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).
Pension U Medvídků is located on the
southern edge of the Old Town, and some of this pension’s rooms retain
Renaissance-era painted wooden ceilings and Gothic rafters. There’s also a
historic vaulted beer hall and on-site restaurant (from £80).
Le Palais, housed in
a Belle Époque building in a residential area, is a tastefully restored
five-star hotel featuring frescoes, marble staircases, a spa and a gym (from
£210; U Zvonařky 1).
Jet2 flies to Prague from
Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Leeds-Bradford (from £60). EasyJet flies to Prague from Stansted,
Gatwick and Bristol (from £100). Public transport is excellent in Prague, with
a well-integrated Metro, tram and bus system. However, it’s easiest for most to
explore the Old Town and Castle area on foot. Day tickets for public transport
can be purchased via SMS message (from £3.50; dpp.cz). You can also buy paper
tickets at stations, although not on trains (30-min tickets from 80p; dpp.cz).
The article 'Mini guide to Kafka’s Prague' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.