When I travelled Eastern Europe last year, I did not have enough money to splash out on excursions and tours. But having spent probably 80% of my time in Prague cooped up in my hostel, I thought there just had to be more to the city than a Gothic clock and another square. So I decided to treat myself and blow a whole £16 on the Prague Alternative Tour, and boy was it worth every penny…
We’d arrived in Prague off of our first night train, feeling tired and grumpy. Storms had swept across the east, taking the heat wave with it. It was grey and dreary, and not half as colourful and charming as Krakow. We weren’t impressed, and spent the majority of our time in the underground bar of our hostel, enjoying pint after pint of Czech beer. Not that that wasn’t fun and all, but I was itching to learn something about the old Communist town. The hostel receptionist recommended I either do a Graffiti workshop or the Alternative Walking Tour. Unfortunately, the former required a minimum of two participants and my travel companion wasn’t for spraying paint on walls, so I signed up last minute to the latter.
We were met right outside Prašná brána (Powder Tower) by a man with a paint splatted black umbrella. His name was Tomas – a child of the revolution, and one of the founding members of the tour company. We were a small international group, which was refreshing given that the tours I’d been on beforehand were free but way too overcrowded. This felt more personal. Tomas quickly told us that although we had met in the Old Town, we’d be spending the rest of the tour exploring the other side of the river in the New Town, Karlín, Libeň and Holešovice districts, ending in with drinks at the famous Crossclub bar I’d visited just the night before. He had me at drinks.
After a brief history lesson, our first stop Tuzcks – a retro shop in the old town selling glass gifts… It turned out this was once the place to buy Western luxuries back when boarders were closed and items such as a pair of jeans were exotic and foreign. After we were taken around the corner into the NOD cultural art space, right next to Prague’s famous historic nightclub Roxy. Outside hung a giant stylised rocket created by Jiří Černický to symbolise the commemoration of the victims of Soviet power and the Russian mafia. We were invited in to have a look around an art competition taking place at the time, and were even able to vote for our favourite piece. I went for this as, well, it certainly grabbed my attention as I walked in…
Next we were taken down the road to the Těšnov Legal Graffiti Wall – the most important wall for Prague’s graffiti community, where the most respected artists of the city could display their tags without the threat of a year-long prison sentence…Tomas told us how art and culture flourished after the velvet revolution, and with that graffiti was introduced to Prague’s blank walls. As we explored the underpass, one artist was in the process of leaving his tag on side. Tomas went on the explain unofficial politics behind this, and how to spray there as a newbie was a big no no within the community. Clearly there was more to the graffiti art that a bit of paint on walls, and I was eager to learn more about the art. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take part in the workshop during my time there, but if I am to return it will be the first thing on my list!
After our brief tour of the old town, we hopped on a tram to the other side of the river, to “real” Prague. We had a look around the outside Trafačka – a cultural and residential centre for contemporary art. Although it was sadly closed down, we were still able to catch a glimpse of some of the artwork left behind. We moved on down to the Parallel Polis – home to the Institute of Cryptoanarchy and a Bitcoin Cafe. Counter culture at its finest… Downstairs we had a look at the 3D printing centre, and upstairs a look at the Paper Hub – an open work space that people could rent and use.
We continued through the Holešovice neighborhood, past the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art Hanging from the top of the building was a gigantic red skull by David Černý, the local artist possibly better known for his bizarre crawling babies and the gigantic middle finger he sent sailing up the Moldava river… As this was my last day in Prague, I never made it back to have a ganders around the inside of the gallery, which felt like a real shame given its historic symbolism.
The tour ended, as promised, with drinks in Cross Club steam-punk futuristic music venue created from trash metal and other waste material by František “Sádra” Chmelík. I had stayed there until the early hours of that very morning, enjoying long island ice tea’s and having far too intense conversations about immigration, the holocaust, and terrorism with our little Sir Toby’s crew… I had never seen anything like it. Apart from “music dramaturgy” Cross Club also screens alternative and current cinema, educational documentary films, and even afternoon theatre performances for children. Unfortunately my camera had died and I wasn’t able to get any photos, but it was as impressive by day as it was at night.
These places seemed quintessential to understanding the impact of the Velvet Revolution on forming Prague’s identity today, and even though most were a mere block or two away from my hostel, in the two days prior to taking the tour I’d only half discovered one. The locations we visited, however, were not exactly what made the tour – it was the story behind it. My friend and I visited the Prague Museum of Communism the day before, and as historians (albeit ancient ones) we were left outraged that we had dared paid to enter such a shambles of a museum. I was not impressed, but knew there had to be more to the story. Having grown up in Prague, Tomas was able to provide the comprehensive and personal account I’d been looking for. It was an oral history lesson told with dignity, and the tour was evidently something born out of a passion for the city and his life there.
Unfortunately I cannot guarantee you’ll visit any of the places, but I think that is the beauty of it – it is updated and changed to keep up to date with the movements of the city. Luckily, if you wish to know more about Prague beyond what you see on your tour, you will promptly be sent an email with further information on everything included in your tour and beyond. I have never come back from a tour feeling as captivated by a city, and nor have I felt inclined to write a review of a tour a whole year later. I came back to the hostel raving about it to my friend about my day; I was gutted to be leaving Prague so soon that night, but very glad I’d chosen my last day’s activities so wisely.
So, if you are planning a trip to Prague anytime soon, you must book yourself a spot on the original Prague Alternative Tour. And if you are not up for walking, they now offer a whole range of workshops and activities across the city including street art, team building, and 3d printing. Now that’s definitely cooler than a Hop-on, Hop-off bus tour, isn’t it?
Note: In this review I recommend the original Prague Alternative Tour. Since 2015, copy-cat tours have cropped up in the city, going by the same name. I can only imagine those that bore the tour do a better job than those who chose to steal the business model… So don’t go for the knock-off and support Laura and Tomas– the artists who started it all.