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Prague, Czech Republic

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View of Prague from bridge tower I went to Prague during a warm August 1991, to attend the "European Christian Fellowship." All my expectations were fulfilled--Prague is truly a fascinating city. I had no trouble what-so-ever (except for getting there--read below), and I was traveling alone much of the time. I did befriend several people at the fellowship, and had a wonderful cross-cultural exchange of ideas, and activities. I took this photo from atop the Charles Bridge tower, looking east. I took the photo below from the Powder Tower, looking west.

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View of Prague from the Powder Tower

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 good!

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 evening.

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 Vandehey

Prague Castle
Prague Information Service
The Prague Post
Prague Travelogue by Phil Greenspun
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