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Prague without the pub crawls

Sarah Tierney finds a beautiful city shrugging off a party-town image

Published on January 28th 2010.


Prague without the pub crawls

“I wish they would cancel those Friday evening flights,” says Olga – a Czech tour guide who has mixed feelings about some of the British visitors to Prague. We're standing in the snow outside the city's castle and she's talking about her interest in our history and culture. She describes England as her “sweet Albion” and probably knows more about our kings and queens than the average UK-born university graduate. But the weekly arrival of the stag parties and hen weekends has dampened her Anglophilia.

With an English vocabulary that includes the words 'fermentation' and 'mash tun', he's either very good at languages or very keen on beer.

In the late nineties and early noughties, the combination of cheap flights and cheap beer turned Prague into a post-Communist version of Lloret de Mar, with the pubs and bars the most visited attraction by young Brits. It wasn't pretty but it worked wonders for the Czech Republic's burgeoning tourist economy and it's only recently that the hangover has started to kick in.

Nowadays the stags are more likely to head to Riga or Tallinn for bargain beers, and the economic downturn has further reduced the number of UK visitors heading to Prague for the weekend. Olga's wish came true last year when up to 120 flights from the UK a month were cancelled – and those who did go were likely to be an older, more restrained bunch more interested in drinking in Prague's stunning architecture than twice their body weight in Pilsner Urquell.

This is good news for tour guides but how is it affecting the bars and pubs that rely on the tourist koruna? Not as badly as you'd imagine, was my impression. We arrive in Prague on Saturday morning with no intention of joining an organised pub crawl or seeking out the nearest Irish bar, yet our first activity as guests of BMI Baby, Prague Airport and the Czech Tourist Board, is a trip to an underground brewery-restaurant in the New Town district of the city centre.

Beer tourism is still going strong in Prague, but nowadays it aims to attracts ale aficionados rather than lager louts. Daniel, who works in the communications team at Prague Airport, is one of the former in his time off. With an English vocabulary that includes the words 'fermentation' and 'mash tun', he's either very good at languages or very keen on beer. Over a lunch of traditional Czech food, he explains that people can spend a weekend touring the city's microbreweries and bigger producers such as the huge Staropramen brewery. Some time their trip to coincide with a beer festival.

All very interesting if you're into that kind of thing (i.e., if you're a bloke). I spend the afternoon at a place that will appeal to a different kind of visitor – the Cold War tourist. At the New Building of the National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square, there's an exhibition running until June 2010 called Za Svobodu! (translation: Be Free!) about Czech history from the end of the Second World War up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Visitors to modern-day Prague will find it difficult to imagine how it must have been in the Cold War. I've not seen this many McDonald's since the late-1980s and the only Skoda 1000s around are the models sold in gift shops. That's not to say that there's no evidence of the city's difficult past: later in the trip, I stumbled across a sculpture in Petrin Park that made me shiver. A troupe of haunted-looking men descending the hill, those furthest away missing huge chunks of their body, making them just shards of a person. It was Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek's monument to the victims of Communism.

The National Museum exhibition is almost as powerful. The walls are covered in oversized propaganda and a looped video tape of a state prosecutor acts as a disconcerting soundtrack as you move between the displays of handcuffs, police uniforms, and in case you need an even starker representation of the horrors of that time, a noose.

Much of Be Free! documents the battle to get information in from the outside – there's a pamphlet holder disguised as a sugar sprinkler and the balloons used by Radio Free Europe to drop flyers to citizens. Then there's the museum building itself. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the Federal Assembly of the Communist government. After the Velvet Revolution, it became the home of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – a neatly symbolic change of use that can't have gone unnoticed by Moscow.

With signs translated into English, Be Free! is one way to get to grips with recent Czech history. But if you prefer to see it first-hand rather than through the glass case of a museum display, a walking tour through the city is recommended.

Olga, our tour guide, meets us in the lobby of our hotel early on Sunday morning. She gives us strict instructions to tell her if we're getting cold – the temperature outside is below freezing and a fresh snow shower is keeping the street sweepers busy. In Prague, they react to winter weather with more vigour than we do over here. Sections of pavements are taped off while men push the snow off the roofs to stop some hapless passer-by being floored by an urban avalanche. And rather than gazing in wonder at the big white flakes then letting the snow sit on the pavements for days, they promptly scrape it into mounds, leaving the walkways clear. Genius.

We're impressed by their efficiency but Olga says the situation is “chaos”. The people of Prague might be better at dealing with snow, but they share our capacity for complaining about it.

