Of Socks and Sandals:
A Tourist's Time in Prague
What do British tourists first think of when they think of Prague? Is it the gorgeous architecture, marred by occasional subpar graffiti? The impossibly cheap beer, which makes Londoners weep into our overpriced pints? Or is it the video of the first Czech President, seemingly ‘stealing’ a pen, which must have provided inspiration for the city’s pickpockets far and wide?
Luckily for Václav Havel, the latter is not on the radar of my flatmates. I arrive in Prague with Charlie and Greg a week before Easter, and a crush takes hold. We find ourselves looking at Prague the way Justin Trudeau looks at Obama: like, ‘I want to take you in a way that’s mutually agreeable, then go home once I’ve finished.’
The cheapness of alcohol, however, has not escaped our attention. Prague would be one of the worst places to live if you were a recovering alcoholic. I’m not much of a drinker, but even I feel pressure to sample the ‘pivo’ on our first night in Prague. ‘Pivo’ and ‘Ahoj’ are the only two words I can remember from my phrasebook, but as the night progresses it becomes apparent I need know little else.
The alcohol here is cheap, and soon Charlie and I are discussing stereotypes of the sexual prowess of different nationalities. I ask our Czech friend, Lukas, if there are any stereotypes about Czech men, and he responds by bringing up a series of images on his phone. They are all photos of men wearing socks and sandals simultaneously. There is a sharp intake of breath at the table. I wonder what sort of city allows its citizens to behave like this.
Unlike London, Prague hasn’t banned smoking in all public venues. This means that an evening of playing pool can leave you feeling like your chances of getting lung cancer just tripled. We’re staying in Žižkov, which has a reasonable mix of smoking and non-smoking establishments. It’s also home to Bukowski’s, a bar so popular that on our first trip we struggle to get served. Charlie is still sporting a hangover from a night of heavy drinking there when I persuade her to come out and ‘do tourist things’.
I decide to ease Charlie in gently: with the work of David Černý, who has been making people laugh at the Czech Republic since 1991. We live within walking distance of the Žižkov Television Tower, which features his piece ‘Tower Babies’. These are cast babies crawling along the sides of the tower. Whilst creepy as fuck, they provide the only redeeming feature on what is otherwise considered an architectural abomination in the sight of God. We enjoy the views from the top of the tower, sitting from weird suspended pods, but a trip is only worth the money if you can get a discounted ticket.
Charlie and I continue our Černý Appreciation Trip in Malá Strana. We take the tram there, which is an experience in itself. I prefer Prague’s tram network to the London Underground, because I like being able to look outside when I’m being studiously ignored by strangers.
Malá Strana is home to Černý’s ‘Piss’, a fountain in which two statues of men ‘urinate’ water into a basin the shape of the Czech Republic. You’re meant to be able to send something via SMS to the fountain, which the men will then ‘write’ in the water with, well, more water. Whilst I get a kick out of the audacity of the exhibit, I am frustrated by the inefficiency of the SMS feature. I don’t usually want to know what a flaccid dick is trying to spell out, but it’s impossible to tell when it’s constrained by pre-determined movements. The other tourists seem to love the exhibit, taking pictures of the mechanical penises from every angle. I make Charlie take a picture of me surveying one greedily. She says she feels like a Husband of Instagram. I feel like a monster.
We’re Černý-ed out, which means that this tourist shit’s about to get serious. We pop into a marionette shop, where we’re both delighted and horrified to discover the existence of ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Frozen’ marionettes.
Then we head to St Charles Bridge, which entirely succeeds in its purpose of transporting us from one end of the bridge to the other. It’s a pretty structure, with statues lining each side. I spot a group of tourists touching something gold and shiny at the bottom of one of the statues. Like a small child or Donald Trump, I make a beeline towards the plaque and do the same. I extend my hand to touch what turns out to be a falling priest, a refreshing role-reversal in light of recent scandals. Afterwards I will discover that we were at the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, a Czech martyr saint, and that touching his plaque is meant to bring you good luck and guarantee your return to Prague. That way you too may get to visit the spot - where a man was thrown to his death - a second time.
