The former Soviet Union turned Karl Marx’s naïve, utopian dream into an oppressive and corrupt regime that prompted a Czech revolution in 1989 and doomed communism to the dustbin of history. Since throwing off the yolk of authoritarianism, the Czechs have been “disinclined” to pass a lot of restrictive laws — so what more reason do you need to go?
Want to do something insane? It’s probably legal in Prague.
Thanks to Prague’s less-than-great 40-year experience with authoritarianism, you can now do pretty much anything in Prague, and do it legally (or, at least, semi-legally): You can bring dogs into bars, you can smoke weed pretty much anywhere …heck, around here you could probably murder a hobo in broad daylight without anyone saying boo (assuming the hobo was Communist, of course).
No longer constrained by the respect for authority, the Czechs are going after America’s long-held title as The World’s Most Self-Indulgent Country Of Total Narcissists. But I have to say, after suffering through four decades of horrific Communist rule, they’ve certainly earned the right to not give a crap about what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. And it’s this laissez faire attitude towards almost everything that makes Prague exciting.
Hands off my brewski, comrade.
To give you an idea of how seriously the Czechs take their disdain for being told what to do, consider this: Prague is located right next to the little town of Pilsen (aka the birthplace of Pilsner Urquell). And recently, there was a brew-ha-ha about the ridiculously low price of beer — it is, by far, the cheapest beverage on any restaurant menu in the Czech Republic (the way the gods intended it to be).
Rightly, health officials worried that beer’s amazing affordability encouraged the Czechs to over-indulge, drinking beer to the exclusion of all other important beverages like, say, water. And, considering that the Czech Republic has the highest per person beer consumption in the world (Germany is a pathetic, under-achieving #2 on the list), over-consumption is a very real and ever-present danger.
How real? This real: On average, Czechs drink 37 gallons of beer per person per year, or more than double the level of Americans. And the fact that this vital health issue wasn’t easily settled months ago with some rush legislation tells you how the Czech people feel about government-mandated restrictions — telling Czechs they can’t do something is a losing platform.
Wait, don’t you mean Czechoslovakia?
The Czech Republic was, from 1918 until 1993, better known as Czechoslovakia. And, while I’d heard of the country and could actually pronounce its name, I had absolutely no idea where Czechoslovakia was on a world map. In fact, it wasn’t until we booked the trip that I finally looked at a map and noticed the country was in Central Europe and not Russia as I had initially thought.
After the fall of the local Communist party in 1989, Czechoslovakia’s name was changed back to its pre-WWI, Austro-Hungarian names: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Despite being two separate nations now, the Czech Republic and Slovakia still have a lot of similarities. For example, Czechs are tolerant of atheists, Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals, while the Slovaks believe in freedom of religion, too, as long as it’s Catholicism.
Sadly, the country of Slovakia wasn’t on our travel agenda (this time), but I have no doubt that both the country of Slovakia and its people would’ve been lovely and interesting (except for this one serial child-killer) — we had a Slovakian guide who couldn’t have been nicer. In fact, the only reason we opted to visit Prague instead of Bratislava, was because Prague didn’t sound like a type of sausage.
Prague wasn’t always such a great place.
Though currently a parliamentary republic or something, the Czech Republic was — from 1948 to 1989 — a single-party Communist oligarchy aligned with the former Soviet Union. And despite typical American misperceptions of Communist life being much like a xenophobic Wendy’s commercial, life in the region didn’t totally suck at first. In fact, Communist life in Czechoslovakia was pretty good in the early days.
Certainly, the costs of kicking the Nazis out of the area left a few literal holes in the local landscape, but the subsequent Communist regimes successfully transformed the region into an industrial powerhouse, creating the highest rate of economic growth of any region in the world, including the countries in Western Europe, and even the United States.
But by the early 1970s, frays in the vaunted “Iron Curtain” were starting to show. Central planning, a lack of raw materials, and dependence on the Soviet Union created insurmountable economic pressures. Soon, food lines were long, living accommodations were grim, and ordering a Russian car took 5 years to get, and when you did, it was often the wrong color — and worse, it was a Russian car.
During the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the Czechs endured terrible oppression and hardships including jailing dissidents, mass executions, and missing out entirely on the British Invasion, Free Love, and Disco. Luckily, then-President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in 1987 that made the Communists instantly convert to Christianity and Free-Market Capitalism, so everyone lived happily ever after and no one ever had any more problems. Sure, that sounds right.
Prague is like stepping back in time.
