Read CHAPTER II of From a Terrace in Prague , free online book, by Lieut.-Col. B. Granville Baker, on ReadCentral.com.

Discusses the question of guides and guide-books, and tries to explain the author’s method, or lack of it, when making himself acquainted with places of interest. Contains also remarks on terraces, which are expected to edify. There is a good deal about the weather of Prague, about the gardens at different seasons, also an account of merrymaking in bygone days, and some reflections, in the same spirit, on present-day rejoicings.

There are various ways of becoming acquainted with an interesting city. Some people invest in a guide-book before starting out on the journey, others do not rest until they have bought one or more on arriving at their destination. You may notice these people studying the book on the boat perhaps, certainly in the train; they even let the book interfere with the proper attention that is due to meals; and allow me to remark here that the wagon-lit people are very sound on the question of food.

These people are slaves to the guide-book; they leave it not, day or night, and the more methodical they are in conforming to the cramped spirit of the book, the less do they discover things by themselves. No guide-book ever can initiate you into the atmosphere of a city like Prague.

The sight of the guide-book slave “doing” an ancient and glorious city always fills me with sorrow, sometimes, indeed, with annoyance. These slaves frequently hunt in couples, male and female, sometimes with progeny at heel, and it is generally the male who discovers things in the guide-book and then drags the rest of his outfit in search of his discovery. As this is usually done at a reckless pace, the performance is apt to upset the repose of the inhabitants whose perambulations of their native place are in marked contrast to the silent, ruthless hurry in the streets of our large towns. The good burghers of foreign towns seem to have plenty of their own and other people’s time to spare; they also possess the gift of unlimited conversational powers. I have known many a pleasant chat rudely interrupted by a group of British or American travellers who, with nose well inside a book, blue or red but obviously “guide,” push their way, ruthless as Juggernaut, through bunches of inoffensive natives. There is one consolation: those slaves of the guide-book frequently miss the prettiest bits, just because they are looking into the book instead of around them.

Ask such as they about the atmosphere of some old-world haunt, and you will probably hear complaints about the food or the service.

Some tourists aggravate their position by hiring a guide. Every city of any historic importance breeds a class of mortals that are born guides; they have come to belong to the “staffage” of picturesque surroundings; and in this respect Prague is happily yet unspoilt. The born guide, when young, is generally to be found running after you barefooted, clamouring for coppers or cigarettes. His picturesqueness is due to the fact that he does not disclose the incipient traits of villainy in his face by washing it. The adult of the species does wash his face sometimes, but he has no other virtues. The species “guide” is found in its perfection in Southern Europe. Some day I must write a book on “Guides I have Spurned”; there were many, and I have had to acquire a cursory acquaintance with several foreign languages in order to deal adequately with the spurning action which is chiefly vocal and invective. For the present I can only remember one of the many spurned ones. He had been following me about all over the ruins of a Moorish castle, and finally, breathless, came up with me by a little pile of stones leaning, with some faint attempt at symmetry, against a wall. In gusts a garlic-charged voice explained, “Zat modern. Zat rabbit-’ouse!” In his case the spurning could be done quite conveniently in English.

We cannot all afford to be original. I lay no claim to that quality for myself; my method of making the acquaintance of such an interesting old city as Prague may be that of thousands of other wayfarers. However this may be, I propose to explain my method, not necessarily in order to induce others to adopt it, but rather because it explains the title of this work. I look upon cities, landscapes, in fact upon life in general, from a terrace not over or through the leaves of a guide-book.

There is a deal more interest in a terrace, and you can always find one if you really want to do so, than the casual passer-by is inclined to realize. It is easy to reconstruct the scene of building up the first terrace. Some fairly primitive man had emancipated himself from the old-fashioned ancestral habit of just letting the rain wash away the hillside, and with it the family’s prospects of green food for the season. Squatting outside his cave he had done some hard thinking which, transmitted into action, had led him to build up a wall here and there on the hillside, a wall of clumsy stones kept in place by stakes hammered into the ground, yet a wall, indeed a terrace, and an advance upon the methods of his neighbours whose struggles he could watch from the surer footing he himself had gained a terrace and a point of view.

It is not suggested that the wayfarer on arriving in a strange city should make a bee-line for the nearest terrace.

