Monday, 23 November 2015

At Large In Prague

Tourism is clearly a vital part of Prague's economy and I don't begrudge them a single penny that they earn from the thousands of tourists that flock to the city's many attractions each day.

Indeed, with the benefit of such stimulating and erudite company as Ray Stenning, I thoroughly enjoyed half a day wandering round sights that I would never normally give a second look.

However, my personal interest in a strange city does not come from its tourist hotspots.  Instead, I like to get out into the suburbs and see where and how people live.  Those fearsome matriarchs guarding the entrances to the monuments and cathedrals; the hotel receptionists and restaurant waiters and waitresses - I want to see where they go back to each night.

Maybe it seems a little voyeuristic, or even patronising.  But it's not borne out of anything other than a genuine curiosity to see what makes cities different from each other, and to gain a little more insight into what makes a place tick than can ever be found by trailing round ancient monuments.

And of course, it's a damn good opportunity to try out the public transport.

So after a few hours of cultural enlightment, it was time to jump on a tram and head out of the City Centre.

My travels in the old Eastern Bloc have been embarrassingly few and far between and I was keen to see if my preconceptions of huge sprawling estates of vast identical concrete housing blocks was in any way accurate.

Tram line 17 heads south from the City Centre along the right bank of the Vltava River, making the transition from city to suburb is gentler and more seductive than might otherwise be.

There wasn't much gentle about the tram itself, with hard plastic seats, heavily etched glazing and mountainous steps to a floor high enough to make a British transport professional, steeped in the ways of accessibility, wince.  But that turned out to be the case with all of Prague's public transport.  Expansive and cheap but very functional and with very little concession to the user experience.

Having said that, it did have a rather neat low-tech solution to providing next stop information - something of which the UK bus industry in particular remains embarrassingly slow to grasp the importance.

Eventually we reached the suburb of Modřany and turned inland, terminating just over half an hour after leaving the city centre at the tram stop of Sídliště Modřany.

At this point I think Ray expected us simply to cross to the other platform and board the waiting tram to head back into the city, but I had other ideas.  With a brisk exhortation to follow me and a slightly nervous-looking designer in tow, I marched off through an underpass and into the middle of exactly the kind of vast concrete estate that I was curious to find.

We spent ten or fifteen minutes wandering through car parks and footpaths and along streets lined with huge residential blocks and checking out the local shops.  Whereas the small neighbourhood shopping centre was showing plenty of signs of decay and there was no shortage of bored-looking locals hanging round not doing very much, the apartment blocks ranged from the run down to the pristine, but all seemed clean and looked after.

They were all also serial numbered, which is probably a help if you need to find your block from among the crowd after a heavy night.

Eventually we left block 3204 and its companions behind and headed back to the tram stop.

We broke our journey back into town at the suburban station of Braník.  This stop seems mainly to serve as an interchange point between tram, bus and rail - there was very little housing immediately around.

As we explored further we discovered several locations - mainly at the end of metro lines - where there are similar such interchanges on vast sprawling sites with adjoining park and ride sites.  Clearly given the density of public transport here it would be practically impossible - and a waste of resources - to allow every transport line to travel all the way into the city and therefore these interchange sites exist all over the city.  However, whereas the newer ones further out adjoining the metro lines were modern, clean and shiny, Braník was perhaps an example of an older such site, close to the city and one that is clearly lacking a little love and attention.

The tram back into the city was remarkable for having moquette seats - one of few examples that we found during our travels - and therefore offered positive luxury for the fifteen minute ride to Wenceslas Square.  This was one city centre location that I was keen to see.  A long rectangular square, this is a popular spot for demonstrations and protests, and I have always wanted to see it since I was an A-level German student in 1989.

I couldn't have been more fortunate to have been studying the subject at the very time the Berlin Wall fell, and in between our regular travels through the outer reaches of the past perfect and the dative case, we were transfixed each lesson as our tutor brought in more and more newspapers and television news excerpts showing us history being made in real time.  The uprising was not limited to Germany however, and we were equally fascinated to hear of similar protests throughout the Communist bloc, including the Velvet Revolution that saw its most public manifestation here in Wenceslas Square.

Now it is the gateway to what appears to be a remarkably prosperous shopping district, featuring rows of high end jewellers and boutiques, including one named after that well known Irish explorer Marc O'Polo...

There's nothing more seductive than a historic Central European city square in the evening, and Prague's Old Town Square lived up to expectations, buzzing with a lively mix of students and visitors.

