by Gary Phillips
It had been almost 14 years since my last visit to Prague. Back in 1997 the Czech Republic was still very much a country recovering from the tumult of the fall of communism, and its adoption of free-market economics. People drove old cars, mostly Skoda’s, and the buildings were mostly in need of paint. Designer brands were slowly making inroads into the high street, while the airport was a relatively calm place.
The change was first noticeable just after I landed, there were adverts everywhere, just like they are in London, but the one I noticed was that of Citibank on the treadmills, so I groaned about how the banks seem to dominate advertising in major cities these days despite all the events of recent years.
In the arrivals hall there were dozens of drivers waiting for passengers with placards of large global corporations, while relatively few from common travellers like myself. Granted, it was midweek when I went, a Tuesday morning, so all this was inevitable. The journey into the city on the Airport Express was bus like a throwback to the 90’s, a long bendy bus, with a few bumps on the road. I got off at the central station in Prague, Praha Hlavní Nádraží, a magnificent example of Art Nouveau architecture, at a place which is no longer the main entrance. A new entrance has been created along with an enormous retail space just down from the old booking hall, which is now a cafe. The station handles 22 million passengers a year so needs to be big, but this is really, really big. In my view it is larger than Victoria station, or St Pancras, and even larger than Brussels Midi station. The station acts as an international hub for trains heading towards southern Europe, as well as its own domestic services.
It got onto the metro line, equally efficient as before, (groan about London, again), changed at Muzeum and got off at Mustek Metro Station, at the foot of Wenceslas Square. Looking right as I walked out I saw a Tesco, as I crossed the road I saw a G4S van, a Barclays Bank, a Rentokil Van, and walked past a Desigual shop. Next to my hotel, the Hotel Ambassador, there was a new office building being developed, no doubt destined for more arrivals from the corporate world.
The Ambassador Hotel itself, I’m pleased to say, retains its old world charm. It still has the Art Nouveau frontage, the old metal lift, large rooms with high ceilings, not to mention its superior position right at the foot of Wenceslas Square where so many historical events took place, on one of the busiest positions of the whole city. The service had a few characteristics of the past too, but that is because it isn’t a Hilton, or a Marriott, but a privately owned hotel with local staff members, who are free to act with individualism, instead of being trained down to the last “have a nice day”. I know which I prefer, as I like sincerity, and I like people who use common sense.
It’s fair to say that Prague will always draw tourists for the same reason it always has, its unrivalled beauty, and cultural significance. But it’s also true that it was global business which made Prague what it is today. Back in the middle-ages Prague was a major centre of commercial activity aided by the fact that it was also seat to the Holy Roman Emperors who built Prague. It was Charles IV who linked the Old Prague to the New City with his bridge of 1357, and established the University. It was the Jewish community who laid the foundations of Prague as a place to do business, aided by the favourable location alongside the Vltava River, linking the rest of Europe by water. But do we really need large coffee chains in Prague? And does the presence of large international brands restrict the possibilities of local firms to thrive? Do we really need to visit Tesco’s or do we even need to see a Tesco, when we are supposed to be getting away from what is very much part of the daily grind at home?
The Czech Republic has not adopted the Euro, it had the opportunity two years ago but elected to remain out. The Slovak Republic, on the other hand chose to join and is now faced with the debts of other countries like Greece and Portugal.
Daily purchases around town seemed cheaper than in the UK. For example, I wanted a sandwich while I was walking around town with my camera, so I bought one with a coke for what was less than £2.00, while in the evening I bought a whole burger in Wenceslas Square for less than £1.50. This made me think. When I was a student we used to travel to the Greek Islands in the summer, mainly because it was cheap. You could eat, drink, travel and sleep for small money. You can’t any more. A salad can cost 10 EURO these days and our old haunts are filled with larger, more commercial hotels, empty. Perhaps the Euro hasn’t worked for tourism at all; perhaps Greece would have been far better off staying out.
The people of Prague are very happy to still be spending their Koruna’s and the country is doing well. I now feel glad that the UK stayed out too, when I was an advocate. Oh, you can also smoke in the bars and restaurants, which for many must seem like a breath of fresh air!