Our next two tasks were to figure out the public transportation and go to tourist information. For some reason it seemed really hard to find a place to get bus tickets, so we went to TI, which didn't open until 9:30, and outrageously late hour in my opinion, but all we could do is wait along with another pair of backpackers. Paul stayed with the gear while I went off to try to get bus tickets at the subway station nearby. On the way there, I noted an Internet sign - good, we could check email. I recognized the square at the subway entrance from the last time I was there in Prague. In that very square I saw the headline on the Herald Tribune stating that O.J. Simpson was accused of killing his wife. That was four years ago now, and he's still in the news.
I bought 4 regular tickets and two half price tickets (good for dogs, children and excess baggage). When I got back to Paul at Tourist Info, I learned that he had discovered the three day pass, which made my recently acquired tickets superfluous. Ah well. Inside Tourist Info there were four windows on one long counter: one for sales, one for travel bookings, one for tickets and one for accommodations. We weren't sure which one to go to for information, so we just chose sales. We bought a map there, but when we asked for a bus pass, we were directed to the next counter. There was no one there at travel, so we asked the woman at tickets if she could help us. She said no, she only did tickets for operas and other performances, so we would have to go to the next counter. When we pointed out to her that the next counter was unstaffed and that she was available, she just said we'd have to wait until the travel person go there.
Well, we finally got the bus passes, and then went to the accommodation window to inquire about camping. The guy there impatiently told us he didn't do camping (only bookings that pay a commission, and gestured at a map telling us that there was camping on the north side of town along the river near the zoo. However Lonely Planet mentioned another campground that sounded closer and better, so we decided to try to go there first.
An hour later we were still trying. We had taken on of the trams that was supposed to go out to that part of town, but right after it crossed the rived it turned and started going a different direction from the route we had in our map. Wi figured maybe the route had changed, so we decided to try another one. Same thing happened. On the fourth attempt, after much studying of tram schedules and route maps, we noticed the construction as we went by. One square was all torn up, and that apparently was the only way out in the direction we wanted to go. So all the trams were running as much of their regular routes as possible and then turning aside when they got near the blocked intersection. We took this as a sign that we weren't supposed to go to this campground, so we got on the metro, took it out to the end on the north side, and got the 112 bus out toward the zoo. There we found campground row, a series of small campgrounds that were really just the back yards of some big houses. They were all packed and I wasn't liking the situation very much. I'd gotten spoiled in Kraków. But we selected a campground and set up our tent. There was warmish water in the showers and a restaurant that served cheap, good beer. We figured we'd make do.
We showered and got changed (and I wore one of my new sundresses and got to feel like a girl) and then headed out to the Globe, a bookstore/cafe whose brochure I had picked up at Tourist Info. They really knew how to grab me. They had only English language books (new and used), newspapers and magazines and promised the best coffee in Prague. When we got there, it was even better. It had little comfy chairs tucked into alcoves where you could sit and read. The so called "terrace" was a bit small, but it was cozy and had nice plants along the railings. Another bonus: the menu was full of vegetarian and turkey options. And they had homemade tortilla chips. We had a great meal, I had two fantastic coffees and we read all about Clinton in the Tribune while we ate. They had an excellent selection of used books, so we picked up a few good novels cheap.
Later we went downtown to Wenceslas Square to check out the movie situation. The X-Files movie was scheduled to open Aug. 21 in London, so we hoped it might be opening here too. The new schedule for the next week was not up, so we decided to visit the several cinemas around the square to see what they had. Armageddon was everywhere (as is the Steven Tyler hit song from the sound track) and little else of interest. But then we stumbled upon a little theater playing "The Horse Whisperer", starting in just a few minutes. Decided to just duck in and catch the film, so we paid for our tickets and went in to be entertained. The theater had obviously been converted from a lecture hall. The chairs had wooden seats, Soviet design, block and uncomfortable with little locked cabinets on the seat backs in front of you, presumably that once were used to contain lecture materials. The screen was set up over the stage, and there was a weird little globe light on the edge of the stage that lit up during the commercials before the film started. I loved the film, liked the Hollywood ending better that the book's, which I found to be trite and implausible. And i cried my eyes out during a lot of it. I never know whether it's because of the film, or whether the film is a good excuse to be able to cry and let go of other emotions. Probably a little of both.
We ate dinner (bread, cheese, etc.) back at the campground. They had a covered area outside with picnic tables, and you could order dinner there or just hang out. Lots of young, punk, black-haired and black-clothed Dutch people smoked endless cigarettes and drank liters of beer. We geeks worked on the journal and played with the computer.
