Three- ard _ Prague

Tom Lappin visits the post-revolutionary Czechoslovakian capital and discovers a city of beauty, character and not a little petty crime.

Prague: Europe's most beautiful city or the biggest den ofconmen and wideboys this side of downtown Peckham'.’ Well. a bit of both actually. Post Velvet Revolution. the city has seen swarms of tourists gasping with awe at the magnificent architecture one moment. gasping with disbelief at the chicanery practised by restaurant and hotel staffthe next. As the guidebooks say: truly a city ofcontrasts.

Rattling through the bleak and dusty suburbs on the bus from the airport. or passing through the industrial wastelands of Bohemia on the train. gives the first-time visitor no warning of the splendours of central Prague. a city still distinctly medieval in atmosphere. lts Gothic and Baroque heritage has survived wars and political upheavals remarkably well. making it a delight for lovers of history and architecture.

The centre of the city. straddling the Vltava river. is divided into five areas. each formerly a town in its own right and holding on to its own character. The best and arguably only way to explore is by foot. although to get to a specific destination the trams are fast and very cheap (the Czechs trustineg expect people to punch their own tickets).

A typical day can start off in the Hradcany district around the castle (now the residence of Vaclav Havel and his Velvet Underground CDs). taking in the little cottage in a tiny back street where Franz Kafka used to house his word-processor. be fore swooning at the beauty ofthe Loretto churches. It‘s a short walk down the hill to the plush suburb of Mala Strana where Prague‘s fashionable set meet in the bars and cafes around the Charles Bridge. now once more crowded with the buskers and hawkers outlawed under the Communist regime. Prague‘s bridges are architectural delights in themselves and best seen from a rowing boat on the Vltava (around 100 crowns to hire for a couple of hours).

On the other side of the river, the Staromestske namesti or old town square is one of the most striking

examples of Prague‘s architectural beauty, with the famous astrological clock the centrepiece. The old town is the ideal place to seek out one of the numerous cellar bars tucked away in a cobbled close or secluded square. Less idyllic is the new town, Prague‘s commercial centre around Vaclavskc namesti (Wenceslas Square of popular newsreel fame). packed with hotels. restaurants, the wonderful Maj supermarket (Prague‘s answer to Scotmid) and the never ending litany of ‘Change money‘?‘

Exploring the districts of Prague is the only way to appreciate the depth of history and culture on offer, but 90s Prague is far from being devoted to high-minded aesthetics. Hard Western currency is still a potent motivating force for Czechs who, in the process of becoming tourist-conscious, have gained a notorious reputation for cheating foreigners.

The huge numbers oftourists flooding to Prague since the ‘Velvet Revolution’ constitute easy meat for the city's hustlers. Black-market money-changers used to specialise in palming off useless Polish or Yugoslav currencies onto bemused Westerners, although this is less ofa

Charles Bridge and the larger Little Town Bridge Tower.

problem now that the official compulsory money exchange has been abolished and tourists can exchange at the reasonable rates offered by banks. As one avenue closes, however, others open, and Prague’s beleaguered police force reports an upsurge in crime since Havel came to power and released several hundred petty criminals from jail. Things aren’t helped by the fact that most of the criminals seem to drive Western cars while the police give chase in their beat-up Skodas.

Restaurants are another source of potential strife for visitors. At first it is refreshing to see the total absence of American-style servility, but it becomes less amusing when waiters are extremely unwilling to let customers see menus (and prices) and bills are casually doubled or trebled as a matter ofcourse. The resulting acrimony means it is often better to avoid restaurants altogether and eat in bars, such as the world famous u Dvoi Kocek or u Medliki where the food is simple, but remarkably cheap, and the incomparably wonderful Plsen or Budvar beer keeps flowing all through your meal.

Accommodation is relatively easy to find, even in the height of




summer. Central rooms are available privately for hard currency, from invariably sinister-looking characters who hang around the tourist offices. The offices themselves will always try to place you in the most expensive hotels, regardless of how forcefully you ask for somewhere cheap. In summer. look out for student accommodation, near Dejvicka, at the end of a tram line, but very cheap and comfortable. rather more so than Scottish halls of residence by all accounts.

Last summer was the beginning of the great surge eastwards by Western tourists, so perhaps it is advisable to see Prague in spring or autumn and avoid the crowds of Americans looking high and low for burger joints. Prague is an ideal base from which to explore the spa towns of Western Bohemia or the beer mecca of Plsen, but it is likely that once you’ve seen what Prague has to offer, you will be loath to leave it. Regardless of the hassles and frustrations the city can cause you, there is little in Europe to match the glories of Staromestske namesti, or a freshly drawn litre of black beer.

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The List 25 January 7 Februarv 1991 75