Bohemian Prague-City: Is this the Real Life? Is this Just Fantasy?
utepils n. (Norwegian) A beer you drink outside.
As I crossed into Czech Republic, someone flipped the weather switch. Going from the chilly rain I had endured for the last couple days in Berlin, I exited the bus in Prague unprepared for the blast of heat that hit me in the face. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; My life runs on extremes. There is never a happy medium. Even worse, I knew my hostel was quite far from the bus station, over 3 miles to be exact. While 3 miles not be a terrible distance to walk under normal circumstances, keep in mind that both my pack and the heat did not make it a normal circumstance. I also knew there was a tram that stopped right outside the bus station and would take me at least two thirds of the way. The only problem was, I had no idea how to get a ticket. I looked around and all I could find was a grungy yellow ticket booth with the metal slider closed over the window. Well, there went that idea. A lot of time on public transport in Europe, you can get away with not buying tickets because there is rarely anyone there to check for them. However, on the off chance that you do get unlucky enough to be on board with a ticket inspection officer, you get slapped with a pretty hefty fine. So I had to decide whether I waned to risk it, or subject myself to the miserable and hot walk. The #3 tram suddenly pulled up and following my impulse, I got on board and hoped for the best. As I got on, a little old woman tried to get up and motion for me to sit in her seat, seeing my giant pack, but I refused and motioned for her to sit back down, giving her a reassuring smile. Oh come on, did you honestly think I would steal a seat from a cute old woman?
By the time the ninth tram stop came, my stop, I was incredibly glad I had not decided to walk. As it was, I still wasn’t at my hostel and had to drag myself another mile, almost entirely uphill through some rich and fancy neighborhood until the giant twin towers of the A&O Prague Metro Hostel rose in front of me. Sweating and panting, I dragged myself into the air-conditioned lobby, checked in, and took the elevator up to my room. Normally I would take the stairs, but considering all the energy I had just spent and that my room was on the 10th floor, I said no freaking way. This was my first time staying in a hostel so large. Save for the bunk beds in the rooms, it was basically like a shitty hotel and I was interested to see how my experience there would play out.
I was woken the next morning by a knock on the door and the sudden barging in of a housekeeper. All four of us were still asleep and when she stood awkwardly in the doorway, as if waiting for the invitation to start cleaning, none of us made any point of moving. Finally, I spoke up and said, “We’re all still sleeping. Can you come back later.” She looked irritated but left. At that point I looked at my watch, thinking it must be around 10am considering that’s when checkout was, but I found it was only 8:45am. What kind of housekeeping service comes in that early, and before checkout? There is literally no logic to that. But by that point I was up and so after a cup of shitty instant coffee from the hostel kitchen, I woke up and set out. With everything I might possibly need for the day I knew that once I made it to the city, there would be no coming back to the hostel, first because of the huge hassle it was and second, because I didn’t want to decrease my odds at getting caught in a ticket inspection on the tram when I still had no idea how to get tickets for it. All in all, I would have five more tram rides during my time in Prague to avoid that happening. Knowing my luck, that was five rides too many.
But I made it through at least one. Once I finally made it into Prague itself, I took a brief wander through Stare Mesto, the Old Town of Prague, but that annoyingly habit of mine to keep pushing just around the next corner eventually led me across the Vltava River and our of Old Town itself, without really seeing much of it beyond the main square. But there was also plenty to see on the opposite side of the river and I decided I would take the rest of the day to cover that half of Prague and the next day to see Old Town. The opposite side of the river was a medley of interesting finds, particularly a great number of bookshops, my favorite of which an English bookstore called Shakespeare and Sons, no doubt inspired by the famous Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. Unfortunately, because it seemed to be a novelty in the area, all the books were extortionately priced, like over 500 koruna or $20 for a paperback. I suppose it was all for the best, however, considering I have a dangerously low amount of self control when it comes to books and no spare room in my pack to carry them.
