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Prague before 1989

Just wondering if anyone has memories of Prague under communism, in terms of how the city looked back then, what it was like to be a tourist, the general feel of the city. Photos of it today look stunning and I just wonder what it was like before.

Posted by
27342 posts

I visited the city for a few days in 1972. You could see that it was beautiful, but I recall the buildings as being rather dark (pollution, I assume). The feeling I had, walking around the city, was that people were not exactly joyful. I hesitate to use the word "depressed" because I didn't have conversations with local people (it was not encouraged and might have gotten them in trouble with the authorities), but I was thinking "depressed" at the time. This took place only 4 years after the Soviet invasion, and I think life was pretty grim.

I was on a student's budget, so I wasn't frequenting the better restaurants, but even allowing for that, the food seemed quite poor by comparison to what I found in (West) Germany and other places outside the Soviet bloc. And the food was distinctly better in Budapest than in Prague.

The one clear memory I have is walking past a small store, probably a book store. There were some items related to chess in the window (maybe a chessboard), along with news of the Fischer-Spassky match, which was taking place during my visit. Fischer was winning. My thought at the time was that things like that were the only way to express any sort of discontent. But now I'm wondering whether any sort of private shops were allowed in Czechoslovakia in 1972. I wouldn't have expected the decision-maker in a government shop to set up a window display about an American's impending victory over a Russian.

While today is not the best time to visit Prague because of the hordes of other tourists, it is also not the worst time.

Posted by
1048 posts

I couldn't go over the boarder until after the wall fell, but I did get there a couple years later. I have a whole book of pics from my 1995 trip, but they're not digital.

Here's some memories...

First, I usually went in March/April, so there was snow. Which made things different, because they burned a lot of coal. You'd get dirty just walking. with coal dust on everything splashing on you, dropping on you, or rubbing on you. It's better now, but still not as clean as "Western" cities. (This is not just a Prague problem, and until you've experienced it, you won't understand.)

Before they got "touristy" prices were "different". If you were not a local, you paid for it. Money had to be Kroner, and you had to buy them before you could get your passport stamped. You had to keep your receipt, and when you left you had to show receipts for anything you had purchased to a gov't official. The exchange rate varied depending on who you were dealing with. Nobody in the city seemed to own a calculator, all the math was done with pencil and paper or off the top of the head, I usually had 3-4 currencies (Dollars, Marks, Schillings, etc) in my wallet, so it could get interesting. Sometimes frustrating, but I remember it fondly now.

Taxi's did not have meters. You got in, negotiated a price, and went from there. This could be complicated, as English was not common with anyone over 25. I had one guy try to charge me 300Kr to go from Old Town to the Castle when it was snowing, a trip that had cost me 30Kr the day before (and which was a overcharge at that rate).

Graffiti was everywhere, especially on public buildings. The whole "Anarchy" thing was going on, and young people didn't get a lot of respect from the old ones, so there was a resentment and they were still trying to find a way to get the western lifestyle and get rid of the previous decades influence and rulers, but they didn't know how. and those in charge were not in a hurry to give up their turn at the trough. Everybody had a hand out...

You had to negotiate you're hotel room too. (And pretty much anything you wanted to buy.) Rooms were pretty basic, even if "good" hotels. Western chains hadn't really started to come into the city. You had to turn in your passport to get a room key. (I've only seen this in Police States, and it's very unsettling...)

Tourists were rare at that time of year. I could go a day easy without hearing English. My other "good" language, German, was not very well appreciated. (Strangely the only other place I used to have this problem was in certain parts of France...)

Museums were not good. They had lot's of stuff, but it was poorly lit, and horribly displayed. Picture this; a whole room full of fossils in the History Museum, all in glass cases that have not been dusted in decades, under 3-4 bare light bulbs, with little typewritten notes in Czech next to them (done on a typewriter with a really bad ribbon), and not sorted out (i.e. a trilobite, next to a vertebrate, next to a small skull, next to a fish impression...) all from different epochs.

But the stuff they had....I chanced on a display of old weapons in a back room of the castle complex, that actually had been put together by someone trying hard. They even had a pamphlet with English translations printed. The stuff on display had not been seen since before WWI (not WWII) because they had "hidden" it. Fantastic collection of edged stuff from all over the world going back 500-600 years. Turkish armor, Frankish broadswords, Japanese pole weapons, etc...I wonder where it's at now. (Good chance it was sold out the back door...)

More to follow...

