01 January 2010

First impressions of Czech capital cut deeply

A travel writer I read recently said the most meaningful impressions of a new country or society are made and should be recorded within the first 48 hours. After that, the traveler slowly becomes acculturated to his or her new environment and the contrasts between the new culture and writer’s culture of origin begin to diminish.

Despite having my wallet stolen by a pickpocket before I even arrived at my hotel room in Prague, I was mightily impressed with the city after being there for only a few days. As I have already mentioned, the city’s architecture is overwhelming, if for no reason other than the sheer abundance of historical structures, many of which have been elegantly restored. But even buildings like the run-down central train station have a beauty that emerges through decades of neglect.

Prague also has a distinct seamy side, an underbelly, which is evident in the hard, worn and sometimes frightening faces of many of its residents. Women with too much cheap make-up, poorly applied and gaunt men with scraggly, greasy hair tell me there is still plenty of poverty, drug addiction, and the meanness that only generations of hard times can produce. My friend Oksana says she has no reluctance to walk home at two in the morning in affluent Heidelberg, Germany, but wouldn’t venture alone on the streets of the capital of Czech Republic after sunset.

The bookstores of Prague are crammed with literature written in the Czech language. Printed posters and photocopied handbills pasted on utility poles and concrete walls are evidence of a vibrant and diverse music scene, from classical to hip-hop. There is no shortage public art in the parks and street corners and the museums, ranging from the private collection at the Kampa along the Vltava River to the National Gallery’s collection of 19th, 20th and 21st century works, burst with imagination and suggest deep creativity and a broad-based appreciation.

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