Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.
I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.
Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.
It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.
This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:
I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.
Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.
Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.
In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.
I arrived in Pisa a little before noon. I was already hungry, so I sat down on a bench outside the airport, took out my exquisitely prepared salami sandwich, and dug in. This time I had remembered the mustard, which was a considerable improvement. It was a sunny February day and my feet had just touched Tuscan soil for the first time.
I had excellent luck with my Airbnb: I could check in early, I had a big room with a big comfortable bed, coffee was included, and best of all the place was a ten minute walk from the airport. This meant no fuss with airport shuttles or trams, no worrying about transfers or ticket machines, just a peaceful walk through the suburbs of Pisa. As I was quickly learning, Tuscany is a land of comfort.
My bags deposited, the mustard wiped from my chin, I was ready to explore Pisa.
Pisa is a fair sized city of around 90,000 souls, gathered around the river Arno, the same river that passes through Florence. The city is home to far more than an angled tower. In the Middle Ages Pisa was, like Venice, a wealthy maritime republic; and examples of her former riches and glory abound. Even a brief walk along the riverside or a view from the bridge—with churches, historic apartments, old castle walls—is enough to convince the visitor that Pisa has a great deal to offer.
My first stop was Knights’ Square (Piazza dei Cavalieri), one of the old city’s most important and most attractive squares. Its name derives from the Knights of Saint Stephen, a religious military order who had their headquarters in this piazza. Nowadays it is home to a branch of the University of Pisa, a historic university that was founded back in 1343, and which is still within the top 10 universities in Italy. I walked into one of the university buildings (it was open), to see if I could find anything worthy of admiration. And I did. On the ground, walking in a little line, was a group of tiny ants. I found this rather exciting since it was February and the insects normally do not appear until May in Madrid.
There is also the attractive church Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, with a pretty facade designed by Giorgio Vasari, the famous art historian, who also contributed a painting for the interior. It was Vasari, too, who designed the attractive Palazzo della Carovana, which originally housed the Knights of Saint Stephen, but which now is the central building of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (a part of the university). In the center of the piazza, standing before the Palazzo della Caravona, is a statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519 –1574), the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
I did not stay very long to admire this fine square, however, since I was eager to see the iconic tower. A few minutes of walking, a few twists and turns, and the inclined cylinder came into view. It is always strange seeing something in reality that we have seen a thousand times in pictures. It produces the oddest mixture of excitement and boredom—the first because it is so iconic, the second because it does not look like anything new. It was, however, novel to see the tower from the city, at the end of a row of apartment buildings, as I did. The drooping building is almost always photographed from the grassy cathedral square. Seen like this, the tower looked charmingly out of place.
Soon I entered the cathedral square, formally called the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), and formerly the Piazza del Duomo (Square of the Dome). This is where all of the major monuments of Pisa are concentrated, including the infamously misaligned edifice. To enter any of these monuments one must buy a ticket at the ticket office. There are various ticket options, each of which includes different places that can be visited. As usual, I bought the most basic one. It did not seem worth it to pay an extra 20 euros (if memory serves) to ascend steep spiral staircase of the notorious shaft.
But I did take a moment to admire the Leaning Tower from the outside. The myths are true: the tower does leave the ground at an angle other than 90 degrees. To be precise, the tower is now 3.9 degrees off—which may not sound like a lot but which, as you will gather, is quite noticeable. And this is an improvement from the tower’s maximum inclination, which was 5.5 degrees. An international team of scientists worked between 1990 to 2001 to reduce the tilt—which had been gradually growing over the centuries—in order to prevent instability. (By the by, Pisa’s tower is not the most uneven edifice in Europe. The prize goes to the crooked church tower of Suurhusen, in Germany.)
The crooked protuberance of Pisa was not, of course, originally designed to be a tourist attraction. It is the campanile—an unattached belltower—of the cathedral. Even were it perfectly straight, the tower would be worth admiring for its elegant rows of columns and arches. Indeed, I think we are apt to overlook how pretty is its Romanesque form. I have seen few belltowers comparable in loveliness. As we are told, the tower’s gradient is the result of uneven firmness of ground, causing one side of the structure to sink. Fixing this was clearly beyond the technologies of the time; to the architects had little recourse but to cross their fingers and keep going.
As expected, the square was full of people taking pictures of themselves with the tower. A visit to Pisa is certainly not complete without the generic photo of oneself holding the tower up. As venerable as this pastime is, I confess that I found the dozens of people holding out their hands likes mimes, with exaggerated expressions on their faces, to be a ridiculous sight.
I cannot finish my description of Pisa’s most famous building without making mention of Pisa’s most famous son. Everybody knows the tale of Galileo dropping differently sized cannonballs from the tower, in order to prove that objects of different mass fall at the same velocity. (This went against the Aristotelian physics of the times.) This story is, unfortunately, poorly corroborated and thus—like Newton and his apple—likely a myth made up after his death. Rarely does reality live up to our romantic notions.
The 12th century tower is only the third-oldest building in the square. The oldest is Pisa Cathedral. Like the campanile, this is a truly splendid building in the Pisa Romanesque style. Just as in the Leaning Tower, the facade of the cathedral is covered in false columns, which give it a dignified air. The white marble of the building is also agreeably reminiscent of a Greek temple, adding to the cathedral’s impressive demeanor; and darker shades of marble have been used to add faint patterns on the walls. Closer inspection reveals that the exterior is covered in decorative friezes and mosaics. I particularly admired the monumental bronze doors, covered in scenes from the New Testament.
The inside of the cathedral appeared in less than its full splendor. Due to conservation work being done, two large sections were obscured by colossals tarps. Nevertheless, I was still able to admire the beautiful wooden coffered ceiling, covered in gold leaf, as well as the mosaic of Christ surrounded by Mary and Saint John, the only unambiguously attributable work of Cimabue. One can see that this artist (who Vasari believed taught Giotto) was still working very much in the Greek tradition of stylized figures against a gold background. The walls reveal that taste for lush decoration, so characteristic of Italian churches.
