Prague: Time to Czech it out
Initially put off by stag parties and companies offering 'birds, bullets and booze', Liz Kearney finally gave into Prague and its charms
Some years ago, I suggested to a friend that we go on a mini-break to Prague. She pulled a face. "What would I want to do that for?" she asked. "If I wanted to be harassed by drunken stags, I'd spend a night in Temple Bar."
She had a point. Despite being a beautiful, historic city buzzing with art, culture and music, the Czech capital has a reputation as the ideal destination for drink-fuelled, pre-wedding celebrations. Tour operators offer 'birds, bullets and booze' packages with itineraries packed with strip bars, shooting ranges and as much Czech lager as your liver can process.
On that occasion, we decided to go elsewhere. But my, what a difference a few years can make. For example, you'd be hard-pressed to find a stag party in Dublin these days. Apart from the fact that they're unwelcome in many city pubs, what budget-conscious stag wants to fork out €5 for a pint when he needs to keep some of his hard-earned cash for stuffing into strippers' suspenders later in the night?
Similarly, Prague isn't as cheap as it once was, and many of the party groups have moved on to other European capitals such as Riga and Tallinn, which offer, if you'll pardon the pun, more bang for your buck. While you'd suspect that in both Prague and Dublin barmen are counting the cost, it's a welcome development for visitors who'd like to immerse themselves in the sights without worrying about stumbling into a pool of vomit left by drunken revellers.
So when the opportunity to visit Prague rolled around again, I jumped at the chance. Today, the City of a Hundred Spires has a well-heeled air, its elegant stores the match of any Italian or French city. Chic locals throng the buzzing restaurants and bars, while a seemingly endless calendar of festivals celebrate the literary, cultural and musical heritage of the capital.
In fact, there's a festival in full swing by the time I find myself in Old Town Square amid a throng of tourists, muffled up tightly against the cold, waiting patiently in front of the city's famous astronomical clock for the hourly spectacle known as the Walk of The Apostles. This is one of the biggest sightseeing draws in the city; as the clock chimes the hour, the shuttered doors halfway up the medieval bell-tower pop open to reveal carved wooden figurines of Jesus and his 12 disciples, revolving slowly on a rotating wheel.
But it's difficult to concentrate while, across the square, brightly lit stalls are dishing out beers and food as a band -- dressed, inexplicably, as gorillas -- are belting out choral renditions of pop songs from a temporary stage. Still, the apostles' procession will take fewer than 30 seconds so we'll be in the thick of the festivities in no time. As the bell strikes 5pm, the shutters open, the disciples appear -- but what's this? Without warning, the figures grind to a halt, stuck, somehow, on their ageing wheel.
Perhaps, like the crowd in the square below, they're frozen solid.
Three minutes later, they remain inanimate while the bemused tourists scratch their heads. By five past the hour, the disciples remain unceremoniously stuck, but the tourists have dispersed, eager to find out what all the singing and dancing is about. As it turns out, the revelry is part of an ongoing winter festival which began before Christmas and lasts for months. Marching bands stomp through the snow-speckled cobbled streets, cutting a musical swathe through the icy air.
That Old Town Square is alive with laughter is another reminder of how far this city has come. It was right here, in 1968, that Soviet tanks trundled in to crush the rebels of the Prague Spring, marking the start of 30 years of occupation by Soviet forces.
But echoes of the city's past behind the Iron Curtain seem distant now. When I last visited Prague, 15 years ago, communist-era tower blocks in the city suburbs had been hastily transformed into cheap hotels to accommodate the rapidly swelling ranks of visitors from the West.
Today, the city is dotted with luxury-brand hotels catering for a new type of tourist. Our hotel, the newly opened Kempinski Hybernská, is a spectacularly renovated old palace in the heart of the Old Town, with sumptuous rooms and a cocktail bar with a vaulted ceiling.
The Kempinski's luxury suites -- most of its rooms have a separate living room and kitchenette -- are an unexpected reminder of the interior of that tower-block hotel a decade-and-a-half ago. That, too, had a living room and kitchenette, but for different reasons; while the Kempinski is deliberately designed for optimal luxury, our old tower-block room owed its layout to the fact that it had once been home to a Czech family in the communist era.
Communism might be firmly in the past, but there are some things that are unchanged, primarily the city's beauty. Prague straddles both banks of the broad Vltava, an idyllic setting for its fairy-tale spires, churches, castles and bridges. Because the city escaped the worst bombing of the Second World War, its historical centre is as it has been for centuries, making it irresistible to sightseers.
For most visitors, the first stop will be its best-known landmark, Prague Castle, which overlooks the city from an elevated spot. The castle complex is a warren of courtyards, chapels and convents, dominated by the awesome Saint Vitus cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece begun in the ninth century and extended, remodelled and rebuilt over 1,000 years. The complex is also home to the pretty St George's Basilica, a Romanesque chapel containing the graves of the Premyslid Dynasty, the ancient rulers of the Czech lands.
You can also see the very room where the Defenestration of Prague took place. Even though I was a less-than-attentive member of my school history class, I've never forgotten the story of the two imperial governors, Vilém Slavata and Jaroslav Borzita, who were thrown from the castle's window in 1618 into the moat below as punishment for violating the Letter of Majesty, a religious diktat. The two men survived the 30-metre fall after landing on a dung pile below, which they took as proof that God was always on the side of Catholics.
Back in the city, we wander through the cobbled streets of the Old Town and across the river to the Malá Strana district. The two are connected by the Charles Bridge. During the summer months it's alive with buskers and crowds, but today it offers a peaceful place to rest and take in the views on both sides of the city.
The Jewish quarter -- Prague was once home to a thriving population of Jews, most of whom fled during the Nazi occupation -- is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Its collection of synagogues, including the beautiful 13th-century Old New Synagogue, cemetery and a museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish population, are all open to the public.
Sightseeing dispensed with, it's time to see what all the fuss is about with Czech beer. An hour's drive away, through the snow-covered sloping fields of Bohemia, is the town of Pilsen, home of car manufacturer Skoda and, more importantly for our purposes, the Pilsner Urquell brewery. It now contains a museum and has been turned into a tourist attraction, offering visitors an insight into this world-famous lager with, of course, an obligatory taste of the honey-coloured brew.
It is delicious. I'm beginning to see what all those stags saw in Prague. I just need someone to convince me of the merits of guns and topless barmaids and I'm sold.