Prague to Berlin

Berlin. Just the sound of that name makes me sigh with wonder. It has been a bucket list item for countless years, and even though I have finally ticked it off, there’s still something alluring about it that I just can’t seem to put my finger on.

My desire to make Berlin happen started in 2013 after seeing The Piano Guys’ new music video, aptly named Berlin. It sounds cheesy, I know, but once a song like that gets into your brain, all sorts of things start happening. Even though I had just done a Contiki tour the previous year, it didn’t cover any major German cities, so my need to see Berlin still wasn’t satisfied.

Brooke from World Of Wanderlust is the one who put things in motion for me. She had moved to Berlin for a few months and offered for me to stay with her. So the whole thinking behind this trip was to do whatever I needed to, then save Berlin (the best) for last. Even though circumstances changed and she no longer could keep up residence there, I had made up my mind to do the trip. After all, why should her absence put me off? I’m pretty sure I’m going to bump into her again at some point. I still have to thank her for indirectly influencing me to do this trip.

I woke up very excited on the morning of October 3, 2015. I had already asked for a cab to take me to the main station, so after having my last breakfast on the wonderful Botel Matylda, I gathered my things and checked out so I would be ready to go once the cab arrived at 9:30. My train was going to leave at 10:3o so even though the station was pretty close to the hotel, I wanted to be there early. The cab fare was set at €10, much cheaper than what I had paid the day I arrived in Prague, and considering the hassle it would save me, I didn’t hesitate to arrange for one.

Praha hlavní nádraží

The friendly driver arrived early at 9:25 and loaded my bag into the car. I trusted the hotel receptionist to remind him where to drop me, since I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself by pronouncing “hlavní nádraží” incorrectly. I had become so used to German that I had to consciously remind myself to not say Hauptbahnhof.

There was only one thing I hoped for the morning I woke up to leave Prague: that I’d take one train directly to Berlin. Up until now, getting in between cities was really a mission, especially from Salzburg to Prague. From what I could tell, this was a direct train.

The cab driver didn’t speak much English, but I somehow managed to confirm with him that he was in fact taking me to the main train station. The poor guy sweetly tried to make small talk, so I used as few words as possible to make understanding simple for him. He basically asked where I was from and whether I had enjoyed Prague.

The station was very busy but it was easy to find the schedule, mostly because there were hoards of people standing in front of it. I still had a while to wait – my platform wasn’t listed until after 10.

Train schedule at Prague Central Station

There were tonnes of tourists around me, all of whom rushed as soon as the platform appeared on the screen. I just had to observe them to know which direction to go in, which, conveniently, was around the corner from where I was standing. I heard something fall in front of me, and looked down to find a palm-sized pink plastic suitcase. It obviously belonged to a child, but there was not a single one in sight. There was a young Chinese couple in front of me, and I know it sounds very stereotypical, but I figured that it might have belonged to the girl because it seemed most likely in the absence of children. I asked, but it was not hers. I decided to hang onto it and keep my eyes open for anyone that might come looking. No one came, and I realised that the child who had dropped it was probably hurrying to their platform and had already left.

I could feel that there was something in it, but didn’t want to open it until the last minute. When my platform eventually showed on the screen, I made my way to it, still looking around for someone who might want the tiny suitcase I was holding. Eventually I decided that the owner was indeed gone, so it would be fine if I looked inside. There were 4 Stickeez in it, each of a different colour. I chuckled to myself because I had heard some ridiculous stories about them being evil. It was the stupidest thing I had ever heard.

I thought about what to do with them, then decided that it would be a good way for me to remember that very moment in time, so I kept the Stickeez and threw away the little suitcase. They are now on my desk at work.

I had a few minutes to wait and enjoy the fresh air of my last few moments in Prague. I was very sad to leave, but knew that this trip wouldn’t be my last.

The Aussie and the Czech

I had booked a private compartment reserved for women, but the train was quite full, and I ended up sharing my compartment with not only another woman, but 2 men as well. I didn’t mind though, since it was a 6 seater. There was plenty of space for all of us, and for my bag too, luckily. The woman appeared to be in her mid 50s, and looked quite dignified and established, and somewhat nerdy. Of the 2 men, the older one seemed to be a local as he didn’t have any baggage, greeted only the other woman (in Czech) and went straight to sleep before the train could even leave. The younger man looked to be in his early 20s, and just had a small backpack with him. He didn’t say anything, but his blonde hair and tall, muscular physique indicated that he might be Australian.

The train journey was going to be at least 5 hours long, and I was slightly disappointed that the woman and the older man had gotten to the compartment first, meaning they got the window seats. Thankfully, the man got off the train after 2 stops, but since the younger guy was on the same side as him, he moved up towards the window.

The woman had started talking to the younger guy before he moved to the window, and as soon he opened his mouth, my suspicions of him being an Australian were confirmed. The woman, as it turned out, was a local. She was incredibly friendly and curious about the guy and I. It was certainly the most fun train ride I’ve ever had, as our conversation carried on for nearly 2 hours.

The guy, Chris, was only 24 and had been cycling around Europe for the past 3 months. He works for a company in London that was closed for 6 months in order to do some major renovations (I’d really like to know which company can afford to close for that long and still be in business). With all the free time he had, he was literally living out of a backpack with a sleeping bag and tent, while cycling through every corner of Europe he could possibly reach. He was living a dream. Well, except for the tent. We asked where he’d been and where he planned to go next, and of course, why he was on a train when he’s meant to be cycling. The reason was both amusing and frustrating: he got delayed by more than a day from cycling through the Austrian Alps, which messed up some of his schedule. So in order to make it to his reservations in Prague on time, he had to take a train there from Dresden. The problem was that that particular train he had booked did not allow bicycles on it. He had to either leave his bicycle behind (locked up on the platform), or stay behind with it. Of course, rather than lost his reservation for 5 days, it was better to just leave his bike behind and go back for it. So he was on my train only until we got to Dresden, where he’d fetch his bike and immediately head back to Prague on another train.

His plan was to head further south and end up somewhere around Istanbul. There was a bit of trouble there at the time, so I hope he made it safely. His only deadline was to be back home in Australia to spend Christmas with his family. I’m sure he made it.

The woman, whose name I didn’t really catch, was going to be with us for less time since she was going to the house that her parents left her in order to tend to the rock garden. How often does one hear a story like that? She lives in Prague and is involved in several things, one of which is being the secretary general of some organisation that helped underprivileged children. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of it or what it entails exactly, but I remember being fascinated. She was also involved in other things that sent her all over the world to lecture and set up facilities in places from Kenya to Vancouver, and she had also lived in the US for several years while studying her Doctorate. She was certainly someone to look up to, and I regret not asking for her contact information so I could keep in touch.

The Refugee Crisis

Chris, the woman and I spoke about many things including the refugee crisis, and it was very interesting getting her (i.e.: a local European) opinion. As we all know, the Czech Republic was not open to the Syrian refugees, and the media feeds us a lot of stories that we as outsiders tend to believe. She was not speaking on behalf of all Czech people. but her personal opinion was that she did not want the refugees to come into her country as from what she saw happening in some of the other European countries, the refugees were demanding things from the locals.

