Prague: Bauhaus Meets Baroque
Prague airport looks like a shiny new department store. Our plane lands at 3pm on a Monday, a day you expect will be filled with the bustle of tourists and commuters, of people in business suits, of rambunctious children and school groups, but we are greeted by quiet hallways and bored customs officers, by efficient luggage carousels and the scent of expensive air freshener. It takes less than eleven minutes for us to deplane, retrieve our luggage and arrange ourselves in the back of a cab. A feat I’ve never achieved in any major city of the world.
My sense of disorientation is heightened as our bald and burly driver speeds along the Evropská highway, immersed in the French techno pop blaring from the speakers. I feel like we’re being chauffeured by the bouncer of a Euro-trash club. We move from sleek new cab to sleek new hotel - all burnished metal and dark walls, the hipster flourish giving it a continental flare. I feel like I’ve stumbled into Williamsburg, it’s so cool. After the overheated tension of Rome, this feels cool and collected. I keep waiting for some one to make eye contact, to ask for a change, but they don’t. The Cezch ignore us studiously. Even when we speak directly to them, they seem surprised we’ve made the effort.
Prague itself is a jarring mix of modern and historic - bauhaus meets baroque. Glass and concrete apartments jostle for space with intricately decorated town houses, churches jut above the roofline and every view includes a spire. It’s surprisingly picturesque when you consider its communist and grey-brick tradition.
Outside the hotel, the city opens up, starts showing its rough edges. Graffiti smeared walls and crumbling cinderblock buildings cluster around gloomy train stations and empty warehouses. I get the hint of a serious underground. Aggressively dressed teenage girls – all neon hair and piercings – hang from street corners. Men with sloping shoulders and dark eyes crush cigarette butts on the street. A beggar kneels at the base of a church with his hat in his hands.
With five days in the city, I set an itinerary full of churches, parks and markets. I drink a lot of coffee in cafes and walk up endless cobble stoned streets. I never feel unsafe. Even when I run along the river, into a weary-looking and industrial area full of rusting machinery, I run unnoticed.
Riding the train system is effortless. After purchasing a handful of tickets that are never checked, I stop buying them. I slip on and off trams like a delinquent. I drink an Aperol spritzer on a Vlatva party barge - a pair of swans drift past, unperturbed by the blaring disco music and raucous tourists. I hike to Vitus Cathedral, ride the funicular (a delightfully old world contraption) to the Petrin Tower and watch the Astronomical Clock puppets. I amble along the Charles Bridge, inspect the tombs at Vysehrad and listen to the countless church bell melodies.
I’m spell bound by Prague. It’s charming and vivid. Modern and ornate. The people are self-contained but surprisingly warm. On a day trip to Castle Karjstein a coffee shop owner with rudimentary English lends us a rain poncho for the day and won’t accept my tip when I return it in a soggy bundle. The hotel clerk hands back my packet of Euros when I leave it behind in the hotel safe, not a single coin or bill missing. The waiters patiently teach me please and thank you – which even now I can’t remember, overcome by the impossibilities of the Czech language.
The week is so effortless it ends too quickly. I feel like I’ve skated across the surface of a complex and nuanced city. A city filled with history, hardship and an understated striving for modernity.