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Here are some of the things for which people visit Prague: classical music, beer, contemporary art, puppetry.
I'm just learning all this. The sheer number of festivals, which all seem to be happening at the very moment we arrive, is overwhelming. There is a Prague Spring festival, a Prague Writers' Festival, a Prague Fringe Festival, a World Festival of Puppet Art, and two competing art biennales, following a falling out among the organizers of the last one, which was Prague's first.
In the end, though, the thing about Prague that will leave the most lasting impression on us is the weather. This has to do with the purpose of our journey. We've come to Prague because I couldn't find a company that rents motorcycles any farther east. Our plan is to pick up a Suzuki Bandit GSF 600 S and head out of town.
My boyfriend, L., will be driving. He's been riding his own motorcycle, a 1970 BMW R60/5, for a dozen years, and so, we think, he's fully prepared to handle what's ahead: highways, byways, winding mountain roads, and the cable cars that trundle along iron grooves through every city. I'll be navigating: In addition to reading maps, and bereft of Slavic languages, I get to go into gas stations and ask for directions using sign language. L. has taken long motorcycle trips before, from Phoenix to Denver and from southern Georgia to Kentucky. I, on the other hand, have never been on a motorcycle for more than an hour or so at a time. L. has warned me that I may not find multiple hours in the saddle very comfortable.
We are headed east, through the fringes of the new Europe: Three countries—the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia—that were among the 10 to join the European Union just last year. They are also recent additions to NATO, Slovakia last year and the other two in 1999. We are going to where these Western institutions bump up against Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, which has the distinction of being the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. With the West-East frontier steadily marching toward Moscow, the countries we will visit are the new middle of the middle of the middle: Presidents Bush and Putin met in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, earlier this year.
We hope to make it to the High Tatras Mountains, which straddle the Polish-Slovak border, and which, I've heard, make fine motorcycling territory. I'd like to visit Krakow, in southern Poland, as well as central Slovakia. Beyond this, we don't have much of a scheme. We don't know how many miles we can cover a day. We don't know if we will be warm enough in cargo pants and Gore-Tex jackets. We don't know how, exactly, we are going to fit both ourselves and our belongings onto the bike. I've packed lighter than ever before, because anything that doesn't fit into L.'s new, magnetized tank bag or his old leather saddlebags is going on my back. This may be the first time I use cargo pants to hold cargo.
First, though, we have Prague to contend with.
If you've arrived in Prague (like us) without a cultural goal in mind, and you are staying in one of the central neighborhoods to either side of the Vltava River, a well-oiled tourism machine will quickly have you in its clutches, throwing out options at a frenetic pace. You can't walk down the narrow streets of Old Town without receiving a flyer for a Bach, Mozart, and Dvorak concert, conveniently scheduled and located amid some beautiful masonry, perhaps at Prague Castle. (The flyers always have maps on the back.) Nor can you turn a corner in Old Town without spotting a bobbing, bright-colored umbrella leading a guided walking tour. City Walks, which uses yellow umbrellas, offers 16 distinct tours, including "The Old Town Pub Walk," "The Legends and Mystery Tour," and "The Franz Kafka Walk."
The whole Old Town, in fact, is a sparkling-clean, English-speaking bubble of successful industry, in which foreignness comes predigested. Creative commerce has produced some odd-ball products, like Kafka T-shirts and the puppet show Cats in Prague. Even our hotel, the Unitas Pension and Art Hostel, which was at one time a convent and at another a prison, has cleverly turned its history into an asset. Vaclav Havel, the playwright, anti-communist dissident, and president of the Czech Republic until 2003, was once imprisoned here. I'm paying $61 a night for that and a narrow cell with no bathroom.
Culture and capitalism, it seems, have achieved perfect synthesis in Prague, in a fusion on par with much larger cities. Of course, none of this thriving commerce would have come about if the city were not ostentatiously pretty to begin with. During our one full day in town, we opt for nothing too strenuously educational, instead sleeping late and walking around. And looking at the sky, which puts on a show.
The city was baking in the sun when we deplaned, its black spires and red roofs bleached under a white sky, its tourists burnt and sweating. The next morning dawned even hotter. "Excellent riding weather," we said to each other, envisioning T-shirts and tank tops.
We meandered down to Marksmen's Island in the middle of the Vltava River. White tufts wafted through the air like the beginning of a blizzard, spores of some unfamiliar tree. We had, on no basis whatsoever, hoped for a beach, but there was just a minuscule point of sand at one end, where a homeless man combed his wet hair in front of a mirror propped on a tree trunk.
We ate lunch in a brick-factory-turned-restaurant, with a view of the Charles Bridge, the broad stone pedestrian span that has linked the two sides of the city since 1357. Between the statues that decorate its railings, vendors hawked jewelry, quickie portraits, and black-and-white photos of Prague to a steady stream of humanity. The temperature continued to rise, and the flying white fuzz became so abundant that one diner covered his perspiring beer glass with a bread plate.
A few clouds clustered overhead, and immediately the heat loosened its grip. Then what looked like a business luncheon—a group of men and women holding pens and folders and speaking Czech—got up and moved from their table on the terrace to one indoors.
One of the vendors up on the Charles Bridge put on a yellow rain slicker. Another pulled a plastic tarp over his wares.
And, no more than 10 minutes after the first dark clouds had appeared, a violent downpour began.
The diners on the terrace dashed indoors. The waiters dashed for the terrace, reeling in awnings and grabbing glasses, but then hail started pounding down and sent them back inside. Some of the chunks had the diameter of a quarter. In a wind-whipped frenzy, waiters helped us close the French doors next to our table. The entire foyer of the restaurant, which was below street level, flooded and became impassable. We ordered martinis.
Our view had been transformed. Sunny Prague had become dark and moody, worthy of the freaky gargoyles on St. Vitus Cathedral. The Charles Bridge now brooded in the rain, resembling the Charles Bridge in the photographs sold on its deck.
The storm ended quickly, but my tank-top dreams were dashed. We had been warned.