After departing Berlin, I headed south through central Europe by train. Not really having much of a plan other than knowing I needed to be in Budapest on the 28th, I decided to spend two nights each in Prague, Vienna and Bratislava. What happens when you fly by the seat of your pants is that not surprisingly you arrive in places that you know absolutely nothing about.
Such was my arrival in Prague, or as the locals call it “Praha”. I was immediately astonished to see the price of drinks at the train station. I had heard that Prague wasn’t exactly the cheap destination it was fifteen years ago, but looking at the numbers on the board was giving me flashbacks to Copenhagen (which I will swear to anyone who will listen is the most expensive city in Europe). It was only when I got a closer look at the vendor’s price board that I noticed that it wasn’t in Euro at all. Thank goodness for that. I’ve spent a bit on things through my travels but I had no interest in anything that cost 35 euro, especially if I would just drink it right away. No, I found out that the Czechs still used their own currency (the koruna or crown). Finding the local bureau de change, I could make the conversion to Canadian dollars. $1 = 17k. Well, that was helpful. Apparently those drinks cost two dollars. Simple enough. I just hadn’t planned to have to learn a new currency until I got to Hungary, so this was a bit of a surprise (like I said, I really didn’t plan this leg of the trip too much).
As I stood in line at the bureau de change, someone offering a better deal on the exchange approached me. I wasn’t in the mood to negotiate with random people and ignored the comment about the commission. Sure enough, the bureau took its cut (which is common at train stations), but if I had waited until I was in central Prague, I could have exchanged for 0%. Little lessons you learn. C’est la vie. Or, as the Czechs might say: “to je život” (assuming Google translate didn’t mangle that up).
Now the only reason I bring up the random person approaching me is that at that point, roughly six minutes and 300m from exiting my train they were probably the fourth person to approach me. I’ve got a big backpack covered in patches of countries I’ve visited so I look very much the tourist. In fact, I was hopping off the train at the platform when I almost nearly knocked a poor woman over. I don’t know any Czech so I quickly spat out “sorry” in German and English (because as you might already know, we Canadians have a habit of apologising for bumping into other people, even if it’s not our fault). The woman looked at me with alert eyes and in perfect English asked me if I had accommodations. I had barely left the train! I said yes, I did, and she wandered further down the platform. What a strange occurrence, I thought. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. Now, in between that and getting to the bureau de change it happened a couple more times, only by random looking dudes. It was only after I had got my Czech money that I saw each of the people who had spoken to me, gathered together, talking to each other in a group. They had accommodations and money, all right. So strange. Later in my stay in Prague I heard from other travellers who had met people who had gone and stayed with that type of random arrangement, not understanding the exchange rate, and ended up spending $300/night to sleep in a guest bedroom! There was none of that for me. I’m all about finding the best bang for my buck, or crash for my cash, or something. I can’t find anything clever with koruna.
I stayed at a really interesting hostel (St. Christopher’s Inn at the Mosaic House), which was as high tech and eco-friendly a place as I had ever seen. It was practically brand new and had some wild features, such as rooms that regulate their temperature automatically based on body heat (which makes things awkward when you walk in on a couple, um, occupying a single bunk with the privacy curtain closed – which was the first thing I did upon arriving). The hostel was so much like a hotel, that it was filled with atypical hostellers – plenty of people in their forties and fifties (and the fellow in the bunk above me could definitely have been a university student during the Prague Spring of 1968). I even had an RFID pass card for my room, adding to the swank hotel vibe.
[Side note: when I went backpacking five years ago, most hostels were very much still youth hostels and had age limits. Some had minimum ages, from 16 or 18 or 21 and up. There were often commonly maximum age limits, up to 26 or 30, for example. This seems to have largely gone out of practice and most (though not all) hostels now seem to be generally open to all. As I’m now 26, I can see the pros to that… It also seems to me that hostels fill the price point that discount hotels used to occupy which have gone up in price.]
But you don’t want to hear about my accommodations. You want to hear about Prague. I actually think you want to see Prague. Because, and this is no exaggeration, when I arrived in Prague I saw the prettiest city I’ve ever seen before (and I’ve seen a few). I spent my first afternoon wandering around, soaking in the architecture, the river, the hillside parks, and just generally enjoying the city. I felt a bit ashamed that I didn’t know anything about the place, but if first impressions are key, then Praha made a fantastic first impression.
That evening I met up with a friend from university that I hadn’t seen in years and their partner whom I had never met. We went out to dinner and had a traditional Czech meal. It was actually the first restaurant that I had really splurged on during my trip (trying to do this on the cheap), but I figured catching up with a friend was a great excuse. My meal was stuffed duck medallions, with cabbage and dumplings. It was delicious! A general rule for me at restaurants is that I try to get things that I wouldn’t normally make at home (it’s easier to forget the price). Well, I certainly have never made stuffed duck. To wash it down, we were drinking 1L glass mugs of Gambrinus beer. It should be said that 1L is a lot of beer. It should be said. It wasn’t. In fact, I remember having more than one. Also delicious.
Three in the morning in Prague and everything is still buzzing. It was the Anti-Hamburg as far as I was concerned. The bar inside the hostel had long been closed and the group of us had been sent out to the front of the building to drink. A convenience store across the street was still open and the shopkeeper was very friendly. I had made acquaintances with another Canadian and it was just so nice to chat endlessly about bullshit and life and philosophy and art and hockey. We were drunk, what more could you want from me?
Hangovers seem to hurt more in foreign countries.
The spread of the all you can eat breakfast was pretty decent and I tried to eat whatever I could that would soak up the suffering that was going on in my throbbing skull. Just as I was about to grab seconds, a very cheery Englishman wearing a straw hat and a red t-shirt came bouncing through the room asking if anyone was coming on the free tour. I looked at the clock and saw that it was nearly 10:30, which rang a bell with me as my friends had mentioned something last night about a free walking tour in the morning. I decided to roll with it, and finished my breakfast. Hardly all I could eat, but I was impressed with myself for getting up at all. You’re welcome, Prague. I guess I will see you.
The three-hour walking tour was a fantastic way to make the most of my short time in the city. For anyone who is travelling through Europe I highly recommend Sandeman’s New Europe walking tours (apparently they are in a bunch of cities). I really didn’t know much about Prague or the Czech Republic and I left that tour feeling like our guide had crammed as much information in an entertaining way as possible into my brain. The best part is that the tour is free and then you tip your guide what you rate their “performance” to be. I found the thing so good that I couldn’t help but leave a good tip (not understanding the Czech currency also played a part). The midway stop for lunch was also welcome as I could grab a sandwich, drink some water and, of course, enjoy a beer (best way to cure a hangover?). I learned about the founding of the city, the various religious sects that had/have occupied it, all the Czech ingenuity (microwave ovens, anyone?), and Mozart’s love for the city (he felt that Prague “got him”). Of course, it wouldn’t be a tour of Prague without a mention of Franz Kafka, who goes down in history as an unsuccessful writer at the time of his death, and a great success afterwards. All due to his friend disobeying his wish to burn his writing after he dies. What an awful friend.
But the biggest part of the tour is the political history of the 20th century. Seeing places where the Nazis came in, where the city fought back at the end of the war, where the Soviets showed up to “liberate” (after the Nazis had left), where a student had self-immolated in protest to the Soviet rule in 1969, it was all very, very powerful. It was interesting to hear the perspective that to Czechs the Second World War didn’t end for them until 1989, as they didn’t gain their freedom until then.
Prague has a lot of absinthe shops. Bad idea.