Although I always look forward to returning to Prague, I also worry that one day I'll be horrified by how much things have changed and never want to return. I fell in love with Prague while backpacking around Europe in '94. I had arrived in the city, taken the metro to a hostel and walked through Malostrana to Karlovy Most (the Charles Bridge). I'd been enthralled by the view in front of me of roofs, old buildings and spires. Then I turned around and saw Malostrana and the Castle with the St. Vitus Cathedral all lit up behind me, like jewels crowning the hill and was stunned by the beauty of it all.
I'm glad to say that by night, the city is still as impressive as it was when I saw it before.
I remember Prague as an enchanted place where winding streets revealed a secret and legends became possible as we talked about Faust, alchemy and Golems. A lot of the secrets perhaps were just hip clubs, dive bars, or cafes. I have to admit now, that perhaps I was just as obnoxious as a lot of the 20-something foreigners I see (and hear), here now: drinking a lot, stumbling down the streets late at night or early in the morning. I barely knew any Czech people and (though I tried) I never learned more than a tiny bit of Czech. I hung out at expat cafes writing things that now live in a box at my parent's house. I drank absinthe and (to my dismay) fount it neither made me hallucinate nor helped me write decent poetry. (Note: I recently read a bit of news that analysis of unopened old bottles of absinthe revealed that the drink itself has no hallucinogenic properties, just a very high alcohol content. The hallucinations described by romantic poets and artists were nothing more than the hallucinations caused by chronic alcoholism.) I hope I've changed for the better.
Prague has changed too. It is still beautiful. The center is filled with beautiful buildings ranging from Medieval Gothic to Art Nouveau. The black stone towers and green copper roofed steeples rise like stalagmites from a skyline of red tile roofed 17th and 18th century buildings, tastefully painted in creams, oranges, beiges, and an occasional pale green to match the oxidized copper.
Closer looks reveal statues and ornamentation: strange stone animals, faces, Art Nouveau flourishes or neo-classical figures.
It still, on the surface, is a city of a fairy tale, but I can't help but wonder if prosperity has pulled the secrets out into the open or made them disappear to be replaced by the familiar trappings of a prosperous Western city. The Old Town boasts shining brand name boutiques: Dior, Tommy Hilfiger, Swarkovsky. The abandoned buildings and courtyards filled with crumbling stone houses have been cleaned up and remodeled and now house elegant restaurants and hotels. I think the fried cheese and hot dog stands in the center may have all been bought up and are now a chain.
But I guess I shouldn't complain. It means the people in the city are better off now, right? Or maybe they've fled from the center and the hoards of tourists. We haven't been able to find quirky cozy cafes like the ones I was able to find before. there are lots of chains now: including Starbucks. I have even started doubting my memories of wandering empty streets of the old town. Could there really have been empty streets in the Old Town?! I try to tell myself that now perhaps you have to search farther afield to find Prague's secrets. Or maybe what was strange for me 10-15 years ago is familiar now.
We crossed a bridge upriver from Karlovy Most and were able to see the light of the setting sun touch the buildings on the opposite shore.
The castle and cathedral still crown the hill and there are still plenty of cobblestone streets. The astronomical clock still strikes and its skeleton still pulls a bell and turns his hour glass while a procession of saints look down on the crowd below.
Classical music can be heard from the cathedrals and there are still lots of galleries in the Old Town. Prague is still very classy, though Vaclavsky Namesti is a bit of a fright (but it was full of garish clubs in '94, too).
I was happy, however, to see a bit of evidence that someone in Prague still has that quirky, dark sense of humor. We saw a sculpture of a man dangling off a pole from a roof in the Old Town.
There was also a rather bizarre moving statue of 2 figures peeing in a pool in the shape of the Czech Republic. This was located in Malostrana near a swanky restaurant, right by the Charles Bridge.
Today was a gray rainy day. We slept in, ran some errands and ended up in Malostrana. We dropped by the Wallenstein Gardens (part of the Czech Senate), an elegant garden with short trimmed hedges where peacocks strut and paths walled by climbing roses.
(I assume they were roses...since all the plants were dry and brown) There are rows of statues and a grotto wall as well as a covered area with paintings.
Later we climbed the hill (Petrin) and walked among blooming fruit trees whose white petals seemed to desperately try to herald spring through the grayness of the day. But almost seemed to evoke snow instead. Petrin evoked a feeling of peace I remembered having in Prague, with the city looking quiet and beautiful below.
We were looking for what I call my super secret Russian Orthodox church, but it began to drizzle which added to the quiet but got us pretty wet and forced us to head back to the crowded old town. (Towards the end of our stay in Prague, we found my super secret Russian orthodox church but it isn't super secret anymore (it also may not be Russian Orthodox...it just looks like it should be). A cobblestone path leads right by it. there is a graffiti covered wall next to it and a trash filled ruins of a house behind it. I'd swear there were more trees before. Now the church seems exposed... no longer a serene secret place. I walked next to the side and smelled the warm smell of old wood and it saddened me to see it there now, exposed and disrespected.
We chose another rainy morning to visit the castle and were dismayed to find it ridiculously crowded. We didn't feel like waiting in line in the rain to get into the St. Vitus cathedral. We did, however, get to see the gargoyles at work.
Another place in Prague that still maintains a peaceful ambiance is Vishehrad, the ruins of a fortress on a hill by the Vltava River and safely removed from the center. There are walls, a cathedral and a small church which had a cute door handle in the shape of a chicken.
Some friends recommended a pivnice (bar) which they insisted had the best Pilsner Urquell on tap. It also managed to maintain the true spirit of a Czech pivnice. Rowshan tried the beer which he said was good and I had my favorite Czech drink, Becherovka.
Before arriving in Prague, we had considered camping in Trojska (cheap and not too far from the city center). Instead we ended up following a persuasive grey-haired woman to her apartment in the center. To reach it, she led us through the Lucerna passage which has the memorable landmark of a rider on an upside down horse hanging from the ceiling.
We had wanted to get a room in an apartment to begin with but I wasn't sure if this was as common (unregulated, and easy) as it used to be. The price was very reasonable for the location (in the center of Prague) and as the rain started coming down, we were grateful we had met our hostess. Our one disappointment was that we weren't able to use her kitchen. Since the weather was so dreary and a little chilly, the ability to heat up water for tea (and soup) suddenly became vital. Rowshan had been pushing for an electric water heater since South America but we hadn't found one small enough. While doing some grocery shopping in the TESCO shopping center (formerly a K-MART), we found a cute little travel model which included two cups which fit inside and a fabric carrying bag. Back at the house, we made tea and instant noodle soup. Rowshan was ecstatic and called it a turning point in our travels. He announced that now that we have an electric water heater, we can travel forever.