Even though they were in desperate need, they did not accept food and water from a certain Christian organisation as the items they were distributing had the symbol of a cross on it. According to her, they went as far as emptying the water bottles and throwing the food away. That to me was horrifying, and certainly not what I expected to hear. She said that if you are going to someone for help, you should take what you can get; you should not be fussy about what they offer you. I do agree with that, but it saddens me that in some (I’m sure not all) cases this is not what has been happening. She also felt that by them coming in, cultures and traditions would get lost, and she was too proud of being Czech to want that mixture to happen.

It was a very interesting conversation indeed.

Dresden to Berlin

The woman said goodbye and wished us well as she left the train at the last stop before entering Germany, leaving me with Chris. After she left, I changed seats and moved to the window next to which she had sat. We had about an hour to get to Dresden, so Chris and I decided to have a bite to eat. The woman had given me half of her sandwich, after much persuasion. It was incredibly kind of her, and I was very grateful because I hadn’t bought anything to eat before leaving Prague. The only food I had with me was a pack of Oreos which I decided to keep for later. The sandwich was enough to keep me going till after Dresden, and I figured I’d get something upon my arrival in Berlin.

We passed incredibly beautiful towns (or rather, villages) on the way to Dresden, the majority of which lay alongside a river which I assumed was the Rhine. Turns out it’s actually the Elbe. Chris said it was such a pity he hadn’t had the chance to stop at any of them. He was on a midnight train to Prague the night before and everything was pitch black, so he had no idea what he was going passed.

Dresden HBF

As we approached Dresden, I was surprised at how big it was. I was expecting a town, not a city. How naive I was. I asked Chris about it and he said it was wonderful, and that there was so much to do. I did consider doing a day trip out of Berlin, but figured I didn’t have enough time in Berlin to spend a whole day going back in the direction I had just come from. Ideally, I should have spent a night in Dresden and headed to Berlin from there. Oh well, now I know!

I had the next hour to myself to enjoy the peace and quiet, not to mention the scenic rail route I was on. I took my iPod out again for the first time since the woman had started talking about 30 minutes after leaving Prague. I had a theme song for this trip, and it has now become my motto:

“One day you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember.”

When I arrived in Berlin, I was shocked at how massive the main station was. I had seen pictures of it from the outside, but I didn’t realise it would resemble a shopping mall on the inside. There were several levels and escalators and lifts all over the place, not to mention shops and restaurants.

Berlin HBF

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Once I left the train, my next step was to get a ticket to Potsdamer Platz, where my hotel was. It wasn’t long before I found a ticket machine, however finding the right platform turned out to be a bit of a mission as I thought all the trains were on the same level, when in fact the local trains ran a few levels up from the level I had arrived on, not to mention perpendicular to them. Luckily there are tonnes of friendly people to ask. It was also a mission to find a map of the network so I’d know which direction to go in. Thankfully the station had WiFi, so I was able to look it up.

Berlin HBF

Motel One

I arrived at Potsdamer Platz within about 10 minutes, and because I had studied the area on Google Maps and Street View, I knew which direction to exit the station from. The station was about 100m from my hotel, and there were escalators going up, so it was very easy for me to reach my hotel from there. I had definitely picked an awesome spot to stay.

Motel One, Berlin

When I arrived at the Motel One, check in was seamless apart from the fact that I had to make my payment. It was one of 2 destinations on this trip that required payment upon arrival. I was then handed my check in confirmation, which included my unique WiFi password. It was the biggest hotel I had stayed in on my trip, and I was excited to be checking into a place that chic. I was on the 7th floor so I thought I’d have brilliant views, but the direction I was facing wasn’t that desirable, although I was directly above the glass ceiling of the Mall of Berlin.

Mall of Berlin

I was completely exhausted that evening, and even though I was starving, I spent the rest of the evening hibernating in my room. I thought of going out to find something to eat, but I just wanted to stay in bed.

The next few days were going to be busy, so I needed all the rest I could get. Since I had a decent tv in my room which automatically turned on when I put my room key card in its slot, I decided to watch some local tv to find out what was going on. Turns out it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, and that there were major festivities happening at Brandenburg Gate. I considered taking a walk to see what was going on, but my body was just tired. Brandenburg gate was only about 1.2km away, so I figured I’d just take a walk there the following day.

I had much to look forward to as I crawled into bed, as I would be doing a Hot Rod tour of the city the next morning. I was finally in Berlin.

Bohemia Part 4: Letna Park and a Vltava sunset cruise, Prague

On my last free day in Prague, the one thing I had left to do was visit Letna Park. From what my tour guide Derek had said the previous day, the view from there was number 1 on his list of Top 5 Views. Upon observing it’s position in relation to the city, I figured I could also get the view of the city that I was looking for – one where I could see all the bridges along the river, better than what I had seen the night before from the Vyšehrad Fort.

That morning, I wanted to take a different, longer route towards Prague Castle. I had walked over Charles Bridge plenty of times from the side of the river that my hotel was on, so this time I wanted to cross over the Vltava via the bridge right outside my hotel, adjacent to the Dancing House. I had already made plans to meet up with my new friend Tyrone later that afternoon at Letna Park, but I had several hours to get myself there. Judging from where I stood outside the Dancing House, I figured it would take me that long to walk there anyway.

Outside the Dancing House

Clearly, it was another perfect day. Then again, of course it was – the universe knew I bought a scarf just 2 nights before so it didn’t want to make me wear it again. Not that I’m complaining.

Vltava River

Bridges along the Vltava

The other side of the Vltava

While strolling along the riverside, the first destination  I had in mind was the tram stop I had taken the previous day. This time, however, I was going to take it passed where the Castle Tour had started and get off at Belvedere Gardens. I passed some interesting things on the way, including another sculpture by the quirky local artist, David Černý, known as the Tower Babies. David Černý is the same artist who sculpted the rather odd looking naked woman you can crawl into.

David Černý's Tower Babies

There were some other things you don’t see everyday, like a row of plastic yellow penguins with Charles Bridge in the background.

Yellow penguins?

There are just too many beautiful things in Prague, so it would be a shame to not share as many photos as I possibly can.

It took a little over an hour to get to the Malostranská stop after leaving my hotel. Again, it was Tram 22 to the top of the hill. Since I had the passes from the American couple I had met the previous day at the monastery, I didn’t have to worry about getting tickets. I took both with me so that I could give Tyrone the other once I met up with him at the park.

I took the tram up to Královský letohrádek, the stop right outside the Belvedere Gardens, which are basically the palace’s Royal Gardens. Even though I had been keen to walk rather than take the tram up, there are times when you need to save time. There was no way I would make it on time to meet Tyrone if I had walked up, because judging from the same tram ride I had done the previous day, it was quite a long climb.

When I stepped off the tram, I felt as though I had travelled to a place out of a classic book I read as a child, or a Van Gogh painting. Prague, what have you done to me?

Královský letohrádek

I didn’t know what to expect at the Belvedere Garden, just the direction in which I had to go – generally, left, since right was back to Prague Castle. I knew that there was no way I’d have time to walk all the way to the Castle, and then back again to the beer garden I so much wanted to visit. At least, not in time to meet Tyrone wherever I was going to meet him. I was literally just going with my gut on that.

