Of beer, black cats and 24,750 missing prostitutes

No exotic holidays to far-flung locations this year for me, thanks to the arrival of a large chunk of terraced debt. However, after an offer of rooms from a sister of a friend of a friend – no relationship offering free accommodation is too distant – it was decided that the 1993 TC Trip would be to Prague in Czechoslov…No, damn it, it’s now “The Czech Republic”, isn’t it? Horrible name, more like a political statement than a holiday destination: by the same token, 1992’s trip was to the Decadent Capitalist Fascist-Imperialist States of America.

I was a little uncertain at the prospect; my last few holidays have, to a large extent, been glorified shopping trips for books, CDs, videos and so on. However, I couldn’t read Czech, was unable to name a single Czech band, and assumed a country with four years of freedom would have had better things to do than evolve a trash video culture. I was forced to consider the possibility of a holiday spent in civilised activities like admiring ancient monuments.

We flew Czech Air – nice meal, dodgy English (the in-flight magazine had florid phrases like “Try to join with pencils of different colours the things which match in a way”, and that was on the kid’s page) and arrived in appropriately Stalinist, chucking it down rain, to be informed with near-sadistic glee that it had been perfect weather until that day.

Prague is finally undergoing adolescence at the age of 600 or so, with scaffolding pock-marking it’s face like urban acne as it rushes to embrace Western concepts like Cambio/Wechseln/Change and Benetton shops. Yet there remain sections of stunning beauty; get to Prague Castle at 9 a.m, before the invading hordes descend and you can enjoy sights that rival any in Europe.

Daniel Wabyick from San Francisco, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the most unique such sight of the holiday was seen on a day trip, and was about 40 miles outside Prague. The Ossuary at Sedlec probably ranks as the most wonderful example of bad taste I’ve ever seen. It dates back to last century; the cemetery there had been in great demand ever since some holy soil taken from Golgotha was spread around it, and it was deemed necessary to do “something” with the 40,000 or so skeletons contained therein. An artist was engaged to perform the honours and, lo, the entire chapel was decorated, almost floor to ceiling, with bones. There’s bells made of bones, coats of arms made of bones, and the piece de resistance (above), a chandelier which contains every one of the 206 bones in the human body. This is religion à la Jeff Koons.

Sure irreverence is not surprising; while the Czechs are theoretically Roman Catholic, the true faith is probably “brewing”. They drink more beer than anyone in the world bar the Germans, and I can see why. It’s superb stuff and doubly tempting when it sells for half the price of Coca-Cola. In the nine days there, I probably put away 50-60 pints, but my drinking patterns were such that I was only ever “sober” or “dehydrated” without ever passing through “drunk” or “hungover”. Instead, for some reason I got dreams in 70 mm, Dolby stereo sensurround. Little wonder my hand luggage on the plane back a) weighed more than my regular case and b) clinked.

The other, non-alcoholic shopping was a pleasant surprise, in weird and unexpected ways, such as fossils – get your own amber-containing-insect-containing-blood-containing-DNA. There was also an interesting trade in ex-Warsaw Pact militaria: medals, badges, boots, coats, I bought what seems to be a Soviet submariner’s watch for fifteen quid. It has a compass in it, which at any given moment, can be made to point to any direction as North. This would explain why the Russians never invaded the West – they couldn’t work out which direction it was…

If they’d put as much effort into building their compasses as they did into toys, things might have been different. Rummaging round in a toy store, I came across a fearsome weapon, in the shape of a gun-metal blue jet plane, which fires sucker darts at a velocity where they’d probably imbed themselves in the target regardless of suckers. You can load up three darts and select single-shot or one, mutually assured blast of destruction. It’s the best sort of toy – the kind Trading Standards would have a fit about!

Which bring me naturally to videos. My earlier assumption about no trash culture was almost correct. However, there was one notable exception: Hong Kong films. Somehow, a Czech company seemed to have done a bulk purchase of D&B films, including their “Nikita” remake “Black Cat”, “Iron Angels” and it’s sequel, “Tiger Cage” 1-3, and all six parts of “In the Line of Duty” (renamed for the Nth time. The Czechs know them as the “Red Force” series, sigh!). Dubbed, but bearable – in fact, “Black Cat”, being about a government assassin, sounds pretty plausible in Czech, knowing their penchant for such things in the good ol’ days.

