My preferred method of exploring a city is to start walking and only change direction whenever I see something more interesting down another street. Were I to try that in Prague, I would end up walking in spirals, or in an endlessly zig zag pattern. In Prague, there’s always something more interesting around the corner. This is a city that’s as close as any I’ve seen to the clichéd fantasy medieval metropolis.
There are the endlessly winding cobbled streets, with tiled rooftops packed so tightly overhead that guilds of thieves could conduct entire wars up there with no one below being any the wiser, save for the occasional corpse-cobble impact incident. There’s a town hall with an overly ornate astronomical clock, complete with clockwork mannequins. (The story goes that the designer was blinded once he finished so he wouldn’t go on to make a better one.)
There are legends and stories galore surrounding the city, from poor old Jan Hus, who put too much trust in princes, to the golem that once stalked the Jewish quarter. Best of all, there’s the Defenestration of Prague, which manages to use one of my favourite words in its title. (Seriously – how much more fun is it to say “defenestration” than “thrown out of a window”?)
There’s a centuries-old bridge lined with statues of saints and divinities, across a river that’s home to an entire flotilla of swans. There’s not one but two hilltop citadels overlooking the city. Prasky Hrad, with its Gormenghast-like scale and complexity, and the over-the-top gothicness of St. Vitus’s Cathedral, gets all the press, but I’m partial to the more ancient Vyšehrad, which is mostly a shell these days, but is lovely to wander through and offers great views of the Vlatva River and Prague itself.
There’s even a hill hard by the city that’s swathed in an encroaching forest and hides not only a monastery with an ancient library but also a wizard’s tower that peeks through the treetops and has a labyrinth at its base.
All right, so the tower is a copy of the Eiffel Tower and the labyrinth is a maze of mirrors, but wizards are noted for their lack of originality. I doubt the average medieval inhabitant of Prague would have quibbled over the details before reaching for the nearest pitchfork and joining the local mob.
It’s a city for losing yourself in, then, as I’ve done for the past few days, the high point of which was when I found a store selling replica Viking arms and armour. For a good five minutes, I considered attiring myself in a manner befitting a Norse adventurer and taking ship down the Danube to the Black Sea and seeking service as a Varangian Guard in Miklagard/Constantinople.
Sadly, dreams of adventure and fantastic vistas founder when they hit the hard rocks of reality. Even as I’m enjoying my travels throughout Europe, a group of far more desperate travellers are trying to head in the opposite direction. The “tide” of refugees entering Europe is much in the news at the moment, often to heartbreaking effect, and while I’m currently on my way to Vienna, my plan is to be in Budapest, the current flashpoint of the crisis, in three days.
That may change, but even if it doesn’t, it forces me to think about why I’m travelling – this experience of cities and nations I’ve never been to before. How much worth does my indulgence hold against the desperate need of others, exemplified in the huddled form of a small boy washed up on a lonely beach? Are they comparable? Or even relatable? And what can I do?
I only have the beginnings of answers for any of those questions. I doubt that one traveller can make much of a difference, or learn everything he’d need to in the space of the two weeks I have remaining. The one thing I do know is that if I close my eyes, I’ll learn nothing. So I’ll keep travelling and see what answers I can find.