Writing the first part of this on the train from Kraków to Praha. (I know it’s really called Praha, but as with Kraków, somehow it’s difficult to use the correct local name for Prague.) The only direct train goes overnight, and we would have had to miss either an evening in the first or a night, already reserved, in the second. We were able to get a midmorning train and change at Katowice. The only difficulty was that, as I’ve mentioned, Poles are not big on signs. Not that we were especially smart about finding our way at the Kraków station, I must admit, but still, they could have directed people a bit more efficiently. We got the first train OK, but we’d been planning to get some decent coffee and breakfast items at the mall at the station, and we ran out of time because of running around trying to find the international counter and get our tickets. Thank heaven the woman there spoke English well, because this train transaction was more complicated than the last.
The station at Katowice was relatively primitive, with paper schedule signs for arrivals and departures rather than electronic notices. All the signs said that the train to Praha was leaving from platform 2, and Lenore also asked a young woman who spoke English about it, and was told the same. Meanwhile, we made friends with a guy from India who was looking for the same train. That turned out to be fortunate, because he was the first to start yelling that the train was actually at platform 1, and he made sure we heard. A bunch of us raced down the 2 stairs and back up the 1 stairs, barely making it to the train. I had to push the door back open while trying to muscle my suitcase across the gap and up onto the train floor. Then we couldn’t find our seats, but a conductor came right along and helped us.
So this was an important lesson: no matter what the signs say, and no matter what passengers say, ask a person who is in authority. We had an easy couple of hours after that, though, with a compartment to ourselves, until the train filled standing-room-only with young Czechs.
We’d thought we could pick up some coffee and food at the Katowice station, but so much for that. Very little was available, and we ended up with something that could only be called coffee by an extreme stretching of the definition. We were able to get decent sandwiches, though, again managing to order entirely in Polish. More good bread. This was all we had to get us through the trip; the crowd in the aisles was such that it seemed near-impossible to reach the restaurant car.
A couple of those young Czechs were astoundingly talkative. The woman sitting next to me talked absolutely nonstop for at least a couple of hours straight. I was getting irritated, but at the same time, it was useful, because I had the opportunity to hear the rhythm of the language and get a sense of proper pronunciation, even though I understood essentially nothing. I was relieved to hear that the stretching of vowels with accents was not nearly as extreme as it sounds on the Czech language course I have in this computer.
Here is the next important lesson: you need money for the restroom at the Prague main train station, and of course it has to be local money. It’s not even possible for the attendant to take pity on you, because the stalls can’t be accessed without putting money in. We had to frantically run back to the money-changing window and then back to the restroom. Why these people want their customers having accidents in the lobby instead of providing for the most basic human needs is totally beyond me. I hear that in some places charging for restrooms has been outlawed. (France doesn’t appear to be doing this anymore, at least not in Paris; Polish restrooms had charges but some were voluntary.)
On the other hand, there wasn’t much opportunity to put any liquid into one’s system at the station, either. There was supposed to be a coffee shop, which had a sign that looked like it must be open at some time, but it sure wasn’t then. We were starting to feel jinxed when it came to coffee and food. The station was beautiful, old, decrepit, peeling, and didn’t seem to have much of any working services.
We called our hotel to see if we could still get their shuttle service, and were told that it was too late, we would have had to book it ahead– which we hadn’t felt comfortable doing, not being absolutely sure of our arrival time. The woman at the hotel offered to call us a cab, and I declined because there were taxis ranged all up and down the street outside the station.
What I didn’t know– and only read about later– was that these taxi drivers are crooks; that’s your next important lesson. The hotel clerk said, “Don’t let them charge you more than 400 crowns. There’s no reason you should have to pay more than that.” I believed her and figured I could make sure that was the way it worked out. I definitely should have let her call. The ride ended up costing us 800 crowns. I complained but felt there was nothing I could do about it. I could not prove that we were taken on a longer ride than necessary, and frankly, the streets were so narrow and the traffic so difficult that I thought combat pay might be appropriate for this guy.
One of the buildings we passed was a Polish cultural center, which sported a poster advertising a Chopin 200 concert. Couldn’t get away from him after all.
