It was early on a cold and wet morning, almost in the middle of April, when I left Stansted Airport for Prague. It had been overcast and raining periodically in London for several days and everyone was wondering when on earth spring was going to start.
In Prague, spring was well and truly underway. It was sunny and a very pleasant twenty degrees, the pilot informed us, as he made our approach for landing. In the airport terminal, passing through security was a pleasant affair with no queue and no questioning. There was however an unusually long wait at the baggage carousel. With no explanation given for the delay, a large group of us simply stood idle around the sleeping conveyor belt, waiting expectantly for it to awaken.
I used the wait time to locate a cash point and withdrew what I thought would be euros, but instead were Czech crowns. With some local money now in my pocket, there was little else to do but wait in silence with everyone else, each of us dotted around the baggage carousel, our heads bowed towards our mobile phones, every so often casting a glance at the conveyor belt or the clock on the wall.
I noticed an airport worker pushing a train of empty baggage trolleys. He was wearing a pair of dark blue overalls – the classic style with the braces over each shoulder. It was one of the first indicators I had, that I was somewhere else. To me, they symbolised Central Europe, industry, craftsmanship and pride in one’s trade. I remember from a visit to Germany, twenty years ago, that such overalls were ubiquitous and now here they were too, in the Czech Republic.
After thirty minutes, the carousel finally kicked into gear, producing a steady stream of bags and it wasn’t long before mine appeared and I could be on my way by bus to the nearest station on the Prague Metro.
I found the Metro stations immediately likeable, with their obvious adherence to a particular kind of old eastern bloc industrial design. From each platform, commuters could look across the track to an array of coloured aluminium tiles decorating the tunnel wall. The way the light played on the surfaces of the tiles, incorporating both concave and convex dimples, gave the appearance of something out of 1970’s science fiction. Metal letters in Metron typeface, designed specifically for Prague’s Metro by Jiri Rathousky in 1974, boldly displayed the name of each station. The trains were modern variants of Soviet designs, coloured red and white, they travel smoothly and rapidly along the three lines A, B and C, that make up Prague’s metro system.
I surfaced at Jiriho z Podebrad station and a large park next to it with the same name. I was in the suburb of Zizkov, east of the old city and the river, and recognisable from almost anywhere in Prague by the Zizkov Television Tower, which I could already see protruding over the tops of the apartment buildings.
I walked a few blocks to an Airbnb I had booked earlier and settled in to a very comfortable apartment that was really too big for one person, but nice to have the space. It too, embodied a clear adherence to principles of design. The layout was functional, the furniture and decoration were tastefully chosen to enhance the space. It was a nice place to come back to after being out exploring the city.
In Zizkov, trees were in blossom and the air was full of that carefree vibe that only begins to awaken the population again after the doors on winter have finally closed. On my first morning, I walked to a wonderfully French cafe called Le Caveau and had an omelette with ham and Comte cheese. The cafe was very popular for its food and coffee, relaxed atmosphere and location on the edge of the park. After breakfast I found a park bench and sat down to read my book in the sun, a pleasure I realised I hadn’t allowed myself for a very long time. I’d forgotten how good it can be, and it was some time before I finally got up and left.
I didn’t really have an agenda in Prague. I didn’t know what sights to see or where to go. I didn’t want to spend all my time looking at old buildings, as beautiful as many of them are. I felt content spending most of my time in the apartment, reading and writing, or wandering about the local neighbourhood, taking walks through the parks, sampling local food or visiting various galleries of contemporary art.
Although once a working-class district whose residents strongly supported the communist party, Zizkov is now a lively suburb that has undergone substantial renewal. It is far enough away from the old town of Prague to avoid being tainted by tourist crowds yet is still well connected to the rest of the city by Metro and the tram.
For me, Zizkov felt relaxed. The streets were not crowded and the wide cobblestone footpaths provided a feeling of space. The apartment buildings were elegant, no more than five stories high, with exteriors painted in pastel shades of green, yellow, pink or orange. Zizkov is well known for its plentiful bars and its particularly strong reverence for beer, although there are plenty of cafes and restaurants as well. The streets are lined with trees and the numerous parks meant nature was never far away. It was a delight to explore the neighbourhood on foot, to see the way the sun’s golden light reflected off the buildings and cobblestones and to experience the laid-back calm of a residential area seemingly at peace with itself.
During my stay, I made just one trip into the older part of Prague, into the region of the city most frequented by tourists, along the edges of the beautiful Vltava River. I’d set myself the goal of visiting St Vitus Cathedral, the only ‘old’ building in Prague I really wanted to see.
To begin my journey, I caught the Metro to the ‘Dancing House’, a striking piece of modernist architecture designed by Czech architect Vlado Milunic in cooperation with American Frank Gehry. The building is located on the river front and has an abstract resemblance to a couple engaged in a dance.
Walking north along the river, past rows of impressive buildings and riverside parks, I soon came to the iconic Charles Bridge flanked on each side by its famous baroque-style statues. The bridge was crowded with tourists and it was difficult to get a clear photograph of a statue without a stranger’s head appearing oddly beneath it. Choosing not to linger, I crossed the bridge and headed via cobblestone paths up the hill towards Prague Castle which looked more like a walled-off municipal quarter than a traditional castle with high walls, turrets and ramparts.
St Vitus Cathedral, the largest church in the country, is located inside the walls of Prague Castle. It is a spectacular example of Gothic architecture with its high vaulted ceiling and the particularly impressive stained glass windows depicting religious scenes in a range of vibrant colours and intricate detail.
From the hill there was a nice view back towards the city and to Zizkov on the horizon, its location clearly marked by the iconic Television Tower. The only other ventures I made out of Zizkov were to art galleries, all of them contemporary. I was seeking new art experiences – perhaps something cutting edge – something that was meaningful to me and that stood out amongst a lot of contemporary art that I found uninspiring and unnecessarily extravagant. In each of the galleries I went to, I managed to find something that caught my eye and my interest.
Much of my experience in Prague however was simply the enjoyment of immersing myself for a few days in a relaxed and unquestionably old-world romantic European city during the beginning of spring. I didn’t need to visit for more than a few days and as I boarded the train to Berlin, I realised I had no pressing desire to return. There was nothing in particular about the city that I felt I missed seeing or would want to see again. I can see though why it is a popular spot for couples or groups of young friends to visit. It has a romantic atmosphere and a thriving food and beer scene, but on this trip, I was a member of neither of those groups.