Home from an excursion to Prague and Dresden, two great cities in recovery mode; the first from communism, the second from communism and bombing. Two cornucopias of architecture, art and a sense of history impossible to ignore. Both in dazzling sunlight onto autumn colours. The two-hour train journey between the two follows the adolescent river Elbe between cliffs and forests; a marvellous ride.
Prague has a serious case of the tourist problem. Its main attractions, the castle and the statue-lined Charles bridge and the Old Town Square are so thronged that walking that progress is difficult, and contemplation impossible. I remember our first visit, in January 1990, immediately after its ‘velvet revolution’, when Wenceslaus Square was lined with candles and there was so little to eat that restaurants took turns to open. Then the streets were so silent that you could hear the music from several churches together.
The city is bustling now, facades repainted and businesses thriving. But how many tourists is too many? London, I learn, gets 20 million foreign tourists a year these days. Prague, last year, had 10 million, in a city one fifth the size of of London. And Cambridge, small provincial town that it is, had over seven, two million more than five years ago. Cambridge and Prague have something else in common; they are pinpointed by the Chinese. Prague now has direct flights from Peking. Result: hordes (it’s the only word) of Chinese tourists either following flags or looking lost – and in both cases using selfie sticks beside ‘iconic’ buildings.
Cambridge is a peculiar case; a Chinese poet’s shrine. What is to be done, though, here or in any other unfortunate place targeted by travel agents? The routine answer to problems of surplus demand is taxation.