Prague: Surreality Czech

Statues surrounding Charles Bridge in Prague.
Statues surrounding Charles Bridge in Prague.
  • Bypassing the ancient architecture and cobbled streets of Prague, Karen Bowerman discovers the grittier emerging art districts of this romantic city.
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I’m suspended in a glass observation pod, clamped to a 700ft tower and I’m beginning to freak out.

But the height has nothing to do with it. The culprits are 10 monstrous sculpted babies, who are crawling up the building’s three “legs” towards me. They’re the creation of the city’s very own enfant terrible, the artist David Cerny, whose work has a tendency to shock.

My guide, Katerina Sedlakova, tries to distract me as she draws my attention to the building. Zizkov Tower is now an observatory and communications centre. But Katerina tells me it was built in the Eighties, so the former communist regime could block incoming TV and radio signals from the West.

Most people visit Prague for its ancient bridges, cobbled streets and glorious architecture. Eating out is attractive too, with prices cheap and portions generous; a pint costs around £1, a traditional meal £4. I’ve come, however, to explore the city’s emerging districts – to experience the grittier side of this ridiculously romantic capital.

The Zizkov Tower is just a 10-minute ride by metro from the city centre, yet few tourists tend to visit. The streets are lined with art nouveau mansions, a phenomenal number of bars (there are 300 in an area 5km square) and the odd, elegant cafe.

On the way to the tower, Katerina and I pass Jiriho z Podebrad Square. At its centre is The Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord church, that’s soon to become a Unesco World Heritage site.

Nearby is Vinohrady Pavilion, a former factory. Its clean, spacious interior has glass-fronted designer stores and a retro-style cafe. I’m about to suggest we stop for a cuppa when Katerina has another idea. She takes me to Prosekarna, a tiny bar that specialises in Prosecco. “Czechs love it,” the owner Lenka Lukacova tells us. “The drink’s very trendy here.”

Of course, Prague isn’t all about prices, but even at the deluxe Mandarin Oriental, you can still get a pre-dinner cocktail for under a fiver. I sit at the bar as a fellow diner cracks open a ball of mango juice (frozen with liquid nitrogen) to create her own bitter vodka Martini, then head to the hotel’s Spices restaurant for dinner, where dishes include Thai crab cakes with mango chilli mayonnaise and beef ribs with Sri Lankan red pepper curry.

The hotel’s entertained Kylie Minogue, Madonna and the Dalai Lama. But Lenka Rogerova, who shows me around, won’t be drawn on rumours that Quentin Tarantino is a present guest.

The hotel’s history is equally intriguing. Built on the site of a former Dominican monastery, you can have coffee in the cloisters, party in the chapter house and get married in the refectory – now a ballroom with glittering chandeliers.

With just three days in Prague, and not having visited before, I get up early to squeeze in a little traditional sightseeing. Luckily, it takes just five minutes to walk from the hotel, in the Mala Strana district, to the city’s famous Charles Bridge. The golden haloes of the baroque statues glint in the sunlight. An artist is painting, picking out pink and purple in the ancient stone.

The bridge over the River Vltava leads to Staromestske Namesti, the Old Town Square. On the old town hall’s astrological clock, statues of the 12 apostles shunt in and out of doors every hour. It’s quite a crowd-puller.

At noon, Katerina takes a group of us on a tour. We visit the Italian-style Vrtbovska Garden with its ornamental hedges, Prague’s cathedral, St Vitus, and the city’s castle, the largest in the world.

Later, we take a tram north to Holesovice, a former industrial district where large buildings and low rents are attracting designers and architects, turning the area into a creative hub. The Chemistry Gallery promotes young artists, many of whom are graduates from the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. But it’s the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art that impresses the most, exploiting its independence with a programme of controversial work.

At the time of my visit, a spliced car is melting into a rock in the courtyard, Christ made of second-hand shoes is being crucified on an outside wall, a giant skull is spinning on a crane and an exhibition highlights how artists are being tortured for criticising the conflict in Ukraine.

I spend my final morning in Kampa Park, an islet on the Vltava. As I wander back to the hotel, I come across bloated heads, barcodes and bronze buttocks; Cerny’s babes are back in town.

• Karen Bowerman was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com/prague). Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283, www.kirkerholidays.com) offers a three-night stay at the hotel from £749pp including flights, private car transfers, a deluxe room and breakfast. A private guided walking tour and the services of the Kirker Concierge are also included.