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Chris Windle on a tale of bad toilets and good beer in Prague and Krakow

Anyone who has been lucky enough to be a student will know that the summer, which stretches eternally before them every year, holds two options; the comforts of home combined with the discomfort of back breaking work, or the discomfort of a back breaking, six ton, backpack equipped with everything you will never need. At some point in their under or post graduate career the student will opt for the latter, it has almost become a rite of passage and last summer, in a haze of work phobia, I decided to follow that passage. 

Backpacking around the globe is no longer a rare and dangerous expedition, especially since I went with a friend and our destination was central and Eastern Europe. A place where thousands of sandal clad backpackers mingle with the more adventurous family holidayers every year, while the locals evacuate en masse as if we are an approaching hurricane. This is understandable since most tourists, especially my friend and I with our newly acquired humps, simply get in the way and take inexplicable lengths of time to do the simplest tasks. 

After much, typically unfounded and patronising, western worrying we arrived in Prague to find there were shops, and the accommodation was as sophisticated and abundant as in any city. My friend, Ash, and I however were immediately bemused when confronted by the eternal confusion that is foreign public transport, no two countries are quite the same. After ten minutes of the least rigorous investigation possible we opted for a taxi whose driver was exceedingly cheerful and chatty, obviously delighted to have another couple of fresh-faced western tourists to overcharge. Oh well, spread the wealth as they used to say in this part of the world.  

We managed to lose ourselves in old town Prague from the moment we set foot outside our taxi. Despite possessing an easy to read map we proceeded to circle our cunningly concealed youth hostel at least ten times. During which time I was given a painful glimpse into the torture my ‘sporty’ sandals would create through the trip, ‘sporty’ only if foot laceration had finally been admitted into the Olympics. However this unplanned exploration did give us an early opportunity to appreciate Old Town Prague, whose icing sugar splendour could transport you to any fairy tale town. 

The old town square acts as the focal point for us tourists, it’s relaxed atmosphere being irresistible to a backpacker in search of drink and rest all accompanied by varying standards of busking and a menagerie of accents. A bottle of cheap Czech beers throw away from the old square is its antithesis, Wencesles square, a monument to all things modern; clubs, theme bars and strip joints abound, each hustling for your custom as do Prague’s less legal service providers. Out of respect for the diversity of a modern city we realised it was our duty to experience all we could, thus we often found ourselves on a dance floor late at night. Unfortunately the vital ingredient, people, was missing. As with the Gucci and Prada shops these places seemed to be limited to tourist tastes and tourist wages.  

Only in Eastern Europe can cabbage be classed as a sandwich filling, however due to its, still, prominent place on the dining table of the ex-communist block, we were not surprised to be munching on it, in combination with bread, ham and mustard. However the train journey from Prague to Krakow is long and requires the necessary sustenance, especially since you have to endure multiple passport checks by large Polish army and police officers. obviously expecting an invasion at any moment.  
No sooner have we touched Polish concrete than we are encircled by hordes of accommodation maestros, who live off us backpackers, and forced to contemplate cheap room after cheap room. Bewildered by our choice we opt for the cheap one.

In an attempt to avoid the mapless confusion of Prague, I suggest we splash out on a ‘City guide’, unfortunately my less neurotic travel partner is quite happy to wonder off in a direction that ‘seems’ right, I on the other hand prefer to lose my way under the delusion that I am going in the correct direction. After half an hour of painful walking, in the company of my ever gnawing sandals, Ash succumbs, a map is bought. Annoyingly Ash’s vague wanderings have somehow taken us within range of our hostel, thus fuelling his anti-map sentiments. The address leads us to an ominously closed gate nestling between equally off putting buildings that have a ‘public toilet’ whiff about them. Initially I am in denial, prancing up and down the street fighting the logic of house numbers, Ash waits patiently then suggests we ‘go in’. With my gun by my side I ‘go over the top’ in the least valiant way possible as Ash leads the way. Despite passing some fierce looking chickens and piles of garbage my nerves abate and, at last, we reach a large building with two old men and a friendly looking dog relaxing outside. The dog is the first to greet us, I feel a bout of international goodwill approaching and so endeavour to befriend said creature. It promptly tries to bite my hand off which, judging by the old men, is a hilarious Polish joke. Indeed the old men seem quite nonplussed by our presence, even when we explain that we have a room booked it takes time for them to remember they are running a hostel. The room is basic but clean and cheap, hooray, and next to the obligatory noisy church bell. The bathroom is a less enticing prospect with showers that seem to be open for public viewing.  

