Sunday, December 16, 2007


Prague as it used to look....

Prague as it looks now

During my first few days in Prague, I thought it was just a nice atrium, a couple of bars, a small bistro restaurant and a football-sized tournament room full of poker players. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover however that only a 10-minute walk away from the Hilton (or €5,000 cab ride) is an absolutely beautiful city!!! I slightly blame the Hilton for this as the only sights they mentioned to me were the Business Centre and Spa - both absolutely lovely but pretty light on medieval splendour.

However, on the last day of EPT Prague, I managed to escape the Hilton into the sub-zero temperatures - wind chill factor replicating Dalston in mid-Feb - and into the city with my good friend Benjamin Gallen aka Christopher Robin. First stop was the Charles Bridge and luckily Christopher Robin had brought his guidebook so was able to tell me precisely nothing of interest except that for many years it was Prague's only bridge and that also we should have come three hours earlier to avoid the crowds. Plus there are lots of statues of saints on the bridge which I could have worked out for myself. We were both sorely tempted by the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments but time was tight so we pressed on.

On the other side of the bridge, we put on our breathing apparatus and started scaling the mountain to check out St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle. Once near the summit, I insisted we stop for a plastic cup of hot wine and we gazed out over the city. Everyone who says Prague is rubbish (no one) is talking tosh; it's gorgeous. Once fully-poisoned by the absolutely disgusting wine, we marched on. It was Changing of the Guard at the Palace and Christopher Robin was worried we'd miss the highlight - the daily execution of a political prisoner. I asked CR when his guide book had been published but he couldn't hear me for mortar fire.

After watching several prisoners and a couple of tourists get mowed down by smartly-dressed militia, we did a whistle-stop tour of the cathedral interior. All the usual Gothic arch nonsense, Japanese tourists and a dodgy organ player but also some rather fabulous stained-glass windows.

We headed down the other side of the hill and back into the main city. We were both really looking forward to seeing the famed Prague open-air Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Not only would we then be able to tick off Area 7 in the guidebook, but also we'd be able to buy expensive, badly-made knick-knacks for unimportant relatives. As it turns out, the Prague Christmas Market was even worse than most Christmas Markets and we decided even unimportant relatives deserved better. The only highlight was I got a stall-trader to teach me "I love you" in Czech (milui té).

Tyn Cathedral is in the square however and is pretty impressive - very much like a grubby, grayscale version of the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas. In fact, that is slightly the problem with going to Las Vegas - it ruins all the excitement about going anywhere else. Christopher Robin told me he's not going to bother with the real Venice now he's stayed at the Venetian and I feel much the same way about Luxor versus the Cairo pyramids. Christopher Robin's guidebook had very little to say about Tyn Cathedral/Excalibur except that the genius astronomer Tycho Brahe is buried there. Tycho is famous for a) losing part of his nose in a duel; b) trying to work out whether it's the Ptolemaic system or Copernican system which gives the most accurate astronomical observations; c) dying of a strained bladder after failing to ask the King if he could leave dinner to go to the loo. Apparently "I don't want to die like Tycho" is a well-known expression in France.

Christopher Robin also told me an interesting fact about the Aladdin casino which is that the heavy-duty-Islamic theming of the original is not exactly flavour of the month in the US right now so the whole place has been turned into Planet Hollywood. This fact came out of CR's head, rather than his Prague guidebook, and sadly the Czechs have neglected to build an Aladdin replica in their otherwise perfect city.

Anyway. Enough about Vegas. We were running out of time and had only ticked off Areas 2, 3 and 7 at this point so rushed down Paris street to the old Jewish quarter. Here we paid exhorbitant Jewish prices (I am Jewish so I can say this) to visit the Old-New Synagogue, one of the oldest in Europe and built in the Gothic style. It's still an active place of worship so Christopher Robin (not Jewish) had to put a kapel on his head which wouldn't stay on, even for two seconds. Me and the failed Jew then had a quick chat with the lovely old ladies at the door who said Prague now has a 5,000-strong Jewish community - mainly descendants of the original 50,000-strong community - who have returned to the City since the fall of Communism. They invited us to attend that evening's services but as these all clashed with the final table action back at the Hilton, we had to decline. Christopher Robin (a mine of information) then told me another interesting fact which is that all French poker players are Jewish. Presumably not highly orthodox ones as they were all still playing late on Friday night - including tournament winner Arnaud Mattern.

Sadly, the synagogue was the last stop on our tour of Prague but even two hours was better than nothing and I can't wait to go back. If you want to hear more, check out Siktilt's great video tour - click the Prague link under Day 1b.