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Prague regains its glow

After last year's record flooding, the city has emerged as beautiful and walkable as ever.

September 14, 2003|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Prague, Czech Republic — Prague, Czech Republic

The setting was a picture postcard, with the lights of Charles Bridge reflecting on the Vltava River and ducks paddling by only feet from my waterfront table at Kampa Park restaurant. It was hard to imagine that this table had been underwater last August.

Earlier, checking into the little Hotel Certovka, just around the corner from Kampa Park in the Lesser Quarter, I had seen a photo of the hotel in which floodwaters reached midway up its front door. And on a boat trip through Prague's "Venice," along the stream separating Kampa Island and the Lesser Quarter, the captain had told us, "Last year these two parts were together under the water."

What a difference a year makes.

When torrential rains last summer caused the worst flood in 500 years, the Vltava's olive green water crested 26 feet above normal, to the tops of the Charles Bridge arches. Now sightseeing boats sail under those arches, and the bridge, which connects Old Town (Stare Mesto) and the Lesser or Little Quarter (Mala Strana), swarms with pedestrians.

Prague has mopped up and cleared away the debris. High water marks on buildings -- especially in the hard-hit Lesser Quarter -- and repairs still underway on water lines and sunken streets are reminders of the flood. But hotels and restaurants have reopened, and tourists have returned.

"Right after the flood, people were afraid to come," Hana Kornecka, my guide, told me. "They thought there would be rats."

In fact, the sewers in the Old Town did overflow, and during the flooding, she said, "the river was as polluted as under communism," when factory effluent was the culprit.

Even Charles Bridge, a magnet for tourists, was closed for three weeks. But soon the caricaturists, jewelry hawkers and buskers returned, claiming spots in the shadows of the statues of 30 martyred saints on both sides of the bridge. As I strolled back to the Lesser Quarter from Old Town Square one midnight, a young man was leading a singalong of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love."

As Kornecka and I walked the bridge on a hot August day, she told me a story about how, when the bridge was being built in the 13th century, egg yolks were added to the mortar for strength, and every town was asked to donate eggs. "One town, unaware of the purpose, sent boiled eggs."

We paused at the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, where a spot on the bronze is polished bright from the touch of thousands of hands. It's supposed to bring good luck, though the saint himself had little. Having incurred the wrath of a 14th century king, he was tortured, killed and dragged to the bridge, where his body was tossed into the river.

Split personality

During my visit, I stayed on both sides of the river. My three hotels on the right bank were the luxurious Four Seasons, the more modest Maximilian and the ultra-hip glass-and-steel Hotel Josef. On the left bank I stayed at the cozy Hotel Certovka.

On another visit to Prague, I think I'd again split my stay between the two banks of the Vltava. The right bank has the Old Town and Old Town Square, the hub of city life with its sidewalk cafes and the many attractions of the Jewish Quarter. The left bank has the Lesser Quarter, with its cobbled streets and Baroque buildings; Kampa Island and its gardens; and Hradcany, which is crowned by Prague Castle, a vast complex of palaces, churches, gardens and galleries.

The Lesser Quarter also is home to the Parliament and some of the city's best restaurants. It's more intimate and, some think, a bit too chic and nouveau riche.

"The place is losing its character," Kornecka said. "It used to be old ladies shopping and old men sipping beer. They've been replaced by yuppies drinking mineral water and using mobile phones."

Wherever you stay, Prague, a city of 1.2 million, is wonderfully walkable. It also is one of Europe's most beautiful cities, having been spared destruction by Allied bombs during World War II, when it was occupied by the Nazis.

Incursion of modern buildings into the heart of the city so far has been minimal. Controversy surrounded the Nationale-Nederlanden building when it opened in 1996. Designed by L.A. architect Frank O. Gehry and Czech architect Vlado Milunic, it sits among fin de siecle facades on the riverfront. It's nicknamed the Fred and Ginger Building for its two curvy "dancing" towers, one of which resembles a woman's dress with pinched waist. It has been less kindly described as a crushed Coke can.

The Four Seasons, in a great location near the river, has done a good job of melding three buildings -- a 19th century fishmonger's, a 19th century factory and an 18th century monastery laundry -- into a seamless complex with a new core housing lobby, bar and restaurant.

When I visited, the hotel had recently reopened after closing for 10 months for flood repairs. Although a barrier on the riverbank held back the Vltava, the hotel's lower floors, housing its infrastructure, were flooded.

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