Posted by
1048 posts

I had a meal in what was considered the "best" place in the city. It was weird. There were only 3-4 tables with people at them, and I was the only person dining alone. I had 5 waiters, all of who stood by the table and watched me eat. The food was not that good. The service was excessive; put down a fork, a new one replaced it. It was fairly expensive...but not like some of the places I'd indulge in. (I miss those lavish expense accounts.)

The best food I found was in little places. Cheap, excellent, local. One of the best meals I've ever had was in a place in the Jewish Quarter, sausages, goulash, potatoes, etc. nothing really fancy, but exceptionally good. I think I paid around $5 in local funds. Beer was really cheap, but you never knew what you were going to get (it was pretty local). I got a dressing down in one place for ordering a Pils, apparently the bartender/owner/ brewer (I was never exactly sure of his role) took exception to that, because we were not in Pilsen.

Beer was the drink of choice. Wine was also local, and not very good. It was considered expensive, but I don't remember it being so. Imported stuff was! Even German sekt, which was what they'd pass as Champagne. You could get a girl for the evening for the price of a bottle of wine. American's were considered "rich" and you could make a lot of friends quickly. (Perhaps we were, the places east of the wall were pretty depressing and run down.)

Locally made stuff was cheap. I still use the crystal stemware I picked up for about $0.50 a piece. Beautiful stuff. Hand painted Easter eggs were $1/dozen. Porcelain was dirt cheap. Watches (which I collected back then) were incredibly expensive, but you could find the most incredible stuff. (One old guy had cases of watches and clocks going back 300 years. Stuff you only see in books. But it couldn't leave the country...)

Trains and trolley were rough. Cars too. Maintenance was obviously an issue. Power was not something taken for granted. Lights were turned off if no one was in a room, heat was sparce (I remember being in a public building and everyone, including those working there, was in their coats.) Farmers still used horses, noticeably more than I was used too.

I've been back a few times, most recently 5 years ago. The places are still geographically the same, but the city's changed. I kind of miss the old one...

Posted by
868 posts

Grey, the winters were hazy and smelled bad, if you visited the Jewish cemetery you often were the only visitor, some sights, which are open now, were closed for tourists, others were open but didn't cost money, because they weren't overrun by tourists, Czechs formed the majority in the old town.... that's actually the biggest difference: back then the centre felt like a Czech city, before it was turned into the absurd Dineyland it is now.

Posted by
14580 posts

My first time to a communist country was going to Prague in July 1973,. This was my second trip as a 23 year ago backpacker. I'm glad I did, very nice, enlightening, an enjoyable trip. I ended up staying in a student dorm with the help of two east German guys.

Communicating in Prague I used German practically all the time, the other times English. I had no problems using German. My original plan was to stay in the hostel, got to it but after talking to the very nice Czech receptionist girl in German, that was not possible...all booked up.

In 1973 I went to Paris for the first time, used German with the Orly bus driver upon arrival since we couldn't communicate in French, ie, just too broken as was his English. So, I asked him in French about speaking German...problem solved.

You had to do a mandatory exchange amount in Prague given the days you were staying, eg. if you stay 5 days, then for that duration, you had to exchange a minimum amount for the 5 days. Of course, you could exchange more. I carried Amer Ex Travelers Checks. Outside of the CSSR that money was worthless.

You needed a visa to enter the country, "their " way of getting hard currency by imposing a visa. I got the Czech visa in Paris at the Czech Embassy. My border/passport/visa check took place in Cheb train station, the first town over the border in the former Sudetenland, it was hot, (mid-July), crowded, armed Czech soldiers patrolling the train platform, obviously A/C in trains was unheard of then, dogs sniffing under the trains.

We were all leaning out the open windows. Obviously, I looked like a visitor, a foreigner; all of a sudden, this Czech woman standing there too starts talking to me in German, most likely trying to reassure me. So, we talked, nice conversation, she answered my questions, she said repeatedly, "Tschechoslowakei nicht strengen.." (not strict, ie you can relax). I never forget her words. She must have been one of the Czechs allowed to go back and forth from West Germany.

Arriving at the Prague train station from Nürnberg gave me the first insight, the signs were in 3 languages...Czech, Russian, and German.

I went to Prague because the other two major cities/capitals in central Europe Berlin and Vienna I had visited already, plus I knew that Prague had one basic advantage over the two...it survived the war intact, came through undamaged given a war time situation.

Obviously, the city had a different feel to it. I didn't feel "depressed" or oppressed. There were times when out and about either alone or with the other 2 American guys I went to Prague I had to remind myself I was in a communist country.

