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Prague & the Best of the Czech Republic Today
"Golden Prague," "The City of a Hundred Spires," "The Heart of Europe": Prague goes by many names. But for its 1.2 million residents, the Czech capital is simply "home."
When the Iron Curtain parted in 1989, ending more than four decades of totalitarian rule, Prague moved to center stage and locals immediately started reveling in their new role. Then, late in 2008—just as Czechs were gearing up to commemorate the Velvet Revolution's 20th anniversary—the economic downturn hit. The republic as a whole has fared significantly better than some countries. Nevertheless, the global crisis has affected exports (which represent 80% of the GDP) as well as imports (namely free-spending foreign tourists).
Aside from worrying about the economy like the rest of us, here's a snapshot of what Prazaci (aka Praguers in Czech) are doing today.
… They're sprucing up local landmarks. Whether it's a case of civic pride or simply understanding what side their bread is buttered on (whatever side the tourists want), Praguers have embarked on an ambitious series of projects aimed at overhauling top historic sites: that's no small feat during tough economic times. Work on the daunting stairway leading to the eastern gate of Prazský Hrad was recently completed; and restoration of Golden Lane, within the castle grounds, is next on the to-do list. Gaslights are also being installed to add a nostalgic glow to select parts of the city center. The big-ticket item, though, is a multiphase reconstruction of Karluv most (Charles Bridge) necessitated by the damaging flood of 2002. Controversial from the get-go, the project's bad press has been compounded by delays, and work isn't slated to be finished for several more years. The good news is that the bridge does remain open to pedestrians in the interim.
… They're building for the future. This emphasis on the past doesn't mean that locals live in an architectural time warp. Having emerged from World War II relatively unscathed, the city is admittedly blessed with buildings representing almost every prewar period, from romanesque to cubist. Yet contemporary constructions are equally impressive. Stanice Strízkov (a metro station in Strízkov that resembles a giant glass fish) is a case in point. It is only one of several new stations built in the past few years, the rationale behind all of them being that the subway system must grow to keep pace with suburban sprawl. Given the cost, you see that only a small fraction of Greater Prague's residents can afford to live anywhere near the city center. That number will continue to dwindle as the poorer inner suburbs (think Holesovice and Zizkov) undergo commercial redevelopment, sending more renters fleeing to the fringes.
… They're craving caffeine. Maybe it's the long commute that has left locals needing a serious java jolt. Or maybe it's a reaction to the arrival of Starbucks, which debuted here in 2008. In any case, the world's most committed beer drinkers are suddenly reclaiming their coffee klatsch. The café tradition flourished in Prague from the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the dawn of the Soviet Era. Needless to say, Communist officials weren't fond of coffeehouses that doubled as dissident hangouts, so before you could say "red scare," café culture started declining. Happily, it is at last making a comeback. Grandes dames like the Café Imperial (an art nouveau gem in Nové Mesto) have received a much-needed facelift, and new ones have opened their doors: perhaps the most notable being the so-called charity cafés. These are not your average Joe, as the proceeds from them help fund social programs.
… And they're paying for everything with korunas. The Czech Republic was among the first of the former Soviet nations to be admitted into the European Union, in 2004. Then it was rightly seen as shining star of the Eastern Bloc (in yearbook terms, the country would have been voted "prettiest," "most popular," and "most likely to succeed"). However, it has yet to adopt the EU's common currency—the euro—despite innumerable promises and passed deadlines. Politicos now argue that 2012 (the latest target date) is untenable, so the euro may not be introduced until 2015. Conventional wisdom says that non-euro countries are a better value for vacationers. But before penny pinchers start high fiving each other, know this: Prague, because of its must-see status, defies the convention. In fact, this city hasn't been a certifiable bargain since the late 1990s, and today it is on a par pricewise with its Western European counterparts.
Considering that they're traditionalists in many respects, Czechs are surprisingly tolerant of gays and lesbians. For instance, the republic legalized same-sex unions in 2006, and Vinohrady continues to be a welcoming—and vibrant—gay mecca.
Many eateries today do have smoking and no-smoking areas. But they're largely ineffective, and visitors concerned about kourení shouldn't hold their breath that rules will be enforced. Scratch that, holding your breath may be the best defense.
To see how thoroughly capitalism has trounced communism, just witness the number of upscale hotels that keep opening despite the recession. In 2009 alone, a quartet of five-star hotels—like Sheraton and Rocco Forte—began welcoming guests.
Although it doesn't register on many tourists' radars yet, locals are abuzz about the ongoing construction of the Blanka Tunnel: one component of a ring road that will eventually relieve traffic in the inner city. It's Prague's answer to Boston's "Big Dig."
Rail riders rejoice! Eurail, the venerable train-ticket packager, celebrated its 50th birthday in 2009 by giving purchasers a present: It added the Czech Republic to its extensive Global Pass and Select Pass network, bringing the number of participating countries to 21.
Czech foodies are embracing their roots—and their root vegetables. The national Association of Hotels & Restaurants and the Association of Master Chefs & Confectioners have created a program focusing on fine regional fare. For info, visit www.czechspecials.com.
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