Farewell Vinohrady

19-11-2006

There were the émigrés coming back, and us colonists of the early 1990s, and there was Vinohrady, one of those magical districts of Prague. As it was then. Vinohrady rises above the Old and New Towns. Its name simply means The Vineyards, and once its slopes were covered with Royal vines - appropriately facing the Castle crowning the hill on the other side of the river. The Prussians bombarded from here in the 1750s, proving once and for all that artillery had rendered the town walls redundant. Soon after they were demolished and Prague started to move up the hill, and by the later nineteenth century Vinohrady was being developed.

By the 1990s it was this nostalgic district of tall, massively stuccoed and sculpted apartment houses... faded, paint-peeling grandeur. One could imagine carriages discharging frock-coated, top-hatted gentlemen, women with fur wraps over their dresses. In the old days... when the gas-lit avenues were new and the trees, now massive, were young.

But the reality was a place of everlasting autumn - golden light etching elderly plaster cherubs arching over entranceways or fanciful Art Nouveau swags holding up balconies. Early, before seven, the streets were populated by old men pulling dogs away from well-known tree-trunks. Pooches of desolate apartments were annoyed they couldn't get on with it or leave messages. Old men pretended to love walking dogs at dawn, disguising their real purpose and wishing - if Man could do a deal with God, promising not to otherwise tamper with the relationship between man and animals if He would give us just three words dogs could understand: 'Do it here'. And if He would stretch to a fourth, then maybe 'Pleeeease!'

People said it was like Paris. Grand and by that time slightly disreputable - a place one hoped one could find a cheap apartment to rent under the tiles, except that most of the inhabitants were staying put. Rent control and a love of the place ensured that, even when most buildings were restituted to their original pre-Communist owners. A prince's grandson received back a large block on Korunni, without a single flat for him to live in, and he had to camp out in the restituted post office on the ground floor. Tenants above, paying a few dollars a month in rent, delighted in calling him up late at night to complain their tap didn't work or the sink was blocked. They were disappointed he didn't wear ermine and a coronet.

But who can really complain when buildings are repaired and painted? Wasn't it better for 'designer' shops to replace the funky ones which had opened as Prague tenderly emerged from its Communist legacy? There was that bookshop-cum-vegetarian restaurant and Shakespeare and Sons hangs on, but its seems fairly deserted. Traditional Czech pubs have made way for glitzy Capuchinno joints. Realtors rub their hands at the area's gentrification, and Italian developers have moved in with their curiously sixties ideas of modernity, filling any door or window opening with sheets of plate glass.

The Italians, of course, managed to do what the gentle Czech prince could never: to shift the sitting tenants. That wonderful atmosphere of 1950s Paris has begun inexorably to draw to a close. There are now sanitary bags on special poles for dogs to use, and I swear that the light isn't as golden in the autumn or the glistening cobbles so like those of the grand boulevards painted by Pissaro. Old Vinohrady... farewell.

19-11-2006