The west side of the river is also home to Petrin Hill, large park the ascends a good distance above the city of Prague, culminating with a giant lookout tower called Petrin Tower, modeled after the Eiffel Tower. Climbing the hill to this tower with my back facing directly toward the hot afternoon sun was less than pleasant, but the views at the end were worth it. From the top of the tower, which I climbed legally and even paid to do I would like to point out, the entire city of Prague stretched out before me, an endless sea of red rooftops I had become accustomed to seeing in all these old European cities. While the top tier itself was incredibly crowded with little kids up on the tiptoes and tourists pushing you out of the way so they could get to the open window and look out over the city, I discovered a little bench inset into the metal wall of the spiral staircase (comprised of over 300 steps, by the way) where I could sit and look out through the rather large metal gratings without anyone disturbing me. If there’s anything I’m good at, it’s finding areas away from people. I sat in that little spot for near an hour, taking photos, doing some writing, and just enjoying the cool breeze that made the day bearable for the first time. That reprieve from the heat alone was worth the 2€ I spent on the ticket.
Once I finally descended down from the tower, I began working my way down the hill itself. This time, however, I discovered that almost all the trees on the hill were some sort of fruit tree. I looked around me. There didn’t seem to be an sort of orchard keeper and this was public land. Plus, between the overripe cherries on the ground and the multitude of ripe ones on the trees, it didn’t look as though anyone was out here maintaining them. I took that as an invitation to help myself. I imagine I looked quite silly out there, branch in one hand, plastic bag in the other, swatting at bright clumps of cherries hanging too high on the tree for me to reach. It was a lot of work, but in the end, I had myself a nice little stash of cherries, plums, and crabapples to munch for a pre-dinner snack as I began making my way up to the Prague castle, climbing another large amount of uncounted steps until I finally stood overlooking the city from a different vantage point. The wall along this view point had a nice ledge that perfectly allowed me to perch and dangle my feet over a considerable drop below. I couldn’t help but laugh when I overheard a group of young guys daring each other to stand on the wall then look at me and say, “Look at her looking all chill up there. She’s making us look bad.” I asked them where they were from and internally laughed even more when they said, “California.” I probably get too much pleasure in finding reasons to make fun of Californians but I’ve dealt with enough snotty stuck up ones over the summers in Bigfork to react any differently.
Having crossed the Vltava River on a different bridge earlier in the day, I had now looped around and would cross back over it on the famous Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV, under whom its construction began. The Charles Bridge is a conglomeration of just about every identifiable trademark of European cities: tourists, artists setting up stalls trying to sell their wares, beggars, statues, and even a couple churches at both ends of it. And man is it crowded. You wouldn’t believe how long I had to wait to actually get the chance to touch the falling priest on the statue of John of Nepomuk. Legend has it that touching the falling priest will bring cool luck and ensure your return to Prague, while touching the dog or the woman will bring bad luck. Considering all three figures where rubbed to a shiny gold, people either didn’t know the legend and touched all of them simply because everyone else did, or they really liked to test fate. I don’t like to say I believe in luck but my life has also presented too many instances of both for me to take any chances.
After that, I returned to my hostel, where I discovered a freezer in the game room stocked full of boxes of popsicles. Since my hostel seemed to charge for just about everything, I had a hard time believing these things were entirely free, but there was also no price or any sign whatsoever on the freezer and it was completely out of sight of the reception counter. Clearly they couldn’t have been too concerned about it. Logically, they seemed to be free, and even if they weren’t, I told myself, this hostel was a gross distortion of the good name of backpacker hostels for capitalistic purposes and thus they could afford to lose a few popsicles. I stuffed a couple in my pocket and retreated to my room for the evening.
