Travel: Czech, Bring Me the Waiter; It's Got History, Architecture, Defenestration, Great Beer, Irish-Cuban Bars and the Best Guidebook in the World. Prague, Says GEOFF HILL, Is Heaven without the Bother of Going to Church

By Hill, Geoff | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), April 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Travel: Czech, Bring Me the Waiter; It's Got History, Architecture, Defenestration, Great Beer, Irish-Cuban Bars and the Best Guidebook in the World. Prague, Says GEOFF HILL, Is Heaven without the Bother of Going to Church


Hill, Geoff, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


In spite of the fact that we had to rise at five in the morning, someone in the house, quite possibly myself, had organised a dinner party for the night before.

As a result, the next morning we rose in an ugly mood and flew to the most beautiful city on earth.

But first, a brief history. Of the city, not the hangover.

Prague was founded a thousand years ago, and its first sovereign was Good King Wenceslas, who went out when the snow was deep and crisp and even, and got murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel.

Now, you'd think having a brother with a name like that would make you a bit careful about turning your back on him, but Wenceslas was a gentle soul, too trusting for the tangled intrigues of Dark Ages politics.

After his death the centuries passed, bringing with them flagellants, plagues, floods and fresh monarchs, until in the 14th Century another Wenceslas sat on the throne.

Unfortunately it had to be cleaned afterwards: after peeing in the font at his christening, he soiled the altar at his coronation and spent the rest of his reign in an alcoholic stupor, in between roasting his cook for overdoing the spuds, locking his first wife in a brothel and nipping out dressed as a pauper to execute any shopkeeper who shortchanged him.

Strangely, in the midst of all this pooing and froing, the city was going through not one but several golden ages of architecture, so that to walk around any street corner in Prague is to be faced with a scene in which Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist, Neoclasssical and Art Nouveau buildings playfully wrestle each other into submission.

Sadly, we arrived in this crucible of creative chaos slightly too early for Easter Monday, when the men of Prague thrash their women lovingly with willow to keep them fertile for the year ahead. Their spouses respond gratefully with a bucket of cold water over the head and a painted egg.

However, on the bright side, we had through assiduous study armed ourselves with essential phrases such as Ztratily se mi klice od bytu (I have lost the keys to the flat) and Chces se podivat na moji sbirku motylu (Do you want to take a look at my butterfly collection?)

However, none of these work on Prague taxi drivers, who have such a reputation for extortion that in 1995 it was widely reported that some of them had wired up their back seats to zap any tourist who dared challenge a mark-up of six hundred per cent.

When asked about this, the chairman of the taxi drivers' guild replied elliptically that electrocution was probably a violation of professional etiquette.

It was, as you can imagine, in a state of some nervous anticipation that we queued to have our passports stamped and gain admission to the country.

However, at this stage my thoughts were entirely distracted by the sight of a familiar figure leaning against a pillar somewhat on the far side of the stamping booth, wearing a cheap felt trilby, dark glasses, a black leather trenchcoat and a pair of grey plastic shoes.

It was, surprisingly, Kitten. A freshly lit Sparta was dangling from his insouciant lips, and he was flicking idly through an old copy of Purravda.

''Mas dobre vychtyany brejle, Kitten,'' (Cool shades, Kitten) I said.

''What, dear?'' said Cate.

''Er, nothing. I was just wondering if the national trampolining team is called The Bouncing Czechs,'' I said.

''Or if that doleful banjo music on the public address system is Country and Eastern,'' she said as we passed, freshly stamped, into the Republic.

At the airport information desk, a charming girl called Zryczrycszna, or something like that, was sitting in front of a poster of what looked like a giant radish. I asked her what the best way of getting into town was.

''Taxi,'' she said. I knew she would, and two minutes later we were in the back of a Volkswagen being driven by a man who was apparently on day release from the city's psychiatric hospital. …

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