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Head East, My Friend

February 4, 2010 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

Over the course of the last 25 years or so, whenever people would rave inordinately about Paris as the most beautiful and romantic city in the world, I would always say, "Give me Prague or Budapest any time." I even touted these cities in the heyday of the Soviet bloc, in the late 1980s in particular, when I first got to know them (before they became popular in the '90s with young people looking for the "new" Paris). It's not that I have anything against the French capital per se; it's an exquisite, intoxicating place. Still, when I visited there briefly, the people were unafraid of expressing their vitriolic anti-Americanism and everything -- and I meaneverything -- was terribly expensive.

That wasn't so with my favorite capitals in the last years of Soviet rule, and well into the next decade. In fact, back then, only West German marks attracted more attention from the natives than the good old American greenback. Dollars were worth their weight in gold, one might say, and with food, drink and lodging so reasonable, one's money seemed to expand along with your wishes.

But most important, it seemed that in both places, as it sometimes seemed in stretches of Warsaw and even in dingy old East Berlin, that you were being given the privilege of seeing a last glimpse of Old Europe.

And everything was so beautiful, despite the overlay of soot on most of those magnificent buildings (you see, the Soviets insisted on burning coal -- incessantly -- and all of the remarkable architecture throughout Eastern Europe suffered shamelessly, to say nothing of other forms of detrimental, even lethal, pollution the occupiers instigated on their charges). But no matter the overlay of black and intermediate shades of gray, you could still see what made these structures special, could see their sweep and magnificence, the romantic scale on which they had been conceived and constructed.

And, as in Paris, there were rivers to love in both of these Eastern European cities and just as many bridges, ones that inspired both awe and wonder, and upon which you could dream away as many hours as you wished.

My only dilemma: When I was pinned down and asked to choose between the two, to say which was better than Paris, I was hard-pressed to do so. I would explain that Prague was like a dream -- a fairy tale, really -- that seemed to go on and on forever. As for Budapest, it's two sides -- incompatible, even unworkable, in some ways -- also managed to provide twice the allure. Buda was like Prague, ancient and dreamy; when you tired of the slower pace, the slightly soporific beauty of it all, you could walk over the Chain Bridge, say, and partake of life in jazzy, heady Pest, something like a small-scale Manhattan, with people as friendly and hearty as Italians.

But now that I have Art-Nouveau Prague in front of me, written by Petr Wittlich, with photographs by Jan Maly, and jointly published by the Charles University in Prague and the Karolinum Press, I feel like something of a fickle lover, tilting toward the Czechs without looking back. There is much art nouveau architecture in all the cities I've spoken of, but when it comes right down to it, Prague has the definite edge, at least in terms of numbers. In fact, no city, I think, has as many such exciting buildings to choose from other than Barcelona. (Yes, I know about Brussels, Vienna and, yes, Paris, and they are lovely, but beauty is in the eye of the ... well, you know the rest).

This book gathers together astonishing examples of Prague's contribution to the form, all of which Maly has photographed cleanly and crisply, and Wittlich has described with brief, informative explanations of their history and importance (of course, all the black streaks were permanently banished, once the offending Soviets were gone as well).

Some historians say that Budapest was a Jewish invention; the same cannot be said for Prague -- though, of course, before World War II, there were many Jews living and contributing to the capital's culture and panache. Some literary types say that Prague will always be Kafka's city -- Kafka, that most indisputably 20th century of all 20th-century writers, and a Jew to boot.

But the darker terrain of his fiction is nowhere on display in Art-Nouveau Prague, which is a sunny tribute to the swirling lines of a style that's often touched with golden hues, and which experienced one of its high watermarks in its abundance of Middle European examples.

In fact, those who pick up this slim, grand book -- so heartening in its attention to detail -- may consider switching their vacation plans and start thinking about heading due east, well beyond the undeniable allure of Paris.

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