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Prague, Prague, Prague

February 10, 2009

(With apologies to Chekhov)

Having been denied a pre-Christmas trip to Prague (my partner forgot to renew his passport – boy, was he sorry!!) I missed out on my fantasy of frosty sunshine, and cheery Xmas markets dispensing gingerbread and gluhwein. I went around for days murmuring “Prague, Prague, Prague” like some demented character from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but was still less than charmed to finally be there in downtime January with temps of minus 13 & ‘this most magical of cities’ completely minus cheeriness.

We were not at all encouraged by the taxi driver from the airport, who told us Prague was getting reputation for bad attitude and high prices. He painted a dark and dangerous world, where everyone was out to rip you off – no wonder Kafka was so paranoid – then charged us 20 euros. Though we took what he said with a pinch of salt – taxi drivers, Oy – he turned out to be right. Nothing in Prague is as it seems – Kafka again – especially when it comes to paying.

E.g.

Most restaurants offer a cheap ‘Touristic menu’ to tempt you inside, then hit you with a different rate once you’re seated. You’ve come on the wrong day, at the wrong time, or what’s advertised outside is all finished. Crossly, I complained to an unsmiling waitress that this was fraudulent. She nodded, shrugging, “Yes, it is problem”. Er…so…? But too late, she’d gone.

Similarly, when bread is put on your table don’t touch it unless you’re willing to pay extra – it may look free ( like the Slivovitz the ((unsmiling)) waiter comes to offer) but it isn’t. We learned that the expensive way from our first lunch bill.

When I expressed dismay at meal number two that a large cover charge had been added despite the fact that we never touched the bread, I was told by another (unsmiling) waitress, “Lady, the boss says cover charge. What the boss says the boss gets.” Okay then.

It was a cool three quid to see a one-room Kafka exhibition.

Four quid for a vodka – the bar drinks list omitting to mention it was another one fifty for the tonic.

At Reduta, the famous jazz club frequented by Vaclav Havel & on occasion Bill Clinton – the entry price quoted in the tourist leaflet was eight quid. Actually, it was twelve. On top of that, you have to leave your coats in cloakroom & have to pay another pound per garment to retrieve them. “It is the custom,” said the unsmiling attendant. You’re telling me it is.

Another three squid to enter the grand baroque church where Mozart had his memorial mass, sung to his own requiem – did they make him pay for it, I wonder?

Equally surreal was breakfast in the hotel – exactly the same every day, even to the number of pats of butter. It had a distinctly post-Soviet ‘take it or leave it’ flavour. The dining room played a mournful musak tape guaranteed to make you stab yourself in the eye, or jump off nearest high building. On a roof nearby, there actually was the figure of a man hanging by one arm from a flagpole.

Then there was the Tesco (yes, that Tesco) weather clock. Every day it forecast temperatures of 3+ with brilliant sunshine – whereas, every day was 13- without a single ray piercing the frozen overhead gloom. I began to think I was in an episode of The Prisoner.

Talking of which, one thing was clear – if there was no Prague, Disney would have to have invented it. Fairytale, turreted palaces, castles and cathedrals in the air, Art Nouveau curves and gargoyle-ish excrescences at every turn – not an ugly picture in sight. It’s a photographer’s paradise. Though my beloved – who is one – opined that he could quite see why people left. Especially his own – three generations ago, fleeing from anti-Semitism.

Because, glorious vistas aside, the weather isn’t the only thing that’s chilly. The Czechs apparently have a wonderful sense of humour – all those absurdist art and theatrical jokes – but I didn’t see one smile the entire time we were there. I can quite understand why they’d be fed up with bands of roving sex tourist boys on rowdy stag weekends – but who encouraged them with cheap Absinthe, cheesy discos and near naked ‘GoGo’ dancers, in the first place?

I don’t want to be gratuitously cruel – maybe we smile meaninglessly in Western Europe – but most of the inhabitants seemed cold, surly – or just plain rude. Perhaps this is an ‘in joke’? Some form of black comedy? The ‘darkness’ of which our taxi driver warned? Only the Bohemian glass is eye-wateringly bright – the stunning colours kitsch enough for Queen. The band that is, not the actual Queen. Though come to think of it, she’d probably love them – so like the crown jewels.

Fortunately, Prague does have redeeming features:

On a good day, the sheer staggering beauty of the town and icy country-side, sprinkled with snow and sectioned by silver rivers.

In the biting cold, the hot chocolate, hot wine, goulash, sacher torte, roast duck, sauerkraut, slivovitz…

The cafés – still the haunt of their celebrated intellectuals, complete with long grey hair, beards and scruffy clothes, wreathed in fag and pipe chain smoke – and that’s just the women.

The bread and potato dumplings served with every meal. No wonder they’re strapping – and that’s just the women.

The dry, satiric, drollery – yes, it’s true!

We turned up at a theatre bar to find it closed for a private party. The waiter looked at the meagre, unsmiling crowd inside and said it was more of a wake, really.

Then there’s that Entropa installation by ‘guerrilla’ artist David Cerny, made to celebrate their EU presidency. It’s definitely the funniest thing in Brussels and has put the rest of Europe in a lather. Those of us, that is, who aren’t convinced that without so much as twitching their lips, the Czechs are convulsed with secret silent laughter.

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