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Stuart Macdonald
'Something which is worthwhile noting is that almost all waiting staff in Prague go out of their way to be rude.'

Pics: Charles Bridge and Prague Rooftops

When most people are asked about the Czech Republic, they tend to chatter excitedly about the Czech obsession with Skoda cars, pivo (beer), prostitutes and their prowess at football (although not necessarily in that order). Unfortunately, the country appears to have fallen prey to the misguided notion which tends to dog all major tourist destinations – that the capital city is the only place worth visiting.

The ancient prince of middle European cities, Prague is indeed something of a gem. Although much of its grandeur faded under communist rule, it has recently been rather dubiously ‘rescued’ by a huge upsurge in foreign interest, mainly in the form of tourists. However, with the hordes of Germans and British, come the inevitable purveyors of western schmaltz, the likes of which one would normally expect to find in Blackpool or the Costa del Sol.

At least this was my initial and rather vague impression of Prague. The reason being our insanely grinning taxi driver, who insisted on whizzing us through town at such a pace that it was impossible to discern much from the blur of shapes and colours which zipped past my window. If there are traffic lights in Prague then they are obviously routinely ignored.

As it turned out, this was all rather a blessing in disguise as it curtailed our epic voyage from London Stansted to _esk_ Krumlov, via Prague International Airport, by about an hour and a half. We had begun the day at a groggy 4am and enjoyed the surreal experience of being smoothly whisked across central London in fifteen minutes flat. By the time that 2pm rolled around, we were to be found lounging in a bar by the river Vltava, enjoying our first taste of the devoutly carnivorous Czech cuisine and gulping down the best Budvar on the planet. Bliss! Who says that Prague is the be all and end all of the Czech Republic?

It was around this moment that one of our party was taken by the effortless grace with which the passing kayaks and rafts drifted down the river. It was this moment of inspiration that sealed our fate and the following morning found us on a wheezing old dingy, floating helplessly towards a fast-flowing weir. Our naivety and lack of a change of clothes or even towels, left us soaked through and shivering for most of the two and a half hour raft trip. What had seemed like a fantastic plan, turned swiftly into some sort of nightmare, as the previously sunny morning turned into a cascading downpour of freezing cold rain. The cheery Czech chap who had gleefully pocketed our 900Kc (£18) and launched us on our way with the cry of "You don’t need jacket!", was roundly cursed for his sadism. I swear I heard him chuckling to himself as he headed for the nearest bar.

If there was a bright side to our aquatic efforts, it was that we were even more appreciative of the cavernous Satlava Restaurace on _atlavaská and its ample supplies of beer, with which our waiter seemed only too happy to ply us. Good man – he obviously understood that we needed reminding why it was that we came to _esk_ Krumlov in the first place. Following an excellent meat platter (160Kc £3.20) and several litres of Budvar, we made our unsteady way to the Musik Cocktail Bar, just off the main square Nám_stí Svornosti. True to its word, the place hit us with a barrage of awful east European tunes and loads of gloopy cocktails to soothe the pain of the truly terrible musik.
The following morning we contrived to miss our continental breakfasts and instead opted to recover in the Kájovská Hosp_aka u Josefu, which served up the best Goulash and dumplings of the holiday (and even they weren’t that great) washed down with lashings of the ubiquitous Budvar. If there is a heaven, I would be quite happy for it to be this bar in _esk_ Krumlov!

There is, of course, much more to _esk_ Krumlov than simply its hostelries. Due to the rich fertility of the surrounding land, there has been a settlement at this point of the Vltava since the 13th century. The town has benefited from the rule of a succession of wealthy families, who have left behind a stunning architectural legacy. The number of awe-inspiring structures which jostle for your attention is quite astounding for a town of this size.

