Grand tours: City of mists and shadows

Writers' literary adventures: this week, Francis Marion Crawford in Prague

Saturday 04 January 2014 02:39

An American born in Italy, Francis Marion Crawford (1854-1909) spoke 10 languages, including Sanskrit, and wrote numerous novels with exotic settings. 'The Witch of Prague', one of his few works of pure fiction, cleverly capitalised on the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with mysticism and the occult. Here, in the dark streets of 19th-century Prague, we meet The Wanderer as he searches in vain for his beloved Beatrice, and meetsmysterious Unorna.

The gloom in the narrow streets was already deepening, though it was scarcely two hours after midday, and the heavy air had begun to thicken with a cold gray haze, even in the broad, straight Przikopy, the wide thoroughfare which has taken the place and name of the moat before the ancient fortifications, so that distant objects and figures lost the distinctness of their outlines. Winter in Prague is but one long, melancholy dream, broken sometimes at noon by an hour of sunshine, by an intermittent visitation of reality, by the shock and glare of a little broad daylight. The morning is not morning, the evening is not evening; as in the land of the Lotus, it is ever afternoon, gray, soft, misty, sad, save when the sun, being at his meridian height, pierces the dim streets and sweeps the open places with low, slanting waves of pale brightness. And yet these same dusky streets are thronged with a moving multitude, are traversed ever by ceaseless streams of men and women, flowing onward, silently, swiftly, eagerly. The very beggars do not speak above a whisper, the very dogs are dumb. The stillness of all voices leaves nothing for the perception of the hearing save the dull tread of many thousand feet and the rough rattle of an occasional carriage. Rarely, the harsh tones of a peasant, or the clear voices of a knot of strangers, unused to such oppressive silence, startle the ear, causing hundreds of eager, half-suspicious, half-wondering eyes to turn in the direction of the sound.

And yet Prague is a great city, the capital of the Bohemian Crownland, the centre of a not unimportant nation, the focus in which are concentrated the hottest, if not the brightest, rays from the fire of regeneration kindled within the last half century by the Slavonic race. There is an ardent furnace of life hidden beneath the crust of ashes: there is a wonderful language behind that national silence.

The Wanderer stood in deep thought under the shadow of the ancient Powder Tower. The street behind him led directly towards Unorna's house. He left the street almost immediately, passing under a low arched way that opened on the right-hand side, and a moment later he was within the walls of the Teyn Kirche. The vast building was less gloomy than it had been in the morning. It was not yet the hour of vespers, the funeral torches had been extinguished, as well as most of the lights upon the high altar, there were not a dozen persons in the church, and high up beneath the roof broad shafts of softened sunshine, floating above the mists of the city, streamed through the narrow lancet windows and were diffused in the great gloom below.

'The Witch of Prague' (ISBN 1-58715-091-3) is a print-on-demand title and can be ordered from most bookshops and at £14.99.

Follow in the footsteps

Après le déluge

Following August's floods, Prague is now back on its (dry) feet and the tourist attractions have re-opened. Parts of the city's Jewish quarter remain affected. Contact the Czech Tourist Authority, Morley House, 320 Regent Street, London W1 (020-7631 0427; for further information.

Getting there

Now is a good time to find flight offers: easyJet is offering returns from Stansted for £70 (0870 600 0000; British Airways is offering returns for £114 (0845-773 3377; Czech Airline's fares start at £74 (020-7255 1898;

Getting around

In winter, Prague Information Services (Old Town Hall, satre Mesto) opens 9am to 6pm Mon-Fri, 9am to 5pm Sat-Sun.

Eleanor Snow

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