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Walking Tour 4: Josefov (Jewish Quarter)

Start: Lesser Square (Malé námestí).

Finish: Restaurant Les Moules.

Time: Allow approximately 2 hours, not including rest stops or museum visits.

Best Times: Sunday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, when the cemetery and sights are open.

Worst Time: Saturday, the Sabbath, and Jewish holidays when everything is closed.

Josefov, Prague's former Jewish ghetto, lies within Staré Mesto. The wall that once surrounded the ghetto was almost entirely destroyed to make way for 19th-century structures. Prague was always considered one of Europe's great Jewish cities: Jews have been here since the end of the 10th century, and Prague traditionally was considered one of the centers of Jewish scholarship and learning.

Today, Prague's Jewish community numbers less than 3,000, and while few Jews live here these days, this is still the community's spiritual heart. Note that to enter most of the sites here, you'll need to buy a combined entry ticket (ticket windows and cashiers are located at points throughout the former ghetto). Admission to the Old-New Synagogue is not included and requires a separate (and expensive) ticket.

This tour may seem short, but the sights are highly detailed and provide much to ponder, so budget your time loosely. Start at:

1. Lesser Square (Malé namestí)

This square is adjacent to Staromestské námestí. Though it can't boast as much history as its larger companion, excavations have proven that Malé námestí was a prime piece of real estate as far back as the 12th century. Archaeologists turned up bits of pottery, evidence of medieval pathways, and human bones from the late 1100s, when developers committed the medieval equivalent of paving over a cemetery to build a shopping mall. Today the square is home to Prague's branch of the Hard Rock Café chain, which only slightly diminishes the impact.

From Malé námestí, walk north along the square to find U radnice. One block ahead, in the courtyard across from the Magistrate Building and tucked against St. Nicholas Church, you'll see:

2. Franz Kafka's House

This building, on the site where the famous author was born, now houses a small gallery and shop to re-create the history of his life. But the best way to get a look Kafka's life is by visiting the Kafka Museum in Hergetova Cihelna.

An unflattering cast-iron bust of Kafka, unveiled in 1965, sits just at the corner of Maiselova and U radnice. Walk straight ahead onto:

3. Maiselova Street

This is one of the two main streets of the walled Jewish quarter, founded in 1254. As elsewhere in Europe, Prague's Jews were forced into ghettos. By the 16th century, Prague's 10,000 isolated Jews comprised 10% of the city's population.

The ban on Jews living outside the ghetto was lifted only in 1848. Eighty percent of the ghetto's Jews moved to other parts of the city, and living conditions on this street and those surrounding it seriously deteriorated. The authorities responded by razing the entire neighborhood, including numerous medieval houses and synagogues. The majority of the buildings here now date from the end of the 19th century; several on this street sport stunning Art Nouveau facades.

About halfway down the street, on your right, is the:

4. Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova synagóga)

This neo-Gothic temple is built on a plot of land donated by Mordechai Maisel, a wealthy inhabitant of Prague's old Jewish quarter. The original synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1689 but was rebuilt. During the Nazi occupation of Prague, it was used to store furniture seized from the homes of deported Jews. Today, the building holds no religious services; it's home to the Jewish Museum's collection of silver ceremonial objects, books, and Torah covers confiscated from Bohemian synagogues by the Nazis during World War II. There's also a small but good gift shop.

Continue walking down Maiselova and turn left onto Siroká to find the entrance to the Pinkas Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery on the left side:

5. Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova synagóga)

This is Prague's second-oldest Jewish house of worship. After World War II, the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue were painted with the names of more than 77,000 Czech Jews who perished in Nazi concentration camps. The Communist government subsequently erased the names, saying that the memorial was suffering from "moisture due to flooding." After the revolution, funds were raised to restore and maintain the commemoration. Here too is another gripping reminder of the horrors of World War II. Displayed are the sketches by children who were held at the Terezín concentration camp west of Prague. These drawings, which are simple, honest, and painful in their playful innocence, are of the horrific world where parents and other relatives were packed up and sent to die.

