St Nicholas’ Museum of Torture

Small disparate groups of us filed in haphazardly towards stark rows of neatly arranged church pews. There was a slow-moving old man with tightly closed eyes shepherded caringly by a gaggle of family members, followed by an odd assortment of tired-looking middle-aged couples attired uniformly in anoraks and synthetic-soled footwear. With fifteen minutes remaining before curtain up, the short, hard, wooden benches were mostly occupied.   The backdrop to this illusory casting call for Walking Dead extras is the impressive St Nicholas baroque church in Prague’s old town square. Tonight we are most fortunate to receive a concert of Handel, Beethoven, Mozart and Corelli, performed on the 4,000-pipe organ that Amadeus himself played a quarter century ago.

Certainly this form of entertainment is highly popular in Prague, with anything remotely resembling a church offering classical recitals to the post iron curtain bustling hordes. Church concerts and specialized museums are cultural fare in the heart of central Europe. Visitors can treat themselves to Czech beer and pretzels then onto the Museum of Czech Beer, Museum of Sex Machines, and the Museum of Communism.

Wife finds something that'll work in her den project.

Wife finds something that’ll work in her den project.

At two minutes before showtime a dreary itinerant-looking man appears and clunks the big church doors closed. Subsequent echoing clonks and clicks signify the employment of large medieval-like door locking mechanisms. Then, with slightly more ceremony, the drab gray drifter pulls a large crimson velvet curtain across the church’s double doors and switches off the main lights. The lights don’t dim like they do in the theater; they just click off like they do in the bathroom. Instantly and collectively, as though we were all just buckled into a Universal Studio theme ride, we recognize that we had reached the point of no return. We have committed.

Waiting for some sign from above our motley congregation sits in fidgety silence, save for the rustling of anoraks, staring ahead at the ornate church pulpit and the beige and pink fresco-adorned walls of the 18th century parish. As a child, my parents compelled me to go to church but it was never this significant or historic, and I would not have been thinking about Mozart as I sat there endlessly counting light fixtures while the Minister rambled on about the prodigal son.

Small number of light fixtures from my view point.

Small number of light fixtures from my view point.

Eventually we hear the lustrous and metallic fade in of a violin’s lower range as we understand we are being treated to one of Handel’s lesser-known Sonatas for violin and organ. But where is it coming from? A collection of uncoordinated anoraks swivel around searchingly. Aaaah, up on the next floor directly behind us, next to Mozart’s pipes.   So this is the experience: you sit there in your windbreaker looking ahead at the wall while two unseen guys, probably wearing jeans, ramble through obscure masterworks behind you for what seems like an eternity. For what it’s worth, the acoustics were good, but would likely be similar in an empty warehouse.

The back of the church where the musicians hide.

The back of the church where the musicians hide.

After thinking initially that I wished I were elsewhere I then started to wonder how I could palm this off as a windswept and interesting world-class experience, doing unto others as had been done unto me. But after another mysterious sonata and a fugue I realized my arse was getting numb on the 18th century hardwood bench. There were not many positions one could adopt on that cold hard lumber and I started to alternate between classic praying and sleeping on the train. My watch told me I had at least three quarters of an hour remaining, but luckily I remembered I had just downloaded onto to my iPhone 6 plus, Frederick Taylor’s latest book on the allied carpet bombing of Dresden. So I figured I was set for the next hour or so as long as I could maintain reasonable blood circulation in my lower body. My wife leaned over and whispered solemnly, “I wish I’d gone to the Museum of Torture. That would’ve been more fun.”