Eric Maisel is the author of more than 40 books. His latest are Life Purpose Book Camp and Secrets of a Creativity Coach. He leads Deep Writing Workshops at locations worldwide, among them Paris, London, Rome, Prague and San Francisco. Learn more at http://www.ericmaisel.com
If you’re a writer and you think of Prague, the name Franz Kafka springs instantly to mind. Kafka is a one-of-a-kind writer who captured something so poignant and compelling about the absurdity of the human condition that his take on pointlessness and meaninglessness has never been rivaled. His characters—who wake up as cockroaches, who star in circuses because of their ability to starve themselves, who are executed for reasons they are never permitted to learn—are among the most memorable in literature. Although little more than shadows and stick figures, they remain with us forever!
As it happened I got to run my Prague Deep Writing workshop in the offices of the Czech-American Chamber of Commerce in a room directly across from the new Franz Kafka statue. There Franz was, right across the street from us! Jaroslav Rona’s bronze statue is as memorable and odd as Kafka’s characters. The tall black sculpture of a headless male figure in a suit upon whose shoulders a smaller Kafka sits, inspired, as the sculptor explained, by Kafka’s short story “Description of a Struggle,” makes you shake your head, partly in admiration, partly in consternation. This is somehow not the Kafka statue you expected!
Much in Prague is like that: not what you expected. In this heaven for meat-eaters, where a platter of ribs at a neighborhood joint in the residential area where we rented an apartment stood three feet tall and was supposed to serve only one (me), where a vegetarian stepping off the plane is fearful of finding anything to eat, there is the most wonderful vegetarian restaurant, Maitrea, where, in the month we stayed in Prague, we lunched at perhaps a dozen times. There is an inexpensive and plentiful daily lunch special and, as an atmospheric bonus, an indoor waterfall. Unexpected.
The parks, too, surprised. If you come as a tourist you will naturally get to know Castle Hill and its associated parks. But if you have the time to wander away from the city center you will discover not one but several enormous parks where locals gather, especially on any sunny weekend. Lakes, cheap beer, Czech families picnicking—it is a completely different experience from Castle Hill and the world of tourists. Even if you have only one extra day, spend it away from the city center, maybe at Vysehrad, the old fort whose ramparts provide great views of the river and the city and whose grounds include a cemetery full of musicians, among them Dvorak and Smetana, the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, and cafés and beer gardens galore.
If you have kids, don’t miss the Prague zoo! It has the requisite children’s petting zoo and some unusual features: a pavilion devoted to giant Chinese salamanders, a herd of Indian elephants, a parrots’ trail, and a pavilion set aside for the most endangered crocodile in the world, the gharial. On weekends an express bus takes you directly from Holešovice Train Station to the zoo and at all times public transportation is plentiful. Because it sits right beside the Vltava River, you can even get there by ferry or steamboat!
It was our luck that our writing group got a personal tour of Jewish Prague presented by the chief rabbi of Prague. He walked us through synagogues and hopped the subway with us to show us not the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is well known and right in the middle of the city, but a newer, larger cemetery, ten times larger than the old cemetery, home to 100,000 graves, a bevy of art nouveau monuments … and Franz Kafka. Opposite Kafka’s gravesite is a memorial plaque to Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and editor, who refused Kafka’s last wishes that he destroy all of Kafka’s manuscripts and who as a result singlehandedly saved that great literature. How appropriate that the Jewish community of Prague installed that plaque!