Prague abounds in beauty. Its ancient churches, gold-tipped spires, baroque, romanesque, and art nouveau buildings stand untouched by the bombs of World War II. Above the Vlatva River, the skyline of the Hradcany Castle, encircling the towers of St. Vitus, commands the exalted emotions of a great romantic 19th-century symphony. Below, the narrow streets and cobblestones play with the intimacy of a perfectly preserved 18th-century string quartet.
Only one thing mars the view -- the scaffolding.
Almost everywhere the eye turns, wooden platforms and metal bars surround buildings. After years of neglect, the government has been trying to restore Prague's glorious past from the midst of its present pollution.
``The downtown ground plan hasn't changed much since Charles IV founded the city in the 14th-century,'' Jan Skoda, the chief of the city's environmental commission explains. ``It was built for horse carriages, and unfortunately cars pollute more than horses.''
There are other problems, too. Most residents heat their antiquated apartments with dirty brown coal.
The resulting pollution gives buildings a grimy look -- and threatens those inside. The city's air contains three times more sulfur than what is considered acceptable.
To fight this scourge, huge sums of money are being spent. Gas heating is being installed in old apartments. New highways are being built on the periphery and a new subway line downtown, which will open next month, may help cut down on car fumes.
But despite spending 15 billion crowns ($1.5 billion) over the past five years, and preparing to spend 15 billion crowns more, Mr. Skoda admits that all the scaffolding in the world cannot stop the rot of old buildings.
``Every building is damaged,'' he says. ``Copper plate on churches which used to last for centuries is being destroyed, and faades of restored buildings become dirty again after a few years.''
Still, in some ways, life in Prague remains comfortable. Stores are stocked full, if not always with the best quality goods. Restaurants remain rustic, caf'es charming. The superb subway speeds along, spotless and silent.
But touching tales tumble out from ordinary citizens about life in the past.
One young woman speaks of her father, who was a professor. After the 1968 Soviet invasion which ended the brief Prague Spring of reform, he refused to sign a loyalty oath. He was banished from the Communist Party and fired from his job. For that crime, his daughter also was punished. She was banned from attending university.
The story is common. In the years following 1968, more than 500,000 Czechoslovaks were banished from the party. Former professors work as night watchmen, journalists as stokers in steel works. Their children suffer similar fates.
But the young woman defends her life today.
``Life here is comfortable,'' she says without bitterness. ``We have enough to eat, we have cars, country houses, all without the pressures of trying to get these things in the West. But at the same time you live with a sense of being closed in. There is no space for ambition, for expression. . . ''
Franz Kafka would have understood. The famous writer was born in Prague, was buried in Prague, and spent almost all 41 years of his life in Prague. He always dreamed of leaving; he never did. Staying, he wrote about his nightmares.
Walk to Maisel Street near the Old Town Square and on the wall of a drab building hangs an image of Kafka's face, his brooding, chiseled features cast in bronze. The building rots from disrepair, and Kafka's piercing stare remains partially hidden by nothing other than . . . you guessed it . . . scaffolding.
Here, a small plaque proclaims, stands the spot of the house of the writer's birthplace.
The modest memorial was unveiled in 1965, at a time when Kafka was metamorphosing from a decadent nihilist into a critic of capitalist alienation.
But his rehabilitation turned out to be brief. Since 1968, no copies of his works have been published here. Only a few works published in East Germany in German occasionally are available.
``Why should we publish Kafka?,'' asks Vera Adlova, secretary of the government-sponsored Czechoslovakian Union of Writers. ``He's interesting for intellectuals, but the man on the street doesn't want to read him. He always writes about the same thing, the solitude of the individual, a stupid affair leading to absurdity.''
For Mrs. Adlova, neither theme remains relevant in today's Prague.