Former RFE/RL senior correspondent Breffni O'Rourke died in Prague on January 12, 2017, at age 72. This is an essay he wrote in October 1995 as he was leaving Prague for Australia, having spent the previous six months training new hires in the art of broadcast writing. We publish it here for the first time.
The jet's wings tilt upward. That moment comes when we part company with the Earth. The Bohemian countryside spreads out below in the tawny colors of autumn. The sky is gray. We curve over Ruzyne airport and set course for London. I’ll catch the big bird there for the Pacific, a world away etched in brighter, harsher colors.
They’re finished, my Prague days. I've done what I came to do for the Americans.
I feel I'm parting with a mistress of rare charm; an obvious beauty, yes, but one who keeps alive the tension of the first encounter.
For Prague is undoubtedly a feminine entity. Statues raised to female beauty are everywhere; fulsome lovelies of the Art Nouveau period gaze down from countless facades around the city. Lovers stroll and laugh together through the summer streets as they once used to do in Paris, alas, now long ago. And Prague’s daughters present their own pageant to the world, with their high cheekbones and dark flowing hair.
The city nestles in a curve of the Vltava River, surrounded by lush hills. The supreme elegance of the cross-river axis between the castle and the Old Town is in my opinion unmatched in human architectural endeavors. No dreary skyscrapers, no brutal motorways or other modern preoccupations. Just a sheer harmony of grandiose building styles spanning some five centuries.
And forget the notion of faded elegance. Big-scale restoration is producing a city center as well-groomed as you would expect a lady to be.
This is a city which feeds the senses. The art collection is too big for one building; it’s spread all over town. The street cafes with their bright umbrellas dot the pavements up and down the hills, or keep under the cool arches. The variegated street entertainers strum guitars, juggle, sing Verdi, play Mozart. No line of endeavor is missing. Charles Bridge, the oldest and most majestic of Prague’s handsome bridges, is not only a major historical work, it struck me also as a symbol of harmony.
On a velvet summer evening, the scene is impossibly romantic -- the river, the stone statues lining the bridge, the imposing towers at each end, the castle illuminated above. And filling the bridge a tide of benign humanity, tourists and locals, relaxing together, every few meters an entertainer or artifact seller. I listened for a time to someone giving a passable rendition of Buddy Holly songs. Having become mellowed at a riverside tavern, I called out, "I remember that from 1957!" The youth seemed stunned at this reference to Homeric antiquity. After a moment, he stammered back, "I have the original soundtrack of 1980."
Such is the perspective of youth to historical events.
The best place in town to lose your wallet is undoubtedly Wenceslas Square, the kilometer-long piazza with its mixture of handsome buildings. It’s on the raffish side, with a clutter of fast-food bars and the bat ladies of the night flitting under the trees, as well as numerous beggars. But it’s a rich slice of life, and what’s more has long had a key place in the fate of the nation. Here, the jack-booted Nazis held their glittering parades to show -- briefly -- who was master. Here, the Soviet tanks ground the Prague Spring reforms under their tracks, firing up the hill at the great museum where the students were barricaded. Here, two brave young patriots burned themselves to death rather than live in chains. Here, the poet-hero Vaclav Havel rallied the swelling multitudes to stern but peaceful resistance, so that the communists, their hold of the security apparatus gone, could only slink away into the shadows.
Thus, the square led the nation into a new era of peaceful and increasingly prosperous democracy. Is this not the jewel in Prague’s crown? The triumph of reason over destruction? Pause, traveler, under the massive statue of King Wenceslas and ponder these great events. But still, watch your wallet.
The spiritual side of Prague is no less captivating than the sensual. Strolling around the Hradcany area, I chanced upon the twin-towered Baroque church attached to the Strahov Monastery. As I never buy any guidebooks, everything comes as a surprise to me. It lies in a shade-dappled courtyard, which is itself a space of grace and calm. Pushing open the vast door, I stepped into a space of soaring lightness, where the immense white walls contrasted with brilliantly hued Baroque paintings, the whole thing lavish but in perfect balance.
A Mass began while I was daydreaming, and I couldn’t help but feel the beauty of the setting restored some confidence to the faltering human vision of life as something with a noble purpose. My thoughts turned to a totally different kind of spiritual experience, in the squat, Romanesque cathedral in the Tuscan hill city of Volterra. The dark, almost pagan interior of bare stone and striped tiles, the overpowering incense, the monks intoning their chants, deep and mysterious. My two boys were overawed, almost frightened, as the atmosphere spoke to them of primitive forces. At any rate, I left the Strahov church this day refreshed in a way I had not expected.
Another time, I went to St. Vitus Cathedral, the main church that dominates the entire castle complex. I walked in and walked out, just as a tourist. You can't like them all.
Not the least interesting aspect of the city, to me, is its junkyards. The socialist past is just as evident here as in the shabby high-rise of the suburbs. MiG-15 fighter planes stand for sale amid the weeds, beside rows of tanks, armored cars, half-tracks, motorbikes. The MiGs don’t look like a fly-away proposition. Just what does one do with a MiG of that vintage, anyway? A T-series tank, sir? No problem. Transport extra, of course. At the other end of the city there are also tanks to be had. New ones, though.
As to the suburbs, the strengths and weaknesses of the socialist system still show through. The architecture is bad, but not much worse than in the West. The trams run like clockwork; no one really needs a car. But the many old people who hobble on their canes look as though life has not treated them as well as it might. Clearly, the communist health system and environmental safeguards were not up to the standards of Western Europe. The "oppressed proletariat" of the capitalist system were the clear winners there. Whether they will stay winners in the present climate of job insecurity is anyone's guess.
Prague’s bars are well, Bohemian. How could they not be? As in everything in the city, it's a gentle scene. My favorite bar is Blatouch on Vezenska, a long, narrow room with a glass-fronted bookcase on one side. Above the bar is an upper deck, ocean-liner style. Music ranges from Verdi to rarely, regrettably, rock music. The conversation is Czech, English, German, French, and the younger the group the more earnest the talk. This is a city of conversation, of ideas, not yet disillusioned by excessive prosperity, as in the West. The traditions of old Europe are still alive here, and one can imagine that should tyrants rise again, this bar and hundreds like it would be nuclei of resistance.
On a cold, gusty autumn night, one of my last in Prague, I heard the full tones of a violin playing in the street called Celetna. Under a street lamp, a young man was playing Mozart, Bach, many things I half recognized. I stood for some time in the cutting wind as he went through an accomplished repertoire. A few tourists hurried by with turned-up collars, like leaves swept along.
Then I walked down the darkened street alone, reflecting that most great romances end that way.