Visiting Prague and the Czech Republic in 2014 felt like visiting America pre-2001 (you know, before the US became a police state). Though Prague is an old city, it has a fairly young population overall — one that, now freed from the shackles of authoritarianism, isn’t going to follow your stupid rules, man! So while Prague still looks like Old Europe, to all outward appearances the place feels new and rebellious, like Detroit in the 1970s — an unassuming city with an undercurrent of underground edge.
Regrettably, that “edge” manifested itself as graffiti more often than I would’ve liked to see. Though it wasn’t widespread or rampant by any means, the graffiti was still disappointing because the city itself was so beautiful and clean otherwise. The only other disappointment was the number of strip club billboards along the main highway into Prague that made the outskirts feel like the middle of Florida. Luckily, that was the only similarity.
Prague is just the right size city.
To the casual observer, Prague looks surprisingly huge — bigger than Budapest, and way bigger than Vienna — yet it only has a population of 1.2 million people. That’s far smaller than NYC and a bit bigger than San Francisco (yet its still only a rounding error for a mega-city like Cairo who’s population is “20-25” million). Frankly, I was expecting the city to be smaller and more quaint.
But the reason for Prague’s apparent hugeness could just be that the city’s hills let you see everything all at once — driving into the city, we saw the whole place laid out in front of us. Buildings sprawled forever in all directions, highways rose four stories off the ground, and rich foliage filled in everything in between. It’s like you’re seeing the whole city at an IMAX theater (which, in hindsight, would’ve saved us a boatload of money).
The city of 1,000 spires (give or take).
Once the Austrians forced Catholicism on the people of Prague, the city’s church-dotted skyline got them the nickname, “City of a thousand spires.” Yet despite all these pointy buildings, Prague doesn’t really have a large religious community. In fact, the Czech’s may be the least religious people in the world. Apparently, when “Karl Marx and Friends” (a morning opinion/talk-show popular with old line Communists) told people that religion “retarded human development” and was “the opium of the people,” the message sorta stuck.
Around 50% of Prague-ians admit to never going to church nor feeling guilty about doing things that come naturally to well-adjusted, civilized human beings. Crazy, right? Still crazier is the fact that the murder rate in godless the Czech Republic is less than half that of the Lord-lovin’ United States. However, that statistic may have more to do with the Czech’s very reasonable gun-control laws.
But religion hasn’t been entirely exorcised from Prague — the city has a good-sized Jewish population. Well, I mean…it does now. The Jewish population of Prague euphemistically “declined” from 54,000 in 1940 to less than 8,000 by 1947, as many were arrested, deported, killed, or forced into exile by the Nazis and then the Communists. (For more, read the well-regarded book, “Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968.”) We visited the Jewish Museum which was nice.
Their clock is a big deal for some reason.
In Old Town Square, Prague’s astronomical clock is a tourist magnet. This Medieval-era clock has an astronomical dial, a calendar dial, and a bunch of sculptures around the outside. Like clock-work, the ancient time-piece announces each hour with a barely noticeable parade of wooden apostles moving past two tiny windows above the dial. When the figures finish their journey, a golden rooster at the top crows and the bell chimes the hour. In Medieval times, that trick probably blew everyone’s freakin’ mind.
In addition, the clock’s Astronomical Dial purports to show the medieval perception of the Universe with Earth at its center (Copernicus, who…?). Its Zodiac ring has three circles showing different times: 1.) Old Czech or “Italian” Time,” 2.) Central European Time, and 3.) Babylonian Time. There was no mention of whether the clock could display GMT, Daylight Savings, or “Miller Time.”
The King Charles bridge is positively medieval.
While making travel plans, we’d heard a lot about the famous King Charles bridge — mostly that it was old, big and, you know…famous. The bridge was built during the 14th/15th Centuries to connect Prague Castle with Old Town. This critical link is almost 6,000 feet long and nearly 90-feet wide. Massive and sturdy-looking, this 650 year old bridge sits atop 16 arches, is decorated with some 30 Baroque-style religious statues, and desperately needs a power-washing or two — it is seriously brown.
Still, the highlight of this landmark is the creepy, gothic-style Old Town bridge tower which is as black as night and probably houses a cadre of gruesome hunchbacks who steal unsuspecting children from tourist families to feast on their entrails in a satanic ritual bent on the total destruction of this earthly realm — so I’d recommend visiting the place around mid-day. Also, it’s less crowded then.
Across the bridge, on the way to Prague Castle, there’s a small road that has been preserved since Medieval times, possibly because Franz Kafka lived there. It’s called Zlata Ulicka (aka “Golden Lane”) and it is truly eye-opening. I honestly had no idea that Medieval people were so short. Either that, or the builders didn’t have ladders — I mean, these structures are tiny. (Seriously, what nationality are the Keebler elves again?) — I couldn’t even go inside, and I’m only 6′ 3″ tall.
