Al Fresco

24-09-2006

I was trapped in this nightmare...Perhaps I'd seen too many Fellini movies. I was in a dining room...was I? - squeezing behind the seats of people eating...feasting. I'd adopted that sideways, crab-like creep that makes one believe one is paper-thin, but still I was passing uncomfortably close by these revellers...these strangers. Who were all these people? None of them seem to recognize me, or even acknowledge my existence. I felt I was intruding. No, it wasn't Fellini. Instead, more like something from that interminable film 'Last Year in Marienbad'.

Photo: CzechTourismPhoto: CzechTourism Yes, in that movie nobody seemed to react to anyone else. They were like this...in a trance. Tables, chairs, diners...on and on they went. Would I ever find the door? Would I ever escape? Unless that was part of my dream too, I felt I was bathed in sweat. Surely there MUST be an exit...an escape!?

Then suddenly there was. But no door. The tables just vanished behind me somehow. There were cobbles instead of carpet, and I found myself out in the middle of the Old Town Square - yes, there was Jan Hus' statue. At this point I must have woken up. I remembered the torment of the dream...yes, exactly as I had experienced it for real that afternoon!

You see, the whole of Old Prague has now been turned into an immense dining room. Inside lobbies, passages, under arcades, out in squares, along streets - you can no longer make out the Baroque or the Gothic or the Secessionist for all you can see is a sea of laundered napery bedecked with glasses, plates, cutlery... and masticating humans grazing across the wonderful English of Czech menus: 'Chicken spit on rice' 'Green salad with bulb'... where's the city gone?

The Gothic arcades of the Old Town Square now aren't to be seen. Restaurants, over the last three or four years, have gradually been building huge permanent structures... they started with decks, then a fence round the deck, then an awning, then sides in case of drafts - then heaters, fridges... In some French towns they deal with this problem quite simply: 'Build what you like, as long as on Monday mornings, 10 - 11, it's all clear for street-cleaning'!

The square at the heart of Mala Strana, on the Castle side of the River, used to be a lot bigger - but the 'temporary' wooden butchers' stalls of the 17th century managed to get rebuilt in stronger materials in the 18th century... then an additional floor was added... or two. Then someone bought them and thought they'd look better as a kind of palace. Even today, in Wenceslas Square, a restaurateur has had the cunning idea of opening a café in an old tram-car right in the centre. I watch with amusement as week-by-week it gets ever more permanent. Next year it might be a 'tramway-themed' building, with an owner who indignantly insists he not only owns the site, but a slim wedge of the earth down to its very core and an ever widening wedge of the skies above.

I hope it's just a phase Prague has to go through - a reaction to the Old Regime which didn't permit such outdoor frivolity. But please, dear City, to survive - let tourists and us others be allowed to see the wood for the trees.

24-09-2006