The secret (sordid) past of an iconic Prague hotel

Room Service at the 'Interconti'

The brooding front facade of the Intercontinental Hotel, as seen from the river side. Photo from 2017 by Mark Baker.
The hotel's seal, with its blocky Communist design, appears unchanged from the 1980s. Photo by Mark Baker.

Back in the 1980s, shortly after I left college and long before I started travel writing, I worked as a journalist 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 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 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 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 or 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 of 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 service, the Státní bezpečnost (StB), was convinced we were a front for 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 was accompanied by a Czech fixer and translator named "Arnold." He was later revealed to be a high-ranking StB informant in a report published by Prague’s Office of Military History. (I wrote about Arnold in a separate post here.)

The author, pictured here in Vienna sometimes in the late-1980s. What could the StB have been thinking? I didn't exactly have the look of a seasoned American spy. Photo by Delia Meth-Cohn.
The Intercontinental lobby bar was usually filled in the evening with female "law students" relaxing after a tough day of classes. Photo by Mark Baker.
The hotel's ungainly architecture has always been a difficult fit in such a beautiful part of town. Photo by Mark Baker.
Prague's law faculty, across the street from the hotel, once allegedly supplied the Intercontinental's bar talent. The school is still there. Photo by Mark Baker.

Getting back to the issue of accommodation. There was 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. 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 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 dozens or so trips to Prague from 1987 to 1989, I was restricted to staying in one of just three hotels: the Esplanade, the Ambassador, and the Intercontinental (see map plot, below). I've posted photos of both the Esplanade and Ambassador here as well.

Of the three, 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 associate with a period of harsh Communist rule called “normalization,” clashed with the more-harmonious Art Nouveau style of the surrounding 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 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.

Prince Charles would call it a carbuncle.

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, 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. I still occasionally use the hotel gym in the basement. 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 pushed out about their societies, you’d be forgiven for thinking social ills like crime and prostitution had been forever banished to the dustbin of history. 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 lobby bar. It was always loud and the air heavy with knock-off perfume and smoke from imported Marlboros.

It was a cheapened, hyper-consumerized Eastern European vision of what life in the West must be like for people forbidden to travel outside the Communist bloc. Dollars and deutschemarks were the currencies of the realm. There was even a “Tuzex” hard-currency shop in the lobby that sold perfumes, jeans, cigarettes and booze, but only if you paid in foreign currency.

It was difficult for me 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 cash on the side, or whether they were operating undercover for the intelligence services and trying to trap businessmen into compromising 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 “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?

The five-star Esplanade, across a park from the main train station, was the most expensive hotel in the city during the mid-1980s. It was small and perfect for surveillance. I stayed there on two or three occasions. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Ambassador Hotel, after the Intercontinental, was the place the regime most liked to put me for the night. It was sleazy in those days and a step down in prestige, but I preferred the architecture and central location. Photo from November 1989 by Mark Baker.

In all of my trips to Communist Czechoslovakia, I was never physically harassed or harmed for being a journalist or a suspected spy. In that way, I consider myself 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 monkey wrench into my work plans. There were no credit-card advances or ATMs at that 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 never had 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 to be 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 had 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, in retrospect it seems inconceivable to think 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.

Over the years, I stayed in lots of these state-run, Communist-era hotels, and wrote about these wacky demi-worlds in a separate blog post here.


  1. Shortly after this post went live, I heard from Lukas Kucera, of the InterContinental Hotels Group in Berlin. Lukas used to work at Prague’s Socialist-Realist “Hotel International” and once took me on a tour of that strange hotel. His comment on my Intercontinental post here below is informed — not just because he now works for the InterContinental group, but because his mother was an employee of the Intercontinental Prague in the 1980s. He wrote:

    “My mother could tell you so many funny or less funny things about her job times in the IC. Fortunately, there were also people like Dave Gahan (of the band ‘Depeche Mode’) and others coming in late 1980s. I just didn’t know there was a police station inside?”

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker