The International Writers Magazine: Tabytha Towe's Travel Diary
Prague Winter 2012
I have always wanted to go to Prague. An ancient city that evokes Mozart and Kafka, occupation by nazis and communists and only broke free to democracy in 1993.But weirdly enough, to a teenager in another country who didn’t even fathom any of it, she wanted to go there. Maybe it began as an ignorant child in primary school.
I remember learning about some distant place called Czechoslovakia that a new friend in class had come from. I had no idea where it was nor any understanding of it, except that is was far away and that my friend had blue eyes and was skinny. We all were at that age but she had a special kind that I would later realise was an Eastern European physique (gimme a break, it was the early 90’s era; by the time I was 14, I obsessed where beautiful women came from. Heidi Klum is still gorgeous!). My teacher back in 1993 told me that the country this new student was from was splitting up. I knew about divorce, so I thought that her homeland was having one too. Czech and Slovakia became independent from one another when I was in Grade 3.
By Grade 5 I had forgotten about it and was probably still a tom boy, a nerd who sucked at math (perhaps not much has changed.) As an adult however, there are so many places I want to explore, but for some particular reason, I always imagined exactly how old it would be and what I would do in Eastern Europe. My mother was born in the United Kingdom mind you, and I had already been there. I must have been influenced into a certain fairy tale idea as a terrible teenager that it must be better over in Prague or Budapest, because it wasn’t real; for me anyhow. I thought it would be like a Van Gogh canvas. I romanticised about walking along pebbled streets, looking at art, eating dumplings and drinking wine out on terraces, yet years went by and it never ended up happening. Yet….. Indeed I was exceptionally naïve of the countries pasts, I did not know what Renaissance meant, nor cared for Politics or Religion, which affects these places entirely. Lo and behold there are 246 countries in the world, and we are just a tiny grain of sand trying to take on an entire beach, so I went to other marvelous countries first. But this time round I was adamant and finally made it to Prague, at least. Although I still anticipate future European destinations (along with Hungary, Greece, Italy, Berlin and Turkey, to name a few….) *Future reference: Of course there always was and still is, South Africa to follow-my heart.
It took me about a year and a half to save up for my next travel excursion, for living in a big city such as Toronto, Ontario, where life is fast and expensive, it takes a while to see that shoe box fill with your spastic budget plans. Plus, I keep doing shorter (though not necessarily meaning cheaper) trips here and there quite frequently. Simply too hard to resist! At last by mid-Autumn 2011, I had enough savings from working my ass off for 5 seasons, I astonishingly even managed to have 3 months rent ready to leave my apartment secure. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but in real life sadly it is a lot of time to take off and I was fortunate in my line of work to do so. Especially important that my partner would also allow me go. Had I been single or other arrangements, I would have packed up for a year minimum and would have bid adieus’ to my loved ones and to my Toronto life style by the time my flight was booked.
End of January was freezing, I left this city I call home to go on a little, though rather large trip for two and a half months, starting with a persistent and strange dream at 14 years old: Dobry den Praha! (Good day Prague!) I can tell you it was nearly how I imagined plus more.
||Arriving so late in a foreign place when you are extremely tired yet ever so wired is both exhilarating and exhausting. Luckily I pre-booked a taxi to take me my hostel ‘cause I was in no condition with my hang over jet-lag to read Czech directions for the bus. My seven hour layover meant that from the time I left home and landed in the fabulous, capitol city, I had gone 25 hours without sleep. I watched a few movies on the plane however.
I got to the doorstep of “Arpacay Backpackers” by 10pm and it was far enough from the touristy areas it was therefore cheap. It was an old (as is most everything there) house about 4 stories high, very narrow. No doubt with my dumb suitcase that I had to pack for both winter then summer attire (see later piece on Africa coming up soon) it was essentially heavy and not essential at all, when I had to carry it up 8 flights of spiral, steep stairs. The hall ways were dark but I literally anticipated each heavy-breathed step towards the light up to my room. Fortunately it was the slow season so I had a 4 dorm room all to myself the entire time! However I soon realised that it was too quiet, and part of the excitement of back packers is meeting other travellers to run around with. I was hoping for young kids to take me out to the clubs, as I’m too old for that back home now, and I needed to split cabs back to the hostel. No one likes to be drunk at a club alone then pay an arm and a leg in cab fare just to leave. Much to my dismay, I met none except other European tour groups that already had enough friends and didn’t speak a lick of English. I so wish I was multilingual; regret on my part…. amongst others, but we won’t go there.
