It’s rare that a business trip leads to magical travel memories. Usually you would be anywhere, tucked away in meeting rooms. But Prague was the exception for me, and remains a special discovery to this day.
I was just appointed National Accounts Manager for Princess Cruises and was traveling to Budapest and Prague, two jewels of Eastern Europe, for an industry conference. My days in Budapest flew by in hotel conference rooms, just as you’d expect. But then we traveled to Prague, and it turned out to be a place that would envelop me in history, while its gracious, old-world charm and urban beauty would inspire and surprise me.
I was not prepared to step back in time, but that is what it felt like entering the Old Town section of Prague, where my hotel, a converted convent, was located. The cobblestone streets and the beautiful Old Town Square ringed with majestic buildings, along with the Charles Bridge,– would become the center point of Prague for me, a place where I would experience a cascade of emotions I didn’t expect on a business trip.
But Prague is magical, and it has a way of distracting you from life’s daily concerns.
Shortly after checking into our hotel, whose simple rooms, creamy plaster walls and quiet hallways were in themselves a journey back in time (reminding me of my Catholic high school rooms at Mt. St. Ursula in New York), I joined my traveling companions for a walk through Old Town.
Old Town was founded around the 9th century on the Vltava River and was an important marketplace and military meeting ground. Five hundred years later, Charles IV founded the new town across the river. That certainly put things in perspective for me — the “new” part of town was established in the 1300s! Spanning the river between the old and “new” is the majestic Charles Bridge, commissioned by the same Charles IV.
That first afternoon, my group and I wandered around Old Town and got our bearings before heading to the Charles Bridge. By day, it abounds with life–musicians, groups of young people hanging out and shopkeepers at their kiosks crowded its expanse. I found it to be a joyful, happy place and enjoyed watching the cross-section of humanity congregating along the busy pedestrian bridge.
The bridge is beautiful, with 16 arches gracefully leaping across the Vltava. Its 516-meter span is guarded by alternating lamp posts and statues–30 in all–of saints, both popular and obscure, and various representations of the Madonna and Christ.
But the architectural impact of the bridge was somewhat overshadowed by the noisy crowds who flock to it by day. Later that evening, we returned to walk the bridge and by night, it imparts a completely different feeling. The Charles Bridge whisked my imagination back in time, to Prague’s past as a Gothic citadel, a crown jewel of the Holy Roman Empire, a seat of the Hapsburg dynasty.
As I crossed the bridge, it was quiet and the river was still. A dark mist was rising off the Vltava and the cloudy day had turned to foggy night. The bridge was mostly empty and the statues stood sentinel, softly lit by their neighboring lamps. My imagination could not help but seize upon the vampire books and Gothic novels I had read. Stopping to admire the statues–St. Jude, St. Vitus, St. John the Baptist, then the most famous one, The Crucifix and Calvary, with its towering cross–brought to mind the often tragic lives of the saints depicted on the bridge and the story of the crucifixion.
A sensation of Gothic mystery, the distant past and deep spirituality emerged in me. The bridge at night is a monumental experience. I didn’t expect to feel such a range of emotions.
The next morning, Prague was to unexpectedly capture my emotions once again. We visited Josefov, or the Jewish quarter, which takes up a quadrant of Old Town. In Josefov there are numerous synagogues, a town hall and an old Jewish cemetery. There is some dispute about when this cemetery was established; some say 1439, the date on the oldest tombstone, while others estimate that Jews were buried there as many as 1,000 years earlier. In any case, the cemetery is crowded with 12,000 tombstones, layered one against the other, as lack of space meant that land was filled and graves were layered one upon the other.
Prague’s Jews certainly faced more than their share of suffering. During the middle ages, pogroms terrorized the community. Centuries later, the Holocaust and Nazi occupation did much the same.
Walking through Josefov, you could feel the anguish that occurred there, as if its inhabitants were reaching out to you, to remind you to never forget their suffering. It was another unexpected moment of spiritual connection in Prague. Whether you are Jewish or not, Josefov will take hold of you and remind you to be grateful for what you have and to never forget the lessons of the past.
Luckily, most of Prague’s historic structures were untouched by World War II and Soviet occupation. It was remarkable to walk the cobblestone streets and see a city that looked much the same as it did centuries before.
Prague brought me back in time, but I’d be remiss to not mention the liveliness of the city. I had a fantastic time with my group, dining out and trying some of the city’s renowned beer. The night before I was to leave, I had a blast at a massive nightclub near the Charles Bridge. I kept a flyer from the place and the slogan still makes me smile. The four-story club was billed as “The Biggest Music Club in Middle Europe.”
After a few hours of fun, I returned to my converted convent for a few hours’ sleep before an early flight home.
That visit was in the spring of 2001, more than a decade ago. While I have been to many great European cities, some revered for spiritual sites both ancient and modern (Rome, Barcelona, Venice and Athens come to mind), none have resonated with me as deeply as Prague.
While some sites, such as Josefov, brought forth great sadness, others, especially the Charles Bridge by night, elicited spiritual joy. The greater message of Prague, and perhaps life itself, is to learn from history and live with feeling. The sublime and the sorrowful, the historic and the lively reside in Prague, all connected by the venerable Charles Bridge.