Puppet maker Mirek Trejtnar clip-clopped a red-nosed marionette across a makeshift plywood stage in his studio in Prague. This, he told me, was Kasparek, perhaps the most iconic character in Czech puppetry: a source of comic relief beloved by schoolchildren countrywide. Kasparek was a mesmerizing, deeply expressive chap, particularly for being made of wood and having no movable parts of his face. He danced a jig; he tripped and dragged himself, moaning, across the stage; he banged his head on the ground.
I had come to the Puppets in Prague studio that Trejtnar shares with his wife, Leah Gaffen, through a recommendation from a friend in the arts scene in Cincinnati, which I had explored earlier in this 52 Places trip. Before meeting them, though, I had felt a lot like Kasparek: banging my head against a wall of tourists. Of which, of course, I was one, along with my friend Julia, who had come to visit.
For decades, Prague has been on the backpacker circuit, and for good reason: It is magnificent. Every building in the UNESCO-inscribed medieval city center will set your mouth agape — which is how I remember spending my first visit here in 2005. But as Julia and I navigated through our first few days, I kept wondering when we were going to scrape past the crowds (there were a record 7.65 million visitors in 2017) to reach the scrappy, resilient spirit of the city that had so charmed me a decade ago.
Our initial attempts fell flat. We signed up for a walking tour of Communist history — and spent four hours seeing Prague through the eyes of a guy from Colorado. We caught a glow-in-the-dark pantomime production of “Faust” at the Black Light Theatre of Prague and it felt like being in an actual tourist trap, held hostage by the random dancing penguins onstage. (All blame goes to a Rick Steves podcast from 2015.)
Getting to know Prague beyond its Disneyland veneer took a combination of effort, insider tips and luck. But by the time I left, I felt grateful to have glimpsed a tiny slice of the creativity and cultural pride that still courses through this city, ready to be explored.
It’s all about the puppets
“We try to keep the puppet tradition alive,” said Trejtnar, who is a graduate of the renowned master of fine arts program for puppetry design at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts. I was visiting their Puppets in Prague studio in the Vrsovice district midway through one of the English-language workshops they started hosting 20 years ago. Students of all ages from around the world were spending a month in Prague, first carving and costuming their own marionettes, and then putting on a show.
Puppetry is not a novelty or fringe art in Prague. It is deeply entwined with Czech national identity, which is currently in the spotlight and a reason Prague had earned a spot on the 52 Places list: This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of an independent Czechoslovakian state in 1918, at the end of World War I and after centuries as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. (UNESCO recognized Slovakian and Czech puppetry as an “intangible cultural heritage” two years ago.)
Under Austrian rule, Trejtnar explained, all official theater in big cities was performed in German. The only outlet for Czech people to see culture in their native language came from families who traveled in caravans from town to town performing puppet shows. “The message of these puppeteers was kept by writers and poets, and when there was a national uprising, they had the aura of national heroes because they had carried the language around,” he said. “For puppetry, 1918 was very important.”
Joining the circus
Across the Vltava River, at the two-week Letni Letna “new circus” festival in the hip Prague 7 district, the link between puppetry and the city’s booming avant-garde performance scene was undeniable. The Puppets in Prague students would be debuting their production of “The Magnificent Seven” here as one of the two to three puppet shows scheduled every day. Nighttime shows featured acrobatics in tents.
There is a certain symbolism to Czech puppeteers and circus performers having such freedom of expression on this particular hill: It was once home to the world’s largest monument to Stalin (the area is still sometimes called Stalin), now replaced with a 75-foot-tall red metronome. Come dark, it turns into an outdoor party with a fantastic view of the skyline, where the youth of the city bring their beers, set off fireworks, dance to dubstep and make out.
Letni Letna started 14 years ago and has since grown to be one of the highlights of a Prague summer. Julia and I got tickets to the headline show, “Baro d’Evel (Bestia),” which promised a harmony of two-legged, four-legged and winged performers. That meant humans balancing on top of galloping horses, sometimes chasing birds. Another night, I saw “Cirque Inextremiste (Extension),” an impressive balancing act involving two men, some sturdy wooden planks and metal gas canisters — before a third performer in a wheelchair came in with a forklift.
What I most noticed, though, was how rapt the Czech audience was, including children. Cellphone usage was forbidden but the warning seemed unnecessary. Gaffen told me this is largely because Czech children start watching puppetry in kindergarten. They become used to live performance at such a young age, and grow up with such respect for it, that the idea of supplementing that entertainment with a glowing screen does not even cross their minds.
Palace of glass
One of the reasons I was determined to dig into Prague’s contemporary art scene is because it plays a huge role in my family. My mother, Lucy Lyon, is an artist working in the specialized field of cast glass sculpture (similar to bronze statues made in molds). The Czechs are to cast glass what the Venetians are to blown glass: the pre-eminent practitioners in the world. I saw their huge kilns in action on my previous visit. When my mother wants to make a big piece, she sometimes sends it to the Czechs.
On my mom’s recommendation, Julia and I made our way to the quiet residential neighborhood of Smichov, where one of my favorite artists, Karen LaMonte — known for her realistic, life-size dresses in glass, marble and metals — had an exhibition at the newly opened Museum Portheimka. LaMonte grew up in New York City and has been living in Prague, working with Czech glassmakers, for 20 years.
