Prague; White skies and why they suck; Stalin replaced by a metronome; The Castle and the Cathedral; Storms at Parliament; The Charles Bridge; In which I get us lost because of goulash

We had a very early start in the morning - the bright light from the room’s window woke us both up at 7, and so we decided to capitalize on it. It was nice because we had the showers to ourselves - much preferable because they were locker-room style - no separate stalls. Also we got first shot at a good breakfast and were able to make enough ham and cheese sandwiches to last us through the whole day. Now that I think about it, it was probably the best hostel breakfast so far - the usual bread, jam and cereal, but lots of different kinds of cheese and cold cuts, yoghurt, pasta salad, sausage for those who wanted it (not us) and some sort of chopped-ham-and-onion dish we also skipped. Funny, because it was also the cheapest hostel of any so far.

The weather today was miserable - chilly and raining, with bright white overcast skies. This kind of weather is absolutely the worst for photography, and I knew I would delete nearly everything I shot, but I shot anyway just out of stubbornness. We walked along the Vltava River, counting the bridges as we went (Prague has ten bridges, but two of them are only railway bridges). There’s a gigantic sculpture of a metronome ticking away atop one of the hills on the north side of the river, and this intrigues us enough to make the climb. Turns out it’s a kinetic sculpture built on the site formerly occupied by a gigantic statue of Joseph Stalin, which struck me a bit funny.

Prague Castle, reputedly the largest castle complex in the world, is more like a small, walled town. It houses multiple palaces and cathedrals within its walls. I’m not sure it warrants the term ‘castle’, though - I always thought a castle was necessarily a single building. But what do I know? It was certainly impressive. We watched the changing of the guard at noon (or shortly after noon, as everything in the Czech Republic happens between five and ten minutes late). All the guards looked monumentally bored, and a bit silly in their overdecorated uniforms (I almost want to write ‘costumes’) goose-stepping around with outstretched rifles.

The admission price to actually enter the buildings inside the castle complex was far too steep (350Kč, around CAD$25) and so we didn’t get to see the inside of the most magnificent Gothic cathedral I’ve ever seen - St. Vitus’. We did try to sneak in the exit, but got caught by the guard and politely evicted.

Coming down the hill from the castle, we saw the strangest thing - a wall, or maybe the side of a building, that looked rough and natural like the side of a cliff, but too regular in colour and shape to be anything but artificial. In fact, it looked from a long distance like nothing so much as a huge pile of distorted human figures standing on each others’ shoulders, all in black and grey. When we finally found it, though, it was nothing of the kind. It was a sculpture at the Czech parliament building that was meant to look like the inside of a cave, with dripstone and flowstone and hidden faces here and there. We were in the middle of admiring it, being big fans of caves, when a huge thunderstorm broke the sky apart. We ran for the nearest shelter - the vaulted arcade of the Parliament building itself - and hid there, not considering that the parabolic curves of the ceiling would form a perfect amphitheatre and magnify the sound of the thunder. When the storm passed and the rain stopped we staggered dazed and half-deafened (three quarters in my case, since I was half-deaf to begin with) into the gardens, where we fed the giant koi and took pictures of the white peacock until our ears stopped ringing.

The Charles Bridge is probably the most tourist-infested place in Prague. It’s a beautiful old stone bridge with towers at either end and statues along its length on both sides. Very pretty and very elegant, but because of the crowds it was no fun at all, and impossible to get a decent photograph. There were vendors selling prints of the bridge with no people on it, which tells you everything you need to know about the experience. I’m not sure how the photos were taken - perhaps at dawn in the middle of winter - because I never saw the bridge but when it was choked with people. Some of the backpackers I’ve been talking to have dismissed Prague as ‘discovered’ and therefore of no interest. I don’t share that sort of more-obscure-than-thou travel snobbery, but on the Charles Bridge it was difficult to remember why.

Tired and hungry at this point, we returned to the hostel for dinner and a nap, and went out walking again as darkness was falling. I’d found a small bottle of Czech rum (which I didn’t know existed) called Božkov Tuzemsky, and we filled our flasks with it and sipped it as we walked. It doesn’t compare to my beloved Mount Gay, which I miss terribly, but it was certainly drinkable.

Prague’s historical town centre is quite elegant and charming. The cathedral and the various public buildings were nicely lit, and the main square, Starometskyé nám, is lined with nice cafés that we’d never be able to afford. It’s nice to watch the rich people having a good time, though. We resolved to come back during daylight hours to see the buildings better and have a look at the famous Astronomical Clock. I was happy to find an alternative clothing store that looked as if it might sell hair dye, and so we put that on the list for the morning as well.

After walking another hour or two it was 11pm and we were hungry again. This was a problem - we tried one place after another, and although there were lots of bars open, no one was serving food anymore. We really should have taken the hint and gone back to the hostel to make our own food, but we weren’t quite ready for the evening to be over, and I was craving goulash. We did manage to scare up some food and I did get my goulash in the end, but it took ages to find a place. Of course, no sooner had we paid and left, than one more turn of a corner showed us a dozen food stalls and cheap restaurants. Sometimes the universe is trying to tell you something when things get annoying and difficult, and it pays to listen. Other times, of course, it’s just the universe being annoying and difficult (or sometimes, as our German friend Armin is wont to say, it’s because God hates you).

I can’t blame God for getting us lost on the way back to the hostel, though - I managed that all by myself. One wrong turn took us to the other end of the city, and I didn’t really realize it until there was a river where there shouldn’t have been. There was a little bit of serendipity though - we saw the famous ‘dancing buildings’ (nicknamed Fred and Ginger) - an odd bit of architecture which looks as if one building is swooning into the arms of the other. I personally didn’t begrudge the longer-than-intended walk, since it was a beautiful misty night.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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