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The Golden City of Prague
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

In the golden city of Prague , there was a tourist jam at the historic Charles Bridge . The burnished sun was getting ready to dip in the Vltava River ; canoeists oared in hastened pace; on the balustrade, Baroque statues looked tired of their own flamboyance; a scruffy man was stoically drawing a charcoal caricature; and in the midst of it all there was I timorously holding to my large camera bag and my pounding heart. The crowd’s fervour spooked me and in the city of writer Franz Kafka, I felt, well, Kafkaesque – perplexed at the perpetual hollering, the beguiling whiff of beer and the commotion near the statue of Saint Nicholas. In the world’s Number 1 beer-drinking nation (each head guzzles 160 litres a year!), beer should not have been a surprise. And if I had picked on Czech trivia, I would have known that to come back to Prague , I’d have to touch the statue of the saint sculpted in copper. However, the solemn saint seemed unreachable. Between the saint and I, noisy men were jostling for photo-op, giddy girls stood smitten and sunburnt tour guides were narrating tales in hurried monologues. I did not elbow past the zealous crowd; instead, stepped on the cobbled path to meet the one whose doleful chords leave me dreamy.

No, he did not live in Prague . But it was here that his Symphony No. 38 (Prague Symphony) premiered on January 19, 1787 . In the old Saint Nicholas Church lies the organ that he played more than two centuries ago. The ancient city is redolent with the stories of how he improvised solo on the piano and nostalgically counted it “as one of the happiest days of my life”. His name: Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; he is one whose doleful chords make me dreamy. The highly Baroque church is no longer consecrated, but believers and aesthetes tiptoe into the 300-year old church not merely for Mozart but also for a piece of history they want to wipe out of memory: during the Communist regime, Secret Police used the church’s bell tower as a watch tower. Today, not many lament the death of Communism; some do long for equality, though.

In the city that was first mentioned by merchant Ibrahim Ibn Jacob in 965-966, everything begins with the Prague Castle , the largest castle complex in the world. And why not? Even Prague was born here, when the first brick was laid in the 9 th century and the imposing Romanesque palace was built in 12 th century. Sprawled over 18 acres, the Castle resembles a squat town complete with a cathedral that took six centuries of construction, a gunpowder tower, a singing fountain where drops of water make music, an antique monstrance that weighs 12 kilograms and is studded with 6,000 diamonds and the Palace Gardens which is still touted as one of the most significant Baroque gardens in Europe.

“Did you hear the ghouls beating the drums? Did you feel the tremors?” David Chlum, the guide, interrupted my steps as I turned into a desolate square in the Lesser Town. Ghouls? No, I did not hear a drum beat, I felt no tremors under my feet. Was Chlum in a funny mood? He wasn’t. Many writers, including Kafka, have talked of eerie sounds in the dark alleys of Prague . All I saw was the procession of 12 apostles in the Old Town Hall ; all I heard was the chiming of the Astronomical Clock.

“ Prague never lets you go…this dear little mother has sharp claws,” Kafka had once wryly said. Prague was not letting me go, but I had to go – to the Bone Church that houses the remains of 40,000 dead; to Kutna Hora where tonnes of silver were dug out of its mountainous belly; to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where lies the world’s best preserved Baroque theatre, and to Pilsen, the beer town famed for beer, the world’s third largest synagogue and the first Skoda factory.

The road trip, however, had a macabre beginning. Literally. In Sedlec, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much before the car screeched outside the pint-sized grey church, Chlum sang paeans to what he called “the world’s most unusual chandelier in the world’s most unusual church”. Unusual? How? Was it too Gothic? Was it moulded in silver? Was the chandelier swathed in gold? Was it laced with silver medallions? As I stepped into the nave, my imagination was proven wrong. Unusual? The chandelier was ghostly – it was made of human bones! There were bones everywhere – strung skulls hung in a corner, behind the iron bars lay a mound of bones, on the wall was the Schwarzenberg family’s coat of arms sedulously replicated with countless bones, the arches festooned with skulls and in alcoves stood ‘bony’ chalices. I winced while Chlum strayed to the beginning of the Bone Church – the abbot of Sedlec monastery returned from Palestine with a handful of soil and sprinkled it on the cemetery. Such was the draw of the holy soil that Sedlec became the most sought-after burial site in Central Europe . When the burials outgrew the space, bodies were exhumed and bones preserved in geometric shapes inside the church. Perhaps the ghastly sells – the Bone Church is one of the most visited sites in the Czech Republic .

Yes, the beginnings were macabre, but I soon swapped the sinister bones for gleaming silver coins in Kutna Hora, where Bohemia ’s first Cistercian monastery was built in 1142. However, Kutna Hora’s fame lay not in piety but in piles of silver discovered in its mountainous belly in 1260. Soon, rapacious silver diggers and pushy Bohemian nobles trudged to the sleepy town. The royal mint added to the allure of the Kutna Hora, its prosperity and opulence just a few notches short of Prague . The Italian Courtyard that once resonated with the clamour of hammers of the royal mint now buzzes with the babel of curious tourists. All that remains of the mint are the ancient silver coins stashed under glass lids of stone pillars and a minter in velvet cloak who still stamps silver (it is actually aluminum) coins for delightful photo-ops.

So far, my Czech itinerary was cluttered with piety and prose. But in the world’s Number 1 beer-drinking nation, it would have been sacrilegious not to sniff beer. And where better than Pilsen (Plizen in Czech), the Pilsner beer town which is waiting in the wings to be the European Capital of Culture in 2015.

The story of Pilsner began in 1839 when the few enterprising men huddled in to start a city-owned brewery. With new malts, Pilsen’s soft water, hops from Zatec and Bavarian-style lagering, Josef Groll, the first brewer produced the first Pilsner beer on October 5, 1842 . Groll’s clear, golden beer became a rage but his task was extremely tedious. Beer had to be cooled in caves and processes were handled manually. But Groll wasn’t complaining – Crown Prince Rudolf stepped into the Pilsner factory on July 15, 1871 , and Emperor Franz Josef graced the brewery on August 30, 1885 . Today, Pilsen has the nation’s largest distillery and Pilsner produces 60,000 beer bottles an hour (that’s a whopping 52,5600,000 bottles a year!).

From a colossal cask, an old man poured beer in dainty glasses. While everyone quaffed beer, I played a little beer-barrel game with the dapper Milan Maca who was repeating the story of the famed beer. My task: Move the barrel to the end of the large brick room. The tool: A long stick. That’s easy, I puffed with confidence. Boy! I could not have been more wrong. The barrel was so weighty it did not budge an inch. I tried hard. Harder. I stood exhausted. In the nation that has the highest density of castles, I needed not a drop of beer. I yearned for the sugar cube that was invented here in 1843 and for the apple strudels that Kafka so loved.


Outlook Lounge, 2011

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