Prague: beaten track

what is it with Prague?

On paper it ought to be the most attractive big city in Central Europe, out-beautifying Budapest and even Vienna. If those three cities had been goddesses and Paris only cast his eyes above two metres off the ground, Prague would win the apple hands down – it has an unbeatable richness and variety of beautiful buildings from medieval times right up to the 20th century (amazing that it survived the 20th century). It’s below the two-metre line that’s the problem, though.

Of course it’s unfair to judge a city by its tourist quarters – could you sum up London by talking about Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square? – but here there is something shockingly voracious and blatant that nowhere else seems to have quite so badly, from the cheesy sketch artists on the Charles Bridge to the basement museums of medieval torture instruments to the posters for Hooters (roger Houston – but in Bohemia?) to the ubiquitous Euro-American tourist babe uniform of extreme hot pants (do they save them especially for here? there are nowhere near as many in London or Paris or Vienna) to the 12-year old Italians taking photos of Franz Kafka’s birthplace as though Kafka were Bono or Lady Gaga (or do your parents really never explain their impenetrable decisions to you?), to the sheer density of numbers toting cameras. As in this picture of the interior of St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague Castle (could even Florence or Rome be this swamped?):

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It didn’t help that my hotel room was on the first floor directly above one of the noisiest tram junctions in Prague (the building shook every 15 seconds), or that the reception staff vied with each other to see who could be least friendly, or that considerable effort seemed to have gone into getting the details of the room exactly wrong (bedside tables and lights on the opposite side of the room from the beds, for example). But then what did I expect for €49 a night in central Prague? Call it false economy, or just bad judgement. But I dutifully did the tourist things this year that I hadn’t done last year, and quite impressive they all were in their way: the cute medieval Old Town Square, the freakish astronomical clock, the largest castle in the world (sez Guinness), the delightfully art nouveau (almost to the point of kitsch) Municipal House. Yet somehow it all seemed slathered with too much Prague-o-Disney…

Not fair to Prague; that faraway people of whom we once knew nothing have every right to make as much money out of us as they can in whatever way they see fit; they’re just making up time for that piece of paper, and all the other pieces of paper signed by the Big Three at Yalta etc. that cost them another 44 years of Soviet deep freeze. But it would be nice to get a sense of the soul (is there a soul?) Down in the back streets near the medieval Convent of St. Agnes came close, as did the Czech Cubism exhibit (some amazing stuff there from a cool hundred years ago, like the one below by Bohumil Kubista – this wasn’t on display, but I can’t get images of similar ones that were). I feel like I ought to owe Prague more time, but I can’t ever see myself coming back…

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4 Responses to Prague: beaten track

  1. Andrew Lloyd says:

    This made me feel nostalgic for my trip to Prague in 1985 and something you’ve noted chimed with it. Even back then, there was a recognition of the value of tourism. In parts of the city centre, I remember they were ripping up the perfectly functional tarmac and laying cobblestones because these would be more ‘authentic’.

    I think the tourists then were more likely to have come from other Warsaw Pact nations; certainly the menus in cafes seemed to follow a hierarchy of Czech, then Russian, then German and maybe French. English? Forget it. My girlfriend managed to decipher a toasted cheese and ham sandwich, within the French.

    No advertising hoardings, soldiers on the street: it was a different time. We stood out simply by our more colourful clothing, which made us a prime target for money changers. If it’s changed as you say, then maybe I wouldn’t go back either. I enjoyed it, if anything ,just for how different it was. It sounds like that difference has been eroded.

  2. markrossiter says:

    yes I have seen video of the riots in January 1989 in the streets of Prague and the city looks really grim. It must have been interesting to visit Eastern Europe back then, though given the choice I am quite happy to be doing so since the revolution. Prague is garish but some of the other places I have been have been really charming. Did they give you your ham and cheese toastie? I was actually in transit in a hotel in a suburb of Prague during those ’89 riots (my flight to India had a leg on Czech which was so badly delayed we had to spend a night there – obviously they wouldn’t let us near the city centre) and I well remember asking the waitress for some more coffee to be told flat out “no!”

  3. Andrew Lloyd says:

    Goodness me this seems a bit after the fact. However, your posts made me curious enough to dig out my diary for 1985 and the trip to Prague. The memory of the ham and cheese toastie may have some poetic licence to it but I can find reference to our discovering ‘Jambon’ on the French part of the menu. Foolishly we appeared to allow ourselves to then believe that because French was on the menu the waitresses must be able to understand it. The diary tells me that the poor waitress was even more bemused with my girlfriend, Pam’s A-level French.

    My records of the restaurant service generally suggest that it was less than great. There’s quite afew references to pizza and Coke.

    We saw places I can no longer clearly remember, such as the Powder Tower, a 13th century Jewish synagogue, the Waldstein gardens, The Bethlehem Chapel where Jan Hus had preached and so on. I do remember Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s Konopiste Castle in Bohemia, which had some 100,000 hunting trophies (out of a total of 300,000) hanging on the walls. Absolutely festooned with dear heads and such like. Quite grim really; slaughter more than hunting.

    Still the diary brings back a lot of memories and it was a fine trip. Your East European journey looks really interesting on the blog. Yuo must have enjoyed it.

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