by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Prague – off the beaten track
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference
If ever there was a place to get off the beaten track and follow Robert Frost’s advice to take “the road less travelled” it’s Prague. 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. If you do you’ll discover an achingly beautiful city, natural and unspoilt, charmingly unselfconscious, wearing no make-up.
A city wide convention when I visited made accommodation difficult to come by and placed us 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 helped us to discover a part of the city we would otherwise have missed.
The Park Inn is a clever re-purposing of a period building from the early 1900s. The interior concept plays around over-sized 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. Unfortunately you cannot steal the bathroom amenities as there aren’t any – dispensers are provided instead.
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 twentieth century 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 description of a crowded London Bridge in The Waste Land – “I saw a crowd so many …” Throngs assemble here to languish, loiter and lay about as the eclectic and aptly named raggle-taggle 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 market share. Weddings, too, are in great abundance as multiple bridal parties seek the perfect romantic backdrop for their wedding pictures. The ubiquity of wedding parties is reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” but you’re left to wonder whether this a deeply ironic “chickens-coming-home-to-roost” from Prague’s years of Stag and Hen parties? “We had our last lash here and now we’re back to tie the knot forever!”
On the Mala Strana side of the bridge, you’ll find Kampa island, relative calm and no wedding parties. There you’ll also find the Lennon Wall, a living symbol of protest and resistance dating from the communist years when young Czechs daubed anti-government slogans around a central image of John Lennon. While the original image of Lennon may be long gone under layers and layers of new graffiti, the original spirit of the wall lives on as its owners, The Knights of Malta, allow today’s protesters and dreamers to have their say on the sacred space.
Kampa Island is also the location for one of Prague’s best restaurants, Kampa Park, perhaps a symbol of the “new” Prague that emerged in the aftermath of the Velvet revolution. Started in 1994 by Norwegian Nils Jebens, Kampa Park is now at the heart of the Kampa Group, a hospitality and catering enterprise with 6 restaurants around Prague and Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Located on the waterside, under the Charles Bridge with views to the Old Town on the other side of the river, Kampa Park’s cuisine and service matches its unparalleled location.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique agency specialising in marketing, strategy and training for destinations, hotels and venues in the MICE sector.