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Prague, Czech Republic Feb 17, 2003
Rating :

Prague Czech Republic
Feb 17, 2003

Pros: Food is extremely good and, more importantly, very cheap, great tour guides
Cons: taxi touts, the people were not the friendliest folk we had ever encountered

DAY 39 SAT Our luggage seemed to have grown heavier since yesterday. We dragged our bags down the street to reception, paid our bill and hailed a black cab. The helpful driver suggested that it would be better to go to Hyde Park Station rather than Victoria so that we wouldn’t have to change trains. Things became a bit difficult when we discovered that he didn’t have change for a twenty-pound note. I thought he was trying to pull the I-don’t-have-change-for-a-twenty-pound-note-so-you-better-let-me-keep-the-change trick, but he was being truthful. He was about to go into a nearby hotel to get change when a man waiting at a nearby bus stop volunteered a to exchange our note for notes of a smaller denomination. Catching the train at Hyde Park didn’t do us any good as our train developed engine trouble and we had to change anyway.

Heathrow was in chaos. Most of the half million people leaving London over the Jubilee weekend were taking a plane and the queues were extremely long and slow moving. After an hour of queuing we were able to get rid of our bags and relax with a couple of beers. Our flight to the Czech Republic was quite swift and we were most impressed with British Airways’ comfortable seats. Getting out of Prague Airport was a lot easier than escaping from London had been. We ignored the taxi touts and took a minibus to the Salvator, our hotel in the middle of the city. Whilst not exactly five star it was a vast improvement on our London hotel. No tea and coffee making facilities, mind you.

I was too exhausted to hit the streets, but Margaret was rearing to go. We had dinner at the El Boco, the hotel’s own restaurant. The meal was very satisfying and, more importantly, much cheaper than it would have been in England or Czech Republic. A pint of beer, which would have cost five or six dollars in England, was a bargain at a little over a dollar. An unexpected bonus was that all our dinners at El Boco came with one free drink each. The prospect of saving more than two dollars every night was a real morale lifter, though after pork neck and an enormous mug of pilsener I could barely hobble from the restaurant.

At around nine we returned to our cosy room and watched the Queen’s Jubilee Classical Live Music night live on Czech TV. It would have been slightly more enjoyable if the Czech narrator hadn’t drowned out Michael Parkinson’s emceeing with an unintelligible voice-over.

DAY 40 SUN Months before leaving home I had booked a four hour, personally guided tour of the city to provide us with an overview of the available attractions so that we could explore them with greater care over the following week. At precisely 10am our guide, Shaka, led us under the Powder Gate, past the top of Wenceslaus Square, through the Old Town and across Charles Bridge. A long walk up a steep hill took us to the famed Prague Castle, through its grounds and into St Vitus Cathedral. We returned to the Old Town via a different hill and a different bridge and spent some time exploring the Jewish Quarter.

Shaka didn’t stop talking for more than a few seconds at a time and seemed to know the history and architectural style of every building in the city. Most of her information was directed at Margaret, possibly because my eyes would occasionally glaze over with information overload. We certainly learned (and forgot) an awful lot of stuff we would never have learned (and forgotten) had she not been with us and gained a feel for Prague which made our unaccompanied expeditions a lot less difficult.

The concentration of beautiful and historic buildings in Prague more than matched any of the cities we had visited to date. I must confess that I still found London and Paris more exciting, if only because I was more familiar with their respective histories. Neither of those cities had anything which quite matched the clock in the Old Town Hall. Every hour, on the hour, the clock came alive to the delight of the large crowds which assembled beneath it. The twelve apostles popped out of one little door and glided into another while a skeleton nearby banged a drum. In the Jewish Quarter we saw a Hebrew clock which, to our surprise, ran anti-clockwise.

DAY 41 MON What a day! We had thought we were tired yesterday but after today we were totally exhausted. Little did we know when we walked out the door in the morning that our second day in Prague would bring my first embarrassing trauma of the holiday.
Charles Bridge was teeming with people by the time we reached it at 10am. Tourists everywhere. We appeared to be the only non-tourists in Prague, other than the waiters and stall holders who serviced the alien hordes. For a short time we followed a tour around Mala Strana recommended by our guidebook. One of the highlights of the tour was the Kaiserstejnsky Pala, with its interesting memorial plaque announcing that the world famous opera singer Ema Destinova once lived within its walls. Never heard of her.

