To my eyes, accustomed to the flat, well-tended plains of France and Austria, the Czech countryside was shockingly dramatic. I was told later that it was ridiculously tame compared to the wilds of Romania, but at the time I had nothing to compare it with and the slightly unkempt look of the farms – and more often, the woods – that our České Dráhy train lumbered through was exciting.
Praha was slightly disappointing after that. An acquaintance we’d met on the train – she lived in the city – had lowered our expectations considerably by looking rather dubious when we’d said we were going to spend two days in her hometown. “Well…I think if you have been to the Castle and the Charles Bridge, you can say you have visited most of the things in Prague”, she said in her cultured, soft voice. (Carrying the most common type of cellphone charger in the world is sometimes a great and unexpected way to make new friends).
Of course, the Old Town was beautifully preserved, with the rather elaborate Astronomical Clock drawing crowds of visitors so thick that for the first time in Europe I began to feel a place was crowded. The river was pretty too (though we visited “the” Bridge on a Saturday night when there was barely place to stand) but it made me wonder if it wasn’t the fall that was responsible for much of the city’s charm.
The Church in The Castle
St Vitus Cathedral was certainly built to intimidate and not to charm, with its blackened walls inspiring awe rather than devotion. An interesting thing about most Gothic cathedrals is that typically the lintel on top of the main (western) door is decorated with a terrifying carving of the last judgement. Christ sits in rather unbending majesty in the centre, with the souls of the good (usually depicted in an attitude of prayer) on his right side. (Why is the right side always the “right” side?) But on his left, devils prod the souls of the sinful (who are also naked, for some reason) into a successionof ghastly tortures. This was supposed to warn the faithful of the dangers of becoming unfaithful (and of not attending church regularly and donating the tithe, presumably). On the façade of St Vitus Cathedral, this theme returned but with a twist: instead of being carved or painted the Last Judgement was a huge mosaic. The brilliant tiles reminded one of the Eastern Roman Empire. We weren’t in France or Britain anymore, clearly.
Nearly everything of historical interest in Prague seems to be named after a chap called Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, under whom the Kingdom of Bohemia rose to its peaks in the 14th century. He seems to have had a mania for naming things after himself – Karluv Most (the Charles Bridge), Charles Square, Charles University, Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) ..unless his successors were silly enough to believe that flattering a dead king would help them any. Of course, they might have been like our modern Indian politicians who believe that putting MG in front of any random-ass program will turn it into a success. PR, you know.
South France snobs, take note: Apparently Montecarlo was founded by this same gentleman.
The more poignant part of the city lies elsewhere, in the middle of what is today Prague’s poshest shopping street. Long before the Arab Spring, the Czechoslovak government of Alexander Dubček tried to liberalize the country a bit. In what was known as the Prague Spring, he decided to ease censorship and introduce elements of a market economy. The story after this becomes predictable: the Soviet high command didn’t like it very much and expressed their disapproval not-so-subtly by invading the country and removing the irritating Mr Dubcek. Everything went back to “normal” (I mean 1960s communist-regime-normal). The revolution that gave us the term “Spring” to mean liberalization of politics was shut down almost as soon as it had started.
(Coincidentally, May 1968 was the summer of student protests in France as well. The student and worker protests were so widespread that they prompted De Gaulle to leave France at some point. For a certain generation of French people, “1968” is a watershed year – our French professor of banking once said with a twinkle in his eye, “I too was there, in 1968, in Paris!”)
The revolution was over, but the Czech people were too used to occupation and resistance through their history to be mentally cowed for long. On a cold January morning, a thoughtful 21-year old with brooding good looks and a mind tormented by what seemed like the country’s hopeless future cut his classes at Charles University. Instead he went to Wenceslas Square, a huge central location in Prague where high-end shops jostle for space today, and before anyone could stop him, set himself on fire in protest at the occupation.
A month later, another “Jan” – Jan Zajíc – did the same thing, at nearly the same place.
One does not know what effect these extreme actions had on the liberalization of Czechoslovakia per se. Clearly, it had to wait twenty years before the Communist regime finally weakened its grasp. But symbols always have a significance of their own beyond their immediate impact, and I suspect that to the Czech people these two men – and others who committed individual acts of protest – are as powerful as the images of Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose might be to us.