Glimpses of Bohemia/Bohemia worth Visiting



ONE cannot travel to Bohemia from Britain without passing many places of great interest, and one can hardly be there without feeling the attractions of places that lie beyond, and thus it too often happens that travellers neglect Bohemia altogether, or perhaps only spend a day in Prague on the way from Dresden to Vienna. At Dresden, indeed, one can find important evidences of Bohemia’s former glory, for many of the treasures of the Picture Gallery and the Green Vaults are the spoils of Prague, with which the Elector, John George, rewarded himself for his half-hearted aid to the Bohemian Protestants. Now, I hope to show that Bohemia is worth visiting. To begin with, Prague is a city of surpassing interest. I first entered it when visiting Bohemia in 1874 by the grey light of early morning, and the first impressions on my mind were connected with the social state of the country rather than with the city itself. We drove from the Station to the Blue Star Hotel, a house with many claims to historical fame; the last, and not least, being the fact that the Treaty of 1866 was concluded in it. Here, to our surprise, on alighting from the drosky, we found we were received by sentries, in the old white uniform of Austria. The hall was used as a guard-room, sentries kept the staircase, while a couple of soldiers stood motionless at the door of one of the principal rooms. This was all explained when we were told that the Austrian commander-in-chief, the celebrated Arch-Duke Albert, was staying in the house. Then, for the information of the police, we had to fill up schedules with full particulars of who and what we were, and when I had leisure to look out at a window, there again were soldiers, hundreds of them, exercising in a large barrack-yard right opposite the hotel. With a population considerably less than Edinburgh, Prague has a garrison of 10,000 men, so that one sees soldiers—soldiers everywhere. The burden of the colossal army Austria keeps up is enormous. The war estimates do not by any means show what her army costs, for the common soldiers get but three halfpence a day for pay, while their allowance of rations costs the Government only four pence a day per head. All but the very lowest class of the population supplement the Government allowance, so that the most of the soldiers, while in the service, are burdens on their relations, instead of being bread-winners.

To come back to Prague, however. At first we wandered through the narrow streets of the Alt Stadt, lined with colossal buildings, with here and there a spacious market-place. One also comes with some surprise on broader streets, erected under modern improvement schemes, principally on the sites of old fortifications. But the main features of this part of the town are the ancient, musty buildings, narrow streets, and faulty drainage of the medieval walled city, so that, when you emerge on the Carlsbrücke, the wonderful bridge of Prague across the Moldau, it is with a feeling of relief at again finding yourself in the open. The view from the bridge on a clear day is most fascinating; but clear days in Bohemia, though commoner than in Scotland, are by no means the invariable rule. Often Longfellow’s lines may be realised:

The mist-like banners clasped the air
As clouds with clouds embrace.”

This end of the bridge is guarded by the Alt Stadt Tower, a beautifully decorated fortified gateway of the 15th century. Passing by, in the meantime, the attractions of the antique carvings on this port, and the many interesting statues which ornament the bridge itself, the eye is fully occupied by the Hradschin, with its massive palaces and cathedral. This celebrated height may be said, both physically and historically, to fill a place in Prague analogous to that filled in Edinburgh by the Castle Rock, Parliament House, St. Giles’, and Holyrood combined. It is not so isolated from the town as our Castle, and it is much larger; but, like our Castle, it forms an object which never fails to please the eye. Some of the historical associations connected with the two places are more closely linked than is generally known. We show in Edinburgh the window from which James VI., as an infant, was lowered, to prevent his falling under the control of the popular party, who would have baptised him as a Protestant, while his mother’s friends privately baptised him in Stirling according to the rites of the Roman Church; and in the Hradschin you see the Cathedral, in which James’s daughter was crowned the Protestant Queen of Bohemia, and, as already noticed, the window from which the deputies of the Austrian Emperor were thrown out by the enraged Bohemian nobles.

