Prague is widely known as one of the most beautiful cities. But for decades, its inner city has been largely the playground of tourists. That is starting to change. The younger generation is taking the city back.
The best location to observe how the people of Prague are gradually retaking their city is beneath one of the Vltava bridges. Martin Kontra stands here, gazing across the water toward the Prague Castle. Right next to him, a line has formed up at the beer bar. "When we started out," he shouts above the live music, "this place was dead. I wanted to change that."
That summer evening, life was humming along the river here in Prague. And partiers were out and about till late into the night. The spot Martin Kontra opened is called Bajkazyl. It's a hodgepodge of bicycle repair shop, arts forum and open-air bar.
The Vltava, the lifeline of the city
When the weather is nice, thousands of local residents gather on the waterfront in the downtown area. Some bring along their own bottles of wine; others pick up a freshly drawn beer from one of the tap stands. And they all enjoy the live bands playing every evening. A fresh breeze wafts up from the Vltava. So popular has this location become that barges have been remodeled to accommodate ale-benches or theaters and moored to the quay. The action has spread out onto the water.
"A large part of our cultural life is happening on the Vltava itself - perhaps modeled a little on Paris," says Martin Ourednicek, a researcher from the Charles University. He's investigating the city's social geography. "The old saying about the people of Prague being baptized in the Vltava is regaining some of its truth - this is a part of our identity."
Without a doubt, the transformation of the embankment is the most visible part of the city's reawakening. The people are rediscovering it as a space to get together and spend their free time - in contrast to what they were accustomed to from the communist era, when Prague was primarily a city for working and sleeping. Its residents preferred to spend every free minute at their dachas, especially on the weekend.
But today, as Ourednicek explains, that's changing. Prague's population has nicer apartments, and they want to enjoy life at other times - not just their days off, as evidenced by the many restaurants and cafés with tables on the sidewalks and squares. For the first time in decades, Prague is once again a city for long strolls.
Fewer cars, more pedestrians
Marek Belor is also keeping an eye on how the city is changing. He's an expert for the Auto-mat Initiative for a better traffic concept in Prague. "The fundamental dilemma for Prague is that its cobblestone streets are just too narrow for the daily onslaught of cars," he asserts. Every day, thousands of commuters fight their way into the city center, each in their own car. The traffic jams tie up the buses and trams, as well. This year, a tunnel that cost billions of euros to build is due to open. It'll carry traffic under the city center in four lanes. This was the former city government's pet project. Today, Prague's governing coalition is pursuing a different concept. They want people to leave their cars parked. They've drastically lowered fares for public transportation. A year's ticket costs only 130 euros.
"The streets become a setting for the city's social life," says engineer Marek Zderadicka. He works for a city-owned enterprise involved in the city planning. "People are on the lookout for a better quality of urban life”, he adds. "There's a tendency you can observe all over Europe. In 20 to 30 years, the majority of people will be living in urban areas. So we need good living conditions in the city."
More room for pedestrians, less traffic, more cafés and small shops: These are the criteria that the planning of all major projects in Prague ought to take into consideration. And researcher Martin Ourednicek adds, "Prague has begun to catch up with Western cities like Vienna and Munich."
Back on the Vltava promenade, night has fallen. Bands are playing, the beer is flowing, and Martin Kontra, the bar pioneer, leans back, apparently satisfied. "We have so many more ideas - we'd like to follow up on them." The people of Prague are enjoying their city - each and every evening.