There are terraces and terraces, each one with its own definable point of view, and it is this quality which should influence the traveller’s choice. Prague offers considerable variety in terraces suitable to every conceivable outlook on life. You may choose a terrace that looks out over the factory quarter of Prague, over grimy Smichov for instance, and make notes on the growing industrial prosperity of the city. You will probably be smoked out of your position, for a cheap and nasty variety of brown coal is used by local industries. If you belong to the eclectic you may be privileged to look down on Prague from a terrace with a background of diplomacy, and find the outlook somewhat limited.

Again, there are terraces where you can get beer and other refreshment. Such terraces are generally so contrived as to give you an outlook too varied to allow of concentration on the essentials of the city; the background to these terraces is generally some little building where the waiter lurks for orders. But there are other, real terraces to be found by those who search diligently and know how to discriminate, terraces with a background that has grown up with the city, that strikes no foreign note in that harmony of form and colour, of clustering red-tiled roofs surmounted by domes, towers and spires, which is Prague. Such a terrace is that from which I write. It is a real terrace, serving its original purpose in supporting a garden on a hillside. A garden carefully, fondly tended by generations of those who lived useful lives and looked out over the city from this point of view.

It is old, very old, this terrace, and it has witnessed many terrible scenes, fire and slaughter and religious strife, but it has also seen more that is ennobling and inspiring. In its strength this terrace has supported those who passed their days upon it, imbuing them, and those who live there yet, with the serenity that comes of a faith built on a sure foundation. This terrace is a bridge to the “Abiding City.” It is not my intention to disclose the locality of this terrace; let every man find one to suit his own particular outlook.

Having found your terrace, settle down to a serious contemplation of your surroundings and of the outlook before you; absorb as much as you can of the atmosphere of the place, let it sink into you. For this purpose a guide-book is not only useless, it is a let and a hindrance. After all, what does a guide-book tell you? Either it recites dry facts in an utterly soulless voice, or else, if it make any pretence at belles-lettres, as some of them painfully do, it goes off into sentiment and rapture before you have decided whether these be suited to the occasion. Anyway, a guide-book is the expression of some one else’s opinion or experience, and as such is harmful to the soul as likely to exert undue influence.

From your terrace you take in a more or less comprehensive view of the city and its surroundings, and also form some conception of its inner meaning. Then descend from your terrace and wander at random about the streets, choosing as the more appropriate time the long twilight of a summer morning which brings the cruder modern aspect of the place into harmony with the fundamental values. Then, before she awakens to the stir and activity of everyday life, old Prague will speak to you of herself and take you into her confidence; she will tell you some startling stories, for she has a lurid past, has the city of Prague.

I do not know what was Rodin’s method of appreciating Prague, but can easily imagine him looking out over the city from the terrace of his choice, looking out over Prague and recalling memories of Rome as seen from the Pincio. There are certain obvious points of resemblance. First there are several hills on which Prague is built; they are said to be seven in number, as in the case of the Eternal City. Personally I can only make out five hills, and I have counted them carefully. It seems to be the right thing in cities of venerable antiquity to claim seven hills; to me this seems a mixture of superstition and snobbery. Prague can well afford to be original and rest content with standing on five hills. This, by the way, does not include all the suburbs which have lately been added in order to make up Greater Prague; the innovation is much too recent, and no “Terrace in Prague” can embrace a view of all the latest additions to the urban district.

Further superficial points of resemblance to Rome are the towers and cupolas that rise above a sea of houses, and the winding river; to find yet more would be a serious strain on the imagination. But there is a deeper resemblance, and this perchance is what Rodin meant when he described Prague as “the Rome of the North.” I say “perchance,” because Rodin never gave any closer reason for the comparison he drew, so I can only give my own personal impression of what he may have meant. There are, to my thinking, two distinct Romes as there are two distinct Pragues. The old original Rome seems to me fundamentally, gloriously, and, indeed, unblushingly pagan. All the top-hamper even of such beauty as Michel Angelo conceived does not alter this my impression. Churches arisen out of an Emperor’s bath, or resting on some pagan shrine, are superimposed on Rome. Rome and all that Rome stands for down the ages is that glorious mass of ruins which cluster about the Capitoline Hill or come upon you in unexpected places. And so it is with Prague; Prague the real Prague is to be found in the graceful and enduring monuments erected by Kings of Bohemia in the Middle Ages; Prague of the Luxemburg monarchs, with echoes, faint yet insistent, of remoter legendary times. Over this ancient Prague rise structures of an alien nature, baroque creations of the Jesuits, in spirit foreign to all that the capital of Bohemia stands for. Indeed, most of these buildings are imposing; some are beautiful, but despite the mellowing influence of time it seems as if they had not been completely merged into the soul of the city; they do not express its inner meaning unreservedly. And modern Prague is built up among and about the gracious relics of past ages; at first it appears detached, as it were hesitant between the serenity of a former golden age, the forcefulness of the Jesuit era and the vigour of modernity, but at heart it is one with the Prague of many centuries, is “at unity in itself” by virtue of reverence for noble tradition and hope for a glorious future.

