Retired in Rome Journal: Prague’s run to the West was the fleetest of all

Old Town Square, with 18th century St. Nicholas Church, has measured Prague's pulse since the 10th century.
Old Town Square, with 18th century St. Nicholas Church, has measured Prague’s pulse since the 10th century.
One of the restaurant/beer gardens under the Charles Bridge.
One of the restaurant/beer gardens under the Charles Bridge.
The Charles Bridge, built in 1400, was made pedestrian only after WWII.
The Charles Bridge, built in 1400, was made pedestrian only after WWII.
These lit penguins on the Vltava River are part of Prague's eclectic art scene.
These lit penguins on the Vltava River are part of Prague’s eclectic art scene.
Svickova, Czech's traditional dish of sirloin in sour cream sauce, with bread dumplings.
Svickova, Czech’s traditional dish of sirloin in sour cream sauce, with bread dumplings.


It’s 8:50 in the morning and I’m sitting alone in what looks like a combination deli, cafe, pastry shop, dairy and liquor store. I’m eating a palicinka, one of Czech Republic’s fantastic chocolate crepes. It’s 12 korunas or 67 cents. I saw them on a counter covered with plastic above a huge display case filled with creamy croissants, fat hand-made sandwiches, tins of canned meats and cartons of fresh milk.

Thirty years ago people stayed in line all morning for a tomato.

But comparing modern Czech Republic to its communist past is like comparing my Rome to the Roman Empire. Czechoslovakia seems that long ago. I had dessert last night at Cafe Savoy, one of the most exclusive restaurants in Prague. It’s where the movers and shakers meet and eat under crystal chandeliers, in booths of gold-wood paneling with white tablecloths. Opened in 1893, the beautifully hand-painted roof was covered for protection in World War I. During Czechoslovakia’s communism era, from 1945-1989, one of the best restaurants in Eastern Europe was a storage area.

I asked my waiter what he remembers of communism.

“Nothing,” he said. “It ended six years before I was born.”

Welcome to the Czech Republic.

I love Eastern Europe. The combination of Western capitalism sprinkled with remnants of communist oppression always fascinated me. Prague never did. Of all the Eastern European capitals, it was the first to embrace tourism and Westernization. After all, it had the best view. It’s the closest to the West of all the East European capitals. When Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992, the Czechs immediately went to work. They gave the dreary Old Town a fresh coat of paint, lit up its spectacular seven bridges, reopened its spas and made its award-winning beer available on nearly every street corner. Tourists flocked for the Western conveniences, comforts and flavors at communist prices that are still somewhat in effect. A large Pilsner Urquell beer last night in a sexy beer garden by the Vltave River cost me 40 korunas ($2.25).

Consequently, Prague seemed to have turned into a Western capital in about an hour and a half. As a traveler, I see where the crowd goes and go the other way. When a place becomes trendy (Thailand in the ‘80s), I get off the beaten path (Haiti). In my sojourns to Eastern Europe, I’ve gone to the old Yugoslavia, Hungary, Albania, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Poland. I left Czech Republic to the masses and college backpackers.

After one day here, however, I understand the mob mentality. Prague is the third most beautiful city in Europe, behind Rome and Paris. The city is as bright as Las Vegas without the neon and phony architecture. It does have plenty of Vegas kitsch. I saw T-shirts reading “Prague Drinking Team” and “Czech Me Out!” along with those six or seven wooden dolls that all fit inside each other. Souvenir shops are choc-a-bloc in Old Town, a pedestrian-friendly, cobblestone-covered neighborhood that leads directly to the Charles Bridge.

Everything in Prague seems to lead to the Charles Bridge. It’s Prague’s top landmark. It has stretched across the Vltava River since 1400 and been pedestrian only since the end of World War II. Two giant archways seemingly squeeze tourists onto the bridge which stretches about 500 yards. I walked across it back and forth twice and at 5 p.m., it was as crowded as the Las Vegas Strip. When I wasn’t ducking to avoid a Japanese tourist’s photo opp, I was sidestepping street musicians ranging from real classy U.S.-style jazz to schlocky calliopies right out of a circus. Every 50 meters, beggars knelt like sentries with their foreheads to the ground and ballcap upraised to take money. One beggar, only in his 20s, had his left hand free to caress his dog who sat languidly under his owner’s prone body.

But at night, Charles Bridge is the perfect vantage point for one of the best views in Europe. Four and five-hundred-year-old churches are lit up like Christmas trees. Prague Castle, built in the ninth century, stands watch over the bridge from atop a nearby hill. It’s the largest “ancient” castle in the world, covering the area of seven football fields. It remains the office of today’s Czech government. Lovers kiss on the bridge. The tourist pedal boats that cover the river are gone at night, replaced by the gentle waves of water so clean it seems the Czechs brew their beer with it.

Czech hospitality has always been a characteristic. They are a gentle people — except for its police. It was called the Velvet Revolution for a reason. On Dec. 10, 1989, 50,000 youths gathered to commemorate the memory of nine students killed by Nazis in 1939. In one of the biggest overreactions in international police history, Czech police beat 500 of them and arrested 100 more. That sprouted more protests, all peaceful, until 750,000 gathered on Letna Hill and popular playwright Vaclav Havel was elected president 19 days later. Communism was history.

Today, the Czechs are painfully nice despite surveys that showed in 2013 that one of four Czechs were not satisfied with democracy. KCSM, Czech Republic’s commuinist party and the only one in Eastern Europe that still uses “communism” in its name, received 12 percent of the vote in the most recent election.

Still, walking around for two days and meeting Czechs around Europe, they seem outrageously happy and accommodating. At the rent-a-car booth, a fat American woman jumped me for dropping an F-bomb around her 89-year-old mother.

“It’s people like you who give Americans a bad reputation,” she said.

Before I could respond with, “So does your fat American ass,” the rent-a-car clerk said, “The English are worse. So are the Russians.”

My AirBnB host is a late 20ish hippy named Radek who has long, stringy hair and necklaces from what looks like half a dozen African countries. He not only dealt with my dazed confusion when my GPS dropped me off in a parking lot, he came and took me to the apartment then drove with me to the one place in Prague where I could park for free.
(Travel tip: Do NOT rent a car in Prague. Parking is non existent. I am parked about three miles away in the one neighborhood that doesn’t have paid parking. I’m renting it for four days for the soul purpose of using it on my last day so I can get from the spa town of Marianske Lazne to Prague for my morning train to Slovakia. It’s one of my more savvy travel decisions I’ve made in my career along with shark diving with a bloody nose and eating live beetle larvae in the Amazon.

Czech food is a welcome sight. After seven months eating pasta, I’m in the heart of meat and potatoes land. In a sprawling restaurant catering to locals called Kolkovna Olympia, I had the classic Czech dish svickova: roast meat covered in thick brown gravy topped with sour cream. With a side of squishy breaded dumplings about half the thickness of a hockey puck, it stuck to my ribs until morning.

And the three Czech beers have stuck to my head. I’d better get used to it. As I walked to this caffe at 8 a.m., straggling revelers were still drinking beer outside my neighborhood bars. This is Prague. In Prague the rules are different. Traveling here is like playing football.

You’ve gotta play hurt.