I dropped off my suit case and dressed in four layers as it was actually colder than Canadian weather at the time, surprise, surprise. I must have walked only about a km where I thought I’d see on a Friday night dozens of people in the streets, but saw no one, so I didn’t want to get too lost on my first day at 11pm on no sleep. It felt like a stupid idea, but then I heard laughter and found the nearest pub. I always do. My favorite thing to do when I travel, as I often am alone, is find where the locals go, have a beer and read. I did just that, and it seemed to be the place for the neighborhood to go to and all the patrons knew each other; sharing tables, sharing stories, cheersing and smoking inside –which killed me for I had recently quit a month prior after 16 years of polluting my lungs. I tried to ignore the cigarette smell and I ordered my Pilsner and had Goulash- my then every day substantial meal for the next 5 days, and read in a dark corner upon an upside down barrel, reading a new book from the airport that coincidently was about Prague folklore. How appropriate I thought. People stared at this (what I assumed) they’d think ‘an American youngster’ but I didn’t give a shit, I couldn’t understand what they were saying anyhow, I was content to be there. I couldn’t wait for the next day to start after a night cap and warm, full belly. I slept well that evening and woke up alarmingly to noise at 5.30am, odd for me as I usually go to bed at that hour, (in my line of business it’s the norm.) At 7am on the dot you could hear the coffee brewing through my door, as 2 feet away from it was the kitchen, go figure. The continental breakfasts served at the joint were almost too healthy it was sinful, so I had a great start to my wandering days, energised on granola and fruit. By 8.30am I was ready for the town and got directions in which I thought memorising was better than reading a complicated map. It sounded so easy but turns out I bought the wrong fare for the tram, and then almost took the wrong one.
Stubbornly I admitted early defeat to myself looking like a fool so I said “fuck it! I’m walking and exploring this place by foot”. Nearly two hours later I figured I could still see nothing resembling the ancient towers I had yearned to explore, and was in the industrial area where no passers-by came, only a car looking forlorn on the empty road hissing by, teasing me that they knew where they were going and at a much faster pace. I gave up, turned around and eventually found a subway. “Oh that’s where I was supposed to take the tram to all along!” Eventually, it was near 11am and I was getting flustered, but thankfully I met a kind enough gentlemen who stopped to tell me how to get to Old Town.
|| I will never forget the signs now as it appeared to be a blessing when I knew (how to get) where to go. Metro B “Smichovs Nadrazi” off the #7 Radlicka tram, then the pink or blue #12 or #20 tram from the other subway station, d’uh?! It was easy getting back none the less. By 12.30pm I had taken over 75 photos. I really enjoyed walking around for 8 hours on un-even, cobblestone streets. My face stung incredibly with the cold wind, so by 3pm I treated myself to warm Goulash and a tasty Budvar in town, which is usually like 60 czk (Czech crowns) for a coffee. Out of town beer is only 35czk. It was worth the extra for a nice place to read and dine.
|I visited the widely sought after Charles Bridge and was astonished at the 15th century statues guarding their pass all this time, still weeping or watching you walk by. It’s almost haunting and forgiving at once, maybe it was my mood when I first crossed it, or something about that day. It truly is spectacular no matter what sense you make of it. You could see buskers and artists singing and painting away, witness a marionette theatre, observe cartoonists sketching, listen to violinists stringing, to religious people praying at the statues; it was so full of life.
You can see so much from the bridge view, Old Town on one side, New Town the other, boats underneath the bridge, birds on the shore of the bridge. It was surreal and magical, I loved it and crossed it several times.As much as I know since I didn’t have a tour guide or anyone to tell me about it, I think Charles was part of the Roman Empire and Bohemian (Rhapsody, had to do it J) Kingdom. There was a University he was named after so I assume the bridge was named after him as well. It was re-built and re-named after the first bridge, the Judith Bridge, had collapsed in the 1300’s over this great River Vlata. Foot traffic was insane considering it wasn’t tourist season, though still no one offered to take a picture of me with my camera; I attempted a few “self” shots regardless.
