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