The most impressive is the Plá_t’ov_ bridge which connects the two parts of the castle and palace. Its many arches are seven storeys high and span an ancient quarry, which was hewn from the cliff-face several centuries ago. There is also the Tower (Hrádek), which dominates the town’s skyline with its bright pink and gold murals. The view from its summit is quite superb, as the red-tiled houses cluster below and the Vltava slides into the distant hills. To climb the Tower costs 30Kc for adults, 20Kc for students and is free for under 15s.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about _esk_ Krumlov is the fact that it remains to be enjoyed at all. For much of its history this strategically important market town has been fought over by the Germans and Czechs and yet has survived almost unharmed. The town came through the Second World War unscathed and an extensive programme of renovation has been underway since 1992 when UNESCO included _esk_ Krumlov in its register of monuments of world significance. The most striking of the benefits of the restoration work are the murals which adorn many of the old buildings in the town, detailing the deeds of local dignitaries and craftsmen. This is a tradition which would appear to have survived to the present day, given that much of the available wall space in _esk_ has been coated with the work of the old artists’ contemporaries.

We spent our last day in _esk_ Krumlov wandering around the old castle and palace. The murals and architecture are superb, although the most incredible aspect of the day was the fact that the moat contained no water, only Bears. Although this sounds like the height of cruelty, these Grizzlies seemed quite contented in their sizeable pit. Their ancestors have apparently paced around in a similarly menacing manner for several centuries, protecting the castle. These days, however, the only people who would appear to be in any real danger from these magnificent beasts are the workmen who clamber around on flimsy gantries high above. As a tourist attraction, I would have to say that it ranks up there alongside those deranged individuals who swim around with sharks, in terms of sheer ‘will he or won’t he’ entertainment value.

We were able to snooze off any lingering effects of the previous night’s excesses in the taxi ride back to Prague that afternoon. Given our driver’s fancy for courting the grave, this seemed like the best way to deal with the hair-raising journey. Thankfully, the number of near-death experiences was limited to single figures and we arrived at our accommodation with plenty of time to explore the main spots of Prague.

Having dumped our bags, we hopped on the wonderfully efficient underground system at Namestí Miru, to the north east of the city centre and were soon alighting at Staromeska, near the Old Town Square in the heart of the city. The public transport system in Prague really is impressive and is the principal (if not sole) benefit of decades of Communist rule. However, what would certainly not appeal to Ken Livingstone, but would be a sure fire hit with the general public, is the Praguers’ steadfast refusal to ever pay a single penny for using public transport. We of course, played it strictly by the rules.

For a late lunch, we ended up falling victim to low levels of blood sugar all round and ate at one of the ludicrously expensive restaurants in the Old Town Square. Although the service is bad and the food even more so, the experience is worthwhile if only for the bizarre views of the Cathedral and Astronomical clock at the opposite end. I say bizarre, because in their infinite wisdom, the Czechs have seen fit to reduce the size of an already crowded town square by building another block of grand buildings smack in front of the Cathedral. This process of destroying the dominance of some fine buildings seems to have been de rigueur in Prague at some point, because precisely the same skewed thinking has gone into the construction of an army barracks in front of the Palace and Cathedral which glower over the town.

Pic: The Old Town Square

In an effort to escape the maddening crowds of sweaty Germans and screaming hordes of American school children, we decided to trek up the hill to the impressive Palace. The afternoon was scorching hot, yet we foolishly pushed on up the hill – on and on and on and on…. We pushed so far on in fact, that we managed to walk right around them. Brilliant – the most prominent landmarks in the whole of Prague and we somehow contrived to miss them.

Once we finally arrived at the magnificent decorative wrought iron gates of the Palace, the sun was low in the sky and we discovered that the gates were due to close in ten minutes. However, we were able to have a brief scout around inside the impressive complex and had our frustration somewhat eased by the fact that the famous gothic Cathedral was undergoing massive restoration work. In a superb piece of timing by the Czechs, they had closed one of their star attractions at the height of the tourist season.

