From the busy-ness of the Old Town Square of Prague, our next destination was to head down towards the river and wander around the Jewish Town. This Jewish centre is amongst the oldest in Europe with the oldest reference dating to around the tenth century. Its history mirrors the history of Jewish people throughout Europe, particularly for the occasional pogroms where local Christian citizens claimed to take revenge for the crucifixion of Jesus. The Easter Holy week in Prague in 1389 was just one example of these senseless rages against fellow citizens where the death toll was somewhere between 900 and 3000. This quarter has expanded and diminished over the centuries depending on what is happening elsewhere on the continent; influxes of Jews from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain over the centuries have added to the makeup of the population. Amazingly the community and its monuments have survived the 20th century episodes of Nazi occupation and Communist rule. The image on the left below shows one of the oldest synagogues in Prague. The image on the right shows the Jewush cemetery on the left and at the end of the street with the orange roof, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall.
From the Jewish town we then veered off towards the Municipal House, strolling through the back streets of Prague. Along the way we encountered a memorial to Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a character from my student days where this strange author’s dark view of reality and its inhabitants was one of my companions on discovering a world beyond Sydney, Australia. Encountering a familiar friend in an unfamiliar city is always a great experience, despite the fact that my strongest memory of Kafka is spending the night with him while he panicked about the presence of a giant beetle under his bed. I’m not sure whether the many Asian tourists we lined up behind to get our photo taken with the ‘Kafkaesque’ statue understood what they were getting involved in when they rubbed Kafka’s bizarre memorial and giggled as they got the necessary photo. Perhaps their guide had promised them they would return to Prague if they rubbed Kafka’s statue in the prescribed fashion.
The other major public statue we encountered on our stroll that morning was a dark, brooding, cloaked female figure, the ‘Cloak of Conscience’. It too was like encountering an old friend; we had met a copy of this work by Anna Chromý in the narrow streets of Salzburg a week before arriving in Prague. There are at least seven versions of this sculpture in cities around Europe. Anna Chromý presented a model of “The Cloak of Conscience” to Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican to mark the creation of the Conscience Institute, an organization devoted to the development of the arts.
Our stroll that morning took us around the back of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, the gloomy, gothic front of which we had admired from the Old Town Square. Above one of the side doors of this church was the usual gem of a sculpture depicting scenes from the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t think this sculpture would have been a causal factor in the Jewish pogrom in 1385 but this Church was being built at the end of the 14th century. Great art usually doesn’t inspire great violence.
Our walk eventually led us along Celatna Street which links the ‘Powder Tower’ with the Old Town Square, a street that is part of the Royal Route through the old city which Czech Kings had to follow on the day of their coronation on the way to the Cathedral of St Vitus. Like all old cities, the old town of Prague was originally surrounded by defensive walls and the Powder Tower was built in 1475 on the site of an 11th century tower, which was one of Prague’s thirteen original city gates. The castle of the Kings of Bohemia from 1383 until 1485 was adjacent to the tower and today’s ‘Art Nouveau’ gem, the Municipal House, replaced the original castle, completed by 1912. The Powder Tower looks like a lost and lonely remnant of medieval times but there is still a bridge that links it with Municipal House.
Like all tourists visiting a new city, it is always important to get some preview information about your destination. When I checked lists online of what to see in Prague, the following is one example of a list of the key places to check out when you are in town.
- St Vitus Cathedral
- Charles Bridge
- Prague Castle
- National Museum
- Prague Jewish Museum
- Municipal House
- Strahov Library
- Old Town Hall
- Church of our Lady before Tyn
- National Monument
- Convent of St Agnes
- Wenceslas Square
- St Nicholas Church (Mala Strana side)
- Astronomical Clock
- Prague City Museum
- National Monument to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror
- John Lennon Wall
- Church of St James
- Museum of the Infant Jesus of Prague (The Church of Our Lady Victorious)
- Mucha Museum
- Old Town Square
- Old Jewish Cemetery
I have resisted the temptation of starting to tick off the sites that we covered in our four days based in Prague…