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Classical and edgy, Prague has it all


The Prague Castle, center, is one of many attractions visitors can see, along with the Charles Bridge, right. Photo: Heather Cassell
The Prague Castle, center, is one of many attractions visitors can see, along with the Charles Bridge, right. Photo: Heather Cassell  

I felt like I went back in time, not just to an era of royalty, but also the gritty punk scene of the 1980s and early 1990s New York during a recent trip to Prague.

I was in a city filled with cobblestone streets. A river runs through town, with stone bridges knitting pathways across it to a castle perched high on a hill. Children play with handcrafted wood toys sold in the local shops along the squares.

I was also in underground clubs and hidden cafes in a lively, wildly creative city. Was Snow White or Billy Idol lurking around the corner?

My first full day of a 72-hour trip to Prague, I woke up early after spending an evening at an underground lesbian festival. My guide, dressed in a circa 1980s leather jacket, greeted me in my posh hotel lobby ready to whisk me away through Prague's incredibly layered history, including SM mating rituals where bruised bums are a sign of being attractive to the opposite sex.

Prague is the capital city of the Czech Republic, which is currently undergoing a rebranding campaign that was launched in 2016 to revive its original Latin name, Czechia.

It's been more than a quarter century since the fall of communism and the 1989 Velvet Revolution that led to the Velvet Divorce that split the former Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Czechoslovakia became the country's name in 1918 after the fall of the 400-year rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. Czechia is working hard to step into its future reclaiming its culture.

Czechs are proud of their history and have spent a century attempting to reconstruct their culture and prosperous past.

"We almost lost Czech identity and culture during 400 years of our dependence on Austria," said my gay guide, Petr Prokopik, 44, owner of Prague4Gay Tour (http://www.prague4gay.com).

World War II took more than half of the country's communities and cultures, which were made up of Czech, German, and Jewish people, he told me.

"We lost both Jewish and German culture in the end of the second World War," explained Prokopik, a native of Prague who holds a doctorate in anthropology and has taught gender studies and history.

Czechoslovakia itself had been formed at the end of World War I, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prior to the war the region consisted of Bohemia and Moravia, often called the Czech Lands, in the west, and Slovakia, a part of Hungary, in the east, according to Britannica.com.

Later, the iron curtain closed down upon Czechoslovakia until the fall of the former Soviet Union and communism in 1991. The country regained its independence during the Velvet Divorce and split from Slovakia in 1993.

Today, "we are now almost uniquely culturally united," said Prokopik.

Standing in front of the Czech Municipal House (http://www.obecnidum.cz), Prokopik explained the mural depicting the mythology of the creation of Czechia's identity and history in the early 20th century, which lends to the magicalness of the city.

Charmed
The residents of Prague are just as charmed by their city as visitors.

"Prague is really beautiful and historical, especially for U.S. friends. It's very old," said Michal Pitonak, a 33-year-old gay man who is the co-founder and core volunteer of the Queer Geography Association in Prague.

"It's safe here. People are used to foreigners. We have nice hotels and cafes," added Kristina Martiskova, 28, a pansexual woman who was attending the Queer Eye Festival (http://www.facebook.com/queereye). She noted that Prague has a large American expat community.

"It has a great energy. It has a lot of greenery. It's very cheap. It's just safe, friendly and beautiful," she said.

Prague residents are eager to show off the popular historical sites. Visitors can't miss the Prague Castle (http://www.hrad.cz), the Charles Bridge (http://www.prague.eu/cs/objekt/mista/93/karluv-most), Lesser Town (also known as Malá Strana) (http://www.czechtourism.com/c/prague-mala-strana-lesser-town), Old Town Square (https://www.prague.eu/en), Wenceslas Square (http://www.prague.eu/en/object/places/182/wenceslas-square-vaclavske-namesti), and the Petrin Tower (http://www.muzeumprahy.cz/198-petrinska-rozhledna/).

Then they will tell you how much they love the vibrant underground scene and things to do that are noncommercialized and indie-inspired.

"There are many things happening here that [are] not necessarily happening in other cities," said Prokopik.

He showed me nondescript places, like the Scout Institute (http://www.skautskyinstitut.cz/staromak/), a socialist cafe in the heart of the city that is supportive of the Czechia LGBT community. He also took me to the more touristy cafes, such as the House of the Black Madonna's Grand Cafe Orient (www.grandcafeorient.cz), which also houses the Czech Museum of Cubism (www.czkubismus.cz/en).

