You don’t often come across someone and know they’re destined to become a ghost. I’d certainly never expected to meet anyone like that, and even if I had, wouldn’t have expected such an encounter on that bright summer’s day in 1993.
Prague is, of course, a city of ghosts, for some of us more than for others. Its winding, ancient streets ooze an uninterrupted atmosphere of mystery, compounded by unfamiliar, Slavonic names. A fellow student – let’s call her ‘Mary’ – and I were there to disturb the dead in a different way, filling up vacation fieldwork requirements for our archaeology degrees in a country where our travel grants had a hope of covering our expenses. (Yes, back then, undergraduates could get travel grants). The early, heat-beating starts, natural to the locals, sharpened our appetites, and eleven o’clock found us sitting with bread-and-cheese and bottled beer lunches by the bridge railings on the backdoor road into the Castle. Savvy tourists who’d discovered the excellent tram system poured past us, having saved themselves the sweaty hike to the spur’s summit. We ignored them, until our bubble of quiet laughter and gentle conversation was broken with Teutonic abruptness.
“You are English, yes?”. Trench filthy, stained t-shirts over ragged jeans, we were evidently the stereotype, and nodded wary affirmatives at the broad-faced, broad-shouldered specimen in front of us.
“Ah good. I want to see the burg. Where it is, please?”
Mary, never the most assertive of people, smiled behind her bread roll and let me answer. I gestured diffidently at the two crisply-pressed guards in ceremonial uniforms, rigidly occupying the sentry boxes either side of a gate that was all of five metres from us.
“You’re in the right place, here it is.”
She looked at them, taking a good twenty seconds to scan the long facade and tower looming over the Stag Moat, all Theresean pastel shades, rock and masonry.
“No, no,” she said, sucking her teeth, “This I have seen. But this is a schloss, not a burg. How you would say? A palace, not a castle.”
“Well yes, it’s a schlossnow, but they still call it a burg. Sounds better, I guess”. I smiled.
“No! My guidebook says that there is in Prague a burg, and I must see it before I leave. Where it is, please?”
Briefly nonplussed, I looked up, shading my eyes, glad of earlier solo trips. Even then, I was already more familiar with the city than the camera-toting hordes, and I thought I knew what she was driving at.
“Oh… south of the city centre, on the Metro, is the Vyšehrad fortress, brick-built, 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps they mean that? It’s a park now, no tourists, a good place to spend a quiet afternoon without leaving town. Fantastic Secession style church. Well worth a look.” I must have sounded like a tour guide; it was probably the influence of the goggling groups that daily paused by the tape that marked off our bone-decorated pits.
“No, I have seen this too, yesterday. Very nice, yes, but not a burg. And on a different page in my book!”. The latter, well-thumbed, was now flourished for emphasis.
“Well, as I say… they call this a burgeven though it isn’t one really.”
From the corner of my eye I could see Mary, still not helping, looking away to stop herself from laughing. I tried not to look at her for the same reason. Straight-faced, I launched into an explanation of how the medieval castle had been converted by the Hapsburgs into a comfortable residence fit for the Emperor “and if you go through the arch and over to the Old Royal Palace, they have models of how it looked at different times in its history”.
It was too late. Our inquisitor stiffened suddenly, clearly not wanting to waste time on such ignorant dregs any more.
“My guide says burg, a burgthere must be.” This with religious conviction. “Well! I am sorry that you have not found it, I will find it myself! Good day!”. And with that, she was gone, disappearing into the gawping stream and leaving us slack-jawed and half-amused in her wake.
I found myself thinking of her again when I was up near the Castle recently. I’m sure that she’s still around, doomed to wander the streets of the medieval boroughs in an endless, hopeless quest dictated by a soul-deep certainty in herself and the correctness of What Is Written.
Stumbling home in the alcohol-softened pre-dawn, or late at night when the streets are quieter, perhaps you too will catch her on the edge of hearing:
“I want to see the burg. Where it is, please? I must see it before I leave…”