I celebrated on my way home before it got too dark and cold at the infamous ‘Staropramen Brewery’ for a beer and bite. They were massive pints and inviting taps, but I got suddenly sleepy. Celebrating a wondrous day really, I felt like I found something fascinating, and it all was. Snow was still stuck in between the pavement segments when I left.
Day Three was a huge discovery. I did the whole journey back through the tram, subway, tram again in to town, and found the Prague Castle. It sits on a high hill and is very ancient and pristine. The Czech President still has a seat there. Prague Castle over took the 10th century Vysehrad, the Romanesque fortitude that built all the churches around it, like Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. This area later became Prague, as legend has it. From here many European settlers came to do trades. As said by a Jewish merchant and traveller in the 1100’s, “Prague’s built from stone and lime, and has the biggest trade centre. Slavs are on the whole courageous and brave. They occupy the lands which are the most fertile and abundant with food supply.” – Ya’qub. You can see how it was a popular place in those days. In the 17th century 30% of Prague were a Jewish population, but were accused of collaborating with the Prussian Army and so were expelled. Some long time later there was a so-called “ghetto clearance” where all the Jews were basically allowed back by order of the Queen. Prince Wenceslaus (whom went down in Czech Catholic history as a heroic Saint) was assassinated by hatred in part of his own brother, who did not like the Princes ideals of equality between the ruling Saxon Dynasty with the Bohemian Empire.
There was too much to go through and learn and see, so I ventured quickly through the legendary ‘Golden Lane’ at the castle. It showed historical weapons, helmets, the torture chamber, the maidens’ chambers, formal clothing and show cased what the castle would have looked like in various living areas. No doubt that is where I found all the Japanese tourists. It was very sweet and viciously steep, so many hills man, that and the uneven streets actually hurt my feet, my legs turned to jelly where I almost couldn’t get up from a seat at one point, just taking a rest, they were going to give out! My shoulders made me feel like the hunch back of Notre Dame, especially with those surroundings, they were so stiff and sore form carrying my heavy bag and large camera all day. I felt like a freak. My cheeks and nose were stained pink from the wretched cold, and I couldn’t feel my fingers because taking off and putting back on gloves after each time of photographing something glorious, got really tedious. Despite the miserable temperature, my temperament was still in good spirits because I was in fucking Prague!
Who cares if I’m sore, it’s so worth it. The place is stupendously beautiful. Not a single building ceased to amaze me. The architecture (the Castle and The Dancing House, etc,.) the history (from 900’s until now, World War, rivaling Dynasties etc,.), really is terribly insane when you think about it. I’d like to say the people were the best and whom I’m sure are very lovely, but most unfortunately I did not converse with more than three locals. There were no problems, just that they had no interest in getting acquainted with me, sadly. As though they secretly hate tourism for ruining their home, and I fully respect that. Sure kept me a quiet girl for once, I spoke only when ordering or saying hello (ahoj in Czech) to the front desk lady in the morning. A silent Tabytha is a bizarre sensation indeed.
||How pleasing it is to find something you are looking for. When I saw the Astronomical Clock I totally got it, as if everything made sense for a moment. It was stunning, the building, its location, its stride even, and all these people just watching the large watch. You tend to question things or get reminded of things that you had forgotten once when you see beauty or sudden works of genius. How did someone even make this back then? What had inspired him, the engineering was incredible?
It was a long and overwhelming day, but I still ended up walking home to the hostel that evening. It really was tough, but for some reason I just had to do it. I had a bit of blood in my shoes when I got home, but I was proud of myself for pushing myself to keep walking on. Too tired to go to a pub, I bought a convenience store beer and sandwich, I read in bed and woke at 7am again to a half-eaten sammie and a quarter full beer with my book strewn across the bed and my bra across the room on another bed.
