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Why we travel: The city of Prague is a marvel – who knew?

by Steve McKee on August 21, 2007

“I suppose you’ll be doing an architectural tour?” asked a new acquaintance upon hearing I was headed to Europe.

I’d never quite thought of it that way. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I will.”

That question stayed with me in the days that followed and got me wandering if I freakishly require my wife to follow me on some to-do list of visiting important buildings. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that we do pretty much the same that everybody else does when they tour Europe: we simply check out the cool stuff.

Since most of the locations we tourists go aren’t wilderness areas, and instead are places like cities and towns and castles (“the built environment” in architect-speak) we are all of us taking an architectural tour of sorts.

There are certain “must see” buildings, to be sure, but the trips are just as much about marveling at smaller details, like the way a stone arch leftover from some long-gone building is today being used by a café to create a totally great outdoor dining area. Things like that.

Of course there’s also good food, great art and interesting people, but for me to endure a fifteen hour plane ride, I need some architectural kapowza. I want to be humbled by the best that humans have ever built.
I had heard Prague in the Czech Republic was a notable city, a place worthy of pilgrimage, so Melody and I decided to pay a visit. To get ready for our trip, Mel signed the kids up for summer camp and read various historic novels that take place in our city of choice while I simply worked like hell to get my clients all put to bed for the period I’d be gone.

Emerging from the metro on an escalator into the cobble-stoned heart of Prague was a perfect way to be suddenly saturated in the richness of that remarkable city. We had allocated only two and a half days of our trip to try and know its many nuances.

Not as spread-out as Paris; not as confined as Venice, it was just right, and with more color to the buildings than either of those places. Because Prague had never been ravaged in a war (!), buildings are intact from various centuries and gilded ages when the emphasis was on rich detail. Streets bend this way and that, some widen, others become narrow and intimate. Older stone buildings have bell towers. Archways through buildings lead to courtyards and shortcuts to other streets and city squares. Open market here, amazing baroque church there. I’ve never found another city with such a human scale to it.

Sidewalk dining abounds. In the historic center the auto traffic is quite mellow and pedestrians rule. There are tourists and locals using all the outdoor eating spots, making for fantastic people watching and adding to the buzz of the place.

On our last day we signed up for a theme tour: a guided walking tour that highlighted the “communist history” of the city. It was led by a seventy-five year old man named Josef who had lived through it all – the prewar years, the Nazi occupation, the four decades of communism that crippled the economic vitality of the nation, and then the best of all, the “velvet revolution” of 1989 when they got their freedom back. His tour turned out to be a highlight of our trip.

Josef had been a top performing tenor back in his day and got to tour other nations and continents while just about everybody else under the communists was denied a passport. The commies kept church doors open in order to make a show of freedom to the world but when Josef entered a church in Prague against his better judgment he got called into an office a few days later and had his passport taken from him. The bastards (my word, not his) had cameras everywhere and he had violated their rules. The good news was that the various offices in the centralized bureaucracy didn’t know what each other was doing and, because he was a performer, he later got his passport back.

On our walk, Josef liked to hold forth about all sorts of city history as we passed through the various streets and city squares, but I made sure to fish for a story about what it was like when communism fell. With a passion that wasn’t faked, he told us about the joy felt on that day in 1989 when seven hundred thousand people gathered in Prague (picture the crowd at Woodstock almost doubled) and jingled their keys as a symbolic “last bell” for communism.

It’s been seventeen years since the day everybody got their life back, but they all still seem a little giddy about it. From the talkative night attendant at our hotel desk to the guy selling t-shirts and watercolor prints, they’re happy. They all speak pretty good English and are glad to share their wonderful city with the world.

Coming from the U.S., where it’s standard to make perfunctory declarations about our appreciation of freedom, it was exciting for us to be around people who were really living that appreciation and would understand it in ways we never would. When we were done with our theme tour, Melody and I sat down at a shaded table on a narrow side street with just enough people walking by to make it interesting and had one of those great ultra thin-crust pizzas like they make in Italy. Our waitress was by herself working our restaurant both inside and out and doing so with great efficiency. Her hustle and courtesy, I noted, was now rewarded in a free enterprise system. Keeping with this theme, I tipped pretty big.

From now on I’m a big fan of the Czech people, who, despite being surrounded by nations that bully them, still created wonderful cities, waited out tyrants and then elected a humanitarian playwright/poet as their first modern era president (Vaclav Havel), and managed to split from the Slovaks without bloodshed. How can anyone not love all that “live and let live” stuff?

I guess it’s not always just about the buildings after all.

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