I begin this story on an overnight train that I just mounted in Brussels Belgium on the way to Prague, Czechoslovakia. I have been on the road now for seven days and the WWT has a variety of episodes to add to the series, since I began in London, moved on to Brugge, Belgium, then Gent, before finally ending up in Brussels. As in the past I felt the need for an exotic break from work, and my vacation time had reached its limit, where I begin to forfeit the days, so I needed to take off for at least two weeks. One approach was to stage a trip from a friend’s house in England so I checked out the map to see what countries lay within reach. To the north were Scotland and Ireland. I had been to France and Germany (to the East) twice in recent years (see two other WWT episodes), and I had a separate trip planned to the Netherlands later in the year. So I looked beyond these countries to Spain, Italy, and Czechoslovakia.
During the past few years I have been told by many that the most beautiful city in Central Europe is Prague. It took very little research to convince me that Prague was the target of my next adventure. My first thought was to take a train across Germany and make a few stops along the way. Tourists now have a new and powerful tool to aid in travel planning, the Internet. With a few hours of surfing I had discovered at least a half dozen possibilities that had not occurred to me before. By logging on to the Deutchebahn webb page I discovered train timetables that gave me the idea I finally selected as the plan. I could take the night train, leaving Brussels around dark and arriving in Prague at 8:30 AM the next day. Brussels is less than 3 hours from London by tunnel train.
Getting the train reservation to Prague was a greater problem than discovering it. Train reservations are not like plane reservations. Few agents seem to be able to relate even to the information that is available on the Internet. My agent waited until three days before I would leave the U.S. to inform me that she needed two weeks advance notice to get tickets. I then attempted to have a friend in England make them for me. The British agent was not much better. Without too many details I’ll just say, that I made the final reservations in Brussels myself after an extended time with a French agent and coming just shy of loosing my British friend. After having her tell me over and over that she could not get what I was asking for, she finally produced a set of tickets that seemed to be exactly what was on the printout from the internet. In the process she made a passing comment about the possibly of missing a connection in Cologne. Only after I had embarked did I realize that the train would leave Cologne with my bed precisely 9 minutes after I arrived from Brussels.
Fortunately, European trains can usually be used to set a watch, and the system is user friendly, so getting lost in the station is difficult, even for the WWT. One of the most important skills of a traveler is using the train/tram/subway systems. Posted in every station are large bulletin boards that tell every minute what is happening in the station and where. The tickets have numbers on them, some of which mean something useful. Unfortunately, the useful ones are buried in useless ones, a result of the mature bureaucracy principle. Learning subways is more difficult because the systems vary a lot. I left the Brussels train from gate 11, checked the tables, which told me my train would be at gate 7, and I made it with five minutes to spare. I even had time to check out the little diagram provided at the gate that tells you exactly where your place will be located on the train.
My sleeping room was a single; it had a bed and a small sink, which I used very flexibly, perhaps, even more flexibly than had been intended by the railway. I found that I could plug the laptop into the shaver outlet and save batteries. Most of the rooms had three people stacked in them, and they stood around in the aisles until past midnight drinking wine and conducting quite a party.
The first segment of the trip includes the stretch of the Rhine River, which is most beautiful. I lay in bed watching Koblenz, St. Goar, Bingen, Mainz, and finally Frankfort go by, thinking of the times I had been standing on the river watching these trains go by, and knowing that some day I would be in one of them. Even though it was dark, the scenery was still visible and beautiful.
Sleeping on a train can be described in the following way: Imagine attempting to sleep while a friend is constantly shaking you to wake you up. For a few hours it felt good to lay in bed and be rocked; it felt good until I realized that it would be hard to sleep. Unfortunately, the conductor could not speak English, so I had to attempt German, which almost got me by, but I never knew exactly what was going on. I had passed back and forth into sleep many times before finally drifting off in a deep sleep when someone banged on the door. Finally, I figured that it was a passport check. The next two bangings, about an hour apart went totally undeciphered. The only thing achieved was to wake me and piss me off.
All in all, the over night train trip was a plus, and I recommend it, if you like trains. But I think it would have been miserable had I been in the room with two other people, especially strangers.
Arriving in Prague at 9 o’clock in the morning is ideal. The Prague train station has a magnificent art neuveau sculpture that caught my attention for some time. I wandered about the station getting my bearings and making my decision about which hotel technique I would use. There are kiosks everywhere offering assistance with accommodations. This alone told me that the travel book comments saying hotel reservations in Prague are a must was a myth. So I chose the walk around method. My next need was to get some Czech money. A long line had formed at a change place. Later I was to find that in Prague, there is a change place every ten feet. Forget doing it in the station. My on the spot decision unfortunately was less wise…..in fact it was truly dumb.
