PRAGUE — “I was interrogated here once,” says Milos Curik, as we pause before a hideous example of Brutalist architecture.
Curik majored in art and music and once worked as a music promoter, booking Western bands and traveling often to Western Europe. He even met the Beatles once — before 1968, when travel to the West was banned. Today he’s a freelance tour guide specializing in art and music tours, but back in the day, he was interrogated and spied on on a regular basis.
I’m in Prague for the first time since 1994. In the 1990s I taught English in a small town 55 miles from here, in northeast Bohemia, and used to visit friends here often. I’ve returned to Prague on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, to see how the sleeping beauty of the communist era has changed since I lived in the Czech Republic.
Back then I would often take long, leisurely walks around the Old Town, wandering from Staré Mesto (Old Town Square) west across the pedestrian, statue-lined Charles Bridge to the enchanting Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarter), and up the stone stairway to the Cinderella streets of Hradcany, the Prague Castle area.
Today I’m going for another exploratory walk, this time with Curik steering the way. Our tour begins directly outside my hotel, the lovely lemon chiffon Loreta Hotel, a former riding school beside the grounds of the Baroque Loreta church, in Hradcany. The Loreta is famous for its clock tower whose carillon chimes 27 times every hour on the hour.
We head northeast, avoiding the tour groups, and arrive at Cernínská, hands down one of the prettiest streets I’ve ever seen. With its dollhouse-sized homes, flower box windows, and butter yellow, lime sorbet, and powder blue and pink facades, the only thing snapping me back from the 14th century is the sight of a resident driving his Audi into the gates of his property.
At one of our first stops, just down from the Loreta, Curik points out an early-19th-century building in which the police would torture dissenters. “You’d hear the beautiful chiming of the bells mixed with the horrifying screams of the people being tortured up there,” he says.
The image brings to mind the frisson of “backward dread,” or “retroboding,” so to speak, I would often feel when I lived here and observed the dark legacy of the communist regime: the neglected, coal dust-encrusted buildings and statues; the stories of hardship etched on the faces of my teaching colleagues; the bullying police officers; and the shame Czechs expressed about their country.
While Curik himself was never physically abused, “what they did was psychological torture,” he says. “They would record my conversations and then repeat my words back to me later during interrogation.” At another stop, just across from the French Embassy, he shows me where the police would hide a camera and microphone to spy on people they considered a threat.
Just as my guide is showing me another police stronghold of the old regime, a security guard standing outside the US Embassy, directly facing the building, asks why I want to take a photo. “That guy was an old Communist Party sympathizer,” says Curik as we walk away. “They use all the same people for these jobs. They know who’s going to be loyal to them, who will do whatever they ask.”
After passing the iconic graffiti-festooned John Lennon Wall on the west bank of the Vltava River, we stop for lunch at Clear Head, a cozy and inexpensive vegetarian restaurant.
As a vegan, I notice how the Czech diet is still weighted with fatty and starchy foods like potatoes, sausages, bread dumplings, fried cheese, pig knuckles, and other cardiac-arresting foods. Still, there has been a revival of and renewed pride in Czech cuisine.
During four decades of communism, Czech cuisine suffered a big hit. Only state-approved cookbooks were available and all restaurants had to follow the same recipes. There was also little fresh produce available and no spices, resulting in heavy, bland cuisine. It is only in recent years that the younger generation has unearthed their grandmothers’ old cookbooks and begun making food with fresh herbs and ingredients not previously available.
After lunch we head down Národni, a busy, tram-lined street now dotted with doner kebab and burrito joints. Národni leads to Wenceslas Square, site of the Prague Spring demonstrations of 1968 and the toppling of the communist regime on Nov. 17, 1989.
The Velvet Revolution, while undoubtedly the gentlest of all revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe that fall, was not entirely violence-free, says Curik, who pauses now in an arcade on Národni to show me a plaque featuring waving hands making the peace sign, with the date “17.11.1989” inscribed underneath.
It was on Národni, a few days before that day, that protesting students assembled to call for change. “The police had planned everything in advance,” says Curik. “They sealed off the exits and locked the doors of apartment buildings and shops so the demonstrators would have no way out but this arcade. They beat the demonstrators in here. There was blood everywhere. . . . By some miracle, no one was killed.”
Later, artists, intellectuals and, finally, factory workers joined the student demonstrators. By Nov. 17, the protesters had moved to Wenceslas Square, the crowd swelling to 300,000. United against the Soviets and the communists for the first time since 1968, the throng stood shoulder-to-shoulder calling for freedom and jangling keys in the air to signal to their oppressors that it was time to unlock the gates. Eventually, Alexander Dubcek, leader of the 1968 movement, was invited to appear on a balcony overlooking the square. The crowd cheered.
In December 1989, Václav Havel, dissident playwright and essayist, by now released from prison, addressed the crowds in Wenceslas Square shortly before taking the oath as Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president. (It was on Jan. 1, 1993, that the Czech Republic and Slovakia were created.)
Just as in a fairy tale, Havel soon took up residence in Prague Castle.
Yet Prague is not a happily-ever-after story, says Curik. While pollution has decreased (many people in the early 1990s still burned coal to heat their homes) and people are generally better off than before, senior citizens find it hard to make ends meet on pensions the equivalent of $100 or $200 a month. Wenceslas Square, symbol of freedom where People Power had succeeded in taking down the oppressors, is now a red light district. Corruption is rampant. So much so that, recently, people took to the streets in protest. One savvy entrepreneur even launched Corrupt Tours, which specializes in “crony safaris” around Prague.
The city has also been a victim of its beauty, succumbing to globalization and mass tourism: witness the Starbuckification of cafe culture, Segway tours, horse-drawn carriages, and Thai massage and fish exfoliation parlors.
Yet, mercifully, the Czech capital has managed to maintain its unique character. Artists and entrepreneurs thrive. Chefs dabble in “new Czech cuisine.” And grand cafes like the Imperial, the Slavia, and the Savoy, once regarded as ostentatious symbols of the bourgeoisie, have been restored to their former grandeur. Notwithstanding the graffiti and neglected buildings, the city is still impossibly beautiful.
The story of Prague may not be a happily-ever-after tale, but then again, fairy tales were never intended for children. I, for one, am more enchanted than ever.Elizabeth Warkentin can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly referred to the direction of Staré Mesto and John Lennon Wall.