Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Praha / Prague - Impressions

I have just returned from a week exploring the sunny streets of Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. Much walking was involved and just as much photographing (I shot over 1000 images if I include the duds that weren't worth keeping).

A selection of those pictures (a mere 436 of them!) is available on flickr here.

It was an interesting experience for me to observe my images evolve as the days went along.

On the first couple of days, I found it impossible or quite hard to take original pictures, ie images that were not your bog standard tourist shot and that ultimately present little interest.

As the days went on, however, I started to move away from those; starting to notice details and oddities, as if the city came into focus, and I hope that my images gained in interest as a result.

I also went to some places on the outskirts of Prague that not many tourist can have visited, such as the eastern terminus of the tram line 22 or a street in what could be a village if it wasn't being swallowed up by the metropolis.

Eventually I even produced two of what I think are probably my best ever shots, which is quite rewarding.

While the one above, which is one of them is carefully considered, composed, cropped and photoshopped, the other one (below), as is so often the case, is a moment of serendipity as I was fiddling with my settings, trying to take a picture that never happened.

Prague is quite a beautiful city that justly attracts millions of tourists every year. It reminded me a lot of Turin and Rome in italy. And mirroring my feelings for these cities, as well as those for Dublin and Paris, the homogeneity and in the end monotony of the architecture were more of a turn to me than an attraction. After all, one of the reasons why I love London is this chaos where architectural eras will happily cohabit.

This monotony and uniformity is also, it seems, reflected of the people and the way they dress, as my guide (who was born and bred in Prague but has lived in abroad for about 5 years now) pointed out. A palette of greys and brown is the staple of the Czech wardrobe. It's as if people do not want to stand out. Possibly the result of years of communism and negation of the individual by the state.

But to the eyes of a foreigner, Prague does present a few cultural idiosyncrasies.

There are for example an astonishing number of churches all over the city; many more than can be needed for such a relatively small population. Also numerous are the bridal shops and, in the touristic area around Staroměstská náměstí, jeweleries.

Praguans are, it seems, very fond of dogs (to the point of taking them to bars in the evenings) and that few parks of the city derive a specific aroma from this.

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There are very few people of colour, the majority of them being east Asian ; something very odd for someone from multicultural London. Gay people are just as rare and gay bars themselves are fairly quiet.

Also in very short supply in the country that gave the world the oh-so-pretty Bel Ami boys (if one except perhaps, the Italian school-trippers), are good looking men which makes perambulations in the old town that much less exciting.

MP3 players and Apple products are also a rarety. HTC Desire is the smart phone of choice and you see very few people with headphones in the street or in public transport.

My biggest gripe with Prague was with smoking and the careless and apparently haphazard way in with the smokefree legislation is implemented. It seems that the decision regarding smoking is left to the business owners. Bars and restaurant should have a non-smoking area but only if there is enough space for it.

This led to the ridiculous situation of us being told is a beautiful art nouveau café (clearly catering for an international clientele which would be familiar with smokefree environments) that the smoking area is the back of the room while the front of it is reserved for non-smokers. As if the smoke would stop at the arbitrary barrier between the two. We left.

There are however totally smokefree places. They just have to be found. My only visit to a gay bar left me with a congested throat and a sniveling nose the next morning; an unwelcome reminder of how much we have got used to smokefree environments.

Something that Prague does better than London is possibly public transport. A one-day ticket costs about £3 (100Kč) and gives you access to the tube network (3 lines) and the tram system. Both are fast, efficient, clean and not overcrowded. The bosses at TfL should visit and ask for a few tips.

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Despite all my moaning above, I enjoyed discovering the city. I got treated to an authentic Czech meal cooked by a Czech grandmother and had tea in one of the poshest restaurant of the city (Art Nouveau at Obecní dům) as the guest of the French chef (a friend of my guide). I walked miles, climbed many steps, got a tan, saw the tomb of Antonín Dvořák, avoided the few Starbucks but shopped at Tesco, walked some more and just had a good time!

Apart from the obvious tourist spots such as the Castle, Charles Bridge, the Clock Tower on Staroměstská náměstí and probably the stump of an Eiffel Tower overlooking the city from Petřín, there a few less obvious places I would recommend visiting should you find yourself in that particular neck of the wood.

Indigo Café: cheap and arty café that seems to be ignore by the tourists even though it's only a stone-throw from Staroměstská náměstí. You may even be lucky and the cook may turn up to prepare some food on the day of your visit... Non-smoking space at the back. Details on Time Out

Modrá Zahrada (Blue Garden): Classy pizzeria in the centre of town. Cheap but lovely food (though the portions were perhaps a bit small for my big appetite). The non-smoking area is downstairs and is much bigger than then smoking area. Details on

Grosseto: Less central (15min on the tube from the centre) but still easily accessed from the centre. Cheap and busy pizzeria. The pizzas are just massive. Non-smoking! Website.

Kulat'ak: Again, 15/20min on the tube from the centre. This was recommended to us by a local. The equivalent of a pub. Serves lovely Czech food. Website

Riegrovy sady: Lovely park with great views (ideal for sunsets - see second night image above). 15/20min on the tube from the centre. There is a bar with terrace and an open air pub.

Na shledanou.

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