Arriving in Prague to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, my wife walks me straight from our hotel to U Golema, a restaurant a short stroll from the Old Town Square, one of Europe’s great tourist honey spots. It was a Friday evening and we were the only customers. This is not unusual. In more than 25 years, the other guests I’ve seen there could collectively fit in one of Prague’s every-grumpy taxis.
In the days of communism, U Golema survived because it didn’t need to make a profit. Now that the wild capitalist West has embraced much of Prague’s tourist architecture, that surely cannot be the case. Yet on goes U Golema, serving up slabs of pork, pickled gherkins, decent chips and the Czech signature vegetable, okurka, or pickled cucumber. And lots of beer.
“You know how to treat a girl,” my wife once said here, her irony sharper than the knives with which we tried to cut our thick hunk of venison.
We also spent our honeymoon in Prague and in doing so apparently broke the adamantine rule of marriage and took our parents along with us, something that I suspect even non-contact tribes in the Amazon know you shouldn’t do. (It went swimmingly.)
But I’d lost my heart to U Golema and to Prague long before. I studied Czech and Russian in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1988 and 1989, and saw the Iron Curtain first gently tugged and then rent apart by the Velvet Revolution. Yet, while I may be something of a nostalgic, I’ve never been wistful about communism. I saw too many of my student friends roll up late to lectures, dazed after being bashed by the truncheon-wielding, not-so-secret police.
I love Prague despite some of the ways it has thumbed its nose at me, from the time I was overcharged for dinner to the tune of 2,000 per cent, or the priggish officiousness at the airport that continues to this day. Yes, service in cafes and hotels is more variable than it ought to be, but by and large Prague has managed to hang onto its identity and assimilate the bits of capitalism that suits it, pushing to one side those that don’t.
The narrow streets that trail away from the Old Town Square would be prime real estate in most European capital cities, smothered in perfume shops and every western brand known to humanity. True enough, you can find those in Prague, yet the Old Town is full of mellifluous street names such as Liliova, Kaprova and Melantrichova, which continue to throw up delicately wonky, come-hither alleyways with crookedly ramshackle houses. These streets often have a dilapidated air and are home to chemists, toy shops and low-key bars oriented towards locals rather than coach parties and on-the-cheap stag nights.
Another unchanged haunt is U Dvou Koček (The Two Cats) deep in the old town, where the recipe for dumplings appears not to have changed since the Holy Roman Empire was in charge. Again, the Czech language plays a role: bacon dumplings, cheese on toast and pancakes don’t sound like a shoe-in for a Michelin star, but call them by their Czech names — špekové knedliky, smaženy syr and palačinky — and they somehow take on a lip-smacking, mouth-watering quality.
Revisiting the city, I always feel I’m putting one foot back into the past, wading into a film noir and wandering through the discarded reels of dramatised novels by Milan Kundera or Ivan Klima. Charles Bridge on a snowy winter’s day remains a timeless place, with just a handful of frozen street-sellers bravely marketing their paintings and etchings.
Other important remnants from the Soviet days have had a facelift and taken a turn for the better. The Old Town Square is the cornerstone of this rejuvenation, a delectable ensemble of gothic towers and baroque facades straight from the Brothers Grimm that never fails to lift my heart. The Cafe Slavia, on the river bank, is equally uplifting: this is where late President Václav Havel spent his dissident days committing thought crimes. Now a bustling mix of businessmen, students, grand old ladies and tourists, it clings its ghosts to its breast.
A number of pictures taken in Prague over the years are hung on our walls at home. As I write, I notice for the first time that they’re all in black and white or sepia. That, I think, says much about my relationship with Prague.
The March issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) is on sale today.