To be completely honest Prague wasn’t on my shortlist of places to visit any time soon. That’s not to say I was opposed to seeing Prague – hell, I’ll gladly go anywhere new – it’s just that lately I’m yearning more and more towards exploring rural areas, specifically the hills, glens, villages and islands around my adopted home of Scotland, places I’ve sorely neglected in the two years I’ve lived here. Even on the urban front I’ve some serious catching up to do in Scotland, having spent twice as much time in Amsterdam (see here and here) as I have in Edinburgh and Glasgow combined.
So how then do I find myself – along, of course, with my lovely wife and constant travel companion Steph – in a parking lot at 01:00 on a Thursday morning waiting on a bus to Edinburgh Airport for a direct flight to Prague? It’s simple really: We got a good deal!
The aforementioned parking lot is at Steph’s work (which shall remain un-named for obvious reasons) and the deal we got is through the business’ Sports and Social Club. £250 a piece gets us (and the other 30 or so people going) a private coach trip to Edinburgh (and back on the return), round trip flights, three nights accommodation and an introductory bus tour of the city upon arrival. Shortlist or not, we could hardly pass this up.
“Where have you been?”
“Oh, just wandering around.”
“You’ve been drinking whisky, I can smell it!”
“Well, yes. They’re doing samples at the Duty Free shop. You wouldn’t expect me to pass up free whisky, would you?”
“Bob, it’s six o’clock in the morning!”
“You heard the part where I said it was free, right?”
Steph’s concern with my early morning imbibing at Edinburgh Airport not withstanding, all goes well on our bus trip and flight. The security officer at the entry checkpoint in Prague asks me nothing. She simply scans and then stamps (new stamp!) my passport without ever looking up at me. Just like that, and I’m in the Czech Republic.
Vaclav Havel Airport looks like every other major commercial airport I’ve ever been in – well, except for the part where two airport employees cruise through the baggage claim area on inline skates – meaning you can get your fill of fashion, fragrances and fast food before or after you fly. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it actually feels more overtly commercial, more Capitalist, than other airports, while at the same time having a distinct Communist engineering vibe about it.
Once on board the tour bus – which was late because of heavy traffic – our guide gives us a thoroughly detailed overview of all things Prague, from the history, art and architecture of the city, to the potentially more thorny topics of politics and religion. Apparently, back in the days of Communism heavy traffic was never an issue as hardly anyone could afford a car. According to our guide, even those who had the funds for a car were forced to wait a decade or more, and then got whatever colour Lada they sent you. These days, however, everyone has a car – or two, or three. The automobile is regarded as the ultimate consumerist status symbol and the streets – which of course were never designed for high volumes of car traffic – are choked with them. In the entire hour and a half we’re touring the city on the bus I see two people cycling – exactly the same number of people I saw on inline skates at the airport.
Before we depart the bus for the short walk to the hotel our guide makes sure to emphasise Prague’s need for more and more foreign investment and tourists. She also not so subtly informs us of standard tipping etiquette in the Czech Republic, even going so far as to specifically mention bus drivers and tour guides (hint, hint!). It’s all a bit American-style hard sell for my liking, although given the economic realities of the day – and especially considering the Brits well deserved reputation for being grippy, non-tipping bastards – I can understand.
Hitting the streets of Prague on ground level by foot – as opposed to the elevated and insulated position afforded by a private coach – is quite the sensory experience. Narrow in width and bordered by multi-story buildings, the ancient streets of Prague are cacophonous canyons of internal combustion chaos. I’m certainly not going to sit here and advocate for the faux-Communist, totalitarian days of yore, but I think the people here have been sold a false bill of goods if this carnival of car craziness catering only to the most banal of consumerist cravings is meant to be progress.
We check in at the blissfully quiet Hotel Waldstein and quickly freshen up before heading back out to explore. What, you didn’t think we were going to just sit around in our well appointed room getting blitzed from the mini bar booze cause of my little curmudgeonly tirade about the car craziness out there, did you? Never!
