Bohemia Revisited - Prague

My footsteps on the uneven cobblestones echoed down the deserted laneway. Since I had left the river bank, the blackness of the night had intensified under the high walls and darkened windows. The only sign of life was a solitary restaurateur closing the shutters of his establishment, his fair hair lit by a shard of light from the bar.

This was Prague in the summer of 1994. Under the monochromatic moonlight it could have been a clip from a classic war movie. Or from an earlier era: tonight the setting and mood seemed medieval.

The city has changed so little that it is claimed that Prague today would be instantly recognised by a time traveller from the 15th Century. When Miroslav Ondricek filmed &quotAmadeus" here in 1984 he merely had to move the cars off the streets.

Most cities of the former Eastern Bloc reveal a decaying grandeur, filled with the mustiness of mildew and a disrepair produced by decades of neglect. Not so Prague. The city centre looks as if it had just been spring cleaned.

In Prague history isn't in museums, it's everywhere. Layer upon layer of architectural styles reward close inspection. In the 14th century Prague was (briefly) the capital of the Holy Roman Empire: this period bequeathed Prague its distinctly Gothic appearance. Subsequent centuries overlayed that with Renaissance and Baroque architecture. More recently, Art Nouveau and Art Deco flourished.

That pattern was not unique of course. But Prague is special because its rich heritage hasn't been destroyed. Forty years of socialist government merely used its cement quota to fill the suburbs with the nondescript concrete apartment boxes so loved by totalitarian regimes.

German wartime occupation troops set fire to a few buildings on their retreat but did relatively little damage. Nor did the Allies bomb Prague. The city even missed out on the 1980s rampages of wealthy property-developing vandals. Large sums of Deutschmarks are pouring into Prague today but every restorer seems obsessed with preserving the city's heritage.

Prague, home to Good King Wenceslas (who is the national patron saint) lies over seven hills within a loop of the Vltava River. The most distinctive feature of this city of 1.2 million is the Hradcany or Prague Castle. Illuminated until midnight, the battlements of the castle complex, the largest in Europe and crowned by the Cathedral of St Vitus, appear to float above the old town. By day, that ethereal image dissipates: the city's glory is the solid product of a thousand years of hard work with stone and mortar.

The few travellers I know who braved the communist regime to visit Prague in the 1980s claim it was one of the most depressing places on earth. That all changed in the summer of 1989 when 300,000 of the city's 1.2 million residents crowded into Wenceslas Square and the Russians went home.

On my first visit to Prague in 1992, Czechs were getting their first glimpses of the world outside the iron curtain. The new optimism was encapsulated by a local journalist who replied to my comment about a balmy summer day by stating that "the clouds disappeared when the Russians left".

In 1994, I was back for another Prague Summer. Since my first visit, the Czech and Slovak republics have gone their separate ways and I came full of trepidation that the city would be "spoiled". It isn't. Indeed, Prague today is infinitely more desirable than it was before. The buildings are cleaner, the people more smartly dressed and the shops are full of everything from fruits and wines to CD players.

There's now a discernible intellectual vitality in the air which is proving irresistible to free spirits from around the world. Indeed, Prague gives an inkling of what Paris must have been like in the 1920's when Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway lived there. New magazines and newspapers spring up overnight, every intellectual and pseudo-intellectual in the world seems to be on their way into town, and stories of utopian squats full of Americans, British and Australians abound.

Prague is the heart of Bohemia so it is fair that the city has skipped the hippy era and reverted to a sort of prevailing Kerouac beatnik ethos. I saw a sign outside one shop declaring "Coolest design T-shirt in Prague - we mean it man." Inside I found a shirt emblazoned "Prague - Czech me out". On the streets, black clothing and neat beards are in abundance.

Still, there are encouraging signs of the hippy influence. On a warm July evening as the sun set over the Vltava River, I found a Spanish guitarist on the venerated Charles Bridge warbling "Puff the Magic Dragon". Over a hundred people (mainly tourists) were singing along.

With the spirit of Hemingway patrolling the coffee shops, the Gordon Gecko era has been forced out onto the streets. While standing outside McDonalds on Wenceslas Square I saw a vignette of Prague today. In front of me, a local yuppie was parking her Mazda MX5 (with the top down, of course), another was talking in Czech into his digital mobile phone and a couple were excitedly scrapping away at an instant scratch lottery ticket.

