A Trip to PRAGUE

April 1999
Prague has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe these days, many of our friends were coming back raving about how beautiful it is, how cheap, how cultural, all that stuff. So we took a tour with one of those Copenhagen travel agencies that specialize in the newly opened Eastern European countries, bus tour & hotel package deal for a good cheap price, and now it's our turn to rave about what a nice town it is.

To get there we took an all-day-long bus ride from Copenhagen, passing around Berlin and through ex-DDR Germany and downtown Dresden, where we could really see the dreary aftereffects 50 years of communism. It was 10:00 at night when we got to Prague, to a "boat-hotel" on the Vltava River, about 3 km south of the city center. We had a fair sized 2-bed room with own bathroom, clock radio & tv, there was a resturant where we ate free breakfasts every day--pretty luxurious for a couple of old hippy campers like us.

Anyway, you should SEE that city--it's old, and has been under 50 years of communism just like Dresden, but doesn't look like it. It's obviously been cherished and fixed and reconstructed and polished, and then gracefully painted with gold trim all along the edges. I'm not kidding, gold trim everywhere. Prague is a BIG city--1.5 million people--and the downtown area(s) are full of fantastic old buildings of every conceivable architectural era, baroque, renaissance, art nouveau, modern, classicism, neo classical...etc. And the building blocks are hollow, so that there are passageways into and through them, with shops, resturants, whatever, like a Mall in every block--so if you want to see them all...well, you simply can't, there's too much, too many.

There was also "culture" everywhere: we were constantly handed leaflets announcing today's classical concerts here or there in town, so we went to one when it was raining. Two pretty young women performing Mozart Bach etc on piano & flute, flawlessly, ostensibly trained in some music conservatory where the old Soviet disciplines were maybe good for something. We observed that the concerts were mostly due to the efforts of young people, those who handed out leaflets would then go inside and perform the concerts themselves, their own little cottage industry. But since it costs about $5 US per show, no one can afford to see them all, so the concerts are only about half full--they're not really raking in huge profits.

Classical music was everywhere, lots of record stores with loudspeakers playing outside: we heard some nice music, went into the shop and asked what it was, they said this one, it cost 1/3 the Danish price, so we'd buy it. Books, even in english, were less than half the price in Denmark, so I bought a bunch of them too: big pretty art books for the coffee table, best-sellers, children's books. Also for Marianne's work in the kindergarten; a video of "little Czech mole" cartoons, wooden toys, a Pinnochio puppet, there was just so much and all so cheap, we went a little mad.

There are also resturants and bars everywhere, so many that it's amazing they can all survive, but they seem to do just fine. And they were all cheap and good: we ate great meals in the most amazingly elegant places for what would be about $3 each, complete with liter 12% beers. Czech food is a lot like German food--Wiener Schnitzels, gulasches, wursts, lots of potatoes, strudels for desert. And then there's every other kind of resturants: Pizzarias, Chinese, Indonesian... and uncountably many McDonald's and KFCs (which we avoided only because they were too familiar--they were otherwise really cheap). There's even a "Planet Hollywood" downtown (which Copenhagen doesn't have yet).

But you can only sit and eat and drink so much, no matter how cheap or good it is, and then you're out on your feet again. We were there 7 days, and almost walked ourselves to death. That's what you do in big cities, same in Paris or Rome or wherever. We bought 7-day passes for the public transport system (cost $1 per day), which was great for the long distance stuff, but you still want to see everything close up and end up on foot in the streets, shops, museums, castles, churches, parks, up & down hills...I'm wearing out just thinking about it.

I'd never been to Prague before, and had not much concept of Czech culture or history (uh...Kafka was Czech...right?). Marianne had been there in 1974, while they were still Communist and under the Russian thumb. Back then she thought the city was beautiful, but was uncomfortable about how jealous the people were of her clothes and her freedom, how waiters in resturants wouldn't serve them sometimes, how obvious the repression of the Czech people was.

