Dobrý den! (Good day in Czech) from Central Europe –
“World building” is a clichéd term that has become boilerplate word vomit babbled by tech nerds, sci-fi writers, and Metaverse junkies the world over. Writer / commentator Charlie Anders tells us the key to world-building is to make one feel at home, to render taste, smell, and beauty so real it triggers an emotional effect. It seems the emperors, aristocrats, Hapsburg imperials among others whose dreamworld is manifest in Praha (Czech for Prague) more than accomplished this mission. That Prague is beautiful is self-evident and yet an insufficient descriptive. The streets, alleyways, churches, squares, parks, and museums are symphonic, humming a rhapsodic chorus of Greco-Roman, Gothic, and Baroque fractals that vibrate through the air like the pitter patter of water molecules skipping across a creek bed. The casual fanboy flocks to Paris, seasoned travelers flash Florentine trinkets, those looking for a “sense of place” sojourn to Prague.
Tourism is huge in Europe and Prague’s attractions are elite among them. In many ways the city was crafted perfectly for a bustling tourist industry. It is charming – as in pleasant to experience – and digestible – as in not overwhelming – like it’s cousin’s Budapest and Vienna. Prices are not overly expensive and despite the cobble stones that strewn the streets it is very walkable; the entire city can be maneuvered in a few hours. The Old Town Square nestled in between Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square looks like a watercolor canvas doodled for a king, and it was. Praha was the residence of several Holy Roman Emperors – Charles the IV – being the most famous way back in the 14th century. A job well done as the scenic overlook across the Vltava River demonstrates - see video below.
Central Europe’s Motley Crew
Praha’s size and sensation reminds me of Florence, the nightlife is amped up like Budapest, and the pace is casual like Czech’s themselves, no need to rush so grab a pint and have a laugh. A motley crew of Slovaks, Russians, Kazakhs, Hungarians, Ukrainians (especially now) and klatches of Germans (trains to and from Berlin were packed) crowd the public squares and parks, carouse in the bars, and staff the restaurants. For Central Europeans, I would imagine Prague is a kind of adult playground, a way-station back to the days of imperial nostalgia served with delicious beer and a party-atmosphere. For visitors from farther afield in Asia and America it is closer to a Walt Disney ride through European majesty because there is nothing quite like it outside of Europe.
Slavic languages are close (something like Italian and Spanish) so it is common for baristas, hostesses, and shopkeepers to nimbly whipsaw between Czech, Slovak, occasionally Russian. There are three distinct groupings of Slavic languages – South, Western, Eastern – Czech, Slovak, and Polish fall under the Western category. A split occurred around the 7th century, so practice is necessary even if fluent in one of them. Not to worry for the non-Slavs though because English is widely spoken and has indeed become the default lubricant to smooth any communication friction.
Central Europe is a remarkable place geographically; imagine putting distinct national cultures, languages, warring histories, converging, and diverging identities into the state of California or New England perhaps. Czechia is roughly the size of Mississippi and Slovakia about 2x New Hampshire for the Americans in the audience. Berlin to the North, Vienna to the South, and Bratislava to the East are each about 5 hours by train; Budapest is slightly farther away at roughly 7 hours. It is no wonder that everyone from Fredrick the Great to Adolf Hitler jockeyed for its control. Proximity makes Prague the ideal lily pad from which to leapfrog across Central Europe.
Luminaries and Lightshows
Centrality also gave expression to the city’s rich cultural history. Just a few steps away in wherever direction are statues of luminaries: Antonin Dvorzak (composer), Franz Kafka (novelist) and Tyco Brahe (astronomer) all of whom walked, mused, and unleashed on these steps; if that does not inspire your artistic feng shui nothing will. Prague has survived and thrived at every key moment in European history for the last thousand years – Jan Jus preached in Praha during the Protestant Reformation, Catholics battled Protestants during the Thirty Years War, factories roared during the Industrial Revolution, and the Velvet Revolution at the end of the Cold War rocked the city. Even now, the legacy of past furors lives on in Wenceslas Square where protests are frequent and frenzied as seen below.
Praha’s formative years came under Holy Roman Emperors. It was under Charles the IV that the Charles Bridge, Central Europe’s first major university – Charles University – and Saint Vitus Cathedral were constructed. Rudolf II was a true Renaissance King who made Prague an intellectual hub for artists, astrologers, astronomers, magicians, and scientists (for more info read this). We can thank his influence for the Astronomical Clock – an impressive device and tourist trap if ever there was one. (You will see what I mean when you come.) That said, it is the perfect vista for one of Prague’s famous light shows.
