It’s the time of year again when I get the chance to travel to a European capital for a computer conference related to work. Because my employer is paying for flights and transfers, it’s a small matter to tack on a couple of days of my own for the happy purpose of wandering around and gawping. Two years ago I got to go to Dublin, last year was the turn of Berlin, and this year I was hoping for Tallinn – just to keep the -‘in’ endings theme going – but alas it’s Prague. No, I jest. I was thrilled when they announced it would be Prague because it’s a place I have never been and always fancied visiting. It looks exotic in an East European way, whilst the Slavic language and alphabet makes it sound exotic. However, in reality you have to remember it’s just a 3 hour drive from Vienna. Not that Jet2.com took even that long from Manchester. Less than two hours after takeoff, on a morning containing one very early start, saw our 737 dropping below some impressively low clouds onto the runway at Václav Havel Airport.
Airport transfer can be a faff, so I consulted various websites in order to make a plan beforehand. The general wisdom obtained from them was that taxis were more than likely to rip you off terribly, the bus wasn’t totally convenient, taking you to a railway or subway station and so needing a transfer, and hence the CEDAZ airport shuttle was the way to go. Cheap, quick and conveniently it also turned round at Náměstí Republiky, which is just round the corner from my hotel. It wasn’t until about 36 hours before I travelled that I decided to check the details again to get them clear in my head. It was lucky I did because on digging deeper I discovered that the shuttle ceased operations at the end of 2016. It’s worrying that so many websites (including the airport’s own) were still recommending it ten months later. It must cause a lot of grief. Quickly I splurged out and booked a car online from Prague Airport Transfers – it was only £20 when all was said and done for door-to-door service. Given the short notice in booking, I had was some trepidation when I exited arrivals, but I needn’t have worried; there was a fella bearing a placard with Ch. Stoddart on. Quickly he led me to a black Skoda and we commenced the short (11km) hop into the city. The driver wasn’t very talkative, with limited English, (better than my Czech), but a pleasant enough bloke and, as he didn’t drive crazily plus took a couple of backstreets to avoid queues, I count that as a win.
The hotel of choice is the Ibis Prague Old Town. The conference venue is the Hilton, and not the Old Town Hilton either (which is a few hundred metres from the Ibis) but the one in Florenc next to the business district. To be fair, despite it’s name, the Ibis isn’t in the Old Town, (Staré Mesto), but on the edge of the district called Petrská čtvrť, which is next door. However, Prague is so reasonably compact that even if the hotel wasn’t on the boundary, it still wouldn’t have been too far away. I’m still happy not to be in the Florenc Hilton because even though it’s only 15 minutes walk from the Ibis, it’s another 15 minutes in the wrong direction. It’s also marooned between several glass office buildings and a flyover. Oh and it’s twice the price. My hotel checks me in quickly and so with bags dumped it’s time to explore.
I head out the door, take a right and am practically immediately in the square, Náměstí Republiky, overlooked by the vast, art nouveau Obecní dům (Municipal House) and the equally imposing, but more modernist Divadlo Hybernia (Spanish Theatre). First thing to catch my eye is a farmer’s market in the square. I see they are selling street food and I will have need of food shortly I am sure (it’s gone midday and my bacon sandwich at Manchester airport was a long time ago) so I take note. Leaving the cooking smells for now I walk underneath the Prašná brána or Powder Tower. This Gothic gate from the 15th century was damaged in the Battle of Prague and subsequently restored, and is one of the original gates separating the Old town from the New. It’s quite impressive and you can go up and see the view from the top – sadly I never got around to that. My target is to find the river and the Charles Bridge, or Karlův most in the local lingo, which according to the map are not so far away. Incidentally, I have dowloaded the google map of the city so that I can navigate offline. However, my phone has happily connected to a Czech service and a text informs me that everything is at the same rate (calls, data, texts) as it would be in the UK. Handy that.
Heading through the cobbled streets of the Old Town, I am immediately struck by how many people there are. The place is packed with tourists. I wasn’t really expecting there to be this many at the tail end of October, so that comes as a surprise. I struggle through the crowds for about 5 mins and pop out into one corner of Old Town Square, which is pretty famous for it’s mix of medieval and seemingly everything else since architectures. Directly ahead of me at the far side of the square is the tower of the Old Town Hall, which is covered in scaffolding with restoration underway. Many, many people seem to be streaming away from this area, so I head diagonally across the square to the other side to continue towards the Charles Bridge. The square is a hotbed of street artists. There are those human statues, some of whom have quite inventive gravity-defying setups. One appears to be be a genie emerging from a lamp in a puff of silk cloth smoke, whilst another appears to suspend his partner above him by holding a single pole. There are also the plain silver ones who just stand still until you’re not looking, whereupon they spring to life like a panhandling weeping angel. In addition there are people canvassing, for electric scooter tours, pub crawls, massage parlours…. and heaven alone knows what else.