My misery for the day was not yet complete, however, as having bought a much needed pair of sunglasses, they promptly broke. It had been commented upon that they bore a striking resemblance to a pair of welding glasses – shame they weren’t quite as tough.
For dinner that evening, we eventually settled upon Na Kampa, which is situated on the banks of the Vltava and was given an excellent review by our Time Out Guidebook. The reality, however, was somewhat different, as we were met by waiting staff of such astounding surliness that we became instantly wary of what may arrive concealed in our food. We left without ordering and found somewhere infinitely more appealing in the Staré M_sto district of town. The food was honest at Zlatá Uli_ka, if not spectacular, but the warmth of the proprietor put the more expensive Na Kampa firmly in the shade.

Something which is worthwhile noting at this point is that almost all waiting staff in Prague go out of their way to be rude. In fact, they have it down to such a fine art that all foreign visitors are made acutely aware of the fact that they are only there on sufferance. If you want some help setting up a table for five, forget it. Maybe something less demanding, such as a menu each – not a chance. I came to the conclusion however, that if my country had been occupied and fought over as much as the Czech Republic, I would probably treat all visitors with similar contempt so as to ensure they not only left as quickly as possible, but never ever considered coming back.

If this is truly the Praguers’ goal, then they had better do something about the utterly sublime quality of their beer. In my normal existence, I am known amongst friends for my sobriety. In the Czech Republic, however, such sentiments are not only frowned upon, but are taken as a sign that perhaps you are a couple of cans short of a six-pack. In the face of such pressure I could only do my best to blend in and the great thing is that the good people of Prague are there to guide you every step of the way. I say this because it seems that one of the latest (and possibly most important) English phrases to hit Prague is ‘non-stop’. This appears to apply to every possible walk of life; from grocery stores and buses, to bars and intriguingly, to prostitutes.

From Zlatá Uli_ka, we found a remarkably quiet little bar in the heart of the bustling old town, called Bar U Krále Vi_iho. It served reasonably priced beer and thankfully the rowdier crowds of Germans were drawn to the brash and irritating James Joyce bar next door, allowing us to get down to some serious card playing. Later, we discovered that the Czechs have yet to fully appreciate the meaning of their new favourite phrase, as Bar Non Stop, which was adjacent to our hostel, had well and truly ground to a halt. It was only three in the morning – lightweights!

The following morning arrived and mercifully forgot once again to bring along its good pal, pounding hangover. I am certain that this is to do with the purity of the Czech Beer and remain convinced of its strong medicinal qualities. The weather was the finest yet so we caught the funicular railway (12K_) to the summit of the huge park on the ridge, next to the Palace. I continued to be enchanted by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and the time spent relaxing on a bench in the orderly decoration of the rose gardens simply flew past. The park is spacious enough to be able to lose yourself for a few hours and in the heart of the madness which is Prague in summer, this is sheer bliss.

We ate lunch at the superb Canzone Pizzeria, which is in Marla Strana on the western side of Karl_v Most (Charles Bridge). The portions were huge and for around 100Kc for a mushroom pizza or just 75Kc for a margherita, we tucked indulgently in. The spell in the garden had put some of us in a positively reflective mode and so we resolved to visit the Czech National Gallery. It is famed for its Cubist works as well as housing a rich variety of work by Czech and other central European artists throughout the twentieth century. Much to our frustration, the gallery seemed as skilled in the art of concealment as the Palace and so roughly two hours passed before we were able to walk through its sliding doors.

At first glance, one can see where the inspiration for London’s Tate Modern may have originated, as the gallery looks like an old manufacturing plant. Once inside, however, the use of light and space is clever and many of the pictures, particularly the Cubist works of Picasso, are rewarding. It was a shame, therefore, that we felt constantly obliged to move quickly along, lest we incur the wrath of one of the legion of old ladies who zealously stalk the gallery. It is almost as though they are daring you to grab one of the paintings and attempt to stick it up your jumper and run, just so that they can have the pleasure of tearing you limb from limb.

