Closer to Nice than London, Prague is a fascinating destination. Mike Meade recently visited the capital of Bohemia and the Czech Republic
Prague offers a refreshing change of scenery from other European destinations. A visit to this relaxed Central European city is a step into the historic past, dominated by renaissance, baroque and gothic architecture dating back to the 9th century. Prague came under Hapsburg rule in 1526 and was the capital of Czechoslovakia from the country's formation in 1918 until its dissolution in 1993.
This is an supremely walkable city (free walking maps are readily available) and on the first day, our French-speaking guide, Lucie Troskova, accompanied us by bus up the Petrin Hill for lunch at the scenic Petrìnské Terasy restaurant before a colourful downhill jaunt to the flatter city centre across the Vltava River.
The first part of the stroll was down through the many levels of the city’s most popular tourist site, the Prague Castle. Built in the 9th century, it is the largest ancient castle in the world, and contains many palaces, chapels and galleries. History buffs should allow at least half a day to appreciate it fully. An hour is probably enough for the less culturally minded like myself.
From the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) amble across the famous Charles Bridge to the old town (Staré Mesto) and be sure not to miss the Jewish Quarter which sprang from the former ghetto. The Czech Republic is a largely secular society and not nearly as Catholic as I had imagined. A historic Jewish influence permeates the city, and references to Prague’s most famous Jewish son, Franz Kafka - the surrealist madcap writer who never finished a novel - are omnipresent.
In Staré Mesto, try to synchronise your visit to the Old Town Square with the hourly chiming of the astronomical clock, a unique curiosity. Its complex movement dates back over 500 years and the elaborate animation as it strikes the hour draws applause from an ever present crowd. Have your camera at the ready though - it only lasts a few seconds.
The Bohemians: Polite but remote
The Praguer welcome is courteous, but seldom effusive. They are a somewhat solemn lot, no doubt a throwback to Bohemia’s tumultuous past. Those of us who remember the Czech resistance to the Soviet invasion and the fiery 1969 self-sacrifice of the young martyr Jan Palach, will visit his simple memorial in the central St Wenceslas square with a lump in their throat. This is a city where a vibrant present and a troubled past unabashedly rub shoulders. Next to the modern Marks & Spencer store or KFC eatery there are still graffiti-marked statues and monuments to a Communist presence that the Czechs can’t seem to completely forget.
Vestiges of Communism
Reminders of the Communist era are most evident in the dismal suburban tower blocks that straddle the road from the modern new air terminal to central Prague. Lucie explained that old habits haven’t completely died here, even as Western ways replace much of the Soviet-influenced past. These suburbs are “sleeper-cities” where the working-class share grey tenement dwellings with the upper classes in stacked rabbit-hutches that serve them only to eat and sleep.
The Praguer lives for his weekend home in the country and this is where the new economic and social differences become apparent. Over 60% of Praguers have a country “residence”, ranging from shabby allotment shacks thrown together with a few nails and old doors, to elegant dacha-like villas of impressive proportions. It’s here in the nearby countryside where the city neighbours - the factory worker and the nouveau-riche businessman - part company for weekends and holidays separated by wealth and social class.
Three days are barely enough to see this photogenic “city of a hundred towers” but at least one day in the Czech countryside and nearby villages is well worth your time. We drove for almost 2 hours through sprawling hop-farms and picturesque hamlets to Carlsbad and the site of the Moser glassworks and to Karlovy Vary, an attractive spa town strangely reminiscent of France’s Vichy but with much richer architectural offerings.
Lunch in the elegant and immense dining hall of the 18th century Grand Hotel Pupp (117 rooms) was a delight - more for the atmosphere than for the cuisine. Potato is a mainstay of the Czech diet and accompanies almost every meal in potato pancakes, steamed spuds or in dumplings. Czech wine is singularly unimpressive but the excellent beer in this Plizen (Pilsner) motherland is rich and heady.
We returned to Prague via the little burg of Loket where we chanced upon the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, on an electoral campaign tour. The fall of the Iron Curtain became starkly clear as President Klaus uncomfortably fielded a protester’s heckling from the crowd. That couldn’t have happened in Communist times and a trip to the Czech Republic is a welcome eye-opener of what is now gone and will never return.
Accommodation: In Prague I stayed at the simple but adequate Holiday Inn Express across from the the main railway station. There’s BBC World on satellite in your room and an excellent buffet breakfast. Perfectly multilingual staff.
Money: Local currency is the Czech crown or koruna (CZK or Kc) composed of 100 groats (h).
Exchange rate: approx. 25 Kc = 1 euro. ATM machines are not quite as common as in western Europe but there is one at the airport and at several banks in Prague city centre. Do not change money with touts on the street.
Climate: Prague has a typical mid-continental climate, mild with warm, damp summers and cold winters. Spring and autumn are particularly pleasant.
Communications: French and British mobile phones with roaming option work well in most parts of the Czech Republic.
Press: The weekly Prague Post in English is available from most news-stands.
Conveniences: Public toilets are rare but there are several McDonalds in Prague city centre which offer clean toilet facilities for a 5 Kc entry chit (reimbursed if you eat at the McDonalds... but why would you?).