Prague was quite possibly the place that had been most heavily branded ‘the next big thing’ for tourists in recent years as the former Eastern Bloc countries started to become more integrated with the rest of Europe. But with the Czech capital now well and truly a focal point in its own right and drawing visitors in massive numbers, I could only hope some of the lustre that initially attracted that ‘next big thing’ tag a decade ago – well preserved architecture and cheap and plentiful food and beer – had not been eroded completely by this rising tide of mass tourism.
The initial impressions were good as we made our way into the city from the airport late in the evening, the massive castle district looked immensely imposing in the spotlights as we crossed the River Vtlava for the first time, and the beer was good (and cheap) as Darryl and I headed out for a late drink at a small bar after he, Katie and I had arrived at our hostel in the Old Town, or Staré Mĕsto. But even without these factors, spending time with treasured Geneva friends meant this was going to be a rewarding week.
We had pretty much all morning to kill before Robyn, the fourth member of our little party that would eventually number six, got in. We shuffled around the Old Town huddled inside our jackets as a late burst of winter over much of Europe dropped the temperature to around freezing. Icy snow rained down every now and then, stinging our faces, as we found the Staromĕstské Námĕstí (Old Town Square). This was surrounded on all sides by an impressive collection of churches and their commanding towers, with the red marquees of a market set up in the centre. Despite the less than ideal conditions the square was hardly empty of fellow tourists tucked away inside their own coats, and I wondered how much busier Prague could possibly get when the Easter holidays began in earnest in a couple of days time. We may have completely missed the boat on Prague when it was relatively unknown, but at least I could take some solace that on a cold midweek day like today the tourist precinct wasn’t completely jammed.
After taking a slow and roundabout path to the area around the Powder Tower and Námĕstí Republiky we met up with Robyn, and while she, Katie and Darryl retreated out of the cold into a very trendy looking café, I headed for the Florenc Bus Station to work out the travel logistics for our journey out of Prague. As I had been the one who was insistent we go to Český Krumlov (after hearing nothing but glowing reports about it from others), I felt like it was my responsibility to work out how we would get there. And while what we had seen of the streets of Prague so far had a bright and cheery feel to them, the bus station, only a couple of blocks away from the tourist precinct, was the first real reminder I encountered of the short but recent Communist era. Its dark, pokey and cheerless interior was strangely satisfying in a dour kind of way, and made for an atmospherically dreary place to start a bus journey to a myriad of Eastern European towns and cities. Though Český Krumlov is the next most visited place in the Czech Republic outside of Prague, I was a little surprised to find out the bus did not leave from here, the main bus station. We’d have to take the metro to Roztyly in the suburbs to the south-east to catch the single daily direct bus from Prague in the middle of the afternoon.
With a couple of hours to kill we went back to the Old Town Square, bearing with the falling sleet to fill up on local treats from the market like langos; fried dough topped with garlic, cheese and tomato sauce, and trdelnik; cylindrical sugared pastries baked around a wooden pole.
Having eaten so cheaply I thought Prague really still seemed like a city of good value – though this impression was soon dented by the 700 Czech crowns (€30) fine we were each slapped with for entering the Námĕstí Republiky metro platforms without having validated our tickets. We had been a little confused by the ticket machines at the station entrance, and after spending a few minutes trying to work out which tickets we needed were conscious of the need to get to Roztyly relatively quickly to buy our bus tickets and then find the bus. Foolishly, we rushed past the small machines at the top of the escalators that stamped the entry station and time on our metro tickets, and once at the bottom of the escalator two ticket inspectors saw us with our luggage and swooped, surmising – correctly of course – that we were foreigners unaware of the custom. They must easily make their quota of fare dodgers this way. Though with the conditions to validate spelled out in both Czech and English on the backs of the tickets and the “we’re sorry, we’re just stupid tourists” line probably not successfully used here in twenty years (or if at all, considering the general lack of humour apparent), there was nothing to do but cough up the dough and hope they didn’t detain us too long.
