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July 29, 2005

Prague is Dead; Long Live the New Prague

Friday (early morning and on), July 29, 2005

Prague, Czech Republic:

I know this city. I've been to this city. I like this city.

I'm getting out fast.

I spent four short but impressionable days in Prague in May, 2002, on a vacation I was just barely able to take while I was assigned to work down in Houston, Texas on a (fortunately) temporary basis. I made it to Budapest and Vienna on that trip as well, and the time spent in Eastern Europe probably had a lot to do in planting the seeds for my eventual decision to head off around the world (or most of it, seeing as how I might not get to Asia anymore). That said, I should add that if you send a guy to work down in Houston for a while, there's no telling what it will do to him. Prague: Its the Anti-Houston. Its no wonder that I loved it.

After checking into my hotel late on Thursday night I decided to head out and see a little bit of the Old Town. My top priority was food, as I'd barely eaten that day --- unsightly spectacles on the flight from Tel Aviv not having helped me any. I asked the desk clerk whether I could walk the distance safely and he told me it was safe but likely to take me nearly an hour. I then realized that I had misread my map when I booked the hotel; I was close to the outskirts of the Old City, but once I reached them I still had a serious walk before I would get to the area where everything actually is. Fortunately, a tram stop was right down the street and the clerk told me I could catch a night tram directly into the heart of the Old City for less than $1. I headed out the door and down the street to the stop. Even at night, even outside the Old City, the architectural design and colors of Prague's buildings were stunning.

Stunning architecture: Its nice, but not as nice when you're alone on a dark street and a fat, drunken shirtless guy is staggering around on the opposite side, grumbling to himself and possibly cursing you out. Cue stray dog howling in the distance. Cue walking with increased speed and the hairs on your back standing up. I saw another shirtless guy standing on his balcony as I walked, but he didn't seem drunk and he wasn't doing any muttering. Nevertheless, I have a theory: You can tell the general socio-economic position of a neighborhood relative to a city (along with its relative safety) by measuring how many shirtless men in public there are per capita. Sweaty wife-beater t-shirts count as well.

Once I got to the tram stop things were fine. The street was wide and well-lit and there were a few people (well-shirted) and cars passing by. There just wasn't any tram. After 20 minutes I gave up and hailed a cab. I was now feeling tired and a little uneasy about getting back, but my stomach kept me going.

A taxi pulled up. Thinking it would save me the ordeal of being screwed on a flat fare, I made the driver use the meter, then watched as it ran up like the national debt clock they used to have in New York near Penn Station (they keep stopping and restarting that thing, but it wasn't working the last time I checked). When we got to Wenceslas Square, the glitzy, chintzy, bustling nucleus of old Prague, I was looking at about $12 for what I was sure was a $7-8 ride at the most. I had two options there: (1) Pay the stupid $12, or (2) Call the guy's bluff and show him that I'm not some stupid, easily-hustled, softy-ass Americanski, then have him turn beet red with rage and bludgeon me in the head repeatedly with the tire iron he's keeping under his seat.

I hate being cheated. I absolutely hate it. But I also have a profound antipathy for being bludgeoned in the head with tire irons.

Prague Taxi Drivers: 1
International Man of Sport and Bitterly-Surpressed Indignant Anger: 0

So there I was in Wenceslas Square in the middle of a city that had impressed me so much on my initial visit that I'd thought seriously about moving there and teaching English for a year while studying Czech. That was, in fact, the idea that preceded my decision to travel around the world. The potential difficulty of getting work in the EU as a non-EU citizen put a damper on that plan, though. Now, being back in Prague after three years, I realized I was glad that it did.

It was, to a large extent, the same. But it was also noticeably different.

I headed down the square in search of a pizza place or one of the stands they have that sell about 40 different varieties of sausage and pork product (you don't need to know the details of what goes into this meat). By the time I'd gone 500 feet I'd been approached by at least a dozen casino touts, drug dealers, prostitutes, beggars, and strip club promoters. Everything was sex, drugs and gambling. That's all well and good and wonderful, but where the #$* was my pizza? I really don't care about this stuff going on in Wenceslaw; its not like it wasn't there the last time I was in Prague. But whereas I had thought the place would stay the same or gradually go the route of Times Square and "Disneyfy," it went and pulled a complete anti-Giuliani. It wasn't boring by any means, but there was a slight depressing aspect that I hadn't noticed the last time around. The huge groups of wasted Englishmen stumbling around and groping girls who might not have been even 18? Fairly revolting, like something out of an Anthony Burgess novel, but without so much ironic humor in it. I wouldn't bother to mention these details here but I couldn't truthfully describe the place if I left any of this out. It was everywhere.

