A look at Eastern Europe.....
Trip Start Aug 22, 2011
18Trip End Sep 29, 2011
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It's hard to believe that I've been in Berlin for almost a week, and already it's time to leave. I made sure to get to the breakfast room right at 07:30 when it opened, as I didn't want to be late for my train which would be departing from the Hauptbahnhof at 08:48.
I left the Hotel just after 08:00 for the short walk to Savignyplatz station. I only had to wait a few minutes for the train and the ride to the Hauptbahnhof was short. In retrospect I probably didn't need to buy a transit ticket, as I believe my rail ticket would have covered that. Upon arrival at the huge main station, I had no trouble finding Track (Gleis) 2. The train arrived on time and I got settled in my reserved seat, which was in a section with four seats together
When the train departed, it took several minutes to actually get out of the station and break into daylight. The train passed many small towns and eventually reached the country where there were neatly tilled fields with small farmhouses. The train stopped in Dresden for about 15 minutes while they changed Locomotives. I took the opportunity to "stretch my legs" but didn't want to go too far as I wanted to keep watch on my Packs. Leaving the luggage alone when the train is in a station is a risky practice!
As the train neared the Czech border, the tracks started to parallel a small river and I noticed a few of the large river freighters. I could tell when we had crossed the border into the Czech Republic, as I could see the lonely and deserted Border station through the trees across the river.
At the first stop in the Czech Republic, a Mother, Father and small girl boarded the train and sat in the seat across from me, which had been vacated by its previous tenant
The train stopped at Praha Solevice station first, and finally arrived at Praha hl.n, which was my stop. I waddled to the exit and found the Taxi stand to the right. During the train trip, I had written down the name of the Hotel and the address on a small card and I showed that to the driver and asked the cost. He pulled out a small card which had prices listed to various parts of the city. I was tired and wanted to get to the Hotel quickly, so decided to take a chance on the station Taxis. That wasn’t a good decision, as the ride turned out to be two or three times what I should have paid (the Hotel owner cringed when I told her). It was good that I had obtained some Czech Crowns in Berlin as that helped to at least get me to the Hotel. I’ll have to visit an ATM soon to replenish my cash supply. The driver didn’t seem to know the way, as he had to use a Garmin GPS to figure out where the Hotel was
When I got to the Hotel, the door was locked but after ringing the doorbell a few times, the woman finally appeared. The front desk was up one flight of stairs and my room up one more flight. She asked for my Passport and that was the only registration I had to do. I climbed the final flight of stairs and then went past a small sitting area to reach my room. The Hotel is located in a building that is hundreds of years old and despite the age it’s been nicely renovated. The room was very comfortable, with two small single beds and a bathroom with the usual 3’ x 3’ shower (I’m getting used to those again). The only thing missing is a TV, which I’ll probably miss. I dropped my luggage and got organized and then went out for a “familiarization walkabout” and to get some lunch.
The Hotel owner suggested a small restaurant just around the corner that serves local specialties and of course the famous Czech Beer, so I decided to try that. It was about a two minute walk from the Hotel and not hard to find. She said that she dines there occasion and the food is good. I decided to order a Chicken dish with vegetables and of course a large Pilsener. It included two different types of Coleslaw, and I quite enjoyed the meal
After lunch I headed up to another part of town to find an ATM. There must be a lot of tourists in town, as there seemed to be a huge number of people in the streets. I found the ATM just inside a small convenience store, and although it said CitiBank on it, I was concerned that it was a “white label” machine with terrible exchange rates. My concerns were heightened at the end of the transaction as the machine asked if I wanted the conversion made to US dollars or with no conversion. The wording seemed to encourage users to take the conversion which heightened my suspicions. I decided not to, as I’ve heard about that scam before. As there didn’t seem to be any "normal" Banks in the area, I decided to use it anyway and withdrew Cz$3000. I’ll try and find a proper Bank ATM in the neighborhood in the next few days.
I wanted to have a look at the Charles Bridge next, but on the way there I decided to stop at a small Gelato shop and have a Gelato and Coffee. After that I headed in the general direction of the Charles Bridge
Just about everyone on the bridge had a Camera hanging around their neck, but I was surprised to see that lots of people were carrying DSLR Cameras of every shape and size. Many were the small entry level Cameras (both Canon and Nikon and other brands), but there were also quite a few professional models such as the Canon 5D Mark II.
