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A New Year in Prague
Natalya Popova

My Russian experience in Prague
I always wanted to spend a New Year’s Eve in one of the Western Catholic countries where the streets are lit up by Christmas lights and covered with Christmas decorations. Why New Year’s Eve?
Because this is my favourite holiday of the year, as it is also for many people born in the former Soviet Union (a country built on blood for a promised fairytale future, which collapsed like a lost dream for those who lived through it).

Since Christmas was prohibited for 70 years, its special meaning was transferred silently to the next holiday along. New Year’s Eve took on the role of a very special celebration, when people are not only making resolutions, but do genuinely hope for miraculous changes in their lives. It is strongly believed that "the way you meet a New Year - the same way you’ll spend the rest of it". Thus we drink champagne rather than wash up or sleep.

New Year’s Eve is a holiday of a dream.
So here we are in Prague on 3rd January 2007 (which does not exactly coincide with my agenda: a central European Protestant capital 2 days after the actual event).

But I wanted to visit Prague anyway! This is the most beautiful Gothic capital of all. Although Czechs are also Slav, the Czech Republic is a very different place to Russia and differences attract!
We flew over from Bournemouth with Thompsonfly. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy as my husband sometimes remarks, although I have absolutely no clue what that means. Prague airport is only 12.5 miles away from the city centre. No need for a taxi - bus and underground (Metro) services are brilliant and cost only 20 Kc (50p) for a ticket. Apparently one ticket pays for both types of transport which we didn’t know about, but £2 extra for public transport is not an excessive spending in comparison to South-West Trains! Checked in at Bournemouth at 11am, and a 2 hours and £60 return flight fare for two later, we have dumped our regulation sized hand luggage at the hotel and were strolling along the streets of Prague at 3 pm.

It got dark shortly after 5 pm, and oh, my goodness!!!! Streets (surprisingly for the festive season) were dark. There were not as many Christmas lights as I hoped for. Even the Christmas Tree in Old Town Square was taken down on the night of 3rd January. (According to recent historic discoveries the first ever Christmas Tree was recorded as standing on this square making Prague a proud birthplace of the symbol of Christ’s birth celebrations). The restaurant, we found, also didn’t sparkle with lights - mainly candlelight was used. However, the lack of light in public places (or economic use of it) might be Prague’s answer to fighting global warming and saving the world… or it’s might be just romantic (who knows?). But next time we’ll take a torch to map read by, romance or not.

Nevertheless the city looked absolutely magnificent in the daytime. Having known of how beautiful Old Prague was said to be, it still struck me as really lovely. A beautiful city with beautiful architecture. Every building regardless of architectural style and period (Prague can boast a good mixture of such) may well be a unique work of art. Prague is lucky to retain its pre-war look having survived World War II mainly unscathed. And the communist regime obviously didn’t have the same penchant for pulling things down that some co-believers did in neighbouring states.

Seventeen bridges across Riva Vltava (Moldau) connect the two parts of the city. The most famous bridge is Karlov Most. Built in the 14th century under Charles IV it remained the only bridge across the river for half a millenium. Thirty Baroque sculptures, brought together over a period of time, line the bridge and add charm to it, and each one tells a story. The bridge is a major tourist route leading to Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad). Its sharp black spires are the defining landmark. The castle has been a centre of spiritual and cultural power of the Czechs since its foundation, as believed, in 880 by Prince Borivoj, and is the symbol of the city. One of the best view points over Prague is from the steps that lead to the castle.

Being Russian in Prague was an interesting experience. The country is ethnically Slav. I could clearly recognise some "Slavonic" similarities:
- A distinctive "Slav" face shape - many people looked familiar (and locals also seemed to regard me as Czech and kept trying to ask me for directions);
- The same linguistic group language although spelt in Latin not Cyrillic letters (the Czech language belongs to the Western group of Slav languages, the same as Serb and Polish). I could understand, to a degree, local speech, shop names and street directions. (So did my husband because city is also well sign posted in English: "Tesco in 1.5km") However, I found some English translations of popular Czech sites confusing. For example, ‘Charles Bridge’ for ‘Karlov Most’ (I can’t comprehend how Charles can be the same name as Karl when Suzanne and Susan are COMPLETELY two different names).
- Similar cuisine preferences such as pork sausage and sour cabbage. And (!) "medovik" cake made with real honey – delicious!

These are probably the only similarities, as apart from some long years under Soviet rule, Russia and the Czech Republic share few historic ties. The Czechs accepted Protestantism in the 13th century, and had been a part of Austro-Hungarian Empire for ages, closely linked to its neighbours Austria and Germany.

The city is well geared up for tourism – loads of cafes, restaurants and hotels. Even midweek, one often needs to book in advance for good and popular restaurants because they, obviously, are also popular with locals. We liked the ‘Kolkovna’ pub which also happened to be of one selected by Robert Anderson of the Financial Times – meal prices from £4.00 per person and the food excellent. Despite a flood of Russian tourists who seemed all left home for Prague during their 10-day long winter bank holidays (a new phenomenon of post-communism), we had a choice of hotels on the internet to book our stay at. There are many pensions and hostels for budget stays too. Hotel prices are from Euro 40 per night per double room.
Opinion is divided as to how cheap – or how expensive - Prague really is. A friend of mine visited at roughly the same time as us but was shocked of how expensive it was. However my husband and I found it reasonable. It’s all a mater of attitude. Prepare yourself for "EURO" prices, even though the country still keeps it own currency Koruna (CZK) – and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s certainly cheaper than in most other places in Europe.

I felt a little apprehension of locals’ attitude towards Russian people following years of resistance (failed in 1968 and successful in 1989). At the same time I was surprised at how many Russian tourists there were – waves and waves of groups when meeting together in small place combined into a sea of Russians. The only people buying Czech gold and jewellery out of their expensive range were Russians, as we saw in the shops. I suppose Russians bring good money into the country, and at the same time the Czech Republic is one of the nearest (and affordable) Western destinations for Russian people to travel to.

Many shop assistants, especially in old Prague, speak many languages (definitely Russian, German and English) which is very impressive and assists them in persuading you to part with your hard earned dosh. They achieved it with us too - we came back with loads of little souvenirs and Czech chocolates to remind us of Prague (very warm and sweet memories). And also with a new New Year resolution: to spend our next New Year’s Eve in one of the "celebratory" European capitals.
Moscow then?

© Natalya Popova Jan 2007>

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