TRAVEL: Vaclav Havel didn't sleep here

The Prague prison cell where the Czech president spent wretched restless nights is now a pension room. Is this the ultimate tourist trap? Jonathan Glancey finds out
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IN AN AGE when history is heritage, there can be little surprise that prisons have become tourist attractions. Whether it's the jail linked to the Doges' Palace in Venice by the Bridge of Sighs, whose most famous inmate was Casanova, or the museum at Dartmoor, where you can thrill to the fact that, mere yards away, murderous villains are penned in man-sized chicken coops, visitors are welcome. Aesthetes , meanwhile, for whom Dartmoor is altogether too grim a prospect, can lock themselves away in the Landmark Trust's House of Correction, a penal institution in Lincolnshire turned romantic holiday retreat.

Then there are prisons around the world that have contained heroes, partisans for causes and martyrs - the consequences of the impermanence of political regimes. Fidel Castro has preserved as a museum the extraordinary prison camp the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista built on the Isle of Pines in the Fifties. And in Alma-Ata, capital of Kazakhstan, in what was once the Soviet Union, you can dance the night away in the former KGB quarters, now a disco, where perceived enemies of Stalin has their teeth kicked out and knuckles snapped.

Now in Prague, the ultimate "hands on" museum experience: a night in an iron bunk bed in the cell that once held Vaclav Havel, playwright, freedom fighter and president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic since 1993. Is this the last stop in a tour of international prison kitsch?

The cell is housed in what is now Pension Unitas, a handsome yellow-ochre baroque palace on Bartolomejska Street in the Stare Mesto district, right in the heart of the city. The current owners, the Sisters of Mercy, are well aware of the appeal to tourists of Havel's heroic years of incarceration, yet, to date, only young backpackers come here, not least because the 34-bedroom hotel is a cheap place to stay in a city that, over the past five years, has become a hang-out for the chic and fashionable. It would be a perfectly decent place to stay without its association with the Czech president, but it is Havel's name and Havel's basement cell that make the place special. Or at least a curiosity.

One of the nuns tells me, in broken German, that Havel is - forgive the blasphemy - a Christ for our times. She also says, handing me the key to room P6, that I cannot get back into the building after 1am and I must not smoke or drink in the cell (she means room).

Having obeyed all the rules and spent the night there, in the basement cell where Havel slept for no more than an hour a night during one of his three prison sentences, I have to admit to finding the experience depressing. It is not that the walls run with blood during the night, or that you sit up frozen with fear hearing the ghostly screams of tortured prisoners.

Nothing like that. Depression sets in because it seems so meaningless to sleep in comfort in a small, white room where a man you admire and have talked to about architecture, literature, philosophy and politics, tossed and turned so wretchedly. ("I probably bore prison worse than most of those who admired me would," Havel told the Czech journalist Karel Hvizdala, "Whenever I heard the familiar shout, 'Havel!', I would panic. Once, after hearing my name yelled out like that, I jumped out of bed and cracked my skull on the window. Despite all this, I know that, if it were necessary, I would go back to prison again and I would survive.")

The cell is comfortable enough today, although it gave me the creeps because I know Vaclav Havel to be a man for whom loss of physical freedom must have been torture. The room is painted in white emulsion, the steel door a cheery pink. It is roofed over with a narrow barrel vault, contains two, double-decker bunk beds and is lit by a small, curtained window punched through the thick walls and set higher than a tall person can reach. No more, no less, in fact, than many a room in YMCA hostels or student accommodation worldwide.

In the morning, after a proper breakfast, there is no interrogation, no threat of physical violence. All that that is required of you is that you revel in the physical splendour of this exquisite city and spend lots of money drinking coffee and eating cakes. In the night, no guard swivels open the cast-iron peephole to remind you that you are subject to round- the-clock surveillance. The peep-hole is still there, but sealed up. In the morning, there is no freedom charter for you to sign, no open letter to a despotic government to write, nothing for you to fear or fight against.

But, what do you expect? Life after a revolution, whether violent or "velvet", as in the case of Czechoslovakia in 1989, is almost inevitably something like a siesta, a time to bask in the sun, a time to wake up and eat cakes and drink coffee. This freedom to take life easy is a part of what Vaclav Havel and the signatories of Charter 77 (which was the of basis Civic Forum, founded in November 1989, and ultimately of the "velvet" revolution that removed the Communists from power) were fighting for: the freedom to be a tourist, the freedom to sleep innocently in a happily redundant prison cell with the key in your hand and not the jailer's.

Pension Unitas is not the only building Havel was locked up in during the three spells he spent in prison between 1978 and 1983. Perhaps there ought to be "Vaclav Havel was imprisoned here" plaques made to signify Czecho-slovakia's road to freedom. But the idea would pall. In England, there are countless four-posters slept in by Good Queen Bess, even more churches where Oliver Cromwell stabled his horses and a forest of oaks in whose leaves King Charles hid from Oliver Cromwell; so many heavily- draped beds, defecating horses and sturdy trees, that the tales they have to tell of olde England are now no more than folklore.