Unfortunately much of the cathedral’s finest works were lost in a fire in 1595. As the period of Pisa’s greatest splendor occured long before this, it follows that what we see now in the cathedral is but a faint afterglow left by the embers. Luckily one masterpiece did survive the flames: the pulpit by Giovanni Pisano. It is an incredible work. Every inch of the piece bursts with figures; and each has a symbolic significance. We have personifications of the cardinal virtues, and of the subjects of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy); we also find angels, prophets, and sybils. Figures support the pulpit as caryatids; they adorn the bases, corbels, and the capitals. On the curving walls of the pulpit are extraordinary scenes from the life of Christ. And all of this is carefully arranged to create an intelligible whole, a summary in stone of the medieval worldview. All in all, this pulpit very well may be, as the sign says, “the most organised illustration of the Christian doctrine of salvation and redemption ever provided by sculpture.”
Standing face to face with the cathedral is Pisa’s baptistry. This is the largest baptistry in all of Italy, a colossal dome that shows a transitional style between the Romanesque and the Gothic. (The lower half has rounded arches, the upper half pointed ones.) The inside is cavernous and mostly empty. One wonders why so much space was needed to dunk newborns into water. The most famous babe who was ever initiated into the Christian faith in this building was Galileo Galilei, who made his way into the world in 1564 and was dipped soon thereafter. It is amusing to think of our intellectual heroes as little squirming babes. Little did the priest known that the child he was anointing with water, while he spoke the holy words, would one day help to undermine the faith of half of Europe. Even the biggest baptistry in Italy was not enough to contain Galileo.
My last stop in the square was the Campo Santo (“holy field”). According to legend, it was built around soil brought back from Golgotha (where Christ was crucified) during the Third Crusade, thus making it undeniably sacred ground. On this holy soil the Pisanos built a monumental cemetery for their notables. From the outside it does not look like much—just a grey wall with blind arches carved into it, though there is a nice gothic shrine above the doorway. From the inside, however, it is lovely: an exquisite cloister, with finely sculpted window traceries, and a dome crowning one end. Populating this rectangular arena are sculpted tombs and sarcophagi, some of them dating back to the Romans and Etruscans.
More attractive than any of the statues or sarcophagi are the frescoes. Many of these were, unfortunately, damaged or destroyed during the Second World War when an allied bomb ignited the roof. What survives is tantalizing, and makes one regret that bombs were ever invented. I was particularly entranced by a glorious rendering of the Last Judgment, whose image of Satan and Hell is wonderfully gruesome.
Now I had seen all the sites on my ticket. I thought of going back to my Airbnb, but the excellent weather tempted me beyond resistance. It was a cloudless day, remarkably warm for winter; so I sat down on the grass to breathe and take in the scene. It was nearing evening but the temperature was still mild enough so that I could take off my jacket in the shade and be perfectly comfortable. I shudder to think what the city is like in the summer.
This half hour of lounging on the grass was the capstone of my day. Pisa had already impressed me beyond all my hopes. Whereas I had expected little more than the off-center campanile, I had found a city full of beautiful monuments and a lovely historic center. Now I had a moment to stop—something I too seldom do when I travel alone—and to reflect. I was in a city that I had heard of since I was a kid; up until the year before, I had assumed that I would never see Pisa; and here I was, and it was better than I expected. The air was delicious, the breeze gentle, the sun mild, the sky everywhere.
Finally I decided to go. I walked back slowly, still savoring the evening, taking a detour to stroll along the riverside and admire the many historic buildings—forts, churches, apartments—arrayed there. The water was still and clear as glass. I crossed a bridge, and in the distance I could see the brown hills of Tuscany. No wonder the Renaissance started here. The atmosphere is so clear, the sun so bright, that every color is magnified and every form defined. The painters merely had to copy what they saw.
Though I am normally too shy to do this when I travel alone, this day I decided to sit down at a nice restaurant by myself. I chose the Ristorante alle Bandierine, and did not regret it. The pasta was magnificent and the wine went down very easily. I left stuffed and happy—my belly, my mind, my soul all satisfied. Italy is a charmed place, and Tuscany perhaps most of all.
An artist lives and acquires fame through his works; but with the passing of time, which consumes everything, these works—the first, then the second, and the third—fade away.
After Plutarch’s Lives, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is likely the most iconic collection of biographies of famous men. He published two editions of the book, the first in 1550, the second in 1568; and both found success in Vasari’s lifetime and have continued to sell well ever since. In life Vasari was a typical Renaissance man, achieving fame for his paintings (he decorated the Palazzo Vecchio) and his architecture (he was responsible for the loggia of the Uffizi), in addition to his work as a biographer. Granted, his paintings are not highly regarded nowadays (though many are pleasing enough to my eyes); but this posthumous verdict did not prevent him from making a fine living. And when you write the first book of art history in the history of art, the rest hardly matters.
The edition I own is highly abridged, as are nearly all popular versions, since the original contains dozens upon dozens of painters, sculptors, and architects—most of whom the casual reader does not know of or care for. This explains why most of the Lives are so short. Indeed, fans of any particular Renaissance artist are liable to be disappointed by Vasari’s treatment. He runs through Sandro Botticelli in all of ten pages, for example, barely pausing to mention the Birth of Venus. Indeed, many of these biographies are hardly biographies at all, just extended catalogues of works. This is certainly useful for the art historian (though Vasari made many mistakes) but it does not make for electrifying reading.
The modern psychoanalyzing mode of artistic biographies was, of course, entirely alien to Vasari, and he seems to regard the artist’s personality as a source of gossip but not of insight. This does not prevent him from including many good stories. Like Plutarch himself, Vasari is rich in anecdote—and, as in Plutarch, half of them are probably false. Fact or fiction, a good story is preferable to a dry fact, and this is when Vasari’s Lives really come alive. We hear of Cimabue agreeing to take on Giotto as a pupil, after seeing the young boy scratching on a stone; or of Paolo Uccello staying up long nights to work on problems of perspective. Whether these stories help us to understand the paintings is doubtful; but they do help to bring alive this amazing time in history.
