Prague taps tourists to pay for decay

The 'city of one hundred spires' aims to preserve historic structures while adding modern developments.

The bright sun reflects off the tiny row of pretty pastel-colored houses known appropriately as Golden Lane, as crowds of tourists swarm through. Since the fall of Communism more than a decade ago, growing numbers of holidaymakers have flocked to admire such examples of Prague's famous architecture.

But this so-called "city of one hundred spires" is a victim of its own popularity. Some parts simply can't cope with the crowds, and some residents claim the city's traditional character is under threat.

Now the Prague Castle Authority has introduced a 40 koruna ($1.10) toll at Golden Lane, one of the city's most picturesque streets – named after its gold-making tradition – where Franz Kafka once lived.

"We have to limit numbers to protect the buildings and the cobblestones; the crowds are just too large," says Zdenek Synacek, director of maintenance at Prague Castle. It's also a good way to raise money for conservation and maintenance, he adds.

Downtown, the Prague city council has introduced public collection boxes to raise funds for major structural repairs to arguably the city's most famous landmark, the 14th century Charles Bridge, which has suffered from heavy traffic and weather damage. The city needs to raise $11.3 million. So far it has raised about $240,000 from public collections. "The bridge must be repaired, and the city just does not have the money, so it's fair to ask residents and tourists to contribute," says Prague mayor Jan Kasl.

Tourists seem happy to dip into their pockets. "I don't mind being asked to pay to help preserve the city, but numbers of tourists should certainly be limited," says Ned Bradley of Elsah, Illinois.

Golden Lane shopkeeper Zuzana Kratochvilova says limiting the number of visitors and asking them to dig into their pockets is essential. "Look at the water damage," she says pointing to two of the tiny houses. "Some of the buildings are in desperate need of repair, so it's a good idea to take money from tourists."

BUT many locals are not convinced the charges are justified. The Prague Castle Authority admits it has received complaints about the introduction of charges at Golden Lane.

"It's wrong to ask people to pay for repairs. Charles Bridge is one of the most important features of the city, so it should be a priority for the city to maintain it," says resident Ruzena Vilimova. The state cut its budget for historic perservation from $24.7 million last year to $21.6 million this year.

But some feel that Prague's skyline and character is being threatened by development. "The state and city authority just don't give enough priority to preserving Prague's architecture," says Josef Stulc, head of the state office for monument preservation. "Meanwhile, too many modern developments are given the go-ahead which are changing Prague's skyline and character."

Mr. Stulc says members of parliament are seeking permission to create an underground parking lot on the site of 13th-century cellars beneath the castle.

While tourists are willing to preserve the past, many complain that Prague has already become too commercial.

"I last visited in 1987, and am horrified how many stalls and traders there are on Charles Bridge now," says American tourist Paula Bradley. "It's not a place I'd like to visit now."

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