The Deep Dive
A light conversation with David Lynch on Transcendental Meditation, the unified...
Days before the new Hotel Josef was scheduled to open last August in Prague, the heavens unleashed a three-day downpour, flooding the Vltava and nearly everything that lay along it. "We were sitting at breakfast planning the opening party," says Eva Jiricna, the architect of the Josef, one of the city's most sensational new buildings. "By lunchtime we had to evacuate." Water rushed up through basements. Swans swam in and out of riverside restaurants. A giant sculpture, which sat in front of the new Museum Kampa, was washed 28 miles downriver. The devastation was complete when names of Holocaust victims were washed away from the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue and the subways were closed. "It was like Communism. Empty shops, empty restaurants," says Hana Kornecká, a Prague habitué and its best tour guide. "But there was one major difference: The scaffolding came down within weeks. Under Communism it would have taken years."
In October, the Hotel Josef officially reopened, and with it a more stylish and up-to-date city is surfacing. "It's a hard thing to say, but in the long term, the floods have been good for Prague," contends Czech-born Jiricna. All over the city, hotels and restaurants—like the Four Seasons and its dining room, Allegro, which will both reopen in July—are cleaning up, renovating, and preparing for business. "When the roads were closed, it became a walking city again," Jiricna says. "The underground system, which was built badly by the Communists, is being reconstructed. The city is reemerging in better shape with the clutter gone."
Nowhere is that more obvious than at the Josef, where the glaringly white walls show not even a water stain. A five-minute walk from Old Town Square, the hotel's 110 rooms are divided between two separate buildings joined by a lobby bar and an all-glass passageway. Tables spill out from the breakfast area (which serves an excellent buffet) into a quadlike garden that lets natural light seep into the hotel's interior. Rooms are small even for space-pinched Europe, but the wall-to-wall windows and minimalist furnishings make them feel more spacious. There are soft Baleri armchairs, Buddhist-orange throws, and crisp white sheets, as well as stylish glass and limestone bathrooms. Confusingly, prices are still in flux—a large room with a view may cost about the same as a ground-floor single. Ask for a room on the seventh or eighth floors, which will be larger and have a balcony. Number 704 ($330 a night) has a Philippe Starck bathtub and a wraparound terrace with sensational views of Prague Castle. Despite poor concierge service (which hopefully will be improved by the time you read this) the Josef is a design hotel that genuinely delivers in service. Not that it's easy to book. Within two months of opening, the hotel was full.
A restaurant revolution is also underway in this city where culinary traditions are largely preserved, canned, or salted. Leading the charge is Nils Jebens, whose restaurants include Kampa Park, which was completely washed away but reopens this month, and Hergetova Cihelna, a less expensive pizzeria-style eatery that was flooded four days before it was due to open and will also launch this month. At another Jebens restaurant, Square, which opened last July and was, thankfully, saved from the deluge, I tasted the chef's best: light, Mediterranean-inspired food that relies on fresh ingredients. Not only does he confidently serve tuna tartare in a landlocked country where fresh fish has been historically off-limits, he couples it with quail eggs and anchovies—an innovative alternative to those heavy Czech staples of cabbage, dumplings, and pork. Square's dark wood floors, white leather chairs, and vaulted ceilings are also a welcome antidote to the musty coffeehouse style of Prague's traditional Czech restaurants (the best of them is Vinárna v Zátisí).
This trend of lighter cuisine has brought other new openings. Cafe La Veranda serves ambitious dishes like ravioli stuffed with marinated sirloin in an Asian mushroom sauce, and arugula with Korean sesame-seed dressing. Nostress Café's kitchen is open all day, serving European-and-Asian-inspired cuisine to a young, hip crowd lounging around and eating at low-slung tables. There is also a boutique and gallery adjacent to the restaurant, showcasing Asian as well as Czech sculptors. Four of the pieces were among the flood's casualties (the downstairs gallery space reopens this month). But if culture carries a price tag, the greater loss was incurred by the Museum Kampa, "the Guggenheim of Prague." There, collector Meda Mládek and her late husband, Jan, installed their vast collection of Central European art only months before the flood. Many sculptures still lie in pieces, but Mládek says the Kampa will reopen in spring. In the meantime, Adolf Loos' Villa Müller, the 1930 masterpiece of one of the great figures of Modern architecture, won't disappoint. It has recently emerged from a meticulous four-year renovation that restored it to its original sleek splendor. Now a museum, the villa houses much of the Müller family's stellar collection of Art Nouveau and modern furniture and paintings. Better still, it sits on a hill.
• The only tour worth taking is with Hana Kornecká (420-2-227-19-599). Her insight into the Communist era, along with a dose of cynicism about the city's future, distinguish her from the other "yes men" who hurry you past the usual landmarks.
• For restaurants, Gourmet is the Zagat of Prague. It's referred to as the "Little Orange Book" and sells for $6 at local bookstores.
• Libor Hrbek (420-604-980-734) is a safe, English-speaking driver with a new Volvo. Call him (rather than relying on the city's notoriously unscrupulous cab drivers) to take you through its unnavigable streets.
• Café Carolina at Hotel Neruda (44 Nerudova; 420-2-575-35-557) is the new hip hangout of Prague. The hot chocolate there is the best in town—thick, rich, and with enough of a sugar kick to propel you up the hill to Prague Castle.
Hotel Josef Rooms, $280-$330. At 20 Rybná; 800-337-4685, 420-2-217-00-111; www.hoteljosef.com.
Kampa Park Dinner, $85. At 8b Na Kampe; 420-2-575-32-685.
Square Dinner, $70. At 3 Malostranské Nám; 420-2-575-32-109.
Hergetova Cihelna Dinner, $40. At 2b Cihelná; 420-2-575-35-534.
Cafe La Veranda Dinner, $65. At 2 Elisky Krásnohorské; 420-2-248-14-733.
Vinárna v Zátisí Dinner, $65. At 1 Liliová, Betlémské Námestí; 420-2-222-21-155.
Nostress Café Gallery Dinner, $60. At 10 Dusní; 420-2-223-17-007.
Museum Kampa At 503/2 U Sovovych Mlynu; 420-2-572-86-147.
Villa Müller At 14/642 Nad Hradním Vodojemen; 420-2-243-12-012; by appointment only. Call ten days ahead.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.