I apologize if random spelling mistakes creep into this entry as my word document has apparently decided that I’m writing in European French out of the blue and autocorrecting in accordance.
Prague has instantly climbed into my all time favourites for international cities. It seems like half the European set movies of the past 20 years have shot scenes here and some of the tours are even focused exclusively on movie locations. I did the more pedestrian (in every sense) free walking tour of the old and new towns and enjoyed it so much that I added on the Prague Castle paid tour from the same guide. Thanks to Chris and Jodi for pointing out that these tour guides were good because I can’t think of a better introduction to Prague.
After getting a mostly adequate amount of sleep (one of the Americans in the room has a cough at the moment that sounds like an 80 year old with emphysema crossed with a TB patient) I was up reasonably early for the walking tour. My guide turned out to be an Australian of all things, a woman who’d moved here to teach English soon after the velvet revolution, met a guy and stayed. She was very knowledgeable (though at times had that tour guide grasp of reality that makes the history student in me groan) and had quite infectious enthusiasm. The free tour turned out to be far more substantial that I’d expected, lasting almost four hours and covering more or less everything from our hostel to Prague Castle. They operate solely on tips for the free one, but I gave her as much as I was paying for part two of the tour as my contribution anyway.
She started with a brief overview of the last 1000 odd years of Czech history, always bringing back the connections to whatever was near us or giving some background for something we were about to see. One of the reasons Prague is used as a film location so often is the variety and preserved state of most of its architecture. Walking through just the new town you can find anything. Looming gothic churches sit nestled beside gorgeous baroque masterpieces while nearby you can see a sharp contrast between Art Deco and Art Nouveau vs. the later grim and functional soviet contributions. I don’t pretend to be an expert but I am a bit of architecture nerd and I was in heaven as we explored. Adding to the fun is the lively colours that adorn many of the buildings. Even in cases where it has faded there’s still a strong pink or yellow hue that you wouldn’t find in the more staid capitals of Europe.
One of the first sights we took in was the epic astronomical clock, thankfully safe inside the only bit of the old town hall that survived a spiteful Nazi bombing run after the war was already lost. The next day I’d return to watch it chime in the hour which involves the figure of death coming to life and ringing a bell while the other figures shake their heads to say “no, not now.” It’s really a remarkable display given the age of the clock. We also visited the jewish quarter, decimated during the Nazi occupation population wise yet most of the synagogues and cultural artefacts survive. Why? Because Hitler decided that the Prague neighbourhood of Jozefov (named after the first emperor to given them significant rights) would serve as an excellent museum for the exterminated Jewish race. This of course puts one hell of a damper on the preserved nature of the sights. One permanent exhibit is of children’s drawings from the holding camp to the north. An artist who could have escaped the Nazi conquest but instead stayed because her husband was not able to leave ended up scrounging art supplies and somehow convincing the camp authorities to let her give the children art lessons as therapy of sorts. Most of these children had either been stripped from their parents or had already seen their parents shipped off to Auschwitz. Before being shipped off herself the teacher in question managed to conceal a number of suitcases full of these artworks in the camp grounds where they were discovered after the war. I believe of the 15,000 odd children sent to the transhipment camp, under 50 survived the war so in many cases these drawings are the only tangible evidence that these kids existed. It’s absolutely heartbreaking yet at the same time so important to see and take note.
Thankfully by this point we’d had a quick meal break at their chosen breakfast/lunch joint where I got a bagel with egg and amazing farmer sausage quite cheaply. We’d already done a ton of walking by the time the first tour ended after the jewish quarter and the castle tour started almost immediately after. Given that it was 38ish above at this point we all gratefully flopped down in the shade on the grass by the river for a short break. I’d met several other guys travelling solo on the tour and we had all elected to add on trip to the castle though one of them was regretting it by this point. Thankfully we still had Kate our bouncy Aussie as our guide and with a number of other people added on from the other English groups we headed across the bridge into the lesser town. Once home to the more working class folks of the older city it’s now almost all palaces and upper class dwellings after a fire levelled the area. We started in Wallenstein Palace at the foot of the hill. Once owned by a famous general of the Austro-Hungarian empire it now houses part of the state government as well as more gallery space. The gardens are still maintained in something approaching their original state however and are open to all. The highlight of the gardens was once a large collection of statues with greek mythological themes, however they were taken during (I believe) the 130 years by the Swedes who still maintain that they “rescued” them and will not return them. Shades of the Parthenon.
