Derby Day in Prague – Sunburn and a Scoredraw

Ever since being teargassed at a bad-tempered Prague derby in 2008 I’ve been hooked on watching football in Europe. It’s much less sanitised – for better or worse – than England and always offers something interesting, if not always on the pitch. I’ve experienced the electric atmosphere of the San Siro in Milan, Hertha Berlin at the impressive Olympicstadion and the rustic charm of Artmedia Bratislava in a cowshed in Slovakia and I hope to see a lot more football action in the future.

On Saturday, it was again the Prague derby of the city’s main rivals, Slavia and Sparta. This year’s contest didn’t really look like it was going to be a classic with Slavia underperforming after some crippling financial difficulties and Sparta sitting pretty on top of the league. And, in the end, it wasn’t, as the two teams played out a spirited but rather toothless one-all draw but it was still a really nice day at the shiny Synot Tip Arena topped off with a much-needed bout of sunburn.

Slavia took a surprise lead after a beautifully delivered corner found Martin Latka’s head and the underdogs could have had a few more. Then after forcing Slavia ‘keeper Martin Berkovec into a couple of stunning saves, Sparta eventually scored through Tomáš Přikryl (just try saying that) before the game petered out a bit and the off-field antics became a lot more interesting.

Three of us were sat right next to the Slavia Ultras – a set of hardcore fans who seemingly model themselves on the British fans of the Eighties (even down to their use of British flags and terms like ‘The Slavia Gentlemen’). These guys never sit down and certainly never shut up – even down to the children’s match at half time as the fans went crazy when a seven year old Slavia lad scored and then wheeled away with a classic airplane celebration. I’d definitely recommend that you try to sit by them but maybe not in amongst them though as you might find yourself out of your depth as they don’t take too kindly to tourists.

There seemed to be quite a few measures in place to placate the Ultras and to avoid any violence. For one, only non-alcoholic beer was served, which scuppered our plans of drinking in the glorious sunshine, but could be understood. Secondly, their every whim was catered for. Whenever they wanted to unfurl banners across the section, set off a couple of flares or cart in a tonne of flags, the officials were happy acquiesce, stand by and watch and do the occasional bit of firefighting. Overall, they whipped up and raucous yet non-violent atmosphere and a fun, awesome spectacle.

Cooped in the opposite corner the Sparta Ultras were obviously jealous of this attention, threw their toys out of the pram and kicked off in the second half. It started with what looked like a toilet seat being thrown onto the pitch. Then came a series of plastic seats that had been ripped up and flares were then let off in the middle of the mass of fans. The firefighters’ unenviable job was to get amongst them and to put the flares out whilst the police went in and arrested the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, kind of behaviour is virtually institutionalised in football in Central and Eastern Europe now which leads to families staying away and for a pretty intense, unwelcoming atmosphere. Add to that a generally poor standard of football and a game in these parts shouldn’t be a great prospect but somehow it is. Tickets are cheap, beer is normally plentiful and if you choose the right section in which to sit and the right game (derbies, historic rivalries and top-of-the-table clashes are always best) then the entertainment should be there. It’s an experience that I don’t think should be missed especially as almost every city in Europe has at least one decent team, each has a unique atmosphere and it’s a chance to see the locals at their best and their worst

8 of the Best Times to Visit Prague

March is a busy month in Prague – there’s two film festivals, a half marathon and a football derby between the city’s fiercest rivals. It’s always great to match a sightseeing visit to a city with an event, special season or a festival so, here is a list of eight of the best times to visit Prague.

1)      Prague Museum Night – June

Once a year Prague hosts a nocturnal festival of free museums throughout the city. A diverse range of museums, including the National Museum, the Jewish Museum and some exhibitions at Prague Castle, are all open for free from the early evening into the small hours. A complimentary bus service is also in place to shuttle you around the city and there are many musical events at the various attractions to liven things up. This night is a great way to learn about the history and culture of Prague without spending a fortune and getting them all out the way in one night lets you spend the daytime exploring.

