Famed for its exquisite beauty and gothic charm the ancient city of Prague has been a must see destination for millions down through the centuries.
In recent years it has become a popular city break party town for mad lads and crazy girls on stag and hen nights all seeking cheap booze and thrills. Every year the city is busy with gangs of British and Irish girls and boys who find themselves rubbing shoulders with packs of guided Asian and American tour groups in the Old Town Square as they marvel at the astronomical clock and the price of pints.
And for the casual weekend visitor there is much to keep you occupied in the historic centre of the capital of the Czech Republic from the charm of the Old Town and its cobbled streets to the more modern Wenceslas Square district with its museums and shopping streets.
Then there are the series of ornate bridges including the famous Charles Bridge that span the River Vltava and of course, Prague Castle, which are all sights not to be missed on a first time visit.
But for those who have been there before or for those looking for something a little bit more unusual or off the beaten track there are amazing secrets not far from the madding crowd that offer a few rare and rewarding experiences.
Cheap beer is certainly one of the better known attractions in Prague
I’ve been to Prague many times, including a lost weekend on my own stag party and on romantic excursions so I feel that I know the city pretty well. But it was only on a recent trip to see a good friend who now lives there that I started to see some of the more unusual and unique attractions this wonderful place has to offer.
Visiting a city for the first time is always fun and usually the main highlights are enough to keep you entertained for a few days but I’ve often felt that to really know a city you need to meet a local or an ex-pat who lives there. And so with that aim in mind I set off to meet up with my buddy Neil Keegan from Dublin who helps run the BARfud bar on Husitská Street in Praha 3.
Now this may sound like a shameless plug because my buddy happens to work there but BARfud that he manages alongside his buddy Steve is a real gem of a find in a city teeming with all manner of food options.
At last count it was at number four on TripAdvisor’s list of over 1,400 eating establishments in the city so if you get a chance check it out!
While I was there a steady stream of people, both locals and tourists, were coming through the door, some of whom had travelled for over an hour across the city just because of its astonishing reviews.
Now, BARfud is not a joint that you are going to walk into and be amazed by its décor or charmed by its service.
It’s rough and it’s ready but it has the best American pub grub in town.
Neil (on the left) serves a thirsty local in BARfud
Steve, from Green Bay in Wisconsin who lives in Prague with his wife Irene Gerczak has brought his own take on good honest blue collar worker food to central Europe and serves up fantastic cheap grub and beer.
It was where I set off with Neil for a tour of the city that has become his home town since he moved here three years ago.
Neil had earlier met me in an Irish bar downtown, popular with stag groups , but when he sat down beside me he told me drink up my four euro beer as it would be the last “tourist beer” I’d have that weekend.
We then embarked on a bar crawl where beers were less than 50c and took in locations as diverse as the Lucerna Music Bar (located between Vodičkova and Štěpánská streets) where musicians that are credited with promoting the democratic ideals that shaped the Velvet Revolution once played, a snooker hall located in a former Community Party headquarters (Bar Usudu on Vodickova Street) and a side alley joint they call the ‘pig place’ (Bar Vzorkovna on Narodni Street in Praha 1) as it had, as you’ve guessed, pigs running around in it.
These are the places where the Prague locals drink and hang out in.
As wages are low in relation to the rest of the Eurozone they obviously veer well away from the Prague equivalent of Dublin’s Temple Bar and choose to spend their time in places that are cheap, full of character and don’t appear to have any opening or closing times.
We spent a long night hanging with the locals but without wanting to waste time it was still relatively early when we met up the following day for a trip out to the Žižkov Television Tower that stands high above the city’s traditional skyline from its position on top of a hill in the district after which it is named.
The Žižkov Television Tower
From a distance the tower looks like a weird alien spaceship that rises up incongruously from a fairly bland suburb and up close the impression of weirdness is reinforced by the massive babies crawling up its steel sides, part of a series of sculptures by Czech artist David Černý that were retained after they were originally installed in 2000.
Built between 1985 and 1992, the tower stands 216 metres high with six ‘pods’ open to visitors, and ‘observation rooms’ at 100 metres with panoramic views over Prague and the surrounding areas.
Elevators, equipped with speedometers, zip passengers to the different levels at a rate of 4 m/s where there is a café bar on one lever where you can grab a sandwich or beer or coffee or a swankier meal in the recently refurbished restaurant.
