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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 9: Prague

This is no longer a Danube journey, more a Vltava one, but you feel the pull of the Danube here in Prague. The day dawns grey and cold. There will not be much of a Prague Spring today. We exchange some euros for Czech korunas (odd to be in the EU but not in the euro-zone). We buy day passes for the Prague transport system and head into the metro. It proves a pleasure to ride; indeed, everyone says how user-friendly and well-integrated public transport in this city is. We get off at the stop above Prague Castle with an unpronounceable name, planning to walk down to it. Here I get into difficulties and resorting to my iPhone and Google maps, fail to notice the lamp post I walk violently into. This is an almost exact repeat of what once happened on Luxor station when I had my eye glued to the camera viewfinder. That time I broke my leg, though I did not realise it until we were back in England and baffled by the pain and swelling that refused to subside. Today, once the horizon has righted itself, I shall suffer nothing worse than a big bruise over my eye. But it is not a good start to the day's sightseeing. 

We reach the Castle. At once it becomes clear that the epithet 'castle' creates entirely the wrong expectation. I should have learned from the opening sentence of Nikolaus Pevsner's entry on Durham in The Buildings of England. My memory is that it goes something like this: 'Durham is one of the great experiences of Europe to those who appreciate architecture. The combination of cathedral and castle set on their rocky hill surrounded by the river can only be compared with Avignon and Prague.' This is an acropolis on which is built a city within a city. Like Durham once, like Vézelay still, you enter a walled enclosure that is partly a fortified bastion, partly a sacred ecclesiastical and pilgrimage site, partly a seat of temporal power and authority, partly a working town where people live and ply their trades. Once we see it in that way, so familiar from home, its palaces, churches and streets make sense. Here in this Kremlin, church and state belong to a single organism

The hill top is crowded with tourists. We buy joint tickets that admit us to the important attractions, beginning with St Vitus' Cathedral. Its jagged profile is a classic of high gothic exuberance. We long for a Pevsner to take round with us to help us make sense of this fascinating church. For now, we are content to enjoy its magnificent medieval spaces and the Baroque splendour of its shrines and monuments. The throng swirls round the church, discreetly managed by a large army of security men and women; yet tourism has not eroded the cathedral's spirituality. Perhaps, like Durham, the memory of saints like Wenceslaus and Jan Nepomuk makes a difference to how we experience the place. They are not as ancient as Cuthbert and Bede, but they exert a powerful pull and sense of protection in this, the spiritual heart of the Czech lands. Opposite the newly restored 14th century Golden Porch, we enter the Old Palace, another fascinating building with a long history. And then the Romanesque Basilica of St George, a fine austere foil for the florid splendour of the Cathedral.

Off the hill, we walk round the New Town. It has started to rain, so we don't linger in the streets, except where there are arcades from which to admire elegant government buildings, church spires and domes, and ubiquitous trams - for this city is one of the best endowed in Europe when it comes to the flanged wheel. Trams and churches are both good for cold, wet sightseeing days. St Nicholas is one more in the series of outstanding Baroque churches we have visited on this journey; its monumental figures of the fathers of the eastern church flanking the high altar are one of many highlights. We look inside a few more and risk becoming intoxicated on too much Baroque on empty stomachs. It is time to eat, and here we find out how modest prices are in Prague compared to most other capital cities we know.

You don't associate the famous Charles Bridge with gunmetal skies and pouring rain. But it can be interesting to see so-called 'iconic' sites in other than picture-postcard conditions. The sculptures along the half-kilometre length of the bridge offer an education in theology and Central European history, and I wish we had time to examine them in detail. In the gloom, the statues, many blackened and eroded, take on a more severe character than sunny photos suggest: gauntly silhouetted against the sky, they seem to assert their religious seriousness as men and women of dogged faith and remind us that in a city with its turbulent history, they are not to be trifled with. The oldest and most revered is St John Nepomuk, Prague's turbulent priest who dared to cross an irascible king. He was hurled from the bridge to a watery grave in 1393 (on St Cuthbert's Day). His statue stands on the exact spot, and it is an old Prague custom to touch the sculpture as you cross the bridge. I watch a father lift his toddler son and guide his hands to where the stone is worn shiny and smooth from millions of pious strokes. It reminds me of Dijon's chouette, the sculpted owl on a church wall in a pedestrian alley, another city's much-loved emblem. Shouldn't every city have one? I ask myself what Durham's might be. The sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral's north door, perhaps. 

By now seriously wet, we walk through Old Town Square with its astronomical clock and visit the twin-spired Cathedral of Our Lady Before Tyn. Is there an end to the splendours of Prague's churches? Only Rome seems to compare for the sheer number of magnificent church buildings clustered together in so small a space. Unlike most of the other big churches, this one is free to enter, and no photography is allowed. People are sitting quietly and praying, while visitors walk round with a respectful air. I doubt that the authentic spirituality of this or any church could simply be the result of good management and visitor policies. It feels like a habitus, a hard-won way of being that certainly needs cherishing, but feels as though it has been indigenous here for a long while. I like to imagine that this is true of Durham too. 

We have had enough of the cold rain. We head back to the hotel for welcome tea and cakes. In the evening, we come out again, and at last it is dry, though we are not going to be granted the sunset I had romantically wished for on this last night of our holiday. We cross the Charles Bridge again and gaze up at the Castle on the skyline. Street musicians are playing, among them an elderly woman with a kind, beautiful face who is turning the handle of her barrel-organ. She meets our eye with a radiant smile as we give her something. We find a little crêperie in the shadow of the bridge and enjoy savoury pancakes and a local peasant wine. After these days when we have seen so much that is grand and at times overwhelming, this intimate human note seems the right way to say farewell to Prague, and to this absorbing journey of discovery. 

Tomorrow we need to be up early for the flight back to England, and home.

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