The journey in from the airport was worrying. Of course I knew that Prague had been part of the Communist Bloc for decades; that sort of thing is hard to miss. But everyone I knew who had visited the city said it was beautiful, full of churches and palaces, virtually untouched by the World Wars. That’s not the impression one got in the mid-90s, landing in a run-down regional airport and driving in a sixth-hand imported German car through concrete panel slums. What had I done?
After finishing university, I had moved to Sweden, where I had done very well on a couple of projects; so well, in fact, that my employer offered me free choice of where I would next be posted. Prague, said I, full of blithe confidence. The warning bells should have started ringing when their response was that no-one ever wants to go to Prague. Well, the warning bells were ringing loud and clear on that drive through the post-Communist rubble to the centre.
Things suddenly changed. After a tortured half-hour of run-down tenements, pondering my mother’s advice to look before I leapt, I looked up to see the Gothic spire and buttresses of St. Vitus’ Cathedral silhouetted against a rosy sky. For those of you who can’t picture what I’m talking about, imagine not one or two, but four angular spires thrusting up from a building whose ornamentation gives it a chitinous, armoured appearance. With the waxing moonlight vying for supremacy with the last flashes of the sun, it was easy to imagine bats (or worse) circling the bell-tower, ready to prey on the unwary.
As the road curved downwards, I was rewarded with one of the most dazzling vistas I have ever seen: that of Prague, known as the City of a Thousand Spires. From a jumble of ornate buildings, their pastel facades fading in the dim light, rose a field of man-made stalacmites, evidence of a dozen architectural styles. I was captivated.
I changed in that instant. As a schoolboy, I had been eager to drop History as soon as I possibly could. The subject is boiled down to a turgid series of events and dates with all passion removed. In that moment, I realised that a piece of the puzzle had been missing – I needed a backdrop to bring things to life, and Prague gave me that.
Over the following months, I found myself wandering dimly-lit alleyways that had seen little change in four centuries; knowing that my view was broadly the same as a medieval traveller would have experienced. I began to meet people who told me stories. Not history, as I would have learned it, but tales of the Church and its critics, of wine and war, royalty and rebellion, intrigue and invasion – all the juicy bits that the good schoolteachers in Ireland forgot to mention.
Eventually I started to write these stories down. Back then, I had no intention of writing a book. Now I’m working on my third, and I have more ideas than ever. But that’s another story…