Since overcoming my dread of flying two years ago (read about that here if you like) I’ve been hopping on and off aeroplanes like they’re skateboards. My latest get-away was three days in Prague. Accompanied by three of my mates.
Travel brochures here in Britain cannot gush enough about the place: Stunning Prague this. Mesmerising Prague that. And when I told my neighbours I was going…
“Oh. You’ll love it. It’s the new Paris, you know. An interesting city, isn’t it honey?”.
I don’t speak to those neighbours much any more!
£300 or so and three days of my life I can never get back. Why oh why did I choose Prague? With the help of that unhelpful thing we call hindsight, I now know that Prague for me is about as interesting as Hilary Clinton’s lingerie draw.
First thing that hits you when you get there… the prices!
On arrival at Prague’s international airport my mouth refused to utter those customary words it always utters whenever I land somewhere: “We made it boys. We’re here”. Instead, out flew something else:
I had spotted the coffee prices.
Yes, it’s an airport. They charge more for things. We all know these airports like to claw back what they lose on the duty-frees. And I understand that the money for all those metal detectors has to come from somewhere – they must cost a bomb (excuse me… can’t be cheap). But almost three quid for a coffee?
I would soon see, however, that our wallets would be assaulted on a much larger scale once we’d checked into our hotel several kilometres away and ambled into the city centre. These airport prices would seem like bargains of the century in comparison!
And so it was, that over the next three days, each time any of us declared it to be coffee time, eight British eyeballs immediately got to work scanning our surroundings for a sign that looked like it had an aeroplane on it. Once we agreed that one did, we gazed at it, computed what it said, then affirmed that all four amigos were up for the trek:
“Airport – 7 kilometres that way. We’re all for coffee then? So who’s walking in front this time?”
And because none of us had brought along our Platinum American Express card, because none of us stood a chance of ever being accepted for one, and because you shouldn’t need one in Eastern Europe anyway, we quickly learnt to wrestle our plaguing hunger pains! The £120 each in Czech money we’d brought was disappearing faster than Jeb Bush’s prospects. Mostly it was disappearing on coffees, and doughnut-like things that were allergic to jam, so never had any. They tasted like the rusks I gnawed on as a child.
My neighbours back in England weren’t wrong about Prague’s beauty, and historical buildings and fine architecture. They just failed to mention the graffiti that much of it is buried beneath! They’d also mentioned nothing of the millions of heads, necks and shoulders that appear every time you get your camera out. Prague is crammed with tourists, you see. And don’t think that you can shake them, because we only managed it once in three days.
It makes no difference where you go:
Musty cafés off the beaten track, or down by the river where nothing much occurs, save for hungry ducks soliciting for morsels (we knew the feeling). Even in the taxis that screech everywhere like they’re Starsky & Hutch… all-crammed-with-tourists! And even while we were sitting in McDonald’s downing our thick-shakes, the pesky tourists shuffled in. What is the matter with people? Why travel abroad and then go to McDonald’s?
I consulted with my wallet and we both agreed that everyone should remain at the hotel in the evenings and just look out the window. Or play I spy. My homies out-voted us. So, off we strolled, down the one kilometre hill and back into the city centre for a night of as much entertainment as the measly notes left in our thin wallets could buy us.
The night is when Prague transforms from the smiling assassin to just an assassin. All pleasantries while they’re taking your money are suspended until daylight – now it’s just about taking your money. The shops and cafés that rip you off during the day close their doors to make way for the big dogs. I curse every miserable person I have ever known that has been to Prague and didn’t warn me about all this.
11 pm. The centre of Prague. The main square is lit but it’s left to the moon to illuminate the side streets. Maybe that helps to deter tourists from venturing into them. Or is meant to. Or did do, just on this particular night, except for the four Englishmen bored of looking at the square they’d looked at a hundred times already earlier in the day.
Silhouettes occupy many a doorway in the side streets if you’ve a keen eye and alert mind. As we four dawdled through this unfamiliar street on our way to the next unfamiliar street with hopes of finding a familiar interesting street, the silhouettes from everywhere around suddenly broke loose from their shadowy prisons and lurched towards us like hungry zombies. If my three comrades were as startled as me then they were pretty startled. Lucky for us these zombies turned out not to be zombies – they were women.
A hushed street was no more. Catcalls began firing at us like arrows. Condom packets waved in the air like flags at a racetrack bringing cars into the pit stop. Cleavages appeared out of nowhere and glistened in the moonlight like Welsh valleys. Skirts were being yanked up at an alarming rate, revealing thongs and g-strings in every conceivable colour. Only the oldest business on earth could do this… flip a group of women into the hunter and a group of men as the prey.
As a grown man, I’ve come to mock the way that I was as a teenager… so easily aroused and by the simplest of things. But on this night, in this moment, it seemed not much had changed as my eyeballs fought a tug-of-war match over the sexual female imagery that was pouring into them from both sides of this quaint little street in the Czech Republic’s capital city.
If it wasn’t gunfire that broke out then it must have been high heels, tapping down onto the pavement and commanding us to look in this direction and that direction and over here and over there. Tap – tap – tap-tap-tap. Broken English accompanied the sound and flooded the scene:
“What you want, bay-bee? You want this… ?”
