Berlin to Prague

My last morning in Berlin is spent lying in, devouring my breakfast and updating my blog. Not very exciting I admit, but I do like my lie-ins and taking my time in the mornings. Around noon I run out to print my train ticket in a nearby computer store run by a man who looks Mediterranean and asks me, almost disapprovingly,”Why do you want to go to Prague?” Not really filling me with confidence in my next chosen destination, but nonetheless I make my way back to the flat and Jose walks me to Yorck Strasse station where I catch the train to Sudkreuz for my trip to Prague.

I immediately find out as I board the train that the problem with taking the train from Sudkreuz (the second stop) and not Friedrich Strasse (where the train began further north of Jose’s home) is that I don’t really have a seat. I find my way to the very back of the train and find 1 seat left which is also happens to be barricaded by people’s bags and is also in such a position that makes you feel like you’re in the way whenever someone passes. I bear this position for a whole 10 minutes until the train conductor sees my ticket and says in German that I need to move to a different carriage as I’m going to Prague (it’s not that I understood her, but a woman sitting not to far off from me saw my look of confusion and translated for me). Luckily, I don’t need to change carriages until a later stop, conveniently when half the passengers de-train (it’s a word, I googled it!).

When I do, I’m rewarded with some of the most beautiful views when we leave Dresden, thanks to it being divided by the Elbe, a river that runs from the mountains of the Czech Republic to Hamburg and the Baltic in Germany. The mountains sharply drop to the river Elbe, with just enough space for a road and a few occasional homes picturesquely located in front of it. I arrive in Prague along with the sunset and my first realisation when I get off the train and try to purchase Metro tickets is that Prague is not part of the European currency (i learn that the Czech has avoided the fiscal pact of using Euro’s because they are essentially deeply right-wing and eurosceptic, unlike the English that has not gotten on board the Euro bandwagon because it constantly fails to pass it’s self imposed Five Economic Tests)!!! Luckily, there’s a nearby Currency Exchange counter and I hand in whatever amount of euros I have left in my wallet and get back a couple of thousand koruna’s and instantly feel like a millionaire (until later on that evening when I purchase a James Dean cocktail in a bar with Lucie that costs 180 korunas)!

So a train and a tram later, I find myself in Prague 5 at an area called Shmícov, just next to Radliká. I quickly realize there isn’t really much going on in my area, so after I have my first Beef goulash with a glass of red wine to ease my weary bones (the glass of wine is so-so, but the beef goulash is relish being drowned in beer), I’m ready to meet up with Lucie and friends in the center of town to sample Prague’s night life.

A hop on the tram to the centre of town later, I immediately see that Prague is BEAUTIFUL! Buildings hundreds of years old that are in immaculate condition, pebbled streets and everything light up like a scene from a fairytale book. The main square is teeming with life: street performers, buskers performing dixieland jazz or classical (there is a long history of Czech jazz musicians that have helped shape the influence of the music scene in the country since the 1930’s which gave jazz the popularity it still maintains today.), little stalls selling Czech food and tourists walking around in awe of it all! Despite all this frenzy going on the square still managed to maintain it’s charm, thanks to the setting laid out by architects hundreds of years ago perfectly preserved by time.

There I meet Lucie and a girl called Catherine, who only goes up to about my waist but her personality is big enough to fill a whole room. We immediately hit a place to drink right in the main square, something again I wouldn’t normally do as places in main squares only seem to be filled by tourists and represent nothing of the locality. We walk into an irish pub and immediately my ears are filled with the chatter of Englishmen & Americans. I guess sometimes people are too lazy or frightened to make the effort to discover more of what a new environment has to offer than what lies on the surface, or they simply just find comfort when they are away with places that provide a setting of familiarity. If you ask me, travelling trans-continentally or across the globe and not making the effort to learn the people, culture and food is like visiting your neighbours house without getting to know the people who made it a home.

Anyway, after we knock back a few glasses of wine and beers in the Irish pub, the group agrees on a change of scenery and we walk a whole 20 meters to an adjacent Irish pub for more of the same. We then of for a three-peat by finishing off in a bar not too far away called James Dean, which is about as American as you can get. Despite the choices in destination, the company is good which makes all the difference (although despite my best efforts I wasn’t quite inebriated enough to partake in the frivolities of the group).

