Having had to cancel a visit to southern Bohemia in January due to the death of a relative, I soon booked a replacement trip to Prague for a couple of nights in early March, thinking it would be simpler just to go there. Three friends of mine then decided to come along and I found us a hotel in the Malá Strana district below the Castle. This was the Hotel Čertovka, named after a finger of the Voltava river (‘Devil’s Stream’).
I also bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:
Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);
Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);
Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);
Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).
Unlike in Budapest, the Czechs haven’t followed the Hungarian example of making their money-changing kiosks a state monopoly but instead they allow a free-for-all that is open to blatant fiddling. Some of the taxis remain dodgy in both places. Anyway, I’d carry a card and, apart from the beer, there were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see.
These included the buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below.
The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.
I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum, as it happens. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognises another beetle’).
23rd February, Friday
All day it felt a bit like snow. There seems to be Siberian weather on the way. I picked up my order of Czech crowns at the bank (2,500 of them for €104). The lady asked me was I was going to Prague. Two of my travelling companions were in a nearby café. P. mentioned a story about an inebriated NGO type crashing his new NGO jeep into a Bosnian brothel in a snowstorm.
25th February, Sunday
An east wind has been blowing for days and there’s no frost tonight but they seem to be promising us some kind of repeat of White ’47 for the coming week. At the moment Thursday looks like the worst of it but we’ll see. A lot of snow may be under the bridge by then.
26th February, Monday
The worst of it is forecast for Thursday evening to Friday morning and I’m hoping we can get up and away before that. So far, it’s cold out but nothing drastic. Plenty of people in town this afternoon went bare-headed.
27th February, Tuesday
A flake or two swirled as I arrived to pick up my father from the day centre at half past three but it was an hour later before the first sprinkling of snow. Around six there was a real shower of it that left the roofs and plants white for a starry night.
28th February, Wednesday
Still starry at half past five this morning but by half nine a thin blanket had fallen. The sun was shining then, as it did on and off, between snow showers, or during them. Sights of the day and night:
(1) empty wine shelves in Frank’s supermarket (N. told me one woman went off with a crate of it);
(2) a snowboarder down the quay, towed by a car (a fall didn’t deter him).
I knew our hopes of travelling were snookered. I went into town tonight so I could take photos, including one I have of the old bridge, even though it’s not Charles (Karlův Most).
1st March, Thursday
Half past six, it was snowing in the dark. Up at half eight, I knew we’d be going nowhere but looking online was still a formality. On the south coast, we just couldn’t risk a 400 km round trip in this weather for a likely flight cancellation.
I emailed the hotel again to confirm we would not be needing the taxi at the airport in Prague. In reply, regret was expressed that we would not be travelling on this occasion. The greedy owner is still determined to charge all four of us for both nights, thus ensuring that we won’t ever be back to give that hotel another chance.
A large green tractor noisily swerved in at Frank’s but a bank girl emerged from the shop (“They have no bread or milk in there!”), whereupon the tractor roared off down the road again. There was no milk in the local Spar either.
Our scheduled 13.40 Ryanair flight got away from Dublin after all, at 16.27, thirteen minutes inside the three hours needed for a delay refund. It may have been the last of the few planes to get off the ground today. Before dark I walked to town and took more photos.
2nd March, Friday
An awful lot of snow has fallen. I don’t remember anything like it before. Some of us may never see it again.
Those cheeky Czech chappies are not only charging us for both nights plus an extra little cut of three euros – city tax, I guess – but now they have also told Booking.com that we were a no-show – after I’d flagged a weather problem a day in advance – and then emailed early yesterday to let them cancel the airport taxi pick-up in good time. Kipling has an answer for countries that claim they are not in Eastern Europe. East is east… Anyway, I was out photographing more of the best of our snowy settlement. This place here really should market its old town, its Altstadt (or Staré Město), snow or no snow.
Then I slipped into Downey’s for an hour or so. The young chap who was the sole customer there before me said he had left one of the pubs on the town square when the messing got too much (“lads dancing… fellas firing snowballs in the door…”). Then it turned out that he too should have been away in Prague this weekend, with a stag party.