Only a world-class cynic could fail to be captivated by Prague’s flourishes and dark secrets. Its architecture, true to the jaw-dropping accounts it earns in every guide, really does stun and confound. It’s an effect not fully explained by the simple juxtapositioning of the highest forms of Baroque with the grimmest Gothic and the full-tilt modernism of Cubism (a form that only Czechs, giddy with new-found independence in the early 20th century, could have thought to apply to buildings).
But even as you sip an espresso at the café in Staré Mesto’s House of the Black Madonna, it’s clear that something else is at work. Some say it’s the ghosts. In the district’s Josefov quarter, a small tangle of streets that once made up the Jewish ghetto, there’s a palpable sense of melancholy and loss. Even Prague Castle, despite the soaring Sonder Gothic spires of St Vitus’s Cathedral and the hordes of tour groups by day, feels strangely empty otherwise. Try to listen for the echoes of the alchemists, seers, cosmologists and astronomers collected by the brooding Rudolf II and you’ll find them all too faint.
Modern-day Praguers are a stressed-out lot, dark circles visible beneath their eyes, and seemingly obsessed by complicated rules – and the fear they’ll be caught breaking one. They’re dogged by consumer debt (they proved as eager as Americans to spend what they could never hope to earn) and seem to get little joy from their new Audi when not using it to chase pedestrians off crossings. So where has the energy gone? The revolutionary thinking that drove Johannes Kepler to divine the laws of planetary motion? The wondrously impractical, impudent embrace of not just Cubism but Picasso, Tolstoy, Stravinsky and Dadaism – at least until the Soviets took charge in 1948?
The expats who hang out at Radost FX’s vegetarian café seem the only ones dedicated to Bohemian pursuits in all senses of the word. The Czechs, ever worried over incomprehensible bus timetables and living in fear of town hall clerks, seem about as far from the notion of living for art, wine and love as it’s possible to be. Shouldn’t residents of the flushest capital of the former Eastern bloc show signs of dash and whimsy?
Evidence of cashing in, acquisition and ostentation are far easier to mark. Bars and clubs such as Duplex fill up with monied patrons in designer clothes, and there’s a predatory feel to these places. There’s more funding for Czech film than ever before, yet the multiplexes are supplied with only situation comedies and teen movies. A couple hoping for a romantic dinner out had better have at least 1,000 koruna in hand. And on Wenceslas Square, it’s impossible to walk 20 yards without being assaulted by the neon of herny (gambling rooms) or a tout for a gentlemen’s club.
Any population undergoing titanic societal shifts, especially in an emerging economy where people were too long denied access to the toys of capitalism, is bound to produce searching and scrambling as people
try to make up for lost time. But already there’s a backlash, with the thousands of perhaps less visible residents pursuing science, medicine, engineering and, yes, the arts. Enough to fill the photo gallery at Café Velryba and to keep the Czech Republic in the headlines of professional journals.
Slowly, the courage to pursue worthwhile ambitions is emerging. Credit the ghosts, who still speak to some people, especially around twilight on quiet, traffic-free squares in the Old Town, or from a blackened Gothic façade.
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Where to stay
Hotel Moods (+420 222 330 100, www.hotelmoods.com).
Where is it?
On the Vltava river in the Bohemia region of central Czech Republic.
Long, cold winters and warm (rarely hot) summers; autumn is crisp and cool with frequent blue skies.
94.4 per cent Czech and 1.9 per cent Slovak, with the remainder made up of Poles, Germans, Romanies and Hungarians.
Don’t miss the Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock, Old Jewish Cemetery, Jewish Museum, Municipal House, Prague Castle, St Vitus’s Cathedral, National Gallery Collection of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-Century Art, Rudolfinum, Žižkov Tower, U Cerného Vola pub, U Medvídku pub.
Soviet hangover at the National Memorial, Olsany Cemetery, the new Dox arts centre in Holešovice, eating jelení guláš (venison stew served with fluffy dumplings), trying every variety of Pilsner.
Where’s the buzz?
The Žižkov district, home of run-down, busy bars and pubs.
Communist party assumes power
Václav Havel elected president of Czechoslovakia
1993. It formed two states – Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Stalin’s statue in Letná park briefly replaced by one of Michael Jackson
1996 – as part of his History tour.
Czechs drink 156 litres of hoppy draught per person per year and are proud of having invented the pils variety, which tends to be highly carbonated with a floral aroma and crisp taste. Famous Czech brands include Pilsner Urquell, Radegast, Staropramen, Gambrinus, Budvar, Velvet, Kelt, Branik.
Number of homeless people
Franz Kafka, Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Jan Neruda, Karel Capek, Bohumil Hrabal, Jáchym Topol.
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life