(A couple of days later we gave the Central Europe book away to a group of Poles that were kind enough to give us some Deutsch Marks in exchange for the 100 Zl we had carried with us out of Poland. We discovered when we got to the Czech Republic that we could not exchange the Zloty at the exchange offices or even at the banks, so when we saw a group of campers at the campground with Polish license plates on their car, Paul approached them and asked them if they would take the Zloty, since it was not worth anything to us since we couldn't exchange it. He even offered to change it for half it's value, but this seemed to make them quite uncomfortable and they insisted on giving us the fair exchange rate in DM. Apparently there is a fine line between giving someone in a newly organized country a good deal and not taking their currency seriously. Anyway, after we completed the deal, we offered them the book, which they took only after we insisted. Several days later, when we made our plans to stop in Vienna on the way to Croatia, we realized that we had given away the only book which told us anything about Austria. D'oh!)
At the Post Office, we met up with the Australians we'd met at the Salt Mine in Kraków and chatted with them for a few minutes. We used the coin phone in the Post Office to get a hold of Morris at work, who seemed quite happy to hear from me and graciously agreed to meet us at the Slavia Cafe on Saturday night. It was either that or a more authentic Czech place that was filled with cigar smoke, or the horse races. Odd alternatives. We had been planning on leaving to see the rest of the Czech Republic on Saturday morning, but we decided to stay the extra day to hang out with Morris.
This was a curious day of decisions, redecisions, and re-redecisions. It's had to make choices when there are no limits. From here, the only thing fixed was that we had to be on Corfu on the 19th. We could get there by any number of routes and stop anywhere along the way. It's so hard to choose (or predict) which would turn out to be the best thing. We went to Wasteels, the Interrail office, to get all the info about the trains through Romania and Bulgaria. The we went back to the campground to get our laundry. Prague has a great laundromat at Dejvivká 16, called Laundry Kings. The big draw: they have real dryers! It had been so long since our clothes were properly dried that our jeans are too big and all our t-shirts stretched out. they also have CNN on TV (in English) and sold English language newspapers, so you can get some news from home while you wait. We read all about Romania and Bulgaria while we were there too. I went out to get drinks at some point. The laundromat had soda machines but we didn't have any change. There were market stalls all along Dejircká on the other side and I was pretty confident I'd be able to find drinks. Of course I was wrong. There were dog food stalls, cosmetics stalls, diaper stalls, produce stalls. No Coca-cola stalls. So I ended up way down the street in a butcher's shop that also sold drinks. There I encountered another East European custom - that of obliging you to pay before they will give you your goods. You ask for what you want (line 1), you are given a slip of paper with the total price on it and told to go to the cash register to pay (line 2), then you go back to the counter to retrieve your sodas (line 3). The efficiency of division of labor gone terribly awry.
After making the decision to go on the train through Romania and Bulgaria to Istanbul and then to Greece (skipping Croatia), we totally reversed our decision and redecided to go to Croatia. It happened all at once; we just realized it was the right thing. Then we justified it to ourselves with our "evidence": that Angus and Olena had loved it and the Mladen and his new wife had had a wonderful honeymoon there. It's just possible that the way to make decisions is simply to listen to your heart.
After the laundry was fluffed dry, we went in search of a lunch. I wanted to go into a little Italian place right by the tram stop, but it was full of people who looked like they weren't planning on moving any time this week. We couldn't find any place else, and ended up back at the Globe, which is great, but we felt like we should be trying lots of different places. The waitress recognized us, which was quite a nice feeling. We had big plans for the evening, so we went back to the campground to rest up a bit. Today was the 30-year anniversary of the end of Prague Spring, which was a few months of reforms allowing freedom of expression under Alexander Dubcek, Secretary of the Communist Party. On the night of the August 20th, 1968, 200,000 Soviet troops entered and occupied Prague and the reforms the Czechs had enjoyed were crushed. Dubcek was exiled to the Forestry Commission. It's interesting that nowadays, Dubcek is not viewed as a hero, even though he was in favor of reforms. The reason is that he was trying to reform the communist system rather than change to a different one. I think the guy deserves a little credit though. The Globe was having speakers who were there during the passive uprising against the Soviet troops. So we were going to hear them speak first, including a man who had written a book about his experiences, and then we had tickets for the opera, Don Giovanni. It was playing at the Stavovské Theatre, where it premiered in 1871, conducted by Mozart himself. It was our first big date on the trip. We were going to dress up and go out on the town. While we were resting up in the tent (okay, I was napping and Paul was reading), it began pouring down rain. And it continued to pour. As it got later, we realized the Globe wasn't going to happen. It also got quite cool, and i had no wrap for my sundress. We just didn't want to trudge out in the downpour and get cold and soaked. The rain finally stopped a few hours later, so we decided we would be able to get toe the opera at least, so we set about getting dressed (it is quite amusing to observe two people trying to get dressed while sitting down inside a tent. I put on on of the sundresses from the market in Warsaw, the pink flowered one, with a necklace and the ever-present fisherman's sandals. Paul had khakis, a shirt with a collar, and his hiking boots. We were stylin'.