Next to the Pinkas Synagogue you'll find the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery. If you're not up for paying the (admittedly) steep combined entry fee to see the cemetery and the other sites, you can still sneak a peak at the Jewish cemetery through a small window off the street. To find the window, follow Siroká street to ul. 17 listopadu, turn right and walk about 10m (30 ft.) beyond the entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts (ul. 17 listopadu 2). There you'll find a small opening in the fence on the right side.

6. Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý zidovský hrbitov)

This is Europe's oldest Jewish burial ground, where the oldest grave dates from 1439. Because the local government of the time didn't allow Jews to bury their dead elsewhere, as many as 12 bodies were placed vertically, with each new tombstone placed in front of the last. Hence, the crowded little cemetery contains tens of thousands of graves.

Like other Jewish cemeteries around the world, many of the tombstones have small rocks and stones placed on them -- a tradition said to date from the days when Jews were wandering in the desert. Passersby, it's believed, would add rocks to gravesites so as not to lose the deceased to the shifting sands. Along with stones, visitors often leave small notes of prayer in the cracks between tombstones.

Buried here is Rabbi Löw, who made from the mud of the Vltava River the legendary Golem, a clay "monster" to protect Prague's Jews. Golem was a one-eyed or three-eyed monster, depending on how you look at him. Legend has it that the rabbi would keep Golem around to protect the residents from the danger of mean-spirited Catholics outside the walls of the Jewish ghetto.

Löw's grave, in the most remote corner opposite the Ceremonial Hall, is one of the most popular in the cemetery; you'll see that well-wishers and the devout cram his tombstone with notes. Across the path from the rabbi is the grave of Mordechai Maisel, the 16th-century mayor of Josefov whose name was given to the nearby synagogue built during his term in office.

As you exit the cemetery on the left you'll pass the:

7. Ceremonial Hall

Inside the hall, rites for the dead were once held. Today it holds a part of the museum's permanent collection of Jewish customs and traditions, mostly relating to sickness and death.

Follow the street U Starého hrbitova back to Maiselova Street. Make a short right to find the Jewish Community Center at no. 18.

8. Jewish Community Center

This is an information and cultural center for local members of the Jewish community and their invited guests. It once was the Jewish Town Hall. Activities of interest to the community are posted here.

On the Community Center wall facing the Old-New Synagogue is a clock with a Hebrew-inscribed face. It turns left, counter to what's considered "clockwise."

Continue walking 1 block along Maiselova to find the small alley called Cervená. You're now standing between two synagogues. On the right is the High Synagogue (Vysoká synagóga), closed to visitors. On your left is the:

9. Old-New Synagogue (Staronová synagóga)

Originally called the New Synagogue to distinguish it from an even older one that no longer exists, the Old-New Synagogue, built around 1270, is the oldest Jewish temple in Europe. The building has been prayed in continuously for more than 700 years, except from 1941 to 1945, during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The synagogue is also one of the largest Gothic buildings in Prague, built with vaulted ceilings and fitted with Renaissance-era columns.

Until a 19th-century planning effort raised the entire area about 3m (10 ft.), much of Josefov and Staré Mesto used to be flooded regularly by the Vltava. The Old-New Synagogue, however, has preserved its original floor, which you reach by going down a short set of stairs.

You can attend services here. Men and women customarily sit separately during services, though that's not always rigorously enforced.

At the end of Maiselova are a couple of decent refreshment options where you can have a meal and ponder the day:

Winding Down -- Les Moules, at Parízská 19, is a fairly authentic Belgian tavern tossed down amid one of the fanciest parts of the Czech capital. There's good beer, mussels (of course), and a nice assortment of French-inspired hot and cold dishes. Mains run from 300Kc to 500Kc, but the daily lunch special offers better value. Around the corner, at Brechova 8, you'll find Shelanu, a small kosher deli (if you're more in the mood to keep the Jewish theme going). It's not exactly a deli in the New York sense, but has a refreshing mix of salads and sandwiches as well as pies and blintzes. Sandwiches run about 200Kc each. Open Sunday to Thursday 9am to 10pm, with shorter hours on Fridays and closed Saturdays. The casual atmosphere is better suited to a lunch or snack than an evening out.

Following Parízská will lead you back to Staromestské námestí.

 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.