Following in the footsteps of Franz Kafka in Prague

Following in the footsteps of Franz Kafka in Prague

 

Who is Kafka?

Franz Kafka is an existentialist novelist born in 1883. His most noted works includes The Castle and The Metamorphosis. While his writing was in German, he was born in Prague, Czech Republic and many consider him to be the most significant person Prague has produced.

His writing usually features a man or animal, alone in the world, going through extreme trials and not in control of his own fate. The term Kafkaesque was coined after him, meaning something is characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Kafka’s fictional world.

Kafka had a strained relationship with his father and was engaged to 3 different women during his short lifetime, he died at 40. He was a qualified lawyer and worked as a clerk at an Insurance Company, where he was often in trouble for taking time off work to write. Writing was his passion and all consuming to him. 

Yet during his life, Kafka’s writings went unknown in his native Prague. The Nazis suppressed his work during WW2 because he was Jewish, and then, when the Communists took over, the same happened as his writings didn’t fit with their ideals. It wasn’t until the 1990s his work gained traction. 

This quote best sums up his turbulent relationship with the city he was born in:

 

“Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws” – Franz Kafka

 

And he’s right. Reminders of Kafka’s life can be found all over Prague and this city doesn’t want people to forget about him. 

 

Where he was born

Franz Kafka Square

In 2000 Franz Kafka Square (Náměstí Franze Kafky) was created on Radnice St, where Maislova and Kaprova meet. They chose this location as it’s where Kafka was born. While the house is no longer standing (it was knocked down in 1897 during the clearing of the Jewish quarter) there is a plaque on the wall. 

I walked through this square several times without realising it was Franz Kafka Square. Unless you’re looking for the plaque you probably won’t see it. Naming this little area after Kafka caused a commotion back in 2000. The Mayor argued it would be an administrative nightmare, as all the street numbers would have to be revised. But Kafka’s fans were passionate and the square was made. 

 

Streets near Franz Kafka Square (Náměstí Franze Kafky)
Streets near Franz Kafka Square (Náměstí Franze Kafky)

 

Where he lived

The House at the Minute

Franz Kafka and his parents lived here from 1889 to 1896.

This house is just off Old Town Square, next to the Astronomical Clock. It is part of the Old Town Hall complex and has an Italian restaurant below.

‘At the Minute’ (U Minuty) is derived from the word minutious, as in tiny. This suits the house well. It catches your eye and is typical of Bohemian Renaissance architecture.

 

Old Town Hall, Prague
Old Town Hall

 

The building was almost knocked down in 1905 but was saved when sgraffito was found on the neighbouring building. In 1919, on the outside of the House at the Minute, more sgraffito was found. Living there in the 1890s, Kafka would never have known they where there.

The sgraffitos show a mixture of figures and scenes from the bible, mythology and the renaissance period. For example, you can find the common bible scene of Adam and Eve under a tree with an apple. 

 

Outside decor on The House at the Minute
Sgraffito on The House at the Minute

 

Golden Lane (Zlatá ulička)

This tiny cobbled lane is in the Prague Castle complex and looks like something out of a fairy tale. Number 22 is where Franz Kafka lived and worked from 1916 to 1917. His sister owned the house and they spent many nights talking and drinking here. He found it particularly peaceful and was able to write The Trail (published in 1925, a year after his death). 

The Nazis occupied this area during WW2 and in 1948 the communists forced any remaining residents to leave. In 1955 the street went through extensive restoration. Today, many of the buildings house exhibitions documenting life in lane over the last 500 years. You’ll find a book shop located at number 22.

This street is also where the alchemists slaved away in the 16th-century under the orders of Rudolf II King of Bohemia, to create the legendary “The Philosopher’s Stone” – a substance capable of turn lead to gold. Spoiler – it didn’t work.

I took a ‘Castle tour’ with Sandemans for €11 (300 CZK). As I was short on time and hadn’t researched the Castle, I thought a tour would be the best option. What I didn’t realise was this didn’t include entrance to many of the sites in the castle complex, like the Golden Lane. You can only enter the Prague Castle complex, walk around the courtyards, and visit the first part of St. Vitus Cathedral for free. Lots of the private tours don’t include the entrance tickets to the sites. 

Types of tickets

In oder to visit Kafka’s house in Golden Lane, you need to purchase either the Prague Castle – Circuit A or Circuit B ticket:

Prague Castle – Circuit A (350 CZK)
St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, The Story of Prague Castle exhibition, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower, Powder Tower

Prague Castle – Circuit B (250 CZK)
St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower

In hindsight, I could have bought one of the above tickets for the same price I paid for the tour and seen Golden Lane. 

 

Where he hung out

Due to Prague’s chaotic history with the Nazis and Communists, many of Kafka’s old haunts no longer exist. However, one still remains in all its glory: 

Cafe Louvre

In Kafka’s day the coffee house scene was the ‘place to be’ and where to mix with fellow intellectuals. His favourite place was Cafe Louvre, a Parisian style cafe over 100 years old (opened in 1902), located in Prague’s Old Town. As soon as you walk in you feel the historic ambiance. Its most well-known visitors include, Franz Kafka, fellow novelist and playwright Karel Čapek and physicist Albert Einstein. 

 

Outside Cafe Louvre
Outside Cafe Louvre

You can order coffee, wine, spirits or cocktails. The waiters dress in traditional French café attire and seemed ready to assist. I saw the waiter help the ladies next to me choose a wine from their large menu. If you fancy a light lunch, grab a reasonably priced sandwich or salad. The salads make a nice change from all the bread-heavy traditional Czech dishes, such as beef goulash and dumplings (which they also do). If you don’t want a big meal, make sure to check the selection of cakes and desserts on offer.