Vasari begins the book with a sketch of the history of art as he understood it. His opinion is not a masterpiece of subtlety. In essence, the Greeks and Romans understood that art begins by copying nature, and so produced excellent works; then art fell into barbarism (Vasari coined the term “gothic” to describe medieval art) in which the ancient knowledge was lost and artists had no knowledge of proper technique; finally the painter Giotto came and revived the arts, inaugurating a process that culminated in the works of Michelangelo. I must say that this view, though little more than naked prejudice, is at least refreshing in Vasari’s conviction that art was ascending and culminating in his own epoch. (Most of us are disposed to think it is declining.) It is striking that Michelangelo’s historic importance was understood even during his own lifetime. This was not an age of poor Van Goghs working in lonely shacks. The great artists were recognized and rewarded when they lived; and younger artists were seen to have surpassed their masters—novel concepts in our romantic age.
The Life of Michelangelo, whom Vasari knew and worshipped, is by far the longest and forms the core of this collection. Indeed, all the other lives can be seen as mere leadup to the great Florentine, who fulfils all the promise of former ages. Vasari here turns from chronicler to hagiographer, praising Michelangelo with every breath. You might even say that Vasari turns into quite the Boswell, including various bits of Michelangelo’s conversation, and also several letters written to him by the great artist, as if to prove that Michelangelo really was his friend. All this makes for good reading, even if the worshipful tone is grating. The second longest Life in my collection is that of another Florentine (Vasari was a fierce patriot of his home city), Filippo Brunelleschi. This life is perhaps even better than that of Michelangelo, as Vasari charts the squabbles and drama behind the scenes of Brunelleschi’s dome.
Vasari’s style is easygoing and almost conversational, and the pages go by quickly. He strikes me as a man full of shallow opinions but of a generous mind and a steady judgment. This book—full of errors, lacking any historical context, and greatly out of step with modern opinion—could hardly be read as a standalone volume on Renaissance painting. But every book on the subject borrows, knowingly or unknowingly, from Vasari, who has given bread to scholars and delight to readers for generations with this charming book.
I have endeavored not only to record what the artists have done but to distinguish between the good, the better, and the best, and to note with some care the methods, manners, styles, behavior, and ideas of the painters and sculptors; I have tried as well as I know how to help people who cannot find out for themselves to understand the sources and origins of various styles, and the reasons for the improvement or decline of the arts at various times and among different people.
Ease, and speed of execution, seldom produces work of any permanent value or delicacy. It is the time which is spent in laborious production for which we are repaid by the durable character of the result.
In the course of his grand theory of history, Oswald Spengler distinguishes what he sees as the fundamental difference between the ancient Greco-Roman and the contemporary Western cultures: the Greek’s ideal concept was of bounded, perfect forms, while the Western soul craves the boundless, the formless, and the infinite. It is a somewhat vague statement, I know, but I kept coming back to Spengler’s idea as I read Plutarch’s Lives.
Specifically, I kept thinking of Spengler’s idea as I mentally compared Plutarch’s conception of personality with Montaigne’s. I could not help making this comparison, you see, since it was Montaigne who led me to Plutarch. The Frenchman idolized the Greek; and the Essays are full of quotes of and references to Plutarch. Indeed, Montaigne specifically praises Plutarch for his insight into human nature:
The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else… the variety and truth of his internal qualities, in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within, than upon what happens from without, are the most proper for my reading; and, therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me.
For my part this quote better describes Montaigne than Plutarch. Since it is exactly in this—the representation of personality—that I think Spengler’s idea most aptly applies in these two writers.
Compare the representation of a person in a classical Greek statue and in a portrait by Rembrandt, and I think you will catch my meaning. The first is all surface—shapely limbs, a well-proportioned body, a harmonious face, whose eyes nevertheless stare out serenely into vacancy, suggesting nothing internal. In Rembrandt it is exactly the reverse: the face may be ugly, the body largely hidden in shadows, yet all the energy is focused on the expression—an expression of endless suggestion, which brings to us a definite human personality.
I feel the same contrast between Plutarch and Montaigne. Plutarch’s method of characterization is statuesque. He enumerates his heroes’ virtues and qualities as if they were set in stone; and he derives all of their actions from these static characteristics. Montaigne is completely the reverse: he contradicts himself a thousand times in his book, and in the process reveals the qualities of his mind far more exquisitely than any straightforward description could accomplish. Plutarch’s heroes never change: their character is their destiny; whereas Montaigne is nothing but change. Indeed, for me it is hard to say that Plutarch’s heroes have “personality,” in the sense that I can imagine meeting them. They are no more relatable than a Greek statue.
They were certainly relatable to Plutarch himself, however, as he writes in a famous passage:
It was for the sake of others that I first undertook to write biographies, but I soon began to dwell upon and delight in them for myself, endeavoring to the best of my ability to regulate my own life, and to make it like that of those who were reflected in their history as it were in a mirror before me. By the study of their biographies, we receive each man as a guest into our minds, and we seem to understand their character as the result of personal acquaintance, because we have obtained from their acts the best and most important means of forming an opinion about them.
This quote also illustrates Plutarch’s moral purpose. For a book written by a Greek living under Roman domination, comparing the lives of Greeks and Romans, he seems to have been quite bereft of political purpose. He is, rather, a moralist. Through his biographies he hopes to determine which actions are noble, which nobler, and which noblest, an analysis he performs through his comparisons at the end of the paired lives. He writes biographies in the conviction that we naturally imitate which we see and admire; we are drawn in by the attraction we feel for noble characters, and become ennobled ourselves in the process. This is why Plutarch eschews writing strict history:
I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.
This sounds promising enough: teaching moral lessons through depicting great personalities. My problem—aside from not being able to relate to the heroes—was that I questioned the very greatness of their actions. Of course there are many virtuous actions recorded here, worthy of praise and emulation. However, nearly all of Plutarch’s heroes are military commanders; and these pages are spattered with blood. The cutthroat world of ancient political squabbles, territorial conquests, internal strife, did not strike me as promising ground to teach virtue. Voltaire was perhaps thinking of Plutarch when he made this remark:
Not long since the trite and frivolous question was was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.
Plutarch, to his credit, does give a remarkable portrait of the Newton of his time: Archimedes. But this is tucked away in his life of the Roman general, Marcellus.
For these reasons I had a great deal of difficulty in finishing this book. After every couple Lives I had to take a break; so it took me three years of on-again, off-again reading to finally get to the end. My ignorance did not help, either. Plutarch, being an ancient author, sometimes presumed a great deal more knowledge that I possessed about the relevant political history; and so I found myself frequently lost. And his style, though eloquent, is also monotonous (at least in translation), which was another challenge to my attention.
