A grey, damp and decidedly chilly Sunday in autumn was never going to be the best way to reacquaint myself with Prague. Especially as I’d read enough about the explosion of virtually uncontrolled tourism in the magnificent Old Town to contemplate avoiding it completely. Twenty-seven years ago when I first stood in the Old Town Square, I was taken aback by how beautiful it was. I climbed the old Town Hall tower, with its now famous Astronomical Clock, and gloried in the view towards the Church of Our Lady before Týn.
Afterwards, I had a beer that cost almost nothing in a cafe on the square, and watched the Prague fire brigade perform an unnerving nuclear emergency drill. I wandered down to the river and the epic Charles Bridge, before disappearing into the quiet lanes of Malá Strana. My overwhelming memory of Prague in 1990 is of a extraordinarily attractive city, relaxed and uncrowded, that was just waking up from the slumber of half a century of Communist rule.
An hour or two wandering the Old Town’s tourist hotspots in 2017 had me questioning if this was the same Prague I visited all those years ago. This new Prague seemed under siege from tourism, and an insatiable tourist industry (legal or otherwise) willing to pander to the every whim of the international hoards. Karlova Street, the main artery between the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge is a horror show, showcasing all the perils of modern tourism. Charles Bridge is little better, so crowded you could be on a London Tube at rush hour. How do local residents cope?
Almost every landmark and museum was swamped by tourists, mainly in groups. It was shocking and dispiriting in equal measure. There are also an unpleasant number of drunks, down and outs, and other assorted hustlers. Just try to avoid the attentions of the bus tour touts who are everywhere or, later in the evening, shady characters trying to convince you of the delights of strip clubs and casinos. There are probably more Irish pubs than in Dublin, and way too many Hooters bars.
Luckily, away from the main tourism hubs, and around the fringes of the Old Town, there is still plenty of the Prague I remember, and some things have most definitely improved. The price of beer may have gone up quite a lot, but to compensate the food has improved enormously, although even really good Czech food is not something to take lightly. The heavy sauces, hunks of meat and lumps of dumplings served at best lukewarm, will have you feeling like a human dumpling after a few days.
There is no doubt that the Old Town is still a beautiful part of the city, and I don’t want to be too dismissive about it. There’s a reason all those tourists are wandering around, after all, and that’s because the city has one of the best preserved medieval centres in Europe. This was the capital of Bohemia, and in the 14th century it was transformed into an imperial city by Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful person in Europe. He laid the foundation stone of the bridge that still carries his name today.
Periods of turbulence and political, social and religious violence are dotted throughout Prague’s history, particularly during the 15th century Hussite Wars of Religion. In 1648 the armies of Sweden laid siege to the city; in 1744 it was Prussian armies that surrounded it. Occasionally large parts of the city were destroyed. Throughout all this though, Prague continued to grow in size and wealth to become one of the jewels of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Prague survived the Second World War with little war damage (the human population was not so fortunate), so that today almost everywhere you look in the Old Town you can see elegant buildings reflecting the wealth and history of the city’s past. Throw in some excellent museums, good restaurants, entertaining traditional beer halls, and even areas of tranquility away from the the crowds, and Prague still has a lot to offer … even to a nostalgic tourist returning after a 27-year gap.