Stags and Hens in Prague

I’ve little more to say about the ongoing tidal wave tragedy around the eastern Indian Ocean basin. Is it poor taste to move on now to other subjects? Now, I certainly agree with the proposition that the fancy parties scheduled around the upcoming Bush II inauguration (specifically, the money budgeted for them) should yield to the Asian tragedy. But closer to home, tomorrow’s the start of a brand New Year, and some celebration of that fact should still be in order.

Prague is a good place to celebrate that fact. (So is, for that matter, Amsterdam, although it’s a bit more expensive.) And right on time, in its last-edition-of-the-year, the main Czech business newspaper Hospodárské noviny features a trio of articles on its homepage about the foreigners flocking to visit the Czech capital – whether for New Year’s celebrations or more generally – under the collective headline “Do Tourists Come to Us Mainly for the Cheap Beer?”

To cut to the chase, the answer you get to that after going through all three pieces is “no,” although in the case of some elements of the touristic taxonomy which the articles collectively present you might really wonder about that. At least HN editors are honest enough to raise the possibility that it’s ultimately all about beer. Unfortunately, those editors have been a bit less honest when it comes to their choice of contributors, as the authors of the two main articles out of that set are the head of marketing at the giant Czech tourist agency Cedok and the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Prague Chamber of Commerce. (And the third article – We Must Know How to Offer Touristic Attractions – is a mostly-uninteresting lament that tourists to the Czech Republic overwhelmingly visit only Prague, Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), and Cesky Krumlov, while the rest of the country offers so much more.) But then, a modicum of “truth-in-advertising” does apply here in the final analysis, in that these authors are identified as such.


It’s the second-listed article that’s really pretty bad when it comes to local cheerleading, and you can tell that right away from the title: They Come to Prague for Its Atmosphere. If I might burden you further with the piece’s lede: “Why do so many tourists come to Prague, and not only for Sylvester [i.e. the New Year’s celebration]? Whoever comes feels at home right away, feels really good.” And the author (this is the head of the city Chamber of Commerce, remember) goes on mostly in that vein, later on claiming that most guests visit Prague only to find that there’s no way they’ve been able to drink in all that the city has to offer during that first stopover, so that they conclude they’ll just have to come back, again and again. He also points out how no other city in the world offers so much concentrated history over such a wide urban area.

So why am I even bothering to deal with this piece? Well, in the midst of this puffery the author does have an interesting analysis of the nature of the successive waves of tourists coming to visit Prague since the city opened up to the West after 1989. First came relatively well-to-do tourists who were looking for a new and different experience, namely a glimpse of what life had been like behind the Iron Curtain. Prague certainly offered them that – not to mention the rest of the country, even to a greater degree – as most things hardly changed very quickly after the Velvet Revolution. For instance, they were still using the old banknotes with the ridiculous Communist propaganda illustrations on them well into the mid-1990s. (I know, because I lived there; and so I’d also have to mention that this author misses the wave of younger, not-so-rich “tourists” who came to Prague in the early years with the intention of trying out actually living there for a while.) Then that first wave gave way to the wave of “backpackers,” who flocked to Prague not because of its past, but because of the reputation it was winning in the meantime as a beautiful city in a beautiful land – in general, as a “cool” place to go visit. Finally, what we have today, the author alleges, are again relatively well-to-do visitors who are no longer so curious about the pre-1989 days but rather satisfied that, with all the hotels and other facilities the city has built in the meantime, the city can be visited without having to “go slumming” by putting up with sub-standard accommodations. This fact is allegedly confirmed by the way the city’s supply of upper-quality hotels – as expanded as the supply has been by this point – always seem to be full.

