Monday 7th September 1998
So, here we were at 4 o'clock on a Monday morning - amazingly, both of us got up on time - lugging bags into the boot of the trusty old Jetta. We're bound for Heathrow airport.
At one and a half hour's flying time the Czech Republic isn't that far a journey for us. To the north and west it borders Germany, to the north-east is Poland and to the south, Austria. Before the republic's first general election in 1992 - when the tensions between Czechs and Slovaks really came to a head - Czechoslovakia also bordered Hungary to the south. But that's just history. The republic has had just six years of free market economy, so I was expecting a very backward place, albeit with some very pretty and ornate buildings!
Arrival in Prague
As we flew in, I wondered just where the city was - the landscape was very clear of buildings and was also extremely flat. It was only when we taxied up to the terminal that I was able to make any kind of impression of the place. The airport appeared to be very modern, very efficient and clean.
We found our driver who handed us an envelope. As we sat down and waited for the driver's other passengers to turn up, we opened up the envelope. Inside were various flyers for things to do in Prague and a crash course in the language. It became clear at this point that speaking the lingo might not come that easily and certainly not very quickly. Manda said something along the lines of 'how on earth are we going survive?!' and I have to admit that I did wonder. I hoped that my instincts were right - that with a combination of the locals' knowledge of English, and our own knowledge of French, German and Cantonese (!), we would manage to survive!
As we drove off into the centre of Prague, we saw loads of graffiti. The buildings were uniformly ugly, dirty and covered with the spraycanned tags of the city's writers. I began to wonder whether the picture we'd got from the travel brochures was misleading.
Arrival at the hotel
Pretty soon we found ourselves outside of our hotel, the Belvedere. If it didn't look like much from outside, well, that was probably just to ease guests gently in to the horrors that awaited inside! The décor was a mixture of fake marble and wood veneer finish, trimmed with silver and stainless steel and with 70s stamped all over it.
Tipping - something you never really get quite right until the day you leave. The guide books tell you what to do but on day one it's difficult to remember the levels quoted and there's one other complication - invariably, you won't have any small change as you haven't really broken into any currency yet. And so it was that the bell boy got a 100 KC (Czech Crown) note - or, as Manda pointed out, the equivalent there of five beers. Convert that back and you get somewhere between ?8-10 in beer money!
The clock was ticking though - so it was a quick shower, change and back out to town. First we had to get the transport though, so we asked about the trams. The hotel is just 4 tram stops from the lesser town (Mala Strana) and the tickets are one-use only. You can buy a 60-minute or 15 minute ticket. Then, when you board the tram, you frank your own ticket. If you don't frank it, you might be alright, you might be able to use it some other time. Or you might be seen by a plain clothes ticket inspector and get a fine for not franking it. That's the system. We opted for 15-minute tickets. All sorted then - let's go see some culture!
The tram journey took us south towards the river Vltava (which streams into the river Elbe in Germany) then turned west along the bank. It was here that we saw our first glimpse of Prague's architecture (that is, buildings that aren't covered in graffiti or high-rised!). Moments later we stopped at Malostranska on the west bank of the river.
Off then to Crusaders Square (Krizovnicke namesti) - at the point where Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) meets the east bank, it is often said to be the most attractive part, architecturally, of Prague. There's the tall statue of Charles IV looking down, the tower at the start of the bridge and a view across the river that includes the bridge itself and, in the distance, the castle overlooking all of the city. Before heading across the bridge, first we climbed the tower to take a look around the city at spire height. From above, the roofs seem to be fighting with each other for space but the spires still jut out majestically above the red tiles, much as they have done for hundreds of years.
Then it was time to do what surely every visitor to Prague does - walk across Charles Bridge. The guide books warn tourists to be extra vigilant when in the more touristy areas, as this is where pickpockets are more likely to operate. Walking across the bridge, I had this in the back of my mind but also found it inconceivable due to the lazy, laid back nature present here. Artists and crafts people lined the bridge under the watchful gazes of the statues above them, selling their creations to passing tourists and all to the background sound of the rag time band that was playing at the eastern end.
We noticed that one particular place on the bridge was attracting more attention from the tourists than others. So, being good, predictable tourists, we joined in. We found a statue that everyone was touching. Years of hands touching the same spot had given it a golden shine. Evidently, there was a reason why everyone was doing this, but despite looking in the guide books, we found no explanation. Still, Manda took a picture of me touching the statue just for good measure. As we wondered off the bridge back to the west bank we entertained the idea that one person started it off, and every tourist since has just copied parrot-fashion, not knowing what they were doing - a prank that's carried on for years.
The lesser town square (Malostranske namesti) was our next destination, although we didn't stop - Manda had mentioned the church at the top of the hill, so we decided to follow our noses and see where we ended up.
On the route up, we just walked and stumbled upon things, like Wallenstein Gardens for example. Despite the misleading exterior, the inside was something to write about. Still, a picture tells a thousand words, so going by the number of photos we took, I should stop writing now. I'll just mention the peacocks - they wouldn't stay still to pose for photos at all. Instead, they'd wander off, probably out of the gardens and into the path of an oncoming tram. Serve 'em right for not co-operating.
Then the ascent began - we climbed and climbed and climbed but still couldn't see the church. Finally, we came to the top of our climb and it dawned then that we had actually arrived at the castle without really trying. As we walked into the courtyard, we could see the church's spires just poking out of the top of its simple surroundings. Then we walked through an archway and found ourselves right in front of the church. The castle was built around the church but it seems that the builders didn't allow enough room for clearance around the church. It's simply not possible to step far back enough to see the church as a whole when viewed front the front.
After a walk around St Vitus, admiring the spires, we headed back down towards the lesser town. Once back on level ground again, we took a look through some of the gift shops, Manda panicking every time I turned round inside a shop in case my rucksack upended a display of, say, glass ornaments, of which there were many! We then wandered just next door for something to eat, in a restaurant not a stone's throw away from Charles Bridge. Manda had duck and dumplings (the latter being essential accompaniments with most Czech meals); I had beef stroganoff. An opportunist rose seller came in and found a likely punter - me. The roses I bought for Manda then spent the next few days in a cup in the hotel bathroom, slowly losing their colour and shape!