Posted by
8293 posts

We were there in May of 1990. The Berlin Wall was not yet "officially" down. We arrived by train from Budapest and almost didn't get off the train because the station sign said "Praha" and in our ignorance we did not know that name for Prague. Other passengers urged us to get off because the next stop was East Berlin, not on our "must see" list.

We had American Express cheques in US dollars, but we bought $25.CAD worth of cash from a scary looking guy in the train station. We had been warned not to do this but we needed to have cash for a meal. With that we had dinner in a hotel dining room suggested by a lady we accosted, where the waiter just kept bringing us different versions of pork dishes and lots of potatoes. I can't actually remember how we got our hotel room, but it was very rudimentary and just outside our room a large lady was stationed, who sat at a table, I suppose to keep an eye on everyone, and at which she entertained her family and friends. They played cards and laughed a lot.

Breakfast at the hotel was coffee, bad quality bread and jam. For $1.00 extra we could have had eggs and sausages but our waiter did not tell us that. Why not? Who knows.

When the time came to buy our train tickets to West Berlin, we went to an office with three wickets. At the first one, we told the agent where wanted to go and he wrote it down on a piece of paper. We then took that piece of paper to the second wicket where we paid the fare. At the third wicket we were issued with tickets. Jobs for everyone, folks.

The one grocery store we looked into had nothing but bread on the shelves, nothing. I am guessing that the local people knew on which day of the week the store would actually have food. I can imagine the queues on that day!

One day we had lunch at the Hotel Europa on Wenceslas Square, a 19th century gem, which I think no longer exists. We had a splendid lunch, 5 courses of excellent cuisine with wine, and a huge snifter of brandy to end with. $25.

My husband and I were in Prague about 5 years later for an international congress and the changes were astounding. The wonderful Hotel Europa had already closed down. Have not been back since. End of tale.

Posted by
1652 posts

I LOVE reading everyone's replies!! Thank you to rob in cal for starting this post. I've been to Prague in 2003 and 2009, so obviously not before 1989. The differences between then and now are amazing, and a great history lesson.

Posted by
14580 posts

During the time of the commie days, the CSSR, there was a state sponsored travel agency, CEDOK. When I was there in 1973, I took their walking tour on my last full day in Prague, our group was international, some Americans too, Germans, and other Europeans. The Czech tour guide was a middle age woman, fluent in English and German, maybe even French too.

Regarding the student dorm: The one striking feature to that dorm room which I had to myself, something new since I was so used to hostel dorm rooms with 3 to 19 guys, was that a loudspeaker was installed, played music all day and all night.

You could not turn it off, at least, I didn't try...beyond reach anyway. It was installed high up on the wall, like an intercom speaker. I didn't mess with it, didn't inform or want to get the young couple running the place in any trouble, whatever.

So, you slept with the music or heard talking in Czech all the time.

Posted by
415 posts

If you want to see what it looked like in 1987 then You Tube for INXS Never Tear Us Apart. They filmed the video here and you can't do that in the Old Jewish Cemetery any more.

Posted by
7565 posts

We didn't visit until 1999, but I've got a photo on my dresser of us having tea and pastries at a small table outside the Cafe Europa from that trip. The cafe seating outside the hotel was atop astroturf, and the inside suggested past opulence, but was in pretty rough shape at the time. Seeing Norma's comments, I just now did an Internet search, and an article from 2017 indicated that Marriott had purchased the Europa, and after a thorough remodeling would rebrand and reopen it as a W Hotel in 2020. Times have changed.

Posted by
223 posts

Jason - thanks for that You Tube tip. It was really interesting to watch the video of Prague before so much commercialization.

Posted by
86 posts

This is such a fascinating thread--thank you all for sharing your experiences. I lived in Prague from 2014-2018, and it is much cleaner but also more crowded now! Norma, your story of the three ticket lines at the train station made me laugh. There is a fancy department store on Wenceslas Square, Van Graaf, that to this day continues the tradition from the Soviet era of creating extra jobs (which slows everything down for customers). When you want to buy something, you hand it to a clerk. She gives you a ticket and sends your item through a dumbwaiter to the ground floor. You go to the ground floor and wait in line at a central station. (I've waited as long as 20 minutes here!) Finally, at the front of the line, a third person goes into a back room, finds your item, and hands it to the cashier so you can pay for it. It's an amusing flashback to a time when such make-work systems were all too common!