Wednesday 17 November 2010

In Prague

After returning from Prague earlier this month, I said I'd give an account of the trip but busy-ness forced me to let that idea slide somewhat, just as with the promised, but ultimately non-existent, write-up from Tory Conference. The difference being that a long weekend in Prague is obviously more interesting than a couple of days in Birmingham, as more than one reader e-mailed to say they'd noticed the omission.


Let's start with the Heathrow airport experience, then - yes, I know you've all flown before, but it works as a contrast to later in the piece, so bear with me - and, specifically, the 'pub' at Terminal 5.

It calls itself a pub, it has a bar, it has beer, but is as far removed from a British boozer as it's possible to be, even Wetherspoons would appear almost old colonial after this place. I travelled with a painter/decorator friend of mine who is also partner in a new business venture, I'll call him 'Spike', and we were both ready for lunch once we'd passed through security (where my watch didn't set off the metal detector to great hilarity from Spike).

A burger would have done the job nicely, but all around were eateries which sold sandwiches designed more to look pretty than to taste good, using bread mixed with seedy shrapnel and 'healthy', sugar, fat and taste-free ingredients presumably sourced from a deli in Islington. Even the 'breakfast sandwich' spoiled the Lincolnshire sausage with some unpronouncable eye-tie cured meat and a spearmint coloured mayonnaise. And it was nearly four fucking quid!

So we plumped for the 'pub', as it termed itself. Aaaand what does one do when one enters a pub? Well, go to the bar, of course. Spike collared a barman and ordered a pint of Beck's Vier and a Strongbow while I sat at a table.

Not for long though, as a waiter (in a pub?) told me I couldn't sit there because it was messing up his seating plan. He pointed me to another and I sat down, only to see Spike getting rather agitated at another waiter (in a pub!) who was gesticulating and didn't look too happy. When he got to the table with the beers he had paid for, Spike told me that the guy was berating him for not sitting down and waiting for table service. You see, it was a 'pub' where you're not supposed to go near the bar.

I dunno, perhaps they should have called it a 'restaurant which happens to have a pub-like bar' rather than a pub. It could have saved the confusion.

The menu was attractive and at good prices but we didn't feel we had time for a roast dinner and 'death by chocolate' to finish, so plumped for the £2.95 chips each. It worked out at (I know as I counted them) 12p per paprika-coated chip. I'll say that again ... paprika-coated chip ... in a pub ... where you're not allowed to APPROACH THE FUCKING BAR!

The post meal ciggy, naturally, would have invited sirens, spinning orange lights and a code red lockdown of the terminal enforced by Uzi-wielding coppers in bio-hazard suits, so I just drew on the e-cig which had passed through the x-ray machine without a murmur.

So off to Prague we flew, arriving at our extremely comfortable 4 star hotel just in advance of dinner time thanks to the one hour time difference. Bags dumped - Spike in his non-smoking room, mine in a smoking room with an ashtray the size of an Essex boy-racer's alloy wheel (both €41 per night including breakfast) - we ventured down to the hotel restaurant which was apparently well-regarded in the city.

That's when we passed a sight so awesome that I was tempted to drop to my knees and offer homage. A bar of beauty and finesse (left), offering the finest of chilled Czech beers and (as we later found out) some gorgeous wines, staffed by smiling waistcoated women, every seat occupied by a happy-looking person, and an ashtray - yes, an ashtray - on every table.

Some people were smoking, others weren't, all were enjoying themselves but there were no dead bodies piling up, no bar staff clutching their hearts and calling for an ambulance, no animosity, no division. Just people enjoying their evening unharassed.

It minded me of Captain Ranty's evocative description of his times in Africa.

As much as I look forward to seeing my clan again, there are some things I will miss about both Nigeria and Ghana. Cheap beer, cheap fags, cheap food, and cheerful people. Being able to smoke in a bar. If you are a non-smoker you have no idea just how wonderful, and how liberating such a simple thing actually is. I felt normal. No-one was doing that wanky hand-waving and false-coughing so prevalent amongst the UK Righteous.
Indeed, and all the cheapness is equally true of Prague, except that it's in Europe. A member of the EU, in fact. And now one of the few countries still clinging on by its fingernails to liberty in the face of advancing authoritarianism from Brussels.

It was the only place one could smoke, thereby leaving every other part of the 354 roomed hotel - and two non-smoking lounges - for non-smokers, including the restaurant where we were heading. More than fair unless you're an anti-smoker who demands everything to be to your personal liking ... not like those 'selfish' smokers, eh?

Oh yes, the restaurant. Nothing too fancy on the prices front, we ate two starters, an exquisite wild boar (seriously) main meal on big plates with that balsamic decoration beloved of SW1 establishments, and a rather nice Sauvignon, for £30. That's right, in a four star hotel in Prague, you can eat top chef-prepared food for less than the price of a Harvester meal in Sunderland.

