Andrew Osborn








Torrents threaten jewels of Prague.

The Guardian, 14th August 2002 17:24

By Andrew Osborn in Prague.

The rain-lashed faces of the 28 stone saints which line Prague's famous 14th century Charles bridge were managing to keep their heads above water last night, but, like much of the city, they were close to succumbing to the raging waters of the Vltava river.

As the river burst its banks, swollen by torrential rain, the speed of its current reached a frightening 4,500 cubic metres a second, 300 times greater than usual. Its foam-flecked tentacles began to spread into some of the city's historic areas, threatening death and the ruin of what some call Europe's most beautiful capital.

The Vltava spilled into parks, ripped up trees, trashed riverside bars and began to seep into the Mala Strana district, an area full of stuccoed Baroque churches and palaces dat ing from the Hapsburg era. In the face of the heaviest rainfall since 1890, the authorities did their best to evacuate an estimated 50,000 people from the low-lying part of the city, but they were fighting against disbelief and a deep sense of unreality.

"The last time we had water like this was 100 years ago," said Peter, a lawyer, as he nonchalantly watched the Vltava swirl around the base of the Charles bridge from upriver. "But if it's as bad as they say it is then maybe there will be problems. However, the water will go down again in three or four days and life will be back to normal. Prague has been flooded before."

Many of the city's residents were equally unfazed and refused to leave their homes, choosing to barricade themselves inside and hope for the best. People could still be seen walking their dogs down by the river, and frequent loudspeaker announcements urging people to stay away from the threatened area or to leave their homes went largely ignored.

During the early part of the day crowds of gawpers even lined the Legii bridge and watched in awe as the Vltava gushed around its base, creeping higher and higher as it surged towards the Charles bridge. Many were hoping to catch a glimpse of a "mini-tidal wave" forecast by the Czech media, but which luckily never materialised. One man raised a laugh by trying King Canute's trick of praying for the water to retreat.

Not everyone was in such flippant mood. Government employees could be seen frantically evacuating books and rare documents from the basement of the national library, the Klementinum, which houses six million tomes, including priceless medieval manuscripts. Books were also removed from the Czech senate in the Waldstejn palace, while curators at the city's famous Kampa museum were forced to move its collection of modern art to higher floors.

The city zoo, situated on an island in the middle of the river, was also affected, with many of the animals having to be evacuated. Many shops and restaurants in the threatened zone pulled down the shutters, piling sandbags in front of their doors and sealing cracks and holes where the water could get in with foam resin.

Large swaths of Prague were closed and effectively turned into no-go areas. "It's amazing to see the town so empty," said Micah Jayne, a photo-journalist. "It's a chance to see Prague without the crowds."