A tale of three cities, Berlin, Prague, and Paris are somehow linked by their relationships to the past, the intellectuals and writers that are integral to the fabric of each city, and how each is evolving while retaining the essence that bred these thinkers to begin with.
Arriving at Berlin’s Tegel Airport never really prepares you for what the city has to offer. It is a mixture of old and new, but it’s really the new that is striking. Divided between East and West following World War II, the east entered a Soviet sphere devoid of the joys (and woes) of capitalist “freedom”. Upon the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a whole new world opened up: Berlin became, as it once was before the war, a breeding ground of intellectuals—a convergence point of creativity.
Berlin Tegel Airport at night
There are countless stories of the Berlin underground, of intellectuals gathering in the city and shaping what it was: a literary city that drew adventurous and exiled writers. Mark Twain, the 19th century American author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, spent six months in Berlin with his family and called it the “newest city I have ever seen.” Franz Kafka was in Berlin for a few months, where he tragically contracted TB and died in 1924.
Following W.H. Auden to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood penned Goodbye to Berlin, which formed the basis of Cabaret, the musical, and recounted the years between the Great War and Hitler’s rise to power. Around the same time, Vladimir Nabokov, who lived most of his life in some kind of exile, spent 15 years in Berlin. What is it about the city that attracts such literary minds?
Walking along the grand boulevard of Unter den Linden just past Museum Island, followed by a late morning coffee at Café Einstein, gives one an idea of what brought these people to Berlin. There is something in the air. Its layers of history, some rather dramatic and tragic, bring about hope, open-mindedness, and ease: there is a sense of community. Then imagine that than less than 30 years ago the streets of Mitte were lined with buildings in drab, derelict, Communist grey. Today, Mitte is vibrant and gentrified.
Cafe Einstein Unter den Linden
And then there are the new areas of town: Kreuzberg with its vibrant gay community and beautiful buildings—warehouses, schools, workshops, and printers that were once considered out of the way—and the up-and-coming Neukoln with its cafes and shops. Speaking with a Berliner or an expat living there, you will find that they are interested in stories, even your own: how you got to Berlin or what you are doing.
A football field in Auguststraße in Mitte
Staying at the historic Hotel de Rome next to the gorgeous Gendermarkett, you wonder what it was like when it was an old bank in East Berlin. Today the city is so integrated, though at times you do get a whiff of how one part might have been the West and one the East.
Lobby of the Hotel de Rome
Staying at The Dude on the east part of Mitte, a stone’s throw away from Checkpoint Charlie, offers another vibe altogether: here you are near to St. Agnes, a Brutalist chapel that now houses art galleries and the 032c workshop—also not a far walk from Kreuzberg. This is a contrast to the wide, tree-lined boulevards of what was once the West.
St. Agnes, light installation by Wolfgang Tillmans
Imagine, not too long ago, David Bowie played a concert on the west side of Checkpoint Charlie with speakers pointing the other way, towards the East. Bowie followed Lou Reed to Berlin—both have Berlin albums. Berlin has a certain magic and a community: the more you look, the more you read, the more you understand why Berlin was fought over.
On the edge of what was the Eastern Bloc, Berlin is but a mere four hours train ride from Prague. When one thinks of Prague, an image of Bohemia instantly comes to mind: medieval castles, a rich and glorious past of royalty, and intellectuals and artists with a not-too-distant history of revolution and violence. Prague is also the hometown of Franz Kafka. Whilst he was alive, his ideas were too radical, especially as he was a Czech Jew who fled during the Nazi reign.
View from train en route to Prague
During the time of Communist rule over Czechoslovakia, the regime was uneasy with his depiction of life: the nihilism, being a cog in a great big machine, being controlled by a force beyond one’s own facilities, a big brother who would eventually destroy. The Soviet Regime saw him as a threat; since 1992, however, when the Czech Republic severed its Soviet ties, Kafka became Prague’s prodigal son and today the spirit of Kafka is everywhere: every step you take in the Old Town or across the river in Mala Strana, you come across a previous residence of the writer (he moved often).
Apart from Kafka, what is so interesting about Prague is how this gorgeous gem of Bohemia retains its old-ness, a Bohemian glory. Despite the wars, despite the Communists, it has emerged as “the Paris of the East”. It is extremely beautiful and every cobblestone street retains a past glory. You look up and see the see the angels and gargoyles of the city.
Kafka Cafe, Prague Old Town
Kafka Head by David Cerny in Prague New Town
Prague, the capital city, is also the centerpiece of the great kingdom of Bohemia, distinguished by the Gothic architecture of the Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square, and Prague Castle. The river runs through it all, and even whilst dodging trams as you walk along its cobblestone lanes, you feel its history. It reverberates in all that you do.