Below the Hradschin, between it and the Laurenz Berg, a wooded height laid out partly as public gardens, lies the Kleinseite, a quarter of the city the aspect of which impresses one as semi-oriental, owing to the copper-covered domes, minaret-like pinnacles, and other Eastern types of church architecture to be seen. The Moldau flows through Prague with a semi-circular sweep. The view of the river from the bridge, towards the north, i.e., down stream, terminates with the lofty bank, above which lies the military exercise ground. Up stream the view is more varied and interesting. A short distance above the bridge are the weirs, erected to divert water from the river for the large flour-mills. Many rafts of timber from the Bohemian forests are constantly passing down to German ports; and it is almost as exciting to watch a raft being steered through the weirs of Prague as through the rapids of the St. Lawrence. Then there are four islands, picturesquely wooded, which add greatly to the beauty of this fascinating city; and beyond rises the fortress of the Wyssehrad, the original Citadel, and the castle of Libussa, the founder of the earliest Bohemian royal family, of whom many marvellous legends are told. We have thus seen three of the four hills which shelter and protect the city—the Hradschin, Laurenz Berg, and Wyssehrad. The fourth bears the name of the Wallace of Bohemia—Zizka the Invincible, “Rhinoceros Zizka,” as Carlyle calls him.
It lies to the north-east, and cannot be seen until we ascend the steps of the Hradschin. From that elevated position we have a splendid bird’s-eye view of the city.

Not the least interesting part of Prague is the Jewish quarter, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Europe. The streets here are still narrower and the drainage worse than in other parts of the city. But he who penetrates through its crowded lanes is well rewarded by the sight of its ancient synagogues and interesting burial-ground. The latter presents an extraordinary appearance, so crowded with monuments, and raised by the successive additions of the “dust” of many generations, several feet above the level of the adjoining ground. Some of the stones are said to date from the fifth century. Some bear the lion of Judah, and some the two hands uplifted in the attitude of blessing, indicating that those interred below belong to the priestly house of Aaron.

But with all its attractions, and I have not told a fraction of them, I would not care to live in Prague. The greater part of the city is unhealthy in the extreme, the death-rate being among the highest in Europe; while house rents are enormously dear. And then the parental attentions of the Government are painfully intrusive. With us births, deaths, and marriages are the only events in our social life which we must report to the authorities, unless, indeed, under recent legislation, we must report also cases of epidemic illness. But in Austria the number of things one is expected to report to the police is perplexingly large. Thus you are bound to inform the police of all the inmates of your house. You cannot engage a servant-girl without registering the fact at the police-office; and when you part with her, you must again attend at the police office, and record the why and the wherefore. This ground of complaint diminishing, however, for a few years ago people were imprisoned for wearing their hair longer than the police regulation allowed, and a beard made you a “suspect.” The confiscation of newspapers, or the dispersal of a public meeting, is still a common thing. Such events are expected occasionally as matter of course.

Most British travellers will probably approach Bohemia from the north. The journey from Dresden to Prague is accomplished by rail in about six hours, the first two being occupied in the passage of the exquisite scenery of the Saxon Switzerland. If, however, one has time, and wishes thoroughly to enjoy this charming district, he would do well to take the steamer from Dresden to Leitmeritz, or, at least to Aussig. Going up stream the journey takes a long day, involving an extra early start; but, if favoured with fine weather, even although the boats are not equal to those on the more frequented Rhine, we are sure the tourist’s opinion of the Elbe will be much enhanced. Leitmeritz, a town of some 10,000 people, is prettily situated on the east bank of the Elbe, with the mountains of the Saxon frontier behind, and the fertile plains of Bohemia stretching out in front. An island in the river, shaded by beautiful old trees, forms a peculiarly attractive pleasure-garden for the town’s-folk, but the river has sad memories here. The well-known tragic story of the Burgomeister’s Daughter recalls the martyrs of the Hussite times, who were thrown bound into the water.

It is unnecessary to remind our readers that Teplitz and Carlsbad are both in Bohemia. In connection with the latter place it is interesting to know that one of the pastors who now takes a leading part on the evangelical side in the Bohemian Church, traces the beginning of his spiritual life to conversation with Duncan Matheson while that earnest man visited Carlsbad to recruit his health after the fatigues of the Crimea.

The centre of Bohemia, rich agricultural land, presents comparatively little which, apart from historical associations, would tempt the mere tourist, but Moravia, in the south-east, affords endless pleasing combinations of river, wood, and hill, and is not destitute of either gory battlefield or picturesque castle.