August 7, 2007

The “Europe on a Shoestring” guidebook, which I accidentally swiped in Berlin, asserts that Prague does in fact live up to all the hype in tourist brochures. Some of these pamphlets actually go so far as to say it may be difficult for travelers to leave.

Hem. Perhaps if Prague advocates hadn’t bragged so much, maybe I would have left with a better opinion. However, even after discounting the temperamental weather (e.g. changing every 5 minutes between cloudy, grey, sunny, rainy, warm, and cold), I didn’t think it was anywhere near spectacular.

After not having slept in a proper bed the evening before, and loads of train travel in the preceding two days (our combined train time was 46 hours in the past 48 hours), we arrived late in the evening to a dark, dirty, old-looking, and creepy central station. Just outside the door, cab-drivers tried to pitch their ‘best rates’ which ranged btwn 500-700Kc. “Best rates” being arbitrary of course and positively associated to the distance to the subway ticket machine. C. really wanted to take a taxi, but after my reluctance to get taken by these swindling Cabbies, we ended up on the subway for 1.4Kc total. The whole ride took 3 minutes (during the day, we found that to walk, the trip is only about 20 minutes).

Though one can’t judge a place based solely on its train stain(s), well… so far in Europe it’s worked for me as a good indicator of what to expect. For instance, when there isn’t much English on signage at the station serving international trains, well… you can bank that other areas are likely be difficult to maneuver. I’m just saying it’s nice when a city cares enough about its tourism industry to thwart the scamming Cabbies

Our hostel is better than decent and inexpensive, but not as great as the reviews on led me to expect. We are hungry when we finally set down our backpacks, but there is nothing open except bars doubling as gambling rooms. Each one has a pixel sign with a number that gets larger and larger, indicating a growing jackpot.
The barren streets lit only by the jackpot signs made it seem like we were in the ghetto-area of town and quite a distance from the city. The only other evidence of life that night was an interesting club we happen upon called Cross Club. Given that it was Tuesday night, it was actually was quite happening: good, loud music, loads of people, and drinks. The décor was unique and interesting to us since it seemed like the entire bar and seating area was done in recycled metal in a clockwork/ mechanical fashion. But, still no food here so we trek on…

We end up at the largest gas station I’ve seen so far in Europe for “food”. I’m almost certain the gas station is actually a re-branded Petro Canada. Everything about it is PC, except there is two of everything, back-to-back: 2 cafes, 2 sets of pumps, 2 mini stores, etc. I don’t get it, especially b/c there is only one attendant for both cafes and one for both stores, but us few customers are spread out and using everything equally.

In the morning, I realize on my run (during which, I thought I smelled the garlic soup Czechs are known for or maybe I was just hungry still from the evening before…), that our hostel is really not far from the city centre. It’s definitely not the suburbs, but most certainly not the tourist area which comprises most of the downtown. With the shops open in the daytime, it looks less ghetto but still grungy.

We skip the touristy things on the first day and decide a day of shopping is in order. But first stop: McDonalds. I order what I think is coffee with milk. I’m pleasantly surprised when I get coffee with soft serve ice cream instead. What else does Prague do differently? Well, apparently they think certain items are worthy of tourists: those ovular, egg-shaped dolls that fit within each other and ornamental glass. We buy neither, as respectively, they are too kitschy and breakable.

I think the best part of Prague had to be the meals. Food is inexpensive and the service is great. For something traditional, we go to a restaurant that, upon entering we think perhaps we’re underdressed. Even if we were, the waiters never let on and were very courteous. I had .5L red wine, mixed salad, marinated beef with dumplings and gravy, and chocolate mousse. C. had pop, steak and fries, and a crepe with fruit.

The next day, we had to check out of the hostel by 10am. By the time we lock up our bags in the smelliest room ever, we’re already exhausted by the thought of the next 60 hours of travel. Nonetheless, we set out to make our souvenir purchases, have brekkie, and find a post office. Bohemian Bagel doesn’t have the greatest food (by far not the worst), but it gets big points for the relaxed vibe and being the first place in Europe that has free refills on pop and coffee. The coffee is instant and bad, but at least the pop is cold and cheaper than the up to 7EURO+no refills we’ve seen elsewhere.

Afterwards, we finally do the tourist bit and check out the castles, Karlov Bridge, and the surrounding area. Meh. Maybe it’s the weather, my mood, or having seen enough castles already… but I didn’t find Prague to be anything special.

So… yes, Prague = cheap food, drinks, and accommodation. The only reason you wouldn’t want to leave (as some famous dude had said), is if… oh maybe the train schedule is WRONG or b/c the TRAINS & STATIONS ARE SO GROSS you don’t want to use those means to head back out? We’re finally on our way to Budapest now after a total train mess up. It’s a long story. I’d like to say that I’m never coming back to Prague, but I will… even still, I’m glad it’s only for a couple of hours to leave from the airport to Napoli, Italy.

Oh yes, one more highlight in Prague for the both of us: the English language bookstore.


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