Where else could Communist and capitalist, expat and bureaucrat, techno and Dvorak collide except in this fairy-tale kingdom on the Vltava?
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."
FOLLOWING KAFKA'S FOOTSTEPS through Prague is a reminder that writing is a revered occupation here. If George Washington slept in every inn in the northeastern United States, then Franz Kafka wrote "The Metamorphosis" in as many Prague apartments, including one now directly across the street from the Inter-Continental.
Kafka spent his entire life in Prague, first in the home of his austere German-Jewish father, just a few steps from the Greed, Vanity, and Death astronomical time show. One can't help but wonder what the timid insurance clerk who wrote The Trial would make of the T-shirts, mugs, and jigsaw puzzles emblazoned with his name. Or perhaps it isn't so difficult to say. What could be more Kafkaesque than Franz Kafka as pop icon?
Kafka's father was ambitious; he did not rest until he had moved his family away from Josefov, the Jewish ghetto. Yet Kafka, later in his life, became obsessed with the Yiddish theater, chatting for hours with playwrights and actors. If Kafka were to walk through Josefov today he would find Jews tossed by the Diaspora exchanging stories of relatives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Manchester, England. More than a visit to a single museum or memorial can, a walk through Josefov peels away the centuries, so that the daily life of Eastern European Jewry becomes as tangible as their extermination was despicable.
SYLVIE WITTMANN, BORN IN Northern Bohemia in 1956, has developed a small Jewish-Czech touring empire. What started with a weekly trip to Terezin, a transit camp for Jews built by the Nazis in an old fortress town about 40 miles northwest of Prague, has become a full-time effort to reclaim a history. It is well worth following Sylvie's troops through the Jewish Quarter. The Old New Synagogue has been a center for Jewish spiritual life for more than 700 years and is still in use. Legend has it that the stones, literally old and new, were placed here under the condition that they be returned to Jerusalem on Judgment Day. In the Pinkas Synagogue, the names of 77,297 Bohemian and Moravian men and women dispatched to concentration camps are carefully painted on the walls. Layer upon layer of gravestones in the Old Jewish Cemetery attest to a circumscribed but once-thriving medieval society. Even in high tourist season, passing the 16th-century grave of Rabbi Loew—the Frankenstein of Jewish mysticism, creator of a legendary golem meant to protect the Jews but given to running amok on the Sabbath—lends the city the eeriness of a minor key.
THE COMPACTNESS OF CENTRAL Prague offers no transitions. From the heart of the medieval Jewish ghetto it's a mere two blocks to Barock, a hip bistro that could exist equally well in Covent Garden, on St.-Germain, or in New York's SoHo. The walls are covered with posters of Brad Pitt and Linda Evangelista; the menu lists salads, sushi, and smoked salmon. Barock's sister restaurant, Kampa Park, is a romantic hot spot. Nouvelle Czech cuisine attracts celebrity diners—Bruce Springsteen, Mia Farrow, and, of course, Vaclav Havel—whose photographs hang on the walls. Unlike the solitary traveler on a romantic evening in Paris, who is only too aware of young lovers, a solo diner at Kampa Park experiences the perfect balance of mystery and sexy sadness. Sitting beside four Finnish businessmen closing a deal, I was perfectly content holding my own hand.
JUDGING FROM THE SHEER NUMBER of young women in Amadeus wigs distributing flyers, there must be a classical concert or opera gala every half-hour in Prague. From lunchtime quartets at the castle to pre-dinner Bach and Vivaldi at the National Museum, the informal offerings seem inexhaustible. Though it's rumored that tickets for the State Opera and the Estates Theatre are impossible to get, I managed to book seats for the opera through the Bohemia Ticket Agency for every night of my stay.
Mozart's first production of Don Giovanni took place at the Estates Theatre. To see it performed there supports Flaubert's declaration that "the three most beautiful things ever created in this world are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart's Don Giovanni." One seldom sees an opera in such perfect, jewel-like proportions. It is as if you are among the elite audience Don Giovanni was originally commissioned for. I have to agree with English stage and opera director Nicholas Hytner that "seeing Don Giovanni at the Estates is one of the world's truly great opera experiences," intimate and immediate.
The State Opera and the National Theatre, on the other hand, are grand affairs. (One reserves special affection for a country wise enough to elect a playwright as president.) At the State Opera you'll find gala productions of Eugene Onegin and Tosca. The National Theatre stages a variety of classical and contemporary plays, including works by Ibsen, Chekhov, and Albee. The building is a neo-Renaissance triumph with a marvelous show curtain detailing the city. The National Theatre's most daring shows, however, are reserved for the Kolowrat Theatre. Here you'll find dramas written by the next generation of Havels and directed by the new Milos Forman. Under Communist rule, Czech directors found innovative ways to explore standard texts, and it's worth seeing a play for the staging even if the performance is in Czech.
