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The International Writers Magazine: Euro Travel

Off the Tracks in Prague
Alyssa Connolly

To expect to have few, if no, problems while backpacking through Europe with three friends is naïve, to be certain. However, the trip I experienced for a month this past summer passed, for the most part, without significant difficulty. In fact, the few times we did encounter problems, my friends and I decided, created for us the most hilarious, and memorable events of the trip. My friends Rachel, Emily, and Kathleen, and I began our trip in London, England, and traveled throughout Northern Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, and France.
We stuck to a pretty specific plan, remembering that our parents had only allowed their recent high school graduates to go on this trip if they would be able to know where we were at their convenience. So, we followed our itinerary, arrived at our hostels on time, and tried to get enough sleep each night.

We sometimes discovered, however, that foreign countries weren’t necessarily privy to their tourists’ meticulously scheduled activities.
My friends and I arrived in Prague in mid-July eager to enjoy the newly sunny weather. We spent two days touring local city attractions. On our third day, we planned on taking a bus to nearby backpacker magnet Cesky Krumlov, a medieval city a few hours from Prague. When we got to the bus station, though, tickets to our planned destination were sold out. What were we to do now that our plans weren’t going as, well, planned?

Upon overhearing our discussions of how to handle the situation, a fellow American backpacker approached us in the station. She offered us a list of other fun cities to visit near Prague, recommended several, and then disappeared as quickly as she came. Looking at the list, we still were no wiser as to what would be a fun place to go. Our decision-making occurred like this: point blindly at the list and see where the finger lands. Our destination: Konopiste, the castle and former home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

We ran to board the train leaving for the city of Benesov, a site close to Konopiste. We made it on board, one of our few successes of the day. The four of us sat in a compartment with several carousing teenagers and the smell of their morning beer. Our journey was destined to go awry from that point.

About halfway to Benesov, our train stopped. According to another English-speaking passenger, there was a crash on a different train further ahead, so our train was temporarily delayed. Passengers were getting off our train, so Rachel, Emily, Kathleen, and I decided to get off for a while and look around. We were stopped at a small station in very rural Czech Republic. The hillside scenery beyond the station was beautiful, so my friends and I wandered around the few roads there to admire it. We stopped at a small house where a young girl was playing with a kitten.
We approached her and greeted her in English, abashed at our language deficiency. The girl spoke no English, but congenially passed her kitten under the gate dividing us so we could play with it. Then, she disappeared inside her house, only to emerge with four more kittens! We stayed there a few minutes, playing with the kittens and trying our best to communicate with the girl. Eventually we left her, using the universally understood hand-wave to indicate our departure.

We then went back to check on the train, which sat exactly where it had been before, people still milling about. We were thirsty in the hot weather, and went into a local pub where we ordered some strange juice drinks. Of course, we also felt compelled to try the local grub, so we ordered a potato pancake-type dish.

Periodically, as we ate and drank in the pub, one of us would venture outside to check on the train’s status. After over an hour, it was still there. So then, imagine our surprise when Emily returned from one of her train checks, completely speechless and motioning that a large locomotive had apparently gone racing away from the station as she watched, flailing her arms helplessly.

We all rushed outside to confirm the news. Yep, the train was gone. So much for no glitches in our perfect schedule.
We worried, and then we laughed. Since it was utterly fruitless to talk to the station agents, who were running around, obviously busy dealing with the railroad disaster, what were we to do but sit and wait for another train to come along?
About twenty minutes later, a train came and stopped in the station. No one got off. I motioned to get the conductor’s attention and asked if the train was going to Benesov. He said it was, so I asked if we could get on. He said we could, so the four of us piled into the train.

There was absolutely no room to move. We squeezed up against the windows in the aisles of the compartments and stood. Still, the train didn’t start. Another ten minutes went by before we heard news that this train, too, would be stopping to wait in the station, likewise delayed by the crash.

Deciding we would rather not die of heat, we got off the train, again, and sat in a shady spot not forty feet from the train so we would certainly not miss people re-boarding before it left. After half an hour, people began to move toward the train. We hurriedly got on, scouring for a better place to sit. We hit the jackpot with the three-foot wide boarding area between the doors. We sat down across from each other, bending our legs to fit in the space. There we remained in a motionless train for another hour, sweating liberally and telling each other stories to pass the time. The passengers let out a communal and enthusiastic cheer when the train finally began to move.

We stopped a few times on the way to Benesov. On one such occasion, a woman attempted to board the train (aka our first-class seating) with her six children, all aged six or younger. She had one baby in her arms and another in those of her six-year old. The mother nearly fell on the stairs before flinging the baby into Emily’s hands. Emily knelt, arms outstretched, holding the flailing baby in one of the funniest, yet most awkward scenes I have ever beheld. All was well when the mother got up the steps and regained control of her children. The event briefly provided us with a welcome entertainment interlude.

We finally arrived in Benesov shortly thereafter. We walked the two miles to Konopiste and then enjoyed an amazing afternoon touring the castle. As my friends and I sat by the water, dangling our fatigued feet in the lake on the Konopiste grounds, I realized that that day, as hectic and miserable as it undoubtedly was at times, was my favorite of our entire trip to Europe. As much as I enjoyed having a plan to follow, I learned that true adventures occur when travelers can go with the flow, even if the flow is on a jostling train in the countryside of Central Europe.

all images © A. Connolly 2007
© Alyssa Connolly October 2007

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