Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Since we have a few extra days to kill because Martin's cousin, Katrin, won't be back from holidays until October 1, we decided to modify our itinerary and head for Prague which has been highly recommended by a number of travellers. After all, the whole idea of travelling for a long period is so you can be flexible!

We took the U Bahn from our hostel to the main train station in Berlin. While Martin waited with our backpacks, I made a quick dash to a nearby English bookstore. Martin has run out of reading material. (He's powered through all his books as well as the ones I brought along.) I did find a few good novels, so that should keep him busy for awhile! (Since I spend a lot of my spare time on our website, I don't tend to go through the books as quickly - and we haven't had any TV in our accommodation to occupy him.) We do trade books with other travellers, and sometimes hostels have book exchanges, but a second hand English bookstore was too good an opportunity to miss!

We had reserved train seats to Prague. In our compartment was also a university student from Berlin and a young mother and her daughter, probably about four. The train went en route to Dresdan where all three got off. The landscape from the German border to Prague varied - there were some flat areas and some small mountains as well. The train ran along the river valley.

It was a five hour train ride from Berlin to Prague. Somehow from our map, we determined that the stop before the downtown train station was closer to our hotel, so we hefted up the packs and took off. (This is actually the first time we've had to walk any distance - Martin, my Sherpa, generally slings the two big packs over his shoulders and I carry the smaller one. (Nice guy, eh???) It took only about 15 minutes to reach our destination.

We seem to staying in a residential neighbourhood - not much for restaurants, so we decided to eat at our hotel the first night. We couldn't believe the poor service! I don't know whether it was Martin's long hair, or that we weren't dressed as nicely as some of the other people who were eating there (and looked liked hostellers who likely wouldn't tip), but it was obvious that they didn't consider us worthy of any niceties (such as being polite or even making small talk - even though I'm sure we were the only ones who thanked them in Czech)! The other people in the restaurant were British and German and were also older than we were. I guess they don't realize that North Americans generally tip better than either the British or the Germans! Needless to say, our server didn't find out that how generous we are (i.e., no tip for you!)! (Interestingly, the men were the servers in the evening - when the tips would be good - and the women worked the breakfast buffet when there would be few tips.) We did not find people particularly friendly - or helpful - in Prague. At best, they were indifferent. (Such a contrast to the reception we had at our hostel in Berlin - Liane couldn't do enough for us.)

So we weren't likely to eat supper in the hotel again; however, finding a restaurant in the area we were staying in was difficult. There were lots of bars and coffee shops, but few places to have a meal. Our second night in Prague we scoured the streets and found a Czech Chinese pizzeria. The food was good, inexpensive and it was fun to watch the locals.

Being here reminds me of a couple of people I know of Czech descent. In the 1970s, our vet where I grew up (Wawota, SK) was a Czech. His name was Milos Menhardt. Seems to me I remember a story about him and his wife fleeing Czechoslovakia hidden inside the body of a car. I'll have to check that story out with my parents.

Our neighbours who lived across the street from us when we lived in City Park (Saskatoon) were also of Czech descent. He was born in Czechoslovakia; she was born in Canada. He died shortly after we moved to that area, but we became close friends with Rosie. I would go over and visit on a regular visit, discuss the neighbourhood and admire her garden. Unfortunately, she started to develop senile dementia about 10 years ago and each time I went to see her, she was a little worse. On the last visit (which was about a year ago), she recognized my face, but couldn't remember who I was (and I kept having to explain it to her). She now lives in a home and does not know many of her visitors - which is a shame, but it was wonderful that she got to live in her own home until she was 88 years old!

Prague (or "Praha") is a city of 1.2 million located on the Vltava River. Unlike neighbouring Dresdan, Prague survived WWII pretty much unscathed and has some of the most magnificent architecture in Europe. One of the first sites we visited was Prague Castle which dates back to the 10th century. Particularly impressive were wooden floors of Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace which were worn practically in troughs by all the people who have walked over them during the centuries. It boggled my mind just to think of it. St. Wencelas Chapel was also worth visiting with its stained glass windows and ornate interior. We climbed the tower (all 287 steps!) for a great view of the city. I was dizzy by the time we got down from going round and round and round and round . . . .

We couldn't figure out why it was so incredibly busy at all the tourist sites the first day of our visit, but then we found out it was a Czech holiday. No wonder the streets were crawling! We had been warned by more than one person to beware of pickpockets in Prague, so I carried my daypack on my front which feels rather awkward - and looks even stupider! There were people everywhere - German and Czech school groups, as well as Italian, American and Japanese tours. It got so crowded crossing one bridge that Martin decided he'd had enough and wanted to go back to our hotel. (The second day we toured around seemed almost as busy - I can't imagine this place in July!)

Czech cuisine seems to focus on pork and plums; specialties include plum-stuffed pork or bacon, garlic soup with ham and potatoes and pork goulash with dumplings. They were all very good. The Czech Rebublic is also the home of pilsner beer, supposedly some of the best beer in the world. Martin thought it was pretty good, though he's a pilsner kind of guy.

When the Czech Republic became part of the EU in 2004, visas were no longer required by visitors from many countries, such as Canada. They do not yet use the Euro as their currency. (I was told that won't happen until 2009.) Their currency is the kronun, and CZK 20 equals one Canadian dollar. We did find it to be somewhat cheaper here in the Czech Republic than in the Netherlands or Germany, particularly the beer! (Our hotel room was also cheaper than in Berlin - $60 CDN here as compared to $100 CDN in Germany.)

The Czech Republic is famous for its glassware, both Bohemian glass and crystal. The shops were full of it, not that we intended on risking carrying any of it around for three months! There are also many puppet makers here and we saw lots of shops selling marionettes.

Czech is a fairly difficult language to decipher/pronounce. I would give Martin a street name (which was almost impossible to pronounce) and he would then ask me, "What letter does it start with?" (In other words, he couldn't understand what it was I was trying to say, either!) At least the traffic isn't as busy here - drivers will actually stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk! And there are fewer bicycles to worry about!

In wandering through the streets of Prague, we also visited the "new town" and the "old town". (The "new" part of the city was built beginning in the 14th century if that tells you anything!) The centre of the new area is St. Wenceslas Square, known for its demonstrations. Below the statue is a shrine to the victims of communism including two students set themselves on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Prague. Both died of their injuries.

Everywhere we've been in Europe, people seem to be dressing fairly casual, even for work. I've seen very few people in suits or women wearing skirts. Blue jeans are universal here.

Scarlet, whom we met in Berlin, caught up with us on our last day and we went out for supper together. "The Canadians" made her run to catch the tram (she doesn't "do" running) and then we climbed forever uphill to an Indonesian restaurant that wasn't open! In Berlin, Scarlet was "big sister" to a couple of young Irish accountants who were travelling around Europe on their annual three-week vacation with humungous suitcases and no guidebook. (Apparently all they really cared about was the beer and the bars. Imagine that!) Scarlet is gregarious and fun-loving so we shared a lot of laughs (including teasing Martin about the "pork knee" he ordered), talked about books, living in Canada/the US and, of course, travelling! Since she had been married to a Turk and has spent quite a bit of time in Turkey, she also gave us some advice re: sights there.
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