Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sparkling, Technicolor Prague

Note:  This is the third of a five-part series. Part one is Charming, Livable Amsterdam.  Part two is Fascinating, Evolving Berlin.

My husband and I first visited Prague in September of 1989, two months before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution that brought about the collapse of its Communist government. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we witnessed the sputtering dregs of the Communist era.  Change must have been in the air, but what we saw was a depressed, lifeless city. Everything was grey, there was little to buy in the shops, few people on the street. There were only a sprinkling of cafes and restaurants, and small numbers of hushed tourists. The Czechs themselves hurried on their business with little reason to pause or linger. Though the tremendous Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque heritage of the city could not be disguised, it was muted, dulled and blurred.

Color, color everywhere
Fast forward twenty-three years, and wow. Prague is nearly unrecognizable. Color and flowers everywhere! Buildings and statues cleaned! Cafes, restaurants and museums tripping over themselves to appeal to tourists. More schlock to buy than you can shake a stick at (half of it made in China.) And the entrepreneurial spirit of the Czech people imaginatively unleashed to make as much money off tourists as possible. Sometimes the kitsch goes a little over-the-top to realms we would recognize in the hallowed halls of Disneyland, but since Prague has so many centuries of being a lively, sparkling place, I would guess the present incarnation is much closer to the city’s true personality than its dread, Soviet-dominated years.

The Czech Bud
The Czech language is pretty much impossible. Though I’ve never studied Dutch or German, just looking at both languages I could often make them out if I squinted and furrowed my brow hard enough. But Czech? No way, no how. Accents and other strange punctuation marks fly around this language like birds in migration; an ungodly assortment of consonants cluster together with no vowels whatsoever. Evidently it is similar to Slovak, Polish and Sorbian, in case you are considering the benefits of studying Czech. Ironically, after living six years in Iowa where there are a surprising number of people of Czech descent, some of whom were my friends, I probably have more exposure to the Czech language than 99% of Americans. But still in Prague Czech engendered no comprehension in my brain whatsoever. Except—big except!--for one word I saw in a restaurant window almost the second we got into town: Budweiser. I recognized it instantly.

The American
I can’t tell you how much this distressed me. Why, I thought, why, why, why, would the Czechs import bad American beer? Why had they brought over oceans stuff that probably no one should even cross a room with, and then proclaim proudly that they were serving it in their restaurant windows? The answer, I soon learned, beer ignoramus that I am, is that Czech Budweiser is the real thing, and darn good to boot—something indeed to be proud of. The American version is only a shameful pale cousin of the brewing tradition of Ceske Budejovice (a town also known as “Budweis”) that has making beer since the sixteenth century. They call their product Budweiser Budvar. Not only is name almost the same, their logo, as you can see, is pretty similar to the American. Any wonder I was confused?

Evidently old Eberhard Anheuser had heard (or tasted) the product of Budweis, and he named his beer to pay homage to the old country brew. He no doubt thought since he was on a completely different continent, no one would really care if he appropriated the word. Of course the result has been a hundred years of lawsuits flying back and forth across continents ever since. As it stands, the Czechs can currently claim to sell Budweiser Budvar and Bud in the European Union countries but not in the US. If you want to try a Czech Bud in the US, look for a beer called “Czechvar” and you will experience “The Beer of Kings” (as opposed to “The King of Beers.”)

So back to Prague, land of the double-tailed lion! (I love it when a city has a spiffy, mythical mascot.) Quite simply Prague is a baroque bonbon of a city. It out-baroques every place I have ever been. The movie Amadeus was shot largely in Prague because Prague looks more like eighteenth-century Vienna than Vienna has any hope of looking now.  For statuary alone, Prague gets the best-in-the-world prize. It’s not just the Charles Bridge that pushes Prague towards sculpture nirvana. Although the 75 statues on this bridge are indeed very fine, they are just a few figurine drops in the proverbial statue bucket. There must’ve been entire decades in Prague where simply everyone who owned or built a building said to themselves, “Hey, I need three more statues on top of this thing!” and went out, flagged down some stone carver, and got them made. There have got to be more statues per square kilometer in Prague than any city in the world. In fact, I bet there are double the number of statues per square kilometer here compared to whichever city is number two on the statuary front. (I am willing to bet a Bud, Czech or American, on this important matter, if indeed someone has tabulated the vital statues per square kilometer metric.)

Adding to the statuary metric
The Czech people are a highly resilient lot. They blossomed in the fourteenth century and then spent most of the last six centuries being oppressed by various occupying forces. Being occupied and controlled by foreign powers is, in my observation, not a fun thing. Evidently the Czechs (used to be called Bohemians) didn’t think so either. In fact, they pretty much invented the term, “defenestration,” (which means throwing someone or something out a window) when, over a usual Protestant-Catholic dispute, the Bohemian Protestants threw two of their Catholic Hapsburg overlords out a window. The pair fell three stories and were either saved by angels or by falling into a dung heap, depending on your point of view. Eventually the Protestant rebellion was snuffed out, its leaders executed, and the Protestant religion outlawed in Bohemia entirely. (Defenestration, while undoubtedly satisfying, does not always work. Let that be a lesson to us all.)

