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December 1999

Czech point

Prague natives rebel, even in the face of victory. When dissident playwright Václav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-war democratically elected president, he deemed the presidential palace far too opulent a place in which to get things done. He promptly moved the home of his emerging nation’s government to his modest apartment, surprising no one: “Bohemian” means “free spirit,” and, as Prague is the political as well as geographical capital of Bohemia, la vie bohème is the order of the day. The Czechs seize every opportunity for entrepreneurship. The law of the land here used to be “if it’s not required, it’s forbidden.” Today’s motto is “it’s legal until proven otherwise.” Thus, state-run cafés become performance art centers, apartments serve as language schools and nightclubs, galleries and theaters open anywhere and everywhere with impunity. In the mid-1990s, Prague systematically and unabashedly established itself as the Paris of the MTV generation. The Warsaw Pact is ancient history, and anybody who foolishly comes here to get a glimpse of an Eastern Bloc city will be embarrassed to find himself a decade too late. These days, the small cafes that dot the streets of the Staré Masto (Old Town) are teeming with tweed-donning, chain-smoking writers arguing over endless cups of espresso, 19-year-old American “lit” majors having philosophical discussions straight out of Woody Allen movies and scruffy-looking Marx-bearded chess players brooding over their boards. Although the number of Americans living in Prague has recently dwindled — after legislation was passed requiring residence registration, the payment of taxes and other niggling details that cut into an expatriate’s day — foreign residents make up more than 30,000 of the city’s population. It’s hardly the most original traveler who makes his way to Prague. Smack dab in the center of the backpacker tourist route, it once even had a restaurant from the failing Planet Hollywood chain. But this magical city is not about outside influences, it’s about what is perhaps Europe’s most beautiful city, Czech living and the Bohemian spirit. Never was such a spirit more evident than during the so-called Prague Spring in August, 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded the city. A cultural revolution was ignited by this violation, causing artists and the intelligentsia to burrow deeply underground, but never to stop producing. Books were secretly distributed in manuscript form; apartments were cleverly transformed into private art galleries and theaters. Artistic artifacts leftover from the creative period were finally unveiled to a culturally ravenous population after the so-called “velvet revolution” of 1989. When word of Prague’s renaissance began filtering through the Eurograpevine, “Go East, young man” became more a way of life than a slogan. This seductive “city of a hundred spires,” as it is known, so fiercely independent that it managed to resist the Soviets’ knee-jerk attempts at “uglification,” remains a fairy tale setting today. The time-honored city (even the “New Town” dates from the 15th century), is a potpourri of beautiful parks and greenery. Its Gothic masterpieces are unintimidating, and its Baroque and Renaissance architecture all somehow managed to avoid damage or destruction during centuries of European and Communist strife. It is no wonder, then, that Prague has become home to what seems to be every artist, poet, painter, writer, actor, musician, model and student whose career has been impeded by the lingering recession of the Western world. Prague has the feel of a reborn city coming into its own. The expat community didn’t come here to escape the realities of the “real world” so much as to thrive in a haven in which they can create their own. “I’m 25,” says Amy Leanor, Program Director of a local radio station. “I got a communications degree from U Mass at Amherst, and the best I could do was land a job at Blockbuster Video. I’ve got opportunities here I could never get anywhere else and I live like a queen on $500 a month. If that’s escapism, I escaped.” a city that attracted 5.3 million visitors last year alone, though, would have to be more than just a playground for black-clad, ambitious, new-age hipsters, and, to young and old, Prague doesn’t disappoint. “I came here first with my father, two years ago,” says German-born Prague resident Christian Schwenk. “He toured cathedrals and went to the opera while I was dancing and getting trashed in the clubs. When I lived in London, he came to visit once; since I moved here, he’s visited four times!” For culture enthusiasts, Prague boasts an abundance of castles, cathedrals, museums, classical music and theater. If you stayed a year you’d see only half of it. World renowned for its tower-packed skylines, playfully sculpted façades and lofty spires, Prague gives the feeling of being on the set of a medieval costume drama. The city’s main drag, Václavské námÏstí (Wenceslas Square), is an explosion of bustling shops, news and fast-food kiosks, mid-range (but overpriced) hotels and impromptu shows. Whether it’s a fashion show, buskers or just a Danish backpacker getting hassled by the police for throwing firecrackers, there’s always something happening. The atmosphere often resembles idealistic sixties American television — music, free love, long hair and street-corner philosophers. The “must” among walking tours starts at Wenceslas Square, leading down through the Old Town past Tyn Church and St. Nicholas Church and across the 14th century Charles Bridge to the Prazsky hrad (Prague Castle). The bridge, one of 16 that span the Vltava (Moldau) River in Prague, offers spectacular views of the city. Groups congregate amid 18th- and 19th-century statuary and on, around and actually in the pylons at both ends of the 603-meter span, clumped as discretely as New York City neighborhoods: 20 meters from the architectural grad-student crowd will sit a group of hashish-smoking, guitar-playing flower children, while a nearby commercial film crew frantically sets up for a shoot before the last rays of the evening sun disappear. The hike up the steep hill to Prague Castle will either inspire you to see it all, or intimidate you into dashing for the nearest beer hall — in either case, the Bohemian metropolis is accommodating. Nightlife runs the gamut from classical concerts at Dvorák Hall and Nosticky Palace to the kitschy atmosphere at Zelezne Dvere, to jazz, swing and other live music at U Maleho Glena, to head-bashing heavy metal in Rock Bar Uzi and everything in between. For pub-crawlers, Prague is a utopian free-for-all of cabarets, cafés, beerhalls and coffee houses. Czechs make some of the world’s finest beer, and there’s a huge variety of it. More attractive, it’s incredibly inexpensive — the hop-rich potable sells for just under US$ 1 per half “litter.” Wander into some of the older, out-of-the-way beer halls that ring the city. Before you can say “Pivo prosim,” a tankard of pilsener will be thumped down on the table in front of you (if you’ve had enough, say so quickly — the next round will be served without request or warning!). While standards such as the bitter brews Budweiser (not the American one) and Pilsener Urquell are perfectly drinkable, be sure to try up-and-coming brands of Czech beer: Myslbek lezak (a tasty microbrew available at the restaurant of the same name), Radegast, Gambrinus or Staropramen. As you ride home through cobblestone back streets in a Volga taxi on a rainy night, despite the monumental changes during the last decade, it’s still easy to imagine the city as the perfect backdrop (which it was until 1989) for a Ludlam thriller. Rolling hills, winding streets lined with 15th century buildings and the entrenched café society were powerful magnets to Cold War spooks, as they are to the hundred thousand or so nouveau-Bohemians who now call Prague home. <<< Nick Selby, ( writes for AOPA Pilot, Gemütlichkeit, Lonely Planet and other publications.

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