Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Last Train Out of Prague
There was a little gravel path for pedestrians, and behind it were little patches of well kept grass and large bushes with some sort of pink flowers. Though there was a chain to prevent people from going on the grass, as well as a sign in Czech saying the same, we started straight for the green. There was a moment of hesitation in my head, but I let it go and followed by friends into the forbidden zone. Once we sat down we had a tremendous view--to our left, the Charles Bridge, straight ahead, the river, the Royal Palace on the hill, and the rest of old town. Prague never looked so beautiful.
This was our last day in the Czech capital, and our train to Vienna wasn't until 5:15 p.m., so we had the whole day to just walk around and enjoy ourselves. It only took us about 10 minutes to fall in love with the city, about the time it took to get away from the depressing, Iron Curtain feel of the train station and surrounding areas. When we pulled in, we thought we'd somehow made a mistake, that this couldn't be the beautiful Prague we'd heard and read about. It seemed like we'd gotten off in Cold War Russia.
To our delight, the taxi kept driving, revealing better parts of the city and our neighborhood where we'd be CouchSurfing for the next couple of nights. It was a bit of a risk, not knowing what we'd be getting into. The idea of Couch Surfing was a bit idealist, that there were nice enough people to just open their doors for strangers. But it proved to be a great experience, something that worthy travelers could pass on from one to another. Our gracious host Mark spoke fluently in English, his father being British. He also had a girlfriend from Oklahoma, so we all got along very well. Mark told us some cool places to check out that we otherwise wouldn't have known about, and by the third day waiting for the train out of town, we just wanted to walk around and take it all in one more time.
Hosts, Mark and Sophie
Just being in Prague was enough, the feel of being in a hip, Bohemian city, that we didn't even have to go into museums or spend any extra money. We stopped by a Medieval fair in the town center, then asked a Travel Info worker where the Jewish Quarter was. "Everything is closed because it's some Jew holiday," she told us. David and I looked at each other questioningly, hoping "some Jew holiday," was just a bad translation. Letting Elyse handle the map, we wandered through the Jewish Quarter, which was closed, stopped at an outdoor cafe for some lunch, and walked around randomly until we found the Charles.
Old Town and Royal Palace, Prague
We still had some of the effects of last night's clubbing and Absinthe lingering in us, so when we found our little patch of green, it was like a gift from the heavens, just a nice little place to nap and take it easy.
We laid down and took in Old Town, snapping a few photos and playing with the fallen petals. Since we'd arrived a couple of days earlier, Spring had just come into full effect, and the temperatures had jumped up to around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a bit chillier and gray this day, but still pleasant by the water. People-watching, we noticed many going by and guessed who was Czech and who was a foreigner. Catnapping and just talking deep thoughts, we were loving our day and our little spot.
We were so relaxed that we inevitably lost track of time, realizing it was now around 4 o'clock. We still didn't even have the train tickets yet, opting to buy them before getting on the train. We headed back towards the Metro stop to pick up our gear at Mark's place, but somehow became distracted with souvenir shops. I don't know why, but even though we'd passed by these shops a dozen times, even during designated shopping times, it now dawned on me that I wanted to buy a couple of things for the family. I also had a ton of Czech crowns left that I needed to spend before switching back over to the Euro.
By the time we all wrapped up the shopping spree, it was now 4:30 and we knew we were pushing it. Hopping in the Metro, we rode across town and jogged up to Mark's apartment, where he was surprised that we'd waited so long. Our plan was to jump back on the Metro to the train station, but once we'd all finished packing up and going to the bathroom, it was closer to 5 o'clock, and Mark told us this was impossible. Our only chance was to jump in a taxi. We didn't want to have to spend the money, but had no choice.
We ran out into the street with our enormous packs weighing us down, just itching to buckle our knees. We must have looked like a mess. At first no taxis would stop, and I was sure we were doomed. But then at 5:05, a car pulled over and let us in.
"We need to get to the train station in 10 minutes. Please tell us you can help us."
"Where do you want to go after that? You see, usually when people ask me to take them some place that's impossible to get to, I ask them where they want to go next."
"Wanna drive us to Vienna?" He didn't say anything this time, just stepped on the gas.
David was a chatterbox on this ride, and though I was almost getting aggravated with it, considering how screwed we would be if we didn't make this train, I can see that it must have been his way of dealing with the tension. He asked the taxi driver question after question. How long has he lived in Prague? Did he enjoy being a taxi driver? What was it like during the Cold War? At one point the driver asked him if he was a reporter. Elyse and I sat in the back in near silence, I only spoke to tell him he spoke English very well and sounded almost Australian. He told us he learned a lot of his English from watching TV.
Since it was now 5:12 and the last train was at 5:15, we were still sans tickets, and the ride from the train station a few days ago took almost 20 minutes, I was in that state where you except failure and just ride it out in a sad, who gives a crap anymore attitude. Looking out the window, I was enjoying seeing the sights, but figured we'd be driving back soon enough.
Somehow, the driver must have taken some short cut that the original driver missed, because the next thing I knew we were pulling into the depressing train station with a minute to spare. We didn't even have time to think about how this man had just gotten us here so quickly. Everyone else was broke at this point, so I had to give him the rest of my crowns. I overpaid him a lot, but since I was leaving the Czech Republic and wouldn't need it, he went above and beyond by getting us to the station, and mentioned that he barely makes enough to get by, I figured he needed it more than I needed a couple of bills sitting on my dresser.
We double timed it into the station, begging to cut the long line of people, telling them our train was leaving as we spoke. Elyse got to the front and charged the tickets, now that we were out of money. With nothing to do while she waited for authorization, I shifted around anxiously and gripped by backpack tightly, knuckles white and scared. I loved Prague, but didn't want to spend another night here, missing out on our one day in Vienna.
The tickets arrived, but too late, and I was sure by the time we ran up the steps to the platform we would see an empty track. But the train was still there, thanks to some inefficiency. As it started to roll along, we jumped on for dear life, nearly missing the train and stumbling onto the tracks. We'd made it, we were on the train.
Finding an empty car, we threw down our packs and fanned our shirts to relieve some of the sweat. We still couldn't believe it. As we rolled out of the station and into the countryside, we could see that things were much different once you left the city, and the depressing image of the train station seemed to remain. We didn't really care though. We were just happy we'd made it. Sun setting, we relaxed with some music and got ready for the disembarkation in Vienna, just to start it all up again.
The spot by the river