Thursday 30th December, Prague, Czech Republic
*scroll down for the latest journal entry. It's at the bottom, mate*
Between Berlin and Prague,
our train passed through snow covered mountain peaks. For half an hour or so, large flakes pelted the train. I was excited, but the snow was short lived. By the time we reached Prague, the weather was disappointingly mild- probably a few degrees above freezing- and Maria gave me one of those looks that kind of says "I told you we wouldn't need to bring so many extreme weather clothes".
Our host Ondra would not be in Prague when we arrived.
He was in Vienna on work. But his sister would meet us at the luggage deposit at the main train station. Her name was Misa, he said, and she would guide us to his place, and leave us the keys. Ondra had described Misa as 'fairly tall and probably wearing something black', so she should be easy to spot. Well, Misa and I pretty much spotted each other straight away, even though the only photo she had seen of me was the shot from the Sahara, with Arabic robes wrapped around my head.
Now, some people might think it strange
that a guy in Prague would ask his sister to give the keys to his apartment to a couple of complete strangers. For me, it seems perfectly natural. It was after dark by the time we found ourselves in Ondra's apartment, showered and ready to go exploring the city. The fairytale city. Prague. Public transport was very cheap and surprisingly efficient. The bus service from the shopping precinct to Ondra's apartment seemed to run every four or five minutes during the day, the Metro was fast and regular- albeit a jostling test of your balance- and trams ran everywhere all the time, day and night. A three day pass for the bus, tram and Metro network can be had for the princely sum of two hundred crowns- less than seven Euros. We caught the bus back into Andel, and walked from there to the castle.
We were both hungry,
and didn't want to wait until we reached the castle and the old town. Not for us the tourist restaurants, with mass produced meals at ridiculously inflated tourist prices. I could even picture them in my imagination, rows of charming old style restaurants proudly competing with banners in English boasting "CZECH SPECIALTIES" or "AUTHENTIC CZECH FOOD". A tip for the uninitiated: restaurants that serve traditional Czech food to local Czechs... they don't need to advertise the fact that they sell Czech food... in English!
We found a great little locals-only place, where we tucked into a couple of Czech beers while the waiter explained the night's special. He was polite and helpful, and pointed to each line on the blackboard menu, describing the two course meal in intricate detail, in what I am confident was perfectly enunciated Czech. We were no less in the dark than if we'd been left to decipher the menu ourselves, but his enthusiastic expression showed a confidence that had us both nodding in agreement. "Two" we smiled, showing him two fingers and pointing back and forward to each other. He thanked us (I think) and bustled off.
Our meal consisted of
a bowl of tasty potato and garlic broth, and a type of spicy beef stew with some sliced dumplings. Difficult to describe it any further- in fact it may not even have been beef- but we were both more than happy with it. The bill? For two courses each, and two delicious beers? A very reasonable 165 Crowns- 5.50 Euros, the same amount that I paid for a single cup of coffee in Paris, and here in Prague it even included bathroom privileges!
After getting a little lost (Maria's in charge of navigation!)
we had to rush to Wenceslas Square to meet Pavel. Pavel was one of a couple of Couchsurfers
in Prague who had said that despite being unable to host us, they'd like to meet up, and could show us around a little. Fifteen minutes late, we found Pavel and his friend Jan (pronounced 'Yarn') shivering in the cold. The two young university students were relieved to see us, and quickly whisked us away down a side street into a nondescript little bar. It was their favourite bar, they said, just two hundred metres from Pavel's campus, and with cheap beer! They both nodded and smiled.
We spent an enjoyable evening being entertained by the boys,
and learning a little of what life is like in the Czech Republic. We discussed the country's turbulent history and the people's feelings about having recently been accepted into the European Union. The boys often disagreed with each other, and would suddenly break from explaining things to us, to argue with each other- firstly in English and then in Czech until one of them gave up, shaking his head, and the other contnued the story where they'd left off.
Prague must be exquisite without all the tourists.
I wonder if all the other tourists were thinking the same thing? This is the busiest time of the year in Prague, but from what we've been told, there are almost as many tourists here during the summer, and every year it gets 'worse'.
Ondra had said he'd be back this evening,
and we also had another Couchsurfer to catch up with. Cameron is an American who has called Prague home for almost the last two years. He's teaching English, but for a short time, he was a tour guide, so he showed us around the Jewish Quarter of Prague, an area we hadn't yet seen. The Jewish cemetery, he said, was particularly interesting, since so many people were buried in such a small area, that they are up to twelve bodies deep. The result is a small graveyard crammed with headstones, just a few inches from each other. Admission to the cemetery was prohibitively expensive- almost ten Euros- but Cameron divulged a bit of an insiders secret. The nearby museum and cafe has bathrooms on the first floor, overlooking the cemetery.
Pavel joined us again, and we met up with Ondra in a bar that Cameron suggested.
It's a tiny little bar, but at the back there is a narrow stairway leading down to a large underground cavern. From that room, corridors lead of in a couple of directions to other rooms, sometimes up a few stairs, sometimes down. I liked it, but the group decision was that we would move on to another location. Pavel had some more Couchsurfers turning up, so in the end it was quite a gathering, with representatives from Italy, Spain, Australia, America and of course the Czech Republic. In case we needed any more proof that the world is getting smaller, we discovered that Ondra has hosted Casey, my mate in Alaska who runs Couchsurfing
, and also my other mate Jim Stone, who is travelling Australia right at this moment, and the Italian, Flavio, knows Veit, another proud Couchsurfer who I've been in contact with. As Casey says, the world is smaller than you think!