Thursday, 20 December 2007

Making Prague-ress

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.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite memories was when I was attending college in Munich; we went to Prague on a long weekend. It was 1984 so the specter of the Soviet Union was still omnipresent. You could walk down the street and a passing stranger would say "change money?" as he walked by. If you stopped and obliged he would pull you off the beaten track and was quickly joined by two armed men. He’d pull out a wad of Czech Koruna which he would gladly exchange for your US dollars - 30 to 1. The bank would only give you 5-1 so it was great for us and they wanted American currency. We black-marketed our money and lived like kings for dollars a day. I even bought a huge communist flag from the propaganda shop which I still have today.

Welcome back.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

In the late 1960s and 1970s some of the young headed for Kathmandu in Nepal (Hippie Heaven). In the 1990s I encountered in the coffee-houses of Oxford young Americans who had just returned from Prague after a short or long stay or someone who was about to leave for that city. There seemed to be an air of excitement about the place. Aspiring writers who wished to live inexpensively in attractive surroundings seem to have sought it out.

Old Lady said...

My memory of Prague is a bus tour from Frankfurt in the 80s. The city was grey and grim. The cashier at the "folk meal" tourist restaurant was selling crystal plates under the counter, the cab driver wanted to change our money for us. People looked as poor and as unhappy as the city did. It is very refreshing to read your comments about its coming to life again.

suburbancorrespondent said...

I think you went there just so you could use that pun in the title of the post.

mary said...

Breath taking photos. I was a bit disapplinted, however, with the apparent lack of Christmas cheer, i.e. photos of Christmas decorations. I imagine it must have been spectacular.

Anonymous said...

I like that you can easily go to Prague in December for Christmas and New Year. The city, contrary to many places that are available to tourists only for the summer, does not stop living during the winter months. And with the great increase in the number of rooms available, there are now Prague hotels to be had at any time of the year - even at the last minute (although, as always, it is advisable to book in advance). A New Year’s Eve spent in Prague may be an unforgettable experience. Nothing remains but to check it out. Music clubs and theatres offering a repertoire open to all people without regard to their language differences are plentiful. Or if you prefer this could be replaced by a pleasant experience from, for example, a walk in one the most interesting European Zoos in Prague Troja. Try a ride on a Prague cruiser on the Vltava river or stretching your muscles on bicycle routes leading even through the historical centre. If you like sport, there are indoor swimming pools and hundreds of sports fields for myriads of sports from golf and tennis through to a bobsleigh run, skateboarding and in-line skating.

Anne said...

Everyone would agree that Prague is simply magnificent and magical every season. Well, it so happened I visited Prague in the summer, great weather, blue skies, sunshine and panoramic view of Prague is just breathtaking! In the heat of the summer you can relish a frosty glass of Czech beer in some little Prague pubs along the river or cocktails in cafes at the square. Stop at stone churches to cool off, listen to live jazz band at the famous Charles Bridge, stroll through the winding alleys of the Old Town Square, enjoy the panoramic view of Prague Castle from terraces of hilltops, enjoy, the world is yours!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting site. Last few month I'm thinking about invest in Prague property, because it is best time to do it. The Prague property market has and continues to see overwhelming demand from both foreign and local investors. And who wouldn't like to own a property in this fairytale city that pulls at your heart strings and attracts major foreign investors on the basis of economics.

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