There is a gallery, in the Lobkowicz Palace art museum, on top of Prague’s Castle Hill, that comes with a surprise. Walking past a world-class collection of Bruegels and Canalettos, I was feeling museum fatigue, and almost missed it. But the commanding portrait of Princess Ernestine, anchoring the room, wasn’t about to be ignored. Looking regal but fully human — a powerhouse in red silk inviting absolutely nobody’s gaze — the princess was a study in self-assurance.
Then I saw why. Ernestine had painted the portrait herself, at a time when women mostly posed for their likenesses, reduced to inert muses, mistresses or royal pinups. And she wasn’t alone. Scanning the gallery, I realized with a jolt that the entire room was hung with portraits of equally self-possessed 17th-century women, all friends of the princess, and all painted by her, as well, making for a historical first. In one sweeping radical move, these women had taken a space back, and claimed it for their own group portrait.
The sense of discovery was one of many I felt during my recent return to Prague.
I had been in the Czech capital once before, shortly after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the former Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime was deposed in a bloodless coup. Suddenly Prague had cracked open, finally free to become modern and wholly re-imagined. But what I realized during my springtime visit almost three decades later, was that the big reinvention hadn’t totally taken hold. Sure, there were signs of a contemporary, stylish city; the traditional roast duck and dumpling bistros had made room for some serious locavore kitchens, and once-gritty neighborhoods had gone hipster. But the old baroque Prague, a cultural hub long before communism, was too strong to disappear; it was still sitting there, fully intact, alongside the newly chic city — and still capable of delivering its own fresh surprises.
I decided to devote my trip to the classic Prague, the antidote to too many Euro cities that have turned generic now, and I started, like most tourists do, on the Old Town Square, where the astronomical clock is proof that the old is new again in Prague.
Pretty much the symbol of the city, the clock tower draws crowds for its hourly entertainment, when a parade of Apostles, followed by the skeletal figure of Death, pop out of the landmark. But the clock and the town square were covered with scaffolding this spring, part of a citywide makeover of landmarks in preparation for the upcoming 30-year celebration of the Velvet Revolution, as well as the centenary of Czechoslovakia’s formation.
I headed for the jutting al fresco terrace of the Hotel U Prince, one of the square’s perfect perches if you want to watch the global tourists posing for selfies denoted with #bestdayever.
Then I prowled, like everyone else, the constellation of souvenir shops that add to the carnival atmosphere. The figure of Franz Kafka, one of Prague’s favorite sons, popped up everywhere, though seriously dumbed down. Reconfigured as a fridge magnet, the surrealist writer was reduced to something stuck on the side of a freezer, watching you polish off that pint of ice cream, in an ultimate act of surrealistic metamorphosis.
An ageless neighborhood
It wasn’t until I passed onto Prague’s Mala Strana quarter, walking over the Vltava River by way of the Charles Bridge, that I really entered an ageless, parallel universe that hasn’t morphed at all. The bridge itself makes for a classic transition. Lined with 31 statues, like an open-air sculpture gallery, it comes framed by visions of heaven and hell. The roll call of saints, martyrs and madonnas makes for a study in stoic elegance; wreathed by golden halos, gazing hopefully up at the low Czech skies, they all seem ready for their annunciation. But baroque visions of the damned are always show-stealers and the best of the bridge’s creep show is the elaborate statue of three imprisoned Christians being rescued by a cavalry of angels and saints; waiting to be freed, one of the martyrs holds up his bound hands, yoked by rope handcuffs, his face frozen in a yowling grimace of pain.
Yet despite the sometimes ghoulish entrance, the Mala Strana is pretty much a sustained heaven for anyone itchy for pure baroque beauty. A huddle of baroque churches, plazas and cobbled side streets, the neighborhood dates to the 13th century. It is one of those cityscapes that seem perfectly composed, like a stage set, and it’s the sort of place you just want to wander, which I did every day throughout my Prague week.
