I’m on the train and finally on my way to Prague! The carriages are made up of eight seat compartments and I don’t understand the seat allocation information on the doors……..are the seats free or not? I walk down the aisle looking in each crowded compartment until I come across one that is empty except for a skinny and rather weather beaten vagabond looking man scrunched up and pressed against the window. I decide to take my chances with the vagabond and it suits me that he doesn’t acknowledge me when I enter the carriage.
The train is travelling all the way to Budapest and I have to make sure I get off at the right station. I am nervous – really nervous and I pick up the information brochure which Denise assured me would be there, to see what stops there are before I get to Prague or Praha, which I now have to get used to.
Why do we insist on giving towns and countries different names in different languages? Surely if its Praha, its Praha?
The compartment soon fills but no-one has challenged me for my seat. In fact no one speaks at all. The conductor comes along to inspect our tickets and it seems I’m ok where I am so I settle down to check and recheck the information brochure which I have now claimed as mine. I’m anxious and use the brochure to track our journey moment by moment, checking each time we pull into a station that our journey and times correlates with the information on the brochure.
I sense passive eyes surreptitiously watching me and imagine I must be a source of curiousity; a middle aged woman with a backpack, wearing an Australian Akubra hat and a black eye, who obviously has some kind of OCD, picking up the brochure, checking it, checking the time, putting it down, picking it up, checking the time, putting it down – occasionally ruffling through it in panic having lost the page with this particular train route on it, and each time we pull into a station the OCD becomes even more frantic!
Finally we arrive in Prague/Praha on time and I’m finally satisfied that the brochure was telling the truth!
I’ve already located the street where the hostel is on my Lonely Planet book map and decide I can walk there with my backpack despite my injuries. Besides, I’m in full mean and lean backpacking mode now and suspect that if I take a taxi from the station I will end up on a merry dance around Prague being charged twice the price that I should!
The streets are clearly signed and I quickly work out which way I need to head. My confidence is returning and I embrace the city. I immediately like it and focus on becoming used to the unfamiliar words and signs. It is pedestrian friendly with crossings everywhere; trams rumble along, the sun is shining and people go happily about their business.
I’m not the best map reader in the world, nor the worst but I’m checking street by street on my map as I go and I’m happy with my progress. However, I somehow take one wrong turning and suddenly I am lost! I walk here and there for a while trying to get my bearings to no avail and concede to having to ask for help. There are a couple of men chatting in what could be Czech ahead of me so I approach them with my map, but they quickly wave their arms and talk in an indistinguishable tongue and I guess they are telling me they aren’t from Prague. I go on a little further and try to attract the attention of a smartly dressed middle aged lady passing by. She is obviously a local going about her daily business, but she brushes me off with an extremely unfriendly gesture! Unperturbed I stop in front of two young guys in their early twenties and ask them for help. They are much more friendly and while one of them continues to roll the joint they were working on before I disturbed them, the other helps me in broken English, pointing me in the right direction and soon I am back on track.
The Hostel, Equity Point is up a side street close to the river and only one bridge down from Charles Bridge; an iconic feature of Prague and the Old Town, which makes it a perfect location for exploring from.
When I enter I find the hostel is bright with a pleasant atmosphere and I’m greeted by a rather serious looking man in his late thirties or early forties He is large in build wearing a beard and glasses. “Yezz, kann I help yoo?” he asks in that Aleksandr Orlov accent of Comparethemarket.com Meerkat fame which I love!
I am quickly and efficiently checked in with slight officiousness and am soon settling into my dormitory. I meet a friendly male cleaner, Mark, from Stoke, who is just finishing cleaning the dorm. He has lived here for ten years since moving over from the UK with his Czech girlfriend. It is a six bed dorm, (two bunks two single beds), bright, clean and spacious with a good sized bathroom and I’ve been allocated a bottom bunk. There are lockers under the beds but you need your own padlock. Mine doesn’t fit so after I’ve showered and am heading out to explore, I stop and ask Mr Officious if the hostel sells padlocks…….”Yezz we sell padlockz” he replies. They are quite reasonably priced and I decide to buy one, asking as an after thought if they do fit the lockers upstairs! “Yezz oaff courze they feet the lockerz uppztairz…why would we zell padlockz that don’t feet the lockerz uppztairs??”
