City of Creativity: find designers in Prague
It seemed like a secret – and in some ways I guess it was. Rolling down the Vltava River in his small car, Stepan Rusnak deftly maneuvers around the tight corners and cobblestones of the small town, squeezing the little black sedan into a tiny parking space. We walked a block to the John Lennon wall.
Located opposite the French Embassy on a leafy bend in a side street, the wall has attracted both love and dissent since the 1960s. Initially, couples painted on poems, and in the 1960s 1980, after Lennon was assassinated, an unknown artist painted his portrait here. As this decade progressed, the artwork and messages on the wall became more political, calling for democratization and liberalisation. “The KGB, they were always there, watching,” Rusnak said, his eyes tracing the opposite side of the street.
But while we stopped for a few photos, we weren’t there for John Lennon. Passing into a sunny courtyard behind the Wall, Rusnak led me to a door partially obscured by foliage. As hundreds of tourists pass by just steps away, few if any would know of the special place we were about to enter. Rusnak knocked loudly. A moment later, the door opened.
We were in Prague, on a hot autumn day, looking for makers. One of the most beautiful cities in Central Europe, it is also one of the most creative. Whether out of necessity or inspiration from the place itself, the Czech capital has long been a favorite place to play, build, shape and craft.
I have witnessed this on several visits. It is fitting that the country’s first post-communist president, the late Václav Havel, was a poet and playwright. Always a national hero, his absurd plays mocked the communist system and by the late 1960s were banned in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Imprisoned repeatedly for four years in a row, he spearheaded dissident initiatives, including the influential Charter 77.
Charter 77 was sparked by the arrest of Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech rock band. The manifesto called on the government to respect human rights. Rock music was also a key subordinate voice at this time, with Plastic People the biggest band and underground gigs an opportunity for Czechs to express themselves freely. When Communism fell, American rocker Frank Zappa was invited on an official state visit and hundreds of people met him at the airport. The Rolling Stones even financed the lighting system for Prague Castle.
Arriving at the castle for my first visit in a long time, I passed a stoic guard in a colorful uniform. In another of Havel’s post-Communist touches, he assigned the task of replacing harsh Soviet-era attire to Theodor Pištěk, an Oscar-winning costume designer. The new uniforms are still formal, but look like something out of a storybook.
Visiting various buildings, including the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, I emerged and descended past the pastel facades of Golden Lane. Back when it was a small, self-contained village inside the castle walls, everyone who lived and worked in these tiny, cozy spaces was doing something. A seamstress, a master brewer or a goldsmith. Franz Kafka, writing his dystopian fiction. An alchemist, seeking to do magic and discover the fountain of youth.
I’ve been to the Four Seasons Prague, itself a place for creatives, including a resourceful mixologist who dabbles in absinthe like the old alchemists, and a Michelin-starred chef. My room overlooking the river and the castle had been equipped with a record player. Next to it was a limited edition disc, the “Eternal Beauty of the Vltava”. Spinning it around, the classic song “Vltava” (“The Moldau”) was fresh, re-recorded by Czech pianist and composer Tomáš Kačo: the perfect soundtrack to gaze out the window and watch the river flow.
It was still in my head when, with Rusnak, I approached this door almost hidden behind all the leaves, near the John Lennon Wall. Almost as an afterthought, he gestured to a massive tree nearby. “He’s 280 years old,” he said. “Beethoven used to sit below and compose.”
After knocking, a door opened to a whole other world. A huge room, lined with incredibly hot ovens on one side. Part of a monastery, the space once served as stables. Later, the communist government installed a huge electric generator inside.
Now, after spending many hours and large sums renovating the place, Martin Janecký is blowing glass there. He grew up in a city known for glassmaking and is the son of a glassmaker. He lived all over the world, teaching and learning the art and science of glass.
After walking around her little gallery, we sat outside in another sunny courtyard. He said it was good to be back in his home country. “Glassmaking in Bohemia,” Janecky said, with a small smile, “goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”
After seeing the kilns and hanging around for a while, we walked back out, stopping for a few moments to put our hands on the Beethoven tree. (Rusnak showed me pictures of celebrities he had guided hugging the tree, seeking to draw some power from it.) Crossing the river again, everything seemed fine. The sun, always shining. The warmth of the glass studio, still shimmering on my skin. And that song, singing of the eternal beauty of this city, still plays loudly in my head.
If you are going to
Fly: Although only served by a handful of nonstop flights from North America, the city’s Václav Havel Airport (PRG) receives flights from many national airlines from across Europe, as well as from several low-cost carriers.
Move : Prague has an excellent public transport system that includes buses and a multi-line metro, but the trams, which smack pleasantly through the city, are the main mode of transport here.
Stay: Built right next to the river, just steps from Charles Bridge, the Four Seasons Hotel Prague is an enclave of calm and luxury in the heart of a bustling city. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the hotel’s 10 Eternal Experiences include bespoke tours curated around fashion, coffee, restaurants, gardens and other key Prague brands. Visit, then return for a bespoke drink and gourmet meal.
Take note: Although it is part of the European Union and the Schengen area, the Czech Republic does not use the euro. This makes things cheaper, but be aware of how many crowns you still have in your pocket at the end of a trip.