An honest looking man walked up to me as I stood in line and said, “I am leaving Prague and need to turn in my Koronas. Seeing that I was holding a hundred dollar bill in my hand he said “These people are gong to give you 3000 Koronas. I will give you 3400, neither of us pays a commission and we both win. I looked at the line, and made a quick and stupid decision, falling right into the con. He took me aside, handed me the Koronas and asked me to count them. I counted only 3300, at which time he took them back, recounted them and agreed, and added another 100 Korona to the stack of bills and said, “okay, hide it quickly”. Later, when recounting, I discovered that at some point he had made a switch, leaving me with four hundred, not 3400 Koronas. This lesson cost me about 90 dollars. I will think up a rule for this eventually, since at the moment I am still a little embarrassed and pissed at myself for falling for the con. I remembered the silk sari con in New Delhi, but at least I got a nice sari (even if I did pay $100 too much.).
Such a loss could have been disastrous in the days when banks still did everything with paper. Nowadays, even in Prague, one can walk up to a machine with a Master Card, plug in a few numbers and walk away with 2000 Korona (about $60) in a matter of minutes.
I headed for town dragging my wheeled suitcase along, and immediately started looking for a place to stay, using the walk-a-round technique. The map provided a clear hint as to where the action would be. The target street was Vaclavske Namesti, which lies between the beautiful National Museum and the old town. Within five minutes I began to spot the hotels. The first one, the Janos Hotel, had rooms for about $250 per night. I hoped this wasn’t a sign of what was to come. The next place I checked, the Hotel Meran, had nice rooms for about $70 per night. The little research I had done had told me that this may be as good as it gets, so I signed on, checked in at 10AM, took a one hour nap and hit the streets.
My first target was the old town square or Starometska Namesti. As always, names in foreign countries are difficult to remember, since they relate to nothing in our vocabulary. It use to take days before I could remember and recognize such names. Ones first thought is to see the first few letters and pass over it without pronouncing the whole word. I found that to be a mistake. It is important to memorize and repeat names of the important street and squares. This knowledge is truly valuable in getting around a city.
This led to the Principle of Proper Noun Sounding (ProNSou): Foreign proper nouns such as streets and square names will not be recognizable even in short term memory unless they are sounded out and repeated. Avoid glancing over such words that may be reencoutered. Read them and say them to yourself until you can recognize the word. For example, one look at “Jones” Street is all you need. But one look at Svlestoscrsvovosky Street is not enough to be useful.
The best bargain in almost any city in Europe is a day pass on the local transportation system. Prague may be the epitome of this fact. One could literally buy a $2.00 ticket and spend an entire day just riding around and looking at this magnificent city. The pass covers the subway, trams, and buses, a fairly common procedure in Europe. The second best bargain is a good map with pictures on it that help you find yourself when you get lost. If you aren’t getting lost then you are being too careful. The real key is getting comfortable with each city’s mass transit system. Fortunately many subways and trams around the world follow the same general rules. In Prague, the information center provides a special booklet that explains everything in English and even provides a map, all for free. I wish every city did that. I never understood why travel books don’t consider this information important enough to provide in great detail. My travel book stated “The best way to get around in Prague is by using the trams.” It said nothing else about trams or how to use them. The WWT considers that learning to use the mass transportation system comfortably may be the most important and first thing one should learn about each city, the principle of MTC.
For some reason the profession of taxi driving has produced the most questionable and usually to be avoided transportation of all. Most of the people I talked to who had used taxis had been ripped off in Prague.
Prague is a culture-lover’s absolute dream. One could spend years totally absorbed in classical music, literature, art, and architecture without repeating anything. Never have I seen such a concentration of palaces, galleries, castles, music halls and art.
The old square is a truly spectacular site to see, containing a baroque church, a gothic cathedral, town hall and many other ancient buildings some dating to before the year 1000. Apparently, Hitler viewed Prague as a potential “elegant museum for an extinct race” (the Jewish race that he intended to eliminate) so he made sure no harm came to this place. In the cathedral Tycho Brahe, famed renaissance astronomer is buried. The ancient clock in the town hall is a major attraction, with large gatherings on the hour to see a complex story of time and how different people perceive it, including the 12 apostles who appear one by one. A skeleton holding an hour glass rings the bell, symbolizing that in the end, death separates each of us from that for which we spent all of our precious time. Curiously, the damn clock is so complicated, I never figured out how to tell time with it. I climbed the clock tower and got a great view of the central city.
One of the early things I noticed is that Prague is full of really gorgeous women. I don’t remember seeing anything quite like this anywhere in the world (except maybe Milan). It was a real pleasure to see so many attractive females in every direction. But I did have some serious touristing to do, so I began a touring experiment using the Thomas Cook travel guide I had purchased for Prague, which listed a series of walks and provided maps for each one.
