Earlier this spring, I fulfilled a long-time wish by taking a one-week vacation to Prague. I've always had a strong interest in Eastern Europe and I had wanted to go to Prague since I had learned about the Prague Spring in history class back in high school, twenty-five years ago. Then life happened and moving to the United States happened and I kept the idea of going to Prague on the back-burner, until a conversation back in December after which I decided, I'm either going to Prague this coming year or I'm shutting up about wanting to go to Prague. Not being the kind to shut up, I walked my talk instead. So this post is the first in a series of seven, one for each day I spent in Prague. I took a lot of notes while I was there and it is a way to immortalize what was, for me, the trip of a lifetime.
I arrived to Prague in the early afternoon after flying from Dallas to Frankfurt and then from Frankfurt to Prague, both on Lufthansa. (For the Dallas to Frankfurt flight I got upgraded to Premium Economy and I've got to say this was a really great experience, reminiscent of business class on other airlines, except that the seats don't fully recline when you want to sleep. We had paper menus about the food that would be served during the trip, and refreshing towelettes before the meal, and free amenities like a bottle of water, an eye-mask and a mini tube of toothpaste.
I watched Jackie, The Bourne Legacy and Lion on the transatlantic flight, and Lion was phenomenal. It taught me a lesson or two in storytelling - not a bad side product of the trip. The other two movies were highly forgettable, but at least they helped pass the time. I hadn't flown Lufthansa in a long time and it seemed to me that non-U.S. airlines may still believe in customer service in ways that U.S. airlines just don't bother with, maybe because flying is more routine in the U.S. I'll certainly consider Lufthansa for my next trip, at least if they fix my frequent flier status.)
At the Vaclav Havel International Airport, someone had smoked in the women's bathroom - welcome to Europe, where people smoke a lot. (And Europeans tend to look down on Americans and their obesity problem, but which one is worse - be overweight or have lung cancer?) There was a long line at the ATMs, which gave the choice between withdrawing euros and Czech crowns. The driver sent by the hotel was waiting for me by the elevator, as in the email sent by the hotel. In Prague this is called hotel transfers. Some hotels do it for their guests, while other companies specialize in bringing travelers to any hotel of their choice. This is because cabs are rumored to be a rip-off. Someone I know who lived in Prague for many years had warned me about it, and there were even signs in Prague's Old Town advertising what the proper fare for a ride to the airport should be - the sign that the problem is real.
My driver was a young man in a black business suit, maybe twenty-three years old, recently arrived in Prague from elsewhere in the Czech Republic. He spoke good English, which I found to be a relief, because I hadn't had time to learn any Czech before the trip. We drove past yellow buildings that reminded me of Bavaria, and grey buildings that reminded me of East Berlin. As we got closer to the historic part of town, we started seeing more and more tourists in the streets. One thing I noticed even before reaching the hotel was the prevalence of graffiti on the ground floors of buildings. I guess in the United States there is a much stronger effort to prevent or erase graffiti on walls, at least in touristy areas. The transfer ("limo" ride) included a free newsstand-worthy magazine printed by the hotel (about things going on in Prague and hotel-related stuff) and bottles of water. It wasn't much more expensive than a cab ride and especially after a long transatlantic flight, it was definitely worth the price.
I stayed at the Hotel Josef, where I got a premium room on the top floor (arguably the best room in the hotel, with a great view of Prague rooftops and the Prague Castle, thanks to the advice of one of my travel guides.) I wanted a nice hotel with breakfast included in the historic part of town, from where I could walk to most of the places I wanted to visit, and preferably a hotel with a modern flavor rather than something looking old, stuffy and past its prime, as some of the hotels in that part of Prague. Hotel Josef's sleek design with a glass floor-to-ceiling front did not disappoint. It is part of the Design Hotels brand and it looked classy and stylish without being pretentious. It was actually better than the Kimpton Hotels in the U.S., although I love Kimpton, because some of the Kimpton Hotels can look a little tacky. (U.S. hotels also don't tend to include breakfast in their rate by default. But since my first breakfast was on day 2, you'll have to wait for my next post to learn how awesome the breakfast at Hotel Josef was.)
