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Cafe Courts Old Spirit of Prague

November 19, 1997

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) _ The clink of wine glasses fills the Cafe Slavia once again. The scent of warm apple strudel or a whiff of hearty goulash float in from the kitchen. And the spirit of bohemia hangs in the smoky air.

Nearly extinguished by the wild capitalism that fed on Communism’s collapse, the Cafe Slavia has reopened _ with hopes of summoning back the muses who in years past helped dissidents and artists brew revolution.

The century-old bistro _ a contrast to the McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chickens and Burger Kings sprouting in the old East bloc _ was rescued by Czechs bent on preserving the charms of a city that has been flooded by foreigners after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

The cafe, on a prominent corner in central Prague, was closed for several years before its reopening this week.

``As soon as I entered, I felt like I was back in college,″ Karel Knechtl, a 47-year-old music critic, said Wednesday.

The purity of the cafe’s Art Deco style and its affordable prices are most appreciated, he said.

In ever-pricier Prague, the cafe’s menu is a bargain: Hung-over breakfast-seekers can swallow a bowl of thyme-spiced tripe soup for just 40 cents; penny-pinching pensioners need spend only 60 cents for a cup of coffee with cake.

And the breathtaking view of the Vltava River, Prague Castle and National Theater is still free.

``The idea was to make this easy on folks and make money elsewhere,″ said Pavel Galan, the architect who oversaw the Slavia’s reconstruction.

Cafe Slavia always has been a place to see and be seen _ chatter lively and incessant, air thick with smoke. Prague’s intellectuals and artists were drawn to the Slavia during the city’s golden era between the two World Wars.

Throughout the communist years, it had been the place to meet dissidents, including now-President Vaclav Havel. One could chew over ideas with the young Milos Forman before he was an acclaimed filmmaker, or with poet Jaroslav Seifert before he won the Nobel Prize.

Following 1989, the cafe almost fell victim to the murky deals that proliferated as Czechs switched from communism to market economics. Swift privatization of state-owned property put lucrative businesses in the hands of ex-Communists, well-connected businessmen and returned emigres.

The cafe’s reputation drew a Boston-based firm to land a 50-year lease in 1992, amid suspicions of political string-pulling. Prague elites were further outraged when the firm, H.N. Gorin, failed to pay rent, invested nothing, and kept the place closed.

In November 1995, a court declared the lease void and a group of Czech textile manufacturers moved in to rescue the Slavia.

Two years and nearly $5 million later, the cafe reopened Monday _ the eighth anniversary of the revolution.

``This is a small victory over stupidity,″ Havel said from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from pneumonia.