To the Heart of Europe — Day 6: Coming Up Later

27 May
When Dennis, Wilson and I were planning our European trip, we decided that because it was such a crime-infested danger zone, we would spend much of our time together in Prague. Of course, now we know just how absurd that idea is, but that hasn’t stopped us from exploring some weird places together. Which is why I have dragged them all to Prague Town Hall, in search of something that can only be found in a couple of countries across the globe.

We’re here to play with the paternoster. A paternoster is a lift which operates like a loop: open compartments are pulled on a rotating system that goes in one direction, and to get between floors you simply step onto them while they’re on your level. Picture a Catholic or a Buddhist handling their beads while praying, and you have some idea of how they work. What this image does NOT tell you, however, is how fun they are to play with. Unsurprisingly, Czechia is a deeply nostalgic country and hasn’t gotten round to removing these admittedly dangerous contraptions, so we and our inner child are here to experience this fascinating mode of transport.

It’s still early in the day, but it’s refreshing how this place is not plagued with tourists: I imagine being the bland, bureaucratic face of Prague City Council doesn’t endear you to many travellers. The paternoster is tucked in the back of the building, whirring its way through the levels. Bouncing onto one of the platforms, I’m slightly caught offguard by the change in momentum. Only after I’ve gone up the entire building AND rotated over to the other side do I remember that I’m in a goddamn lift and that I’m supposed to get out at some point. In the compartments below me, Dennis and Wilson are smiling maniacally and uttering various loud proclamations of joy (at least, I think it’s joy). As we ride the lift around the building, going over and under and over again, I enjoy the bemused looks of other tourists who have turned up, pulling all sorts of faces at them as I ascend for yet another round.

Opposite the Town Hall is the Clementinum, or for those not in the mood for long and complicated names, the National Library of Czechia. Its opulent reading rooms attracted the eye of our classmate, who having not been to Prague asked that we proxy visit for her. Sadly the Clementinum is only open for registered visitors, and as all of us are more interested in lunch than impressive libraries, we head for our final attraction of the day instead. Exit the Metro and walk down Wenceslas Square, the centre of historic Prague. It may seem like the third time I’ve said that, but this place is the real deal: as the largest square in Prague, it’s been the centre of many large demonstrations. This was where Czechoslovakia declared its independence, where the Prague Spring got underway, where the Velvet Revolution set off shockwaves throughout Eastern Europe and became a landmark event in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We, however, are not that interested in Czech history. Instead, we walk into the side streets and into a small unassuming entrance opposite the Powder Tower. This is the Main Post Office in Prague, and we’re here only because one of us heard in some travel blog that this was the place to go if we wanted to “visit like a local”. (This is something I’ve never really gotten: why would the locals even bother doing the rounds to see the “real” Prague at all? It’s not as going to the local postal centre would make you appreciate a city more, and no sane person travels to see a post office, even if it’s very nicely built.) To be fair, it’s not a disappointment at all: the curves of the lamps and the ceiling see to that. But the silence of the place is… more than a little discomfiting.

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Dennis and Wilson wander for a bit, unsure of what to do with this place now that they’ve got here. Taking pictures in a post office, no matter how pretty, just seems weird and intrusive. A large Czech giant of a security guard moves closer towards our location, the menace of his slow approach somewhat tempered by his utter failure to act disinterested in us.

A quick lunch at last night’s restaurant later (after all, man is a creature of habit), we’re back at the apartment to pick up our luggage. I come out of the toilet to see a man I do not know heaving up the mattress in our room. No, this is not the beginning of my very own “Taken” adventure: this, as Dennis informs me, is the proprietor, a slender but well-built man called Frank. From what I can remember of his Airbnb page, Frank and his loving family own at least 13 rooms across the city (not including our own), and yet this man looks nothing like a man with a well-run business. The aforementioned loving family, for instance, and more to the point, he’s changing the mattress himself instead of getting some minions to do it for him.

We chat for a while. He’s pleasantly surprised that we find his place a delight, and that we’ve nothing to complain about our stay here (genuinely, it’s not cause we’re standing in his apartment and he knows where the hammer is). It segues into a generally discussion of our life in Prague: where we’ve been, where we wanted to go, the troubles we had finding breakfast. Frank listens patiently, filling us in on tips and places we could have gone, telling us in turn about his version of Prague as well. He shakes our hands when it’s time to leave. “Hope you come back here soon. Prague’s a wonderful city, and we’d host you anytime.”

We feel like it too. For better or worse, we’ve enjoyed Prague. When we booked the tickets, I’ll admit that all three of us weren’t looking forward to this place: it had a different currency, a populace that sucked at English, restaurants that tried to cheat us out of our money. And yet I think all three of us can agree that Bohemia has been much, much more fun than Bavaria. The thieves we were constantly on our guard for never appeared, none of us have gotten raped or killed, and the architecture here has been SERIOUSLY a delight. Even the Main Post Office and the Town Hall, places that only exist to function, gave all of us some happy moments. (Well, I did, at least.)

It’s a sad fact that you only get to truly appreciate a place for what it’s worth when you leave it. There’s so much more to than meets the eye here, so many delights tucked into the nooks and crannies. Even as we’re heading to the station, I notice the New Jerusalem Synagogue, its psychedelic mishmash of colours a standout amongst all the cream-coloured stone.

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It’s brilliant little touches like these that I find delightful, those small, subtle surprises that make you look up from your map, give your average walkabout that shot of pleasure. I feel like I haven’t had enough of these. I need hardly say that I’ll be back.

Someday. Perhaps.

Our train is the Hungaria service that runs between Budapest and Hamburg in 14 hours, stopping at Bratislava, Prague, Dresden and Berlin on the way. We eagerly search the departure board for our train, waiting to discover a new city. Then I read the top line, and my face falls.

