an artsy weekend in Prague

<span>Miminka (Babies) by artist David Cerny on Prague’s Zizkov Television Tower.</span><span>Photo: Marc Bruxelle/Alamy</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ b87626fe7c529″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 87626fe7c529″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Miminka (Babies) by artist David Cerny on the Zizkov TV Tower in Prague.Photo: Marc Bruxelle/Alamy

For decades, cheap flights, nightclubs and booze made Prague one of Europe’s stag and hen party capitals. City officials have spoken out about the drunken behavior of tourists, but Prague remains popular with men dressed as Smurfs drinking 50 kroner (£1.70) of beer.

I arrive by train from Dresden, the German city just north of the Czech border, shortly before the launch of a new night train route. On March 25, the European Sleeper between Brussels and Berlin will extend to Prague, arriving at Hlavní Nádraží, Prague’s main station, at 10:56 am.

I’m here to find the best things to do in the Czech Republic’s capital and the surrounding countryside, away from the tourist sites in the city center.

I’m staying at Miss Sophie’s Downtown hotel (large rooms, exposed pipes, staff who don’t mind me taking socially unacceptable amounts of cooked sweets from reception), just a five-minute walk from the station. I take the tram to the Kunsthalle Praha art gallery to meet Ivana Goossen, director of the white-walled exhibition complex, which opened in 2022 and today resembles a dream state library. I had heard that in this city of beer and great museums, Kunsthalle represents a more contemporary side of Prague culture.

READ, a book-themed exhibition by Berlin artists Elmgreen & Dragset, has taken over most of the gallery and runs until April 22. A sculpture of a chimpanzee sits on a stack of hardbacks. Visitors view an exhibit of progressive books banned in Florida. A man sitting alone at a long table writes quietly in a notebook. “What he does is actually an art performance,” says Goossen.

People recognize that Prague is not just about old architecture

Kunsthalle was converted from a 1930s electricity substation by local entrepreneurs Petr and Pavlína Pudil. Goossen says that private art institutions were initially slow to establish after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

“There has been a maturation process,” she says. “Certain practices are normal in the Western world, where you see culture being privately supported [with private investment in public art spaces], were not so typical. That is changing, and people are recognizing that Prague is not just about old architecture.”

Kunsthalle had approximately 110,000 visitors in its first year and attracted more locals than tourists. “We are in the old town, near the steps of Prague Castle,” says Ivana, “but we show that contemporary culture prevails here.”

North of the center, Holešovice, is one of Prague’s most gentrified neighborhoods, and home to the DOX Center for Contemporary Art. I admire the moody nude sculptures before lunch in the recently opened restaurant Slice Slice Baby (recommended as “the best pizza slice in town” by one of Goossen’s colleagues). The pizza is excellent: co-owner Kateřina Jakusová tells me the tomatoes are imported from Puglia.

The southernmost tip of the Smíchov district is a 30-minute tram ride south and is popular with artists, but has no hip pizzerias yet. A large parrot gnaws on a wooden door in the atrium café of MeetFactory: which is now a non-profit artist space. The Shape of Water-esque sculptures here are great, but I’m not really sucked into the depths of artistic intrigue until I enter the gallery on the other side of the railway line. The Musoleum opened in 2022 to showcase the work of Prague-born sculptor David Černý, who also founded MeetFactory. He is known for his work Miminka, the crazy spherical baby sculptures you see crawling into the city’s Žižkov TV Tower.

Car-sized gun sculptures hang from the ceiling, and sporadic gunfire sounds startle me every minute. A sculpture of a vintage car with human legs is overlooked by a garish orange and blue Černý self-portrait. However, these brilliantly strange works are not suitable for children or the squeamish: one floor is dominated by enormous explicitly moving sculptures of human body parts: Cronenberg via Razzle magazine.

Car-sized gun sculptures hang from the ceiling and sporadic gunfire sounds startle me

The next day I drive an hour and a half north to the – more family-friendly – ​​Jiří Pačinek glass factory. Showy glass octopus sculptures protrude from the ground in the ‘glass garden’. Inside, Pačinek, his 23-year-old son Jan and a few employees are working with metal rods to pull molten glass from raging furnaces and spin lamps so they solidify like vases.

The area has been known for fine glass production for centuries and is still home to several glass factories. Pačinek hands out bowls of boar stew. “The local hunter gave us the boar in exchange for some glass,” he says. “That’s how things sometimes work here in the villages.”

The Pačineks export their glass pieces worldwide and tourists can try their hand at making glass souvenirs. The factory made the ‘crystal’ sculptures for the 2022 film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. But despite that success, Jan says, beautiful Czech glassware is under threat.

He nods to a few employees who are gently curling molten glass threads around a vase. “These guys are about 50; young people no longer want to make glass. It is a tradition in this field, but people like to work with computers.”

Pačinek puts his arm on his son’s shoulder. They tell how a huge local glass factory recently closed after 230 years due to soaring energy costs. Pačinek’s gas ovens must run constantly, at temperatures up to 1,340 degrees Celsius.

“I’m not afraid,” he says. “The small family businesses will be the future because when we see this problem with energy prices, it will only be for people who love this work. Which I think is perfect.”

Related: Railway of the month: along the Franz Josef railway from Prague to Vienna

Jan shows me a glass gorilla head that his father made, and then a cluster of pieces inspired by the shape of the Covid-19 virus, made during lockdowns. I try to spin glass and only get an ugly glass ball. He crushes it. “Don’t worry, we can melt the glass down again.” I drive back to Prague with a signed beer glass that his father made earlier.

Admiring the smoothly rendered pint glass on the train home, I remember gallery director Goossen saying to me: “Our joke was that Brits don’t think they’ve been to Prague because they start drinking on the plane coming here and don’t go to Prague anymore. “Don’t sober up until the plane gets back.”

I won’t easily forget the friendly glassblowers, the parrot gnawing at the door, or the enormous faceless babies.

Train journeys from London to Brussels were provided by Eurostar (from €39 each way). The trip from Brussels to Prague was arranged by Omiowhose app makes this possible for travelers compare different transportation methods at the same time. Accommodation in Prague was provided by Miss Sophie’s Centre (doubles from €70, including breakfast if you book directly with the hotel) via Czech tourism. Prague visitors pass offered by Czech Tourism. The European sleeper train runs between Brussels South and Prague Hlavní Nádraží from March 25, 2024 (single couchette journey from €79)

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