Dining, Dress and Drama-less
Czech culture and cuisine are muted to my eyes, a bit like Germans to the North. At first blush, they can be reserved, some would call them standoffish; I would call it measured and restrained. They are always polite, straight forward and enjoy life, especially over a pint of beer. Apparently, former President Václav Havel (more on him later) suggested that Czechs are more passive than most because they prefer beer to heavier liquors like their Slavic kin to the East. I guess it is not surprising that the punishment for stealing beer was once death.
What does one do in Prague after traipsing through the streets lost in time and spectacle? Why, drink beer of course! Czech lager is world-renowned. Folks may know little about Czechia, except that Czech beer is the best in the world, certainly local consumption confirms it. Czechs guzzle more beer per capita than any other nation in the world (my guess would have been Ireland for sure). Of course, meals – like life – in Prague are best served with a delicious beer. Locals frequently eat Hovězí guláš, what we call Goulash (beef sauteed in thick onion-based gravy served with bread dumplings) and Schnitzel (breaded meat that is sometimes veal, pork, chicken or beef, even mutton). For something slightly different I recommend Gruzie, a hidden, cavernous Georgian restaurant.
Czech culture and cuisine are muted to my eyes, a bit like Germans to the North.
The Czech dress code is conservative and classy. Gentlemen tend to dress smartly, a well fit collared shirt and sports jacket, perhaps a nice black raincoat. Ladies sport camel overcoats with attractive, black-colored dresses that are tapered and stylish. Neither gender is over accessorized like Italians, nor scantily clad like Latinas in South Beach for example. It’s not the weather either, it’s the culture. Shoes range but running shoes are common because stones and heels do not mesh. Again – the motif is comfortably muted.
Nightlife Na zdraví (Cheers!)
After Miami, regaling readers with discothèque vignettes will be a slight step down. Miami mania is good while it lasts but Prague was a much needed down shift. That said, if you are looking for swanky dance clubs, renowned techno DJs, VIP treatment or great beer in a festive atmosphere, Prague fires on all cylinders. Ground zero for Bacchanalian buffoonery – the place where the cool kids practice flagrant jack-assery, where the beer guzzles and the nightclubs’ boom is Praha–1 (center city). It is where the tourists flock, the locals lounge and the night owls hoo.
What is so great about Praha – like many Medieval cities – are its mysterious layers. For some great cocktails, La Fleur is dimly lit, classically decorated and tasteful. A more local place that I prefer is Public Interest – similar features but with a more homegrown vibe, especially later in the evening. Nightclub spots are a plenty so there is little need to discriminate. One of the trendier ones I liked was Moon Club – right in downtown; be advised on the weekends the cover charge can be heavy. Duende Bar is somewhat of a hidden gem with jovial bar tenders, and random Soviet-era memorabilia plastered on the walls. A perfect bunker to plot the next rise of the Proletariat.
Dating is different in Europe. Much of the ebb and flow of courtship mirrors America but it is far more egalitarian, meaning much less emphasis on money and Instagram followers. My advice for the younger gents is to relax, ease into the process, and shrink your profile a tad. There is a Czech saying: “Vyhnout se srážce s idiotem” – literally, avoid collision with an idiot. You can avoid being the idiot with some light reading on local customs and greeting folks with Dobrý den. Also, try to get out of the city-center if you can and check out VnitroBlock or Manifesto Market.
Czechoslovakia and Vaclav Havel
The Czech-Slovak split warrants an entirely separate essay so I will be brief. The end of the Cold War resulted in a split between Slovakia and Czechia. Vaclav Havel who was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution that ended Communist occupation eventually became president. He opposed Slovak independence and undoubtedly there is some tension between Slovaks and Czechs as a result, but very little from what I could see (read more here). Czechs generally enjoy a solid reputation from groups East and West and for good reason. Perhaps what I admire most is their acute lack of pretentiousness. Unlike 21st century Americans / Brits crippled by woke worn insecurity, pop-culture groupthink and social-media brinksmanship, Czechs tend to care less. Living in Praha lends itself to a spirited nonchalance I found refreshing.
For me, Prague is a preservationist society. It’s streets, architecture and historic centers were mercifully spared the relentless bombings or block-by-block brawls of WWII that demolished cities like Berlin and Warsaw. Fortunately for us, Praha survived relatively unharmed and remains steeped in the pre-WWI Central European pomp and circumstance. What a world it must have been when Habsburg Magisterium ruled most of Europe and made Prague the mecca of the world.
Another Czech saying is Co je malé, to je mile, “what’s small is lovely.” Prague is not the largest city nor the most lavish, but it is charming in infinitely small ways. So while there, enjoy life, hope for the best and drink a beer because all will be ok. Such a philosophy seems to have worked out well for the Czechs. Next stop Berlin!