‘It’s never like this,’ said my driver from the station when I arrive at Prague train station. ‘It’s 33 degrees today. Normally, at this time of year, it is maybe 17ºC. Never this.’
I am hollowed out with sweat, the salt running into my eyes, stinging. I’ve just endured a five hour train ride from Gorlitz, changing four times because of work on the line. The last train from Dresden was 35 minutes late and had no air conditioning. Friday afternoon, everybody was going to Prague, it’s a regular weekend jaunt from Berlin and Dresden. There were no seats and I’d resigned myself to standing in the air-less carriage corridor where you couldn’t open windows when I spied that one of the compartments was filled by three young girls with their legs stretched out and, in the seats opposite them, their three large backpacks. I knew what was up.
I opened the door and said in English, ‘C’mon, you cannot be serious’.
The girl in the first seat bristled and reluctantly moved her bag, complaining: ‘Why you so unfriendly? No need to be unfriendly.’
My temper flared. ‘Yes, I do need to be unfriendly. There are hundreds of people without seats on this train and you are hogging this carriage?’
‘We were saving them for our friends who went to get coffee.’
‘Where are your friends then?’ I was in no mood for diplomacy. ‘Liars!’ These mystery friends do not turn up for the whole train journey.
She snorted, ‘unfriendly!’, as if she was in the right and I was being unreasonable.
I muttered that if I smashed her face in, that would be me being unfriendly all right, which she understood despite the colloquialism. These three women were all younger and bigger than me but I was so furious that in that moment I felt I could take all three on. As I sat down in the minuscule space they had made for me, their bags still on the seats, I remembered my first physical fight which was also against a German girl. We were on holiday in Ireland, on a horse-drawn caravan trip. Every night we stayed somewhere different, at a farm, or at a beach. That day, in the sea, this girl was threatening my younger brother and I. So I whacked her. I was eight and she was ten and blonde and about two feet taller than me. After looking momentarily stunned that I should even attempt to do this, her face softened and she wanted to be friends. I felt exhilarated. It taught me a life-long lesson: if you are small and easily underestimated, if you take the initiative, people, even much bigger, more powerful people, back down. People don’t like to fight.
I’ve never really been to Eastern Europe before, unless you count my bus trip to Belgrade with an activist samba band where I saw nothing of the country, just played drums, wore pink, cooked vegan food for trade unionists and anarchists and participated in protest marches.
The driver drives me to the family run Golden Horse guesthouse, high up on a hill, next to Prague castle. I am lodged in a garret four floors up, a loft room with beams and tiny windows in the roof letting in the barest breath of warm stale air. I set out immediately, passing tall Farrow & Ball paint colour houses called The Green Lobster, The Golden Wheel, The Golden Lobster, The White Lion, The Red Lion and, towards the bottom, ‘Thai massage for 9 euros’ signs, for the 14th century Charles Bridge. As I approach the archway to the bridge, the walk slows to a sticky crawl: there are thousands of milling tourists, some of them on segways which are two-wheeled motorised vehicles. Musicians of different genres line the bridge, hats out for donations. A string quartet incongruously play ‘I love rock n roll’. One beggar is crouched forward, face unseen, head covered with his hoodie, his forehead touching the pavement, arms stretched out, palms upwards. He looked young. When I returned by that way four hours later he was still in the same position, a Slavic sadhu.
The bridge is crested with sooty statues looking down sadly at the multitude. Below some of the figures an area of shiny brass is revealed, cleaned by the touch of multiple hands hoping for good luck, granted wishes, blessings or fertility, I’m not sure. I shoulder my way through the press to the Old Town Square, where a throng stand under the clock, phones, selfie sticks, iPads and tablets held aloft, like some weird tourist protest. They are waiting for the world’s oldest working astronomical clock to wheel out a mechanism of whirling apostles and a skeletal figure of Death. Nobody sees anything just with their eyes anymore. Everything must be documented or it didn’t happen; we aren’t here and we don’t exist, except in virtual reality. But angels and cherubs are everywhere in Prague, leaning over doorways, on parapets, stretching out from buildings, beckoning.
