PROBABLY THE BEST WAY TO BEGIN TO understand the city's great complexity and small size is to walk across the Charles Bridge over the Vltava. Toward the eastern end stands a crucifix with gilt Hebrew letters hanging like a garland in front of the dead Christ. holy, holy, holy, lord they read, a translation of the Latin "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus." They were paid for by a Jew in 1696, as a punishment for blasphemy; they gleam, an ironic reminder of the city's destroyed Jewish population.
A few blocks upstream is the Jewish Quarter, one of the few such remaining districts in Europe. Synagogues stand at almost every corner. The Spanish Synagogue (Spanelska Synagoga), the quarter's newest, built in 1868, has recently been restored to its flamboyant Moorish style. On the walls of the Pincas Synagogue (Pinkasova Synagoga), which are covered with the names of Czech Jews killed by the Nazis, I found the names of my father's relatives. In Prague during the Second World War, the Nazis collected Jewish religious objects from all over Czechoslovakia, intending them for a museum of the extinct Jewish race. The Jews who sorted and catalogued them were sent to their deaths just an hour north of the city in Terezin, a concentration camp built within a Hapsburg fortress city.
From the Jewish Quarter, walk toward the Old Town Square to see the glorious Astronomical Clock (Orloj) on the side of the Old Town Hall (Staromestska Radnice). Every hour, the Renaissance Astronomical Clock chimes, and the mechanical figures of Christ's apostles parade across its face. Renaissance and gothic houses and palaces line the square; groups of students, groups of tourists--European and American--fill it. A monument to Jan Hus, erected in 1915, stands not quite in the center of the space. Kafka lived for a while in one of those buildings. His father had a store in one of the castles.
The palaces on the Castle Hill are being restored. Galleries include the little-known and beautiful collection of Bohemian art in St. George's Convent (Klaster sv. Jiri), the Picture Gallery of Prague Castle and Sternberg Palace (Sternbersky Palac), just outside the castle gates.
To understand fully the opulence of Rudolf II's court and the extent of the emperor's ultimately disastrous devotion to art, science and arcana, it helps to go to museums in Austria and Sweden. But beautiful objects remain here, especially The Madonna of the Rosary by Albrect Dürer, a painting that Rudolf's antiquarian bought for him in Venice and carted home over the Alps. The Dürer--like Rudolf's reign, a noble ruin--hangs in the Sternberg Gallery, badly damaged (which is why the Swedes left it behind) and profoundly haunting.