12 May 2014

A Long Weekend in Prague - 33 Years Later...

I first visited Prague as a child, on a family holiday aged 10. It was back in the days of the Iron Curtain and my main memories of the overnight trip from our base in Germany was that it was grey. Windy, grey, cold and dreary, in spite of being mid-July. I looked at my parents' photos from the trip the night before I left, and they were probably what had moulded my memory - pictures of me, my mum and three sisters posing on Charles Bridge, our unflattering bowl haircuts flying around in the wind.

So a few decades later I finally returned. It is a completely different country, not just geopolitically, but also bears little resemblance to that depressed communist place of my childhood. Everywhere I looked were spires and towers, statues and relief upon most buildings, brightness, colour, sunshine, even!

I was visiting with my husband and his father, prior to them heading to Passau for a river boat cruise down the Danube to Budapest. A few days in Prague seemed like the natural prelude, and I accompanied them (obviously armed with my camera kit). We spent the first day wandering the city with the throngs of other tourists - across Charles Bridge, up the steep Nerudova hill to a viewpoint at the north end of Petrin Hill, down to the St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle, before heading back into town to the heaving Old Town Square, via a modern restaurant where we had some delicious pork medallions with a creamy wild mushroom sauce for lunch. We waited around to see the hourly performance by the astronomical clock (a highly missable event), surrounded by tourists taking "selfies" and then meandered through the cobbled streets to the hotel. The rain then came and that finished off the sight-seeing for day 1. We headed out for dinner, the recommended restaurant was full, so found a lively (and a little smoky) beer hall for a very disappointing goulash (served with highly missable bread dumplings) but delicious Master beer. We dropped my father-in-law back at the hotel and then headed back out to a nearby wine bar, consumed some average Czech wine and some really disgusting cheese (it was nearly up there for inedibility with the mares milk cheese I'd tried to eat in Mongolia) before calling it a night.

We woke up to grey skies and a forecast of sunlessness, so headed north on the metro to the National Gallery, down the ridiculously steep escalators, lined with adverts that weren't vertical, accentuating the feeling of vertigo. After struggling a little to find our way, we eventually got to the hideous communist sixties block which hid a fantastic interior not only architecturally, but five storeys crammed full of art, ranging from Czech to French to general European, all from the 19th and 20th centuries. Apart from a short break in the café for rather nasty coffee and a delicious plate of mezze (they were out of everything but mezze and cakes) we spent four hours looking at the art! Afterwards we took the Metro back into town and returned to the hotel to recover. I then spent a couple of hours trawling Tripadvisor for a decent restaurant nearby. I found a couple, asked reception to help me booking a table, but one was fully-booked and the number for the other didn't work. We were early, though, so decided to wing it and turned up at the second restaurant in time to get the last table. We ate Tripadvisor-recommended wild mushroom soup followed by more pork medallions and crispy duck legs (and a light sorbet to round things off). We headed back for an early night - no more smoky wine bars or beer halls for us.

The following morning I set my alarm for an early start and headed out, alone, at 6.20am towards Charles Bridge. It was already a good 40 minutes after sunrise, but there was no way I could have got up any earlier. It was very chilly, but fortunately my husband had brought a hat with him and I had enough layers to keep the cold at bay. I headed straight to the bridge, which was already buzzing with a handful of visitors, and not just photographers armed with tripods like me. I guess some tourists just like to get up early to see places without the crowds. The light was nice, but not spectacular, with few clouds in the sky to give any additional contrast. The sun was rising fast behind the east side of the bridge and the dome that sits behind it; the shadows and silhouettes were picturesque.

After a couple of hours my fingers were frozen and I was due back at the hotel for breakfast. After the usual buffet my father-in-law checked out and we went for a final wander together, heading towards Wenceslas Square - the one touristy place that we hadn't yet visited. It was rather disappointing, and the surrounding roads reminded me of Oxford Street in London - packed with tourists and full of chain shops. The square itself is actually a long rectangular cobbled traffic-free space, heading uphill towards another imposing dome-topped building at the south end. We passed a few Segway tours (they were everywhere in Prague!) before meandering down the narrow streets back to the Old Town Square again. A scantily-clad woman mimed to a song as she pranced through the square following a camera crew. Tourists snapped away on iPhones and iPads at the astronomical clock.

We still had a couple of hours to kill so we crossed the bridge to the north of the Charles Bridge and wandered through a small park and some backstreets before reaching the crowded bridge. We crossed underneath, then walked through the island of Kampa, passing the John Lennon Wall, crossing the canal from time to time. Each canal bridge was adorned with padlocks, which seems to be a common sight across the world now (I've seen them in China, Paris and New York anyway, and I assume there are some in London somewhere; I hope none of these people have been robbed since they've given up their padlocks to this silly tradition). We walked along the lock through which the large tourist boats come to avoid the weirs that span the river, before crossing a last bridge back to the hotel.

We found a little café near the hotel for a little snack before the others headed off in their taxi to Passau, where we had a Belgian waffle and a beer. They then left me at 2pm and I headed up to my room for a rest, after my early start, the skies outside a little overcast. The maid was just beginning to make up the room, so instead of waiting around or asking her to come back later, I set out again, intending to take a few shots before returning for my rest. I actually got back to the room at 10.30pm after a long session of experimental moving people shots on the Charles Bridge, a steep walk back up to Petrin Hill, up and down to various viewpoints near the castle for a slightly dull sunset, some chilly long exposures overlooking the castle at dusk, my last pork medallions in the same restaurant as the first day (not as good, of course) before a last visit to Charles Bridge - where a sound and light show was taking place, followed by a small firework display - before finally returning to my clean hotel room. I'd racked up about 40mb of photos during the day and was absolutely exhausted.

I had no intention of waking up early for sunrise the following morning and it was just as well as I'd exhausted all of my batteries the previous night and forgotten that I'd donated the lead for the charger to my husband as they were short. I had a little juice left in one of the batteries which I thought I'd save for photos taken from the plane, hoping to fly over London (which annoyingly we didn't!). My young taxi-driver played Portishead on the way to the airport and we chatted about life and music; he was pretty much the only Czech inhabitant I'd really spoken to the whole trip. He was about to give up the taxi-driving and become a financial adviser (he'd tried it out on a friend the previous evening, he told me, but they smoked too many joints and laughed their way through it).

It was certainly a very different city (and country) from the Prague (and Czechoslovakia) that I'd visited 33 years earlier. Although I found it very photogenic, with the endless domes, spires and tiled roofs painting the city red, I hadn't fall in love with it. Perhaps I'd need to explore it a bit further to get more a feel for the place, to get away from the tour groups and people taking selfies, but driving through the suburbs towards the airport it resembled the Prague I vaguely remembered from my childhood - a little run-down and depressed. There was still some of the old Czechoslovakia of 1981 lurking.

More photos of Prague can be found on my website.

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