Summer in the city

19-07-2003

From spring to autumn, Fridays are typically the days with the busiest traffic in Prague. The reason is that many people like to spend the weekend outside Prague, at their weekend houses or cottages, away in the country. And even if they use other means of transport to get to work on other days, on Friday they will take their car and leave for the country straight from work after their shift ends, and sometimes even a little earlier.

The Czech custom of leaving cities for what were known as "summer homes" at that time became more widespread sometime in the 19th century when wealthier Prague merchants and clerks could afford to send their wives and children to the countryside for the summer, to let them breathe "fresher air".

The national custom expanded during the forty years of communist rule, when a weekend house, no matter how small, provided a chance to escape from the greyness of the city but also was one of few legal forms of private ownership. Immediately after the fall of communism, some people thought that this custom would die out, that people would be forced to sell their weekend houses because their jobs would too demanding, petrol would be expensive and they would not be able to afford to maintain two households.

The forecasts did not materialise. To me personally, it seems that things turned out just the other way round. On a Friday morning, the traffic jam is always the worst, a sharp contrast to the weekend when the streets are deserted and some parts of the city seem virtually dead. And I must say I completely understand. For there seems to be very little to do in Prague during the weekends, the chances to spend your free time in an active way are scarce. It struck me again during the recent hot days.

From where I live it would take me more than an hour to get to the nearest open-air swimming pool. In this heat, and especially during the summer holidays, the place is so crowded that you hardly find a spot on the lawn to spread your towel, and you don't even want to think about all the bugs in the water. The situation with indoor swimming pools is not much better. The same goes for cycling tracks, public sports grounds, promenades. Most cinemas, theatres and restaurants are concentrated in the centre of the city while in districts with the highest number of inhabitants per square metre the only place to go out is a supermarket, the only chance to exercise is when you run to catch a bus. Not a single skating rink, no swimming pool, no public tennis court or bike path. As if the architects and town-planners in the last decades were all weekend-cottage-owners and therefore completely ignored the importance of places for leisure activities in the city. Instead of a living organism they designed a giant dormitory which practically empties out every Friday from March to October.

The local authorities in Prague have had thirteen years to try and make things better, but still I have nowhere to go for a swim on a hot day. Until things improve, the easiest thing for me would be to buy myself a house in the country, by a lake or a stream, and become as oblivious to the needs of other Prague inhabitants as our town-planners have appeared for decades.

19-07-2003