THOSE WHO PREFER NIGHTLIFE to Don Giovanni needn't worry—Prague seems to have recovered from its instant fame as home to the wandering Brown University graduate. The Prague Post still advertises vegan dinners and apartments for expats, but even on the Charles Bridge the ratio of passing tourists to soul-searchers seems to have evened out. (I hear from friends that Cambodia is much hipper now.)
However, the foundations of Prague's brief period as a mecca for young Americans remain. At FX Radost, a café and record store that specializes in techno music and poetry readings, counterculture thrives every night till 6 a.m. On Sundays there are even beef-stew poetry readings equivalent to those in numerous hipeterias in the former East Berlin.
OF COURSE, YOU CAN'T GO TO Prague without going to the castle, formerly home of kings and now of the offices of the Czech president. Also not to be missed is St. Vitus's Cathedral, where Saint Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czechs, was buried more than a thousand years ago. But for those who prefer their icons pint-size, housed in the Church of Our Lady Victorious (in the district just south of the castle, known as Mala Strana) is the world-renowned Infant of Prague— a wax replica of the baby Jesus credited with performing numerous miracles, including saving the city from the Swedes in 1632. Anatomically correct, it sits on an altar costumed in a velvet robe and crown. Its 76 outfits are displayed on a side shelf. The icon was brought to Prague more than 300 years ago by the order of English Virgins. No doubt unbeknownst to the sisters, American playwright Christopher Durang impersonated the Infant in his play Laughing Wild, in which Durang appeared as the baby Jesus in a dream sequence, guiding us to the nature and purpose of the universe. Mementos of my morning with the bambino, a tiny doll and a pack of fashion photos, are now prominently displayed in Durang's house.
IN THE END, I WAS GLAD I embarked on my journey without the "right" names and numbers, though they would have given me entrée to the Prague of entrepreneurs and sparkling restaurants. In this city you can hear the melancholic tones of Dvorak simply by walking down the narrow streets, and only here could 19th-century Romanticism seem compatible with girls in Suzie Wong dresses and platform shoes. I would hold my hand and take myself to Prague again and again.
There's nothing quite like a weekend in Prague, one of the best cities to explore on foot that I've ever visited. The capital of the Czech Republic also proves that eating in Eastern Europe can be a pleasure—no pickled cabbage and potato dumplings here. What follows are a few of my favorites.
Palace Hotel 12 Panska; 42-02/2409-3111, fax 42-02/2422-1240; doubles $292.
Inter-Continental 5 Curieovych Namesti; 42-02/2488-1111, fax 42-02/2481-1216; doubles $325.
Hotel Pariz 1 U Obecniho Domu; 42-02/2422-2151, fax 42-02/2422-5475; doubles $260.
Casa Marcello 783 Rasnovka; 42-02/231-1230, fax 42-02/231-3323; doubles $220.
BEST VALUE U Krale Karla 4 Uvoz; 42-02/530-636, fax 42-02/538-811; doubles $188 and U Pava 32 U Luzickeho Seminare; 42-02/5732-0743, fax 42-02/533-379; doubles $173.
Café Europa 25 Wenceslas Square; 42-02/2422-8117; dinner for two $46.
Barock 24 Parizska; 42-02/232-9221; dinner for two $30.
Kampa Park 8B Na Kampe; 42-02/5731-3493; dinner for two $65.
FX Radost 120 Belehradska; 42-02/2425-4776; dinner for two $6-$30.
La Provence 9 Stupartska; 42-02/232-4801, fax 42-02/2481-6695; dinner for two $33. Pillows, pillows, pillows. Euro-chic food.
U Zatisi 1 Liliova; 42-02/2422-8977; dinner for two $58. Authentic Czech cuisine with an inventive spirit.
Theater and opera tickets can be booked in advance through the Bohemia Ticket Agency in Prague by fax (42-02/2161-2126) or phone (42-02/2422-7832). Include your MasterCard or Visa number. If you're in town, head over to 13 Male Namesti.
State Opera 4 Wilsonova; 42-02/265-353; tickets $5-$27.
Estates Theatre Stavovske Divadlo; 42-02/2421-5001; tickets $34 ($19 matinee).
National Theatre 1 Ovocny Trh; 42-02/2491-3437; tickets $26 ($19 matinee).
Kolowrat Theatre 6 Ovocny Trh; 42-02/2421-5001; tickets $15.
Wittmann Tours 42-02/2481-2325. Sylvie Wittmann offers a general tour of Prague, which includes the castle and the old and new towns. Separate expeditions take in the Jewish quarter and the Terezin concentration camp. The cost for each tour is between $13 and $17 per person.