I can't say enough about Prague. I read a lot about Prague before this trip so that
I would be familiar with its history, and sights. This stands out as one of my favorite trips I've
ever had. I flew from London to Frankfurt, Germany, and then took a train to Prague. I did
this to make the trip to Prague a little more interesting than just flying a few hours and
arriving at the airport. I knew this would take longer, and that I would possibly encounter
difficulties along the way, but I knew it would be worth it, considering how much more
romantic train travel is compared to flying.
First of all, I almost missed my flight. I left my flat in Brockley early in the morning to get
to Gatwick Airport by train for the 7:00 AM flight. But I had to change trains at Norwood Junction,
in South London, which wasn't a problem, except that it was delayed by almost twenty-minutes for
no aparent reason! When I got to Gatwick, I ran like the devil to check-in and then ran like
crazy to get to the terminal. Needless to say, I was the last passenger on the plane. That
was the closest I've ever come to missing a flight! At Frankfurt, I left nothing to chance and
went straight to the train station via the U-Bahn to make sure I didn't miss my train to Nurnberg.
At Nurnberg I changed trains for the Prague train, and then I relaxed because this one was going
all the way to Prague.
On the way I met two young ladies: Annah, a Czech; and Julia, a German,
who were traveling to Prague separately on the train, but happened to sit in the same compartment
I was sitting in. We made the usual conversation that travelers make, and then I asked them
some questions about Prague to better prepare myself for what to expect. It's amazing how
chummy one can get with complete strangers when traveling by train in Europe. Annah was about
19 or 20-years-old, had blondish hair and slavic features, and was returning from a trip to
England, where she had been refused entry at customs, because she did not have enough money.
Customs officials were very reticent to allow young people from Eastern Europe into the country
with insufficient funds and often turned them away! She did not hold any resentment toward me
what-so-ever, and was very congenial. Julia was about the same age as Annah but rather pitite
and slightly less blonde. Julia was more reserved than Annah, but was very courteous and
conversant. She seemed to be much more studious, and to be from a fairly middle-class background.
Turns out, she was a high school exchange student in Michigan a couple years before, so she was
familiar with the U.S.A.
The border crossing at the Czech border was routine, but I could tell the young Czech
passport official was giving me a good stare when he came around to our compartment. Annah
explained to him what I was doing on the train and where I was going, so he seemed to be
satisfied and went on his way without a word, thankfully. The rest of the journey passed
rather uneventfully--just the occasional stop, at maybe, a half-dozen Czech towns, which
I viewed only from the train window. All I remember about them were a lot of red roof-tiles
atop clustered buildings and the view of hazy mountains in the distance, till it became
dark, and then only dusky scenes of dim-lit train stations after that. All conversation
in the compartment seemed to dissipate, and I turned to reading my Berlitz pocket guide
to Prague. As we approached Prague, however, all activity naturally shifted to the windows
and corridors to see what was coming up.
When we arrived it was getting late, about 10:30 PM, and I became pre-occupied with
finding my way to the hotel, but first, Julia introduced me to her older sister, who was
already in Prague, waiting to greet her on the platform. I said my goodbyes to Julia and
her sister, and then noticed that Annah was still there, evidently, waiting to assist me
with my next set of plans, which was to get some money and be on my way. Like a guardian angel,
Annah helped me exchange some money at the station, and told me what Metro line to take to get
to my hotel, which was very thoughtful. She said to go to the end of the line, then ask someone
for directions. I thanked her, and bid her farewell, for she was continuing by train to her
hometown of Bratislava. She didn't seem to be in any particular hurry, though.
When I got to the end of the Metro line I was a lot further out than I expected.
There was no one around; not a taxi, nor a bus, not even a well-lit terminus. With no idea
which way to go, I calmly started walking along the street, and eventually a
taxi came along and stopped for me, as if by impulse. It was so dark and quiet on the
street--I'm glad I didn't have to walk very long in this unfamiliar environment in the middle
of the night. I could just imagine a fate of disappearing in this backwater of Prague and
never being seen or heard from again! I showed the driver a card with the name of my hotel
on it, "Hotel Arnica," and without a word he was driving speedily, through several twists,
turns, and back-street alleys to the hotel. (On second thought, he probably lengthened the
ride to get a larger fare!) I arrived safely, but not without a little uncertainty. The
Lord must have been watching over me. As time was drawing close to midnight, I negotiated
the taxi fare with the driver, and scuttled into the hotel.
Then, the fun of communicating with the hotel desk ensued.
It took a long time to convince the lady-clerk that I had a reservation; that I was with a large
contingent of foreigners that were there to meet at the Palace of Culture. I could tell
that she was honestly confused about my query, for she was quite busy, no doubt, and it was
rather late. She was darn good-looking too, which put me at a disadvantage, but with a little
patience, and a little more prodding, she found the reservation, much to my relief! Not long
after that, I began to see a few American and European brethren walking out of an elevator,
and I knew that everything would be all right. I went to my room, unpacked, and prepared for
my first of six nights in the hotel. I was exhausted and excited at the same time. It was the
end of a long day's journey from London, but the beginning of a fantastic affair with Prague!
