Prague is the Paris of the ’90s (Marion Ross)

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January 17th 2011
Published: February 3rd 2011
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a random beautiful buildinga random beautiful buildinga random beautiful building

...which there are VERY many of in Prague!
We are living in the Left Bank of the ’90s. For some of us, Prague is Second Chance City; for others a new frontier where anything goes, everything goes, and, often enough, nothing works. Yesterday is long gone, today is nebulous, and who knows about tomorrow, but, somewhere within each of us, we all know that we are living in a historic place at a historic time –Alan Levy in The Prague Post, October 1, 1991 (first issue)

Thick foggy darkness embraces our coach as we approach Prague, the medieval city swallowing up the coach like a sacrificial offering. In the darkness, away from the immediate city centre, the spirit of the city can still be felt. And as I escape the confines of the coach I can't help thinking that this is it, I am now in Eastern Europe. I hope the citizens of the Czech Republic will forgive me for this, and many future references to Prague as “Eastern Europe”, for no matter how legitimate a member of the European Union this country may be, I can't help the sharp pangs of nostalgia as I enter the eerie quiet of the central train station, a nostalgia for a Soviet time that I was never truly a part of, which I know will only get stronger with every step I take into the depths of the city in the next few days. It is with this nostalgia that I use the term “Eastern”, not burdened in this context with any of its negative connotations. In short, here I feel slightly closer to home.

Despite the Czech Republic being part of the EU, the Euro is not yet in circulation here, so I go straight to the currency exchange to change the Euros I have into Czech Koruna, a very artistically decorated, but rather weak currency. I remember how much fun it used to be when money was different in every country! Granted, this made travelling much more inconvenient and uneconomical, but I miss making necklaces from Spanish 25 peseta coins – the ones that had a hole in the middle. Another childhood memory on this journey into nostalgia.

As I enter the station I can't help noticing that despite planning to meet me here when I arrive, Sasha hasn't even replied to my text message yet. Being a frequent Ryanair passenger myself I am not surprised by this. His reply comes after I've changed my money and made my way down towards the metro, and as expected his plane has only just landed – a whole two hours behind schedule. Yet I have prepared well for this occassion, noting down the directions to our hostel in advance, and despite finding it strangely difficult to be surrounded by a language I don't quite understand after spending most of my time travelling around Germany I find the way quickly and easily. A useful tip to international travellers is to eavesdrop on the conversations of fellow journey-makers – sometimes these contain valuable advice. I overheard a local lady on the coach advising her companions to buy an all-day metro ticket, valid on all public transport for 100 koruna, around 3.5 British pounds. As we are planning to stay for three days, it makes sense to me to purchase the 72-hour option. It is only after paying and walking away from the ticket desk that I notice the discrepancy – for some inexplicable reason this three-day ticket costs 330 koruna. Even my maths skills, which have severely diminished since the school years, are enough to work out that this is more than three times the price of a daily travel card. Yet another resemblance to my, at times wonderfully illogical, country of origin.

After my experience in Bruges, I expect the very worst from the hostel, which is much cheaper here than the Belgian version. To my surprise, there is no putrid smell in the room, the floor isn't caving in from moisture, nothing creaks and there is even a clean, fresh, en suite bathroom! Just what I need after a ten hour journey across Germany. When Sasha arrives I have already had a chance to freshen up and have a rest and am ready to explore this medieval fairy tale, which tonight feels more like a ghost story. Having acquired maps from the very friendly hostel receptionist and valuable advice to stay away from central restaurants from our room-mates, Sasha and I set off to see the Charles Bridge, figuring that it is both away from the central square and a fitting sight for this foggy night. We are not wrong about that – the bridge is clouded in a milky-white mist and looks a little like a road into nothingness, creating the perfect mystic atmosphere for our first evening in this “golden city of spires”.

Prague changes like a precious stone to reflect the weather, the time of day and the season of the year –Christian Norberg-Schulz

Tonight Prague is an enigma, a face half-hidden behind a thick veil, a barely audible whisper in a dark forest, a vague silhouette, a vision, a mirage. It's enchanting and mystifying, and although the fog hides most of the view from us and the dank sub-zero air chills us to the bone, this first encounter is unlike any other and we stay on the bridge for as long as we can bear, until the cold and the hunger finally drive us into the depths of the opposite bank, in search of a cheap and authentic version of the tourist-friendly restaurants littering the town centre. We find one in a remote cobbled alleyway and it looks perfect straight away – a secluded traditional tavern serving Czech beer an local specialities. Being a vegetarian is a very unrewarding business in this part of the world, as Sasha quickly discovers when the only meat-free dish on the menu turns out to be sweet plum dumplings covered in sugar powder. He also quickly discovers the disadvantages of drinking water with your meal – apart from coming in small bottles and certainly not for free from the tap, the water in fact costs more than half a litre of beer, which I proudly order to accompany my meat dish, feeling in every way like the man next to Sasha The Vegetarian – a role I fear I will have to maintain during most of our meals this week. Sasha has a lot to learn about the ways of Eastern Europe! Yet despite that we leave the restaurant sincerely wondering why our hostel neighbours told us Czech food was disappointing – both our meals were fantastically well-cooked and perfectly delicious. But then again, our neighbours are from the USA, which often explains such a difference in tastes. They were, however, right about one thing – it is not unwise to expect any food or drink bought in the city centre to be triple or even quadruple the price of the same product a mere couple of metro stops away. However, despite their advice, we learn the hard way, misreading the price sign for mulled wine in a rather posh central location, and paying almost as much for two glasses of this steaming beverage as we did for the entire meal itself. Lesson learnt though – the price tag on the hot beverages sold outside a restaurant does not reflect the prices of the drinks (and service charges) once you go inside and sit down. Who knows though, maybe that hot wine was the one thing that saved us from freezing to death as we slowly meandered our way back to the hostel, relying solely on my map reading skills, which turned out to be rather above average, if I may say so myself.


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