Once at Roztyly, a fairly sorry-looking set of outside bus stops surrounded by grim concrete apartment blocks that contrasted with bright and very recently constructed shopping centres and an ultra-new all-glass business park which was home to high-tech tenants like Sony, IBM, Accenture and Sun Microsystems, the ticketing wasn’t enforced quite so strictly. Though we had designated seat numbers printed on the tickets, it was quite clear by the time I got on the bus that my seat already had a bum planted on it – as did every other seat. This didn’t turn out to be a big deal though as I was able to grab a seat once the bus emptied a little about halfway through the three and a half hour trip.
It was well after dark when the bus completed its run in Český Krumlov, and the illumination of the rooves of the tiny town centre and it’s rather large castle, separated from each other by the narrow looping ribbon of the swiftly flowing Vtlava, was a stirring sight. I was enamoured with the town at first glance and there seemed like nothing could dampen my buoyant mood.
Our hostel was close by and easy to find, though the door was locked and a handwritten sign informed us the reception was closed, had been since 8pm and left a number to contact. This was a little odd as it was only 7pm. We tried calling the number, which didn’t seem to work. Thankfully a couple of Asian girls, the only two people in the building, heard us and let us in from the cold, which at least alleviated our most pressing issue, and sympathetically said “master gone” before returning into the kitchen. Looking around the reception area further we found another listed phone number, which was of no help as it called the office phone where we were standing, and instructions to head to a nearby house below the hostel on the river where the staff could be reached. Katie and I headed back out into the cold to find this house, and though the lights were on inside we didn’t see any activity and could not get anyone to answer the door. We returned to the hostel and waited for a while longer, becoming a little annoyed as our hunger increased, until almost 8pm when I went back out and unsuccessfully knocked again on the door of the house. I returned to find the hostel staff, a young Australian couple, in the reception area apologising to the others that they’d missed us while they were out ten-pin bowling with a few of the Australian guests, and that they must have left a digit off the contact phone number on the sign on the door. Considering we had a booking and weren’t unexpectedly lobbing at the door I felt this was quite shoddy.
When they raved about a nearby restaurant where we could get a cheap and unforgettable dinner I was trying to brace myself for another disappointment, but their effusive praise was entirely justified. In a dark laneway just off the main square we opened a thick wooden door and stepped down into a cavernous stone banquet hall with a low arched ceiling, and sat down at a long wooden bench right by a huge open fire where large slabs of meat were being grilled. The garlic soup served in a bread bowl was a very tasty entree, and the 25Kč (€1) half-litre glasses of dark Budvar/Budweiser were absolutely superb. The only potential dampener was not being able to choose between two of the 195Kč (€8) main courses – should I go for the mixed grill or be a little adventurous with the roasted pork knee? With Katie, Robyn and Darryl as happy as I was, my dilemma was soon settled – I’d have the mixed grill tonight and then the pork knee when we came back to the same restaurant tomorrow night. After ploughing my way through a cut of beef, fillets of turkey and chicken, a pork sausage and potato pancakes (ably accompanied by more dark Budvar) I was a happy, happy man, and my undying love for Český Krumlov was sealed.
It also didn’t hurt that Krumlov House turned out to be one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. It was small, intimate and full of character and Katie and I loved our private room – which was basically a fully self-contained one bedroom apartment. And in despite – or perhaps because of – their period going AWOL, Anthony and Tamara were the friendliest and most helpful hostel staff I’ve ever come across as they finished up their last few days of a three month stint working there.
Český Krumlov was no less beautiful in the daylight and, though it was still cold, the intermittent spells of sunshine and light snow only added to the feeling of stumbling into a European fairytale. The number of other visitors we were sharing the exploration of the town centre with was not particularly high, the shops and restaurants lining the cobbled streets had been commercialised in a way that didn’t feel tacky or overdone and there were no overhead power lines strung up between buildings to blemish the view of the charming streetscapes (a particular regret of mine in most European Old Towns).
From afar, the brightly coloured brickwork of the exterior of the castle looked as if it had been carefully put together by master craftsmen. But once up close it was clear it was an illusion – the masonry had all been painted onto flat and otherwise plain surfaces. This ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ approach to exterior design lives on today in those skilled artisans who can craft an exterior wood finish without the need for treating timber or worrying about the ravages of termites. It’s simply ingenious what some people can make things look like with concrete. This creative approach was also currently being used to good effect in other purely functional Czech towns we passed through by bus and train, with wavy bright colours used to great effect to cheer up the appearances of a small percentage of the gloomy grey concrete Communist apartment blocks that dominated most residential areas.
