Prague: now and then
Looking down on Prague’s towers and red roofs one could be forgiven for seeing the City as timeless and unchanging. But Jennifer and I have particular memories of Prague from 21 years ago which, both for us and the City, make change very apparent.
Then, we were travelling around Europe on a shoestring. We stayed in a freezing room in a football stadium on the outskirts of Prague because there was no Youth Hostel. We shared the Stadium bathroom with a visiting group of Czech girls whose lengthy queues made getting a shower in the morning a marathon experience. Getting in to the centre of town involved buses and trams.
Last night we were met at the station by our charming American landlord. He escorted us to our apartment on the tram and pointed out the good restaurants and pastry shops on the way. Our apartment is in the absolute centre of town, a moment’s walk to everything. The apartment itself is a lovely converted loft – warm, spacious and well-appointed.
Then, Prague was a gray, Communist city. The underlying beauty was there but there was a lack of colour. Food was scarce – a greengrocer shop had, maybe, a selection of a few apples and some oranges. There were few restaurants and shops and they were all local.
As we walked through the old town today shops and cafes and restaurants are everywhere. Prague is a bustling, cosmopolitan city on a par in terms of quality, if not scale, with Paris or London. I don’t know if the prosperity extends to the rest of the country but Prague has obviously and demonstrably benefited from the events of 1989. Buildings have been renovated and cleaned and it is obvious why this place is now one of the premier destinations in Europe.
Then, Prague was in the final days of the Velvet Revolution. Wenceslas Square and the surrounding streets were bursting with determined crowds waving the Czech flag and demanding change. It was hard to know whether to be more intimidated by the exuberance of the crowds or the watchful gaze of the ubiquitous security police.
Today Wenceslas Square is dotted with tourists. Western shops sit on its surrounds.
Change has doubtless come and the city has moved entirely from the East to the West.
Then, we spent long, cold days wandering hand in hand and searching out every nook and cranny of the city. We regarded anyone sitting inside in the warmth with consuming envy while we ate bread and cheese on park benches.
Today we picked the highlights out of the City before finding a playground for our kids to have a run around in. We stopped for coffee and hot chocolate as we explored and finally returned to our apartment with a bag of local pastries when the cold got too much for us.
The events we witnessed in 1989 were a pivotal point in the Czech Republic’s modern history. We remember watching and discussing what they would mean for the City and the country. In particular we were right that so much of the fervour we saw at the time was a deep desire to have the things that the West had – the material things as much as the freedom.
In the twenty-one years since, Prague has changed in so many ways; from what we can see, almost entirely for the better. But then, we’ve changed too. Visiting somewhere like this that has held such strong memories for us, is almost like saying hello to your younger self.
I’m not sure what our younger selves would have thought of us now – but I am certain they’d have appreciated the central heating in our apartment.