Prague is the only place in the world to take cubism, popularized by the late artist Pablo Picasso, and apply it to architecture. The city has a few buildings, such as the House of the Black Madonna, in the unique style that enjoyed a brief moment of popularity.

Lastly, Czechs will boast about their national beverage of choice: beer. It turns out that Budweiser is American as well as Czech. That's right. Budweiser is originally from Czechia, just as Pilsner beer is from the town of Pilsen in Czechia. If you think Germans are proud of their beer, you haven't met a Czech.


Petr Prokopik, owner of Prague4Gay Tour, stands by David Cerny's  

What to see and do
Prague's two biggest LGBT festivals are Prague Pride (www.praguepride.cz/en), August 5-11 and the Mezipatra Queer Film Festival (www.mezipatra.cz/en), November 7-22.

August is a good time for LGBTs to visit as Pride is the city's biggest summer festival.

The weeklong celebration, now in its ninth year, is also the largest Pride event in Eastern Europe.

Last year, the event attracted more than 90,000 Pridegoers from all over Czechia and Eastern Europe. There were more than 100 events such as debates, workshops, concerts, parties, and more, Pride organizers told me when I visited their offices. The celebration concludes with the parade on Saturday that attracts more than 40,000 spectators.

This year, Prague Pride is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. The challenge in Prague, activists said, is that Czechia has never had a "Stonewall moment."

"The Stonewall in the history of the Czech LGBT community, it is not known, it is not part of our inner history that we would feel connected to," said Hana Kulhánková, 41, a lesbian who is director of Prague Pride.

"Many people in the Czech Republic think that Prague Pride or [the] LGBT movement is a trend that emerged in the 1990s after the Velvet Revolution and when the Czech Republic opened up to the world," added Bohdana Rambousková, 40, an ally who is the Pride festival's public relations manager. "They don't see any history beforehand."

The reason is that homosexuality was decriminalized in then-Czechoslovakia in 1962, the women said.

Prague Pride's goal is to educate the Czech LGBT community about the historic event that happened in New York City, and also to show that Prague Pride is a part of a global movement of Prides and each country's unique situation, Rambousková added.

In Czechia, human rights and visibility remain two of the key issues' LGBTs face. Decriminalization of homosexuality didn't equal education about the LGBT community.

One of the unique qualities of Prague Pride is that it is more grassroots, the organizers noted.

"This is not a commercial Pride, as commercial as we are used to seeing in the West," said Rambousková. "We are much more human rights focused because there's still a lot to do, a lot to fight for, basically."

Prague Pride operates year-round with three full-time staff members. The staff produces the festival - for 2018 its budget was around $138,000 - with the help of a small army of 150 volunteers. Prague doesn't have an LGBT center, so the organization also works on other community initiatives.

Kulhánková's personal goal for Prague Pride is to diversify it and make it more inclusive for the community, especially seniors, youth, lesbians, and transgender people, she said.

"Lots of very young people are coming out much, much younger than when our generation was coming out," said Kulhánková.

To discover Prague, I took a couple of tours, both of which were interesting. One of them was of the Old Jewish Quarter, which is right off the Old Town Square, as a guest of Wittmann Tours (http://www.wittmann-tours.com). During the tour, I learned about the industrious Czech Jewish community and its horrible demise during World War II.

"The Jewish Quarter is very important. It's very powerful [to] have a great impact to see history and to realize a big part of society that was once so prominent and so present in everyday life and it disappeared," Prokopik said during our tour. "A similar thing just cannot happen."

Wittmann Tours was launched nearly 30 years ago by Sylvie Wittmann, a 63-year-old Jewish bisexual woman who survived the post-Holocaust and communism eras with a strong sense of her Jewishness intact. She began giving private tours of the Old Jewish Quarter and Czechia's concentration camp, Terezín Ghetto, in 1986 before officially launching her tour company in 1990.

Through the years, she's employed and taught many people how to be tour guides, including Prokopik. Today, she employs about two-dozen full- and part-time guides, she told me when we met for coffee.

The Terezín Ghetto tour is a daylong one. What makes Terezín unique is what happened there because of Alfred "Fredy" Hirsch, a gay Jewish man (http://www.docsforeducation.com/Dear_Fredy.php). Hirsch talked the Nazis into allowing him to continue teaching Jewish traditions to the children to prepare them to return to Israel. In the end, Hirsch was transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the children perished in the gas chambers, Prokopik told me.