I didn’t spend too much time in Belvedere Garden itself, since it’s rather small, so I took a leisurely stroll towards the city and ended up being pleasantly surprised as St Vitus Cathedral rose up over the trees.

St Vitus Cathedral from Belvedere Gardens

Just behind me stood a gate to Letna Park. At least, I thought it was. I wasn’t sure how far I had to go, just that I had at least another 1.5 hours to find Tyrone. The moment I walked through that gate, I was surrounded with crazily green trees. It felt more like spring as opposed to what it really was – autumn. I eventually used my phone’s GPS to get a sense of the distance from my beer garden destination, and as I walked, I noticed that the city became visible through some of the trees (and bushes). I walked closer and moved some branches aside as I stepped onto a bank overlooking the city. There it was – the view I had come to see.

City View

There was no way, though, that I had to fight my way through dry shrubbery to see this, or that this was the best version of the view I had come to see. Letna Park was too big to let that happen. Once I stopped smiling, I found a less threatening way out (one with less shrubbery), and hurried out before anyone could see me and wonder what I was doing in a bush. I found 2 benches only 10 minutes away, and I can honestly say that it was one of the best views I’ve had. It was in line with the street visible on the bottom left of the above photo. I sat there for a good 20 minutes or so, in the company of some European travellers until I couldn’t deal with the heat and glare of the midday sun on my face any more. How did I know they were European? They interrupted the song I was listening to on my iPod to ask if they could sit on the bench next to me, and their accent sounded European. That’s literally the only way I could tell, since I carried on listening to my music once they sat down.

I didn’t realise that I would have to cross over a bridge to actually get to Letna Park. There were plenty signs, including ones for where the bicycle trails were. There were actually a number of winding routes one could take, so I just went for the one that appeared to go to the right. My plan was to actually stop at the Hanavský Pavilion, as that was a a high point from which I could get the view I wanted.

I found a map of the park which highlighted all the main points, so I took a moment to try to read it. There was a woman in front it who was not only making it physically impossible for anyone else to have a decent look, but who was also arguing with the other lady she was with while stabbing the glass with her finger. Clearly they were disagreeing on where they were meant to be going. I decided to rather continue using the old fashioned way to find my way around i.e. by reading the signs.

Hanavský Pavilion turned out to be a restaurant. I was kind of hoping that Tyrone would show himself somewhere around here, since it was a major landmark, but he didn’t. I figured I’d risk having a look at the menu anyway, in case we decided to come back here to eat, even though I knew the prices would be sky high due to its location and popularity with the tourists. Once I had a look at the menu, I realised I was wrong. The prices weren’t sky high, they were from outer space. I promptly closed the menu and scurried away before a waiter could approach me.

I walked round the corner to get to the side of the pavilion and was rewarded. Oh, my precious…

Prague from Hanavský pavilion

Prague panorama from Hanavský pavilion

After taking at least a dozen photos, I made my way towards the Metronome. On my way there, I passed a Chinese bridal couple who were having their photo shoot done. It was not the first couple I had seen having a bridal photo shoot in Prague. The first one was outside the Rudolfinum a couple days before.Bridal shoot

They say that it actually represents the city’s rhythm, since it is actually a functioning metronome. Once upon a time, it was a Stalin monument, but it was destroyed a few years after his death. The metronome was built as tall as the Stalin monument was – a staggering 23m. I felt rather small looking up at it from where I was standing. Prague Metronome

There was some graffiti on the wall below the metronome that caught my particular attention. When we picture graffiti, most of us tend to think of bright colours, comic-style script, and bold outlines. Most times it ruins the structure on which it is done, but the graffiti that I saw here was quite the opposite. It was done in black only, and it was actually the portrait of a girl. There was something timeless about it; I hope it never gets removed.The girl in the park

The Metronome was not at all far away from the beer garden. As I approached it, I saw a familiar face. It was Tyrone! Boy, was I happy to see him. It’s funny how we actually hadn’t planned where to meet at all, and despite the size of Letna and the odds of me taking some other pathway, we still managed to find each other on time.

Tyrone had only just arrived so we did a quick survey of the area and found that there was actually a rather fancy looking restaurant literally right next to the beer garden. I didn’t mind what kind of beer I had, as long as it was there.Venison with dumplings and honey sauce

It turned out to be hunting season, meaning the restaurant had very interesting items on the menu such as venison (which is not something I was used to seeing on a menu back in South Africa). Everything sounded fantastic, and it was actually reasonably priced considering what they offered and their location. But seeing as the restaurant at Hanavský Pavilion was so full, I figured most people don’t realise that there’s more to the beer garden than just the beer. Clearly, you pay for the view that Hanavský Pavilion offers.

Tyrone and I spent a good hour or so enjoying our lunch while chatting about where we were from, our jobs, and how much we love Prague and the excellent weather. Prague’s perfect weather for 2 days in a row was something I wish would never end.

With Tyrone

There is one thing I cannot leave out. Now, I am not one of those people who take photos of their food so that they can upload them to Instagram, but if it is something that is presented in a spectacular way then I will take a photo to show my friends. In the case of my dessert (since we thought we’d spoil ourselves on our last day in Prague), I am so glad I took a picture of that too, because it was without a doubt the best damn strawberry cheesecake I have ever had in my life. I am a huge cheesecake fan and this one was the Queen of all cheesecakes. They should build a shrine around it for other cheesecakes to worship.

The best strawberry cheesecake in the World

For the curious ones, below is a picture of the actual beer garden:

Letna Park's beer garden

After we freshened up, we went to the end of the beer garden to have a look at the views. Tyrone still hadn’t seen the castle, so I gave him directions on how to get there from where we were. He also told me where to catch the tram back down, but agreed to walk me there since it sounded confusing. We then parted ways, agreeing to meet a little later for one of the cruises along the Vltava.

After he left and I gave him one of the 24 hour passes, I ended up taking the wrong tram and went further east instead of back west. It was a classic case of my gut telling me I had done the wrong thing the second I stepped onto that tram. I actually had no idea where it was going, so after the 3rd or 4th stop, I decided to get off. I walked a little west, then south in order to get to the river, however I knew that I was way too far out of the city to walk back. There’s tram lines everywhere, so I stopped at the first stop I came across and noticed that the tram that was approaching me was labelled Narodni Divadlo (the National Theatre), which I was thrilled about because it was going to exactly where I needed to be. I hopped on, and decided to get off just before Charles Bridge so that I could walk across it again. I didn’t know whether I’d get the chance again, so I took it. I started to feel sad because I didn’t know when I’d ever see Prague again. When it looked this beautiful, who would want to leave?

Tyrone and I met again at around 17:30 in order to scout around for a river cruise. The place I had passed everyday was closed, and we didn’t want to spend so much on a dinner cruise. We then took a walk towards Charles Bridge, and noticed some guys dressed as sailors. We checked the price of their cruises, and it turned out to be more reasonable than the other ones. It also included a beer and an ice cream – 2 things I couldn’t refuse.

