By: Emma Livingston, Staff Writer
“Czech Republic is the land of stories,” our American tour guide told us as we walked through the streets of Prague. “That’s why I love this country.”
I arrived in Prague on a Friday afternoon, and spent two glorious days walking the cobblestone streets of this beautiful, ancient city before classes started and the days became too full for exploration. I spent the time soaking in the stories of the city.
Prague is a city haunted by ancient ghosts. Most ghosts are invisible, but some ghosts have monuments built to commemorate them. This is the statue of the ghost from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni outside the Estates Theater where the opera premiered in 1787. The statue has been known to trap foolish tourists who make the mistake of trying to fit their heads into the opening of the cloak. This faceless statue perfectly encapsulates the gray and gloom of my first few days in Prague. When the weather is cold and rainy, the city streets have a nightmarish quality. When the sun shines, the city finally becomes the fairy tale it is proclaimed to be.
At the Church of Saint James, I learned the story of a thief from centuries ago who hid himself in the church one night so that he could steal all the gold and treasure. Once everyone had left, he started plundering. He saw on the high alter a statue of the Madonna, who had a golden crown upon her head. He climbed up to take the crown, but as soon as he touched it, the statue came to life and grabbed his hand, refusing to let go. The next morning, the priests found the thief with his arm trapped in the Madonna’s stone grip. The only way to free him was to chop off his arm. The thief learned the error of his ways and begged forgiveness. The priests allowed him to become caretaker of the church, but they hung his arm up above the entrance as a lesson to any who would dare consider robbing from the church in the future. It still hangs there to this day, and DNA testing has proved that it is, indeed, a human arm.
Next stop is the astrological clock in Old Town Square. We had bad timing and had to wait 45 minutes to see the parade of disciples that look down from the face of the clock every hour upon the hour while the skeleton, representing death, rings his bell. The clock was built in 1410 by the famous clockmaker, Master Hanus. Legend has it that the city councilors were so impressed by the beauty and complexity of the clock that they wanted to make sure that no other city had one like it. So they had the clockmaker blinded. In retaliation, Master Hanus went to the heart of the clock, listened carefully, and pulled out an essential piece, stopping the clockwork. No one was able to fix it for 100 years.
Finally, this is the story of the John Lennon Wall, painted on the side of one of the oldest churches in Prague (from the 11th century). After John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, Czechs wished to make a memorial for him and so started writing messages to him and quotes from Beatles music on this wall. The Communist authorities were not pleased with this free expression, so they had the wall whitewashed over. The artists came back and drew on the wall again, and again it was whitewashed over. This battle continued until the fall of the Communist regime. More recently, a group of Czech art students put their own mark on the history of the wall. On November 25 of last year, on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist government, they whitewashed the entire wall, now a famous tourist attraction, and left just one message: WALL IS OVER!
In the months since then, people have added new messages commemorating the slain singer and celebrating the freedom of Prague. Now, even Thunderbird has a place on the John Lennon Wall, thanks to our tour guide Martina, who brought along two cans of spray paint, and the artistic skills of a T-Bird student from Thailand, Sarunyu Thepbunchonchai, who spray-painted a Thunderbird logo on the famous wall. For the next six weeks, Thunderbird students will be uncovering the hidden stories of Prague and weaving our own stories into the fabric of the city. And I will be your faithful correspondent here in the field, reporting as each chapter unfolds.