Last week I attended a regional conference for Fulbright research students of central and eastern Europe, located in Prague (given America’s reaction to recent events, it may have been safer to hold it in Tbilisi). The conference topic, “Citizens in Public Spaces” was broad enough to encompass a diverse cross-section of arts and research: photography, urban planning, tourism, sociology, heritage management, public health, musicology, environmental advocacy, law, theater, history, and architecture.
Our group of about thirty students was kept busy with lectures on local urban issues, presentations from the conference participants, walking tours, and other activities intended to get us engaged with the city (a critical mass bike ride, visit to a farmer’s market, dinner in a recently-restored historic train station, blindfolded “sound walk,” etc.) While the Prague nonprofit activists went out of their way to tell us how difficult it was to promote civic engagement in the Czech Republic, I was still impressed by how much more active and organized local residents were when compared to my experiences in Tbilisi (my favorite idea was the CorruptTour, a guided tour that takes participants to visit sites of municipal corruption, while discussing their impact on the city). I also noticed substantially more environmental awareness–use of glass bottles instead of plastic, efforts at recycling, the woman at the market who didn’t wrap my chocolate bar and my juice in separate plastic bags and then put them both in another plastic bag, etc.
The conference came at a good time for me, as we are nearing the end of our grant periods and beginning to reflect on what (if anything) we’ve managed to accomplish over the past several months. It was validating to hear other people facing the same issues I have (most notably the lack of transparency and civil engagement that characterizes post-Soviet space), as well as interesting to hear the creative ways some students found to get things done. I am still not sure how I feel about federally funding certain arts-related projects, however. Call me a rube, but I’m not really sold on circus-dramatic training, video installations, soundscapes, or anything that uses the word “whimsy” without air quotes. Some projects just came off a bit like Buster working on his cartography/18th century agrarianism/archaeology degree.
Anyway, several students and I decided to stay behind after the conference to experience Prague at a slower pace, an approach I fully recommend given the grueling three-day conference schedule. Below are some recommendations of things to do, see, and eat if you have a few free days in the city:
Things to do:
- Take a tour of the Tower Museum, halls, and dungeons, all of which have been carefully restored and consolidated since the structure sustained serious damage in the final days of WWII. If you’re into photography, it is definitely worth it for the views of Old Town. If you’re into being infantile, there are plenty to historic interiors in which to pose when the tour guide is not looking.
- On a nice day, walk around Prague Castle. We took the tram up the (rather steep) hill to the castle complex, which dropped us off at the back entrance by the Royal Gardens–these were not only beautiful, but quiet and free of the throngs of tourists occupying every other historical/cultural site in the city. Entrance is somewhat expensive, so we decided to walk around the castle and cathedral exterior before proceeding back down the hill (lined with shops and cafes overlooking the city, as well as the impressive Lobkowicz fine arts museum).
- Visit the KGB Museum, which is basically an overenthusiastic Russian local’s personal collection of Soviet military memorabilia (not specific to the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia). While it is somewhat expensive, I thought it was worth it for the scope of the collection along with the owner’s knowledge and enthusiasm.
- Take a walk around Kampa Island (right off the Charles Bridge on the castle side), populated by uppity swans, contemporary art installations, and locals walking their dogs. It is much more relaxed than the public spaces in Old Town, which tend to become overcrowded in the middle of the day.
- See the Mucha Museum. Most people are familiar with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha through his art nouveau posters for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, when Mucha actually created a staggeringly diverse body of work for decades (before arrest by invading Nazis destroyed his health). The museum basically tells the story of how one great artist was given free rein to design almost everything for his beloved, newly-liberated home country, from municipal buildings to postage stamps.
- Apparently, stare at the astronomical clock for hours. Seriously. Huge crowds of people stand around this thing, blocking the whole Old Town Square, at all hours of the day and night for a chance to photograph the little statues that come out and twirl around every hour, on the hour. It does, admittedly, have a fascinating history–but come on people.
Places to eat:
- Beas, Tynska 19/Na Porici 1046-24/Vladislavova 24. Great for all of us in the Caucasus without any good Indian cuisine. The branch we went to, not far from the old town square, featured a buffet that goes half off starting at 7pm (as they close at 8.30 and want to get rid of any extra food). It’s also vegetarian, for all you herbivores out there.
U Tri Ruzi (The Three Roses), Husova 10. Definitely the best food I ate in Prague, and what I’m guessing is a great selection of house and imported beers. We ordered the bacon Emental burger and the house specialty, beer-roasted pork knuckle (entrees are generally large enough for two people), as well as the gratinated Camembert appetizer, which comes with a side salad so we could feel healthy. Beer is available in small mugs, so you can sample several throughout the meal instead of just sticking to one or two. I couldn’t get enough of anything. Try to go at off-peak hours though, as it is increasingly popular with large groups of tourists and families.
- A farmer’s market. Prague has several farmer’s markets all over the city open on different days of the week (not just weekends). I found it a good way to sample a variety of Czech food without overspending or resorting to the Times Square-esque hot dog carts colonizing Wenceslas Square. One tip: the trdelnik (grilled spiral pastries) look way more appetizing than they actually are, so unless you’re really into trying everything new or its nutty-sugary coating wears down your resistance, try something else for dessert.