We were there for a specific event (no Bill Bryson-esque sightseeing critique here, I'm afraid), so after eating decided to decamp to the bar to socialise. It was at this point that the deeply-ingrained no-can-do facet of UK living was brought home to me in one small request. Could I take the delicate Czech crystal wine glass out of the restaurant (Spike had finished his) to the less calm surroundings of the hotel bar? Now, I've encountered many a 'no' when asking the same in the UK. Glasses have to stay where they're supposed to stay, you see. There is a system; a place for everything and everything in its place; computer says no; customer is right only if it doesn't interfere with our way of doing things; no ordering at the bar as we do waiter service here, for example (see? I told you it was relevant).

"Of course", answered the waiter (in a restaurant, fine) with a puzzled look on his face as if to wonder why I was asking. I was the customer after all, and in Prague, they are still always right. An ethos which held firm for our entire trip, leading to the sense of a burden being lifted, as I mentioned on my return.

Prague was such a blast you could clear quarries with it, the UK state-imposed shackles fell away with every minute spent there.
The rest of the extended break (we left on the Monday) was spent with incomers from Belgium, France, Sweden, Germany, Greece, Holland, Norway, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic, of course, amongst others. I spoke to as many as possible, occasionally blowing the cobwebs off my A level linguistics when the consequences of Babel frustrated, and was rather surprised at the overwhelming opinion voiced by a mostly working class clientele.

They hate the EU. Well, actually, they don't all hate the EU, the Germans quite like it but hate the Euro and stated that a clear majority wished for the return of the mark as their currency. But the overwhelming antipathy towards our empire-building overlords in Brussels was distinctly tangible. OK, it's not scientific, but these are real people, with real experiences, and almost as one they bemoaned the fact that they haven't been given a choice in the matter. They are European, and love fellow Europeans as our very friendly discussions proved, but would prefer to keep their identity and certainly want nothing to do with a federalised supra-national state.

Which kinda explains why referenda on the EU Constitution and Lisbon have been so few and far between. Letting people have their say doesn't really suit the EU or europhile politicians, does it?

Sorry I can't tell you more about the much-vaunted beauty of the city itself (though the post cards looked nice), but I was there for one purpose only and it wasn't being a tourist. That will come when I undoubtedly visit again with Mrs P.

I did leave the hotel event on the Saturday to have a look round the immediate vicinity and to do some gift-buying, so can attest that 20 B&H Gold is just over £3 a pack (but very little rolling baccy on offer, probably because there isn't much demand at those prices), that although there is a smoking ban in effect, you'd be hard-pressed to notice, and that despite the lack of overt government control, people seem to be living very well, ta, complete with posh shops and quality bars, cafes and restaurants. Along with a transport system that is affordable and clean, used by a populace which is friendly and relaxed with itself.

So it's a thumbs up for me. A definite recommend.

Finally, to tie things up nicely, let me quickly tell you about the Prague airport experience. Having checked in and headed early for the gate as Spike likes to do, we had an hour to spare so looked for somewhere other than a brushed metal seat to wait. Handy, then, that there was a bar within 30 seconds walk and, again, ashtrays were available. You were allowed to order from the bar, with no irritable waiter anywhere in the vicinity. Czechs seem to understand pubs more than we do.

The only downer was that, again, my watch didn't set off the metal detector. As Spike fell on the floor laughing, I was so hoping someone would appear from behind a screen wearing a pair of marigold gloves to wipe the smile off his face.

But then, Prague isn't that kind of suspiciously vindictive place, and long may it remain so.


Pat Nurse MA said...

Excellent post, Mr P. I'm so looking forward to my trip to Prague. I'll hunt for baccy and report back with prices.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Damn you sir, I was trying to compose a post on my recent trip to Fuerteventura along the same lines. Smoking, customer service etc. Plus B&H at €2.23 per pack.

But you've done it better.

d'babe said...

What a jolly article - but if you are at all like me - there is more to tell on this tale - namely the crushing depression you felt the moment you landed back in the U -do as you're told o - K . It starts with the chipper cabin operative reminding you IT IS ILLEGALL TO SMOKE ANYWHERE IN THE TERMINAL before you tromp past the security cameras, past the NO MOBILE PHONES sign and queue BEHIND THE LINE to have your passport (which MUST BE REMOVED FROM A HOLDER)inspected by a (usually) glowering immigration operative. No matter where I've been , no matter what a great time I've had, coming back to the UK sucks the joy out of me in seconds as I wonder for the 1000th time how I ended up living in Stalleg 17

Dick Puddlecote said...

d'babe; Zackerly!

Dick Puddlecote said...

Actually, worse still, we left Prague bathed in sunshine and landed to horizontal rain.

subrosa said...

About time this post appeared Richard. I didn't want to harass you by emailing of course. ;)

Zurich airport is perhaps the most smoker user friendly I've been in recently. Plenty smoking areas, even one in the boarding waiting area. It does show how different countries interpret the ban.

banned said...

