Remembering Prague, 1980 (Part I) – The long train journey

Remembering Prague, 1980 (Part I) – The long train journey

In the recent years, Prague has become one of the top European destinations and has been increasingly compared to other major capitals such as Vienna, Paris, Madrid.

Prague-Charles-Bridge

Prague, Charles Bridge

Indeed the city is wonderful, with its well restored historical buildings, the lovely tiny streets in the Malà Strana, some beautiful examples of Baroque architecture, the charm of the Charles bridge crossing the Vltava river.

However, I wonder how many people visiting Prague remember how the city was in the past.

I went to Prague for the first time 30 years ago, in 1980. The USA and USSR opposed blocs were in some way leading the world, Berlin was split in two by the wall and the Eastern Europe countries were under the USSR and communist influence. Czechoslovakia was one of the countries where the authoritarian government was tougher, exercising a strong control over personal freedom and imposing strong limits to foreign Western visitors.

Prague

Prague

The journey to Prague was our ‘bachelors’ trip’ and proved to be quite an awesome and interesting experience.

The trip: We traveled to Prague by train, leaving from Switzerland for a very long and quirky journey. It was many years ago, but a few images are still clearly impressed in my mind:

  • Changing the train at a little  station in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Germany, in the middle of the night. It was somehow surreal. Wondering why? Only special trains were allowed to cross the border, trains that could be easily searched to prevent and block possible attempts to escape from the country.
  • Approaching the border and throwing away from the windows any forbidden reading: Western magazines but also many books by authors that were banned.
  • A little before the border, there was the so-called No Man’s Land, a desolated area with huge towers where guards controlled the surrounding area.
  • Once reached the border, the train stopped. The area was very strongly illuminated and armed soldiers controlled every door to ensure nobody would step down. More soldiers started to sifting out the train. Not only the usual Passport control. They checked the toilets, disassembled many pieces to ensure nothing suspect had been hidden, they verified both the top and the bottom of the wagons. As you can imagine, the stop was quite long and the tension high. Nobody dared talking, we were all barely moving. We knew that those days the smallest thing raising a shred of suspect could compromise the journey of all people traveling on that train. We were lucky, since after a long and painstaking control the soldiers eventually gave the green light and we left to Prague.
Prague

Prague, Photo by Josef Stuefer

The arrival: As soon as the train stopped at Prague railway station, we were ‘welcomed’ by our guide.

At that time, the function of the guide in a communist country was very different from the current meaning. His main task was not to show us the city, the life, the people. On the contrary, visitors had to follow a precise scheme, where contacts with the locals and strolling around freely were not permitted.

Besides leading us to visit the main landmarks and the classic tourist attractions, his main function was to control. What we did, what we said, where we went.

 

33 Comments
  • Pingback:We Shall Never Forget... Berlin Between Past and Present
    Posted at 19:53h, 04 March Reply

    […] look in their eyes and a general sense of poverty. Somehow Berlin remembered me of my journey to Prague in 1980, although at least in what would soon become Germany capital the ‘dark age’ was almost […]

  • Pingback:Havana, A Vintage Photo Essay
    Posted at 11:47h, 24 October Reply

    […] in the streets, I kept thinking of the time I spend in Prague in 1980 (if you’re interested, I wrote a story in three episodes about this very special trip), when […]

  • Jeff Titelius
    Posted at 01:14h, 24 October Reply

    What a fascinating read my friend. I had no idea of the history or the fact that Czechoslovakia didn’t even exist until 1918…and I am Czechoslovakian! Now I am not sure what I am … Austrian or Hungarian? Beats me. I loved this article and hope you do more like it!

    • Simon
      Posted at 08:52h, 24 October Reply

      I’m so glad you liked it, Jeff. I wanted to tell about this experience because the sight of Prague today is so much more different and most people don’t even know how the city looked like during the Cold War. History, even when sad, is always good to know. To remember, to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

    • Martina
      Posted at 03:44h, 23 September Reply

      Just because Czechoslovakia didn’t exist,doesn’t mean Czechs and Slovaks didn’t exist. Our languages and culture are obviously not even a bit similar to Germanic or Hungarian. We are Slavs and no one could erase that (even though they tried…) Austria-Hungary also only existed from 1867.

  • Erika
    Posted at 02:46h, 07 June Reply

    Would love to visit Prague someday, isn’t it one of the only cities in Europe that didn’t get bombed during WWII?

  • Jennifer
    Posted at 02:37h, 07 June Reply

    Thanks for giving me a reminder of just how lucky I am to travel relatively without fear and with ease. In 1980 there was no Internet to immediately get info about other’s experiences. And much of Europe was entirely different a mere 32 years ago.

  • The GypsyNesters
    Posted at 20:33h, 20 April Reply

    We are finally making a trip to Prague this summer. Hope it still looks as great as these pictures.
    -David

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 21:01h, 21 April Reply

      Prague is wonderful, although it has changed a lot. I’m sure you’ll like it!

  • Ted Nelson
    Posted at 19:56h, 13 February Reply

    This is a refreshing change from most travel blog posts. Not only does this post reflect an interesting experience traveling, but also illuminates what life was like during the Cold War and what travel was like for those few that could cross the iron curtain. I am now going to read part II.

  • Norbert
    Posted at 18:21h, 22 October Reply

    Wow! 1980’s tourism to Prague was completely different from today’s tourism. Would have loved to experience that time when it was Czechoslovakia… pretty freaky that train ride.

