We got up in the morning and had our Ovaltine while we packed in the nice room.
We went down to the World Trade Center and returned the milk bottle (Germany
is GREAT!) and then took the tram to the train station. We never did use the
tram tickets that Annet had given us, and since she would not take them back we
gave them to the hostel desk. We were over an hour early for our train, so
while Cheryln wrote in her journal, I took a brisk walk from the train station,
up Pragstrasse and through the marketplace and to the river. There was a
school group, high school age, heading the same direction as me in this huge,
ever changing crowd, and I could not lose them. I spent a moment staring at
the "Procession of the Dukes" mosaic -- it is really facinating -- and then went
towards the Christmas market, which was still closed at 10 in the morning. I
returned to Cheryln at the station just 4 minutes before our train was due to
arrive. We walked up to the platform right as the train stopped and hopped on
Since we didn't have reservations we went into our now fimilar seat finding
mode. We try to avoid the open seating cars, which are becoming more and more
common in Europe. They are loud and cramped and almost always very smokey (the
smoking is at one end of the room and the non-smoking at the other.
Compartments have much more space, are cozy, comfortable, and generally pretty
quiet and the non-smoking compartments are on a different ventilation system
from the smoking compartments. As long as you keep the door closed, you are
(Actually on the train from Vienna to Dresden, we were in a non-smoking
compartment which was VERY smokey -- and the smoke was coming from the
ventilation system!!! After exploring a bit I discovered that the American kid
in the compartment next to us (with the curtains closed and the door locked) was
chain smoking. We were VERY surprised when the Czech conductor came around
collecting tickets and made the guy pay a large fine!! After that, our air was
Also we always look at the reservation signs (an empty compartment might fill
up at the next stop!) and at who is in the compartment -- you look for people
who are smiling and look friendly. I like to find people who I think might be
interested in chatting. Of course, I don't like to admit this, but there is
also something of a power situation going on. You look for people who you will
feel comfortable with.
Anyway, all of the compartments on this train were taken, but there was a car
that had semi-compartments -- very odd, 4 seats instead of 6 or 8, and no door --
so it was open to the rest of the car (and the smoke). We sat in one of these
compartments and in the compartment in front of us were an elderly Argentinian
couple who spoke a little English and no German. They asked us what the
announcements were saying and I wound up not only translating the German
announcements for them but playing travel guide as we talked first about Seattle
and then about Alaska. They were very interested in Alaska and I basically
helped them plan an itinerary!!!! It was very very odd traveling through the
Czech Republic talking about Alaska!!!
The Czech republic is a large high elevation basin. No rivers flow INTO the
country, only out of it! The train travelled along the Elbe river, which, east
of Dresden goes though this amazing gorge.
The area is called Sachen Schwiz -- Saxony's Switzerland. (It turns out that
it was the one place that we found in the tourist book that Annet gave us that
we wanted to go to, but she didn't want to go there!) There are little towns
perched along the sides of the gorge and running up the occational side ravine.
It looked like a cool place to visit and a fantastic place to bicycle!
Hopefully we will get to go back there in the spring.
Beyond the mountains the Bohemian basin leveled out into a high plateau, there
was much agriculture, a little nature and quite a bit of big industry. The
reputation of old Czechoslovkia is of terrible pollution and massive industrial
sites and we certainly saw some of these. There were a few factories that we
passed THROUGH on the train where we just held our breath until we were passed,
even though the train was closed!!!
We arrived in Praha in early afternoon and oriented ourselves pretty well.
Every time we arrive in a new city, especially when it is a new country, we
have to spend an hour or two (on bad days it can be much longer) orienting.
This involves finding our way around the train station, figuring out the basics
of the language, finding the ATM, figuring out the exchange rate and how much
money to get, getting a map, getting small change for the phone or a phone
card, getting tram tickets, figuring out where we are going to stay and how to
get there, getting there and getting checked in. And it all must be done,
especially in the larger cities, without looking lost at all. Nothing worse
than wandering aimlessly around a train station with a backpack on waving a
credit card. So to keep from looking like a target, you walk with purpose,
even if you don't really know where you are going. Sometimes we walk from one
end of the station to the other several times, striding quickly as if we are
very fimilar with the place, until we figure out where we need to be. It can
be fun and smooth or very intimidating.
However, there was something strange about this train station. Often you will
find, outside of a train station, people offering rooms (or Zimmer auf Deutsch)
for rent. Some carry signs, but some just sidle up to you and ask. Generally,
so I understand, these people have only one room in their house that they rent,
so they stay at the station until it is rented -- meaning they can go home and
be done for the day once it is rented. So they can be VERY insistent! I never
really know what to make of these people. I'm sure that 95% of them are
completely legit and safe, and I am quite certain that it would be VERY
interesting to stay with them in their home. But it is a pretty frightening
prospect -- and not knowing the city, and therefore where the place might be is
difficult. When we first got to Eastern Europe, and in Romania, were were
terrified of these people and were really quite rude, but we had grown to
realize that they were just offering services and the culture was different
from what we were used to. So we became more comfortable with it;
nevertheless we have always bypassed these people -- but with more than a
There is usually a small crowd on the sidewalk outside of the station and
sometimes even down the block. In the larger and more touristy areas they
might even be inside the station itself! But in Praha they were on the
platform, hitting you before your foot was off the train. I had never seen
anything like it!! We had about 6 people attack us in just the 20 meters from
the door of the train to the steps down to the station, and then more inside.
