Ooooh, Prague’s lovely! That’s what they’ll tell you. It’s what everyone says. Such a beautiful city, like all the other beautiful cities. With it’s narrow, winding lanes and broad, tree lined parades and historic, charismatic streets. It’s got some alleyways too. Never forget the alleyways. Great cities always have a network of charmed, twisting alleyways somewhere; it was written into the Geneva convention, I think. And so all cities are also usually described by some gushing reference to the very same surfaces on which cigarette butts are discarded, stray dogs defecate and swarthy hoodlums spit without thought. There is a lot of spitting in this city. Well, whatever Prague is, it’s where I’m writing this from, or rather where I started it: on the sofa of a problematic hotel room, with a very problematic bathroom, in the heart (the beating, atmospheric heart, as some would have it) of a city that is far more problematic than I had anticipated, certainly than I had been led to expect. Perhaps this is the curse and downfall of all great cities – expectation – as built up by too many ecstatic clowns in gushing guide books that extol the virtue of every brick of every corner. Nowhere is ever as good as the guidebooks say; not Valhalla, not Xanadu and, sadly, not Prague. Oh well, what the fuck do I know about culture?
If you were feeling energetic enough you could probably cram all you needed into a day long pillage. Up to the castle, round a few churches, across a couple of bridges, potter sincerely around the Jewish quarter (in fairness the Jewish cemetery is well worth an effort), dawdle along those winding streets, hurt your neck looking up at all the architecture, chuck back some beer and goulash, spit on something and then head to bed. Spitting aside, the citizens of Prague seem to be a nice lot, which is something of a miracle given the maelstrom of abuse they’ve had to put up with over the centuries. Obviously being thoroughly shafted by the Germans and the Russians during and after World War II won’t have helped, but we must also remember that this city (like every other city in the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet collections) sits at a crossroads where many cultures have been and gone, and where their legacies shall forever remain, blah, blah, blah, and that in this sense it is a true melting pot; like Istanbul, or Rotherham. So rich is the history of this place that I managed to get quite lost in the heirarchical machinations of assorted top dogs, and was subsequently astounded to learn that at various times the city has been under the control of the Inuits, the Zulus, the Pawnee and the Navajo, the Ming Dynasty, the Incas and the O’Reilly’s boxing club from Co. Tyrone. I’m only kidding: it was the Aztecs, not the Incas. And through all this Prague has been forged – a modern and bustling centre of culture; which is why I am amazed they can’t get the hotel rooms right.
There is no such thing as a perfect hotel room, or at least not the ones I have ever stayed in. There is always at least one thing wrong, and that’s if you’re lucky. Who, for instance, came up with the idea of glass walls for a bathroom? Surely the bathroom is the one place where one should expect a bit of privacy, even from your nearest and dearest. Instead, our bathroom was heavily mirrored along three interior walls and had transparent glass on the fourth, a design which is immediately as disorientating as the hall of mirrors at a fun fair, and must leave at least a few people with stunned expressions and a broken nose (I came close). There was no lock on the sliding door and privacy was only available by pressing and holding a button which operated the world’s slowest set of curtains. This is not a bathroom that would support the needs of any desperate someone caught short by a dodgy bit of pork knuckle (as in the dish, not the euphamism). And since the curtains could also be operated using a remote control located outside the bathroom there was something rather creepy about the whole set up: something of the more selective Amsterdam peep shows (that I’ve been told about), something rather voyeuristic and Hitchcockian. At least I thought so, but then maybe that’s just how my mind works. There was also, by default, no sound proofing, a flaw that you can think about all to yourself. Whatever the case, it certainly isn’t how I would design a bathroom.
And what really makes this dreadful balls-up in design so difficult to swallow is that it is happening in the very same city as the hourly chimes of the Astronomical Clock. Anyone and everyone who visits Prague will make some kind of a line to see this mind blowing attraction. I say mind blowing, but it isn’t really. Mildly distracting is probably a better use of words. Crowds will gather, phones will point, necks will stretch and then at the top of each hour the clock starts to ring, a couple of wooden doors slide open and the old town square is treated to a series of figures which slide past in a mechanical fashion (I forget what they are supposed to be doing, but I’m sure it’s all very ‘medieval’) and then the doors close, the chiming stops and the crowd disperse, with a little giggle and a muted air of underwhelm. If anyone flew into Prague just to see this they would feel very let down. But then for all my cynicism it is right to consider that the clock was built over 600 years ago and is still going strong, and that this would absolutely stagger the imagination of any passing peasant, way back then. This was the height of technology, pretty much anywhere, certainly in Europe, and it seems sad that we now rely on technology that is so much more advanced and yet also so much, well, shitter. You also couldn’t build the Astronomical Clock now – there would be issues ranging from planning permission, trade union strikes, the inevitable spiralling costs and the permanent gremlin of health and safety. As for who decides how many of the figures would represent the LGBTQ community, well that would delay things for years. All of which is somehow pretty pathetic, given our lives are vastly better off that that of your average 14th century anyone. I’ll stop there, I’m home now and am already starting to forget bits, but I write this safe in the knowledge that even my brief reflections from Prague are still about as useful as any guidebook I’d care to recommend. And that is to say, not at all. Go there, but don’t expect it to be as good as heaven, because heaven doesn’t exist.
G B Hewitt. 03.04.2022