Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Weekend Trip to Prague

Nové Město District in Prague

Day 1, Sunday, October 1, 2000 – We had originally planned on leaving on Friday night, but the trains were completely booked up. There was a national holiday in Germany on the following Tuesday, and many people (like me) took a vacation day on Monday in order to have a 4-day weekend. There was a night train going to Prague on Saturday evening, so my wife, my daughter, my son, and I boarded at about 11 p.m. in Düsseldorf. We had a sleeping car, which was very small. There were 3 bunks stacked up. We put the kids on the bottom, my wife took the middle, and I climbed to the top. Neither my wife nor I got much sleep during the night, because the train was constantly stopping, starting, and turning. I got up once to check on the kids, and they had lost their blanket. It was very cold on the train, so I covered them back up. They never woke up though, until I heard my son making noise at about 6 a.m.

We all woke up and snacked a little in our cabin. We were traveling through eastern Germany, and were approaching the border to the Czech Republic. The countryside outside was very hilly, and the leaves were changing colors up on the hills. The eastern German cities looked much older than most western German cities. We saw quite a few of those ugly, old, Soviet style apartment buildings. We passed through the historic city of Dresden, where a devastating incident from World War II took place. Churchill, in retaliation for the bombing of British cities, ordered the firebombing of Dresden and literally burned it to the ground. Many civilians, mostly women and children fleeing the Soviet advance, were killed in the attack. I told the kids a little bit about this as we passed through. We could see very old burn marks and soot in various places.

As we neared the border, the Czech border police boarded the train and checked all of our passports. This gave us an excuse to tell my son that the police were looking for people who were being too loud. They were very tired of being cooped up in the train, and were getting a little loud and restless. For the most part, they colored and played on the top bunk, but it became increasingly hard to keep them entertained.

The Czech countryside reminded me of South Carolina. There were lots of really big hills, rock cliffs, lakes, rivers etc. The cars that I saw on the roads were junkers for the most part. Many of the houses we passed had small vegetable gardens behind them. The area looked pretty poverty stricken for the most part. Most of the areas we passed through looked like they hadn’t changed in 50 years. After passing through the Czech countryside for a couple of hours, we finally pulled into Prague.

In the train station, I exchanged just enough money to buy subway tickets. We rode the subway out to our hotel, and found it without any problems. Our hotel was the Hilton, which was a 5 star hotel. It was a very nice hotel; one of the nicest that we had ever stayed in. The only reason we stayed in such a nice place is that we had been warned about the lesser quality hotels in Prague.

We went to our rooms just long enough to drop our things and rest for a few minutes. Then, we went downstairs and looked around the hotel a little bit. We found a place where we could book a city tour, so I talked to the girl behind the counter for a few minutes. I asked her first about the tours, and then asked if she knew where a KFC was located, because the kids wanted to eat there. She pointed one out on a map, so we left and jumped back on the subway.

We rode the subway down to Wenceslas Square. We had to ride several escalators to get out of the subways. The Prague subway system was really deep underground; deeper than in any city I have ever been in. That may date back to the era of communism, when a nuclear attack from the U.S. was feared. When we finally came up to street level, we immediately saw the KFC, as well as a McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. We wandered around the square a little bit and looked at a few things. The National Museum, an enormous building, was at one end of the square. In front of the museum, there was a giant statue of Saint Wenceslas (yes, Good King Wenceslas, from the Christmas song). In front of that there was a memorial dedicated to Jan Palach. On that spot, in 1969, he committed suicide by setting himself on fire. He did this to protest the occupation of the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at that time) by the Soviet Union. I bet that about 1 second after he set himself on fire, when the pain hit him, he realized that it wasn’t such a good idea. But, the following month another guy did the same thing for the same reason at the exact spot.

Kids at Memorial to Jan Palach

We finished walking around the square and headed over to KFC for lunch. It was packed with people. It was very hard to understand the menu. Fortunately, the person working there spoke a little English and I was able to order. The Czech language has many letters that I have never seen in any other language. The sound of the language does not sound like any other language that I have heard. As far as the Czech people go, I found them to be not overly friendly, but not exactly unfriendly either.