Once over the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) we walked down to Maltese Square and crossed a little bridge to the island of Kampa. This had been the Haight-Ashbury of Prague in the last decade of Communist rule. We searched in vain for the John Lennon mural described in our guidebook, though we did find a long wall adorned with colourful graffiti and the occasional John Lennon tribute. After a beer, strudel and toilet at a café by the riverside we boarded a large cruise boat for a fifty-minute sail down the Vitava. This was a most relaxing way of seeing the fancy buildings along the river but didn’t really compare with our cruise down the Seine.

As we slid silently down the river we sipped more beer. By the time we were approaching the end of the voyage I was ready for yet another visit to the WC. The ‘head’ as I believe it is called in nautical circles, was tiny and claustrophobic. After I had completed my business I attempted to unlock the door and return to the deck. The door wouldn’t open! I was trapped in the tiny cubicle frantically turning the knob. A gruff, indeed guttural voice demanded that I open the door at vonce! I couldn’t obey. Just as I had resigned myself to the ignominy of being freed by a crewmember with a crowbar, the door sprung open. A beefy, neckless Hun wearing lederhausen was waiting on the other side and abused me in terms which strongly suggested that he thought me an imbecile. “You don’t have locks in your house?” he queried incredulously. He then demonstrated how easy it was to unlock a toilet door. Turn once in a clockwise direction, once anti-clockwise, pause, then turn anti-clockwise again. Needless to say Margaret experienced no such difficulties in exiting the ladies’ lavatory.

I spent the rest of the afternoon formulating brilliantly scathing replies while we inspected the Church of St Nicholas and the Tyn Church. Both were pretty darn gaudy, especially the latter. From the top of the Old Town Hall tower we had magnificent views over all four quadrants of the city. I restrained myself from spitting over the balustrade on the ant-like tourists below and instead dropped a small stone. I wondered how the ambulance managed to squeeze through those narrow cobbled streets.

Enough of sightseeing! Wenceslaus Square and its boulevard of shops awaited us. I found a music store and bought a few items whilst Margaret minutely examined a shoe and handbag shop without buying anything. With the day almost done we hastened back to the hotel to indulge in yet more beer and wine and so much pasta that we both retired groaning with gluttonous repletion.

DAY 42 TUE Wenceslaus Square. We had barely scratched the surface yesterday. Jewelry shops, handbag shops, dress shops, every type of shop a man could possibly want. An extremely large rectangle rather than a square, Wenceslaus Square was jammed with tourists. At the far end we took photos of a small memorial to students killed during the uprising of 1968 as well as the National Museum. We didn’t enter the latter as we weren’t sure whether or not it was free and, in any case, it would just be full of old stuff.

Back in London we had decided to buy a third bag. At first the only luggage shop we could find in Prague was a branch of Samsonite. Assuming that we wouldn’t find any other bags in the city we promised the staff that we would return later in the day to purchase a large and solid suitcase costing two hundred and fifty dollars. We were only a hundred yards down Wenceslaus Square when we spotted a sandwich board advertising suitcases . This story is a bit boring so I’ll wind it up by revealing that we found a much cheaper bag and didn’t return to the Samsonite shop. Perhaps as a divine punishment for our lie to the Samsonites we found that we couldn’t buy the cheaper bag that day as there was a blackout and the register didn’t work.

Just off the square was a street market packed with good stuff. Fruit and vegetables were astonishingly cheap (e.g. a kilo of strawberries for forty cents) but we were more interested in other things, many of which we bought . St Jacob’s basilica was another very ornate but beautiful baroque church with plenty of gilt statues and bright paintings. Hanging from a wall was a shriveled arm belonging to a fourteenth century thief who had tried to prise the jewels from a statue of the BVM. According to legend, Our Lady came to life, seized the thief and ripped his arm off.

Later in the day we bought tickets to a classical concert at St Martin’s In The Wall. featuring a string quartet. With time on our hands we sat in a nearby square and drank rather revolting fizzy mineral water. Entertainment was provided by a group of Czech homeboys who shouted abuse at a young homegirl and brandished switchblades. On the steps opposite a young man sat smoking a pipe and flashing me the occasional furtive glance. I think that he was seething with resentment at not being the only person in Prague who smoked a pipe. Shortly afterward there followed yet another traumatic toilet incident.