Eventually I pass a row of horses and carriages for hire and exit the square. This is actually not quite the right direction, but I don’t know it at the time. It is away from all the people though. I walk along a fairly wide road for ten minutes or so before I see there is a another small, green square and a large road bridge on the far side. As I reach the riverside I can see the Charles Bridge a few hundred yards downstream, so I decide to walk across this bridge (which I find out is called the Mánesův most) then walk to the Charles bridge on the far bank. I am soon quite pleased I did because as I approach the far side, I can see there are dozens and dozens of swans on the bank between the sides of the river. Many of the swans are on the water at the river side, but a large number are on the foreshore and people seem to be mingling with them freely and approaching them for selfies and close ups. Intrigued, I descend from the bridge to have a look myself. It’s a fairly amazing sight as the swans seem totally unperturbed by the people, tame almost. Some of them are asleep for heavens sake. I don’t think I have ever been this close to wild swans before without feeling slightly threatened or at least being hissed at. It’s a all bit surreal, though in a good way.
Continuing along the west bank of the river, I finally come to the Charles Bridge. If I thought there were many tourists in Old Town, then the bridge causes me to recalibrate my definition of many. The bridge, which is a pedestrian-only bridge, is packed. You are forced to walk across at a slow shuffle, there are so many people strolling, stopping to look at the statues and brass gubbins dotted along the bridge itself, or peering at the many many artists offering on the spot caricature portraits. It should be interesting walking over an ornate 15th century bridge, but it’s more of an ordeal. It takes a good ten minutes to cross this bridge and I don’t see a huge amount of anything except other people on the bridge. Heaven alone knows what this place is like in season.
After crossing the bridge back to the Old Town, I work my way back to Old Town Square. Again I run into large crowds of people streaming away from the Old Town Hall. This time I find out why. Passing in front of the famous Astronomical Clock I notice it’s just a few minutes past the hour, and that all the people had simply been waiting for it to chime and were now dispersing. It seems that, like on my outward trip a couple of hours earlier, I am a few minutes late for the second time.
Reaching Náměstí Republiky once more, I head to the market and purchase what is claimed to be a authentic Prague sausage in a bun. Yes, I know, Terry Pratchett’s character, “Cut-Me-Own-Throat” Dibbler springs to mind. It’s ok though, a spicy, a bit gristly (best not to look too closely, hmm) but fills the late dinnertime hole. From there I visit the Billa supermarket to stock my hotel room with supplies. It’s pretty much like any supermarket anywhere, with the same products. I am somewhat taken aback when my bill comes to Cz110 (Czech Crowns). The guy in front of me’s bill was a mere Cz25! It’s only when I get back to my hotel room and do some maths that I realise I have acquired a bag of shopping including crisps, biscuits, beer and a bottle of Pepsi for about £4. Not bad that. Next time I’ll try for the local brands because they are obviously cheaper still.
Later that afternoon I venture out again and retrace my steps in the direction of the Charles Bridge. The idea is to get a photograph of the bridge and the castle beyond lit up at night. I walk there a lot quicker now I know where I am going! Instead of crossing the bridge though I scour the bank upstream and it isn’t long before I find a pavement cafe with an excellent overlook. It’s obviously the location of a thousand postcards, but it’s where I need to be. There’s already a guy and his girlfriend set up with a tripod and a BFO Canon, so my little Panasonic and travel tripod look a bit weedy in comparison. It’s getting quite cold but we all sit and shiver companionably until the lights start to come on and we begin snapping in between the tour boats passing on the river. The sky is a bit rubbish and I make the cardinal error of pushing the exposure the wrong way and underexposing. (Fool, it’s overexpose it as long as you don’t blow the highlights. You can pull it back down to the correct exposure). This means that my shadows are a bit black. Also the low cloud seems to produce an odd flaring effect in the sky. Never mind.
After it’s gone properly dark I head back in the direction of the hotel, stopping in a heated outside restaurant for a nice (huge) pizza and a beer. As luck would have it, passing back through Old Town Square, I am in exactly the right time to see the Astronomical Clock strike. Well, all that happens is a statue of a skeleton (Death, we assume) starts to jiggle, then a couple of windows open higher up and we’re presented with a stream of saints passing in front of the window, turning to look out the window briefly, then continuing. It lasts about 5 minutes. I am slightly underwhelmed. I suppose 400-odd years ago it was pretty close to magic, but this day and age… well, I wouldn’t go all the way to Prague just to see it.