We left the square and rode the subway out to Prague Castle. The castle, which dates back to the ninth century, sits on top of a big hill overlooking Prague. On the way up the hill, we passed a number of street vendors selling things. The prices were really unbelievable. You could buy a hamburger for $0.15. We saw some specials on restaurant menus listing meals for $1.00. Trinkets and paintings were being sold for a fraction of what we had seen them sell for in other countries. Overall, Prague definitely had the cheapest prices of any country we have seen.

We got to the top and had a spectacular view of Prague. From there, you could truly appreciate just how beautiful the city is. I had heard many people say that Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe; others said it is the 2nd most beautiful after Paris. Either way, it definitely ranks up there pretty high.

We entered the castle between two guards who were standing watch. The guards were just like those at Buckingham Palace – they stood stiffly and didn’t flinch. My son asked if they were real. I told him to watch them for a little while and let me know. He finally saw one blink and figured out that they were real people.

We worked our way through the medieval streets inside the castle complex. The castle was really like a small town. It was more like Mont. St. Michel in France than a traditional castle. We went inside a cathedral within the complex and saw some of the most stunning stained glass windows I have ever seen. The colors were incredibly rich and diverse.

We let the kids play a little bit inside a large square within the complex. We spotted a woman taking pictures of the kids as they played. Eventually, we worked our way out the opposite end of the castle, where an unusual incident happened. When we walked out, there were two more guards standing watch. We turned to look at them. Once again, they looked like statues. There was one directly in front of us, about 10 feet away. As we all looked at him, he started to tilt forward. As we watched in horror, he fell in front of us and hit his forehead on the concrete. His rifle fell right at my feet. If it had discharged, it would have hit one of us in the foot. He looked like a tree falling down. He didn’t collapse; he just fell forward very stiffly. His body was convulsing on the way down. His head made a very sickening thud when it hit the ground. We were the closest people to him, but I didn’t really know how to help him. I couldn’t say anything to him in his language. The other guard next to him never flinched during the entire episode. He didn’t even turn his head to look at the guy on the ground. Fortunately, there was a nun close by who rushed up to help. She got some water and put it on his forehead, which was bleeding badly. He started to regain coherence and sat up as the nun continued to put water on his head. Then, some moron tourist went and stood in his box in order to get a picture. This caused the guy to try to jump up and throw her out of his box, but the nun turned and told the woman to get out.

All the time, we all just watched the scene unfold. I had my video camera out, and I recorded the guy just a little bit after he sat back up. My daughter and my son both asked me what happened. I told them both that I guessed that he had been overcome by the heat. The sun had been beating down and I am sure his uniform was hot. Of course, he may have been sick as well. I told my boss about this incident when we got back, and he told me that it happens pretty frequently. He said he saw the same thing happen in Monte Carlo.

We finally left the castle and worked our way down the hill. Halfway down, we stopped and bought some ice cream from a very nice older woman. She spoke Czech nonstop to me, but I just smiled and nodded. We ate the ice cream outside, and my son made such a mess. He had ice cream from ear to ear and up to his elbows. After he was finished, we found a pay toilet where I got him cleaned up. The price to get into the bathroom was less than a penny.

By then, we were close to the Charles Bridge. This bridge was built in the 1300’s, and is the most familiar landmark in Prague. There are bridge towers on either end, and there are statues lining the sides of the bridge. It is a pedestrian only bridge, and there were vendors set up everywhere. Most of them were selling watercolor paintings. We looked at several, and bought one for $17. The kids were really getting tired, so I let my son climb up on my back as we continued across the bridge (which is very long). By the time we got to the other side, my son was falling asleep on my back. So, we sat down at the foot of a big statue and I let him sleep in my lap while my wife went in a store and shopped. Several people took pictures of us while he was sleeping on me.

When my wife was finished, I put my son on my back again and let him sleep a little more. It was only about 5 p.m., but the kids were really exhausted. We walked to a nearby subway station and rode back to the hotel. While the kids got cleaned up, I walked about a block to a gas station and loaded up on supplies – drinks, snacks, etc. I had so much stuff I could hardly carry it all, but the total cost was less than $3.