We had a few minutes to kill before the cruise started so we decided to get ourselves a bite to eat. There was a hot dog stand round the corner from Charles Bridge which I had walked passed everyday, so Tyrone agreed to try it out with me. It looked so tempting every time I walked passed that I just had to get one before leaving Prague. I didn’t want to regret not doing something as silly as that. I got a chilli one, which had a bit of a kick to it, but it was really nice. I’m a pretty slow eater (my friend’s husband says that his dead grandmother eats faster than I do) and the fact that the hot dog was tongue-burning hot didn’t make my life any easier. I had to try to gobble it down as fast as I could as the entrance to the boat house was through the Charles Bridge Museum, so I couldn’t enter it with food in my hand.

The boat house was like an underground grotto which required us to descend some steep stairs. It was very well lit, and there were a couple wooden boats docked together. There were 2 ladies who gave everyone an ice cream and a glass of beer as we boarded the boat, before we could head off with the driver. It was dusk when we left, and the cruise lasted about an hour. There were times when we stopped so that we could hear a bit of history about the Vltava River and how it had flooded so many times. It was fascinating seeing so many old black and white photos of the city when it was flooded, especially Charles Bridge which was reduced to basically just the piers. This was quite an engineering feat, even to this day, since all other bridges were totally washed away. Charles Bridge was the only one still standing.

There could not have been a more perfect way to spend my last night in Prague. There were times where I wished that there was no one but me on that boat, so I could just listen to the water and swans rather than be interrupted by the engine noise and chatter of the noisy people at the back.

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After the cruise, Tyrone and I thought of taking one last walk into Old Town Square to see what was going on. But before that, we noticed so many people walking passed us with some kind of ice cream dessert. We had no idea what it was, but it looked like it was in some kind of cone that was made out of dough. We simply had to go investigate, so we looked for the source.

We went about 50m down a familiar street that was leading to the Square when we found it: a Chimney shop. It was teaming with people, and there were only about 4 ladies handling everything. They were clearly making a killing as it was as if this was the most popular spot in the city. I honestly don’t know how they made the chimneys fast enough. We simply had to give it a try, especially since I have such a weak spot for ice cream.

We joined the queue and quickly found that there were several to choose from, all at pretty reasonable prices. Some had strawberries, while one even had ham. I wanted a dessert though, not a savoury breakfast, so I decided to go for the chimney blizzard which was just the cone with ice cream. We had to pay for our orders before they were made.

What did it taste like? Heaven. The cone itself had the taste and consistency very similar to a Cinnabon, and even though I thought it would just be filled with ice cream, there were fresh strawberries and chocolate sauce at the bottom. I didn’t expect that kind of surprise. It was very filling too, and I actually struggled to finish it as I got to the end. If I had space, I would have gotten another.

With our Chimney Blizzards

After that, it was time to say goodnight to Prague by enjoying the live music in Old Town Square. There was a one man band who had some crazy speakers that allowed his music to beam across the entire Square and beyond. It started to get a little chilly, but nothing I wasn’t used to. I loved how clean the air smelled even though I was right in the middle of a city. There were people dancing around and hundreds gathered round the man to appreciate the good performance he was giving us.

Tyrone and I eventually parted ways, and promised to stay in touch. The next day I would be leaving for my last stop, Berlin, whereas he still had another fortnight or so of travelling left to do. I must admit, I was a little jealous. I made my way back to the riverside and decided for once to catch a tram from just across the Rudolfinum back to my hotel. At least, for as close as it would take me.
Prague Trams

I was very sad to have to leave Prague the following morning, but I knew I’d be back. It was just too beautiful for me to never see it again.

Bohemia Part 3: Prague Castle and the Strahov Monastery

There are very few times in my life of which I can remember experiencing absolutely perfect weather; 1 October 2015, the day I went to Prague Castle, was one of them.

The previous day, my Free Walking Tour guide, Derek, convinced me to take the Prague Castle tour. When he said that visiting the castle by ourselves would be a waste of time unless we didn’t care much about its history, I knew he was right. After our free walking tour, my new found friend Tyrone and I went straight to the Discover Prague tour offices, where we had met earlier that morning, and booked our tickets at the counter at the cost of a mere 300 Crowns. I thought it was well worth it.

Like the free tour, the Castle tour started at 11am, which meant that I could again wake up at a reasonable hour and enjoy my breakfast. The moment I stepped outside to go to the other boat, I knew that the weather was going to be fantastic. I really could have gotten used to the view from my breakfast table. While I enjoyed some slices of cheese, I stared at the view for as long as I possibly could. More than once, the thought of how lucky I was crossed my mind, and I couldn’t help but smile to myself and shake my head in both awe and disbelief. This was the Prague I had come to see.

The view from Botel Matylda

After breakfast, I still had some time, so I popped back to reception to drop my humongous brass key off before relaxing for a few minutes at the coffee table with my map. I still had the entire afternoon and evening to explore, and I had marked off several places on my Google Maps which I just had to see. I didn’t want to use my phone unnecessarily and honestly, using a traditional map really cannot be beaten. I marked off what I wanted to and headed out.

Day planning

The meeting point was the same as the previous day, and as luck would have it, Derek was my guide again. He kept counting the number of people who had arrived, and I told him that Tyrone was the one that was missing. We waited a while but Tyrone never arrived. I suspected he was hammered after the previous night’s pub crawl, so I was a little bummed that he was missing the Castle Tour. It would have been nice to have company to take my photos again so I could avoid that damn selfie stick that my friend had given me for this trip.

We strolled over the cobblestone roads towards the Vltava, but didn’t go across Charles Bridge like I expected. We instead went to the one next to it, Mánesův Most, from where we could see Charles Bridge. It was at that point that our tour began.

View of Charles Bridge

Derek told us some of the history of Charles Bridge and the Vltava River. What shocked me was the height at which the water reached during the floods, and the number of times that the bridge survived. Built in 1357, it is, after all, the oldest standing bridge in the city. He explained the reason construction started in 1357, at 5:31 am on 9 July, due to the Holy Roman Emperor’s strong belief in numerology. It would form the perfect numerical bridge of 1357-9,7-5:31. He also told us some of the legends as to why the bridge had survived for so long, like how the workers not only drank beer while constructing it, but also included it in the cement, since it was available in abundance.

War Memorial, Prague

From there, we made our way across the bridge over to the War Memorial in Kralov Square, roughly 50m from the Winged Lion Memorial. Derek explained more history about the Czech Republic’s involvement in the war, which made me sad because I could not imagine such a beautiful place being subjected to the things that it was. It really has come a long way in the last 7 decades.

For those who don’t know, the Czech Republic’s coat of arms is depicted by the double-tailed lion. The Winged Lion Memorial was a gift from the British to honour the Czech  airmen who served in the Royal Air Force during the war.

We didn’t have time to actually approach the Winged Lion Memorial, so we headed directly to the tram stop from where we’d catch Tram 22 to the top of the hill. Derek had already given each of us a ticket before the tour started, so as we approached the stop a few metres from the War Memorial, he explained that we’d need to count 5 stops before getting off at the Pohořelec stop. Since we were all English speakers, we couldn’t remember which stop he said, or whether he meant that we must get off at the 5th stop, or after it.