“70 minutes delay,” I say.

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A quick read online confirms it: due to a tree on the tracks in southern Czechia, the train has been routed onto alternative lines. Even as we sit and wait, the delay is growing ever longer: 70 minutes expands to 90, then to a whole two hours. The next two hours swiftly downgrades our experience of the day. A man speaking fluent English asks to lend money “as I was robbed and I only have 20 euros on me” — at which point I realize he’s taking me for a fool, as €20 is more than enough for a day and a half here. Dennis and Wilson go looking for postcards but continually turn up short, except for some tacky ones that no one in their right mind would send.

Eventually we find an upstairs nook to sit in — well, I say nook, but “palace” would be a more accurate word. This was part of the old concourse of the station, before the Czech Communist government decided they wanted something much less showy and came up with the functional one downstairs. Its mustard yellow walls provide a spot of much-needed brightness, and both the sculptures and guardrails are beautifully chiselled. It even has a dome, and with its intricate fresco, it’s undoubtedly the crowning glory of the whole structure, with a perfect view both above and below as the travellers rush to and fro. But its best days are clearly behind it: the paint everywhere is cracked, as are the windows; an unpleasant odour hangs in some bits of the station, as if a sewage pipe has broken; and the wooden benches are few and far between. What seats that remain are badly worm-eaten.

A café, its modern interior furnishings clashing with the ridiculously lovely antique ceilings, serves coffee with an especially tantalizing scent. I slightly regret spending my last 200 crowns on a copy of “The Scarlet Letter”. Unfazed by the state of the benches, Dennis sits down next to a gruff bearded man to write his postcards, while Wilson starts sending me numerous flattering portraits of a strange-looking man. It takes me some time to realize that they’re photos of me.

Finally, after much useless checking of my phone, I spot the Hamburg express barrelling down the tracks. Like the most anxious shepherd on Earth, I corral my flock of two down through the escalators and onto the train, all the time screaming at them to move faster. We board in a flash, and run breathlessly through the train for empty seats. Having found some and sat down, it occurs to me that the train is not moving. I look out the window and discover that I have harried my friends onto a train that is not leaving for another 20 minutes.

The journey out of Czechia was basically our Munich to Prague trip in reverse, and I’m sure you have better things to do, so I might as well skip the flowery language. True, there was far less forest and we had stunning views of the Elbe as we skipped northwards through places with increasingly unpronounceable names. But other than that, not much else. Apart from the odd castle, of course.

See, not much at all.

We cross into Germany just after six, still two hours behind schedule. The guards have all changed — less smiley, more hardened as they announce the train’s premature termination at Berlin. Good old Germany. Shortly before pulling into Dresden Dennis and I decide to visit the dining car. We aren’t scheduled to arrive in Berlin until half past eight, so might as well get some food in and have an early night. Unfortunately the dining car, like us, did not expect such a delay and has completely run out of eggs, severely limiting the menu and our morale. Dennis has a light snack, while Wilson and I decide that we shall starve until Berlin.

As we pull closer to Berlin I feel that trepidation that comes with visiting a new city again, but it’s even stronger this time. Unlike Prague, Berlin’s a city I’ve been fascinated with for ages, ever since I pulled out that thick reference book out of my secondary school’s library shelves. So I find myself mouthing the names of stations as they pass by: Jannowitzbrücke, Alexanderplatz, Friedrichstrasse — all names that I’ve read about lots but never gotten to know in detail. I’ve been in Berlin before, but somehow my visit one Olympiad ago has never stuck with me: everything remains a blur, the museums frustratingly fuzzy, the bits of wall I’ve seen a distant memory. These names, then, are all fable to me, each containing a multitude of stories that could fill a book in themselves. I know I shouldn’t get my hopes up — the threat of disappointment looms over my head — but I feel that tingle of anticipation again as we coast through these stations, snaking right through the heart of the city.

At last we arrive at Berlin’s main station, a modern affair built for the 2006 World Cup. As a railway enthusiast, I’ve got a thing for these modern stations: everything here is made of clean, transparent glass, which means the sunlight gets through even though it’s half past eight and the light is fading fast. It also means that you can see far, far below you, past the many bridges and escalators criss-crossing your field of vision, those clear-cut angles framing your eye’s descent down through the many levels to the platforms half-hidden underground.

It does NOT, however, mean that there are clear signs that lead you to a functioning ticket machine, a fact we only discover after a long dinner (pasta, of course) that stretches past half past nine. By the time we exit the restaurant, all the ticket staff and/or helpful people at the Main Station have already gone home, leaving us to blunder our way through this FIVE-storey building. The fact that we can see all of these levels at the same time only causes visual overload. In a stroke of pure mad genius, we find the U-Bahn station, a clean, symmetrical affair full of construction work and devoid of trains. Spotting a solitary metal machine, Dennis and I charge downstairs. Yes, it is a ticket machine — one, however, that is a bit TOO well-stocked. As we battle the endless pages detailing the other 4092 types of ticket we could buy, Wilson’s striking silhouette remains at the top of the stairs, guarding the luggage, surveying us puny mortals. I sprint upstairs to borrow a 50 from the demigod.

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It’s a tired crew that pulls up in front of the hotel. Although we spent much of it sitting on our arses, all of us feel like hitting the bed and heading for the Land of Nod post-haste. So it is with tired eyes that we look upon the 3-person bedroom that is to be our home for the next three days. And THEN we begin shouting. Spacious, comfy beds and powerful wifi… we have arrived at nothing less than Heaven on Earth.

We explore every nook and cranny of this newfound paradise, from the window that leans outward to the bath seat that folds down. In his excitement Wilson pulls something that turns out to be the emergency cord. Reception eyes us suspiciously as we seek help to turn it off, all the while professing our innocence.

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