The streets are mostly dark, with mounted torchlights on the older buildings and the reflections on cobblestone streets reducing the writing on storefront facades to an undecipherable script.
As I walk at night, I see spies in the alleyways, and I sense ghosts above and behind me. You know if you are being followed, as the only sound -- except for the occasional heavy metal coming from basement bars -- is the sound of the person walking behind you or, if you are lucky, toward you, clomping along on the uneven stones.
But despite the blocks of Soviet architecture and 1950s concrete, I am wonderfully safe here.
I am in Prague, Czech Republic, a city that needs to be courted and dined before she rewards you with her first kiss. The sense that you are in a spy movie with lots of young artists as extras makes walking an intense experience. How to figure this place out? How to explain it? How to assure myself that my clients can penetrate the layers of old-style bureaucracy? I need another week here, perhaps another year. Even celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain seemed a bit confused about this place. But he loved it, and, I am finding, so do I.
This is a city I want to converse with. I want to hear about all that she has seen. There were several centuries of Bohemian kings, then invading Nazis had their way with her, and years later the Soviet tank brigades drove down her streets.
Earlier on this day, I tried to pay homage to her past. I started at Prague Castle, described in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest "coherent" castle complex in the world. Though if the factual basis that underpins your knowledge of the world comes from a beer company database, that is really saying something.
It is an amazing building and probably worth the Delta nonstop flight from New York JFK for just one peek. We think it was built around 880 by Prince Borivoj of the House of Premyslides. But you mustn't think that this magnificent structure or any of the other major structures in Prague are falling apart. It still serves as the seat of the Czech president and is the place where the crown jewels are kept.
Prague is a city of architectural jewels, buildings from eras long past that have managed to survive and even thrive.
Now, as I walk, I am looking for high ground, for angles where I can see this city of a thousand spires.
You can, of course, see the castle from the 14th century Charles Bridge, a link to the city's past covered with tourists by day and best viewed as the sun comes up or in the middle of the night with the lights of Prague in the background.
Clients have to be warned about the bridge, because it is said that Europe's most gifted professional pickpockets are concentrated there when it is packed with people during the daytime. So in Prague the trick is all about timing and avoiding the crunch of tourists who want to visit what many view as Europe's best preserved ancient city.
For starters, I recommend going up to the castle in the late evening (it doesn't close until midnight), then walking down for a moonlight passage to Mala Strana. This is "lesser town," a wonderful neighborhood of winding alleyways, lush small gardens, a collection of baroque palaces and surprisingly accessible cobblestone piazzas.
Insiders know about a small neighborhood called Novy Svet, a lane not far from the Loreto Church consisting of miniature homes, many of which have been turned into art galleries and artist studios. It is a wonderful stroll as the sun is setting.
Prague has this communist-era aura punctuated by new modernism. The contrast is evident in a visit to the small Museum of Communism, a place that provides a handy backdrop for what is to come. That Prague is no longer a communist state is evidenced by the museum's location on top of a McDonald's and next door to a casino.
In addition to a Kafka Museum, there is, of course, a beer museum. One of the first things one hears from a guide in Prague is the proud boast that the Czech people are the world's largest consumers of beer, a rather amazing 300 pints for every adult in the country each year.
The Czechs feel that they invented pilsner, and you can have a wonderful local brew for about 50 cents anywhere you might wander. Perhaps equally amazing is the fact that the world's second largest collection of per capita beer drinkers on Earth are the residents of the Seychelles. But that is another column altogether.
I am in Prague prior to our annual client trip. My wife and I are to escort 62 clients on a river cruise along the Danube from Nuremberg, Germany, to Amsterdam on the Scenic Amber. But before boarding, we wanted to get a real-life sense of Prague.
We are doing that with some contemporary lifestyle touring, seeing neighborhoods off the traditional tourist maps and hearing about the quality of life and social services, along with the hopes and aspirations of locals.
To see the neighborhoods, we designed a "foodie walk" enabling us to taste small sandwiches, pastries and local beers in venues patronized by Prague's citizens. On our second day in the city, we end up in the basement of a popular beer tavern/restaurant where we have goulash and homemade strudel prepared for our guests along with a variety of local brews.
We have invited a guest, a young woman from New York of considerable intellectual strength who had married a Czech man and moved to Prague, where they now have two children. She writes about the city for several major publications and works for CNN. I thought her conversation with our clients might be revealing, and I am not disappointed.
There is a real talent drain in Central Europe, she tells us. (That is the way locals refer to their location -- they do not say Czech Republic.) Doctors and nurses have left in record numbers for greener financial pastures in Germany and Austria. The public buildings, the schools and the hospitals are "not what you have in the States." They are mostly concrete-block, Stalin-era buildings, she points out. "But things still tend to work well, education is actually quite good, and the Czechs cherish their literary heritage, which shows in their commitment to education."
At the end of her talk, one of our guests asks if given the opportunity, would she and her family welcome the opportunity to move back to New York or to some other large American city.
She thinks about the question for a while, then responds that, no, she probably wouldn't. She has two young children, and they receive free medical care and free university. She feels that those two things were worth making the decision toward remaining.
It is an eye-opening response.
On my second day, I open up the local Prague Tourism magazine in my hotel room. It would, I imagined, feature the usual highlights information. Instead, I find an extremely well-written editorial decrying the situation in money exchanges in the popular Wenceslas Square area of the city. The editor explains that he had, on at least 10 occasions, witnessed these exchanges charging tourists 27% commission when they changed their euros and dollars to Czech korunas. And who travels Europe with korunas?
The editorial ends: "This is the 21st century. Prague is one of the top tourist cities in the world. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Surely the powers-that-be can find a solution to the money-changing problem. If they don't, much of the good work will become undone and first-time visitors will never return."
That, then, is the other side of this tourism success story. Will they blow it? Will the crowds at the castle and on the bridge become unmanageable? Will petty crime continue unabated? And will guests to the city feel badly ripped off when they try to change money?
The answers linger in the city's past, just around the corners, in the shadows of the night.