I visit a typical Czech restaurant ‘Lokal’ where I am given the choice of three types of Pilsner lager: a slice, a half and half, or a creme. The first has a large head of foam, the second is fifty/fifty foam and beer, the ‘creme’ is almost entirely foam.
‘People order this? A pint of foam?’ I query.
‘Mostly it is their last drink before they go home. Czechs like foam,’ explains the waitress.
I also order fried cheese in breadcrumbs, cheese ‘schnitzel’; potato salad and a cucumber salad with sour cream and dill. Most Czech food is meat based; duck is a particular favourite. I have nonetheless spotted many vegan restaurants on the streets. The fried cheese is bland and so heavy you can’t eat more than one or two bites, the potato salad is flavourless, the sour cream salad is watery. There is no salt or taste to anything. The beer is good though. Afterwards the trudge back uphill to my hotel is weary.
Saturday. The weather is even hotter. I’m exhausted before I even leave the hotel. I spend my time trying to keep to the shade, hopping from one patch to another. I make for the river where I judge that thick humid air may be more bearable. People are letting off hoses in the street, complete strangers are standing underneath the showers of water. This is the kind of heat where you can’t function. I can handle dry heat but these humidity levels are 47% according to my iPhone. It’s not the weather you want to sight-see a city in.
I can’t be bothered to eat. I’m living on cold Pilsner, in any case beer is cheaper than water. I find a waterside jazz bar where I meet a kiwi lady that has been living there for six years. I want to eat Czech food I say. She mouths ‘the food is awful’. Later I say I think Czech people seem friendly. She mouths again ‘they are not nice’. But she likes living in Prague, it is beautiful, green and safe. Very young children walk to school by themselves, there is a sense of community.
I summon up the strength to walk on to Pragues’ oldest micro-brewery U Fleku where they serve trays of pint glasses of mahogany beer in dark panelled rooms. An accordionist plays and one table, knowing the songs, starts to sing. I also try honeywine, which is delicious. I have two glasses of that. I’m sitting on my own, swaying slightly, in a medieval bar, fanning myself next to a stained glass window. After a while I leave, going to the toilet first.
As I exit my loo the cleaner starts to yell at me, making a sign that I have banged the door too hard. ‘That’s your tip gone love,’ I say. She doesn’t stop shouting and gesticulating at me. It’s really a bit much.
I go outside and tell the barman that the toilet attendant is very rude.
‘She thinks you are not a customer just someone from the street. This is why.’
‘But I am, I mean I have been.’
‘Yes I know. But this is why she shouts.’
‘Your toilet attendant is crazy, you should sack her. She should not be abusing customers.’
‘Yes. Thank you for telling me. I will talk to her.’
The heat. It’s making me even more bad tempered than usual.
I cross back over the river, enduring the scorching temperatures. I wipe my face with my cotton dress. The pavement burns my feet through the fine leather soles of my pumps. There is no wind. I can walk about 200 metres maximum before I have to rest. I stop at the Savoy Café, a high ceiling restored place from the belle époque, encrusted with crystal chandeliers. I have a cloudberry lemonade and a slice of apple strudel. The strudel has cinnamon and currants. It’s ok, but not great. I can make better. This is the problem with me and places to eat: I always think, ‘I can make it better’. Then I make another attempt at Czech food, this time in a recommended restaurant called Kolkovna Olympia. Almost every dish is meaty so I order side dishes of potato dumplings and a fresh pretzel and another pint of beer. The potato dumplings are solid, without flavour of any description: I begin to wonder… is salt illegal in Prague? The pretzel is good, studded with caraway seeds. But I start to give up on Czech food.
