With reluctance, I left Olomouc behind on a train trip to Prague. Two hours later, I was experiencing through the train’s window the panoramic hillside groves that enwrap the city, Prague being an urban settlement nestled deep down within a lush valley. In a matter of minutes, the train moved into Prague’s main train station located within walking distance of Vaclavske Namesti, the city’s popular boulevard and its humble answer to the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris.
Prague’s train station known as Hlavni Nadrazi is a gigantic place spread over two floors, each crammed with information points, ticket-sales offices, restaurants and fast-food outlets. Overcrowded with passengers and travellers, the station is a confusing mess of dashing people, keen on arriving on time for a train or eager to get a ticket in the shortest time possible. Since the ticket-dispensing machines for city transport do not dish out seven-day tickets, I had to join the queue behind a ticket-sales booth.
Having put my mind at rest after I acquired a seven-day transport ticket, I made my way along Ul Wilsonova towards the east edge of Vaclavske Namesti, a lovely spot characterized by the majestic building of the National Museum and the equestrian statue of St Wenceslas. A short walk west on Vaclavske Namesti brings you near one of the city’s most popular tram stops located at the corner between Vaclavske Namesti and Ul Vodickova. From here, using Prague’s well-organized tram system, you can practically travel to all sites and spots within the city. The metro system is obviously simpler to utilize but it prevents you from getting an orientation of your whereabouts, hiding from view the wonderful buildings, bridges and panoramas for which Prague is reputably known.
I have been to Prague many times before, my first visit being way back in the early eighties. Since then, I have come to Prague regularly, often staying here for four weeks or more. As a result of my regular presence in the city during the last thirty years, I can confirm that from a subdued cultural capital of architectural wonders and magical walkways, Prague has turned into an entertainment centre of cheap theatre performances, nightclub shows of questionable quality and restaurants serving poor-quality food. In other words, from a city of culture and a worth-your-money venue, Prague is becoming a tourist rip-off in the hands of businessmen, most of whom are investors (read: fast money-makers) from outside the Czech Republic.
I have fallen in love with you at first sight, years before the Velvet Revolution in your country ousted the Communist government. During the former years of Communist rule, you were a cryptic capital, your cultural life having been subject to suppression and rarely exposed to the world. But in spite of the magical secrets that in the past kept you underground for decades and enshrouded your empty streets and barren squares with nightmares of disgraceful fear, I succeeded in coming to you in a bid to get acquainted with your history, to get into the core of your culture, to appreciate your carefully preserved architectural heritage and to participate with admiration in your traditional music concerts.
Staromestska, your Old Town quarter was then a desolate place, its only sparkle of life emanating from a handful of organized tourist groups who marched across Staromestske Namesti to see the Town Hall astronomical clock in action. I can never erase from my mind the deserted labyrinth of narrow winding walkways that took me from the Staromestska side of Karluv Bridge to Staromestske Namesti. Full of old-world charm, devoid of shops, Ul Karlova was then a ghostly walkway crisscrossed by no less than eight fairy-tale alleyways, noiseless Old Town spots haunted by magic, enchantment and thrill. Ul Celetna, your present-day shopping Mecca was only a bypass route from Staromestske Namesti to the Powder Gate. Ul Melantrichova, your current fashionable corridor of chic gastronomic venues was just a medieval winding walkway running from the Old Town quarter to Vaclavske Namesti.
Karluv Bridge, today crowded with people from dawn to late at night was itself a mere pedestrian overpass, mostly used by Prague residents to cross from the Malostranska side to Staromestska. I can recall with ease and clarity the instants when I had the chance to stand alone on the bridge in an atmosphere of calm and quietness, looking with awe and admiration at the pleasant view of the Hradcanska overhang.
During the days when you were still being reborn to the world, the area on the left bank of the river, popularly known as Malostranska consisted of only a cobweb of neglected streets, Ul Karmelitska being the principal thoroughfare. Your lovely baroque Church of St Nicholas on Malostranske Namesti was for some unknown reason kept closed and hidden from visitors.
Your grand castle district on Hradcanska was always the most provocative element within your peripheral zone. Rich in history, great on architecture and immortal with artistic works, Hradcanska was your soul, a soul that has given you essence and identity since time immemorial. Your people, even when you were still living in secrecy and dismay were proud of your Royal Palace on the hill and likewise proud of your glorious Cathedral of St Vitus. Even during those dark days, the principal attractions within your Hradcanska district were always exposed to visitors, although the latter were often compelled to get the assistance of a local escorting guide.
When I visited you in the early nineties, your heart was on the verge of being opened to the world. Most buildings, palaces and churches, particularly those on Staromestske Namesti and its surrounding arrangement of side streets were in the process of being renovated to their original glory. Churches which were formerly neglected or denuded of their interior ornamentation were redecorated and given a fresh look. Investment in various sectors of the economy started to take off, its result becoming visible as the number of shops on Vaclavske Namesti, Na Prikope, Ul Celetna and Ul Karlova gradually mushroomed from a short supply to scores of all sorts. Tourists from the west, conscious of your potential to allure with your charm and magical charisma started to pour in, slowly at first but faster as years rolled by. Their number soon multiplied by leaps and bounds as guide books proposed you as an ideal destination, crammed with attractions, tempting with appeal but short on costs and easy on the pocket.
Sensing the right moment, feeling the demand, hotel investors changed homes and apartment blocks into guesthouses and places of accommodation. Likewise, catering establishments, beer gardens and cafeterias sprouted everywhere like seeds spread over fertile soil. The fruit stemming out of the investment gradually changed your characterful features into an alien appearance that is not authentically your own.
Today you are not the Prague I know. In the eighties, you were still censored and oppressed by your rulers. In the nineties, you succeeded in emerging triumphantly out of years of domination and your mystic heritage and art collections were exposed to visitors who were then intent on placing cultural sightseeing first on their agenda. Presently, you are experiencing an invasion of the masses, throngs of people who for some reason or other but definitely not for the sake of culture have placed you on their list of holiday destinations.
Karluv Bridge has become one vast crowded walkway, its majestic opulence and dignified glory impossible to enjoy. Ul Karlova has lost its ghostly charm and has turned into a congested passage of side-by-side shops where the search for souvenirs is dominating the scene. Where have the handmade wax statues of the Infant Jesus of Prague gone? Where have the hand-painted Russian eggs, inlaid with iconic symbols of saints disappeared? I looked for these but I found none. Formerly filled in with cherishable works of art, most souvenir shops on Ul Karlova are presently selling knickknacks and plastic bijouterie of no artistic value.
Staromestske Namesti, encircled with colourful baroque palatial architecture has become one large dining and drinking area. Most people do not even dare look at the stunning collection of facades that fill in the square; neither do they get close to the Jan Hus Monument to inspect its elegant composition.
In the nineties, when those who paid you a visit were far less than today, the Rudolfinum used to be packed to capacity daily with aficionados of orchestra music, aware that the Czech Philharmonic was one of the best music ensembles in the world. When I last attended, stacks of tickets were unsold and half the seats were empty. Even the Narodni Divadlo, indisputably the best opera theatre within your boundary is experiencing a shortfall in ticket sales.
What has happened to you dear Prague? Why are your music nightclubs, bars and casinos overrun with dancers, boozers and gamblers but your classic theatres are experiencing a plunge? Why has the ghostly atmosphere that shrouded your streets with mysticism changed to one of burlesque fun and vain show-business?