The castle itself is less a castle than a semi-fortified collection of palaces and churches at the top of the hill. This is not to say it’s not an impressive sight. From almost anywhere in the city with a view west you can see it looming over the city and the view when you reach the top (our first stop was the monastery) takes your breath away. You can see back down over the entire castle, but also beyond to the old and new towns the spires of many churches poking up into the bright sunshine. Prague is (apparently) known as the city of a thousand spires because of the massive number of churches, yet almost none of them are still sacred spaces because the Czech people are now apparently 90% atheist (hooray!) Most of them are now used as gallery spaces, museums and even office space. Of those that are still open as places of worship none impressed me more than the Cathedral of St. Vitus in the castle proper. Most of it is a gothic masterpiece, yet apparently it took so long to finish that one of the towers was finished in a renaissance style and various adornments throughout represent other periods. Mismatching aside it’s a marvellously intricate work covered in beautiful carvings, mosaics and beautiful stained glass that fills the interior with a rainbow of colours as the sun moves across the sky.
The rest of the history tour filled in some of the gaps in our knowledge. Kate pointed out a few of the palaces seized from noble families either by the Nazis or the Communist regime post war. Some of these leading families had even returned in the 90s and had their property returned. In several of these cases the families gave their ancestral homes over to the government again (who really needs a 500 room palace in this day and age anyway) and some of these families have begun taking part in the modern Czech democratic process as well. There was much discussion of the various defenstrations of prague as well, with the windows in question being pointed out. Kate ended the tour by explaining that given historical precedent… “never get in an argument with a Czech above the first floor while standing near a window.”
One of the guys I’d been chummy with on the tour was staying in the same hostel as I was so we caught the same tram back and ended up grabbing dinner together. It was a good time, especially with the ever present and ever cheap Czech beer. We had less luck looking for a bar afterwards though as it was reasonably late and we’d forgotten it was Sunday night. After the long day of walking neither of us felt up to the bar crawl/pub hop (value for money wouldn’t have been there) but anything that was more of a sit down for a drink place looked to be closing. We ended up deciding to grab an ice cream instead but this turned out to be almost as much of an issue. We eventually gave up after walking up all of one side of Wenceslas square and grabbed a McFlurry… only to pass 3 delicious looking gelato places on our way back down the other side. Curses! Still, as McFlurrys go, it’s hard to beat Toblerone as a flavour.
The next day I enjoyed a bit of a sleep in before heading back out for another long walk round the city. This was my chance to see some of the things we’d only glazed over the day before like the aforementioned Children’s drawings the interiors of a number of the churches and in general just savouring things a bit more. It was a fantastic day again weather wise, a little too hot in fact but not bad if you took some water along. I also ended up adding the beautiful Charles Bridge and parts of lesser town to my list, checked out the Astronomical Clock chiming in Noon and enjoyed the delightfully weird Kafka museum (once featured on TAR.) Over the course of the day I think I went through another 6 pints of Czech beer (usually cheaper than buying a bottled water) a bunch of water and two very Czech beer accompanying meals of Schnitzel and fried cheese. The latter of these was at a brewpub Andrew found that was absolutely amazing. Once a commercial brewery (from 1500something to the mid 1800s it’s now a microbrewery, restaurant and brewpub on the various levels. Most of the eating areas are built in former keg storage areas so low arched ceilings and intimate surroundings. The transformation has been really well done though, you get the charm of the place without feeling like you’re in a claustrophobic cave.
I really loved Prague but I can also see how friends that have been more than once talk about it slowly being ruined. Once upon a time you could live like a king here for about $15 a day but it’s now becoming quite the tourist destination. More power to them in some ways, but the brits in particular seem intent on making it a British outpost for retiree weekends away and stag/hen parties for the younger set. Wenceslas square is now full of stripclubs/cabarets, casinos and Brit mainstays like Marks and Spencer’s and Tesco. At the moment it’s still great, but I’d visit soon before it loses some of its unique charm.