I’ve done a bare minimum of research going into this trip; enough to get us around (safely) to the obvious tourists hot spots, but not so much that all the surprises are spoiled for us. I mention safety only because, having read the U.S. State Department travel information page for the Czech Republic, I’m coming into this trip with a heightened state of situational awareness, above and beyond my normal level which some of you victims in the making will regard as paranoid. I’m determined that Steph and I will not be date raped, pick pocketed or ripped off in a currency exchange scam by a terrorist who was allowed to waltz into the country unnoticed because of Schengen Zone, European Union Socialist shenanigans. Dear god, I’m beginning to think we should have gone somewhere safe for a holiday, like Chicago or Detroit!
Smarmy sarcasm aside (for the moment anyway), one thing I have planned is for us to be atop Prague’s Astronomical Clock tower for sunset at 16:41. In between here and there is another one of Prague’s feature attractions, Charles Bridge, which proves to be a welcome pedestrianised respite from the aforementioned crush of cars we’ve encountered elsewhere. Caricature artists, buskers and trinket sellers line the sides of the bridge, plying their talents and wares in the hopes of earning a few Czech Crowns from the hoards of tourists who stream across here every day. Most of the wooden carts used as shopping stalls look as if they might be as old as the bridge itself, although many feature items which are decidedly (disturbingly!) modern.
More disturbing still are the beggars we see on the bridge (and will continue to see everywhere touristy we go), every one lying prostrate with an empty hat or tin in front of their head. Actually, it’s the actions of passers-by (tourons) which is truly disturbing, many of whom squat right down next to one of these individuals to get a better smartphone pic for their Facebook or Instagram feed without so much as uttering a word to the man, much less dropping a few coins in his hat. I don’t generally give money to people on the street – preferring instead to route any charitable giving through reputable organisations – but you also won’t catch me pointing my fancy phone or big camera in their face for a bit of self-satisfying poverty porn.
Moving on from Charles Bridge, it takes less than ten minutes to make our way to the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock, leaving us plenty of time to grab a couple of super tasty sausages from a street vendor before heading up the tower. Turns out we need the extra time: the top of the tower is packed full of people who all had the same sunset photo-op idea in mind. Neither Steph or I are fans of crotch-to-bum crowds but in this instance it’s worth it for the gorgeous views over Prague. Looking down I actually feel bad for all those folks on the square below, milling about, beer in hand, with ample room to move – and no camera with a big zoom lens jammed up their ass from the guy behind – but missing this view. Shame.
Wait a minute, the guy behind me has his big camera up at his face to take a picture. On second thought, maybe it’s time to go down for a beer!
Darkness falls and we continue to wander around for a bit, though never straying too far from the square before heading back to the room for the evening. Prague is meant to have a vibrant, up and coming night life, if you’re into that sort of thing. We’re not. Besides, I’ve convinced Steph – in principle at least – to get up with me and head out at 05:45 to catch the 06:51 sunrise, with the promise that conditions look favourable for fine photos. We’ll see what happens when Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song blares from my iPhone in the morning.
I wake up – as I have an uncanny tendency of doing – just a minute or so before my alarm is scheduled to go off, cancelling the alert before Robert Plant has a chance to let loose his legendary primal scream upon the quiet confines of our room. Instead I let Steph gently awaken to the mesmerising sound of my own dulcet tones, filling the room with my angelic voice as she returns from the land of sleep.
Who am I kidding, I pounce on her and tickle. It’s just who I am.
Much to my surprise, however, she does rise from the bed – with a minimum of violence directed towards me for the tickling – and we’re out the door ahead of schedule. We’re not going far – just back to Charles Bridge, which is barely a five minute walk from our hotel – but I wanted to be out early to find a nice composition for photos. We’re joined on the bridge by six or seven other early birds, three or whom are sporting some serious photo kit. I’ve elected to travel super light on this trip and have brought only my Nikon Coolpix P7000, a Gorillapod, and of course the iPhone. Leaving behind my DSLR wasn’t easy but I’m confident I’ll manage with the tools at hand. Fortunately, as predicted by the weather forecast, the conditions cooperate nicely and we’re treated to a spectacular sunrise.
