My mother begged me not to go to Prague—only trouble lurked “behind the Iron Curtain.” It was 1975, barely seven years after Warsaw Pact tanks rumbled into the city, crushing the Prague Spring’s “socialism with a human face.”
Naturally, her hand-wringing only ratified the city’s noir glamour. Off I went, shouldering my blue backpack. On the Czech visa under “Profession,” I marked, with a bravura flourish, “Writer.” So what if I hadn’t published anything? That was the point—to reach the forbidden city, to find “material,” to become a writer.
I arrived by train, at dusk. I’d read that the city was called zlata Praha—Golden Prague. Actually, it was pewter-gray, grimy in the setting sun. The unwashed windows of the 19th-century town houses yawned over the Vltava River. Languorous stone figures decorating art nouveau doorways were sooty from decades of neglect; they appeared to weep coal-dust tears. At outdoor markets the only vegetable I saw on display was kohlrabi.
The city was derelict, miserable. I fell madly in love with it.
To travel to Prague then was, for an American, to pass through the Cold War looking glass. Everything was familiar—this was Europe, for me the Europe from which my grandparents had emigrated. Yet this familiarity was reversed. For one thing, there was nothing to want. To a child of a heated-up American consumer culture, the absence of advertising, shops devoid of tempting stuff—this was disorienting.
Then it was liberating.
Wandering Mala Strana byways, in the absence of beguiling inducements, I was beguiled. In the cheerless restauraces, cloaked in cigarette smoke, hunched figures mumbled and shrugged what I came to think of as the Czech national gesture. I saw that shrug often at Café Slavia, the venerable coffeehouse with its heart-stopping view across the river to Prague Castle, the café of writers and intellectuals—and the secret police, a poet I met there murmured.
Prague was a rare Eastern European capital left intact after the Second World War. This played into its haunting beauty, as if the lost charm of Mitteleuropa rose from its shabbiness like a faint tea-dance melody. Those smoky coffeehouses got me—and I got them. I harbored the absurd conviction that Prague was my town, my secret. I wished, passionately, that I could live there, as other Americans imagined living in Paris or Rome. Except they could do it.
And then—flash forward—it was 1995 and I was living in Prague on a Fulbright fellowship. I go there now every summer. It isn’t pewter Prague anymore. I suppose it’s become zlata Praha again, though the astonishing rose-pinks, the greens, and Schönbrunn yellows of freshly renovated Old Town make it now seem pastel Prague.
Of course, it isn’t mine anymore. And it’s no secret, this booming tourist destination. The glass shops, the garnet shops, Louis Vuitton and Versace—Prague has gleefully joined the consumer culture.
And don’t you dare complain, I scolded myself the first time I walked across the Charles Bridge after the end of the Cold War, peevishly dodging the camera-clicking hordes. It’s a legendary beauty, Praha—of course everyone wants to catch a glimpse.
PATRICIA HAMPL'S memoir A Romantic Education is an account of her Cold War travels to Prague. Her most recent book is The Florist’s Daughter. She is a member of the permanent faculty of the Prague Summer Program.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.