At the moment I’m on board the Railjet from Vienna to Budapest (since my eurail pass is no good in Slovakia I had to do a slight detour) and it’s by far the best train I’ve had yet. Fast, comfortable and well appointed I really wish my journey on it was farther than the 2.5hour trip I’m scheduled for. They even gave me a juicebox and a mini kitkat when I got on. I wasn’t actually originally planning on Budapest but I’ve heard from multiple people how gorgeous and cheap it is so I figured it was worth a look. I’ve got another week or week and a half until I start having to serious consider planning the end game of my trip so I figured I’d be spontaneous while I could. We actually just passed what was once the much more serious Hungrarian border and yet again there’s towerswith machine gun nooks and the remnants of massively thick stone walls. It’s amazing how much things have changed in 20 short years. I don’t even have to show my passport and my only real reason for whining is the fact that (like the Czechs) the Hungarian currency isn’t the Euro and I’ll have to get a carefully measured amount of local currency to last for a couple days. Nothing like the old days of course so I can’t really complain.
Budapest brought me back to the heat, it was ungodly. From the sounds of things it’s around the same level of heat you’ve had back home, but with no A/C, no fans and no respite. I was impressed by Budapest as I arrived, much like some of the other towns I’d passed on the train it had an obvious air of post-communist rebuild but they were driving hard towards a modern European presence. Since joining the European Union they’ve been flourishing and it’s quite obvious everywhere you go in the city. My hostel turned out to be a large converted apartment on the first floor of a gorgeous old building near the city center. I actually walked past it several times as the sign was hidden deep in the doorway, invisible in the falling dusk. On the third time past I noticed a carved building number that matched however and made my way into a cavernous entrance hall. I finally found my way to the keypad, buzzed the door and eventually was admitted into a near pitch black staircase up to the second floor. Once I’d finally made it into the hostel I was quite impressed at first glance. It had hardwood floors, giant high ceilings and old mouldings all around. Unfortunately the lack of ventilation meant it was baking and having to have the windows wide open all night meant a massive amount of traffic noise. Something about the Budapest trams seems three times louder than any others and annoyingly enough we were right on the route of the only night tram in the city. Add to that the Japanese crotch rockets, wannabe hot hatch drivers and the snoring aussie girl and it’s a wonder I got any sleep. Earlier in the evening though I had a different sort of noise problem, hippies. Now don’t me wrong, I enjoy the guitar, I love it in fact. What I love less is moronic people who can’t really play yet but feel the need to sit in a hostel common room playing their two known cords in some five bar progression from a song they memorized. This goes on over and over and over until they do some awkward flourish which is supposed to be the end of the song. Then they pass the guitar to their even less talented buddy who repeats the process. It’s maddening, thank goodness for noise cancelling headphones.
The next morning I woke up somewhere on the scale between refreshed and zombie and had my third shower in Budapest. I’d decided to go check out Budapest’s castle hill in Buda (for those who don’t know they’re two separate cities separated by the Danube River. This turned out to be quite the jouney as I first walked down and past the quite impressive Hungarian Parliament. It’s a magnificent building that looks more like a church or museum but I sadly had to skip the interior tour as there was at least a 2 hour lineup in the hot sun for it. They’ve obviously had the heat wave for a bit as the grass was suffering and sprinklers were gushing everywhere. I was actually sitting on a bench for a rest occasionally enjoying the slight mist when a man with a very furry black dog ran into the line of fire, deposited the dog then ran back out. The poor thing obviously needed to cool off, but it sat there looking absolutely miserable as shower after shower hit it, but didn’t move until he called it back to him. I can just imagine trying that with Kali or Chica, they’d be out of the spray before I’d even turned around to run.
