A visit to Prague, one of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful cities, takes one back through a history defined by centuries of cross-cultural evolution, political revolution, and philosophical introspection. The complex personality of Prague is expressed through a juxtaposition of vibrantly modern creative change evolving against the backdrop of repressive Soviet rule. Interestingly enough, that iron rule was quietly overturned without bloodshed during the art-fueled Velvet Revolution.
Meandering through Ancient Streets of a Fabled City
Within ourselves are the most important and exciting destinations. Prague is a mysterious city that inspires us to go there, like spiritual tourists revisiting personal history and buried artifacts.
I had imagined Prague as a gothic city of black wrought iron and gargoyles of stone surrounding high castles housing torture rooms and dungeons. When I arrived, I discovered that my dark imaginings were not too far from the reality.
Gothic cathedrals welcome local Czechs and tourists alike, to confess secret sins or pray for their miserable, hopeless souls. Imposing sculptures stood like sentinels, reminding the people of the heavy burdens they must carry and letting them know that they were being watched.
Intellectual looking men dressed in black or gray overcoats sported Bohemian beards and reading glasses. The women had strong, striking features. These archetypical characters could fit easily into a James Bond thriller or the lyrics of one of Bob Dylan’s enigmatic songs. But they all seemed to hold the same expression – one that conveyed a sense of longing for pleasure and relief from the grayness of daily drudgery and work.
Each of these Prague strangers, I knew, had a story – and his or her own unique light and corresponding shadow. While contemplating other people within the storied city of Prague, I became more introspective. Coincidentally, I then spotted an outdoor beer garden near a huge sculpture of Rodin’s The Thinker.
Famous Czech Beer and Infamous Czech Food
To really delve into a foreign culture and transition from being an outside tourist to an acculturated visitor, eat and drink adventurously. But remember, you are what you eat.
Travelers came from near and far to gather in the fading early evening light, enjoy the view, and ordering copious amounts of the oldest – and arguably the best –beer in the world. Patrons sipped the pilsner from huge, heavy glasses and snacked on greasy fries.
From what is grown, harvested, and cooked – to how meals are served – food and drink reflect local customs and traditions. The Czech staples – potatoes and sausages – represented a history steeped in hard labor on frozen land, little choice or variety, and routine scarcity. But the servings they offered me went beyond cheap and ample and into the realm of generous hospitality, and were served with a rather innocent simplicity. Although Prague is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city, it is rooted in a culture of survival where neighbors care for one another and extend kindness to travelers they meet along the way.
Meals in Prague were astonishingly under-priced, and for about five US dollars I could order a mound of food in even the best restaurants. But the food typically involved overcooked cabbage and potatoes drowned in oil and anchored by thick and chewy servings of blood sausage. As someone who primarily ate from the vegetarian side of the menu, I chose salad scraps and a bottle of tasty beer.
Sometimes you can take the girl out of the country but it is hard to take the country out of the girl – especially when she is accustomed to a diet of lightweight California fare. But I did partake of the quintessential Prague ritual of stirring flaming liquefied sugar into blue-green absinthe cocktails and then sipping them over pages of Bohemian poetry.
Books are visas to other times, places, and lives. Absorbing the literature of places we visit gives us a guided tour conducted by the great philosophers and novelists of those cities or countries.
One of Prague’s native sons, Franz Kafka, once wrote: “There is within everyone a devil which gnaws the nights to destruction. It is neither good nor bad, but rather, it is life. If you did not have it, you could not live. So what you curse in yourself is your life.”
Kafka’s spirit felt intensely present and vividly clear as I stood at the center of the Charles Bridge, my hands clutching the railing as a cold fog drifted across the sky. The lopsided, curvy pink façade of the church of Saint Thomas, originally built for the Order of Augustinian hermits, caught my attention and imagination. I thought of Kafka’s inner devil and realized that I, too, had been cursing my own life during endless nights and bouts with the devil. Why was I afraid to love deeply, to trust people, and to trust myself and my intuition? Why is it sometimes seem so difficult to reclaim one’s authentic power and to find one’s purpose?
Absorbing the presence of the timeless city that had seen so many of its own devils, I mourned the years that I had allowed to slide by – like the water beneath Charles Bridge – without passionate courage or abiding faith.
Water under the Bridge and Signs from Heaven
While visiting Prague I found myself confronting my own short history – revisiting the past, examining the present, dreaming into the future. Black crows flew above oversized trees and gave me signs I tried to interpret – like deciphering a strange foreign language that resonated with intimate familiarity on some deeper spiritual level. I gazed down over the railing into the river below and discovered a kinship with the flowing water. How in harmony nature is with itself. The river neither holds back nor has a fear of going forward. It only moves into the future with grace and ease.
I paused in front of The Madonna and St. Bernard, dropped to the ground, bowed my head, and humbly begged for clarity. I prayed to know my true calling and for direction in life and in relationships.
At that moment, a feather drifted down from the sky and landed softly at my feet. I looked up to see a crow fluttering directly above me. He hesitated, then soared skyward to rejoin his friends. For me, it was confirmation.
In a moment of clarity and calm I heard Madonna whisper, “Love is all you have. Show the courage to live fully, even if you get hurt.”