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Early morning visitors pass the St. John of Nepomuk statue on the Charles Bridge. (Photograph by Björn Steinz)

A Metamorphosis in Prague

I was working on an animated film in Los Angeles in 1982 when I was ordered back to Prague by the communist Czech government. I wanted to finish my film and was tired of the government telling me what to do, so I decided not to return even though I knew this meant I might not see my family again. Then, in 1989, I became a U.S. citizen, and a few months later the Berlin Wall fell. I could once again go home.

Whenever I visit, I try to swim against time, not to recall the oppressive fortress that used to be Prague but to reconnect with the favorite places of my childhood.

Our family home is located on the main route through historic Prague, on Nerudova Street in the Hradčany Castle District. It had been the gatehouse for the Prague Castle and dates back to the 14th century. My first walk in Prague is usually up the street to the castle—the seat of kings, emperors, dictators, and presidents. I like to go there in the evening. A quiet alley behind the castle, Nový Svět, is where the Danish Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe lived. He came to Prague as a guest of Emperor Rudolf II, a patron of the arts and sciences. Brahe was just one of the many astronomers, mystics, and alchemists that the emperor invited to his Prague court.

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Artist David Černý’s babies crawl on Kampa Island, an islet in the Vltava river in central Prague. (Photograph by Björn Steinz)

Across from Brahe’s house, a discreet entrance leads to the lush charms of Deer Moat, a park with meadows, benches, winding paths, and the remains of the emperor’s greenhouse, called Fig House. You can almost see the shadows of the deer, bears, and even lions that Emperor Rudolf II kept here. He was told that when his favorite lion died he would too, and that’s what happened.

Prague Castle looms above Deer Moat, and I enter it through the East Gate. With the crowds gone, I feel like a time traveler walking along the Golden Lane—a street of colorful small houses that were built against the inside wall of the castle. There is also a plaque in memory of Franz Kafka, who was born in Prague and wrote some of his stories in a house on this street.

I make my way through the courtyards of the castle and out of Matyas Gate, where I can see all of Prague below me, as well as a TV tower on the horizon. The tower was built under the communist government. It brings tears to my eyes, not because of bad memories but because the tower is now decorated with statues of crawling babies made by my friend David Černý. The model for the babies (who appear elsewhere in Černý’s work) is my son, currently a student in college. Černý’s artwork connects me to a special moment in my life.

By now the evening is starting to turn to night, and other places to visit have closed, so I decide to wait until daytime to head back out and down from our house toward the Charles Bridge. I walk on round cobblestones that locals call cat’s heads, past houses that display signs with a variety of symbols—suns and keys and violins. This is how people used to identify their addresses.

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A guitarist strums in front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague’s Grand Priory Square. (Photograph by Björn Steinz)

On Karmelitská Street I enter the Church of Our Lady Victorious, where I say hello to the “Bambino di Praga” and ask him for good luck. Bambino—the baby Jesus of Prague—is a wax statue that came from medieval Spain and is widely celebrated. The statue receives multitudes of robes to wear, made of gold, precious materials, ermine—you name it—from people who pray for his help. He supposedly served as an inspiration for writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s title character in The Little Prince.

From Karmelitská Street I head to the John Lennon Wall. When Lennon died, the youth of Prague, as a protest against the communist regime of the 1980s, covered the wall with graffiti inspired by Lennon and Beatles songs.

I was already in the United States then, but I had my own experience with protests in the 1970s. As a Prague disc jockey playing western rock music, I was confronted and brought to the secret police. Eventually, my radio program was banned.

I have to go very early in the morning or very late at night if I want to be alone on Charles Bridge. It was built in the time of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who made Prague his capital.

The bridge connected the castle with the Old Town (Staré Město) on the right side of the Vltava River. Besides being practical, it held spiritual importance to the emperor, who was a great believer in numerology. He didn’t allow construction to begin on the bridge until July 9, 1357, at 5:31 a.m., so the numbers would be in a numerical sequence (135797531), which he believed would give it special protection and strength. Over the years, 30 statues were placed along both sides of the bridge.

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The Mirror Chapel in the Clementium dates to 1724. (Photograph by Björn Steinz)

After crossing the bridge, I am carried along by the crowds through the Old Town Bridge Tower. Looking up, I can see paintings and sculptures of kings, saints, and a kingfisher bird. To the left of St. Salvator church stands the entrance to the Clementinum. I have only recently discovered its tower, with its ancient library and observatory.

Here it’s quiet, in contrast to the crowded scene at the spectacular astronomical clock, Orloj, farther down the road. When I climb the tower, I have the same view of the Prague rooftops as at the Orloj, but all to myself. The Clementinum was the official observatory that announced noon—first with a shot from a cannon, later with a radio signal—for all of Prague, from 1751 until World War II.

Once I leave the tower, I weave through the streets of Old Town. After a few blocks I come to Wenceslas Square, which used to be called Horse Market and which has now become the center of modern Prague. All of the major political events in the life of the Czech state—both good and bad—have taken place in this historic square.

Shops, cabarets, and bistros fill a web of passages in surrounding early 20th-century buildings. Inside the Lucerna passage (built by a grandfather of the late Czech writer/president Václav Havel) I retreat to my favorite bookshop and café, Řehoř Samsa. I like to get a coffee and pick up Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka.

The story begins, “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning after an unsettling dream …” It reminds me of what it’s been like to walk through Prague during different times of my life, in all kinds of weather and political situations. The memories are unsettling, but the dream is quite beautiful now.

This piece was written by Peter Sís and appeared in the October 2014 issue of Traveler magazine. Sís is the award-winning author/illustrator of many books for children. His latest, The Pilot and the Little Prince, is a biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Sís lives in New York City.