My first trip to Prague was in 1977, when I was twenty years old. For some reason or other I had gotten interested in finding out what was going on behind the iron curtain which firmly divided Europe in those days. Perhaps it was curiosity about what had happened after the Russians invaded in 1968 and put a stop to Alexander Dubcek’s reforms, attempting to ”build socialism with a human face.” Perhaps I had heard about the Charter 77 movement and the rapidly suppressed protests associated with writers and musicians such as Vaclav Havel and the Plastic People of the Universe. Anyway, I packed my bag and travelled east in the summer.
Memories of days spent exploring the city are very dim, but I do recall that it was a surprise to be in an advert-free environment, where Coca Cola signs and suchlike were replaced with huge red and gold banners proclaiming the triumphs of socialism. The city seemed to be full of construction sites, worn out facades and scaffolding. There were very few cars and almost no tourists. Compulsory daily currency exchange meant that it was quite expensive to travel in the ČSSR even though the cost of living was low. I stayed in very simple dormitory style accommodation. After two or three days in the city I moved on to the Bohemian countryside and spent two weeks with an international voluntary work group, doing some minor nature conservation work in the parks and gardens of a small town called Čimelice. The Czechs and Slovaks I met seemed friendly but cautious. It was unusual for them to interact with people from the West, just as it was strange for us to be face to face with our Cold War enemies!
I returned twice in the following years. In November 1978 I spent another two or three days in the dark and gloomy winter city before heading north to Berlin. In 1981 I was an official guest of the national youth organisation and spent several days with an international work group at Prague Zoo. The Commission for Cooperation with Youth Movements in Socialist Countries (CCYMSC) arranged the youth exchange programmes, under the auspices of the peace movement I was involved in called Service Civil International. We weren’t communists, but aimed to promote understanding between young people around the globe! In the 1980s the odds were against us as the numbers of missiles in Europe steadily increased; but finally the East Germans got fed up with the Stasi (secret police) and the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight – financial and human cost – of military misadventure in Afghanistan… The Cold War ended in a victory for capitalism and liberal multi-party, democracies!
Meanwhile I had settled in Denmark and become father of two. A year or so after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 we took our kids for summer holidays in the ČSSR, not long before the amicable split leading to the (re) creation of the Czech and Slovak Republics. A stopover to explore the squares and riverbanks of central Prague was followed by a week in a farm cottage not far from the Polish border. We drove via Berlin in order to get an impression of the changes after the fall of the wall. By that time Vaclav Havel had been propelled from being an imprisoned and then silenced dissident to becoming President of the new Republic.
Prague was already showing signs of becoming a boomtown. The Communist Party banners had disappeared and the tour operators were moving in. A big clean up was underway too, which has culminated in the transformation of the central zones of the city into architectural showcases for Gothic, Baroque, Art Nouveau and Modernist styles. A couple of pictures from my recent visit – attending an international evaluators conference held in a dull suburban hotel – provide glimpses of the fascinating urban landscapes and artefacts in the city.
View across the Vltava River towards Hradčany and the Cathedral of St. Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert (1344)
The old town hall building with the medieval astronomical clock (1338)
I’ll wind up with some notes on food! Close to my hotel in Prague I found the Bella Restaurace, where I sampled the specialities and then wrote the following review published on Trip Adviser:
42 years ago I visited Bohemia for the first time, stayed in a largish village and got to know the basics of Czech cuisine, including dumplings, grilled meat, pickled veggies and cabbage, etc. not to mention pilsner beer! There was a very down to earth pub in the village where we gathered in the evenings. Thus, it was a big surprise to find a similar pub in the Strižkov district of Prague during my recent stay at the Duo Hotel for a conference. I felt as if I had been whisked back to the 1970s. The Bella serves Czech classic dishes in rather non-descript surroundings dominated by low-grade apartment buildings and suburban traffic. I ate a goulash dish with two sorts of dumplings, sitting in a slightly gloomy upstairs room with a view towards the nearest housing block. It’s a far cry from the flashy restaurants of the downtown district. But I really enjoyed the meal, the staff was friendly and I returned to the hotel as darkness fell with a smile on my face, feeling as if I had revisited a scene from my youth!