Nazi flags used to fly above where the tourists now stroll in this old Prague street. That menacing piece of cloth vaingloriously jutting out from second story windows, announcing who from 1939-45 controlled this land.
Now the tourists, clammy in the September sun, are checking maps on phones while conferring with exhausted family members. There’s usually an excitable one – the youngest or middle child, sometimes the father – making everyone else more disgruntled as they get cheerier. Next to one such family stands a solid grey archway that was peppered by bullets in the final days of World War II, during the Prague Uprising. With the German defeat all but official, on May 5th 1945, a contingent of citizen Czechs rose up to drive out the remaining Nazis. The Soviet Red Army arrived a few days later to finish off the job. The Americans, led by General Patten’s nearby Third Army, could have liberated Prague before the Russians, but Eisenhower – supreme commander of the Allies in Europe – had a deal with Stalin. Prague – and the Czech territory – was for the Soviets. Churchill was livid but Eisenhower’s deal with Stalin remained and thus the Soviets swallowed Czechoslovakia in their post-war communist gulp.
Standing in the middle of this Prague thoroughfare – where those flags once flapped and where in medieval times Bohemian princes walked on their way to the castle for their coronation – it’s as if I now stand on a different planet. Large Americans (and Brits and Australians and many others) inhale cinnamon-infused, cream-topped treats. (Not advised for those with lactose concerns unless a discreet restroom offers itself nearby.) A flock of young females, perhaps on their first overseas trip, charge down the street. The lads, self-consciously loud, sip from a row of taste-testing Pilsners at the brewery-cum-pub. Thai massage parlours advertise their services from as little as ten euros.
Give me this street and this Prague, no doubt, over the one ruled by medieval kings or the Nazis or the Communists. Though several locals did say tourism has become a problem. Stag parties – or bucks parties – of young British men, in particular, are driving many residents mad. A tour guide told me that efforts are underway by the local council to curb some of the nuisance and noise being caused by the interlopers. Interlopers, it must be said, who surely provide a bounce to the city’s economy – in the markets of beer, strippers, big breakfasts and fast fashion.
Walking up and down Wenceslas Square of an evening — one of the main business strips in Prague and a focal point for historic occasions — you get an insight into certain aspects the city. Down the hill from where a Czech student, Jan Palach, immolated himself in 1969 in protest against communist rule, you’ll find any number of fast food outlets and international hotel chains. The strip clubs are also in good supply. I wandered into one, Goldfingers, because they were offering free entry.
‘What’s the catch?’ I enquired to the doorman.
‘No catch,’ he said, ‘but the drinks are much more expensive here.’
Still, I shuffled in, telling myself it was just to use the loo. The doorman wasn’t lying, the drinks were overpriced so I stayed thirsty in the ‘free viewing gallery’ for a few moments. I was on my way out when a tall woman in lingerie approached me.
‘Let’s have some tequila,’ she said without the question mark.
‘No thanks, I’m right, I’m on my way out.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘New Zealand,’ I replied through a lie.
I guessed she wouldn’t pick up the subtle difference between my true Australian accent and the New Zealand accent I don’t have. She was Ukrainian. I had no reason to doubt her. She was polite and persistent but I got out of there unscathed and none the poorer, and bought a double-scooped ice-cream with vanilla and salted caramel. Dessert in hand, dripping down the serviette and onto my fingers, I walked to my hotel via that old thoroughfare with those now-gone flags and filled-in bullet holes.
Earlier in my stay, I thought of Jan Palach – the protestor who set himself alight in opposition to communist rule – when standing underneath the monument reminding people of the lost time caused by that failed ideology.
It’s a huge red metronome at the top of a hill overlooking the city – situated in the spot where the world’s largest statue of Stalin once stood, before it was blown up on orders of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev. A tour guide suggested visiting the metronome: ‘A good place for a beer over a lovely view’. However, the guide also said the metronome ‘for some reason’ is not currently working – or ticking. I thought this another example of the guide’s deadpan, ironic humour. It would make sense, of course, if a monument dedicated to a failed system didn’t work.