The next day was same trip, different story. I went to one of my favorite artists’ expose, which I last did in Barcelona in 2007. I am quite familiar with all of his work, but this one had some early stuff too so I was in utter awe. Salvador Dali Gallery, I salute you. Afterwards I was going to go to -and yes this is how they spell it- “Sex Machines Muzeum”. I thought it was too funny, but too pricy. How many machines do they need? I’ve been to the one in Amsterdam so I’ve seen it all. I walked around Lesser Town (as in, there is a Much More Town as well?) and found a small, local art shop, so I bought the cheapest piece I could get because anything else would get bashed too much in my luggage. Shopping district was crazy and modern, but ironic, there was an H&M inside the most beautiful building that seemed like it should have been a ball room, or something majestic-like. I decided to be smart and by pass temptation of fashion goods and went elsewhere instead, like a museum. I went to the new one called Nadrodni. I wish I was able to go to the old one, but it was closed. The exhibit happening then was ‘Inventors and Butterflies’. I learned some cool things such as Kavel Josef Napoleon Balling was the founder of fermentation chemistry, he’s the dude with technology writings of malt preparation and production of beer, yeast and wine. Thanks to you, fine creator. There were numerous celebrity figures for famous architects in cubism, founders of genes and DNA inheritance, many a great people from Prague to have discovered widely used methods today. The butterflies were lavish and beautiful, one Brazilian species was larger than a common bird and kinda freaked me out a bit, but nothing was written in English so I continued to walk around outside and skipped the rest of the documentation I did not understand.
The most expensive meal I had to date there was at a hot dog stand. Really! I had to have it, and the lady kept smiling and pointing to things so I kept nodding and smiling back. It was the biggest sausage ever already, but that wasn’t enough. She up sold me three little wieners to add to my apparently inadequate hot dog, plus sauerkraut, onions and a giant beer to wash it down. I made such a mess standing and eating in gluttony. I saved half the dog and beer for a roaming homeless guy, and fed the greedy pigeons the bread. It was darned tasty I tell you, 1 meal split 3 ways. That evening I didn’t even want my daily, delicious brew, (the soup kind, I will never say no to the beer kind.) So instead of a pub I found a funky basement bar that nearly breaks your neck upon entering. The door is angled incorrectly for one, I’m pretty sure it’s on purpose, and sits right atop a stair way. So when it’s your first time as per moi, you’d expect a flat surface for your first step through it, not to trip down three stairs at once. I survived the peculiar entrance then had cheap shots with a nice Yankee who was traveling with her cool dad that looked like Santa. The setting was perfect for us misfits to drink in, green lights and a non-existent bartender. I did not get any writing done in my journal that night.
On one of the days, in retrospect as they all seem blended in to one very long trance, I walked up an old tower for a birds’ eye view. I could see everything from the roof top, except that it was stupid windy I nearly lost my camera from being blown over, no exaggeration. At that height, it was pretty darned powerful. Another day I went in to as many churches as I could. I can’t recall their names now, but they were so astonishing and absolutely massive, stunning structures. I tend to feel uncomfortable inside, rather than at feeling at peace, but only because I don’t know what to do. The stained glass windows reveled with the sunlight shining through, as if God was bringing in some colorful light inside the old and dark houses of holy. It’s always discerning a bot to see the manaquins or statues in church of Jesus suffering for our sins. They are so traumatic and I understand it’s to instill fear and to ensure your faith, though it doesn’t appear to be a place where I’d feel secure at all. I don’t feel anything towards seeing our lord on a cross. It doesn’t make me a bad person either. I wanted so badly to drink Absinthe, it’s the product in abundance that people venture to get, after all Prague is known for chasing the green fairy. There were countless, colorful bottles resting in windows taunting me with their prohibition style labels that were easily tempting, but I couldn’t choose between them. Too bad, looking back I really wish I bought more than just a silly, mini bottle of it for my home display.
||My last day in the old and epic European town was especially difficult. I felt so lonely and discouraged because, for the first few days, I had heard about this small microbrewery that was the oldest around and I was really looking forward to doing a tour. Earlier, before coming I had wanted to go to the Medieval Dinner, in a proper tavern used hundreds of years ago. I was so excited for that!!!! I mean this place is known for being Medieval. But sadly I was discriminated against for being one person; it was for groups of 6 people plus only. Assholes! I felt incredibly ripped off, so hearing about this old microbrewery was my next closest thing to it. I knew it was at the “U Hotel Medvika”, but no one seemed to know of it. I tried for four days. It was on Na Perstyne 7. With an address it should have been simple to get to, but noooo, I kept walking in confused triangles and circles. I could have sworn that where it should be I was right there. By day five I was angry, lost from repeating the same alley way streets over and over for hours on end every day, and I wanted that fucking tour already!