After I returned, my wife and the kids wanted to get something to eat. I wasn’t hungry, so my wife went down to a restaurant on the ground level to order something to bring back to the room. Our hotel windows opened up to the interior of the hotel. There was a huge atrium, and we could see my wife walking across the lobby from our 5th floor window. As my wife was walking, the kids starting yelling, “Hey Mom!” at her. My wife paused and looked around and then looked up and saw us. The lobby was full of people, and I could almost see my wife’s face turn red from there. My son looked at me and said, “Mom is a real cutie.” While we were there, he repeated this phrase several times, as well as “Isn’t that a beauty, Dad?” and “Earth to Dad, Earth to Dad.” I don’t know where he is hearing these things.

After we ate, and got the kids to bed, we got to watch some American movies that we had never seen. I had never used pay per view in a hotel before, but I knew that if we didn’t see these movies now it would probably be another year before we had a chance. We chose “Sleepy Hollow” the first night, and watched “Erin Brockovich” on the second night. These movies were of course by no means new, but they were new for us.

Day 2, Monday, October 2, 2000 – We woke up around 8:00. This was the longest my son had slept in probably a year. While my daughter continued to sleep, my son and I went out and explored the hotel. We found a large indoor swimming pool that would have been nice if we had brought swim trunks. We wandered outside and found that it was raining pretty hard. We had planned to roam the streets today, but it looked like we might have to modify our plans.

My daughter finally woke up after sleeping for 13 hours. That is probably the longest she has slept since she was a baby. I guess the kids were really worn out from the day before. She got dressed, and we rode the subway back down to Dunkin Donuts. We ordered too many donuts, and the kids couldn’t finish them. We decided that since it was raining, that we would go into the National Museum for a while. On the first Monday of every month admission is free. Today was that day. But, when we came out of Dunkin Donuts it had stopped raining. We decided to roam the streets for a while and hit the museum if it started raining again.

We worked our way through the Jewish quarter. This area had a tragic history during WW II. Hitler had rounded up the Jewish population and shipped them off to the concentration camps. The only reason he didn’t destroy the area, was because he wanted to preserve it as an “Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race” (his words). We walked past a couple of synagogues, which were not at all like I expected. They looked basically like large houses, in stark contrast to the lavish mosques and cathedrals that I have seen. We didn’t have time to visit them, and we didn’t think the kids would stand for it anyway. We wanted to explore the area a little more in depth, but we were afraid we wouldn’t have time to do everything we wanted. So, we left there and worked our way back to the Charles Bridge.

There was a large park across the Charles Bridge in an area that we hadn’t visited the day before. We had seen the park from the castle the day before. We walked across the bridge, and watched the artists and vendors setting up their displays after the rain. We were looking for someone to draw portraits of the kids, but those guys weren’t set up yet. We had seen a man doing portraits the day before, so we decided to try again in the afternoon.

We found the park at the base of a large hill. There was a funicular railway there, and we rode to the top. It was very pretty at the top of the hill. It was full of trees, and the leaves were turning color and falling. Someone had raked up a big pile of leaves, and my son ran through them before I could stop him. There were a number of buildings at the top, including a one-fifth-scale replica of the Eiffel tower and a small castle. Inside the castle, there was a mirror maze. I took the kids inside while my wife waited outside and read a book.

The mirror maze was lots of fun. It was hard to tell the difference between a real hallway and a mirror. Both kids kept walking into mirrors. We worked our way through the maze several times. Once, the kids started going through a little fast, and a woman came in to get on to them a little. She spoke to me first in Czech, and then switched to German when a blank look registered on my face. She told me, in German, that 3 people had broken mirrors by going too fast through the maze. She asked me to have the kids slow down.

When the kids finally had their fill of the maze, we walked into another room that had a huge, very detailed battle scene painted on the wall. The battle occurred in the 1600’s, and took place between the Swedes and Czechs on the Charles Bridge. This room connected to another room that was full of “funhouse” mirrors. By that, I mean they were the types of mirrors that make you seem tall or short, fat or skinny. The kids got a huge kick out of this. I took lots of video in that room. Once, I picked my daughter up and her legs appeared to be 10 feet long. Another time, she looked to be about 1 foot tall. My son opened his mouth facing one mirror and it looked like it was 3 feet from top to bottom. I was able to get in a position once where it looked like I had a Don King hairdo – around 2 feet of hair.

