TRAVEL

Call it gritty, grue­some or gor­geous, Prague’s def­i­nitely got per­son­al­ity.

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I’m sus­pended in a glass ob­ser­va­tion pod, clamped to a 216m tower – the high­est build­ing in the Czech cap­i­tal, Prague – and I’m be­gin­ning to freak out.

But the Žižkov Tele­vi­sion Tower’s height has noth­ing to do with it. The cul­prits are 10 mon­strous (in both senses of the word) sculpted ba­bies, who are crawl­ing – make that prowl­ing – up the build­ing’s three legs to­wards me.

They’re the cre­ation of the city’s own en­fant ter­ri­ble David Černý, the in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned artist whose work of­ten has a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage as well as a ten­dency to shock. And it’s cer­tainly do­ing that; I feel as if I’m be­ing tar­geted by mu­tants. The ba­bies’ heads are bloated and even worse, they have im­ploded faces, as if their fea­tures have been sucked out of a ver­ti­cal slit and re­placed with a bar­code.

My guide, Ka­te­rina Sed­lakova, tries to dis­tract me as she draws my at­ten­tion to the build­ing it­self. Žižkov Tower, from where we have a fab­u­lous view of Prague, is now an ob­ser­va­tory and communications cen­tre.

But Ka­te­rina tells me it was built in the Eight­ies so the former com­mu­nist regime could block in­com­ing TV and ra­dio sig­nals from the West.

‘All me­dia was con­trolled,’ she says. ‘When I was a child, anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tions, which made front-page news across the world, were never men­tioned here. My par­ents gave up read­ing the news­pa­per.’

She pauses to point out a hand­ful of graves be­low; the regime built its tower on the site of a ceme­tery. Closer to home, I spot a fi­bre­glass baby’s but­tock. Černý rarely gives an ex­pla­na­tion for his work, but I’m be­gin­ning to form one of my own. As I learn more about him, my re­sponse to his ba­bies is chang­ing.

I now see adults sti­fled by to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, their iden­ti­ties lost and growth stunted. They scale the tower but make no head­way. I feel em­bar­rassed that I was ini­tially re­pulsed by them. Černý has de­liv­ered his mes­sage.

Most peo­ple visit Prague for its an­cient bridges, cob­bled streets and glo­ri­ous ar­chi­tec­ture – a mar­vel­lous mix of baroque, Re­nais­sance and Gothic, with art nou­veau and cu­bism thrown in. Eat­ing out is at­trac­tive too, with prices cheap and por­tions gen­er­ous – a tra­di­tional meal costs around £4 (Dh22).

I’ve come, how­ever, to ex­plore the city’s emerg­ing dis­tricts and ex­pe­ri­ence the grit­tier side of this ridicu­lously ro­man­tic cap­i­tal.

The Žižkov Tower, 6km south-east of the city cen­tre, is just a 10-minute ride by metro, yet few tourists tend to visit. The area was once

cov­ered with vine­yards, planted by Charles IV, the 14th-cen­tury king of Bo­hemia who planned the lay­out of Prague.

To­day, streets are lined with art nou­veau man­sions, a phe­nom­e­nal num­ber of bars (there are 300 in a fivesq-km square) and the odd, el­e­gant café.

On the way to the tower, Ka­te­rina and I pass Jiřího z Poděbrad Square. At its cen­tre is the Church of the Most Sa­cred Heart of our Lord, which is soon to be­come a Unesco World Her­itage site. Built in the 1930s, its grey brick­work, flecked with white, re­sem­bles a king’s er­mine, in hon­our of Charles IV.

Nearby is Vi­nohrady Pav­il­ion, one of the dis­trict’s former fac­to­ries. Its clean, spa­cious in­te­rior has glass­fronted de­signer stores and a retro-style café. The menu of­fers 40 types of tea, in­clud­ing Ar­gen­tinian mate, olive leaf and pomegranate. It’s the per­fect drink be­fore I head back to the Man­darin Ori­en­tal for din­ner at Spices restau­rant, where dishes in­clude Thai crab cakes with mango chilli may­on­naise and beef ribs with Sri Lankan red pep­per curry.

The ho­tel’s en­ter­tained celebri­ties Kylie Minogue, Madonna and the Dalai Lama. But Lenka Rogerova, who shows me around, won’t be drawn on ru­mours that Quentin Tarantino is a present guest.

In­stead, she shares a story about how Gwen Ste­fani se­cretly shot a mu­sic video.