And think to yourself  – Kafka or Einstein once sat here.

 

Inside Cafe Louvre
Inside Cafe Louvre

 

While it looks expensive, I didn’t think the prices were too high. I had a goat cheese salad, Aperol Spritz cocktail and České buchty cake for under €15. 

 

 

Hotel Europa

Unfortunately the Grand Hotel Europa closed a few years ago. It was a beautiful art nouveau hotel and coffee shop in Wenceslas Square, called Hotel Erzherzog Stefan in Kafka’s day. In 1912 he did his first public reading here from The Judgement. 

Hopefully one day the hotel will be renovated and restored to its former glory. I would loved to have visited in Kafka’s day. Does anyone have any photos of what it used to look like inside?

 

The Grand Hotel Europa
The Grand Hotel Europa (left in 2017, right in 2000)

 

Learn about him

Franz Kafka museum

If you want to learn more about this literary icon, visit Franz Kafka museum located by Kampa park and between Charles and Mánes Bridge. Entry costs 200 CZK.

Even if you don’t go in, outside the museum is a must see. There are two moving statues of men peeing in a pond shaped as the Czech Republic (or Czechia if anyone has started calling it that). These bronze statues are called Proudy and were installed by the controversial artist David Černy in 2004. 

Franz Kafka museum
Franz Kafka museum

 

Are they meant to be Czechs pissing on the old Soviet state? Does it represent Kafka’s feelings on Prague? Is it reflecting the people’s opinions on the current politicians? Or is he just to be provocative? Who knows. I’ve included more of Černy’s statues in my Prague blog post

After visiting I found out the moving peeing penises are actually spelling out quotes from Czech literature with their streams. But don’t try and decipher these yourself. Instead there’s a phone number on the plaque by the statues, which you can text and receive the words they are spelling out. I would have tried this but there’s no signs explaining it! If anyone has done this, please let me know in the comments if it worked. Below is a video of the one of the statues in action. 

 

 

Inside the museum

The museum focuses on Kafka’s life and his connection to Prague more than his work. There are a few cabinets with diary excerpts. These are all in German and not everything is translated to English. It’s not very interactive but there are some short video clips on display which I didn’t fully understand but I noticed most of the people in the museum seemed to get them, so perhaps true Kafka fans will understand them.

You can’t take photos inside, which I always find a shame but as it’s so dark here, I doubt they would come out. It’s not just low lighting, some areas have no lights which goes with the existentialist vibe of Kafka, but it makes reading signs difficult. Everything’s laid out in a chaotic way, matching Kafka’s life and writing style, because of this it takes at least an hour and half to get around the small museum. 

One thing I learnt, was how much of an effect Kafka’s walk from the House at the Minute to school (German Primary School for Boys) had on him and his writing. The walk was burned into his mind and he wrote about it in adulthood – the voices of the beggars calling to him, the chaos of the meat market and the stern cook who accompanied him. 

When you come out of the museum it takes your eyes a while to re-adjust to daylight and you’ll probably feel a sense of relief to exit the claustrophobic dark rooms but I think that’s the point. 

 

Death

New Jewish Cemetery

Even in death Kafka couldn’t escape Prague.

Franz Kafka died at 40. He suffered laryngeal tuberculosis, which made it difficult to eat and led to starvation. He died outside of Vienna but his body was brought back to Prague to be buried in his family plot in the New Jewish Cemetery on 11 June 1924. Not to be confused with the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague’s Jewish quarter, the New Jewish Cemetery is located outside of the tourist area but it’s easy to reach on the Green Metro line A to Želivského. It’s closed on Saturday. 

If you enter the cemetery from the main road, Kafka’s grave is located on the first aisle on the right, along the fence. Leopold Ehrmann designed his gravestone. It stands out as it has a rectangular pointy shape. The tombstone is labelled Dr. Franz Kafka as he had a PhD in Law. The inscription is in Hebrew so unless you know the language you won’t understand it. Opposite Kafka’s grave is a bronze memorial plaque to commemorate his good friend Max Brod. 

There aren’t many tourist sites in this area of Prague, the main reason to visit the cemetery is to see Kafka’s grave. A popular time to go is on June 3rd, the anniversary of his death. 

 

His Memory

Located outside Národní třída, a short walk from Můstek metro station is a huge revolving head of Franz Kafka. It consists of 42 revolving layers of stainless steel that occasionally align to create a head. It was also produced by David Černy and represents Kafka’s twisted mind.

 

 

Many people who knew him said fame was not important to Franz Kafka. Upon his deathbed he asked his friend Max Brod to burn his novels after his death. Fortunately, Brod didn’t and he went on to publish Kafka’s novels. If he hadn’t then Prague would have lost out on a literary icon (and whole lot of tourism). 

3 Replies to “Following in the footsteps of Franz Kafka in Prague”

  1. Very interesting. I read Metamorphosis , The Trial , The Castle in my 20’s. I have not forgotten them even now. I shall be doing Existentialism with my Philosophy Group and was thinking of doing just Sartre and Camus but will now add Kafka. Ian used to go to the Europa Hotel when in Prague a few years ago but I do not expect that he has any photographs. I will ask him to post a comment about the hotel. I like the cafe : it reminds me of the Central Cafe in Vienna where Freud used to spend time. These places really give one a tangible link with the past , a walking in history moment. I could have gone to Prague with the Anthony Trollope Society, as Trollope lived there for a while and he wrote Nina Balatka. The society are touring Prague and discussing what he wrote there. The Manchester group leader said she would have gone with me but it is too late to book now. Maybe I will get there one day.

    1. I’m glad my post has inspired you to visit one day. I’ll have to read Nina Balatka before I return to Prague. I think with its Jewish connection to Prague, like Kafka, some of the place might coincide.

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