Originally created 06/27/99

Beguiling charms



PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- In rolled the train from Berlin, and out I stepped. Dragging my bags along a path traced by hundreds of travelers every week, I crossed the terminal floor and stepped outside to hail a cab.

A leather-jacketed, weary-faced driver nodded me into his gray taxi, and in a flash we were rolling along to the medieval city center, exploring the limits of my Czech and his English.

A left at the Hilton, a dash through a tunnel and lo, we emerged amid one of the most admired urban landscapes in Europe. Within walking distance lay the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle and the Old Town's 12th-century tangle of narrow alleys and ancient stonework. At first sight, a stranger is likely to love it here.

But first sight isn't everything. When we pulled up at a curb just around the corner from my hotel's lobby, the driver pointed to the meter and charged me $30 -- for a one-mile taxi ride that should have cost no more than $6.

Business as usual

That's Prague, city of medieval wonders and art nouveau gems, of Franz Kafka and Vaclav Havel, of holdout American expatriates, of galloping commercialism and persistent treachery against tourists. Taxi rip-offs like this one, most locals and veteran visitors will tell you, are business as usual. So, they agree, are restaurant overcharges and subway theft.

Ten years since the Velvet Revolution that ejected communism and elevated Mr. Havel from dissident prisoner to president, Prague remains the tourism sweetheart of Eastern Europe, one of the prettiest cities on the planet. But Prague is also a case study in what can happen when mass tourism comes to town. Alongside the wonders lie the ironies and the rip-offs. I had a grand time in my five days there, and I'd go back again (if I could avoid summer weekends). But if you're on the tourist path, you can never be sure whether you're about to be cheated -- or charmed.

Life and tourism

Consider, for instance, the evening that followed my taxi misadventure. Once I'd settled into the Pariz Hotel, I wandered across the street to the Obecni Dum, a municipal structure that houses a symphony hall, three restaurants and enough stained glass, ironwork, mosaic tile, frescoes and crystal chandeliers to make it one of the most striking examples of art nouveau design in all of Europe.

Minutes later, clad in tie and jacket, I was making my entrance into the annual Municipal Ball.

Men wore tails, tuxes and dark suits. Women wore jewels, pink taffeta and crimson satin. It was a grown-up Czech prom, really, featuring three orchestras (including the Prague Symphony) and a jazz band led by "the Czech Louis Armstrong." Everybody waltzed and drank a lot of beer. The municipal ball ticket: $6. A beer: 80 cents. A heavy snack: another 80 cents.

So a Prague taxi ride might cost $30 a mile, but an orchestral orgy of food, drink and dance in a gilded hall goes for $1.26 an hour.

"Prague used to be a town of real people," tour guide Lucie Militka, 21, told me one morning. "But now prices are so high that people can't live here. Shops like bakers are being replaced by souvenir shops."

Entertainment reigns

Despite widespread building and renovation, there's still a shortage of hotel rooms in the $60-to-$100-per-night range, which forces many travelers into rooms more costly or more rustic than they prefer. But other tourists' needs have been seen to in spades.

In the city center, souvenir shops and restaurants have crowded out most other commerce with their marionettes, floppy jester hats, Kafka T-shirts, art reproductions, beer steins, old Soviet pins and Bohemian crystal bric-a-brac. The sprawling U Flecku beer hall, which dates to 1499 and is probably the most famous restaurant in town, swallows busloads of tour groups each day and holds 1,200 customers at a time. In the train station, dubious characters congregate and slot machines rattle. (Gambling is legal, as are prostitution and possession of small amounts of marijuana.)

Crime is threat

The dishonesty of Prague's cabdrivers has been an issue since the first years after communism's fall. American budget travel guru Rick Steves once labeled them "the most dishonest taxi drivers in Europe," and in 1997, after city officials dropped regulation efforts and left drivers to charge whatever they liked, prominent Czechs in America and elsewhere launched a petition campaign, charging that the drivers were ruining the country's good name around the world.

In 1998, city officials reinstated limits on what drivers legally could charge, but it's unclear how much has changed. Whenever possible, shrewd visitors walk or use public transit.