And these people were EXTREMELY insistent. Saying no was not good enough,
ignoring them was not good enough, saying you had another place was not good
enough, they all had flyers or brochures and they INSISTED that we take one
with us! It was not scary, but it was VERY weird. We had already booked a
hostel and that made it easier for us, AND we could see that the prices they
were offering were not very good.
We did a pretty good job of getting what we needed to do done quckly and easily.
The trams were nice and the place we had chosen to stay was easy to get to and
get checked into, so within a couple of hours we were settled. We were
staying in a hostel, like ones we had seen in Budapest and Vienna, among other
places, that was just a few rooms in a typical local apartment building. So we
climbed the stairs with the residents in these 150 year old Austro-Hugarian
buildings with huge rooms, fine, albeit crumbling detailing and dark, dusty,
worn stairwells that were huge and obviously were once very grand!
Once we were settled we went out to wander around the center of the city.
OK, lets get this out of the way. Prague is GROSS. It is an excellent
example of how a city can be completely destroyed by foreign invaders. It is,
architecturally, a very beautiful city -- tight and compact, with gorgeous
buildings from a mix of periods covering half of a millenium. And none of these
buildings were destroyed during the 1930 to 1990 period that was so damaging
for so much of Europe.
However. What was once a nice functional city is now a fricking Disneyland for
German, Austrailan and American tourists. Block after block after block there
are no signs in Czech and few if any stores directed at people who actually
live there. Everyone on the street is speaking a non-slavic language. Every
block has 10 or 15 souvenier shops (can't leave without that Bohemian
Crystal!), a couple of American resturants, several German clothing stores and
dozens of tourist bars. The entire old town/city center, and I don't mean
just 5 or 10 square blocks, but many square kilometers, has been converted into
a place for thousands of Americans (and Austrialians!) to come and leave money.
(One of the weirdest things was that LONELY PLANET, which was once a budget
traveller's guide, mentioned that one must buy Bohemian Crystal. WHAT?!? How
do you carry Crystal in a backpack and what kind of traveller can spend several
hundred dollars on a piece of glass!? I don't get it.)
I think that the western tourists have flocked to Prague because it had a rich
and interesting history, it is a beautiful city, it is exciting to see part of
the former Eastern Bloc (even the name invokes a certain cold war mistique!)
and it was welcoming and comfortable. Unfortuantly it has changed, it has
reacted to the enormous influx and become more like the influx than the
history. Everyone we met said they went there because of the EXTREMELY cheap
beer. I've heard the beer is good (both the original Budenwiser and Pilsner
are based there) but people only talked about the price.
In many ways it IS a beautiful city, but we have seen many of those, not the
least of which were Oradea, Romania and Budapest, but Prague is now PAAAAARRTY
CENTRAL DOOOOD!!!! Dude. We were very disappointed and very disgusted. We
had planned to spend almost a week in Praha, partially to relax and recover
from the 'interesting' experience we had in Dresden, and because our hostel was
really quite cheap. We thought that in that amount of time we might be able to
find the REAL Praha. We found very little. I'm not sure it exists any more.
While I was in Praha, I found, by coincidence, a really amazing piece written
by the Romanian-American writer Andrei Codrescu that seemed to apply all too
These children, their descendants, are today's tourists. They too are taking
pictures for their children: pictures of native peoples in quaint poses before
picturesque arrangements arranged for pictures by the Tourism Bureau (the
framer of remnants of the real for picture-taking). Well, at least, one might
say, tourists aren't killing anybody for a picture. Is that the difference
between tourism and terrorism? Tourists are terrorists with cameras, while
terrorists are tourists with guns. Tourism is the civilian aspect of
imperialism. After the natives have been pacified by force of arms, we finish
the job with the cameras. It's no coincidence that both activities are called
"shooting." Both tourists and terrorists shoot what they can't quite tame. To
finish with the camera what your grandfather started with the gun is both
easier and harder. The souls we steal may be our own.
You can find the entire piece at
http://www.stare.com/. He is one of my FAVORITE
writers, it is a fantastic piece and amazingly appropriate for this part of our
journey. I strongly recommend reading it!
We try hard to be TRAVELLERS as opposed to TOURISTS, and often are quite proud
of ourselves for succeeding -- for avoiding the traps and living like the
natives, for seeing the real place for how it IS and not just looking at
history and art as if we were at a zoo. We talk about trying to BLEND IN with
the culture -- but how much can we really do that?!? In places like Romania
it just isn't possible. We can keep our mouth shut and walk down the street
noticing REAL things instead of gaping at statues and buildings, but in places
like that we just ARE NOT part of the culture and cannot blend in. I do think
we do a pretty good job in London and in Germany sometimes, especailly in Bonn,
where we know the place, but I don't think we do as well the rest of the time
as we would like to think.