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Prague Pandemonium

I moved to Prague, the 'Golden City', in 1994 to study at the Academy of Art. It was a mere five years after the Velvet Revolution and the 'City of a hundred spires' was a very different place then. Decades of communist rule still cast a long shadow over the city and its inhabitants and many of the historical buildings had been left to rot. The city was a jumble of sooty dereliction, blackened by decades of coal fired heating and many of inner city buildings needed wooden supports to hold up walls and facades.

From time to time, an intrepid tourist would ask for the way to Charles Bridge or the Hradcany, the castle district, but the numbers were small and the trappings of tourism - hotels, bars, restaurants - were concentrated in a tiny area in the historic centre. Few visitors from Western Europe ventured across the borders that had outlined the 'iron curtain' for generations.

That was then. Nowadays, 'fish spas' and Thai massage parlours are proliferating throughout the city and souvenir shops vie for space with fast food shops and youth hostels, feeding the voracious appetite for food and entertainment of the millions of people who gravitate toward the Czech capital every year. Back then, nobody had ever heard of 'Trdelnik', a spit cake now ubiquitous and popular with tourists keen to experience an 'authentic speciality'.

In fact, 'trozkol' originated in Transylvania, the Hungarian speaking part of western Romania, and was only brought to the Czech Republic as part of a sustained drive to attract, feed and entertain tourists. Similarly, giant pandas, polar bears and countless other facilities vying for the tourist dollar make locals feel like strangers in their own city.

One of Prague's most famous sons, Franz Kafka, called his hometown a "mother with claws that won't let go." That's essentially what happened to me. When I first arrived I would take my girlfriend to Charles Bridge and midnight and more often than not, we had the place to ourselves. Those days are long gone.

Toward the end of the spring semester at the University where I teach, it can become a chore to reach the lecture halls. The university is located in 'Mala Strana' (Lesser Town) in the heart of the old city and this part of Prague in particular is constantly clogged with tour groups wandering behind their guides in slow motion, taking pictures of everything and, most importantly, of themselves in front of historic buildings, wanting to immortalise their experience. The film-set look of Prague's old town has become the must-have backdrop of millions of instagram posts.

The main tourists route leads along the Royal Road which starts at the Powder Tower on Namesti Republiky and winds across Old Town Square, across Charles Bridge, through the Lower Town and up to Prague Castle. The Kings of Bohemia took this route on the way to their coronations and it is the most beautiful and most popular route through Prague.

It is here that the sheer numbers of tourists become clear. According to the World Travel Market by Euromonitor International Prague ranks 20th out of 100 in the list of most visited cities in the world according to visitor numbers. In 2018, over 9 million visitors, both foreign and domestic, came to admire the beauty of the city, a 7.4% increase on the year before. That's 9 tourists for every resident.

Having lived in Prague for a quarter of a century now I wanted to visualise the phenomenon of mass tourism that has descended on my adoptive home. Having walked the streets of the city for decades and having seen it change so dramatically, I came across the idea of just pointing my camera at some of the most popular spots and letting it take in the ebb and flow of the masses on long exposure. Here, then, is the ancient city that has seen so much over the centuries, lying still while millions of people funnel through its alleys and lanes, admiring its beauty and experiencing its history.

Björn Steinz, Prague, 2019
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