Part II: June, 2018
The train from Munich was spacious and comfortable. My wife and I had the whole compartment within our passenger car to ourselves...until we crossed the Czech border that is, where the perfectly groomed farms and country side of Bavaria gave way to abandoned buildings and yards of rusting soviet-era vehicles. In Pilsen (where the best beer on earth is made), the train stopped and everyone had to get off, walk over the tracks and through bushes to an non-air conditioned bus for a 40 minute ride to another train station (it was 90 degrees out). It was unexpected. The next train was crowded, also non-air conditioned, and smelled of B.O. Welcome to the Czech Republic. We arrived in Prague in a couple hours. Just outside of the train station I saw a homeless person poopin' in the bushes off the crowded main walkway. Welcome to Prague! So, my first impression was that the city was going to be much the same as it was 12 years before. Once we arrived in Old Town, I was proven wrong.
Our AirBnb in the Jewish Quarter of Old Town was super-modern and very comfortable, but cost a lot more than the apartment I'd stayed in during my first trip. That wasn't an issue. I'm not a burrito slinging punk-rocker on a shoestring budget anymore. We enjoyed breakfasts and late-evening beers on our balcony. We spent mornings and evenings wandering the streets and photographing the cityscape. It was another great experience in Prague, but a bit different this time.
The first thing that struck me this time around were the crowds. Prague is popular now, the new Paris, packed with selfie-stickers, walking tours, and long lines for sites and museums. Old Town Square, once filled with sausage stands and craft peddlers, was packed to the gills with tourists. The food and hand-made local goods stalls were diminished and had been pushed into a small corner of the square. The highly-touristy "authentic Czech" restaurants were still there, but this time there were lines for them. Price gauging was blatantly obvious. Prague is still a relatively cheap place to visit, and the same beer (and better food) in Old Town Square can be purchased a few blocks away for a fraction of the price. Granted we were visiting at the beginning of the height of tourist season for Europe, but I never expected so many other visitors even at the extremes of the day.
The Charles Bridge was an introvert's nightmare as there was barely anywhere to stand. Even at 4AM it was still bustling with (mostly drunk British) visitors. Weaving through the crowd as a couple was difficult. A leisurely stroll to enjoy the views and statues was nearly impossible due to tour groups and professional wedding photo shoots. Also, serious artists who once sold paintings along the bridge had been replaced by people selling Chinese-made Prague souvenirs (like overpriced keychains and other useless trinkets). I got really fed-up with hearing street musicians playing Coldplay covers on their squeezeboxes, instead of regional music that fit the atmosphere. It was a stark contrast to my experience years before. Things change.
The second big difference this time around was how relatively clean the city was. Buildings had fresh paint and many had been restored to their former glory. This is actually a good thing, but took away from the humble and charming Bohemian feel the city had before. Stare Mesto (Old Town) and Mala Strana were as clean and colorful as Stockholm. The street that I stayed on in 2006 was unrecognizable. My wife and I went out looking for the hostel where I stayed in for cheap over decade ago. Before it was dirty, seemingly every other business was an absinthe bar, and many buildings were in disrepair. We never found the building because I simply couldn't recognize it. That neighborhood, just a few blocks off Old Town Square, is now the upscale shopping district. Prada and Rolex among other high fashion retailers now line the streets along with trendy bars, Starbucks, and hipster restaurants. It was actually difficult to find an authentic and affordable Czech meal. Sausage stands were nowhere to be found!
This shows that Prague is looking up economically, mostly because of the recent surge in tourism. That's great for the small country and citizens. However, I was a bit disappointed that the entire atmosphere had changed. It didn't feel like the same Prague. It was "Prague-Land" now - a bit diluted and heavily influenced by Western culture.
The third difference was that every Czech person we interacted with spoke English very well. Czech is a bit difficult to learn, so I struggled with communicating on my first trip, especially in restaurants. This time there was no issue speaking English. Every restaurant had an English menu. Prague has a young population and English and American influence from music, the internet, and TV have obviously made an impact over the last 12 years.
I imagine this to be the case with all places. If you return to a location in decade-long increments change is to be expected - I've changed much as well. My wife, Alison, enjoyed our time in Prague, but she had a different experience than I did years earlier. I was happy to have made loads of images this time around. Prague is still well worth the visit. It is a very beautiful place and people have now caught on to that fact. I would recommend shoulder seasons and probably spending time in smaller Czech towns for a more laid-back experience, however.