Sunset over the River in Prague
Exploring Old Town Prague helps you understand how this town inspired Franz Kafka, how, with its layers of history, it could even have been repressive at times, steeped in tradition but also inspiring one to break away and form new thoughts and theories. From the Hotel Josef, which is in the center of the Old Town (not in the tourist square but a pleasant stone’s throw from it), you are at one with the spirit of Prague, of Kafka, of Dvorak, and of all the other Bohemians of the past.
Facade of the Hotel Josef
Interestingly, the Hotel Josef shows that the modern and contemporary form can co-exist with the old—and it does so perfectly. There you are in the middle of Old Prague, yet it is only a short walk to New Prague, and you can truly see how this young, modern city is still a reflection of the old grande dame that she once was.
The new face of Prague still has in its bones the essence and spirit of Bohemia. It still has the romance. Even though New Prague has new buildings and the business center, you can look up and be reminded of Bohemia, and you also meet Kafka again, but this time in the form of a futuristic spinning “Head of Franz Kafka”, courtesy of celebrated (yet controversial) David Cerny. It captures the state of perpetual metamorphosis; as it spins and comes apart and then spins to come together it is a contemplation on our lives and the dance between disorder and order.
To think that this city endured so much: a totalitarian regime that led to the Prague Spring, when intellectuals and students sacrificed themselves or were brutally massacred by the Red Army. It has always been a place of beauty, despite its tragedy, and today we see its modern face, not without the stains of history yet moving on.
If Prague is only four hours from Berlin and their connection is clear, the Paris of the East is only an hour’s flight from the City of Light. Via journey by land (a 13 hour bus ride), you get an idea of how Milan Kundera, who renounced his home country and city of Prague for Paris shortly after the Communist revolution in 1969, would have travelled.
If Prague is darkness and light, forming beautiful accentuated shadows, then Paris is fully illuminated. The Sun King, Louis XIV, was not wrong to recognize that it is light that defines Paris; it is beauty realized, despite the tragedies it has endured. The recent news that Macron is its leader brings such relief, and perhaps a new vision can come to define Paris of the future: one that celebrates the past but has a vision for tomorrow.
Sitting at the Café de Flore, you can close your eyes and practically see Albert Camus having a discussion with Jean Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir snacking on boiled eggs and sipping on café. And yet, while Paris is the point of convergence of the writers of the past, today it continues to attract artists and intellectuals from all over the world—its cultural programmes facilitate this. Paris (and France) offers aid to artists whose strong opinions and visions are too bold for their own countries: they find an ally in France. Even Kundera continues to live in Paris.
Cafe de Flore
There is simply nothing like sitting at the Flore, watching the Boulevard St. Germain go by, or being nestled inside, having a never-ending discussion about everything and nothing. From the Hotel de Bel Ami on Rue St. Benoit (the name itself a nod and a wink to Maupassant) you are literally sleeping next to the literary haunts of the past.
Nighttime view of the Rue St. Benoit from the Hotel Bel Ami
Stepping outside the hotel door, you will walk down the same lane to get to the Flore or the celebrated La Hune as those writers did—though the bookstore is no longer in its original spot (it is now Louis Vuitton), it is still only a block away. In Paris you can feel the history, you can read it, and you can see how reason and the ideas of Enlightenment began in these two cafes, the Flore and the Deux Magots.
These spirits of the past, immortalized with the pen, continue to inform us; indeed, Paris influences us to this day. In Paris, we think of love and passion which, when combined with reason and intellect, create a complete package. To come to an understanding that we exist, that time passes, that we occasionally act irrationally and are sometimes overcome by passion, anger, or a sense of serenity, that we are human. Paris reminds us of that humanity. Looking at Rue St. Benoit from the window of the highest floor of the Bel Ami, we are reminded that those figures who shaped our collective knowledge once walked down that lane to the Flore as they contemplated their next novels.
When you consider these three cities together, you begin to understand how connected we are through our thoughts and wonder whether really there is a universal knowledge, a collective consciousness. Whether that exists, what is evident is how great tales and great ideas stand the test of time. With the pen and through the story we learn to share in this mutual knowledge. These three cities express a beauty and love of the word. Even at times when the pen was repressed, it prevailed, and being in these cities breathes life to those tales, those stories, and those philosophies written on the pages of history, making us want to share them again and again.
A list of recommended books from a Tale of 3 Cities: