It’s border crossing day today! Always a little nerve-racking on our last big trip. This time…. well, see for yourself.
That was the border and immediately after it, a garage with cheap fuel, LPG and a cash machine – all very cosmopolitan. And loads of German registered cars filling up with the cheap fuel.
So, it was passports away (it is the EU after all!) and off we went to draw some Czech koruna. How much to draw? Well it’s 28.75 koruna to a pound, so if we draw K300 we should be ok. Off trotted the gorgeous Mr T and came back with….£10. Ooops, dropped an 0 somewhere!!! Back to the machine to draw another K2000. Much better, now we had a decent amount but in K1000 bills. In our experience, large bills are difficult to use – turns out not to be the case in Czech. Wasn’t it Einstein that said a day without learning was a day wasted???
Right, so the other thing we have learned (Lesson no. 2) is that the EU doesn’t conform to ANY standard as far as tolls on roads are concerned. Haarrrummpph, isn’t this the very premise of the EU? In Czech Republic, it’s a PREMID box that charges you for every kilometre driven on their motorways, in Austria it’s a GO box, in Hungary it’s an e-vignette, we haven’t bothered looking any further. Still feeling grumpy….. So we have decided to stay off motorways and travel the national roads. The next bloody problem…. Garmin decides that if you want to avoid tolls and motorways, then your only other option is the country’s back roads – Lesson no. 3. Don’t trust anything that Nora tells you (Nora, our GPS, as is just IGNora!) because she conveniently fails to use the national A roads. But Google Maps on the other hand, is a little more intelligent and lets you use A roads. Sigh, so it’s a mixture of Google and Garmin with them spending their days arguing with each other about which route to take. Unfortunately, Lesson no. 3 remains unlearned until we hit Austria. In the meantime we are now inching our way along Czech Republic country roads – a pretty ride with lovely scenery but very narrow and slow and the gorgeous Mr T with pinched nostrils and very sweaty palms for the next 2 days.
But the slow pace is good in a way because we get to drive some of the lesser-used roads and see the country in it’s natural state (outside of developed towns and cities). What we see is relatively lower income people with a large proportion of houses in varying states of repair and dis-repair in the villages and towns. The land, on the other hand, is very well developed and covered in healthy looking crops of wheat, corn and sunflowers between natural forests. It’s real ying-yang.
At around lunchtime we stop at a bar in a local village for a bite to eat. The food was edible and nice enough for what it was – boiled pork and chips for a grand sum of K300 (just over £10). In his haste, the goegeous Mr T left a K100 (nearly £4) tip. Oh well, we’ll get used to the currency soon. But what we did find was that not a word of English or German was spoken…along with our complete lack of mastery over the Czech language, not a great place to be. Have you ever tried to read anything in Czech? Well, we have always insisted when travelling of being able to use basic greetings and ordering words…. this time we’re left fairly speechless. But with a bit of charades and some animal noises (and a lot of laughter!), we finally got our lunch ordered. Then it’s off again on more switchbacks and winding country roads.
Finally, just as we’re approaching Prague, the roads become more navigable (well, we thought, at least with a little less stressful) but now there’s city drivers to contend with and the fact that the drivers won’t give an inch to let you in. We last saw this sort of aggressive driving in Istanbul and hoped we wouldn’t ever have to see it again! Yikes! Nonetheless, we finally arrive at the campsite which is nothing more than a hectically packed car park at the Prague Marina albeit on grass. Each night from around 6pm to 8:30pm is like watching our favourite soap opera as more & more motorhomes pull in and battle to find tiny areas to slot into. We had been very lucky in finding a space under a tree in a far corner with some breathing room between us and the French family next door. Very nice they were as well as we all sat outside watching the sun set over the Danube right alongside us, G&Ts in hand. And it’s amazing how, with a little patience and charades and a lot of laughter again, they with a smattering of English and us with a smattering of French (I think the G&Ts help enormously!) you can have a full couple of hours of conversation about travelling, friends & family, grandchildren, cycling, eating, food and comparing cities & countries travelled.
