Mini guide to Kafka’s Prague
Prague is the political, cultural and economic centre of the Czech state. (Matt Munro)
Franz Kafka never directly referred to Prague in his work, but his tales of totalitarian bureaucracy were greatly influenced by the city.
The house in which Franz Kafka was born in 1883 was situated on the northeast corner of the square next to the Church of St Nicholas. The house was later rebuilt, but the original door was preserved. A bust of Kafka and a plaque have been added, and there is a small exhibition inside (00 420 222 321 675; Náměstí Franze Kafky 3; closed Sun & Mon; admission £1.20).
Much of Kafka’s writing was influenced by his time as a clerk at Worker’s Accident Insurance Company, where he reported on industrial accidents and recommended safety measures. He would often moan to his friends about the difficulties of balancing his day job and his writing. His office at the firm still stands, but the building is now the Hotel Century Old Town (Na Poříčí 7).
Kafka had a complex relationship with Judaism, veering between secularism and Zionism at an uneasy time for Jews in Eastern Europe. He attended services at the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest surviving Jewish house of worship in Europe. It’s said to be the resting place of the mythical Golem, a creature that protected the city’s Jews from violence (Červená 250; closed Fri & Sat; admission £6).
Kafka didn’t leave his parents’ home until he was 31. He moved a number of times, until arriving at the house at 16 Dlouhá in 1915, where he wrote the bulk of his novel The Trial. The road was, and still is, noisy, so Kafka would often pop over to his sister’s house in the Castle District when he needed peace and quiet. The book wasn’t published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death.
In Kafka’s day, Prague’s coffeehouse scene was the rival of Vienna’s, a place where Europe’s intellectuals would meet to swap ideas or just ponder the birth pangs of modernity. Of Kafka’s favourite haunts, few remain. However, one that is still around today for a cuppa and a spot of existential angst is Café Louvre, with marble walls, grand staircase and billiards room (Národní 22; open daily; coffees from £1.40).
The Grand Hotel Europa, a stunning Art Nouveau building on the north side of Wenceslas Square, was known to Kafka as the Hotel Erzherzog Stefan. He held one of the first public readings of his work there in 1912, when he read from The Judgement. Across from the Hotel Europa is the Lucerna ‘cultural palace’ – Kafka and his circle were regulars there, attending cabaret performances and cinema screenings.
In the square on Dušní Street, in the Jewish Quarter, stands the city’s official monument to Kafka. The sculpture shows a suited Kafka on the shoulders of a gigantic headless man – an intangible, surreal tribute to the writer. The image of a man on the shoulders of another comes from his short story Description of a Struggle.
The Kafka Museum exhibition is split into two parts. The first, Existential Space, looks at the impact that Prague had on Kafka. The second, Imaginary Topography, looks at how Kafka’s use of the city as an often anonymous setting transformed how Prague’s residents saw their home, and the way that he turned landmarks into allegorical places (open daily; admission £6).
Kafka died in a sanatorium near Vienna aged 40. Yet he couldn’t escape Prague, and he was buried at New Jewish Cemetery in his family plot. His parents joined him a decade later; a plaque commemorates Kafka’s sisters who died in concentration camps. Opposite is a plaque in memory of Max Brod, his publisher and friend (Izraelská 1; closed Sat; admission free).
Where to stay
Hotel Union is a grand hotel from 1906 that was nationalised by the Communists in 1958 and returned to the former owner’s grandson in 1991. It’s still family run, and the staff take great pride in looking after their guests properly. Comfortably renovated, with a few period touches left intact (from £50).