Once through the main gates of the castle and in the front courtyard, we followed a twisting arched passage that led uphill under the bulk of the main castle buildings. At intervals this opened out unexpectedly into a series of small patios before a long colonnade adorned with religious statues, set high above the river and the rest of the town, ended out in a huge formal hedge garden and a large outdoor theatre – with the stage an entire double storey southern French style villa. It was all immensely enriching to explore, and the views back down to the town were incredible.
In between all this, when the cold chilled our bones, there were quiet, relaxed and low-key cafes and restaurants to thaw out in, enjoy more hearty Czech food and delight in the company of fantastic friends. Travelling just doesn’t get any better than this. After such a satisfying day there was no finer way to end it than to make like the impressions of King Henry VIII at a medieval banquet, using my hands to chomp away gluttonously around a pork knee bone. I was as happy as a pig in mud – before its knee ended up on my plate, obviously.
We left Český Krumlov around lunch-time, and as we lined up for the bus to take us back to Prague I had the sneaking suspicion that nothing on the rest of the this trip could possibly match the contentment of the previous forty hours or so. And the small hassles started again straight away when, after having put my large backpack in the baggage compartment at the bottom of the bus, the driver pointed at my much smaller day pack and indicated that that too had to go under. This hadn’t happened on the journey out of Prague and, as the local system is to charge for each item stored below on top of the passenger ticket price, I figured this was a little ploy by the driver to make a fraction more cash from a gullible tourist. This misgiving was probably confirmed when others just behind us were able to bring far bigger backpacks onto the bus with them. It also meant I couldn’t discreetly bring my lunch onto the bus as clear signs pointed out that no food was allowed, so I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to eat my lunch until almost dinner time. Robyn, on the other hand, had no such difficulties openly bringing her food onboard – the book she happened to be carrying directly underneath her takeaway container was entitled In Defence of Food, though I dare say it was more being female and smiling sweetly than her choice of apt reading material. And, though it had long gone cold when I finally did get to eat my spicy chicken pancake, it was equally amazing to the rest of the meals that Český Krumlov had always offered up to us.
Once back at Roztyly, we dutifully bought the correct metro tickets and validated them before going down to the platform. When we alighted at Námĕstí Republiky it was no great surprise to walk right by some ticket inspectors who had just collared some other folks laden with luggage at the bottom of the escalators. In the midst of that transaction they thought they’d really hit the jackpot when they caught sight of us and asked Darryl for his ticket. Sorry, we may be stupid, but we ain’t that stupid.
I expected some things to be closed for Good Friday, but Prague was abuzz with options for dinner and after dinner drinks, and we had another enjoyable evening together, staying out until the early hours.
Unfortunately the hostel was fully booked out with youngsters from various countries who had stayed out even longer, with groups returning consistently through the night yelling the length of the corridor, wrestling and banging on every room door they passed. On our first night and morning here I’d been intimidated by an English university women’s rugby team staying at the hostel with group T shirts emblazoned with the slogan “maul me, ruck me, make me scrum”, but now with a series of other guests staging a prolonged rampage right outside our door I was now just completely aggravated. If it weren’t for the obvious security cameras in the hall I probably would have gone out, collared someone and then contravened the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. Call me Victor Mildrew from the 1990’s BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave if you will, but I’m just too old for this.
With Kelly arriving late the night before we were now five and our unanimous vote was to go to nearby Josefov, the Jewish quarter, and visit the Old Jewish Cemetery. We got there to find it closed, and it was a pretty safe bet it had more to do with it being the Sabbath than a celebration that the Messiah had died and was risen.
(Sorry, I realise that this is a cheap shot, but after coming off not much sleep I was still pretty cranky.)
At this point we split up. Kelly went off to see parts of the city we’d already seen, Darryl wanted to take advantage of the early sunshine to take photos of his people watching and Robyn, Katie and I crossed the river at the Legií Bridge and made for the old city walls stretching up the hillside parklands of Petřín.