As is my custom before any major event, I visited a nearby gentleman’s convenience to prepare myself for the concert. I was delighted to find that there was no attendant waiting at the bottom of the steps to take my penny money. Whilst performing the act I heard a female voice coming from a room nearby but took little notice. I was half way up the steps when a very large woman appeared behind me and yelled something very loudly and insistently. I knew right away that her tirade translated to a demand that I run down the steps and pay her four crowns. I obeyed, of course, but on my way back up the steps I turned around, walked back down and said loudly (though inaudibly, I secretly hoped) “thank you”. I should have told her that she was a rude, large woman whose bad manners were a disgrace to her country. It wasn’t worth the risk; she might have heard me.

The concert in the church was a most enjoyable, uplifting and culturally enriching experience. We were part of a rather ragtag audience of tourists, many of whom (myself included) were dressed more for a Rolling Stones concert than a performance by a string quartet. Margaret and I were a little worried by the American across the aisle clutching an enormous box of popcorn. Surely he wasn’t going to munch them during the performance? The lead violinist was excellent and didn’t make a single mistake. The program included several different versions of Ave Maria as well as the theme from the Elizabeth Taylor movie A Little Night Music by Mozart. The quartet gave two encores, one of which was a repetition of one of their earlier numbers in which the second violinist had struck a few bum notes.

Back in our room we watched the finale of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations on CNN. After a late dinner we walked down the street, through the brilliantly lit Old Town Square and down to Charles Bridge which was bathed in blue and white light and looked even more impressive than it did in the daylight. We had arrived at the perfect time as the darkening sky reflected atmospherically on the rippling waters of the Vitava River and framed the magnificence of the gold-lit Prague Castle. There seemed to be as many people strolling about at 10pm as there were during the day. Once again we strolled from one end of the bridge to the other and back again, pausing every so often to gaze at the lights of the city.

On our way back we sat in an outdoors restaurant in the Old Town Square and drank coffee. The myriad restaurants in Prague (especially those in the OTS) must make a fortune as they never seem to close and are usually packed. The process of ordering, drinking and paying for a couple of cups of coffee took an eternity. One first had to attract the attention of a harried waiter, then wait for an awfully long time for the beverage to arrive and, finally, wait an even longer time for the waiter to bring the bill. Of the forty-five minutes we spent at the restaurant a mere fifteen were spent drinking the less-than-steaming-hot coffee. By the time we collapsed into bed it was almost midnight.

DAY 43 WED First thing this morning I left Margaret in bed and went downstairs to get some coffee to bring back to our room. While I was waiting for the lift a hotel employee approached, waved her finger at me and said something that sounded like “Nenski!”. I translated this to mean that the taking of coffee to one’s room was strictly forbidden. Last night , sleepless at 1am, I had decided that the next time an Eastern European woman harangued me I would pull out my driver’s licence and bark “Name?” At 1.05 I discarded this plan as I realised that a KGB officer wouldn’t bark in English.

This morning we walked down to Josephus, Prague’s Jewish quarter, where we were finally able to buy David his unusual present, a Golem. The Golem was a creature made from clay by a rabbi to defend the Jewish people from bad guys and rid the city of crime. As always happens when man meddles with nature, the Golem went berserk and had to be de-activated. The Old-New Synagogue was not terribly interesting; no gilt statues or crucifixes (much to my surprise). I had to wear a plastic disposable skullcap which was supposed to be returned at the exit but which I kept as a souvenir. I justified my theft on the grounds that $20 was a steep price to pay to view a bare, one-roomed, statueless church.

We paid even more for tickets to visit the famous old cemetery. Much to our chagrin we found that these tickets also entitled us to visit the Old-New Synagogue! To add insult to injury, the WC cost us fifty cents each (much more than other public toilets). Before entering the cemetery we walked through two floors of a building whose walls listed the names, birth dates and dates of extermination of thousands of Prague Jews during the war. Very sobering. We wondered how the German tourists felt. Another room contained drawings by Jewish children done while they were imprisoned in various concentration camps. Alongside this memorial was the cemetery which, for many centuries, was the only place in Prague where Jews could be buried. Though there are several hundred tombstones packed together, there are many thousands of people buried in the little graveyard. It was forbidden to take photos so Margaret had to wait until we were alone before getting a shot.

