It is 1am and I am standing on Karluv Most or Charles Bridge, near St John of Nepomuk. The Czech martyr saint’s statue is one of several baroque figures on either side of the historic bridge. I’m stretching, trying to touch a brass nail with my left foot and a golden cross with my right hand. It isn’t an unusual drunken-driving test I’m taking; I am being guided in the proper execution of a good-luck ritual by David Rakusan, an archaeologist friend.
It’s something the martyr might have found useful before his untimely end. “John Nepomuk became a martyr when he was driven off the bridge for not divulging the sins of one of his confessors,” says Rakusan.
History’s cradle: Dating back to the 12th century, the Old Town Square started life as the central marketplace for Prague. Govind Dhar
His voice sounds unnaturally loud in the quiet of the hour. Even the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square, one of Prague’s landmarks, is silent. During the day, wooden models of the Apostles go round in circles on the hour as a skeleton beats a drum in time to the loud chimes. It attracts quite a crowd but Ondra Abonyi, another friend, tells us that that is not all we should know about it. “The most important thing about this clock,” he says, “is to remember to hold on to your wallet when you look up. This is a great spot for pickpockets!”
From a distance, Prague Castle looks down at us ominously, one of the many Gothic facades that make up the inky skyline. On this most unusual city tour, Rakusan has been explaining Prague’s history, architecture and culture in between visits to its bars and pubs, a prime case of enhancing and destroying brain cells simultaneously.
Also see: Trip planner/Prague
Home to close to 1.5 million people, the city is a bit like a World War II movie set, with fragments of Balkan alleyways, well-trodden Italian cobbled streets and a generous helping of the Slavic macabre. Gargoyles, flying buttresses and pastel-toned buildings with Faberge egg motifs stand tall everywhere.
The architectural medley echoes the history of the Czech Republic, which is intertwined with that of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the development of Germanic and Slavic nations from medieval times. Notes of Jewish, Germanic and Austrian culture are apparent in the predominant religion, language and diet; Prague’s Catholic heritage comes from its position as the capital of the Holy Roman empire in the 14th century. Even Prague Castle is a mishmash of building styles, from 9th century Gothic to Romanesque, Renaissance and 18-19th century Baroque. Trams criss-cross the city with great punctuality and a serene river view or a glimpse of the castle, high on a hillside, is never more than a short walk away.
The Astro Clock is mounted on the southern wall of Old Town City Hall in the Old Town Square. Govind Dhar
Discussing the city’s architecture with Abonyi’s gang of academics at Mlyn—once a waterwheel mill and now an arty bar with award-winning photographs hung across its trendy white interiors—I propose that it was quite possible the city’s great litterateurs sat in bars such as this one and discussed matters other than the hypothetical and the metaphysical with friends, just as we were doing.
“So in essence you are suggesting you are Kafka!” Tomas Samek challenges me. Before I can think of a retort, Abonyi blurts out: “I don’t care about Kafka! Just as long as you understand that Pilsner is God.”
We’ve also been discussing beer, and the Czech Republic’s long history with the beverage. “So, if you’re abroad and you’re offered Heineken, Stella or Foster’s, what would you drink?” I ask Abonyi, glad for the diversion. Without batting an eyelid, Abonyi replies, “Water! I would drink water.”
The statue of John Nepomuk on Charles Bridge. Govind Dhar
So it seems fitting that we land up in Karlovy Vary, a city less than two hours away and famed for its natural springs. Even in the throes of its 43rd international film festival—everything from major Hollywood productions to obscure, downright trippy and achingly fashionable movies play for eight days annually—the old and the young queue up to taste the magical waters in a majestic estate, complete with Romanesque colonnades and filigree work. “Each of the 13 springs here has a different temperature and taste,” explains Teresa Koziskova. After sampling six types of the salty-sweet waters, and catching a few films, we call it a day.
Back in Prague, Samek announces it’s time to initiate us into one of the city’s refined pastimes. “A strip club?” I ask. “No, something even better,” counters Samek. Moments later, in a state of euphoria at mastering Naaz dravi—the Czech equivalent of “Cheers!”—we stumble into a bar facing a main street. It looks like any other bar, except that huddled at tables, people are discreetly rolling what look like fat, Bob Marley-worthy joints.
In between conversations with strangers on Prague’s herbal high hot spots and consistent requests for Manu Chao, we sink a few ales and head for a notoriously popular club called Chateau Rouge. Architectural meanderings take on a different meaning here, with underground corridors and pathways leading to a series of rooms and chambers with labyrinthine logic.
Red lights glare blindingly at us and revellers jam to different tunes, beats and DJs in every room. Hours pass, glasses empty and frenetic dancing ensues. Come closing time, we are shunted out by bouncers into the cold light of day. It is 5am. Prague is waking up, and the red light of the club gives way to the soft blue of the morning. As the new sun lights up the skyline and Prague’s historic buildings tower above us steadfastly as we make our way home, I know that if wishes came true, I’d probably be living in a city just like this.