Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Return to Prague: You can’t step in the same river twice.

Tyn Church overlooking Old Town Square

I fell in love with Prague in 1989; at the time, I was expecting a beautiful city with a rich, well-preserved architectural heritage, but I wasn’t prepared for the astonishing beauty of Prague.

This was near the end of the Communist regime but neither we, nor most of the residents of Prague, knew we were on the cusp of radical change. Rick and I were there in July of ’89 and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November of ’89. In July ’89, Prague was still hardline communist. You couldn’t buy a foreign language newspaper--except for the Stalinist British Morning Call. The French and Italian communist papers were deemed too liberal to be sold in Czechoslovakia. It was no doubt a good experience for someone like me, who actually briefly flirted with support for Communism, to get a sense of what it was like to actually live under real existing socialism/ communism.

At that time Americans were segregated in ugly hotels on the outskirts of Prague and the food in the restaurants was truly horrible. Now there are good hotels and restaurants and we had no trouble getting the international New York Times. Among the restaurants that I highly recommend:

Cantinetta Fiorentina
Fred and Ginger’s

Clearly life is much better for the citizens of Prague and I’m happy for them. However, for me, the magic was gone. Gorgeous Old Town Square was as packed with people as NYC’s Times Square during the holiday season. It was really difficult to cross the Charles Bridge because of the crush of people and the gauntlet of souvenir shops. We found ourselves avoiding the places we loved and lingered at in 1989.

The Charles Bridge as I remember it--without tourists

Like the Poles in Krakow, the Czechs have realized the tourist potential of the old Jewish Quarter which in 1989 was shabby and neglected, with very few tourists. In 2015 the Jewish Quarter is beautifully restored and packed with tourists, cafes, restaurants, trendy shops. The money generated by the tourists is no doubt responsible for the restoration and for the very moving memorial dedicated to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed by the Nazis.

Maisel Synogogue

Memorial to Holocaust Victims, Pinkas Synagogue

I was very happy to revisit Prague, but Rick and I both don't think we will be back. Prague no longer has a hold over my imagination. I returned to Santiago de Chile after many decades and had the same reaction. You really can’t step in the same river twice.

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