The City of a Thousand Spires

Prague is a city that effortlessly meshes cultures, leaving the traveler with a constant sense of intrigue at every turn

A view of the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge on a cold and foggy day | Photo: Justin McCauley

The drive from Vienna to Prague is simple enough: north to Brno and then west, three-and-a-half hours straight into the Czech capital. It would be a romantic weekend zu zweit – just my girlfriend Zuzana and me – and the only inconveniences the poorly paved Czech roads (more fit for a dune buggy than our Volvo) and the inanity of Czech radio DJs, who seem more interested in talking through songs than playing them, (Guns N’ Roses’ enhanced with an inscrutable voice over…).

But these were but minor nuisances – the fact was, as we reached the outskirts of the city following the Vltava River, studying the forested hills and imposing palisades where centuries-old structures perch like falcons on shelves of rock, I remembered once again that this Bohemian conurbation is indeed my favorite European city.

We dropped off our bags at a sleek modern flat borrowed for the weekend, then headed into town. Immediately we were struck by Prague’s dramatic skyline, it’s baroque spires protruding into the night sky, and then you pass under the Gothic tower of the ancient city gate, we are in another world. What is mesmerizing about Prague is its effortless meshing of cultures; Gothic, Bohemian, German, Habsburg and Communist vestiges exist side by side, leaving the traveler with a constant sense of intrigue at the turn of every street corner.

Some of my earliest memories are from this part of the world. Growing up in newly reunified Germany in the early 1990s, my parents jumped at the chance to travel to Czechoslovakia, now open to us, a U.S. Army family, for the first time. Exploring this astonishing country immediately after the Velvet Revolution was fascinating, a time when all the hallmarks of a socialist republic marked the city.

The Prague Metro is one of the leftovers of Communist Czechoslovakia – its sterile, modernist interiors typical of socialist realism have a particularly transitory effect, even to someone who spends considerable time in post-socialist Bratislava.  Getting off at Můstek, we strolled to Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square), a breathtaking boulevard that leads uphill to the National Museum. It was a cold night, and we needed food. Turning off the square, we opt for a rather, well, unconventional Prague dinner – at Hooters. Yes, Hooters.

But what is a cliché to me is sometimes exotic to Zuzana: So while I, as an American expat, bemoan the onslaught of U.S. chain restaurants that litter Europe’s venerated capitals (the sight of a Starbucks in café meccas like Paris and Vienna turns my stomach), she, a Slovak, finds them appealing. As I am no stranger to Czech cuisine, we went for it.

As it turned out, it was the best Hooters I’ve ever been too – the chicken wings and curly fries were spot on, but the real delight was the fact that it was staffed by Czech beauties and proffered big glasses of Pilsner Urquell instead of the watered-down pitchers of Miller Lite common stateside. Hard to mind when the brew is local.  And after a relaxing amble around the Old City to work off the meal, we headed back to the flat to get some rest and get ready for the next day.

In the morning we returned to the Old City and a museum dedicated to the Prague literary giant, Franz Kafka, housing many original manuscripts and journals of the complex master of surrealism. The museum is also a beacon of the city’s history, for in many ways the story of the German-Jewish-Czech Kafka is also the story of Prague itself – a city of struggling identities and artistic vision, constantly caught between empires. Kafka, a mid-level civil servant, conveyed the doom, hopelessness and stifling obedience of life under pre-WWI bureaucratic, imperial rule – a deadening of the spirit that Prague would re-experience in the years of Communism.

We emerged from the gloomy fascination of the Kafka Museum as if from an uneasy sleep, relieved to find we had not awakened as a giant bug…

Once outside, we follow a narrow cobblestone street around and up onto the Charles Bridge, Prague’s most recognizable landmark, just above the museum. Our plan was to buy some modest piece of art as a keepsake, a watercolor or an engraving, perhaps. As we perused the vendors selling prints, paintings and photos, the so-called Bridge Band of accordion, clarinet fiddle, trumpet, a staple of the Charles Bridge scene since as long as I can remember, provided a lively accompaniment of Bohemian folk musik. Finally we found a watercolor of a Prague backstreet with its cobblestone stairways and distinctive street lamps, we returned to the flat to dress for the opera.