Once the sunrise show is over we head back to the hotel for breakfast. After our experience in Amsterdam Steph is a bit nervous that she’ll be stuck eating a loaf of bread and a pound of chocolate sprinkles again, but her fears are quickly allayed when we see the continental style spread available to us. Breaking from custom I actually refrain from stuffing myself full in an effort to avoid the lethargy that inevitably follows a big meal. Besides, from what we’ve seen so far there is no shortage of places to eat out there and we’ll be wanting to sample more of the local cuisine.
First on today’s post-sunrise, post-breakfast agenda is a ride on the funicular train which goes to the top of Petrin Hill, followed by a climb to the top of Petrin Tower. Per usual protocol we take our time in making our way to the train, trying our best to absorb as much of the scenery as we can along the way. Well, except for the parts where we have to cross a road. There, we run. The crossing lights only stay on long enough to get half way across at a fast walking pace before cars are turned loose again, and absorbing the front bumper of an Audi ain’t on my list of things to do in Prague. The traffic, once again, is incessant.
Once the ticket machine instructions are deciphered (not entirely straightforward given our limited understanding of Czech) we take the short ride up the hill. Again, it’s nice to be away from the car traffic below as we wander the gardens waiting for the tower to open. Right near the base of the tower we find a cool little play park and, physics be damned, briefly unleash our respective inner child – or, uh, children. You know what I mean.
Ten minutes or so before opening time and a line has formed at the entrance to Petrin Tower. Well, I say line, but – no surprise here – there are tourons in our midst who don’t understand the concept of a queue. This time it’s a little old lady who, without so much as a hint of hesitation or reservation, barges right past us and snakes into the wee gap in the line we had left so as not to be standing up the asses of the group in front. She is then joined by the rest of her uncouth posse who squeeze their rotund carcasses into the remaining space gap. Of course I wish no ill will upon anyone, but should these barging behemoths all have simultaneous heart attacks whilst walking the stairs to the top of the tower, well, you know what they say about karma.
Turns out there’s an elevator. Bummer.
We take the stairs to the top, stopping a few times along the way to enjoy the view and snap a few pics. It’s a dull, grey day and a bit breezy, enough so that we can feel the tower sway ever so gently. Perhaps I’ve lived in the UK too long but my mind begins to contemplate the health and safety track record of Communist engineering in central Europe, and although I can’t recall any specific instances of catastrophic structural failure I begin to scope out trees
I we might jump to if the tower starts to go.
After making our way safely down the stairs we grab some coffee and a slice of something sweet in the cafe (okay, it’s just me who gets a sweet slice). Fortunately this transaction has given us the change needed to pay for each of us to use the toilet. Apparently almost all the toilets – or water closets as they call them here – in Prague require payment for use, even if you’ve already paid to enter a facility or attraction (as we have here). No big deal really as the price is always less than a pound (£) and the toilets – so far at least – stay nice and clean.
Leaving Petrin Tower behind, but never out of sight for long, we walk across and down the hill to Prague Castle, a massive complex of government and church buildings regarded as the largest of its kind in the world. Impressive as the architecture and artistry on display is (and it’s really impressive), I find it even more amazing that all of this has survived so long, especially given the tumultuous history of Prague, the Czech Republic, and this whole area of Europe. Kings and popes, reformation and revolution, dictators and democracy have all come and gone, yet this monstrously, massively beautiful edifice remains. And lets face it, no matter which royal family, religion, philosophical or political/economic system has ruled this place – or anywhere else in the world really – people dig big stuff.
And the big stuff draws the big crowds. It’s, like, a gravity thing or something.
