In a previous article I documented our journey and first discovery of Prague just after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Picture the scene: four backpackers, a few pivo’s and a hearty Czech meal. It was time to work it all off and see the sights!
Coming from a western country with high streets full of the usual chain stores and bright lights it was quite an experience to be transported to a place devoid of designer goods and the trappings of major commerce.
Heading towards the centre of town we strolled along wide boulevards crisscrossed by tram lines, and flanked by tall, quite gracious buildings; somewhat in contrast to the ramshackle area of Zizkov where we were staying. Heading past the main station we entered a small park, the only real greenery around. The stalls set in the park served beers and other stronger drinks to some rougher types occupying most of the benches, but otherwise harmless.
We skirted the rest of the park and crossed over towards Wenceslas Square, where only a short while ago the Czech people had demanded and received the changes they desired. Heading further down brought us to the main old town square, a magnificent open area surrounded by churches, monuments, the famous astrological clock and so much more it was hard to take it all in.
This was the Holy Grail, not too many tourists and so much to see, we spent hours just wandering the winding streets and falling in love with the city.
Arriving at the famous Charles Bridge we were in full market mode. Every vendor there seemed to be selling whatever was left of the Red Army before they exited the country. Military hats, army watches, Fur Hats, bayonets, medals, and Kalashnikovs…okay that last one was may have been made up! We rummaged around and bargained for some souvenirs to take home. I went for a big grey fur officer’s hat that was warm but on later use found that it smelled like an old squirrel once damp from the snow!
Hawkers apart, the bridge was magnificent; spanning the Vltava and leading enticingly to the Mala Strana on the other side from where Prague castle stood gloriously overlooking the city. Recessed statues and benches every few yards offered glimpses of outstanding artistry and gave strollers fantastic views of the river banks. At night the lights of the town, castle and bridge came together to show just why Prague, then and now, is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Did I mention it was cold? The wind seemed to drive straight through our clothes; however some women and many teenage girls didn’t seem to have read the weather forecast and wore very fashionable short skirts oblivious to the elements. We were wrapped up like arctic explorers and could only wonder at the thermal properties of Czech womanhood. About the only time we felt warm was when occupying a seat on a tram, the hot air blowing majestically up the heated seats. We could have spent all day just sitting on a circle line tram nice and toasty, enjoying the view.
One or two oddities distinguished themselves for different reasons:
Shops and stores for the most part were pretty bland and the concept of a large supermarket as we have in the west was novel. One we found had a queue outside so we figured that it was just about to reopen but on closer inspection we could see people inside with shopping carts loading up with the usual fare. The line, it turned out, was for the cart itself. No cart no entry. Therefore with only a few carts the store had only a few shoppers at a time, the rest had to wait outside. It was probably one of the most bizarre aspects of the old system that we had come across.
Another gem of a find, close to the stations and on many side streets, were the little old ladies serving out Czech street food at next to nothing, our favourites were bramborak, a type of potato pancake and the occasional fried mystery meat in a kind of batter. A couple of these with a beer and the sightseeing could resume.
We finished off our last night with a splurge dinner heading for a small hotel with a reasonable looking restaurant that we had seen during the day. It was difficult to imagine a more contrasting sight as four scruffy (we did clean up a bit) backpackers walked into the smart dining room and were seated by waiters in dinner jackets and bow ties. In truth the meal was no great shakes but we drank some nice Melnik wine and didn’t cause a fuss. The bill USD, $8.00 for all of us, was split and we headed out into the night for some more entertainment…and, of course, some more of that delicious pivo!