I got it: Prague’s hidden gems, in plain sight. From Kotva, Adam snaked through nearby streets, taking me in and out of a series of arcades, mostly built during the 1910s and 1920s, belated versions of the famous 19th-century proto-malls of London, Milan and Paris that once epitomized modernity. Sky-lighted pedestrian corridors, shortcuts, they wormed through whole blocks of masonry buildings and looked immaculate — all glass, marble and shiny steel, with barrel-vaulted ceilings, domed aeries and soaring atriums, knitted seamlessly into the surrounding streetscape. Rockefeller Center had nothing over them. But they were nearly abandoned. (…)
Slipping from the busy streets in and out of these arcades reminded me of the enchanted portals in the Harry Potter stories and in ‘The Secret Garden.’ A childhood friend a while ago took me around the stretch of the West Village where we had grown up together. I had come to think of it over the years, after I had moved away and all the changes had come to the neighborhood, as nearly unrecognizable. But I was shocked. Seeing it with someone who had never left, for whom daily life had continued, as if by magic the universe of my childhood reappeared in front of us - although it still seemed invisible to the new people who lived there now and to the crowds who jammed the restaurants in what used to be run-down tenements along our formerly dingy block.
There was Anthony, gray but unbowed, toothless as usual, in his lawn chair outside the fruit stall, which miraculously was still there too. So was Anna, who for eons ran the newsstand across from Our Lady of Pompeii, where I went to get the Sunday paper for my parents in the yawning silence before the neighborhood woke up. (…)
As do great works of art, cities exist in layers that wait to be found, when we’re ready. It happens in the company of a small child, through whose eyes one suddenly picks out, instead of all the familiar shops and buildings and intersections, the flags and airplane trails and small dogs and shiny bottle caps on the sidewalk.
These shifts of perspective can be as startling as the discovery of a secret passageway or the recovery of a long lost memory. They are like the arcades of our minds.
Michael Kimmelman: In Prague: a Treasure Hunt, in : nytimes.com, 2011-07-07.
Photo: Statue of St. Wenceslas riding a dead horse by Czech sculptor David Černý. Palace Lucerna in Prague, (Jim, 2008).