Monday, April 19, 2010

Czech-ing out Prague.

I left for Prague directly from the end-of-term bop.  I mean, we danced our little essay-less hearts out, I washed off my facepaint, and I was off with my REI backpack at 12:30 am on Sunday, March 14th. Annie and I had a bus to catch at the ungodly hour of 1 am, for the horrendous three-hour ride to the airport, all so we could sit and wait for our flight at 7:15.  With a fresh box of doner and chips in hand, I made my way to the High Street stop, only to run into Annie on Cornmarket Street.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To High Street?” I said. “Where are you going?”
“Our bus leaves from Gloucester Green, you dork,” she said.
Huge crisis averted there.

Managed to get a couple hours of sleep with my cheek smashed up against the cold bus window, and once we were on the plane I was out.  I wasn’t even conscious for takeoff.  Annie was fast asleep too, and we both woke up as they announced our descent into Prague.  Annie sat up fast, looking around her wildly. “Are we turning around?” she asked.
“What?” I said. “No, we’re getting to land.”
“Why aren’t we moving?” she asked, with more than a little note of hysteria in her voice. “Annie, we’re getting ready to land,” I said. “We’re moving. It’s fine.”

When we exited the airport, we caught a bus to the main part of the city… and we didn’t pay for a ticket.  We couldn’t figure out how or where, so we just didn’t.  Found out later that it could have caused us an 80 euro fine… another huge crisis we managed to escape, thankfully.

We got to the hostel without any problems, but our room wasn’t ready for hours.  We went to lunch at a sandwich shop called the Bageterie Boulevard, and the menu was only in Czech.  We ended up just pointing at pictures to indicated what we (thought we) wanted, and it turned out to be pretty good.  Weird, unidentifiable, but good.  With happy tummies, we wandered to the main train station, which is super creepy.  Probably a fantastic place for a murder mystery.  We had planned on buying our tickets to Salzburg, but there wasn’t a single ticket counter in sight, much less anyone who looked like they worked there.  To get back to Wenceslas Square we had to go through a serious of under-the-street tunnels that all smelled like pee.  We were convinced we were going to stumble upon a dead body and would be forced to call in Booth and Brennan.

Back at the hostel, our room still wasn’t ready.  Still feeling fuzzy-headed due to lack of sleep, we decided to kill time in the lobby by drinking tea, playing Phase 10, planning the days ahead, and using the free Internet.  Our room was finally ready around 4, and we got to settle in and freshen up.  We also got to meet our roommate—a middle-aged man from Turkey.  He will henceforth known as Turkish Delight.  He tried talking to us, but I think he spoke much less English than he thought, because after a sentence or two he just stood there smiling at us.

We set out wandering to orient ourselves and to kill some time before dinner.  We wound up at the river, near Charles Bridge, and got a beautiful view of the Castle.

Feeling a little more like we were in a foreign city, we went to our restaurant.  It was Rick-recommended, of course, and we were definitely the only tourists in the joint.  We had three courses and a drink for the equivalent of $15.  We started with Old Czech potato soup, which was broth-based and absolutely delicious.  For the main course, I had one of the house specials—a kind of beef stew (that they call goulash) served with bread-and-bacon dumplings.  Somehow we both had room for dessert—Scotch pancakes with jam, whipped cream, and cinnamon.  Everything was incredible, especially for such a good price.  We’ve really come to appreciate any kind of break from British prices.

We kept wandering as it got dark and found ourselves in Old Town Square, and between that and dinner, we finally, finally felt like we were in a foreign city—a really cool foreign city.

Back in the hostel, Annie showered while I wrote in my journal.  It was only 9:15, but Turkish Delight was laying on his bed sighing and groaning, like we were completely blocking him from going to bed.  But as soon as I got out of the shower and we both crawled in our beds at 9:45, put had his coat and hat on and left.  No idea what time he came back.  Such a weirdo.

