Back in the 1980s, shortly after I left college and long before I started travel writing, I worked as a journalist and correspondent in Vienna, at a small subsidiary of Britain’s Economist Group, called “Business International.” We were an editorial team of around 10 people and responsible for covering business developments in the then-Eastern bloc and Yugoslavia.
Each of us was assigned a different country, and from 1987 to the fall of Communism in late-1989, I was responsible for covering and writing about Czechoslovakia. Though I didn’t read or speak Czech (or Slovak) at the time, I didn’t mind the assignment. I was wowed by Prague from my first visit as a student in 1984, and my job meant I’d be traveling to the city at least two or three times a year.
Traveling to the Eastern bloc in the 1980s was a complicated affair, especially for journalists. Our support staff in the Vienna office worked the telex machines hard (this was before faxes and email) to obtain the necessary official permissions. One of the trickiest parts of the job was to arrange accommodation.
The Czechoslovak authorities took a dim view toward Western journalists and seemed to regard our small bureau in Vienna with an extra dose of suspicion. I later learned from a former co-worker that the Czechoslovak intelligence services, the Státní bezpečnost (StB), were convinced that we were a cell of the Central Intelligence Agency. The fact that our bureau chief was an ex-U.S. Army captain who wrote spy novels in his spare time didn’t help matters. Indeed, on my trips to Czechoslovakia, from the moment I entered the country to the minute I left, I’d be accompanied by a Czech fixer and translator named "Arnold." He was later revealed to be a high-ranking spy in a report issued by Prague’s Office of Military History. (I will deal with this in a future blog post).
Getting back to the issue of accommodation. There were only a handful of hotels in Prague where Western journalists were permitted to stay. I never figured out the system precisely, but big-time journalists working for, say, the “New York Times” or “Time” magazine, or one of the wire services, like Reuters, were normally lodged at the Alcron or Jalta hotels in the center. Needless to say, the rooms at these places were subjected to 24/7 surveillance by the intelligence services. The bugging room below the Jalta has been opened as a tourist attraction, so anyone can now see the elaborate phone and room-tapping setup that existed.
I was never offered these hotels as lodging options. I’m not sure if it’s because our office wrote mainly about business topics (as opposed to politics) or because the StB sincerely believed I was a spy (and wanted to keep an extra-special watch over me), but during my eight or nine trips to Prague from 1987 to 1989, I was restricted to staying in one of just three hotels: the Esplanade, the Ambassador, and, of course, the Intercontinental (see map plot, below). I've posted photos of both the Esplanade and Ambassador below.
Of the three hotels, the Intercontinental was the most modern and arguably the best, but it was actually my least favorite. The building’s aggressive style, a 1970s’ version of Brutalism that Czechs now associate with a period of harsh Communist rule called “normalization,” clashed with the gentler, more-harmonious Art Nouveau of the hotel’s historic Old Town neighborhood, near the former Jewish quarter. I’d heard stories that the hotel's design was originally rejected as being out of character with the surrounding buildings of the former Jewish ghetto. To win approval, the architects apparently changed the name of the style to “Ghetto Moderne.” Whether that’s true or not, the term is an apt description of the blocky, vaguely cantilevered structure, clad partly in exposed concrete and copper-colored ceramic tile. It’s an eyesore.
This is not meant in any way to demean the Intercontinental as it exists now. Since 1989, the hotel chain has pumped loads of money into the building. The lobby is light and airy and upscale in a way it never was back then. I’m sure the rooms have gotten a corresponding upgrade. The view from the rooftop over the Old Town Square is as breathtaking as ever. In fact, I still use the hotel gym in the basement, which ranks among the best in the city center. What I’m sketching out here is memory, of how the hotel struck me during a very different time.
