After a tedious journey from Delhi via Istanbul (a total of 38 hours of airports and airplanes), we arrived in Prague to visit Karel and Kryztyna. Karel was waiting at the airport and drove us straight to his house, only 20 minutes from Charles Bridge, but far removed from all the tourist hubbub.
Karel’s grandfather was given the large apartment building as dowery for his wife. A beer hall and theater occupied the ground level. The Communists took over ownership of the building during the 1950s. In 1968, Karel was visiting relatives in Yugoslavia when the Russians invaded. He had no intention of returning during the Occupation. Living in Munich, he became part of a group of Czech exiles, doing whatever they could to destabilize the Communist government. He published books in Czech language and contributed culture programming for Radio Free Europe. When Karel returned after the fall of the Communists, his father, who had reclaimed the Prague apartment building, gave it to Karel. He started the long ongoing process of renovation. Today, he and Kryztyna now occupy, below are five tenants, and two commercial units on the ground floor. As we enter the building with it’s high ceilinged front hallway, and ascend the large stone staircase winding up to the floors above…very Kafkaesque!
Krzytyna, was an active member of the Polish Solidarity movement during the 1980s, accompanying Lec Walesa in meetings. After the Roundtable (discussions between the Polish government and Solidarity) was established, Kryztyna was sent to Prague to help establish the Polish/Czech Solidarity movement, the only member who could speak in Czech. She remained active in Polish and Czech politics until the fall of Communism. Then she joined the Polish diplomatic core, as a cultural attache in the new Czech Republic. After a few years, she turned her attention to film making a number of historical documentaries about the Underground Movement. One she showed us, with English subtitles, was the story of Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia after Communism. She and Karel have immersed us in their stories of Czechoslovakia and Poland during the Communist era.
Spring is in full bloom, flowering bushes bordering the riverside. But it’s quite different from our first visit, almost twenty years ago, and so aren’t we. The city has grown exponentially; we can no longer see the beyond the outskirts. Fortunately the beautiful old buildings are protected by zoning, but walking around we see far more color.
Where grey dominated, today buildings are painted in an array of different hues. The streets are clean and orderly, and despite the crowds of tourists, it all seems so quiet – no barking dogs, no car horns blowing, and a tram system so efficient that few people drive into the city. Although we’d been warned we still weren’t prepared for the influx of tourism. There’s now apparently more coming here than visiting Paris.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Russians, Chinese etc. in the Square to see the famous old Clock chime, and then weaving our way through the crowds over the Charles Bridge with its many statues. A plaque commemorating a martyred priest. Questioned by the king on what the queen had confessed, he refused. His torture led to being thrown off the bridge.
Our hosts left no stone unturned to give us a wonderful time, walking us through the hidden backstreets, accompanied by a narrative. Both of us woefully ignorant of the former Communist bloc history, Karel brought it alive. There’s so many stories of Prague’s history; we’ve only heard a few. The ones that most resonate are about the Nazi occupation and following Communist rule. The king’s crown still sits in the Castle. Karl told us Nazi General Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s would-be successor, insisted on placing it on his head, ignoring the curse that anyone not a king who wore the crown would die. Five days later he was assassinated. Several thousand Czechs were murdered in retribution.
Representing the oppression of the Communist era, lean stone figures solemnly climb a staircase. Close by, are the remains of a monument of Stalin which was completed in 1956, just as Khrushchev denounced Stalin. The statue was immediately torn down and replaced by a large red metronome symbolizing the passing of time.
After four days in Prague, Karel took us to his country house, an hour’s drive away in South Bohemia. Again, the towns we pass through are so clean and orderly. Neat rows of flowering horse chestnut trees alongside the road, huge fields of dazzling yellow rapeseed that are reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.
The cottage sits in a little village near Pisek. The only sounds (that I can hear) are the birds and passing rain showers.
The weather turned cold and unsettled, but Karel drove us around the countryside, visiting several small towns and old picturesque castles.
When Karel told us he was taking us to the ‘Magic City’, we had no idea what to expect. An hour and a half drive and suddenly we were in the midst of a wonderfully preserved open air museum. Likened to a small version of Prague, Český Krumlov is bisected by the Vltava River. Narrow streets wind through clusters of decorative Renaissance and baroque houses, leading up to a magnificent Castle with panoramic views of the town and river below.
The last few days, we continued to grow our relationship with Karel and Krystyna. The four of us sat around the dinner table for hours sharing stories. The memory of the beautiful city, the idyllic countryside and our most generous hosts will stay clear in our minds.