Feeling oppressed?
The Czechs have over a thousand years of very complex history. It largely begins with the realm of King Wenceslas of Christmas carol fame, blossoms during the Middle ages with centuries of self-rule. Then they are conquered by the Hapsburgs and ruled by them for four centuries (the Hapsburgs turn into the Austrian-Hungarian Empire along the way.) They get a brief two decades of autonomy between WWI and WWII, then occupation and rule by the Nazis swiftly followed by occupation and rule by the Soviets. And then, miraculously, independence in 1989 and self-rule ever since.

So you can see what it must mean for the Czech people to finally be in control of their county and their destiny. Unlike the Germans, the Czechs neither mumble about the nastiness of World War II, nor are they the least bit nostalgic about the Communist era. In fact, they are still pretty much pissed about both the Nazis and the Prague Spring of 1968, their attempt to shake off Soviet shackles that was violently put to rest by a not-so-friendly invasion by their large domineering big brother. 

Historic means moolah
In the years since achieving their autonomy, the Czechs have struggled to catch up to their wealthier western neighbors. They’ve thrown out the pretty much unworkable Soviet model of industrialism and struggled to put together an economy that works. Part of what works is tourism, offering up their spectacular cities and countryside to foreign guests. It seems like everyone is hustling in Prague to get in on the tourist money train, offering tours, services, artwork, and handicrafts. There are all sorts of museums, from the privately wacky to the grandly austere, tempting the visitor with treasures of grandma’s lace collection or 15th century art. There are dance performances, theater shows, and concerts galore. My youngest daughter and I saw an impressive though sparsely attended modern dance performance in an 18th century courtyard under the stars (until we got rained on.) Our family hired a private guide to take us on a walking tour. The cost to hire a well-educated (university grad), knowledgeable, English-speaking guide for our family of five was slightly less than the cost of a much more impersonal group tour we might have taken in any other city we traveled in. (Plus we were able to ask endless questions of what life in the Czech Republic was like for the average citizen. Much fun!)

Tourism, though undeniably lucrative, is a tricky business. In my observation, people on holiday (almost regardless of nationality) can be unpleasant, inconsiderate, destructive and swinish. I’m not quite sure why this is, maybe partly due to genuine ignorance of local customs, partly due to a sense of entitlement as paying customers, partly due to just too many people crammed into too little space for considerate human interaction. Copious alcohol can also play a role. The result is that tourists can be like a swarm of insects, consuming and blighting everything in their path. Even worse, these tourists can be your former oppressors, and if you want their money you have to smile and be accommodating.

Imagine 6 times the people
In 2011, roughly 5 million tourists came to Prague, a city with a population of 1.2 million. The top visiting nations were Germany (655,000), Russia (386,000), and the UK (284,000). (The US came in at number five.) We were told that the week we were there tourism was actually quite light for June. Evidently on a normal June day you can barely shuffle shoulder-to-shoulder across the Charles Bridge, it is so packed with humanity. (We were only obliged to dodge, dart and pause numerous times.) The reason for the light traffic, it turns out, was due to a theme recurring throughout our trip: all the Germans were home because Germany was still in the running in the Euro Cup. Even though Hyundai, as in Berlin, had kindly set up an absolutely massive Euro Cup viewing screen in the most iconic spot in the city, in this case Old Town Square, Germans preferred to watch and celebrate this important event at home. Once the Euro Cup was over (or Germany lost a game and failed to progress), then real tourism season would hit. We could only be thankful the German team had played as well as they had!

Nibble those toes
Because the Czech Republic is part of the European Union but not part of the European Monetary Union, it still has its own currency, the koruna.  This means the Czechs can devalue their currency at will against the euro, rendering their country extremely good value for western Europeans to visit. So the Germans and Italians, the French and the Dutch, come in droves, often to drink excellent Czech beer for very low prices. (Not to mention all sorts of hard alcohol which was also  inexpensive and free flowing.) They may also enjoy getting their feet nibbled by fish at Thai massage parlors. (I am not kidding.) It struck me as a bit like Americans going on vacation in Mexico, except more statues and castles. 

It also struck me how polite the Czechs were, how patient with their drunken customers, how tolerant they were of completely handing over the beautiful heart of their city for months at a time. In San Francisco, we’ve ceded Fisherman’s Wharf but have largely managed to keep the nicest parts of the city for our own use. (Sometimes we are quite quiet about what the nicest parts of our city are.) So what San Franciscans have to sacrifice on the altar of tourism is minimal compared to the Czechs. After so many centuries of domination and oppression the Czechs are struggling economically. The Czech Republic’s GDP/capita is below the EU’s average. It’s below Greece’s, right around that of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s above Russia’s, so you might wonder why so many Russian tourists? The Czech Republic is a very egalitarian country with a low Gini index of 25.8, very close to that of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Japan. Whatever their fortunes, good or bad, they are all pretty much in the same boat. Russia has a high Gini index of 40.1, which puts them more in the realm of third world countries and the US. So rich Russians can visit, and plenty of them do.

