The World’s Great Towns, June 1997

By the Editors

The Numbers
Population: 1.2 million
Climate: Three for four: spring and fall are lovely, summers hot, and winters dreary
Number of McDonald’s: 14
Gestalt: Metamorphosis complete

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 uncoupled Prague from Moscow; the Velvet Divorce four years later saw it shed of Slovakia. And in the meantime the Velvet Underground became a revered cultural import. Today Prague shifts easily between the storybook — its ninth-century Prague Castle is straight out of Grimm’s — and the thunderously
chic. Approximately every third Pragueian under 30 hopes to become the next Bono. For a while, this fascination with all things hip was so strong it had a vortex effect on young Americans, who wafted into the city in droves in the early 1990s. After finding little work — and despite the Continent’s best cheap beer — most drifted on. (“Hey, I hear Budapest’s
happening.”) Prague’s done fine without them. Its economy is among the fastest-growing in Eastern Europe, so the second wash of Americans, mostly advertising execs, middle managers, and bankers, is making out extremely well. As are the natives, who can now afford the televisions once reserved strictly for rich Western arrivals. Plus the city’s beer is still cheap. Prague does have
some problems, of course, especially recurrent air pollution and relentlessly gray winters — which help explain why local boy Franz Kafka shied away from musical comedy.

What’s Out There
Czechs are rabid skiers, cross-country and downhill, and you can pick up a pair of skis in just about any shop, including major department stores. Once outfitted, most people head for the Krknose Mountains to the north, along the Polish border — in the summertime, too (wonderful hiking). More rugged wilderness lies in West and South Bohemia, 40 percent of which is woodlands,
and the 425-square-mile Sumava National Park, three hours from Prague. Off-limits during the Communist reign, the area offers nature preserves, miles of hikable trails, and plenty of lakes for fishing and boating. Other cherished pursuits include canoeing, rock climbing, and that sweaty bastion of outdoor machismo, mushroom hunting.

Around Town
The people of Prague believe that life should revolve around beer, cigarettes, long conversation, music, and a little poetry — preferably accompanied by roast pork with bread dumplings and sauerkraut. Even among Prague’s version of the grunge-kid, Old Worldûstyle sophistication remains highly valued. Vßclav Havel is still a presence not just because he helped
lead the nation out from under Communism, but because he can write. The opera houses are a hot ticket. And the Prazsk‰ Jaro (Prague Spring) music festival is one of Europe’s most prestigious. In such an atmosphere, Americans should feel immediately at home — so long as they abandon their most self-righteous political correctness. There’s no such thing as a nonsmoking
section in a Prague restaurant, and as for romance, men stare openly at women, and the women, who’ve sometimes invested entire paychecks on cosmetics, strut themselves before their admirers in return. Then everybody vies to be next in line to get hitched during mass at Saint Vitus Cathedral.

Living Quarters
Time’s up — you missed the days of the $50-a-month apartment. On the other hand, the chances of actually landing a phone have greatly increased. Ten minutes from the center of town, the shady, quiet Vinohrady neighborhood offers renovated apartments for $400 (one bedroom) to $750 (a nice two-bedroom). Across the river from downtown is Malß Strana (the Small Side), one
of Prague’s most opulent neighborhoods, once home to Mozart. Listen for echoes. Of course, such ambience is, by Prague standards, pricey: Roomy two-bedrooms rent for $1,000 and up.

Nine to Five
Though Prague has less than 1 percent unemployment, the job market is still open for foreigners — as the 40,000 or so resident Americans have found. If you’re a computer programmer or a financial type, rejoice. Other gigs can be found, but remember: If you work for a Czech company, you’ll get a Czech salary, smaller than an American one. Starting your own business requires a
$4,000 initial investment and the acing of a tough Czech fluency exam. Find a local business partner and you can skip the test. But you’ll want to learn some Czech anyway; finding that partner will be easier if you buy candidates a beer (40 cents a pop) and lead the toasts. Nazdraví!

Memorize This
Ja jsem Vßclava Cetl driv nez vsichni ostatni Vßclava. (“I was reading Vßclav before anyone was reading Vßclav.”)