Two things it’s hard to place when you take a walk through Prague’s Wenceslas Square today, covered with fast food chains and postcard stands: uprising and far eastern serenity. Through separated by some forty years, both were there and in a lot of ways both still are. The square was the site of the most famous protests during the Prague Spring of August 1968 when Soviet tanks invaded then-Czechoslovakia. The 72 people killed and over 700 injured in the invasion are still not forgotten on the pages of Czech history and the faces of Czech citizens.
As has often been the case with many a landmark site, modern day commerce has outweighed historical significance. Cynics can wax poetic on how many important footsteps the Starbucks off Stepanska Street covers up, others may see the beauty in a country that has grown so much so that it can even have a Starbucks to build; a city that in the writing of Milan Kundera has always been a place to escape is now a must destination for the existentialism, Art Nouveau lovers like myself. I came to Prague with a group of 84 but stayed behind when the other 83 took their week off from university to bask in the Italian and Spanish sun or went north to watch Ireland turn green in the early spring. A Kafka fan all my life, I felt discovering the history and mystery of this city was best done alone. What turned out most mysterious was how much history actually existed where in places like the Starbucks off Stepanska it seemed there was room for none.
If you should find yourself with some time to spend in Prague let the monuments, like the statue of Wenceslas himself watching over the square, be only the beginning of your historical inquiry. Despite the square’s infamy for the ’68 uprising and the country’s pivotal place in twentieth century political history, Prague itself was never actually bombed during WWII, leaving this city-wide monument to Art Nouveau and Bohemia fully preserved and in tact despite its modernization.
Only brief travel throughout the rest of Europe will tell you what a rarity this is for a city this size. And so while it was no chain import of any kind standing on that square, many cups of coffee may very well have been consumed in the early 1900s right where you now walk. The colors and sense of newness that the architecture evokes even today was the same as it was when Karl Capek walked these streets, imagining the future with prescient clarity.
Time itself is quite an interesting part of the city’s history and present. The medieval Prague Orloj or Astrological Clock is another high point on many visitor’s list as well it should be—it is the oldest astrological clock in the world that still works. Go into any pawn shop (of which there are still very many all over the city) and it’s hard not to notice the abundance of watches and clocks, some still ticking, some marking the second they now preserve forever. It is heavily symbolic of the city itself, preserved and present all at the same time. But beyond the not so subtle landmarks, the understated and untouched history, and the modernization is yet another Prague that is worth the effort to seek out. I found it in a pot of tea. The Dobre Cajovny is a small teashop tucked down a bamboo-covered alley off Wenceslas Square.
There’s a sign hanging from the yellow façade of a hotel but it is so faded and small it’s as if offering help only to those who are actively seeking it out. I had been told this was a must stop and so I fell into the category most likely to spot the sign. Behind the square, even just these few steps, everything falls quiet. The teahouse is small and low. The building and ceiling aren’t such but the seating so close to the floor and the concentration of only the handful of patrons I ever saw in there brings a hush and muted sense to the whole experience. A menu with a small bell are brought to you as you sit down and though the short server waited only feet from me, he gave me plenty of space and waited for the bell to announce his arrival. Never assuming, never judging. The tea is brought in three parts, a small pot filled with green leaves, a larger pitcher of water, kept at a perfectly hot temperature by a single flame underneath it and a bowl about the size of two cupped hands to pour the vivid green tea into when fully brewed. Only after my first couple sips did the server make mention of the book of Kafka parables at my side. “You know Capek?” he asked
“I do, I’ve always been more of a Kafka man myself though,” I replied feeling immediately foolish for telling a local who the superior Czech writer was. “Yes. Weird.” he said to me, and I immediately realized he wasn’t trying to share anything Czech with me but rather to give in to what he assumed a sojourner to Prague might be interested in. He had, and either by influence or through influence so too had the Dobre, moved beyond what is Czech about Prague and worked towards establishing what is Prague about Prague. Czech is the ’68 uprising, Prague is peace and serenity. Czech is oppression and national dissolution, Prague is untouched Bohemian beauty.
This teahouse came to be the focal point from which everything I see in Prague coalesced. You see this is the recently released letters of Karl Capek, which demonstrate someone interested not in robotics and industrial futurism but in pacifism and conscientious objection to warfare of any kind.
You see this in the Orloj, still ticking away in resilience but not resistance. You see this in the Dobre Cajovny, bringing into the fold of this wonderful city something beyond pre-WWII Bohemia and post 1980s-capitlism; bringing the peaceful and the foreign, the obscure and the inviting together.