Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Backpacking through Europe -- day 3

Between visitors from the States, teaching, and my other normal activities, blogging has been put aside for a few weeks. I'm glad to be back!

At 7:25 a.m. on day 3 of my trip, I stepped off a Eurail train in Prague, the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. I checked my backpack at the Left Luggage counter and set off to see the city. Rather than provide a site by site account of my day, I've decided to simply list my experiences and impressions of Prague and the people I encountered there.

My first experience concerning Prague occurred while I was still in Canterbury when I began making plans for my trip. The lady at the train station suggested a city whose name I didn't recognize at all. Embarrassed by my lack of geography skills, I asked her to show me her suggested route on the map. According to where she pointed on the map, my 2nd stop was "Praha"; when I got back to the flat, I googled "Praha" and discovered I would be visiting Prague*. I can't quite describe how she said it, but if you google "pronunciation of Prague", you will find audios. This was definitely not the only time I was to discover that how we in the states pronounce the names of cities in Europe is not the same way they are pronounced in Europe. And now, for my thoughts on Prague.

1. Prague is a beautiful and very interesting city. The variety of architectural styles and detail is amazing, and everywhere I looked, I saw another beautiful building of one type or another. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Old Town Square, The Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock (pictures do not do it justice), The Charles Bridge, and the Prague Castle.

2. The Czech currency, the Koruna (crown), is weak. I noticed right away that a small, inexpensive item such as a candy bar cost 18 - 20 Koruna, so I asked a lady at a currency exchange office what the rate of exchange was. The day I was in Prague, 1 Koruna = .05 USD. In other words, 1 Koruna was worth an American nickel. I'd done my homework before leaving England and learned from reputable sites that, as a member of the European Union (EU), most places in Prague accepted both the Koruna and the Euro. Unfortunately, I found that wasn't the case; only two of the attractions, restaurants, or shops I stopped in accepted the Euro. At least, that's what the signs said . . . 


3. For a fee of 100 Koruna, a person can climb or ride an elevator (I'm not sure which, as I didn't get that far) to the top of the tower of the Old Town Hall (found on Old Town Square). I joined the queue (line) outside the Old Town Hall, Euros in hand. The line inched forward until I was second in line at the ticket booth, right behind 2 young ladies who spoke rapid French. When one of the young ladies stepped up to the window, she pointed to a small sign on the counter that read "100 KORUNA -- NO EUROS" and in accented English, she said, "But we have only Euros. You do not take Euros?" The young man behind the counter said, "No Euros" but motioned for her to lean closer. "Wait a moment," he said quietly, and then said something in (presumably) Czech to his equally-young male coworker, who immediately scuttled out of the booth. The first young man then furtively said, "Yes, Euros. 10 Euros each." The young lady handed over 20 Euros, which the young man slid to the side of his cash register, and she and her friend moved forward. I left. I'm not all that great at math, but I knew that 100 Korunas did not equal 10 Euros. I checked later, and 100 Korunas = 3.65 Euros. It appears that the young man at the Old Town Hall had a quite little side business going on!

4. The Prague Castle is well worth the walk, and considering the steepness of the walk, that's saying quite a bit. Do not pay any attention to the websites that say things like "The walk to Prague castle is a little steep for the last few minutes but well worth the effort" or "Some more elderly walkers may find the walk to the Prague Castle slightly challenging". Trust me -- the walk is more than a "little steep", it lasts more than a "few minutes", even young walkers were pausing to pant and rest. In short, that climb is a killer, but it IS "well worth the effort". The courtyard and buildings are beautiful; even more stunning, though, is the view of Prague from the castle grounds. I wanted to take a tour of the cathedral and of the castle, but trying to decipher the various tours and combinations of tours and the various prices -- none of which were posted in English -- was impossible, and none of the 4 people working in the ticket booth spoke English. I later learned (via an online discussion group) that even to a Czech speaker, the pricing system and combination of ticket options is confusing, and the tours are pricey.

5. Tea at the Municipal House Cafe is a real treat! First of all, the Municipal House is a stately, imposing building, and the Cafe is stunningly beautiful. Secondly, Euros are accepted. Most importantly, though, the tea was outstanding and very reasonably priced. For only 5 Euros, I was treated to a pot of Earl Gray tea (with milk and sugar, of course), a huge piece of some sort of chocolate cake with decadently-rich chocolate icing and a huge dollop of light-as-air whipped cream, 3 "sweets" (candies), and a glass of some sort of delicious alcoholic beverage. I have no clue what the beverage was, and asking my waiter did not lead to an answer as he did not speak English. But it was very, very good!

6. Another site in Prague that should not be missed is the Lennon Wall (aka the John Lennon Wall). In the late 80's (1980's), young Czechs who were unhappy with the communist regime in power and who admired John Lennon for his fight for peace and equality for all, began writing anti-communist messages on a long wall across from the French Embassy. The original messages, written under cover of night because of the stiff prison sentence imposed on those who were caught, have long since been covered up, as over the years the wall has been repainted and new paintings and messages added. When I visited, a large painting of Lennon's face, a 3' x 5' painted British flag, and drawings dominated the wall, and Beatle lyrics and messages of love and peace from visitors filled every space; still yet, visitors that day were adding their own messages. It may not seem that a graffiti-filled wall would be all that impressive, but somehow this wall is quite moving.

7. I know that others who have visited Prague may disagree with what I'm going to say next, and I both understand and respect that, but  Prague is, without a doubt, the most gloomy and depressing place I have ever visited. I arrived at 7:25 a.m. and left at 23:42 (11:42 p.m.); in the 16 hours and 17 minutes between my arrival and departure, I saw a smile on the face of only 1 person that was not obviously a fellow tourist (i.e. was not speaking a language other than Czech and/or taking copious pictures of one or more people posing in front of something). I smiled at everyone I met; only fellow tourists smiled back. Most people remained stony-faced, some grimaced, and one man actually growled menacingly at me. Now, please realize, I didn't speak to these people, reach out to them, or approach them in any way. I just smiled. Even my waiter at the Municipal House Cafe, despite his very elaborately polite service, never smiled. Not once. Everyone looked grim, weary, and downtrodden. I was despairing of seeing a happy Czech when, just 15 minutes before I was to board my train to Vienna, a man with a Czech newspaper sat down next to me on a bench in the train station. He accidentally bumped me with his backpack and said something which I took to be a "sorry". In response, I smiled and gestured that it was okay, and miracle of miracles, he smiled gently and ducked his head in response. That one smile made up for the gloom of the day, and I wished there was some way for me to thank this gentleman for bringing a very long day to a pleasant end.

So ended the 3rd trip of my week-long journey. I boarded my train, found my sleeper car, got ready for bed, and fell asleep to the rhythm of the train.

 

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