“Prague and the Road not Taken”
by Padraic Gilligan
If ever there was a place to follow Robert Frost’s advice and take “the road less travelled” it’s Prague. If you do you’ll discover an achingly beautiful city, natural and unspoilt, charmingly unselfconscious, wearing no make-up. To do this you’ve got to move quickly beyond the “hotspots” of the Old Town Square and The Charles Bridge, forsake linguistic security and lose yourself in streets with unpronounceable names. The rewards are priceless.
A city wide convention in late June 2011, the biggest ever hosted in Prague, made accommodation difficult to come by and placed us, disappointingly, at the Park Inn, in Nove Mesto or New Town, about 20 blocks downstream from the Charles Bridge. This simple twist of fate, however, proved providential as it set a different urban context for our visit and facilitated a discovery of parts of the city hitherto unseen.
The Park Inn is a clever re-purposing of a period building from the early 1900s. The interior concept plays around oversized newsprint featuring key historical stories as reported in signature European newspapers from L’Equipe to Le Figaro. Rooms are bright, fresh and unfussy with great light, good work space and intuitively positioned sockets. You cannot steal the bathroom amenities as there aren’t any (dispensers are provided instead) and the only really negative point is the annoying charge for broadband – particularly when other brands in the Rezidor family such as Radisson Blu offer free connectivity.
The hotel is located within walking distance of Vysehrad, the original residence of the Czech Royal Family. It’s a huge walled complex of palaces, steepled churches and historical buildings perched on a high outcrop overlooking the river and the city below. An elegant avenue of pretty early 20th buildings occupied by artisans, ceramicists and restaurateurs leads to the gated entrance. The entire experience is far from the maddening crowd and draws you into a real, fascinating encounter with “Middel Europe”. Quality is high and prices are low here with a fine meal for 4 people including dessert and drinks clocking in at less than €40. On another evening we ate at the excellent “Olive Tree”, 5 mins walking distance from Park Inn, and enjoyed lovely local wine – Vinohrad / Frankovka 2010 for less than €6 per bottle.
If you’ve ever studied English literature, when you cross the Vltava at the Charles Bridge it’s impossible not to recall T.S Eliott’s The Waste Land – “I saw a crowd so many …” Throngs assemble here to languish, loiter and lay about as the eclectic and aptly named Bridge Band play skiffle and jazz on washboard, clarinet, euphonium, banjo and trumpet. “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing” lingers limpet-like in your mind as the crowd moves inexorably towards Mala Strana, the lesser town, and the Castle District on the far side of the River.
Mala Strana’s narrow lanes and tight squares may be lined by mediaeval style buildings but the reality of commercial colonialism continues here unabated as Starbucks vyes with traditional Prague coffee houses for marketshare. Weddings are in great abundance as multiple bridal parties seek the perfect romantic backdrop for their wedding pictures. You’re left to wonder whether this is Prague’s ironic return on investment from its years of Stag and Hen parties? “We had our last lash here and now we’re back to tie the knot forever!” On the way up to the Castle District the rather inconspicuous Museum of Modern Art merits a visit. Hosting an exhibition on “Art Brut” and featuring Czech artists Zemakova, Plny and Dymacek this is another example of how the road less travelled less to rich pastures.
Even more exciting, and definitely more Bohemian, is theMuseum of Young Art situated close to the Charles Bridge on the Old Town side of the River and located in the once beautiful Baroque Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace. Left with all the gaping scars and oozing sores of the Communist years during which its magnificent interiors were brutalised in the interest of functionality, it is now home to an always provocative, sometimes disturbing collection of contemporary installations, mixed media pieces and paintings. Produced by artists of the post 68 generation and current students of Art Schools all over the Slovakia and the Czech Republic this exhibition leaves you in no doubt as to the artists’ ability to challenge us as we sometimes skate across the surface of our lives. An image that resonates with me still is the vintage hearse mounted on a terraced wooden platform installed under a elaborate gold chandelier in the very centre of the faded and dilapidated beauty of the Baroque Ballroom. Or the “Jesus Christ Superstar” installed in the staircase void, a cruciform gymnast whose head gently inclines onto his left shoulder performing the Ring Routine.
The road less travelled may also take you deep into the labyrinth of Mala Strana where, if you’re a meeting or event planner, you’ll find some stunning boutique properties suitable for very upscale meetings or motivational events. Be sure to find The Augustine, the Rocco Forte property that has created a unique hospitality experience within, and adjacent to, a living, working monastery. Rooms are beautifully appointed with contemporary furnishings. They are stunningly simple with muted colours and windows overlooking the Castle and the pitched, red tiled roofscape of the city. The restoration and re-purposing work is sensitive, employing traditional dowling techniques to secure magnificent oak beams. Bright, colourful contemporary glasswork and fine art pieces line the walls. The Cellar Bar brings you into the very bowels of the buildings where the architect has used glass flooring to keep the original foundations in view. You can also imbide the strong, flavoursome beer still brewed there by the monks.
Padraic Gilligan is Managing Director of Ovation Global DMC whose Prague office is headed up by polymath and linguist extraordinaire, Sylvie Neves. For sizzling ideas on your next meeting, event or motivational experience in Slovakia or the Czech Republic please reach out to Sylvie on [email protected]