“One way or another, it was for me a grand time in Prague. I saw and encountered there the beautiful and good, the noble and sublime, but neither was I blind to the darkness.” – Josip Plecnik
It was late at night as the train rolled into Prague’s Holešovice station. As we came to a halt, I realised that I’d arrived at the wrong station. Or at least a station that wasn’t in my guide book. It was late at night and the station was almost empty. Luckily for me, an enterprising ‘taxi’ driver was waiting for the occasional disoriented tourist who found themselves getting off the night train from East Berlin. It was 1990, and just six months earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen, creating shockwaves across the world, and the Velvet Revolution swept Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party from power.
Writer and political dissident, Václav Havel had been appointed President and, in a sign of changing times, the driver offered me a free ride to the city if I changed US dollars with him. The roads were almost empty of cars, and a steady drizzle of rain lent the city an air of bleakness. My week in the then Czechoslovakia, was fascinating. English was rarely spoken and communication was largely a series of gestures. The food, in my recollection, was terrible, assuming it was even edible. The beer was virtually free.
I have strong memories of Czechoslovakia and its people. Meeting an old man on a suburban street who surprised me by speaking English. He’d been a Spitfire pilot in the Czech Army in Exile in the Second World War, and spoke longingly of an England that had long gone. There was an epic train journey in the company of young soldiers, one disapproving old lady, a dog, several bottles of plum spirits and a crate of warm beer. We didn’t have a common language, but by the time we arrived drunk into Bratislava, we were firm friends.
I couldn’t wait to reacquaint myself with the country – even though it has split in two since then and changed its name twice (most recently to Czechia) – but I returned with trepidation. No one can be unconscious of the changes that have swept countries like the Czech Republic since the end of Communism. Much of this change has been for the good, but it’s no coincidence that Prague has a reputation as a destination for stag and hen parties, there for the cheap booze, as well as more seedy pleasures of the flesh.
As I arrived outside my Prague apartment, two massively drunk Scotsmen nearly killed themselves crossing the road. It didn’t bode well. In truth though, the freewheeling partying of earlier years seems to have calmed down in favour of more conventional tourism. I was prepared for tourist hotspots, but was shocked by the sheer number of tourist that flood the city. It’s hard to go anywhere in Prague’s Old Town without being in a crowd; the epic grandeur of Prague Castle is now drowned in an ocean of bodies; every other building seems to be a tourist shop, bar or restaurant.
Prague in 1990 saw few tourists. The beauty of it’s magnificent buildings passed down by an extraordinary history were untrammelled by selfie stick-wielding hoards. Today it has become a dumping ground for tour groups from around the world. There were plenty from North America, Europe and Asia, but China has arrived en masse. The last time I saw this many Chinese people in one place, I was in Beijing. It’s tricky to find an historic building that doesn’t have a Chinese bride and groom doing a photo shoot. It’s just a little bizarre.
Between the boozing Brits, tour group masses, sordid sex clubs and neighbourhoods emptied of their original inhabitants, it would be easy to agree with Josip Plecnik, the great architect of early 20th century Prague. This is a city of immense beauty and sublime culture, but it’s also a city that has many dark corners, and many dark periods throughout its history. A history that is fascinating to explore as you wander its streets, providing you can find some peace and quiet away from the tour groups to enjoy it.