It’s said that nothing beats learning through experience. A day into my weekend trip to Prague, however, I realized it would have been just as well if my knowledge of Prague began and ended only on the pages of WikiTravel.
I never wanted to be on the Amazing Race. But after a few missed alarm clocks, I found myself running at top speed through Vienna’s transit system to the other side of the city. Running on about 3 hours of sleep (combined), our troop of eight girls, armed with large backpacks and full winter gear, sped across each train platform, up and down stairs, and crossed streets without looking both ways. It was like an episode of Benny Hill. We arrived at 7:56, our bus was at 8. Exhausted and sleep deprived, I was asleep before my butt hit my bus seat.
Four hours of the bumpiest highway ever later, we arrived in Prague. Unfolding ourselves from our cramped bus sleeping positions, we set off to find a bathroom. Bathrooms in Prague are apparently a hot commodity as they all come with a fee. After my friend handed the bathroom attendant one Euro to cover the 0,50 Euro charge, the attendant began yelling at us in Czech. I won’t lie: my German is horrific, but my Czech is even worse. She gesticulated wildly in an attempt to cross the language barrier, grabbing our shoulders and holding up one or two fingers. We were completely at a loss. Turns out she was actually saying that for the one Euro, two of us could go. Later, my friend admitted that she thought that she was asking what exactly it was we needed to do: one or two.
After recovering from that experience, we went to exchange our Euros for Czech crowns. Fun fact: €1 ≈ 23 Kč. For the entire trip, I never quite got used to seeing a bill come to 400 Kč or shoes for 1650 Kč. After that, nothing went smoothly.
We decided to buy a bus pass for the weekend as we are upstanding citizens. We approached the counter and asked for a 72 hour transit pass. The woman behind the counter just said, “No.” “NO?” “All out.” How on earth could you be entirely out of 72 hour passes? After a short fuss, we coughed up the money for one day, which was actually incredibly lucky as little did we know that after that day we would never again take public transit.
I lied, our hostel was also amazing, so this was also a big plus. We were put in an all girls dorm, and since there were eight beds and eight of us, we had the entire place to ourselves. With high ceilings, a “nice” (by hostel standards) shower, a full kitchen complete with wine opener, a TV room, eight luxuriously comfortable beds, and next to the centre of Prague, €7 a night was a ridiculous steal. It felt like one big sleepover party. After a quick settling in, we set off to find some food as we were all starving. Eventually we came to a restaurant serving traditional Czech food (our only requirement) and were sat at a large round table by a man in a knight costume (who we originally thought was a mannequin standing by the door. That was quite a surprise). Why not, I guess. Eastern Europe isn’t exactly known for it’s delicate and light vegetarian fare, so I settled for potato soup served in a large bread bowl. Everyone else got variations on big lumps of red meat served in cauldrons or cast iron skillets. And albeit quite good, I felt like I should have had a goblet of mead accompanying me. I really wouldn’t have been out of place because as it turns out the water is actually more expensive there than the beer. It’s apparently not uncommon to see people drinking beer with their breakfast. I think I’ll stick to my coffee and orange juice, but I can respect that.
After a brief but beautiful tour of the city from a friend’s friend who was doing his exchange there, we all went right to bed to sleep in preparation for going out that night. When we woke up, we prepared a wine/cheese/tapas menu that came from the Minimart down the street. It’s amazing what kind of meal you can put together from a Czech convenience store. Thank goodness for pictures because otherwise we wouldn’t have had any idea what we were buying. After we licked the bowls clean and put on our faces, we set off into the night.
And now here comes the good (near death) part:
We were told by our friend’s friend about a pub called, well, PUB, where you serve your own beer as each table has its own tap. The amount of beer poured gets tracked on a large screen, and it ends up being a big drunken competition between all the tables. As I LOVE beer (NOT. Can’t even smell it without feeling a little green), it was the perfect place to go. We just had to take the subway a few stations, and we’d be right there. As we descended to the train station, something did not feel right. The air was stiff with tension. As we rounded the corner, we came upon 30 police in full riot gear including snarling German Shepards (that were actually probably part horse) standing right at the top of the escalators we needed to go down to get to our platform. They looked at our blood drained faces from over their masks, and waved us on through. Halfway down the escalator, a police officer at the bottom gestured that we needed to go back up, and we readily complied. He told us we could go down another way to get to the right train line so we scurried off in that direction, whispering excitedly about what was going on. We rationalized that it couldn’t have been anything too bad if they had originally let us go down, but the horse-dogs said otherwise. We started to go down yet another set of escalators in another location when up from the bottom came the noise of chanting, screaming, yelling, and drums. It felt like a conveyor belt into Hell. When we came to the bottom of the escalator, we scrambled to turn back around.
There was no up escalator.
So, we did the only thing we could think of: we ran up the down escalator. It was the longest run of my life as the stairs kept pulling me downwards and several Czech men leaned over the railing to yell insults at me. When we all finally made it to the top, we watched the riot police run past us and down the stairs. We only stuck around long enough to hear women start screaming.