“Thither the tribes go up”; indeed, they have been swarming in since Prague came into her own some few years ago and became the capital of a free and independent republic. In former years, when Prague was still accounted a small provincial town of somnolent habits, there were only two or three hotels that counted at all as accommodation for foreigners; now there are many yet inadequate to the number of visitors. As to those that are drawn to Prague, their numbers may be accounted for by the fact that most of them are native Bohemians who have business in the capital as the seat of government and also as a commercial, industrial and intellectual centre; these latter qualities attract an ever swelling stream of foreigners. To account for this I will draw a comparison all my own between Prague and Paris.

The true Parisian will probably shrug his shoulders at any idea of comparing his city with Prague; but as he is above all a logically minded, reasoning sort of person and, moreover, courteous, he will listen to my argument, and even should he not agree, is generous enough to join me in the happy auguries for Prague which my comparison suggests.

Take a map showing the physical features of France and you will find that the capital of the country could be nowhere else but exactly on the spot where Paris stands in a fertile plain where meet a number of waterways Seine and Marne just above the city, Oise some little way down. By these waterways and by high roads that came after, a constant stream of peoples has been swirling into France and mingling in the basin of Paris. Among these were Latins from the south coming up the valley of the Rhone and Saône, over the heights and down the Yonne to the valley of the Seine. Then came Franks through the gap of Belfort and over the hills by Nancy, down to the Marne and the Aube; Celts and Flemings from the north, and Norsemen from the west, all met and mingled with the native Gauls and eventually became Parisians. Environment acted its part, and so did the forces of Nature. The soil of the basin of Paris is fruitful, the climate equable, but neither encourage idlers; both demand a toll of strenuous labour, yet not so trying to man’s strength as to leave him exhausted at the end of the day’s work; he may recreate himself and bring his mind to bear on the result of his handiwork.

This made him critical, and the constant flow of foreigners brought him new ideas to test by the light of his own experience, and so Paris became, as it were, a crucible in which theories of life were tested and rendered by science into practical form.

Only the best is good enough for Paris, and this will remain the case until the disintegration of our planet; no invading hosts, be they never so numerous, nor the most fiendish inventions in modern chemistry, can alter this fact, they may beat down the superficial Paris, they cannot destroy its spirit.

To a lesser degree this is also true of Prague. As we have already seen, its geographical position marks it out as a centre where meet roads coming from all directions. This fact was not discovered at such an early period as that in which Paris arose out of the river swamps. Possibly this was due to the westward tendency of migratory races during the first centuries of our era when Teutonic tribes and Celts passed over Bohemia under pressure from the east. It is strange that the Romans did not discover the geographical advantages of the site on which Prague was founded. Roman influence began to make itself felt early in the first century of the Christian era in these parts, but the trade route which connected the Danube with the Baltic shore passed eastward of Prague, it seems via the valley of the Morava and the “Gate of Bohemia” at Nachod, through Breslau and Stettin, both, by the way, former Slavonic settlements. There are not many traces of Roman culture, and what there are seem to have been imposed on the inhabitants themselves rather than left behind by the Romans. Even Marcus Aurelius, who wrote about most things under the sun, has little to say of the country north of his stronghold at the confluence of the Danube and Morava. It was not till several centuries after the Roman Empire’s glory had departed that Prague became a place of importance, and this was largely due to the Luxemburg Kings, whose introduction of French culture made of the city a centre of attraction on the eastern marches of Europe. How and why Prague lost in importance may be gathered from its history; whether it will again gain and hold the prominent position to which it is entitled by its situation must depend entirely on the people of old Bohemia and the other countries which compose the new Czecho-Slovak Republic in general and the citizens of Prague in particular; the fortunes of their country and capital are in their own hands to make or mar. They have many points in their favour: first, a central position in a country endowed with great riches; then a sturdy, hardworking and law-abiding population; and finally a climate that neither encourages idleness nor puts too severe a strain upon man’s power of endurance.

