Epochs of Indulgence: How Prague Became a Luxury Destination

How Prague Became a Luxury DestinationIt’s true: Prague really doesn’t let go–to paraphrase Franz Kafka, one of the city’s most famous native sons, who likened the capital of Bohemia to a wicked mother from whose escape (literal, emotional, and mental) was futile. Kafka’s Prague was much different than the gleaming hodgepodge of architecture and cobblestoned streets we see today.

Yet that stranglehold persists.

When, in the 1990s, thousands of artistically inclined American and British and Australian slackers planted themselves in Prague, the Czech capital was transformed into the European capital of indulgence; while pretending to scribble out novels, the expatriates were gripped by Mother Prague, drowning in her nectar of hoppy beer and absinthe and other vices. Many travelers turned up, intending to spend six days and stayed six months. It was a Faustian bargain of sorts: in exchange for a lifestyle of officially sanctioned debauchery at freshly opened cafes, bars, clubs, and galleries, there were gray, yet-to-be renovated facades of buildings, linoleum-clad hotel rooms, uninspired restaurants that trafficked in corrupt, mustached waiters and dishes of indifference like “haunch of pork.”

And from that, a dozen “new Pragues” were launched around the European continent, each one seeming to mimic the cultural and social intemperance of the original. The beginning of the next decade saw another group of indulgence seekers: the stag parties herded themselves into the City of a Hundred Spires, grabbing (with all they could claw) much more than they could ever give back.

But all that’s gone now. The expatriates and the stag parties have cast their googley eyes elsewhere, the gray-clad buildings, and even the indifference have been wiped away by gazillions of Euros of foreign investment. An EU entry, a large spurt in the economy, and a decade later, Prague is no longer the city that anyone remembers.

That’s because travelers are now gravitating to the Czech capital for decadence of a different kind. Oh, the desire for indulgence still remains. It just comes in a different form these days. It started to happen when the names began arriving. First came Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, and Jean Nouvel to put their architectural stamp on the city. Then Hugo Boss, Escada, and Versace. Then the chic five-star hotels began swinging open their doors, first the Four Seasons and then the Mandarin Oriental and The Augustine (a Rocco Forte property) carved themselves out of ancient monasteries in the Mala Strana district. Haunches of pork and smoky, jaundiced-colored pubs have been replaced by clean gastropub-like drinking establishments (such as U Bulovky, Kozlovna, and Budvarka, to name a few) that serve inspired Central European fare in an atmosphere that harkens back to the Interwar period, a time of economic boom and relative stability (kind of like now, not-so-coincidentally enough). Even Michelin has come to town and given its stamp of approval–a first in post-communist Europe, the venerable dining guide awarded its coveted stars to restaurants Allegro and Maze (which recently shut down). Local foodies think home-grown product, Oldrich Sahajdak, who serves up haute Czech fare inspired by a 19th-century Bohemian cookbook at La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoisie, will be next on the prized Michelin compendium.

This is no longer a Kafka’s Prague. It’s not even the expat slacker’s Prague anymore. It’s still one of the most beautiful cities on the planet (and still cheaper than Paris and London), but now the Czech capital has been doused in decadence of another form. Prague, the capital of indulgence, still has its grip. But that grip is now wearing diamond-studded gold rings.