The train ride from Frankfurt to Prague had been simple. We turned up a few minutes before it was due to depart, relaxed for an hour in Dresden and arrived right on time in the Czech capital late afternoon.
Ahh the joy of a Eurail pass.
Eight hours of rolling countryside, steep cliffs and free tea and coffee was one of the easiest travel experiences I’ve ever had in Europe. Trying to buy a ticket for the metro at Prague’s main station, however? Not so much.
The Czech Republic doesn’t use the Euro, so after withdrawing cash from the ATM we went to buy a couple of subway tickets from the nearby office. Which was closed.
No problem, we’ll try the other office. Which was, of course, also closed.
Never fear, we thought, there are several ticket machines nearby. Which only take coins.
The numerous currency exchange booths marked with large CHANGE signs had notices up saying that they wouldn’t provide any such thing.
The woman at the convenience store wouldn’t change a 1000 koruna note (around fifty dollars), even if we bought something. Finally a helpful person told us that we could buy tickets from a similar-but-different store on the other side of the station, and they’d even take large notes.
Finally, twenty minutes later, we could get on the metro.
Finding the right stop, and then the hostel, was straightforward, but the darkened cavern of an entrance hall, toughened glass in front of reception and notices everywhere about security didn’t do much to inspire. Being informed that the advertised wi-fi was only available to students bought the mood down a little further, and the grimaced “good luck” when we asked for a dinner recommendation cemented the deal.
It had only been an hour, and already I didn’t like Prague.
Wandering around the nearby square, we spotted a restaurant that (a) looked busy and (b) had large signs advertising the local pilsner. Even if the food was terrible, we figured we could at least drown our sorrows.
Surprisingly, we loved it. The food was excellent, the beer was even better and the lively conversation all around us lifted us from our slump. There’s something about a smoky bar filled with chatter in a foreign language that always makes me happy, and this was no exception.
Slightly drunk and very full, we weaved our way back to our cells hostel later that night. Even the paper-thin walls and grimy showers couldn’t undo what dumplings and a few cold pints had achieved.
Maybe this town wasn’t so bad after all.
Walking into the Old City for some sightseeing the following day, the clouds started to look a little ominous. “Hopefully it’s not going to rain”, I muttered, all but guaranteeing a damp experience.
The castle, and the attached St Nicholas Cathedral, are the biggest tourist attractions in Prague. It showed. Jostled and pushed by the never-ending throng of tour groups, our interest in being there quickly waned. Emerging back into the fresh air, we had barely enough time to shelter in a doorway before the heavens opened.
Cold and wet, we amused ourselves for a while by watching people chase their inside-out umbrellas all over the courtyard. That sudden downpour set the tone for the rest of the day, the weather clearly so uncertain of what it should be doing that it decided to try a little bit of everything. Repeatedly. Blue skies, pouring rain, dark clouds, sunshine. Usually one after the other and sometimes, just to mix things up, all at the same time.
Like all good tourist experiences, the heaviest showers seemed reserved for the times that we had no shelter nearby. As we plodded across the Charles Bridge, soaked to the skin and shivering, I again started to question why I’d even come to Prague. On a nice day, I thought, I’m sure this would be lovely. This was not a nice day.
Then, as if on cue, there was a sign. A bright sign. A glorious sign. A sign full of promise and wonder.
A jazz bar with free wi-fi and pints for $1.70 seemed like the perfect place to dry out and cheer up.
And it was.
After one final drenching, the weather finally made its mind up as we walked back home. The clouds blew away and blue skies took over. Not before time, some might say. Ten minutes strolling through a sun-drenched Letná Park was the highlight of the entire day.
Sitting drinking coffee the next morning, I gazed out the window and wondered what all the fuss had been about. Prague was wonderful.
Those slippery cobbled streets hid hundreds of outdoor cafes and dark wooden pubs. Benches beside the river provided a perfect spot to waste several hours with a good book.
The people were friendly, the beer was world class and history oozed out of every moss-covered stone in the old town.
There was no doubt about it. I really liked this city.
And then it started to rain.
This trip through Central and Eastern Europe is made possible by the good folks at Eurail.com.