What a difference a day makes. Well, that's the saying at least, and it's with that in mind that I decided not to drive up at stupid o'clock in the morning (specifically a 2:30am wake-up) to catch an early flight to Prague. That's not to say I couldn't manage it, but the difference between this trip to Prague and our last one is that now we have the option to sleep overnight near the airport, thanks to our little rolling hotel room i.e. Ethel the camper van, and get up feeling a little bit more refreshed.
The other difference between this and our last visit to Prague is the time – 8 years, in fact. When we visited in 1998 the city was only just opening itself up to tourism and we were a little worried that our almost complete lack of knowledge of local phrases. As a result, we had wondered about how well we might cope in this strange place. Nowadays, though, Prague is well known as a destination for stag and hen parties and there are so many budget flights headed there that we were expecting a very different city to the place we saw almost a decade ago.
We flew with Czech Airlines and weren't expecting a swish ride; we also weren't expecting to be fed on such a short flight on economy tickets, so we gorged on overpriced breakfast in Stansted airport and didn't know what to do when the flight attendants appeared with trays of pre-packaged food. As usual, greedy guts (me) polished off the sweet items that Manda couldn't quite face so early in the day.
After a smooth flight, we landed under an ominous-looking sky. It was looking dark and moody in the distance, as if to prove that the five days of thunderstorms forecast for Prague were soon to start. Strangely, though, despite the grey skies in the distance it was hot and sunny as we stepped off the plane to the transfer bus. We might just get lucky with the weather, I thought.
Once we got through the usual arrival procedures of claiming baggage, immigration checks etc, we made our way out to where all the transfer buses were waiting for tired travellers. We immediately headed to the right, following a tip from one of Manda's colleagues that there were cheap transfer buses there – a 90 crown fare (approx £2.50) to drop in the centre as opposed to the 490 crown charge for a transfer right to the hotel front door. Luckily, the drop-off point, just around the corner from the Municipal Building, turned out to be an 8-minute walk from our hotel.
Our accommodation for this trip was a new hotel – opened 6 months ago – called 987 Design Hotel. It's one of just a handful of a 'chain' of hotels – the others being in Barcelona and Buenos Aires. We'd read up as much as we could about the hotel on sites such as TripAdvisor and got the impression that it was a very fancy place with all mod cons but some people had reported a couple of issues that could probably be put down as 'teething troubles'. Our first impressions of the hotel – the lobby and reception – were all good, and as we made our way up to the room and along the corridors, more and more little details were revealed, such as the lighting features and other decoration.
The room itself was a real piece of work – retro styling, flat screen TV, a minimalist wet room and a sink/vanity area that was in the bedroom, not a separate area. Any comparison with a bedsit (the only other time I can remember seeing a sink in a bedroom) would be completely unfair! Finally, there was the bed – possibly the largest bed in any room I'd ever stayed in, an effect that was only partially masked by half covering it with a mountain of oversized pillows!
We stayed just long enough to freshen up and unpack a bit and then headed out, map in hand like true tourists, to check out the Old Town. Again.
There was no element of surprise this time around. We knew what to expect when we made our way into Old Town Square. There was the clock tower, the church, the outdoor eateries and so on – none of that had changed. What had changed was what surrounded them. People – everywhere! It was a noticeable difference from our last visit and the whole stag and hen party phenomenon was soon evident. In a short period of time we noticed at least four groups of people there for that very reason. They're easy to spot by their matching t-shirts/hats/Bermuda shorts (delete as applicable). The locals must have got well used to seeing groups of 15 or so women all wearing pink cowboy hats, one of them dragging around a male blow-up doll (the hen, of course). Whether the restaurateurs have seen a guy in a ballerina suit busting a few dance moves underneath the astrological clock is doubtful.
Much of my time in the square seemed to be taken up by swapping camera lenses. I worked out that the last time I'd bothered to do this was, strangely enough, in the last Prague visit when my Olympus OM10 had had its last proper working-out. Since then I'd only really used a compact camera. You have to 'suffer for your art' though, and I soon had my system down to a tee. I could completely understand why wedding photographers have a collection of cameras around their neck!
We aimed to stay fairly local on our first day, and mainly stuck to the Old Town Square and areas nearby. That included a walk across Charles Bridge, a feat that was described in one of our guide books as a feat that was only do-able on a busy day if pinged across by catapult. Today was one of those days but it was, after all, a Saturday afternoon when the weekend break and stag/hen party masses were at their highest. The last thing I expected to happen was to be recognised by one of them.
"Ian!" someone said as we walked through the old town. I looked up and then heard, "Ian Lloyd!" That was freaky – someone I knew had spotted me but I didn't register who he was straight away. Evidently spotting the look of confusion on my face or hearing the cogs turning in my head, the mystery person added: "Peter Lambert. Pixelicious.com" Ah yes, a fellow web geek – identifiable by the need to suffix a name with the web site's domain name! I was caught too off-guard to reply with an "Ah, Mr Lambert! Ian Lloyd, Accessify.com - how do you do?" Peter was in Prague for his friend Simon's stag do and, as far as I could tell, the group of them were not going for a 'theme'. But who knows, maybe they got changed into a set of matching cowboy hats and chaps for the evening?
As the evening drew in we tried to track down a restaurant by the riverside that we'd stumbled across on our last visit, a place that charged something like a third of the price that you'd expect to pay in the tourist centres like Old Town Square. Either we didn't look in the right place, didn't walk far enough up the street or the restaurant no longer existed, but we still ate near the river with the castle and bridge as our backdrop. I chose a typical Czech dish for the first proper meal – goulash and dumplings. Well, you gotta do it at least once (or, if you're sensible, just the once!).