There’s nothing like moving to a new country to ring in the New Year, so on 31st December we boarded our Remote Year private jet (ok, ok, a chartered flight – but the height of glamour as far as I am concerned), left sunny Croatia behind us and two hours later stepped out into what appeared to be a life-sized snow globe. Prague in winter turns out to be an ice queen of a city – frozen but beautiful, and really quite enchanting.
This is fortunate, since with daytime temperatures getting as low as minus 17°C, I’ll be the first to admit to having to fight a strong urge to spend the month in hibernation. But Prague has plenty to rival any bedtime story. Walking through the cobbled streets in the historic old town, it feels as if you’re inside the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. No two buildings are alike, each one looking like an elaborately iced cake, and all of them painted in a palette of pastels – creating a muted but multi-coloured scene that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Hansel and Gretel running through at any moment. Then the gothic spires of the cathedrals and the stately statues lining Charles Bridge transport you instantly to the world of Beauty and the Beast. Even our workspace for the month, housed in what used to be the Dutch embassy, looked like something Cinderella might aspire to live in.
Speaking of the workspace, whilst the Ambassador may have left us to fend for ourselves (not a Ferrero Rocher in sight, I’m afraid), we did have no less than a Head of State hot-desking with us! And this is not a plot-line from one of Prague’s fables… The Free Republic of Liberland is a 7km2 patch of land, sandwiched between Croatia and Serbia, on a bend of the Danube River – all very picturesque, just sadly a bit lacking in infrastructure and buildings, so its President, Czech politician Vít Jedlička, currently bases himself in Prague. The area in question was left unclaimed (“terra nullius”) after the Yugoslavian wars and so, in 2015, on the basis that it would be better to start afresh than to try and change the way his country was run, Mr Jedlička managed to access the land, hoist a flag and declare it the new state of Liberland – following International laws on how to start your own country to a T.
As the name suggests, Liberland is based on libertarian values, including minimising government involvement in individuals’ lives and maximising autonomy. Over 400,000 people have so far applied for citizenship, so this is clearly not an unpopular stance – though since the land is not big enough to house that many people, Mr Jedlička is already considering adding an overseas territory, hopefully in the Caribbean. You may wish to get your name on the waiting list quickly! I can also report that whilst the question of Intellectual Property laws are very much on his agenda, they have not yet reached a decision on what Liberland’s position will be (watch this space). In the meantime, he and his team are travelling the world, setting up Liberland embassies and fighting for international recognition. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.
Back out in our very own winter wonderland, Prague was full of stories to tell. The city skyline is dominated by the twin spires of the castle cathedral, high up on a hill looking down over the river and the rest of the city, and about as Disney-esque as you can imagine. Once upon a time, I am told, the royal family to which the castle was home disliked the cold almost as much as me, and so decided to rearrange things so that they could enjoy their favourite pastimes indoors. The fact that these were hunting and jousting did nothing to put them off. Now the castle serves as the seat of the Czech government and the official residence of the President – not the most popular chap, it appears, as the castle hit the headlines again in September 2015 when a group of protesters (disguised as chimney sweeps – I can only hope of the Mary Poppins variety) managed to gain access to the roof and replace the presidential flag with a giant pair of red pants. But whatever your views on the President, he himself has some pretty enviable ones – from the vantage point of the castle, the snow-coated city looked positively edible.
Another story for which Prague castle is famous comes from the early 1990s, just after the country had emerged from communist rule. Before then, the castle was unlit and simply disappeared into the darkness at night, which none other than Mick Jagger thought a shame – and so, with the newly free country having a few other things to worry about at the time, the Rolling Stones arranged (and paid) for it to be floodlit. It’s easy to forget that the country was part of the Soviet regime as recently as that, since Prague feels like a truly cosmopolitan city, lined with busy shops, restaurants, pubs and wine bars. But under the surface there are echoes of times past. A large proportion of the underground metro system, for instance, doubles as a nuclear bunker able to accommodate 300,000 for three days once hermetically sealed – which explains why its escalators feel about twice as long and steep as those I’m used to in London. And, once a month, loudspeakers across the city wail for 2 long minutes to test the air raid sirens. We could probably have done with some warning of that.
Stepping back much further in time, on our final weekend in the city we visited the town of Kutna Hora, an hour’s train ride east of Prague, to see the famous Sedlec Ossuary, better known as the Bone Church – an idea worthy of the Brothers Grimm if ever there was one. Eerily beautiful and certainly haunting, this 500 year old chapel is decorated with the bones of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 victims of war and disease, exhumed from graves previously located where the church now stands. And I do mean decorated. The centrepiece is a huge chandelier containing at least one of every bone of the human body, the ceiling is hung with what I can only describe as skull and crossbones bunting, and the coat of arms on the wall is a coat of actual arms. I can safely say it’s the only time I’ve felt the need to describe a church as “a bit too piratey” for my liking. But it’s certainly unusual, and who can say that’s not the better way to memorialise your ancestors?
Either way, it was an unpredictable ending to an already unreal month in Prague and with my curiosity piqued by the city I’m already hoping to return for the sequel. In the meantime, it’s time for the next chapter – Lisbon.