Our planned hotel, the Red Lion (Dum U Cerveneho Lva), is a historic property in Old Town– yet another Old Town. Nerudová Street is San Francisco-steep and heads up toward the castle; the hotel is around the middle of the hill. By the time we got there in the overpriced cab, scenery notwithstanding, I was not in the best mood. We entered the picturesque lobby, where the woman who’d been on the phone apologetically explained that they had had a computer mixup and there was actually not a room for us. You understand, I had just spoken with her about a half hour before, and I had e-mailed the night before and been told everything was fine. I did not fly off the handle, and neither did Lenore, though I did very firmly state that this was not acceptable. The hotel was ahead of us; they had already found us a room at another property owned by the same company, where there had been a cancellation. It was right up the street. We struggled up the hill with our bags.
The new hotel, the Golden Star (Zlatá Hvězda), may have been the best thing that happened to us on the whole trip. For the moderate price of the Red Lion, we were treated to a luxurious suite that we could probably never have afforded otherwise. It even had towel warmers, which turned out to be of great help, because I was able to wash my socks and underwear and use the warmers as drying racks. We had only one bed, but it was large enough that we didn’t inconvenience each other at all. An ethernet connection gave us a reliable internet connection at last.
The best and worst part of the Golden Star was its location on that steep hill. The view was incredible, but somehow, even lying in bed, I felt as if the building were swaying and as if our room somehow hung cantilevered out over the street, which was not the case in the least. I kept unsuccessfully trying to ground myself any way I could. Normally, even in an upper story, I can find a way to feel the earth beneath me, but there I couldn’t, and I don’t know why.
It was a bit surprising to find that the hotels were so booked up in October. I can’t conceive of what things must be like in July in this currently hot tourist spot. The streets were positively choked with foreigners from all over. The incredible popularity of Prague with folks from everywhere is a tremendous advantage for English speakers, because English is now a kind of lingua franca there. In Warsaw and Kraków we found ourselves saying “dzień dobry” and “dziękuje” a zillion times a day, but in Prague there was no opportunity even to hear the pronunciations of the most basic greetings, let alone to practice saying them, because all the workers at the shops and restaurants spoke English to us all the time.
I had studied Czech a little bit, enough to be shocked at how unexpectedly different it was from Slovak (which was my grandmother’s language but I also don’t know), but it was very little indeed, and I would have been pretty hopeless if I’d had to use it. I did find that often if I stared at signs and thought about how the words sounded, rather than how they looked, I could translate them using my tiny shreds of Polish and have some idea what was going on. I was terribly pleased with myself.
Although Prague’s gorgeous Old Town buildings have been around for centuries, design and decor tended to be sleek and contemporary. A good example was the Neruda restaurant, a little way down the hill of Nerudová Street, where we had our first dinner. The food, the floral arrangements, and the furniture and lighting were all a delight to the eye– tasty food and quality beer, too. (I can barely drink any beer myself, but had a few sips of Lenore’s, enough to tell it was good.) It was tricky at first to get used to the Czech money, in which even a frugal lunch costs in the hundreds of crowns. One crown (koruna) isn’t very much, but overall the prices were a good deal higher in dollar terms than those in Poland, so we soon learned to exercise caution. There were no real grocery stores around, only small convenience stores with junk food, so we were mostly stuck with spending for restaurants.
Prague definitely lives up to its reputation for architectural beauty; everywhere you turn there is a gorgeous photo op. After Warsaw and Kraków, though, we were somewhat jaded– “Oh, look, more old buildings….” Lenore found a website with “100 Cool Things to Do in Prague,” and that led us to one of the most impressive places we saw on our journey, something that was not a marvel of architecture, but rather a monument to the human spirit.
It happened to be October 9, John Lennon’s birthday (would have been his 70th), when we found our way to the John Lennon Wall. It’s nothing more than a wall covered in graffiti, but the feeling around it was like walking into a great cathedral, awe and respect. Everyone was quiet and reverent. Although Lennon’s murder was the direct inspiration for the memorial, the wall took on much more far-reaching significance as a place of protest against repression by the Communist regime and for peace and freedom of expression. An explanation of its history and importance can be found here: www.prague.net/john-lennon-wall. People are still adding to the layers of paint and writing; I scrawled in a few words myself.