Our tickets allowed us entrance to another four synagogues but we had had enough. On the other side of the Charles Bridge we visited the church containing the well-known Infant of Prague. I still don't know the story behind the statue, though it must be inspiring as there were a myriad of the faithful praying to it. The souvenir shop attached to the church carried a wide selection of Infant of Prague statues (though nothing else) and Margaret was able to purchase one off the less gaudy examples.

A crepe and beer at a small café did little to re-energize us for our walk up the hundred of steps to Prague Castle. I was feeling a lot less worn out than I had earlier in the week, but Margaret (whose vim and vigor up to now had made me feel old) was just about at the end of her resources. At the entrance to the castle two young sentries failed to keep straight faces while surrounded by a bevy of pretty girls posing for photos. Had they been Coldstream Guards they would have on a charge.

We explored St Vitus Cathedral for the second time but had become a blasé about houses of worship and didn’t bother to pay the extra money required to enter the inner sanctum. We were reasonably happy to pay a small fee to walk down the Golden Lane, even though it was composed essentially of tourist shops. Franz Kafka lived for a little while at Number 22 but this was no big deal as he seemed to have lived in a lot of places in Prague, all of which are now outlets for the same Kafka t-shirts.

On our way back to the river we entered another church, possibly the most ornate to date. The pink and gold marble pulpit (baroque, I believe) won our vote as the most outrageously glitzy pulpit we had ever seen. Even more fascinating, in my view at least, was the graffiti carved into the balustrade on the balcony overlooking the altar. Over the centuries vandals with names like Ivan and Heinrich had carved their names into the stone above the dates of their desecration. I even imagined that I could discern the name of my childhood friend, Whistlo Lugoski, though I don’t believe he was alive in 1416.

Margaret barely survived the long, long walk back to the hotel. After a cup of coffee I left her to rest and strode off jauntily to Wenceslaus Square to buy our third suitcase. Much to my surprise I didn’t get lost amongst the maze-like streets of Prague.

DAY 44 THU After so many days wandering around the relatively limited confines of the old city of Prague we had just about run out of things to do. For a while we lay on our beds and read. We could only stay idle for so long, however, and soon found ourselves walking down the street again. The warm, sunny days we had enjoyed up to now had finally passed and heavy clouds hung over cobblestones made shiny by continuous light rain. For the first time we left the tourist-infested streets of Old Prague and ventured into New Prague, a part of the city totally devoid of tourists. Gone were the beautiful buildings and churches and students hawking concert tickets. Ordinary Czech Republicans, the ones you never saw in the Old Town Square, hustled down the grimy streets and stared into the windows of shops selling sandshoes or saucepans.

Having seen everything Prague had to offer we decided to catch a bus out of town and into the countryside. None of the bus drivers at the huge terminus had any idea of which bus would take us to the places we wanted to visit so we joined a long, slow moving queue at the information window. When she finally made it to the front of the queue Margaret learned that the next bus to Kutna Hora left in fifty-five minutes. We quickly realised that if we caught that bus we would have to turn around and come straight back as the last bus back to Prague left Kutna Hora in a couple of hours. We agreed to come back the next morning.

Our experiences over the last six days led us to believe that the people of Prague were not the friendliest folk we had ever encountered. Sure, there were exceptions (most of whom were waiters) but people in the street tended to ignore one another and shopkeepers were often rude. I can state with some authority that WC attendants are always rather unpleasant, especially when one forgets to pay.

Food in Prague is extremely good and, more importantly, very cheap. An average dinner (of very fancy tucker) costs the two of us about fifteen dollars. In England that wouldn’t have paid for a single plate of chips.

Late in the evening Margaret dressed up in her new Irish evening wear and set off by herself for an evening of Dvorak at the Rudolforium. I was too tired and uncultured to be tempted, even by the Prague Symphony, and elected to stay in our room and read. Eventually I roused myself and headed off towards Wenceslaus Square. I followed my much-vaunted directional instincts and ended up walking through seedy and almost deserted side streets until I stumbled upon the National Museum at the far end of the square. My goal for the evening was to find another music megastore which was supposedly in a street which ran off Wenceslaus Square. I was reasonably certain that the shop would be closed, but at least I had an objective. I never found it.

