of origin. However, for this same reason, one name can appear on several walls. There are 80,000 inscriptions and reviewing them takes time. I found the name, of course, not once but many times. The exercise was overwhelming, yet it was very satisfying to see how the museum makes sense of tragedy to create beautiful pieces of art and preserve an architectural heritage.
One of the six districts that make up this European capital of 1.2 million inhabitants (1.9 million in the greater metropolitan area), Josefov is like a huge museum that you enter and leave by way hidden streets and serpentine squares. You do have to pay to get in, but it’s obviously worth it. I’d say the Jewish Quarter is one of the most essential destinations in Prague alongside the most obvious: the hyper-touristy Old Town, with its clock tower, the statues on the Charles Bridge – which crosses the Vltava River – and the churches and castles. If you’re a Kafka fan like me, the gallery that bears his name is another must-visit. If you’re not into Kafka, but like taking selfies, you can snap a few next to the picturesque monument to the writer, also located in the Jewish Quarter.
The tiny Old Jewish Cemetery contains the remains of as many as 100,000 people, including such luminaries as Rabbi Loew.
There are six synagogues in this part of town, but one in particular stands out: the Old-New Synagogue. How could you miss an attraction with a name like that? Then, there’s the tiny but famous Old Jewish Cemetery, which dates back to the 15th century. Since Jewish law mandates that gravestone and tombs must not be destroyed or removed, various layers were added to the cemetery when the horizontal space ran out, with as many as 100,000 burials in all.
It’s truly impressive that this side of the city has been able to become a haven for luxury, when for centuries it was a ghetto that endured religious persecution, sickness and poverty. Although, perhaps, it was always a place with two possible readings: a closed bastion that contained some of the most brilliant minds in a number of fields. It wasn’t until 1850 that the walls came down around Josefov – named in honor of Joseph II, the emperor who decided to integrate Jews into the rest of Prague life.
Skodas and Ferraris
In the heart of Josefov is Pařížská, known among locals as “the last bourgeois avenue.” Versace, Prada and Louis Vuitton are just a few of the names found on this street, which stretches from Old Town to the Vltava River, lined with painstakingly produced store windows, designer boutiques and five-star hotels. Whether you want to or not, you’ll find yourself exploring this sector thanks to the winding streets that occasionally double back on themselves. And if the name of the store doesn’t ring a bell, it’s worth going in to discover the surprises inside.
The best time to visit the Old Town Square and the surrounding areas is in the afternoon, especially if the weather is good (June to September or October is a great time to come, but Prague is bustling all year). Stroll around and have a beer at one of the restaurants that face the square or at one of the stands next to the cathedral that serve roast pork and other typical local fare.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the globalized world began to understand the importance of this capital city and its attractions, which brought a wave of tourism that continues to this day. Those who first experienced the city during the Cold War say that the changes are obvious. Today, everything seems to be booming, well maintained and revamped. The old trolleys are in good shape and co-exist with the newer models, moving along between Skodas and luxury cars alike. Just like in any great metropolis, you’ll occasionally hear the roar of a Ferrari or a Jaguar.
The locals have taken good advantage of this tourist paradise. Street performances abound: starting in spring, you’ll see everything from men making giant foam balls, to musicians of all stripes, artists drawing portrait or sketching cartoons and people dressed as sharks. And even if you don’t buy anything, you should check out the many toy stores near the square, where you’ll have to dodge tourists on Segways, which have joined the classic bicycle as one of the most fun ways to get around Prague.
Golem, the Frankenstein of Prague
The Czech capital is the home of the legendary Golem, a being created by man and possessing supernatural powers. Its invention is attributed to the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, an important Jewish scholar and mystic, the leader of a thriving community that attracted Jews from all over Europe.
It’s said that his studies of the Kabbalah led the rabbi to discover the very word that Yahweh (God) used to create life. Rabbi Loew made a man out of clay and placed a piece of paper inscribed with the secret word in its mouth, thus bringing it to life. This did not give the creature a soul, however, so the Golem was only capable of obeying orders. The magic word had to be removed on Friday night so that the Golem could rest on the holy day of the Sabbath. But the rabbi once forgot to remove the paper, and the Golem ran rampant, destroying the entire ghetto. Rabbi Loew decided to bury the Golem, until a wiser rabbi would come to give his creation life again.
Some people still believe that the Golem did, in fact, exist and that it will come to life once more…
The two Nerudas
Take the time to visit the imposing Prague Castle, which is the official home and office of the President of the Czech Republic. Built on a hill in the ninth century as the residence of Bohemian royalty, it still houses the country’s crown jewels. At least for me, the best part lies at the end of the excursion: heading down Nerudova Street, named in honor of writer Jan Neruda (1834-1891), who unwittingly lent his surname to a faithful admirer, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.
Back on the banks of the Vltava, a cold beer is a good option before continuing your tour. And if you’ve been tempted by any reading material – as I was by the magnificent editions of The Metamorphosis at the museum – it’s a good idea to stop on one of the small islands, stretch out in the grass and immerse yourself in the art of reading. Or simply observe the natural surroundings and the passers-by. Some charming restaurant-boats serve food along the way: grilled meat, salads and beer – the perfect capper to an entertaining cultural adventure in Prague. in
Daily flights to Frankfurt from Santiago through Madrid, daily flights to Madrid from Lima and three flights a week to Madrid from Guayaquil, with oneworld connections from Frankfurt and Madrid to Prague.
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Daily flights to Frankfurt from São Paulo, with oneworld connections to Prague.
For more information, visit lan.com
Platnérska 19, Praha 1
Smetanovo nabr. 18
Malteské Namésti 9
Franz Kafk a Museum
Castillo de Praga