Like other examples of Communist-era architecture in Central and Eastern Europe, the local inhabitants hated the TV tower and gave it unflattering nicknames inspired by the Cold War period of the time such as ‘Baikonur’ after the Soviet rocket launch pad and ‘Pershing’ after the American missile system.
Even though it was slammed as an example Soviet megalomania that had a disruptive effect on the Prague skyline, and for destroying part of a centuries-old Jewish cemetery, the tower has grown in most Czechs’ affections.
Checking out the Žižkov Television Tower
And although not as well-known as its counterparts in other cities across Europe for example, the Berliner Fernsehturm in Germany, the TV tower has great food and beer and you could easily while away the hours here looking over the city but with much to see and do we were off on the extremely efficient city Metro for our next stop.
I find that the Metro is the best way to get around Prague. The routes carry trains throughout the city and the maps are clear and easily understood.
The city is broken down into various zones with most tickets costing less than one euro but I find that simply buying a one day ticket that covers all the zones for 110 Czech koruna (about 4 euro) is the best and easiest way to get around.
But make sure to validate your ticket as inspectors are legion and they will hit you up with steep fine if you’re caught without the stamped ticket.
Our next stop was at a church that was the scene where one of the most amazing stories of World War Two was played out.
Practically unheard of outside the Czech Republic, the assassination of one of Hitler’s favourites, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942 and the subsequent hunting and final surrounding of his attackers is a remarkable story of bravery that has left its mark on the historic Church of St Cyril and St Methodious in Resslova Street in Praha 2.
Even by Nazi standards Heydrich was a nasty piece of work. Known variously as the Blonde Beast, the Butcher of Prague or simply Heydrich the Hangman, he was responsible for rounding up the city’s Jewish population and stamping out all resistance with an efficient brutality that impressed his evil masters.
The Czech government in exile in London dropped two British trained paratroops, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, into occupied Europe as part of Operation Anthropoid who managed to kill Heydrich in a roadside ambush.
But they were later betrayed and eventually sought refuge in the crypt of the church.
The bullet-scarred windows at the historic Church of St Cyril and St Methodious
The building still has bullet holes around the windows where Heydrich’s assassins held off more than 800 German troops for several hours until they were overwhelmed when the Prague fire brigade was brought in to try flood them out as they hid in the underground crypt.
It’s an evocative location that has been kept almost exactly the same as the moment the paratroopers finally died by keeping their last bullets for themselves.
After a few beers and a filling stew in the Parachutist’s cafe across the road we were back on the Metro for a quick stop off at the historic Jewish quarter near the centre of the Old Town.
Now, this part of Prague is not really off the beaten track as Josefov is a well visited part of the city, and is a place of great historical importance, but for an 1980’s pop fan like me it was a pilgrimage to the old graveyard where Aussie rockers INXS shot part of the iconic video for their huge international hit ‘Never Tear Us Apart’.
The saxophone solo was filmed here, in the Jewish quarter
Shot a year before the Velvet Revolution that would lead to the withdrawal of the Soviets, the atmospheric video depicts a brooding Michael Hutchence walking with his collar up to the cold Prague wind as he strolls through the gloomy streets. The saxophone solo was filmed here in the Jewish quarter where the mournful sounds suit the sombre setting.
For our last day in Prague we took in what has to be one of the more unusual and macabre sights in the city.
High on a hilltop to the west of the city is an exhibition at the Vitkov Memorial that highlights the Klement Gottwald personality cult which grew up around the former Soviet Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia.
When he died in1953, the Communists, taking their inspiration from the mausoleums built for Lenin and Stalin in Moscow, decided to build one for Gottwald.
Neil told me a story how, for the next nine years whenever there was unrest within the civilian population, the authorities would wheel out his deteriorating body like a scene from that classic movie ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ until the corpse apparently fell apart and was disposed of in 1962.
Although his remains are long gone a white sheet remains thrust over a human form in the sterile rooms where over 100 people were employed to take care of just one dead body.
It’s a fascinating insight into the dark history that lies not far from the city’s teeming streets where millions of tourists stroll blissfully around unaware of the secret stories that in some cases are just a stone’s throw away.