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 11:02h, 23 October Reply

      Yes, the journey by train was a memorable experience! As was the whole visit to Prague…

  • Adelene
    Posted at 20:52h, 18 October Reply

    Prague is one of my favourite places (other than Vienna) – it’s so romantic and has that old-world charm to it 🙂 However, I have just been there in July 2010, and only managed to visit the Old Town section. I have read the Part 2 of Prague, and I can tell you, now the people there are so cheerful and happy, totally unlike what you had described in your memories..

    Have you written Part 3 of Prague?

    Also, I would love to read about the Eastern Europe countries, ie. Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, etc, if you have travelled to there, of course 🙂

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 12:17h, 21 October Reply

      Prague is a wonderful city as are many places in Eastern Europe that have been blooming in the recent years. I just wrote the 3rd episode of my journey to Prague and I hope you will enjoy it.
      Cheers,

  • Cam
    Posted at 23:01h, 10 October Reply

    The first photo has an eerie medieval feel about it. Was it taken back in 1980? The Czech Rep has definitely come a long way! Prague is such an awesome city

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 08:14h, 11 October Reply

      I’m not the author for the shots (back then, cameras where quite basic) but I agree with you that is has somehow a medieval feel. I believe, however, that it is quite recent. If you’d like too see photos of the ’80s have a look at Part II. Cheers!

  • Jen Laceda
    Posted at 20:51h, 10 October Reply

    I, too, loved Prague. Ever since I watched INXX’s video…hahaha, what can I say, I’m a child of the 80’s-90’s…! But seriously, Prague was wonderful even though we go robbed in the train there.

  • Darren Cronian
    Posted at 00:58h, 10 October Reply

    I love Prague. Visited there in 2006. The architecture is amazing, and a very romantic city. It is just a shame that it has become a popular destination for stag and hen parties. My advice to anyone visiting the city now, is if you want to avoid the crowds of drunken Brits, is go midweek.

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 01:09h, 10 October Reply

      That’s very interesting, Darren. I got back to Prague in the early ’90s (that will be episode 4, but I’m still writing episode 3…) but since then… I never dared, although I’ve been thinking at going back several times. I’m afraid of what it has become. Not quite sure I’d really like it.
      So far, I cherish my memories…

      • Darren Cronian
        Posted at 04:08h, 10 October Reply

        I don’t think that the city will have changed that much, just a lot more drunken tourists there at the weekend. It’s a gorgeous city, and I would go back again.

  • Devin the Travel Writer
    Posted at 00:13h, 07 October Reply

    I visited in the early 90s. It was an incredible time in Prague.

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 00:45h, 10 October Reply

      Oh, that’s interesting. In the early ’90s I had my second trip to Prague, and things had already changed from my first visit although the city/country was far from what it has become meanwhile.

  • Catia
    Posted at 15:45h, 06 October Reply

    I just visited Prague last month so hearing what it was like 30 years ago is fascinating. You describe this experience so clearly, I can almost feel the stress of taking that train, I can’t wait to read part 2!

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 00:49h, 10 October Reply

      Prague was so different at that time. Well, the world was different… I’m glad you liked the story. I published part 2 and I’m writing the 3rd episode. 🙂

  • Jools Stone
    Posted at 07:54h, 05 October Reply

    It must’ve been so interesting to visit at that time, it’s such a well trodden city now it is strange to think of it as anything but. The train journey sounds a little hairy but probably exciting too? My latest guest post below explores similar ground, it’s about what happened to Berlin’s subway during the cold war era. Thanks for sharing an interesting slice of history, and beautiful pics accompanying it.

  • lechua
    Posted at 05:52h, 04 October Reply

    great website you have her on ur travel stories. i like this post very much…the misty appearance of the Charles Bridge – reminds me of my visit 10 years ago 🙂

    • admin
      Posted at 09:55h, 04 October Reply

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m so glad you liked this post, since Prague is one of my preferred memories. Hope to read you again soon…

  • Sophie
    Posted at 11:30h, 02 October Reply

    What an interesting trip down memory lane. I remember travelling in Eastern Europe in the 80s: East Berlin, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Leningrad, Czechoslovakia, … the names are all changed now. And all the checkpoints, controls, illegal changing of money in back alleys, even the possibility of being interrogated – it was all rather exciting, wasn’t it?

    I was in Prague in November 1989 and left on a Thursday evening, The following day, was the Velvet Revolution. Talk about missing out on the action.

    • admin
      Posted at 11:47h, 02 October Reply

      Good to hear that you also travelled through Eastern Europe in the ’80s. I recognise everything in what you write… True, it was quite exciting. And a little sad… Can’t believe that you missed the Velvet Revolution for just one day!

  • Michael Hodson
    Posted at 04:13h, 02 October Reply

    Hard not to love Prague. Nice post. Thanks for letting me re-live it briefly.

    • admin
      Posted at 09:56h, 02 October Reply

      Nice to know that you enjoyed the story. Stay tuned. Part II is soon to come!

  • Barbara Weibel
    Posted at 03:44h, 02 October Reply

    Wow! It’s good to reminisce like this – makes us realize how far we’ve come from those days. Great post.

    • admin
      Posted at 09:54h, 02 October Reply

      Thank you, Barbara. Some places in the world changed so much during the last 25 years and I thought it might be nice to remember how they were. Glad you liked the story.

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