Lost in the mist of time: Prague, a smoker’s haven

smokingIt’s hard to believe that the UK has been smoke-free for less than four years. For much of my adult life I longed for the day when I could enjoy a meal in a restaurant without having my senses of taste and smell overpowered by someone lighting up at a neighbouring table. Once the ban came into force it took no time at all to take this new liberty for granted.

So it is perhaps a wise move from time to time to venture into certain parts of the world where smoking is still permitted in indoor public spaces, if for no other reason that to remind ourselves how the old order really was.

Prague is a great example. We stepped into several cafes during our recent weekend in the city and were taken back instantly to the murky past of pre-2007 Britain. In most places we entered you would find at least one smoker per table. We found no segregation of smoking and non-smoking tables. I was reminded of the wise words of a waitress at one of our favourite Chinese restaurants when we lived in the north-east of England: “You want no-smoking table? Then don’t smoke. It’s non-smoking table.”

In one particularly lively Prague bar where we fancied a meal, we were shown to the room in the basement. The smell hit us before we entered and as we stood briefly by the door the visibility across the room was similar to that of a foggy December morning. We were out of there in a flash. Although the atmosphere appeared lively I could no more enjoy eating a meal in such a place than having a picnic inside a sewerage farm. In the end we ate in a place devoid of that convivial buzz but where we could at least taste the food we ate.

When we got home we indulged in another ritual that disappeared with the advent of smoke-free Britain. Every item of clothing, however little it was used, was immediately thrown into the laundry pile in order to rid it of the stench of another person’s pleasure. I was reminded of the concept of choosing to wear an old shirt for a night out ‘as it had to go in the wash anyway’.

It now seems quite archaic that a state will permit smoking in public when so much of the world appears to have accepted the argument against it. Some countries (the Czech Republic is a prime example) are still grappling with the demands of the anti-smoking lobby and the competing arguments of those businesses that fear losing money as a result of such a ban. We can judge the relative power of influence of each side within any national or state government by their current smoking laws.

For now the smokers of Britain, Italy and elsewhere will head to these European outposts of cigarette tolerance and enjoy the chance to light up freely with a beer or coffee. As for the rest of us, a brief return to a misty tobacco-filled bar can remind us just how much a single piece of legislation changed our own social environment for ever.

Disclosure: I was invited for my weekend in Prague (along with my wife) by bmibaby and Birmingham Airport.


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Freelance travel writer

8 Responses to “Lost in the mist of time: Prague, a smoker’s haven”

  1. Hi, we posted a while back on our blog some detailed info on the smoking laws in Prague, essentially it’s voluntary – establishments choose whether they’re smoking or non-smoking and that has to be made clear at the entrance.

    March 7, 2011 at 10:46 am
  2. I couldn’t agree more, I really enjoyed the smoke-free years in London. I can barely breathe when someone smokes beside me, let alone eat.
    When I went to Spain, I entered a small shop and even the sales assistant was smoking while talking to me!

    March 7, 2011 at 10:48 am
  3. steve #

    Ah, but if you were a smoker you could have enjoyed the convivial restaurant in Prague, the meal – and the cigarette afterwards. I’ve now packed in but it has been a pleasant throwback in the past four years visiting Krakow or Belgrade and having a beer/coffee in old brown bars steeped in centuries of smoking. Or just being in a village bar in Spain with the windows wide open in summer – there they had a table and chair attached halfway up the wall “for the non-smoker.”

    March 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm
  4. Thanks for the comments. Never been a smoker Steve, but do concede that my many Eastern European moments of nostalgia inevitably involve smoke-filled rooms, so it can’t be all bad. It used to be a part of the world where industrial and chemical pollution was so bad that a bit of nicotine was hardly worth worrying about.
    Charlie, thanks for the useful link about the current Czech laws. My initial suspicion is that a voluntary law is little more than a government cop-out in the face of powerful pro-smoking forces. But as a resident perhaps you’ve found a real change since the law changed?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm
  5. Thees #

    Well, you don’t have to travel that far: the new government in the Netherlands has easened the ban on smoking in small pubs. As a owner you can decide to allow smoking in your bar, as long as you don’t have any employees. My experience now is that the mayority of bars and restaurants stay smoke free because, as you describe, people really like to have dinner without having to wash their clothes afterwards. But the smokers know where to go now, you can find bars everywhere which allow (mostly after the kitchen closes, around 9/10pm) their customers to have a smoke with their beer.

    March 7, 2011 at 10:22 pm
  6. steve #

    HI Thees – yes, a smoke with a late beer is what we came across in the Aosta Valley, Italy in January, as long as the other guests have gone and you know the owner. Seems a fair compromise.

    March 8, 2011 at 12:19 pm
  7. Nice write up. There’s a petition campaign running about this at the moment – see this Prague Post article I wrote for more details: http://www.praguepost.com/news/7561-petition-pushes-for-czech-smoking-ban.html. Speaking in a personal capacity p.s., I couldn’t agree more with the above!

    March 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm
  8. The smoking ban lasted a whole year in Croatia. It’s was a delightful year of clean clothes, long meals, and zero migraines.

    March 13, 2011 at 8:53 am