There is no doubt Prague is stunning: terracotta roof-tops, winding cobbled streets, art nouveau and baroque architecture as far as the eye can see. I visited at an odd time, post a potential flood threat, when the River Vltava was still heaving its brown mass against the 600+ year old Charles Bridge, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Prague, prompting its closure. I was told by Prague residents that the floods had caused a reduction in tourist numbers and that Prague was quiet for this time of year. To me the tourists were everywhere.
This was confirmed when I spent a saturday night in the city.
I was sitting in the old town square on my last night feeling uncomfortable. Prague hadn't quite lived up to expectations and I had a niggling feeling something wasn't quite right. I realised then that this was the only city I had visited where there had been tourists everywhere, that is except maybe for Paris, the difference was that in Prague there was no escape.
I reflected on the fact that I’d spent three days trying to get photos of the architecture without the bald heads of Americans featuring. I'd been shoved and pushed by bus loads of Russians. I'd watched endless other tourists snapping awkward shots against railings and balustrades – mostly they were interrupting my view. I'd heard conversations by loud people from all over the globe complaining about the amazing astronomical clock “oh, apparently this is one of the most disappointing tourists attractions in Europe” said one girl rolling her eyes. This about a medieval clock featuring an astronomical dial, hourly show with moving parts and a calendar with name days built in 1410!
In the Prague Palace garden, where I had gone to get some peace and quiet, I was confronted with a American brass band playing American classics, in English. In the streets grotesque Thai massage places now beg for business; tat shops multiply and segways are everywhere.
As I sat in the old town square later that night I saw: a guy dressed as an Indian doing the racist equivalent of 'black face' cap in hand; hoards of young guys touting for pub crawl customers claiming 'the best night you'll never remember'; a beer bike; and an amazing string quintet playing Dvorak but inaudible over the cacauphony of everything else.
Another group of guys egged on a mate to strip to underwear only and climb the statue of religious reformer, Jan Hus, where they proceeded to sing and dance. Admittedly their harmonies were pretty good but looking on I was discomforted by the disrespect.
Later that night gangs of British buck and hens prowled the streets getting more and more wasted. By 10 pm there was vomit in the cobble stones, empty beer bottles leaning against ancient stone walls, and foul language reverberating off medieval church roofs.
This post is therefore an apology to the people of Prague for what the world has done to your city. Your history saw you occupied by the Nazi's and then, just when freedom seemed close, communism flourished and you waited in queues for the privilege of buying a banana. You've only had 23 years of freedom from that rule but during that time another insidious collective has started spreading its tentacles and making your city theirs.
I really hope they don't ruin it for you Prague. You are beautiful, magical; you've birthed alchemists and composers and revolutionaries; your people have survived horrible oppression and floods and other disasters.
Tourists are important but I think there is a line where their impact becomes detrimental. I felt like you, Prague, are on the brink of that – maybe the truth is that you’ve even gone past. I really wish I could have seen you 10 years ago.
Praha, stay strong.
This is the beauty that needs protecting (some photos I took):