Prague – November 2013

Day 1:

It’s been a long time since I went on a trip abroad with my father. Liverpool all those years ago, and really despite the cliché, it has been far too long. All the standard approach when it comes to air travel. Get to the airport, check-in, wait around for an age and attempt to avoid the stereotypically Eastern European looking chap with a can of beer in a brown bag. The look is classic. Dressed like someone recently having wandered out of the ’90s. Dull coloured, yet oddly colourful jacket, which is too big for him and the look of a man still standing on the Berlin Wall. Everything in order for the flight so.

We take our seats on the plane, brilliantly crowbarred into window and middle next to the fucking brother of the first character with the beer and the brown bag……it begins to feel like a wander through the stereotype museum. Dad is forced to climb over, and I mean climb over, the man occupying the aisle seat when nature calls. It is a bizarre sight to see a man totally ignore the awkwardness of a situation and the cramped confines of the modern short hall craft……yet helping thine fellow man is not on this guys agenda and I decide, rather than repeat the spectacle, I’ll hold in for now.

We are provided a complimentary shuttle bus to our hotel, and while we wait it starts to become obvious that there is something unbalanced about the number of travellers looking for a connect and the number of seats on said shuttle. I turn to pick up our bag and on my return there is no sign of Mick. Taking a look at the shuttle bus, I see him subtly ‘reserving’ two seats….gas. I load the bag and join him. Our fortune is at the expense of some Spaniards who probably look at us with disdain. Us ignorant Irish.

The hotel is like a scene from some Bond film, a shark hypnotically swimming around a tank in the lobby. I’m tired and it requires some effort not to be endlessly distracted by this spectacle. We couldn’t ask for better accommodation. The room is more than adequate. We check out the place and get settled. Managing to break the safe, we have to call on the assistance of the concierge, who arrives with a huge calculator which he plugs into the safe, plays with for about twenty minutes and then tells us “the safe is broken”. No shit pal. Fuck. Another five minutes of him attempting, I use the term loosely, to fix the safest place for our passports and spare cash but he, shockingly, is unable to complete his task. He stares at us before promising the best room we could ever imagine……tomorrow. He will really sort us out……..tomorrow. He stands and stares for another few minutes, presumably waiting for us to hand him money, for nothing, but we have more resolve than him and he eventually leaves us in peace.

So, night one in Prague. No plan, and no idea where the old town might be or where we should be heading. We wander around getting to grip with CityMaps2Go, which is brilliant on my iPhone but a real battery drain. But anyway, we find Charles Bridge and on this cold, dark hazy evening it really couldn’t look more mysterious. So much so it warrants a couple of crossing before we continue on our aimless way. We settle into a kind of beer hall where it would appear we have found where the locals hide. Amazingly, it seems to be devoid of tourists and we order up two half litres of the unpronounceable home-brew with a little difficulty. Embarrassed and apologetic about our ignorance to the beautiful hostess. The taste is tough but fair, and it definitely has a kick where it ought to. Lovely stuff.

We could probably sit here all night but the stomach has ways of making you move and with beer on board it tends to get it’s way in this regard. Unfortunately, we are both indecisive and distracted by the hunger that is driving us and wander for a good hour trying to find a suitable meal. Eventually we stumble across a Mexican place called ‘Cantina’ and I express my love for the cuisine. Dad is not a fan of Mexican and doesn’t really do spice. So when he agrees without any trace of hesitation I know he must be close to collapse. Fucking typically we’re told that they have no tables and the place is packed out. We’re offered a seat at the bar and we settle for that. I don’t think my body had the energy to carry me to another eatery anyway. The menu couldn’t suit me better and we even manage to box off a table for ourselves as a couple leave. I don’t think I’ve been in a restaurant with such a seemingly high turnover of customers as well as so many people turned away. We may have, once again, inadvertently unearthed a local favourite. Now, it may just be that I was so hungry and that I had a couple of beers taken, but…….the food was incredible. Proper Mexican flavours and not short on portion size without being Man v. Food outrageous.

After dinner, we take a late evening stroll and pass by a Guinness sign. You’d have to really, wouldn’t you? As if there would be any possibility that Guinness could be anything else in Prague. Doing our national duty, we go in to test the quality of ‘the’ product overseas. Yep, exactly the same. Hmmmm. Curious. One turns to two etc and the conversation disappears into the night.

Day 2:

We head off in search of some tourist adventure and decide the best and most efficient way to do this is some kind of tour. Walking tour, that’s the one. Exercise and learning. Perfect. Searching for the ticket office is like a scavenger hunt…..for some reason they’ve decided to hide the place and issue an unfortunate set of, outdated, clues as to the whereabouts of said ticket office. But, with the knowledge that once I find the fucking place I get coffee, I get the job done.
We head for the familiar image of the Starbucks logo on Wenceslas Square, we get an expensive average coffee which we haven’t got time to finish. Great, the experience reminds us of home.

