“How do you pronounce ‘P.r.a.g.u.e’?”
I knew this was a trap. It was not the first time my mother had asked me this.
“Very good. And what about ‘H.a.g.u.e’?”
I think this little joke lasted a good two years between us before it died out. I must have been 8.
Took me a while to get to Prague but I skid in a few days ago. It took a little work though, and my 4-day trip got trimmed to 3 because it was also time to miss my first flight ever.
I don’t like running at airports. It’s not fun. There’s a lot of stress which shifts gears and turns into severe anxiety, and there’s not much finesse in barging and throwing yourself into an aircraft at full speed when you have the option of gliding in calmly, like a seasoned traveler.
But ever since I have met Michael, I have sprinted at every airport I’ve set foot on with him.
It was a simple 4-step procedure.
1. Walk to Farringdon Station
2. Take a train to Gatwick Airport
3. Board the flight.
4. Land in Prague
Here’s what actually happened.
1. Walked to Farringdon station
2. Took the train to Gatwick Airport
3. Assumed the flight was at 18:45. (It was at 18:30)
4. Wondered why the train had suddenly stopped and wasn’t moving AT ALL.
5. Got told there is some fire somewhere.
6. Realized the actual flight time.
7. Blind panic and laughter ensued.
8. Tried calling the airline (no one answers at EasyJet).
10. Got to Gatwick 35 minutes before take off.
11. Had Michael prove to me why he had been captain of his track team. He went from solid to blur in a nanosecond.
12. I chased. Reached security. Had them pull my bag out for a random check. I have never tapped my foot faster.
13. Found out Michael had reached the wrong terminal. He blurred again and beat me at security.
14. I reached the gate and realized we missed the flight by a minute.
14 step procedures are never that much fun. Though I must say EasyJet were kind enough to put us on the next days flight without any extra charge (mostly because I impressed them by reading out the PNR number using phonetics) and since we didn’t want to trust the train ride the following day, there were drinks to be had, almost vegan salads to be loved and a square room with purple lights with a view of the runway for a visual treat. Prague would have to wait a few more hours.
It’s safe to say that the next day things were pretty painless. The universe is a great believer in balance. Prague was beautiful at touchdown at noon. A spring sun wore a crisp breeze like a scarf.
Not enough gets said about the drives from airports to city centers. The gradual increase in people and buildings, the carefully manicured areas for visitors and the come-hither looks of signage are all different with every new place, yet have the same blood running in their veins. The wafts of a city trickle into your senses, making everything feel new and exciting. There’s always that subtle welcome to the city that each person feels quietly and by themselves.
Prague at first sight is breathtaking. And a lot of it is because of the exquisite architecture, which is a mix of Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and several other forms that developed over the years. Each building looks perfect in itself, and right next to it is another building equally beautiful. Rows upon rows of similar sized buildings, tinged with quiet colors make the backdrop of this city.
By the time I managed to inhale the architecture, we were at our hotel. Fusion at Panskà 9, quite possibly the coolest hotel I’ve ever set foot in. Easy graffiti signage, two walls plastered with polaroids of midshots of people in nothing at all (with an occasional bra worn by someone minutely shy), seating made out of railway trolleys replete with wheels, and a friendly staff who told us breakfast was included in the room tariff and it lasted from 10 a.m to 10 p.m! This was the beginning of a great day one! It also helped that rooms had their numbers displayed in neon right outside the door. I’m an 80’s girl. I’ll take anything with neon and run with it.
With a 3 p.m breakfast devoured, we casually headed to where we thought the old town was. After going in the wrong direction for about a kilometer, we decided to ask for directions (I had 2 maps on me but I had decided to keep them safe in the hotel room). A U-turn and a quick stop for a glass of wine is always the best way to mend the error of your ways. Enroute to loosing our way we had encountered the tourist trap of Prague, so we knew what we had to avoid after our vino break. Yet, while heading to the Old Town, I figured why not just dive into that touristy area and see what was going on for just a minute. And then, while saying things like ‘every city has these. They’re so generic. You can never make out one city from another when you’re at the epicenter for tourists.’ I managed to get potato chips on a stick, a glass of beer, grilled sausages, some really expensive ham and I stared at all the little puppet shops around me. Needless to say, city centers catering to tourists have the hypnotic attributes of an optical illusion. I had to pry myself away and head to Old Town, or rather the periphery of Old Town. More stunning architecture, quaint little shops, Absentheries and lots more puppet shops. After a couple of hours of walking, my feet started to give way and I realized that I had been in some sort of transit or the other for the past 3 days, having come to London from Mumbai only a day before heading to the Gatwick Racecourse. So we dawdled towards the general direction of our hotel. Once again, we reached a very quiet area of the city that obviously, seemed unfamiliar. We were told to take the tram or a cab back because we were way out. And so we did. And that’s when Michael pointed out the Dancing House. Built in 1996 by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry, Fred & Ginger (after Astaire and Rogers, as the house resembles a pair of dancers) is such an interesting structure especially since it is a complete contrast to it’s surroundings. It was almost twilight and the remnants of sunlight were bouncing off the rivers surface and the buildings seemed to sway without moving.
We had grand plans for dinner but we knew that we were only fooling ourselves. A Twix, a stale doughnut, chips; two miniature bottles of whiskey and sleep like a dead person was how the day ended.
