Prague’s Old Town is drowning.
When the city was founded it was much lower. The river threatened the streets and so that old Prague is now below the streets of today, rooms and wells, streets and windows. Boarded up, bricked off, roofed by a city.
But the city’s charms are now drowning again beneath tourism’s tsunami. ” Tourism is destroying the city” declaims our Brazilian night walk guide. “And down this you street you will find everywhere that you cannot buy your happiness. There you can get your traditional Starf*s. There traditional American destroyed cow meat. Here is Thai massage, very traditional Czech.” And I couldn’t help but agree. The city’s charms were engulfed by neon, swallowed by advertising. The beauty overshadowed by the endless designer shops. The square flooded by a torrent of tourists in our thousands. The astronomical clock’s tower crammed with people taking photos of the view, selfies, preening in front of their camera phones in the barely one-person-wide path around the top. I could feel the frustration rise, irritation boil, a twisting in my gut like I was ready to push through them all and run away fast, claustrophobia.
Then, across the river, I found a freedom, a revelation. I had cake and coffee for lunch because I’m an adult and I can (in other words, I got anxious as soon as I walked in and sat down and they were cheaper). I put my headphones in and walked across the bridge, made my way towards the castle, ran up every stairway I came across until I grew tired and decided I really didn’t care to go inside of the castle anyways.
But now none of that really matters. The advertising, the endless crowds, the designer stores. I don’t mind any of it, now.
In the Old Town there is a room, in a tower, in an old Jesuit college. It’s longer than it is wide, and very tall, but it isn’t all that big. You can’t go in–a rope holds back visitors at the entrance–you can’t take pictures, and you can’t get there without taking a tour of the tower itself. Since the tower is an old observatory, with the original meridian line and camera obscura, sextants and quadrants, all on display, that was no hardship.
I have heard that a part of traveling is finding what each place has to offer you, that it differs for each person. In a too-short trip to a city that was not what I expected, that was in fact almost disappointing, I think I have still found it. On my last morning, I found my corner of Prague.
I just can’t actually go in it.