Prague, Bohemia, Czech Republic Sunday, August 31, 2008
The approach to Prague from the north is not attractive. The first sign of trouble is the long queue of trucks in the right hand lane of the motorway. It is only after sailing past them for several minutes that you see the sign that
they are actually queuing for the turn off you want. Thanks to a very kind Hungarian truck we squeezed in to the exit and joined the queue for the Prague eastern ring road. The traffic on this road is so heavy that the surface is sunken into two deep
ruts. If you do not have a truck's width, or if you are driving a low-slung car, then woe betide the slightest lapse of concentration. Prague is truck capital of the world. In the opposite direction we saw a 10-mile queue of stationary trucks.
Imagine the UK lorry driver's protest, all day every day on every road, then you can begin to get a wee bit of an inkling of what Prague outskirts are like on a quiet day. It was 150 miles from our Dresden campsite to the Prague campsite. It took
three hours to do the first 130 miles, including breaks, and three hours to do the last 20. Give the Czechs their due, there are mammoth construction works taking place to create a western ring road, so hopefully in a year or so things will improve.
Meantime, it's probably easier to drive through the pedestrianised centre of Prague!
The campsite, when we finally reached it, was great. Super new facilities, good spacious pitches, indoor and outdoor pools, friendly English speaking owner and wi-fi which was strong enough to be able to use in the caravan. It is situated in the countryside about 10 miles south of Prague, far enough away to be peaceful but close enough to make sightseeing easy. There is a bus stop directly outside the site, an hourly bus that takes you to the tram network, then a frequent tram service into the centre. Given the Czech police zero tolerance on drinking and driving, and given Prague suburban traffic, this was ideal.
Prague itself, as many of you will know, is a beautiful city ruined by throngs of tourists, many on stag or hen trips, and by the utter "westernisation" to cater for this. McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, TGI, M&S, Irish pubs and rip-off prices abounded. There are even two huge Tesco superstores. As tourists ourselves we are in no position to comment, but I would like to think that we pay the country and its occupants a little more respect than many of these people do.
Enough of the rant!
Prague is one of the few cities to have escaped serious damage to its buildings during WW2 (although the damage to its occupants was as great as any). The result is that there are examples of architecture spanning many hundreds of years. There was a great art nouveau phase in the late 19th & early 20th centuries, lead by Alfons Mucha, perhaps more famous for his posters for plays starring Sarah Bernhardt. There is a small museum of his life and work, which, if you like Art Nouveau, is well worth a visit.
On every street there are buildings which anywhere else would be landmarks. Painted fronts abound, and those without paintings have decorative plasterwork in all styles. Old and new seem to blend together in harmony rather than clashing.
We visited the Jewish Museum, which consists of the Jewish Cemetery, the former ceremonial hall, now given over to a display on Jewish life, and most importantly the Pinkas synagogue, which has been converted to a memorial to the 80,000 Czech Jews exterminated by the Nazis. The names of every one of them are written on the synagogue walls, which is very moving. Upstairs, even more moving, is a collection of art by the Jewish children who were all interned in a camp at Terezin until they were old enough to be sent to the concentration camps. Beside most was the name of the child with date of birth, date of removal to the concentration camp and date of death. Many had photos of the child from pre-occupation days.
Prague castle is a huge complex which dominates the West bank of the river. It is a small town in itself, and has housed the seat of government for centuries. It is dominated by St Vitus Cathedral, wherein lies the tomb of Wenceslas, the good king. The stained glass windows were only completed in recent years, in true western fashion all sponsored by banks and insurance companies, including one by the aforementioned Mucha.
After liberation Vaclav Havel, the new leader, decided that the castle needed livening up. There had always been a guard there, but he hired the costume designer from the film Amadeus to design a new uniform. I suspect, but cannot prove, that he also hired Busby Berkley and the animators of Trumpton to choreograph the changing of the guard ceremony held at noon each day. A sight not to be missed. A drummer, trumpets and trombones appear in the first floor windows, the guard marches smartly down the outside square, changing to that slow march that the eastern Europeans do so well as they come through the gates. A lot of shouting by the two guys in charge, who then wave swords at each other for a few moments before marching through the castle door, presumably for a cig and a shot after all that shouting. Then they re-appear for more sword waving and shouting, and they all march off again. All utterly pointless, but like Buckingham Palace and the Horse Guards, a great crowd pleaser.
Below the castle was St Nicholas Church, described by the Time Out guide as being High Baroque at its most flamboyantly camp. I don't know whether it was the idea in the back of my mind, but I have never seen such a collection of camp saints and bishops.
Two disappointments in Prague. The main one was the Charles Bridge, supposedly the romantic heart of the City. It was partly dug up, utterly crowded, dirty, tacky stalls and impossible to get a view of. Lesley tells me I am a philistine at heart. The other was the Astronomical clock, with its astronomical anticlimax as it strikes the hour. A beautiful piece in itself, but if you want to see it avoid the last ten minutes of each hour!. One other point, not a disappointment, but a reference to the Trade Descriptions Act. A stretch of road half a mile long and 20 yards wide, with pavement down the centre, a café or six, trees, and lovely buildings should be called an avenue. Geometrically it is an oblong. By no means could it be described as a Square. King Wenceslas, you got it wrong!
Tomorrow we set off eastwards, to the Czech / Slovak border, then to the Tatra mountains of northern Slovakia.