In travel circles, it sometimes seems as if there are so many ‘new Pragues’ that we have forgotten the old one. To recap: the Czech capital was the first great Central and Eastern European city-break out of the post-perestroika box; and it came up to the mark, with hundreds of thousands of visitors attracted by its dynamic mixture of value, heritage and, yes, sleaze.
In search of the new-old Prague recently, I ended up in a hotel where, after knocking my head on ancient beams as I sought my bed for a nap, I staggered downstairs to the cellar bar for a drink. I found a striptease in full flight in what seemed to an ordinary bar, full of normal people of both sexes.
I left, befuddled by this mixing of leisure genres, and walked down to the Charles Bridge, Prague’s great hotspot, for an early evening constitutional. As well as being as rammed as Oxford Street, there was a motley collection of accordionists, beggars, poets and pissheads, all gazed upon by the statues of crazed saints that decorate the bridge.
I strolled across the River Vltava to the Stare Mesto (Old Town). Here it is that you find the double-scoop whammy of Saint Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle on Hradcany, the city’s imperial hill. As I walked, I was reminded that a shared characteristic of all ‘new Pragues’ is that they have a castle and a hill. Perhaps Ludlow is next.
The Stare Mesto was undeniably pretty, but left that enervating touristic sense that one had seen it all before. I wanted to find the real Bohemia in what is, after all, the capital of Bohemia, as well as of the Czech Republic. So I tracked back to see some of Prague’s other sights, and took in the Old Town, the New Jewish cemetery where Franz Kafka is buried, and had a coffee in the Franz Kafka Café, paying homage to this dead Bohemian hero, although the tubercular Franz himself had a relatively blameless life.
Then it was time for lunch, which I found in a place where a pork and paprika main dish (costing about £5, by the way) consisted, essentially, of half a pig‘s leg.
After lunch, I sauntered some more, taking in the Alphonse Mucha Museum, where the Art Nouveau artist provided a kind of visual backdrop to the fin de siècle atmosphere, wrapped in the confection of 18th-century Kaunicky Palace, then walked further away from Prague’s main street Mostecka, dodging into old shops and downing the odd litre of ale in one of Prague’s traditional beer halls as I went.
This was better: I had started to leave the sights alone and instead I was happening on little corners where plaster crumbled and little walled gardens catapulted me into the atmosphere of an old photograph. Out of the alleys came the sound of choirs rehearsing, and in a little photographic shop that I passed, I picked up a Soviet issue Lomo camera for about £40, complete with Cyrillic instructions. Like Venice, Prague suffers from a surfeit of tourists, and the way to appreciate it fully is to wander away from the flock.
At Wenceslas Square – naught but a great triumphal plaza, really – I saw the memorial to Jan Palach, who immolated himself as a protest in 1969, and found myself fending off pickpockets, all of whom seemed about four feet tall. Still, what is Bohemia without the hint of danger? I pressed further into the suburbs where the Panelaks, or Soviet blocks, of flats began, then traced back to the Absinthe Bar, where the smoke hung heavy in the air, and where they served the Green Fairy over sugar, just like in the olden days. Bohemia at last.
I got a drink in, and ear-wigged the people on the next table. Americans! Prague is still the big draw for literary US graduates trying to find the muse or, perhaps, wondering where they mislaid her. We made friends and went to a few further venues, Prague being the kind of place where this happens.
In the morning I woke up late, determined to have a non-medieval experience. I took the tram to the Dox Museum of Contemporary Art, and noticed that, suddenly, my companions were not American gap-yearers, or British stag-nighters, or whooping Inter-Railers, but big old baboushkas in heavy clothes bearing shopping bags. I alighted at the museum and walked off my hangover looking at Czech Cubism.
My advice? Walk away from the tour groups, try to find new experiences in the new Prague – and don’t even think about drinking the disgusting absinthe.