Ah, Prague. Many European cities have their “historic quarter,” where beautiful old buildings overlook sinuous streets that run their cobblestoned length into squares featuring statues and churches and clocks and towers. Lord knows I’ve written about enough of these places. In many cities, though, the historic section feels like a museum: carefully preserved but vaguely irrelevant. The historic part of Prague, however, is Prague. You never walk your way into a modern, hulking, concrete part of Prague; the nice part just goes on and on.
I imagine there is some awful functional zone in Prague, and I’m sure that there are those of you who could tell me about it, but I beg mercy—let me go on thinking that the entire city is just like the city I know, a city that invites and pets and coos at you, a city that seems to want you in the worst way.
I don’t really know Prague. I’ve been there a few times, I’ve wandered its streets with wonder, but this is a city you can’t really know with so perfunctory a relationship as that. It’s a city with a lot of secrets. It’s no wonder Kafka built his tortuous worlds here, and it’s no wonder that the castle of his nightmares had so many rooms.
Nor is it any wonder that he came up with the idea of the book The Castle in the first place. You’ll probably be on the right bank of the Vltava River, in which case the castle will be looming at you from across the water. The castle in Prague was built to loom, perched up on that hill. If you want a real Kafkaesque experience, hang around until it’s foggy, preferably at night, then walk down to the riverbank to get loomed at by the castle. You’ll immediately feel as though someone’s out to get you.
Not that Prague is a gloomy place. For example, there’s the Charles Bridge. Built in the 14th century, it stretches across the river, bearing only pedestrians and statues of religious figures, many of whom sport shiny brass halos. The bridge is always full of people who seem to be strolling across it for the sake of walking on the bridge itself, as opposed to wanting to get to the other side. There are artists and lovers and sellers of trinkets, as well as tourists and Czechs engaged in friendly debate. There are also seagulls. Prague is really far from the sea, so I can only assume that some bohemian seagull couple flew up the river at some point in time (I have no idea where the Vltava River flows, but all rivers eventually reach the sea, don’t they?) and fell so thoroughly in love with the city that they decided to make their avian lives there, thus engendering generations of landlocked seabirds. Or so I like to think.
The bridge is bracketed by impressive medieval towers, and near the one on the right bank is a statue of King Charles IV, who gave his name to the bridge. This statue is worth a look, because it represents the archetype of a medieval king. Charles stands there with a kingly robe, the kind of crown you used to draw on kings when you were in grade school, and a really whopping sword. His full beard juts out under a kingly chin. And through all that royal paraphernalia, he’s smiling! I’ll have to look up the history of Charles IV to find out why he seems so happy. It may just be because he lived in Prague.
Anyway, keep on strolling. You have to stroll in Prague. Check out the red street signs with white letters. How many cities have red street signs with white letters? Eventually, of course, you’ll end up in Old Town Square, which is genuinely beautiful, and if it’s before 9:00 p.m. you’ll probably find a crowd hanging out in front of the astronomical clock (Pražský orloj in Czech). They will be waiting for it to chime. You should wait, too. The clock was built in 1410, and refined in 1490. It was once believed that a fellow named Jan Růže built the clock, though this is untrue. Legend says that Růže’s eyes were put out after he finished so that he could never build a clock that would rival it. No one ever did.
Every hour, when the circles in the circles line up on the face of the clock, a little skeleton appears, ringing a bell (ask not for whom this bell tolls …), then a succession of apostles parade by a couple of little open windows. The skeleton keeps ringing his bell and the people below take pictures while they consider their mortality. Well, at least I considered mine.
After that, you’ll probably need a bit of a pick-me-up, a reminder of the joys of life. You may consider stopping by the nearby Sex Machines Museum, on Melantichova 18. The official description of this place is “an exposition of mechanical erotic appliances, the purpose of which is to bring pleasure and allow extraordinary and unusual positions during intercourse.” I have the impression that the “pleasure” element is largely subservient to the “extraordinary and unusual” element. I must confess that I hesitated before entering—a lone man wandering into such a place, particularly a lone man wearing a trench coat, could seem somewhat unhealthy. I therefore made sure to take out a pen and little bits of paper so as to make it clear that I was only entering out of journalistic professionalism. I’m not sure this was entirely convincing.
The Sex Machines Museum is spread over three floors, with a steady increase in intensity as you go up. On the lower floors you can find things like nightgowns with strategically placed holes and “God wishes it” embroidered on the front. Apparently, there used to be people who needed such reminders in order to muster up the courage to undertake the act of intercourse. There is also a small screening room showing antique porn, including a 1925 Spanish film called The Confessor; or, The Friar’s Blessing, which features a man dressed (partially) as a priest and a very fat lady who is confessing something to his nether regions. One can assume that God wouldn’t wish this at all.
God would probably also have serious reservations about the practices of those who invented the objects on the top floor, which include whips and chains and masks and outfits that can get your skin crawling. You’ll also find all kinds of frankly perplexing things. The pieces of furniture are particularly incomprehensible, and I found myself staring at one or two of them for quite some time, trying to figure out how the hell they are supposed to be used.
There is also, of course, a myriad of plastic and glass prostheses, mostly representing male genitalia, but some representing those of the fairer sex. One was about the size of a basketball and consisted of all the more blatantly erogenous zones of a woman in one portable plastic mishmash. It looked like the twisted experiment of a mad, sexist geneticist.
You also have to check out the patent applications posted on the walls throughout the museum. These are real applications, taken from the U.S. Patent Office. My favorite was a 1995 patent (#5,385,154) for a “couple’s intimacy reciprocating and pivoting two-seat assembly.” There was a diagram, but it looked like a mechanic’s manual for a helicopter, and the rationale for this device remains a mystery.
There was also an old “erotic bench” that had been found in the Italian countryside, a boy’s “anti-masturbation device,” a very naughty seesaw, and a robotic machine that boasted an “interchangeable member.” I shudder to imagine what one interchanges the member with.
Come to think of it, the Sex Machines Museum might not be the best way to cheer yourself up after considering your mortality. Sex is apparently not a very cheerful activity for some. Therefore, I suggest you go back outside and stroll some more. Try not to peer at the castle on a foggy night, but instead sit in a café at a table made all wobbly by the cobblestones and enjoy the sheer beauty of the place. Who knows? Maybe you’ll take a lesson from the seagulls and end up nesting there.