Hmm Good point I think and then suggest rather pathetically in defence that perhaps in England we might (Well we might?!)……”Well wee are heer to make buzzinezz!” he replies with a slight grin…….There isn’t really anything else one can add to that so I smile back and head out wishing him a good evening.
I like this man and suspect he has a very dry sense of humour!
So here I am finally walking the streets of Prague having made it through all my planning and preparations, trials and tribulations and despite my low ebb I am feeling quite accomplished. It’s late afternoon on a very hot day and the city seems to be buzzing. I walk along the riverside taking in the sights, the magnificent medieval buildings, their iconic orange roofs, cathedral steeples and the magnificent Prague Castle dominating the landscape.
I have come to Prague with no preconceived ideas. I know it has become an incredibly popular short break destination for the UK, but I haven’t quite appreciated what a huge tourist destination it has become. As I stand on Charles Bridge surrounded by the bustling crowd, much to my surprise the dominating language is English, whether with English, American, Canadian or Antipodean accents. Everyone is in happy tourist mode, stopping to take photos, buying the usual tourist souvenir trash from stall holders and watching the street entertainment. Large tour groups of all nationalities push through the crowds, obediently following their leader who holds an umbrella or some other beacon high in the air so their flock will follow. “Stag” or “Hen” groups of varying nationalities pass by, obvious by their silly matching attire. They are in high spirits and are having a great time but in no way are they impeding on the pleasure of others. The river is awash with paddle boats and river cruise boats and kids roll around in giant plastic balls tied to pontoons.
Despite Prague obviously being an affluent city I occasionally see homeless people sleeping in parks and on street corners and I am sad for them, but I can’t help but notice the numerous overweight beggars strategically squatting in busy tourist thoroughfares, upturned hat out in front, empty dog bowl beside it while they pathetically stroke their much loved but equally as overweight sleeping dog!
I find a little open air restaurant, Klub Lavka, overlooking the river next to Charles Bridge and close to the hostel. The waitress is very friendly and it has free wifi so I immediately adopt it as “my local.”
Later back at the hostel after waiting an eternity for the lift to my 4th floor dorm I discover my electronic key card doesn’t work, but as soon as I return to reception Mr Officious replaces it, mentioning that it might be the battery on the door lock. However upon returning to the fourth floor the key card works and all is good.
I spend a little time in the common room working on my blog and enjoying the background company of the young people coming and going. It is a very international hostel and whilst everyone exchanges friendly smiles and a little small talk, there is no real common language so everyone pretty much keeps to themselves, preparing meals in the kitchen or glued to their smartphones and laptops.
On the first night I have my dormitory to myself other than one other companion who arrives quietly in the early hours of the morning and departs before seven. I am only vaguely aware of their presence through the fog of a deep sleep and hearing the door close behind them as they leave I wonder momentarily who they were before I roll back over to sleep.
I spend the next two days wandering the streets of Prague. It is a beautiful city rich in culture and I loosely follow my tourist map visiting the main attractions, but mostly I just let my feet take me where they want me to go. I am still feeling quite fragile from recent events and stop often for a rest or a bit of reflection. Despite being in one of the most wonderful cultural cities in Europe I have no desire to visit the inside of palaces, museums or cathedrals and decide that wandering the streets, breathing in the atmosphere and enjoying the sunshine is good enough for me at this moment in time.
As I meander through the crowds and as I frequently find myself dodging oncoming pedestrians I become increasingly aware of just how invisible and insignificant I am in this huge city. People are going about their own business, either alone, in couples or groups, but whatever their story, no one looks out beyond their own personal space and I am not seen.
