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THE Prague PARADOX

For the tourist, the beautiful Czech Republic capital has many charms. But its popularity has bred an ugly side: taxi cheats and other rip-offs.

April 25, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — In rolled the train from Berlin one evening last month, 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 legally should have cost no more than $6.

That's Prague, city of medieval wonders and art nouveau gems, of Franz Kafka and Vaclav Havel, of holdout American expats, of galloping commercialism and of 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 thievery.

Ten years since the Velvet Revolution that ejected communism and elevated 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.

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.

When I noticed a rustle of preparations at the box office, I did a little investigating, then raced back across the street to fetch a tie and jacket. Minutes later, 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. For hours, I slipped from room to room, grinning like a dope and reminding myself what it had cost. The municipal ball ticket: $6. A beer: 80 cents. A heavy snack: another 80 cents.

In other words, a Prague taxi ride may cost $30 per mile, but an orchestral orgy of food, drink and dance in a gilded hall goes for $1.26 per hour.

Eight years ago, Alan Levy, editor of the local English-language weekly, the Prague Post, surveyed the scenery, noted the mounting number of artsy young Americans and declared this "the Left Bank of the '90s." Of course, it was never that simple.

But in many ways, Prague is merely lurching through the same transformation that overtook European cities and towns from Assisi to Stratford-on-Avon in the decades following World War II. Down on its luck and alert to Americans bearing strong dollars, much of Western Europe turned to trading on its history and became largely dependent on tourism.

The difference with Prague is that the process only began in 1989. And once these changes had begun, they advanced more quickly because tourism is a bigger business now, and because selling Prague, from the cheap beer to the brooding architecture to the playwright-and-prisoner-turned-president, was so easy.

"Prague used to be a town of real people," tour guide Lucie Militka, age 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." At a development company where she used to work, Lucie said, the business plan was "waiting for the death of old people," then buying their flats and leasing them out as office suites.

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.

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