Occasionally in a guidebook, you come across a phrase that leaps out of the page and burns into your brain. How about this one:

“Prague has 25,000 prostitutes”.

Hmmm. Population 1.2 million. Assuming an even sex ratio, this means one in 24 of Prague’s female population is a hooker. Rule out those over 40 or under 15, and the ratio is heading towards one in ten. Or put another way, if every male inhabitant spent 20 minutes per day with a call-girl, the babes wouldn’t need to work more than nine to five, and could still have an hour off for lunch. Here endeth Statistics 1.0.1.

So where is this hyper-abundance of fast females? Damned if I know. There’s no red-light district, the nearest thing is Wenceslas Square – incidentally, no more a square than Oxford Street is – where you can see a few girls in impressively short, tight skirts, lounging outside the night-clubs, awaiting an injection of hard currency. Of course, this may be utterly libelling them – the skirts worn by the waitresses in the castle cafe were just as short and tight – but even on the most Puritan of definitions, we were still faced with a shortfall of about 99%.

Even when we decided to investigate a couple of night-clubs, the numbers remained minimal, though we probably chose the wrong ones. Certainly, the first one, “Peklo”, was wrong in more or less all possible ways. Though nicely situated in Gothic catacombs under a former monastery, the music was crap, the drinks were hideously overpriced and the clientele…well, we were most of it. Total babe count: three, looking more like secretaries on a night out than sultry Slovak sluts (ok, it should be “sultry Czech sluts”, but why should I let geography get in the way of a nice titbit of alliteration? And they do seem laid-back about the split themselves, to the point that, six months in, the stamps still have “Ceskoslovensko” on them). “Peklo”, incidentally, is Czech for “hell”.

“The Classic”, the second attempt, was a little better. The music was still crap, but was at least crap rock rather than crap disco, the drinks were only mildly overpriced, and it was a lot fuller. However, it felt more like a school dance than a sleazy dive and the mystery of the truant tarts remains unresolved…

Actually, there is a lot of highly visible prostitution going on. Not of Prague’s cuter inhabitants, but of the city itself, it seems any indignity is acceptable as long as it brings in hard cash. For example, I went to a ballet performance at the State Opera House (above). In the old days, this sort of thing would have been state-subsidised, but now it has to fend for itself; the ticket prices have shot up by a factor of ten and the audience is now more or less all tourists. As a result, the performance was crippled by imbeciles with cameras, unbelievably using flashes and motor winds.

Now, I’m no aficionado (the last ballet I saw was back in 197~) but even I felt this was dissing the performers. But the staff, presumably scared of upsetting the tourists, did nothing until another tourist (and presumably fan) made a severe scene. It will probably not surprise you to learn that she was British, and that it definitely had the desired effect (we may have lost the Empire, but if our stiff upper lip is broken, we can still complain better than anyone else). However, I couldn’t help thinking that in pre-revolution days, one flashclickwhirr and ushers would have gone in with Alsatians and riot-batons.

The charm of Prague is not to be found in the places where you’ll hear German and English more often than Czech; after all, cafes charging extortionate prices to sit on the pavement are a Europe-wide phenomenon. The true delights are finding the pockets of the city which have been frozen in time, and stepping back into the age before McDonalds, when bars didn’t have MTV. One of the most enjoyable finds was in Petrin Park, where there’s a hall of mirrors – two parts, one a mirror-maze, the other a traditional distort-your-shape. Both were absolutely fascinating, all the more so for being virtually tourist-free.

The same can not be said of the public transport system, which may soon go the same way as the ballet. Currently, it’s a joy – less than 10p per ticket, the five-day pass shown below costs £2.50, or you can get a yearly one for about forty quid. It’s fast, frequent, efficient and clean, a source of great amazement to this adopted Londoner, who’d never really experienced good public transport. The most impressive thing, personally, was finding that the buses ran to a specific timetable. Here, if there’s a timetable at all, anything between “First Bus” and “Last Bus” is so inaccurate as to be useless. Prague’s system hasn’t a hope of surviving private enterprise, and already the fares are beginning to rise.

And that more or less sums up Prague. At the moment, it is definitely worth visiting – no place with beer at 13p per pint couldn’t be! But I give it two years at most before it becomes indistinguishable from any other Western tourist trap.