The weather those two weeks couldn’t have been as relentlessly dismal, as sunless as I remember. May 1975, my first Prague visit, my train rattled in from Cheb, a border town out of a B spy movie outfitted with guard tower, barbed-wire fence, and a border-patrol officer who looked impassively from my blue American passport to my let’s-be-friends American face. I was an earnest young traveler, seeking my roots, as they say. My grandparents, pre–World War I immigrants to the Czech enclave in St. Paul, Minnesota, had been to my eye colorful, cheerfully exotic. But in Prague, the Cold War, the Iron Curtain—those bleak 20th-century metaphors—leached the city, or perhaps the mind, of color.
Zlata Praha, golden Prague, so called for its gleaming domes and winking charms, presented itself to me then as a cityscape of sooty pewter. Scaffolds surrounded baroque churches for decades, awaiting restorations that rarely came. The double-spired Tyn church was cloaked for a generation under this abandoned carapace, construction nets flapping from it. Still, I fell in love with it all, especially the dilapidated buildings festooned with grimy art nouveau bas-reliefs, vines, and coal-dust-stained flowers twirling around chipped plaster.
In the following years, I made several return trips—always, it seemed, in gray weather. Then, in the fall of 1989, the political sun broke through. In bustled the market economy. KFC and McDonald’s set up shop along the narrow streets of Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, where Kafka had walked from his father’s house across the Charles Bridge to Malá Strana, stalking a decent vegetarian restaurant in meaty Mitteleuropa.
As the 1990s rolled out, the city began to restore its luscious Hapsburg pastels, colors snuffed out by Hitler’s invasion and the long communist coma. Green, mustard, the rose and ocher of Central Europe, and restored palaces all brought color to the city. Prague became golden again, and the tourists thronged. At first Praguers spoke graciously of their “visitors,” proud to show off their long-ignored city. But as the Nikes tramped the once lonely byways, ratcheting up restaurant prices and rents in the city center, it dawned on the Czechs: this was more virus than visit.
What the tourists sought, communist neglect provided: a charmed urban past sometimes hard to locate in Western Europe. They stormed the baroque churches and paláce under the Hradcany—Prague Castle—and the wine cellars and coffeehouses along the Vltava embankment. They toured the campy Museum of Communism, sniggering at the absurdity of it all as if at a haunted house.
To arrive in Prague during the Cold War was to step through the looking glass from Western consumerism into a becalmed socialist-realist state of suspended animation. But since the city has emerged from its side of the Iron Curtain into the European Union and NATO with a raw market economy, I’ve been baffled to discover, during my annual midsummer residence, that I no longer moon over the art nouveau figures that first bewitched me in 1975. During my Cold War visits I had been after the Old World—the older the better. I had relished Czech pride: Alfons Mucha had decorated Prague with his mosaics and bas-reliefs of languorous women, curvilinear vines, and flowers insinuating themselves over cornices and doorways.
The longing for the Old World and art nouveau that brought me to Prague in the Cold War was apparently satisfied, giving way to a stranger kind of nostalgia—for a lost modernity. All great cities insist that you pay attention to architecture, their enduring self. In Prague that has long brought tourists to view the baroque and art nouveau glories of the city. But in all of Europe, only the Czechs took modernity’s first great revolution—cubism—off the canvas, giving it three-dimensional life. There are cubist houses and department stores, cubist chairs, cubist tea sets and glassware. Now when I roam the city, I look for these angular lines jutting past art nouveau florals and flourishes. These avant-garde designs were carved from stone, just as the little democracy of Czechoslovakia’s First Republic that lived barely 20 years between the two world wars was itself carved from the defeated Hapsburg Empire—until the Second World War ended the experiment.
Now, as I walk along, I salute that truncated modernity, which was so naively confident of the future—stark modernist structures like the Villa Müller by Adolf Loos, for instance, almost a century old, but still young in spirit, still able to accost the eye. This buoyant world believed modernity wasn’t just art for the wall. It belonged to the street, to life itself. It stood for freedom, for sass, and seriousness. For liberation.