We recently spent a long weekend in Prague – itís actually nearer to Frankfurt than Berlin is.
Prague has had the good luck to be spared by destructive wars over the centuries. In earlier times, it managed to be out of the way of power struggles that led to the devastation of other cities. More recently, the Blitzkrieg was effective (i.e., it was sufficiently rapid that little damage was done) and the Naziís departure was not prolonged (unlike Budapest, which we visited this spring. There they fortified Castle Hill on the Pest side of the Danube and 80% of the town was destroyed in the fighting. They also blew up all six bridges between Buda and Pest before retreating).
As a result, much of Prague today is as it was in the 17th century. Incredibly lovely buildings in a variety of architectural styles from the 1300s to the present (Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque), with people still living in them, line the streets. Ornate, carved facades make way every few blocks for a fantastically-spired church or clock tower. Even the Charles Bridge, the one with the tower gate backdrop you saw thronged with people when Vaclav Havel was elected, has survived since the 1300s. (Wenceslaus Square, where Bush recently spoke, although historically important as the site where Soviet tanks crushed the í68 rebellion, is undistinguished compared to many other streets.)
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a strange sight, seemingly filled with a jumble of headstones. After the cemetery was filled, layer after layer of soil was added as needed for subsequent graves; the earlier tombstones, however, continued to be moved to the top layer – 20,000 by the time they stopped in the 18th century! Of course, itís far above street level by now – in some cases up to 12 feet. The reason it still exists is because Hitler envisioned it as the monument to an extinct people!
A castle dominates the hill across the river to the west. Inside its walls is the largest cathedral in Prague, which includes the grave of St. Wenceslaus – appropriate for the season. The castle used to be the residence of the president. Havel lives in an unprepossessing apartment building downtown, although we did notice that an elevator was being added.
Transit is cheap – we got a pass good for the subway, trams and busses for four days for $.75. (There arenít many private autos – itís eerie to be in the center of a major city and see so few private vehicles in the streets). On our first transit trip to our hotel, I watched for the "Moskevska" subway station, where the map said we were supposed to change to a tram. I was sure I had counted correctly, but the third station was "Andei." When we got off, the typical heroic Soviet station design featured a huge mosaic mural of the Moscow skyline and Red Square, but the name had been changed! (Our Budapest visit coincided with their first free elections in over 50 years – we still saw a few statues of Lenin, but they had been extensively "decorated.")
Prague has many products worth buying, unlike what we found in the Soviet Union, and they are still amazingly inexpensive. Glassware is particularly notable – a set of 6 cut-crystal liqueur glasses cost less than $10 (Betty Lou now says we should have bought 24, but I had to persuade her we should even get the one set). She did buy the last two 55" inch square Cashmere scarves for less than $6 each. Coffee shops reminded us of Vienna (Austria, that is), but at one-third the price. Dinner in an elegant restaurant (aperitif, hors díoeuvre, entree, wine, dessert, and Cognac) was $10 each. The only problem is that there arenít enough shops or restaurants to handle the demand.
At least the restaurants only have to cater to people staying in Prague – the shops also have to deal with the "combat shoppers." Organized shopping tours leave cities in the West early in the morning, timed to arrive in Prague at opening time. After shopping all day they board their buses to return home late at night. When I first saw someone carrying a folded luggage carrier, I was puzzled. Before long I saw another loaded with boxes of crystal. (We also heard an impressive crash when somebody lost control of theirs at a curb.) When we went into a big crystal shop, we saw dozens, and people waited in huge lines for hours to load them up. (We got our crystal from street vendors on Charles Bridge, at similar prices to the shops.)
Some things affecting tourism have radically changed, compared to what the latest Frommerís Guide says. No visa is required (in a way, thatís too bad – the Hungarian visa is a picturesque addition to my passport) and the way the border guard checked us on the way out was to stand in the front of the bus and ask us to hold up our passports! From a rate of 9 Korunas per dollar and 100% duty on anything not bought in state-run hard currency shops, today itís 33 per dollar – and I told you about the bus check.
There IS still the hassle of having to go through Cedok, the government tourist agency, to get a hotel reservation – at inflated rates. They can also arrange a room in a private house, although thatís still not cheap; e.g., $80 a night. However, a MITRE colleague who recently did that found that the next time he can contact the people directly, who will be glad to take $10 – evidently not much of the money you have to pay directly to Cedok trickles down. The bus company got us a good group deal – not $10, though.
Our group seemed to be jinxed. We had two busloads of people and Cedok assigned us to 3 widely separated hotels. One group lucked out and was in the middle of downtown. We were out in the sticks to the east, but at least on a tram line. (The third group was to the west, in a boat: a "boatel." There are several of these along the Vltava – I must admit, it wasnít one of the rivers of the world with which I was previously familiar.) The street in front of the downtown hotel wasnít very wide, and it had two-way tram traffic, so the bus couldnít just wait in the middle of the road waiting for people to get on. The first day things went pretty smoothly, although I thought the first tram to pass was going to take some paint off the side.
The second day, somebody directing the driver kept motioning him back, until we heard a scream from the back seat and the rear window exploded – there was plenty of room at ground level, but the hotel marquee extended a little too far into the street. I donít think the bus driver had any luck finding the helpful director afterwards. (The plastic they taped on surprised me by holding well all the way back.) Although it didnít look to me like the window did any damage to the concrete awning – well, perhaps the metal "L" was a little skewed – the next day the hotel held all the passports hostage to make sure the bus company paid! It required most of Monday morning, and, I think, calls to the American Embassy to shake them loose.
Then we learned that although we (Americans) were a group of two buses, the bus company also had another bus there with a German group. The driver of that bus had brought his 19 year old wife, with whom he got in an argument Saturday night in a bar, whereupon gallant Czechs came to his wifeís aid and beat him up, putting him in the hospital! Not our problem, right? Wrong! The (German) owner of the (German) bus company decided that one of OUR drivers should take the (German) group home and they would send another for us. One of the women organizers of our group staged a sit-in in the driverís seat of their bus, preventing any such action until a driver actually did show up, nearly four hours late. (It doesnít give you much confidence in his navigational abilities.) Suspecting a ruse, she made him show her his driverís license and passport before she would leave. So it was nearly one AM when we returned to Frankfurt – fortunately the trip back wasnít foggy.
Not much, but I needed something after "the good and the bad." Coal, or coke, is a major source of their heat, and we often noticed the odor of coal gas. As this is the fog and mist season in much of Europe, itís hard to tell how much visible pollution there was. However, we didnít see any buildings stained black as we often saw in Budapest, and most buildings in Prague have been around centuries longer.