To the Heart of Europe — Day 4: Changing Empires

25 May
Saturday, but no lie-in for us as we get up early to catch the train to Prague. Wake up early for the excellent breakfast downstairs, but when I ask them to join me I am greeted with a stony silence — because the other two have just woken and are too groggy to discuss breakfast. This is one of the strange things about youngsters which I can never understand — why would anyone miss out on a good breakfast? Goodness knows when you might eat again, and food is one of the few great indulgences of life. Anyway, it means more scrambled eggs and pretzels for me.

Skipping onto the train with a couple of minutes to spare, we bustle through the carriages, looking for a compartment which we can have to ourselves. The good news is we find such a compartment. The bad news is that our neighbours are a bunch of strapping young men who, at nine in the morning, are already downing beer like they’ve just been released from Alcoholics Anonymous. The really bad news is that being quiet, repressed Asians, we are too timid to tell them to tone it down. So as the train pulls out and their loud music shudders through the carriage, we sigh and try to concentrate on the books we’ve brought.

As we head towards our first stop, just outside the Airport, I feel a sense of familiarity as the tracks diverge and we become the only traffic on our track. The buildings recede, the woods thicken, and the people magically vanish as Munich recedes from view. Now the fields of Bavaria return, neatly arranged, the golden bare soil of the earthy sections alternating with the lush green of leaves. The German obsession with efficiency and neatness, in full display.

In the compartment, Dennis is busy deleting his photos at a breakneck pace, but he never seems to run out of photos.

At the dainty town of Regensburg, a few young men in chequered shirts and shorts loiter on the platform. They engage loud greetings with our noisy neighbours next door — maybe it’s customary in Germany to be drunk on a Saturday morning. This shouting match only reminds me further of my groinal rumblings — the toilet is just ten feet away, but between me and the call of nature lies the Compartment of Never-Ending Alcohol. After we leave Regensburg I decide to take the plunge, fearing the worst. To my surprise, the Germans let me pass with a smile and even a few apologies. I enter the small cubicle, thankful that the most harrowing part of the journey is past, only to find the toilet bowl full to the brim, urine gently sloshing around.

The scenery can hold my attention for only so long, so I decide to stretch my legs and do a bit of walking. After all, railway travel is all about seeing the world, and that includes the insides of a railway carriage. The train is now progressing at breakneck speed and walking along the corridor is quite the challenge: it’d be real easy to lose your balance and fall on your face. I pass by a few compartments where strangers are talking to each other. I wish I could join them, but they’re enjoying themselves so much, it feels like an intrusion to walk in on them, not to mention awkward. Soon we arrive at a station, and I get off to explore, but there’s not much to see. Just an unending freight train, and a worker’s cigarette smoke in my face.

This is the thing about rail travel: it’s always touted as this method of getting to places while “the world opens up before you”, and you “get to see the world”. Rubbish. Unless you’re travelling through a mountain pass or really into fields, a lot of it is really just staring out the window as town after town after town flashes in front of you, all nameless and not really worth your time. It’s only when you get off that the stories really begin — if you can’t discover a place for yourself, it’s just another name in the wide world that’ll never take on its own meaning.

We cross into Czechia just before noon, exchanging the former German Empire for the Austro-Hungarian. There doesn’t seem to be much difference at first, but then I notice small, rural stations tucked into a gap in the trees, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it style. Their facilities are much more basic than their German counterparts: one small concrete building in the middle of the platform, the pastel colours flaking off in places. The station building next door has either graffiti or huge station signage on its walls — sometimes both. A few people mill about, presumably heading out for a night on the town, but the platforms are mostly deserted.

Pull into Plzen during lunchtime for our longest stop yet. Most of you who like to go out on the town already know this place as Pilsen, as in the beer (and yes, obviously this is where it’s made). The station is an exquisite building, a rich slab of Central European extravagance a la Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel:

Besides the station building, though, there’s not much else. It’s just another station, with a functional roof and functional trains. No sign of the brewery here, no pungent smell of fermenting hops and barley, just the grime and grease of the engine. The Czech Railway trains that pull in here are modern, efficient and brightly coloured. They look very much out of place in old, Kodachrome-filtered Czechia.

Later. We’re minding our own business when the train roars into a tunnel. The noise is so loud that I decide to close the window. I grab the handle and heave. The window does not budge. I try again, using all the strength that I’ve reserved for the rest of the day. It still does not budge. By now Wilson is aware of this distressing incident (mainly because of the soot flying in) and joins me. Despite his far more muscular frame the two of us are STILL no match for the window. The dust is now flying in our faces, the wind unbearably musky and hot. Eventually Dennis also joins us, and after a lot more struggling we manage to close it. We collapse into our seats, absolutely exhausted, at which point the train promptly exits the tunnel and the roaring subsides.