As I headed away from the center of the square in the direction of some less intense areas of the city, I watched a beautiful blonde woman in high heels chase a fat, shirtless British guy down the street, screaming at the top of her lungs and beating him on the head with her purse (possible future career: Prauge taxi driver). Seeing this spectacle, I did what anybody would do; I stopped to watch and laugh. Two American guys in front of me did the same thing.

"Same show in another 20 seconds," I said.

We started talking. They were both about 24 and had just arrived in Prague a few hours ago themselves. One was from California, the other from Arizona. They'd never been to Prague or Eastern Europe and, as of the moment, hadn't been outside of Wenceslas Square, apart from the area near their hostel.

"Can't we just get a beer someplace?" asked Mark, the Californian.

"Not here. Hopefully the rest of the city is still ok." We decided to head down toward the so-called "New City" (which dates to 1348 and is new only in relation to the Old City) to find a bar --- a bar that had food. I wanted to find the James Joyce Pub, which I'd been to on my last visit. The Guiness is great and so is the food. The ambience is greatly enhanced by the presence of pissed-out-of-their-mind Irish guys who are entirely, gob-smackingly incomprehensible in their efforts to speak the English language. I don't even think they can understand one another in their condition, but it doesn't keep them from trying.

We didn't find the James Joyce Pub and nearly got lost in the twisting streets and alleys. After a while we came back out on the edge of Wenceslaw and wound up at a pizza place. Eating out on the street at nearly 4 AM, there were hundreds of other people around, most of them young. There were even a few people still hawking tours at this hour. This shouldn't have been surprising given Prague's status as one of the most popular destinations in Europe, but I didn't remember quite the same activity in 2002.

Eventually we found ourselves in the Old Town Square, under the clock tower, facing the twin spires of the Church of Tynn, built in 1365. It was relatively quiet here. We bought some beers and sat talking with some English girls who had spent the last several hours trying to convince various marauding groups of their own countrymen that they were not Czech strippers.

I took another taxi back to my hotel as the sun was coming up around 5 AM (Prague Taxi Drivers: 2. Me: 0). I managed about 4 hours of sleep.

When I woke up, I felt like a bug. It was only a stomach bug, however, probably courtesy of the late-night ham pizza. I was feeling well enough to go out again, so I went back to the tram station and finally managed get myself back to Wenceslas for less than $1.

In the daylight it was a different place entirely; crowded, but relatively clean and hassle-free. As I wandered around the old city, I began to remember why I liked Prague so much. Its simply one of the most beautiful cities in the world and once you get away from the main tourist pockets there are plenty of interesting sites and buildings to see in relative peace and quiet. I spent most of the late morning and early afternoon seeing the main sights: The powder tower, the Charles Bridge, the Castle (though I didn't go in), and several old theatres. I had lunch in a cafe in the New City and wandered back up along the river toward Staromesti Namesti.

The more time I spent in the city, the more I saw myself staying for several days. The more I saw myself staying for several days, the more I realized I needed to leave. I'd already seen most of the major sights and didn't see the point of hanging around any longer. I could happily and easily spend a long time in Prague, but what would I really do? The sense of discovery was gone. Prague definitely isn't an off-the-beaten-path destination anymore and its not a surprise that it didn't feel like one on my second visit. It still probably has that impact on first-time visitors, though. Don't let anything I write keep you from going if you haven't been there yet.

The problem for me was that Prague wasn't feeling quite as Prague-y anymore. The city has had its time in the spotlight and become extremely popular. Its hardly "spoiled" as a travel destination, but the transition from Cold War Capital to Modern Tourist-Friendly City has long since been wrapped up neatly (in Louis Vuitton boutique gift wrap, no less); it was probably well in the final stages the last time I was there. What this means is that your chances of encountering a Czech on the streets of the Old Town are the same or slimmer than your chances of encountering another foreign traveller, most likely in short shorts and tennis shoes. The full crush of August vacation-goers didn't help the situation.

To be fair, Prague is still beautiful and absolutely worthwhile, it just didn't have the same "exotic" feel I once sensed. When people spoke in wonder about "Prague," they were referring in part to the feeling of being in a place that was newly discovered (to the West, of course) and just opening its doors after the fall of communism. But as I've said, that time has long since passed. And so my point is that visiting Prague didn't seem all too different from visiting
a city such Florence; a city beautiful and steeped in sights and culture, but a city that feels tangibly over-run with crowds because it isn't as big as Rome or Paris (two cities that get plenty of tourism but are large enough so that they don't have to match their steps to their visitors' presence).

