<%-- Page Title--%> Travel <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 125 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 3, 2003

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An Evening with Charlie

Sameera Mahruba

You're going to Prague?” asked Shakespeare Da, his eyes lighting up. “Then you'll see the Charles Bridge!” I had never heard of it. “The bridge, built by Charles the Fourth, a Holy Roman Emperor,” he said, “You should know that if you're going to Prague.”

Jolted into action by Shakespeare Da's lecture, I finally decided to prepare for my encounter with this historic town and clicked through some tourist websites a few hours before my flight. Some old, stately buildings came up on screen, the weather forecast promising sunshine and mild temperatures. Ready to learn all about the regal Charles and his namesake, it was somewhat of a surprise to land at Prague airport.

Right out of the cavernous air-jetty, we were greeted by Steffi Graff leaning on Andre Agassi, twice their normal size and pasted on a billboard. Advertising a certain mobile phone company. I couldn't remember off-hand if either had any Czech connections, but Steffi could be a symbol of home for the hoards of German tourists that descend on Prague every other weekend. So our German trainer Micz told us.

Born a West German and now living in East Berlin, Micz was also our chance tour guide. We caught the tram down a steep hill from the Centre for Advanced Media - Prague, where two colleagues and I from Drik were receiving training in online publishing. A gruelling first day had primed us all for an evening out, and Micz promised us a good tour.

The journey into town on tram 26 went downhill, crossing Prague's Vltava River and stopping just before the Old Town. I caught a glimpse of the Prague Post, the tabloid for Prague's anglophone business population, and grabbed it at once. The cover story was about a Czech biker living in New York, who had happened to forget about a priceless 9/11 video in his possession for the last two years, and when his amnesia broke the tape was 'discovered' by the New York Times for a tidy sum. (“Trust a Czech to do that,” said Martin, a native of Prague, when we met up for dinner later in a Serbian restaurant serving Italian food.)

Micz took us through several low archways, past stone walls with gothic drama chiselled on it in relief, the new Elizabeth Arden shop, and holes in the wall selling a hotchpotch of souvenirs. At a narrow passageway going towards the Old Town Square, Micz stopped and pointed above. The two blackened towers of the Tyn church loomed above, cut sharp into the dusk sky. Thin metal spikes on the towers' spires glimmered with gold plated stars, and Micz explained why it's also called the Walt Disney church.

In the Disney animated movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, illustrators had apparently constructed the Wicked Queen's castle using proportions of these forbidding towers. Shadows creeping up closer and closer, the eerie feeling only reminded me that I'd never liked the Seven Dwarves cartoon as a child.

Inching our way past the church, street vendors and visitors, the passage almost threw us out on the famous Old Town Square. Cobblestones underfoot adding to my touristy giddyness, I looked around wide-eyed. High façades of the old burgher buildings reminded me of Brussels and Amsterdam. Micz agreed, saying Prague's glory from that period was due in part to the artisans' guilds, similar reason behind growth in the other two cities.

We left the crowds having a rare mid-September drink outside on the square's many restaurants, and ambled past shelves of hand-cut crystal dazzling in shop windows. Past the corner shops selling bright enamelled mugs and hand-painted ceramics, the sombre stone walls of banks and apartments under renovation. The view ahead cleared up to a long line of chestnut trees, and we were out on the Krizovnicka, a wide thoroughfare along the river Vtlava.

Only a year ago, floodwaters had created havoc in this part of town. On a visit from Berlin, said Micz, he remembers this area was behind police lines, as the floods had brought up sewage, and officials were afraid of TB breaking out. Dodging cars and buses, we crossed over to a wide bridge. Looking down from the railing, the Vltava gazed back at us, now calm as a child asleep. Micz pointed further down the river, “That's the Charles Bridge.”

It looked like quite an ordinary stone bridge. Built on a series of arches, the bridge spans the river between two sets of towers. Rows of dark, roundish shapes moved in unison, up and down the bridge. Some of the shapes, however, remained resolutely still. “It's strange how every time I come here, this bridge is always empty, and down-river on Charles Bridge, there's always a crowd,” said Micz.

We found out the next evening why visitors to Prague pack on to that bridge as they do. An outdoor gallery of dramatic statues guards the edges of the bridge. The various saints and their tales of struggle create a strange, hanging island on the river. No cars are allowed, to not break their spell. The crowd, looking so uniform the evening before, seemed scattered up close, involved in their own thoughts, their picture taking, their companions.

People zigzagged across the bridge, gathering around a busker or street vendor - selling photographs, handcrafted jewellery, guide books or souvenirs, and moving on to the next. I stopped at a jewellery stall, enthralled by the delicate enamel work on metal earrings and necklaces shaped like the Eid moon.

Ester, the shop owner, smiled and told me her aunt Anicka designs the pieces and she brings them here to sell. I got two sets of earrings for my cousins, one pink like the western sky, and another deep blue as the eastern corner. Everywhere, digital cameras gleamed silver in the twilight, people snapping away at pieces of the bridge or skyline up on the hill across the water..

Snatches of different languages, diverse accents floated by. Bangla, Canadian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, English, Japanese, French and Swedish were possible to distinguish. Czech and other Slavic languages I could only guess at. The bridge wasn't very wide or long, but it had managed to gather together people from a wide range of nationalities. Looking across the bridge towards Prague's castle on the western hill, I thought of Shakespeare Da. You were right. This bridge is quite something to see.

Photos by Sameera Mahruba, Wahidur Rahman
Courtesy: Drik



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