I got in a bit of a funk yesterday on the way home from work. I was walking across Staré Město Náměstí (Old Town Square) when I was almost run over by a “beer bike”. For those not in the know, a beer bike is popular with stag-do’s in Amsterdam and Berlin and now, apparently, Prague. It involves a group of pissed-up tourists sitting on a barstool-come-bicycle seat, facing a “table” and drinking beer, whilst peddling away to move themselves along.
A tour guide steers the beer bike on behalf of the whole group, safely to their destination of choice (Hooters, probably). Or, in the case of the chappy in charge yesterday, steers them straight into me.
I was grouchy about the near-miss and said something very uncharitable about tourists. It was not aimed at that group particularly, although they got the brunt of it. It’s just that in the past month the warmer weather (which I have welcomed) has brought an ever-increasing number of tour groups (which I have not).
The downside to living in a popular tourist destination is, typically, the tourists. And they are everywhere at the moment. I have nothing against the happy couples that come to wander about for a weekend. I am not bothered by the pensioner crowd who come and peer in the churches in the Old Town. No, what really gets me are the massive trips who come over by the coach-load. 40-odd people in matching sweaters and baseball caps wandering about following a tour guide carrying an umbrella, trying to all fit onto the narrow pavements, getting in-between me and my short-cut to work and slowing down the coffee queues.
I suppose I can’t complain. I always knew that Prague was a tourist hot spot, and am glad that it is – it offers a number of benefits. In 1992 its historical centre was listed in the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage Register. This is a sort of cyclical benefit: the prettier, more historical and better protected a place is, the more people want to go there and the better protected and restored it then becomes. I am well aware that the elegant buildings and sculptures, good signposting and clean streets (in the centre at least, anyone living in Prague will know that elsewhere, dog mess becomes a bit more prevalent…) exist to such a large degree because of the tourist dollar.
The fact that Prague is so lovely does me a lot of favours – Prague is a place people really want to come and visit so we’ve enjoyed a steady and welcome stream of parents and friends since we moved here. The large numbers of foreigners here means that my own linguistic shortcomings are less of a problem – I am at least the whole accusative tense ahead of those who only come for the weekend. Tourist also need to get here, which means there are frequent (and cheap) flights from Prague back to the UK – which means that popping home for holidays, birthdays and weddings is less of a problem.
All the same, given the near-death, tourist related incident that befell me last night, I was still a little smug this morning when I saw the early bird tourist hoards standing patiently outside the Astronomical Clock. The Prague Astronomical Clock is a medieval clock located first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the only one still working. It is very impressive – showing the time, a calendar, the signs of the zodiac and position of the sun, amongst other things which its very own website will tell you all about. Each hour it provides a sort of cuckoo clock display of the twelve Apostles and other sculptures, and a man at the top of the clock-tower does a twiddly thing on a bugle. It is quite a spectacle and every hour, on the hour, crowds of tourists gather around the clock to see it do its thing.
This morning, and every morning for the last couple of weeks, has been no exception. I walked past a group at least 100-strong at five-to-nine this morning. The only thing that is different at the moment, and the reason I felt superior to all these “Bl***y tourists!!!“, is that the clock is not actually working….It is closed for maintenance and “re-tuning” for the next couple of weeks. On the side of the clock tower is a neat little sign telling people that it is shut for a few weeks. Each hour though, hundreds of tourists crane their necks and stare right past this sign as if it isn’t there. Most of them still cheer and applaud when the solitary bell which is still working rings. There are a few possible reasons for this:
(1) They are all too polite to say what they must be thinking: “This is a very long way to come and wait for a clock that only has one bell. What an astronomical disappointment. I hope at least that the castle and the bridge live up to expectations“.
(2) People just see what they want to see. The clock is on the list of the top-ten tourist attractions. People have paid good money to get here. They are determined to enjoy it.
(3) They don’t really care about the clock. They are just looking forward to beer-biking to Hooters.
P.S. For those of you in group 1 – the clock is scheduled to reopen on 22 April. You can read more about this here.