It seemed like a secret—and in some ways, I guess, it was. Rolling over the Vltava River in his little car, Stepan Rusnak expertly maneuvers through the tight corners and cobblestones of the Lesser Town, squeezing the small black hatchback into a tiny parking space. We walked a block to the John Lennon Wall.
Sitting across from the French Embassy on a leafy corner bend in a back street, the Wall has been a magnet for both love and dissent since the 1960s. Initially, couples painted on poems, and in the 1980s, after Lennon was assassinated, an unknown artist painted his portrait here. As that decade progressed, the artwork and messages on the Wall became more political, calling for democratization and liberalization. “The KGB, they were always here, watching,” said Rusnak, his eyes tracing the opposite side of the street.
But while we paused for a couple photos, we weren’t here for John Lennon. Passing into a sunny courtyard behind the Wall, Rusnak led me to a doorway partially obscured by foliage. While hundreds of tourists pass by just steps away, few—or none—would know about the special place we were about to enter. Rusnak knocked loudly. A moment later, the door swung open.
We were in Prague, on a warm fall day, in search of makers. One of the most beautiful cities in Central Europe, it is also one of the most creative. Whether out of necessity, or inspiration from place itself, Czechia’s capital has long been a prime place to play, and build, and shape, and make.
I’ve witnessed this on multiple visits. It is fitting that the country’s first post-communist president, the late Václav Havel, was a poet and a playwright. Still a national hero, his absurdist plays mocked the communist system, and by the late ’60s were banned in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Imprisoned several times for as long as four years at a stretch, he spearheaded dissident initiatives, including the influential Charter 77.
Charter 77 was prompted by the arrest of Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech rock band. The manifesto called for the government to honor human rights. Rock music was also a key subaltern voice in this era, with Plastic People the biggest band and underground concerts an opportunity for Czech people to express themselves freely. When communism fell, American rocker Frank Zappa was invited for an official state visit, and hundreds met him at the airport. The Rolling Stones even financed the lighting system for the Prague Castle.
Arriving at the Castle for my first visit in a long time, I passed a stoic guard in a colorful uniform. In another of Havel’s post-communist touches, he assigned the task of replacing the severe Soviet-era attire to Theodor Pištěk, an Oscar-winning costume designer. The new uniforms are still formal, but look like something out of a storybook.
Touring various buildings, including the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, I emerged and descended down past the pastel facades of Golden Lane. Back when it was a small, self-contained village within the castle walls, everyone who lived and worked in these cozy, tiny spaces made something. A seamstress, brewmaster, or goldsmith. Franz Kafka, writing his dystopian fiction. An alchemist, seeking to make magic and discover the fountain of youth.
I checked into the Four Seasons Prague, itself a place for creatives, including a resourceful mixologist who dabbles in absinthe like the old alchemists, and a Michelin-starred chef. My room overlooking the river and castle had been outfitted with a record player. Next to it sat a limited edition record, the “Eternal Beauty of Vltava.” Spinning it, the classic song “Vltava” (“The Moldau”) was fresh, re-recorded by Czech pianist and composer Tomáš Kačo: The perfect soundtrack to peer outside that window and watch that river flow.
It was still in my head when, with Rusnak, I approached that door almost hidden behind all the leaves, near the John Lennon Wall. Almost as an after-thought, he motioned to a massive, nearby tree. “It’s 280 years old,” he said. “Beethoven used to sit underneath it, and compose.”
After knocking, a door opened on a whole other world. A huge room, lined with impossibly hot ovens along one side. Part of a monastery, the space once served as stables. Later, the communist government installed a massive electrical generator inside.
Now, after spending many hours and significant amounts of money renovating the place, Martin Janecký blows glass here. He grew up in a town known for glassmaking, and is the son of a glassmaker. He’s lived around the world, teaching and learning the art and science of glass.
After walking me through his small gallery, we sat outside in another sunny courtyard. He said it feels right, to be back in his home country. “Glassmaking in Bohemia,” Janecky said, with a small smile, “goes back hundreds, even thousands of years.”
After seeing the ovens, and hanging around for awhile, we walked back out, pausing for a few moments to lay a hand on the Beethoven tree. (Rusnak showed me photos of celebrities he’d guided who hugged the tree, seeking to draw a little power from it.) Heading back across the river, it all seemed right. The sun, still shining. The heat from the glass studio, still shimmering on my skin. And that song, singing about this city’s eternal beauty, still playing strong in my head.
If You Go
Fly: While it’s served by only a handful of nonstop flights from North America, the city’s Václav Havel Airport (PRG) receives flights from many national airlines from across Europe, as well as several low-cost carriers.
Getting Around: Prague has an excellent public transit system that includes buses and a multi-line metro, but trams, which clatter pleasingly across the city, are the main form of transportation here.
Stay: Built right next to the river, within steps of the Charles Bridge, the Four Seasons Hotel Prague is an enclave of calm and luxury in the heart of a busy city. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the hotel’s 10 Eternal Experiences include tailor-made tours formed around fashion, coffee, dining, gardens, and other key Prague trademarks. Tour, then return for a bespoke drink and a gourmet meal.
Take Note: While it’s within the European Union and part of the Schengen Area, the Czech Republic doesn’t use the euro. It makes things less expensive, but be aware of how many koruna you still have in your pocket at the end of a trip.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.