Krakow is a small but almost perfectly formed city with the old town at its centre ringed by a strip of parkland that acts as a barrier to encroaching modernity. At its hub is Rynek Glowny, apparently the largest medieval review square in Europe, dating from 1257. The square is a hive of activity focusing on the ‘Cloth Hall’ which houses a market ripe for the acquisition of useless trinkets, as well as buskers, horse and carts, and, most entertainingly, local dancing and singing all played out to a bewildered audience.  Our quest to experience some local youth culture took us from the square into the cobbled back streets of the old town where many of the cities famous underground bars are said to hide. Unfortunately empty chairs, interspersed by the odd human, once again greet us. However we soon come across a bar which has some life, including a large but docile Alsatian. Ash is quick to start a conversation with two local girls who inform us that the nightlife is dead without the students who are all on holiday. Resigned to a quiet drink we ambled to the next bar. The bar we find is underground and heaving with youngsters! This is obviously the place to be, unfortunately we feel totally out of place.  

The next day it was time to pack up and leave for more Southerly climes. Despite mapping out our route to the station I managed to send us towards the motorway. Much to my chagrin mapless Ash, using some supernatural directional sense, manages to correct the route. The subsequent panic induced speed walk, as I picture us clinging to the back of a slowly departing train, takes a huge toll on my sandaled feet. Adrenalin had masked the pain until we squeezed onto the train and into our carriage which seemed impossibly over crowded. Having flung my bag onto a bunk I ripped off my sandals to find a pair of bloodied trotters, repelling everyone out of the carriage in one fell swoop. However my feet had never before been such a great icebreaker, and in their own way helped to bring a touch of Irish to the Hungarian leg of the tour. 

It is a little known fact that the Irish love a man with bloody feet, so it was lucky that our cabin happened to have two Irishmen, Paddy and John. In fact most of the carriage was a blend of Anglo Irish in what seemed to be a devious crowd control technique, allowing for a quick lock in should raucous behaviour ensue. Being from nations built on alcoholism this was inevitable, and we were quick to sniff out a supply of beer, namely the removable panel beneath each guard’s bed. We proceeded to drink the whole train dry in a noble attempt to boost the undervalued rail workers wage packet. Despite such inebriation sleep was not easy, especially since each station stop prompted another round of passport checks from officers who seemed hell bent on keeping everyone awake.  
‘A good nights sleep’ really isn’t a saying that travellers are familiar with, and for the next two nights I managed to forego the whole concept altogether as I experienced the Irish capacity for drink first hand.