The next day, I stuck on the west side of the river, in Old Town, and my intention was to take the free walking tour of the city, but when I showed up to the designated meeting place at the designates time, there was no one there. Odd. I would just have to explore on my own then, which is always easy enough for me. However, I quickly found there wasn’t actually a terribly great amount of stuff to do there, unless I wanted to pay extortionate amounts to gain entrance to each of the small museums. I considered my options. Food was always a good distractor, but I wasn’t yet hungry. Now, coffee, I could go for. Usually, I make a point not to buy coffee at coffee shops, because, having worked as a barista, I have seen first hand the incredible amounts of money people waste on coffee when it is just as easy to make it yourself. I particularly avoid buying things at Starbucks because their prices are downright highway robbery, no matter what country you’re in. But on this particular day, I was really craving an iced coffee and, having not been able to find the instant coffee in the kitchen that morning, I was also in desperate need of some caffeine. So, for the first time on my travels, I indulged in a large Starbucks iced coffee and it was entirely worth it. Plus, buying something there also gave me access to the toilet which I needed to use. Two birds with one stone (or 2€ more accurately). As I was waiting for a toilet to open up in the tiny two-stall bathroom, a couple of girls shoved their way in behind me. As a little old woman emerged from one stall, I stepped aside as far as I could go to let her pass, while the other two girls rudely refused to move. The old woman stood there for a few moments and I wondered if I should say something to the girls, but suddenly the woman said, in very clear English (not sure if she was American), “Can you move?” The harsh tone and loud voice was so chocking to hear coming from this tiny little woman who couldn’t have stood more than five feet tall. She shooed the two girls away, muttering at them about there wasn’t any space and they could wait outside. Then she looked at me and in the sweetest voice said, “I’m so sorry They were just so rude.” I muttered some unintelligible “It’s okay,” and proceeded to make my way into the stall from which she had just exited. Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I took my coffee outside into the main square and sat down on a ledge in the shade to do some reading and people watching. Prague was not short on tourists and interesting people that was for sure. I couldn’t help but overhear the group next to me talking in British accents. Emboldened by the sense of confidence one gains form traveling solo, I went over to one of them and asked where they were from. “England,” one of the guys said. Well, yeah no shit. I’d gathered that much for myself, mate. Instead I said, “Whereabouts?” He answered, “Well, we’re from all over but we all went to school at Cambridge. Just graduated.” Imagine that. Talk about an instant conversation started. For the next hour or so, I talked mostly to one of them, a guy named William about my travels and my experiences at Oxford. Obviously, there was a great deal of banter considering the natural born rivalry between the two schools, but it was all in good fun. In fact, it was nice talking about the OxBridge lifestyle to someone who could actually understand and relate. So often, I talk about Oxford and people look at me like I’m from an entirely different planet. In some ways, Oxford is like that and so it’s always rare and refreshing to find someone who just gets it.
Eventually, after all sticking around in the town square to watch the millennial clock strike the hour (which was actually a bit uneventful for the hype given by the mass crowd of people around it), we parted ways and I was back to my aimless wandering. I left Old Town and wandered along the river down past rows of brightly colored houses to the “Fred and Ginger Dancing building” at which point it started raining on me. Unlike other instances of rain that caused me to start cussing and grumbling about my luck, I was incredibly thankful for this light shower. I didn’t have anything on me that I really cared to keep dry and it was a much needed relief to the heat. I swear I could see steam rise off my skin as the light raindrops landed on it, but maybe the heat was causing me to hallucinate. From there, I continued to Wenceslas Square, which is a misnomer because it’s actually not a square, just a really wide street.
The more time I spent in Prague, the more I began to see how weird and eccentric it was. There was always something new and unique on every corner. Sometimes it was contemporary art, like lanky surrealist human figures and even a statue of Sigmund Freud hanging by one arm from a pole protruding from one of the rooftops of Old Town. Others it was some strange shop, filled with things like Russian nesting dolls that definitely looked like they could set the scene for a horror film. Then you had the absolute strangest collection of museums in Prague. On top of your typical art and history museums, some museums I noted seeing in Prague: film special effects museum, a Franz Kafka museum (outside of which there was a fountain of two men peeing with a mechanical pelvis section that actually moved), wax museum, chocolate museum (where you could buy chocolates molded into the shape of a penis which I found quite funny), torture museum, and even a sex machines museum. I was actually tempted to pay entrance into the latter simply because I was curious but alas, my budgeting logic won out.
Then you had your food stands selling everything from thinly sliced fried potatoes on a stick to trdelnik, a traditional cylindrical Czech pastry. Beer was everywhere. Fun fact: the Czech Republic as a nation drinks more beer per capita than any other nation in the world. In many places, beer is actually cheaper than water. There were even beer spas. I actually didn’t try any of these formerly mentioned things in Prague. The food items were sold at ridiculous prices because they knew tourists would be willing to pay it and it was too hot to even consider drinking alcohol for me. I was dehydrated enough already, despite the giant water bottle I lugged around with me. One traditional thing I did try, however, was Langos. Outside Old Town, near the far borders of the center area of Prague, I found a little food stall run by an old woman selling food at cheap prices. I pointed at something that looked like a giant piece of fry bread and only cost 30 koruna, or just over $1. For my non-Montana readers, fry bread is this heavenly little dish often traditional to Native Americas. It’s a really thick, heavy form of filling bread served with honey butter and it is perhaps the best tasting thing in the world after Mustafa’s kebabs. Little did I know that bread was just the base for what would become a sort of pizza, with a spicy tomato cause and tons of melted cheese. Pizza and fry bread in one? I could feel my arteries clogging at the very thought of it and I loved it. Just like being back in America.
