Our world tour would not have been complete without a visit to Prague and a few small towns within the Czech Republic. In the spring of 1999, I spent a semester studying in Prague and looked forward to showing Riyad some of my old haunts.
Our first stop in the Czech Republic was Oloumouc, a small town south of Krakow and two and half hours east of Prague, and billed as “Prague without the tourists.” We arrived early in the morning, stored our bags in the train station, and took a short tram ride into the city where we planned to spend the day before continuing to Prague. It was a very beautiful city filled with cobblestone streets, fountains, and small cafes and we watched the sunrise over the main square.
When we arrived in Prague’s main train station later that day, I was immediately surprised at the level of change. In 1999, the station was dark and dingy, lacking English signs or speakers. The station used to be filled with migrant Romanian families who slept in the station and in the park nearby. Mothers bathed their small children in the water fountain, men played the violin, and older kids begged for change from passersby. The area was a reputed haven for pickpockets.
The train station of 2011 was bright, clean, and modern, filled with bookstores, coffee shops, cafes, and signs in English. Gone were the water fountain and families camping in front of the station. The only throwback to the grittiness was the graffiti on the outside walls.
Change was not limited to the train station or a few isolated buildings receiving a fresh coat of paint. In a span of 12 years, the entire city underwent a facelift, prices had increased exponentially, and tourists packed every corner.
The seedy gentlemen clubs and smoky pubs that previously lined Vasclavske Namnesti have turned into sophisticated cocktail bars and inviting coffee shops (including a Starbucks). The square is now a cosmopolitan shopping area with stores that you can find anywhere in Western Europe.
It was still good to see the small fast food stands dotting every corner of the square.
Prague is no longer a budget city. Since joining the European Union in May 2004, prices increased far quicker than I would have expected. In 1999, my months in Prague were filled with lavish meals, opera, live music, and upscale bars. One dollar bought 33 Czech crowns and a Hollywood movie was more expensive than a live professional opera. Today the exchange rate was dropped to 17 crowns and live theatre costs the same as in New York, and a cup of coffee on the Old Town Square was now close to six dollars.
Despite these changes, the city retained the beauty and charm that I imagine it has had since medieval times. Winding cobblestone streets connected the Old Town in an organic pattern likely established during its early formation. Old Town Square contained beautiful monuments, an astronomical clock, and churches.
The Charles Bridge connected the Old Town with the route to Prague Castle. Riyad and I woke up early in order to beat the crowds.
Prague Castle stood on top of the hill and overlooked the stunning landscape below.
Riyad and I were able to connect with an old friend of mine, who I have known since my student days in 1999 and who has more closely experienced the changes in the Czech Republic. Vlasta was one of the first generations in the Czech Republic who learned to speak English in school and quickly became a friend, guide and interpreter in a country that merely 13 years ago had virtually no English speakers.
No trip to the Czech Republic would have been complete without a trip to Ceske Krumlov, a small picturesque town near the Austrian border. While lacking world class cuisine, museums, and thumping nightlife, it exuded charm on a grand scale.
Riyad and I spent our week in the Czech Republic and not once visited a museum or paid to enter one monument. We just relaxed and enjoyed a country that will always remain close to my heart.