Walking Tour and Don Giovanni Puppet show

I wake up at almost 11am after only 5-6 hours of sleep and I know today is gonna be hard. I normally don’t take to mornings very well and being hung over only means I’m like a sloth on holiday, minus the smile that’s perennially on its face. I definitely prefer to be more active during the day and sleeping at night!

I meet Lucie for a walking tour at 1pm which started in Staroméstké Námésti (the old town square) and ended at the Gothic style gate Prašná brána. It was led by an American that his fellow colleagues referred to as Gandalf because of his age. He walks and talks us through the buildings in the old town square, the castle overlooking the city, the Jewish quarters and a few other places of interest. I thoroughly enjoyed his tour as I always appreciate when someone knows a lot about something and also manages to talk about it passionately. It’s amazing how he can still maintain such enthusiasm as he’s been doing these tours for 20 years now. It’s great when your job is your passion!

After we finished, Lucie chowed down on some pasta in a nearby Italian restaurant while I had my afternoon coffee (she looks for pasta like I look for coffee). She needed to go back to the hostel to change rooms, so I took this opportunity to check out the food markets around where I tried some Czech Prosciutto with mustard (the mustard was absolutely necessary)! We then went to watch a puppet performance of Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the National Marionette Theatre since our tour guide earlier gave it raring reviews.

Prague and Mozart have a special relationship. Mozart travelled a lot around Europe to perform in his day, but right from the beginning when Mozart joined the orchestra at the Estates Theatre in Prague to showcase his operas Abduction from Serail and The Marriage of Figaro, the city fell in love with him. This in turn made Mozart frequently visit the city and ultimately decide to premiere one of his most famous operas there: Don Giovanni. I naively thought that the puppet version of this opera would would contain a live orchestra and real opera singers and was a bit disappointed when I realised it didn’t. Nonetheless, the 20 year running show was well done and had several humorous adaptations – mostly with Mozart as the conductor doing something silly or falling asleep on the job. I surprisingly didn’t know a single song from it, especially since I was convinced beforehand that I would know at least some. Now I realised that the one song I know and sung in my opera classes in Highgate, “Deh, vieni alla finestra”, was not included in the show. Anyway, it was a fun and easy to digest way to listen to one of Mozart’s most famous opera.

Afterwards, we went to a traditionally decorated restaurant called Mama Lucy and had Pilsner Urquell (the most famous Czech beer and the first Pilsner in the world) and a monstrous board of cheeses that we didn’t even finish. Pilsner Uquell is quite a light (and dare I say uninteresting) lager, but in the next few days I find a lot more interesting beers as I discover that Prague is one of the best pleas in the world to drink beer (both in terms of variety, quality and price: it’s actually cheaper than ordering water!!!).

We finished the day by walking towards the Charles Bridge (the oldest and most beautiful bridge) which crosses the Vitava River. We marvel at the beautifully light up castle, the bridge itself and soak in the city lights.

Life of Luxury

On the verge of finishing 500ml of red wine in Taverna Old House in Nafplio, Greece, I’m inspired to finish my stay on Prague, as really I’ve moved 6 cities since then that I’m inclined to just give a less detailed account of my daily banalities from now on.

I did not expect on waking up that day that in a few hours I would move into the centre of Prague to a 5* Boutique Hotel called ‘Hotel Jalta, but that’s what happened. Life throws you some amazing surprises like that sometimes.

So after getting accustomed to my new plush accommodations and a killer view of Wenceslas Square, I grabbed an ice cream, a coffee and a vegetarian croissant for sometimes-vegetarian-although-not-always Lucie. We took our time, explored our new territory and went in search for dinner, ending up in an Italian restaurant in a very pretty square. The square itself was gorgeous, the sun was about to set and in my mind the Italian serenaders were playing ‘Bella Notte’. I ordered a Brushetta (it never came – there goes the waiters tip) and a seafood pasta, and although the service was sub-par the ambiance was divine, so we decided to continue riding this lovely experience and proceed to a wine bar we passed by en route to this restaurant.