I tell Charlie that it’s time (ha!) to visit the Prague astronomical clock. I first discovered the Prague astronomical clock last October, when I opened up Google to see an illustration marking the 605th anniversary of the oldest working clock in the world. It’s the kind of anniversary reminder most couples can only dream of. Whilst I think you’ve made it when there’s a Google Doodle in your honour, not everyone’s convinced. Greg has a list of monuments that it’s worth braving a hangover to see, and the astronomical clock does not make the cut. After battling to get a photo of the clock that isn't framed by huge umbrellas, Charlie has had enough and wants to go home. She thinks that the clock is beautiful, and worth a visit. But we both agree that the experience is marred by the presence of people (like me) desperate to get a photo with it. I, however, will give Prague this: the clock does appear to be working.
My next stop is St. Vitus Cathedral. I am not particularly fond of religious buildings. For an atheist with no real interest in architecture I have seen an unusually high number of cathedrals. I've come to the unfortunate realisation that I like Internet memes more than stained glass windows. This place, however, is amazing. I find myself drawing an audible inhalation of breath that no GIF – let alone meme - has ever inspired. Is this what a spiritual awakening feels like? Somehow I doubt it.
The inside of the Cathedral – whilst worth a visit – is too crowded for me to feel at one with God, because there are at least a couple of hundred others trying to get a selfie with him. Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ comes to mind. Still, there’s a juicy moment when I see a Cardinal leave the building, only to be mobbed by some adoring tourists desperately trying to kiss his hands. I wonder how many pictures he’s photobombed in this lifetime. I hope it’s a lot, and I hope he meant to.
I’ve seen signs for Prague Castle nearby, so I ask a tour guide where it is. He looks amused and gestures to the collection of buildings around me. “Here!” he exclaims, “The castle is here!” I’m a bit put out. I’ve not seen photos of the castle before – I know only that it’s the largest ancient castle in the world. But surely a good castle should be easily identifiable as one? I take out my guidebook and check. Sure enough, the tour guide is right. I’m not particularly keen to see any of the areas that require payment, so I decide to watch a walk-through of ‘Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb’ when I get home. The second level is set in Prague Castle, and it seems like a good way to get a feel for the place.
It’s become clear that I’ve had enough of the city, so I decide to head for the hills. Well, one hill, to be precise. My first trip to Petřín Hill is on a perfect spring day. It seems an ideal place to reflect, primarily on my woeful level of fitness. I make it halfway up the hill before I ‘need to take a breath’ for an hour. I sit and listen to the birds sing, and the chatter of people who don’t seem half as obnoxious as they usually do. I eat strawberries whilst couples eat each other’s faces. And I walk past the statue of the famous romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha. It seems only fitting that I attempt to read his work ‘Máj’ by his statue. I leave the poem - like my walk – unfinished.
The next day I return with Charlie, who agrees that Mácha seems a total babe. This time I make it to the top of Petřín Tower, which is essentially a poor man’s Eiffel Tower.
I enjoy this new view of Prague, but I’m beginning to suspect that from a certain height all cities look the same. Especially when you can see a Tesco supermarket on the horizon.
Of course, Prague isn’t all drinking and famous monuments. Shortly after we arrive we lose our Goulash virginities, and the outcome - like most first sexual experiences – is disappointing. I find the dish too salty and rich, but am also aware that my not particularly liking beef or pork hinders my ability to appreciate Czech cuisine. I can, however, vouch for Czech Schnitzels, and enjoy a Czech Hot Dog that I don’t realise is ‘Czech’ until I come home and read a Wikipedia article on it. (Nothing makes me happier to be alive than finding a Wikipedia page on regional variations of the Hot Dog.)
I’ve been looking forward to trying popular Czech desserts. Naysayers are quick to point out that such desserts didn’t necessarily originate in the Czech Republic. But I ignore the haters. I’m going to eat pastries for cultural research purposes, goddamnit, and nobody can stop me.
I start with a Trdelník with Nutella. A Trdelník, for those of you who don’t know, is a slinky-shaped, diabetic death trap masquerading as a pastry. Nutella is a gift from God, sold at all good retail establishments. The Trdelník seems to have largely been disowned by locals, who have declared them for ‘tourists only’. I’m therefore expecting an overpriced, subpar eating experience. But the Trdelník surprises me. It’s perfect comfort food, designed for people who eat their feelings. And these feelings taste like sugar, cinnamon, nuts and regret. Regret because I’ll never be able to give the Trdelník – nor Apple Strudel - the stomach space it deserves. And regret because I know that my time in Prague will eventually reach its end. And that – like mixing socks and sandals – seems just plain wrong.