“Honey. Come over here. I got something for yoooo”.
“Hey beauty boy. Come over to me. I will do it all for you so good”.
“I give it to you long time. Long time boy, come here”.
I maintained a polite and gentlemanly manner as I sauntered through the horde and out the other end. The beast in me demanded I go back and strike up some chat with one of them. Strike a deal. The one that flashed me her killer smile and the Union Jack thong she’d got on seemed like it could be fate. Or I could reason that it was fate.
Suddenly my boys appeared and those impulses settled down a bit. We scuttled on a little further and noticed the street lights were on. Lots of people about, even at this hour. Then an all-night McDonald’s crammed with tourists presented itself. We swung in and devoured a Big Mac. We quizzed one another on who saw what and who’d like to do what and to which one. I remember these types of conversations from my adolescent days. My God, am I still an adolescent? Thanks for that, Prague!
Stomachs filled and fantasies unfulfilled we stepped out of McDonald’s and headed up the street in the opposite direction to thong alley! A few minutes of walking and a church clock struck once… 1 am. We were now in the main square of Prague’s city centre. Music from all directions wafted into our eardrums. Nite Clubs? So many in one place?
A scrum of men materialised from nowhere and made a beeline for us. There were perhaps twenty. But could have been more. Nigerians. Romanians. Bulgarians. And God knows from where else in this world. All but Czech men, it seemed. They were keen to explain where the music was coming from. And why!
It was time for more broken English:
“Hey men. You come here looking for show?”
“Mister, my club got girls for you. Come, I take you”.
“Anything you want in my club. What you want?”
“Girl on girl? Come, my club is best. I show for you”.
“I take you best club, Come. I take you now”.
“How much you want spend, man?”
“Our girls are best in Prague. They make good show for you, after go hotel with you, no problem”.
We feebly fought them off with polite declines and fake smiles. Some insisted on shaking our hands or patting our backs. Or pickpocketing us if they got the chance. Some trotted beside us, reeling off the special offers they could arrange for us if we’d go with them to the clubs that paid them less than the minimum wage to get foreigners inside. Once in, the clubs do the rest!
It took more than thirty minutes to finally break free from our pursuers. If I had said no thank you once, I had said it a hundred times. For my boys it was the same. One of my friends had even been grabbed by the arm and asked if he is gay. He isn’t. But who’s business is it.
We stopped for bro council near a bench upon which a wino had nodded off. I peered down at him and wondered what his story was. And how he could afford a coffee in this town. We frisked ourselves and all was in order – no foul play this time. Were we lucky? Some guys at this stage might well have flagged down the nearest taxi that wasn’t crammed with tourists and gone back to their hotel. It was now approaching 3 am. But that wouldn’t be us tonight!
The seed had been planted in each of our minds… strip clubs. A few minutes walk, back the way we’d come. A unanimous vote was sounded. The council delivered its ruling: No dawdling. No hanging about outside. We select a club then dart inside it. And thus it happened.
A few hours later, the extortionately priced beer we’d sank while watching girl after girl climb onto a stage and perform her routine was having an effect. Collectively, we agreed that each of our beds were calling, and that we should fall into them, alone. Outside the strip club we hailed the only taxi that wasn’t crammed with tourists and we piled in. It was crammed with tourists now. It was also 5.20 am.
Our second day found us with hangovers and bad moods. We moseyed about the city intent on finding activities that wouldn’t deplete our depleted finances. I opted for taking photos of buildings – I’d crop heads and necks out when I got home. My brethren seemed content just tagging behind me and nattering about the previous night’s escapades. Come afternoon, we needed a steak, nothing else would suffice we’d established. A back street restaurant with average service and a miserable waitress took £21 from each of us for the trouble. At least the ornament outside summed up my feelings about the place.
Once again, we did venture into the centre at night, but we’d agreed not to visit any more strip clubs. Or thong alley. And we stuck to that. Back street bars, although crammed with those pesky tourists, served as our entertainment. Another £30 or so each gone, though!
Our third and final day could not have come soon enough for me. My mates didn’t share that view and were already talking about returning. And with more spending money next time. One of them had convinced himself that a girl at thong alley who had flashed her pert breasts at him was ‘The One’. He simply had to return so she could get to know him.
If they do all return, it’ll be minus me. Kiev, Krakow and Warsaw have all got far more to offer than Prague. If my mates had been to any of them, as I have, they would know it. Kiev alone can match Prague like-for-like in the beauty stakes. And then puts it to shame with its remarkable value, service and hospitality. A similar thing can be said for Krakow and Warsaw. And of course all three cities attract tourists, yet are not overrun with them, as Prague is. I just cannot work out the appeal.
By the evening of our third day it was time to make our way to the airport and wait for our flight back to England. Compared to the masses back in the centre, the airport seemed like a ghost town. Good! Free at last. Free at last. Free at last.
With two hours to kill and very few heads and necks around it was perfect for getting the camera out. But it’s an airport. What’s to photograph.
Oh well. At least the coffee was only three quid a cup.
Bon voyage, suckers.
Further reading? How about this from Amazon.