mánudagur, desember 19, 2005

czech musings

We arrived back home in Iceland last night after a hellish day of travel. We did the cheap thing and flew through Heathrow, but that involved an Icelandair and a British Airways leg, and lots of luggage shuffling, passport stamping, and re-check-ins in Heathrow's cramped quarters. But enough of that... the Czech Republic was as amazing as it always has been to me.

A lot has changed in the 10 years since I first visited the Czech Republic. Prague has become a tourist magnet of the first degree, which is in some ways heartening and some ways disappointing. The streets I once roamed unmolested with the original Prague Three are now knee-deep in tourist swarms. Josefov is one continuous wall of people, stacked five and six deep in a touristic parallel of the district's famous graveyard. The Charles Bridge looks more like the exit tunnel of an arena sporting event. And the Prague Castle now charges admission to visit many parts that were once not only free, but also empty. But all of this is good for Prague, because the tourist dollars are clearly lifting the Pragueconomy and fresh coats of paint abound. The sadness and melancholy that once marked the place have almost disappeared, at least in some neighborhoods. It's just difficult to have to share the erstwhile diamond-in-the-rough with everyone else.

There was a restaurant near our hotel called Corleone's. Even having an Italian restaurant was probably unheard-of in 1995 Prague. (In a bizarre twist, the first non-government restaurant in the country was the excellent Icelandic "Reykjavík" which opened soon after the fall of Communism.) Not only was Corleone's well-attended, it was actually trendy. All around us, the hip 20- and 30-somethings of Prague were meeting on dates or going out with their friends, sipping on Merlot, and ordering up the gnocchi. There was a buzz to the place the likes of which I had never heard in Prague. It was the buzz of people enjoying prosperous lives, and it was nice to be in the middle of it.

Not all of the country is rising so fast. The train stations in the smaller places outside of Prague had their old faded glory intact, and the second city, Brno, felt a lot more workaday and authentic. The countryside is distinctly Old World, with the pungent (and guilty-pleasure) smell of coal smoke in the air, and a gypsy wagon and a man using horses to haul firewood visible from the side of the train tracks. Many towns are an odd combination of medieval and Renaissance center ringed with the ubiquitous panelaky, or Soviet-designed panel-house tenements from the Cold War era.

We spent several nights with our friends in the southern Bohemia town of Jindrichuv Hradec, a place where I once lived for a summer. That town retains all of its downtown cobblestoned beauty, and the castle at one end is lovely as ever. The shops on the main street were jammed full of goodies, people thronged the main shopping street, and kids danced at the traveling Coca-Cola caravan in the main square. Our friends were amazing hosts, showing us around, making us all manner of warm drinks to stave off the winter, and taking us out for fried cheese and perfect beer in the restaurant in the basement of their house. On the last morning, the four of us walked a ring around the little town, which was getting covered in snow. On the train back to Prague, we paused for a few minutes at a switching point and watched powdery snow fall silently into the tall trees next to the track.


Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

sounds awesome :-)

are there lots of american tourists?

"and a gypsy wagon and a man using horses to haul firewood visible from the side of the train tracks"
... I await photos!
-paul L

Blogger JB said...

Yep, not only a lot of American tourists, but a lot of American expats too. There are probably more American expats in Prague than there are people in Iceland's second city, Akureyri. At one point, I believe there were 20,000 Americans living in Prague. Not sure if that is still true. Anyway, E and I heard a decent amount of American twang on the streets of Prague.


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