It was a pleasant stroll up the meandering paths to the small replica of the Eiffel Tower, and from up here the immense scale of the adjacent Hradčany, the castle district, and Malá Strana, the so-called Small Quarter, were revealed from a different angle. After a visit inside the mirror labyrinth, we headed over to this area and roamed around for a good while before stopping to grab some lunch. From this point Katie and Robyn preferred to go shopping which gave me the rest of the afternoon to continue to explore this area at my leisure.
I was a little surprised that the building that housed the national Parliament was quite understated. In fact, had it not been for the sign that indicated its purpose I may have ignored the building completely. But, I was immediately drawn to the foreign embassies that were interspersed amongst the centuries old buildings and tight passageways of the Malá Strana. These possessed a lot more charm than the fenced compounds or anonymous office buildings that house embassies in other capitals I have been to, and helped contribute to the impression that, despite the rise and rise of tourism and the changes brought about within the city to cater to that, the machinations of officialdom is still what makes this appealing central part of Prague tick.
I climbed a long set of stairs to make it up the castle square and then wandered around the courtyards inside the castle complex (with the massive St Vitus Cathedral at its core), and also passed by quite a large number of other churches spread out around the very top of the sloping district.
But it is parks that I naturally seem to gravitate to when exploring a city, and Prague’s greenbelt continued along the top of the hill above the river to the east of the castle for a considerable distance.
In a bid to escape the inflated prices of the tourist centre, I was glad to run into a small neighbourhood restaurant and bar near the Florenc Metro Station that offered a good range of food at Český Krumlov-like prices at the end of my afternoon’s walking. Once our group re-assembled for dinner the others also seemed happy to try it and, even though it was little out of our way, I’m very glad we did. We were the only tourists there and the meals were superb.
Over dinner I was reminded just how different some people’s interests, passions and motivations can be when travelling. When Kelly asked if I had walked across the Charles Bridge, I replied that I hadn’t and had no interest to. My natural approach on foot is to try to escape the crowds and pound the pavement at my own pace, and every time I looked at the oldest and most famous of Prague’s bridges its entire length was jammed with tourists being funnelled across the river from the Old Town to the Small Quarter at a snail’s pace. At this explanation Darryl’s eyes opened wide, just like a little kid’s on Christmas morning. For him a place where a lot of people were congregating and going nowhere was perfect to take his favoured people photos, particularly here where a good percentage of our fellow visitors looked Eastern European – many of the women wore long fur coats, and had leopard print head scarves over their obviously dyed-blonde/yellow/orange hair. Darryl had just found his location for tomorrow.
And as we clinked our beer glasses together it was a good time to take a second and reflect that not all our motivations here were different. There was the appreciation for the dark flavourful stuff inside the glasses for a start (Staropramen in this case), the admiration of savage dye jobs (him for taking photos and me having willingly experimented with my own blond self-styling a few years ago), not to mention the overwhelming urge we both shared to indiscriminately beat the crap out of someone – anyone – who’d kept us awake last night.
When Anna, who had decided to join us at the last minute, arrived after dinner we reached our maximum touring party of six, and I again very much enjoyed our evening together as we found a table in a new and trendy bar at Námĕstí Republiky. Need I mention that having the extra leisure time to hang out with great friends in new and novel surroundings is also a sterling motivation for travel?
This morning the Old Jewish Cemetery was definitely open – the long line of people snaking up the street waiting to get in was testament to that. But when we discovered the hefty admission price the unanimous verdict was it wasn’t worth the wait.
At this point Katie and I said goodbye to the rest of the group – and to Prague. We had an extra night to spend in the country and were going to use it by getting back out of the capital. While I certainly wouldn’t say Prague was a disappointment, I wasn’t at all sad to leave. Perhaps the hype surrounding it as one of Europe’s most beautiful and exciting cities has outstripped the reality. I can’t give any good reasons as to exactly why I felt this way, except to say that as a means of comparison within Eastern Europe I enjoyed the general atmosphere of Budapest noticeably more during our visit there last year. I wondered whether it was partly to do with the fact that I have now been extremely fortunate to have seen a significant number of European cities, and so I may now be tougher to please than other people. A bit like a life-long film critic feeling unsatisfied from any recent Hollywood film, or Hugh Heffner becoming more than a little blasé about the latest batch of Playboy models getting in the way around his mansion when they would totally distract any other mere male. But then, on the other hand, Český Krumlov had come with a great reputation (as the Miss March centrefold, perhaps) and I was still completely besotted with that.
