Wherein DF travels to Mitteleuropa and recounts his merrie adventures to his adoring broad readership.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Prague: hot or not?

The aforementioned debate rages, and the broad R knows I'm the man to weigh in. By way of background, Prague was pretty much offlimits to Western tourism until about 1990 when the "Velvet Revolution" freed Czechoslovakia from Commie clutches and permitted westerners to see what they'd been missing. For a magical few years, Prague was an undiscovered gem, still a bit unknown as a tourist destination, flowing with cheap beer, and dotted with spectacular medieval, baroque, and romantic art and architecture (as opposed to many other Central European cities that had been scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars--get the reference and I'll buy you a Coke!).

Cue forward a few years, and undiscovered Prague had become, well, discovered, especially by student tourists, who were drawn by the promise of cheap beer and ... no, pretty much that was it. The cheap beer. By 1996, the Let's Go researcher who was sent to Prague--himself a Pole who spoke more Slavic tongues than existed and had seen Prague in its pre-tourist days--wrote such unmentionable things about the city that his editors had to pretty much censor them in their entirety. For every statue on Charles Bridge, there were ten drunken US or British tourists puking of the side of said bridge, he reported. The Golden City, it seemed, had become tarnished.

That's not to say that people have gotten the pic and stopped going to Prague. Quite the contrary; the tourists still flock there in droves, and the city is probably the number one tourist destination outside Germany in Mitteleuropa. Despite (or perhaps precisely because of) this, various confidantes warn DF against going. Thus the scene is set for DF and his glorious four-day jaunt through the place, at the end of which he will opine on the city's hotness (or not-ness).

The verdict, for those of you who I know lack the attention span to read any further, is that Prague, despite all, is hot. Maybe not hot-as-the-sun hot, maybe not model-in-a-bikini hot, but damned hot. To say that it is the most beautiful city I've ever seen would be untrue, but only because there have been so many, and they are all beautiful in different and incomparable ways. Still, I can't recall ever being in a place that had as many wow! moments as Prague. The biggies did not disappoint: castle, clock, old town square, jewish quarter, charles bridge, with the latter being an obvious but undeniable fave. What got me, though, is that Prague is beautiful in a way that I´ve never before seen (and suspect I never again will).

Also worth noting were the less obvious but still great points: the Wallenstein Gardens (classical gardens populated by real Czech people, no tourists (well, none but me), and a strange albino peacock that makes a sound like a castrati being stabbed to death); the Prague "Eiffel Tower" on petrin hill (several hundred vertiginous feet high, and hell yes I freaked out as I ascended the rickety, exposed staircase to the top in strong winds, but I ascended nonetheless); and the not too far but relatively unpopulated ruins of the Vysehrad castle south of the city.

Was the beer cheap? You betcha. Moreover, it was so. damn. good. And, you get a lot of it: I was paying on the order of 26 Korunys (crowns, or about a buck ten in US dollars) per delicious half-liter of Budvar. (Here in Vienna that much cash could get you a thimbleful of booze at a dive bar way outside the city center if you go during happy hour, but more about that later.) But moreover, the food was great. To call Czech food "rich" is an understatement--I had a gulas so dark light could not escape its gravitational field--but wonderfully warm and, again, like little else I´ve ever eaten. And it´s also cheap. Prague is also cosmopolitan enough that there is good ethnic food of the non-local variety (I had a kickass pizza and some excellent Thai food).

To be fair, demerits for the tourist hordes must be assessed. Just as I have never seen anything like Prague, I have never seen anything like the throngs of auslanders that populated Prague during my visit. It was like Disneyland in mid-summer on a weekend day. There were times when I could not find my way out of the countless interlocking tour groups that packed the old town square (or the castle, or the bridge). I saw tour groups from countries that I didn´t know had tourists (e.g., Cyprus). But while annoying, I was able to get away from the groups as well (one of the many pleasures of independent travel), by going to authentic, out of the way Czech restaurants, or walking back from Petrin hill along an obscure back route.

Still, though, Prague ruled. I´d recommend it to anyone (though try to pick a non-peak time), and if you go, I can tell you about some great restaurants and a not-so-great pension-hotel (the "Unitas," where I stayed, is a converted prison and feels about as homey as this would suggest, and was also populated by drunken, irascible Brits).

P.S. Word to the wise: the word on the street is that Riga (Latvia) is the new Prague. You heard it here first.