Been in town for a while? Think you’ve seen it all? Step outside your expat comfort zone and sign up for a walking tour of the city with a difference…
Golden spires, cobbled streets, baroque cherubs, and of course the Castle. Prague is undeniably pretty – and the best way to explore is on foot. But tag along with a typical walking tour and all you’ll do is tick off the main sites.
However, there is an alternative way to see the so-called Golden City – through the eyes of those forced to survive on its streets. Thanks to Pragulic, the award-winning brainchild of three postgraduate students at Charles University, there are now walking tours led by the homeless offering a unique opportunity to explore Prague’s grittier side.
Each of their five guides takes the curious on a different route incorporating former squats, sheltered housing, and hidden corners of the city as well as the more obvious landmarks. Thanks to a team of volunteer translators, the scheme is accessible to non-Czech speakers and is proving popular with tourists. Half the 200 CZK ticket price goes directly to the tour leader – a helping hand, certainly, but not a handout.
On a chilly February evening, I find myself in Sherwood – not a forest, but the nickname of the notoriously dodgy area outside Hlavní nádraží – waiting for our guide.
The first thing which strikes me about Jan is just how ordinary he looks. There’s nothing about his appearance that says ‘tramp’ – the long hair simply suggests that he’s spent too long listening to rock music and the roll ups that he likes the taste of unfiltered tobacco.
The tour is called From the Bottom to the Top, which does indeed describe the route he takes us from the central train station to the vantage point on Letná where a gigantic statue of Stalin once stood overlooking the city. The title also refers to the journey of Jan’s life from hitting rock bottom thanks to a gambling addiction to a new beginning – or, as Oscar Wilde might have put it, from the gutter to the stars.
According to official estimates, over 4,000 people live on the city’s streets. Another disturbing statistic which Jan shares is that there essentially two groups of homeless people: those who go without a place to live for a month or two then manage to return to conventional society, and those who cannot – or choose not to – and usually end up homeless for life.
“Change is essential,” Jan tells us. “I have many homeless friends who are unwilling or unable to make the transition from living on the streets to ordinary life. Twice a week I meet someone I know who remains on the streets. When I lose motivation I see him, gather all my strength and try to go on.”
Pragulic’s slogan is Nebojte se poznávat Prahu jinak – don’t be afraid to get to know Prague differently. Jan takes us to the social centre Naděje (rather aptly the word for ‘hope’) where he once came to get soup and clean clothes. Hidden under a flyover, it’s a spot that’s easy to overlook – unless you’re location scouting for a gritty docudrama. It’s at this point in the tour that Jan shares some practical advice for those unsure how to help those
they see sleeping rough.
“Give stravenky,” he advises. “With the meal vouchers you know they can only buy food, not booze.”
Later in the tour, we walk across Čechův most, a bridge I travel over on the way to work almost every day. I never fail to look out of the window and take in the view across the river. However, I’ve never noticed the boat Hermes at the foot of the steps leading up to Letná which serves as a hostel for the homeless. Although the doors don’t open until 18:30, the queue for one of the 250 beds begins hours earlier. Those who don’t manage to secure a bed or who can’t find the 20 CZK fee sleep under the bridge.
Despite the cold, the dozen or so of us who’ve gathered on a Wednesday evening to hear Jan’s story listen with real concentration and interest. Tonight, the group is mostly Czechs in their twenties: friends and acquaintances who found out about the initiative through Facebook. The tour is also accessible to foreign tourists thanks to a team of volunteer translators.
Once we’ve successfully climbed up the steps which lead up to the metronome on Letná, I get chatting to some of the other participants. One of the most enthusiastic participants, Lukáš Policar, believes that the tour has the power to challenge the stereotypes which surround the most disadvantaged in society:
“It’s a great project – very inspiring. I think it should be compulsory for every school age child in the Czech Republic.”
I asked Tereza Jurečková, one of the co-organisers, what she thought expats could gain from attending the tour.
“Foreigners in Prague often stay separated from local life. They live in Vinohrady and meet other expats, but I believe that lot of them would like to explore local life as well,” Tereza observes. “Now they have a chance to discover the city with a real expert. They will not only see interesting and unknown places but they will better understand the local culture and way of life.
“We are also trying to bring different people together. So you never know whether you end up in the pub at the end of the tour chatting with others.”
Those interested in booking a homeless tour with an English speaking translator should contact the organisers via their website for more details.