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24· Travel

Czech it out

Its reputation for being a cheap and cheerful stag party destination has threatened to ruin Prague’s image amongst travellers. Yet JordanWalker discovers that there’smuchmore to the Czech capital than cheap larger

The journey fromRuzynInternational on the airport bus is a serene affair, meandering through the suburbs of Prague, passing evergreen trees and alpine like chalets, it feels as if you’re heading for the Alps rather than the Czech capital. Yet this ride into town takes a surreal twistwhen the bus ter- minates at Dejvická station, and you embark on a space ageMetro journey, with the station resembling that of a 1950smoonbase, rather thanthemun- dane reality.

I had only been in Prague for a blink

and immediately I liked it. Any stress I might have felt, having arrived in a new city, was immediately alleviated when I discovered that, unlike theLondonUn- derground, the PragueMetro was spa- cious, efficient, and dirt cheap (witha 75 minute pass costing 26 crowns; equiva- lent to 90p). Indeedthewhole public transport in-

frastructure in Prague seems to have been very well thought out; as well as buses and themetro, the trams are plen- tiful and easy to use, and there is also a substantial cycle network and a vast col- lection of bike rental shops.Thiswas of particular interest tome as akeencyclist, but even for those less enthusiastic bike riders, it is the kind of city where


cling would be a pleasure regardless. Praguehas

a slow tempo,

where a consideredwalk is preferable to a mad dash round all the sights. The pace of life appears to have been set by the placidVltavaRiver,which only gur- gles into life when its flow is disturbed by one of itsmanyweirs or bridges. That said, duringmy visit inAugust,

the peace of the riverwas about tobedis- rupted by the annual Dragonboat race. Prior to the competitionanumber of the international competitors loiteredonthe riverbank and eagerly discussed tactics while the rest of the city, apparently oblivious to the impending excitement, continued business as usual. Under normal circumstances theVl-

tava is home tomany swans and ducks, fed, for themost part, by young children enthusiastically hurling bread fromthe generous andvery communal riverbank. There are also numerous outlets along the river where pedalos and row boats are let, providing a farmore tranquilway to enjoy the river, and is a novel way to see the city. On the banks of the Vltava, in the

rapidly expanding Nové Město (New Town) is Prague’s newest and perhaps bravest building. The Dancing House (Drunk House to its critics) remains a controversial choice for this

environment.The only disappointment forme, as is so often the casewith inter- esting architecture, is that it is the home of an insurance company. Adjacent to the Dancing House,

floating on the Vltava is the Boatel Matylda, a luxury restaurant and hotel, which offers a good range ofCzechwine and beer, aswell as quite a conventional Westernized menu. Though it is not cheap, the value comes fromhigh qual- ity cuisine and the allure of its location. Sitting out on the bow at the end of a

The pace of life in the city

appears to have been set by the placid Vltava River


riverside plot, but despite it being dis- tinctly mod- ern,

I thought it

was striking how well this eccen- tric de- sign fits i t s

busy day exploring the city,watching as the sun sets, is a very romantic and charming place to spend an evening. Downriver fromthe BoatelMatylda

is Charles Bridge, one of the main tourist attractions in Prague. This his- toric river crossing dates back to the fif- teen century and is best visited in the earlymorning or late eveningwhen you have a chance to enjoy the bridgewith a modicum of personal space! However, severe and ongoing restoration work being carried out, limited the floor space onthe bridge, anddisappointingly,hida number of the statues, which decorate the crossing. Once across the bridge, on the west-

ern banks of theVltava, there is a gentle climbwhichbecomes a steep ascent into PragueCastle (cycle here at your peril!). Even the idea of a hike may be too much, but don’t panic, there are multi- ple personal tour guides inthis areawho drive a range of delightfullymaintained classic Škodas, offering an informative ride up to the top and beyond! Inside the castle walls it feels as

Photo: - CAROLINE -

though you are in a self-contained world, quite removed fromthe city, and fromthe ampleThirdCourtyardyouare able to fully appreciate the dominating St. Vitus Cathedral which majestically surveys the old town below. But, in my opinion, it is from the palatial Gardens on the Ramparts that the best,

uninterrupted view of Prague is to be had. On a clear day the fantastically quirky, futuristic Žižkov Television Tower can be viewed in all its glory (al- though David Černý’s artistic installa- tion of babies crawling up the tower are but a blur). Back across the river in StaréMěsto

(OldTown) is Josefov (the JewishQuar- ter), which contains half a dozen old synagogues and the oldest Jewish ceme- tery in existence, containing over 100,000 graves, one of which belongs to FrankKafka.However there is an air of unease that accompanies the Jewish Quarter, due, I believe, to the visible pri- vate security guards onpatrol. Innoway are they activelymenacing, but you are aware of their presence, and I found it deeply troubling that they are appar- ently necessary in this area. Further into StaréMěsto is the very

popular Old Town Square, brimming with fabulous architecture, and just about every person in Prague. With a deep intake of breath I plunged into the masses, and to my surprise, despite being a hub of tourist activity, it is also a favouritemeeting place for locals,mak- ing theOld Town Square a very cosmo- politan space. But the marketplace and theAstrological clock are clearly the do- main of the foreign visitor with digital camera at the ready!

Venturing south beyond the Old

Town, en route toWenceslas Square, is the Museum of Communism, which offers a very vague chronology of the ideology, and not enough information specific to the Czech Republic. But it is not the content which drew me to the museum, but rather it was the location. Housed within a casino and adjacent to aMcDonalds, theMuseumof Commu- nism is poetically placed in a world of capitalist decadence! WenceslasSquare itself feels perfectly

proportioned with a pretty garden running the length of what ismore of a boulevard than a square, leading the eye throughto the quite grubby lookingNa- tional Museum, which sits in fallen splendour at the southernend.Although the square has become commercialised by famous brand names, it is not as overrun by people as some of the previouslymentioned sites inPrague.A stroll through the central gardens is a pleasant, almost private experience (that is if you are adept in blocking out traffic noise). For those who believe that Prague is

the home of the stag weekend; you are selling this city far too short. It is amag- ical place, designed for couples and independent travellers rather than drunken louts and is certainly worth a visit.

Photo: JORDAN WALKER ·1stMarch 2010

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