The tram journey was actually longer than I expected – almost 10 minutes. I didn’t realise we’d cover that much ground in between stops, and because our group was rather large, it was a bit of a squash even though we distributed ourselves over 3 cars. Derek was in the car behind me, so I made sure I looked back at every stop to make sure that he wasn’t getting off. The ride required quite a steep ascent, and there was even a hairpin bend – something I hadn’t experienced while in a tram. It might sound silly to mention, but I remember it as if it were yesterday, thanks to the stunning greenery on either side of us as well as how the city began to open up once we rounded the corner. It was as if we were going towards a secret garden because our surroundings just kept getting greener.

Eventually we got to the 5th stop, Pohořelec, where we had to get off. There was an announcement before and after each stop, so by the time we got to Pohořelec, I realised it sounded close enough to the stop Derek said we should get off at. Some of the ladies from my tour who were standing near me were very paranoid that we’d miss the stop, so we all waited a few moments for Derek to disembark before we did too.

The area around the Pohořelec stop made me feel as if I had been teleported to a different city altogether. The buildings looked slightly more modern than in the city centre, and the roads were much wider, not to mention confusing.

We had a short uphill walk before I saw a sign for the Strahov Monastery. I was super excited about that because it was one of the places I had marked on my map, though I wasn’t sure what we’d get to see or how long we’d spend there.

After a quick bathroom break, we gathered under some trees, some 20m away from the Monastery’s library. Derek gave us a chance to sit as he told us a bit about the monastery and how it was founded by King Vladislav II. There is a lot of history associated with the monastery, which comes at no surprise since it was founded way back in 1142. The St Norbert Brewery, which sits within the monastery walls, was founded in the 17th century, and produces beer up to this day.

The brewery was the reason why I wanted so badly to visit the monastery, because the beer that is produced there cannot be attained outside the monastery walls. They do not produce it for commercial use, so it is very exclusive. Derek told us the story behind St Norbert, and explained how, to this day, seasonal beers are produced in his honour and in very limited quantities. I was there in Autumn, and there were signs around the vicinity advertising the seasonal beer: the Antidepressent Autumn Dark Lager. Since we were clearly not going to stop for a drink, I knew I had to find my way back after the tour.

Towards the exit of the monastery lay a vantage point from which we could get great views of the city. Derek rated it number 3 of the top 5 views of the city, and it was clear why.

View from the Strahov Monastery

From there, it was time to go to the Castle. We went back the way we had come in, passed Pohořelec and continued further down the road. Derek let us stop for about 30 minutes to get a bite to eat from a little cafe, and take another bathroom break. I got myself a salami roll and some iced tea before finding a spot to sit outside.Prague Ministry of Foreign Affairs

When we were done, we went towards the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was once controlled by the Butcher of Prague, Reinhard Heydrich. It was easy to visualise the Nazi flags hanging down the front of the building, as they once did.

Our first glimpse of the Castle was from a massive open area. Do not expect it to look like a castle, because it definitely does not look like one. The only thing castle-like about it is its elaborate entrance archway and the guards standing in front of it. It is easily comparable to the Royal Palace in Monaco, which doesn’t seem to have any fences at all.

Prague Castle entrance

The most popular attraction, due to its visual appeal, is without a doubt the St Vitus Cathedral, and it was the first thing to greet us once we passed through the palace gates. I’ve seen several cathedrals in my life, but this one blew me away.

After spending a few minutes inside, we met up on a small staircase outside before stopping at what is now a children’s toy museum. There is some history attached to that too, of course, but I think the thing people will remember the most is the bronze statue of the 12 year old boy outside the entrance to the museum. I must say one thing – there’s a reason why a certain part of his anatomy is shiney, so people, stop being ridiculous and thinking that rubbing that part is going to bring you good luck; that is a myth, just like that spot on Charles Bridge. It is unacceptable to touch that part of a child anyway, so don’t think it’s any different with a statue.

Once we got to the back entrance, we got to what Derek termed the second best view of the city. As if Prague couldn’t get any prettier…

View from Prague Castle

That was the end of our tour, so I took the opportunity to ask Derek about the cab services and which he would recommend, not wanting to pay another 600 Crowns to get back to the station the day after next. He recommended the AAA taxis, saying that they were the most reliable, not to mention reasonable. There was one other that he mentioned but I couldn’t remember the name.Strahov Monastery

After taking more photos, my next move was a no brainer – I had to go back to the monastery to try out their beer. The only problem was that I would have to retrace my footsteps through the whole castle.Side entrance to Strahov Monastery

That trip seemed to take forever, and once I got back to the the Pohořelec stop, I totally lost my bearings. I didn’t go back up the ramp we had gone up earlier, but walked around it instead, following the signs. I had a gut feeling that I had taken the wrong way, but according to my phone’s GPS, I was walking along the boundaries of the monastery. It was the long way round and all I could do was continue walking until I got to an entrance.

I was pretty hot and bothered trying to find an entrance, and it was an uphill climb too, however I couldn’t complain about the quiet and scenic road that I was walking on.

Antidepressant Autumn Dark Lager ingredients

After accidentally walking into a tennis club, I again had to retrace my steps to the road, but after that it was not long before I found the ‘proper’ entrance. I had already been walking for at least an hour, but still had to go through some gardens before getting to the restaurant I had seen earlier while on tour. Eventually, after 1.5 hours, I was able to sit down and order the beer I had travelled so far to taste. I met a friendly middle-aged American couple there, who sat at the next table. We smiled at each other when their food order came because they looked so excited when the waiter put it on their table. They asked me to take a photo of them, then they exchanged the favour. They were also sweet enough to give me both of their unused 24 hour passes, which would cover all my transport.

Tasting the Antidepressant Autumn Dark Lager

I didn’t have anything to eat, since I was still full from lunch, but I took my time to enjoy the beer. It was definitely worth the trek. I actually should have tried another one, but since I had to get myself back to the hotel, I opted out.

I walked back to the Pohořelec stop and waited for Tram 22 to come, in the opposite direction of course. While I was waiting, I had a look at the Tram map and noticed that it stopped at Narodi Divadlo (the National Theatre), which was not far from my hotel. Bonus!

Outside Narodni Divadlo

Almost a whole day had gone by, and the weather remained perfect. I was absolutely and irrevocably in love with Prague by now, so much so that I started walking slower and taking deeper breaths just so I could absorb as much of it as I possibly could. I literally enjoyed every breath of being there – there was beauty in everything.

Outside Narodni Divadlo

Bridge outside Narodni Divadlo

Alongside the Vltava

One thing I didn’t mention was the fact that my hotel was a stone’s throw away from the Dancing House, which I later found out is just an office building.

Botel Matylda and the Dancing House

After relaxing and taking a few minutes to freshen up, I took a walk to the Vyšehrad Fort, roughly 25 minutes away, in the direction opposite to Prague Castle which I hadn’t ventured to before. I didn’t realise there would be something like 200 steps to get to the top, but I knew that the view would make it worthwhile. It was sunset after all.

