Eastern European Blues:-(

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Friday, June 12, 2009

Saturday, June 13th, Somewhere between Prague and Vienna

Isn’t the Cold War over?!

My first experiences of Eastern Europe gave me the distinct impression that I made a mistake including it on this tour!

My first premonition was the long (and expensive) cap ride to my hotel in Prague. Actually, it’s nowhere near Prague, which was part of the problem. The hotel is some strange hybrid of a way too large convention center and a makeshift day spa. Being nearly empty, the hotel convention center had a spooky feel. Eastern Europeans definitely have a different idea of what makes a luxurious spa but they did get one thing right - overcharging for everything including the basic gym facilities on site. I wasn’t really looking for a spa, just an inexpensive hotel with access to Prague. Unfortunately, my hotel was both a bus ride and substantial train ride from the town center. Naturally, both the bus and train only take Czech coins which they ration jealously at the front desk!

On the bright side, it poured down rain for two days so I had an excuse to recover from Rio and make some arrangements to get out of Dodge and to prepare for Africa. I must have appeared to the thoroughly unenthusiastic and not terribly welcoming desk worker that I was a hotel reviewer because a modest inquiry as to why there was no safe in my room, as advertised, earned me not one but two upgrades. In the end, I wound up with my own apartment for the price of a previously depressing dormitory style cell:-)

Since I was already committed to two nights in the hotel, I decided to embrace the surreal experience and enter in as fully as I could. I needed to do some laundry after Rio and asked about their laundry service. Prepared to pay a bundle, they informed me that
 the quickest they could return my laundry was next Tuesday. (Mind you, it was Wednesday!) I inquired if there was somewhere nearby that I could do laundry on my own. Naturally, she did not know. But, she speculated that, perhaps, if I took the 30 minutes public transportation commute into the city, with my dirty laundry in tow, I might be able to find a Laundromat. Thanks. I’ll wait until Vienna.

Next, I decided to check our their “spa”. The spa desk worker informed me in a familiar monotone voice that using the facilities would cost the equivalent of about $20/hour. This fee entitled me to use all their facilities except for massage (another $60), aroma therapy (didn‘t bother to ask), or the bacteria soup called a Turkish bath . For this modest fee, I had the privilege of using any of the other amenities in their facility, including three defunct (semi-) stationary bikes and two rickety treadmills that looked like holdovers from the Soviet era Olympics training.

After my “refreshing” spa time, I wanted to grab a healthy meal so I tried one of the hotel restaurants. Apparently vegetables have not yet caught on in Eastern Europe. The four food groups seems to be meat, fat, salt, and (lots of) starch. Thankfully the Soviet style service ethic did not invade the restaurant staff but there was a question in my mind when I was the only patron in the cavernous dining hall. I did have quite a bit of attentive service and lots of calories, without a vegetable in sight., even though I ordered a platter that came with “a side of vegetables” which in Czech apparently translates as two sad looking pickles and a wilted leaf of iceberg lettuce. Yummy!

I decided to escape my hotel before Jack Nicklaus showed up with an axe. I signed up (on my own, as the concierge goes home before 3 pm) for an evening walking tour of beautiful, historic Prague. This translated into a not so informative, but nevertheless entertaining, guided pub crawl. Our guide, Radec, wore a traditional Czech poker face which said “we are so thrilled you are here”, but turned out to be a very funny guy and an excellent tour guide. He took us to three lively pubs where I finally saw a little of the life that I had come to see, Praguers enjoying their evenings over a good beer and lots of loud talking and laughter. The Czechs take their beer seriously, so much so that they had a civil war over it (or maybe that was just an entertaining tale to tell the out-of-towners).

On our tour, we had a fun loving couple from Sweden, Theo and Lena, and a sweet married couple from Mobile, Alabama, Johnny and Mary. As the night wore on, we discussed more serious life topics with increasingly sloppier logic. I blame that on adding a fourth pub to the crawl and the very poor life decision to try absinthe, a local favorite spirit that looked like (and tastes about as good as) windshield washer fluid.

After a truly enjoyable evening, I got ripped off by an entrepreneurially minded cab driver who saw a weary pub crawler eager for his bed, but I paid it gladly, knowing that the next cab ride would be to a hotel actually IN Prague. As I left the cab, 600 Crowns lighter, I thanked my cab drive suggesting that he might have had a brilliant career in the post-Soviet kleptocracies. Who knows? Maybe he headed up one of them and found scamming tourists more lucrative!

I checked out the next morning leaving the bad taste behind and headed for a much more traveler friendly hotel right in the heart of the city. In fact, my hotel was walking distance to the Prague Castle which offers beautiful views of the city, Wenceslaus Square, and Old Town Square. I undertook my own self guided tour of the city The buildings were majestic and filled with history. Since my tour guide was pretty clueless about the city, I had to stop in at a local café for lunch and some sightseeing tips.

In a mall rivaling Fashion Valley Mall (yes, shopping malls are one of our proud exports from America culture) I met a friendly Australian, Ben, at the coffee shop. We swapped travel stories while we commiserated over the lack of any sense of hospitality and service. My new friend has much more wanderlust than I. His parents had to come to Prague to see him as he has been traveling for a year without visiting home. He kindly invited me to a party for couch surfing.com, a group of committed low cost travelers. Travel is a wonderful excuse to talk to perfect strangers. I find more common ground than difference and my interactions generally reaffirm my belief in the general good nature of fellow travelers. I suppose the shared vulnerability of being on the road has a bonding effect.

That night, I had a chance to meet up with friends of a friend who live here in Prague- always the best way to experience a city. Domenic’s friends, Aurel and Maria, graciously shared their city with me and provided insights into life in the Czech Republic that you could never get on a professionally guided tour.

We started with Mass at the Norbertine Abbey in Prague, called Strahov, in honor of Mom and Dad‘s 44th wedding anniversary. It was a special service that I generally slept through since I don‘t understand a word of Czech! 

We also took advantage of the opportunity to visit Saint Norbert’s tomb, offering special prayers for my Norbertine friends around the globe. We then had wonderful dinner at a restaurant/brewery on the Abbey grounds boasting a Saint Norbert’s brew - very nice:-)

Aurel and Maria toured me around the city in a light rain, occasionally taking refuge in a café or overhang until the clouds passed. The view of Prague from the Abbey grounds is spectacular. Aurel and Maria pointed out the highlights of the city, gave me a brief history of their respective countries (Aurel is Slovak and Maria is Czech), and then walked me back to my hotel over the Charles Bridge.  It is safe to say that Aurel and Maria will be the memory that I cherish most about Prague and I truly hope to return the favor of hospitality someday for this lovely young couple.

I hope you enjoyed laughing along with me through Prague:-)

See you in Vienna!

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