I begin to play a little game of “chicken” in my head with on coming pedestrians, waiting with wry amusement to see if they will actually notice me before we collide. Most often I avert first but sometimes I am rewarded by a startled look before the on comer deviates in a fluster at the last moment!
I know invisibility is sadly a typical phenomenon of big cities and I am by no means the only invisible person. I remember the first time I really experienced this feeling when I visited Athens a couple of years ago. On that occasion I felt so alone amongst nearly four million people. I remember looking out at the breath taking views from the Parthenon with awe, and with no one to share the moment with I allowed silent tears of sadness to freely roll down my cheeks, knowing that not one passer-by would notice.
However, since then I’ve embraced “aloneness” and am comfortable being invisible in Prague. I am aware that I am withdrawing into myself but I am not concerned, knowing that this is simply a part of my journey.
I stop each day at my local, The Klub Lakva for dinner where a different but equally as friendly waiter serves me each time before I head back to the hostel for a refreshing shower and an evening spent in the common room after a long day of pounding the pavements.
On my third occasion of wearily taking the lift to my fourth floor dorm only to find my keycard doesn’t work and being told twice already that it might be the battery, I storm into reception, only to find Mr Officious is away from the desk. I wait impatiently and when he finally returns I angrily complain that yet again my keycard doesn’t work! “just change the %#$$# battery” I am about to snap when he very calmly says, “No Problems I’ll comez right now and replaze the battery”
We travel in the lift together and feeling a little guilty at my outburst I make small talk. “You are busy” I comment. “Yezz, itz the beginning of the seazon and many peoplez want many thingz and with the heat they get very nervouzz” “Ah, like me” I say rather apologetically. “Yezz and they then want everythingz for nothingz!” “Ahah!” I say “I didn’t think of that!!” We both chuckle as we get out of the lift and he finally changes the battery!
When Mr Officious isn’t around, the hostel is run by Tina, a whirlwind energetic lady with dreadlocks. Nothing is too much trouble but she dashes here and there obviously juggling several balls in the air at the same time.
I spend another two nights in the luxury of only sharing my dorm with one other lady, a teacher from Slovakia who is here with a school group. Our communication is basic but I find out that she has a son who is an airline pilot and flies between Dubai and Scotland and a daughter who is studying medicine in Prague.
I extend my stay for another night as I decide to take a day trip to what promises to be an interesting place called Kutna Hora just an hour away by train. I have to move rooms for this last night as a group has booked my entire dorm. It is also the weekend and Prague is busy.
After packing up and leaving my dorm in the morning I put my backpack into the luggage store and head out for the day. When I arrive back in the early evening I pick up my backpack and go to my new room and much to my horror I realise just by the smell and the clothes strewn about that I will be sharing with boys!! I knew already that it was a mixed dorm hostel as they all seem to be in Europe, but this will be my first actual experience!
I quickly shower and spend a little bit of time in the common room before retiring early for the night, fully expecting to be the first one in bed and prepared to experience a drunken bunch of boys loudly returning later. However when I get back to the dorm the lights are out and half the beds are already occupied, the three Japanese friends all snoring soundly! Later, the only other female occupant retires for the night. As she settles in I quietly acknowledge her with admiration and respect, realising that she is a young lone traveller in a wheelchair and for the millionth time since my recent accident I thank God for my miraculous escape and good fortune.
I’ve enjoyed my time in Prague and at Equity Point Hostel and as I am leaving I realise I am not altogether invisible after all! Tina orders me a taxi to take me to the bus station and when it arrives she comes outside with me, in reality to have a quick E-cig, but teasingly we pretend she is seeing me off, waving and blowing kisses at each other while she shouts with a huge grin “I just want to make sure you DO leave!”
I like the Czech Republic, I like its people and I like their dry sense of humour and I am looking forward to visiting my next destination Karlovy Vary.