One of my biggest regrets in life was not taking the opportunity to travel the world when the time was right. You know that suitable time, right? Finished your education and fancy that gap year before careering headlong into the grindstone? In hindsight, the time I spent searching for a suitable job, I could have just nipped abroad for work to see where I ended up. Preferably, I should have been slightly more austere as a student and not ploughed hundreds, if not thousands of pounds into alcohol and take-away food. I suppose at that time the world was my oyster so to say and up until recently I thought travelling was a lost cause.
Looking back, a younger, nimbler, more naïve Chris would have been easily tempted into distraction by nightlife and drinking establishments with little time to explore the beaten paths let alone find the hidden gems that make tourism totally worthwhile. Around three years ago, I decided to make up for lost opportunities and juggle travelling with my career by carving the globe up into manageable pieces to explore in two-week segments (booking more than ten days off from my company is a taboo subject). As I continue to get older, I have found that my tastes and appreciation for certain things continue to grow, sometimes to excessive and almost obsessive proportions. With this in mind, I now find myself looking for strange locations and/or landmarks which normal individuals may not find that interesting or relevant in the slightest. I have found that this condition is in fact related to my cynicism as I find that most mainstream tourist traps are not worth my attention, time or money.
Reading guidebooks can be quite a depressing experience in my opinion as no matter which one you choose, the same sights, locations and businesses crop up every time with very little to no adequate description. It begs the question about such guide books tending more towards fuelling businesses with fresh tourist meat to exploit than actually attempting to provide a useful document for exploration. With this in mind, prior to every trip I tend to make my own guide book out of a photocopied city map, various internet printouts from the internet supplemented with hours of clicking on those little blue squares on Google Earth.
This feature, which I plan to make as regular as I can, will highlight some of the alternative, ‘off the beaten track’ sights that I have visited over the years and hopefully open your eyes to the landmarks that I consider as ‘wonders’ in their own right.
Target – Velký strahovský stadion, Praha, Česká republika
So, a return trip to Prague with the lads may paint a different picture of ‘alternative’ tourism, usually involving copious amounts of ale and meat, topped off with a visit to a strip bar. This may be the case but previous research had drawn my eye towards some ‘off the beaten track’ landmarks that had me as excited as Mr Patrick Dennison after being promised a scenario of sex, midget and violence… all in a limousine. One of those darker landmarks seems to dominate any map of Prague, especially if you are a fan of sports and love a good session of ground-hopping. Appearing to stand alone at the top of Mala Strana is a structure that belies belief due to its sheer size. Dwarfing the adjacent neighbouring former national stadium, Stadion Evžena Rošického is a stadium that cannot be summarised in a few words on someone’s half-arsed blog.
The journey to the top of Petřín was made slightly more difficult as the funicular railway was mysteriously closed and all six individuals were nursing the previous night’s exploits. Only three hardy souls managed to scale the hill, whilst the others ‘pested’ the locals before making their way back across town. At the top of the hill we made our way to the mysterious stadium but only after a short visit to Petřín lookout tower which in hindsight made us feel regrettably worse. We all looked up from halfway to the top, the background of moving cloud giving us a short blast of vertigo, prolonging the nausea caused by excessive ale consumption. From halfway up though, the stadium was comfortably in view and drew the attention of the group due to its sheer size. Excitement was now evident as we sauntered through what appeared to be a college or university resident estate towards the unknown.
Strahov stadium is currently the largest stadium in the world holding an impressive 220,000 people. Built in 1934 during the inter war years of the Czechoslovak First republic it fell under the use of the occupying Nazi and Soviet forces in WWII and became an ideal showpiece of megalomania for the Communist party in the post war years up until the velvet revolution. It is a sprawl of behemoth-like concrete stands on all four sides with seating for up to 55,000 and huge swathes of terracing along the West stand. Originally built for mass gymnastic displays by the Sokol organisation, the stadium was refurbished in 1946 where the old wooden structure was replaced with the concrete template evident today.
Under communism, the Sokol movement was disapproved due to its elitist nuances and associations in its history. Eager to replace what had become a national tradition, the regime introduced its own version of the mass gymnastic displays called Spartakiáda, fittingly named after the slave uprising led by Spartacus. Held every five years, these events were attended by millions of spectators and were utilised as a massive propaganda tool and display of power. Displays would involve thousands of gymnasts and soldiers delivering rhythmic and synchronised manoeuvers. Here is the Youtube footage from 1980’s Spartakiáda…
The popularity of the Spartakiáda began to wane post 1970 after the suppression of the Prague spring by an invasion from Warsaw Pact armies and the ‘normalisation’ of Czechoslovak politics back to hard line communism. The authorities scaled down future events due to the public unrest already swelling against them as the Eastern Bloc entered the era of economic stagnation. After a small face lift in the mid 70’s, the stadium has been left open to the elements and is now showing its age, with areas either inaccessible and/or too unsafe to explore. Only the West stand is now used, albeit for Sparta Prague reserve matches who attract attendances in the hundreds at maximum. Sparta use the whole complex as a training base, which is ideal as there is room for 8 Football pitches, an Ice Hockey training dome and administrative offices all in-between the four gigantic stands.
After usage for pop concerts and festivals, the future of Strahov stadium is still uncertain. Options have included refurbishment, demolition, modernisation and preservation. Unfortunately I believe that this stadium will not be around in its present state for much longer as the Czech Republic becomes a strong European economy and its location being so prominent in an area to be utilised by the tourism industry. If you happen to be visiting Prague any time soon and appreciate iconic sporting venues then this will certainly be well up your street.
For a more detailed look at Czechoslovakia’s communist past, view the following BBC documentary titled The Lost World of Communism – The Kingdom of Forgetting.