Finally you have your street performers. In the main town square in the center of Old Town, there were almost always a host of street performers, but not always your typical ones. While you could find your traditional guy on guitar or violin, most of the acts were incredibly unique and random; a guy holding a giant python and offering to let passerbys hold it for a fee (been there, done that, pal), people dressed up in giant Winnie the Poor and shark costumes (seriously in this heat?), a guy doing tricks with a soccer ball like spinning it around and around on his skull without letting it fall, bands of people playing on pots and pans, a pair of guys playing on didgeridoos, and of course, men dancing in nothing but tutus and pink morph suits to no music. And all of them were incredibly talented (except maybe the last one mentioned) and fun to watch (especially the last one mentioned). In the late afternoon and early evening, the bigger performers would come out to the square and a crowd would amass around them and eventually, everyone was sitting down on the cobblestones just listening to the music and sweating in the heat. Between the music and the mass of smelly people, it was like Woodstock without the drugs. Or maybe with them, who knows? The Czech Republic is the most liberal drug country in the EU and small amounts of marijuana, speed, LSD, and even cocaine “for personal use” are legal.
Even my free map of the city was sarcastic and eccentric. Under its section labeled useful phrases, it gave the Czech translation for words like horseshoe and backscrubber, and phrases like, “Are those false teeth?”, “May I fondle your buttocks?”, “How much do you want for him/her?”, “twin tailed lion”, and “Have you got any brothers/sisters available?” Talk about a cheeky little map. But considering the phrase list also said, “yes=no”, I wasn’t so sure any of those were that reliable anyway. I guess I would need to double check if I planned on shoeing any horses or doing any fondling. It also called Prague the city of “beautiful ladies and cheap beer” and followed its claim with the question, “Or is it the other way around?”
Taken all together, Prague is the living embodiment of the term Bohemian. That’s a term tossed around a lot these days, from music to fashion. But what does Bohemian mean? Many take it to be a new wave revival of hippy culture and while in many ways it can be defined as such, I see bohemian culture more as a love of life and a love of art, and Prague does nothing if not love both. The city is as vivid as the earth red ocher colored rooftops and lively, almost to the point of excess, but I think the vast amount of tourists are what push it over that edge
I was glad that night was my final night in the hostel. I was tired of finding long black hair on the floor of the bathroom left carelessly by my roommates who never once tried talking to me. I was tired of the disgusting kitchen that a large group of high school kids used every night and always left in a state of biohazard. I was tired of fighting with the elevator every time I wanted to go downstairs and steal(?) a popsicle from the game room freezer. Okay, on second thought, maybe the last one was just karma. But the hostel had its perks, too, mostly in the existence of the private shower and bathroom in my room. I couldn’t remember the last time I had had one of those.
But the shower was my favorite. If I can say anything about backpacking travel, it is that it completely redefines your conception of comfort and necessity. For instance, the height of luxury for me has become a cold shower. It’s funny how, during my last trip, I would complain when a hostel didn’t have hot water. Now it hardly matters. It’s so hot outside almost all the time that I can barely stand anything about a luke warm temperature. My favorite thing to do when I come back in the evening from a hot day in the city is to jump in the shower and let the icy water wash all the salt, sweat, and stink off my body, taking the heat retained in my skin with it. At this particular hostel, I was provided with both shampoo and conditioner and after conditioning my hair for first time in months, I can honestly say I forgot what it was like to have silky soft hair. Even at Oxford, I ran out of conditioner and just couldn’t be bothered to buy more since my first travel stint did kind of define it for me as an unnecessary luxury item. But as I sat running my fingers through my soft hair, even I had o admit I missed it. Add that to the list of things I’m excited about going home to.
My last morning in Prague, I was in no rush. As my bus wasn’t leaving until the afternoon, I had time to kill and thus I spent the morning leisurely watching some 30 Rock, my current choice of TV show binge, blogging, and finishing up my packing. While I could have used the morning to see some last minute sights in Prague, there was no way I was about to lug my pack around any more than I had to, not in these temperatures anyway. Instead, I stayed at the hostel until about an hour before my bus departed, then saddled up and took the long walk to the tram station for the last time. At least this time it was mostly downhill.