View from Vyšehrad fort

I walked around the fort a little and sat on one of the walls overlooking the city. The church bells went off at 7pm and because I was practically next to it, it was a beautifully thunderous sound. I sat there for at least another 30 minutes or so, admiring the view, before heading back down the way I came.

For a change, I walked along the riverbank, below road level, to get back to my hotel. There was a street performer dazzling the crowds by dancing while hanging from the bridge by a strong piece of cloth. It reminded me of the dance Isha Sharvani did in the movie Kisna, which requires an immense amount of strength.

I didn’t eat proper food when I got back to my hotel, as I was just too exhausted to go around looking for something. The closest place I knew of was near Charles Bridge, but I was in no state to walk back all that way again. I ate a mini pack of Oreos instead, since I still had some from Salzburg, and that seemed to do the trick.

I went to bed wondering how I had actually managed to make this holiday happen. Every day was better than the last, and to think there was still more to come?

 

Bohemia Part 2: Prague Intro, New Friends, and Opera

In the morning of my first full day in Prague, I was greeted with overcast skies and a chilly 15 degrees. I was optimistic that the weather would improve, so I didn’t dress too warmly. I loved the crisp air that pierced my face and hands upon stepping outside my boat hotel, as I took the short walk to the front boat to get breakfast. It is certainly not everyday that you get to have breakfast on a boat on the Vltava.

Breakfast view from Botel Matylda

The breakfast was great, consisting of various cold meats, cheeses, pastries, and the other usual breakfasty things like cereals, eggs, and bacon. There was also a decent selection of juices, tea, and coffee. Because I used the Get Your Guide app to do a free walking tour in Munich, I had decided the previous night to book  a free walking tour of Prague that day. Since it only started at 11, I took my time waking up and having my breakfast, so I could give myself at least an hour to take a slow walk to the meeting point on a side street next to Old Town Square.

After breakfast, I went back to my cabin to grab my camera, bag, and cash for the day, before heading out.

I had one favourite place in every city I went to: in Munich, it was Marienplatz; in Salzburg, it was Mirabell Palace; in Prague, it was Old Town Square. No matter what time of the day or night you go to Old Town Square, it is always buzzing with people. There is forever a lot of people just wandering around as if they have not a care in the world. The atmosphere made me feel as if I had travelled back in time.

Old Town Square

Since I was in the middle of a city, the GPS on my phone still functioned so it was easy for me to find my bearings, so I found the street where the meeting point was located quite quickly. Because of the direction I had entered the square from, the meetup point was straight ahead of me. Since I was almost 30 minutes early, I wandered a little further down the street to have a look around. The charm of Prague had really hooked me.
Celetná

On my way back to the alleyway where the tour company’s office was, I noticed dozens of people just beyond it standing around some guys with yellow umbrellas that were scattered about the area. Upon closer inspection, I realised that they were the tour guides. Each umbrella had the name of the tour on it, so I went up to the guy holding the one that said “Free Tour” and tried listening in on whether or not we needed to show our booking confirmations and of course, whether it was indeed the correct tour. Of course it was.

Each of us were given a ticket number, and since there were about 60 of us, the guide I was standing near used those numbers to split the group into two. Our guide was Derek, an American from some little town in Massachusetts. He seemed to be annoyed that everyone assumed that he’s from Boston, just because he said Massachusetts, but I suppose it’s because as non-Americans, most people don’t know of any town in the state.

Derek, who appeared to be in his mid 30s, told us a little bit more about himself, including his background (which I can’t remember) and that he’d been living in Prague for about a year. Being a tour guide was what he did for a living, and although he’d get a salary from the paid tours, without tips from the free ones, he wouldn’t make enough to really live comfortably. The Koruna is not at all strong against the Euro, however I’m sure he would have had some US Dollars to exchange which would have helped him a great deal. He also gave us a brief overview of where we’d be going on the tour, and how long it would take – roughly 2.5 hours depending on the pace of the group.

One of the first places Derek wanted to dazzle us with was the Astronomical Clock. And by “dazzle”, I mean “disappoint”. If you’ve seen the Mona Lisa in person then that is probably number 1 on the list of Most Disappointing Things. The Astronomical Clock, however, comes pretty close. In fact, some would say it takes top spot. It is without a doubt one of the most disappointing things you’ll ever see. It is beautiful, no doubt, but the “show” that happens every hour on the hour is such a waste of time, that the only good reason to go there would be to witness the mass look of disappointment in the faces of those in the crowd that gather in front of it. I found myself constantly thinking “Ok, maybe now something will happen”, but it never did. Everyone should go see it on the hour, but just don’t set your expectations high because they’ll come crashing down in no time. No pun intended.

Astronomical Clock

Our next stop was the Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a beautiful building situated next to the Vltava river, and is one of the few buildings that survived the Nazi occupation, as Hitler enjoyed the cultural experience he got from it so ordered troops not to destroy it.

Rudolfinum

Derek gave us plenty of opportunities to sit, especially when he was about to give a long speech, which helped a lot because when you’re travelling, you usually get so caught up in wanting to see everything that you actually forget to rest your feet.

While at the Rudolfinum, Derek also told us about the Butcher of Prague. In his opinion, even though Hitler was bad, the Butcher of Prague (SS General Reinhard Heydrich) was evil to the bone. He was actually one of the key players in the Holocaust, and because he was essentially in charge while in Czechoslovakia, he used it to his advantage by torturing and murdering as many Jews as he possibly could, in order to break the will of the Czech people. He alone was responsible for killing at least 2 million Jews.Old Jewish Cemetery

As if we weren’t saddened enough by the stories about the Holocaust, we still had to visit the Jewish Quarter. The thing that upset me the most was seeing the Old Jewish Cemetery. The story is too sad for me to repeat in detail, but basically the layer of tombstones that you see above the ground is not the only layer. There are in fact several layers of graves in that little plot, since the Jews were not given more land to bury their dead, so there is believed to be around 100 000 bodies buried in that little space. Because the ground was raised by 3m due to the constant flooding of the Vltava river every decade or so, what is visible above the ground today is actually not the full height of the cemetery. It was eye opening to say the least.Goulash with bread dumplings

 

The tour ended at roughly 2pm, with everyone queuing to give Derek a tip. He decided to hold out his beanie so that we could put their tips in that, allowing him to look us in the eye and shake our hands instead of looking at how much we gave him. A tall, friendly-looking American guy and a really short Indian girl were standing together, hovering in the same vicinity as I was after I tipped Derek. We all noticed that some people didn’t give a tip at all, and just walked away after the tour. The guy mentioned how he was shocked that those people just walked away, and asked how much I gave as a tip cos he wasn’t sure what would be acceptable. We chatted briefly about it, then we all introduced ourselves. He was Tyrone, and the girl was Daphne. They had both met on another tour a couple days prior in Munich if I remember correctly. It was just a random meeting and they became friends after that.Lokal

We decided that we were starving, and since these 2 seemed like fun company, I accepted their offer of exploring with them. Derek had told us about a great, reasonably priced restaurant that is very popular among both locals and foreigners, Lokal, which was a short walk away. One of the tips Derek gave us was to not pay more than 40 Crowns for a beer; if we did, we’d be paying to much.

