Prague, the center of Bohemia. Free love. Beer. Atheism. World’s oldest bridge. World’s biggest castle. Absinth. Kafka. Prague is Eastern Europe’s most glorified city. But after this, my second trip, I still ponder why.
Prague is one of the top 5 most touristed cities in the world (with Madrid, London, Berlin and Paris, before everywhere in Italy). Its draw is the perfectly preserved gigantic old town with cobbled streets and spired churches; a setting that may be unparalleled (though Krakow comes close). So with such a picturesque town, why don’t I like Prague more?
The problem for me is that Prague’s old town is a museum, not a living town. Very romantic, though with most everything perfectly repaired, it is a little too fairy tale perfect, like its more compact cousins Quebec City and Tallinn. It’s hard to find the pulse of the city, to discern the cause of the people.
The other cities in the top 5 are huge; Prague houses only a million residents. Packing so many tourists in there means the throngs were almost unbearable when we went there in summer. And the many international workers who come to support the summer tourist industry means that the international component dwarfs Czech culture. This season was a bit better; still, in late December the hordes were larger than comfortable. At least this time you could occasionally hear Czech spoken. And there were fewer foreign workers and locals actually going out in the old town so the place did have an ethnic feel in winter.
But Czech culture is a bit subtle. It is highly influenced by German culture in the first place, and recently saw a bit of Soviet influence, which stills hangs on. And the Czech history, while long, is not especially storied. This was not the center of an Empire, but rather a very beautiful city that happened to evade destruction while many of the rest of Europe’s old cities were demolished.
Without the iconic culture that makes Paris special or the history that echoes the Berlin streets or the bustling international importance of London, Prague’s draw relies primarily on its outward appearance. So while Prague’s streets and buildings do have incredible romantic charm, I guess I’d pick those other cities over it. I value history and culture over perfect old buildings. (And why Madrid makes the top 5, not Barcelona, I’m really not sure, but having never been there, I’ll leave that question open).
Maybe if the traveler was entirely new to Eastern Europe, Prague might hold appeal in being subtly different from the West. I like Slavic peoples, but unless this is your first Slavic experience, it might seem like it did to me, run-of the mill central European, not a brash Slavic culture like in Ukraine or Russia. The Museum of Communism (vilifying it) and remembrances of the Prague Spring do indeed inspire the rebel spirit found elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc. But it’s buried amidst the tourism and even so that spirit seems a lot stronger in other parts of the region.
The Soviet influence might be novel to some, visible at the margins. It’s maybe 10% Soviet and 90% Western. So if grumpy ticket takers are a draw, I suppose this could be novel, but to me the city’s already gone to Western Europe. I think, if anything, the Eastern component would generally come as an annoyance–ripoffs in changing money, waiters demanding tips and inobviously placed staple goods in stores combine the worst of Soviet and Western.
But I don’t want to be too negative, I had a very good time in the city both times I was there and the buildings are all gorgeous. St Vitus Cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece of world-class status; I had forgotten its incredible size. Walking Charles Bridge at night was a new, tranquil experience. And the quality of the preservation (or restoration) of the whole town, down to every back cobbled street, is indeed noteworthy.
The old Jewish quarter, which I first visited this trip, has some good Jewish museums and old synagogues, one of which is a sobering memorial of more than 300,000 Czech Jews who perished under the Nazis including the names, dates and hometown of each. The Sephardic synagogue is touted as the most beautiful in Europe. We heard O Fortuna and several other pieces played there in a concert, quite an experience.
Yes we drank Czech beer and had hearty Germanesque local cuisine. But better was an interesting Exhibition by Dali. It included the full set of around 100 pieces made to illustrate Dante’s divine comedy, from which my favorite Dali quote is taken: “Christ is cheese, better still, mountains of cheese!” But the most compelling were some of the exhibition’s other pieces, Dali’s more obscure works, which were extremely bizarre and some definitely profane, unlike most of his more family friendly famous works. It seemed like Dr Seuss pornography on hallucinogens, room after room of it. Disturbing, but really an insight into this almost-madman (“the difference between me and a madman is I am not mad”). I am getting more and more signals that I must soon go to Spain.
What I’d like to see in Prague is more emphasis on the dissidents. a museum of Plastic People of Universe, one of the most important and revolutionary bands in music history for standing up to the Soviets. More Prague Spring/ Soviet Crackdown monuments, more Velvet Revolution. The history exists. I just wish it were brought out more.
One last travel note, Czech this out (my new travel notes spreadsheets make stats easy and fun!). When I traveled to Czechia in 2003 it was my 13th country. Now, with this return visit I’ve visited all of my first 17 countries at least twice each. And of the subsequent 34 countries I’ve been to, only 3 of them have seen multiple visits. Sure I’ve had a bit more time to revisit the first ones, and sure I picked ones early that I most wanted to go to. But the divide is pretty stark, no? Would be a nice view of town from the Prague Castle but it’s blocked by this lady…