The people of Prague have their theories about the climate of their country; they maintain that it is governed by certain rules that are made to apply to Central Europe generally. Thus they will tell you that the winter is severe, that ice and snow keep the country bound for several months at a time, that spring comes swiftly but gently with the melting of the snow and the gradual breaking up of the ice-floes on the river, that then a fine summer follows, a summer hot indeed but tempered by cool breezes from the north and showers from south and west; then through a glorious autumn all russet and gold on a background of hazy blue mountains, back to a winter as in the Christmas carol about Good King Wenceslaus. All this is theory; in reality the weather here, as elsewhere, is not to be trusted, though, indeed, it is not as fickle as that of our own dear country. Still, the people cling to their theory about the climate of the country, and if perchance the theory does not fit, there is always an “oldest inhabitant” handy to declare the weather quite exceptional. Why is it that the oldest inhabitant is invariably the greatest local liar? Is it simply a matter of long life and ripe experience?

Whatever the climate may be, whatever vagaries the weather may indulge in, the view from my terrace is always lovely, its subtle beauty ever new. If I were called upon to say which season shows ancient Prague at her best, I would say the spring time. Then the orchards on the slopes are arrayed in virgin white of pear and cherry blossom, with here and there a blush from apple-trees and a faint glimmer of delicate green against cool grey of stone walls showing among the purples of trunks and branches warming into new life under the fitful rays of April sunshine. The sunshine draws out colour from soaring spires or copper domes of churches and from the quaint towers and pinnacles of old Prague’s former defences against enemies that came like storm clouds from out of the west or over the giant mountains to northward. A passing cloud throws into the shade the middle ground of grouped and red-tiled roofs overtopped by some stately church, and the terraced gardens that descend into the harmonies of deep reds and greyish purples which is the dominant note in the colour scheme of the “Mala Strana,” the small side of Prague on the left bank of the river. Far beyond are the encircling heights some wooded, others under cultivation; cloud shadows pass over them like ghosts of the tragic events that made up the history of Bohemia and its capital. But the sunshine wins over the clouds and draws out the strength and glory of Golden Prague.

Summer and autumn bring fulfilment of spring’s promise of plenty, with fruit in abundance. Autumn lingers in red and yellow motley, stoutly resisting winter’s attack until boisterous winds from east and north send the last leaves shivering to the ground and spread out the city’s winter garb. Then Prague assumes a severer aspect; reds and warm greys have vanished, castle, churches, palaces stand out in marked relief, their features accentuated by piled-up snow on roof and gallery and flying buttress. And seen from my terrace, Prague under snow is very beautiful.

The winter had been erratic; spells of intense cold when ice-floes piled up about the piers of the bridges, and even gave rise to anxiety concerning the safety of those structures; then mild winds from the south driving the smoke of the Smichov factories across Castle Hill. This, too, has its beauties when reluctant rays of the setting sun try to dispel it and cloak the Hradcany in a shroud of purple mist.

Winter lingered on into the beginning of the week of Resurrection. On Tuesday in Holy Week wild gusts from the north drove powdered snow in scurries across the uplands through the broad streets and into narrow alleys, where it lingered during two breathless days until with Good Friday came glorious sunshine, dispelling the last traces of winter storms.

As if to attune themselves to the change from winter’s bondage to generous life, from the season of Lent to the Day of Resurrection, the people of Prague, as is their wont, called music to their aid. On Palm Sunday, as the last light of a grey day faded away, the church dedicated to Saint Henry, standing austerely apart from the traffic of the streets, was filled with the sweet sadness of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.” From the organ-loft came the soul-searching harmony of two voices, a pure white soprano and a rich vibrant contralto, which spread about the lofty building, penetrated to the secluded corners where the scent of incense lingers, and then seemed to lose itself in the shadowy arches of the roof, merging, as it were, into the memories of centuries of prayer and praise.

