PRAGUE -- I've just been in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe for a couple of reasons. I elected to take advantage of a Viking Cruises Explore More program to see today's Prague and also to compare it to what it was like when I was last here under Communist rule.
Cruise extensions on land are the norm in the industry, and this tour is an extension of Viking's Budapest-to-Amsterdam cruise. Viking whisked me from Prague's Vaclav Havel Airport to the Hilton Hotel and, even in full jet-lag mode, I immediately took to the streets to find some genuine Bohemian food and to sample some of the best beers in the world.
After the first night's sleep, I took a thoughtful and informative tour of the city for 31/2 hours. Other paid tours were available, but Prague was for me. Luckily, it escaped damage in the Second World War -- Adolf Hitler saw the city as a base for further conquests.
I was here several times during the Communist era. I covered sports for CBC and that meant travelling with the Canadian national hockey team, covering the World Hockey Championships and Olympic Games, and Prague was the site of exhibition games for Canada.
Then the landscape was various shades of grey -- from buildings to sky. Weighed down by the Communists, people were unhappy. Young people and students hoped for a brighter future, and many talked privately with the Canadian players about Canada and democracy.
Freedom was seeping in until what was referred to as the Prague Spring of 1968, when in August, 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and an armada of tanks was sent in to protect Communism's future. It wasn't until 1989 that freedom blossomed throughout then-Czechoslovakia.
Now, for the first time in 46 years, I was back. This city has flourished. From Prague Castle to the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River to Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. Old Town Square houses the Astronomical Clock and a hodgepodge of medieval buildings with giant open spaces, all very colourful.
I soon discovered the rest of the world has discovered Prague. On the Charles Bridge on a Sunday, it was so crowded I couldn't tell it was a bridge but for the river below. This was early May, and I still hadn't beaten the crowds.
Legend has it if you touch the left side of the statue of St. John of Nepomuk located on the bridge, you will come back, and the right side will bring good luck.
If you're on a short visit, allow the better part of a day at the Prague Castle grounds. Lots to see, and Golden Lane on the grounds is where you can be sure the crafts are genuine. It's easy to get to the castle grounds; look for tram 22.
The John Lennon Wall is in Lesser Town. When he died in 1980, young pacifists painted his image on the wall. The Secret Police kept whitewashing it, but the graffiti artists prevailed.
Some advice: On the street, you will be asked by strangers to exchange your dollars for more than you'll get at banks or ATMs. Keep in mind if the police catch you -- well, you know what happens.
It was only a few days, yet now I know why Prague is called the Paris of the North. And that democracy does smell good.
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