We make our way through southern Czechia, the carriages curving gracefully to the tune of the winding iron tracks. Then at half past two, a rural station comes into view, out in the middle of nowhere. It flashes by in an instant, but my eyes can just about make out the first word: “Praha”. Prague.

I don’t think any words can recapture that tingling sense of anticipation that creeps in as we get near the city centre. Unlike Munich, Prague reveals itself bit by bit, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Widening streets, buses flying along a suburb’s main street, houses that become more and more grandiose. Then the Vltava appears as we cross a bridge, and the city of Prague opens up before us in all its antiquated glory: a capital of culture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, classy baroquish buildings lining up neatly against the river. We glide into the Main Station — it’s another functional pile from the early 20th century, but there’s still a bit of beauty discernible in all the metal, a chaotic bit of order to the patterns of the ironwork. The early afternoon sunshine beats on our faces as we get off the train, the blood roaring in my ears as I take my first steps in a city I didn’t realize I’d missed for eight years.

Out of the building and into the park next door. Being a Saturday afternoon, a lot of people are lounging about on the benches, chatting (at rather loud volumes) about — well, a lot of things, presumably, since none of us know Czech. What’s MUCH more fascinating for us boys, though, is the collection of antique cars lined up on the road outside — smooth-riding, comfortable racecars, with sharper corners but muted colours, firmly European in design. The drool is literally flooding out of Dennis.

Our first port of call is an exchange store: unlike its fellow EU countries, Czechia still uses its own currency, the koruna, though apparently Czechs are warming to the idea of a common currency and there have been a few pushes for admission to the eurozone. There are a few currency exchange stores offering good rates, but they all look small and rather dodgy — Prague is notorious for its money scams, where euros are exchanged for korunas at an absurd rate (for the tourist, that is). We stand outside one, wanting our lunch money, but fearing to take the plunge. Eventually a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to the pirate from Captain Phillips opens the door for us. He’s rolling his eyes as we walk in sheepishly. He must get this type of customer quite often.

Six o’clock. For most Praguers, it’s time to start looking around for dinner. We, however, are standing outside Malostranská station, having just crawled out of the musty underworld of the Metro. Blinking in the sudden sunlight, Wilson remarks on how different the buildings look: instead of Munich’s mishmash of architectural styles, here there’s loads of low-lying, neoclassical buildings with slanted roof tiles and ornately designed windows. The details around the windowsills are just so elegant, everyone looks like they’re living in palaces instead of modest apartments. Cultural capitals like Munich and Vienna have moved on, but Prague, at least architecturally, is still a beautiful time capsule of the 18th century.

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We’re heading up the hill towards Prague Castle, somewhere far above. On the staircase, an unending stream of people are charging down the steps, like the Israelites going out of Egypt. Dennis, Wilson and I are the only people doing the very long climb upwards, ascending endless flights of staircases while fighting against the tide of tourists on their way down. As a person whose idea of physical fitness is “not looking fat”, I’m soon out of breath and questioning a lot of my life choices. The other boys, meanwhile, are bounding up the steps with ease.

Eventually, after much huffing and puffing (from me), we arrive at the top. There’s a bunch of people crowding together just to the side of the main entrance. We walk over, struggle through the selfie-taking crowd, and peer across the stone parapets.

And dear God.

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Words simply cannot do this view justice. In the late afternoon sunlight, the buildings below shine a golden yellow, while the green and the red of the roofs and the trees give the pale blue of the sky something to contrast with, a graceful outline curving around 1300 years of history. It’s a simple picture, and yet that simplicity is precisely why it’s beautiful. And having tried for three sentences here I must give up the fight: Prague is just stunning beyond words. Feast on it, dear reader, and be wonderstruck.

Security check over (during which Wilson gets a rather unnatural amount of scrutiny), we head inside Prague Castle, home to countless cathedrals, numerous chapters of history, and the President of Czechia. I know I ramble a lot in this journal, but a small practical tip for those of you planning to visit Prague: the Castle is much more worth it after closing time at 6. Most of the tourists are gone, and the exhibits are closed for the night, but as the courtyards themselves are open till 10, there’s still plenty to explore and see in this massive castle — and best of all, the Golden Lane is free in the evenings. I feel a little sorry for the shopkeeper at number 22, a bored Czech girl with almost impeccable English. Every thirty seconds, she has to explain to some curious tourist how the commonly-repeated story that a certain Czech writer lived there is simply not true. “This is actually Kafka’s sister’s house — he visited this place on and off for two years, he may have written some short stories here while he was resting here.” Dennis and Wilson are unfazed by this revelation, and buy copies of Kafka for the friends back home.

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We continue along the main thoroughfare, mindful of the history that we’re wading through. The rule of the Holy Roman Empire, the Defenestration of Prague which started the Thirty Years War, the establishment of Czechoslovakia — they all took place here, within these walls. Even that little sewer over there might have once contained Adolf Hitler’s piss. Doors and gateways lead off to yet more history and discoverable places and we’re at the centre court. Behind us is St. George’s Basilica, the oldest building in the Castle (it was built in the 12th century and still looks fresh); to our right is St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the most holy site in Central Europe; in front of us, the residence of the Czech President. It’s a fiesta of Central European history, Czech history, still being told within these walls. Past, present and future, all in one place.