We left the castle and walked around at the top of the hill for a while before riding the train back down. My son started telling me that he needed to go to the bathroom, but I put him off as long as I could. We were trying to work our way to the Mala Strana, one of the most ancient quarters of the city, so that we could have lunch there. We finally made it to a small cafe just as my son was about to burst.

We sat outdoors and had a nice meal at the cafe. We had a variety of meats – chicken, ham, and steak – for a total of about $15. I thought the food was really good, except the steak did not taste quite like beef. It had a gamy flavor that reminded me a little of strong deer meat.

We left the cafe and headed back to the Charles Bridge. On the way, my wife shopped a little. The kids and I ate an ice cream cone while my wife went in some crystal shops. Once we made it to the bridge, we immediately spotted a young guy set up to do portraits. We looked at his displays, and then I walked to the other end of the bridge to see if anyone else was doing them. There were two other guys there, and they were both at work on portraits. I thought their work was comparable to that of the young guy, so I went back and we asked him how much he would charge for the two kids. He told us an amount that was equivalent to about $40 for both kids, so we agreed to let him do the portraits.

My son went first. He acted like he was having his teeth pulled. He frowned and squirmed and made faces. I had to kneel down next to him and tell him stories. He kept asking me to check and see if the guy was finished. He told me that he was very mad at my wife for making him do this. He would not relax, and had an angry look on his face the entire time. While all of this was going on, lots of people stopped to watch the guy work. My wife talked to several of them, including a couple from California.

He finally finished with my son, and then my daughter sat down. She was much more patient, and I entertained my son while the guy drew my daughter’s portrait. I thought he did a fair job, but I didn’t think either one of the kids was an excellent likeness. I also noticed later that he didn’t draw eyelashes on either one of the kids, which I thought was a little unusual.

We left with our portraits, and rode the subway back to Wenceslas Square. We bought a souvenir for my daughter, and then went back in and ate at KFC again. After we finished, we rode the subway further downtown than we had been before. We got out there and strolled around the central business district.

What we found in the business district literally made my wife sick. It was 6 p.m., and most of the businesses had closed. The items displayed in some of the windows were incredibly cheap. In one window, there were several antique cameos on display for about $30. In another, there was a set of crystal for not much more than that. But, these stores were closed, so my wife didn’t get to take advantage of the bargains.

We left the downtown area and rode the subway (which was standing room only) back to the hotel. The kids had been very good, so we all went back over to the gas station and let them pick out some toys. My son picked out a flying saucer and my daughter got a Barbie. We also bought water and snacks, and spent a grand total of $20. We left the gas station, went back to the hotel, and got the kids ready for bed. My wife and I watched “Erin Brockovich” while the kids slept. I thought the movie was good, but I get the impression that everyone thinks most chemical companies are like the portrayed one in the movie.

Day 3, Tuesday, October 3, 2000 – We woke up about 6:30 and started packing. The kids snacked on apples for breakfast. Our train was scheduled for a 9:18 departure, so we checked out of the hotel at about 8:20. At the checkout, the guy working there asked if I had a frequent flyer account that I would like to earn mileage on for our visit. I said yes, and he asked for the card. I told him I didn’t have it with me, but I knew the number. He said, “No, I must have the card. If I don’t, then you could just give me any number.” What this was supposed to mean, I have no idea, but he wouldn’t let me give him my number.

We rode the subway back down to the train station. Our journey today had 2 parts. The first part was a slow train from Prague to Berlin. In Berlin, we would switch to a bullet train for the trip on to Düsseldorf. We arrived at the Prague station about 40 minutes early, and I couldn’t understand the board well enough to figure out which track our train would be on. I finally figured out that it wasn’t posted yet. So, we just set our things out of the way and waited. I spent the last of the Czech money on M&M’s for the kids. (My wife had spent most of the remaining money the night before on crystal).

Finally, our train arrived and we entered our compartment. We had reserved 4 seats in a 6-seat compartment. There was a girl already in our compartment. She was an American, from California, backpacking her way through Europe. We shared travel stories with her. She was on her way to Berlin, and so she asked what to expect while she was in Germany. I asked her about Budapest, which is where she had been before Prague. She didn’t seem to be that enthusiastic about it. I had considered going sometime next year, but the more I learn about it, the more I think my time would be better spent elsewhere. She had also spent time in Scotland, so we asked her about her recommendations there.

