Some of you may recall an earlier travel memoir (How to Risk a Stretch in Soviet Prison under “Travel Memoirs” to the right) detailing the misadventures of leading a group of college students through the ice- and communist-bound Prague of the ‘70s.
Well, allow me to describe the changes which struck me on an early-autumn day last month.
First, the Czechs are smiling. The dour faces and suspicious looks have long-since given way to a joyous appreciation of life. Almost everyone asks, “Have you been to Prague before?” And it’s entertaining to watch the disbelief when I mention my visit some 37 years earlier, as if I’m not quite right in the head, a kind of “you came here then?” look of incomprehension, a second glance to see if it’s some joke. Today the Czechs aren’t afraid to be open and welcoming, loving the international favor their city has won and the prosperity which followed in its wake.
Second, the city is lovelier than ever, having emerged from a cocoon of drab. Now it’s a butterfly resplendent in bright colors, festive advertising, and jubilant enjoyment of life, all echoing the splendid architecture. The streets are spotlessly clean, the main squares a circus of humanity and entertainment, and Prague Fashion Week draws fashionable attendees to admire the Mercedes cars parked out front and—I assume—sartorial fashion within the pavillion. And alongside the Vltava River a large circle of drummers and dancers in the park, reminiscent of San Francisco in the sixties, long skirts bouncing, Indian braids swaying, hands holding, smiles beaming…my God, what have they been smoking?
Oh yes, every little tobacco or mini-mart shop sports a marijuana-leaf decal in the window.
A morning stroll—as usual before the shops open and the tourists and citizens appear in droves—allows one to witness the changes. Consumerism in all its rainbow aspects.
Cheerful smiles and chatting in the still nearly-empty cafes.
The smell of freshly-baked bread and rolls. Breathe deeply.
A drunken student, now all alone after a night’s excessive consumption, cooing and rocking his head up and down, bobbing about a square in emulation of the pigeons that scatter in his path.
Cleaning and restoration of the famous saintly statues on the Charles Bridge, one missing from its pedestal for cosmetic work, one already gleaming in newly-cleansed stone, the others waiting patiently in coats of centuries-old grime. Visit early to avoid the crowds.
A Japanese couple in wedding garb posing romantically for professional photos, only to separate immediately after the shoot is finished, the “groom” running after the camera girl to steal a kiss, the “bride” hoisting up her long dress and train around her thighs, slipping off the heels, then clapping her way across the bridge on flip-flops on a mission of her own.
A solitary fisherman on a skiff below the bridge, patiently waiting out the fish.
The obvious: an evening stroll takes one past a large building on the main riverside drag. Bathed in blue neon, it advertises “Night Workout,” its logo beaming a long-limbed woman in provocative “fitness” pose, one leg pointing skyward. A bouncer at the door. Warning: this isn’t your family fitness center.
And third, the beer. Now, I hesitate to wade into this question of who brews the best beer in the world—American micro-breweries, German traditionalists, Belgian masterworks, etc. I only found my own taste for beer having arrived in Germany at age 21, so perhaps I’m a poor judge. And just as in picking one’s partner in life, the choice of beer is a very personal thing, this determination of what you admire most in a liquid object of your affections.
During my first visit to Prague at a place called U Fleku I found frothy pleasure in a mug of the beer brewed on the spot. And on this recent visit I discovered a little restaurant just a half-block from our hotel which brewed a similar offering in its basement level—rich, robust, heady—which answers that question for me…
Hotel recommendation: Hotel Leonardo, with warm service, spacious rooms, views of the river and castle.
Restaurant recommendation: Prasky Most u Valsu, just up the street from the Leonardo entrance, with good food and attentive service. Remember, in Prague you never have to ask for another beer. It appears like magic the minute your first glass approaches empty.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon