Prague: Paris To A New Generation

Prezanians rebel, even with victory [1993]. When dissident playwright Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-war democratically elected president, he deemed the presidential palace to be far too opulent a place in which to get things done.

He promptly moved the home of his emerging nation’s government to his modest apartment, surprising no one: “Bohemian” means “free spirit”, and as Prague is the natural as well as geographical capital of Bohemia, la vie boheme is the order of the day.

Prague has systematically and unabashedly established itself as the Paris of the MTV generation. The Warsaw Pact is ancient history; anybody coming to get a glimpse of an “east bloc” city is embarrassed to find himself three years too late.

These days the small cafes which dot the streets of the stare masto are teeming with tweedily shabby-dressed chain-smoking writers arguing over endless cups of espresso, world-weary American 19-year-old lit majors having philosophical discussions straight out of Woody Allen movies and scruffy-looking Marx-bearded chess players brooding over their boards.

Never was Prague’s Bohemian spirit more evident than in August, 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague. A cultural revolution was ignited by this violation, and artists and the intelligentsia burrowed deeply underground, but never stopped producing. Books were secretly distributed in manuscript form; apartments became private art galleries and theatres. This hoard of artistic artefacts was thrust forth to a culturally ravenous population after the “velvet revolution” of 1989.

When word of Prague’s renaissance began filtering through the Eurograpevine, Go East, young man became more a way of life than a slogan. This seductive city, so durable and unconquerable that it resisted the Soviets’ knee-jerk attempts at uglification, remains a fairy tale setting that is irresistible.

It is old (even the “New Town” dates to the fifteenth century), and the city is a potpourri of beautiful parks and greenery. Its Gothic masterpieces are unintimidating, and its baroque and Renaissance architecture all somehow managed to sidestep being ruined or razed during centuries of European and Communist strife.

It is no wonder then, that Prague has become home to what seems like every artist, poet, painter, writer, actor, musician, model and student whose careers have been stunned by the lingering recession of the Western world.

The city’s main drag, Vaclavske namesti, is an explosion of bustling shops, news and fast-food kiosks, mid-range (but overpriced) hotels and impromptu shows throughout the day. Whether it’s a fashion show, buskers, street magicians or just a Danish backpacker getting hassled by the police for throwing firecrackers, there’s always something happening.

The atmosphere is right out of ‘sixties American television – it’s the “good parts” version with all the music, free love, long-hairs and street-corner philosophers, while strife, generational misunderstandings and Vietnam have been tastefully left on the cutting room floor.

A walk from the Mala Strana, or “little quarter” across the fourteenth century Charles Bridge towards the Old Town on a summer evening is a “Who’s Who In Prague” tour. The bridge, one of 16 that span the Vltava River, offers spectacular views of the city and Prazsky Castle, and everybody knows it. Groups congregate amidst the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century statuary and on, around and actually in the pylons at both ends of the 603 meter span, clumped as discretely as New York City neighbourhoods: 20 metres from the architectural grad-student crowd will sit a group of hashish-smoking, guitar-playing flower children, while a nearby commercial film crew frantically sets up a shot before they lose their light.

Everywhere there is a palpable feeling of a reborn city coming in to its own. The thriving expat community didn’t come here to escape the realities of the “real world” so much as to a haven in which they could create their own.

“I’m 25,” says Amy Leanor, Program Director for a soon-to-open radio station, “I got a communications degree from U Mass at Amherst, and the best I could do at home was land a spot at Blockbuster Video. I’ve got opportunities here I could never get anywhere else and I live like a Queen for like $A400 a month. If that’s escapism, I escaped.”

But expats aren’t the only ones flourishing – they’re just loud and proud about “finding their own”. The Czechs, on the other hand, never lost it, and continue to use anything as an opportunity for entrepreneurship. The law of the land here used to be “if it’s not required, it’s forbidden”. Restructuring the law to keep up with regulating rediscovered freedom is a process lengthy enough to ensure that when an entrepreneur starts up a business, it’s legal until someone can prove it isn’t. So state-run cafes become performance art centres, apartments house language schools and night clubs, galleries and theatres open everywhere and anywhere with impunity.

In the basement of Radost FX, for example, Prague’s latest “New York” style nightclub, sits former President Havel’s former bodyguard Jon Bok. Bok recently opened a literally underground art gallery – in the club’s Gent’s room. Visitors to the loo can, on alternate evenings, see or buy paintings or listen to Czech philosophers speak and rant. In the West, some might think a Gallerie Toilet a bit on the odd side, but Bok told Prognosis, Prague’s English-language paper of record, that “it doesn’t matter what people think of me. When I come home with my pockets full of money and my wife is happy, then I’m happy too.” And a lot of money is being made here, as more and more Volgas, Trabants and Wartburgs, replaced with Mercedes, BMWs and Audis attest.