To describe Prague mildly, I must point out that it was still only 1991,
and Prague was just beginning to become the tourist Mecca that it is now. Only minor
improvements had been made to the infrastructure since the fall of communism, and very
little had changed. For instance, there were no western fast food chains anywhere to be
found, and no western stores that I can remember. Everything was completely Czech as far as I
could tell. The only western products that I saw were soft drinks, candy bars, and cigarettes.
So, all my meals were in legitimately Praguian restaurants, although, I did purchase snacks here
and there at the odd kiosk or pizza take out joint. The cost of food on this trip was very
inexpensive compared to eating out in Western Europe, and the quality seemed to be every bit as
Once I got my bearings straight, and became familiar with the Metro system,
which was very cheap and fast, I went everywhere I wanted to go unhindered,
except for the crowds of people that were in evidence everywhere. It was August, after all! The
Christian Fellowship, which was my pretext for traveling to Prague, lasted four days.
It was held at the Palace of Culture, was very well organized, and it didn't take long to
meet up with other young people about my age, with similar interests, to spend
time with attending the scheduled meetings, and then exploring the city at lunchtime
and in the evenings. I befriended several students from International Christian
University, located in Vienna, Austria, who were attending the Fellowship, and had a lot of
fun getting to know them, particularly a Chinese young lady named Sussie, that I met the first
morning of the fellowship. She was originally from Shanghai, and had come to Vienna to study.
She came from a well educated family; used to teach English in Shanghai, and actually became
a Christian while living in Vienna. We had a great time getting to know each other, eating out
together, and sightseeing together. Maybe the romance of Prague had something to do with it,
but Sussie and I were attracted to one another. She was very pretty, smart, had a vivacious
personality and a lot of friends. Some of the other young people I met from ICU were Austrian,
Chinese, Polish, and Yugoslav. Sadly, I did witness Sussie and another young lady get cheated
by money changing con-artists (there were a lot of them around). I did not approve of their
changing money with these men, but they made up their own minds to do it anyway and got
short-changed in the process. All in all, though, we had a wonderful, wonderful set of
experiences that I will always cherish.
One evening, I met up with my old friend Myron Schirer, a Lipscomb graduate, who was
living and working in Prague at the time, for a brief conversation. (The same Myron who used
to live in Vienna for several years that I have mentioned before in previous sections.) I also
ran into some older adults who were missionaries and church ministers in Great Britain,
including Andy, a missionary I'd met in Yugoslavia four years earlier. It was a great fellowship,
and many of the speakers were new to me, or were people I had at least heard of before. Also,
I encountered a group of young people from London that I knew, from Shepherd's School in
Brockley, who were traveling around Czechoslovakia and performing in an evangelical singing
group, called "King's Kids." I saw them perform outdoors at Wenceslas Square and at the Old
Town Square. It was mere coincidence that I saw them at both places because I had not planned to.
To recount all the sights I saw would require a lot of space at this juncture, but I
will summarize judiciously. Without a doubt, I had a great time exploring all the
impressive sights, museums, and retrospective photo opportunities that Prague
affords, as I could. I took advantage of Prague's medieval towers, and castle views
to satiate my love of heights, and old town vistas, not to mention putting my feet to
work for all-day walking exercises. The two locations that I just have to mention as
being tops in their categories are the Old Town Square, and Charles Bridge
(Karlov Most), where the atmosphere positively abounded with marionettes, buskers, painters,
Mozart impersonators, violin players--all kinds of people--selling, performing, or looking. Both of
these are considered to be, in my opinion, and countless other travelers, to be unsurpassed
in Old World Gothic Ambiance. And we can't have too much of that!
I also visited the National Museum (at Wenceslas Square), and
the garish Gulag exhibit (just off Old Town Square). I explored the old Jewish quarters,
and looked at a couple of synagogues from the outside, including the old Jewish cemetery,
but they were not open for public viewing at the time, so I kept on walking. All the gothic,
or baroque churches I encountered were open, so I at least gave them a look around (St. Vitus,
St. Nicholas, Tyn Church, etc.). Hradcany Castle, Prague's great castle
overlooking the Vltava River, was a tremendous sight to explore! So, I went
there twice, to try to do it justice. But the two sights that gave me the most
euphoria-per-second were the two towers where I took the two photographs at the top of
this page. The first one was taken from the West Bridge Tower of Charles Bridge--a
fantastic view; and the second was taken from the Powder Tower on the East side of
the Old Town Square--showing the majestic backside of the multi-turreted Tyn Church.
