Munich was supposed to be the last stop on my trip. But when I was looking for cheap flights home, I got distracted by all the beautiful cities that I had yet to see and one thing led to another. I found myself entertaining a detour to Salzburg, or Vienna, Venice, Zurich, Prague… Which is how, at the end of a month spent eating ice-cream and endless walking, walking everywhere, I found myself in Prague a little bit dazed and heat-fatigued, hoping everything I’d ever heard about the city was true.
I knew pretty much nothing – only that Prague was supposed to be very beautiful and romantic with a skyline full of spires (points of reference being a Korean drama called Lovers in Prague and Mission Impossible). A little googling “traditional food Prague” turned up dumplings and some hearty looking soups and stews. A good start, I thought.
I didn’t suffer through a Megabus journey this time but the 5/6 hour train ride was only marginally better. It was an old rattly train with compartments (picture the Hogwart’s Express) so there was no air con but it was pleasant enough with the window open. The troubles began when the train stopped in the station for half an hour for no apparent reason. It got hot and stuffy, I got cranky. But I sucked it up, ‘cos when you’re paying such a good price for cross-border travel you can’t really complain.
Public transport is already so cheap in Europe and yet, I decided in my heat-addled brain that I would make my way to the hostel by foot, lugging my backpack at the high point of noon. But… public transport is also stressful, especially when you don’t know what direction to go in or which stop to get off at and the driver only speaks Czech. Luckily, it wasn’t too far. I can still picture the entire route from the hostel to the city center, that’s how many times I walked it during my stay.
At first the city didn’t seem so special, I felt like I was getting déjà vu. The outer city looked the same as some “old town” areas I’d visited before in other countries. Cobbled roads, trams, pastel-coloured buildings – that sort of thing. But then I got to the center and saw the infamous Charles Bridge and I found myself nodding and oohing and aahing. The city of a thousand spires indeed. If you go to Charles bridge and look over the river towards the castle when the sun is just setting, you have a ready-made spot for a marriage proposal. Just be prepared to share the moment with the other dozens of tourists enjoying the view. Selective vision would come in very handy at this point.
I tried the cuisine – dumplings with spicy beef goulash; dumplings with beef, cranberries and a cream sauce (svíčková). Bread dumplings, potato dumplings. Strudel, pastries and dry, horn shaped breads. I drank kefir thinking it was milk (it’s actually fermented milk). I was also attacked by more wasps.
One of the greatest joys of my visit was the trdelník (I kept thinking tradelink). It’s a pastry made by rolling dough around a metal cylinder and cooking it over a grill. While still hot, it’s rolled in cinnamon and sugar. To experience the full wonder, I recommend a little shop called Good Food nestled in one of the windy streets near the central square. They do trdelník with various fillings, one savoury ham and cheese. And then there was The Blizzard – a formidable cone of baked dough, slightly lemoney, filled with soft serve ice cream and a little chunk of chocolate at the bottom. I don’t understand why the other trdelník shops hadn’t caught onto this genius yet. Maybe it was patented.
I went out of my way one morning to find the best strudel in the city (see here). When I turned up it looked closed – the metal grill was down and there was nobody there. Luckily, I waited a while longer because someone appeared and I got my strudel. Plum, it was, the seasonal option. I actually ate the whole thing, and it was longer than a 30cm ruler. Only later did it cross my mind that strudels are generally sliced up and served in delicate tea-time portions. Well this girl has no regrets.
Prague has some oddities: for example, a sculpture of two men relieving themselves – which happens to have parts that move too. I stumbled across the famous mutant baby sculptures crawling up the television tower and another odd sculpture of a man hanging from a wall. We can thank David Černý for the first two, I don’t know about the last one. There was also an unusual building known as the Dancing House.
During the day, I walked around and took photos, visited some museums, even swam in a lake at the outskirts of the city. There’s nothing so delicious as a cool dip when you’re smelly and sweaty. In the city center, I couldn’t move for tourists and I was oozing sweat by the evening but there was a great atmosphere. I enjoyed the street performances. One evening on Charles bridge I heard some haunting steeldrum music, quite different to the upbeat songs you normally hear, and bought a CD on impulse. I tipped a fair number of performers but there were so many that I had to restrain myself. I felt like I was throwing money away on that bridge.
That was how my summer trip ended. It’s good to relive it though, now that it’s getting cold and dark. So many days spent sticky and oozing sweat, feet sore and swollen. I try to imagine travelling first class, staying in luxury hotels but I can’t. It seems like such a soulless prospect. For me, travel will always be inextricably linked to sweat, over-packed backpacks and overnight bus journeys. I’m already looking forward to my next little adventure.