Every major city in the world, including Prague, has tourist traps. They are the ten plagues of tourism.
There was a surprising request in my welcome packet when I arrived at TBEX in the Czech Republic. A flyer begged attendees of the travel conference NOT to write about a specific list of things you might encounter in Prague.
I’d only been in the country for 24 hours and I’d already photographed most of the people, places and things on that list.
It was a poxy list of touristic debris that somehow washed ashore here. This stuff fascinates me. It might not be native, or authentic in any way, but for anyone with an anthropology degree, it’s impossible to ignore.
A thousand years from now historians and geneticists will laugh and casually make sense of it all, pointing to dated social media posts by the millions of tourists that have passed through Prague in the last couple of decades. Changes are afoot. It’s like pasta and tomato sauce, having nothing to do with Italy. Or oranges not really being from Florida.
Trade routes and travelers have a way of changing global culture. Wifi only speeds that process up.
It’s been almost 30 years since the first time I saw Prague – newly liberated and desperately in need of some good PR. There were no decent restaurants at that time.
It was extremely difficult to find anywhere to eat in the Old Town back then. We followed some British strangers and made our way to a beer hall that was catering to a film crew. Somehow we convinced them to serve us too.
There was one thing you could get on almost every street corner that summer, though. Entrepreneurs with insulated wooden boxes were peddling two flavors of “zmrzlyna.”
That’s a lot of z’s, and shockingly few vowels for a word that means ice cream. In transitional Prague, you had your purple and your orange zmrzlyna, and you didn’t complain.
Both colors tasted exactly the same – something like baby aspirin. They were served in an inedible styrofoam-like cone. But people were buying, happily. It was cold, and it was something to buy. Tourists were showing up with dollars to spend! You could see the wheels turning.
The beautiful old buildings still had good bones and the squares were begging for a spruce up. If you build it, they will come….and spend.
And now, it seems that prophecy has been fulfilled. The tourists have come to Prague. They have shown up in summer swarms that cover the Charles Bridge and fan out over the Old City. Masses and masses of tourists, with all the schlocky accoutrements that follow.
Mere hours after arriving, I found myself surrounded by a very ecstatic band of Crocs-clad Hare-Krishnas. As I watched, fascinated, a group of hip hijab-wearing Moslem women clapped and sang along, taking turns to beat a bongo and shake a tambourine.
Standing by the Clock Tower, I might have been standing in Times Square in New York, or in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater, in LA or on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. Janky off-brand character in furry costumes shared space with questionable street artists and performers. Everything was bathed in bubbles.
By the entrance to the Charles bridge, a Japanese kid snapped photos with a giant python draped across his shoulders. Kiosks advertised “Traditional Trdlo” ice cream treats that looked more like a Dairy Queen collaboration with Krispy Kreme. It made me nostalgic for the purple zmrzlyna.
Was this jetlag or a fever dream? The Prague of my memory was a nerdy, reclusive schoolgirl. This Prague was a hopped up reality tv star wannabe, shooting technicolor filtered selfies.
So much has changed about Prague. Buildings have been restored. Culture has been preserved. World class restaurants serving farm to table local fare are flourishing. Fashion, art, and history are alive and well.
But there’s also this other stuff.
Hastily painted Spongebob and Marvel Superhero Matryoshka seemed to spill out of every crack in the Old Town walls. The nesting quality only seems to make them more viral and likely to multiply. They cannot be stopped! Kardashian matryoshkas, WWF matryoshkas you name it, they got it.
It is not just goods. There are services that seem off brand, as well. Men in Asian themed costumes beckoned me to come into massage parlors, where I might sit in a massage chair while sticking my feet in a fishtank.
What says Czech Republic more than having your tired tourist feet stripped clean of calluses by gentle flesh-eating South American fish, in an Old Town Prague Thai massage parlor?
I cannot unsee these things. I know they are entirely inauthentic. They are not at all what I’d recommend, to any tourist. Yet I don’t entirely hate them. With my anthropology glasses on, I recognize the history in the making. I can accept this stuff as a part of the story of Prague today. Modern, moody, scarred with a few questionable tattoos Prague.
It’s not just Prague. It’s all of Europe, and probably world capitals worldwide. This is just what you get to shop for and eat in tourist meccas. Fudge by the seaside. Odd photo shoots in historic locations. Maybe we should blame social media for this. I felt a little sorry for the rat. He seemed even less enthusiastic about the the snapshots, than the tourists his owner was trying to panhandle from.
Ultimately, I don’t know why tourists in Prague want to stick their feet in fishtanks.
It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want to pose with a python, in the midst of a cobblestoned plaza. And I don’t know why we need so many amber trinkets and themed nesting dolls. The dolls are Russian, not Czech and even that is debatable once you start painting Kenny from South Park on them. What’s more, I don’t know the true origins of the doughy, sugary (not traditional) Trdlo stuffed with soft-serve. But I think I understand what it’s really about.
Safety. Vacation. Indulgence. Expanding borders, and letting your guard down. Prague is a place, and now is a time, where many people, from all over the world, seem to feel quite at home on holiday. That’s the biggest change of all.
My favorite plague, hands down, were the bubbles. Shimmering in the air, floating overhead, delighting children and making rainbows before disappearing without a trace.
Bubbles are pure magic. And so is Prague, still. Despite the tourist traps that are the ten plagues of tourism.