Even so, Pension Unitas does serve to remind us of the rocky road Havel and the signatories of Charter 77 took to freedom. As Prague becomes a playpen for the young and privileged, and as the forces of capitalism run rampant, it seems more important than ever to think of the noble future men and women like Vaclav Havel were dreaming of 20 years ago.

I spoke to Havel in the new British Council building at a reception where champagne and schnapps flowed. Havel now looks like a model of a prosperous politician. He is not keen to talk about his years in prison.

For the record, he was first arrested in January 1978 and imprisoned in what is now the Pension Unitas until that May. He served a second term there soon afterwards before being sent down for four years in 1979. He was released after he developed a fever, his temperature rising to 104 degrees, and it was clear that his life was in danger. The state was cruel and venal, but not altogether stupid; Havel's death would have been a public relations disaster given the worldwide sympathy he had won.

What was the playwright's crime? Havel was never accused of vytrznictvi (literally, hooliganism) or, as we might put it, "disturbing the peace", the crime for which many Czechs and Slovaks lost their liberty. He was jailed because of Charter 77, a campaign to monitor human rights abuses in Husak's repressive Czecho-slovakia. The spark that lit the fuse that led to Charter 77 was the arrest in 1976 of the punk band The Plastic People of the Universe. When even rock'n'roll was a form of vytrznictvi, it was time for artists to rebel.

Havel believes that the real crime perpertrated by the state was one of entropy. "We were reduced to a state of dull uniformity," he says, "our life-force draining away. Before, we had no energy left to live fulfilled and creative lives, we had to act." Fighting with pen and penal servitude, Havel exorcised personal demons as well as helping to rid his country of totalitarian government.

He says he has always been aware of his privileged background, the smothering love of his dominant mother and the need to find his own path in life. Poetry and plays, despite his pro-tests to the contrary, have never been enough.

No one can say his life has been a piece of cake since he found his own voice and feet. Four years spent in Ruzyne prison, Pankrac jail and the labour camp at Hermanice, where he laboured as a welder making metal gratings, wringing out "sperm-stained sheets" in the prison laundry and stripping insulation tape off old cables, was hardly the life of a mummy's boy. Somewhere between fighting and jail, he wrote his internationally acclaimed Absurdist plays and became leader of Civic Forum.

What does he think of the cell in Pension Unitas now? "I live in the present," he says. "I have no time to return to the past. It's not just that I have been too busy, but that details of times best forgotten become hazy if you want them to. There are people and places that hurt us and we need to distance ourselves from them. The few standardised memories, that all prisoners tell, are ultimately meaningless."

The president is, however, content to see Pension Unitas thrive. Bad taste? Kitsch? It hardly matters. Although Havel's years in prison have robbed him, he says, of "spontaneous delight", he has a generous nature. Yet one cannot help thinking he must disapprove of heritage-kitsch; he stands adamantly against both the "superficial variety offered by free enterprise at its worst" as well as "the repulsive greyness forced by state control". He is, he says, a moralist, still remorselessly against privilege and remains a socialist, "though I never use the word" because it has been so debased.

A night in Havel's cell did make me think hard about these things; it did make me feel grateful to be free to walk the beautiful streets of Prague. It made me think that the lives of people here stamped out in May 1968, when the Russian tanks put an end to the Prague Spring, were not entirely wasted. But one night was enough. I have no desire to become a ghoulish jail-buff or to write a Rough Guide to World Prisons.

After all, if Havel's cell is considered a desirable place to spend the night, whatever next? What about a weekend break in La Higuera, an "ethnic" Indian village in the remote highlands of Bolivia. Here you, yes you, can stay in the very schoolroom where in 1967 Che Guevara was machine- gunned to death by US-trained army rangers (it will cost you from just $300, or no more than the average annual earnings of the local peasants).

Or, in years to come, you might look forward to a bunk-up in the Fhrerbunker (in Sally Bowles's old-time, good-time Berlin), doing it where Adolf and Eva did it - or did they? It could happen. Vaclav Havel is right to forget. !


GETTING THERE: Campus Travel (0171-730 3402) has flights from £148 to £192, open to all. Trailfinders (0171-937 5400) has flights via Frankfurt at £219 in May and £235 in June. Benz (0171-437 2377) has midweek flights for £148, and Thursday to Monday for £165. All flights are subject to £16.50 tax.

STAYING THERE: Pension Unitas is in Bartolomejska Street, Prague (00 422 232 7700); single room from 790 crowns (£19); a night in P6 for four is 1,750 crowns (£41.50).

WEEKEND BREAKS: Campus (0171-730 3402) offers 2 nights b&b, twin room in a pension for £229, in a 2-star hotel £225, in a 3-star hotel £259, plus tax at £16.50. Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711) offers 2 nights in a 2-star hotel, b&b for £250, 3 nights for £285. Both prices exclude tax. Kirker Travel (0171-231 3333) has 2 nights b&b in a 3-star hotel, including car transfer and tax, at £345. Danube Travel (0171-493 0263) offers b&b, twin room, and city tour for £284 in a 2-star hotel, £291 for 3-star; flights only are £186.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Czech Centre, 30 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QY (0891 171266: recorded information, 39p per minute cheap rate, 49p standard rate).