2)      Witches Night – April 30

On the April 30 the Czechs gather in parks throughout the country to burn effigies of witches on bonfires to signal the end of winter (makes more sense than the UK’s Guy Fawkes night). So, find a park in Prague (you may have to go out into one of the suburbs) or go local and travel to one outside of the city, and you will find plenty of lively entertainment, crowds of locals in an excitable mood and lots of fire.

3)      Burčák Season – Autumn

Burčák is a (literally) explosive wine that comes to fruition in autumn and grips the drinkers of Prague. It’s a sweet wine that hasn’t quite finished fermenting so it can be pretty dangerous as the process keeps going when bottled and even when in your stomach which can lead to messy consequences if the pressure valve is not released or your consume too much. This brightly coloured beverage basically tastes like a mix between lemonade, fruit juice and wine and can be tasty and pretty strong (the quality and strength varies from batch to batch). With its arrival also come a number of markets and little festivals that sprout up around the city as they bring the usual accompaniments of sausage and Prague ham. A nice way to see out the warmer months.

4)      Prague Marathon, Half Marathon & 10k – March, May and September respectively

Surprisingly, this is probably the most stress-free way of seeing the Old Town. The streets are closed off to traffic and, more importantly, pedestrians and you have the freedom of the streets. Sure, it’s crowded but the steady torrent of runners always keeps going at an acceptable pace and rarely do you get stuck in a frustrating bottle-neck. These three runs are some of the most beautiful urban runs going and depending on how hardcore you are, you can jog along the historical streets of Prague over 13 miles at the end of March, 26 miles in May or a more feasible 10 kilometres at night in September.

5)      Easter and Christmas Markets – the run up to Easter and Christmas

Although the squares of Prague always look pretty, the markets of Easter and Christmas give them a little bit more personality. Hundreds of market stalls cluster round the monuments selling handicrafts, Czech specialities and hot and cold alcoholic beverages to suit the season. At Christmas there’s usually an ice rink to try out your ice skating skills and keep an eye out for carp tanks on the pavements selling live fish to be cooked later for the Czech’s Christmas dinners. Easter offers more of the same with another slightly odd tradition making the difference. You’ll come across many colourful wicker sticks that, as tradition dictates, are used by guys, mainly outside of Prague, to playfully spank their ladies. Probably best not to try it out yourself though.

6)      Sparta vs Slavia Prague – twice annually between August and May

The derby can sometimes get out of hand

See the locals at their passionate best (and worst) at this inevitably heated football game. Until recently Sparta and Slavia Prague were the two best teams in Czech football but Slavia’s fall from grace has not taken away from the intensity of this bi-annual match that gets the raucous fans out in numbers. The atmosphere in the always sold out stadium is normally electric and far out-weights the below-average quality football on show. The two teams normally play twice a year at either Sparta’s AXA Stadium in Letna, which is the easier to get to from the centre, or Slavia’s Synot Tip Arena Stadium, which boasts better facilities but is out in Prague-Vršovice.

7)      United Islands Festival – late June

Throughout the spring and summer Prague hosts many little outdoor music festivals and events and United Islands is one of the most hyped and impressively-attended of these. Set in fantastic island surroundings, right in the middle of Prague within viewing distance of Charles Bridge and Narodni Divadlo (the national theatre), there’s no better place to relax and soak up the friendly atmosphere and variable-quality of music. With no entrance fee and a central location you are free to come and go as much as you like so this doesn’t have to be the be-all-and-end-all of your trip if it isn’t to your taste.

8)      Jeden Svět and Febiofest Film Festivals – March

March is movie festival month as there are two distinctly different small-to-medium sized ones to choose from. Jeden Svět is a collection of human rights themed documentaries that will both entertain and, at times, depress and Febiofest concerns itself with mainstream and independent efforts from throughout the world. Neither are on the scale of Berlin, Cannes or nearby Karlovy Vary but they boast an unpretentious and lively atmosphere and give you a chance to sample some below-the-radar films that usually only come to this final outpost many months after the rest of the world.