Crossing the chain bridge (old but nearly destroyed when the Nazi’s dropped it in a rear guard action during their retreat) I could see up to the Castle hill. I was ridiculously hot so I decided to partake of the funicular this time. Sadly I have to say it was a bit of a letdown after Prague. There are some gorgeous buildings, in particular a very pretty, very eastern orthodox looking church but overall just not quite the collection of impressive places that Prague is. Fantastic views of Pest to the east though. Looking down at the Danube one could see a number of truly massive riverboats. About the width of a standard river cruise boat (or even one of the paddlewheels for the Winnipeggers) they were massively long, some approaching proper cruise ship length. They had what seemed to be proper cabins up and down the sides so I’m guessing you can cruise from city to city in them. I guess the Danube doesn’t have any sharp bends, none of those things would be able to turn the corners on the Red back home. I finished by trip by checking out a few of the caves under the city which were neat, but used so much over the centuries for the storage or bomb shelters that they don’t feel as much like natural caves as they probably used to. There’s a day trip through some more natural ones but sadly I don’t really have the time to invest in it.
It wasn’t until I got back to the Hostel around 7 that I realized I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. I swear travelling solo is a great weight loss regime for me, I forget to eat and walk constantly. At this point I was dying to change into a clean shirt, but I was completely out of them. Apparently the hostel offered a laundry service though, so instead of having to sit there doing it I gave them my bags of quite ripe stuff and headed out to a recommended restaurant for a bowl of goulash and some thick Hungarian bread. It was quite delicious and served with a spicy Hungarian paprika infused sauce to add heat for those that wanted it. Afterwards the new roomie who’d replaced the Aussie asked if any of us wanted to check out a ruin pub so a few of us took off. I forget what the place was called, but I’m told they’re all fairly similar. Basically a ruin pub is a pub/restaurant that has taken over an old communist era semi ruined building and (usually in the courtyard) has a number of tables set up. It was ridiculously cheap and had wifi so a few of us sat and had some beers while catching up on email. I had 4 beers and the bill with a good tip came out to like $7 cdn.
A few hours later as I settled in and tried to sleep it was even hotter than the night before, I wondered if I’d get any sleep but I think exhaustion took hold and I got, if not a restful sleep, at least a few consecutive hours of semi sleep.
Things sadly didn’t get any better the next day as I left for Zagreb. I’d elected to take the train direct from Budapest to Zagreb rather than taking the nice train back to Vienna then from Vienna to Zagreb. While I figured that would be a nicer train, it also would have been 4 extra hours and a much earlier departure. I’d made a huge mistake. The train was packed to the gills with people, I sat in a first class compartment after being told I didn’t need a reservation and began to bake. None of the compartments had A/C, the temp was pushing 42 according to the station sign. Later I was told by a conductor that my first class cabin wasn’t going all the way to Zagreb so I had to switch to one that was already 90% full by pushing my way with bag past 4 second class compartments of people hanging out the windows to stay cool. Dirty looks a plenty. It turned out “direct” was one hell of a misnomer as well as we stopped at what seemed like every single tiny station between Budapest and the Croatian border, often sitting there for 10-15 minutes despite no one boarding and losing the only cooling the train was getting. I plowed through the only water I had in the first hour of the 7 hour journey and had stupidly (from fatigue I’m guessing) forgotten to buy any food for the train. We ended up arriving in Zagreb a full hour late after a lovely 45 minute inspection of the train by Croatian border security. It ended up being 9ish before I managed to get a drink and a bit to eat. By the last hour of the train ride I was composing a film noir blog post in my head and trying desperately not to pass out.Zagreb itself seems like a very nice city, I just won’t get to see much of it this time through.
I was zonked at this point, a brief walk around had gathered me two giant water bottles for tomorrows train, a bottle of coke an enormous slice of pizza that I near inhaled and one of the best strawberry ice creams of my life. After finally getting clean in the shower I flopped into bed and answered emails before just giving in and watching a movie, unable to make myself get up and go get a beer. Two of my roomies eventually showed up and turned out to be very odd French girls who would stop talking any time I moved. They never mentioned me in their conversation, just clammed up whenever they were reminded that I was in the room. Bizarre.
The next morning I had a much nicer walk around Zagreb enjoying the parks for a bit before heading to catch my train down to Dalmatian coast. I’m writing this now on said train… great first class car and accompanying A/C except… the A/C is broken in our car and all the other cars are full…
…on arriving I had another marathon session just trying to find a place with an unilluminated sign. Really don’t understand that, it looks like a beautiful place though and I look forward to exploring in the AM.