Prague shops sell mountain bikes with Casio trip computers. The street stalls on Charles Bridge have moved from flogging superannuated Soviet uniforms and Russian caviar to bootleg CDs of Phil Collins and Nazareth. Welcome to the 1990s comrades.

Okay, let's accept that Prague is still the hottest destination on the planet (and consensus is that it is), it's still hard to spend a whole holiday drinking coffee and taking in the finer points of dialectic materialism, Kant and Spinoza.

Just walking the streets is entertainment enough. Every day seems to be a memorial to Czech liberty. Shopkeepers greet you and people promenade as if walking and smiling is a new freedom. Wenceslas Square is filled with ice cream vendors, flower stalls and jugglers. Opera and theatre are in full revival, and guide books are full of listings of museums, historic buildings and sights.

The tourist beat is from the Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square down through the Town Square, along picturesque narrow lanes to Charles Bridge and up the hill to Hradcany. That would take about an hour as a brisk walk or all day as a dawdle. To explore all the sights and shops along the way fills several days.

There are certain practicalities that can make a visit to Prague more enjoyable. The best advice is to buy a street map. Franz Kafka, who is buried here, may well have modelled the plots of his tortuous and tortured novels on the city's convoluted street plan.

Throughout the old city, narrow cobbled streets open into surprising courtyards and squares where the pace of life is far removed from the 20th century. But you'll need a map to find your way home.

The Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse, described as "world headquarters for Generation X", is at Janovskeho 14. It fills the role that Paris' Shakespeare & Co did for an earlier generation.

Czech food seems to revolve around the dumpling. Suffice to say that many restaurant reviews tend to dwell on the decor and views rather than the food. Many Prague restaurants are elaborately decorated in Art Deco or Art Nouveau style so the setting is at least as important as the food. Buy a copy of the Prognosis newspaper's restaurant guide which lists the best dining - from Czech to Italian, Asian to Mexican cuisines - plus the fashionable cafes and bars.

There is an abundance of Bohemian cut crystal in the shops of Prague. The quality is good but you'd need nerves of steel to expect to get it back to Australia except as shards. More convenient purchases are Czech garnet jewellery and Baltic amber, both of which are much cheaper than they are in Australia.

No matter where you go, Prague is again the Golden City. It's as if there should be a mirror-image city growing old and ugly ungraciously, a la the &quotPortrait of Dorian Grey". Prague's preservation seems too good to be true.

However, such flights of fantasy come to earth with a thud only a few hundred metres from Wenceslas Square. In Josefov (previously known as the Old Ghetto) are six synagogues, a town hall and a cemetery - all that remains of the Jewish quarter torn down under a slum clearance program late last century.

The Jewish cemetery is the size of a small suburban corner park yet it contains some 12,000 graves under its undulating surface. It was used for 350 years and in places the graves are 12 layers deep. As the sunlight filters through the ancient trees to dapple the gravestones that cover the ground, it looks like a scene from a Stephen King plot.

I was told that this was the only open space where Jewish children were allowed to play during Nazi occupation. In the rear of the cemetery is a memorial to the 77,297 Czech Jews who died then. It's a sobering excursion.

Indeed, Prague seems to have experienced historical events with a greater intensity than many other European cities. Right now, visitors are pouring in to be part of this complex city's newest rebirth.


For more information:

Visas

Australians need a visa to visit the Czech Republic: contact the Consulate General at 169 Military Road, Dover Heights, NSW 2030, Tel. (02) 371 8877.

The most direct route to Prague is via Bangkok and Vienna with Lauda-Air then on to Prague with Austrian Airlines. The excursion economy fare from Australia can include the return flight to Prague. Lauda-Air can be contacted on (02) 367-3888 (fax 367 3895).

Intercontinental Hotels (Tel. (02) 232 1199 or (008) 221 335) has a five star property and a four star Forum Hotel just outside the city centre. But a list of Prague's best hotels is largely irrelevant because few have rooms during the summer peak season. It's more a matter of taking what you can find.

As most hotels in Prague are frequently overbooked, it's essential to pre-arranging your accommodation. I booked directly through the Austrian tour operator, Amadeus Tours (Fax Vienna, 0015 43 1 876 5664). Expect to pay about $150-$200 for a room in a reasonable hotel in the city centre.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd