MAD DOG: Czeching Out Prague

It took 43 years and four major theme parks but finally Disney got it right. After the battle they had in Paris ("These waiters are friendly, I'm never coming back here") and the cultural differences they had to overcome in Tokyo ("What do you mean I can't get Little Mermaid sushi?"), they finally built a cobblestoned theme park filled with fairy tale Gothic spires, grandly baroque exteriors, and walled-in castles but -- get this -- they played it smart and didn't tell anyone they were behind it!Yes, it's called Prague, and it's pure marketing genius. But go now before they blow it by opening Wenceslas Mountain, the Rudy II Toot Beer Hall, and Mozartland. Hey, nothing good lasts forever.Prague is a fascinating city. It's filled with the type of beautiful buildings the Germans tried to exterminate in World War II under Hitler's policy of Architectural Cleansing but didn't get to because they got sidetracked by the cheap pivo (beer) and plentiful klobsa, then ran out of time before the buzzer rang and they had to take "National Reconstruction for $12 billion, Alex."In Prague, or Praha has they call it because they want you to think they've laughed at least once in the last 50 years, the public transportation is efficient, the pay phones have a mind of their own, and the language is unusual in that it requires you to use at least one "sh" sound in every word, with extra points if you can fit in three.Contrary to what you've been told, English is not widely spoken in Prague. German is. Except for the signs on stores, pubs, and casinos that say "Nonstop", meaning they're open 24 hours a day. And, of course, at the McDonald's and KFCs which dot the city, proving once again that we export nothing but our very best.Prague is filled with tourists, bathrooms that cost you 4 koruna (an extra 10 if you want toilet paper), and more people dressed like Mozart than a masquerade ball in Salzburg. These Mozart wanabees can be seen all over Old Town Square wearing waistcoats, embroidered knickers, and white wigs which they buy cheap from the estates of deceased London judges, cutting off the split ends so they get that "just finished composing" look. This leaves the poor children real confused. It's as bad as having Santa on every corner at Christmas -- "Which is the real Mozart, Mommy?"These guys (and girls) aren't out there making a fashion statement, they're promoting classical music performances. Prague is to classical music what Amsterdam is to sex. In most cities you walk down the street and are handed flyers offering 99-cent shrimp cocktails or live sex acts, usually unnatural but always highly entertaining. The sex acts, that is. In Prague they shove flyers in your hand trumpeting the "Best Mozart in Town" or "Delightfully Dazzling Dvorak". Equally unnatural, but not quite as entertaining.You have to understand that the music in Prague is, well, unusual. The first song I heard was in the cab that whisked me away from the train station and it was Flashdance. Considering how easily I let the cabbie rip me off you'd think he'd have played something more to my liking. The woman I rented a room from was at least 75 years old and I heard her radio playing the Beatles. There's a death metal band in Prague that plays all acoustic instruments. And I actually heard four different rocked-up versions of "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" sung in Czech. Really. Is it any surprise Mozart concerts are so popular?No one looks up in Prague, which is odd since the architecture is incredible. There's Romanesque, baroque, Gothic, Art Nouveau, even cubist buildings throughout the city. The cornices and rooftops are invariably ornate, yet no one looks at them. The young people are busy checking out each other. The tourists are checking out the crystal, marionettes, and painted eggs for sale. And the older Czechs are staring straight ahead in the belief that if they smile the communists will show up and take the country back. Of course they might actually be rooting for that so the tourists won't be allowed in anymore.It was Easter weekend when I was there, the biggest tourist time of the year in Prague. Well, along with every other weekend. Why? It's beautiful, it's unique, it's cheap, and it's not the yucky old Cote d'Azur again. Besides, what other city has a huge metronome on a hill overlooking the Vltava River? Where else can you find great chleb"cky (open-faced sandwiches that are practically free), good beer that's cheaper than a pack of gum in the U.S., and the worst coffee this side of your washing machine effluence? Prague, the Eastern Paris.Yes, that's what they call the city. I'm not sure who "They" are, but it says so right there in the guide books. Face it, every city loves to compare itself to another. San Francisco is Baghdad by the Bay, probably because of all the camels running around. In Havana they swore that Ave. 5ta is patterned after Fifth Avenue in New York, but the only similarity I could see was that they're both paved. And my Prague guidebook proudly says that "jugglers and musicians brighten the city's evenings, again offering a typical Parisian image."Jugglers in Paris? The only juggler I saw there was the waiter bringing me my crepe, wine, and water after waiting until I was about to pass out so he'd had plenty of time to spit in them. And the only musicians there were gypsy accordion players in the Metro who'd just taken up their instruments the week before. The truth is, the real reason they call Prague the Eastern Paris is because of the Eiffel Tower.That's right, there's one sitting on Petr'n Hill overlooking Castle Prague. It's a small-scale version built for the Prague Industrial Exhibition in 1891 which has 299 stairs you can climb for 20 koruna, or about 60 cents. I didn't hike up the real Eiffel Tower, but I did climb this one. And why not? It has way fewer steps, there was no line to get in, it has more TV and microwave antennas on it, and it has a much better view of Prague. Hey, if I'm nothing I'm a smart tourist.Smart enough not to buy into their marionette craze. Prague is into marionettes. It's a long tradition that I suspect goes back to the days when Moscow pulled their strings. While in Prague you can take in a classic Czech marionette show, see marionettes performing Yellow Submarine, and even catch them doing Don Giovanni, which is the height of Prague-dom since it combines puppets with Mozart, something you don't see nearly often enough. Now if they'd only put some mouse ears on those things they'd have a sure fire hit on their hands.

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