The Charles Bridge is undoubtedly one of Prague's most visited tourist sights, with around 20 million visitors crossing it every year. Having survived the floods which swept the city in 2002, the magnificent Gothic structure is currently in need of restoration to ensure its safety and to preserve it for future generations. But such a project is not without controversy, potentially affecting visitors at the height of the tourist season.
As crowds of sightseers flock across the Charles Bridge, something of a familiar scene on Prague's most famous monument, it is difficult to imagine the Czech tourist industry without it. Yet this is precisely the scenario with which the city's tourist board may have to deal, due to imminent plans for restoration of the 14th century bridge. The City Hall has been discussing such a project for around a decade now, with much debate over how it should be approached to minimise the effect on tourism in the capital. Yet, the director of Prague City Hall's investment department, Jiri Toman, has reportedly said that pedestrians will indeed be diverted from the bridge itself for some of the restoration work, which is intended to last around 16 months in total, and could begin as early as next month. I asked some of the artists based on the Charles Bridge, what kind of an effect such a closure might have on their livelihood. One seller tells me she thinks it will have a great impact: some of the owners of stalls have worked at the bridge for fifteen years. If the bridge closes it will change everything.
"I hope it won't be completely closed, because we would be finished here on the bridge. We would have to find other work. So we hope that we will be able to remain here further, at least at limited times."
"I think renovation of the bridge won't touch the traders and stalls here since information I have received explains that the bridge will remain open on the whole, being shut only on some working days. In such a situation we would simply remain here. I really haven't thought about what would happen if the bridge was completely closed, if we were removed at any point I really don't know what would happen."
But the Mayor's office still insists that this will not have an overly detrimental effect on visitors to the city, since the bridge is likely to have at least restricted access during the construction period. The work itself is expected to cost around 250 million Czech crowns (the equivalent of 10.6 million US dollars), and involves not only the external stonework of the structure but also internal reconstruction of its submerged pillars. Yet this should eventually prove to be a worthy investment, ensuring that visitors to the city will be able to marvel at Prague's magnificent Charles Bridge for many years to come.
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