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Why I don’t love Prague (even though I really want to)

Posted by on 09/15/2014

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t hate Prague. I don’t even dislike it. It’s just that I can’t love it, and that’s really, really frustrating, because I really, really want to love it. It is the world capital of Art Nouveau, and I love Art Nouveau. It has this:

paid to see it this time

paid to see it this time

And streets like this:

pscAnd a skyline like this:

It has Mucha’s masterpiece collection The Slav Epic, the Obecní dům (perhaps Europe’s finest municipal house), thousands of bars, and a devil-may-care, party-at-all-hours ethos. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this:

sigh

sigh

But it’s not really the tourist crowds. It’s the way Prague handles them.

I’ve likened cities to womanly archetypes before, so indulge me again* (it’s my chance to be artsy and romantic). Prague is like an achingly beautiful girl with an irritating, squeaky voice. Sure, you may want to look at her but you don’t really want her around. By this I mean that Prague has so much going for it, yet manages to throw just enough headaches in your way as to make it, in a very real sense, unlovable. And as previously noted, in a trashy city that sucks no one would care. No one would blog about it. It’s only because Prague could be on par with London and Paris and Stockholm and Berlin that the fact that it isn’t provokes such a visceral sense of deflation.

Let’s start with the transit system. Plusses: it goes just about everywhere, is fairly reliable, and is even getting a nice facelift in terms of new tram cars. Negatives: everything else. First, just paying for a bloody ride is Kafkaesque–you need a ticket, obviously, but where do you buy them? At the bus or tram stop? Ha no, hold on professor, that’s crazy talk. Take that efficiency and sense-making back to boring old Switzerland (where one pass provides carte blanche to ride, well, every public conveyance in the country). Nope, you usually have to buy them in corner stores or tobacco stands, which may or may not be at all conveniently placed when you’re racing to catch the streetcar you need. Then, you need to get on a streetcar, which generally just stop in the middle of a very busy street, loading and unloading passengers on a tiny, precarious median, with lunatic drivers buzzing around inches away (and nary a crosswalk to be found). So you have to dart across several lanes of traffic to reach the median, shoving old women and infants out of your way to reach your tram.

Ah, but now you’re in the streetcar, and all is well. That is, if you’ve remembered to activate your ticket, but locating the one or two boxes on the tram into which you’re supposed to insert the ticket, stamping it with the current time (and thereby setting a death clock on how long the ticket’s good for, generally 90 minutes). Oh, you may have to push through a frighteningly large crowd of people to reach the damned validation box, but that’s the kind of social interaction our ancestors fought and died for, so quit complaining. And, you have to insert the ticket into the validation box the right way, because if you put the wrong end in the timestamp will be illegible and one of the city’s transit inspectors (who wear plainclothes and carry tiny, issued-from-a-joke-shop badges) may decide to fine you a lot of money if they can’t read the stamp and are in a bad mood (and they’re always in a bad mood).

And that’s just to ride a damned streetcar. The situation is much the same in the metro system, only worse, because there, you have to buy your (unvalidated, natch) tickets from cartoonishly grumpy machines with no English/internationalized instructions prominent. Oh, there’s lots of ‘helpful’ people hanging about, generally skeezy-looking men in their twenties who wear sunglasses indoors and reek of bootleg cologne, who will offer to buy your tickets for you–for a fee. And those are the honest ones–the dishonest ones grab your wallet when you’re distracted and hightail it out of there. It’s creepy and obvious what’s going on and Prague apparently cannot dedicate a single transit officer to shooing the scoundrels out of the metro stops.

Compare this to London, which, even though every Brit absolutely hates its transit system, still is head and shoulders above this. You buy, or top off an existing Oyster card at any metro station. Tap it on a sensor to get in, tap it when you get off, and the system knows how far you’ve gone and charges your account accordingly. That’s all there is to it. Works on the buses too.

Then there’s the reluctance of the city to put up signs of any kind in English. Now, this may raise a few politically correct hackles out there, so let me finish before you start with the accusations of chauvinism. The Czechs have a rich, beautiful language that they are rightly proud of. I am not for one minute suggesting that they push it out of the way to make room for English. But–and this is a big but–Prague gets millions of visitors a year, none of whom knows Czech. What they do know, in varying degrees, is English. The lack of English signage means lots of confused Swedes, Brits, Chinese, Samoans, and yes, Americans, wandering around, getting into the wrong queue, going the wrong way, and just generally not going about their business as planned. This makes doing anything in the touristy areas–even if you personally know exactly what you’re doing–much more of a hassle than necessary. If Prague wants to remain a premier tourist destination (particularly as its reputation as dirt-cheap is essentially fiction at this point) it simply has to accommodate people who speak (a) no Czech and (b) some English. Other cities have figured this out–hell, even Paris is a breeze these days in comparison.

Anyway, these may seem like minor gripes, and in a sense, they are, but it all adds up. It really does. You leave Prague feeling exhilarated, enlightened even, but also somewhat exhausted, somewhat glad to be out of there. For a city that should rival Paris as a cultural capital, that’s a damned shame.


 

 *And besides, in Czech the city’s name is spelled and pronounced “Praha”.  And Praha is a woman in local folklore anyway, so there.

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