Prague is one of those cities that everyone seems to have been to except for you. When I admitted I was eager to see it for myself, I was presented with a virtual cornucopia of advice: "It's like a pop-up fairy tale and you must stay there at least a week," and "You have to piggyback Prague with Budapest and Vienna, otherwise it makes no sense," and finally, "My best friend is starting a business in Prague. His brother made a fortune. I will give you his number because you absolutely have to know somebody."
I'm sure a trip to Prague can easily be incorporated into a tour of Central Europe. And it certainly would be nice to tour the city arm in arm with Vaclav Havel, or the conductor at the Estates Theatre, or a prominent real estate developer. I thought about it. I was given names of businessmen, filmmakers, and journalists, all of whom seemed to be out of town the week I was going. Perhaps they knew that September is still high tide for tourism. The city is mobbed with visitors of every nationality climbing breathlessly to the castle. So I decided to venture out on my own, as most tourists do, without fixers—a species prevalent in the former Soviet bloc—and without introductions. I arrived with just a few guidebooks, my flat feet, and an intense curiosity.
Getting lost on Prague's meandering cobbled streets on a bright morning testifies reassuringly to the impossibility of any theme park re-creating the synthesis of history. This city, at once melancholic and joyous, is all architectural themes and variations. On one corner, a crane presiding over the transformation of a medieval building into a modern bank looms above a decayed treasure next door. The gold inlay of the beautifully renovated Art Deco Municipal House works overtime to eclipse the structure's previous incarnation as an apparatchik bureau. Down Wenceslas Square, more an avenue and less of a square, the gleaming McDonald's with its neo-Baroque murals stands comfortably near the Café Europa, whose four chandeliers and marble walls would move my grandmother to envious tears. The Pelikan Café, among the few remaining outposts of fifties-style Soviet hospitality (read: Formica tables and plastic knickknacks) is just catercorner to a sparkling Planet Hollywood.
This is a compact city, a labyrinth that runs deep, not wide. Parizska Street, bordering the old Jewish ghetto, is now a Czech version of Madison Avenue, lined with Hermès and Nina Ricci boutiques. The castle is a short bus ride from the center of town or a longish walk across the Charles Bridge and uphill. Of course a weekender's Prague does not tell the whole story. Take the subway, a marvel of Soviet engineering, to the outskirts, where the lines of modern, punch-card apartments look no different than those radiating from the middle of Moscow, Warsaw, or the former East Berlin. They are a reminder that Prague today is a democratic miracle and that the Communist legacy, virtually absent from the center of the city, is only recently a thing of the past. "I was in Prague before the revolution," Shelley Wanger, an editor at Pantheon Books, tells me. "It was so depressing. The city was beautiful, but nobody looked you in the eye."
ON A BRIGHT FALL DAY, PRAGUE, FOR A VISITOR, is anything but depressing. On the contrary, it is rather like being inside a music box. The most desirable hotels are within easy walking distance of Old Town Square. The Palace Hotel, a triumph of renovation, has all the comforts its five stars promise. In the lobby, American tourists compare notes on their music cruises to Vienna, and the concierge can book special guided limousine tours. It's probably the most luxurious hotel in the city, though here luxe has a generic feel. The Inter-Continental, formerly a bugged tribute to a Communist vision of utopia, has suffered a similar fate. It's now a well-run business hotel with a swimming pool and kitschy miniature golf.
The most outwardly charming, the Hotel Pariz, is ideal for after-theater drinks. Dreams of coffee and cakes and Mozart come true in this Art Deco paradise. However, it is far less romantic once you arrive in your room. After I excitedly passed the beautiful halls and opened the door to my suite, I found an unmade bed and an open bottle of wine with a note that read, "Wine is sour as corked."
Despite this kind of surprise, rooms at the Hotel Pariz or any Prague hotel are heavily booked, and reservations must be made well in advance. I spent most of my week at small, pleasant Casa Marcello, patronized primarily by Europeans. The bistro across the street attracts hip young things who occupy the tables for hours, writing in their journals and smoking. How many "sensitive" first novels must have been written there?In my heart, I envied all those young scribblers.
For those who long for Bohemian coziness, the hotels U Krale Karla and, just over the Charles Bridge in Mala Strana, U Pava offer dark walls and vaulted ceilings. One can imagine hiding for hours under a down comforter, reading Bruce Chatwin's Utz or Philip Roth's The Prague Orgy, two of the best novels written in English about Prague. Or gazing at the city immortalized by Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima through the stained-glass windows of the bar, pilsner in hand.
THAT CHARM IS NOT ALWAYS EASY TO FIND. Prague is certainly no longer Europe's best-kept secret. During the summer and early fall, Old Town Square is packed with German, Norwegian, and Japanese tourists clustered around guides holding up identifying umbrellas. They gape at the Astronomical Clock, which began ticking in 1490. Every hour wooden figurines representing Greed, Vanity, and Death perform a morality play as the sun moves through the 12 signs of the zodiac. It is the perfect introduction to Prague's medieval magical mystery tour.
In Old Town Square the city's previous and current life intersect. The medieval church spires and the Jan Hus Monument, which paid silent witness to the crowds that greeted the Communist takeover in 1948, now are more likely to serve as a backdrop for photo shoots of six-foot-tall Czech models in head-to-toe Prada.
Yet Prague still has an iconoclastic appeal. College-age travel entrepreneurs fill the square, offering daily architecture, mystery, and Franz Kafka walking tours. My Kafka guide (a Swedish high school teacher and I were her only takers) was a 20-year-old university student. She seemed extremely well versed in her Kafka history and opinionated about other histories as well.
"In Prague, we treasure our writers, unlike Americans," she told us.
It was refreshing to be with a tour operator, however unofficial, so profoundly unskilled in playing up to the Yankee ego. "In America all writers are rich and write movies," she continued.
I finally summoned up my courage. "I'm a playwright. Most of my friends don't make a great deal of money."
At last she smiled. "Our president is a playwright."
I smiled back. "Yes, I know."
I didn't go on to tell her I'd met her president at a luncheon last year. Or that, when he was asked if he missed writing plays, the man who changed a nation's history with courage and determination said, "Writing plays is very hard."