Oh, another reason I don’t mind pointing out this piece to you is that, in its essentials, it’s all quite true. OK, it’s not true that visitors necessarily feel “at home” when they visit the Czech capital; indeed, probably the opposite as it’s rather an exotic place, but in a good way. As to whether they “feel really good” while there, I guess that depends on what they ingest during their visit, and as to whether every visitor leaves with an iron determination to come again, I have my doubts. Otherwise, though, of course Prague is a fantastic place to visit – beautiful, intriguing, yes: historic, and you certainly don’t have to know any Czech these days if you’re content to stick to the established touristic by-ways. That goes for New Year’s Eve or mostly any other time of year. (Well, November and January-February can get a bit cold, grey and gloomy. Christmastime is interesting though, not only because of the outdoor Christmas markets but because that’s also the time you can witness live carp being kept in big wading pools on city sidewalks, only to be killed with a knock on the head and instantly gutted when sold to passing customers. A fascinating spectacle!)


Viewed another, equally-legitimate way, Prague is great because of its world-class and cheap beer, and its beautiful women. This is the point-of-view explored in the very first article of this set: Brits in the Czech Republic Bid Farewell to their Freedom. Yes, what we have here from this author (who, I remind you, is marketing director for Cedok) is a quite entertaining examination of the “stag party” phenomenon which, for those of you not in-the-know, basically means a variation on the bachelor party, in which a group of friends honor one in their midst who is about to get married by flying together (in this case) to Prague for a long (and certainly wild) weekend. “Bid Farewell to their Freedom”: could that be a reference to Brits going to jail (or, for them I suppose, gaol)? Good guess: but what it turns out the author really is referring to here is the “loss of freedom” involved in tying the knot!

But more about those “stag parties”: They are overwhelmingly composed of lads aged 25-35 coming over from the UK, of middling education and middle-to-low income. The immediate reason for the onset of this species of modern-day plague has of course the new, low-cost air carriers, which apparently offer London-to-Prague round-trip for less than GBP 100. Then in the city itself they generally can find rooms in a two- or three-star hotel for about GBP 20/night. As the author points out, these costs alone can make Prague a cheaper stag party alternative to someone living out somewhere in the English midlands than London itself! And during their usual stay in the country over a long weekend, their destinations are basic and simple: no, not Wenceslas Square, the cathedral or the castle, but instead just some restaurants and bars, for indulging in heroic solid and liquid consumption.

(Among the leading lights in this regard is a place in the center of town called Rocky OReilly’s – even if the lads are consciously avoiding historic places like Wenceslas Square, chances are they will at least have to cross it to get here. The owner is a sheer business genius, and the waitresses are uniformly attractive and usually wearing very “stag-party-appropriate” T-shirts. If you want to know what I mean, you’ll have to root around a little bit on the website. The food is also good, and the beer is either Czech or Irish – what more is there to say? Really, the atmosphere is great and any tourist should go check out Rocky’s. If it’s getting a bit too loud and rowdy in there, then just turn right around again and leave. Prospective visitors to Prague would also do well to check out Rocky’s warnings – maybe not written in the best English, but complete and informative.)


It should be no surprise that the low-cost air carriers simply love these “alcoholic foreigners,” as the piece’s author terms them. (Rocky – actually, Robbie – likes ’em too.) It turns out the the hoteliers are starting to like them as well. (But let me remind you once again of the author.) The argument goes like this: Yes, in the beginning the hotel-owners often found themselves rather miffed about incurring costs to replace entire sets of furniture ruined by visiting stag-party louts, costs which of course would greatly exceed anything they may have earned by agreeing to accommodate them in the first place. But then they sensibly began to take counter-measures: Calling the police upon discovering such depredations, in the first place, but also starting to demand hefty anti-damage deposits up-front from suspected stag party groups. Whereupon – lo and behold! – the stag party gentlemen decided that they would have to start cleaning up their act, at least when had to do with dealing with the esteemed hotel personnel. And they did! You can judge this story for yourself.

Interestingly, the article does devote brief mention at the end to the female analogue (i.e. groups of girls travelling to celebrate the impending marriage of one of their number), known as “hen parties.” This director of marketing at Cedok claims that these mostly come not out of Britain but the Netherlands. And, although they may also go overboard with the eating and drinking, they don’t destroy furniture or really get very violent. No, hoteliers are glad to welcome hen-party girls, who have even been known, from time to time, to take an interest in local culture. Mostly, though, they go shopping.

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