After ten luscious hours of sleep, I felt like a new woman.  We got ready speedily and bought breakfast in Wenceslas Square before going to Old Town Square to meet our tour group.  Quick plug—if you’re doing a European adventure, I heartily recommend New Europe tours.  The guides work on a tips-only basis, so at the end of the tour, you just give them whatever you think it was worth—or whatever you can afford.  They’re well-trained and hilarious.  I’ve been on six of their tours (Edinburgh, Prague, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin), and enjoyed every single one.

Commercial over.  It snowed during our tour, but we still learned all about Prague’s freaking sweet history (look up the Prague Uprising, Jan Palach, the Velvet Revolution).

Post-tour we took a break in a pub and chatted with a couple Canadians, a guy and a girl, who were in our tour group.  He was clearly in love with her; she was clearly oblivious.  After regaining the feeling in our limbs (remember the snow?) we began the trek to Charles Bridge and the Castle neighborhood.  This part of town was gorgeous, but after climbing 207 stairs, we were disappointed to discover that all the Castle sights were closed.  We got to wander the giant complex, but we couldn’t go inside St. Vitus’ Cathedral.

To end Monday, I’ll provide an excerpt from my travel journal: "Wandered home to the hostel and found Turkish Delight laying in bed. Awkward. Used the computer, had tea, played a couple hands of Phase 10. Annie's in the shower now and I'm in the room alone with TD. Awkward."

And Tuesday begins: “More awkwardness with Turkish Delight this morning. Ick.”  It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re sleeping in a room with other people and they wake you up, you should pretend they didn’t, roll over, and go back to sleep.  But apparently, in Turkey it’s custom to prop yourself up on your elbow and intently watch the young women sharing your room get ready.

We spent the morning in the Museum of Communism.  It was powerful, but somehow managed to stay away from any kind of moralizing or judgment—just an honest representation of what Czech life under Communism was like.  We watched video footage of riots in Wenceslas Square, where we’d spent quite a bit of time.  It was surreal.

After a much-needed bacon cheeseburger and fries at Bohemia Bagel, we went into St. James’s Church.  It houses an old, shriveled, black arm, which was (according to legend) hacked off of a thief trying to steal jewels off the statue of Mary at the altar.  She grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let go until the priest had to lop it off with a sword.  The arm now hangs above the door as a warning…

We once again took the long trek back to the Castle and got to see St. Vitus’ Cathedral, which is just a stunning hunk of Gothic-ness.  The stain glass windows were unlike any I’ve seen before or since—and I like to think I know my way around a European cathedral now.  There are so many old things inside, too, like the tomb of the Hapsburg Emperor, a wood carving relief of Prague dating to 1630, and the tombs of St. James and King Wenceslas (yes, of Christmas carol fame).

For such a hike in the cold we rewarded ourselves with more hot chocolate, and then went on the hunt for Lennon’s wall.  During the Communist era, this giant wall became a place for the oppressed public to release some of their emotions graffiti-style.  Each day, they would paint Beatles lyrics, peace signs, and messages of hope, and each night, the Communist police would whitewash the wall.  The cycle went on for years.  Now, it’s chock full of brilliant colors making up all the famous lyrics you can think of, and half a dozen portraits of John Lennon.

We started walking back to the other side of the bridge, and made it to Old Town Square just in time to see the Astrological Clock go off.  Dating back to the early 15th century, the clock’s technology was so advanced that the Prague government blinded the creator so he couldn’t build a similar clock for any other city.  In retaliation, the clockmaker had a friend take him up into the tower, where he felt around and yanked out a small but vital piece of the clock.  It stopped, and since he was the only one who could fix it, the clock was out of commission for over 100 years before someone else could figure it out.

By this time, we were completely exhausted from so much walking, so we took a break in the hostel before going to dinner.  We ate at a place called The Rope-Maker’s Wife, but in Czech, which has a legend involving a jealous rope-maker and his unfaithful wife, naturally.  Apparently, touching her portrait brings good luck to one’s love life, but we forgot to touch it.  There go our shots at happiness.  Dinner was fantastic, though, and cheap!  Eastern Europe is really the place to go when you’re on a budget.

Or in my opinion, the place to go, period.

Pictures here.

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