Postcard from Prague
Photos and story by Richard West
The last time I visited Prague was early October, 1989, one month before the fall of the Berlin Wall and liberation of East Europe. The city remained tightly Soviet-sealed: soldiers on the streets; citizens speaking, if at all, briefly in monotones, the words slipping out in a bland swirl of sounds; despair enveloping the place like the solar wind.
Things have changed. The lovely city no longer is falling apart, unraveling slowly as it was 25 years ago like a movie running backward in slow motion. The West has conquered: fast-food eateries, a spraddle of souvenir shops, and like everywhere else in the world, too many banks. Prague, thank goodness, has been softened by success and embourgeoisement. Let freedom ring the cash registers (if still in use).
My wife and I strolled through the obligatory sites: the Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter, Wenceslas Square, across the Charles Bridge to the Mala Strana and Hradcany castle hill. Unchanged, the charm of buildings and attention to detail: elegantly proportioned, decorated with statues and balconies, murals and relief work. Each one painted a different color: dark green next to pale yellow, the next one lilac next to Delft blue with white trim. Garlanded cornices, caryatids, balustrades reaching the roofs of buildings. All this beauty thanks to the Nazis who occupied, but did not bomb, the city in 1938.
Our main mission was to revisit a few of Prague’s grand literary cafes, haunts of the astonishing number of the city’s world-class writers– Kafka, Hrabil, Kundera, Hasek, Rilke, Havel—who worked, gossiped, debated, planned cultural and political revolutions and governments after them in former President Havel’s case. “Verbal arenas” in cultural historian Roger Shattuck’s term. As Christopher Marlowe wrote 430 years ago in his “Prologue to a Comedy”:
“In a coffee house just now among the rabble
I bluntly asked, where is the treason table?”
Where indeed? So with places to go, illusions to see, we headed into the cobblestoned streets amidst the jostling tourist hordes.
First, the most famous, Café Slavia, opposite the Vltava river, across from the National Theatre, opened in 1884, closed after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, reopened in 1998. Here early 20th-century Prague’s intelligencia gathered to be satirized in Rilke’s “King Bohush” story; Kafka, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows debated friend Max Brod; Nobel prize winner (1984) Jaroslav Seifert wrote his poem, “Café Slavia”; Kundera worked over chapters of his “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
We sat looking out at the river, agonizing, Hamlet-style, on a beer choice. Czechs rank number one in world beer consumption, 159 liters per person, far ahead of the second-place Irish (135 per). It’s a serious decision. We chose the obvious, Pilsner Urquell from Pilsen , the town that gave its name to the most widely-produced style of beer in the world. Slightly darker than its pale cousins, a foamy head, perfect.
On to the Hostinec U Kalicha, home to Jaroslav Hasek’s iconic “Good Soldier Svejk” from his famous novel of the same name and where he set some of the book’s scenes. Legend has it that the author set off from U Kalicha (The Chalice) to fight in World War 1, the scene of the satirical book’s dark comedy of soldier Svejk exposing the fatuousness and stupidity of the military through his feigned ignorance and incompetence.
Svejk greets you on the outdoor sign, as two seated figures inside, and on cartooned walls depicting scenes from the novel as you sip a beer and eat Mrs. Muller’s dumplings with mushroom sauce while listening to the serenading tuba and accordion. Svejk has become an iconic East European figure: a manhole cover in Bratislava; a bench beer drinker in Sanok, Poland; pipe-smoking on a barrel of gunpowder in Samara, Russia. Svejk cafes serve fans in Warsaw, Riga, and in Lutsk, Ukraine, among other places.
Last stop, the Café U Zlateho Tygra, The Golden Tiger, the favorite of Bohumil Hrabel, best known for his novel, “Closely Observed Trains,” which also won the 1967 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. On a narrow street close to Old Town Square, it serves only Pilsner Urquell, mostly to regulars, and by famously grumpy waiters. Put an empty coaster in front of you at your table under the up lit bust of the writer next to the photo of Presidents Clinton and Havel having a cold two Pilsners, a stein of beer appears. One size, one price. Then perhaps a pork schnitzel or goulash. It’s a narrow, crowded, boisterous room, and, alas, has distinct layers of cigarette smoke so you can read the stratified geology of the room’s recent history. As do the other café/pubs. Perhaps in his beer-hallowed capital it’s time to, once again, recite A.E. Housman’s famous verse:
“Malt does more than Milton can
To explain God’s ways to man;
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think.”
Café Slavia, Narodnei 1.
Hostinec U Kalicha, No bojisti 12-14.
U Zlateho Tygra, Husova 17.