‘Our se­cu­rity man­ager was do­ing his rounds, when there she was, in a cor­ri­dor, ly­ing on the floor,’ she says.

The ho­tel’s his­tory is equally in­trigu­ing. Built on the site of a former Do­mini­can monastery, you can have cof­fee in the clois­ters, party in the chap­ter house and get mar­ried in the re­fec­tory – now a ball­room with glit­ter­ing chan­de­liers. Over a quar­ter of a mil­lion ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds were dis­cov­ered dur­ing ren­o­va­tion work. Some of them, in­clud­ing me­dieval dice, but­tons and keys, are dis­played near the spa.

It was here, on the site of a Re­nais­sance chapel that work­ers made the most ex­cit­ing dis­cov­ery of all, un­earthing the re­mains of a 14th-cen­tury Gothic chapel. The ru­ins are dis­played un­der a glass floor. I pad across his­tory in my slip­pers, won­der­ing what the monks would have made of it all.

With just three days in Prague and not hav­ing vis­ited be­fore, I get up early to squeeze in a lit­tle sight­see­ing. Luck­ily, it takes all of five min­utes to walk from the ho­tel, in the Malá Strana dis­trict, to the city’s fa­mous Charles Bridge.

The rum­ble of cars across cob­bles is re­placed by the rush of wa­ter at the weir. The haloes of the bridge’s baroque stat­ues glint

Dox at Holešovice, a former IN­DUS­TRIAL dis­trict that’s at­tract­ing the CRE­ATIVE LOT with its large build­ings and low rents, is ex­ploit­ing its ARTIS­TIC in­de­pen­dence with a CON­TRO­VER­SIAL body of work

in the sun­light. An artist is al­ready paint­ing, pick­ing out pink and pur­ple in the an­cient stone.

The bridge over the river Vl­tava was com­mis­sioned by Charles IV and leads to Staroměst­ské náměstí, the Old Town Square, via a pedes­trian strip. On the old town hall’s astrological clock, stat­ues of the 12 apos­tles shunt in and out of doors ev­ery hour. It’s quite a crowd-puller.

At noon, Ka­te­rina takes a group of us on a tour. We visit the Ital­ian-style Vrtba Gar­den with its or­na­men­tal hedges, Prague’s cathe­dral, St Vi­tus, where Czech roy­alty is crowned, and the city’s cas­tle which, with a foot­print big­ger than seven foot­ball pitches, is the largest an­cient cas­tle in the world.

Later, we take a tram north to Holešovice, a former in­dus­trial dis­trict where large mu­nic­i­pal build­ings and low rents are at­tract­ing de­sign­ers, ar­chi­tects and ad agen­cies, turn­ing the area into a cre­ative hub. The Chem­istry Gallery pro­motes young artists, many of whom are grad­u­ates of the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. But it’s the Dox Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art that im­presses the most, ex­ploit­ing its in­de­pen­dence with a body of con­tro­ver­sial work. It takes its name from the Greek word doxa, mean­ing opin­ion.

At the time of my visit, a spliced car is melt­ing into a rock in the court­yard, a gi­ant skull is spin­ning on a crane, and an ex­hi­bi­tion high­lights how artists are be­ing tor­tured for crit­i­cis­ing the con­flict in Ukraine.

I spend my fi­nal morn­ing in Kampa Park, an islet on the Vl­tava. As I wan­der around, I come across bloated heads, bar­codes and bronze but­tocks; Černý’s ba­bies are back in town. Di­rectly be­hind them, their tower wrecks the sky­line.

For the pur­poses of sym­bol­ism, I’d like to think that the trio has some­how man­aged to crawl here, wrench­ing them­selves free from com­mu­nism, to play, as chil­dren should, in the park.

But I ac­cept, with res­ig­na­tion, that de­spite hav­ing noth­ing but a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of Prague, even democ­racy can’t stretch that far.

Žižkov Tower is Prague’s tallest build­ing, and it comes alive with David Cerný’s creepy ba­bies

Towering over the Prague Cas­tle com­plex, St Vi­tus Cathe­dral is a bril­liant ex­am­ple of Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture

The Man­darin Ori­en­tal in Prague has en­ter­tained celebri­ties such as Kylie Minogue and Madonna

The Vrtba Gar­den in Lesser Town is a baroque mas­ter­piece and pop­u­lar wed­ding des­ti­na­tion

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