Thursday, 15 October 2009

From your own correspondent

I have spent the last five days in Prague. It's been a mixed experience, but overall a positive one and the first time I've been travelling solo in seven years. The last time was a week in India during my gap year, when I backpacked it on my own up to a mountain resort and teamed up with a German girl, also called Hanna (I seem to recall) and two English lads who were scouse or geordie (I forget). We went all day hiking in the mountains with an Israeli lad called Adam and some French dude, among other things. The only slightly weird experience was when a lone Indian man started staring at me and then, a few minutes later, started walking around me in a circle with a radius of about three metres as I was sitting in a park. He went away when I asked him to, thankfully. My Rough Guide to India had advised this tactic, if anything like this happened, but I was amazed when it actually worked.

The most disturbing aspect of this episode was that I became aware of his stare when he was behind me, such was its intensity. A week later, I met up with my Danish travelling companion and all as well and we continued together for another two weeks until we got to Chennai and flew our separate ways. We exchanged e-mail addresses, but despite the odd attempt at contact, I've never heard from her since. Ah well.

But anyway, to this excursion. Before I left, I was bricking it somewhat, having been too busy at work to really organise anything with regard to my stay, and that included accommodation. My initial plan of crashing on a friend's couch fell through after his girlfriend said no. He was able to book me into a hostel near him, but they only had a bed available from Tuesday - I was arriving on Sunday. On Saturday night, I googled "Prague hostel" and rang pretty much the first one on the list. They had space for two nights so I booked, and ended up spending the whole time there as they were slightly cheaper and could fit me in, so it saved having to move.

I didn't really know what was going to happen on this trip as it had been initially booked with the thought of doing some freelance work based on article I wrote when I was here a couple of years ago, but due to aforesaid busy-ness at work (working nights, covering a murder trial), no planning was done. So I decided to come along and do what felt good at the time.

To that end, I went to a classical concert in a church, visited an exhibition of Mucha and Dali, met a Czech journalist, met a campaigner against the American Missile Defence Shield, got given two condoms by a woman I know who runs an NGO which helps sex workers, watched a play she had written performed by former prostitutes and drug addicts in a theatre that used to be factory, was intimidated by giant statues of Lenin at the Museum of Communism, went to a black light theatre show, wandered, due to my professional status as a journalist, around Prague Castle and its environs for the princely sum of 10 Czech crowns, which is about 33p (ridiculous, but great) and drank about five cups of hot chocolate, returning twice to a particularly wonderful restaurant which served it in a metal jug with a little cup like you would have for an espresso.

I'm very much a creature of stomach and it's amazing how much the right, or wrong, meal can colour how I'm feeling and my perception of what's been going on. On Tuesday, for example, my dining experience at lunch time was a complete disaster. I was bang in the centre of town and knew it was highly likely I'd get ripped off wherever I ate, so gave in and wandered into the first, vaguely decent-looking, restaurant I could find. This was my first mistake. My second was ordering. When my food arrived, (it was spaghetti) it looked like a pile of soon-to-be-deceased worms gently expiring in a pool of their own blood. The cheese that accompanied it not only smelled of rotten sweaty feet, it tasted of them too. I ate it because I was starving and there was nothing else except the additional bread which they automatically provided you with and charged you for (which I only saw mentioned on the front page of the menu after it was too late) and that tasted like foam rubber. Fortunately, I remembered halfway through that the reason the pasta was red was because it had been cooked in red wine. But you know how chefs sometimes out wine that's a couple of days old in cooking to use it up? I reckon this wine was a couple of weeks old at least...

But later that same day, after an entire afternoon spent dodging in and out of touristic sites trying to avoid the bitter wind and driving rain, I found Cafe Savoy. This had been recommended in the guidebook as a source of free WiFi and good hot chocolate, but it was far more than that. I had chicken schnitzel with potato salad and cranberry sauce and it was, quite simply exquisite. So exquisite I went back the next day and had their chicken noodle soup with a side of order of French fries cooked in peanut oil which were some of the best chips I have ever eaten. The first meal I had there was a revelation, the chicken was hot, the potato salad was cold with sour cream and the cranberry sauce was slightly bitter but quite like jam. The three things together shouldn't have worked, but they did, beautifully. The whole meal really lifted the day and put me in a fantastic mood for going to the theatre that evening. And their hot chocolate was essentially melted chocolate diluted with a splash of milk. It was rich, but not sweet and just like drinking liquid velvet. Gorgeous. Both that meal and the earlier disappointment cost about £16. The second one was worth a lot more. I would have been surprised if the first had cost £1.60.

Prague is a great city, full of character and ridiculously easy to navigate. The public transport system is efficient, well-integrated and regular. Bendy buses, the bane of everyone's life in London, are the norm here and the streets are big enough to accommodate them. They also have a handy digital display that tells you what stop you're at, what's next and what the final destination is, so even if you're a foreigner as long as you can read you're fine. They also announce it as well. And it doesn't take a genius to work out that "Pristi Zastavka" means next stop after you've heard it a couple of times... There are only three metro lines and they are similarly idiot proof while covering the city centre pretty comprehensively. And then there are the trams that, as far as I can make out, do a pretty good job of making up the shortfall elsewhere. I maybe biased from having mainly travelled in the centre, but even getting here from the airport, which is out to the north west, was really easy and much quicker than getting from Heathrow to central London.

The hostel I've been staying in is comfortable, if dark with some rather strange decor, but they have free WiFi which is reliable and fairly speedy. I've only been limited by the need to charge my laptop every so often.

The one thing about dorm rooms in hostels is the smell. It either contains rather too much unwashed armpit and foot in the mix... or there's so much deodorant you can't breathe. But overall, I've had a great time. Work next week will be a jolting return to my usual existence.


TheTelf said...

Awesome post - sounds like an interesting place to visit. I assume you didn't get any freelance work while you were out there, though?

Hanspan said...

Thank you :) it was great. And I may have something, but I don't have any time to work on it at the moment - I'm owed some time off from work though, so we'll see what happens.