Sitting in a quiet bar on Wenceslas Square in the sunshine, sipping on a large glass of cold Czech beer and gazing up at the strange and wonderful statues that fly above your head on almost every Prague street, you ask yourself the question: “What makes this city so fantastic?”
The architecture is a start. Baroque on acid is one way of describing it. Just as Gaudí turned Barcelona from an ordinary Spanish seaside town into a fantasy land of swirls and forests woven into the city fabric, the builders of Prague have cast their magic spell over its streets and bridges, churches and halls.
Its rooftops are pitched so sharply that they are almost insane. They’re Disney. They soar into the sky like needles, completely impractical and decorative. In fact the whole city is a bit like a living Disneyland. The castle in Beauty and the Beast is apparently modelled on a Czech design.
Prague has a feeling of fairytale to it. You can imagine that this city sparked the imagination to create Sleeping Beauty, Babes in the Wood and the whole canon of Central European myths that children all over the world grow up on.
But Babes in the City is what Prague specialises in for the 21st century. The Czech Republic woke from its decades of slumber at the end of the 1980s, casting away the shackles of communism and announcing its arrival on the world scene by giving us a succession of superwomen. The late Ivana Trump, trophy wife to Donald Trump, was an early example. Tall, blonde, leggy and armed with killer breasts and a mischievous attitude, she charmed her way into the imagination of the world’s wealth-watching public and helped to create a new stereotype for the Czech nation.
Then Eva Herzigova, the Wonderbra model. Tall, blonde and leggy again – now the world began wondering whether this was a coincidence or whether this small landlocked country in the middle of Europe really does produce the most amazing looking women on earth.
The answer is yes, it does. Sit on any central Prague street for more than ten or 15 minutes and you will start to notice the pattern. Slowly, the street begins to resemble a magical walking forest, with legs so long that they defy the laws of nature. Human saplings soaring into the air, topped by incredible confections of beauty.
So for the male half of the human race, this is a big part of what makes Prague so fantastic. Whereas for the 1970s man, Sweden topped the list of the country with the world’s most beautiful women, the Czech Republic has hit the number one spot for the new millennium, with Prague as its crowing glory.
Let me take you through a typical evening in the company of a Czech woman.
We meet at a jazz bar in the Old Town – U Stare Pane - where honey coloured stone buildings curve gracefully around one another, and locals and tourists wander peacefully in the evening sun, along the cobbled streets, far from any traffic (Prague’s historic centre has been cleared of almost all cars, adding to the sense of quiet and fairytale bliss – you are back in a pre-industrial age before the machine had started to compete with humans).
Jitka appears along the street, tall, leggy, blonde and wearing a short skirt. She gives you a big smile when she sees you and there are hugs and kisses: it’s been a couple of years since you last saw her.
Together, you set off for the river. This is the physical and emotional heart of Prague, its lifeblood. You sit in a park next to the river and talk about your lives, the mystery and heartbreak, the loves and losses. Prague brings out this emotional honesty in people, I find. When you’re in a fairytale city it makes you want to tell people about your own tale, to explore the narrative of your life, the extraordinary twists and turns and shocks and moments of magic that we all go through.
Jitka has her own story to tell, of course. She has lived in a small spa town a few miles from Prague in a cottage in the woods with a giant. But the giant has become jealous and angry, so she has had to leave him. You can imagine this story becoming a fairytale, something like Jack and the beanstalk, with Jitka meeting a handsome prince who has to have a battle with the giant, but this part of the story has still to happen.
So you cruise along the river, looking out on the rowing boats and swans (it’s generally a very benign river, almost nice enough to swim in) and come to the Charles Bridge. This is Prague’s defining piece of architecture, its Eiffel Tower, its Big Ben. Statues of kings and princes line the bridge, while real life musicians fill the air with wild and crazy performances, artists show off their surreal impressions of the city and everyone else wanders along in a kind of trance, looking over to the sumptuous glowing castle up on the hill, or back to the old town on the other bank with its mad spires and ornate roofs, or out one way or the other to the spilling weir down the river or up to the island bisecting the water, much like the Parisian islands of the Seine.