In any case, after Katie had finished up with the last of her shopping, we were both quite content to find ourselves on a train heading east out of the region of Bohemia and into neighbouring Moravia. There wasn’t much in the way of scenery along the way, the low grey clouds and steady rain were hardly doing a succession of rather dour industrial small towns of functional housing, factories and muddy pot-holed streets any cosmetic favours. The only fleeting scene that had me pressed to the window was when we passed a storage area for old military vehicles, with scores of trucks, tanks and jeeps parked in neat, tight rows, presumably waiting to be scrapped.
Out here the cheerless Communist approach to town planning is still very apparent, though that legacy did not exactly extend to our train carriage, which was a kaleidoscope of colour. The walls were mustard yellow, the overhead luggage rack a bright orange and the seats were a zippy combination of crimson and yellow stripes. The finishing touch was the curtains – taken straight from the colour scheme of the New Zealand One Day cricket team’s uniform from the late 1970’s, with the dark brown Czech Railways logo set against a beige background. If I cared about interior design at all then the two and a half hours we spent enclosed in here would have made me psychedelically sick, but as a colour-blind non-metrosexual male I was completely unaffected.
Our intended destination was Olomouc, a city I had chosen just because it looked far enough away from Prague for us to have covered a good deal of the country over the whole week, while still being easily accessible enough that we weren’t spending all of our remaining time here in transit. What little information we had gathered on it in the last few days had thus far summarised it as “as grand as Prague, but without the tourists”, though this wasn’t immediately apparent when we alighted the train. The “without the tourists” bit seemed spot on, but there was nothing in sight anywhere around the train station that offered any interesting diversions. Other than a monumentally proportioned outdoor TV screen blaring out advertisements for mobile phones and other consumables at an obscene volume from across the street, Olomouc just looked like slightly more populous version of the dreary towns we had just passed through.
We caught a tram to our hostel, where we sought refuge from the constant rain for what was left of the afternoon. Poets’ Corner was owned by an Australian couple (is there any corner of the earth where my fellow countrymen aren’t currently anchored? Hard to believe when there’s only twenty million of us to go around), though we were given a good introduction and run-down of the sights by a young local girl who worked there. She was friendly and very helpful, but oddly seemed almost offended we were only staying in her hometown for one night.
After dark the showers eased to a drizzle and we ventured out to find something to eat, very soon stumbling on Horní Námĕstí, the first of two main squares. Contrary to the name this didn’t seem to be a local pick-up point for street workers, but it was immense, and the grand town hall stood in the centre like a desert island in the middle of a dark ocean of wet and shiny cobblestones. The square was ringed by fountains and at one end the staggeringly colossal Holy Trinity Column stood tall. Olomouc may only be the Czech Republic’s fifth largest city now, but for centuries beforehand this was most certainly a place of much importance. And the fact we had it entirely to ourselves only added to its commanding air of spacious grandeur.
In the second square, Dolní Námĕstí, we found a place to eat, and it was here Katie had her favourite meal. The lady who served us was not exactly surly but perhaps a little cold, and on getting the bill for a few hundred crowns I felt a little guilty that all we had was a 2,000 Kč note. She raised her eyebrows and seemed to shrug resignedly as she gave us a lot of the change from her wallet, and then returned to the bar area of the restaurant. Now, still lacking anything smaller than a 100 Kč note in order to leave her a tip, I thought she would be outwardly hostile as I went to the bar and tried to change a hundred crown note for two fifties. Actually she didn’t seem too upset at this request, but, without any fifties in the till, could only give me all five 20 Kč coins she had. When I took two of the coins and gave the other three back to her, a surprising thing happened. The face that had been set like stone the whole time we were there now lit up like Darryl’s at the prospect of the crowds at the Charles Bridge, and she smiled by far the widest and warmest smile I saw from anyone in the Czech Republic the whole week. They’re not all a bunch of frosty hard arses all the time after all.
