PRAGUE: JOSEFOV WALK
Josefov also gave birth to one of the great legends of Central Europe: the Golem. It was here that Rabbi Löw breathed life into the giant creature made of mud and clay who patrolled the streets at night, protecting the inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter. When the Golem ran amok, the rabbi took its life away, storing it in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, where according to legend it remains. But the idea never died, inspiring many other incarnations over the centuries, including the most famous, the Frankenstein monster. Today, the focus in Josefov is on the preservation of Jewish history and, scattered throughout the neighborhood, tributes to Prague’s esteemed literary son, Franz Kafka.
Turn left on Dušní, and follow it for two blocks until it turns right. On your left you will see the ornate exterior of the Spanish Synagogue, built in 1838 on the site of the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Prague. The interior is even more stunning, with every inch of the ceiling and walls covered in elaborate patterns and floral designs, all done in a Moorish style by Vojtěch Ignátz Ullmann, based on the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. If you get a chance to attend a concert here during your visit, it’s worth it for the atmosphere alone.
Instead of following Dušní to the right, go straight on the narrow walkway to the small square. On your left you will see one of the many memorials to Franz Kafka, and easily the most puzzling: the author sits on the shoulders of a much larger, headless and hatless man. In keeping with his often-enigmatic subject, the sculptor, Jaroslav Rona, has never explained what it means.
A right turn and short walk along Široká will bring you to Parižská, Prague’s glitziest street, It’s worth a stroll in either direction to see the collection of high-end shops — Gucci, Versace, Prada, Hermés, Dior, Cartier — with many lovely sidewalk cafés along the way. If you turn right and walk north, watch on your left for the Old New Synagogue (or more accurately, the back of it), the traditional center of Prague’s Jewish community and, by some accounts, the oldest synagogue in Europe. If you take a short detour down the alley that runs next to it, you can pop into the High Synagogue Gift Shop.
As you’re walking north, look up on the hilltop across the river and you’ll see a giant metronome, ticking out a slow, stately beat. No current Prague resident seems able to explain why it was built, although everyone (whether they’re old enough or not) remembers what stood there before it — the world’s largest statue of Josef Stalin, a 50-meter tall, 17,000-ton behemoth that portrayed the Soviet dictator leading a band of loyal proletariats. Its creator, Otakar Svec, committed suicide the day after it was unveiled on May 1, 1955. When it was finally ordered destroyed in 1962, it took 800 kilograms of explosives to bring it down.
If you cross Parižská and continue along Široká, the first cross street you will see is Maiselova, where a left turn will bring you to the Maisel Synagogue. Named for the mayor of the Jewish Quarter during the reign of Rudolf II, it was said to be the most sumptuous synagogue in Prague until it burned down in the great fire of 1689. The current neo-Gothic structure houses an exhibition tracing the history of the Jewish people in Bohemia and Moravia.
Back on Široká, a left turn and short stroll leads to the Pinkas Synagogue, one of the entry points for the Jewish Museum complex, which comprises four synagogues, the Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. The entrance fee is comparatively expensive, so you may want to consider how much time and money you want to devote here. If you go in the Pinkas Synagogue, the first iteration of which was built on the site in 1535, you’ll find a memorial to the Holocaust victims of Bohemia and Moravia, with more than 80,000 victims’ names painstakingly lettered on the walls. The outside wall that suddenly appears along Široká encircles the Old Jewish Cemetery, which for hundreds of years was the only place in Prague where Jews could be buried. As a result, bodies are stacked on bodies, and tombstones jut out and collide in a riot of odd angles.
Continuing along Široká brings you to busy Križnovická street. The large building on your right is the Museum of Decorative Arts, a handsome neo-Renaissance structure with an impressive collection of furniture, tapestries, clocks and the like, and rotating shows by local artists.
The monumental building across the street is the Rudolfinum, Prague’s premier concert hall. Built in the late 1800s in the neo-classical style, the Rudolfinum has also served as home to the Czechoslovak parliament and the headquarters for Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich during the Nazi occupation. According to a local story which may or may not be true, Heydrich was furious to learn that Felix Mendelssohn was among the composers whose statues ring the roof of the building, and ordered it taken down. Unsure of which statue portrayed Mendelssohn, workers removed the one with the biggest nose. None of that unpleasantness is in evidence today. Instead, the Rudolfinum houses two superb concert halls — the large Dvořák Hall for orchestra concerts, and smaller Suk Hall for chamber music — and one of the finest art galleries in the city.
The eminent Czech composer Antonín Dvorák stands guard in front of the Rudolfinum now. If you walk past him to the park, keeping the Rudolfinum on your right, you’ll be at one of the sweetest spots along Prague’s riverfront, lined with shade trees and benches. The Czech Parliament building sits directly across the river, overlooked by Prague Castle, both of which are especially stunning at night. It’s a great place to sit and watch the ducks and boats go by. Or follow the concrete walkway in either direction for a look at the city from a different vantage point.