Still, it makes a magical backdrop to the walking tour. With few cars and few people about, only the muted rumble of trams and occasional church bells interrupt Olga's commentary. We pass the balcony where future president Václav Havel addressed the crowds in December 1989 (the building is now home to Marks and Spencer), and the Jewish cemetery where bodies are buried 12 layers deep. Like the New Building of the National Museum, much of what we see has not just one story or layer of history, but several. Even Prague's streets have an older predecessor lurking beneath them; in the twelfth century, the authorities raised the level of the city to protect it from floods. In some passageways and cellars, you can see the arches of the original doorways rising out of the ground.

The tour ends at Prague Castle, where we have lunch in the nearby Klasternu Restaurace – a cavernous place designed for the high season rush rather than a snowy afternoon in January. The waiters are dressed in traditional costume and the food is hearty – chicken with coleslaw, salad and potatoes, followed by pancakes with blueberries and whipped cream.

Czech cuisine doesn't have a good reputation in the UK – pickled veg, tinned fruit, and an over-fondness for dumplings is at odds with what we consider decent dining. But like the image of Prague as Stag Party Central, that view starts to seem dated as the weekend progresses. We eat in four different restaurants; two that cater for the tourist trade but which nonetheless serve reasonable fare (though a steak topped with whipped cream and jam raises some eyebrows). And two that could compete with well-rated restaurants over here.

The first of these is the Triton Restaurant: an Art Nouveau curio hidden below the Adria Hotel on Wenceslas Square. Designed in 1912, it's an artificial cave complete with stalactites, stalagmites and figures from Greek myth. It's simultaneously classy and kitsch and the gourmet food is excellent. We have a tasting spoon of smoked chicken breast and avocado followed by pink duck breast with apricot on spelt tagliatelle, and a lavender-flavoured crème dessert.

In contrast to the Triton, the décor at the Yasmin Hotel's noodle bar is very 2010: huge horns fashioned from orange palm leaves make a bold statement while the uncomplicated pesto dish we have is content to quietly impress. Our hotel, the Jalta on Wenceslas Square is another stylish affair with a Warhol print of Kafka in the lobby and a smart, sophisticated restaurant and bar.

Back in the Castle district, we leave Klasternu Restaurace to find the cloud descending and the crowds filling out. The enchanting atmosphere of Prague in the early morning has all but disappeared. We join other groups of tourists crossing the partly-scaffolded Charles Bridge and making their way through the slush and souvenir shops in the warren of streets near the Old Town Square.

A few hours before, Olga had shown us the cafe-bar in Obecni dum – the city's Municipal House. We'd peeked in from the doorway to see a succession of Art Nouveau chandeliers hanging over green marbled tables. There were gold-trimmed archways, huge windows, and mirrors that reflected the splendour back on itself.

We decide to go there now. Seated in one of its leather booths with an early evening kir royale, it is easy to feel awed by Prague once more. This place stunning yet the locals don't even seem that impressed by it; people drop in to read the papers with all the ceremony of stopping by at Starbucks.

When you live in a beautiful city, you must become accustomed to such sights. When you don't, it's hard not to sit and stare. If the first wave of UK tourists came to Prague to drink tankards of beer in one of its underground pubs, the second will come to sip cocktails in one of its dazzling, period restaurants and bars.

Sarah Tierney travelled to Prague courtesy of low cost airline bmibaby, Prague Airport and Czech Tourism.

The group stayed at the Hotel Jalta 4* DeLuxe. Located centrally on Wenceslas Square, a UNESCO area, the hotel offers standards and service usually only found at the very top end of the market including 94 rooms, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi connection, parking, a fitness room and the popular Como Mediterranean restaurant. Double rooms with breakfast start from 99 Euros per night. www.hoteljalta.com.

Voted Best Eastern Europe Airport in 2007 and 2009, Prague Airport offers an all inclusive VIP arrival and departure service which starts from 3900 CZK (about £100). To book, please e-mail vip.service@prg.aero.

Leading low cost airline bmibaby has recently increased its service to Prague and now flies direct from Manchester Airport up to five times a week. Fares for winter start from £14.99 one way including all taxes and charges. bmibaby offer many passenger benefits including allocated seating, online check in and the opportunity to join bmi diamond club - the UK's most generous frequent flyer programme. For lowest fares and to book a flight, visit www.bmibaby.com.

CzechTourism
www.CzechTourism.co.uk

To book a walking tour with Olga, please email olga.savelkova@iol.czShe holds licences for the city of Prague, and has special licences for Prague Castle, the Jewish Quarter and a VIP licence.

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