But I am glad I read Plutarch. This book is an extraordinary historical document, an invaluable (but not infallible) source of information about these ancient figures. Plutarch loved a good story and these pages are rich in anecdote—some of them so famous that it is likely you know one even if you have not read Plutarch. And though I struggled through many of the less famous figures, I was entranced by Plutarch’s biographies of the heroes I was acquainted with: Pompey, Alexander, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony. (Shakespeare followed the latter two Lives very closely in his Roman plays.) If Plutarch was good enough for Montaigne then, by Jove, he is good enough for me.
After seeing everything I wanted to see in Prague, I still had a day to spare before moving on to Nuremberg. Luckily there are some excellent day trips from the Czech capital. There is Karlovy Vary, an attractive town near Prague with famous hot springs, which several people had recommended to me. There is also the Sedlec Ostuary—a world heritage site—a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones in a church in the town of Kutná Hora. But after looking over these and more options, the beer lover in me won out: I had to go to Plzeň.
With a population of about 170,000, Plzeň is the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic. For much of its history Plzeň was significant as a trade post near the German border. But in the 19th century the city’s importance considerably grew. First, in 1842 the city’s iconic export was invented: Pilsner beer. Shortly later, the city underwent rapid industrialization, turning Plzeň from a rural outpost into a city of factories and breweries.
Getting to Plzeň from Prague is straightforward. I boarded a commuter train from the central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, which took me to Plzeň in around an hour. I did not give myself enough time to buy my ticket, however (there are no machines, so you need to wait in line to buy from a person), so I had to rush to catch the train. The only way up from the station to the platforms was on a slow-moving automatic walkway, which was so full of infuriatingly relaxed and immobile people that I had to wait, biting my lip, as the walkway took me forward at around 2 mph, while the train was on the verge of leaving. When I finally reached the end I bolted up the stairs to the platform, running and jumping onto the train just as the doors were closing. Indeed, I had gotten on so fast that I was not even sure it was the right train. But I was in luck.
Unfortunately for me, however, by the time I pulled my stunt all the seats in the train were taken. I had no choice but to stand. So I made my way to the dining car, ordered a coffee, and got out my Kindle to read. I was trying to get through Rousseau’s Emile, but the Romantic philosopher was quickly getting on my nerves and I had trouble paying attention. Time passed this way until, feeling peckish and needing a distraction, I decided I would try the train’s goulash. This is a type of strew, originally from Hungary but now popular throughout Central Europe, made with meat, veggies, and flavored with paprika. It was my first goulash experience; and—contrary to what you might expect from a dining car—it was actually quite good.
Once arrived, I wasted no time in going to Plzeň’s biggest attraction: the Urquell brewery. The word “Urquell” can be roughly translated as “the source,” and it is appropriate: for it is this company that invented the iconic pale lager, or pilsner beer, which has proven immensely influential. It is said that two-thirds of the beer produced in the world is an adaptation of this Czech invention. And, indeed, every country seems to have its own version of a pale lager: China’s Tsingtao, Japan’s Sapporo, Kenya’s Tusker, Mexico’s Pacífico, America’s Budweiser, Spain’s Mahou. The world cannot seem to get enough of this sour beverage.
To enter the brewery one must pass through the festive main gate, designed to look like a triumphal arch. In the ticket office there is a large display of antique brewing methods, complete with life-sized sets and dummies. I queued up and bought a ticket for the next English tour—for which, luckily, there was still a spot remaining. Soon I was in a tour group, ready to explore the birthplace of pale lager.
Our tour commenced with some elaborate ceremonial glasses, made on the occasions of visits by European monarchs to the brewery. Then, after explaining something of the history of the place, our guide took us to see some antique carts, train cars, and trucks used to transport Urquell beer back in yonder days. A bus then picked us up and drove us to the bottling plant.
I am always impressed by industrial processes like this. I think of Adam Smith and his pin factory, and marvel how such marvelously complex solutions can arise for such simple challenges. In this case the challenge is to put beer into a bottle or a can. The solution is a massive facility—noisy with mechanical racket, steamy with sweat and spillage, buzzing with electricity and life. We watched the action from an elevated platform. People in waterproof suits marches around the factory floor, while giant conveyor belts swept hundreds of bottles into metal apparatuses—rinsers, inspectors, vacuums, palletizer, depalletizers, feeders, inspectors, packets, dispatchers—each of which performs one specialized function at lightning-fast speed. To put this into numbers, the bottling line can church out 120,000 bottles per hour, and the canning line 37,000 cans per hour. We have come a long way.
From here we were transported back on the bus, herded into a large elevator—the largest in the Czech Republic, they said—and then shown a film about Pilsner Urquell’s origins, which was projected on a semicircular screen while we sat on a rotating platform. In this film we were informed that the inventor of pilsner beer, Josef Gross (a German), created the beer in response to growing dissatisfaction among the populace with the top-fermented beer. (The yeast rises to the top during fermentation, which occurs at a relatively high temperature.) In response to this, Gross developed a bottom-fermenting beer, which uses a different sort of yeast that requires a lower temperature. And so, pilsner beer was born.
Then we were shown an exhibit about the four ingredients of beer: malt, water, hops, and yeast—with examples of each. I did not know that malt is not a specific type of grain, but is instead any cereal grain (usually barley) which has been made to germinate by soaking in water, and then dried. I tried chewing on a piece of malt; it’s rather hard. But I particularly enjoyed the chance to sniff and taste the hops. As you may know, beer hops are made from crushing up the flowers of the hop plant. The final product looks an awful lot like marijuana, but smells delightful—the floral, bitter, and richly complex flavor that is most notable in strong indian pale ales, though less apparent in pale lagers.
Then we were led into the old factory, no longer in use. The brewing process, however, remains the same; and so the guide (with the help of a video) took us through the steps to make pilsner beer. First, after being mashed, the malt is put into these big copper kettles filled with water; the resultant mixture is called a ‘wort.’ The wort is gradually heated, which converts the malt’s starch into sugar. Then, to kill off unwanted bacteria, the wort is boiled through a process of siphoning off thirds, heating the portion, and then reintroducing it into the main kettle for it to be repeated.
