When we woke the weather was not as brilliant as I had confidently predicted the night before but there were some promising patches of blue and at least it wasn’t raining.
Today we had a different itinerary planned so after breakfast confidently left the umbrellas behind again and went off to discover the Jewish quarter of the city. We crossed the river by a bridge down stream from the Charles Bridge and watched the multitude of people swarming across. Even early in the morning it was noisy and busy. Prague was overrun with walking tours and the streets were full of tourist congas all jostling for position and listening attentively to a guide holding aloft an extended umbrella for group identification. Prague is the sixth most visited European city after London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin so the vast number of people on the bridge and in the adjoining streets was not really all that surprising.
The Jewish cemetery was surrounded by a high concrete wall; this might have been for reverence or even for security but I think mostly it was to make sure everyone bought a ticket to go inside. We bought our tickets that we were pleased to discover included admission to a number of other sites in the Jewish quarter. This part of the city had been demolished for public health reasons at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the synagogues and the cemetery had thankfully been spared.
First we went into the ceremonial hall of the Jewish burial society to see an exhibition of the Prague ghetto. Here there was an amusing incident when a city tour guide became confused and thought for a moment that he was a member of the state ticket police and doubting our legitimate entitlement to be there reported us to the official ticket clerk. She demanded inspection of our tickets for a second time in an impressively authoritarian eastern European manner. We produced them of course and she did apologise. Twice I think. The man who thought that he was from the ticket police didn’t.
It wasn’t that impressive in there anyway and after we had moved at a lively tempo past the exhibits went on to the Klausen Synagogue next door, which was slightly more interesting and included exhibits of Jewish history and life in central Europe including some informative displays about circumcision and kosher meats, neither of which particularly appealed to me. Jewish life didn’t strike us as being terribly exciting and the exhibits were a bit dull so we moved on quite quickly.
Next we went to the Pinkas Synagogue, which is a memorial to nearly eighty thousand Jewish Czechs and Slovaks who were imprisoned by the Nazis during the war, later deported to death camps and never returned. It was cold and austere and for me failed to be as emotive as I imagined a place like this would be.
The sun was coming through now just in time for a walk through the cemetery. It was surprisingly small and until 1787 this was the only place that Jews could be buried in Prague and there an estimated hundred thousand bodies (twelve layers deep) and twelve thousand gravestones there. There is no order to the gravestones at all and they appeared untidy and arbitrary like a mouthful of rotten old teeth pointing randomly in every decrepit direction. We idled through the cemetery around the meandering paths and noticed some tombstones where visitors had placed tiny pebbles and in some cases bus tickets and wondered what this was for. Later I discovered that it was for good luck.
Out of the cemetery we walked to the Spanish Synagogue, the last admission and the one that turned out to be the most interesting of them all. There was an exhibition of Jewish history in Bohemia with some particularly poignant displays charting the years of Nazi persecution. Also here was free admission to a temporary exhibition but that turned out to be very disappointing and the only exhibit of note was the ticket clerk who was at least eighty years old but had flame red hair, dyed of course, and an entire jar full of foundation applied to her face in a totally arbitrary way that had obviously been put on in the dark and without the aid of a mirror and hadn’t improved her appearance one little bit.
The Jewish quarter had been an interesting place to visit but it was a bit morbid and I for one wasn’t terribly sad to leave it and walk back to the Old Town Square through streets that became incrementally more cheerful and colourful with every block that passed.
The weather was good now and the square was bathed in a weak midday sun, which brought an infusion of vitality to the gaily-decorated buildings. It was time for a Staropramen so we chose a pavement café and ordered some beer, drank that and then ordered some more. On account of the large breakfast we skipped lunch and suitably refreshed left the square and walked into the New Town heading for the river.