Prague, Sun and some Gelato

Prerona Ray Baruah

Once upon a time, when I was still a student in Munich, I had all the time in the world and had none of the responsibilities that come with being a working professional like I currently have. And so, I made plans to go off to the Czech capital, Prague, for a weekend with my then roommate, Surabhi. Surabhi was, and hopefully still is, a vivacious girl and had come to stay with me for a couple of months. Before she moved into my place, we were mere acquaintances from our university but thankfully, we got on really well, like a house on fire. We had initially planned on visiting Prague with a few other friends, who for various assorted reasons had to cancel. So this was a defining trip for the two of us because it was the first time I was charge of a whole trip and it was just us two girls travelling by ourselves. I couldn’t have asked for a better travel mate!

We booked our hostel online and set off to Prague in a train from Munich. I’m someone who loves planning things beforehand and had made a detailed itinerary with a lot of research work for our two-day trip. Surabhi was happy to ‘go wherever I took her’, as she told me and I was happy to lead the way. Thus began our somewhat solo trip. We reached Prague’s central railway station, Hlvani Nadrazi, late at night after a 6 hour journey. We discovered that the only way to buy metro tickets was through the automated ticket vending machines which had everything written in Czech and only accepted coins. All currency exchange shops were closed but thankfully, I had previously acquired some Czech currency from a friend who had visited the country before. There were 2 girls there who agreed to exchange their coins for our notes and hence we were able to buy our tickets, phew! But our journey was far from over. Upon arrival at our destination metro station, we were unable to find the way to our hostel in the dark and thus went into a 5 star hotel in the vicinity to ask for directions. I wish we were staying there instead at the same price as the hostel’s! Having got our directions from a very helpful receptionist, we finally arrived at our hostel. We had beds in a room meant for 6 girls, who weren’t present when we entered. We took over 2 of the beds which seemed to be unclaimed and slept fitfully albeit a little discomfort owing to the lack of an air conditioner and having woken up briefly in between when our fellow roommates came in late, perhaps from a party.

The next morning we woke up early, had a dismal but expensive breakfast at the hostel and headed out to cover all the places I had on my list. The map we acquired at a tourist information centre was our best friend during our time in Prague. This time when we took the metro, we bought ourselves children’s tickets since they were cheaper. We took to our advantage the fact that everything on the machine was in Czech and decided to use that as an excuse in the event we were caught – helpless tourists who didn’t understand Czech. A risky endeavour which luckily worked out for us! Feeling victorious, we landed up at Wenceslas Square. Our mission was to walk from there to the famous Charles Bridge and crossover to the Lesser Town, Malá Strana, on other side of the river Vlatva. Malá Strana is where all the beauty of Prague lay, at least according to my research, which later turned out to be true. We took a photo in front of the statue of Old King Wenceslas, since we saw other tourists doing the same.

Finding Charles Bridge required us to go up and down the main road called ‘Narodni’ a few times, being the clueless tourists that we were despite having a big map. I’ll remember this road for the rest of my life! We then went into a small bakery, not to buy or eat anything but to ask for directions. The girl at the counter was sweet. Here’s how she gave us the directions. She drew on a piece of paper explaining, “You go straight from here and you come to a bridge. That’s not Charles Bridge. Take a right and go straight along the river. You’ll come to another bridge. It’s beautiful. That’s not Charles Bridge. Walk on for 5 more minutes. THEN you’ll come to a bridge with statues on along both sides. THAT’S the bridge.”  We thanked her, followed her instructions and found our bridge.

Charles bridge lived up to our expectations. It’s a magnificent Gothic bridge that was commissioned by the Czech King Charles IV in 1357 and it’s said that egg yolks were mixed with the mortar to increase the bridge’s strength. The bridge has in fact, survived many floods unlike its predecessor. The egg yolks have done a good job I suppose! What makes this cobbled bridge so striking is that there are a number of Baroque statues lined up on both sides all along the way and it’s only meant for pedestrians. So when we crossed it at various times of the day, it was full of people. It’s also a host to artists making beautiful sketches and paintings while selling their artwork, vendors of various handicrafts and musicians playing beautiful pieces while people cheer them on. That evening on our way back, when we came back along this bridge, we stopped for a while to listen to a band play beautiful renditions of ABBA’s Mamma Mia songs, the Game of Thrones soundtrack etc. on classical instruments like the cello, flute and violin. With the illuminated Prague Castle against the twilight sky as the backdrop, it was a heavenly combination!

An enchanting evening on the Charles Bridge with ABBA music played by these talented musicians.