Then this wort is siphoned off into stainless-steel drums—to filter out the solid bits of barley, I believe—and then on to the hopping kettles. Hops are put in and removed three times in 90 minutes, while the liquid is boiling. After that the liquid goes on to a fermentation tank, which is stored outside, where the yeast is finally added. (This is that “bottom-fermenting” yeast I mentioned earlier.) To achieve the right flavor, the temperature of this container must be kept within fairly strict boundaries. And controlling the temperature during fermentation is tricky, since fermentation itself generates heat. The fermentation process takes some few days, if memory serves, and the final product contains both alcohol and carbonation.
This isn’t the end of the process, however, since then yeast must be filtered out, the beer left to age in barrels, and then the final product is pasteurized to ensure longevity. All this was explained to us as we explored the old and then the current factories, both of which are impressive places. I especially liked the futuristic look of the new factory, with shiny copper kettles in a tiled room. But this wasn’t the end of the tour.
Finally we were led down into the cellars. Underneath the complex, you see, is a massive network of tunnels carved into the ground—miles and miles of them. These were used to keep the beer at a controlled temperature as it aged in barrels. Apparently a rather cool temperature is needed, so ice would be dumped into a massive room at the end of the hall, whose proximity would cool the rest of the network. It must have been chilly indeed, since even without the ice the tunnels were many degrees cooler than outside. (Nowadays the beer is aged in another way, and the tunnels are unused.)
This is where our tour ended. But not without a tasting, of course. Two bearded gentlemen poured each of us (there were around 30 on the tour) a glass of pilsner beer. It was unfiltered, meaning that the yeast was still in the beer, which gives it a cloudy look. Now, here I have to admit that I am not particularly fond of lagers, and I especially dislike pilsner beer. To me its defining flavor is sourness—lacking the sweetness of wheat beer, the bitterness of ales, and the smoothness of dark beers. But I will drink a pilsner and enjoy it, of course, since any beer is better than none.
The tour was over, having taken about 2 hours. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a slight interest in beer and brewing.
I had some time before my return train to Prague. First I ate lunch at a place called the PUB Plzeň, which has great hamburgers. Then I went to see Plzeň’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew. The church has only had cathedral status since 1993, and underwent major renovations and expansions at around that time. As it stands now, the cathedral is an attractive building, both inside and out. But the best part of the visit was ascending the hundreds of steps up to its bell-tower. One must pay a special price to do this, of course, and undergo some claustrophobia, vertigo, and exhaustion on the twisting and narrow stairs. But the view of the surrounding city and countryside is worth it. I particularly admired Plzeň’s main square, which is extremely pretty, full of brightly painted old apartment buildings and futuristic fountains.
Now it was time for me to go. Unfortunately I did not have time to see Plzeň’s Great Synagogue, the second-largest in Europe (though nowadays only about 70 Jews live in Plzeň). But at least this time I got a seat on the train, from which I could appreciate the rolling grassy countryside of the Czech Republic. It is a beautiful country.
When I arrived in Prague I wasn’t feeling too good. Flights from Madrid to Prague are normally expensive; but I had gotten lucky and had found one for quite cheap. The only problem was that it left Madrid at an inhumane hour in the morning; and since I have trouble sleeping either before or during flights, I was not exactly at my best. Sleep-deprivation, besides making me delirious, also makes me more prone to stress. I feel as though I cannot calm down; every little obstacle provokes a feeling of panic. Keep in mind that, when you buy cheap plane tickets, you pay for the flight in other ways.
Admittedly I did have two additional things to worry about this trip. The first was money. The Czech Republic does not use the euro, but the koruna (or “crown”). This alone produced in my exhausted mind a feeling of disorientation, since now I had to perform a conversion to understand how expensive something was, and my mind was in no condition for arithmetic. More stressing was my new camera. Just days before I had impulsively ordered a Canon 1300D (Rebel T6 in America) and I had hardly any idea how to use it, care for it, or store it. Fresh from the financial sting of purchasing the device, I was terrified of losing, breaking, or having it stolen. This was my state as I entered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
There are many options for getting from the airport to the center of Prague. I took a local bus and transferred to the metro, which took me to Prague’s central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, where I deposited my things in a luggage locker. Prague’s metro system is conspicuously attractive and efficient. There are only three metro lines (A, B, and C); but they have been planned so well and go so quickly that I felt that I could zip around the city. Many stations also feature appealing, even futuristic designs. It made a good first impression. Though the city of Prague has only around 1.3 million inhabitants, the metro carries 1.6 million riders a day, which gives you an idea of the level of tourism in the city.
As I emerged into the daylight from the train station—confused, panicked, disoriented—I was at a loss for where to go first. After some aimless wandering I emerged on the Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square), which is more of a long open avenue than a plaza. Its name comes from St. Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia; and a monumental equestrian statue of the saint stands at the top of the square. Behind the statue, bookending the space, is the palatial building of the National Museum—which houses a large collection of both natural and cultural history, but which nevertheless is not a popular attraction (I didn’t go).
From there I made my way to the Old Town. (The aforementioned Wenceslas Square is in the New Town, an expansion of the city planned under Charles IV in the 14th century—very new indeed.) This led me through one of the old city gates, the Powder Tower, an attractive gothic edifice built of smoky grey stone and covered with decorative work.
Soon I found myself in the center of the city: Old Town Square. It is a very pretty place, lined with square apartment buildings painted in bright colors. Beyond them is the Church of Our Lady before Týn, whose tall, jagged gothic spires provide one of Prague’s most distinguishing sights. Tycho Brahe, the astronomer who taught Johannes Kepler, is buried here. In the center of the square is a statue of Jan Hus, an important religious reformer and predecessor of the Protestant Reformation, who believed that mass should be given in the vulgar tongue and the Bible translated into Czech—for which he was very reasonably burned as a heretic. This kicked off the Hussite Wars, in which an armed and mobilized Czech population repelled crusade after crusade sent by the Pope to squelch the heresy, an important event in Czech nationalism.
