Prague (Part 1): Iron behind the Velvet Curtain
When you mention the Czech city of Prague to anyone, their eyes turn a little gooey as a child’s might before a sparkling Christmas tree. They will tell you about the beauty of the architecture, “like a fairytale” they say. They will extol the baroque virtues of the Charles Bridge, and recount memories of evenings drinking local beers in the great Old Town square. And perhaps I will remember Prague for a city of fantastical beauty – which it surely is – when I look back on the place in years to come. But now, freshly returned from this capital city of the Czech Republic, another more overriding sensation of disappointment dominates.
Disappointment because in Prague I did not feel welcome by the locals, whose complete lack of customer service caused me to feel on edge, and sometimes angry throughout my stay. Disappointment because the beauty of the city was constantly polluted by the sound (and sight) of drunk English stag parties collapsing all over the cobbled squares of the old town, dressed in t-shirts carrying loutish slogans and indecent images, their rowdy conversations following a similar vibe. Disappointment because, despite what is indeed a town with all of the ingredients of beauty, the Czechs have allowed it to fall woefully into decline. Case in point: the statues and lamps on the Charles Bridge, covered with cobwebs, looking as though they last received a clean close to the time when they were first installed, so darkened by dirty and pollution that you can barely make out their features; or what about the graffiti littering the streets of the old town – that was not something which featured in the fairytales I read when I was a child.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong in Prague. On the one hand it’s surely a symptom of the city being ravaged by tourism. The squares and streets of the old town, the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle area are so overrun by tourists that the local businesses and attractions and the people who work in them have become complacent, and worse: irritable. Perhaps it was the consequence of visiting the city near the end of the summer high season, but in almost every attraction we visited, we received attitude from the staff, who tutted when asked a simple question, and made it clear that being asked where the entrance was, or where the gift shop is was far too much of a hassle for them to answer.
In the cafes we received a similar reception. In one café on the main square, we asked the waitress, who demanded we pay upon ordering and took a 15% tip upfront out of our change, to bring us milk for our coffee. 5 minutes later, no milk. We asked again. Another 5 minutes past. No milk. On the third time of asking, she cleared a dirty table next to ours, took the half-used dirty milk jug from the table and deposited it on our table. Looking at her in disbelief, we asked for fresh milk. She went away and 5 minutes later brought us back two capsules of long-life milk. Was she having a joke at our expense? We were in no mood to laugh and left. Our still black coffee had gone cold by then in any event.
The famous Charles Bridge in need of a clean-up
Of course it could be that the Czechs are thoroughly fed up with tourists, and not least the English, the nationality which tends to comprise the majority of the drunken babble of stag-do parties which have imposed their anti-social egocentric beer-soaked weekend brawls on the city. That inexcusable arrogance is shameful for England, and a complete impediment on decent tourists from enjoying the sights nearby. But I am not a drunken English “stag” – I am a polite enthusiastic visitor. Why treat me with such disdain?
The second possible reason for the attitude of the Czechs is revealed when you scratch just slightly beneath the surface and wander out of the old town. Beyond the velvet curtain – the showpiece that is Prague’s historical tourist centre – is a jarring throwback to reality. A reminder that only one generation back this city, like the whole country, was firmly ensconced behind the iron curtain of Communism – a period of hardship which still appears to rub off on generations of Czechs, and perhaps feeds their general attitudes and behaviours today. In the area of the National Gallery’s modern art museum for example, you can still find huge geometric monuments to the Communist era set alongside wide industrialised roads and ugly concrete bridges, now largely the haunt of the homeless. The art museum itself is set within a vast Communist building, the Veletrzni palac, with all of the characteristics of concrete pre-fab architecture which we have come to associate with the era.
Throwback to Communism
But heading inside that slight intimidating Community palace, I found a collection of art so incredible that my previous disillusionment with the city was completely suspended. In amongst a collection of Czech contemporary art was a platform for innovative expression almost without comparison in the art of so many other countries during that time. Jan Zrzavy’s painting of Cleopatra, for all its simplicity and vibrancy of colour was a complete masterpiece, while the work of Mikulas Medek with a family ripping apart their dinner was at once unsettling and uncompromisingly aggressive as it was utterly captivating and brilliant. I adored Bohumil Kubista’s cubist rendition of Saint Sebastian and couldn’t get enough of the odd Klimt and Schiele on show. But beyond these excellent works, the museum also contains some absolute gems of late 19th and early 20th century art: a whole room full of Picassos, works by Gauguin and Rousseau and Toulouse Lautrec. A Ferdinand Leger and several Cézannes – a superb collection almost hidden away in these depressing still suppressed suburbs of the city.
Artworks from the collection of the National Gallery
Which just goes to show that sometimes the best of a city can be found where the tourists do not go, where the scenery may be bleaker, but history is richer and the environment more authentic. Away from the tourist masses, the raw reality of Prague’s chequered history packs a bigger punch, but it is not allayed by the frustrations which are inherent with the tourist industry. Instead we find a Prague recently free of the iron shackles by which it was bound for several hard decades in the mid 20th century; reminders of hardship and the reasons why its citizens are perhaps not so friendly as we might otherwise expect. But there also you can find a truer Prague, a real city, and in its midst’s, an art collection worth travelling to Prague for.
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