Following Derek’s directions, we walked for a few minutes but my gut feeling told me that we had taken a wrong turn. After finally convincing Daphne that we had definitely lost our way, we retraced our steps and found Lokal shortly after. We were greeted by a friendly waitress who spoke fluent English, and seated us immediately. Before I left South Africa, I asked a Czech friend of mine what she’d recommend in terms of food. One of the things was goulash and dumplings. Her daughter also said that I should try black beer, so when I got to Lokal and saw both of those on the menu, it was a no brainer.

Tyrone and I ordered the same thing, and Daphne ordered some kind of pork thing. I told them about my friend’s advice about having black beer, so they both ordered one too. It was officially my first Czech beer and boy, did I love it.

Drinking black beer, Prague

After lunch, we chatted a little and then decided that we should actually go to see an opera that evening at the St Nicholas Church just next to the Old Town Square. I mean, how often does one get to do that?

Old Town Square

We took a lazy stroll back to the square, stopping at random places to take photos. Since we knew where St Nicholas Church was, we went straight there after getting the photos we wanted. There was a lady handing out pamphlets and selling tickets at the church’s door. We decided to go for the 8pm show, since 5pm was too close by and we wanted to freshen up. I, for one, was desperate to get a scarf as the wind was freezing me to the bone, so the last thing I wanted to do was wander around at night without being warmly dressed. Also, I had more than enough cold nights outside since Munich, so it was time I had the proper attire. There was certainly no point in trying to be a hero.

Pocket mirror

Tyrone, Daphne, and I agreed to meet back outside the church at 7pm before parting ways, so that we could grab a quick bite before the show. Since there was WiFi at Lokal, Tyrone and I added each other on Facebook, so there’d be some way to communicate with each other. I kind of knew exactly where I wanted to go to get a scarf, so I went as quickly as I could back towards the river and over Charles Bridge to the shops I had walked around the night before. I was able to get one that I really liked, as well as some souvenirs which I decided not to put off, in case I didn’t get another opportunity to get them. Besides, it’s nice to get these things out of the way as soon as you can. I knew it would take at least 25 minutes to get back to my hotel from there, so I didn’t waste much time shopping.St Nicholas Church

When I got back to the hotel, I put a jersey on over the T-shirt I was wearing, and my Hofbrauhaus jacket on top of that, with the scarf tied around my neck. I was taking no chances. When I stepped outside, it was the perfect number of layers, and I happily walked back to Old Town Square. Since I was early, I went to some vendors and found another trinket to take home – a pocket mirror with a metallic coloured Astronomical Clock on the lid. It also made an excellent gift as the vendor engraved whatever name you asked her to on the actual mirror.

After I got what I wanted, I went back to the church. It was not long before Tyrone showed up. We waited at least 15 minutes for Daphne and when she didn’t show up, we realised that she had probably fallen asleep, having had a very late night before. Unlike us, she had bought her ticket in the afternoon, so we were pretty sure she’d show up eventually. We bought our tickets and wandered around a little, wondering whether or not to get something to eat, but then decided to pass since we were actually still pretty full from lunch.

Old Town Square

Old Town Square

The inside of the church was magnificent. It was the smallest church I’d ever been to, but it was so beautiful with its gigantic white chandelier hanging in the centre. We had some time to look around and take photos, and even though there were at least 2 dozen other people there, it was still quite quiet. Daphne showed up literally about 5 minutes before the show could start. She did fall asleep.

The show started at 8pm sharp, once the door was closed. It was absolutely silent then, and every sound echoed. It was like nothing I had ever experienced, even though I’ve been in so many churches before. This was the first one where I felt as though I was locked in. I did humour myself with the thought “Is this the part where they kill us and no one would know?”.

I can’t really describe just how fantastic the sound of the mini orchestra was in those closed walls. No microphones or speakers were needed, and I could feel the music resonate through my soul. I had goosebumps throughout almost the entire performance. The woman who sang had the most lovable face, and listening to her sing with such a powerful voice made me emotional.

St Nicholas Church opera

The show lasted about 90 minutes, so we still had some time to find something to eat before Tyrone and Daphne could go to the Pub Crawl they had booked for 10pm, although I was pretty sure it would be a very tight squeeze to get food and be back wherever they needed to be on time.

We walked across Charles Bridge since we knew there’d be places to buy food there, and stopped along the way to admire the view of Prague Castle and the general splendour of the bridge at night. I was in love with Prague from the moment I arrived, so even the smallest of things was beautiful.

Charles Bridge Prague Castle from Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge is longer than you think, so it was actually quite a walk to get to the other side. Daphne said the most absurd thing that I’ll never forget – that the tower on the hill was 10m taller than the Eiffel Tower because it was on top of a hill. Tyrone and I tried our best to be tactful while trying to explain that a tower’s height is measured from its base, not the level of the ground that it is built on. It took a few tries to convince her that it was simply the Czech sense of humour, as they were purposely making fun of themselves by claiming that it was taller.

Prague Castle from Karlov Most

By the time we got to the other side, I still wasn’t really hungry but I ordered something small, along with my 2 new friends, from the first takeaway place we saw. I had gotten used to eating at odd times and skipping meals, so I didn’t want to end the day without having some form of supper.

I was pretty exhausted from walking by then, so as soon as they got their orders and we began to head back over the bridge, I told them to carry on and that I’d see them the following morning. Tyrone and I decided to do the Prague Castle Tour, so we knew we’d see each other again, since we had booked our tickets before going to Lokal. Daphne had already been on the tour, so she’d be off on her own mission, which was fine with me as I found myself getting along better with Tyrone.

My feet were pretty sore by the end of the night, but I loved being on Charles Bridge so much that I opted to have my snack on the bridge while admiring the view. The breeze was fresh and chilly, but I could only feel it on my face. I loved it.

While I was eating, fireworks started going off in my hotel’s vicinity. I had no idea what was going on, but all I could think of was that there could not have been a better ending to my day. It was as if Prague was loving me back.

Fireworks over the Vltava

One of the main things I love about travelling alone is that you can spend as long as you want wherever you want. I used that to my advantage while watching those fireworks. Not only was I enjoying the light show, I was also just absorbing as much of the atmosphere as possible, as well as the cold river breeze on my face. Even though Munich was my favourite city, I never experienced such a deep soul moving feeling while there. Standing on that bridge that late at night is one place where I could literally keep my eyes closed for as long as I wanted and not have a soul bother me. When you travel, you use your eyes and hands, but you don’t always listen. Do yourself a favour – wherever you find yourself happy, close your eyes and listen to where you are too. It will leave an imprint on your brain forever.

Go to Prague. It is that fairytale you always heard about.

Karlov Most

Bohemia Part 1: Getting to Prague

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.

Leaving Salzburg

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.

Compartment to myself

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).

Botel Matylda at dusk

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.Botel Matylda - my bed

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.Botel Matylda - the bathroom

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 - the mini bar

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?Walking on water

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.

Prague

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.

Karlov Most at dusk

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!

The other side of Karlov Most

Karlov Most

Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora (Church of the Holy Saviour)

Národní Divadlo - Prague National Theatre

Botel Matylda's seafood risottoOnce 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.

