Just back from two weeks in the Old World, and I have something to declare: I am in love with Prague!
If you ever get the chance to visit this magical place, just drop everything and go.
Prague's downtown section, Old Town, is a well-preserved, never-bombed medieval city whose ancient buildings (often grafted together from different eras) feature gargoyles, outdoor frescoes and stencil paintings, unexpected statues tucked into odd spaces, and exuberant carvings like this fanciful mermaid, floating serenely above a cobbled side-street.
With Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral on the hill overlooking the town, and dozens of green patina domes, spires and medieval towers in all directions, Prague has a dreamy fairy tale look—especially when everything is lit up at night.
Czech history, of course, has been anything but a fairy tale—which may account for Prague's thriving puppet culture. I found some very cool hand-carved wooden specimens in the shop Marionety, in Nerudova Street. (Here's a link, although you may have to run it through Google Translator, unless your Czech is better than mine.) The best are carved by artisans from familes who have been making puppets for generations. You can find plenty of shops and vendors hawking the cheap, molded plaster variety to tourists to take home to the kiddies, but it's not really kid-stuff.
Back in the various eras of repression (in the 20th Century alone, the Czech people were occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Germans, the Soviets, and the Communists), it was humble marionette shows traveling through rural towns and villages that lampooned the powerful and spread the audacity of hope among the people in allegorical terms only the natives would understand.
No wonder the symbol of Prague is the wily jester, as one puppet-seller told us, and jesters—benign, arch, or downright scary—appear in every puppet shop. Of course these days, along with the usual kings, princesses, clowns, Pinnocchios, devils, and puppets in traditional Czech costumes, you also find Harry Potter marionettes, Captain Jack Sparrows, a smattering of Obamas, and—freakiest of all—Michael Jacksons.
For centuries before the Czechs had their own Republic, Prague was the capitol of old Bohemia, from which we get the notion of "bohemians" as arty iconoclasts. Prague is still a hotbed of spontaneous, interactive street art. The John Lennon wall near Kampa Island (a couple of blocks from where we were staying in Malá Strana, the Little Quarter) started going up as soon as the Communists rolled out; graffitti artists and passers-by have been layering on political slogans, peace signs, Beatles lyrics, Lennon portraits, and who-knows-what-all ever since.
I decided to go native and leave my own mark on the wall with a handy Magic Marker some previous tenant left in our rented apartment. Two days later, my endeavor was almost completely covered up by another guerrilla artist wielding pink day-glo paint. Ah, the tranistory nature of art!
Art with a little more permanence can be found at the Love Lock Bridge over the Certovka canal (The Devil's Stream), a narrow channel that separates Kampa Island from the rest of the Little Quarter. Nobody knows who started this one, but for about eight years, couples have thronged to this bridge to declare their love by locking padlocks around the railing.
By now, the bars and cross beam of the railing are so thick with locks, lovers have started padlocking other bridges nearby. But the ever intrepid Art Boy found a space on the original bridge for our lock, which he painted red, and which I decorated with our names and dates. It was tricky, but he managed to secure it, then he threw the key into the canal. So I'll always feel we left a part of ourselves in Prague—and vice versa!