Jitka has a happy laugh. Czech women have a way of going through life with a sweet, carefree attitude, even though things are rarely simple for them. “I have a daughter who has four children by four different men,” said one old man I met in Prague. “She gets on very well with all of these men,” he said. You might ask whether these four men all feel quite so content with their role in her child collecting, but I find that Czech people in general have a quite laidback attitude to their life history. It will never be straightforward and traditional – man meets woman, has children, settles down – but hey! Stuff happens! People say that Czechs are a curious mixture of Germanic and Slav characteristics. They can be very efficient and businesslike (the German side), but then very dreamy, impractical and slightly mad (the Slav side). Mostly, I find this a charming combination, but it could be trouble if you fell in love with one of them…
So you come to the castle side of the river with Jitka and wander down to Kampa Park, the best and most famous restaurant in Prague, bang next to the river, serving food that would be at home in the best Parisian or London establishments, served by gracious and efficient waiters on white linen tables, with some delicious Czech wine. Here again, Prague has taken on some of the best of French life, producing wines to rival Chablis or Sauvignon, most of it coming from the Moravia region of the country, to the south of Prague.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet revolution of the early 1990s, Prague has reclaimed its role as one of Europe’s most sophisticated cities. And Kampa Park is where the sophisticats come out to play. Silky women who could just as easily fit into the salons of Milan or Paris dine with suavely dressed men of substance, their Rolexes peeking from under their superbly tailored suits. Americans, British, Germans and Italians can all be found here on a typical summer’s evening, sharing the experience with the cream of Prague society – the diplomats, the bankers, the politicians, the captains of industry.
Jitka looks out across the glimmering river as the sun turns the buildings a warm rose and says how she misses London so much. The influx of Czechs and (especially) Poles into London since their countries joined the EU has been incredible and generally welcomed by British people. Jitka spent a year living with an English family and living a party life in London, hanging out with Brazilians and Australians, a big contrast to the more domestic life she had in Prague.
Now she’s caught the party disease, Jitka tells me we have to sample Prague’s nightspots. So we pay the (quite large) bill at Kampa Park and set off across the Charles Bridge again to hit Lavka Bar & Club on the other side of the river.
It’s a big, welcoming place, once again smack on the river with views over to the castle, with a wide terrace where tourists and locals get gradually merrier as the evening goes on. Inside the music is Top 40, with a sprinkling of 80s hits, nothing very experimental. Relaxed dress code and a tolerance of high-spirited stag and hen parties, often from the UK.
This emergence of Prague as a stag and hen party location has not pleased everyone, because of course they can be rowdy and badly behaved. But I think you’d be unlucky to suffer from them. More likely you’ll meet someone who’s on a trip like this and they’ll tell you they’re having a fantastic time, dance with you for a few minutes and then waltz off to the next bar.
Jitka says she fancies getting some better music to dance to, so you head off into the Old Town in search of action. By night, this area of Prague becomes one big party, with the squares full of crowds dancing and drinking, listening to live music or sitting on the steps of the wild sculptures that spring up at every corner.
We reach Wenceslas Square, where my afternoon began, and hit Duplex Dance Club. There is a bouncer on the door and some kind of entrance policy, but it’s not like you have to be in a suit to get in. The dance floor is packed but friendly, the drink is pretty cheap and there’s a cool terrace overlooking the city when you’re in the mood for a break.
It’s a great feeling to be dancing in the middle of this forest of fantastic legs, with some podium dancers up above your head giving you another level of legs to check out. A lot of Prague clubs have strippers – if you ask for a ‘nightclub’ people assume you mean a strip club, whereas what you probably want is a ‘disco’ – but Duplex has these dancers raised above the dancefloor, keeping their clothes on.
We decide it’s time to go for the mega club, the big beast of Prague nightlife… Karlovy Lazne. This was created out of an old bathhouse, with the dance floors actually at the bottom of the old swimming pools. Four massive floors cater for hip hop (ground floor), Top 40 on the first floor, Eurodisco on the second and trance on the third. Even though it’s big, there is still a bit of a studenty feel to the place, as though it has been taken over for a weekend rave. This goes back to the 1990s and how the centre of Prague was suddenly freed up for young people to have a big party, after decades of restrictions under communism.
We head for the trance floor, since the word on the street is that this is the best thing about Karlovy Lazny, the best DJs and the coolest people. As elsewhere, there’s really not much of a dress code. This is a city with very little snobbery and an egalitarian, young point of view, welcoming everyone no matter how much money they have or what clothes they wear.
Tired, happy and loosened up by all that dancing, drinking and soaking up the fantasy world of Prague, Jitka and me head for bed. And that’s where the story ends.