Beyond the Astronomical Clock – Prague, Czech Republic, Europe
Prague is a beautiful place but like any other city, it has its downsides. When I moved there to live and work for three months, I found myself wanting to throw tourists off Charles Bridge, sniggering at the droves of people waiting for the anticlimax that is the Astronomical Clock and its cuckoo clock, and being embarrassed by the British stag parties roaming Wenceslas Square. The very highlights that the guide books had touted were tainted by overuse or got old quick. However, over the months as I made local contacts and had time to see past the superficial aspects of the city, I began to discover an exciting everyday side to Prague.
For those wanting a little culture, the epicentre is normally The Kafka Museum however, it can only be really appreciated with a deep knowledge of his works and the German language. Then there are various worthy yet expensive exhibitions in the castle grounds. The alternative pick of the crop is The Museum of Communism – situated ironically above Capitalism’s flagship of McDonald’s and across from the United Colours of Benetton – a small attraction not flaunted as much as it deserves. It’s a little word-heavy in its description of the historical context for the average visitor however, a poignant video depicting twenty years of Czech resistance to the Soviet regime alone makes it well worth the entry price. This is still a price that pales in comparison to any exhibitions to be seen in the castle grounds.
Another important cultural pastime for the average Czech is drinking. Prague is famed for its lively and more importantly cheap nightlife, but there are increasing numbers of bewildered revellers returning home complaining of rising prices. It is true that any bar in Wenceslas, Old Town Squares and Rhyzine airport will set you back – 2 to 4 pounds. With prime location, the laws of supply and demand make this quite obvious. It’s all about stepping off the main boulevards for just a street or two and casting off any apprehensions about dodgy exteriors (although more often that not it is a good idea to avoid the all-night herna bars).
The various city-wide Popocafes are recommended as a youthful and lively mix of bar and club with an international feel. As does the Chapeau Rouge (on Jakubska in the Old Town), an energetic place that brings together the locals and ex-pats with live-music in the cellar and a great eclectic atmosphere.
Reputably the best beer can be found at the Zlatu Tigre (Golden Tiger). Touted by the guidebooks and also loved by the locals, it is reservation-only on weekend evenings.
The area of Zizkov, traditionally home to mostly students and the working classes, not the most attractive place in daylight, comes alive at night. There’s the option to go for the mellow jazz or cellar bars, or the more lively late-night herna bars. Then there’s the locally famous Palac Akropolis, a grungy labyrinthine club that caters to most tastes and dominates Zizkov’s nightlife.
Down the dark alleyways off Wenceslas Square (on V Cipu) lies a metropolis for the Pub Olympian. A great way to start the night is by enjoying the vast interior of Billiard Centrum, a former stable, to play pool, table tennis and even a spot of ten-pin bowling. As long as you don’t cross the permanently angry (and vicious looking) owners, or lose your ticket (punishable by a very hefty fine), you can enjoy all this relatively cheaply with a few pints of cheap Černá Hora.
Of course, there’s also the infinitely popular table football (foosball for the Friends generation). There is always a local on hand to relieve a naïve foreigner of their dignity with a dazzling display of hand-eye coordination gained through years of experience.
As with most capital cities Prague is the sporting hub of the country, and so for the active visitor, there is lots to do and see in this respect. Annually held in March, the Hervis Prague Half Marathon gives an alternative to the plethora of sightseeing tours. Locals get a chance to work off the goulash and fried cheese. The appeal is that it allows one to see the beauty of the city with crowds that are always moving at a more acceptable pace. For around the same price as two tours (approximately 30 Euros), one can run through the Old Town, criss-cross the River Vltava and get excellent views of the castle.
The residents of Prague take their sport seriously and none more so than football and ice-hockey. For between 3 to 8 pounds (a fifth of the price of a ticket in the English Premier League), you can experience a game of football in one of the capital’s stadiums. The quality is nowhere near that of Manchester United or Barcelona, but the atmosphere is colourful and boisterous. With four teams in the city of Prague – Sparta, Slavia, FC Bohemians and Viktoria Zizkov – there is always the chance of catching a heated derby game. However, it is advisable to be careful when selecting your seats as last year’s Slavia-Sparta game erupted into the worst violence in years.
Ice hockey beats football as the most popular sport in the Czech Republic and similarly the big two teams – Slavia and Sparta – have huge state-of-the-art stadiums that are easily filled. Although met by an exodus of talent to the NHL, the standard is high and the ice-hockey novice will be blown away by the gulf in class from anything they have seen in Britain.
If you are looking for an adrenalin rush then the Prosek district’s dry toboggan track is just the ticket. Sitting on a small plastic sled (mercifully complete with seatbelt and handbrake), the passenger flies down a metal toboggan track at breakneck speeds whilst climbing the sides with only gravity and meticulous calculations keeping it on the track. With six rides for around 9 pounds, this is good value, allows one to gain in confidence and the adventurous can render the handbrake obsolete.
On a rainy day there is a chance to take in some of the flourishing Czech cinema. The pick of last year was Obcan Havel (Citizen Havel), a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the eccentric post-Communist Czech President, Vaclav Havel. Shot with candour, it gives a real insight into a turbulent era in Czech history and a remarkable man. These films are regularly shown with English subtitles in some of the biggest cinema complexes, such as the central Slovansky Dum and Novy Smichov.
Prague also holds two world-class film festivals – Jeden Svet (One World) and Fesbiofest. One World, focusing on human rights films – bring together hundreds of diverse documentaries and speakers from throughout the world and regularly sells out fast. Febiofest is a celebration of world cinema that travels across the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This festival combines select big Hollywood blockbusters with independents and experimental films. Combined with its own parallel music festival, it really is a big deal for the city.
Prague is a great hub for the rest of the under-explored Czech Republic. Again there are gems to see past the worthy but predictable stops of Karlovy Vary and Plzen. Liberec, an hour to the north, at first seems like a grey unassuming industrial town however, a fifteen-minute-tram ride out of town reveals a quality ski resort. In winter the slopes are complete with a spectrum of red, blue and black slopes to test those of all proficiencies. There is also a unique hotel/radio antenna punctuating the summit from which there are amazing panoramic 360-degree views of the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. It is possible to get a return coach journey (with student buses), ski hire, lift pass and tram rides for under 35 pounds. This is another example of the Czech Republic as a cheap alternative to Western Europe.
Like most European cities, with a little inside knowledge, research and open-eyed awareness, it is possible to see past the prescribed landmarks, shops and sanitised anglicised tourist districts, and allow you to splice together advertised and secret sights and activities of the city.