The Daily Telegraph - Bohemian Rhapsody
November 15, 2014

Twenty-five years after the Velvet Revolution, Michelle Jana Chan takes her Czech grandmother to Prague on a journey of rediscovery.

Michelle and her grandmother

Guidebooks often warn tourists away from Wenceslas Square in Prague. That might be because at first glance there seems little to set apart this lozenge-shaped thoroughfare. The shops and fast-food chains could be on any high street in Europe. With three different metro stops the pavement is always crowded and locals caution against pickpockets. At night the stag parties emerge. I saw one group fall out of a sports bar after watching a local football game. “Come on, you Czechs”, they chanted in English.

Standard tourist attractions do get a reluctant mention – the gigantic statue of Saint Wenceslas, the blackened neoclassical National Museum – but neither are reasons to go against the advice of the guidebooks. The real motive for coming here is the ground beneath your feet.

In 1968 thousands came to Wenceslas Square to demonstrate against Moscow rule. Their efforts failed and Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the movement now poignantly remembered as the Prague Spring. A haunting memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, two students who set fire to themselves as acts of resistance, rises out from the pavement at the southern end of the square where they died. It is as subtle as it is powerful; the shape of a fallen human form gently curves upwards from the cobbles and a plaque commemorates the pair’s fate.

Thousands came here again a generation later (they say it takes a new generation without the memory of failure – and suffering – to attempt another revolution). It was November 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ever poetic, that successful movement became known as the Velvet Revolution.

Few demonstrators from either era could have envisioned a future looking like Wenceslas Square today. Moneychangers sit beside newsagents selling Die Zeit and USA Today. An old Skoda covered in images of sandwiches is used as a billboard for a Subway shop. Around the corner, above a McDonald’s, and sharing the floor with a casino, is the Museum of Communism. In the exhibition’s last room, a harrowing film documents the final months of 1989. Nobody may have been killed but that is not to say it was without violence.

That year was a radical about-face for world politics. For my family the personal changes seemed equally as profound. The end of communism meant we could visit our Czech relatives – for me, for the first time.
The regime had split the family for almost half a century. In 1948 my grandparents – with their children (including my mother, just a year old at the time) – had escaped across the Czechoslovakian border into Germany.

My grandfather, after fleeing his occupied homeland, had fought with the British during the Second World War and anyone who had spent time in the West was under suspicion. After a third interrogation by communist authorities he decided he must try to escape with his family. That move probably saved all their lives but it also meant more than 40 years of separation from their country.

Michelle's grandmother on her wedding day

On a sunny summer afternoon I sat with my grandmother at Café Tramvaj, a converted Twenties tram serving cappuccinos in the middle of Wenceslas Square. The retro-style vehicle is one of the few remnants of the old days, along with the worn cobbles and pastel facades of Art Nouveau buildings. “It used to be so beautiful before the communists got hold of it,” my grandmother lamented. But I liked the contrasts: ornate sgraffito etched on neo-Renaissance properties beside interwar modernist buildings and functionalist communist blocks.

Wenceslas Square is still evolving, whereas so much of Prague has become a museum to its medieval and baroque past. My grandmother prefered the illustrious Café Slavia, on the banks of the Vltava and opposite the National Theatre, that is famed for its clientele during the communist era. It was one of the few literary cafés allowed to keep open at that time and consequently, attracted dozens of dissidents including the playwright and former Czech president Václav Havel. It has lost some of its charm as a literary café, but there is plenty of history to ponder over a black coffee.

We hired a car and left the capital to explore the borderlands of Bohemia where my grandmother was born. Our first stop was Tábor, the once staunchly Hussite town south of Prague. After a lunch of beef goulash and potato dumplings we rummaged around a second-hand bookshop and chatted to the owner, Milan Drahota, about how business had changed. “Before we could only sell books which the communists had approved,” he said. “Now we can sell what we like. The problem is people have stopped reading. Nobody values books anymore.”

