Prague is like a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, she's dead.
Don't get me wrong: I like Prague. But I don't see why I should wax lyrical about the town that drove Kafka nuts. It would be disrespectful.
Besides, Prague drives me nuts, too. Maybe it's because the police tried to put me in jail for forgetting to validate my subway ticket. Maybe it's because I went there twice to see REM, and both concerts were canceled. Or maybe it's because I got fed up with hearing about would-be Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Henry Miller clones writing the great American novel, of which none has appeared.
In the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Wall coming down, young foreigners flocked like geese on speed to "Paris on the Vitava." These entrepreneurial artistes, lacking Cobain irony, were sure they had found Nirvana, and it was as pretty as could be. And to Western eyes, most everything about Prague is pretty—and often pretty pretentious.
A case in point: they have the most beautiful McDonald's in the world. A few years ago, coming off an overnight train trip from Warsaw, I bought several McCoffees, found a seat and was preparing for a caffeine hit from hell when I noticed a young American sitting at the table across from me, his nose buried in a copy of Sartre's Being and Nothingness. I had to laugh. Existentialism and Egg McMuffins. You'd have to be an insomniac on a three-day benny binge to read that in the morning. But in 1992, Prague was slacker heaven, a place where you could pretend to be an artist while living on savings and teaching jobs.
Then the Firms moved in. The expats I admire are the ones who disdained the cape and fedora and did something really useful like founding a newspaper or a sandwich shop or selling multinational shampoo.
Like most Central and Eastern European capitals, Prague was exotic before the wall went down. It was a city like Paris or Cracow: too wonderful to be destroyed. Post-1989, it's a better Disneyland. But like Berlin, Prague without oppression is a flat cocktail—just a slightly more vibrant Vienna.
According to statistics I just invented, a staggering 90 percent of visitors to the Czech capital spend all their time staggering in and around Prague, soaking up culture. And why not? Everything that happens in the Czech Republic (which, other than ethnic cleansing, isn't a lot) happens here.
Prague is the heavyweight of Eastern European tourist destinations. Few cities in Europe or anywhere else are as fetching. Like Muhammad Ali, Prague never seems to stop saying: "I'm so pretty. Ain't I pretty?" Therein lies its charm. This is the town Walt Disney wishes he had invented.
But after that, what?
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Here's Prague's history in a nutshell: one of 14th-century Europe's most important towns, it became a religious battleground for most of the next two centuries, with the Counter Reformation giving the city its celebrated Baroque style. Prague dozed for two centuries under the Hapsburgs, when it was a nice place for a cozy holiday getaway. Like Warsaw, Prague became the capital of a new republic following World War I, until the Nazis and then the Soviets did their more sinister imitation of the Hapsburgs, once again turning the city into a nice place for a cozy getaway.
That's Prague's story: always a beautiful bridesmaid, never a bride—until 1989, when Havel and Co. proved that Prague was more than just a pretty face.
But is it?
Unless you are a confirmed museum hound or an architecture buff, the best way to see Prague is to throw away your guide book and take to the streets. Don't act like a tourist; pretend you are still at home. You will be pleasantly surprised. That guide book you just threw away gives a complete rundown on available culture, but wouldn't it be more fun just to sit in a caf in one of the most beautiful squares in the world and loaf? Prague was built for elegant loafing.