By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday
The Fischer-Holliday entry is back in Prague for the fourth time since 1990. They note major changes and discover a terrific hotel.
Prague, October, 1995 - In the early years of Prague's coming out we found ourselves there every autumn. First in 1990, then again in 1991 and 1992. Each time we were amazed at the dizzying changes that had taken place in our absence. But after those visits, three years somehow managed to slip by before our next return and so it was with pleasure - and curiosity - that we looked forward to going back again this year.
Is the city still changing? Have things improved? Are they worse? Will we recognize anything? Is it true Prague is just like any other western European city now?
The answer to all the questions is yes - and no. Prague remains a city in transition - a necessary state of affairs for the foreseeable future.
The first move was from communism to uncertainty. Under the old regime life for ordinary people had been drab but predictable and, in a way, secure. Everyone had a job and for team players there was just enough money to buy food from a meagerly stocked market stall.
Then, in 1989, the gates suddenly burst open and the outside world poured in: the curious, the entrepreneurial, the seeders and the bleeders. All dressed to the nines, driving shiny Western cars, oohing, aahing, tsk-tsking and making unreasonable requests for clean rooms, private bathrooms and decent food.
First to arrive on the scene were a flood of bright, eager, young Americans, Canadians and Brits; smart-alecky kids who knew it all and never hesitated to say so. They scoured the want ads, grabbed up all the new jobs in banking and advertising and computer technology, opened coffeehouses and laundromats, inaugurated English-language newspapers and settled in for a long stay.
Five years later the Czechs have their own MBAs, so good-bye clever young things (they're on their way to Vietnam, we understand).
But transition continues as the Czechs move toward a market economy. Restrictions on bringing Czech crowns in and out of the country are easing. Salaries and wages slowly rise to Western standards. Tiered pricing seems less logical every day. Trade deficits are bemoaned and tackled. Long neglected, state-owned properties are steadily being sold off to private enterprise, gutted, renovated and reopened. Tourist revenue grows steadily as visitors from every country, particularly neighboring Austria and Germany, rush in for a look at history in the making and to drink cheap beer.
As frequent but always short-term visitors, we surveyed the scene this year and saw plenty of differences; a bit more of this, somewhat less of that. But above all we saw crowds.
Prague, virtually hidden from sight for decades, has become a tourist mecca. The main sight-seeing/shopping route leading from Wenceslas Square or the Powder Tower, through the Old Town Square, down Karlova, across the Charles Bridge and up to Castle Hill, literally heaves with an endless stream of humanity.
Gratefully, the route is pedestrian-only, but nevertheless there is construction, reconstruction and even destruction everywhere, impeding the ebb and flow of this swell of humanity. And it was October!
Signs of individual capitalism are everywhere although not as haphazard as in 1990 when anyone with an extra pair of shoes could set up shop on the Charles Bridge. Today the streets are lined with a myriad of shops that don't seem to sell anything but lead crystal or wooden toys, all of which look pretty much the same. (What giant factory in which far-flung destination is cranking out all this merchandise?)
It was not without nostalgia that we remembered our first hours in Prague in 1990.
We had arrived around noon by train and, against all advice, without hotel reservations. Trekking up and down Vaclavske nemesti (Wenceslas Square) from dingy hotel to dingy hotel, the answer was always the same; no room at the inn.
Finally the inadvertent hint of bribe landed us a room in the lovely Hotel Druzba, notable for several unusual features. First, an elevator that could only be activated by a bellboy who could only be activated by a crisp one-dollar bill. And secondly, a less than attractive guestroom immortalized by an exterior door that fell out of its frame whenever we tried to lock it.
The next time we went back to Prague someone had had the good sense to put the Druzba out of its misery and transformed it into a bank. And now even the bank is gone, in its place is a store devoted exclusively to the sale of Levis, beginning at $80 a pair!
On our 1991 and 1992 visits we stayed in private apartments temporarily vacated by their Czech occupants. This U. S. operation, Prague Suites, was a lifesaver in those early days and its recent demise is a reflection of the fact that the hotel situation has improved dramatically, although during peak season, which now runs from May through October, it is still necessary to book centrally-located hotels well in advance.