I’d usually start my walks on Misenska Street, a long, curving lane lined with burnished yellow, peach, rose and pistachio townhouses that I decided was the prettiest stretch in the quarter. Then I’d climb up the long hill, stopping in at the marionette shops, like Marionety, hung with hand-painted burghers and Ernestine-worthy princesses that represent an old Czech craft tradition. The increasingly steep Castle Hill shoots up to the Prague Castle itself, where a series of exhibitions this year document the historical events leading up to the Velvet Revolution, along with the permanent collection of royal loot and master paintings. The best still-life, though, is just below: the graceful tumble of Mala Strana’s red tile roofs.
Another way to relish the throwback vibe: Many of Prague’s baroque churches host evening concerts and other musical events through the high season. A variety of performances this year salute the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.
The city is flush with good restaurants. Field leads the new wave of contemporary restaurants updating Czech culinary traditions, with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. And Mysak tearoom is the best place for Mittel European pastries: There are plum cakes and chocolate tortes and cream horns stuffed so full the whipped filling oozes out.
My favorite restaurant, though, was the kind of place serious eaters aren’t supposed to like. That’s because it’s a long-standing tourist favorite still dishing up defiantly old-school food. A 21st-century sister restaurant has opened across the river but the original U Modre Kachnicky, on an alley in Mala Strana, offers the best classic experience, starting with the setting. The dining room walls are hung with celebrity shots of people you only vaguely recognize (Charles Bronson, maybe?) and the big blast of baroque kitsch sweeps in red velvet chairs, cuckoo clocks, tasseled curtains and duck decoys. But when the basket of walnut bread lands on your table, the place starts to look downright chic. And then there’s the signature dish. Forget all those tasteless slices of rare skinless duck that too many contemporary chefs consider the best use of the bird. They aren’t. The classic U Modre Kachnicky version of roast duck comes wearing, instead, a crackling gold skin, its fatty juices puddling a raisin and honey sauce. On the side: red and white cabbage, and rolled potato dumplings studded with bacon.
Old Jewish Cemetery
My final day in Prague was a quiet one because the city doesn’t just embrace its past glories; it preserves its historic horrors, too.
One of the few Jewish ghettos left largely intact, the Josefov neighborhood is still home to six synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery, where jagged tombstones tilt under leafy trees and the bodies are buried 12 deep. The stacked graves are their own kind of chronicle, of a ghetto that contributed immeasurably to the city’s cultural life and legacy, from Kafka himself to Gustav Mahler. All those buried bodies raise the question that could be asked of every major European city: What would those cities be now, if they hadn’t murdered their Jews? And how much did our own American culture lose, when we stonily refused entry to the Holocaust’s refugees?
The magnitude of the loss is recorded in the Pinkas Synagogue, a place of worship since the 15th century, which stands now as a memorial to some 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews killed in the Nazi concentration camps between 1938 and 1945. Their names are inscribed floor to ceiling, on the white stucco walls of the synagogue, under the high-arched ceiling. The surnames are listed alphabetically but it is the first names, remnants of whole extended families, that humanize the victims: Regina, Karel, Anna, Pavel, Ida, Alfred, Hugo, Antonin. It didn’t take long to find the names I was looking for.
Franz Kafka popped up again, in the neighboring gift shops, but this time he wasn’t comic relief. I bought a porcelain bust of the writer, his feral face looking wide-eyed and terrified, a fitting mascot to a world wiped out in seconds.
If Princess Ernestine is a hopeful foreshadowing of our future, then Kafka is a warning, particularly now that anti-Semitism is building again. The only way of defying the forecast is finding something hopeful. So I ended my Prague week with a Mozart performance in the Church of St. Francis, by the Charles Bridge, under a fresco of the Last Judgment, listening to a concerto that sounded sometimes like a lullaby, and sometimes like an elegy.
Raphael Kadushin is a food and travel journalist who frequently contributes to National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Travel, Travel & Leisure and the Wall Street Journal.