 

Europe 2015: Things One Cannot Miss

Today I saw a post on Facebook saying that there are only 70 days left until Oktoberfest starts and I realised that means that there’s only 71 days left until I leave for my trip. In the weeks since my last post, I’ve been consulting various sources to get ideas on which activities to take part in.

There are a lot of alternatives to the usual sight seeing that most people so, which is why I decided to make up a list of not only things that I’ve already booked, but also the ones that I don’t think anyone, including myself, should miss.

Munich

  1. Oktoberfest
  2. Viktual Market
  3. Day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle
  4. BMW Museum, the Welt, and the Plant
  5. Hofbrauhaus

Salzburg

  1. Sound of Music dinner and show
  2. Day trip to Hallstatt, including the Ice Caves
  3. Old Town
  4. Lammerklamm Gorge

Prague

  1. Stay at the Boat Hotel Matylda
  2. Prague on Segway tour
  3. Mirror Maze on Petřín Hill
  4. Wallenstein Palace Gardens

Berlin

  1. Hot Rod City Tour
  2. Legoland Berlin
  3. Aquadom
  4. Third Reich Tour
  5. Day trip to Dresden
  6. Watch a movie at Freiluftkino

My research is far from over, but the last thing I want to do is over plan. A friend taught me that planning too much in advance makes things become like a routine, and then you’re just living a typical, normal life anyway. Some things need to be left for the last minute. After all, that’s where a lot of the excitement of a holiday is!

Europe 2015: The Planning Process Part 2

It suddenly hit me that I now have less than 100 days left before boarding my first Qatar Airways flight to Munich. There were a number of factors involved in my decision around the date that I would be leaving, and after ironing out everything, I was able to book my flights.

My trusty flight-booking website is Travelstart, which I was introduced to by a friend 2 years ago. Travelstart, similarly to Expedia and Skyscanner, allows you to plug in multiple destinations, then gives you a list of every airline and flight for the dates you specify. You can sort it to give you the cheapest flights first, or the quickest.

Quick tip: use your browser’s incognito mode to book flights. Usually when you search multiple times, your browser and the website remember what you’ve searched for, so the prices increase each time.

As mentioned in my previous post about this trip, I am planning to attend Oktoberfest this year. It officially starts on 19 September and runs for 2 solid weeks. When I did my initial research, I remember someone on TripAdvisor recommending the second week as opposed to the first since the festival would be less busy. However, due to work commitments, I did not want to risk pushing my holiday till later. I knew I was going to fly into Munich and out of Berlin, but the only thing I was really clear about was the fact that I was not going to choose Etihad.

So why not Etihad? My first and last experience with Etihad was very disappointing. Having flown with Emirates on several occasions, I expected a similar level of service. Alas, however, it was not the case. The food was decent, but upon my arrival in Geneva, I found that my bag had been so badly handled that the handle had broken*, so I had to lug around a 21kg bag by the handle. Also, on my return flight from Abu Dhabi, we were put onto Air Seychelles, a much cheaper carrier that is partnered with Etihad. Air Seychelles was undoubtedly the most uncomfortable airline I’ve ever been on.

Once my flights were booked, the hunt for accommodation started. I’ve used Booking.com a few times and find it to be rather handy. My choice of accommodation was based on a good balance of price and location. Besides allowing you to get exactly what you want, the thing I like about Booking.com is that you have the choice of booking with a free cancellation policy. I’m sure they aren’t the only site that does that, but since I’m comfortable with Booking.com, it worked for me.

I had to be smart about what I wanted with a free cancellation policy, however, so that I could pace myself in terms of budget. A lot of the free cancellation policies come with a “pay later” option, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The good thing is that your booking would be confirmed before you actually pay anything, and should you want to cancel or modify the booking, there would be no cost involved (provided it was done in advance). It also allows you to make upfront payments for other places so that you don’t end up with a massive credit card bill at the end of it all, since you’d be paying towards part of the holiday before you even go. The downside is that with the fluctuating exchange rate, you might end up paying more when you arrive at your destination, even though the cost in local currency would remain.

Boat Hotel Matylda, Prague.  (Photo Courtesy: http://www.botelmatylda.cz/en/)

Boat Hotel Matylda, Prague.
(Photo Courtesy: http://www.botelmatylda.cz/en/)

Due to the fact that I’m going during the busiest time of the year, Munich was the first place I had to book. I know that accommodation there sells like hot cakes, so it was vital that I booked as quickly as I possibly could. The problem though is that due to the date period, the prices are sky high. The only way to get something relatively affordable is to book outside of the city borders. This was how I came about a place in the town of Aschheim, at least 14km out of the city – way too far to walk. This would not only bring about additional transport costs, but also steal valuable time that could be spent doing other things. I was also not keen on going that far out of the city after spending around 16 hours travelling. I closed my eyes and reserved my booking, but made sure it was one of the places I’d book with the free cancellation policy because my gut told me that I’d find something not only cheaper, but much closer to the city centre. Till then, I would take my time (sort of) to find places to stay in Salzburg, Prague and lastly, Berlin.

Compared to Munich, the other cities were really reasonable. I looked for places that had high ratings but were cheaper in order to somehow balance the amount I was spending in Munich. It didn’t take me long to find accommodation in Salzburg and Prague as both are relatively small cities so it is easy to get around no matter where you are.

My hotel in Prague (pictured above) was one of the places I didn’t bother booking with a free cancellation policy. I booked it almost immediately after seeing it because there is no way that I will get an opportunity to stay in an anchored boat hotel anywhere ever again. At least, not one that is in a beautiful city like Prague. It is probably the place I am most looking forward to staying in purely because it will be such a unique experience.

Aquadom, Berlin.  (Photo courtesy: http://icm-corp.com/)

Aquadom, Berlin.
(Photo courtesy: http://icm-corp.com/)

Berlin is surprisingly affordable all around the city so I was actually spoilt for choice. I ended up with a beautiful hotel right on Potsdammer Platz – a mere 3 minute walk from Brandenburg Gate. It is also walking distance to Legoland and the Berlin Cathedral, among other things.

Even though all my accommodation was booked, I was still uneasy about my choice in Munich, however I wasn’t getting any joy from Booking.com. It was then that I decided to check out AirBnB, and boy am I glad I did.

When I was doing my initial research for my trip, before I booked anything, I had a look at AirBnB, but at the time I was too unsure of what I wanted and when I wanted to go. However, once my dates and other accommodation was confirmed, I went back onto it to find something decent for Munich. It didn’t take me long to find a lovely apartment, only 5km out of the city centre, for about ZAR2000 cheaper than what I was going to pay in the far out town of Aschheim. It was an absolute bargain so I hope that it lives up to my expectations. I’m glad that it will give me an opportunity to walk as well, which is the one thing I enjoy the most about Europe.

Now that the big bookings are done, all I’m left with, apart from the obvious visa and travel insurance, is the nitty-gritty stuff like what I will be doing each day, which Part 3 of the planning process will focus on. Till then, I shall continue on my quest to make this trip as awesome as it possibly could be.

*Etihad compensated me with voyager miles.