This year our choice for lodging was this well-situated hotel on Wenceslas Square, just a few doors from where the infamous Druzba once stood. There are all sorts of colorful stories about the Adria's past glory but none of that really matters because the hotel has been completely renovated from its sparkling lobby to the 58 comfortable guest rooms. All thanks to a hefty dose of Austrian cash, we are led to understand.
The Adria was reviewed by Gemütlichkeit in its January '95 issue and we have only a couple of comments to add to that report.
Room keys are of the latest credit card variety but, despite a demonstration model on the reception desk downstairs, the corridors are lined with people hunched over their door knobs, valiantly struggling to get inside. And motion sensitive hall lights, while no doubt environmentally sound, don't come on until you've already walked halfway to your room in semidarkness.
According to local cynics, these are typical examples of Czechnology at work.
* Address: Hotel Adria Vaclavske namesti 26, 110 00 Praha 1.
* Phone: 011-42-2-24-23-13-93
* Fax: 011-42-2-242-11025
* Location: Central on Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square).
* Rooms: 51 double, 7 single, 5 apartments, 3 studios and one room for handicapped
* Prices: Singles 4030 Kcs ($155), doubles 4930 Kcs ($189.61), studio 5950 Kcs ($228.85), apartment 6910 Kcs ($265.76), including buffet breakfast.
* Facilities: Restaurant, bar, room service, laundry, elevator, air-conditioning
* Credit cards: All
* Disabled: One room designed for handicapped.
* Parking: Nearby
* Rating: Above Average 15/20
Halfway through our stay in Prague, friends arrived from London and showed us their hotel room in the tiny Hotel Sidi which is located on Kampa Island in the Vlatva River right at the base of the Charles Bridge, one of Prague's most picturesque landmarks. The wide, tree-filled square, Na Kampa, lined with outdoor cafés and local shops, is literally an oasis in the midst of an overwrought city.
The hotel is really a bar/restaurant with rooms technically - three, but we only saw two in operation. Our friends had a lovely room on the top floor with little dormer windows that opened directly out over the bridge; the ultimate room with a view! At night they lay in bed, looking out the window and listening as the street musicians serenaded them to sleep.
It was love at first sight and we hurriedly made arrangements to take up residence.
Our room turned out to be a second floor, two-room suite whose wide windows looked down on the tranquil scene below and up to Prague Castle and the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral. Not a bad view either, but we had to get out of bed to look at it!
There was one consolation; only a short time before we arrived, actor Tom Cruise, on Kampa Island filming an update of Mission Impossible, had stayed for several nights in our very room! (Not everyone can honestly say they have slept in Tom Cruise's bed - or vice versa.)
The Sidi's guestrooms have recently been fixed up with full plumbing facilities, mini-bar, TV and so on, plus some nice touches like chocolate wrapped in the official Sidi logo waiting on the pillow each night. There is, however, no elevator or air-conditioning.
A full breakfast cooked to order is included, with the added bonus of that fabulous view across the Vltva river to ease any early morning pain. The restaurant serves traditional Czech food in a pleasant atmosphere and the minuscule bar downstairs is a favorite with locals.
The owner, Mr. Pter Sadik Sidikman (thus the Hotel Sidi), and his able assistant, Michael Melichar, stop at nothing to please, adding much to the charm of the establishment.
* Address: Hotel Sidi
* Phone: 536 135
* Fax: Same
* Proprietor: Pter Sadik Sidikman
* Location: Near Charles Bridge
* Rooms: 2 doubles, 1 suite
* Prices: Doubles/suites 3,500 kcs ($134.61), including full breakfast
* Facilities: Restaurant, bar
* Credit cards: None
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Parking: Street
* Rating: Excellent 17/20 G $
Restaurant Kampa Park
Conveniently located in the same neighborhood as the Sidi is the upmarket Restaurant Kampa Park, the perfect place to go when you can't face another dumpling or sausage.
Kampa Park is owned by Swedes and has been open about a year. The riverside location, with panoramic views, is perfect. Inside, stucco walls arch over polished hardwood floors overlaid with traditional Swedish rugs. The atmosphere is high-tech bistro with an open kitchen, lots of bustle and potted cactus on the tables.
Our meal there began with a large appetizer of four quail eggs and a dozen chanterelle mushrooms arranged on a bed of bitter greens (125 Kc. $4.80). Other appetizers include several preparations of oysters or shrimp (175-275 Kc, $6.73-10.57), gravlax (185 Kc, $7.11) and dried wafer-thin beef (155 Kc, $5.96).
We continued with a hearty bowl of Czech Potato Soup (90 Kc, $3.46), followed by filet of lamb in bechamel/wine sauce and fresh rosemary (355 Kc, $13.65) and venison simmered in red wine with sautéed mushrooms (395 Kc, $15.19). Both were served with green beans and delicious Scandinavian-style scalloped potatoes.
Fish entrées include salmon, sole, turbot, halibut and scallops ranging in price from 425-525Kc ($16.34-$20.19). Rabbit, chicken and beef tournedo are also on the menu.
There is a limited but respectable and affordable selection of French and German wines. A bottle of house red costs 165 Kc ($6.35), a glass of same is only 35 Kc. ($1.35). Cocktails, always expensive in Europe, cost only 90 Kc ($3.46) here.
Kampa Park is arguably the nicest restaurant we've ever patronized in Prague, as well as the most expensive.
* Kampa Park Na Kampa 8b, Mala Strana, Prague 1, phone 534 856 534 800. Moderate.
* Rating: Excellent 16/20
U Dvou Kocek
We're more likely to be found in a place like U Dvou Kocek (The Two Cats). U Dvou Kocek holds a warm place in our hearts because back in 1990, when meals were as hard to come by as hotel rooms, we were welcomed here with something akin to open arms. In those days the culinary choices amounted to white stuff with dumplings or brown stuff with dumplings served with a side of stewed spinach but we were happy enough to get it and couldn't argue with a total bill of 100 kcs ($3.84) for both the food and a fair amount of beer.
Subsequent visits to U Dvou Kocek over the years have been reassuring. There's now a full Czech menu, lots of good beer and an aging but enthusiastic accordionist working the crowd. Still, the atmosphere hasn't changed much from the basic working class bar that it's always been. A jolly evening there with friends now averages 225 kcs ($8.65) a person for food and drink.
* U Dvou Kocek Uhelny trh.10, Prague 1. No credit cards. Inexpensive.
* Rating: Average 11/20
We returned also to U Bonaparta, another of those few that would feed us so long ago. On our last trip, U Bonaparta was closed for renovations, a seemingly unavoidable condition for all these long-neglected buildings, but everything seems in good order and all the Napoleon memorabilia is back on the walls.
This small tavern, about half way up the steep ascent to Prague Castle, is a good place to stop for a relaxing lunch and a clean toilet.
* U Bonaparta, Nerudova 19, Prague 1 No credit cards. Inexpensive.
* Rating: Average 10/20
A new discovery for us was Novomestsky Pivovar (The New Town Brewery), Prague's first modern brewpub, located just 350 meters from Wenceslas Square.
The layout alone is fascinating with ten separate dining/drinking rooms arranged in a labyrinth of steps and stairs and passageways meandering past all the trappings of beer production. To avoid other tourists, don't sit down at the first empty table; the local people, and there are lots of them here, all go further back.
The menu is very good, traditional Czech. Three of us one night ordered gulas (goulash), smazeny syr (fried cheese), svickova (beef in sour cream sauce), hradolky (french fries) and lots of the crisp house beer. The total bill was 500 Kcs ($19.23).
Food, in fact, is generally very inexpensive in Prague. Restaurant ratings typically describe the cost of a three course meal with one drink as 4* - very expensive; 1,000 Kc.+ ($38.46 +); 3* - expensive 500-1,000 kc ($19.23-38.46); 2* - moderate 200-500 Kc ($7.69-19.23) and 1* - under 200 ($7.69).
A glass of good beer is even cheaper, costing just 15 kcs (57).
* Novomestsky Pivovar Vodickova 20, Prague 1. Inexpensive.
* Rating: Above Average 14/20 $
Prague's Darker Side
Prague is a tale of two cities, two economies and at least two visions of the future.
It starts with them versus us. Locals versus tourists. A million souls who, for more than forty years, suffered awful privations under communism are now slowly emerging from their ordeal versus a gazillion curious tourists flocking to watch them do it - and capitalize on bargain basement prices.
Obviously this cultural and economic square-off has a high potential for conflict and bad feelings.