We ran out of the train station and gasped for air, adrenaline pumping and legs aching. Some girls said they wanted to stand to the side to watch what was going to happen. I said that we didn’t even know what was happening and, as such, wouldn’t know if the “side” could become the potential middle of the action. So, we scurried off into the night.
We decided we would walk the rest of the way to The PUB even though we didn’t really know where it was. Every street begins to the look the same in the middle of the night in a foreign city, especially after a quick brush with death. We were about to give up, when through pure chance, we ran into a group of boys from our school. We almost jumped into their arms, we were so happy to see a) friendly faces b) bodies to protect us from stray bullets. Our story came out in one jumbled mess, and it was clear they had showed up at just the right time. They decided to come with us, and as we had sworn off the subway, we restarted our efforts to find the pub with slightly less shaky legs.
TWO HOURS LATER, when hope was all but lost, and we were running out of taxi drivers to ask where the Charles Bridge was, we finally found our exchange friend who lead us the rest of the way. But after everything that had happened that day, we decided to call it an early night, anyways.
We slept in the next morning with plans to have a lazy breakfast and then go for a free tour of Prague. We went to a nice breakfast joint near our hostel, and were overjoyed to see a big menu of familiar breakfasts. While I do love the European style of breakfast with muesli and yogurt or bread and cheese, sometimes you just crave a big Canadian breakfast complete with omelettes, hash browns, and a mile of maple syrup. After ordering, we waited about 40 minutes for our food to come out. There were two other tables in the entire place, so we couldn’t figure out what the hold up was. Oh, and by “our food”, I mean only 4 out of the 8 meals were brought out. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Another 30 minutes later, two more plates arrived. Eventually there was only one plate left that needed to be served. When we asked the waiter about it, he replied it would only be 15 more minutes, then added, “No rush.” Wait a second…isn’t that what we’re supposed to say to him, not the other way around?
There actually was a rush as it was getting dangerously close to when we needed to get to our tour (we ended up missing it).We decided to give ourselves our own guided tour around. The tour consisted mostly of bakeries, cafes, and an embarrassing number of photo ops. The best part of the entire trip was the sun. While the weather might have been a little nippy, seeing blue skies felt like an instant bandaid for everything that had happened.
Since we had arrived, the girls wanted to check out the street vendors selling giant sausages. Oddly, there were no veggie dogs, so I settled for a liquid meal of delicious, delicious mulled wine. As I watched the grease drip from the sausages with every bite and then heard all the complaints from the girls about the pain in their stomachs for the next two days, I had never been more pleased to be a vegetarian. The word sausage became so offensive, it was banned and became only known as the “s-word.”
When night time came around, we were invited to go to Karlovy Lázně, the largest club in Central Europe. I was a bit leery about going to it as most of Prague gave me an unsettled/unsafe feeling. It could have just been a bias created by our first night, but my suspicions were confirmed when a friend text us to tell us to steer clear of all the Eastern European gangsters who frequented the bar. Deciding resolutely I didn’t feel like having my night end up with some form of trafficking, we decided to find another local bar. Local eventually became a British pub. Not quite the same thing, but after wandering aimlessly for an hour, it was either that or TGIFriday’s. Prague’s supposed to be renown for its nightlife, but I’ve yet to see the riot-free proof.
The next day, we had to wake up early for check out despite our best doe-eyed, pearly white attempts to make it later. Since we were up and ready with no plans for the day, we decided to go again for breakfast. Another poor choice.
One of the girls on our trip is a manager of a clothing store in the States. She admitted to us that if she ever screwed up with a client, she’d always lie and say it was her first day. We made that excuse several times on behalf of our server, but eventually it didn’t even suffice for the absolutely embarrassing service. We ordered what looked like fantastic food in what was actually a very beautiful cafe. Our waiter began bringing out the food in bits and pieces: some muesli for her, some fruit for her, a cup of espresso for her, but no one had even close to a complete meal in front of them. Then a second server came around to see check our table, and we explained the laundry list of items we were all still missing. After about three or four tries, we finally received our entire meal. When the bill came, he had clearly had covered his eyes and starting tapping any and all buttons on the screen. We were overcharged for this, there was extra of that, it was a complete gong show. It was even more difficult to sort out because of the thick language barrier on both sides. We’re all lucky we’re patient people, otherwise it could have gotten ugly. When I come back to Canada, I am going to hug every server I meet. We decided then and there that despite it making us very poor global citizens, our dinner would be Subway.
Our group then split up between the Jewish ghetto and another self-guided tour (for monetary reasons, I chose the latter). We wandered the streets and crossed bridges, discovered a Communism memorial, and a church museum dedicated to the Baby Jesus complete with little baby gold robes and little baby crowns (it was a little eerie). We then picked up the aforementioned Subway (so. outrageously. delicious!) and collapsed in a heap at our hostel, waiting to meet up with the other half of our group. We left two hours early to get to the bus station to avoid a repeat of that first morning. As we lay around the bus, finally relaxing after a surprisingly eventful/tiring weekend in Prague, we came to one conclusion:
The best thing about Prague: The Subway.
The worst thing about Prague: The subway.
XOXO, Riot Grrl