Where to drink, eat, and play
After a day of intense learning, I needed a beer. I found it in the Vínohrady District, Prague's unofficial gayborhood near the heart of the city. It's where many of the gay bars and restaurants are located.

Three of the most popular gay bars to hang out at are Q Cafe (www.facebook.com/QCafePraha/), Patra (www.facebook.com/patrakrymska), which is owned by the producers of Prague's queer film festival; and Prague Saints (www.praguesaints.cz).

There aren't any lesbian bars in Prague, but circuit events, such as BOBR (www.facebook.com/events/1107893972737605/), an official Prague Pride lesbian party, is held several times a year, along with other pop-up lesbian parties and festivals year-round.

"I usually go to straight events because it's OK to go there with your girlfriend, hold hands, whatever, people don't really care," said Kulhánková, however, she admitted, "I'm missing events that are just for women."

More LGBT-friendly clubs are opening in the city. One of Prague's hottest new clubs that is popular among gays is Swim (http://www.swim.cz). Ankali (https://anka.li/) is also another queer-friendly club that holds many queer events and is recommended by LGBT locals.

Krymska Street is lined with artsy bars, cafes, restaurants, and shops. The Letna Quarter also has trendy spots and attracts many LGBTs.

Foodies will delight dining at Czechia's celebrity chef Zden?k Pohlreich's restaurant Next Door (http://www.next-door.cz) and the immensely popular Imperial Cafe (www.cafeimperial.cz). Reservations are required for both restaurants.

In the center of the city, I was able to grab a late night dinner of traditional Czech food and the best beers from around Europe at La Republica Restaurant (http://www.larepublica.cz/en). The restaurant is located near the intersection of New and Old Town Prague.

Cafe-Cafe (http://www.cafe-cafe.cz), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, serves up traditional Czechian food and is a very popular meeting place for LGBTs. Around the corner is the newer queer-friendly Cafe Venue Praha (www.venuepraha.com/en/index.html), which is much smaller, but very popular. It also has a view of the local market, which is fun to stroll through after brunch.

Prague has many vegetarian and vegan restaurants, such as Lehka Hlava Restaurant (www.lehkahlava.cz/en_home.htm), a vegetarian restaurant that also caters to vegans, and Moment Cafe (http://momentcafe.cz), where may LGBT and animal rights activists hang out.

Where to sleep
If you want to be in the heart of Prague and in the lap of luxury, stay at the Imperial Hotel (http://www.hotel-imperial.cz/en) or the Cosmopolitan Hotel (http://www.hotel-cosmopolitan.cz/en/). The Imperial is Prague's oldest hotel and is decked out in Art Deco style. Just across the street is its newer sister hotel, the Cosmopolitan, where I was a guest. It is modern and is home to the Next Door restaurant. The Imperial Hotel is home to the abovementioned Imperial Cafe.

Vienna House's suite of hotels (http://www.viennahouse.com) is another option for travelers. An official host hotel for Prague Pride, the Diplomat Prague is where many of the festival's celebrities and entertainers stay. Near the airport, it's an easy subway ride to the heart of the city. Closer to downtown are Andel's Hotel and the Angelo Hotel.

Getting to and around Prague
Czechia is a part of the European Union, but it is also independent. Euros aren't widely accepted, even when purchasing tickets to enter tourist attractions. It is best to exchange your money at your hotel or a bank into Czech crowns, also known as Czech krones, soon after you check in.

Prague is a walkable city but it's also easy to navigate its public transit system. Multiday passes can be purchased at newspaper stands and minimarkets around the city center. Taxis are also readily available.

Flying to Prague is rather expensive from the United States, even during off-season. However, if you have time, a less expensive and comfortable way to get to Prague is by train. I took Omio (http://bit.ly/2UHHIJ0), formerly GoEuro, from Munich, Germany with a brief stopover in Vienna, Austria.

Prague was already quite warm in April, which is when I visited the city, and it was already starting to get crowded with tourists. The best times to travel to Prague, if you aren't going to Prague Pride, is early spring and early fall. The weather is nice, it won't be as crowded, and prices will be lower.

Updated, 7/25/19: This article was updated to include the host hotel for Prague Pride.


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