I have visited the Czech capital on eight occasions. After my first brief visit in ’92 I fell in love with the place in a sad to be leaving couldn’t wait to get back kind of way.
In September 1992 I was only there for a few hours at the tail end of my third and last inter-rail trip. I had left my travel buddy in Budapest and taken the overnight train, arriving at around 6am for the dreaded wash and brush up in a freezing railway station toilet.
My mate Hamish had been before and recommended that I take a tram up to the Hrad or castle area. This was the beginning of my love story. The ancient tram rattled along the cobbled streets, past the golden roof of the National Theatre (Narodni Divadlo) and across the Vltava River on a bridge adjacent to the magnificent Karlovy Most (Charles Bridge).
Once across the river, the tram was soon straining up the steep hill to the castle area. Alighting the tram, I soon found myself in the tranquility of the Kings Gardens, an area stuffed full of unusual modern statues scattered amongst the rose bushes and manicured lawns.
The castle was in fact a collection of State buildings and the magnificent St Vitus’s Cathedral. The cobbled squares, roaring fountains and ceremonial bugler just added to the spellbinding ambience of the area.
As I exited the complex through a huge gate topped by monstrous statues, my breath was taken away at the stunning view across the terracotta roofs, over Charles Bridge and beyond into the Old Town with its distinctive spires and throng of people. Wow! This was a view that I was to see several times and can never tire of.
I then took one of my favourite walks – down the cobbled Mala Strana, across the iconic Charles Bridge and over to Old Town Square, where I sat for a beer and recollection of all that I had viewed.
I vowed to return very soon and this I did the following May thanks to 1,000 Airmiles and a week in a youth hostel. I had arrived at a special time, a period known as Prague Spring. The fortnight of classical music, parades and fashionable partying kicks off with staging of Ma Vlast composed by one of the Republic’s favourite sons, Smetana.
I packed a great deal into my week with opera, ballet and several classical music performances including one played on 16th Century instruments. Apart from the National Theatre, State Opera House and Estates Theatre where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in 1787, other venues were churches and courtyards. Ticket prices averaged around £2 so I must have attended twelve or more events.
I even paid a visit to Bertramka, Mozart’s Prague residence, where I saw a string quartet play.
Apart from all the cultural events, I was able to explore the city in greater depth, visiting the splendid St Vitus’s and St Catherine’s Cathedrals, the atmospheric coffee houses, the cheap and cheerful beer cellars, whilst also being entertained by street performers.
Staroměstské náměsti (Old Town Square) was particularly memorable, not so much for the famous Astronomical Clock, but for just sitting in the sunshine, drinking a Pilsner and soaking up the atmosphere and surroundings.
I will never forget the jazz trio who entertained me royally. The elderly and portly singer followed the style of Louis Armstrong with his Satchmoesque vocals and frenzied trumpeting. He was accompanied by a double bass and accordion. Magic stuff.
The deal was sealed, Prague had become the first place that I was officially in love with. To get a good idea of how ’90s Prague looked, watch the film Amadeus as it was shot there at this time.
I have been several times since including twice by marathon coach journey. The first time was with my parents in ’95. We stayed in a shared house that we booked through Cedok the state agency that controlled all tourist accommodation at the time. Food was rationed as post Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia struggled to assert itself in Europe’s new order.
One egg, a single slice of ham and four pieces of bread were all we were allowed for our breakfast.
We again had a fine time with plenty of culture, even attending a Sparta Prague v Slovan Bratislava football match. I will always remember the vertigo inducing terracing that Mum was not at all happy with!
The next time I went by coach was with a college jazz band from Devon. The band played several venues in the city plus one at the beautiful spa town of Karlovy Vary a couple of hours south of Prague. It was a great trip that was topped in the memory stakes by our coach catching fire and being destroyed on the way home. That was one early morning call that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry!
My next three trips were with Mrs Wilbur post our marriage in 2000. We spent a wonderful Christmas there in the snow, watching The Nutcracker at Narodni Divadlo on Christmas Day and trying to keep warm eating soup and drinking gluwein.
My final visit was in 2008 and this is when something changed. It was still a good trip, but the stag and hen parties had arrived, the crowds were that much bigger and everything that much more expensive. The spell had been broken, the aura tarnished.
Prague will always have a special place in my heart. The buildings are wonderful, the squares beautiful and the streets full of mediaeval atmosphere. What I have lost though is ‘My Prague’. It felt like a bit of a secret on those early visits. A daft notion maybe, but one that I felt all the same.
Will I go back? I am not sure. To view the castle area reflected in the Vltava, to go to a lavish opera and to consume coffee and cake in one of the stately cafes is a real draw, but maybe I should say “thanks for the memories, they were marvellous.”