Before I get on with Day 2 I must add that I’ve noticed that whenever I’m in a city with a castle in it (Lisbon, Edinburgh) and I make a plan to see the castle, not only do I manage to not see the castle but also miss most of the other sights. It could also be that all these trips have been around 3 days or less, which suddenly make sightseeing seem tedious and I’d rather sit in a park and throw things at pigeons.
Prague has a castle. I guess you know what I’m getting at.
The next morning I read up a little during breakfast and figured that Charles Bridge was where I wanted to go first. It also mentioned that one should ‘visit this exquisite bridge at dawn to avoid… ‘ and that’s where I stopped reading. I really should have continued because when I got to the bridge at 11 a.m, it hit me that I had only seen these many people in a limited space twice before in my life. Dadar station after college used to get over at 5:30 p.m and Sunset Point in Santorini in July. Despite the number of people, the bridge was striking. It was a delightful day with clear skies with a certain crunchiness to it.
I could see the castle from where I was and made a mental note to definitely go see it the next day before my flight.
We got off the bridge and headed to a park we could see near the bank of the river. While getting there, we encountered 3 giant metal babies by sculptor David Černy. These baby sculptures guard Museum Kampa, and I later found out that Černy had been commissioned to make these babies to stick on to the Zizkov Tv tower, which is one of the first (and only) monstrosity you will notice while entering Prague. It towers over the entire city and its communist-era architecture makes it look like an intimidating rocket and an eyesore all at the same time. Černy’s babies have been crawling up the tower since 2001.
After peeping into the mouths of the guard babies we made our way to a nice meal at a rooftop restaurant right next to river. Lazy lunches, when you have no plan or agenda for the rest of the day, almost have meditative qualities. This was one such lunch. Where life seemed just right.
Afterwards, we bummed around in the heart of Old Town looking for a coffee house called Original Coffee. Exceptional things have a habit of hiding in the shadows. And Original Coffee was no different. Tucked in a corner, away from the sun, with one person manning the counter, serving perfect cups of espresso and Americano. More walking around, ducking into shops, eyeing things and coming shockingly close to buying them, and looking for socks and a silver chain (don’t ask) took up the rest of the evening. There was not even a slight hint from either of us to do anything culturally inclined. I figured since we had a lot of the next day to ourselves we would certainly go to the castle (!!!) and maybe a museum. Back at the hotel, while Michael read, I decided to align and photograph the contents of my bag because I had stumbled upon a site on Flipboard that had a 100 such photographs of people’s bags and it seemed doable and easy (I managed to blur all the photographs I took).
With my little design project done, we figured why not head out and get a fusion Japanese meal because what else will you eat in Prague, right?
Some super sake + noodle soup later instead of heading out to Zizkov which is the hippest part of prague with over 300 bars in under 5 sq.kms, jet lag dragged me (and in tow Michael) back to our hotel bar for a night cap. The circular bar had stools all around it and the stools rotated around the bar. If this isn’t “crazy” enough, there was a massive screen that was showing adventure sports videos in sync with the music the Dj played. Two hours and many Sambuca’s later we managed to peel ourselves from the beartrap that was television.
I think I woke up in some amount of panic the next morning thinking we had no time and we must (at least) make our way to the castle.
Breakfast was at Café Louvre, which has seen the likes of Kafka and Einstein sit and sip coffee at its warm, welcoming tables and old school charm.
Pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, yogurt, orange juice, tea, coffee, weiner wurst and hash browns were ordered, proving that over ordering is an art and I could probably teach it at a university. They had to move another table to fit all our food in, and the guilt and shame of all this made me eat almost everything.
Word of caution to anyone ever attempting to eat at this establishment, they are very generous with their helpings. Just order one thing. And then share it.
Obviously I felt sick. I felt like the time I ate 9 pieces of cake because I thought others might eat it, and then I had to run away in the middle of a conversation to hurl.
After whining the entire way back to the hotel, I felt much better. It was check out time but we could stash our bags at the reception and roam around (castle!!) for a few hours before hailing a cab. We ambled towards the direction of the castle but then decided that, heck, it’s just a few more hours, the castle would take up quite a bit of time, we’d go hungry, plus it was cloudy (bad luck to see castles on cloudy days), so we figured we’d just walk the city some more.
So, with a few hours at hand, we just strolled. Cobble stone paths, old buildings, a wall with posters, signposts, the sun peeping out from ominous looking clouds pretty much made up some of our time. I don’t think we talked much till Michael said “What are the chances that at the end of this road, towards the right we’ll find a café where we can get a coffee or a drink?”. He had been to Prague 15 years ago, so I didn’t know if he genuinely knew about a place or was just bluffing. We walked right till the end, where to road split up, and saw nothing. And just as I was about to start to making fun of him, he walked into this narrow space between to shops and popped back out and asked me to come to where he was. The most beautiful coffee shop in the middle of nowhere. How did he know? Beats me. The place took my breath away. Wrought iron chairs outside, with walls embraced by sinewy vines, a wooden bar, benches tucked away in little corners of the wall + prosecco+coffee+marblecake made it all kinds of perfect.
I wish I could remember the name of this place but it’s best to let secret things that let you find them, remain secret.
There was a stroll by the river, a nap in the park, a meal just before sunset, an Absentherie and sleeping on the floor at the airport involved in the hours before take off.
After working for 4 months without a break, this trip made me breathe a little easy and do as I please. That’s the fun in 3-day getaways. To be a brat and boast about not seeing anything of significance (and thwarting the very idea of castles).
A shorter version of this was published in The Sunday Guardian last week. Here’s the link.