On the other side of the square is St. Nicholas Church, decorated in a pretty Baroque. Yet the most famous landmark is the extraordinary astronomical clock, or Prague orloj, affixed to the Old Town Hall. Unfortunately for me, however, the clock was under restoration when I visited, and was hidden underneath a tarp.
Standing in that expansive square, I was already beginning to see why Norman Davies, who wrote a history of Europe, named Prague the continent’s most beautiful city. But why is one of Europe’s most attractive places and most popular tourist destinations located in the Czech Republic, a country about which most Americans (myself included) know close to nothing?
It goes back to Prague’s previous title as the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia—at first an independent kingdom, and then a central part of the Holy Roman Empire. The kings of Bohemia ruled over a vast land that extended far beyond the borders of the current Czech Republic; and some were even elected to become the Holy Roman Emperor (that is, until the Habsburgs had their way). Indeed, during the high points of the Austrian power Prague played a role nearly as important as Vienna in central Europe. So the city’s great beauty is no coincidence. And luckily the city was not bombed nearly as heavily as other Nazi-controlled cities during the Second World War, so its beauty has survived intact.
My next stop was the city’s Jewish Quarter, located in a corner of the Old Town. My original plan was just to visit one synagogue; but to visit any of the landmarks of this neighborhood one must buy a combination ticket, which is certainly worth it. My first stop was the famous Spanish Synagogue. This is the newest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter; it was completed in 1868, built over what was the oldest synagogue in Prague, which had become too small for the congregation. The synagogue is called “Spanish” because of its Neo-Mudéjar interior decoration, built in imitation of the Moorish-influenced style developed by the Sephardic Jews of Spain. It is beautiful to behold. Every inch of the space is covered in geometric designs painted in a shimmering gold.
Outside the synagogue is a monument to one of Prague’s most famous sons: Franz Kafka. Born to a Jewish family (though not exactly religious himself), Kafka spent most of his unhappy life in Prague. The statue, by Jaroslav Róna, shows the sharp-featured, diminutive writer pointing his finger (at what?) while riding on the back of a faceless and armless man—a fittingly absurd image for the great poet of the absurd. Apparently it is considered good luck to rub Kafka’s feet; but I kept my distance, since luck and Kafka do not go together. There is a Kafka Museum elsewhere in the city, which I have heard is not very impressive. But in front there is a fountain worth seeing, featuring two men urinating into a little pool of water as sections of their bodies spin around. I don’t know if the image is particularly Kafkaesque, but it is memorable.
The next synagogue on my combined ticket was the Pinkas Synagogue. This synagogue is not nearly as visually striking as the Spanish Synagogue; its interest lies, rather, in the memorials within. On the lower level of the synagogue, the name, birthdate, and date of death of every Jewish victim of the Holocaust in the Czech Republic are inscribed on the walls. On the upper floor is an even more moving tribute: drawings made by the children sent to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. These survived because the children’s drawing teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, hid them in Theresienstadt before her deportation to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Most of the children suffered the same fate. The drawings are an extraordinary testimony of the humanity, individuality, and creativity of the children caught up in the catastrophe.
Right next to the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Since Jewish custom forbids removing graves or markers once they are laid down, and since new land was difficult to acquire, the community was forced to put several graves on top of each other. As a result the cemetery is a forest of tombstones, many of them pushed to odd angles or otherwise falling down; and the ground level is higher than the surrounding streets. The graves span from the 14th to the 18th centuries, at which time Josef II (of Austria) decreed that no more burials were to take place within city walls, in order to reduce disease. Most of the markers are tombstones, though some of the more important personages have tumbas, or sarcophagi (though the body is not inside these). In some of these tumbas I observed little pieces of paper, folded up and tucked inside the nooks of the stone; and in front of one tumba—perhaps of rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel—I observed some people praying.
There were still more sites included on my ticket. One was the Ceremonial Hall of the Jewish Burial Society. A burial society (chevra kadisha in Hebrew) is a voluntary organization that helps to prepare the body of a deceased member of the community and prevent desecration. Nowadays the building is an exhibition space, with panels of information about the role of burial societies (of which I was entirely ignorant) as well as some ritual items on display. Nextdoor is the Old-New Synagogue, a gothic building that is the oldest active synagogue in Europe (it became the oldest when the older synagogue was knocked down to make the Spanish Synagogue). A legend tells that a golem—created by none other than the above-mentioned Judah Loew ben Bezalel, to protect the Jews of Prague from antisemites—inhabits the attic of this building. Nowadays the synagogue is filled with symbolic objects on display and explanations of Jewish customs. The last stop on this ticket was the Maisel Synagogue, an attractive neo-gothic building that houses an exposition on the history of the Jews in Prague. All of these spaces are administered by the Jewish Museum.
As all of these monuments demonstrate, Prague has long had a sizable Jewish community, which would seem to indicate that the city was relatively tolerant compared to other major European capitals. This may be true. However, even here the Jews faced serious persecution. In 1389, for example, following an accusation that Jews had desecrated the host—a common anti-semitic accusation during the Middle Ages—the city’s population was incited to fury and massacred almost every Jew in the city. In the previous century, aside from the infamous Nazi persecutions, the Jewish religion was repressed under the communists. It is, therefore, very heartening to see that a sizable community still exists in the city.
Now it was time to visit one of Prague’s most iconic monuments: the Charles Bridge. This medieval bridge is named for Charles IV (1316 – 1376), perhaps the most influential ruler in Czech history. Originally king of Bohemia, he was elected to become Holy Roman Emperor; and during his reign he oversaw several important expansions of the city, such as the aforementioned Wenceslas Square. Charles IV was also responsible for the so-called Golden Bull of 1356, which he proclaimed from the castle in Nuremberg, and which established clear procedures for electing the Holy Roman Emperor. This was important, since it helped to prevent controversies of legitimacy and succession, which threatened the continuance of the empire.
The bridge spans the river Vltava (sometimes called by its German name, the Moldau), the iconic waterway of the Czech Republic. From its opening in 1402 until 1841, the Charles Bridge was the river’s only crossing, connecting the Old City with Prague Castle. In design the bridge is not very different from Roman bridges I have seen: a relatively flat span (2,000 ft. in length) lying close to the water, suspended on a series of stone arches resting on stone foundations. Towers guard both sides of the bridge—an important defensive feature back in those days—which are not only intimidating but pleasing to the eye. The bridge is covered with statues, 30 of them, in a Baroque style depicting religious subjects.