As I walked up the bridge, I was watching not only the spectacle in front of me but also watching for pickpockets and scammers. The women at the Hotel had warned me about this, especially when she saw my Camera. Prague is often mentioned as a city that has a high incidence of petty crime, but surprisingly I didn’t see any of the usual types that I’ve encountered in other cities in Europe. I was being fairly vigilant, but didn’t see anything to be concerned with
As I walked across the bridge, I stopped frequently to watch the people and the different street entertainers, and also to get some photos. There was one band playing old Louis Armstrong tunes and they were really good. The percussion player was “playing” an old washboard that had a couple of small Cymbals attached to it, using a couple of steel whisks like the type used in the kitchen. He had the same “gravelly” voice and they put on an excellent performance! Unfortunately, I didn’t have any small bills on me or I would have given them a donation.
The atmosphere on the bridge was somewhat of a “sensory overload” as there was so much going on at the same time – people, street entertainers, the historic and beautiful location and the gently dimming light over the river. As I neared the end of the bridge, I noticed a young couple passionately kissing at the railing of the bridge, totally oblivious to the huge crowd around them (I was going to suggest that they get a Motel room)
I eventually got to the other side and walked partly into town on that side of the bridge. Prague Castle wasn’t hard to spot, as it’s an imposing site from the bridge! At about 18:30, I decided to stop at a McDonalds that I happened to find, as I wasn’t in the mood for a large Czech meal with beer. I really needed to stop then, as my back was giving me considerable trouble, and the short rest really helped to improve the situation. There was a Hotel & Restaurant right at the end of the bridge, but in that location the prices seemed to be aimed at tourists and were expensive.
After dinner I headed slowly back across the bridge. By this time it was almost dusk but there were still lots of people on the bridge. There were a couple of street beggars laying stretched out in somewhat of a “pushup position”, with their nose against the pavement while holding a hat in front of them. I was tempted to say to them, “If you think that performance is worthy of a donation, you’d better think again”.
I also encountered several wedding parties (at least half a dozen) in a short span of time, usually consisting of just the bride, groom and a photographer, but sometimes they had a few friends in attendance also
After that I made my way back to the Hotel via a different route, and found myself in the same area where I had visited the ATM earlier in the day. It was an easy walk back to the Hotel. I wasn’t able to get the Internet working, so I’ll have to ask the Hotel staff about that in the morning. I’m finding that I DO miss the TV, even if I can’t understand the language. Many Hotels in Europe at least offer CNN and/or BBC in English so anything would have been nice.
11 Sept. 16 – Friday
I was interested this morning to see how the breakfast offered in Prague would be different than other parts of Europe. I made my way to the bottom floor and found a few people seated in the breakfast room. The food was very similar to the type that I’ve been getting so far on this trip – cold meats, cheeses, bread, yogurt, a few vegetables and hard boiled eggs. It was served on very small plates so the girl working there had to refill the food, coffee and juice fairly frequently
The mood in the room was somewhat “subdued” and quiet, and there was some vintage Elvis music playing in the background. I found that the Internet on my iPod Touch wouldn’t work there. They must have the Wi-Fi mostly focused on the upper floors where the rooms are. I mentioned to the girl that the internet wasn’t working and she said she’d take care of it.
Towards the end of my meal, I overheard the guy at the next table asking about a Doctor, as his wife had tripped on the cobblestones and twisted her ankle. The girl working in the breakfast room provided one name, and I scoured my Guidebook and found information on the Canadian Hospital as they have English speaking Doctors and will make “house calls”.
I spent a few minutes visiting with the girl in the breakfast room and then went to get my day organized. I spent a few minutes checking E-mail and made a short Blog entry, but I wanted to take the morning Segway tour at 11:00 so didn’t want to spend too long at that. Unfortunately, Windows 7 decided that’s when it would do a software update, a process which took most of 20-minutes
The end result was that I missed the 11:00 tour, so I’d have to wait for the 15:00 departure. I really wanted to do that tour today, as it's supposed to rain tomorrow. I walked over the Charles Bridge and found the Segway Tours office without too much trouble, and figured I might as well book the tour. That proved to be a very wise decision, as they only had one spot left and while I was completing the booking process, a young couple arrived at the desk, also wanting a tour.
With my Tour Voucher safely tucked away, I decided it was time for lunch so stopped at a Subway just up the street. While I could have had Czech food, I was “in the mood” for a Sub, and also didn't want to get something larger with a Beer as I'd be "driving". After lunch I went to explore the area further. I took a walk up towards the Castle and located the stairs leading to the top. I took a different route from there and passed through some quiet side streets, some with small Cafes. On the way back down towards the tour office, I stopped at a Starbuck’s for a Coffee but more importantly to use the washroom.
