“When she was eighty, she moved back to Prague.”
My friend was describing her Jewish grandmother, who, after surviving the Holocaust in a Central European concentration camp, joined the family in South America.
I tried to imagine that lady crossing the Atlantic again, at advanced age. What tempted her to travel 10,000 kilometres from the tropical flowers, fresh fruit and warm ocean breezes of her new home to Cold War Czechoslovakia?
Yet I thought I knew. The centre of the city on the Vltava is beyond time, from King Wenceslas to the hundred spires of the ancient capital of the Holy Roman Empire, to the poisoned ghosts of alchemists who tried to spin dreams into gold.
In spring, the Czech lands put on their loveliest dress, a bridal fantasy of petals, pastels and scent. Baby boar are born in the bright green forests, and farmers’ markets fill with the gifts of the countryside.
Of course in summer, Prague is a Kafkaesque nightmare rat maze; the old alleys crowded with backpackers, lads on weekends, wooden puppet hawkers, and classical music concert touts.
In fall, the trees astonish with the reds and oranges of Mucha’s Slav Epic, forests foragers locate mushrooms under a thick leaf carpet, grapes turn into new wine.
Winter is the best time of all to visit Prague. In winter, the clocks stop with a frosty sigh, the cobblestones absorb the chill, and the grey sky behind the Castle offers the uncrowded view seen for a millenium.
I visited Prague with friends the first weekend after I moved to Moravia. It was not the first or last, but it was the best time. Tucked up in an attic flat, we ate Afghan food and drank pints of Pilsner. We bundled up and crossed the Charles Bridge – empty on an early February morning, the statues of the twelve apostles immense and imposing, the snap of the ice in the river breathing the history and promise of Praha.
Fast forward back across the Atlantic, I listened to my friend tell the story of her grandmother. “She died the next year.”
I know why she went back. I thought I saw her walking over the Charles Bridge on a February day like mine, coat buttoned, scarf tied against the wind, crossing the Vltava.