It has been some time since I dedicated an entire post to just getting to a place, but the trip from Salzburg to Prague definitely deserves it.
If ever there’s a place I was longing to go to, Prague was it. I was little when Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic, and I remember it being that little purple country on my World Map puzzle. Because of that puzzle, it was one of the countries whose name I most latched on to at the tender age of 6. Ever since then, I was always wishing I could go to see it, and now I finally have. Well, at least some of it.
Ever since I got back, people have been asking me what my favourite part of my trip was. My answer was this: “Munich was my favourite city, but Prague was the most beautiful”. Here’s why.
The amount of history in Prague, not to mention the Czech Republic, is remarkable, and I don’t think it is given nearly as much exposure as countries like Germany and France. Most people only associate the name Bohemia with the song by Queen (which, I must admit, I’m listening to at this very moment), but little do they know that it was actually an area that spanned the entire Czech territory, whose borders are marked by various mountain ranges like the Bohemian Forest and the Sudeten mountain range.
Getting to Prague was the biggest mission on my entire trip. Since the Czech Republic was not allowing in any refugees, it made getting into the country much more difficult.
Again, I had pre-booked my train ticket from Salzburg, and I expected to make one stop in Linz, before taking one more train directly to Prague, but that was not what actually happened.
I had only 6 minutes to change trains when I arrived in Linz, so I was running around the station like a crazy woman trying to find the platform. The platforms at the Linz station are very long, and it is not clear which part of it you need to be on. I found out that I had to be on platform one but I lugged my bag half way up the staircase (don’t ask how tiring that was) and I could not see a train, so I thought it might be the wrong platform. With 2 minutes left, I went to the nearest help desk and asked which the correct platform was. The man’s eyes widened as he said “It’s on platform one but you need to go right now! You’ve got barely 1 minute left!”. Thankfully there was an escalator right next to the helpdesk, so I went up that. To my horror, the train was still about 200m away.
There was a girl on the platform who was also walking towards the train, and thank goodness she heard the sound of my bag dragging, so she knew I was behind her. I had only a few seconds left, and I saw her boarding the train while I frantically walked as fast as I could with a +/- 18kg bag dragging behind me. When she got onto the train, she stood by the door with her leg half out and waited for me so that it wouldn’t close. The door closed as soon as I got myself and my belongings onto that train. Frantically running with my bag like that was something I hoped would never happen to me, but I think it is something you can’t really avoid when you travel alone.
I don’t remember her face, but I will forever be grateful to that girl for literally stopping a train from leaving without me.
I thought that I didn’t need to change trains again, but I was so wrong. I’d be lying if I say that I remember which station the ticket collector told me to stop at, because even when looking at the map, I have no idea what he said.
About an hour into the journey, the train came to a complete stop, and I didn’t realise that it was the last stop until the ticket collector came by again and frantically told me to get off the train. I grabbed my things and rushed out, and was greeted by a friendly-looking member of a the station staff, dressed in an orange reflector vest. He told me that I’d have to take a bus to Freistadt and that the train from there would take me to Prague.
He helped me take my bag off the train and personally escourted me to the bus, using the lifts that I certainly would have taken longer to find by myself. When we got to the bus, it was obvious that they were waiting for me, and I saw the same train conductor there telling me to get on. I didn’t even need to check where my bag was going because I already trusted the friendly man who had taken me too it. I had a brief moment to turn around and thank him (he spoke pretty good English, but I thanked him in German) before boarding the bus. Because of the rush to get off the train, I had shoved my cellphone into my main bag – the only mistake I made; not because it got stolen or anything like that, but because I wouldn’t be able to take photos of the outstanding countryside we drove through in that 40 minute bus ride.
When we eventually arrived in Freistadt, it really felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. The small building next to the actual station looked like a workshop – not something you’d expect at a train station. Some men took our bags off the bus, and we had to take a short 30m or so walk to the only passenger train at the station. There were old freight trains parked on the other tracks, and they didn’t appear to be operating. There wasn’t much of a platform at all, only some wooden boards to smoothen out the gravel before the tracks. I had to walk over at at least 2 sets of tracks to get to it, and I confirmed with another security guard that the train was in fact going to Praha. He gestured towards the carriage I should sit in, and once I got myself on it, all I could hope for was that this was the last time I’d have to make any sort of vehicle change before getting to Prague.
About an hour into the journey I realised that we had passed into the Czech Republic, because the names of the stations started looking totally different to the German I had become used to. It wasn’t long after the first stop that some of the local army had boarded the train in order to check who was on it i.e. refugees. 4 of them were going through each compartment in the train, dressed in black with bulletproof vests, and armed with automatic weapons. I must admit, they were rather good looking.
One of them asked me for my passport because clearly I do not look European, and I gave it to him with a smile. He said “Ah, South Africa?” out loud, clearly surprised that I was not actually from India. I answered “Yes”, while he asked one of the other soldiers to give him this machine with which he could scan it, after he looked for my visa. Once the green light went off, he looked again at the cover before handing it back to me and closing the compartment door. If you have nothing to hide, there is absolutely no reason to fear police and soldiers. Personally, I love soldiers, so I don’t feel intimidated by them. I must be honest though – I couldn’t help but feel slightly nervous that my visa wouldn’t check out, since I had a German one, as a colleague of mine was once sent back to Austria (or Germany…can’t quite remember) because she didn’t have a Czech visa. I’m not sure what that was about, but she warned me to double check with the Czech embassy before leaving (which I did).
