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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Eleven: Prague

The Old Town Square, Prague 
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The magnificence of Prague. The Old Town Square, dominated by the 260-foot twin towers of the Church of Our Lady before Týn. Once associated with the reform movement of Jan Hus, it was taken over by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century.
Michael Palin - New EuropeOn yesterday's day of rest I saw enough of Prague to be aware of how dramatically it has changed. The architecture is as striking as I remember it, the city as beautiful, but now it is open, welcoming and anxious to please, and you can talk about anything, anywhere. The 'Golden Mile', running from St Vitus' Cathedral and the castle through Malá Strana (the Little Quarter), across Charles Bridge to the Old Town Square, must be one of the most over-appreciated stretches of any capital in Europe. In the high tourist time of day - from nine till five - a thick, slow-moving crowd clogs this lucrative artery, making it impossible to get a sense of anything except other people. Prague is endlessly hospitable and seems as much at ease with the night-time adventurer as the daytime masses. Quite late at night I saw vehicles, looking like converted jeeps, offering rides to the nearest brothel. I also saw a group of medics from Portsmouth, bowling down through Wenceslas Square, all dressed identically in green surgical overalls. They were pissed as newts and yet the Czech people I was with seemed to take it quite philosophically. And they were policemen.

Tour groups generally stick to a predictable route, on either side of which, even a few yards away, all can be quiet. I spent much of my day off, almost undisturbed, in an enchanting courtyard at the back of the majestic Tyn Church, with a stack of English-language newspapers picked up from the Big Ben Bookshop. Attuned as I am now to stories from the countries I've just got to know, I'm pleased to read that Poland and Ukraine have been chosen to host the 2012 European Soccer Championships. This is counterbalanced by more sinister news: of bombs thrown at the home of a liberal journalist in Belgrade, and of three people printing and publishing Bibles found with their throats slit in eastern Turkey.

I think of the import of such events as I arrive this morning at the Café Slavia, a time-honoured rendezvous for writers, artists and those of an independent mind, or, as they were known in the old days, dissidents. It's an un-dandified, Art Deco establishment with marble floors, big mirrors, Thonet chairs and rows of banquette seating.

I take coffee with Norbert Auerbach, a clever, charming, combative octogenarian, born in Vienna but brought up in Prague. He left the city, as many of the more fortunate Jews did, just before Hitler moved in, returning to Europe with the American army in 1944. He's now living in Prague again after a lifetime's work in the international film business. I ask him how difficult things were for film production in the post-war period (one of my favourite Czech films, Jiri Menzel's Closely Observed Trains, won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1967).

'Prague under the communists was a grey, sad city,' he says, eyes narrowing as he looks over my shoulder towards the river and the green slopes of parkland beyond.

'But for people like film-makers it was a paradise. The communist government subsidised all the films. Profit was forbidden. If you made a profit you were exploiting the proletariat. They were shooting thirty, thirty-five films a year, against ten or twelve now.'

He nods and a smile of recollection crosses his face.

'They had these wonderful things under the communists. In the smaller theatres in the countryside they could only play a film if more than ten people bought a ticket. If they didn't there was no performance and the projectionist didn't get paid, so if there was no-one in the theatre the projectionist would buy ten tickets himself.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Eleven: Prague
  • Country/sea: Czech Republic
  • Place: Prague
  • Book page no: 258

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