I broke down after being so good and fighting it all that time, and went to a dingy old bar where it was dark and candle lit and had a nasty cigarette. It hurt so good to have one again. I felt like Franz Kafka would have in that very bar, smoking, drinking and writing, as I immersed myself in to all of the above. A few other cocktail bars like that were now shut down. Shame, because that is what I pictured Prague to be like, not all pipsy clean and to tourist satisfaction. Not that I’m saying they should be dirty, but they should have a story (plus a dirty one.) I found a few of those and I liked them immensely, but the town kept weird business hours, and by 2-3pm, then again at 6pm and a night cap at 10pm, that’s usually when my body told me it was beer time and to get inside. A lot of these places weren’t open for business at those times. I expected regulars and locals to be living at some of these watering holes, but maybe they knew something I didn’t. It was refreshing to be alone, but after five days it got exceptionally weird, too quiet. I wanted to share an experience with someone, show them what I had seen, exchange jokes, show them my pictures. My boyfriend would have loved all the pubs and food, however not so much all the walking. My journal was my companion, and I got to go wherever I wanted, when I wanted. I had no one to make me feel guilty for smoking again, it was only a novelty. I was usually in bed by 11pm however, as the tram stopped early and it cost too much to cab back, plus I’d be physically drained after prancing around all day, getting up at 8am every morning.
Later one afternoon, there was a brilliant wind that screamed in my face and it was my last effort to find this hotel with the old micro-brewery. “Na Perstyne 7, Na Perstyne 7.…” I repeated it over in my head like a mad woman, smoking on the pavements and turning my neck around left and right as a paranoid meerkat would, looking for this fake street.
||I was ready to buy a bottle of wine and go home before I burst in tears with defeat. I took a corner to take a few more photos of the glowing bridge at night on the water, said good bye to Praha for the experience it gave me, and headed for the tram, a little depressed on my last day I could not yet find my destiny. Like a miracle, putting my camera away and mu smoke out, there it was the entire time. The goddamned “U Hotel Medvika” was exactly where I had crossed daily on my way to the square!? It was like angels were humming “awwwwaaaahhaaaa” with a halo silhouetting the sign.
Finally, I walked in and it was pretty adorable, I asked where the old famous micro-brewery was and if I was too late….the bartender said I was too early, they don’t re-open from renovations for another few days. Wow, just my luck. But I was so relieved I couldn’t kill my happiness of at least finding this hidden treasure that I pretended to forget it. At the small, u shaped brass bar I ordered a typical Czech beer and he poured it as a gentle as he would cradle a baby. He handed me the appropriate glass ware for my amber glory in which to embellish after a struggling calm down, and I swear to god this is what the glass said: “Don’t Drink Alone”. It was the only glass that had that condescending motto on it and he made sure to present it to ME. Still, it was yummy and a fine end to my journey. Why so many gestures appealing to me, I wondered. I tried a variety more of the home-land brew and each was appreciated.
Na zdravi, Praha! (Cheers, Prague!) I shall see you another day, one day, but not in January and maybe with a friend. I will also train to Budapest next time. I highly recommend visiting this compelling place to anyone. Beautiful, beautiful place.
Leaving airport with a 24 hour stop over: Hello Amsterdam
In the morning I had a quick flight to Amsterdam for a full sun rise and sun set. Oh man the last time I was there on a whim, well, it was definitely whimsical and quite the story, but that also was back in 2007 and only a shared tale after a few drinks. Obviously I was excited to have this nice lay over for an extended period. A couple I knew from Toronto whom were regulars at my bar resided there, so I was fortunate to stay with them. I realised how fast I must’ve been talking because it was such a release to talk to people once more.
They were lovely as always and we went to some cute shops and pubs and re-acquainted with our journeys and gossip over flowing pints and had a delectable dinner feast.Dutch cuisine is simply exquisite. Very comforting, like cheeses, ragouts, lamb and baked goods etc,. yum, yum, yum! It was too cold to rent a rusty bicycle this time, I’m grateful I did it on my last trip any how. The three of us also met up with another mate of mine from back in the Vancouver past. How perfect it is he can grow seeds where it is legal and get paid for it! I had a crazy, fun night with him at a generous bar and we stumbled the pathways trying to find the couples house where I was crashing at. It was a pleasant catch up stop, not really an encountering culture stop. Though eating, drinking and socialising is very much so the culture. Tot ziens, Danka Amsterdam!!! (Good bye, Thank you Amsterdam) I’m sure I will visit you in the near future again.
© Tabytha Towe June 2012
Next stop: South Africa
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