My room had floor-to-ceiling windows and was very big. I had a Nespresso coffee machine that produced excellent espresso and long coffees - so good in fact that I haven't been able to drink American-sized tasteless coffee ever since I've been back. The room rate also included a free "raid" of the no-alcohol minibar: two bottles of still water, two bottles of sparkling water, one bottle of Coca-Cola, one bottle of Coke Zero, two cans of orange juice and a candy bar. (If you wanted a refill during your stay then you had to pay for it.) It was more than enough for me since I only cared about drinking water anyway. Also, since I had booked directly through the hotel website I got a free bottle of prosecco and a bag of peanuts as arrival gift - not a bad way to celebrate the beginning of a trip that means so much to me.
That first afternoon I decided to take advantage of the nice, sunny weather - since the weather forecast for the rest of the week was not as good, although in the end I got blessed with dry weather and warm temperatures throughout most of the trip - to walk to the Shakespeare & Sons bookstore on the other side of the Vltava river and come back over the famous Charles Bridge with its statues of saints. It's a tradition I have to check out bookstores, especially independent ones, in any city I visit, at least when they are close-by. While I also went to the Globe bookstore later in the trip, I have to say Shakespeare & Sons has by far the best choice of English-speaking books. (What the Globe has going for it is an excellent cafe.)
Of course I could not miss that opportunity to buy a book in English related to the Czech Republic, and in the end I chose the novel The Cowards by Josef Skvorecky (1924-2012) for 419 crowns or about $17. Skvorecky wrote the book, about a young Czech man who plays in a jazz band and bears witness to the end of World War II in his town (and to Czech hopes for independence), in 1948-49 but, unsurprisingly given the political situation of the time, it was immediately banned and not published until 1958. Skvorecky is an outstanding storyteller and I feel my own craft has improved just from reading his book. I like that his prose, in first-person POV, is narrative rather than introspective. Skvorecky fled to Canada with his wife after the Prague Spring was crushed, where he founded the now-defunct 68 Publishers publishing house. Its purpose was to publish the works of Czech and Slovak writers whose books were banned in communist Czechoslovakia. He died in Toronto in January 2012.
I walked across the Charles Bridge on my way back and (after a year living in a pretentious part of Dallas where twenty-somethings with an entry-level job sport designer clothes and Louboutin stilettos courtesy of their parents) was struck by how low-key all the tourists were, wearing jeans and windbreakers. No sorority girl uniform here (the long top with the yoga leggings). People weren't so obsessed with showing off their hipster-ism or their social status, perhaps because the income disparities are smaller in Europe, or perhaps because people in Europe are less interested in finding others to look down upon. The Charles Bridge was full not only of tourists, but also homeless people begging on their knees, forehead on the ground, cap outstretched (another sight that is rare in the U.S. but not so much in Europe) and peddlers pretending to be able to draw portraits. This reminded me of Montmartre in Paris... only tourists would ever fall for that. The peddlers showed off portraits of Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Johnny Depp to make their case, although Brad Pitt looked about twenty years younger than what he is now. The river banks reminded me of the Seine in Paris. It was a good afternoon.
For dinner I wanted to stop by what one of my guidebooks described as the best vegetarian restaurants in Prague but since I had only jotted a few words about it instead of taking the guidebook with me, I wasn't even sure of the street and couldn't find it that evening (I found it later in the trip), so I stopped by a random restaurant instead, Stoleti, which turned out to have an excellent avocado & salmon salad. The delicious meal, including sparkling water and (free) bread, came at about 300 crowns or $12. I liked wandering through that part of town, slightly north of the National Theatre, because it had fewer tourists and gave me more of a sense of the real Prague.
As I strolled through the small streets around the Old Square, I noticed some restaurants had menus in Russian, and a car-for-hire also had a message in Russian in its window - perhaps a remnant of the Soviet occupation or simply an acknowledgement of the many Russian tourists in Prague. I kept thinking about the Soviet occupation because beautiful Baroque buildings (with graffiti at ground level) coexisted with plain, drab, gray buildings that must date from the days of Communism. No architect would have such poor taste otherwise.
On the Old Square, I noticed signs for the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the National Galerie. I saw the Richter retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2012 but made a note of going to see this one too on a cold and rainy day during the trip. Then I returned to my hotel in time to see the sun set.
Soundtrack: of course, I'm listening to Ma Vlast (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik) while I type this first post about my Prague adventures, specifically, the recording of the May 12, 1990 concert that opened the first Prague Music Festival after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Eastern Block. How could I listen to anything else? The emotion is palpable and the music inspirational. If this doesn't make you want to fight for freedom, nothing ever will.