I have no idea why there were yellow plastic penguins next to the Vltava River, but there they were. I suppose that both they and the giant stone chair behind them were normal for the home city of Franz Kafka. The Kafka museum was in our neighborhood, too, but we only poked our heads into the gift shop.
Near the river we found a cafe that included an outdoor space with a man grilling kolbasi (at least that’s how we spell the name of this sausage in Slovak). It was served with light, caraway-free rye bread, the kind that is so common where my husband comes from in Pennsylvania, and that we can hardly ever find. This snack was the most down-home experience of the whole trip. A very Albuquerque-like experience was the Indian vegetarian restaurant down Nerudová Street– a type of food Lenore and I often indulge in, and very respectably done– though it was situated in an odd little basement spot.
We looked at a small museum, with a contemporary art display that Lenore was very interested to see and that I expected to hate, but then dived into with enthusiasm. Check out Daniel Pešta’s work at www.danielpesta.com/galerie/index.php?lang=en. It is intensely emotional, yet minimalist and finely crafted.
The Charles Bridge is a huge tourist attraction, lined with excellent stone sculptures on both sides and carpeted by the booths of trinket sellers and portrait artists.
On the other side of the river, another famous attraction is the Astronomical Clock.
A huge square includes a rather lumpy-looking central group sculpture. I couldn’t figure out the subject.
Our favorite attraction in this area, though, was a man in his 70s or so singing what appeared to be the realest of real folk music, accompanying himself on a hurdy-gurdy. I mean the Renaissance kind, not the organ-grinder-with-monkey kind. It had a wonderfully sweet sound that made us want one for ourselves. After all the tourist hoopla, it was so refreshing. We really should have bought a CD (even gritty folk musicians have CDs now). I knew I’d regret passing that up. I suppose we were feeling a little financially stressed by that time.
The old Jewish Quarter is also considered a must-see, with a couple of venerable synagogues and a market of stalls selling crafts, but it is a rather small area and there doesn’t seem to be all that much to it, though it is pretty.
Our steady Internet connection made it possible to catch up a little bit with the Chopin competition, which was still in full swing and getting hotter by the day. It turned out to be far more critically useful than that, though. We had been figuring on taking the train through Germany to get to Paris, probably staying over in Frankfurt. As we searched through the schedules, this began to look less and less practicable. There were no good, direct routes east to west. The best itinerary we could come up with involved spending about 14 hours in transit and changing trains at 4:30 am. We had to leave the day after next, and we were starting to get concerned. We asked the hotel desk clerk what people typically did to get west, and he said that there was no sense taking the train when it would take only a couple of hours to get to Paris by air. By late that night, we had a flight booked, at a lower price than we would have paid for the train. Hotel Chopin, in Paris, confirmed that they could accommodate us one night earlier than planned.
We had to get to the bottom of the hill, a goodly walk in itself, sometimes involving stairs, to find a subway, but from there it was easy to get to farther parts of town. The only trouble was that the escalators are unbelievably steep and fast, really quite alarming. I felt that I would be unable to handle them with my luggage, and we dropped the idea of getting to the airport that way. It would also have required changing to a bus as well as taking the subway– more opportunities to get lost or miss a connection.
So we got a taxi, this one called by the hotel, to take us to the airport. The ride was even more alarming than those escalators. Perhaps the driver was desperately frustrated by the congested traffic in Old Town and couldn’t restrain himself from flooring the gas pedal when he was out of it, I don’t know. After a while we were beginning to consider asking the driver to simply drop us off at the side of the road. He would accelerate to what seemed like 90 mph for a few seconds, flying up to a few inches behind the next vehicle, then slam on the brakes. It was the most bizarre car ride I’ve ever taken. I don’t think that man is in the right profession. At any rate, he was kind and polite to us, and didn’t charge a ridiculous amount, and we did get to the airport in one piece.
The airport was slightly confusing because there were so many windows for the small airline we’d booked, and the one we needed wasn’t open yet. We had coffee and snacks (ah, decent coffee!) at a comfortable cafe while we waited. The security procedures were refreshingly simpler than those at an American airport, though not all that different. Soon we were on our way to Paris, the last stop on our voyage, feeling a great sense of relief and accomplishment.