Sitting in Vienna in the 1980s and reading the propaganda that the Communist authorities were pushing out about their societies, you’d be forgiven for thinking social ills like crime and prostitution had been forever overcome. That is, until you stepped into the Intercontinental’s cramped, crowded lobby, inevitably jammed with Western businessmen on the make, seedy-looking locals, and lots of single, attractive women seated around the bar. It was always loud and the air heavy with knock-off perfume and cigarette smoke from imported Marlboros.
The scene struck me at the time as a raw, cheapened, hyper-consumerized Eastern European version of what life in the West must be like for people who were mostly forbidden to travel outside the Communist bloc. Dollars and deutsche marks were the currencies of the realm. There was even a “Tuzex” hard-currency shop in the lobby that sold candies, perfumes, cigarettes and booze, but only if you paid in foreign currency.
It was difficult to grasp fully what was going on. I wondered if the girls, obviously prostitutes, were working for themselves and trying to earn a bit of hard currency on the side or whether they were operating undercover for the intelligence services and trying to trap businessmen into compromising, potentially lucrative situations. As for the seedy-looking locals? I figured they were probably currency scammers or informants. There was always plenty of those hanging around.
Often, on those trips to Prague, after a long day of interviews, I’d wander back to the hotel through the dark streets of the Old Town and camp out in the lobby to observe the scene and chat with the girls. They were all pretty young, not overly made up like typical prostitutes, and spoke remarkably good English. Invariably, they’d tell me they were “law students” from the law school across the street (still there today). They’d say they were just hanging out “to relax and meet interesting guys.” I guess that was the official line, or maybe they really were students?
In all of my trips to Communist Czechoslovakia back then, I was never physically harassed or harmed for being a journalist or a suspected spy. In that way, I consider myself pretty fortunate. The closest it ever came to that, though, took place at the Intercontinental one night in 1987. The details are still vivid in my mind.
I had arrived from Vienna that day and was too tired in the evening to go out and look for food. I figured, instead, I’d order room service and eat in. I called down to the reception desk to request my meal, and in a few minutes the bellboy wheeled my dinner in on a cart. I ate, read up on my meetings for the next day, and fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, the cart was gone.
That struck me as odd, but I figured the bellboy had returned at some point during the night and let himself in to retrieve it. I can’t remember if the door had a chain lock, but in any event I had neglected to lock it. I dressed for the day, grabbed my wallet from the table, and went downstairs to get breakfast. The breakfast was served from a buffet table, cafeteria-style. When I went to pay the cashier, I pulled out my wallet and glanced inside. It was completely empty. I’d been cleaned out.
Not only did I lose a few hundred dollars that night, the theft had thrown a serious monkey wrench into my work plans. There were no credit-card advances or ATMs at the time, and I was going to have to wait for Vienna to wire me some extra cash.
My trusty fixer, Arnold, arrived at the hotel shortly after all this happened and agreed to help me file a police report. The funny thing is, we didn’t have to leave the hotel to do this. The nearest “police station,” Arnold said, was located in the hotel basement (or along a corridor off the lobby; I can’t remember exactly). The officer on duty (or whoever he was) patiently typed out my report (on a manual typewriter that looked at least 40 years old) and earnestly told me they’d search high and low for the culprit. I'm pretty sure he promptly forgot all about it, and that he and Arnold enjoyed a good laugh together afterward.
I never did find out who took the money and, more importantly, why I was targeted on that trip. Some years later, it became a bit clearer when I heard that during the 1970s and '80s the Intercontinental served as an operational base for the Communist party in that section of the city. There was simply too much money floating around that place for the regime to pass up.
The police station I was taken to likely belonged to the party or to the intelligence services. Under such high-level scrutiny, it seems inconceivable in retrospect to think that a rogue bellboy could steal something. More likely, the authorities were simply tripping me up or telling me in their own way that I wasn’t welcome.
So, when I read that piece in "The Guardian" about how the Intercontinental had once hosted Carlos the Jackal and Abu Daoud, it didn’t surprise me a bit. I'd always known there was more than meets the eye to that place.