Yet it is difficult to appreciate the statues, the bridge, the water, or the views with the huge crush of people inevitably walking across. Prague is hardly behind Venice as a European tourist destination; and so major attractions, like the bridge, attract suffocating crowds. And where tourists go, so does the rubbish—street performers, sketch artists, souvenir vendors, and all the rest. It is the bane of traveling.
Having squeezed across the bridge, it was time to ascend to Prague Castle. This is a whole building complex rather than a specific edifice. The castle sits atop a hill far above the level of the river, so getting there can be slightly exhausting if you are, like myself, not athletically inclined. The exertion is compensated, however, by lovely views of the river and the city beyond. To get inside the complex one must wait in a line and pass through security. Then one must buy a ticket at the office. There are multiple types of tickets, with different numbers of sites which can be visited, depending on the price. (True to form, I bought the cheapest one.)
Prague castle has been a seat of governance since the 9th century, making it far older than most other European capital buildings. And due to its very long tenure as a seat of power, the castle has an abundance of architectural styles on display. Having served Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the place retains its function as a seat of power, being the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Even the crown jewels are still kept here (though, unlike in Vienna, they cannot be visited). It is, in short, an important spot.
Yet the most famous building inside the castle complex is neither a palace nor a castle, but Prague’s cathedral: St. Vitus. This is one of the finest gothic cathedrals in the world, a blend of typical French gothic and special innovations particular to this church. The original head architect of the cathedral was Matthias of Arras, a Frenchman who designed a building in the prevalent French gothic. But after his death he was succeeded by Peter Parler, one of the great craftsmen of the Middle Ages. A sculptor rather than an architect, a German rather than a Frenchman, Parler introduced several idiosyncratic elements into the design of the cathedral, such as his characteristic net-vaulting, which both improve strength and create an attractive criss-crossing design on the ceiling.
I admit that, when I visited, I was mostly unable to appreciate any of these technical subtleties. Nevertheless I found the building hypnotic. From both without and within, the cathedral is pleasing to the eye—harmonious in its proportions, tasteful in its ornament, and unmistakable for any other cathedral. (It is worth noting, by the way, that Peter Parler was appointed by the unavoidable Charles VI; and it was this same architect who designed the Charles Bridge. In the history of Prague these two are unavoidable.)
The cathedral presents a striking view from every angle—inside or outside, back or front, from up close or far away, and so on. Its beauty consists in the design of the building itself rather (as in Toledo) in the artwork contained within. However, there is one chapel that stands out for special mention: the one dedicated to St. Wenceslas (which you may remember as the patron saint of the Czechs). The visitor cannot enter the room, but must be content with peering in through the doorway. The lower walls are dedicated with semi-precious stones and gothic painting depicting the passion, while the upper portion shows Renaissance-era frescos showing the life of the titular saint.
After I was finished admiring this glorious piece of religious architecture, I visited the Old Royal Palace, which was built in the 12th century. It is most notable for its Vladislav Hall, a massive ceremonial hall with an intricately vaulted ceiling that undulates like an ocean wave. It was also in this palace that the infamous Second Defenestration of Prague took place in 1618, when Czech protestants threw the catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out a window, an event which helped to trigger the horrific Thirty Years’ War. (Somehow the catholics survived the 70-foot drop, which they naturally attributed to angels, and which the protestants attributed to a dunghill underneath them.) Since this event was the only thing I remembered about Prague from my AP European History class, I was elated to find this legendary window.
My next stop in the cathedral complex was the Basilica of St. George, a church with a cheerful Baroque façade that conceals a somber Romanesque interior. It was founded all the way back in 920 and preserves that ancient atmosphere even now. Then I made my way to the Golden Lane, a row of colorfully painted houses, pretty and quaint, that were originally built to house guards, and which later served as a home for goldsmiths (hence its name). Nowadays it is a row of overpriced souvenir shops. And it must be said that this progression, from guards to gold to gimmicks, encapsulates European history quite well.
Right next to Prague Castle is the Petřín Hill, an elevation covered with parks, which rises above the Vltava River. This is one of the loveliest green spaces in Prague and is a welcome respite from the crowded streets. Walking up the hill is not terribly strenuous; for the enemies of inclination, however, there is a funicular available. On top of the hill is the Petřín Lookout Tower, which was made in imitation of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, it looks as though the top bit of the Parisian edifice had been lopped off and transported here. With the height of the hill (130 meters) added to the height of the tower (64 meters), it still falls short of the Eiffel Tower’s height (300 meters). Even so, it is the highest point for miles around. (I did not go up, since I was not in the mood for climbing stairs.) Also to be seen is the Hunger Wall, a defensive structure built during the reign of (guess who) Charles IV. Its name comes from the myth that the wall’s primary purpose was simply to provide work and food for the poor.
Nearby is the Strahov Monastery. Founded in the 12th century, it is an abbey of the Premonstratensians (the Order of the Prémontré), which means that it is inhabited, not by monks, but by Canons Regular who fulfil priestly duties. The building complex is impressive and lovely, especially the basilica (which, unfortunately, was closed to visitors when I arrived). Most famous are the monastery’s libraries. Visitors cannot enter inside, but must be content with peering in through the doorways. In the hall outside is an old cabinet of curiosities, featuring shimmering seashells, a stuffed alligator, and ancient Persian (?) armor—the sort of exotic mishmash one would expect from a curious European mind of centuries past. The two library rooms are magnificent. The Philosophical Hall is a grandiose neoclassical room filled with wooden shelves. The Theological Hall is perhaps even more impressive, featuring an elaborate stucco ceiling whose designs incorporate religious paintings. I love seeing such care lavished on libraries. Our books deserve it.
I descended from the monastery to the riverside, and found myself in Malá Strana. Literally this name means “Lesser District”—though, as my Airbnb host said, “There’s nothing ‘lesser’ about it.” This is one of the oldest parts of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages; but wars and fires largely destroyed the original town. What stands now mainly owes its origin to the Baroque era. As a result the buildings have a more uniform look, all around the same height with the same orange tiled roofs; and the streets are wider and straighter than in the Old City It is a pleasant place to walk around, if only because it is far less crowded than Prague’s center. There are some notable buildings to be seen, such as the Wallenstein Palace, an extensive mansion originally built for a general, and which now houses the Czech Senate. And there is the monumental St. Nicholas Church, an excellent example of Baroque architecture.