I set out on walk one, which began with the old town square. That part was a mixed success; and quickly went down hill. After leaving the square, the map suggested I look for a Havelska Street. The first thing I noticed was that a perfect 10 passed me wearing a nearly transparent dress which in bright sunlight showed string panties underneath and no bra. After walking behind her for a few steps, she took a right hand turn onto a street that had no visible marking anywhere. I had a major decision to make. Should I stick to my plan or should I continue to enjoy this display for a while?
I violated the Shordis principle and stuck to my plan, although it made little difference, since I was lost and on a completely wrong path almost immediately. The problem is that street names change often and markings are not always easy to find (The Bursna effect). After walking around several blocks, I discovered that the sexy woman had gone down the street I should have taken. I had not listened to the universe. I continued to follow the suggested walk. What should have been a two mile 1.5 hour walk turned into a four hour, 5 mile walk during which I inadvertently lost the proper course six times. After that, I took the travel book much less seriously and just walked around with little planning.
If you go to Las Vegas, you are constantly approached by street hawkers who give out leaflets advertising sex shows, massages, and call girls. In Prague the leaflets are even more ubiquitous, but here they advertise symphonies, operas and other classical entertainment. On any night, there is an opportunity to choose from literally hundreds of concerts held in churches, halls, and arts centers.
By the end of the first day I had walked and gawked until I was exhausted and my neck was sore from looking at sculptures high up in the architecture. I collapsed and slept until 9 o’clock. At breakfast a young Australian lady, named Dorothy, asked to share my table and we immediately began to compare notes. This woman had been traveling over Europe for three months already and still had two to go before returning to a new job search. Suddenly, I felt like an amateur at this. After some discussion of our plans for the day, I ask her if she wanted to team up for the day and she agreed.
Traveling in pairs improves efficiency and overall enjoyment a great deal. Having been at this for three months, she was extremely skilled at finding her way around. It really takes two people to figure out a foreign system smoothly. Between the two of us we covered a tremendous amount of territory in one day, including the Prague Castle, the Loretta Convent, and at least a half dozen palaces and churches. It makes no sense to go into great detail on any one of these sites because they are all overwhelming. Words and even pictures cannot describe the feeling one gets, for example when standing at the Philosophy library in the Strahov Monastary. The library contains carved wooden bookshelves on two levels with a 30 foot barreled ceiling covered with a fresco describing the development of mankind and his struggle with knowledge. This library contains nearly a million volumes dating back to the year 400.
At 8 we ended the day with an excellent Czech meal at the restaurant of The Two Cats, and a symphony held in the Saint Nicholas Church. It is amazing to have participated with a total stranger from morning until late night with such intensity and to part, with no more than a simple hug, knowing we will probably never meet again. I am still pandering the meaning of this brief, intense friendship.
On the third day I was bouncing around between churches and museums and riding the trams everywhere. The Basilica of St. Nicholas is perhaps the most spectacular Baroque church I have ever seen. The Baroque sculpture with gold leaf, angels flying everywhere, leave not a space or ledge in the church without something sitting on it offering what is almost more than the eye can stand. The frescoes covering the curved ceilings were done with such skill that one could not tell where the wall ended and the ceiling began.
The National Gallery of Prague is spread all over Prague, in Museums, Castles, Churches, Monasteries, Libraries, and Convents. It has a tremendous collection of art. I visited two galleries to cover the period from early Christian Art to the nineteenth Century. I have been accustomed to seeing collections of this type of art with a few pieces and a few painters whom I recognize by name. In the gallery of the Starbotski palace I stumbled into entire rooms of paintings by every great name I had ever known and literally hundreds of magnificent pieces by artists I had never heard of. I went through a range of emotions beginning with excitement of seeing such works of Giotto, Della Francesca, Durer and others from the ancient to the more modern pieces of Rubens and Rembrant. Soon I was in total overwhelm realizing that I could hardly scratch the surface even in this one place.
One of the insights was not in the famous pieces but in the not so famous pieces. I realized that many extremely talented artists never get much exposure outside of these walls. One wonders how the ones who did become famous managed. I have a theory. If a gallery has certain pieces and can convince the public that they are outstanding, then naturally, the gallery itself becomes famous. I realized that a lot of luck and politics must be involved in the process. My guess is that had Czechoslovakia been a free country, a number of early masters would be more famous in the west than they are now. Maybe they will still yet achieve their deserved fame.