It was partly cloudy the next day as we set off to visit Prague…. and our first encounter with a total disregard for H&S (it has it’s place at times) when we had to catch the ferry over to the other side of the Danube. Clearly stated was a maximum number of 12 persons allowed on the ferry. A rather grand name for a small flat bottomed boat with a little rail and sun shade over it that finally swallowed 27 people, 3 bicycles, a suitcase & 3 pirates for the very wallowy trip across the river. Please god, kept any other boats and their wake away from us. Which he did but on disembarking on the other side, the boat very nearly capsized as people on the boat stayed on one side and everyone on the other side got off!!!! Oh my hat!!! Was it selfish of me to be happy that we were first off?
Prague is a beautiful looking city with lovely architecture and buildings that have survived several world wars, land re-distribution & re-mapping of borders. We were suddenly struck as we dredged up middle school history (that useless information we thought we would never use again!) remembering that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire encompassing Bohemia (Czech) was assassinated in Sarajevo, Serbia (now Bosnia & Herzegovina) in 1914. Austria declared war on Serbia and WWI commenced. At the end of which Czechoslovakia was born. WWII saw their occupation by Germany and, after being liberated by Russia in 1948, they became a communist state with heavy Russian influence. Following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, they freed themselves of Russian ruled and a couple of years later peacefully created the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. And through all of this, Prague survived virtually unscathed. Although it looks a little aged and tired in places, there are some renovations taking place. The trams are a mix of very old and very new (manufactured by Skoda) and everywhere you look there’s the mix of 18th/19th/20th century architecture with harsh 1960’s/70’s concrete and 20th century glass. Loads of the streets are still cobbled and pavements, when they’re there, somewhat higgledy piggledy.
Our first visit was to the Charles Bridge. Besides having some incredible sculptures to look at, the bridge is full of caricature artists and flea-market stalls vying with loads and loads and loads of tourists. I think this is the busiest city we have seen. Hawkers are on every corner selling anything from Thai massage ( – sorry, love, he’s with me!!!) to boat trips and visits to the palace. The buskers are awesome, though! And we stopped for ages to listen to some truly amazing jazz sounds, blues and honky tonk, some with instruments we’ve never seen before but giving a really authentic sound. Blown away!
Then up to the castle via the winding walkway to see the palace and various churches along with it being the current residence of the president of the Czech Republic. With it being European summer holidays, we were expecting busy but the queue to go into the buildings were winding and enormous so we wandered slowly around to see them from the outside. Then down the steps on the other side, all 210 of them (yes, we counted), saying thanks that we’d done it this way as we watched the people, red-faced and breathless making their very slow way passed us up the 210 steps.
By 3pm, we were starting to fade a little as the sun had made it’s appearance during lunch so just before the hour, we made our way to a coffee house opposite the astronomical clock to watch it chime 3pm. It’s a beautiful clock to look at and the crowd started to build and the atmosphere grew a little charged. And as the clock struck 3pm, 2 tiny doors opened about 6m above ground and a series of ecclesiatical figures no bigger than 50cms, rotated around passed the open doors for 15seconds whilst the little skeleton rings the bell. Um, that’s it? Evidently. A little underwhelming I have to say.
Actually, that kind of sums up our view of Prague. Many, many people visit and rave about the city and country, but we were left rather under-whelmed. We found it to be expensive and very crowded (although this is the busiest period for them). The food failed to excite and was also very expensive – when we pay €60 for a meal of 1 main and 2 starters with 2 beers, we expect a fairly good meal. And our French camping neighbours agreed – they too were whistle stopping their visit and leaving the next day – so it wasn’t that we had had a one-off bad experience….or maybe we did? But this is what our journey is for, to experience Europe is all it’s guises. This one just left us less than excited.