GOLF COURSES, PALACES, CHURCHES, SYNAGOGUES, PARKS: Everywhere, Prague is undergoing renovation, reclaiming itself, reconstructing its charm. Today, the city is dense with people returning, picking up their lives, sometimes only for a week, occasionally for good. When I first went back to Prague, in 1991, black coal dust still grimed the façades of buildings, and the city seemed devoid of commerce.
Now the scaffolding of progress dresses many of the buildings in the Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti), the Renaissance center of Prague. Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske Namesti)--the vast space that is Prague's symbolic heart, where German tanks and Russian tanks rolled in to occupy the city and the country--gleams with bright brass grillwork. The ancient royal city on the Castle Hill (Hradcany), which dominates the city, has been spiffed up too. Museums, shops, restaurants and conference facilities fill the palaces and houses.
In Prague almost every pre-war structure is decorated. (Luckily the concrete Communist monstrosities were built in the suburbs, not downtown.) The train station, an apartment house, a department store, a hotel--each incorporates ornament: intricate ironwork struts, elaborate gilded mosaics, gilt bronze statues of girls, sometimes just discreet stucco arabesques. One of the few examples of contemporary Western architecture, Frank Gehry's Rasin Building--nicknamed "Fred and Ginger" because its sinuous, intertwined glass towers resemble a dancing couple--seems also touched by Prague's overwhelming sense of fantasy.
Music, too, hovers over the city as palpably as summer haze. Bedrich Smetana's tone poem Ma vlast, with its gorgeous barcarole flowing like the Vltava River, is the nation's dearest symphonic work. There are concerts everywhere: choral works and chamber music in churches and salons on the Hradcany and in palace rooms in the Mala Strana, the Little Quarter below the Castle Hill; orchestral concerts in the Rudolfinum, the city's major concert hall. The opera season, at the National Theater (Narodni Divadlo) and at the Estates Theater (Stavovske Divadlo), runs all year. There are jazz bars, like Red, Hot, and Blues--an American expatriate hangout--and Czech President Vaclav Havel is an aficionado of jazz.
Art and music offer keys to Prague's mood, its gentle and invincible gaiety, a quality that contrasts with its convoluted, often bitter history. The city was founded in the ninth century in a bend of the Vltava River. To the east, hills rise almost straight up from the water, ideal for fortification. To the west, the land is flat and fertile, ideal for settlement. Situated in almost the exact center of continental Europe, its location was ideal, too, for trade. From the beginning, Prague was a cosmopolitan city.
The Catholic, German-speaking Hapsburg dynasty began its four-hundred-year dominion over Bohemia and Moravia in the sixteenth century. By then, Prague was already a stronghold of Protestantism.
Grand liberal and often eccentric personalities shaped this city, physically and spiritually. The great medieval king Charles IV presided over Prague's first golden age and built the cathedral, Charles University (Karlova Universita) and the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most). Jan Hus, a great religious reformer, was the first rector of Charles University. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II made Prague his capital. Rudolf was a moody intellectual whose passion for art and arcana fueled a second golden age at the turn of the seventeenth century. Rabbi Löw, a learned acquaintance of Rudolf II, was chief rabbi of the Jewish community and creator of the golem. Franz Kafka prefigured the strangeness of this century, and now Vaclav Havel--dissident, playwright and politician--has been his country's conscience for a quarter of a century.