At one point, I had the audacity to touch what I foolishly thought was an interactive piece – unfortunately it turned out to be the power switch. To this day, I still shudder when I think of the withering stares and eruption of finger wagging which this precipitated. If you ever wondered where they found the Rosa Kleb character in the Bond film From Russia With Love, I am certain that she came from within the ranks of these formidable ladies.

We were thoroughly exhausted after what had become a hot and sticky day and so retired to the hostel for some rest, before tackling the Prague nightlife. This was to be our last night in the Czech Republic after all and so it would only be fitting to depart with a bang. After our fourth Absinthe each, the wisdom of this strategy appeared as shaky as our grip on reality. We had found a bar in the old town and although we must have been there for a couple of hours, it rather concerningly felt like no time at all. I would love to be able to tell you the name of this establishment, but it has disappeared into the nether regions of my memory, alongside the latter stages of weddings and heavy Saturday nights.

Our next stop was thankfully hard to miss, given that it laid claim to the rather grand title of the biggest club in middle Europe. I am unsure as to precisely what constitutes middle Europe, but the owners of Karlovy Lázn_ seem convinced that, whatever it is, they run the best club. It has to be said that it is hard to argue with this in terms of sheer scale, although what the place really amounts to is a grandiose attempt to corner the market in various forms of popular music. It sprawls over four floors, each of which caters to a different genre of contemporary music, with the top floor being converted from a huge old swimming pool in which it is possible to drown in acid jazz and deep funk. Unfortunately, Karlovy Lázn_ suffers from attempting to spread itself too thinly, as there are many other excellent specialist clubs in Prague (which sadly we did not have the time to explore).
Gripes aside, we did have a fantastic night, alongside most of the other young (and some not so young) tourists in town and eventually staggered home at about five in the morning. I should also at this point, mention the wonderful tolerance which was displayed towards us by our host at the Pension B-Klub. He patiently waited up for us night after night in order to let us in and then was up again at the crack of dawn to produce a rather strange breakfast of satsumas and eggs. Perhaps the late nights were getting to him.

Remarkably, most of our number actually made it in time for this bizarre morning offering and we were also (more or less) packed and ready to go by checking out time at ten o’clock. It is more than likely, however, that we were still functioning on the fuel of the previous night. This point was proven when we were caught in an almighty downpour en route to the left luggage office at the train station (50K_ per item). The deluge of rain served to swiftly haul us back into sobriety and from this point onwards until late afternoon, our final day in the Czech Republic meandered along at a similarly slow pace to the grey Vltava.

We split up for a few hours and I took the time to tramp around the old town, attempting to find some sort of gift for my girlfriend. Given that Prague is famed for its art and vibrant creative spirit, I had hoped that it would furnish me with something which showed both wit and my tender, loving side. Sadly, I was faced with a barrage of overpriced tat, which would not have looked out of place in a jumble sale. A flicker of hope did come at one of Prague’s many upmarket clothes shops, but was instantly snuffed out by the audacious size of the price tags. Shopping in Prague is not for the faint hearted, or the light of wallet.

We reconvened at Charles Bridge and spent an hour perusing the massed ranks of stalls and performing artists, virtually all of which is shoddy tourist fodder. There were, however, two reasons to be cheerful. The first was provided by the only original artist on the bridge, who had refreshingly interpreted some of Prague’s various attractions in a bold Cubist style. The second came from another artist, although this time a chap who exhibited an interesting line in extreme self-portraiture. Essentially, his style involved holding up a mirror and pulling the most ridiculous faces, which he then sincerely attempted to recreate on canvas. As an added bonus, he was utterly drunk and only a little bit sane and so provided some enlightening banter whilst plying his trade.