It’s free to walk around the grounds of the castle and we’ve decided to take a pass on paying to enter any of the buildings. Even though everything here is ridiculously inexpensive, and I’m sure we’re missing out on seeing some spectacular sights, we’re being pretty tight with the cash on this trip. Besides, we’re kept well entertained just by sitting down and doing some good old people watching. I find it especially amusing seeing all the tourons who think it’s a good idea to climb on a fountain or statue get set upon by the very stern looking, very armed guards. One teenager in particular looks as though he may have actually shat his pants as he waddles away following a serious verbal dressing down by one of the guards.
Eventually we find our way out of the castle complex, grab another sausage (not as good as last night) and begin ambling in the general direction of Fred and Ginger. What, you might be asking, does that mean? Well…..
…..now you know.
Fred and Ginger, as the building is apparently never referred to any more, was designed and constructed during the 1990’s under a cloud of controversy. As you may have noticed it doesn’t quite fit in with the city’s already odd mixture of Old World European architecture, soulless Communist engineering projects and new fangled American style commercial development. For what it’s worth I rather like the building, although it’s location at yet another car-clogged intersection dulls my enthusiasm significantly.
Once again darkness isn’t far off. Today, however, I’ve planned no spectacular sunset view for us to enjoy, principally because we’re back in go-with-the-flow mode, but also because the skies are heavily overcast. No bother really, as we’re both content to go wherever, see whatever, and get a nice warm meal before heading back to the room. Steph has an interesting activity picked out for us first thing tomorrow, and I’ll be specially dressed in my Captain America t-shirt for the occasion (under a sweater and a jacket, but hey).
Having only been in town for a couple of days it’s safe to say that our knowledge of all things Prague is significantly less than exhaustive. I’m gonna go out on a limb, however, and state right here and right now that Prague’s Museum of Communism does overt Capitalism better – and with more tongue-in-cheek, self-aware and self-depricating irreverence – than anywhere else in town. The museum’s posters around the city indicate that it’s located “Upstairs from McDonald’s and across the hall from the casino.” Get it? Ha! The collection of genuine Soviet-era pins, badges, medals and other paraphernalia – along with a selection of seriously funny, risqué and provocative posters, t-shirts and postcards – make the gift shop rank top of the tables in my book. The museum itself isn’t very big, but it’s packed full of displays which are informative, entertaining, and at times chilling. Big props to Steph for suggesting we come here.
Next stop on our whirlwind tour of the city is Letná Park and its most obvious attraction, the Prague Metronome, a giant (sometimes) functional steel contraption occupying a plinth which formerly hosted a massive granite monument to Joseph Stalin. Between here (the Museum of Communism, which you will recall does Capitalism oh so well) and there, we walk the length of Pařížská Street, a heaving cesspool of stuck-up snobbery and home to all the big fashion brands. Peering through shop windows we get the once-over, disapproving “don’t even think about coming in here” look on more than one occasion. It’s laughable, in a pathetic and sad kind of way.
“So, uh, what does it do?”
“It moves. Back and forth.”
“But it’s not moving.”
I’m thinking this is Steph’s way of asking me what’s the point of a metronome that isn’t moving, but I spare her my usual pretentious, artsy-fartsy-symbolism drivel, and instead just start taking pictures of the thing. The shoes are a nice touch.
Just beyond the metronome we happily stumble upon a group of men and boys putting on a show with their Penny-farthing bikes, riding around in intricate patterns on an area of pavement which seems to be purpose made and marked for such events. The guys are all dressed up in their best 19th century garb and cordially pose for photos before dispersing through the park on their bikes. Damn I love me some serendipity.
We spend the rest of the day – our last before leaving tomorrow morning – wandering, exploring, eating and thinking. It’s nice having nowhere to be and everything to see.
Prague is a place of obvious beauty, but dig a little deeper and you find a city which never seems to have settled into a permanent identity. Old world stalwart or new age metropolis; Communist or Capitalist; rich or poor; Catholic or Protestant…..or Bohemian heathen; somehow it’s all of these yet none of these at the same time. I don’t know when – or even if – we’ll be back, but shortlist or no, I’m sure glad we came.
Per usual, a few more photos from the trip.