THEY have a long and occasionally amusing history of throwing people out of windows around these parts – in fact, you should really differentiate between the first and second defenestrations of Prague, although there have actually at least another two or three worthy of mention in the history books.
The term was coined after an incident in 1618, when the local Czech nobility chucked a couple of Hapsburg councillors and their scribe out of the castle windows. Hapsburg supporters attributed their survival to divine intervention, while locals attributed their survival to the big pile of horse shit they landed in.
Mrs Undeleted and me avoid much of the set-piece tourist trap stuff, including being thrown out of any windows. Similarly, we do not stagger to the top of any towers or visit a single museum, and we leave the castle un-assailed.
We do go and watch the astronomical clock in Wenceslas Square strike the hour but in the end we spend most of the time watching other tourists watch the astronomical clock strike the hour.
We spend a bit of time on the famously picturesque but hideously packed Charles Bridge, but that’s mostly getting from A to B, from one side of the river to the other.
Mostly, we just wander around. It seems as good a way as any to approach an all-too-brief trip to Prague.
Some of this historic and cultured city’s most precious gems lie down innocuous alleyways, across an undistinguished courtyard and up a resolutely unpromising flight of stairs. You absolutely need to know where to look – but then again, knowing where to look doesn’t guarantee you‘ll find anything.
You can try to find some highly recommended restaurant, shop or club by working from a range of ultimately irreconcilable maps and guides, but more often that not you’ll find whatever you’re looking for by turning round and seeing it right there in front of you, just when you least expecting it.
We’re staying in the shadow of the enormous medieval citadel which dominates Prague, at the boutique Hotel Neruda (Nerudova 44) in Mala Straná, which was once the home of poet Jan Neruda. Next door is a flower-bedecked monument to the students who were corralled and beaten by cops here in 1989, precipitating the fall of Communism in what was then Czecheslovakia.
Down the street is a house where Josef of Bretfeld – whoever he is when he’s at home – used to entertain Mozart and Casanova.
Franz Kafka rented a flat a little further down the hill. Ironically enough, given Josef K’s extraordinary rendition in The Trial, the building now houses the US embassy. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?
The day we get there, I read something about a bossa nova boat which cruises up and down the river but can’t remember where I read about it. By the time we visit an internet café to find out it’s actually an act called Bossa Nova Sensation playing on Prague’s famous jazz boat, leaving from pier five in an hour, our budget constraints have kicked in – and it turns out I can eat only a single starter from the entire menu – so we sack it off.
We end up at Ambiente, a well-thought of (it gets the thumbs up pretty much everywhere, print, web and anecdotally) Italian joint at the Old Town Square end of Celetná. The chi-chi cellar restaurant is filled with a large Italian family party and a stag party of drunk, unfunny Irish blokes so we get a table in the long, thin street level café.
I have a nice creamy tagliatelli – though the foodie ponce within me would have preferred any other agaric to the inevitable, over-rated porcini – and Madam has a very bloody piece of steak with bacon butter, French beans and potatoes gratin: “Mmmm ..”.
Ambiente is a little pricey to say the least – what happens when you ask the waitress for a recommendation without asking the price? You end up paying eight quid for a glass of wine – but the food is undeniably great.
Roasted pork knuckles and dumplings seem to be the national dish but we managed to hunt down a series of vegie-friendly and fully vegetarian eateries without too much trouble.
Country Life is an organic food shop and café, part of a chain owned by a charity which is “a world wide lifestyle Christian movement”. Thankfully, you wouldn’t guess that and it has that comforting oldskool Eighties veggie café vibe – complete with carved wood seating – where the emphasis is more on health and wholesomeness than it is on taste and texture.
The vegieburgers were off so I had a piquant oniony something or other and the lady gets a TVP-heavy goulash, both of which were better than they sound – but not much better.
As well as being a place which seems to be holding its own against the relentless onslaught of MCDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks, Prague is also a city of trams and cobbles, bridges and towers, steep hills and hidden courtyards, poetry and lager. It’s a city of concertos and dumplings, pink roofs and blue skies, saints and sinners, and maybe even the place where western Europe begins to turn into eastern Europe.
Picture postcard-pefect perhaps, but whether it’s a city that’s holding its own against the worst kinds of slack-jawed tourism – boorish, pissed-up, sex-hungry stag parties and philistine traveloguers fixating on a digital version of the city while the real Prague blurs into soft focus around them – is another matter entirely.
Prague has become notorious as a destination for British and Irish stag parties, who are attracted by the cheap beer and paid-for sex, but we decide fairly early on to leave the carousing and the bad behaviour to other people. We do enough of that at home, and we’re on a budget anyway.
Instead, we spend much of our time walking through the parks along the banks of the Vltava and wandering around Staré Mêsto’s maze of narrow streets, stopping off for an occasional absinthe and red bull at the enjoyably scuzzy Chateau L’Enfer Rouge on Jakubská.
