Thursday, 24 April 2014

Czech Republic – Looking back, looking forward

December 30-January 2

Hello everyone!

After a lovely Christmas back in Wales, my first in three years, I opted to bring in the New Year in my newly adopted home of Prague. It wasn’t entirely a Czech affair, however, as I had British visitors accompanying me.

My friend from university, Carl, was visiting with his girlfriend Sandy. If you are a regular follower of these blogs, you will be aware that Carl also came to Kazakhstan, and possibly remember that he almost didn’t make it, got arrested, and almost got frostbite from not having appropriate shoes for -30’C weather. Though who does, really.

Prague was not nearly as cold as the harsh Kazakh winter. Indeed, the temperatures have rarely dropped below zero; it seems to have been a mild winter thus far. We are lucky, however, to live in an era when we have surplus money which can buy us warm clothes, mulled wine or spicy sausages to make the colder months more bearable.

It wasn’t always thus in the Czech Republic, particularly when the place was hidden behind the Iron Curtain and known as Czechoslovakia. Any initial hope derived from the end of Nazi occupation quickly dissolved into fear as a Communist takeover occurred in 1948.

The darker history of this part of Eastern Europe is remembered in Prague’s Museum of Communism. Many people were arrested. Well, that’s an understatement. Over 200,000 people were cuffed and had their names taken. Why? Once again the parallels with the situation before the war are evident. Political affiliation, treason, crimes against the state. Did they have proof? The main question is probably more along the lines of whether they needed it. It wasn’t as if there were mechanisms in place to stop them.

The museum charts the stagnation of the Czech nation during this time. A weak economy led to workers remaining in poor housing and leading the most basic of lifestyles. The country suffered greatly, and discontent started to rise in the 1960s. Eventually the party leader was replaced and his replacement, Alexander Dubcek, started to attempt to reform the country. The result of the ‘Prague Spring’ was a demonstration of Soviet military might, with tanks and thousands of troops marching through the country and ruthlessly dealing with any protests.

Freedom eventually came through the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and the Czech Republic has not looked back. Economic growth has accelerated over the last 25 years, which has left many (not all) better off and happier than under the old regime. What’s more, they’re willing to show off this new happiness and confidence to the world.

We took a taxi up to the entrance to a bleak, black Petrin Hill. After wandering around the steep side of the slope for a decent viewing point, we stumbled upon an excellent viewing location with only a few French tourists or locals for company. Through the naked twigs and branches dotted along the grass lay the resplendent Charles Bridge, from which we were told fireworks would illuminate the gloom and bring in 2014.

With hindsight, that was a foolish thing to believe. One of the oldest bridges in the world, Prague’s most famous attraction…as a detonating site? What transpired was that the fireworks, which seemed to come from all angles (including right behind us) and at all times from 11:30pm to about 12:15am, often exploded over Charles Bridge. A spectacular sight it was to.

Another spectacular sight comes from the top of the Astronomical Clock, which can be scaled for a mere 50Kc if you are a student (I knew I was doing a PGCE for a reason) and with a bit of effort. Or in a lift, if you want a more pleasurable ascent. All of the main sights, with the obvious exception of the clock itself, can be seen from the top of the tower. Going in winter, with the markets bustling below, is especially charming, though be careful: it gets mighty crowded up there.

Prague remembers and honours its past, whether it be the positive medieval times when clocks, bridges and castles were built or whether it is a museum reminding the place of a darker age. However, Prague also looks to the future, and seems excited by what 2014 has to offer. It was a spectacular first day of the year; I'm looking forward to seeing many more.

Love you all