It’s hard to think of something less original for tourists to do than a city tour. However, there is a beauty in seeing a foreign place through the eyes of a local. Especially if this local happens to be a homeless person living in the streets of the city. This sounds a bit more authentic, doesn’t it? A social enterprise run by a group of university students in Prague started a project called Pragulic, which “employs” selected homeless people as guides.
Men and women chosen by Pragulic go through a training during which they choose a location that they have ties to and prepare an original tour in this area. For these people, guiding is a form of therapy and a way to earn some money at the same time.
As the streets around the Hradcany neighborhood were getting dark, empty and quiet, I met my tour guide Pepa (for all you non-Czechs out there, Pepa is the nickname for Josef). Pepa wasn’t always homeless, he was born in a small house on Neruda st., a sloping cobblestone street below the castle, jammed with waves of tourists during the day who wander, all day, up to the castle and down. Now it was empty and quiet and Pepa stopped to show us the house in which he was born.
“We used to sledge up and down this road when we were kids. There were no cars allowed here then,” he told us. (Or, rather, our translator told us; Pepa doesn’t speak English.) I could almost picture it, the streets covered in snow, the air filled with sounds of children whooping as they raced down the hill. Pepa said he used to miss it, the flat he lived in as a child, but not anymore. He’s moved on, he said.
While Pepa did point out some historically significant sites, the tour was more focused on seeing the neighborhood and city from a non-touristic point of view. We were shown a couple of parks that are good for sleeping. They were serene places by night. And I’ll admit, I wondered if it might sometimes be nice to sleep in a lovely green park, quiet but for the singing of crickets. It was a beautiful night though, clear, warm, and quiet; sleeping on a hard, rain-sodden wooden bench during the many cold, wet nights this city has loses its appeal. I suddenly felt very lucky to have a place to go home to with a roof and heat and soft cotton sheets.
The tour ended on Kampa by the Charles Bridge. A band was playing outside one of the many restaurants on Kampa and tourists sat on the terraces listening and drinking their overpriced beers. The contrast wasn’t lost on me; experiencing the city from point of view of a homeless person was certainly a perspective changing experience. I walked home thinking about this unique experience and how Travelovers will appreciate this look at the city through the eyes of a homeless man, who was born on what is now one of the most famous and expensive streets in Prague.