I walked part way across the Charles Bridge and enjoyed watching the sea of people passing back and forth, and the many varieties of street entertainers. I decided to explore the neighborhood under the bridge and found myself in an area I had watched from the top, where individuals in Sailor suits were selling tickets for boat rides
At the appointed time, I made the short trek back to the Segway office and filled out the Disclaimer and other legal forms. There were several Guides there, and they brought the Transporters out to the street in front of the office, as tour members must take a short training session first. These Segway models are a newer design than the ones I used in Paris a few years ago, but it didn’t take me long to get used to them again, and in a few minutes I was riding very comfortably.
Before I continue, a bit of background on the Segway Transporter. These were invented by Dean Kamen and unveiled on 3 December 2001
The group was rather large, so they “split” it, and I ended up in the smaller group with a young woman named Sharka as the Guide. There was also a Father & daughter from Germany (originally Australian) and a couple from the U.K. We departed and proceeded through streets packed with pedestrians and vehicles and stopped at several historical sites. Eventually the route led uphill towards the Castle, and riding a Segway sure beats climbing those stairs! The Guide stopped periodically to provide a short lecture on historical facts. On our route down from the Castle, we took a small paved trail through an apple orchard, a route which proved to be challenging for one member of our group, as she “drove” the Segway over a bank! It was retrieved with apparently no damage.
We crossed one of the other bridges in Prague which provided an excellent view of the Charles Bridge in the late afternoon sun, as well as views of the many tour boats of various sizes meandering below us in the Vltava river which appeared to sparkle with points of light
The tour ended at about 18:00 and I was sorry that it was over as I was quite enjoying myself and haven’t had that much fun in a long while. I decided on somewhat of a “whim” to sign-up for the movie tour which would be departing at 19:00. Given the short time I had for dinner, I again opted for McDonald’s (it was a practical decision under the circumstances). I had a brief dinner and rest and was back at the Segway office just before 19:00 to complete the paperwork for the next tour.
The Guide was a few minutes late, so the girl at the desk provided me with a coffee and some internet time, but before I could log-on, the Guide appeared. His name was Rene and he was originally from Brazil but has been living in Prague for 11 years. He had a very distinctive accent and way of speaking, and called me “Mr. Ken” (I had only used my first name when registering). Rene seemed to be somewhat more careful than the earlier Guide and made sure that everyone had a very thorough training session
After the training of the others was completed, the tour departed. There were only five of us in the group tonight, one couple from Slovakia, one couple from the U.K. and myself. As we proceeded through various sites in Prague, the Guide would produce a small DVD player and show the scenes of movies that were filmed in each of the locations. The movies included Amadeus, XXX, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Bourne Identity, The Prince & Me and others. There were considerably fewer people and vehicles on the streets, so often the only sound was the quiet “whirring” of the Segway electric motors. Riding at night down narrow trails was a bit of a challenge as we rode somewhat "blind" in some dark areas, as the devices don't have headlights. After touring quite a number of locations, we had to return to the office at one point to exchange Transporters, as the batteries were running low.
The last part of the tour took the group past the area where my hotel is located. I mentioned that to the Guide and he said “do you want to stop here”. I said “absolutely not, I want to keep riding” and he chuckled. I’m sure he can appreciate how much fun it is. The route back proceeded along Charles Street to the bridge and it was at this point that one of the tour members in this group had somewhat of a “mishap”, when he took a fall into a sidewalk café. He injured one of his fingers slightly, but was able to continue. The Guide was talking on his Cell phone at the time, and frequently looking back at the group, but I don’t think any of us could have anticipated this incident.
We returned the Transporters to the office and said farewell. I walked back across the bridge with the couple from Slovakia (the husband is a Police officer or bodyguard, which I suspected from his demeanor as soon as I saw him – his wife could speak English well, so she translated when I asked him about his occupation). I was almost completely exhausted when I got back to the Hotel and my back and legs hurt, but was still happy from my experience on the Segway tours.
When I got back to the room, I found that it was just too quiet without a TV or some form of “noise”. For the first time on this trip, I connected my portable sound system which consists of an iPod Touch and a pair of Tweakers speakers. Listening to some Tony Bennet and Diana Krall tunes made all the difference, and the atmosphere in the room was SO much nicer!