Monday, August 15, 2011

Fairytales Up Close

After some much needed sleep and feeling a bit better, we had two full days to explore Prague. There wasn’t much on our must-do list, and we had a lazy start to day one. We figured out public transport the best we could and took a bus and then – eventually – transferred to the metro, when we realized the instructions from camp didn’t say ‘tram’ and so the red line tram wasn’t coming.

When we ascended from the metro we were a bit lost for bearings with a vague map and even vaguer idea of where we wanted to go. Luckily our natural inclination turned out to be the right one and we found ourselves meandering down a main road. We saw lots of McDonalds restaurants, more than any other European city we’ve been to, and a lot of street vendors selling sausages. There were lots of clothing shops and lots of general city-ness, but not much of the magic I thought would jump out at us the second we entered the city.

All the same, we wandered through souvenir shops and found a cool little market selling everything from painting prints and clay steins to fresh fruit and vegetables. We discovered along the way that every second shop in Prague sells one of two things – Bohemian Glass, or Marionettes. As different from each other as is possible, but both quintessentially Czech, and both expensive.

The streets turned to cobblestones and the cobblestones became more and more uneven as the cityscape got older. My favourite buildings were ones painted with frescos. More than just covered in decorations or being decorative by design, these buildings are massive lived and worked-in artworks. A few of them surrounded the first of our must-sees, the Astronomical Clock in the old town square. We arrived just after the hour so walked a couple of minutes to get my must-have Hard Rock Café pin before returning in time for the 2pm chime. On the hour, every hour, two small windows open above this most intricate of clocks and figures of the 12 apostles dance behind them.

The display wasn’t quite as impressive as my imagination had hoped for, but it was impressive all the same and it was kind of nice to be back in tourist-land, surrounded by hoards of people looking at the same thing you are because the same books and websites told them to. It’s funny how so many people avoid or complain about tourist-y spots and the crowds that go with them but for me – an already self-confessed tourist-y spot lover – those crowds have become another home comfort away from home.

Along with the way we set up our tent, the taste of the first milky hot chocolate off the camp stove, the feel of the clothing-stuffed sleeping bag cover I use as a pillow and the familiar squish between Courts and the gear when I get on the bike for another long ride, tourist crowds have become my normal. I’ve learnt how to navigate through them, recognize several languages amongst them, hold onto my belongings and note the people to avoid. Tourist crowds are to me as the queue at your local coffee shop is to you. You recognize the locals, know where to wait for your order, which quiche tastes best and where the newspapers are kept. It might not be significant to you, as it wasn’t to me. We know these things subconsciously, but you miss them when they’re gone. And so, a crowd of tourists makes me feel welcome amongst the many changing landscapes of our current nomadic lifestyle.

We left the crowd and wandered in a direction we thought might lead to water. It did, although not to the famous Charles Bridge we were aiming for but at least to the next one along, from which we had a good view. We crossed it anyway and ambled through narrower streets and over more uneven cobblestones as we made our way towards Charles Bridge. Above us loomed Prague Castle, not as fairytale-like as I thought from the pictures but spectacular all the same. We never made it up the hill to see inside but it was definitely one of the more attention grabbing castles we’ve seen.

Later I looked back at the pictures I saw when planning the trip, to see what made me think it would be more magical. I recognized all of the vantage points the photos had been taken from, having taken photos there myself. I recognized the buildings and the landscape in these photos now, but the feeling in real life just didn’t live up to the pictures. It may have been the gloomy weather or the Wacken-fatigue affecting me, Courts thought it was nice. It was, but so was old-San Sebastian, old-Barcelona and old-Amsterdam. However, San Seb had more colourful locals, Barcelona had more enticing alleys and delicious pastries, Amsterdam had more canals. Prague had all of these things but just nothing that made it jump out as unique. We kind of figured it out when we realized it’s more beautiful and ethereal from a wider view point, and up close it’s less special.

For me the highlight of Prague was definitely the food, starting at a little restaurant we found after finally crossing Charles Bridge. We successfully bought nothing from the street vendors and made it across with our pockets un-picked and then stopped for lunch. My main meal was just a normal chicken and chips meal we would be able to get in New Zealand, but it came with potato soup and bread. The soup was crazy good – even Courts said if he knew the soup would be that good he would have just had that for lunch – and the bread came with the best butter of my life. I don’t know what it was flavoured with but I’d eat it every day of my life.

The food was again a highlight the following night when after a very lazy start and a mid afternoon wander, we settled on a medieval restaurant for dinner. We chose it because the tables outside were on giant swinging frames, so your seat stayed level with your food but as a whole you gently swayed in the breeze. We ended up choosing to sit inside after all that though, sitting in a side room and making friends with an old couple from Holland on one side and a couple from Spain on the other. Courtney had a huge 1.3kg pork knee on a mini spit while I had more potato soup and fried cheese. The food is just insanely good and even though on day two we only had a few hours in the city, it was all worth it for that meal.

Thankfully Germanys food is just as good, because it’s PartySan time.