Sunday, November 04, 2012

Weekend in Prague

It takes time to really get to know a place. To peel back layer after layer to get to the core of what makes it tick. You have to live there, work there, learn the language and make friends in order to really understand it. Travelling through a place only gives you enough time to explore its first layer -- what the buildings look like, what the food tastes like and what the general atmosphere feels like. But if you only have time to skim the surface then you might as well do it in a place like Prague with its awe-inspiring skyline of castles, cathedrals, towers and domes.

Three days in Prague is exactly enough time to soak in the atmosphere. Simply walking through the city's narrow lanes is a magical experience. There's something inherently romantic about a narrow street with cobblestones underfoot and church spires overhead. A narrow street is cozy and intimate, built for people rather than cars. That it snowed while we were there only served to make an already beautiful city even more beautiful.

Snow makes everything beautiful

Snow on the Charles Bridge

Inside the castle

My feet were warm and dry all weekend thanks to the plastic bags

Of course, Prague also has a sinister side. I came prepared to get ripped off after a Slovakian colleague who lived in Prague for 18 years filled my head with stories about criminals who took over the city after the fall of communism. The switch to a market economy gave rise to an enterprising new industry that existed solely to rip off tourists. Cab drivers, hotel owners, restaurant owners and pickpockets were all in on the scam. (I'm told it's not nearly as bad today as it used to be.)

I'm happy to report that Sergey and I didn't get robbed or ripped off. The only halfway shady thing that happened was when a guy appeared out of thin air, sidled up next to us and asked, "Change?" (Meaning, did we want to exchange our money on the street? We did not.) And we were taken for a bit of a ride when we arrived in Prague to find our hotel reservation had been mysteriously cancelled, forcing us to find last-minute accommodations. We spent our first hour in Prague at an internet cafe where we booked another hotel room online. But when we went to the hotel to check in, we were told it was fully booked. They kept the money and sent us to another hotel under the same management, assuring us the rooms were the same price (they weren't). That was as bad as it got, which wasn't bad at all.

Still, it's easy to see how con artists can thrive in a place like Prague. The city was packed with tourists. We heard people speaking Russian, German, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Spanish and English. Every language except Czech. In the historic centre, it seemed every second shop was selling tacky souvenirs (hats stitched with the word Prague, t-shirts stamped with idiotic sayings like "Czech me out!" and all sorts of useless crap). There were so many tour groups that you could join one for a few minutes to listen to the tour guide explain a few interesting facts and then move on. Sometimes you found yourself tacked on to the back end of a tour group whether or not you wanted to be. Although simply following the stream of tourists proved to be helpful in the absence of a guidebook.

Tourists as far as the eye can see

One more tourist in the crowd

Taking the overnight train to Prague was an adventure in itself. It takes about 12 hours to get from Bonn to Prague by overnight train. Much slower than flying but way more glamorous. I love the idea of long-distance train travel. It harkens back to a bygone era of rail travel -- gourmet meals in the wood-paneled dining car, piano music in the gold-trimmed lounge car and white-gloved crew members serving up champagne in plush, private cabins. (I've never actually experienced this kind of train travel but I'm nostalgic for it nonetheless.)

Our train ride was the opposite of that. There was no dining car, no white-glove treatment and the only music we heard was the snoring of other passengers. I was looking forward to being rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the rails in my cozy berth but was kept up all night by people getting off and on the train at different stops.

We booked the second-class couchette car on the City Night Line train. Each compartment on the couchette car is the size of a closet with six bunks stacked three deep on each side.

Our hot and sweaty (but not in a good way) compartment

The train attendants bang on your compartment door 20 minutes before your stop, which is a great way to avoid missing your stop but not so great when you're sharing a compartment with travelers getting off the train at 4 a.m. The compartments were hot and stuffy. The train attendant told us to keep the door to our compartment closed because of the bandits who jump on the train at different stops, steal bags, pull the emergency brake and jump out the window.

Still, it was nice to see the sunrise from inside the train and to arrive in Prague as the city was waking up.

Watching the sun rise from inside the train