I love the Czech cuisine, and after routinely spending 20 or 30 dollars for a meal in Brugge, I was stunned to find a complete meal with all the beer I could drink would come to about five bucks in Prague. The beer alone is worth a trip to Prague. After a long day of walking, I discovered the real meaning of “quaffing” a beer. A half liter glass of beer typically cost about a dollar. The travel book I was using made two colossal errors and prices were one of them. Prices in Prague are really reasonable. My hotel room, about 75 dollars would have cost twice that in London or New York. The other mistake was about pollution. Apparently, something major happened in Prague since the book was written. The book went out of the way to express concern over polluted air. In fact, I have not seen a cleaner city in Europe. One can stand in the Prague Castle and have a clear view over the entire city without any sign of smog. This came as a great relief to me.
On my last day, I visited the Jewish part of the city. I had heard much about Josifo, and my expectations were quite high. I will probably be accused of anti-Semitism here, but I will say this. If you are Jewish, then definitely visit Josefo. If you are not, save it for last and do it if you have seen everything else. It is the least of my favorite places in Prague. The place is a collection of small, highly commercialized synagogues for which they charge about 15 dollars to visit in a package deal. There is not a whole lot to see and none of the buildings is large enough to handle the number of people to whom they have sold tickets. It is a kind of a Jewish propaganda machine, where you pay to learn about Judaism. The Jewish cemetery is a strange spectacle to see. It would seem to be a lesson in what happens when everyone insists on getting something that is not really available, namely space. They piled the graves on top of each other and after hundreds of years. tombstones are piled up in a heap with little order. They should have learned about cremation and not insisted on such large tombstones. There is no way to read what is on most of the tombstones, so none really got what they wanted here.
After a few more hours of drifting around on the trams, I kept seeing new things to look at. When it started to rain, however, I decided that it was a good time to visit the local Internet café. These places are true gems, allowing travelers to stay in touch with friends and family all over the world. I spent a few hours of pleasant time answering email and relaxing with coffee in a quiet environment. More and more it seems that the Internet will play a key role in travel.
I paid one last visit to the old town square and began stocking up on food for the long return train ride. Then I jumped on the Metro and was standing in the main train station in 10 minutes. I had learned Prague well enough that I could no longer get lost; according to WWT procedures, therefore, it was time to leave. Standing at the gate I realized that I had accumulated a pocket full of Czech coins, which would go somewhat to waste. Remembering how much I had enjoyed the Czech beer, I decided to put these coins to good use. With my pocket change I purchase three half liter bottles of fine Czech Pilsner, a little harder to carry, but much more useful later on.
I mounted the sleeping car at 21:30 and settled into my room. This time was much less confusing and even more enjoyable. The conductor even spoke English. I broke out the goodies I had purchased in the city and made myself a snack before turning in for the night. One more discovery adding to the night was a shower, so I went to bed clean. Once again I lay in bed swaying from side to side wandering if anyone could really sleep like this. But it was easier this time and I slept until the immigration guys banged on the door to see my passport, first the Czech, then the German. I wondered what they would do to someone who did not have a passport at two o’clock in the morning, throw him off?
I knew and was anticipating the magnificent stretch along the Rhine after Frankfort, so I was up at 7:30, packed, fixed myself a nice fruit, bread, and cheese, breakfast and sat back and waited. Shortly past Frankfort the train made the swing into the river region and like magic the view suddenly became a continuous narration of castles, old villages, and boats making their way up and down the Rhine. At that moment the conductor brought me a cup of coffee. I cannot imagine a more pleasant way to spend the early morning hour. I almost dreaded arriving in Koblenz because it meant leaving this beautiful scenery. To my pleasant surprise, the view continues almost to Cologne, another hour away.
At Cologne I had a 30 minute layover. Since the incredible Gothic Dom Cathedral is next to the railway station I had just time to leave the station and walk around the outside of this structure. Of all of the cathedrals I have seen this one is the most striking from the outside. The builders of this church worked on it for nearly a thousand years. Once you see it you can believe that. I reflected on my last visit to this cathedral a few years ago with my (now deceased) mother (See Number 2 in the series). I could still see her standing in this very spot in complete awe, tears of joy and excitement streaming down her face.
From Cologne to Brussels was a relatively quiet three hours. In Brussels I used the three-hour layover to visit what may be the most beautiful old square in Europe, “Grand Place”. Trams in Brussels are also easy to use, but I elected to walk from the station “Gare Midi” since I had the time. Near the Grand Place is the famous statue “Mannequin Pis”. Who would have ever thought that a city would choose a little boy pissing on the sidewalk to symbolize the city? As it happens, the women’s libbers have introduced a new statue recently to Brussels called “Janequin Piss”, which is also near Grand Place.
One note of interest here are the stations in Brussels, a confusing exercise in language. Since Brussels is a two language city, French and Flemish, all public places have two names. There are three stations (Gare’s), a North, a South, and a Central station. The confusions are the following: Trains coming from the North go to the south station first. The French for South is “Midi”, so one must know that Midi means South and not Central. A lack of this knowledge can lead to panic in Brussels.