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Travel

Czech mate

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SIGHTS TO SEE: (Left to right) The illuminated Castle looks breathtaking at dusk. The Minute House is where Kafka spent his childhood. A latte at the famous Obecni cafe and the Christmas market at the Old Town Square are not to be missed

I cannot live in Prague... I do not know if I can live anywhere else. But that I cannot live here - that is the least doubtful thing I know, " wrote Franz Kafka in a Letter to His Father (1918). Prague's most famous literary figure who wrote in German talked incessantly about the city in his letters and diaries just like James Joyce did about Dublin. "If you follow the perimeter of Old Town, this narrow circle encompasses my entire life, " he said. In the city of his birth, one catches glimpses of the writer everywhere.
Old Town Prague is a tourist haven with outdoor cafes, cobblestone streets, and the famous Astronomical clock. By the Old Town Hall is the Minuta House. Kafka lived here between 1889 and 1896 and walked with his Czech cook to elementary school. On Charles Bridge and on Karlova Street, his gaunt face is emblazoned on T-shirts, souvenir mugs and key chains.

How did such a beautiful city inspire such dark, surreal tales of everyman protagonists crushed by mysterious authorities or twisted by unknown shames. "Kafka absorbed all of Prague's humours and poisons and descended into its demonic nature, " explains Angelo Maria Ripellino in his book Magic Prague. My guide Georgina explains that Kafka had a deep interest in the city's history - the beheadings, the anarchy, the horrors of German invasion and tortures. His personal demons too influenced his writing. Kafka is said to have had a dominating father and impotence and rebellion were pervasive themes in his writing. Many feel Kafka's famous novella, Metamorphosis, in which a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach, was an autobiographical work - he felt like an insect in his father's presence and even stammered when he spoke to him.

In his lifetime, Kafka was not known as a writer but as a lawyer who worked for the Workers Accident Insurance Company. We walk to Wenceslaus square, the scene of the most defining moments in Prague's history - the Nazi occupation, the Communist takeover and the Velvet Revolution. Today it has stylish cafes, bars and glitzy shopping. The beautiful Art Nouveau building of the Grand Hotel Europa was where Kafka had a reading of his book The Judgement, the tale of a young man's conflict with his father. For 14 years, he walked down the road past the Municipal House and the Powder Tower with his briefcase and umbrella. Today, the Art Nouveau Municipal House has a swish restaurant and hosts musical performances.

Prague's Jewish Town was preserved by Hitler as a 'museum to a dead race' unlike other European cities where synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed. Urban renewal has changed the face of Jewish Town with swish boulevards like Parizka Street coming up. In Jewish town, I visit the oldest remaining Jewish burial ground in Europe which contains almost 20, 000 graves in a very small plot of land. To cope with all the bodies, more earth was brought in and the corpses were layered as many as ten deep. The synagogue in this area was where Franz Kafka attended services. A lot of the grief and horrors of those times permeated his writing. "I now walk along the streets, and bathe in anti-Semitism, " he wrote in 1920. At the edge of Jewish Town, one can see the bizarre bronze statue of tiny Kafka riding on the shoulders of a large suit. The statue is based on the very first surviving story by Kafka entitled "Descriptions of a Struggle". It is said to symbolize the mindless bureaucracy that Kafka found so abhorrent. Dark and surreal, this was Kafka's world.

The Prague castle looms over the city. The Castle is not so much a single structure as it is a town unto itself - a town which developed between the 9th and 16th centuries with a variety of architecture. It is said that Kafka's The Trial took place in the St Vitus Cathedral located within the courtyard of the Castle grounds. Golden Lane, which looks like it's a Walt Disney set today, is now dotted with quaint art galleries and craft shops. I stop at door No. 22, which is today a book store and has a window display of Kafka's books and a small room inside where the writer used to write in the evenings.

I spend some time in Cafe Louvre on Narodni Avenue, with marble walls and iron railings, where Kafka and even Einstein once had coffee. At the bottom of Castle Hill is the Kafka Museum with a simple but poignant 'K' outside. In the museum forecourt one is greeted by Czech artist David Czerny's two "peeing" bronze sculptures with quotes from famous Prague residents. Rare copies of Kafka's letters and his books, sketches and photos give visitors another glimpse into the tortured mind of the writer. There are quirky art installations that recreate the moods in his literary creations - like a blue foggy, mirrored room and a strange stairway.
As a 19-year old, Kafka wrote about Prague, "Prague doesn't let go. This dear little mother has sharp claws!" Kafka never really escaped Prague. He died in a tuberculosis sanatorium near Vienna in 1924, one month short of his 41st birthday. His remains were brought back to Prague for burial.

My pursuit of Kafka ends with a metro ride to the suburb of Vinohrady, where I visit his family tombstone marking the plot where his father, Hermann, and his mother, Julie, are also buried. Close by are the graves of his sisters who died in concentration camps. Kafka had requested that on his death all his works be destroyed. On the wall opposite the grave a simple plaque recalls Kafka's close friend Max Brod. Kafka bequeathed his writings to Brod shortly before his own death from tuberculosis in 1924, instructing his friend to burn everything unread.

Brod ignored Kafka's wishes and published most of what was in his possession, including the novels The Trial, The Castle and Amerika.

AT A GLANCE


Take a ride:

Tram 22 runs along the river in the old town and across to the west bank, climbing steeply to the castle.

Hear hear:


Along with offering a wealth of classical concerts, Prague hosts many rock and jazz gigs

Grin and beer it:


The Czech Republic is the home of the first Pilsner and the first Budweiser so don't come back without tasting the local lager at a brew pub

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