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august 3, 2004 -> the praguematic view: czech republic

Prague represents the best and worst of European tourism.  The city is unimaginably beautiful.  Long the base of the Czech kings (and for 30 years, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire), and a major city during the 300-year reign of the Hapsburg Empire, the city's wealth of stunning buildings was amazingly untouched during the two World Wars.  To sit on the banks of the Vltava River and gaze up towards the castle is to enjoy one of Europe's most captivating vistas.  The massive town square – bracketed by the Old Town Hall, with its elaborate astronomical clock, and the double spires of the Tyn Cathedral – is, without question, the most dramatic I have seen in Europe.  There is ample history, literature, and art to sate even the pickiest “culture vultures.”  Unlike most of Europe, there are a variety of musical performances every day – even during the summer months, when many orchestras and symphonies go touring.  The tourist information offices dispense helpful advice and sell tickets to all the performances. 

You cannot discuss Prague without mentioning Frank Kafka, who lived most of his 41 years in Prague, and once wrote that “Prague doesn't let go.  This little mother has claws.”  I think that Franz Kafka would have a good chuckle if he could see Prague now.  Walking tours that promise to show tourists “Kafka's Prague” are quite popular.  The master of the absurd would no doubt marvel at the thousands of tourists - who visit the places he lived and worked, and the pubs he used to frequent – many having never read any of his novels.  Before visiting Prague, one should read Kafka's “The Castle,” or “The Trial,” or at least watch “Kafka,” the incredible movie starring Jeremy Irons.  However, the Czech Republic's literary heritage does not stop at Kafka.  There is Milan Kundera, who wrote “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”; Bohumil Hrabal's “I Served the King of England”; Jaroslav Hasek's “Good Solider Svejk”; and Joseph Skvorecky's “The Cowards,” to name a few.  Even the Czech Republic's first President, Vaclav Havel, was once a playwright.

On the downside, Prague is also unimaginably crowded.  Virtually all visitors to the Czech Republic will visit Prague; many will only visit Prague.  Last year, about 6 million people visited the Czech Republic.  That means that, on average, there were 16,440 tourists in Prague every day (including winter.)  If you made the further assumption that 70% of all tourists visited during the three summer months, there would have been 46,670 tourists in Prague every day during June, July and August.  That may not seem like such a large number until you consider that most of those people will be in the Old Town.  The Old Town area is about 8.5 square kilometers (excluding the river), for a tourist density per square kilometer of 5,490, or 182 square meters for each tourist (if that seems like a fair amount of space, consider that most of the 8.5 square kilometers is covered by buildings, not open spaces.) I'm sure that the numbers aren't perfect, but the point is clear: it gets pretty hectic on the main streets and town square in summer. 

The notion of Eastern Europe has more to do with the tide mark of Soviet influence than geography.  The Czech Republic is always included in Eastern Europe guidebooks, and yet its capital, Prague, is 150 kilometers west of Austria's capital, Vienna!  While Czechs must privately deplore being grouped with countries like Bosnia and Belarus, it is a coup for tourism.  Though Prague is now very much on the European “tourist trail,” the lingering traces of communism still give the Czech Republic a certain exoticism.  Playing on this odd nostalgia, there are Soviet Sculpture parks, CCCP T-shirts, and Russian nested dolls for sale in most souvenir shops. 

I first visited Prague in 1995.  It was beautiful, romantic, and cheap, and there is nothing sweeter to a young man than cheap romance.  I remember leaning on the Charles Bridge parapet, flanked by its famous statues, looking up at the castle and wishing that I had a woman to share the experience with.  When we started dating, I forbade Nori to visit Prague without me.  Now, there is little room for romance on the Charles Bridge.  Look closely at the hairstyles of the few tourists seen in the blissfully empty photos of the bridge displayed in all the tourist brochures – those photos were taken in the ‘70s! Morning, noon, and night, an endless flux of tourists surge past street musicians and portrait sellers, bumping into each other, and ruining each other's photographs.  I laughed as I watched couples vainly try to salvage a romantic moment amidst the crowds.  It was impossible, unless you shut your eyes and plugged your ears, in which case you might as well be somewhere else.  The beer is still cheap (and excellent), but accommodation is not: a tiny double room with a shared bathroom will run about sixty to seventy Euros. 

Tourists demand certain things and Prague has bent rather low to indulge them.  Souvenir shops peddle T-shirts that might be appropriate during college Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale or Tijuana, but seem horribly crass in classy old Prague.  There are McDonald's restaurants and low-quality gyros stands everywhere.  At night, a battalion of black Africans materialize to hand out flyers for strip clubs.  Just before cruising below the castle and the Charles Bridge, tourists will pass the neon lights of the sprawling Spearmint Rhino gentlemen's club.  Prague is also an excellent place to see naked British males, if that is what you are into.  Despite growing competition from Tallinn, Estonia, Prague is still the place for British bachelor parties.  Almost every night you will have the opportunity to witness drunken Brits run around the square with their trousers off.  (Can someone please explain to me the British predilection for public nakedness?)  Forget about having a quiet, romantic dinner on the square.  You may well end up sitting next to a groom-to-be in a “gimp” costume, being fed food and drink through a straw. 

So how can an agoraphobic tourist enjoy Prague?  I offer a few suggestions. 

  • Adjust your attitude and schedule – unless it is freezing cold, you will not have Prague to yourself.  Plan to hit the popular sights early or late, and enjoy a wander through the less visited areas when the crowds are stuffing into the town square
  • Get off the main streets – there are beautiful buildings everywhere in Old Prague, and the restaurants and cafes just a few blocks from the square or back from the river are much cheaper and less crowded.
  • Spend a day reading “The Trial” or “The Castle” – stake out a table in a café where you can glance up to people-watch.  Start with a cappuccino every few hours, and switch to Staropramen beer after lunch.  You will reach the book's surrealist conclusion in an appropriate state.
  • Get to the castle EARLY – after ten o'clock things get crazy.  Do not miss the views from the giddy heights of St. Vitus' Cathedral.  On the way down, keep telling people coming up that they are almost there – it really annoys them.
  • Try goulash – the ‘dumplings' can be a bit disappointing (as there is nothing inside of them) but the dish is flavorful, filling, and often quite cheap.  Then go run a few miles.