Nice post, got me all nostalic for Olde England.
I went to Prague once; correction, I went through Prague once.
I was delayed in the Ukraine and my three day visa for Czechoslovakia SSR had already expired. I was put on a train and told not to get off until it reached Germany.

You have seriously made me think about making a return journey.

Neal Asher said...

Totally agree with d'babe. And tell me, is there some rule that 'no-smoking' signs must be positioned every ten metres? Did ASH find some research telling them that smoking destroys the short-term memory?

Oh yeah, and at Heathrow you're not even allowed to smoke outside or in the car park. Fume-belching traffic all around but you mustn't light up one of those death-sticks.

Oldrightie said...

I believe I suggested it's a great place. Sadly it will decline as the EU overlords infiltrate.

Jeff Wood said...

Yes, Prague is excellent. So are the surrounding small towns: they may be a bit rough but the food is good and the people great.

When I was last there a few years ago, it was possible to smoke at the airport, outside on a sort of viewing gallery close to the restaurant/cafe area.

Mind you, it was ten Celsius below, so one didn't linger.

jim said...

Yes, Czech is great to visit, not just Prague, I go there a lot. I assume you didn't go there before or around 1989, the service then was incredible, in a bad way. Like being shouted at in a book shop for looking at books?! Apparantly you had to ask the misserable assistant to bring you the book you wanted to look at. They should have kept some comunist traditions to remind people how awful it was.

Anonymous said...

Manchester Airport is not part of the BAA and now has small smoking areas beyond passport conrol at at least two of the three terminals They are partially covered and the walls are built out of mesh. A bit of spite which stops you enjoying a very good view of the aeroplanes.

Unknown said...

Excellent post Dick. Makes one sad to be British.

NickM said...

Glad I went to Prague when I did. It was ace. The EU will fuck it up.

The Cowboy Online said...

I went to Prague earlier this year, with a group of friends, and it was great. Being in Prague felt, to me, like Britain of 20 years ago.

I'm a non-smoker but it was great to be able to sit in a bar, surrounded by all my friends, both smokers and non-smokers, and not suffer the frequent interruptions of our smoking compatriots having to exile themselves to enjoy a smoke.

We were there for three days and I think it was maybe the second day when the ethnic make-up of the place finally registered as well. Did it register with you as well?

Stan Mann said...

I was curious about your impressions - I've been living and working as a musician based in Prague for more than a decade now - saw which way the UK wind was blowing,voted with my feet.

On a personal level,Prague is still highly agreeable,remarkably low-stress for a city of its size. People are remarkably socially responsible - it's still quite common for random adults to eg:reprimand noisy kids on public transport without the fear of assault or other consequences that that brings in the UK,in fact younger people actually offer me their seats on trams! If you're not actively causing a problem, people leave you alone,too - and no official badgering either from health police/rubbish inspectors etc. Public transport is indeed cheap and efficient,crime rates are low too, outside the tourist-oriented centre,where it's mostly theft & fraud. The service industries are an odd mixture of old and new - it's still possible to have that special,pre-"fall of the wall", meal experience,just round the corner from places such as you describe.As you noted,the smoking ban is not a big issue, owing to the fact that people have a choice.

That willingness to trust people to make their own decisions extends to all the vices,with no obvious ill-effects,although one sometimes sees spectacular,usually harmless drunks on the streets.As you probably realised,Czechia (as many Czechs like to call it) is in the Guinness Book of Records for per capita beer consumption - quite right too,it's the best on the planet,and it's around a pound a half-litre - "liquid bread",they call it. It's a shame the wine isn't better, there's good stuff, but not much of it gets out of the areas where they make it. While on the subject of alcohol, one interesting custom is the willingness of local distilleries to convert (for a fee) your surplus garden fruit crop into a range of exotic spirits - slivovice (plums), merunkovice (apricots),jablkovice(apples) etc,etc - a much more invigorating "5-a-day" regimen than in the UK.

The extensive range of Dutch and other rolling tobaccos is priced around 3 pounds the 40-gram pack,and a bonus for some is that, since Jan 1st, dope(s)is/are effectively legal.

Although prostitution is not actually legal,anywhere that calls itself a "nightclub" or sometimes "gentlemans' club" is usually a brothel - at least one of these establishments has a deal where you can fuck for free if you don't mind being broadcast on the internet! Several pages of the local small-ads free press cater for those of less clubbable inclinations.

Cz is not in the eurozone,and I have to admire the skill with which Vaclav Klaus has used the (largely ceremonial) office of President to minimise the EU's social engineering. (I've met him twice at gigs,nice chap,drinks Jack D. so I have to say there's an accessibility to this country's leaders that is not common in the world these days) Long may it continue! Good blog,keep up the good work, S.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Thanks for that, Stan. Very interesting observations indeed. :)