Truly Royal

Why Russian kitsch still dominates downtown Prague's Královská cesta (Royal Way)

The Královská cesta ("Royal Way" or "Kings' Road") is the traditional coronation route taken by Czech kings through Prague's historical center. The route starts on the right bank of the Vltava river on Náměstí Republiky, where the seat of Czech kings used to be, then passes along Celetná street, through the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), continues down Karlova street, over the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) and up Nerudova street, ending at Prague Castle. Before 1989, the route highlighted the Communist regime's poor upkeep of buildings and infrastructure, but people still flocked here to visit, not only from outside Prague but also Praguers who wanted to escape the boredom of life in suburban panelák (apartment building) projects.

Today, Nerudova street and the whole Royal Way are lined with shops full of matryoshkas (Russian dolls), Russian hats (ushankas), cut-glass vases and myriad other trinkets. The shop windows are more colorful than M&Ms, the Gothic portals decorated with shawls bearing the slogan "Prague – Drunk Again", and Baroque façades offering discounts to anyone buying two or more glass deer. "The Royal Way is indeed flooded with kitsch and it isn't something Prague should be proud of," says Oldřich Lomecký (TOP 09), the mayor of the Prague 1 district. But he is quick to add: "In this regard we are still influenced by the '90s."

Happy with kitsch
To understand why the Royal Way looks the way it does in 2011, we need to go back to the first years after the Velvet Revolution, when the city of Prague started renting out non-residential space and began returning nationalized property to its original owners or selling it to private buyers.

Money was always the decisive factor for both private property owners and councilors: whoever submitted the highest bid to rent a property was successful. Twenty-year leases with an option to extend the deal were quite common. The world was watching the collapse of the Soviet Union at the time, so souvenirs related to the Soviet era were a hit. And the impact here? Alongside typically Czech products such as cut glass, ushankas and matryoshkas, from suppliers in the former Yugoslavia or post-Soviet countries, flooded the center of Prague. The new non-Czech entrepreneurs came to terms with the new market conditions much faster than Czechs did. Nobody knew much about their financial background but they could afford the high rents for which Prague was infamous in the early 1990s.

Now, 20 years later, ushankas are no longer fashionable but the Royal Way hasn't changed much. Although, like Mayor Lomecký, more people criticize the overly commercialized appearance of the route, they don't know what to do about it. "The vast majority of houses and shops along the Royal Way are in the hands of private owners," says Lomecký, explaining why the city authorities are powerless. "Prague 1 owns only 10 percent of all the non-residential space." The city of Prague (Hlavní město Praha) also owns only around 10 percent. "There is nothing we can do about the type of products being sold in shops in privately owned properties," says Lukáš Kaucký (ČSSD), the city councilor responsible for tourism and culture.

If one tries to find out more about a vendor, the shop assistant will often reply in broken Czech that he comes from Croatia or Macedonia or Russia and that he will be back in Prague in a month. The properties' owners often don't live in Prague and don't care that there are 13 shops in Nerudova street selling matryoshkas (one of them offers something called "genuine Czech product") but only one grocery store. As soon as the tourists leave after 6pm, it becomes a dead zone.

Income and contracts
Naturally, the property-owners like the souvenir shops, since they generate a generous income. Selling a painted half-liter glass is more profitable than selling a cup of coffee, which requires that a number of health and safety regulations be observed, pushing costs over 50 percent of the retail price. Unlike café owners, vendors of easy-to-make-and-sell stuff can easily afford to pay 100,000-150,000 crowns in monthly rent. (Rent per square meter is around 4,000 crowns per month in this part of town.)

For that reason private property-owners are likely to resist any changes. "Entirely happy," says Daniel Rykl, the co-owner of a house in the Karlova street, when asked how happy he is with the tenant who runs one of two shops in his property. The assortment of goods in both shops could hardly be more typical: matryoshkas, hats, T-shirts, jewelry. "They pay the rent regularly and always on time and they don't make any noise, which a restaurant would surely do, so our tenants have no reason to complain," says Rykl. Doesn't he mind that Russian kitsch is being sold in a historical house in the heart of the Czech Republic? "No, I don't," he replies. "Why should I? It is solely the tourists' business what they want to buy."

What about the 20 percent of non-residential space owned by the city council? Could that be leased to a different type of entrepreneur? City councilors are quick to point out that contracts signed 20 years ago can't easily be changed. "There is still a high volume of those 'wild' contracts valid in Prague 1," says Mayor Lomecký. "We can't terminate a contract just because we don't like what goods they are selling in the shops. The tenant would have to break the law or breach the contract's conditions. It needs to expire before we can change it."

But sometimes the shop tenants do breach the contract conditions. Inspectors from the Czech Trade Inspection Authority (Česká obchodní inspekce) uncovered fake products recently -- "Czech garnet" that was actually from Africa and "Czech cut glass" that turned out to be Chinese extruded glass. So, from time to time, a shop closes down and the city authorities announce a tender for a new tenant. But money again plays a decisive role. The city hall spokesperson says that, in the last few years, no new souvenir shop, gambling bar or exchange office has opened in properties owned by the city council. Because the council owns such a small percentage of properties on the Royal Way, however, the difference is barely noticeable.

But that isn't to say that the route taken by Czech kings should necessarily resemble an amusement park indefinitely. "Of course a change is possible," says Adam Gebrian, who last year took part in City Interventions (Městské zásahy), a project presenting ideas for improving Prague's public spaces. "The city leaders should have an idea how to change this part of town, though, and have courage to promote it."

Other European cities have proven that improvements to public spaces are possible. Amsterdam's authorities closed down the Red Light District, while Paris regulates shops on its famous boulevards. "Unlike London or Paris, tourists in Prague flock mainly to one spot, the Royal Way, which is small, so you get all kinds of souvenirs concentrated in one place," says Gebrian. "But there is a way out of this. For example, the Italian city of Milan has a similar problem with its Art Nouveau arcades downtown -- all the shops in this zone, including McDonald's, have to have window panes in black and yellow colors."

Free market aspect
All the buildings along the Royal Way are historically protected -- something their owners often complain about -- but the route has no unified look, in spite of the regulations. Why? Nobody seems to know. The Old Prague Club (Klub Za starou Prahu) doesn't concern itself with the types of goods being sold in shops on the Royal Way. "It isn't in our interests," says the club's chairwoman, Kateřina Bečková. "Honestly speaking, I am an advocate of the free market, which is more valuable for me than regulation. Let the market decide what will be offered in the shops." The city council representatives seem to have adopted the same stance -- let the Royal Way make as much money as possible.

But here's the biggest mystery: The number of tourists entering the shops is noticeably very low. Over the course of a one-hour observation period, for instance, there were only five. Some of the more talkative local shop assistants admit they don't sell anything on some days. But how can the tenants afford to pay 150,000 crowns per month? The obvious question is: Is money laundering involved?

"Yes, I have heard the same question asked by locals," says Kaucký. Is he planning to do anything about it? And why does he think that jewelry that nobody buys is the right type of product to be sold along the Royal Way? "Well, we actually want to take a walk along the Royal Way and record all the business going on there -- what tourists are interested in buying, find out the identities of the vendors and learn more about the money-laundering allegations. In fact, we are only just getting started with the Royal Way."

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