We all decided to go to the same hostel, attracted by its reputation for fun and a twenty-four hour bar. We arrived at our dormitory and were surprised to find just how many bunk beds you could fit in a space the size of a small car. Having located our beds amongst the rubble of humans and backpack debris we quickly jettisoned our cargo and went in search of food. Instinctively, as a cat can swim from birth so we can find the pub, we found the first place that served pints and hoped they also did food… Seven pints later and the idea of food, especially cabbage and stale bread Hungarian style, was but a distant memory, all I could concentrate on was standing upright. I indulged in a shot of Vodka hoping this would stem the flow of drunkenness, based on a bizarre ‘fire fighting fire’ logic espoused by the unexpected cockney we had met at the bar. Unfortunately this swiftly sent me into head nodding mode as my neck muscles lost their will to work. Back at the hostel the hardy souls whose livers had failed years ago decided to head on out for more. This, annoyingly, included Ash who’s tolerance level had never before gone beyond the smallest whiff of a pint of mild. I, on the other hand, furthered my trendy hard man image by taking a strategic ‘rest’ on the hostel toilet which quickly became a forty minute snooze followed by a brief but intimate ‘chat’ with said toilet. I then curled up between a backpack and a wet towel for some fitful and restless sleep, for sleeping in a twenty-four dormitory seems little different to taking a knap on a busy street.
At least in the alcoholic chaos we hadn’t lost our passports… No, we decided to save that excitement for the next night; who was it that said, “The best way to avoid a thief is to do the obvious”? No one! That is because leaving one’s bag of valuables, yes we even put everything neatly together for them, in a twenty-four hour bar is so obvious a vicar would be tempted. Contrary to popular belief being told the news, that your only means out of the country had been stolen, at four in the morning is not a bad thing. Having watched Budapest’s youth dancing to a dubbed version of Britney’s ‘Hit me one more time’ was enough to get anyone drunk, even without the beer, and so I was in a jolly mood. Thus I was quite prepared to go to bed and forget about it, even refraining from blaming my travelling partner whose fault it clearly was! Luckily our newfound Irish buddies convinced us to go to the Police, and so ensued a delightful four hours at the local Police station trying to explain to ever growing numbers of bemused police people our predicament, “stupid Westerners!”  Finally seventies ‘cop show’ reject, with enough gold to frighten Mr T, turned up and grilled Ash while I somehow managed to spend the whole time in the corridor before being quickly ushered in to sign a story I couldn’t understand. For all I know I may have just confessed to Hungary’s top one hundred unsolved cases.  

Oh well, all it meant was another few days in Budapest and thus another opportunity to sample the ‘Gellert’ baths. This kind of day long stewing in a variety of hot baths may not be to everyone’s taste. However when the Danube is the only alternative any clear water seems like heaven. Our guidebook described swimming in Gellert as akin to “taking a dip in a cathedral”, and indeed the main indoor pool is housed within an ornate and elegant hall awash with spitting gargoyles, imposing pillars and Blakesque art. Unlike any cathedral I have visited, though, there are hundreds of humans all wearing the compulsory plastic bath hat that Claudia Schiffer couldn’t get away with.
On our first trip to Gellert we had bought the swimming and, being adventurous students, massage pass. As we knocked on the large and firmly locked door marked with the Hungarian for ‘men’ we became less sure of the wisdom behind our enthusiasm. There was no turning back now, the huge underdressed Hungarian had dragged open the door and barked at us to enter. He led us through some curtains and handed us each a piece of cloth that would make Cher blush. We had little choice but to tie on the piece of string and boldly enter the even hotter hot baths, passing on our way scenes of horrific torture, what they call a ‘medical massage’, as large men thrashed their victims with belt like instruments on what looked like operating tables. Our concentration waned and without warning, it happened so fast, one of our number, Paddy, was taken out. The last we saw of him he was being readied by a man who looked like he hadn’t smiled for years. We carried on, realising that to stop would only ensure a similar fate. We emerged into a steamy world of nudity and blubber.

The blubber, we soon learned, was a useful tool when plunging into boiling water and would have been a nice buffer to the brutal hands of my beast like masseuse. Despite the trauma and injury, the whole experience, even the ‘who can go higher’ competitiveness of the sauna (where an all over body scold is a sign of manliness), is a cleansing and relaxing one which leaves you wondering where you put all those strained body parts. The ‘Gellert experience’ is certainly an antidote to the stresses of passport loss and makes a welcome change to the less than luxurious travelling lifestyle. 

Surprised at the speed and ease with which a new passport can be gained we were off back to Prague, the delay having done for our plan to visit Croatia. Our last days were a whirl of sights as we shamelessly trawled the tourist hotspots such as the elegant Charles Bridge, which leads to the Royal Castle, and an array of exhausting museums. This was in response to the ‘short stop’ nature of travelling which isn’t the best way to get to grips with a city. However seeing ‘stuff’ is something that we will do for the rest of our lives, post University travel is rather an opportunity to break free of the parental and institutional shackles that you have been subject to all your life. The experience of landing in a country with no knowledge of the place, getting lost, sharing your room with twenty strangers, living in half built hotels whose toilets don’t flush and meeting a bunch of people who are just as scruffy as you and think that two pounds should get you a four course banquet, is what it is all about. All you need is a nice long beach holiday to recover.  
 © Chris Windle November 2001

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