The wine bar wasn’t really a wine bar and it had no dessert, so I grabbed Lucie and we decided to end the night at the Medvîdkü Brewery (which we discovered a couple of days later during a beer tasting session was a famous beer house). I ordered two beers: an unfiltered half-dark beer called Oldgott and the strongest beer Prague had to offer – the XX-33 – which had 12% of alcohol, a natural malt-flavour, a sweet caramel taste and a pleasant bitter aftertaste. I started chatting with an American girl next to us who was travelling by herself as she filled us with tips on what to do when we reach our next stop, Munich, as she just came from there. I forget all the tips the gave us, both when we were in Munich and right now. I’m sure we did them though, we were there long enough. =)

The Next Day

Started with a GLORIOUS breakfast. The best I’ve had since I started travelling: beans, sausages, bacon, mushrooms, bread, cereal, croissants, cheeses… The whole shebang! I eat what is humanly possible…

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We brisk walked to the old town square, and after the Irish bloke who collected the €7 equivalent in Czech crowns told us we have 5 minutes before the tour started, Lucie picked up a new pair of shades. An important detail I’m sure in the course of this day.

A woman of less than standard height whom I thought was from South East but turned out to be from somewhere else in Europe, lead us from the square towards the castle for our tour. Now, skipping the details and focusing on the highlights: we go through the monastery where we have a beer, ammm…. Some more historical stuff about the castle…. We go back to the monastery where we have a beer, a beer soup and chicken marinated in beer. It was sublime.

We then, through no intention of our own other than hopelessly hoping to find a shop that would sell us tickets for the tram, embark on a loooooong walk from the castle back down into the center. It’s not completely in vain as doing so leads us close to the John Lennon wall which we decide to visit, and upon doing so discover the beautiful streets and enticing restaurants west of the river Vitava!

A man on an official booth offers us tickets on a cruise which Lucie is interested in, but I veto the decision as (a) the man isn’t black (b) he wasn’t dressed in a sailors outfit, and (c) the boat didn’t look like those small and cute traditional steam boats you would find going through New Orleans in the 1960’s. Lucie patiently nods at my insane requirements and we proceed to walk through an artificial beach with a flock of swans and a museum where shortly after we find a black man dressed in a sailors outfit offering us a boat ride in a traditional looking steam boat. Needless to say we accepted. =)

One John Lennon Wall and a trip back to the hotel later to freshen up later, we jumped on the boat at 7:30 pm to start the cruise with light and end it after sunset. Wow! What a beautiful sight we witnessed on that cruise.. It was just us and another couple, so very personalised, and the stage laid out before us couldn’t be any more perfect. Hopefully some photos will do my memory justice…

After the cruise, we proceeded to a restaurant on the west side that Lucie saw earlier and fancied. The food was good (it was Italian), the company was great and it was a fitting way to end the day.

Food, beer and more Beer

Morning arrives… again… It’s nice and reliable like that. Lucie isn’t feeling well and doesn’t come down for breakfast, so I try to make up for the situation by eating enough for the both of us. The logic is sound in my head so I go with it. We check out of our hotel and make our way to a more affordable establishment called the Arte Hostel located not too far north-east from the Old Town Square.

So after checking out from Hotel Jalta, booking our buses to Munich, walking a good 20 minutes or so to our new kip and then checking in, we decide all this hard work has earned us the right to chow down on some lunch, so we eat again. I read about a market called Halvelské trzské and passed by it before so suggest we go there in hopes that we find the holy grail of food markets (i’m forever the optimist). There isn’t a single booth that sells food (only souvenirs) so we settle on Thai food. There eating right behind us, is one of Lucie’s roommates from the dormitory she stayed in Amsterdam (what a small world… reminds me of when Itxaso and I were in South America and we would keep on bumping into people in different countries that we met countries before). She’s a pretty cool Aussie girl, dressed in an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-society fashion with big headphones around her ears which I always interpret as someone who appreciates quality sound reproduction, is sporting a specific look or as someone who wants to convey the message “don’t talk to me, I’m busy in my own little world”. Looking at the brand of her headphones, in on the fence between the latter two.

