Sunday, 17 August 2014

Prague Then and Now: Changes to travel over the last 2 decades

Missing Maps
Prague was the first city I visited in Europe back in 1999 when I was 18. The trip began in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1981, passed through back-water suburbs in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1986, and took a connecting flight from Dublin, Ireland, in 1998. So when I finally arrived in Prague I was blown away with the Gothic grandeur and layered history of the city. Despite spending the next two decades travelling across five continents, I still find myself constantly pulled back to Prague, unsure if my love affair is based on how magnificent the city is or just because it was the first place to capture my heart. I recently visited Praha for the fourth time and I couldn't help but notice how much travel to this great city has changed over the last 20 years.

Maps, Apps, and Money

Missing Maps
Czech Phrase Book
During my first trip in 1999 I was a penniless student so "cheap" was the name of the game. Prague was the perfect budget tourist destination. I stayed in a flat (pension) way out in Žižkov. On the first day I carefully packed a day-bag weighed down by maps, a guidebook, about IR£20, and an English-Czech translator dictionary. By the end of the week I had added a 1L bottle of water from the store in Žižkov to save money (prices were about triple in the city centre), a reading book, a bottle of sunscreen, a bottle of aloe-vera (bought the sunscreen too late), and an expensive (tourist-rate) summer scarf I'd had to buy outside one of the churches to cover my shoulders before the church would let me in. Years later I read "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien and identified with the hero's trauma.

Missing Maps
View across Prague from Strahov Monastery
Skipping forward to August 2014. Now I am a moderately successful travel writer in my 30s with enough money to afford my lack of enthusiasm for flats on the edge of the city. Ironically, now that I can afford a better, more comfortable bag to carry around better-quality guidebooks etc. everything I need seems to be free and fits onto my Samsung S5 Phone ...except the sunscreen (but at least this time I anticipate the Central-European sunshine and bring sunscreen with me.) I have numerous free city guide apps, translation apps, GPS maps with directions, and my for-fun novel (Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters - excellent vacation reading) all at the click of a button. Plus, I can now withdraw cash fairly cheaply so that I don't need to squirrel away large sums on money all over my body - or pay with card, a much-appreciated improvement in the system.  

Going Up: Cost of Living vs Taking Advantage of Tourists

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90 min transport ticket in 1999 was 12Kr, in 2014 it is 32Kr
But these savings are balanced out by the rise in the cost of living in Prague, which are to be expected. Beer has gone up from 30c in 1998 to about €1 (30Kr) in 2014. Still about 3x less than a cost of a (small) beer at home. In the most recent trip the price of a dinner came in at about €15 without penny pinching. 

But, the expense I didn't expect was the amount  previously free attractions now requiring an admittance fee and the disproportionate increase in entrance fees to tourist sites. During my first trip I survived on churches, free museums, and street concerts - almost none of my money went on "touristing". Joining the European Union in 2004 greatly opened up the Czech Republic to tourism, and rightly so, but the disadvantage is that it seems to have granted a license to rip off tourists. I tried asking one of the hotel receptionists about music venues in the city, but she explained that most Czechs wouldn't be able to afford city centre venues rates, or even to live in the city.  

Then and Now

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The Alchymist Nosticova Palace in Malastrana
My most recent trip was still an incredible vacation - thanks in part to being able to afford a much better quality of hotel (e.g. The Alchymist Nosticova Palace in Malastrana) and more beer... Charles Bridge was still beautiful as I walked across at midnight under the August Super Moon. Most importantly, in this trip I was familiar enough with the city not to need all the guidebooks/maps/translation dictionaries that I could ironically carry around with ease.

But some of the magic has definitely gone out of this city. Everyone in the tourist industry seems so jaded. I used to get a thrill out of ordering in Czech, but now all the waiters greet me in English and don't even bother saying "Dobrou chut'". Having to pay in to everything made my younger self cringe and I wondered how long it will be until there is a pedestrian toll for crossing Charles Bridge. I take consolation in the fact that city has withstood centuries of tourism and maybe my 40-year old self will return to a more-mellow Prague and by they'll have developed some kind of forcefield app to replace sunscreen.

Prague Cello Quartet playing Nothing Else Matters (Metallica) on Charles Bridge, Prague

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