I walk to the large park and see a funicular railway. I don’t want to walk back up the steep hill so I figure that if I go to a point higher than my hotel then walk down to it, it’ll be a better option. I keep trying to buy a ticket with the only change I have, a 50 kroner piece (about £1.50p), it won’t work and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong. Eventually, as there is no help and apparently nobody in the station, I duck under the barrier and walk towards the lift. Somebody starts yelling at me in a military fashion. I turn around and a Soviet era style stout woman in a uniform is looking very angry. She works in the station but was in a hidden booth. By this time there is a huge crowd of tourists clutching tickets. I do the walk of shame back through the barrier while holding up my 50 kroner. I try to explain that I wanted to buy a ticket but the machine didn’t work. A German sounding tourist declares that this isn’t true, that the machines do work, pointing to another machine I haven’t noticed. I feel like I’m about to be lynched.
I take my 50 kroner piece to the other machine. It still doesn’t work. I march up to the German sounding tourist and say, ‘Excuse me, you have said this machine works. But it doesn’t. So can you explain that? You’ve all treated me as if I’m some sort of criminal.’ ‘The machines don’t take 50 kroner pieces,’ she asserts, as if I should know that. Her husband gives me change. I get a ticket, I confront the guard saying ‘Smile! Tourists! Money!’.
My plan for avoiding the hill works but first I have to walk a couple of kilometres across the large park, through the winding paths, through the black trees, the clouds of gnats, the fireflies, the dogs, the darkness. But Prague feels safe.
Sunday. I laze about reading chicklit, I’m momentarily exhausted from being an adventurer. I know I’m supposed to be exploring the Jewish quarter and reading Kafka, maybe visiting the Art Nouveau museum celebrating the art of Mucha. But I can’t be arsed, I want to read the latest shopaholic adventure by Sophie Kinsella.
Later, when I’ve finished the novel, I wander about the castle and St Vitus cathedral, which are nearby, noting that the stained glass windows are new. A Chinese bride is wearing a dress with a long white veil. Her photographer wants a picture with the veil floating in the air, but the wind blows it across her face. I offer to help. I’m then co-opted into the wedding pictures! They have a spare veil and I get to try it on.
Further on I see the toy museum, which has an exhibition, ‘50 years of Barbie’. I pay to go in. Barbie is German. She started out as ‘Lilli’, a cartoon in a German newspaper then made into a doll for adults or teenagers. With her pointy breasts, tiny waist and long legs with feet permanently in a high heeled position, this doll was never intended for children. Barbie had a flat-footed younger sister and an ugly friend who could wear the same size clothes but would never get the boy. The 1952 Barbie has Dioresque New style dresses, and a 21 piece wardrobe in which at least half of the outfits are transparent negligées. Barbie becomes Swinging Barbie in the 60s with geometric bright minidresses and white plastic booties, then punk barbie with matted twisted hair, then disco Barbie and 80s Barbie, all Dynasty shoulder pads and shiny materials. I note the 90s Barbies that my daughter had, the clothes are a little bit rave culture, spandex, day-glo and tie dye. I see famous Barbies like Cher, Flash Dance, the Spice Girls, Princess Diana. Although Barbies are made in all races with different coloured hair, the most sold is the blonde blue-eyed Barbie.
That evening I go to the friendly restaurant U Zavesenyho Kafe next door to the hotel, I eat potato gnocchi with butter plus a thick black layer of poppy seeds sprinkled with icing sugar. ‘This is what we feed children,’ says the owner. ‘The poppy seeds help them to sleep”. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in Prague.
Things to know about Prague:
Tartar(e) sauce is not actually made by Tartars (Tatars). It was just a posh exotic sounding name that was made up by chefs in the 19th century. However many dishes are accompanied by tartar sauce.
Trdelnik are like pastry ‘tunnels’, sometimes filled with cream. They are grilled, a bit like damper bread on sticks, over charcoal fires. I had one dusted with cinnamon and sugar, these are good.
Never get a taxi on the street, they will rip you off.
Go in winter, probably January or February. Too many tourists otherwise. ‘Every year there are more tourists,’ said the guy at my hotel. The crowding is quite unbearable.
Try not to go at the weekends.
With the best will in the world it’s not a foodie city but beer geeks will be happy.
If you are on a budget, the breakfasts are large: make a couple of sandwiches from cheese or ham for lunch.