On my way back an elderly lady of about my age stopped me and asked for the time. I showed her my watch and made to move on but she lightly tapped my arm an muttered “momento”. The street was empty and it occurred to me that this lady was either a most unattractive woman of pleasure or else part of a gang which mugged lone tourists. I smiled and departed with what I hoped was seemly haste. For the first time I found myself lost. I walked up and down many streets looking for landmarks but for a long time the only one I found was an enormous railway station that I’d never heard of . I wasn’t worried because I knew that if I walked for long enough I’d run into something familiar. The something familiar I eventually encountered was the Powder Tower, though I walked beneath its arches twice before recognizing it.

Margaret didn’t walk into the room until eleven, five minutes before I would have decided to go looking for her. She had had a wonderful time and been deeply moved by Dvorak’s tunes, though the acoustics in the Rudolforium left something to be desired. Much to my chagrin, she managed to walk right down to the end of town and back without getting lost.

DAY 45 FRI At 7am the alarm clock woke us for our train trip to Kutna Hora. The sky was dark and it was raining heavily so we turned off the alarm and went back to sleep. By the time we woke again it was 10am and we had missed breakfast. We lay around for a long time reading before making that old familiar journey down to Charles Bridge. Margaret had found one of the few places we hadn’t yet visited and it was even further away and higher up than the castle. The long walk up the steep hill would have been fatal for lesser mortals. We had unknowingly taken a back way and were spared the throngs of noisy tourists who usually impeded our progress and lowered the tone of the city.

The monastery was relatively free of tourists, possibly because there wasn’t all that much to see. Margaret has an instinct for places of interest which aren’t readily noticeable. For some reason she was drawn to a closed door at one corner of the building. We entered and found ourselves in a small chapel. The only other occupant was a rather severe looking young monk who gave us a rather censorious look as we walked down the aisle. I didn’t notice him motioning to Margaret to kneel down and sat myself down at the end of a pew to gaze at the statues. I later learned that we had interrupted an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament which was not open to the public (which was why the door was closed).

We paused for beer in the monastery gardens and rested our aching legs. The monastery was perched high on a hill and overlooked a green-forested valley. Beyond the trees the city of Prague lay spread across the horizon, its ancient spires glistening in the sunlight. The rain and gloom which had deterred us from venturing into the countryside had been replaced by a bright blue sky.

Between the bridge and the Old Town Square we encountered a group of flag-draped English football thugs who, thrilled by the victory of England over Argentina, were taunting a band of German backpackers. The Germans ignored the hooligans, a sensible attitude as the Englishmen were both rather large and very drunk. I was tempted to intervene and berate the louts as being a disgrace to their country but was restrained by my natural cowardice prudence.

Once again I left Margaret to rest in our room while I ventured back onto the streets. I hoped to find the Bonka Megastore shown in my guidebook but could find no trace of it. Once again I became hopelessly lost and spent at least an hour getting back to the hotel.

DAY 46 SAT Our last day. Our flight back to London was not due to depart until late in the evening so we were faced with the problem of filling in the best part of a day. We left our bags in the reception area and arranged a minibus to take us to the airport at 4pm. A pair of New Zealand ladies were doing the same thing and we agreed to share the cost.

With nothing better to do we strolled down to the Old Town Square and spent a few hours revisiting the jewelry and souvenir shops we had explored many times before. As we left the square to return to the hotel we were met by a band of dancing girls wearing extremely short skirts and t-shirts bearing the legend Avon. A brass band banged and tooted enthusiastically behind them as they led an enormous gaggle of Avon-shirted people down the narrow street. There must have been at least a thousand men, women and children, all clutching pink balloons bearing the Avon logo and looking either highly excited or a little sheepish. We later learned that the march was sponsored by the Avon organisation to raise money for breast cancer research. Very commendable but extremely bizarre.

We had booked out of our room and couldn’t wait in reception as all the furniture had been removed for some obscure reason. Instead we sat in El Boco and drank coffee for what seemed like an eternity. At four on the dot our minibus arrived and we joined the New Zealand ladies for an extremely fast drive to the airport. Getting out of the Czech Republic was a breeze, the officials were even (by Czech standards) friendly. At Heathrow we took a twenty-minute bus ride from one terminal to another and resigned ourselves to a long and boring trip back to reality.

Exhausted and homesick we resolved for the second time in three years that we would never again go away for such a long time. Even before leaving London for Czech Republic we were ready to come home and half way through our week in Prague Margaret had suggested that I contact British Airways and have our flights brought forward. I would have agreed if not for my fear that a BA employee of Czech origin might have misinterpreted my request and failed to change our QANTAS flight.