Appointment in Prague (Czech Republic)

The last time I came through Prague I practically walked my feet off exploring the famous sights of the medieval city so this time I thought it would be safe to stop off on my journey through central Europe and visit one particularly important site that I’d missed last time. Unfortunately, the 1108h from Dresden was a Czech train rather than a German one and so it had no wifi, all but one of the toilets out of commission and a bunch of loutish drunks clogging up the aisles. Ok, so it was Saturday morning but that doesn’t seem to be much of an excuse for lining up the beer cans in rows of twelve (not that they could count that high) and swigging from open whiskey bottles.

So, getting to see the medieval Castle of Prague was going to be a challenge. It turned out to be one I almost failed completely when I became confused by the “Prague HL” on my ticket and didn’t know which of “Praha Holesovice” or “Praha Hlavni” was the main station I remembered from my last trip or, indeed, whether I’d be able to get off there at all. As the train pulled out of Holesovice I fell distinctly under the impression that I had missed my only opportunity to alight for the capital and was now on my way to goodness-knows-where, somewhere in Hungary. It goes without saying that there was no-one sober enough to ask for advice so I turned back to find a seat in preparation for a long ride. With relief, I saw that many of the rest of the passengers were now getting to their feet and collecting their luggage, so we would obviously be stopping at the main station after all. Thus the excursion to Prague started off with minus 20 for the disgusting state of the train but plus 35 for actually managing to arrive at all.

The luggage deposit was staffed by human beings (plus 5) but overpriced (minus 10) and the bus system, using yet another currency, was too complicated to take me over the river to the castle without the risk of losing time by getting lost (minus 10). I knew it would have to be a taxi despite the exorbitant cost (minus 40) but at least he took UK pounds instead of my precious euros or local currency and got me to my destination within minutes (plus 5). The entrance fee for the Castle Complex was halved due to my senior status (plus 10) and I now had three hours to enjoy it and fine weather for the incomparable view over the Vltava River back towards the old city (plus 10).

The 70,000 square meters of great halls, palaces and churches that the Guinness Book of Records calls “the largest ancient castle in the world” definitely scores plus 100. The kings and Dukes of Bohemia built and re-built on this broad-backed hill overlooking the River Vitava for over a thousand years and, despite the industrial quantity of visitors streaming through its many chambers, staircases, passages and courtyards, the stone walls fairly ooze history. This, after all, is where King Wenceslaus of the Christmas carol looked out across the winter snows in the year 935; here is the very window for which the term “defenestration” (political assassination – literally “throwing someone out of a window”) was coined in 1618 and here the Hapsburgs assembled treasures without number. Given the enormous wealth generated by the dynastic marriages of these illustrious families, I was shocked to find that the legendary 14th century Bohemian crown was a gaudy, paste-encrusted extravaganza that would have been better suited to the aforementioned Christmas pageant. Would someone please tell the authorities that if you are going to take all that money from tourists to show them a replica then it had better be a decent one? I know a few goldsmiths and gemmologists who would be happy to advise. I later found out that I hadn’t actually missed out on the opportunity to view the original by failing to join the queue for the treasury, it is kept in a special vault behind sevenfold locking doors and only brought out on very rare occasions. In 1942 the Nazi Reinhard Haydrich, architect of the holocaust and leader of the occupying forces, is said to have ignored the curse upon usurpers and placed it upon his own head only to die of horribly infected wounds following a botched assassination attempt. Well, the crown may not have been real but the Velazquez portraits certainly were and I found myself quite taken aback by the resemblance of one the little princesses to my youngest granddaughter. I must be missing home more than I’ve realised.            

On leaving the castle I had over an hour for the walk back to the station and, since it was mostly downhill, I thought I’d enjoy some of the famous sights of the Czech capital by way of the Charles Bridge. What is this city nowadays? The drunkenness capital of Europe? And I’m sorry to say that not a few of these intoxicates were British. The female of the species more than adequately represented, mostly scantily-attired, selfie-stick wielding young women, swilling some sort of pink fizz from little plastic cups. A few bridal accessories explained, if any further confirmation was actually needed, that these were bona-fide hen parties. Other North European nationalities were amply represented amongst the revellers but it was the sight of so many ex-pat Indian youngsters disgracing themselves in what they obviously took to be young, fashionable Western style that shocked me most. What would Aunty say? (Minus 20 for the embarrassment factor but plus 10 for the entertainment).

Hoards of dogged tourists, obviously doing some version of the “Imperial Cities Tour” (Prague/Vienna/Budapest) bemoaned the crowds as they clustered around pavement artists whose work would be considered substandard even in Montmartre, Bohemian crystal nick-nacks that make Svarovski look tasteful and more magnets than there are refrigerators in the whole of Western Europe (minus 30). Beggars now compete to prostrate themselves in ever more suppliant postures: foreheads touching the ground and arms outstretched in front of them (minus 10) but a number of them have been cunning enough to find themselves photogenic canine companions (plus 5). The Riverboat tour company still sees nothing wrong with selecting dark-skinned, black boys and dressing them up in powder blue sailor suits to do their promotional work. The girls just love a “selfie-with-a-sailor” and the more exotic the better, it seems (minus 10 for bad taste).

I congratulated myself on having footslogged and photographed this town, especially the important Jewish Quarter, so conscientiously in 2012 (plus 20) and made my way through the crowded streets back to the station for the 1852h to Vienna. Exhausted. And what was the verdict? Well, for me it totalled up at 200 points “For” and 150 “Against” but I’d be very cautious about recommending this over-visited city to a newcomers. I’d say that if you have a specific reason for coming, such as the history or the art galleries, then plan your trip carefully and don’t allow the crowds to deter you. On the other hand, if you would like a pretty, Central European medieval city for a weekend break then there are countless more suitable alternatives.

Categories: Europe

2 Comments

  • Chris says:

    Wikipedia states that the real Crown of Bohemia has vertical fleurs-de-lis standing at the front, back and sides. It is made from 22-carat gold and a set of precious 19 sapphires, 30 emeralds, 44 spinels, 20 pearls, 1 ruby, 1 rubellite and 1 aquamarine, it weighs 2475g. it must be quite a sight.

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    Yes, it would be wonderful to see it but I guess the nearest I will ever get to the real thing is a postcard. Perhaps we can find a decent coffee-table book of the Crown Jewels of Europe? Maybe for a birthday?

    By the way, the “gemstones ” in the glittery substitute appear to have been as follows: cobalt glass “sapphires”, strontium glass for all the red stones and as for the green of the emeralds? Well, all that wine drunk in the city has to be bottled in something!

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