You can learn new English words as a tourist, even when most people around you are speaking Czech.
Before my recent wintertime visit to Prague — a storybook warren of castles, ancient bridges and cobbled streets, all of which were lucky enough to escape the bombs of World War II — I’d never known the definition of the word “defenestration.” If I’d had to guess, I would have figured it had something to do with thinning trees.
No. Defenestration is the act of throwing someone out a window.
I’m standing in the Old Royal Palace, a remarkable edifice whose origins date back to 1135. It’s part of the sprawling hilltop complex known as “The Castle,” whose imposing presence looks down upon the sprawl and bustle of Prague like an imperious household cat one-eye napping in a strategic vantage point. Along with the glorious Gothic splendor of St. Vitus Cathedral, stuffed with artworks celebrating Catholics slaughtering Protestants, the Old Royal Palace has that faint and melancholy whiff of the dusty past. You just know important things happened here.
Such as the infamous Defenestration of 1618.
The politics and religious details are long and involved, but the result was this: In a part of the palace called the Bohemian Chancellery, peeved Protestants tossed three important Catholics out the window, a fall of about 70 feet. They survived. Some attributed their good fortune to angels offering a heavenly assist, while others more pragmatically pointed out that a huge pile of dung broke their fall.
Oh, and by the way: throwing those guys out the window started a little conflict known as the Thirty Years War.
Looking out that window and imagining those long-ago men tumbling to their odoriferous landing pad, I’m intrigued by how accessible history can feel in Prague.
I’d come from Berlin, which had to be rebuilt after the war. In contrast, Prague seems to revel in its solidity. Sure, the Old Town can feel as if it’s creeping up the Disney Meter now and then, and the college-party atmosphere that emerged soon after the fall of communism can still blare its 4 a.m. clarion call right beneath your hotel window, but Prague is never quite sterile enough to feel like a theme park.
Where Mozart worked
First for most tourists during the day is the obvious checklist: Wander the streets, stroll on the Charles Bridge with its massive statuary, check out the famed Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, climb the hilly avenues leading up to the Castle. When you go in January, as we did, the crowds are almost nonexistent. We get the clock pretty much to ourselves.
In the evenings, food and (lots of) drink are favorite things to do. We’re only there for two nights, however, and my main interest is the cultural scene.
First up: a peek at an example of Prague’s black-light theater district, one of the city’s specialties. The TA Fantastika theater’s decades-long-running “Aspects of Alice” is a weird experience that lands somewhere between children’s show and psychotropic hallucination.
The actors, of course, wear mostly black costumes that against black curtains and on a darkened stage make whatever is strategically highlighted on their person seem to “float.” Gymnastics, dance, puppets, props and “flying” cast members help create a fanciful world.
In the case of “Aspects of Alice,” which is a loose interpretation of the “Alice in Wonderland” story, the story line gets absorbed into a mishmash of religious allusions, Czech nationalism, hypnotic looking goldfish and psychosexual intrigue. I can’t begin to fathom it other than to suggest that Alice needs some serious therapy. But it’s a fun experience to say you’ve tried once.
Far more fulfilling is a last-minute decision to buy box seats to the Estates Theatre to watch an inspired opera performance of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte.” This gorgeous Neoclassical performance space opened in 1783 and remains one of the few theaters in Europe to be kept in almost its original state.
And it’s the perfect place to listen to Mozart, considering that the composer himself spent a lot of time here. (His “Don Giovanni” had its first performance here in 1787, and scenes from the movie “Amadeus” were filmed here.)
The box seats are a deal, by the way: about $30 U.S. For all the history of the surroundings, the production itself is crisply modern, with a vividly white, rotating, doughnut-like set serving as the main stage piece. The costumes, singing and storytelling are lively. It’s nice that Mozart gets feted to this day in a theater in which he worked.
A look at old communism
One last stop: a smaller, off-the-beaten-track museum, the kind you should always seek out in any city you visit. Prague’s offering is the hard-to-find Museum of Communism, located just off Wenceslas Square.
The museum is a fascinating if homespun, ramshackle collection that despite its name is actually quite anti-Communist. When communism fell, it seriously depressed the market for Lenin and Stalin statues, some of which ended up here.
Though the museum has a decided political bent, it offers intriguing glimpses at life under Communist rule. At one point government propaganda blasted the U.S. as an “Empire of Evil.” George W. Bush took that one and ran with it.