But we had barely started on the public transport.  We had yet to ride on a bus or the metro, and Ray had now really got into this idea of taking random public transport trips round the suburbs.  So when I saw loading in a side street what looked in the darkness to be an antiquated old bus dating back several decades, there was no holding us back.  I must admit to a certain sense of anti-climax when I realised later that this angular, spartan, unwelcoming contraption turned out to be an Irisbus Karosa dating back no further than around the year 2000.

Eventually leaving crush loaded, the bus wheezed its way out to its terminus at Ohrada, where we boarded a much more modern and well-appointed bendibus for another ride across to Flora.  There, we descended into the Metro for the first time, admiring the charismatic station decor as we waited for the train to Depo Hostivař, the outer terminus.

Here we were delighted to find a huge interchange, adjoining a park and ride site and depot - our excitement tempered only by the fact that it was dark and therefore we couldn't see much of interest.  So we were soon on board a tram on Line 5, trying to work out what motivates a transport company to think that bare wooden seats would be a useful innovation, as we headed back into the city centre for a relaxing meal to bring the day to a happy conclusion.

Out and about again the following morning, we were now on official business as we made our way to PVA Expo Prague, the home of the Railway Interiors Expo.

Official advice is simply to catch Metro Line C to its terminus at Letňany, which is just a short stroll from the exhibition centre.  But official advice was not in the spirit of our travels, so we headed to our favourite coffee shop at the railway station to plan our trip.

There we realised that we could use our tickets on local trains, so we started our journey on board a diesel unit that was clearly not designed for its glamorous looks, for the short trip to the ramshackle suburban station at Vysočany, before boarding a surprisingly well loaded bendibus to reach Letňany.

Letňany is one of these huge edge-of-town interchanges, and the large layover area well occupied by many resting buses showed the level of rural routes that disgorge their loads onto the Metro network to complete their journey into the City Centre.

Forcing people to change to complete their journey goes against the grain for many UK transport professionals.  But in a city the size of Prague, with the density of the public transport and speed of the metro, it is actually a very sensible policy, but the vast expense of such huge sprawling interchanges surrounding the edge of the city would bring tears (of joy or sadness, I'm not quite sure) to the eyes of many UK transport planners.

I won't say much about the show itself, other than by the time we had finished all our business there, we still had several hours available for aimless travelling.

By now Ray was really into this idea of exploring the outskirts - I'm not sure it's a form of tourism he has every really experienced before - and he got very excited about the idea that we should incorporate a ferry ride into our journey.

You might not associate Prague with ferry travel, but there are three or four river crossings that form part of the public transport network and we therefore decided we needed to sample one.

To do so required catching the Metro back to Holešovice station - another concrete suburban interchange where I admired the architecture and Ray admired the local fayre.

After a short wait, we were on a bus on our way to the ferry.  The bus route passes Prague Zoo and was equally well loaded as almost all the other buses we used.  However it was only a short journey and within twenty minutes or so we reached the terminus at Podhoří.

We left the bus behind and wandered down the path.  As we looked around for the ferry terminal, I don't think either of us quite expected to see this:

But this was indeed the terminal, complete with arriving ferry, and we were transported across the river to the opposite terminal at V Podbabě on a little ten seater boat - fully loaded as we had come to expect with Prague public transport - and proudly displaying its ticket validator as a nod to modern technology and to assert its credentials as part of the public transport network.

V Podbabě was clearly the main terminus and depot, where the second PVR - only required at rush hours - was stabled. The terminal building (or more accurately, terminal trailer) even featured an honesty library.

Clearly the ferry ride was the highlight of our trip - a quirky and charismatic feature of the transport network, well worth the ride.  If ever you find yourself in this wonderful city, you really must include a ferry ride in your itinerary.

As well as the highlight of the trip, this was pretty much the climax for us and it was now time to head back to the airport.  We achieved this by means of a bus, a metro, a tram and another bus - taking in a bit more of suburbia in the process.

Prague is a magnificent city - one that I have wanted to visit for a very long time.  Full of interesting cultural and historic sights, the suburbs are equally fascinating, presenting a picture of austerity and uniformity to contrast with a city centre which feels optimistic, lively and rapidly heading upmarket.

The public transport won't win any awards for innovation.  It is a functional, unromantic system with a very municipal feel.  But the network is dense, frequencies are high and it is very easy to get around at very cheap prices.  The system seems to work well and it wouldn't occur to me to get round the city any other way.

In conclusion, a fabulous trip with a wonderful travelling companion, and it has certainly whetted my appetite for further travels in Eastern Europe.


  1. Phil: great blog (and a city I also love). One thing, though - apparently when the new Skoda trams were initially tested, they surveyed the passengers, and they *wanted* the wooden seats!

  2. Excellent. I wonder what options they were given?! They're not dreadful, but after about five minutes sat in one it started to get very uncomfortable.