It was an epic duel. At stake was a fantastically rich slab of game pate, but the fresh prune slices and some subtly dressed peppery leaves that accompanied it was in more immediate danger of having to be surrendered. Much worse: so was a glass of finely moussed Moravian brut. Yes, Moravian, for I was in the Czech Republic. More specifically, I was in Prague, which is in Bohemia rather than Moravia, but as the wines of the former simply fail to rival those of the latter, they simply would not do.
Prague was the home of the peaceful Velvet Revolution that ended communism there in 1989, but unfortunately, non-violence no longer seemed like an option to me. It in any event felt like I had already exhausted all my non-violent skills as I raced to beat the tourist hordes to Charles Bridge, shooing away numerous drunken Czechs looking for a light to make the night before last another drag longer. There was reason to the rhyme of the early morning sprint, for it was just past noon when I was seated for lunch in Hradcany, a neighbourhood to the west of Prague Castle.
I was worried U Zlaté Hrusky (the Golden Pear) – haven of traditional fair to generations of diplomats and government folk – would turn me away for wearing jeans and trainers. The welcome was typically subdued Czech – economic and somewhat direct – and I was relieved when showed a spot in the restaurant garden where I could put up my blistered feet.
But that was almost half an hour ago. What was relief then had now turned to steely determination. Not unlike the determination of another eminent diner at the same establishment from some years before. Much like the Falklands War was for Margaret Thatcher, I was now in a do or die situation where I, also distracted by my immediate troubles, had dropped my guard for a minute, only to find a claim being staked on my perquisites.
I don’t want to dramatise. My difficulties spread not from runaway government spending, unions running amok, or an economy being crushed under the weight of state ownership. No. My troubles were much more immediate: the agonising pain of two high-arched feet, worn out in a pair of sneakers by the cobblestoned streets of exquisite Vinohrady two nights before.
Summer sunsets turn Vinohrady out gorgeously: beautiful parks, sidewalk cafés, glasses raised at dinner parties in apartment blocks fronted with fantastic Neo-Renaissance and Art-Nouveau façades and, of course, the odd drunk Czech entertainingly trying to get a key inserted in a front door. Yet it was the modern Church of the Most Sacred Heart of our Lord that I found most interesting. A foreboding, tomb-like structure from the 1930s, its main feature is a transparent 8m clock in the “headstone” part, where formerly also hung six church bells, which were melted down to make guns during World War II. A church of war, then, built to supplement the 19th century Church of St Ludmilla, ironically located on Námesti Miru, or Peace Square, a kilometre or so away.
After communism fell, changing this name was debated, as many landmarks were called peace-this and peace-that under the soviets. If they changed it, it may have been just as well, as I very nearly met my end there in a not-so-peaceful fashion. Descending to the eponymous metro station below on the longest escalator (87m) in the European Union through a steeply angled tunnel plays havoc with the sense of balance of the uninitiated. Fortunately I realised this quickly: to avoid tumbling forward, grab on to the rail and lean backward!
Just as the Czechs forgave Alexander Dubcek, the father of the 1968 Prague Spring, for his continuing belief in the “good” aspects of communism, so they also never changed the name of Námesti Miru. Perhaps it was because peace with the past proved as important as peace itself. To honour this I decided to do what I could to ensure peace in the present. So, the bee that disturbed my extravagant lunch in Hradcany escaped from an upside down water glass upon my departure.
That bee may only have gotten spared to sting another day, but patient and peaceful as they may have been, the Czechs are certainly not having any further truck with the sting of corrupt politicians. This was signalled with the recent ejection of former Czech prime minister Petr Necas apparently for abusing state resources to pursue a love tryst. In a city renowned for defenestrating (throwing out of the window) errant leaders, Necas, may have gotten off light, but at least the Czechs are now dealing with corruption — a task they recognise to have become Augean. South Africans may do well to learn from them.