Of course, I write this having been part of the ravenous swarm myself. We tried to be considerate, tried not to do too much damage, or be too offensive, but no doubt we made our share of blunders even so. One district of Prague where the tourism did not seem overly crushing was in the old Jewish quarter, perhaps because people were spread out between multiple synagogues, perhaps because most Prague tourists come to shop and drink rather than pay witness to what is left of a ghetto, home to Prague’s Jewish population for almost a thousand years. Constructed in medieval and renaissance times and no doubt cramped, unsanitary and squalid, most of the ghetto was destroyed at the turn of the 20th century as a “modernization” effort. While originally confined entirely to the ghetto, Jews had been allowed to live in other parts of the city since 1851, so the numbers needing to relocate were few. At the outbreak of WWII, 92,000 Jews lived in Prague, almost 20% of the city’s population. At least two-thirds perished in the Holocaust.

The layers of history
I thought the synagogues startlingly beautiful and the information presented in them worthwhile, but they were infinitely sad. Some are still in use for services, some have become just silent memorials to what was. The old Jewish cemetery with its layers upon layers of graves especially attested to centuries of striving and surviving, often in the face of great unfairness, cruelty and violence. Though most synagogues in former Czechoslovakia were destroyed during WWII, the ones in Prague were bizarrely spared because the Nazis planned to turn them into an “exotic museum of an extinct race.” In fact, the Nazis collected (i.e. looted) Jewish artifacts from all over Europe to put on display at this future museum. But these handful of buildings and cemetery survived to tell a story quite different from the one the Nazis intended.

I am sorry to report that Prague is not a great city for bicycling, and this goes beyond the amount of cobblestones and the rather enormous hill up to Prague Castle. I didn’t see a lot of bikes, bike rentals, or bike lanes, though there evidently are bike tours available in Prague (and I now wish we’d taken one.) It is even possible to bike from Prague to Vienna along a system of bike greenways. (Future trip!) But the touristy areas of Prague are so crowded, walking is by far the best option. Our walking tour guide said he rides bikes with his kids where he lives, but this is in parks away from the old part of town. 

Skoda, Skoda, Skoda
In addition, the Czechs love their cars. Or I should say, car. The Skoda. (Of course there is more than one model.) Perhaps it comes from so many years of a controlled economy where few could own cars, perhaps it comes from still limited transit infrastructure (though their underground system is more extensive than San Francisco’s) but there is a great deal of national pride around these babies, and in any part of the city that is not pedestrian-only, the car noise and traffic can feel intense. Car manufacturing is also a great driver of the Czech economy. The Czechs export over 80% of the cars they make to places like China (their leading customer), eastern and central Europe.

Awesome candidate for pedestrian zone?
Prague does have quite a bit of pedestrian-only areas in its historic center, and the amount is slowly expanding. Businesses and restaurants are realizing that the pedestrian zones are where tourists feel welcome, comfortable and want to hang out, so stores and restaurants in these zones flourish. Of course the Charles Bridge is pedestrian-only; in fact, it’s almost incomprehensible that cars ever crossed this fifteen-century masterpiece but they did until the mid-1960’s. The twelfth-century Old Town Square with its fabulous Astrological Clock is car-free, and there's also the ritzy shopping street of Na Prikope that is entirely and pleasantly pedestrian (as well as way over my budget.) In addition the lower part of Wenceslas Square went pedestrian-only just this last spring. Long term the vision is to make the entire (huge) Wenceslas Square a continuous pedestrian paradise. Wouldn't it be great for the lovely and immensely old Mala Strana district to also be free from the roar of fast-moving cars? (hint, hint.)

Statuary ode to a wandering Kafka
So summer in Prague is full of flowers and crowds and art and drunkenness. I’m heartily glad color and gaiety have returned to the city. However, someday I want to visit again when things are quieter, perhaps late October. When there might still be a chance that Mozart has just turned the corner of the 18th-century arcade stretching ahead. When Kafka might still wander through the tight streets near Prague Castle. When Golem might peak from behind an old Jewish cemetery headstone. When 12th-century ghosts in armor might drift like mist across the Charles Bridge after dusk. Not a depressed and morose Prague, but a moody, artistic, intense Prague, the Prague that I think is still there, under the artifice and revelry designed to part the tourist from his euro, ruble, or dollar.

(Next in this series will be Enlightened, Elegant Vienna.)


  1. Odds are that some of Mr. Anheuser's brewmasters were were from Ceske Budejovice (aka Budweis). He may have paid their fares and sponsored them as potential U.S. citizens.

    P.S. The use of "Sorbian" in the article is NOT a mistake. The Sorbs of eastern Germany are distant cousins of the Serbs of Serbia (ex-Yugoslavia).


    1. Thanks for your comment! (Yes, I did double-check Sorbian, not being familiar with that branch of Slavic people.)

      If Anheuser's brewmasters indeed came from the old country, I bet the Bud they produced tasted quite a bit different back in the day than now.