One tangible manifestation of this crisis has been the creation of a double standard in which locals are charged one set of prices for services, food, accommodations, transport or entertainment and Prague visitors, another.
It's not a subject that worries the average tourist - he simply doesn't realize it's happening.
Government justification for the practice goes something like this: Czech consumers have less purchasing power than foreigners, therefore local citizens should pay lower prices.
The fact that such a strategy flies in the face of the very capitalist system that the country is trying to embrace doesn't seem to matter. Two-tiered pricing, argues the Czech government, will disappear of its own accord when economic parity is reached. The Prague Tribune, an English-language magazine, on the other hand, believes the practice is bound to continue well into the future.
How great is the inequity? Considerable, according to a survey conducted by the Tribune.
Look at just a few examples.
• Prague restaurants hang out signs announcing, domaci zu polovic or, "half price for locals".
• On phone-in orders the National Theater often charges foreigners several times the prices paid by Czechs; between $2 and $10 for locals; $35 for outsiders.
• A car rental firm in the city charges foreigners $43 a day for a Skoda Favorit while a Czech pays $24 for the same car.
• A long-distance bus ride from Prague to Frankfurt can cost a foreigner $66. A local pays only $38.
The magazine survey goes on to cite many other examples of tiered pricing including tennis and riding clubs and hotels outside Prague.
Despite this transparent discrimination, it's easy to sympathize with the average Czech trying to earn a crust and support a family on $250-$300 a month in a city where a reasonable hotel room starts at $120, a little bauble in lead crystal can cost a weeks salary and even a Big Mac is over $2.
The wage inequity manifests itself in less benign ways, however.
It creates the kind of environment in which taxi drivers habitually plunder unsuspecting tourists via rigged meters or no meters.
First-time, highly-vulnerable visitors usually have no idea what a reasonable fare between point A and B should be and even if they ask before setting off and are fluent in Czech (a highly unlikely combination) they can still be ripped-off. It isn't called the taxi Mafia for nothing.
Our recommendation, based on several frustrating taxi experiences, is to use Prague's public transportation wherever possible. It is clean, efficient and very, very cheap.
The Czech Airlines airport bus that departs to and from central Prague every half hour costs $1.15 compared to $19 for a taxi. A cab from Holesovice train station to Wenceslas Square will run in the neighborhood of $13 if you're lucky. A metro ticket is just 25 cents. You get the idea.
There are some private cab companies that have built an honest reputation according to those on the scene. Highly recommended is AAA Taxi which uses English-speaking operators. Their phone number in Prague is 34-24-10.
Another much discussed problem associated with the economic gulf is the proliferation of petty thievery and prostitution; even roving gangs who prey on the unwary. Although we heard plenty of scary stories about stolen bags and wallets during our recent visit the overall atmosphere seemed to us as safe as most large European cities.
Maybe our casual dress and defensive posture helped protect us.
Readers should take the usual sensible precautions while in Prague, or any other major city, for that matter. That means using money belts, travelers checks and hotel safes, photocopying all personal and financial documents, and leaving anything of great value at home.
Still hanging around from the old days is a lack of basic courtesy among the very people who have the most to gain by being pleasant: shopkeepers, waiters, hotel receptionists and tourist office employees.
There have been improvements; words like surly, sulky, dour, morose and grumpy come less and less to mind but it is still common to be totally ignored in a store where you are the only patron, or to be greeted sullenly by a hotel desk clerk or restaurant waiter for no apparent reason.
In an effort to counter this 'attitude problem', several Czech customer service training agencies like 'Mirror-Mirror' and 'Positive' are hard at work trying to improve relations through politeness skills and drills in day long seminars featuring lots of role playing and hands-on exercises.
But don't expect instant miracles...or 'Have a Nice Day or even a Dobry Den. (Czech for Good Day). Not yet anyway. It takes a long time to undo a bad day that lasted forty years.
The foregoing is a caution regarding difficulties which occasionally can be encountered in this city that is undergoing profound changes. It should not discourage anyone from visiting a wonderful destination.
(U.S. Dollar prices quoted in this issue of Gemütlichkeit may be inaccurate for these reasons:
* Prices in local currency have not been updated since the date of publication of this newsletter, and...
* The dollar prices shown were obtained by using exchange rates in effect at the time of publication.)