#33. Spend the first day of spring in Prague. There’s something about Eastern Europe that makes me feel as if I am in a Bond movie – there are the trams, the clattering sound of cars driving over cobbled streets, and the winding alleyways that look set for an encounter between spies and the secret police.
And on the outskirts of this city looms the rocket-like Zizkov TV Tower, left behind by the Soviets to jam all Western broadcasts. The Russians don’t have many fans in Prague and more than one person has bitterly remarked that Russia’s invasion of Georgia is not different from its occupation of this city in 1968. The joke about the tower goes that it’s the best view you can get of Prague — “because the tower isn’t in it”.
We left a cold and broody-looking London for Prague where the sun is shining and tourists fill the streets of the Old Town and Josefov – the old Jewish Quarter – making their way across the Charles Bridge with its magnificent views of the city. Strange to think that this cosmopolitan city spent so many years isolated from the world behind the Iron Curtain.
Despite my sense of Bond-ness though, the cold war is long gone and in its place are Cartier and Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores. Ironically Communist history is remembered at the Communist Museum located above a branch of McDonald’s.
The city is a fascinating mix of juxtapositions from the Old Town Square built in the 1300s and now home to an Irish pub to the Museum Kampa for contemporary art, across the Vltava river, with its two huge pink french poodle sculptures and another that looks like a bulldog occupying it’s terraces. From Baroque to Gothic and Art Nouveau the city is a treasure chest of architectural styles and it recently added a controversial contemporary building by one of my favourite architects Frank Gehry — known affectionately by some and not so by others as the “Fred and Ginger building” because it resembles a male and female figure, with its swirling glass structure and graceful curve.
We rounded off the day with a walk along the river, and then a classical music concert in the highly ornate Moorish-style Spanish Synagogue. As the sun set stylish couples rushed along past us through the cobbled streets dressed for the opera, the theatre, a performance by the Philharmonic orchestra.
There’s a playfulness to the changes taking place here and something in the mix of history and the modern that seems to work (barring Mickey D’s and KFC). Every time I leave Joburg for a city in Europe I am made intensely aware of what’s possible in a city, of how even the most tragic past (and Europe has a lot of this) can be brought together with the present, and how a city thrives on creativity and on having a cultural heart.