We continued on, in search of another place for dessert and a drink. Being a big university town, Olomouc had more than its fair share of funky drinking establishments within the centre and, though the restaurants seemed to close very early, a lot of the bars looked open and inviting. With the Easter holidays they were almost all empty, and Katie and I enjoyed the space and the quiet, but during the semester this town could really be a fun place to go out – especially the dodgy looking Soviet passenger plane that had been converted into a bar right around the corner from our hostel.
I love pies. Steak and bacon, steak and onion, steak and tomato, or just the average everyday Australian meat pie (with ‘meat’ being a loose term – it’s no secret it’s just offal they mix with the gravy). Not forgetting fruit pies, especially apricot or blackcurrant, and of course homemade fruit mince pies at Christmas. And in more recent years, my world has been opened to that joy from North America that is pumpkin pie (how they turn a disgusting vegetable into such sweet, delicious goodness is a marvellous sleight of hand). But for a late breakfast today we wandered down to a café for a different famous kind of pie found in these parts: The chocolate pie. In appearance it was closer to a pumpkin pie than the pies I’m used to, the base was more like that of a cheesecake and there was no flaky pastry lid on top – I guess I would describe it as more of a tart than a pie. But even as part of the gender that is not so dependant on the existence of the cocoa bean I was impressed. Chocolate pie is yet another worthy variety to add to my long love list.
With that as our starter for the day we set out into the cold to walk it off, and both of us did not like Olomouc any less in the daylight. We started in the Bezruč Gardens alongside a winding small stream and set below the old city walls. Here, like the adjacent Botanical Gardens across the tributary, was a nice green belt full of bushes and trees but it looked a little untended and down at heel, yet more proof we had left the main tourist trail, and I liked it for that.
From the outside, St Michael’s church, perched just inside the city walls, didn’t look particularly decadent. But inside was a completely different story, full of the most flamboyant Baroque religious art, statues and altar adornments to match any cathedral in Europe. I know I carp on about this whenever I visit an overly ornate church – which is at least getting fewer and far between now I generally avoid going inside them – but for whatever reason this kind of lavish house of worship just doesn’t seem to fit well with my theology. From the outside I can admire a cathedral strictly as a piece of architecture like I do any other grand edifice and be happy, but I always find the inside emphasises – to me at least – a narrow picture of a grossly intimidating, impersonal and distant God. The reason for Christ’s death as God’s gracious method for paying for our individual rebellion against Him and Christ’s subsequent resurrection as the defeat over that punishment just doesn’t seem to get a look-in, even though this reconciliation directly between us and God is the whole reason for celebration now at Easter. The God presented here seemed to be approachable only by priests, the Virgin Mary or whatever venerated saints have been billeted out to work this patch – with the saints themselves represented by idolatrous statues supposedly possessing some kind of miraculous intercessory powers on God’s behalf. It troubled me no end, and I just think it’s unnecessary to build a thumping great ostentatious rain shelter as a way of serving, pleasing or giving glory to God.
Despite all my moaning I did at least come away thinking I had seen the Last Supper painted on the church’s ceiling, a not altogether common sight I would have thought. But given my evident lack of art knowledge – far less even than my basic level of theology – I could well be wrong on that one.
Back outside again, and we shared the main square with only a couple of Mums and their toddlers riding around on small plastic tricycles. But as midday approached a small crowd gathered outside the town hall to watch the once-daily chiming of Olomouc’s astronomical clock. We had already inadvertently witnessed the hourly chiming of Prague’s astronomical clock and afterwards were left scratching our heads at what all the fuss was about, and here stood the only other example in the Czech Republic – though the original had been destroyed in the Second World War and was soon after rebuilt in an overt Communist style. How to be diplomatic about this: it was no challenge to Munich’s Glockenspiel. Even as a small kid I would have been severely underwhelmed – and this from someone whose childhood visits to Hobart’s city centre was never complete without a stop in Cat and Fiddle Arcade on the hour to watch the kitschy figures act out the nursery rhyme. The bells chimed tiredly and out of rhythm like someone futilely trying to start a car with a flat battery, and the moving Communist figures of industrious factory workers and farmers mostly just stood there doing nothing productive, certainly not performing their labour for the good of the revolution.