With me sporting a classic black suit and Zuzana in an elegant black dress, red lipstick and heels, we raced to the State Opera just it time to catch the beginning of Carmen – not exactly Czech, but as opera novices, Georges Bizet’s masterpiece turned out to be an ideal choice. The opulent, gilded curves of the rococo hall, upholstered in red plush under a panorama of painted frescoes and walls, gold fixtures and elegant Baroque seats and banisters; and since we arrived late and had to sit in a loge box close to the stage, we had a chance to study the décor closely. The performance was excellent – despite our status as laymen, this opéra comique kept us engaged throughout with its tale of gypsy romance and adventure. The stage set-up was impressive part to the sheer presence of the actors, especially Miguelangelo Cavalcanti, who was powerfully poised, compelling and full of classic Latin machismo as Escamillo, sort of half-Javier Bardem, half-Marcello Mastroianni.

After the show, we headed into town for a late dinner… only to find that virtually all restaurants stop serving at 11. After being turned away at several appealing taverns, we finally found salvation at Staromácek, a bit of stage-set Bohemia in the Old Town Square. We enjoyed some delicious dark beer and duck with steamed red and white cabbage infused with apple… Needless to say, it hit the spot.

We slept in on Saturday, and awoke to find the city covered with a thin layer of snow. Beautiful but biting-cold, we sought shelter in town at the Museum of Communism. Prague is a city that suffered greatly under Communist rule, epitomized by the Prague Spring, the 1968 Soviet invasion that crushed socialist reformer Alexander Dubček. This is a post-1989 museum – there is no socialist nostalgia here – it is none-the-less a fascinating portrait life in a Soviet satellite state, and the efforts of Václav Havel and the resistance movement Charter 77. But most importantly, it is very Czech – with a gift shop of Bohemian Tchotchkes and Soviet kitsch à la Milan Kundera.

The climax of the tour was a documentary of the Velvet Revolution, with emotive footage of clashes between demonstrators and police – particularly poignant considering the current uprisings across North Africa.

We spent the rest of the day strolling around the city, taking in the surreal mix of Baroque, socialist and modern architecture, and café-crawled from trendy coffee shops to rustic, provincial watering holes. Lunch was traditional Czech – potato soup and goulash with Karlovy dumplings and, of course, beer. I also dropped a considerable amount of money in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Shakespeare & Sons bookstore, getting my hands on some hard-to-find Czech authors like Ivan Klíma and Bohumil Hrabal.

Tying off the evening, we hit up an absinthe bar to indulge in the fabled green elixir. Czech absinthe is an experience all its own, having little in common with the French original. Containing a considerable amount of wormwood but lacking the anise, fennel and other herbs of its French cousins, it is prepared using a modern fire ritual in which an absinthe-coated sugar cube atop a spoon is set alight and swirled into the spirit. French varieties prepared with traditionally (with a slow-drip fountain gradually dissolving the sugar into the glass) were also offered, so we tried several. Our recommendation? St. Antoine – it’s powerful and slightly bitter, with a hot, dry finish.

Delightfully tipsy, we ventured home for a dreamless sleep.

And in the morning, slightly worse for wear, we packed up the car and headed out, direction Bratislava. It was a brief stay, but a satisfying one. Amid the glitz of western commerce and dreary shards of Communism, Prague is still a fairytale city, a cultural cuvee of almost endless variety that can catch even the frequent visitor by surprise, or afford the chance to delve deeper into already beloved discoveries.

As we cruised south, I surfed the radio and found the classic cover of “Because the Night” by 10,000 Maniacs. Right before the epic climax of the song, the Czech DJ chimed in, blabbering on about something for the remainder of the track… great.

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