Saturday, July 23, 2011

Winter in Prague

The capital of Bohemia and the Czech Republic. A city I have wanted to visit since a cousin went there on a school trip in the mid nineties and got drunk for a pound. The very reason which drew me there as a teenager, kept me away through my twenties as the hoards of uncouth and roudy British piss-heads swooped down on the city. The worst side of Brits abroad and an embarrassment. Time has though ticked on and the draws of its glorious architecture and the recommendation of Czechs I have met all over the world led me to visit this February.


In the dark we jumped off the bus and wandered through the snow carpeted streets in the rough direction of our lodging. A feeling of great excitement, a real buzz as we criss-crossed the small winding, picturesque alleyways of one of the worlds most beautiful cities. The streets were nearly empty. Down one passageway the only person we encountered was a beggar, prostrate in front of us in quite an alarming fashion. Kneeling on the cold compacted snow, head face down just above the pavement, reaching out front, hands cupped. I have seen people beg in many ways, but this made quite an impact in the cutting cold and snow. Around another corner and we had arrived. The old town square at the heart of Stare Mesto. Straight out of gothic novel. It took my breath away. A wide open space of icy cobbles is flanked by magnificent buildings. The imposing 14th century Tynn church, grand multi-story town houses and the old town hall to name a few. On the latter hangs the medieval astronomical clock. A wondrous thing of multiple moving parts enlightening the people with the phase of the moon, stars, seasons, no less than the struggle between good and evil (enshrined by figures of perceived vice and virtue) and, yes, the time.
Quite a sight, and by little chance, we had a hotel room directly opposite. Much of the next four days were spent lounging on our window sill watching the enchanting machinations.

On one evening, crossing the old square past the statue of Jan Hus (a fascinating man who sowed the seeds of the reformation and was consequently burned alive by the church – love thy neighbour and all that), we meandered through the streets until we found ourselves at Lokal. A modern twist on a traditional Bohemian beerhall, Czech specialities are served in a long semi-circular white-washed vault of a room. Dumplings and goulash are washed down with the most flavoursome, refreshing, fulfilling beer that has ever flowed down my throat. This is not an exaggeration. Pilsner was invented in Bohemia and the locally brewed stuff in Lokal edged out the best I have tasted from Belgium or Germany, although there are many good contenders…

We had the fortune of meeting a lovely local couple, Marian and Katerina, who shared many insights into modern Prague with us. The city seems to be in a time of flux, in between the growth and rejuvenation post-communism, through somewhat of a blip and searching for where it wants to go next. I suspect many parts of Eastern Europe are in a similar place.
One of their best recommendations was a trip to the ice hockey, a local favourite past time and, after a few more beers and a wobbly walk home, we woke up the next day and made it happen. Sparta Prague were playing a team I had never heard of that night and, turning up in one of the uglier and less touristy areas of the city, managed to get hold of two tickets.
The ice hockey was of a good standard (obviously immeasurably superior to the Guildford Flames who I used to watch back in the nineties), but two memories stick out. Firstly the die-hard, nutty Sparta fans at one end. Despite Sparta losing, they shook the stands with their jumping and chanting. I would have loved to be amongst them to feel the intensity, but am perhaps lucky that I was not as I idiotically confused the two teams at the face off and cheered the opposition's early goal. Not clever. Secondly, the cheerleaders. OK, not the cheerleaders precisely, though they were relatively entertaining, but the ice cleaning lasses. Drawing only slightly on modern perceptions of Spartan heritage, the ladies who brushed the ice were clad in tiny, extraordinarily short white see-through togas which billowed all over the place. The half time show involved them repeatedly bending over to place pucks for fans to hit at goal and I guarantee the audience was not concentrating on those fans. Probably would not pass the politically correct smell test back home, but everyone seemed to have fun.


I won't go into to detail of just how impressive the highlights of Prague are, but can not resist sharing a snapshot from four glorious days exploring. Overlooked by the largest castle in the world with its giant cathedral and numerous palaces, the city slopes down via imposing medieval streets and parkland to the wide river Vltava. This body of water is crossed by the half kilometre long Charles Bridge, started in the fourteenth century and flanked by grand statues. Walking out the other end you are thrown into the cobbled touristy streets of Stare Mesto, the old town, and then into numerous intertwined districts from the garish and ugly soviet architecture of parts of Nove Mesto, to the fascinating history of the old Jewish quarter. It is images of the latter which will stay with me the longest with its centuries old synagogues and squeezed, imperceptibly slowly tumbling gravestones of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Alas, the once thriving community has nearly completely disappeared as a result of centuries of prejudice.
I found Prague and its people charming. A fascinating city of historical and contemporary culture. And you know what, avoiding a street or two you can avoid the drunk British idiots who have done so much to sour relations and, by being nothing more than civil and respectful, can convince a local or two that we are not all so base.
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