Thursday, 20 December 2007
One of the benefits of living on Airstrip One is that it's an, um, airstrip. Jet planes are leaving constantly from every corner of the country for exotic European destinations. We're determined to take advantage of that. And so on Saturday the Kellys winged it to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. I was going to bring my laptop and blog from there, but the hotel didn't have wi-fi and in any case I didn't feel like lugging the MacBook around.
There are no doubt warmer places we could have gone--trading Oxford in December for Prague in December doesn't really make sense--but what a wonderful city. And kitted out for Christmas--every square bristling with red-roofed stands selling souvenirs, sausages, pastries, beer and mulled wine--made it magical.
I've never seen so many buildings designed by show-offs. Not just castles and cathedrals, but apartment buildings and office buildings, too, have an attention to detail and to decoration that I've never seen anywhere else. Many date from the Art Nouveau period, though some are centuries older. The typical Prague building is coated with a brightly painted plaster and topped by a roof line that looks like it was cut with a scroll saw or designed by a milliner. Caryatids hold up entranceways and balconies. Sculptures are set into niches or crown facades, gazing down at the cobbled squares below. Every building says "look at me," but in an elegant, middle European accent.
We spent four nights in Prague, in the Old Town, not far from the Old Town Square. It's funny how, thanks to the Web, you can almost be sick of a place before even going there. I scoured a lot of Web sites, including TripAdvisor, to get recommendations on where to stay. After a while it seemed like I'd already been to Prague. Hadn't I had a bad meal at an Italian restaurant in New Town, then been charged double what was on the menu? Wasn't I cast into the streets after the hotelier claimed he had no record of my reservation? Didn't a swarm of Gypsies rob me while I rode the subway? Hadn't I had to fight my way through Wenceslas Square, fending off the drug-dealers, pimps and confidence artists?
Well, actually, no, none of those things happened, but spend any time at all online and it seems
as if they did. Yes, there were many more reports of wonderful Prague experiences but the ones that stick out are the disasters, especially when you're traveling to a destination that's new to you. One of the forums I was visiting had a post the day before we left that was headed "I WAS MUGGED IN PRAGUE!!!" The writer was almost gleeful: All his suspicions had been confirmed.
I pondered renting a bunch of DVDs and just spending the mid-winter break holed up in our underheated (boiler still on the fritz!) Oxford house. Of course I'm glad we didn't. Oxford is a lovely ancient city, but it doesn't offer many views like this one:
Or this one:
Or this one:
Our energy flagged at times, but I'm proud of how much we packed in. Our feet ached every night from days spent walking everywhere, taking in everything from Prague Castle to the Mucha Museum to the Jewish quarter. We saw a performance of "Turandot" at the State Opera and tried not to gloat in the Museum of Communism.
The Museum of Communism was one of the most interesting sights, flawed, yes, but fascinating. The trinkets in its gift shop are among the best art-directed in Prague, especially the postcards and posters that upend the heroic language and images of Soviet socialist realism. Perhaps they are even a bit too glib. One poster bore a smiling, flag-waving young Communist and the legend "It was a time of happy shiny people. The shiniest were in the uranium mines." Later that night we had dinner with a local couple, he Czech, she Slovak. Her father had been kicked out of university for his democratic beliefs and eventually forced to work in the uranium mines. He probably wouldn't have seen the joke.
To an American who remembers the Cold War these sorts of associations are never far from the surface in Prague. It was the enemy for so long. And yet experiencing the city--its ancient, twisting lanes, its gay and exuberant architecture, its tasty and life-affirming beer--it's hard not to see the five decades of Communist rule as a hiccup. I might feel differently if I'd been mugged by Gypsies, but somehow I doubt it.