We meet our guide who holds the yellow umbrella which identifies her and her English speaking ability. It’s a cold overcast day but it seems to be a decent group of people willing to listen and learn with interest. Filled with enthusiasm we perk up our ears and settle into the detail of Wenceslas Square, a fascinating place where Prague goes to protest. Familiar fuck ups and bad designs reminiscent of home. We soon realise our guide never finishes a sentence. Linking the most unlikely pairings of subjects with a simple, elongated vowel version of ‘and’……..I really don’t know how I’m going to make it through a two hour session of this, and the rest of the group we’re with have opted for six hours of this shit….the tour is brilliant and this woman has some knowledge but her skills as an orator are fucking non-existent. Really makes you wonder where the career guidance guy was in Prague that day.

We’re treated to intense information about Prague and it’s history. The Old Town Square is beautiful, typical of Continental Europe, Charles Bridge lacks the atmosphere of last night but still holds a great deal of charm. But not knowing anything about it lends a sort of mystery which is evaporated with each word expressed by the knowledgeable Czech. The Astronomical Clock is brilliantly frivolous. I love it. We walk through the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) and you cannot help but be blown away by it’s tradition and saddened by it’s loss. Such terrible history is important to remember.

We’re told by our guide that the Vltava River has some sort of Viking connection (when she is informed in quiet conversation while in transition that we are in fact Irish and not English) and this is the origin of the name etc. Upon return it appears the name simply derives from the old Germanic words ‘wilt ahwa’ and meaning wild water. Some part of me can’t help feeling duped. I inevitably call into question everything this guide has told us and go on a silly crusade to refute all her facts. This is literally the only one she wasn’t bang on about. So, just my time wasted. We pass Il Commendatore, and it is truly brilliant. It reminds me of the depictions of the Witch King, maybe an inspiration to the art department of The Lord of the Rings movies. But it is captivating.

We finish the tour after the Jewish Quarter and I have had enough. Of the elongated ‘and’ but also it is an emotionally draining section of the tour and seems like an acceptable end to the days sight-seeing (though it feels dirty to refer to this part as sight-seeing). We head back to Wenceslas Square to relocate the Irish Pub we intend to watch the Ireland v All Blacks game in. We find ourselves drawn into a café which has some incredible looking cakes in the window. It’s lunch time and after a day of walking around soaking what little knowledge our minds will allow, we’re hungry. Translation is a funny thing and we cannot speak a word of the local so our interpretation of what we’re ordering is based solely on our (misguided) visual identification. We both end up with a bizarre combination of couscous, chicken, raisins, lettuce and some sort of dough. It is not my finest moment of food ordering.

We set up to meet James, a friend and former neighbour of ours now living just outside Prague, for a few drinks and some food later. He makes the effort to get the train to Prague and it is appreciated. He brings us to a local restaurant. We would never find the place without him, and it comes as a recommendation from a friend of his, a Prague local. It is filled with locals (or at least not obvious tourists) and the food is really good. Proper traditional fare and some decent beers. We have a great laugh and encourage James to join us for one or two more as we embark on a mini pub crawl. The night slips away into the wee hours. I’m pretty sure the whiskey made an appearance at some point.

Day 3:

Day three is a whirlwind tour of Prague Castle, Petrín Hill and a quick spot of gift shopping. Petrín Hill offers a tough incline and some spectacular views. You can get a cable car of some sort up which would be fun but you don’t get the real pleasure of the view unless you have to work for it. I’m absolutely stunned by Prague Castle. The scale and architecture is incredible. You get some great views of the city and it really does warrant more time than we gave it. Squeezing it in on a travel day wasn’t wise but we got a feel for it and even managed to catch a changing of the guards during our brief visit. You feel in the way of this tradition. A gawking moron standing open mouthed and gasping. Pretty embarrassing, but hey, I’ll never see these people again in my life and lets put it into context here, I didn’t exactly chip off a piece of the Great Pyramid or anything. I only stole a glance. But by observing changed it. I would have loved to have seen the ‘Dancing House’. It was a sight on my list, but drinking and eating pushed it from the agenda in the end.

So, leaving Prague behind we see the Eastern influence and the dilapidating past left ageing by Communist rule. All very obvious when it’s already been pointed out to you by your tour guide and the record holder of the longest continuous sentence (two hours of unbroken, unpunctuated speech). Home to Dublin.