It’s not just me enjoying the scenic history here. Dennis and Wilson seem to be loving the sights here too. They wander around with wide eyes and take pictures of almost everything: from a pigeon perched on a hanging lamppost to the stones of St. George’s Courtyard. They seem to notice and take pleasure in a lot: the way the light beats on the stones, the looks on a statue. (The sudden flossing of their travel companion? Not so much.) It’s tempting to dismiss it all as frivolous detail, but everything, to them, is alive. The city continues to amaze us, and as we walk out onto the main entrance of the castle, way above the rooftops of the Lesser Town, I think it’s safe to say that all of us have already fallen in love with Prague.

Judging from what’s in the Lesser Town, the history of Prague seems to consist mainly of souvenirs. To our left, a shop selling gaudy shirts and dolls alongside cup noodles and udon, all kept by a middle-aged lady of South Asian appearance, but who seems to know no language but Czech. To our right, a store selling trdelník, a traditional Czech dessert invented about 15 years ago as a trap for ignorant tourists. These sugary pastries look like upside-down piles of dung, hollowed out and stuffed with ice-cream. I feel like buying one anyway, cause I’m starving and kind of want a sugar rush, but the others are a bit reluctant, so we head on to Charles Bridge — just a stone’s throw away.

We’ve timed it just so we’d be arriving at the bridge half an hour before sunset, and by the time we walk on the light is fading. Everything we see is in shadows: the caricaturists on the bridge, doing brisk business with their alarmingly unflattering portraits of people; the tourists queuing up to rub a carving of St. John of Nepomuk that’s said to bring any pilgrim good luck (and, more likely, infectious diseases). Farther along the bridge, everything on the opposite bank is a rich, deep golden orange.

It just feels so unreal here. Even at half past eight in the evening, the Bridge is bustling with tourists, shouting at each other in a hundred different languages. Yet instead of hearing a hundred voices, it’s just one: they’ve blended into one another, each cancelling the other out. There’s room to walk (God forbid the day when you can’t see ahead of you in Prague) but all the faces I can see here just seem the same: foreign, joyful, hungry for more. Meanwhile, the buildings on the opposite bank are beautiful to look at — and yet, all those decorative facades glowing in the twilight feel like they’re a world away, shimmering mirages in a haze of decadence. The ground feels light as I skip along the Bridge, my steps feel like they’ll float off the Earth any second. I’ve forgotten everything else but the fact that I’m now on the most famous bridge in Central Europe. And I’ve never felt more like I’m in a dream.

Back on Earth, Dennis has caught sight of an Asian-looking girl — probably Chinese — and is taking pictures of her, all the while admiring her looks and her figure. (He would make an excellent stalker. Just saying.) I have to admit that Dennis couldn’t have chosen a better model — she’s very striking against the evening skies, and quite attractive to say the least. He remains fixated on getting the shot right for quite some time.

A little later, Dennis gets into deep discussion with a German man about photography, their speech thick with terms that only true aficionados can understand. The visitor mentions how his Instagram is full of places that he’s been to, but Prague has been pretty special for him. “I mean, gosh, have you seen all this?” he says, gesturing around. “Plenty to keep you busy.” They part after a while, but not before trading accounts and vague promises to look up each other’s work.

The sun sets, the sky finally losing its brightness. Night falls on Charles Bridge, the buskers and artists on the Old Town side are packing up and leaving, and yet hundreds of tourists still crowd through its dark gateways. The other boys, used to outdoor activity and a growling stomach, have likewise yet to drink their fill of the scenery, and long into the night they continue to bounce around the Bridge, coming up with dozens of ways to shoot Prague at night. It’s pretty, I’ll admit.

At quarter past ten, mindful of the angry beast that is my stomach, we agree to call it a day and head for dinner. The temperature is dropping like a stone when we come out of the restaurant (to my disappointment, just a normal sandwich). My phone tells me it’s 12 degrees and falling, and my thin jacket is no match for the gusts of wind currently blasting through the streets of the Lesser Town. For the first time on this trip, I am actually shivering.

Just before we finish up for the day, though, I spot a gelato store. Gelato was the heart and soul of my exchange in Melbourne and the mere mention of it brings joy to my heart, so obviously I drag the boys inside the store, and then set about wasting my hard-earned Czech koruna on what is basically fancy Italian ice-cream, cold weather be damned. Dennis tries to buy a milkshake made from gelato and is promptly subjected to disapproval from almost everyone in the store except Wilson. There aren’t many things that I loathe with a vengeance, but misuse of gelato is definitely one of them.

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