Aaron Jacob Wolfson

Bohemian Rhapsody

I don’t care for Paris.

That sounds ungodly pretentious, I know. Paris is a fine place–I was lucky enough to visit it for a couple days, when I was gallivanting around continental Europe during Easter break from my study-abroad semester in England. I enjoyed Paris—I’ll date myself, it was 2005—and I’m sure I’d appreciate it much more if I returned.

Sometimes, though, I develop an emotional connection to a place that I can only explain much later. A couple days may not be much time for a lot of things—it is enough time, however, to not feel something.

Our first stop on that Easter trip was three nights in Prague. We flew directly from London and took a taxi to our hostel, which was somewhere in Malostranská, the Old Town. Upon arrival we threw our stuff down in a corner and took off in search of the famous Old Town Square, Prague’s top tourist destination and the heart of the city.

Coming out of the hostel, the first thing I noticed was the sidewalks. They were not made of concrete slabs like every sidewalk I had ever seen in America. They were made of mosaics: tiny blue and grey tiles, forming alternating geometrical patterns that carried on and on as we went. “We lucked out,” I thought; this was a special street, a particular and exceptional treatment, like the cobblestones of Omaha’s Old Market or Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia.

No. It was the entire city. I was astonished; unlike anywhere I had lived, this was a place where people took immense pride in craftsmanship, detail, symbolism, and art for art’s sake. These sidewalks spoke to me in the inaudible language of shared values. They coursed with life; combined with the stately Enlightenment-era architecture rising up on either side of us, it was as if I could feel the presence of all those who had walked these streets before, all at once.

Then I looked up—and I saw, towering above the decorated cornices of the buildings, a church spire like I had never seen before. It was a jet black and sharply-sloped elongated cone, with a green antenna extending from it. Atop the antenna was a golden sphere, with its own golden antenna, which culminated in a sparkling golden star. This spire had four mini-spires attached to its sides (it was actually octagonal) which were nearly identical to the main spire, down to the stars at their tips.

I now noticed that there was large opening at the end of the street, and I hurried us along toward it. I had to see the whole building.

We entered the Old Town Square. At the far end was the famous astronomical clock; in the center, surrounded by swarms of people and a sea of cobblestones, stood the massive statue of the Czech Protestant martyr, Jan Hus; and on the near end, right in front of us, was the Týn Church, transfixing in its grimy sand- and mocha-colored stone and its dark spires with the golden spheres, which it seemed to hold out to us as an offering, a friendly and mysterious gesture.

We were only an hour off the plane, but that was it. I was in love.

All the romance that people usually employ to describe Paris, that’s what I felt during my entire visit to Prague. There was the Old-New Synagogue, one of the oldest in Europe, and the adjacent Jewish cemetery with its gravestones stacked ten deep; the iconic Charles Bridge, with its regal stone sculptures weathered by the centuries; and always, everywhere we went, the red tile roofs, the long, narrow alleys, the colorful doorframes, the endless churches, and the cozy restaurants serving hearty Czech cuisine and cheaper-than-water beer.

My favorite thing, however, was a bar called U Sudu. Some fellow traveler from the hostel brought us there. Upon entering, it looked totally inconspicuous: a little hole in the wall with a few scattered tables and a bar no different from any other. The hostel guy led us past all the tables, to a small door in the back, which opened to a descending staircase. As we walked downstairs, the walls become stone, and we passed through an ancient-looking archway into a candlelit room that looked like a cavern.

I thought, “Hey, what a cool bar!” But that wasn’t the bar; at least, it wasn’t even the half of it. We went through several more doorways and down several more flights of steps until we arrived in a final vaulted chamber and took up our posts at a creaky trestle table against the back wall. I had been in Prague for two days, and at this point I literally felt like I was in a fairy tale… or a medieval torture tale. Let’s say it was a combination of the two.

Maybe Paris has a bar like that. I’m not sure I want to know.

By the time I made it back to Prague with Ashley in 2016, I couldn’t remember where this bar was located or even what its name was, and as such I had no hopes of revisiting it. The truth is that on that night in 2005, I was already a little tipsy when we left the hostel, and a little more than tipsy when we got back, and so I never actually knew where U Sudu was—which probably explains its dreamlike quality in my memory.

Relaxing one afternoon in our Airbnb, we were deciding where to hang out for the evening, and Ashley announced that she knew a place, but that it was a surprise. She took us to a little hole in the wall, with a few scattered tables and an unremarkable bar. I thought, “This is your surprise?” Then she led me past all the tables, to a small door in the back, which opened to a descending staircase, and as we walked downstairs, the walls became stone…

It’s not like Paris lacks for charming detail. To me, though, there is something wildly different that separates its aesthetic from Prague’s. Paris has the Louvre, one of Europe’s most important museums; Notre-Dame, one of its most important churches; the Eiffel Tower, its most important and recognizable modern architectural marvel. Important, important, important. These are elite, high-minded things, conceived in a spirit of refinement, idealism, and godliness.

Prague is not like that at all. Prague’s sidewalks are by definition down-to-earth and pedestrian, and yet still beautiful. Whoever made them was enjoying themselves. Nobody builds a three-story underground bar unless they are seized by a crazy, outlandish passion to do so. The Týn Church plopped down in Paris would be considered an abomination. There is something delightfully off about these Bohemians. They are my kind of people.

I miss traveling, but I don’t miss Paris. Take me back to Prague.

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