Prague by Natalia
By Natalia S. Povalyaeva
See some of Natalia's paintings

There is no crucial difference between History and Story. If you don't believe it – just visit Prague. Prague is a real city, and Prague is an invented place. You can invent it again.

There has been a long love affair between me and Prague. It is true that to love a city is much easier than to love a person (though a city can be as changeable as a person). And maybe it is true that loving a person is more valuable than loving a city. Maybe it is true, but only if we are not speaking about Prague.

Prague has a lot to show you. Guides will tell you about places you must visit, about dates and events, about kings and saints, about buildings and those who built them... This is history. But when you visit all these historical places again, without the guides and the moaning "colleagues" from your tour group, History will go away, and what'll remain is Story.

Golden Lane. A row of colourful, pygmean houses, which cling to the fortification wall as fossils to the seashore rock. Here you feel like Gulliver in Lilliputians' kingdom. It seems possible to leap over the wall with one gigantic step and go up the hills that loom over the city. One of them has a tower on it, which looks very similar to Eiffel's, and those guides who have a special sense of humour say that this tower actually is Eiffel's – Europe is so small that one can see the tower in Paris while standing on the Golden Lane in Prague. Some tourists believe.

It is easy to tell who is here for the first time and who isn't by looking at tourists' faces. Those who've been here before have a look of "the initiated". The faces of "beginners" wear a mask of excitement and fright. What, the Pygmies lived here?

There are several official versions about Golden Lane. According to the first one, these houses were built for Prague's guardians whose working place was the fortification wall. Yeah, to have a home not far from work is the twenty-first century dream... According to another version, these houses belonged to a) Prague's alchemists, and b) Prague's jewelers. Such a well thought-out alliance: the former were getting gold from everything they could grab, and the latter made various pleasant things from it. Division of labor, and everybody's happy.

As I said, there are official versions. But you are free to create your own - crafty Prague will be grateful. If your story is a lovely one, it will be accepted; new books will be written, new postcards will be printed, new tourist routes will be mapped. So visit Golden Lane again and spur your imagination.

One of these houses is connected with the name of Franz Kafka. He didn't live here, but he used to work here. Kafka. A Jew with Martian eyes. There is a similarity between Kafka and Prague - the same abyss in a glance.

Now there are only souvenir shops here. In one of these shops that sell wooden toys I always fall into a kind of trance. Hobby-horses on wheels, with or without wagons; a wooden chimney-sweeper, his beloved in a coquettish hat, a cook; old-fashioned steam engines and lorries; hand-cut Caves and Noah's Ark - fully stuffed, it seems... Maybe my trance comes from a longing for natural materials, or just nostalgia for childhood. I always promise myself not to buy, just to take a look and go. At home I have no room for these wooden world's citizens anymore. And every time I step out of the shop with another wooden dude in a package.

St. Vitus Cathedral. The first reaction on seeing it is always shock, not a banal delight (Oh, how beautiful, how gorgeous!). The Cathedral is Eternity paradoxically imprisoned in stone. Dates of construction, names of architects – you'll get all these from your guide. But despite the will and common sense, the doubt will clear out all this historical information from your head. A human did this?! But why cannot we build such things nowadays, considering all our technical possibilities? Or maybe we cannot because of these technical possibilities? Anyway, St. Vitus Cathedral doesn't look like an artificial, created object. It looks more like a mysterious stalagmite, growing according to its own will.

Charles Bridge. It looks like a central avenue, and the impression increases with the statues of saints standing stiff on both sides as if waiting for a passing car to Eternity. The statue of Jan Nepomucky is shining with gold being touched every two seconds by a tourist's hand. Touch it, and you'll be happy. Every capital all over the world has its own poor thing whose uneasy business is to fulfill people's desires.

Golem by Natalia PovalyaevaPrague is the city of Golem. Hundreds of Golems made of wood, clay, silver or unspecified metal that looks just like silver, are looking at you from the shelves of souvenir shops in the Jewish Quarter. They are looking at you with ingratiating hope, just like kittens - buy me, take me home, I'll behave well. And they will, indeed. Hundreds of Golems are on T-shirts, postcards, pub signboards. There are Golems for kids and Golems for adults. I have a Golem of my own, small but heavy (must be made of lead), I carry him on a chain around my neck, and everyone who sees it for the first time asks me: what kind of a dude without a head is that? I explain that he has a head, only a small one. Golem was created for housekeeping, not for the defending of theses...

It's impossible to comprehend logically an old city's layout. The metaphor of a city as a living creature becomes real in Prague. This city wasn't built. It appeared and spread like a surrealistic cobweb. It knows nothing about parallel and perpendicular lines, and a circle here consists not of 360 degrees. When you are in Prague, you have to forget about geometry. If I pass through this arch, where will it lead me? To another dimension, I bet. It's possible, of course, to try hard and memorize the way. Or you can look at your map every three minutes – sometimes it helps not to take a wrong turn or not to pass the right one. And so the map will be your brightest recollection of Prague. But you can just go where your legs lead you, and surprisingly they'll take you to the point you need. Our body seems to manage much better with an old city's geometry than our brain does.

Prague is a real city, and Prague is an invented place. You can invent it again.