In some areas of the city, a good 50 percent of the people on the street seem to be studying guide books and turning maps through 360 degrees. They are so entranced by their surroundings and the bright, shiny things of Prague – a Sperminator T-shirt, Absinthe and spoon sets, any number of Czech Me Out!-branded tat – they are absolutely oblivious of their surroundings and the people who are trying to get them the fuck out of their faces.
Our stay quickly blurs into a kaleidoscope of hideous marionettes and puppets, and a truly ridiculous number of museums – museums of Kafka, Dvorak, Alfons Mucha, a Museum of Medieval Torture, even a Museum of Communism (above McDonald‘s, next door to a casino). There is an limitless supply of secondhand bookshops, 300 churches and almost four times that number of bars.
Refinement, sophistication and cheap beer. I like the place. But man, is it cold.
Petite and pampered pouches predominate, perhaps because apartment floorspace is in short supply, maybe because, strictly speaking, dogs need to be muzzled – but even the most miserable, mean-spirited cop (and some of the older Prague cops are supposed to be proper old school Communist miserable) wouldn’t insist on muzzling some of the flea-sized miniatures trotting around town on expensive leads.
Dogshit is, apparently, a problem but all I noticed were a few ’doggie-bag’ street dispensers. Maybe I should check my shoes.
Suddenly, in among a crocodile of school kids, there’s Simon Le Bon – out of Duran Duran! – with his daughters, walking back down the hill outside our hotel. I totally miss the opportunity to say something amusing by telling my lovely sidekick who, glasses and contacts-less, doesn’t see him and doesn’t believe me.
“Oooh look, there’s John Bon Jovi!” she says later as we sit in one of the tourist trap cafés lining the Old Town Square. I think it really is him until it becomes obvious he’s waiting on tables. Not funny at all.
We come across an enormous Tesco on Narodni and I remember reading an online recommendation of a record shop in some old arcade across the road. I head inside the Palác Metro and up the stairs to the first floor to see the Music Antiquariat sign with an assistant having a not-so-crafty fag beside it.
It doesn’t really float my boat. It’s all a bit U2 and Queen – though there is a sizeable classical section if that’s your thing. A laughably tiny ‘black music’ section boasts artists as diverse as Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston, Bob Marley and The The – no, I didn’t get that one either.
We have to be somewhere, so I tell my glamorous assistant to look in the sale section for anything with robots or spaceships on the cover, or anything Brazilian, in fact anything Latin really, and I have a quick look at the new stock.
I’m thinking a trip to an exotic foreign record shop might make for an interesting Hip Replacement piece and this new stuff a bit more promising. There are plenty of artists who I had records by – Roxy Music, the Stranglers, the Inca Babies, all sorts – but, irritatingly, not the actual stuff I had and lost. We do one.
I return on my own a couple of days later with just Czk200 in my wallet. It’s ten minutes before closing time and the litre of pilsner I just sank has worked its way down to my bladder, so the pressure is on in any number of ways.
I’m grinding my teeth, twisting my legs round each other, digging my nails into my palms, biting my knuckles, frantically flicking through the records, finally hopping from one leg to the other in some strange dance to the sounds of the Pet Shop Boys playing over the shop’s system.
The most interesting thing I find is an old Flora Purim album Stories To Tell. I know she did a lot of bossa stuff but I also know she went a bit disco too, so I thought it was a pretty safe bet considering it was from 1974, it includes what looks like a version of Insensitive (or Insensatez as Flora has it) and George Duke is playing an ARP. Thing is, it doesn’t look like it’s going to set my world on fire though .. Hmm.
When a little bit of wee does actually come out, I have little option but to give it up as a bad job and settle for Flora’s album. Thankfully, the woman behind the counter clearly wants to get this twitching, whimpering, agitated English nutter out of her shop as soon as possible, so she quickly bags it up. I pay my Czk180, practically snatch it out of her hand, spit out a strangled ‘dekuji’ and stumble off to find a toilet.
The album is completely bananas, by the way.
Coming from grimy, messy Manchester, we’re struck by the absence of litter on Prague’s streets. Similarly, there doesn’t seem to be anyone begging in the city, which makes for a refreshing change. It’s a different story after dark, of course.
In the narrow streets between Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square, the prone forms of Roma beggars, prostrate, head facing the pavement, cupped hands extended, arse in the air, almost medieval supplication. Later in our stay, we come across a rather moody vendor for Novy-Prostor, the Big Issue-style Czech street paper.
As for the rest of our stay, it somehow involved fierce matrons in ubiquitous headbands, a venue called Radost FX, hearty potato soup in a hollowed out loaf, pissed old geezers snorting hairy nostril-fulls of snuff on the tram and burly West Africans in unconvincing sailor suits selling boat trips. You’ll have to fill in the gaps for yourself.
We run late for our journey to the airport. We end up at the bus stop for the shuttle, winding each other up, getting more and more irate with each other, until a beautiful and kind Czech girl tells us, in flawless English, that we’re at the wrong stop, God bless her.
We stop arguing.
Thicker coats and more jumpers next time, I think.