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By Colleen Friesen
For Travel Writers' Tales

"You probably believe that you will always live within a democracy," Lada Ptacek pauses, his index finger pushing at the bridge of his glasses, "I am here to tell you that you cannot assume this. Systems change. Regimes come. There is no guarantee of how it will be." His English is studied, as he tries to convey his truth to our group of American, Canadian and New Zealander cyclists.

At 42, he is living proof that regimes change. He was 22 years old when he was beaten for his part in the Czech Republic's 1989 Velvet Revolution. Communism died soon after.

My husband and I are in Prague. It has only been a few days since we left Lada, after a week-long bicycle tour through the pastoral southern states of the Czech Republic. Moravia and Bohemia were full of calm country roads, quiet cities and very little traffic.

I can still see Lada, standing in front of the rusty fence of the Iron Curtain, helping us imagine growing up within a barbed-wire border. His words, and those images of small towns, keep coming back to me as we try to navigate through the swirl of Prague.

Change is not a strong enough word for what has happened to this city in the twenty years since commercialism took over. The Charles Bridge, where army boots once marched, is now a throbbing mass of visitors and trinket stands. Puppets spill off kiosks and retail storefronts; a Prague art form that has flourished since the 18th century. T-shirt shops, Bohemian crystal shops - including the world-famous Swarovski - tempt tourists with their sparkles.

If capitalism is the new religion, our home for the next four nights at the uber-hip Buddha Bar Hotel would make a great church. Their brochure proclaims that it is "not just another hotel. It's a lifestyle…"

Entering the hotel feels like stepping into my very own life-sized jewelry box of intense red velvets, Asian silk brocades and Warhol-inspired Buddhas. The delicate scent of incense is everywhere.

That night we dine in the Buddha Bar Restaurant. It is dark and glows with crimson crystal chandeliers. Selections of Tiger shrimp in a heady mixture of coconut and basil, five-spice barbequed chicken and Chinese spoons filled with a tart and spicy tuna tartar are delivered - each paired with a glass of France's finest…Chablis, Cotes du Rhone, Sauvignon Blanc or Bordeaux. The dinner is a crisp departure from the usual Czech fare of pork, potatoes and pivo (beer).

A Buddha statue dominates one wall, his head at the mezzanine level of the open bar that looks down into the dining room. He sits. Implacable and silent, in front of a wall studded with rows of orchids. 176 orchids in fact. Diners from Norway, Kuwait and Russia eat and drink and spend. The Buddha Bar is a lifestyle. And with rooms ranging from 418 to 2,012 Euros, it's most assuredly a lifestyle for the rich.

The concept and the vibe began in 1995 in Paris. Bars in Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Jakarata and Cairo are only a few of the locations where the stylish international crowd can groove to the now-famous soundtracks. But Prague is the first time the concept has been extended from the bar/restaurant scene into the hotel business.

No details have been missed, including the remote-controlled bidet, the electronic curtains and endless selections of edgy atmospheric music to choose from.

Prague Castle, representing a very different economic time and sensibility, looms over the city from its hill across the Vltava River. Below, the Little Quarter, a neighbourhood of baroque architecture speaks of former riches. Renaissance, Art Nouveau, cubist and neoclassical buildings jumble together throughout the city. Ugly box-like towers are inserted here and there, a reminder of the aesthetic insensibilities of the communists. In the Jewish quarter, synagogues and museums are testament to the death of so many Jews.

Like the Buddha, the buildings remain as stoic witnesses to the waves of occupation, terrorism, dominations and democracies.

Tourists rush about, shopping and dining and believing that this, this is the way it is. But Lada and his fellow citizens keep a watchful eye. This is only how it is…right now.

For more information:

Photos by Colleen Friesen

1.#137 - Buddha Bar Restaurant
2.#175 - Good King Wenceslas puppet
3.#195 - Time for a Pilsner
4.#202 - Crystal Clear Contrasts
5.#209 - Prague's Old Town Square
6.#225 - Jewish Cemetery in Prague
7.#245 - Prague's Old Town Square at Night

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