On The Road To Prague
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I was pleasantly disappointed on entering Bohemia. Instead of a dull, uninteresting country, as I expected, it is a land full of the most lovely scenery. There is everything which can gratify the eye—high blue mountains, valleys of the sweetest pastoral look and romantic old ruins. The very name of Bohemia is associated with wild and wonderful legends of the rude barbaric ages. Even the chivalric tales of the feudal times of Germany grow tame beside these earlier and darker histories. The fallen fortresses of the Rhine or the robber-castles of the Odenwald had not for me so exciting an interest as the shapeless ruins cumbering these lonely mountains. The civilized Saxon race was left behind; I saw around me the features and heard the language of one of those rude Slavonic tribes whose original home was on the vast steppes of Central Asia.
I have rarely enjoyed traveling more than our first two days' journey toward Prague. The range of the Erzgebirge ran along on our right; the snow still lay in patches upon it, but the valleys between, with their little clusters of white cottages, were green and beautiful. About. six miles before reaching Teplitz we passed Kuhn, the great battlefield which in a measure decided the fate of Napoleon. He sent Vandamme with forty thousand men to at-tack the allies before they could unite their forces, and thus effect their complete destruction. Only the almost despairing bravery of the Russian guards under Ostermann, who held him in check till the allied troops united, pre-vented Napoleon's design. At the junction of the roads, where the fighting was hottest, the Austrians have erected a monument to one of their generals. Not far from it is that of Prussia, simple and tasteful. A woody hill near, with the little village of Kulm at its foot, was the station occupied by Vandamme at the commencement of the battle. There is now a beautiful chapel on its summit which can be seen far and wide. A little distance farther the Czar of Russia has erected a third monument, to the memory of the Russians who fell. Four lions rest on the base of the pedestal, and on the top of the shaft, forty-five feet high, Victory is represented as engraving the date, "Aug. 30, 1813," on a shield. The dark pine-covered mountains on the right overlook the whole field and the valley of Torlitz; Napoleon rode along their crests several days after the battle to witness the scene of his defeat.
Teplitz lies in a lovely valley, several miles wide, bounded by the Bohemian mountains on one side and the Erzgebirge on the other. One straggling peak near is crowned with a picturesque ruin, at whose foot the spacious bath-buildings lie half hidden in foliage. As we went down the principal street I noticed nearly every house was a hotel; we learned afterward that in summer the usual average of visitors is five thousand. The waters resemble those of the celebrated Carlsbad; they are warm and practically efficacious in rheumatism and diseases of like character. After leaving Teplitz the road turned to the east, toward a lofty mountain which we had seen the morning before. The peasants, as they passed by, saluted us with "Christ greet you !"
We stopt for the night at the foot of the peak called the Milleschauer, and must have ascended nearly two thousand feet, for we had a wide view the next morning, altho the mists and clouds hid the half of it. The weather being so unfavorable, we concluded not to ascend, and descended through green fields and or-chards snowy with blossoms to Lobositz, on the Elbe. Here we reached the plains again, where everything wore the luxuriance of summer; it was a pleasant change from the dark and rough scenery we left.
The road passed through Theresienstadt, the fortress of Northern Bohemia. The little city is surrounded by a double wall and moat which can be filled with water, rendering it almost impossible to be taken. In the morning we were ferried over the Moldau, and after journeying nearly all day across barren, elevated plains saw, late in the afternoon, the sixty-seven spires of Prague below.
I feel out of the world in this strange, fantastic, yet beautiful, old city. We have been rambling all morning through its winding streets, stopping sometimes at a church to see the dusty tombs and shrines or to hear the fine music which accompanies the morning mass. I have seen no city yet that so forcibly reminds one of the past and makes him forget everything but the associates connected with the scenes around him. The language adds to the illusion. Three-fourths of the people in the streets speak Bohemian and many of the signs are written in the same tongue.
The palace of the Bohemian kings still looks down on the city from the western heights, and their tombs stand in the cathedral of St. John. When one has climbed up the stone steps leading to the fortress, there is a glorious prospect before him. Prague with its spires and towers lies in the valleys below, through which curves the Moldau with its green islands, disappearing among the hills which enclose the city on every side. The fantastic Byzantine architecture of many of the churches and towers gives the city a peculiar Oriental appearance; it seems to have been transported from the hills of Syria.
Having found out first a few of the locations, we haunted our way with difficulty through its labyrinths, seeking out every place of note or interest. Reaching the bridge at last, we concluded to cross over and ascend to the Hradschin, the palace of the Bohemian kings. The bridge was commenced in 1357, and was one hundred and fifty years in building. That was the way the old Germans did their work, and they made a structure which will last a thousand years longer. Every pier is surmounted with groups of saints and martyrs, all so worn and timebeaten that there is little left of their beauty, if they ever had any. The most important of them—at least to Bohemians—is that of St. John Nepomuk, now considered as the patron-saint of the land. He was a priest many centuries ago [1340–1393] whom one of the kings threw from the bridge into the Moldau because he refused to reveal to him what the queen confest. The legend says the body swam for some time on the river with five stars around its head.
Ascending the broad flight of steps to the Hradschin, I paused a moment to look at the scene below. A slight blue haze hung over the clustering towers, and the city looked dim through it, like a city seen in a dream. It was well that it should so appear, for not less dim and misty are the memories that haunt its walls. There was no need of a magician's wand to bid that light cloud shadow forth the forms of other times. They came uncalled for even by Fancy. Far, far back in the past I saw the warrior-princess who founded the kingly city—the renowned Libussa, whose prowess and talent inspired the women of Bohemia to rise at her death and storm the land that their sex might rule where it obeyed before. On the mountain opposite once stood the palace of the bloody Wlaska, who reigned with her Amazon band for seven years over half Bohemia. Those streets below had echoed with the fiery words of Huss, and the castle of his follower—the blind Ziska, who met and defeated the armies of the German Empire—molders on the mountains above. Many a year of war and tempest has passed over the scene. The hills around have borne the armies of Wallenstein and Frederick the Great; the war-cry of Bavaria, Sweden and Poland has echoed in the valley, and the red glare of the midnight can-non or the flames of burning palaces have often gleamed along the "blood-dyed waters" of the Moldau.
On the way down again we stept into the St. Nicholas Church, which was built by the Jesuits. The interior has a rich effect, being all of brown and gold. The massive pillars are made to resemble reddish-brown marble, with gilded capitals, and the statues at the base are profusely ornamented in the same style. The music chained me there a long time. There was a grand organ, assisted by a full orchestra and large choir of singers. It was placed above, and at every sound of the priest's bell the flourish of trumpets and deep roll of the drums filled the dome with a burst of quivering sound, while the giant pipes of the organ breathed out their full harmony and the very air shook under the peal. It was like a triumphal strain. The soul became filled with thoughts of power and glory; every sense was changed into one dim, indistinct emotion of rapture which held the spirit as if spellbound.
Not far from this place is the palace of Wallenstein, in the same condition as when he inhabited it. It is a plain, large building having beautiful gardens attached to it, which are open to the public. We went through the court-yard, threaded a passage with a roof of rough stalactitic rock and entered the garden, where a revolving fountain was casting up its glittering arches.