That public transit system, however, plays host to a second tourist menace: pickpockets, who work in teams during the moments of jostling when passengers are boarding and exiting. Often, says Weston Stacey, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Prague, the teams are made up of two young men and a grandmotherly woman.

Worth the trouble

Then there are the restaurants. The issue is not the cuisine, which increasingly is more interesting, and it's not the slow and ill-tempered work habits that remain from the Soviet era in many dining rooms. It's dishonesty again. In a 1998 study by the Czech Commercial Inspectorate, inspectors found that 15 percent of restaurant meals ended with a falsely inflated bill.

Still, no catalog of changes or list of civic problems can cancel out the sensation that strikes a newcomer upon seeing Prague Castle across the Vltava River at dusk, lights upon its turrets and a mist descending.

On any afternoon, you can linger over coffee and ice cream with raspberries in the splendor of the Obecni Dum's ground-floor cafe. You can climb the hill to the castle, inspect the soot-black buttresses of St. Vitus Cathedral inside, perhaps admire the uniformed guards, whose tassels and epaulets were designed, at Mr. Havel's behest, by Teodor Pistek, the costume designer for the film Amadeus.

You can duck down a side street in the Old Town and savor the weirdness of stepping from medieval cobblestones into the cavelike barroom of O'Che's, an Irish-Cuban pub with Guinness on tap, the Cartoon Network on the television and a Cuban flag on the wall. O'Che's barroom may not be precisely why Mr. Havel and company fought for freedom, but here it is.

Bargains can be found

On any evening, there likely will be several affordable church concerts, some jazz, a few marionette shows (one long-running program is based on Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, which premiered here in 1787).

On Monday nights, bohemians and Bohemians alike gather for English-language readings of poetry and prose at the Radost FX cafe and lounge. And for $12, I caught a chamber quartet of Mozart and Beethoven in the Clementium, a gilt-rich, high-ceilinged church near the banks of the Vltava.

On Bartolomejska Street, in the secret police building where Mr. Havel and other suspected dissidents once were interrogated and tortured, a budget hotel and hostel now does a booming business. You can even rent the metal-doored cell where Mr. Havel once was held (room P06, with two bunk beds, about $15 a person), then head next door for a 75-cent salad or a 50-cent beer at Cafe Konvict.

Wenceslas Square, where demonstrators massed during the last days of communism, is a semi-seedy but heavily trafficked hub. Its main attraction is probably the gorgeous curvilinear art nouveau facade of the Hotel Europa. Step inside the cafe or slip upstairs to look at rooms, and you see how glory fades when a spectacular hotel is neglected.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Connecting service only (one plane change) from Atlanta to Prague. July fares cost $1,000 to $1,500 round trip, according to Expedia.com.

WHERE TO STAY: All lodgings listed include breakfast with room fees.

Hotel Pariz, Obecni Domu 1; telephone (800) 888-4747 or 011-420-2-221-95195, fax 011-420-2-242-25475, Internet www.hotel-pariz.cz. Grand 1904 art nouveau building with 93 air-conditioned rooms and two restaurants at edge of Prague's oldest district. Brochure rates for doubles start at $270 nightly.

Hotel U Zlate Studny, Karlova 3; telephone or fax 011-420-2-222-20262. Six old-fashioned, antique-furnished rooms in the heart of the Old Town. No elevator. Rates: $120-$140.

The Cloister Inn/Pension Unitas, Bartolomijska 9; telephone 011-420-2-232-7700, fax 011-420-2-232-7709, Internet www.cloister-inn.cz. Part budget hotel (about 25 rooms), part hostel (about 100 beds) in central location. Rates from $16 (bunk in a quadruple room with shared bath) to $105 (double room, private bath).

WHERE TO EAT: For great seafood and a big bill, Restaurant Rbi trh, Tynsky dvur 5; local telephone 248-9544-7; main courses, $35.

For artsy American expat atmosphere, have lunch at the Globe Bookstore and Coffee House, Janovskeho 14, Prague 7; telephone 667-1261-0. Nothing over $3.50. For a late-night, beer-soaked version of the same scene, Jo's Bar & Garaz, Malostranske namesti 7.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Czech Tourist Authority, 1109 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10028; telephone (212) 288-0830, fax (212) 288-0971, Internet http://www.czechcenter.com.