I spent a few days in Prague this week with good friend and refugee family “mom,” Anne-Lene. I don’t think I have ever been to a place that felt so light and uncomplicated. The city lived up to everything I had heard about it — wall-to-wall charm, stunning architecture adorned with elegant detail of all kinds, walkable streets, friendly Czechs and a lot of very happy tourists. It is the kind of place you want to visit when you want to forget about “it.”
Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, which has a short history as a nation but a long and complex history as a place. The short version: after thousands of years of tribes, dynasties, religious wars, castle-building and kings, Czechoslovakia became a nation in 1918. In the 20th century, it was occupied by Hitler and then the Soviets. In 1968, playwright Vaclav Havel famously lead dissidents to demand freedom during “Prague Spring”, was subsequently imprisoned and then in 1989 became the country’s first president after the fall of the Berlin wall. A few years later, Czechoslovakia agreed to a peaceful dissolution to become the two independent states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
But about the beer….Czechia, as it is affectionately called, is all about the beer. In Czechia, beer is legally designated an essential food so it cannot be taxed as alcohol according European Union rules. Czechs drink more beer per capita than anywhere on earth. And there are no beer brands in Czechia that aren’t Czech. Anne-Lene doesn’t drink and I am a wine drinker but we each had a beer during the week in honor of our hosts. Yes, it was good!
We also learned that Prague is in Bohemia, so named for complicated reasons but most recently for the (gypsy-like?) ethnic groups that ruled the region during Medieval times.
During our stay, the central city was alive with street performances of all kinds, including folk dances, classical music, and acrobatic feats. The food is a lot of meat, and the stuff in the touristic center of town is mostly to be avoided, although we found two great vegetarian restaurants.
Anne-Lene is a dedicated photographer and she especially loves photographing buildings — so she was totally in her element!
We also took advantage of the many ways to explore the area — joining a walking tour through the center, enjoying a boat ride down the Vitava River and then biking through the gorgeous Czech countryside.
Anne-Lene and I agreed we will have to return some day because we missed a tour of the Prague Castle and the paddle boats and the Jewish Cemetery and the Communist Museum! Three days is not enough time to see wonderful Prague….
nice one !!!! are you in Mexico City yet? David
Yes — when you travel with frequent flyer miles from Prague to Mexico City, you are not on the express bus but my 30 hour journey is over. 🙂 I am getting on the bus to SMA this afternoon!
Your description and photos make me so happy, Kim! Looks like you had a lovely time. I was in Prague in 1974 and the architecture and setting were very magical, but people were not very happy. And the only vegetarian food was “jelly omelet.” You can imagine how awful that was, and I ate one every day. Buen viaje.
Hurray for youth culture which always comes through with the healthier food choices!
It saddens me to see the general population of Czechia leaning in a conservative, anti-immigrant direction. It is a country that has been historically “trespassed” by so many outside cultures that the Czechs feel an innate pressure to preserve their tiny culture. Fear of loss is deep seeded.
My father emigrated from his home in Brno, Czechoslovakia at 16 and never lived in Prague. But my Catholic grandmother lived there during the later part of WWII and for two years after, hoping my Jewish grandfather would return from Terazine and Auschwitz, which he never did. The city is probably the best preserved of those under Nazi rule and I’ve read nuanced stories of Hitler’s preservation of the Jewish museum as a “Museum of an Extinct Race.” The Spanish Synagogue and attached museum and cemetery are rich with history dating back to the 15th century. I have contributed a collection of documents and photos from our family. Next time you have to go there!
And this is the stuff that is so important about a community that is so hard to know as a short term tourist. I’m glad you shared all of this and I really do hope I can return some day to get the deeper version of Czechia. Thank you Nanci….
Daughter Debbie and I immensely enjoyed our time in Prague about 20-25 years ago. We found the city to be a delight to the eyes with new architectural beauty coming into sight at every street corner. The people we met were extremely friendly and there were many opportunities for enjoying all types of music which compensated for a rather basic hotel/restaurant scene.
We were there during the early transition from its barebones approach to tourism during the last days of Soviet domination to the the western-oriented tourist friendly place it has become. I was worried much of the Czech character might be lost as tourism began to soar, but it sounds as if things are going pretty well in one of the prettiest cities in the world.
I am wondering whether, unlike Armenians, the Czechs never considered the Soviets allies or partners, just occupiers. So maybe they escaped what was austere about the Soviet culture. But then again as Nanci implies it is difficult to know a community after three days in the fun part of town.
The Czechs I know never considered the Soviets allies or partners. They deeply resented yet another occupier of their land, particularly after declaring themselves a nation less than 30 years prior to Nazi rule. Over the decades the young people plodded along in the only government they knew, but as is evident of the 1968 Dubcek era, they always strove to be independent again. However, when they finally broke free of the Soviets , times were very difficult for the older generation, who, with little opportunity to prepare for a capitalistic society, was left without the expected safety net. It has taken a generation for the Czech Republic to advance their economic status (tourism is a large contributor), and take advantage of their entrepreneurial talents. (Read Czech literature for examples of their esoteric nature.) They are hopeful they will thrive as Western Europe has, but remain leery of outside influences because most have been detrimental.
Great background Nanci. I would love to go back and get out into the smaller towns and villages….