But now it's been 10 years since all that has changed. And you can really see that the Czechs are basically happy now-- full of creative energy, direction, purpose. A people reborn to the modern world, and inspired by it, hungry for it (see?--Coca Cola & McDonald's everywhere). Also very attractive people, lots of handsome men and (oh boy!) beautiful women. We never once saw those unfriendly or jealous looks Marianne had experienced the first time she'd been there.

Of course there is also a down side to the scene, it's not all goodness and prosperity for everyone: when we drove into the Czech Republic, over the mountain pass at the Dresden border, we were shocked by all the young prostitutes standing beside the road. Shocked at the sheer numbers of them; a group of 10, another of 6, another 10, 5 more, then 12, on and on for 50 kilometers down from the mountains toward Prague, standing beside the road in dirt parking places where the cargo trucks could stop. Also shocked by their extreme youth, some of them had to be in their earliest teens. All wearing mini-skirts, showing lots of cleavage and skin, all holding themselves and shivering in the cold mountain air. There were so many that one had to wonder: is every girl in the country a hooker?

However, we never saw them in Prague--I'm sure they're there, but it's much more discreet in town, and we never noticed any more prostitutes. The young girls we did see close up or meet in town were those involved with classical concerts or tourist trade, and they were all so pretty and educated and generally appealing that one had to wonder: are all those prostitutes as nice as these girls?

There were also a lot of old people begging or peddling junk on the streets--they've been the real losers in the change from their stable and secure Communist system; after a lifetime of working for The State they've ended up with nothing except the rug pulled out from under their feet. And those few who do have jobs can be seen in the museums and public buildings, where things are still run with a soviet flair--stiff, ponderous, overcontrolled institutions. In the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, (a horrible white block of Russian architecture with huge empty rooms and no windows) these old people sat upon tiny stools everywhere, jumping to their feet when we entered, to check our tickets again and again, on every floor, in every room of the Museum. One of them smiled a little, but most of them looked frightened that we might try to steal a painting, and none of them spoke anything but Czech.

We were warned that there's a lot of crime in Prage, pickpockets, thieves, taxi swindels. But we never met any of it. One of our tour guides practically tried to scare us away from the central train station, but we had no trouble there either. However we did talk to a young man who'd been robbed in the Youth Hostel, so it does happen.

But most of the Czechs we actually talked with were quite nice and seemed pretty well educated, spoke either English or German, so it was easy enought to negotiate. Good thing too, because that Czech language is impossible --we'd learned a few Czech words, so we could ask for directions on the street (usually ending up showing them pictures in our guide book and grunting, usually quite amusing), but couldn't dent the pronounciation or the grammar. The number 5, for instance, our hotel room number, was written as "p e t" in my phrase book...I tried to ask for our room key every day for a week, and they NEVER understood my pronounciation of it. ("pait?" "bey-eat?" "be-it?")

I'd read the historical details in our guide book on the drive down, so by the time I got there I knew that all the stuff happening in Jugoslavia is just a continuation of the same old story in the Balkan states, but the Czechs have broken that pattern. Not only have they dismissed their Communist leaders, but as Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, civilizedly avoiding exactly the kind of mess Kosovo is in today. So it would seem that Prague is the success story of the emerging Eastern lands.

A side trip out to another town 75 km away, Kutna Hora, was to be a break from the exertions of being in the big city, but we started out the wrong way from the train station and it became another walking marathon. Still, we got to see some of the small town life, which was nice.

A funny thing is that none of it seemed very "foreign" to me-- ok, I'm used to living in Europe, and it resembled Germany a lot, which I hardly consider foreign any more. The place is, after all, sandwiched between Germany and Austria. But France, Spain, Greece, etc, all seem to be on really different wavelengths to me, and the Czech world didn't, except for the hopeless language. They seemed to be like "us"... whoever that is. Czech films are also popular, usually winning "Golden Globe Awards" or the like, because they seem so universally relevant. And yet this is a place I had NO concept of before I went there (do you?), as alien as Afghanistan, or Transylvania of course, 'sposta be weird. But I could easily imagine living in Prague, working there, having friends, blending in.

But I've done that in Copenhagen instead, and actually, after a week of walking around it was nice to come home and relaxing to go back to work. I guess that's why we take vacations.