Prague: Still Hip, Still Beautiful

… just not the way you expect it.

Prague
Prague by day

Once upon a time, Prague was the hippest travel destination on the planet. It was the early 1990s, and the Eastern Bloc was reawakening. Kafka’s gorgeous city was coming to life, and any would-be Bohemian worth his salt was making his way there to be part of it. I recall my envy at hearing stories of young writers and artists renting leaky walk-up garrets on narrow, dim streets. I resolved that I, too, must make my way to the golden capital of the Czechs, live in poverty and write the next great Canadian novel/play/art film.

Long story short: it didn’t happen. Well, I got the poverty part right: I spent those years dabbling in experimental theatre at home, writing documentary films, and eating a great deal of Ichiban. They were good years, in retrospect. But I’ve always wondered how my life might have been if I had gone to Prague as a writer.

Dancing House by Gehry, Prague
Gehry’s fantastic Dancing House

This week, I had the opportunity to see what I had missed those many years ago. A week opened up in my itinerary, and my partner and I booked a train ticket south from Berlin. I didn’t have time to do a lot of advance research; my plan was simply to walk the city and see how it measured up to the images in my mind. Prague’s beauty is legendary; I have long been haunted by the stunning photos of the Charles Bridge in winter. My cynical side, though, knows how easy it is to make an average city look spectacular through photography; you just shoot its one beautiful block over and over again (I’m thinking of you, Old Montreal.)

My first impression: Wow. Prague really is that beautiful. It is perhaps the most well-preserved of Europe’s old cities. Narrow, meandering cobblestone streets, capped with fairy-tale-spired churches, extend as far as your legs will take you. Arched mason bridges stretch across the winding Vltava River, inviting you cross and walk upward, to the exquisite castle and cathedral that overlook it all. It is breathtaking; it is Disney-perfect; it is the quintessentially European scene.

astronomical clock detail
Detail of the Pražský orloj, Prague’s astronomical clock

And holy mother of god, it is crowded. Somehow this wasn’t what I pictured when I imagined myself holed away in a dark sidewalk cafe, notebook in hand, penning pithy notes about the trials of daily life in Central Europe.

But onward we walk, through the madding crowds. It is high season all over Europe, and the southerners have come north to escape the stifling heat at home. Spanish families swirl through the squares; great boisterous busloads of Italians crowd every sidewalk. (We overheard one woman complain that the morning temperatures were “fresquito para nosotros”—a little chilly for us—but I’m sure she was glad to escape the 40-degree days back in Madrid.)

crowd scene, Prague
Viewing the changing of the guard, with 3000 of my closest friends

The fabled Charles Bridge is utterly packed. Street vendors peddle tawdry t-shirts; caricaturists sketch passers by for a fee; American men with brand-new cameras practice the venerable art of girlfriend photography. Every so often a tour group passes, staring blankly forward, as  squawky earbuds transmit their guide’s droning commentary.

Nearby, in the stunning Old Town Square, young men hawking Segway tours buzz menacingly through the crowd on their freakish vehicles. School groups from across Europe push through—all the boys have huge, boofy One Direction haircuts.

street photograph
Girlfriend photography: it really is its own genre

I don’t begrudge any of these people their presence. I am not a travel elitist; I have no interest in the snobbery with which so many independent travellers look down on their less-adventurous group-tour confreres. We are all living our adventures at the edge of our comfort zones, whether that zone inhabits the inside of an air-conditioned bus or not.

But after a few hours, I’ve simply had enough of the crowds. We retreat to our little rented apartment far away from the centre, and nap the afternoon away.

It isn’t until the evening that we start to discover the other Prague: the modern, refined city that emerged from the ashes of the Cold War. It happened by chance; we walked toward the river, and on a whim turned left instead of right. Suddenly, we were surrounded by giant weeping willows lining a quiet backwater. Locals jogged and cycled past us; romantic couples strolled hand in hand. A woman stood talking in Czech to the ducks and swans who greedily devoured the bread she tossed, and suddenly a family of odd swimming rodents joined them. Nutrias! I had never seen them before. They look for all the world like beavers with a muskrat tail.

wpid-27aug2014b-16.jpg

We returned from our riverside walk relaxed and encouraged. The next evening we resolved to continue our explorations. This time we walked another stretch, the Náplavka Riverbank, which is the lower quay that lines the river just west of the crowded areas.

What a beautiful evening it was. The day had been chilly, and hundreds of young locals lined the walkways, sensing that the summer was drawing to a close. The sun began to set, making silhouettes of the distant bridges and spires. A band was setting up near an open-air bar, and groups of friends sat together at the water’s edge, laughing and talking. Everyone had a glass of beer in hand.

Evening
Evening

We walked along, photographing the scene, stopping from time to time just to watch and soak it all in. This wasn’t the Prague I was expecting; this didn’t match the images in my mind. But it was civilized and relaxed; it was calm, refined and beautiful. It was everything I’ve imagined that European life could be, and I felt privileged to have taken part in it.

I would have made a lousy Bohemian anyway.

Prague silhouette

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