Prague

I can’t remember quite why, but Prague has been on our to do list since as long as I can remember. It’s hard not to arrive with great expectations. It didn’t disappoint. I loved the vibrancy of this city that seems to have really come into it’s own since the end of Soviet rule. It’s got an incredible mix of history, beauty, liveliness and grit all rolled in together.

Our Air BnB apartment was once again amazing. On the top floor of a beautiful old building quite close to Charles bridge, with sloped ceilings (we were literally in the attic) and a lovely little balcony that looked out over the rooftops of Prague.

Our first day we took another Rick Steves walking tour that oriented us with some of the main streets and history of the city. We learned about the fall of communism and the role the people of Prague played. At one point almost 300,000 gathered in Wenceslas Square to protest. Something I loved instantly about Prague was the architecture – particularly anything Art Nouveau. And it you could see it in droves here. Some of the buildings are just stunning.

In the afternoon we took a very different tour with Prague Alternative Tours. The name describes exactly what you get – an alternative tour. Led by a young local woman (who also works in television production and is an accomplished graffiti artist), we were taken around to see graffiti, a contemporary art gallery/bar, an artists commune and artspace (sadly closed after the building which had been on loan, was finally marked for development), a hackers headquarters and finally a quirky bar/music venue.

We learned about Prague from a younger, local perspective: What it was like growing up after communism, how this had affected the art and culture scene, how the older generations were coping (or not) with the transition, the things you can get away with in the Czech Republic due to both corruption and people’s acceptance of a damn the man behaviour. One such incident included when the hackers (whose hipster headquarters we visited, complete with 3D printing lab) hacked politician’s mobile phones, sending fake texts back and forth between them in the middle of a live, televised vote on a piece of legislation. The hackers basically created a fake bribe situation. The politicians took the bait and their corruption was exposed live on television.

The following day we visited a fantastic Art Nouveau and Succession exhibition in a stunning Art Nouveau building, wandered the streets met some Czech service designers and took ourselves on our own beer tour to some of Prague’s local brew houses. At one we even tried banana and nettle beer. Surprisingly I quite enjoyed the banana one.

Meeting some international service designers was great. I’d contacted a guy via Facebook and him and a few of his colleagues were keen to meet up. It was great to chat about what is going on in Australia vs Czech, where the work comes from, how advanced companies are etc. It seems that there is not a lot of real service design happening in Czech Republic, even the guys I met would not really call themselves service designers – but it was great to meet them all the same.

On our way home at the end of the day, we happened to pass another gallery (Kampa Museum) – a modern/contemporary one – and stopped in for a visit. There were some interesting works. We both quite enjoyed one of the artist Kamil Lohtak. He likes to paint hot air balloons and has a real sense of whimsy to his works.

That night we were out at dinner when a Canadian couple sat down next to us. We got chatting and after a short while found out they were on fact on their honey moon and having a second wedding party in Prague, as the groom’s family was from the Czech Republic. Next thing we had scored an invite to their party the next night.

Later we headed to what was to be one of the highlights of our Prague stay – Hemingway bar. This place is a bit of an institution and is known for it’s amazing cocktails and strict rules:

HEMINGWAY BAR RULES
1. Each guest will be seated. The bartender will gladly show you to a suitable place to sit.

2. Do not move the furniture or change seats. If you do not like where you are sitting, tell the bartender, who will reseat you if possible.

3. Do not talk loudly (i.e. do not shout or make a noisy scene).

4. Speak politely and do not use vulgar language.

5. Do not talk to other guests that you do not know; respect their privacy.

6. If you want to buy somebody a drink, please ask the bartender first. He will find out if that person is interested in your offer.

7. Do not use a computer in the bar. We will be happy to recommend an internet café.

8. As we want our guests to feel comfortable, the moment there is no place to sit, we are full and cannot allow more people into the bar.

9. Guests seated in the non-smoking section who would like to smoke must leave their drinks inside and go outside in front of the bar to smoke.

10. Respect the instructions of the bar staff at all times.

We were seated at the bar where a bar tender, dressed in old school garb, worked away at creating us a few master pieces. We first ordered off the menu, but later learned from a nice Czech couple sitting next to us (clearly breaking rule 5, but we didn’t mind), that you could have your own signature cocktail made. Just tell the bar tender what you like and he will make you something. I had a sour, gin based cocktail infused with lavender flavour. Delicious. We also took the opportunity to try our first Absinthe (with wormwood) at this classy establishment. It was quite a spectacle watching water trip down over a sugar cube, through the fancy absinthe spoon and into the glass. You do not shot real absinthe, you sip it. It has a strong aniseed taste, which we both quite liked. But I couldn’t do much of it.

With slightly sore heads, the next morning we ventured out to a local farmers market, a very Melbourne like coffee shop (The search for good coffee is never ending. So far our favourite has been in Florence) and a design market.

The days are slightly starting to blur now, as I’m writing this a little after the fact, but one day we visited another brewery house – this one in an old monastery and also the Prague castle area. We didn’t pay for any of the tickets that get you inside any of this. It was over priced and we were a bit castled out, but we wandered around, checked out the cathedral and took in the grand scale of the place.

I did however stumble across an amazing toy museum. This place was incredible with thousands of toys from different eras. The highlight though was a special exhibtion upstairs all about Barbie. Now you may find it hard to believe if you know me now, but I used to be a huge Barbie fan as a kid. So this was pretty special for me. From the very first Barbie, to the introduction of Ken and Penny, as well as Starboard Barbie, Sandy from Grease Barbie, World Barbies and so much more, this exhibit had it all.

Another highlight from the trip would have to have been the wedding party. We we felt like we were gate crashing at first but Andrew and Annie were so welcoming. The family were excited to meet ‘the Australians from the bar’. We also met some of their friends including some teachers from Graz in Austria. It’s funny – we meet teachers everywhere we go.

We really enjoyed Prague and would go back for sure if in Europe again. I’m sure it won’t be for a while, so it will be interesting to see how it will change over time. With gentrification having an effect, I suspect it will lose some of the grit which gives it its charm. Hopefully not too much.