Czech, please!

By David Taffet Staff Writer

Prague, one of Europe’s greatest fairy tale cities, is an oasis of art and culture — and a warm and welcoming for gay travelers


BUILDING CASTLES IN THE SKY: Prague Castle looms over the Vlatava River, which runs through the Czech capital, one of central Europe’s most beautiful cities. DAVID TAFFET/Dallas Voice

A people who stand down Soviet tanks and later elect a playwright as their first president are something special; the first former communist country to register gay and lesbian partnerships and which had decriminalized homosexuality in 1962 (41 years before Texas did) is something extraordinary.

Imagine an Eastern bloc nation with a site called the Lennon Wall that commemorates John not Vladimir, and you are on your way to appreciating the many delights of the Czech Republic — especially its gorgeous capital, Prague.

My traveling companion and I decided to visit before the Czech Republic adopts the euro, when prices can be expected to go sky high. (Last month, the conversion from the koruna to the euro was put off until 2013.) To keep the trip as economical as possible, we flew to Frankfurt and then headed to the Czech capital by train. Ten stops, a transfer in Dresden and eight hours later, we arrived.

After a dreary ride through eastern Germany, the tracks hug the Elbe River from Dresden before turning south to follow the Vlatava River into Prague. Castle-topped mountains, fairy tale villages, chalets and Gothic church spires made this final leg of an exhausting, nearly 24-hour trip delightful.

Having arrived in Prague without reservations, we needed a hotel. At Nádraží HoleÅ¡ovice, Prague’s second largest train station, we expected to find a visitor’s center; there was none. Instead, we met David, a hotel owner hawking his business in the main hall. He offered to take us to see his hotel and if we stayed, the cab fare was free.

The Hotel Express turned out to be in the heart of Prague’s Old Town, within walking distance or a metro ride from everything we wanted to see. (Prague is a great walking city.) Medium-sized rooms have modern bathrooms, and the price ($65/night) included a continental breakfast delivered each morning to the room with a newspaper.

Although Prague is a city of 1.2 million, new development is not apparent. From the banks of the Vlatava, ancient Prague is all that can be seen in every direction up the hills and along the river. Modern apartments, the airport, factories and office towers are hidden over the mountains, past Prague Castle.

Any foot tour of Prague begins on the Karlov Most (the Charles Bridge).

Construction of this oldest stone bridge in central Europe was begun in 1357.

Towers mark the entrance on either end. At night, this footbridge is quiet, but during the day it bustles with people crossing back and forth and artists sketching, painting and selling their works.

The 30 statues portraying saints that line both sides of the Karlov date from the 1680s. (A particularly gruesome one depicts three men behind bars tied and tortured, two screaming for mercy and third seemingly dead.)

Statues adorn many of Prague’s buildings. John Ashcroft, who draped the statue of Justice at the State Department, should certainly avoid the square around city hall: Naked boys stand playfully over one doorway. A huddled group of naked men and lots and lots of exposed breasts are splayed across each of these public buildings, suggesting this city probably has never had many hangups about sex.

Prague Castle sits atop one of the city’s tallest hills. The complex combines central Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral, the presidential palace, parliament and other government offices. A changing of the guard offers an hourly show of royal pomp.

An adjoining hill that can only be reached by descending the steep stairs back down to river level and then taking a funicular up is topped by what looks like the top of the Eiffel Tower. The local joke is that they were smarter in Prague when they built their tower: By putting it on top of the hill, they didn’t have to build as much of it. (In fact, Gustav Eiffel designed this tower, built in 1891.)

Prague’s Jewish population dates back 1,000 years and, before the Holocaust, numbered 80,000; only a few thousand survived. Today, five synagogues, a ceremonial hall and a graveyard comprise the Jewish Museum. One serves as a Holocaust memorial with the names of more than 77,000 Prague residents who perished inscribed on the walls.

The Alt-Neu (old-new) synagogue dates from 1275 and is the oldest temple in Europe still in use. The name was originally the New Synagogue, but when a new congregation came along in the 1600s, it became the Old New Synagogue.

Parížská Street, Prague’s Fifth Avenue featuring everything from Gucci and Cartier to Ferragamo and Hermes, begins in the Jewish Quarter and heads toward the Old Quarter. For more local flair, an open-air market under tents near city hall square displays food and local crafts and stores on Václavské nám in front of the National Museum offer more variety.

The 200-year old National Museum includes vast mineralogical, zoological and anthropological collections. But even if your interest isn’t in rocks, this ornate neo-Renaissance building that dominates Wenceslas Square, site of the unsuccessful 1968 revolution, is worth exploring.

For some really bad karaoke involving American songs sung with Czech lyrics, visit Club Hohohó. Karaoke at Jampa Dampa favors native music sung in the native tongue. Alcatraz, Prague’s leather bar, is located at Borivojova 58; other clubs include Fan Fan Club, Latimerie Club and The King and Boystown. Most of the gay bars are in and around Old Town.

Gay clubs usually give you a drink ticket. Drinks are marked on the voucher to pay upon leaving. They levy a heavy penalty for losing it.

Because many Prague streets twist and turn and follow the bends in the Vlatava and change names every block or two, street addresses are almost useless. Ask for directions and you’ll get something like, "Right by the Mustek station" or "In the Tesco shopping center." Surprisingly, those directions usually work. If not, once you’re close, ask again and someone will point you right to it. Most of the bars are underground, not at street level.

Lufthansa flies from DFW to Prague with a change of plane in Frankfurt. American Airlines flies to several European destinations where you can transfer to CSA Czech Airlines.

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TRAVEL DIARY


OK, so we know that people who live in Dallas don’t really need to visit Dallas. But you’ve got out-of-town friends, right? And who wants houseguests anyway when a hotel is so much more comfy?

The Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau wants your friends — or anybody from out of town for that matter — to celebrate gay Pride in September with a special trip to Big D. The winner receives two free round-trip tickets on American Airlines in time for the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade and tickets to Gay Bingo and Gay Day at Six Flags (sponsored by Dallas Voice). Winners will be guests at The Joule — the swanky, green-conscious luxury hotel downtown — and get complimentary breakfast from its restaurant, Charlie Palmer.

Entries must be received by July 31 and the winner will be announced shortly thereafter for the trip Sept. 18–21. Those interested should visit GLBTDallas.com.
Bette Midler has entertained Sin City with her brash humor for nearly 100 performances since February last year with her act at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, "The Showgirl Must Go On."

Make that an even hundred on Sunday, and to commemorate the occasion, fans can partake with $100 rear orchestra tickets (normally priced at $190) for all performances through June 28 (if purchased by June 7 at 1-877-7BETTEM or at Ticketmaster.com (keyword "100 Bette"). And if you can make it there for Sunday’s show, the Divine Miss M promises some fabulous surprises.

Blue Seas Resort in Puerto Vallarta is offering Pride Month discounts for travel to its spa good through April 2010.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 5, 2009.

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