Someone described Prague to me like this: “it’s dark, it’s gritty, the buildings are covered in gargoyles, it comes at you!”
Prague’s train station was a multistory complex with a dollar store feel to it. A Burger King, generic coffee places with sparse seating, and stores selling tacky zebra striped handbags I often spot on Russian women at home desperately geared toward every tourist created the bleak atmosphere of a mall around closing time. There was even a stand in the middle of the ground floor devoted to rhinestones.
Here I quickly discovered the benefit to being a Russian speaker in the Czech Republic: Czech is written in Latin script, so it’s like reading Russian written in English (or like reading the emails I wrote home). Czech and Russian aren’t similar enough to be mutually intelligible, but they’re similar enough that when I saw the sign “sever,” I instantly knew that it meant not “to cut,” but “north.” Getting around was a cinch. I would’ve struggled more in Russia, at least until my reading speed picked up.
Unfortunately, it hardly helped with the spoken language. The accent is so different that I could barely pick up on anything people around me were saying. Czech is much softer and rounder than sharp, lyrical Russian. Someone who lived in Prague as an English teacher informed me that Czech is considered one of the three hardest languages to learn.
Only on desperate occasions did I ask someone if they spoke Russian; I always tried English first since the younger generation learns it instead of Russian now. Asking anyone from an older generation if they spoke Russian never got me a positive response.
A lot of travelers who’d had no contact with any Slavic language complained that they struggled a lot getting around Eastern Europe, but I expect that it will soon become much easier. The thing about countries in that area is that their native languages are spoken almost exclusively in their country, so many know at least a little of another language, often English. But if you’re going to learn any other European language for practicality’s sake, make it German. It was very useful around central Europe, Switzerland, and in some northern parts.
My hostel was a forty-five minute walk outside the Old Town and it was great, as I’d been told back in Interlaken. Burgundy painted rooms and a dimly lit underground bar and lounge with Persian rugs, old wooden furniture, brick walls, mismatched throw pillows and even a chessboard made it feel the way Prague was supposed to feel. The staff also had great taste in music, good Czech beer for a Euro, and an amazing breakfast. I’ve read many blogs that say where you stay isn’t such an important factor, but I completely disagree. Especially if you’re traveling alone, the place determines the people you meet, for each draws in a certain type of crowd. To me this is the experience. The best hostels feel like home. Sir Toby’s in Prague was not quite that, but still one of my favorite stays.
That night I took the long walk into town for the first of many times and got sidetracked by some neat finds. First there was a huge Asian flea market around the corner from the hostel, where amid the cheap wares I found stands selling pho, fried rice, and cheap beer. I got lunch and a bottle of Pilsner Urquell and continued down to the river, savoring sipping a beer out in the open.
Then, upon reaching a tricky spot across a major bridge where the traffic always flowed, I had to backtrack and walk through a park to get under the bridge, and in this way I came out to a bike park with a few people riding across the mounds and handmade ramps that wobbled beneath then. A few more people were sitting around a small outdoor bar. I hung out here for a while.
Back on the main road, in the distance I glimpsed the uninviting industrial part of town, where most people lived, where businesses thrived, where cars never stopped, where a huge blue neon sign shone from afar. Nothing I saw so far made me think that this was the most beautiful city in the world. Quite the opposite in fact. It was gritty, I’ll give it that, but not in the charming way I hoped.
You could bypass all that by staying closer to the Old Town, where there are plenty more hostels, but then you might miss one of the best places in Prague: the Cross Club. It was a few streets down from our hostel and a group of us went that night. Even if you don’t like clubs you must go: it’s a huge, dark labyrinth with the most amazing installation of gears, spare engine parts, and other industrial bits that cover the place from floor to ceiling in statues and spinning parts. You could walk around for hours transfixed just looking at it, and probably won’t be bothered by other people unless you understand Czech. And if you don’t want to dance to trance music underground (which I can empathize with), upstairs you’ll find a more relaxed atmosphere with tables, a restaurant, a couple bars serving good, cheap beer, and different music. We were sitting there and suddenly gypsy brass music came on, then switched to something entirely different. If you do want to dance to trance music reportedly there’s a cover charge and a cool light show downstairs. The place is eclectic and has many different nooks, each with its own feel to it, the coolest of which is the outdoor area, a jungle of steampunk staircases and split-level balconies. The club is art. People have made youtube videos walking through it (though you can’t see much). It was quite the place to have been reluctantly dragged to.
We revisited on Sunday night at around two. The guy at the door asked if anyone in our group of five spoke Czech. None of us did. “It’s closed,” he told us, and sent us back.
A girl working the hostel’s front desk was very confused when we relayed our tale and said that the club should be open until four. Well, that’s how you know a good place. We went instead to the only bar left open, just a few doors down from our hostel where nobody spoke English and we were the only people except the bartender and an old drunk who yelled at us in Czech (an experience I would encounter once more, being yelled at in Czech). It was a very nice place: quiet, relaxed, with more good cheap beer and an unpretentious atmosphere. The best place to just sit around and talk. Your local bar.
That was the good thing about staying on a street where the local people actually lived. You escaped all the tourist traps and could see life more for what it was. The people on our street, a rather average place not known for being hip, which probably made it hip (hence the location of Europe’s hippest bar), seemed rather apathetic and quiet going about their lives. Czech people do not have the friendliest demeanor and nobody will stop and say “hi” to you. Slavic people generally have this no-nonsense air about them (from Russia through the Western Slavic countries). As always, when you’re dealing up close it’s a matter of personality rather than ethnicity, at least for reasonable people. There’s sort of a biting, sarcastic humor present, and my Czech friend told me that Czech humor is very dark. No surprise that it was my favorite country.
By Sunday morning I’d had too much city and not enough castle, so I took a day trip to see nearby Karlstejn Castle, a gothic one in the town of Karlstejn. For twenty minutes I walked along a road selling every Czech knick-knack imaginable. The town had no shame! Food and beer were twice as expensive and there was even a crepe stand. People working there were especially unfriendly, as many who operate tourist-frequented places tend to be. I felt like I was dodging bullets, charming cat-shaped pillow bullets. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to buy the basket of stuffed cats for even a second. But I made it through and reached the castle, which was packed with people and children.
It was a beautiful architectural playground. In a courtyard selling bottles of Coke for the equivalent of 2 Euros were traditional blacksmiths hammering away, but this, too, was mostly a display. I was again tempted to buy some paperweight or other as a souvenir, but that’s the beauty of carrying all your stuff on your back – you’re automatically deterred from excessive spending!
I didn’t even take the tour, figuring inside it would be much like Kilkenny Castle: full of portraits of people long dead whom I knew nothing about. The real highlight was taking a walk up a lonely road into a forest that seemed to be popular for hiking, and diving down some branching path every now and then. I’d forgotten how much I loved to just wander through forests, and the Czech forests are among the most beautiful. I climbed up to the top of a hill and got a nice panorama, though it was admittedly not as nice as the view from the top of the castle, which is probably why they built the castle where they did. You could see a bit of the castle, too, through a dense forest.
I needed that walk alone to get back into nature, and when I came back down I was refreshed. The benefits lasted all the way as I rode back into Prague, when I witnessed a rainbow arc over the city through the rain-streaked window (awww).
My biggest regret about Prague was never getting to Žižkov, the formerly bad neighborhood that now has Prague’s café culture. It’s all the way on the other side of town. I had even debated staying in a hostel there, but its reviews were much worse even if its name was better (The Clown and the Bard). But that leaves something for next time I guess.