Floating castles and Kafka connections


Magic, mysterious or surreal: many have attributed these qualities to Prague, notably the Italian author Angelo Maria Ripellino, who devotes a whole book to the enigmas of the city. A sense of the unreal seems to be as much part of the Czech capital's identity as spiky medieval buildings or highly quirky metro station designs.

You could just dismiss the 'Mysterious Prague' epithet as poetic licence or even a marketing ploy, but I have always felt that there is something magical about this city, Interestingly, mystery was one of the themes of a British television documentary about Prague that I saw some years back. The author explored various themes, notably the idea that everything was not quite what it seemed in the Czech capital. The incidental music featured pieces by Czech composer Josef Suk, and these were used to brilliant effect in the programme. They superbly evoked the sense of mystery, with a suitably ethereal shot of Hradcany at night in the closing credits.

These sequences came to mind when I was travelling by tram along the Vltava riverbank recently. The view of the Castle seemed almost unreal. The long, elegant complex was floodlit, but the Lesser Quarter below was almost completely smothered by darkness, making the Castle look even more prominent. It loomed imperiously above the river and seemed to be floating in mid-air. It was difficult to determine where the castle roofs ended and the jet-black sky began, and this effect, together with the strange pale yellow glow of the floodlighting, made the buildings look curiously one-dimensional and temporary, like a stage set. I almost expected them to disappear imminently. It reminded me of the time when I saw the floodlighting being switched off. It really was a magical moment, but also rather unsettling: it happened so quickly I wondered if I had really witnessed it after all. Last winter I took British friends to the Café Slavia at night to show them the view of Hradcany. Unfortunately it started snowing, but when it stopped the Castle suddenly re-appeared gradually, like an apparition, and then faded again when it started snowing. Another magical moment.

The 'Mysterious Prague' factor is possibly the reason why I have encountered more bizarre coincidences and synchronicities here than anywhere else. For example, a few months ago I emailed friends telling them I that seemed to be haunted by Kafka - I live near his grave and used to work opposite the office where he was an insurance clerk. Shortly afterwards I found out that his lover Milena Jesenska lived in the block of flats opposite mine.

I suppose such coincidences must happen all the time everywhere, not just in Prague. What's more, my perception of them as being a Prague speciality could just be down to my overworked imagination and distorted perception: I've lived in the Czech Republic for a few years, so how do I know such bizarre happenings don't occur elsewhere? I think that it's the frequency of such events in Prague that makes it special, and maybe this can't merely be explained by probability. Maybe it's the strange forces of 'Mysterious Prague' at work after all.