Following a quick dinner of the obligatory goulash and dumplings, coupled to a final few beers, we headed for the station to collect our bags. From here we caught the underground to Djeli_k. This is stop marks the termination of the north western branch of the green line and buses run every twenty minutes from here to the airport. It was roughly at this time that my travelling companions finally decided that they had had enough of me.

We emerged from the underground station, utterly bemused as to where we were to catch the aforementioned bus. My suspicions should have been aroused when I was sent to find a non-existent bus stop, whilst everyone else legged it in the opposite direction. Once I realised their cunning ploy, the bus had already gone and I was left to fend for myself.

When I look back on this incident from grubby environs of London, I can’t help wondering what on earth possessed me to follow the rest of them so readily to the airport. I could have quite easily lost myself for the next few months in the heady haze of living which is the Czech Republic. Whether in Prague, _esk_ Krumlov or any other of the country’s fascinating towns, I have had a brief sip of the Czech amber nectar and cannot wait for the next round. © Stuart Macdonald 2001

Vacation Facts
_esk_ Krumlov
This charming town is located roughly three hours drive south from Prague. It is fast cottoning onto the fact that it is a tourist magnet and so is bristling with affordable accommodation.
For further up to date information, try the tourist information centre:
email: -
tel: - 00420/3370704 621-3
Accommodation: -
Pension Vltava
Kajovska 62
- As far as budget beds go, this was perfect. For the measly price of £14 per person per night, they also throw in a fantastic breakfast. We had three doubles, although other combinations are available.
Restaurants/Bars: -
Laibon-Vegetarianska Restaurace
- Slightly deceptive to find a vegetarian restaurant in the Czech Republic – almost everywhere else is devoutly carnivorous. A great place to relax next to the river and to indulge in their exquisite Budvar.
Satlava Restaurace
- This place feels as though you are burrowing deep into the hillside, such is its surprising size. The meat platter is excellent value.
Papa’s Living Restaurace
- claims to be some sort of revolution in creative cooking – it’s not. Disappointing and expensive fare.
Zapa’s Bar
- Fantastic cocktail menu, although a tad pricey. Easy to stay in here for hours!
Musik and Cocktail Bar
- Another excellent choice of cocktails, open late – if you can stand the music and the sleazy locals.
Kajovska Hospuaka u Josefu
- fantastic Budvar for 20Kc a pint. Nuff said.
You know where it is! We got there with surprisingly cheap flights from Go for £50 return (including taxes!) from Stansted. You are best advised to book accommodation ahead, as this place is a perennial tourist hotspot. The guidebook we used to plan our jaunts around Prague was the Time Out version. It could not be faulted on in depth history and contemporary culture, although some of its reviews were a tad suspect.

Accommodation: -
Pension B-Klub
Amerika 28
Praha 2
Nearest metro: - Namesti Miru
- Distinctly dingier than the place in Cesky, although it was not too far from the action in the city centre and was definitely secure. Again, costs £14 per person per night and breakfast is included.
Restaurants/Bars: -
There are so many of these that you are best to go by word of mouth, or your guidebook. The following are the ones which we visited: -
Zlata Ulicka
Praha 1
Tel: - 232 0884
Metro: - Namesti Republiky
- Welcome relief from the majority of surly places in town. The food was nothing spectacular, but for once we left on speaking terms with the waiting staff, so it can’t be all bad.
Marla Strana
Praha 1
- Excellent pizzeria. If you are fed up eating half a cow at every meal, then you could do much worse than come here.
Bar u Krale Viriho
Liliova 10
Praha 1
Metro: - Sarometska
- Relative oasis in the madness of the old town. It serves decent beer, although sadly no Budvar.
Bar Non Stop
Praha 2
- Apparently never stops, although we appear to have caught it on the boss’s one night off. There is another tiny place just across the road, whose name I cannot recall, but whose beer was astoundingly cheap.
Karlovy Lazne
Novotneho Lavka
Praha 1
Metro: - Starometska
- This place is simply immense. Do not drink it's Absinthe or you may never leave…

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