“You’re going to love Prague”. That’s what everybody told us when we mentioned that the capital of the Czech Republic was part of our itinerary. What they didn’t tell us was to prepare for 40 degree temperatures. While I thought I was booking a hotel a bit removed from the heart of the tourist area, it turned out we were close to everything. We stayed at the Eurostar Thalia, which was rated as a five star hotel on Wotif and other hotel listings. I mention this to raise the subject of hotel ratings, and the inconsistencies between countries. In some places, the number of stars is a highly guarded badge of honour. It is displayed on the outside of the property; on the stationary; and sometimes even on the carpet, as was the case with the Gellert. Most hotel booking websites distinguish between the star rating awarded by a third party, and a ‘self-rating’ which applies to some properties. However, we have yet to figure out how the ratings are established in each country.
All of this is to say that although the Thalia was a nice hotel, it was not a five star hotel by Canadian standards Unfortunately, the air conditioning had a hard time keeping up with the unusually hot weather, and there was no swimming pool when we really needed one. But the room and bathroom were beautifully appointed and the breakfast was excellent. Perhaps too excellent!
While we were sure we would lose weight on this trip, given a regime of daily walking and exercise, we have discovered that this is almost impossible when staying in hotels that include a buffet breakfast in the price of the room. The Thalia offered all the things I love…eight different types of salamis, sausages and smoked meats; a similar number of cheeses; an array of smoked fish, eggs, fresh fruits, cereals and so on. There was a large table devoted to breads, pastries and desserts just in case we hadn’t had enough to eat. Fortunately, the windowless restaurant, with its luminescent red walls felt a bit like the downstairs washrooms at John Evan’s Opus Hotel. Otherwise, we might have lingered even longer.
Our first stop Monday morning was the Russian Embassy. We were prepared to stay in Prague for up to a week if necessary to get the visa and avoid what we were told could be an exorbitant ‘quick processing’ fee. When we arrived at the embassy there was a line up since people were only being let through the gate one at a time. After an hour, we finally got into the Embassy. We filled out the visa application forms as best we could, given that they were in Russian and Czech, and finally got to see an official seated behind a large sheet of glass.
“Do you speak English?” we nervously asked. Yes he did. We gave him our carefully guarded Russian cruise ship papers that had been faxed to us in Ljubljana, along with our application forms, passports and photographs, and waited nervously. I will never forget his response.
“You don’t need a visa. This is good enough”. It seemed too good to be true. “Are you sure?” I asked, not really wanting another answer. “Yes he said. You don’t need a visa since you are part of a group cruise tour. Just have the operator notify the authorities of your port of entry.” We were overjoyed, since this meant we could stay in Prague as long or short a time as we wanted. Moreover, we didn’t have to pay any fees. But somehow this information didn’t seem right since it contradicted everything we had been told by our travel agent and the cruise booking company in New York. Not knowing what to do, we set off to see the city, and celebrate our good news.
Prague truly is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Fortunately, it was not bombed during World War II, and each building is interesting and oftentimes majestic. We were constantly stumbling across magnificent parks or urban squares lined with bars, cafés and restaurants. Chuck Brook and Margot Paris are coming here in August and I don’t think there will be enough memory cards in the city to meet their photographic needs.
Its beauty is further enhanced by a river winding through the centre. This time it is not the Danube, but it’s the same colour: brown. But it doesn’t matter. At night, reflections from the illuminated buildings are magical, and dozens of photographers line the banks with their tripods trying to get that award winning shot. Because of our self imposed weight restrictions, I didn’t have a tripod, so I used Sally’s head. Unfortunately, she rarely kept still enough to get any decent night photos! Although Prague is quite a large city, it has a surprisingly compact downtown, and an excellent subway, tram and bus network. We rarely waited more than a few minutes at a transit stop. Interestingly, Prague also prices its transit based on time, rather than distance traveled, although an all day pass was available for only $4.
The city offers a lot a variety in theatre and concerts and numerous different tours. I was surprised to learn that one of the most popular tours is of the Jewish Quarter. While Jews figured prominently in the life of the city, and ‘The Jewish Quarter’ is identified on maps and street signage, there are very few Jews living here today.
However, every week, thousands visit its synagogues, museums and cemetery, where graves have been placed one above the other over the past 500 years. Through a sad irony, Prague has one of the world’s best collection of Jewish artifacts since Hitler decided to collect vast quantities of religious objects, silverware, jewelry, and artwork, with the intention of setting up a museum of the ‘lost race’. Prague has a very good choice of restaurants, although most tend to feature goulash, smoked pork, and goose on their menus. There’s also a lot of cabbage. The first night, we selected what appeared to be a very old and elegant restaurant with a nice menu. Unfortunately, we missed the sign mentioning the gypsy music. Sure enough, we had no sooner ordered when the musicians came out to play. While I don’t mind this sort of thing, Sally is uncomfortable having a violinist standing over her while she tries to enjoy her avocado and prawns. As a result, she spent the evening carefully watching the violin player as he moved about the room, dreading the thought that he might come over to our table. Fortunately, by the time he did arrive, we were ready to leave. As is our practice, we took a river tour through the city. Along the banks, amidst the grand old buildings, I came across one newer building that looked like it was falling over. That is because it was designed by Frank Gehry (who designed amongst other things the Guggenheim in Bilbao). Although very whimsical and contemporary in design, it seems to fit into the traditional five storey streetscape quite well.
While we walked around a relatively small area, we never got tired of the city. Because of the temperature (we were told one day was the hottest day on record) we occasionally headed to the air conditioned shopping centres. Sally again discovered Marks and Spencers, and bought me a summer suit, since we are soon heading off on a River Cruise, and she thought I might need something other than pants with zip off legs.
Wednesday night, after three hot but interesting days, we took a tram from outside our hotel directly to the train station. At half past eight, we boarded the 8:55 overnight train for Krakow, the next stop on our journey from Istanbul to Moscow. As Sally was getting settled, I went off to check out the dining car. There wasn’t one. So with 15 minutes to spare, I ran back into the station to buy something for our evening meal. It took longer than it should have, and I have never ran so hard as I did to make sure that I got back onto the train before it left the station. As we settled into our little compartment with smoked goose legs and some still unidentified sandwiches, we discovered we were about three times as old as the rest of the passengers in the car. So at 10 o’clock, as they all partied in the corridor and each others bedrooms, we popped some sleeping pills and went to bed. We slept soundly until about 3 am, when the Polish border patrol knocked on our door. The joys of international overnight train travel in Europe!