Tuesday, September 12, 2017

(Don't) spread the wealth

On Friday I went for my first stroll across Charles Bridge since we got here.

Sunday noon scene on Charles Bridge
It's one of the iconic experiences of Prague--a Gothic bridge lined with Baroque statues and marked off with watch towers at each end, fabulous architecture lining both sides of the river, and presiding above it all, Prague Castle and the Cathedral of St. Vitus.

It's a key link in the main tourist path: Wenceslaus Square, past the church of St. Gall to Old Town Square with the astrological clock, winding through the twists and turns of Charles St. from Little Square to Charles Bridge, across the bridge to the Lesser Quarter and its square, then up Neruda St. to the castle.
Looking through the portal of the tower on the Old Town end of the bridge
When I lived in Pilsen 26 years ago, I occasionally made it into Prague for an afternoon/evening, and that route was a staple of mine.

And of course, because it's iconic, everyone who comes to Prague follows the same path.
Karlova, the narrow, winding street leading from Old Town Square to Charles Bridge
In the three weeks since we'd gotten here, I hadn't yet made the pilgrimage myself. So on Friday when I had an errand at the city library I chose a route that would take me by way of the bridge.

I made my way across, marveling at both the city (as always) and the number of people here taking pictures of themselves marveling at the city, being entertained by the street musicians, patronizing the caricature artists spread out along the crossing.
Sunday noon scene on Charles Bridge
After my stop at the library, Kate texted me that she was nearby, and we met up for hot chocolate.

I got one block off of the central tourist axis, and found this:
Liliová, looking south
Turning the other way, I saw this:
Liliová, looking north
That cream-colored church at the end of the street, the one with the red roof in that last picture? That church is along Charles St. Right at the base of that wall, out of view of my camera, is a never-ending throng of people seeing what must be seen in Old Prague, multi-tasking while they do so by eating a rich cinnamon-sugar pastry that has been pressed into service as an ice-cream cone.
A block away, and you have no idea it's happening.
Kate read that Prague gets 4 million tourists a year, in a city of 1.2 million, whereas Paris gets 40 million tourists a year, in a city of 2.2 million. And yet I don't know that any part of Paris feels so thoroughly given over to tourists, so thoroughly Disneyfied, so thoroughly drained of the daily life of the inhabitants, as the tourist core of Prague.
To the extent that this difference is real, it's probably because Paris's tourist attractions are more spread out around the city, rather than clustering around such a narrow axis. And things like the Eifel Tower occupy such expansive areas that even if they are tourist central, they don't feel cramped in the same way.
I encountered a few pieces over the summer about the Prague tourism problem. The government decided to treat Old Prague as a golden egg. Maybe not a crazy idea from an economic standpoint, but it radically alters the character of the place over a couple of decades.

One writer suggested that the government should try to encourage tourism to spread more evenly around the city. More locals would benefit from the spending, and no one place would be so completely burdened.
That's a good idea.
But then wanderers like me wouldn't be able to stumble into a street like Liliová and have it almost all to ourselves.
It's a conundrum.

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