“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.
22 thoughts on “A grand time in Prague”
I lived in Prague 1999-2000 and loved it. Such a mix of cynicism, sordidness, and beauty.
I think that just about sums it up, things haven’t changed much.
Never been to the Czech Republic but it looks stunning!
It’s well worth a visit if you get the chance. Prague is a great city, the town’s and villages outside of Prague are really beautiful.
I’ve been living in Prague for a while during my studies and now I’m visiting it regularly. It’s truly amazing and what was written here in this post really shows Prague from the best side. If anybody is planning a trip to Prague I would only recommend one more thing: to move bit out from the city center, if you have enough time, to see how normal life goes on there. In Prague is located my favourite breakfast place, Cafe Jen. It’s founded by two Czech girls and represents modern approach to running a small, local business. If you want to see how young, post-communist generation deals nowadays in Czech Republic, this will be a great opportunity. If you are intrerested, you can read sth more on my page: https://itsmemagda.com/2017/11/19/cafe-jen-in-prague/ Greetings to everybody 🙂
Prague is a big and interesting city, the historic centre is small and mobbed with tourists though. Getting out of it into another barrio seems like a good plan.
I enjoyed reading your post! 🙂
Thank you, it was an interesting return visit for me.
Yes train journeys can be wonderful with the right mixed company.
I’d always heard it was a beautiful city, such a shame it’s become what it is…it reminds me of a book I read recently where the author retraces his steps thirty years on – https://www.amazon.com.au/Dreaming-Jupiter-Search-World-Thirty-Years-ebook/dp/B0032UPUN2.
Recommended reading whether you’re a bike rider or not.
Sounds like a good read, but I imagine a bit depressing? Although I try not to, I did get a bit nostalgic for the Prague I remember. It’s still a fascinating and beautiful city though. The rest of my travels in the country were much more pleasant, all the tourists seem to stay in one place!
Some bits depressing but mostly very entertaining and insightful. Things do change yet its possible to find the gems still today. Even in the 70’s I would cringe at other Aussies in Europe behaving like louts .
I think we all have an allergic reaction to our countryfolk when on holiday – but I should be used to drunk Brits by now!
Its or their “right mind”? Hmmm. Probably their… 🙂
I think it’s ‘their’ … because ‘people’ is plural. I have been known to be regularly wrong about these things though!
Plural. That’s why it should be “their”. “The People rest, your Honour.” Not “restS”. 😉
Never crossed the Iron curtain. Went to Berlin 5-6 years ago. To Prague… 10-15? What struck me most was the monument to Jan Hus. All of a sudden, I recognized the monument. And a black and white photo came back to my mind. Russian tanks everywhere. The young Czechs trying to talk to their “brothers”. And all the buildings around, black with soot. And I looked around. all was painted anew. I thought: “when the Russians left, the Czechs must have rolled up their sleeves and started painting.”
Lovely city. Nice people. Unfathomable language. I mean what people in its right mind can call beer: “Pivo”?
Absolutely right Brian, Pivo sounds more like something that happens to you once you’ve drunk beer! The language makes Dutch seem like a walk in the park. When I reached Wenceslas Square it brought back such strong memories from 1990, but now it’s lined with shops like C&A and Marks & Spencer. I tried to find a small bar where I remembered eating something undigestible, unsurprisingly it wasn’t to be found. The past is another country, as they say.
Undigestible? Agreed. I also remember my scant German was more useful than English. I’d never heard that saying before. Interesting. Any source? Or just a popular pearl of wisdom?
It comes from a book I read a long time ago, The Past Is Another Country: Rhodesia, 1890-1979 by Martin Meredith. Although it could be confused with the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’.
I remember German was more common than English. Maybe a remnant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire?
Rhodesia? Some cousins lived there. And I d like the the Go-between quote. I’ll commit it to memory. They increasingly do things differently there…
And I thought the same about the Austro-Hungarian Empire… (You’re probably one of the last to remember there ever was such a thing) 😉
Take care my friend
It’s interesting how history is remembered. The Austro-Hungarian Empire isn’t exactly a hot topic in the west of Europe, but they certainly haven’t forgotten it in Serbia. The ‘first’ Bosnian Crisis is like a recent event rather than 100 years+ of history!
I was just commenting on History… True that the 20th century “started” in Sarajevo with a gunshot…