They say break a mirror and you’re looking at bad luck for seven years – but drink a hot chocolate in Prague and you’re looking at bad spots for twelve.
That’s about the best way to sum up Prague. It’s all hyper-tourism meets snogging couples via beautiful, astonishing architecture. It’s the dregs of Communist fashion saying hello to the mink coats of new money.
Prague is sitting on your hotel bed, flicking through three hundred channels to find BBC World and catching lots and lots of German porn on the way.
Prague is also singularly stunning to look at and almost too overwhelming to process.
It’s older than most of the places in Europe because the Americans only slightly bombed it, which means every angle’s a decent photo, and every street’s got something in it, like bullet holes. Every pavement’s a stone patchwork. The bridges are preposterously mint; the river wide; the Communist buildings as much a spectacle on account of they’re exactly what the rest of the place isn’t. You wonder what the Iron Curtain did to eyesight, really. You think, this is Stockport plus Lego minus colour. You think gulags scattered below spires and stained glass.
It’s an amazing city – they killed a high ranking Nazi here, those leftish fops – and at the same time it’s almost bordering on a grim city.
But I loved those commie buildings as much as I loved Charles bridge – I loved the old cooling towers and rotten mechanical things poking about as much as the gargoyles and cobbles and towers.
Elsewise, the Czechs don’t do much save throw restaurants and meat at you. Every corner’s a special offer; every sidestreet’s got a cheerful bloke trying to fan you into his chairs with a leather-bound menu. If you want to postulate here you’ll need Kafka’s collected works in one hand and a fist full of dumplings in the other, and if you want healthy living then you’ll pay twice as much for bottled water as you will a half-litre of beer.
Me, I’m fond of those creatively named and massively jingoistic ales you’ll find in Morrisons – Bastard’s Finger, Burning Witch, Gulf War Veteran, whatever. But as with most of their consumables, they keep it simple in Praha. ‘Light beer or dark beer,’ they’ll say, sometimes expecting a tip just for opening their mouths. ‘Dark beer?’ Their eyebrows raise. ‘Okay. Dark beer.’ And I’m saying: Czech dark beer’s better than Jade Goody’s narrative arc. It’s smoother and sweeter and ale-ier than anything our allotment tenders come up with. The beer’s made by a people who open their doors gracefully and give you information about public transport pragmatically. It’s the kind of beer made by stout men with moustaches and tracksuit tops. I get the idea it isn’t lovingly made – it’s engineered.
On the whole, the people of Prague don’t say very much. Ask a question, any question, and they won’t waste their words. You haven’t even learned to say thank you, so you’re only one short of the tourists who put on the accent to try and smooth communication. ‘Where is the tram?’ you ask politely, and they’ll point and say, ‘26 Koruna’. Then again, putting it like that makes them sound stout, or obnoxious, but they’re the magnetic south to Parisians, and anyway, they’ve got tables to mind.
Actually, the accent you hear most is American. We’re greeted by an American the first day, and she’s pretty blasé about living. She can’t be much older than us and she’s got the kind of sour face that footballers find attractive – slim, yawning, tan. I don’t really say much since I’m still excited by the trams (they make lots of Tamagotchi bleeps when they’re stopping) but my dear companion’s happy to chat away as we walk up a ponderous hill to Prague Castle, which we’re staying opposite. Eventually the American girl takes our money, patronises me about the room keys, and summarises the rest of the Americans staying there. They’re just hanging out. She’s going to go drink coffee someplace. That or, I don’t know, take pictures of her tits and blackmail somebody about her visa.
Another thing. The beggars think they’ve walked straight out of a Biblical relief. They all crouch over on their knees, heads bowed, and raise their hands, shaking, repenting. I promise to give all my loose change by the end of the holiday but – and this sounds crueller than it’s meant to – I forget. The street culture is this, portraits, amazing sausages and people asking if you want to buy weed. It’s also art. Art art art. Art and classical music, and concerts, and drama. And tourists falling over each other by the Astronomical Clock – which is a lot like my Casio only big.
I read before we went that Prague’s full of prostitutes, a seedy place where pissed up Stags and their dos lose their brains just before their wallets. But about all we saw of that, and Wenceslas Square, was a nice man outside a strip club – they have names like NEMESIS and PENDULOUS and BREAST MEAT, by the way – who approached us and announced of my companion, ‘A lady of mysterious glamour!’ before inviting us to watch a few girls getting slithery on poles, or Poles. Afterwards my companion paused from laughing and said, ‘I’m not even wearing make-up.’
The best bit comes last, as it should – as men should, as zealotry should. The best bit was and is the city’s TV tower – a gigantic rocket-ship building with giant black babies crawling up its flanks. Really.
Sentinel over most of the city, the Žižkov TV tower’s this bilious grey thing made in the 90s to celebrate the 70s, and it’s smooth and pointless and absolutely majestic. I love towers at the best of times but holy health and safety regulations, this thing was immense. Immense and grey and covered with pewter-coloured crawling babies – who, as it goes, don’t even have faces. Probably it’s the greatest tower on Earth. No other planetary intelligence would think to build something so stupid and then decide to decorate it with enormous crawling babies.
Maybe some clever bod might claim the tower’s about birth – about McDonalds and modernity getting to the city after all. But actually it’s just a superfluous and silly thing. It’s just there. It’s a tower for a tower’s sake – and I’m also guessing it’s the home of German porn in Prague.