After a stroll through Malá Strana I squeezed over the Charles Bridge back into the Old City. This is what Prague is famous for. I have heard this part of the city described as “Disneyland for adults,” which is not far from the truth. For the Old City is swarming with people and full of restaurants and shops catering to foreign visitors. There is everything on sale between cheap junk and expensive trinkets, everything to eat from take-away pizza to pricey sit-down establishments. All this is crammed into the narrow, winding streets of the medieval city. It would be a beautiful place to walk around in if everyone else didn’t think so, too.
Feeling peckish myself, I ducked into a kebab place, hopeful that it would offer the highest ratio of foot-to-money. But I found, after calculating the conversion (which I unwisely did post-meal), that the kebab was three times more expensive than it would have been in Madrid—and didn’t taste any better. I had a much more positive experience at Naše maso, a butcher and delicatessen with great meat dishes at low prices. I had a meatloaf sandwich that was fantastic.
Next I walked down the river. (Just to be clear, I am putting multiple days together to streamline the narrative. This would be too much for one day.) The area beside the river is picturesque on either side. On the Malá Strana side I found a dock with a series of yellow penguins walking atop it. Nearby are three giant statues of faceless babies by the Czech sculptor David Černý, who was also responsible for the urination fountain outside the Kafka museum. Similar baby statues by Černý can be found crawling up and down Prague’s massive broadcasting tower, the Zikov TV Tower. Incidentally, there is a famous work of Černý’s that I missed on my visit to Vienna: a statue of Freud hanging from a roof. No Michelangelo, perhaps; but his work is memorable.
On the Old City side of the river the walk is just as lovely, taking me on a gentle curving road with the river on my right and a row of pretty, colorful building on my left. Walking along this way, I came upon the famous Dancing House of Prague. This is a modernistic (“deconstructivist,” as the designers call it) building designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić. The name is well-chosen, since the building does give the unmistakable impression of two figures in a waltz. A tower of glass swirls up next to the concrete body of the building, whose form is equally unstable. Irregular concrete panels and pop-out windows give the edifice a funhouse effect, as if it had been squished in a trick mirror. It makes for quite a sight next to the staid forms of the baroque apartments next door. For my part, I think the apartment provides a welcome moment of contrast with the rest of the city.
Nearby is the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, which is the principal Orthodox church in the Czech Republic. The church itself is an attractive place; but its fame does not rest on its architecture, but its history. Now, as you may know, Czechoslovakia, despite possessing formidable defenses, did not get a chance to defend itself from Nazi aggression during the Second World War. This is because Neville Chamberlain, as part of his appeasement strategy, ceded Czechoslovakia (without input from the Czechs) to Hitler in the hopes of satisfying the dictator’s expansionist threats. Thus the country was simply annexed without a fight. After the war broke out the Czechs set up a government-in-exile in England; and to establish its legitimacy and contribute towards the war effort, this government (in participation with England) planned and carried out Operation Anthropoid.
The idea was to kill Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. A ruthless and vicious man—commander of internal security forces (such as the Gestapo), head of the Final Solution, and administrator of Nazi-controlled Bohemia—Heydrich soon earned the universal hatred he deserved. To be rid of him, seven Czech soldiers were parachuted into the country under cover of darkness on British planes. Two of these soldiers attacked Heydrich’s relatively unprotected car on his commute from his house to his office in Prague Castle. After a submachine gun jammed, the assassins threw a tank grenade which inflicted fatal wounds on the Nazi official. The assassins then made their escape and joined the rest of their team.
After the assassination, the Czech soldiers retreated to the church, a hideout for the resistance. But the betrayal of a Czech resistance fighter, Karel Čurda, led to their discovery. A huge team of SS soldiers descended on the church, determined to take the assassins alive. The soldiers defended themselves with pistols until three were killed, and the rest driven to the church’s basement, where they eventually committed suicide to avoid capture. This was not the end of the grizzly tale. On the very day of the assassination, Hitler ordered reprisals. Over 13,000 Czechs were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where 5,000 of them died. And this isn’t all. Based on false intelligence that the assassins had a connection to the small village of Lice, the Germans sent soldiers to commit a complete massacre. All the men were shot; the women and children were sent to the concentration camps, where most of them were killed. (After the war, Čurda the betrayer was hanged.)
In the basement of this church is now a permanent exposition and memorial to these soldiers. In a large circular room there are artifacts, such as weapons and parachute gear, on display; and panels of information tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. In the crypt—appropriately gloomy and grey—are busts of each of the seven soldiers, with plaques telling of their lives. Operation Anthropoid is a fascinating episode from the Second World War, equal parts uplifting and depressing; and standing before the graves of these young men who shook the world is a moving experience.
My last stop was further south along the river: Vyšehrad. The name literally means “upper castle,” and refers to the hill’s previous use as a fortress. Like Petřín Hill, Vyšehrad is an elevated green space that provides excellent views of the city. Crowning the hill is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, an imposing neo-gothic structure. I wanted to go inside but, unfortunately, they were having mass. (Isn’t it irritating when people pray in churches?) It was late in the day when I arrived, so the attractive Vyšehrad cemetery was also closed—which is a shame, since Antonín Dvořák, the most famous of Czech composers, is buried here.
The sun was setting. Without anything to do, I walked to the front of the hillside and looked out at Prague—the shimmering blue river, crossed by iron and stone bridges; the orange rooftops and pink façades of the apartments; and in the distance Prague Castle, with the grey towers of its cathedral silhouetted against a rosy sky. I can see why people like this place.
Admittedly, I am not sure if I can concur with Norman Davies in calling Prague the most beautiful city in Europe—though it is certainly in the running. For my part there is too much tourism for it to be entirely comfortable; and it must be said that the city suffers from the lack of a really top-notch museum. Even so, nobody can deny that Prague is one of the jewels of this continent. There is something for everyone here—for the history buffs, for the art-lovers, and, yes, for the aficionados of knick-knacks and beer.