Sure enough, the metronome wasn’t ticking. To my eye, it seemed to have been in a state of disrepair for some time, aptly symbolising the lost years from 1948-89, when Czechoslovak communism reigned. Joke or no joke, the monument in its current condition makes sense. It draws a few tourists, but the site seems frequented more by young Czechs who must be of a similar age to Palach when he died. They’re enjoying themselves: reading, drinking, canoodling, riding skateboards; studying, listening to music, talking, laughing. Some just sit and contemplate.
On my last night in Prague I went to a jazz bar that tries to offer an authentic musical experience. It does a decent job. It’s underground, the lighting is dim and the wine is served in small glasses. There’s jazz. The only missing ingredient is the locals. I sit down and am soon wedged between an American family and a Chinese family. There’s a few other singles across the way, pretending not to look at the other singles across the way. A chap in his mid-20s is affecting a ruffled, bohemian style – giving off the smell that he travels a lot and that he really loves jazz bars. A mid-20s woman is trying to read her book but the lighting is too dim so she squints to make out the words. I contemplate asking what she’s reading but it looks like she doesn’t want to be disturbed. Or maybe she did? Either way, it’s too late now.
I walk to the bar, swaying my head subtly in time with the music, and order a whiskey on the rocks — for that’s what one orders at authentic jazz bars. While ordering, I notice a poster of Václav Havel on the wall. Havel, a Czech writer and leading dissident during the later communism years, was jailed in 1979. On his release four years later, he picked up where he left off and continued pushing for freedom until leading the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In so doing, he and the protestors brought the communist government to its knees. He became the first president of a free Czech Republic – holding that role from 1993 to 2003. He was also the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until that country peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.
‘Is that a real autograph of Václav Havel on the poster?’ I ask the bartender, in a transparent attempt to strike up a conversation.
‘Let me have a look, I’ve never really looked,’ she tells me.
A better response than I’d hoped for. She leaves her post behind the bar and inspects the signature. Reporting back, she concluded it was indeed a genuine autograph.
‘He’s a hero here, right?’
‘For some,’ she says.
‘For those who still want communism he’s no hero at all.’
The communists and far-right are gaining in popularity in the Czech Republic, she tells me. At this point, the bartender’s colleague, a young man with long, messy hair, chimes in: ‘It’s happening everywhere, Europe is fucked.’ A nice thought to leave me with as I leave the bar.
On that last night, I almost got back to my hotel without incident. As I walked into the grand expanse of the Old Town Square, after snaking through one of the many alleys that lead to it, I notice a woman walking a tiny dog. It was after midnight. This sight should have sounded alarm bells. Instead, reflexively, I make a stupid cute face at the dog, indicating to the woman that I’m up for a chat.
‘Where are you coming from?’
‘Some jazz bar over the way,’ I say.
‘What’s your name? Where are you from?’
Two rapid-fire questions without time for me to reply in between each one. That was disconcerting.
‘Will,’ I said, ‘I’m from New Zealand.’
‘Agh, you’ve come a long way.’
Yes I have, I thought.
She tells me she’s here from Poland on work. I had no reason not to believe her. Some more probing small talk ensues and after working out that I wasn’t staying in a bunk-filled hostel dorm, she offered her services in the form of a blowjob. Her tiny dog is still trailing us on his little adjustable lead, looking the more relaxed out of the three of us.
‘Agh, that’s a very kind offer but no thanks, I’m leaving early in the morning.’
‘C’mon,’ she insists, ‘how long has it been since you’ve had sex?’
Bit longer than you, I reluctantly thought.
The desperation in her voice is clear as she edges me toward the side of the street and grabs my penis from the outside of my jeans. Here I was, being manhandled by a hooker on a street where Nazi flags once flew. I remove her hand from my nether region and, this time, with more urgency, state my wish to be left alone. She now gets it, and we part ways. I wander off through a glimmer of moonlight, past the filled-in bullet holes on the archway, as I say goodbye to that thoroughfare which has seen more than any street ever should.
P.S. The buskers on the Charles Bridge were brilliant.
P.P.S. These tourists had had enough.