After lunch Katie escaped the drizzle to catch up on some reading and get a second chocolate pie hit, and I continued to wander through some more parks circling the city centre and into a neighbouring residential district full of once-grand manors built in the optimistic period between the two world wars that had long since fallen into disrepair.
This brought our time in Olomouc to a close, which was a happy co-incidence as we felt we were about ready to leave anyway. But for a place where we arrived with absolutely no expectations, it was definitely an enjoyable twenty four hours and it was nice to see the Czech Republic from another angle. I could say I liked it because it was a city of some historical importance shaking off the recent shadowy past, currently inhabited by a new generation of educated young people who have grown up in this enthusiastic post-Communist period, confidently striding towards a stable and prosperous future within the enlarging powerhouse that is the new, unified Europe. Or I could say I mostly liked it because there was stencil graffiti slagging off George W Bush.
We collected our things and took a tram to Olomouc’s train station at around 4pm, which we estimated gave us enough breathing space to get to the airport in Prague in time for our 9pm flight. A small crowd was gathered beneath the departures board, which indicated the 2pm Prague train was running three hours late. This, coupled with the fact that two more trains scheduled to leave for Prague in the next twenty minutes did not have platforms indicated, was a cause for concern. There was one train with a platform listed departing in five minutes, though we were guessing it was not an express service. It came down to a split-second choice between jumping on that one and potentially arriving in Prague later than planned, or taking a gamble that the slightly later trains were actually running on time. We decided to play it safe and take the first option, and climbed onto a train already crowded with people returning to Prague from their Easter break.
We arrived back in the capital at 7:30pm, an hour later than we had planned, and, given Easyjet’s small number of flights and unyielding attitude to check-in times, felt that trying to take public transport or a shuttle bus to the airport was cutting it too fine. A taxi was our only realistic option, and one was waiting outside the station. We had 1,000 Kč left, and I was pretty sure that would be enough to get us to the airport and once there get something to eat.
Though the taxi was an automatic the driver’s hand never left the transmission lever, which was a little inconvenient for us as this shielded our view of the meter at the bottom of the dashboard. He couldn’t block my view of the meter’s reflection through the side window though, and I soon realised why he was trying to hide it. The meter’s increase of a crown at a time every ten seconds or so was supplemented all too frequently by rapid spurts of activity that rivalled Zimbabwe’s spiralling inflation rate. This was the first time ever that I’d been knowingly ripped off for an amount I was unprepared to pay, and we didn’t know what to do. With no time on our hands to get out only halfway to the airport and try and get another cab, there was nothing we could do except suck it up and pay this unofficial tourist surcharge, and I haplessly watched the meter as it clocked over 800 Kč, then 900 Kč, then 1,000 Kč.
When we did pull up at the terminal, the driver lifted up his hand off the transmission to reveal the final milking of the fare at 1,300 Kč (€55). Not exactly hiding my displeasure I gave him our last 1,000Kč and said that was more than enough. Not happy with that, our man demanded the balance in Euro before he would open the boot to give us our luggage. Quite flustered, I fished around in my small backpack for what little change in Euro I had, before getting out of the cab, glad at least to see the back of him.
As soon as he took off I realised I’d left my wallet on the back seat. This wasn’t a huge problem as there was nothing left in it (my cards were safely elsewhere), but I was not willing it leave it at that. I liked the wallet a lot and, besides, he already had more enough stuff of ours. I’d rather lose my wallet while travelling to someone with more guile like a pickpocket than through all of my own stupidity, so we both chased the taxi to the exit boom gates. Katie reached the back door first and piled into the back seat to look for it, and when she didn’t see what I’d left behind, the driver offered it to us from the front. The scumbag had already found it, no doubt hoping to get an extra tidy premium on his surcharge. He handed it back to me pointing out the empty cash pocket and innocently gesturing he didn’t take anything, but there was no need – he’d fleeced us for all we had as it was.
As it happened we did have some breathing space as late winter snow showers in Geneva delayed our flight by two hours, but this little episode just ended up solidifying both our opinions about the Czech Republic. It’s certainly worthy of a visit – but it is outside of Prague that makes it so fantastic. You may even get a smile if you’re very lucky.