PRAGUE, CZ. I arrived in Prague on a late December evening, greeted by flurries and a somehow familiar Eastern European scent that quickly started to infiltrate the air around. There I was, standing at the top of the airstairs, quickly buttoning up my coat, taking in the cold breeze of the night. Perhaps it was simply a scent of perceived familiarity, closeness to something from before.
Most people don’t talk about scent – it’s something that we often take for granted. We know it’s there, yet we never seem to notice. However, I experience through scent; it comes and goes suddenly, quickly reminding me of moments from the past, allowing me to feel and be alive. The cologne of a loved one, the sizzling scent of a familiar food, the air circling a neighborhood at sunset. I might forget words, even pictures, but somehow I can never forget scent.
That night of December 27th 2012, was one of those moments. Stepping down those stairs, I could sense it: the scent of the beginning, the beginning of a return.
My friend Max greeted me at the airport and helped me navigate the transit connections to his home in Dolní Chabry, metro and bus routes that would soon become an integral part of my experience over the next ten days. I would come to enjoy those daily commutes from the suburbs into central Prague, and regard them as moments of reflection and gratitude for having the chance to somewhat immerse into the Czech’s daily life.
Getting into the city early the next day, we went up the hill to Prague Castle and St. Vitrus Cathedral. This spiritual symbol of Prague and place of rest for kings and queens is a real wonder to experience, not only due to its architectural splendor – the cathedral itself has Romanesque roots, a Gothic base, Renaissance structural elements and is topped with a Baroque cupola – but also due to its significance. Historian Richard Burton described it as an “allegory of the splendors and miseries of Czechness.” A place symbolizing power and history, but also “impotence, the darkness and emptiness of long tracks of history.”
Taking a midday walk through Chotkovy Sady, one of the first public parks in Prague situated minutes away from the castle, we were directly faced with one of the most beautiful views of the city. Sitting on a bench and overlooking the entire urban landscape below provided a much needed moment of contemplation and appreciation of the city. I quickly came to understand why Prague is often called “the rose of Europe” and found myself sharing poet Jaroslav Seifert’s views:
At that moment I felt that I was holding Europe in my hands, that I was lifting it to my lips and nostrils, that I was smelling the perfume of remote distances, the perfume of the world. … The glory of the town lay at my feet. On this relief map, tied like a knot and looking like a massive stone stage prop, I thoroughly savored the dramatic day.
(Photo of Central Prague as seen from Chotkovy Sady Park)
Probably no other structure in Prague offers the amount of dramatic splendor than that of Charles Bridge. This historical coronation route of the Kings of Bohemia is believed to be a “place of ambiguities, double meanings and subversive intentions.” Its thirty statues provide important stories of victory and defeat, of surrender and revolution; stories that celebrate the much contested history of the Czech people.
Navigating through the intricate streets of the Old Town, we finished our adventure in Old Town Square, greeted by a congregation of a few hundredth people, who were all looking up. I would soon come to realize that we arrived at a much-anticipated place in the city, the location of the Astronomical Clock, and at a much-anticipated time, on the hour when the clock was about to strike. This fifteenth century clock, is not only one of the oldest running in the world, but it is also a design wonder on its own. The many figures represented on its body take you on a journey through medieval Prague, at a time when heroes and villains were clearly defined and where the Earth was believed to be at the center of the Universe.
Surrounded by the Bohemian atmosphere and guided by the Church of Our Lady soaring before our eyes, we strolled through the Christmas market of the Old Town Square when a sudden familiar smell hit home again: the Trdelník, or more commonly known as Kürtőskalác, stacked neatly on the vendor’s stalls, diffusing its aroma into the thick winter air.
Back in my childhood, when I would travel with my mother across Transylvania, we would often stop to buy kürtőskalács from vendors selling pastries off the main road. Its sweet, nutty taste, sometimes infused with splashes of vanilla syrup was always a delicious treat on a long journey. Now, fourteen years later, I was enjoying the same delicious flavour, only in a faraway place, stranded in time. This traditional Hungarian pastry, and familiar smell, was the perfect ending of an unforgettable day.
A moment of closure and a new beginning. The beginning of a return.