After the purchase of a battered children’s storybook that my grandmother could remember from her youth we travelled on to Bohemia’s prettiest town, Cesky Krumlov, with its mighty 13th-century castle on a bend of the Vltava. On the day we visited, the narrow medieval lanes were crowded with Chinese and South Korean tourists. We explored the castle courtyards together and I climbed the neo-Romantic bell tower for views across the town’s red-tiled roofs, past gaudy communist-style flats towards the foothills of the Sumava mountains.

Cesky Krumlov

From here our route took us farther south to Lake Lipno, a few kilometres from the border with Austria. Before the Cold War ended, much of this region was militarised and ordinary Czechs were forbidden from travelling here. Now the lake is dotted with upscale resorts catering for Austrian and German tourists. I thought of what my guide in Prague had said. Helena Slavikova was just 10 years old at the time of the Velvet Revolution but remembers her first trip abroad. “That Christmas we drove to Vienna to see the shop windows,” she told me. “Everything was sparkling.”

The next day the sunny weather broke and the drizzle set in. Cloud slipped down into valleys. Hilltop castles, smudged in mist, looked like they belonged in fairy tales. We drove through deep forests of old-growth pine slowly making our way to Klatovy for lunch with cousins who have a small dairy farm. Although we were only 20km from the German border, nobody could describe to me first-hand how the Iron Curtain had looked. “We heard stories about the electric fence, the razor wire, dog patrols and the corridor of soft sand where they would look for footprints,” said Jan Pysek, who is married to one of my cousins. “But I never went there. I would have been petrified to go near it. Now, of course, we don’t even need a passport to cross.”

Since 2004, the borders of the Czech Republic – one of the 10 countries that acceded to the European Union that year – have been flung open. The road to Germany has no obstacles nor checkpoints any more. It just keeps going. Petrol stations in the area advertise prices in both Czech koruna and euros.

From Folmava we drove south past abandoned immigration buildings and customs houses. When we were convinced we were in Germany we turned around. Back on the Czech side we found a workman, Vaclav Duda, whose job was to maintain the empty buildings at the border. “This was one of the narrowest places to cross,” he told me, “so people liked to try to escape here. Some got through but of course others were shot.”

“And do you go across now?” I asked him. We were standing just a few hundred metres from where a German flag billowed. Duda looked blank. “Why would I? Everything there is now here.”

The border now is a bleak area. Roads on the Czech side are lined with “non-stop nightclubs” for “men only” and tacky casinos. We wanted to move on. I studied our dog-eared map and put my finger on a faint line by a village called Pled that seemed to cut through the border with Germany. I did a u-turn and drove south-east past vast fields of wheat and sweetcorn. This area was once in no-man’s land, a wide tract that acted as a buffer zone between East and West. At that time villages here were cleared and churches demolished. Today the houses are mostly derelict.

We saw a few Roma families hanging out laundry and a sign touting honey for sale. When we passed a village I guessed might be Pled, the lane narrowed. I slowed down as we entered woodland. There was an abandoned sentry post in the trees. A hundred metres on was an old notice stating “Pozor Statni Hranice”, meaning “Caution: State Border”. Behind was another sign: “Bundesrepublik Deutschland”. I stopped the car. Nobody was around. There was only the buzzing of insects. A farm building in the distance would have once represented freedom. Childishly I darted back and forth across the invisible boundary, just because I could. There was a beep-beep on my mobile phone. It was a welcome text to a German network.

We headed back to Prague. Most people we met on our trip did not care to mark the 25th anniversary of the collapse of communism but I recalled the lone voice of Antonin Fredl in the village of Kasperske Hory who ran the local motorcycle museum in exchange for cheap rent for his one-room apartment. When I asked him his age he replied: “I’m as old as the blackest coal.”

I smiled. “And will you be marking the anniversary?”

“Not just in November,” he replied. “I celebrate our freedom every day.”