The kids were pretty good on this portion of the trip. They were both trying to show off for the American girl, so they didn’t spend too much time fighting with each other. A Czech border patrol and a customs agent came back in and checked our passports before we left the Czech Republic. We later found out that we could have gotten the tax back on the purchases my wife made if we had gotten a stamp on our receipt from the customs agent. My wife had bought quite a bit of crystal, and the tax on it was about $25. Next time we will know.

When it was time for lunch, I took the kids down to the restaurant on the train. We sat down and ordered a couple of pizzas. While we waited (for about an hour) we passed through lots of countryside. By this time, we were back in Germany. We passed through Dresden again, and I quizzed the kids a little about what we had talked about earlier. A few minutes later, my son looked out the window and saw a big rubble pile. With Germans sitting all around us, my son asked me in a very loud voice, “Don’t you think Hitler caused all of this mess?” I wanted to crawl under the table, but it also made me laugh.

We ate our pizza (which was terrible) and went back to our compartment. There were several new people sitting in there. The American girl had been kicked out by someone with a child. Apparently, none of them had a reservation, but in a case like that, women with children can bump someone out of a compartment. While I was away, a woman came by and was checking tickets. We were told that our train was running 50 minutes late, and we might miss our connection in Berlin. (This was a Czech train; the German trains almost always run exactly on time). We were told to get off at an earlier Berlin stop in order to ensure that we made our connection. My wife had intended to eat lunch in Berlin, but we were not going to have time since our train was running late.

We approached Berlin from the south. This area was heavily forested with pine trees. I imagined the battles that had been fought in the area during the war. We first made a stop at the airport, and then stopped off at the east train station. We got off there and switched to our bullet train. I had been unable to book anything but a smoking car on the way back. We were hoping that the majority of the people in there were also nonsmokers who couldn’t get a seat in a smoking section. Although not many people got on at the east station, those who did started chain smoking as soon as they boarded. I didn’t understand why someone felt the need to light up the second they got on the train.

We made our way through Berlin, stopping at several train stations. Berlin was absolutely packed with people. Only later did it hit me that this was reunification day. It had been exactly 10 years ago on this date that East and West Germany were reunited. There were celebrations all over the country, but there were a huge number in Berlin.

At our last Berlin stop (the one at which we were originally supposed to change trains) a lot of people got on. The car was now packed, and everyone was smoking. My wife was already sick from having had no lunch, but now she was really feeling bad. So, we inhaled smoke for the next 4 hours. The train did travel very fast – about 150 mph at top speed. Heading east from Berlin, the area was heavily forested with hardwood trees. We passed through mostly farmland and countryside on the way back. Once, outside Hannover, I saw 2 deer running in a field. The kids kept themselves busy with their crayons. I studied the train route, and figured out that we could actually hop off one stop before Düsseldorf and get home almost an hour quicker. So, at Duisburg we got off and were able to breathe fresh air once again. We hopped on the subway, and were home in just a few minutes. Once we got home, we realized that my wife had left the watercolor in our hotel room. Fortunately, she was able to call and have it mailed to us a couple of days later.

Overall, the trip was nice, but too short. The kids even had a pretty good time. Prague is definitely the cheapest city that I have ever been in. We hope to make it back before we go back to the U.S. But, next time we will fly.

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Blogger Pamela said...

Looking across the sea of domes, spires and red roofs towards the graceful towers of the St. Vitus cathedral, I think I've just fallen hopelessly in love with Prague. In the short time since the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism, Prague has become one of the premiere destinations in Europe. What stands out most here is the architecture, so diverse, so beautiful, and so concentrated in one place that you can easily be overwhelmed. But unlike other top cities in Europe, Prague doesn't strike you as shrewd, calculating, or out to get your money, food and Prague hotels are still cheap and at good value. There is still certain innocence, something that does much to relieve the occasional annoyance. Of course Prague is overrun with tourists, who like you are eager to explore its charms. But there are ways to beat the crowds or avoid them altogether, and there are still many places off the beaten paths awaiting discovery.

8:17 AM  

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