Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic which is a landlocked state in the centre of Europe surrounded by Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria.
The Czech Republic absorbed much of Bohemia which was at one time a state within the Holy Roman Empire. Prague was the epicentre of the 30 years war which was a conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Beginning in 1618, it became the most destructive European conflict only surpassed by the Second World War.
Becoming a communist state in the 1940s, the population suffered oppression with harsh Stalinist practices but then the Velvet Revolution of 1989 introduced democracy resulting in an elected parliament and prime minister. European Union membership followed and tourism flourished, with almost eight million people visiting the city in 2018.
There is much to enjoy in Prague but, has the dark shadow of the communist regime truly gone?
My five experiences of Prague.
History seeps from the medieval cobbled alleys and plazas framed by majestic baroque palaces, soaring gothic spires, flamboyant Bohemian townhouses and a delightfully wonky Dancing House.
Good King Wenceslas once walked these streets and later Mozart, whose elegant compositions drift from churches and mirrored halls hosting eternal recitals – each one packed with appreciative tourists keen to drink in the atmosphere of a bygone age.
All this belies the gory history which included de-fenestrations when politicians were thrown out of windows by citizens in the seventeenth century whilst Torture chambers were used with relish by some of the rulers.
Seriously good food and drink
The narrow lanes are teeming with eateries, so the air is pleasantly scented with the aroma of traditional meaty Bohemian fayre of roast pork knuckles and paprika-laden goulash. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria made her mark in the city when she ruled there during the eighteenth century – and not just with her massive palace – Viennese coffee is served with a flourish of thick whipped cream melting deliciously into the rich warmth beneath.
Beer is the drink of the city with many small breweries secreted behind bars and restaurants. Each establishment offers a beer-tasting menu, and competition is fierce to offer the most potent or outlandish varieties to a clientele already likely to be well oiled after visiting several beforehand – although LSJ News cannot condone excessive drinking!
Hedonism to blow the mind
Absinthe bars in the red-light district compete for attention along with hashish sellers and sex-workers.
Describing an event after enjoying this addictive Bohemian drink, Oscar Wilde hallucinating under its influence wrote: “That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust. The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe. “Don’t you see them?” I said to him. “Mais non, monsieur, il n’y a rien” – which in English means, no sir there is nothing.
This fashionable drink of the Belle Epoque was originally nicknamed the Green Fairy but became known as the Green Devil after several murders were attributed to the killer being under its influence.
Noisy cheerful crowds
Large tour parties snake their way behind sweating guides who bellow at their charges like naughty children – especially if they dare to pause at an unplanned stop to take a picture or to admire something.
Herded like lambs to the slaughter to the most expensive souvenir shops and ordered to eat in cavernous restaurants designed for such groups – these exhausted looking but cheerful travellers spend a fortune on a glass of factory-made hooch without the joys even of a beer tasting menu.
Silent angry crowds
In 2018 I witnessed a Silent Protest in Prague against the Government.
Journalists and supporters under the organisation of A Million Moments for Democracy decided to act after several influential newspapers were taken over by the Prime Minister Andrej Babis. They were protesting also about the fact that Andrej Babis has no majority in the Czech Parliament but is kept in power by the Communist Party appointing his own supporters to important positions. The Prime Minister appears to refuse to answer questions about this in the presence of journalists and prevents others from speaking about it. The protests are still continuing and Andrej Babis is still in power.
Echoes of the period when Prague was under communist rule were evident as tributes were paid to a journalist shot in mysterious circumstances. Around the time of the killing the Czech President Milos Zeman published an image of himself brandishing a replica Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists.”
Amongst all the tourists and the buzzing cafes and bars, there lurks a throwback to a less care-free era.
Prague is a great place to visit and hopefully the turbulent history does not repeat itself – until then just go and enjoy the Bohemian culture to the full.