Fantasia meets Blade Runner

If there is a textbook case of a city that has been spoiled by tourism, then Prague should be it. It has become a sort of historical theme park for tourists and also the stag weekend capital of the world, with all the unsavoury ”attractions” that dubious honour brings.

And yet, if you peel back the skin, it is very easy to find the old Prague, a city defined as much by its creative inhabitants as by its architectural beauty. The capital of the Czech Republic has one of the most original and lively art scenes in Europe, a whole separate network of spaces that breathes independently of the tourists.

I checked into the Icon Hotel, the city’s coolest and most laid-back design hotel. As well as being stylish, my room was comfortable, with a handmade bed and a bath tub so huge I could practically swim in it. With its friendly staff and quirky furniture made by Czech designers, the hotel pays more than lip service to the notion of supporting the arts: the walls are hung with work by young Czech artists (some of which has already been shown in Prague’s National Gallery) in regularly changing exhibitions. Its street-front café/bar, Jet Set, acts as the main meeting point for those working in Prague’s creative industries.

If the new design establishment loves the Icon, the more experimental art focal points tend to be in the cheaper outskirts of town. I took a 10-minute metro ride from Nove Mesto up to Holesovice for the premiere of a live animation/theatre production by the young Czech artist Toy-Box in one of Prague’s more interesting venues, the Cross Club. The place was half Blade Runner, half fairyland, with multilevel metal platforms and gangways winding between trees hung with twinkling lights. I got some stuffed peppers from the grill stand in the courtyard, accompanied by autumn breeze and hip-hop.

A boy and girl in black masks began walking around jangling keys.

Apparently this meant that the show was starting. We followed them into the main house, up five flights of stairs into an attic performance space. The show, Pustin, reworked TS Eliot material using highly original animation techniques. The whole thing was also very beautiful. The Cross Club hosts these kinds of arts events all the time, as well as innovative club nights.
On the way back to the Icon, I stopped for a drink at cosy Café Charisma in the centre of town, a gay bar with a cute pink-and-black colour scheme.

The following day, I moseyed around the more official cultural palaces of Prague. The great thing about these is that they are in stunning buildings in the heart of the old town, but remain largely off the tourist radar. So you can join the throngs in the pretty cobbled streets and then you can duck off and be climbing the dark, cool stairs of a Cubist house in solitude. The Czech Museum of Cubism, in the House of the Black Madonna, not only has a fine collection of lunatic cubist furniture and strangely calm paintings, but also the added attraction of a first-floor café with warm raspberries and pancakes and views of the streetscape outside.

A few blocks away an old Renaissance manor houses the Golden Ring national gallery. Here I caught an exhibition of the work of Karel Teige, the famous Czech typographer. To wallow in the stuff of text, elevated to an art form, in such a beautiful location, was possibly writer’s heaven.

Back outside, Prague’s more secular retail pleasures beckoned. I fell for a sexy 1970’s Pragodev frock from Laly vintage clothes shop and then padded out my shopping bag with organic soaps from Dr Stuart’s Botanicus.

For dinner, I went to U Kruhu, a secret courtyard restaurant flowing with Czech conversation. The owners didn’t speak English, but they did provide me with a cockle-warming bowl of garlic soup. That evening I was invited to an album launch at Chapeau Rouge, in the old town. Chapeau Rouge sums up Prague’s double life: the top two floors are a heaving pick-up joint for tourists (I was protected by my garlic), whereas the cellars house performance spaces for local musicians and artists. After greatly enjoying the Ken Nash gig in the basement, I went to meet friends at Lucerna and danced in this vast Art Deco ballroom complex close to my hotel.

Sleepy Sundays were perhaps made for waking up at the Icon. I had a long soak and a lazy breakfast in the café-bar before wandering round the corner to the new Leica Gallery. In this tiny gem of a space you can see free exhibitions of work by contemporary Czech photographers. I spent a contented hour or so in the monochrome café, ingesting espressos while leafing through the sample copies of photography books for sale — Miroslav Jodas, Jan Reich and so on. For seeing another side to Prague, Reich’s 1970s images were a soulful way to start.

It’s an easy walk from here to the cutting-edge Tranzit Gallery and the more established nearby Manes Gallery, built on an old lock. After Manes, I caught a bus back to Karlovo námesti, then a metro to Krizikova took me up to Karlin Studios, the beating heart of Prague’s art world. This dusty old warehouse in the north is the working home of many of the city’s best artists — international Czech art stars such as Josef Bolf have their studios here, as well as younger emerging artists such as Patricie Fexova. Its huge ground floor is an exhibition space, open to the public. If you want to buy work, you can arrange to meet the artists in their studios (check the website to see images beforehand).

On Monday evening I had been invited to read from my new novel at the Globe Bookstore, a vibrant red space with a good selection of English-language books and its own café-bar. After reading, I sat back and enjoyed listening to work in English by local Prague writers and poets such as Stephan Delbos, before going on to hear Bryant K, the New York/Berlin DJ, play at Palac Akropolis, a former Art Deco cinema out in Vinohrady. When I got there its rooms were playing soul-funk and reggaeton, everything mixed up and free; studded punks pogoing among Brylcreemed style-boys. I danced till two and then gave in, walked back into town through quiet night-time avenues of chestnut trees.

I still had one more morning in which to revisit the back streets of Opatovicka and Pstrossova in Nove Mesto. The faded streets were lined with antique shops selling Art Deco lamps, glass and jewellery, and laptop-happy cafés like Dynamo. It was at this point that I realised I had completely forgotten to visit the world-famous Charles Bridge. I had been too seduced by the city’s art, music and hidden corners. Such are the charms of the other side of Prague: just as bewitching as it has always been. —

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