One of the places I passed was Český Krumlov – a place I still have on my bucket list. I knew I was still far out from Prague (at least 3 hours), but I didn’t mind because I was finally getting to see some of the Czech countryside, which is absolutely spectacular. It’s funny, you’d think that all the countryside in Europe is the same, but each country has its own unique look and feel to it which is hard to explain. Rail is definitely the best way to see Europe.
I finally arrived in Prague at about 4pm. It was certainly the longest day of land travel that I had ever experienced, but it was still not over as I had to find a way to my hotel. Because I was so sick of picking up my bag and changing vehicles, I decided to just take a taxi and save myself the hassle. I did not have a single Czech Koruna (Crown) with me so I had to exchange the majority of the Euros I had. I was shocked at the exchange rate between the Euro and the Crown – roughly 24 to 1, which meant that I got something like CZK900 for the amount of Euros I had.
I followed the signs to where the taxis were parked and approached one of the drivers. I figured my hotel was a well known one, and when I asked him for the price to take me to the Botel Matylda, he nodded aggressively, indicating that he did know it, and said it was a flat rate of CZK600. I was totally taken by surprise because I definitely did not expect it to cost that much. However, considering the day I just had, I thought “Screw it”, and agreed. He helped put my bags in the boot (sorry, trunk) and we were off. We arrived right outside the hotel in about 15 minutes.
Botel Matylda was one of the 2 hotels which I had to pay for upon check in. It was a very quick process and was handled by super friendly staff. The lady gave me a brief introduction to it and told me that the front boat was exclusively for the restaurant, and what the meal times were. Breakfast was included, and dinner was a la carte. After not having an included breakfast in Munich and Salzburg, it was a welcome thing, funny enough. I figured I’d have dinner there at least once, and on that first night, since I still had to get familiar with the city.
The man at reception carried my bag down to the lower deck where my cabin was (God bless him) and said a friendly goodbye, letting me enter my cabin. It was exactly like the pictures, so I was quite thrilled. It was not a big room, but it was enough for one person. The shower was more modern than I expected it to be, so I was happy with it. I also had a fully stocked mini bar. The size was a small compromise for the experience of staying in a boat hotel. I mean, how many people can stay they’ve done that?
I took about 90 minutes to catch my breath from the day and to settle in and freshen up, and of course let my friends and parents know that I had arrived. The WiFi in my cabin was excellent, and I could actually see the modem on the ceiling corner, which was even more reassuring that I wouldn’t have any issues.
After I was satisfied with my change of attire, I headed out into the city. My only mission for that evening was to take a walk to Charles Bridge, as I really wanted to see it at dusk. The wind was quite chilly, but apart from that, I was already in love with the place. I stayed along the river and noticed something I had only seen videos of – people walking on water in a giant plastic bubble. It was super entertaining to watch because the participants appeared to be trying very hard to get nowhere. They were resting more than walking, so a few other people and I were very amused by the sight.
Since I took a very leisurely stroll, I got to Charles Bridge about 30 minutes after leaving the hotel. It’s clear why I fell in love with Prague so easily.
Once I got to Charles Bridge, I wanted to continue walking, especially because it was still daylight. I decided to go across the bridge in the direction that I thought was the Old Town, to explore a little more. The bridge was busy, full of tourists and pedlars, the majority of which were self portrait artists. The rest sold jewellery and paintings of the city. Luckily none of them bothered me enough to annoy me, and backed off as soon as I said “No”. Rule #1: Do not buy from the tourist spots.
I thought myself extremely fortunate to witness Prague for the first time at dusk, especially while walking over Charles Bridge. The timing was perfect.
It took a while to cross the bridge, since I made frequent stops to take in the surroundings. I was in awe of Prague Castle to the right, and I knew I had to make a plan to get there. Once I got to the other side, I walked around until it got dark, visiting various shops with the most random things. It was very weird to see absinthe next to souvenirs. Only in Europe!
Once I got back to my hotel, after wandering about for over 2 hours, I headed to the restaurant to have something decent to eat, since I hadn’t eaten much at all that day. I decided to try out a local beer and some seafood risotto. Although I thought the portion was a little small (the muscles took up a lot of space), the taste was delightful. No regrets!
Satisfied with my first evening in Prague, I went back to my cabin to warm up and rest. I was exhausted after what felt like a never ending day of travelling, but I was super excited to have another 3 full days to see this beautiful city, and of course sample the local beer, which I heard was cheaper than water. After having so much German beer, one thing I knew I had to do was have enough Czech beer to be able to compare the two.
Having had a brief look at the map I had gotten from the man at reception, and catching up with social media, I called it a night. After all, I intended to walk myself to death if I had to, so I needed the rest.
I was so ready for Prague.