History as large as life;Escape to...Prague;Summer diary

6th August 1999 at 01:00
THE trouble with history, or perhaps it is more a peculiar charm, is that it is so, well, historic. Done and dusted, been and gone, it is for the most part dead as a dodo.

One of the reasons, I suspect, is that many capital cities - so often the backdrop for epic goings-on - have been so scoured and scrubbed by municipal cleaners that any sense of time past has been eliminated. The astonishing thing about Prague is that as bits of it are layered in the soot of centuries, it has preserved its sense of history so acutely that a visitor can feel weirdly displaced, as though caught in a hiccup of the space-time continuum.

The curious morphing between now and then takes some getting used to and is not helped by the geographical disorientation that comes from walking in circles.

You don't have to walk in circles, of course, but somehow you just do and I spent most of my time in the Czech capital quite lost. Alleyways appear and then peter out mysteriously. You find yourself in gothic doorways peering into not entirely inviting gloom, where grotesque puppets hang in rows, and randomly-placed mirrors hint at unseen prestidigitations. It comes as no surprise that magic lantern shows and black light theatre have always flourished here.

This may be partly due to Prague's necromantic soul. It is, after all, a city steeped in magic, so that nothing is entirely what it seems. Take the Charles Bridge. This glorious medieval structure which spans the Vltava is held together with a mortar made of raw eggs and wine, if you believe the local fable.

Cooking, whether for the bridge or the general populace, is not considered to be a Czech strong point - standard fare is knedliky (dumplings) and lots of pickled this and that. But then it is quite in order that Prague's generations of artists, poets, writers and composers have been required to subsist instead on a diet of coffee and cigarettes, washed down with lashings of Pilsner (how else would they have got any work done?).

This skein of continuity is one of the main reasons why history looms as large as life. Another is that the architecture is so enormous. In Wenceslas Square, for example, you would know that something extraordinary happened here just by looking at the place. It is bordered by towering cliffs of masonry and topped at one end by the forbidding Wenceslas Museum - all colossal pillars and imperial eagles.

Thirty years ago, Jan Palach became a national hero when he set himself on fire on its steps in protest against Russia's invasion after the Prague Spring. Ten years ago, some 250,000 people thronged there night after night to call for political reform. It was an entirely fitting stage for such great human endeavour.

In fact, the entire city feels rather like a stage, or at least an elaborate film set in which you can cast yourself in a variety of romantic roles. I particularly favoured a Julie Christie version, deftly relocating Dr Zhivago to the Staromestske Namesti, the most magnificent square in Central Europe where horses with huge hob-nailed shoes still clatter over the cobbles and beamed and buttressed buildings jostle together. Milos Forman filmed Amadeus here, believing that it resembled Mozart's Vienna more than Vienna did itself.

The Stavovske Divadlo is Prague's oldest opera house and was the setting for the premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Come the evening Prague's churches are filled with recitations and concerts and it's a safe bet that Mozart will still be raising the rafters in one of them, along with favourite sons like Dvorak, Janacek and Smetana.

The best venue of all is the state opera house, Statni Opera Praha, where I sat enthroned in a gold encrusted box listening to Verdi, for about the same price as an ice cream at Covent Garden.

Slogging back up Wenceslas Square I met an American tourist of middle age who gripped my arm in quiet desperation. "Can you tell me where I can find a McDonald's?" she pleaded. Sadly, it was only too easy.

Back to the future with a bump.

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