Former Czech president Václav Havel's extraordinary life still acts as a magnet, drawing to Prague those who are interested in understanding one of the most dominant factors of recent history -- the Cold War.
While it is easy to ascribe Havel's valiant struggle to pure altruism and a desperate desire to end totalitarian rule in his homeland, many believe a more intimate force was at work -- his inextricable relationship to a beautiful, complex character -- not his first wife, Olga (to whom he addressed his famous letters from prison), but the city of Prague itself.
To begin to understand Havel (and even close friends say they can't grasp the full depth of his character), you must first try to see Prague in all its complex ironies. Even during the darkest days of Communist rule, Havel remained faithful to the city of his birth, although it would have been much easier to run away -- as did many other dissidents and artists -- to fame and fortune in the West.
Havel's family roots run deeply in Prague. He was reared in the city's grand palaces and dingy theaters, and received his political education in Prague's smoky cafes and closely observed living rooms.
Described below are some of Havel's most notable haunts both before and after 1989. Luckily for those who want to track his footsteps, Havel's Prague is now somewhat more accessible (albeit heavily reconstructed from the pre-revolutionary days) -- and you won't have to worry about any StB (Communist-era secret agents) watching over your shoulder.
The Havel Family
Havel's father and namesake, a wealthy real estate developer and patron of Prague's newly liberated, post-Habsburg Jazz Age, built the Lucerna Palace (entry from Stepánská 61 or Vodickova 36, Prague 1; metro: Mustek), in the 1920s. This fully enclosed complex of arcades, theaters, cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants, and ballrooms became a popular spot for the city's nouveau riche to congregate. The young Havel spent his earliest years on the Lucerna's polished marble floors until the Communists expropriated his family's holdings after the 1948 putsch. Soon thereafter, the glitter wore off this monument to early Czech capitalism and the Lucerna lost its soul to party-sanctioned singalongs and propaganda films.
After the fall of Communism and the mass return of nationalized property, the new government gave the Lucerna back to the Havel estate. Unfortunately, this led to an ugly family feud over the division of shares in the palace. Eventually the then-president and his second wife worked out a settlement with younger brother Ivan and his wife, but only after the battle became a daily feature in the tabloid press.
Today, the Lucerna is trying hard to regain its original grandeur. It's home to at least two excellent cafes, a trendy music club, a glittering ballroom, and a vintage cinema that still shows first-run movies. There's also a wacky statue descending from the ceiling by Czech artist David Cerný depicting St. Wenceslas astride an upside-down horse -- an ironic take on the country's obsession with its more glorious past.
To get to Barrandov Terrace you'll need to take one of the tourist boats from the center of Prague and head south on the Vltava. After about half an hour you will pass under the bridge of the superhighway at the southern edge of the city. About a mile farther, look to your right. You will see a creaking remnant of a once spectacular Art Deco resort tucked into the cliff. This is Barrandov Terrace, another heart-wrenching example of the elder Havel's grandiose plans destroyed by Communist-era squalor.
The flowing white balconies of the Barrandov Terrace were Prague's answer to 1920s Hollywood. Havel's uncle, Milos Havel, commissioned Jazz Age architect Max Urban to build his dream -- a top-notch riverside restaurant and cafe. It was meant to capture the glamour of the films produced at nearby Barrandov Studios, whose productions at the time rivaled Hollywood films in style and panache.
Sadly, Barrandov Terrace, like the Lucerna Palace, became a prime target of Communist expropriation, leading to its neglect and eventual closure. Unlike Lucerna, however, when the property was returned to the Havels after the 1989 revolution, its decay had gone past the point of no return and it was left to rot. Security fences prevent any close investigation on foot, but the view of the complex from the river is enough to make you ache for Prague's golden age of the First Republic.
The Presidential Years
From the baroque balcony at the President's Office in Prague Castle (tram no. 22) that hovers over the courtyard opposite St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle, Havel delivered a stirring inauguration speech following his first investiture on December 29, 1989. To a world transfixed by his unlikely journey from prison to presidential palace, he proclaimed the rebirth of "a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn."
Havel's common man image was largely destroyed when he moved out of his modest riverside flat and into a Private Villa (Delostrelecká 1, Prague 6; metro: Hradcanská, then tram no. 1, 8, or 18 to U Brusnice stop) in 1995. With this move, Havel returned to the tightly knit circle of wealthy Prague homeowners. Unfortunately, the high walls surrounding the villa make it nearly impossible to have the brief encounters with Havel frequently experienced by visitors to his old home.