Lucie and I go to a 2 1/2 hour beer tasting session, which I’m suspicious about at first as I tell her I could buy 10 times the amount of quality beer for the same price, but I’m happy about the fact that I was wrong in my assumption about it (it turned out to be GREAT)!. There was only one more person doing the beer tasting with us, a girl who wasn’t even old enough to drink back in the USA, so it was nice to have this experience pretty much all to ourselves. Gives me more opportunity to ask my usual “but why is it…” and “how come…” style of questioning. Our beer guide, an Englishman who’s lived in Prague a fair while, obviously knew his stuff and drank beer with the same respect that I pay to wine. We tried 7 different kinds of beer (all lagers) ranging from the lager that started it all (Pilsner Urquell), moving through ones that have “better” quality hops (like Budweiser Budvar – which has nothing to do with the American Budweiser), and to ones that are darker and caramelised due to the use of dark malts (Kozel Cerny) and terminating with an Oldgott (which our beer guide was really talking up beforehand until I told him that I had this fresh off the tap the previous night in the only place in Prague). All in all, very educational and I definitely got a new level of appreciation for beer and what you can do with just three ingredients (I’ve forgotten at least half of what he told me naturally). But then again, with wine we only have one (grapes) and the range of results you can get as well is just staggering.

Lucie and I walked around town after this to find a place to eat (you’d swear we were hunters and gatherers always looking for food). I wanted to go to a place a good walk south of where we were for food and live jazz (it was rated online as one of the top jazz bars in Prague) but Lucie gave me a face that suggested I was suggesting something insane. So we settled on an Italian restaurant nearby and then live jazz with some drinks in another bar I had spotted earlier.

Bye bye Prague

The last day started with breakfast as it always does. It was nothing like the breakfast at our 5* palace we just came from, but what do you expect from one of the cheaper hostels in town.

We only had a few hours to kill before our bus to Munich, so I made my way to the Salvador Dali museum while Lucie went off to the old Jewish town and cemetery. I personally was all Jewished-out after the Corrie Ten Boom house and Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, the Jewish memorial and the Holocaust museum in Berlin, and the fact that I just read the Diary of Anne Frank (embarrassingly for the first time).

Salvador Dali was a surrealist painter and inspired by psychology (free association) and Einstein’s theory of relatively, so obviously I was attracted to his work. There seems to be a pattern with the painters I like… Van Gogh (post impressionist and fundamentally a pretty messed up guy), Picasso (cubism… was probably pretty messed up too based on how he painted women)… Not a big fan of classical or renaissance paintings to be honest.

Anyway, after the museum we went in the farmers market. I had seen it previously and made a mental note to come back, so I did (and dragged Lucie along, bless her). So I strolled around pretending I was deciding what to eat when I knew damn well what I was going to eat: fresh salmon with vegetables, a glass of fresh juice and for dessert (not quite along the same theme but who cares) beer frankfurters. There were gypsies next to us playing music: Imagine Bob Marley (but with a look of constipation), his faithful missus on the bongo’s and a guy on lead guitar who can actually play. Despite my unfair description of them, their playing style is mesmerising and relaxing and time passes very slowly as we listen to them.

Lucie gets hungry for a place with wifi… I can’t recall now why… But I bargain with her we’ll find wifi in a coffee shop, so we proceed to look for a place. The requirements get slightly more complicated when we throw a good view and ice cream in the mix, but eventually we find a place in the old town square that meets all the requirements and I enjoy the view with confidence that a double espresso can’t be that expensive here even if we are seated in the most touristy place in all of Prague.

A double espresso and ‘tap water’ sets me back 12 euros if I recall correctly. There goes my dinner money (I settle on a cheap chicken Caesar salad from a supermarket nearby with my remaining Czech crowns) and the balance in the universe is restored again.

We head back to the hostel, pick up our bags and catch the bus to Munich where a lovely girl called Sabrina who works in a Casino right next to Natacha’s flat greets us with a big smile (to accompany her big belly) and gives us the keys to the flat.

The flat is an adorable studio flat, with cut out magazine pictures on the wall and decorations akin to a creative person whose soul leaks to everything around her. Natacha leaves instructions and suggestions in little pieces of paper all over the flat about where to have breakfast, that she left us water and biscuits, that there’s a leak in the bathtub… It’s cute!!! I immediately understand why Jose and her are friends and get feel that we would get along too.

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