Coming back to our morning, we reached the other end of the bridge to enter Malá Strana through one of the towers that flanks both ends of the bridge. Stepping into Mala Strana was akin to stepping back in time. It has this old world charm, as if not much has changed in the past few centuries. The quaint, narrow alleys with small, old shops on either side are very easy to get lost in, which we didn’t mind at all because every nook and cranny was more intriguing than the other! Every few metres, there were more such alleys that branched off in different directions. One can easily spend hours wandering these cobbled lanes, like we did. We discovered some bizarre but very interesting shops in those lanes! We came across a ‘museum of terror’, vintage doll shops and an ‘Alchemists museum’ to name a few. We merely posed in front of those for photos because we didn’t have either the time, interest or money to go into each mind boggling store. It was a very sunny and hot August day, so we consumed a great amount of lemonade and gelato throughout the day to beat the heat. During summer, there are a lot of shops that sell fresh homemade lemonade in large glasses for about 50 Kronors. They were our lifesavers!

After a lunch of delicious risotto at a random cafe in a random alley, we marched to the next place on our agenda – the Lennon Wall, an iconic wall full of John Lennon inspired graffiti since the 1980s. During the Communist regime in the 1980s, Czech students carried out a non-violent ‘Lennonism’ movement and wrote their grievances on the wall. This was a symbiloc leg of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 against the Communist regime. The outcomes of this revolution were fall of the regime with democracy being restored and the breakup of erstwhile Czechoslovakia into present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia.

We walked around in circles trying to find this historic wall and finally went into a small restaurant to ask for directions. What ensued what a tad bit comical. Surabhi kept asking for ‘Lebanon wall’ instead of ‘Lennon wall’ and despite correcting her, she proceeded to ask for ‘Lebanon Hill’, which resulted in very quizzical looks from the waiters there. So I stepped in and asked for the correct wall and we were told it was right around the corner. It’s a colourful piece of wall with a myriad of images and Beatles’ lyrics on it. I think we too wrote something on it, though I don’t quite remember what it was.

We came across this John Lennon Pub (right) near the Lennon Wall (left).

One of my senior colleagues at work, a German man, narrated an interesting experience of his in the country. In 1983, he had visited what had been Czechoslovakia at the time, for a school trip. To give some context to what follows in this story, this was just a few years after East and West Germany had been unified. Prior to the unification, East Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia and after World War II, the Soviets liberated the country from the Germans. This region of the country had a lot of East Germans residing there. My colleague and his school friends, along with some local East German boys, were walking down the street singing German songs. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived and arrested only the local East German boys. When asked why they didn’t arrest all of them, their reply was, “You (West Germans) came here just once and they (East Germans) came here twice causing trouble- during World War II and now.”

The following day, we set off to see the Prague Castle. This time, we took the metro going under the river to the other side of it in order to save time. After coming out of the ‘Starometska’ metro station, we undertook a long uphill walk to get to the castle premises and had breakfast comprising of different cakes in a cafe located somewhere along the stairs. We climbed hundreds of these stairs, past a couple of musicians to reach the zenith of our climb – the castle grounds. It’s the largest ancient castle in the world, covering 70,000 square metres, more like a mini city at the top of a hill. This is also where we discovered our true talent of clicking terrible selfies. Needless to say, we spent a few hours exploring the grounds. We accidently came across the Royal Palace Garden which had some beautiful topiaries, following which we somehow landed at the doorstep of the enormous Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral. I was very fascinated with the gargoyles on the sides of its roof. Back in the day, gargoyles were put on buildings to ward off bad luck and protect against devastation. During the second world war, the cathedral was the only building which wasn’t impacted at all during by the bombings. Locals owe this to the gargoyles’ protection. After a few minutes of oohing and aahing over the cathedral, we got bored and decided to head down to Mala Strana for lunch and to discover more cute alleys.

With the help of our trustworthy map, we found our way to the Lesser town, criss crossing through lanes, drinking lemonade. The rest of the day was leisurely and uneventful, with the minor exception of the wind causing havoc with my hat and our map. It made my hat fly off from my head making me run after it like a moron and it made the map fly into my face whenever I opened it. For the latter, we resorted to placing the map on the ground and standing on it, facing the direction of the map in order to figure out the correct direction of our route. It worked out for us most of the time.

Our journey back to Munich was a bit tiresome. The central train station didn’t have clear signs or information displays regarding the platform numbers. So we happily waited on the wrong platform, clicking photos to kill time, thinking that our train was late. A while later we still didn’t realise at first that it was the wrong platform but thought that the train had never come. We promptly went back to the ticket counter and complained about the train not coming. The lady told us that the train had in fact come and left with passengers who, unlike us, were on the right platform at the right time. In hindsight, this ís a hilarious piece of memory but at the time, we were thoroughly annoyed at the station people who were in charge of putting up signs, at ourselves for our stupidity and at the fact that we had to wait for 4 more hours for the next train. 4 hours later, when we finally boarded our train, we found out that it had no AC coaches like the previous train we took to come to Prague. Hence our journey back was a tiring one in the sweltering heat, but we also felt strangely empowered for having found our way through this entire trip all by ourselves.

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