A city that attracted 5.3 million visitors last year alone, though, would have to be more than just a playground for black-clad, ambitious new-age hipsters, and to young and old, Prague doesn’t disappoint. “I came here first with my father, two years ago,” says German-born Prague resident Christian Schwenk. “He did the cathedrals and the opera while I was dancing and getting trashed in the clubs. When I lived in London, he came to visit once, since I moved here he’s been over four times!”

For culture-vultures, Prague’s a treasure-trove of castles, cathedrals, museums and classical music and theatre, and if you stayed a year you’d only see half of it. World renowned for its tower-packed skylines, playfully sculpted facades and lofty spires, Prague gives the feeling of being on the set of a knights, dragons and maidens movie. The prerequisite walking tour starting at Vaclavske namesti, down through the Old Town past the Tyn Cathedral and St. Nicholas Church, across the Charles bridge and up the steep hill to the Prazky Castle is enough to instil inspiration to see it all, or intimidate into dashing for the nearest beer hall – in either case, Prague is accommodating.

Nightlife, which at least a few people have come here for, runs the gamut from classical concerts at the Dvorak Museum and Nosticky Palace to jazz in the Red Hot &Blues and Cafe Nouveau, to head-bashing heavy metal in Rock Bar Uzi (also known for its tattoo parlour) and everything in between. For pub-crawlers, Prague is a utopian free-for-all of cabarets, cafes, beer-halls and coffee houses, all abuzz about…well, everything.

Czechs make some of the world’s finest beer, and there’s a huge variety of it. More important, it sells from around $A0.40/half litre (this is not a typo). Be sure to wander into some of the older, more run down, out-of-the-way beer halls that ring the city. You walk in to a smoke-clouded room, sit at picnic-style tables and before you can say “Pivo prosim” a half-litre tankard of pilsener is thumped down on the table in front of you (if you’ve had enough, say it fast; the next round comes out with neither request nor warning!). Shunned by trendsetters, you’ll find your drinking companions in these establishments to be burly Czechs washing down several buckets of suds after a long day of thinking about it.

For homesick Americans, Brits and Aussies, stopping into the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14 is entering a bastion of English-speaking civility. Owned by a 26-year-old expat American, this used bookstore-cum-cafe has evolved into the epicentre of Prague’s expat cafe society. One California-healthy meal and several cappuccinos later, you’re braced to take on the oh-so-hip party animal crowd that swarms RC Bunkr until three am.

As you ride home through cobblestone back streets in a Volga taxi on a rainy night, it’s easy to imagine the place as the perfect backdrop (which it was until 1989) for a Ludlam thriller. The city’s rolling hills, winding roads lined with fifteenth-century buildings and entrenched cafe society were as powerful a magnet to Cold War spooks as they are to the hundred thousand or so expats and nouveau-Bohemians who now call Prague home.

If You Go …

Australian and New Zealand citizens require a visa to visit the Czech Republic, available from the Czech Embassy or your nearest consulate. Visa prices range from $A32 for a single entry 30 day stay to $A90 for a multiple entry 90 day stay; you’ll need a passport with more than six months’ validity and one passport sized photograph.

Getting There
Qantas ((02) 957 0111) offers standard economy fares from $A2,099 ex-Sydney via Fankfurt or London, count on up to $A2,800 during May-August. Student travel specialists STA Travel ((02) 281 9866) have flights to Prague via Rome and London for around $A2,200-2,400, but they’re the best bet for as-yet unpublished special discount fares.

The Czech currency is the Crown (Kcs), and the exchange rate hovers at around $A1=Kcs19.00. Changing money on the street is dangerous and unnecessary; rates aren’t great, ripoffs are common, and legitimate exchange offices and kiosks are practically on every corner. Note that Crowns can’t be converted anywhere outside the CR, so don’t change more than you’ll need.

Guidebooks & Information
Prognosis, Prague’s excellent English-language bi-weekly newspaper/cultural bible, is an indespensible source of up-to-the-minute practical information in this fast-changing city. Check it for reliable restaurant, cafe, club and pub listings, reviews and prices. Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe on a Shoestring is great for sights but outdated; Let’s Go: Europe has an excellent accommodation section; Frommer’s Eastern Europe is hands down best for history, culture and architecture.

