Yesterday I began my journey south. I looked out on this grey weather from the left window at the dimples of rain on the muddy Elbe River as it flows past steep grass banks, and yellow and green steeply pitched three-story mansions behind, and wooded slope behind them. I would soon enter Bohemia for the first time as we cross the border and enter the land of my grandfather’s family, Jewish members of the Hapsburg Empire.
I feel good to feel free and mobile and agile on the surface of the earth. The beauty of the river valley to my left was surprising me as we wound forward. It is the river Elbe, slowing and then quickly flowing through green and lush Saxony in south-east Germany. Mist hangs in the valley above white stone cliffs high above. This river valley carried our train south and I saw some of the most beautiful and lushly forested landscape I had seen anywhere in Germany.
And so let’s be honest. The old town of Prague has been killed by the huge crowds of tourists in 2023. It makes visiting the old town square almost unenviable so thickly does the crowd jostle. But the walk up to the castle at the top of the hill thins out the numbers because the climb is relatively steep. Up there you can appreciate Prague a little more.
This morning I walked up through the green and quiet park behind my hotel, and over the hill to visit the library of Strahov Monastery. This was completed in 1679, and there is a surfeit of stucco decoration on the walls and ceiling. The bellowing American tourists marred the atmosphere of contemplative calm that I was hoping for, but the space is still impressive.
The highlight of this afternoon was watching the Prague Symphony Orchestra perform in Wallenstein Garden. They were playing in the 1627 loggia whose ceiling is painted with frescoes depicting the battle of Troy. They played, amongst other things, the score of Lawrence of Arabia, and the visual context couldn’t have been more dramatically appropriate, ancient Trojan battle scenes and all. A crowd of thousands of Czechs had gathered in the gardens to watch.
If you have never visited a place it is understandable that certain films or other bits of culture might colour your perception of that place. In 1996 a film called Kolya came out which is set in Prague. The main character is a down on his luck bachelor who lives in a wonderful medieval tower and plays the cello. And so for me Prague has always been associated with classical music and medieval spires dimly seen through misty window pains. It is fitting then that I was able to hear some classical music on my one day in the city.
Tomorrow the journey south continues…