If I wasn't going to stay in Prague, where was I going to go next?

Enter the concept of the "New Prague." People used to refer to the great cities of Eastern Europe as "The Paris of the East." I've seen Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, and Krakow referred to by this irritating moniker. If an eastern city has food, art, culture and impressive architecture, people slapped the "Paris" label on it. But they don't seem to do that so much anymore; now it seems that people have taken to calling any eastern city with a burgeoning tourist scene, the "New Prague." Nevermind that about 10 different cities have or are being labeled as such. It seems you can't have too many New Pragues --- not if you're handing out tourist brochures or writing guide books. In fact, almost every impressive city in East Europe that isn't Prague is now not just "a" New Prague, but "THE" New Prague. Tallin, Estonia? Last I heard, its the New Prague. Riga, Latvia? Its the New Prague. Vilnius, Lithuania? That city is the New Prague. Or would be, but for the fact that everybody knows that Bucharest, Romania is the New Prague (and did you know its also been referred to as the Paris of the East?). I can guarantee you that when Ukraine opens its borders (visas in advance are still required, deterring tourists), the likes of Lvov, Kiev and Odessa will be referred to as the New Pragues. In 10 more years it might be Tblisi or Baku.

After some agonizing, I decided that with about one month's time before I needed to be in Italy, I should try to discover one or two of the New Pragues for myself. I'd already been to the Old Prague, which was once just Prague, but I'd been meaning for some time to get over to Krakow, Poland. It was the New Prague a couple of years ago, though its probably not the New Prague anymore, or won't be by the time I finish writing this entry. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth checking this old New Prague out, unless I could get myself up to a Baltic New Prague on a last-minute discounted flight.

And so I resolved that it was time for me to move on. If I really wanted to see all the places I had on my list for August, I was going to have to blitzkrieg through Eastern Europe faster than you can say "Panzer Tank." I went first to a travel agency near the powder tower.

"Do you have any cheap flights to Riga or Vilnius?" I asked the agent, who resembled a young Helen Hunt.

"Vilnius?" she asked, almost startled. "Can you spell that for me?" I did this, but I figured the complete and utter unfamiliarity didn't bode well. "Its the New Prague," I wanted to tell her, but figured that as a Praguer herself, she wouldn't appreciate it. Still, I would have thought a travel agent in the Czech Republic would know her Baltics from her Balkans, her Slovenias from her Slovakias and Slavonias, and her Lithuanian capitals.

Sadly, I could not get a cheap ticket to Latvia or Lithuania. It was more than $400 for a one-way seat. This just made me want to go there all that much more, of course, but I couldn't finance it in good conscience. I went down the street to another agency that sells train tickets and looked into seats to Krakow.

"We have a train at 11 AM, a train at 1 PM, and a night train at 8 PM," the agent told me. She was friendly, but looked nothing like Helen Hunt.

"I heard the night train can be dangerous. Is that true?"

She looked at me with a flat stare: "Is better you do not take the night train."

I booked the 11 AM train. While an overnight train can save you time and accomodation expenses, there have been a number of serious incidents on trains into and out of Poland recently. Instead of describing them, I'll just post the following illustrative post which I found today on the Lonely Planet Thorntree website:

"Totally robbed in Berlin-Gdansk train

I took a night train from Berlin to Gdansk before yestarday.
I was totally robbed in secured sleeping coach!.
I locked actually the door and other men and women in other compartments were also robbed!

When I weaked up.I notcied that all my and my partners belongings(even moneybelt on my stomach!) and disappeared.
Other compartment did same accident!.

We accused the conducter.But he insisted he had no responsibility and we are gassed. But it is too strange why theives could open our door,other compartments too. Police said theivs gassed us and it IS usual in overnight train in Poland!"

That sucks, doesn't it?

I spent the rest of the day wandering through the New Town some more, though I never did find the James Joyce Pub. By 10 PM I was feeling Unbearably Light of Being. I caught the tram back to my hotel and began to pack up before getting some much-needed sleep.

It was settled. I was leaving Prague in the morning and heading in search of the New Prague. If that didn't work out, I could always go back to Prague again. Besides, the way I see it, sooner or later the cities of Eastern Europe will be exhausted by the roving tourist mobs and Prague will wind up being the New Prague or New New Prague in an endless, Kunderaesque cycle. Or something like that.

Posted by Joshua on July 29, 2005 08:59 PM
Category: Czech Republic
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