Getting Around
Prague has one of the cheapest and most sensible public transportation networks in Eastern Europe. Buses, trams and the gleaming Metro (underground) run from about 05:00-midnight, and night trams take up some of the night owl slack. Tickets, currently Kcs4 ($A0.20), are available at newsstands, tobacco shops and from dispensing machines in Metro stations. Hailing a taxi in the street can be an expensive proposition, always ask that the driver uses the meter (“Zapnete taximetr, prosim”).

Where to Stay
Everyone’s going to Prague: accommodation is scarce and reservations key. CKM Agency (Zitna 12; tel. 24 91 04) has listings of available space in hostels and hotels; Cedok (Vaclacske namesti 24, tel 24 19 71) is an agency specialising in short term (from one night/$A30) placement in private apartments.

Hostels (up to about $A13/person): Estec is a huge and very popular complex (Metro Devicka and bus 217 to the Stadium then follow the crowd, tel. 52 73 44); Domov mladeze-Penzion is a good second bet (Dykova 20, tram 16 to Perunova; tel. 25 06 88); there’s also a newish, hard-to-find and comfortable hostel above the Central Train Station for Kcs175: walk out of the upstairs exit near the bus stops (follow the signs that say Cafeteria), turn left, walk to the end of the building, left again and through the small door that says “Hostel”.

Food &Drink
Czech food, a German-influenced Slavic cuisine, is heavy on the potatoes, with delicious dumplings and soups, roast beef, boar and duck, but Prague is packed with restaurants serving everything from Middle Eastern to American; Lebanese to Mexican and all points in between. U Cizku, Karlovo namesti 34, serves classic Czech cuisine in a very traditional seting; Jo’s Bar, Malostranske namesti 7, is a small and noisy, but authentic, Mexican cafe; U Sedru, Na hitich 13, entrance around the corner on Narodni Obrany, has excellent Lebanese specialties; Red Hot And Blues, a honky tonk, Tex-Mex/New Orleans creole legend also features live music on most evenings, Jakubska 12; if you’re dying for a pizza, head for Pizzeria San Pietro at Beneditska 16 for a classic Italian atmosphere and excellent thin-crusted pizzas and Italian food. For street snacks, kiosks and fast-food restaurants (including one of the world’s slickest McDonald’s) abound, and don’t miss trying a plate of something in the few remaining state-run “milk bars”, where cheap hot meals can be had for about $A2.00.

Clubs & Pubs
When these places close, new ones will take their place: consult Prognosis for club and pub listings. Rock Cafe, Narodni 22 – rock and disco, films in the afternoon; RC Bunkr, Lodecka 2. Hard drinking PIB’s, good live bands, young, hip crowd; Klub Alterna Komotovka, Seifertova 3, is like a totally groovy place to check out some disco and sway to some vegetarian minimalist relaxation pitches; AghaRTA Jazz Centrum, Krakovska 5, Prague’s answer to London’s Ronnie Scott’s: very cool jazz (nightly at 21:00), very cool-jazz-loving crowd; Radost FX, Belehradska 120, Rock Bar Uzi, Legerove 44 (Metro I.P. Pavlova), Za Porucskou Branou, Za poncskou branou 14 (metro Florenc) is the classic smoke filled woozy-patroned Czech beer-hall, but if you’re looking for some English conversation, hit the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14, or Ziznivy Pes (The Thirsty Dog) at Obecniho House, namesti Republiky.

Museums, galleries, exhibitions, plays and the opera all offer student discounts, and some hostels will accept an ISIC in lieu of a IYH Card; travellers under 26 (student or not) can also get significant reductions in European train and plane fares ex-Prague; always show the card before buying the ticket, and oftentimes you’ll be asked for your passport as well.

Trains, Buses & Car Rental
There’s frequent rail service to all European capitals; tickets are always cheaper ex-Prague than vice-versa, so it’s a great place to jump off on a European excursion; tickets are available on the ground floor of Praha hlavni nadrazi, the Central Train Station near Metro Museum. CSAD Travel at Na prikope 31 (tel. 236 5332) and Bohemia Tour, Zlatnicka 7 (tel. 232 3877) offer cheap international bus tickets. Car Rental is absolutely unnecessary unless you’re taking a day trip out of the city (and can be an expensive proposition as police, empowered to impose on-the-spot-fines, find any excuse to). Avis: Opletalova 33 (tel. 2422 9848); the cheaper ESOCAR, Husitska 58 (tel. 691 2244)