PRAGUE, Czech Republic
Dresden is a good place from which to explore eastern Germany and Eastern Europe. A major railroad center, it's a short train ride from Berlin and Leipzig in Germany and Prague in the Czech Republic.
I had a free day and decided to take a whirlwind trip to Prague, two and a half hours by train from Dresden. The railroad tracks follow the Elbe and Vltava rivers most of the way, passing through bucolic green countryside. You can see how the 19th century romantic German and Czech composers got their inspiration from this lush landscape.
For five hours (I know, I know, a ridiculously short visit, but better to have seen Prague briefly than not at all), I walked the narrow cobblestone streets. Prague is one of the few European cities not devastated by bombing in World War II, so you get an idea of what the old world was like.
Franz Kafka's birthplace — only the portal of the original building remains — was my first destination, a 30-minute stroll from the main train station, taking me through Wenceslas Square and its flowery promenade. The Franz Kafka Exposition is a somewhat shabby room whose walls are hung with art, photographs and text (in English) on the writer's life and work.
The spirit of The Trial and The Castle lives on in Prague. Kafka's novels are steeped in existential angst, and it isn't hard to imagine where he was coming from in his depiction of life under an all-powerful bureaucracy. Everywhere you walk in the Stare Mesto (Old Town), the Prague Castle is an inescapable, monolithic presence, looming over the city from the west bank of the Vltava.
Prague is a great city for music, especially that of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. On the square in front of the Rudolfinum, the Czech Philharmonic's hall on the river, there is a bronze statue of Dvorak. A production of his opera Rusalka opens the 2009-10 season at the Narodni divaldo (National Theater).
The highlight of my tour was the extraordinary Museum Kampa, a collection of contemporary art in a converted mill on an island in the river. I dropped in to see an exhibit of paintings, drawings and graphic works by the German artist Max Beckmann and ended up spending much of the day there. Opened in 2003, the museum was founded by Jan and Meda Mladek, a Czech-American couple who collected the work of Central European artists who were persecuted, exiled or forced underground during the communist era.
The Czech abstract painter Frantisek Kupka is represented by more than 200 pieces. There is a large sculpture of a chair by Magdalena Jetelova outside the museum. At the top of Museum Kampa — a vigorous climb up seven flights of stairs — is a cubist steel and glass platform that provides spectacular views of the river and the skyline.
Prague is very inexpensive. Just up the block from Narodni divaldo I had a tasty lunch of fish, soup, ice cream and coffee at a local institution, the 93-year-old delicatessen Jan Paukert, for about $5.
John Fleming, Times performing arts critic