There was that feeling of impending relief from pain, then as of a healing touch when glorious sunshine ushered in Easter Sunday. Larks poured out their soul into a cloudless sky over the battlefield of the White Mountain, the pale green of larches showed up bravely among the riot of live purple and crimson and the flashing trunks of birches, over the wall that confines the park of the Star. The Star itself, that singular monument, a former hunting-box of Bohemian Kings and built in the shape of a six-pointed star, is undergoing renaissance: it is being arranged as a museum for the Czecho-Slovak legionaries. The little brook that makes such a long detour on its way to join the Vltava, passing through the rocky gorge and the winding valley of the Sharka, was very emphatic on the subject of spring’s arrival, and its voice must have penetrated to secluded nooks and crannies, rousing sluggard forms of life from winter sleep. Spring was asserting itself with all the glorious certainty of youth, and was calling aloud to all and sundry to come out and witness a brave display in the many gardens of Prague.

I doubt whether any other town in Europe is so well equipped with gardens as is Prague for its size. Chiefest among these is the Stromovka, on the northern slope of the Letna Hill. Your best approach is from the direction of the castle by a broad and shady avenue which leads you first down, then up again to a little plateau where stands a building called Zamek. This building is said to be an old hunting-box of Bohemian royalty: it certainly tries its best to look ancient, but fails to convince you. Then by shady winding ways down the slope to a broad valley deep in verdure. A little stream, which broadens into a lake, keeps up the necessary moisture, and the grass and the weeping willows in their loveliness offer it their silent thanks. The trees on the northern slope grow high: they had to do so to meet the sunshine.

There are broad, shady drives and rides, and many seats, also two restaurants, with at least one band playing heartily of an afternoon. But the beauty spot in all this loveliness is right in the centre a rose-garden. It is no use trying to describe this rose-garden; only a poet could do that, so all I say is, Come and see for yourself.

Other public gardens I would mention, at least the larger ones Kinsky, Nebozizek, Riegrovy but there are a number of others, smaller ones, with shady nooks and plenty of seats. These gardens are dispersed about the town in its workaday quarters; at midday in fact, at any time of day you may see the workers enjoying a rest and also whatever kindly fruits of the earth happen to be in season in July your path is paved with cherry-stones.

There are rows of trees along many of the streets; there are many private gardens of palace, hospital, monastery or convent, adding the freshness of their verdure to the beauty of Prague.

No wonder, then, that with so much loveliness about them the people of Prague should be gay and intent on enjoying life amid such surroundings. On a Sunday or feast-day you have music all round you. Look over the holiday city from your terrace, you will see happy well-dressed crowds moving to one or other place whence rise the strains of music. From one side you hear the solemn notes of the fanfarade from Libusa; a little farther away a very cheery brass band is stirring its audience with a rattling march impossible to keep your feet still; then while the brass band pauses for breath and beer the insistent cadence of a dreamy valse floats up to meet you.

Finest of all was Stromovka. Here weeping willows trailed their weeds of daintiest green; here vigorous chestnut buds threw out their strong scent; here osier-beds were a living tangle of gold and crimson reflected brokenly in the lake where frogs made merry, the frogs being about the only wild animals left in the Stromovka. Things were very different in this park when it was known as the Thiergarten, Hortus Ferarum, as long ago as the days of King John, the knight-errant ruler of Bohemia. It appears that bison, “aurochs,” were kept here, and it is recorded that the sole surviving specimen died in 1566, which fact Archduke Ferdinand, the Kaiser’s lieutenant, reported to Emperor Maximilian; he was thereupon ordered to ask the Duke of Prussia to oblige with a new couple of bison.

The Stromovka was at one time described as “where the ox preaches on a sack of straw,” which description was probably meant to be humorous. The connection comes about by the fact that the tailors of the town held their revels in the Thiergarten every Tuesday in Easter week, and it seems that a sack of straw was necessary to their happiness. This sack, of the finest white linen, was sewn up with great neatness and adorned with bows of ribbon, red, blue, yellow, green and white, by the apprentices. The sack was further decorated with a design representing a lass and a lad.

There seems to have been no particular object for the sack, as it was only fastened to a pole round which danced young men and maidens. As the gay Czechs of the present day are ready to dance without any such fortuitous aid, it may be presumed that there was some meaning in the idea of carrying a sack about and then dancing round it; but the chronicler does not mention this point he probably missed it.

Not to be outdone by the tailors, the cobblers of Prague had their day on the Wednesday after Easter, and went for their diversion in an opposite direction, namely, to Nusle, which lies tucked away behind Vysehrad. The cobblers’ feast-day was called “Fidlovatchka,” which has a cheery ring, and tradition gives the following origin: The cobblers’ guild had built a pair of boots, a most excellent pair of boots, for Emperor Joseph, who himself had learnt their craft. Every cobbler’s apprentice in Prague had contributed of his labour to this pair of boots. In token of gratitude the Emperor had given to the guild a little tree, silver-plated, on which were displayed specimens, also in silver, of all the implements used in the cobbler’s handicraft. This imperial present was displayed at the cobblers’ guildhall and held in high honour.

Now as it happened the cobblers’ apprentices seem to have been afflicted more than those of other guilds by the complaint called by the Germans “Blue Monday,” which being interpreted meaneth “the morning after the night before.” It was of necessity observed as a holiday. Masters insisted on abolishing this holiday, apprentices insisted on its retention. The latter removed the silver-plated tree from its sanctuary and carried it, to the strains of music and with much vociferation, to a mill, now no longer, at Nusle, at which place the adventure had been planned.

Not a single apprentice was to be found in Prague: needless to say, they had the enthusiastic support and inspiring company of all the cobblers’ errand-boys.

The apprentices kept up the feast for several days until their funds were exhausted; they then stripped the imperial tree of its ornaments and sold them. When they had arrived at the stage known as au sec they passed the time in fighting. Eventually a deputation of masters came out, a conference was held, the “Blue Monday” feast was reinstituted, and the apprentices returned to Prague, carrying, in place of the imperial tree, a maypole premature, no doubt, but it probably best expressed their feelings.

The very learned will tell us that the maypole custom of the Prague cobblers dates back to much remoter times than those of Emperor Joseph, and may draw attention to the habit prevalent in Saxony and other neighbouring countries with an originally strongly Slav population of displaying a birch-tree at the beginning of May. The learned will then dive down into Slavonic mythology, which process to the dilettante in such matters, is like “going in off the deep end” you never know when or where you may come up again.

At any rate, it appears that the cobblers’ apprentices chose to call their maypole “Fidlovatchka,” and that they carried it about on their feast-day, the Wednesday after Easter. Tradition has it that they all smoked in turn, from a giant pipe capable of holding two pounds of tobacco. Here a fastidious chronicler draws the curtain.

The habit of the Prague apprentices in the matter of keeping the feast remains much the same to-day; moreover, it is not their exclusive right or privilege. I know few other places in the world where people are more ready to make merry on the least provocation. I do not know why this is, nor have I analysed the Czech disposition towards festivities; I do know that it is contagious. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the Church of Rome encouraged the converted Hussites to keep things merry and bright on every available saint’s day so as to deaden all recollection of Hus’s martyrdom, but this is a deeper matter which we will discuss later. The fact is that the Czech is by nature gay and cheerful and an expert merrymaker, as who would not be in a country like Bohemia, with its grand natural beauties, its wealth of music and poetry and its beer?

The Government has recently abolished all holidays but a few of the very obvious ones, such as New Year’s Day, Good Friday, and May Day. I do not think that this paternal decree will make the least difference to the cheery Czech; in fact, only a day or so after the decree was passed into law the event was celebrated by a very hearty tribute, lasting two days, to a national saint, followed by a day’s strike organized by those who protest against all such obsolete notions as saints’ days. Everyone was satisfied; everyone’s opinion had been freely expressed, and everyone had enjoyed three holidays in one week, thus, by the way, exceeding the allowance for the whole year. Oh yes! the Czechs know what they are about when it comes to merrymaking.

Such a day of merriment is March 7th, very much of a feast-day indeed the birthday of President Masaryk. Were I a Czech or Slovak, I should celebrate right heartily at least once a week the birthday of the present President, for he is one of the few great men among the swarm that arrived at the top as a result of the World War.