Czech mate: Prague is back in fashion as the City of a Hundred Spires ups its game
For the last 15 years, Prague has been sitting pretty as the unassailable jewel in Eastern Europe’s crown.
With its splendid Gothic squares and four-storey superclubs, the City of a Hundred Spires holds equal appeal for woolly-socked culture vultures and raucous stag dos keen to quaff the local brew Staropramen for £1 a pint.
But now there’s a challenge to its supremacy, borne on the low-cost wings of Ryanair, Wizz Air, and other budget airlines. The same bargain prices that lured millions to Prague now apply to Baltic rivals like Riga in Latvia, and Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.
City of a Hundred Spires: Prague hit the big time in the 1990s with the boom in budget flights
So is the Czech heavyweight ready to sit back and allow others their time in the spotlight? No chance! The proud Praguers have launched an array of projects, schemes and cultural enticements to ensure the city offers an unbeatable tourist experience well into the next decade.
I took a trip to check out their battle-plan, and I can report – they’ve got this in the bag.
Tactic 1: Let them eat dumplings
Tasty treat: Czech meals, such as beef goulash and dumplings, are not great for those on a diet
It’s not that Czech food has a bad reputation - most people just don’t know what it is. And while there are still tens of cafes off the Old Town Square that will serve you pizza and a Pilsner for cheaps, Prague’s restaurateurs are increasingly keen to charm visitors with a taste of their local cuisine.
One of this year’s openings, Čestr, takes its name from a Czech spotted cow reared in bygone ages. The smart steak specialist hopes to reintroduce diners to matured beef, and offers both obscure cuts and a gourmet takeaway service. (http://cestr.ambi.cz/en/)
Just a warning: If you’re preparing to sample Czech food, better leave your diet (and your vegetarianism) at the airport. A typical repast will be meaty and sauce-laden, while sauerkraut, potato soups and ‘knedlíky’ – dumplings – feature prominently.
The CzechTourism Agency runs a partnership scheme with heaps of traditional eateries - see www.czechspecials.com/ - and Prague and its environs boast 87 certified venues.
To dodge the lard, head to La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, which recently scooped one of the Czech Republic’s first Michelin stars. Its Bohemian tasting menus offer seven feather-light dishes, each with its own amuse-bouche. (http://ladegustation.cz/en/)
Tactic 2: Welcome back the stag dos
Back in the late ‘90s, Prague bestrode the stag do scene like a colossus. Then suddenly, after a decade of dominance, it fell out of fashion. Expat bar owners and recession-struck hotels gulped hard and prayed for a revival. According to stag organisers Last Night of Freedom, their wish is finally being granted.
Paul Luke, the company’s Eastern Europe Location Manager, explains: ‘Whereas Bratislava and Budapest are in the "been there, done it" camp right now, Prague and Tallinn – both original founders of the Eastern European stag explosion – are coming back with a bang in the last 12 months. Prague has come through its saturation point, dipped in numbers for five years or so, and now there are people who simply haven’t been and who very much want to see what all the fuss is about.’
Like beer? The Czech Republic has 450 kinds, so you can blame your headache on the pain of choosing between them. The hi-tech Staropramen Brewery Tour includes videos, holograms and (of course) sampling. (www.center.staropramen.com/)
Like shooting Kalashnikovs? Maybe not yet, but you COULD – shooting specialist Top Gun Tours has a handy forest facility with full power sniper rifles. (www.topgunprague.com/)
After a few stag-barren years, Prague has learned which side its bread is buttered. After all, what’s a little pre-marital hooliganism between friends?
Bottoms up: It's well worth visiting the Staropramen brewery
Tactic 3: Go crazy for bank holidays
There are 12 public holidays a year in the Czech Republic. In Britain this would mean a dozen chances to trail round IKEA or poke a rain-sodden barbecue. In Prague, it means no work, a rush for the nearest beer hall, and mass participation in bonkers rituals. Here are some tourist favourites:
Easter: Tradition dictates that women are beaten (gently) on Easter Monday with whips made from braided pussywillow. If preferred, they may be thrown into cold water, preferably a stream. Men are rewarded for this casual violence with painted eggs, shots of the lethal plum brandy Slivovice, or a ribbon for their whip. Frankly, the whole thing resembles a rustic ‘50 Shades of Grey’.
30 April: On this day, Praguers celebrate Pálení čarodějnic (‘Witches’ Night’) – a folk festival marking the end of winter that’s like Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night rolled into one. Kids and adults dress up as witches, while fires blaze in the public parks to purge the winter spirits and ‘burn’ the witches out of the sky. Hags duly dispatched, everyone gets drunk and eats sausages.
5 December: On St. Nicholas’s Eve, known as ‘Mikulas’, families flock to the Christmas market in Old Town Square. As the parents get cheerfully sozzled on glühwein, lavishly costumed trios dressed as St. Nicholas, an angel and Satan gallivant around demanding to know whether their children have been naughty or nice. Good kids get sweets. Bad ones get hard potatoes, and / or carried off to Hell in the devil’s sack. No pressure, kids.
Party town: Prague's calendar is packed with carnivals and festivals
Tactic 4: If in doubt, hold a festival
When it comes to festivals, Prague is already streets ahead of rival cities. Almost any public or private space that can screen a film, hold a band or seat an orchestra has been co-opted into the ongoing events extravaganza: even the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital hosts a music and drama fiesta.
The majestic Pražské jaro (Prague Spring) is the daddy of Prague gigs, and the highlight of the city’s impressive classical music calendar. Held annually in May and June, it draws conductors, ensembles and soloists of international renown – and has branched out into jazz in recent years. (www.festival.cz/en)
If your tastes extend to rock, pop or electro, the United Islands festival takes over Prague’s islands, Kampa and Střelecký, at the end of June. The eclectic mix of acts ranges from local folk musicians to Placebo and Iggy Pop, and it’s free. (http://unitedislands.cz/)
For film buffs, the big draw is indie cinema showcase Febiofest, which has grown from a no-budget event for a handful of friends into something of a behemoth. Aiming to screen ‘the best of the last year,’ it takes over two multiplex cinemas and transforms an unusual public space such as a train station or church into an auditorium. Though the films come from across the globe, most have English dialogue or subtitles. In the evenings, blues, alt rock and avant-garde musicians shake up the crowds at the Febiofest Music Festival. The event celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, from 14-22 March 2013. (www.febiofest.cz/en/)
...And if you’re looking for something niche, Prague has some of Europe’s most charmingly random festival offerings:
As the capital of puppetry, the city hosts the annual World Festival of Puppet Art each summer, drawing adults and children alike with its innovative programme of live shows and puppet films. (http://wap-prague.org/)
The aforementioned Mezi Ploty festival at Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital attracts some of the country’s biggest bands and theatre companies to its two-day bill, and aims to raise awareness about mental illness. (www.meziploty.cz/cs/)
Between the steaks, stags, ritual whippings and classical music, Prague remains the city with something for everyone. Throw in the dazzling architecture, warm summers and snow-draped wonderland winters, and it’s hard to see its prospects as anything other than rosy.
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