Old Town Square is big and flat.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Europe is the massive, open plazas. Due to their smallish homes and apartments, Europeans need a place to hang out and these public plazas do the job beautifully. In this regard, Prague is no exception. The entire area of Old Town is fully forty percent open cobblestone. The edges around the perimeter of the plaza are lined with over-priced restaurants and bars for good reason — the plaza is a great place to burn off the afternoon sun sitting around drinking an Aperol Spritz or seven.
There were a couple of bummers, though: After we listened to a nice trio of girls playing Classical music on their violas, a few young men set up their instruments and amplifiers to perform Coldplay covers. Making matters worse, everybody was smoking cigars or cigarettes everywhere. To be fair, I don’t know which was more offensive: The cigars or the Coldplay.
Bohemian crystal is a thing the Czechs do.
We went to the Ruckl glass factory to see people make Bohemian crystal, one of the Czech Republic’s (legal) exports since the 13th Century. It’s basically lead crystal with added potash and chalk to make it more stable and carve-able. The crystal was undeniably beautiful, but since using it as a decanter would leech lead into our scotch — a wholly unacceptable situation — we passed on buying any of it. We also passed because lead crystal appears solid black to TSA x-ray machines, and we didn’t fancy getting full body-cavity searches.
After seeing all the craftsmen (and -women) working the crystal with their grinding wheels and whatnot, we couldn’t help but be impressed with their precision and attention to detail. We also couldn’t help but think that these talented artisans should totally be replaced by robots — the work looked crazy hard and handling lead 8-hours a day can’t be all that healthy for humans. Employee health and safety might be the one area where the Czechs could use a little nanny-state regulation.
Yeah, but what about the food?
Like any major European city, Prague has some pretty solid cuisine (depending on where you go, of course). We went to a Modern Czech underground restaurant named “Casserol” that was quite good, but bring a flashlight if you want to be able to read the menu. Not for nothing, but you can get piglet knuckles here for whatever reason (hey, no judgement).
If you want something less swine-centric, try the cash-only vegetarian place named “Maitrea” which is located just off Old Square (but good luck finding it). While there, be sure to get the Czech-brewed “Hemp-Brau” which is exactly what it sounds like. If you’re more in the mood for pasta, look for the very reasonably priced “Giovanni Pizzeria” — it’s a quaint Italian place hidden off Old Square that is also kinda hard to find.
And if you venture up to the Prague Castle (Praha 1) area, have lunch at LoVeg, another vegetarian place that has a respectable faux bacon cheeseburger. Fair warning: if you’re a tall person and you want to sit outside, watch your head — I totally smacked my noggin squeezing out the door onto LoVeg’s rooftop and bled for a week. (The view of Prague Castle kinda made up for it.)
The Czech cuisine scene was marred only by a lack of tipping standardization — sometimes there was a line for it on the receipt, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes, it was already included, sometimes, it wasn’t — and it was never easy to tell which. To compound the problem, we could never be sure if the waiter neglect and food delays were truly bad service, or just “European” service. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
Prague has a lot to like, just not the language.
The Czechs speak English pretty much everywhere you need them to in Prague. That’s great, because the Czech language is — as I found out when trying to use ATMs without an English option — nigh indecipherable to non-native speakers. It was easier for Alan Turing to crack the enigma device than it was for me to get past an ATM’s welcome screen. Yet this language problem wasn’t confined solely to the Czech Republic.
Traveling from Budapest (where they speak Hungarian, a language that amounts to clearing your throat a lot), we drove about two and a half hours and suddenly had to learn an entirely new language — Austrian, which is basically German but a bit snootier sounding. Another 3.5 hours of driving and we needed to change languages yet again, this time to Czech, an accent-crazy, consonant-centric language (due to vowel rationing, most likely). And had we kept traveling around Europe, we would’ve changed languages probably six times in as many hours — I guess what I’m really trying to say is that Europe is dumb.
Seeing the real Prague.
Thanks to a friend from California who lives there now (Shout out to Jesse!), we were able to escape the touristy areas in favor of the Praha 2 and 3 neighborhoods. Both seemed like very nice, quiet, and incredibly safe, even walking home late at night after a drunken bender. They had lovely parks where people could hang out and get stoned without being hassled by the cops or randomly murdered by a drug addict.
The Czechs largely attribute this lower crime to a weird thing called “income equality” which would never catch on in the States (no matter how hard non-corporate persons keep trying). In the final analysis, all things considered, I really liked Prague and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves European cities, personal freedom, and amazingly cheap beer. So then, I guess, pretty much everyone.