I found some good cards and t-shirts at the American Hospitality Center, and also went into
the huge old Central Post Office once with Sussie. Above all, I gained
an exquisite sense of appreciation for Prague's culture and spirit, and for its heroes, such
as Jan Hus, Charles IV, Mozart, Kafka, Alexander Dubcek, and Vaclav Havel. With so much
to see in Prague, I stayed an extra day-and-a-half after the Fellowship was over, to see as much
as I could. Like an excellent bottle of wine, Prague needs to be consumed slowly.
Hotel Arnica was located in the Zahradni Mesto area, on the eastern outskirts of
Prague, was of late 1960's to early 1970's high-rise vintage, and was clean, if not very
attractive. The elevators worked, but I had to take the stairs a few times. The continental
breakfasts were good-to-alright, but always filling. I always found someone to talk to over
breakfast, as well. My room was like a suite that shared the
bathroom with another guest. Fortunately, it turned out to be a German young man named
Andreaus, whom I had met before in London, who was in Prague for the Fellowship. He was
from Stuttgart, and I stayed in touch with him for a few years after that. When the time came
for Sussie and her friends to return to Vienna, I accompanied her to the train station
platform and saw her off. Parting was a bit somber as we exchanged addresses, and promised to
write. (We did write each other a few times, and we hoped to meet again either in London or
Vienna, but our correspondence ended when I started dating Linda regularly.) I sometimes wonder
what ever became of her.
My last evening in Prague I saw the best busker show I have ever seen. It took place at
the Old Town Square, where a group of mostly British traveling buskers put on a show before a
rather large crowd. It was more of an act, or entertainment show than I had ever seen before
under those circumstances. It was both a humorous and surprisingly well done musical
performance. The crowd didn't want it to end. I just so happened to see the same group of
buskers in London's Leicester Square exactly one month later, where their attempt to perform
was prohibited by the London Police. How strange! I talked to their leader afterward and
showed my support for them and mentioned that I had seen them perform in Prague. He said
they wished they were still in Prague.
My trip back to London was the same, but in reverse. I took a night train that
left Prague at 9:00 PM, back to Frankfurt. I had to sleep half sitting-up, leaning over on my
bag in a compartment with about five other passengers, a mixture of British and Dutch
youths, who were backpacking across Europe. These young people were quite experienced
travelers, and very used to spending the night on trains, and thankfully, were not very
rowdy. However, there was always a certain amount of noise drifting in from down the corridor,
or in the next compartment, where young people were chatting and softly playing guitar all
night. The train arrived in Frankfurt at 6:20 AM, and I had to dislodge myself
rather unrested, and unshaven. This being Germany, nothing was open before at least 7:00 AM,
so I had to wait on a park bench, reading a ruffled German newspaper that I found lying around,
before a breakfast bakery or cafe opened. I finally got a cup of coffee and a donut at a
stand-up donut shop. This was not very satisfying, but it was the only thing I
could find open at this early hour. The attendant treated me with about as much respect as one
would a vagrant, just because I was unsure what to order. I collected myself, and then spent
most of the day exploring Frankfurt on foot till my flight back to London (Gatwick Airport) that
Frankfurt was quite modern--not exactly what I wanted to see, after
Prague--but I checked out some of the older-looking parts (Frankfurt was severely
bombed during the WWII, and some of the older buildings were reconstructed to
look as they did before the war.) It truly felt like a long day of wandering around. I mostly
stayed in proximity to open, public places, but at one point I ventured into a park and
unexpectedly encountered a portion of Frankfurt's drug culture that surprised me a little.
There was an area, under a shady growth of trees, which revealed an oasis of drug activity
among a group of young adult users and addicts. I knew there were places like this, because
I had heard about them on television, but I didn't expect to discover one of them like this
in the middle of the afternoon. I discreetly watched the scene from a suitable distance, and
then exited the park to find some other places to pass the time before my flight. I went into
a bank and asked if I could exchange some Czech Crowns into Deutschmarks. Supposedly you aren't
supposed to exchange the Crowns outside of the Czech Republic, but I thought I'd try it anyway.
A male teller exchanged them for me at his desk out in the open, no problem, and I at least
got to see the inside of a German bank and had a smooth transaction, which was pretty nice
compared to some other experiences I've had. How civilized.
By the time I flew back to London that night and reached home--via
public transport--I was completely knackered! You only live once, and I'm everlastingly glad I
made this trip. I truly can't say enough about Prague!
"The city of a Hundred Spires."--Well known
"The Second Vienna."--Well known
"Some cities blind you with their beauty, and grandeur: Prague disarms you with its
modesty."--Mary Jane Phillips-Matz
"As the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of
King Gorboduc, 'That that is, is.'"--Shakespeare, Twelfth-Night
"I've got to go throw some of the locals out a window and see if Czechs bounce."--Tim
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Prague Travelogue by Phil Greenspun
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