Set in a Baroque aristocratic summerhouse from the 1720s, Portheimka is a branch of Prague’s modern art gallery, Kampa Museum. It is also a beautiful and restful place to spend an afternoon. The art is displayed beneath ceilings painted with religious murals, or in colorful, centuries-old marble alcoves. One prism-like disk stood in a window like a lens, fracturing views of the garden hedges below. What moved me most was seeing the exquisite works of little-known Czech glass artists from the 1960s given a place of reverence befitting such a unique tradition. Afterward we walked around Smichov’s quiet streets, exchanging hellos with the few residents out walking their dogs.
When in doubt: beer
At times, though, the crowds did overwhelm — and so Julia and I adopted the philosophy of stopping right there and getting a beer. It felt like an appropriate approach: Light beers are only 4 percent alcohol, and it is common to see 70-year-old Prague women having one over breakfast.
Luckily, a bartender we had met on our first night, at O’Che’s Bar in the city center, directed us to two terrific microbreweries. At U Medvidku, founded in 1466, we tasted what they claim is the strongest beer in the world, uniquely fermented in open wooden barrels and sold nowhere else in the city, let alone the world. (We liked their other beers better.) A trip to Klasterni Pivovar Strahov (monastic brewery), high on a hill near the Prague Castle, came with similarly great beers, plus a night view of the city and an accordion player who inspired a conga line.
Our favorite spot was Riegrovy Sady, a beer garden in the Vinohrady neighborhood where students can afford to live. (A tip from Prague-based Lonely Planet writer Mark Baker.) They served local microbrews for around $2, instead of the commercial stuff we had sometimes paid $4 for in the city center. I liked being there so much that I came back on my own one evening after Julia left. Just down the road, at least 100 people were gathered on picnic blankets on a hillside to watch the most spectacular iteration of all the sunsets and sunrises I saw in Prague. The guy on acoustic guitar and groups of friends playing badminton — all drinking to-go beers — made it that much more special.
A remembrance to remember
My last night in Prague just happened to coincide with another anniversary: the 50th of the day that the Russian army took Prague by force in 1968, beginning 20 years of strict Soviet rule. (Years ending in eight have tended to be significant in modern Czech history, including independence in 1918, Nazi takeover in 1938 and Communist takeover in 1948.)
I was spending the evening with Edita Djakoualnova, a 26-year-old Prague native who works as the director of the YMCA, whom I had met through a friend of a friend. Her enthusiasm for her city was infectious. Edita’s father, who is from Chad, met her Czech mother when he came to Prague for college. “It was the ’80s and there were, like, no black people in the Czech Republic,” she said. “Now I think there are so many!”
For the anniversary, I had heard that thousands would be gathered in Wenceslas Square, where tanks had rolled in that fateful day — and where, half a year later, a student named Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest of the invasion.
As we approached the giant crowd, Edita told me that a sentiment of protest has been growing in Prague over the past few years over an unpopular presidency — with echoes of the current divide in the United States. “There are two parts of the society,” she said, “one that kind of elected the government which we have now, and the other which is, like, desperate of what is happening right now in politics.”
When we arrived, thousands of people had already filled the square. An older woman soon took the stage and began to sing a song that brought Edita to tears, followed by the national anthem, with which the entire crowd sang along.
The singer, Edita told me later, was named Marta Kubisova. Before the Russian invasion, she had been one of Czechoslovakia’s most popular singers. The song she sang, “A Prayer for Marta” had become the anthem of the resistance. (The opening line translates to, “May peace rest in this country!”) Two years into the occupation, the government banned her from performing, alleging pornography, charges she proved in court were based on doctored photos. She did not sing again until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. “There were many people who were banned from doing their job for 20 years,” Edita said.
The first song Kubisova sang in 1989, from a balcony in Wenceslas Square, was “A Prayer for Marta.” And she or someone else has sung it every year since on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. “Any time you hear it,” Edita said, “it is kind of emotional because of the power of the lyrics and also because of the circumstances, and what we lost.”
Food: I ate goulash for nearly every meal. Julia used the app Happy Cow to find vegan gems, like Vegan’s Prague with a rooftop view of Prague Castle. But my top recommendation was the Saturday morning Naplavka farmers market right on the Vltava River. Weeknights, Naplavka turns into a great spot to get a beer and see a Czech rock band play on a boat.
Lodging: We stayed in the city center, but if I returned, I would get a place in the Smichov, Karlin, Vinohrady or Vrosvice neighborhoods: close to the action, but with the pace and elegant architecture of the more residential parts of Paris.
Timing: As much as I am not a morning person, it’s clear: Prague in summer is best experienced at dawn and dusk, just as a city resident with a day job might. I got in the habit of chasing sunrises (best: Charles Bridge, the Metronome) and sunsets (Vysehrad Fortress, Riegrovy Sady beer garden). Getting up early gave us the grounds of Prague Castle, which open at 6 a.m., all to ourselves.
Transit: Beware the airport taxi scam. I paid nearly twice as much to get to my hotel as I should have, according to signs all over the city center from the mayor of Prague that said the maximum price for an airport taxi should be 550 koruna, about $25. Locals, meanwhile, told me it should be more like 300 ($14).
Prague’s tram and subway systems are excellent and cheap, but if you must take a car, your best bet is the Czech-based app Liftago. The couple of times I used Uber, the drivers made me pay in cash.
Or follow Edita’s brilliant strategy for walking around the city center like a native: Know the direction you are going and when you see people, divert to a parallel side street.