The opera was quite well performed, although I hadn't realized how silly the story is. Praguers must have been really bored in the 1800s to go for this stuff. The sets were really innovative: a series of 4 enormous doors swung out on either side of the stage. These doors had flowers on them to show that you were in the garden, and statues of dead bodies (those lying on sarcophagi) to show you were in the cemetary. The costumes were strange, head coverings were big. Don Giovanni had sparkling blue "hair", and everyone had these strange black mesh cloths draped over their heads with the front corners attached to sticks so they could be held up crossed in front of the face to hide them. I didn't think the acting and singing was stellar, but it was quite good. I couldn't get past the fact that the fiancé of the woman wronged (Anna?) was Korean and his head covering and clothing made him look like a woman. The seats we sat in were the same seats that were used for the premiere (re-upholstered of course). There's a scene in Amadeus (the movie) where Mozart runs in 10 minutes late for the start of a performance with music changes for the orchestra, which he passes out and then begins conducting, the instrumentalists playing the new material seeing it for the very first time as they played. The ink was still wet. Well, that was this opera, at the premiere, in this opera house. The opera house was completely restored and was absolutely breathtaking.
As we came into the opera, we saw a red carpet had been rolled out to the street. We wondered what famous personage would be coming in that way. When the lights came up at the end of the performance, we looked behind us and up to see an elegantly attired blond woman in black evening dress, black gloves and what looked like a diamond tiara. She gave the audience a Dianna wave. When we came outside, there was a crowd around the limo at the end of the red carpet, so we waited around to see her come out with her young, handsome, black-haired escort, walking down the red carpet with a quartet playing music on a balcony above. The press was there, and there was much taking of pictures. She stopped and waved to the crowed, then got into the car with her escort and drove off. The next day, while we were checking the email, we asked Katrina who she was. It turns out she is Vaclva Havel's new wife, whom he married just after he became President. His first wife died of cancer. This one is famous in her own right, some sort of actress. But apparently, no one but her little group of followers really likes her, because she's such a diva and it's always a big production wherever she goes.
We went to check out the new Internet place after breakfast. We had to walk back through the Old Town Square and across the Charles Bridge. They were so different from the first time through. The square was overrun with tourists and tourist seekers. There were all kinds of people walking around with display boxes in front of them (like the cigarette girls who walked around old time night clubs) selling goofy trinkets, postcards, and other junk. Little chickens and spiral wire things seemed to be the most popular. It was really bizarre. All the quiet little streets we'd been through had no sprung to life. Prague tshirts, postcards, posters, amber and money exchange windows were all to be had, and no one was shy about letting you know about it. The Charles Bridge was likewise packed with tour groups, all seeming ot be moving in the direction we were not (nothing spoils a beautiful tourist destination more than arriving to find it full of tourists). There is a famous statue on the bridge of St. John Nepomuk, who was thrown off the bridge to his death in 1393 because he refused to divulge to King Wenceslas IV (not "Good" King Wenceslas, he was the first, not the fourth) what the Queen had told him during her confession. His statue has a frieze of bronze that shows John being cast off the bridge, and displayed prominently in the foreground is a dog. As a consummate dog lover, I was intrigued. The Lonely Planet book says nothing about any dog in the brief description of St. John's story. But scads of passing tourists when to great effort to get in close and lay their hands on john's head and the dog's at the same time (a bit of a stretch for those not long of limb). It seemed to be some kind of superstition, but we never did find out what it was all about.
We finally got through all the people on the bridge and walked into the internet place. Which, like lots of other places in Eastern Europe, is a multi functional space. Its primary function is as a booking agency, but they also send faxes, make copies, and let you have access to the internet. There was only one machine and someone was using it, so we sat down to wait. The first thing I noticed about the woman behind the desk was that she had on very funky shoes, the thick-soled kind of sneakers. And trendy flared pants. She looked pretty young but was obviously running the place. We got talking and it turns out that she had done a year abroad in the state of Washington, which explained why her English was so good. She was great, and seemed to like us. She was really interested to hear about the trip and the web site. She said that lots of travelers come through with a mission, like watching in the train stations to see many tourists get pickpocketed. I don't know what we've been doing with all our time, but obviously we haven't been doing any cool research. Katrina, as we later found out she was called, asked us if we were coming again tomorrow, which I found immensely flattering. Maybe she says that to all the tourists, but I was satisfied. We told Katrina that we'd come back the next day and left to see the famous Prague castle.
Let me just say at the outset that the free material we received when we bought our ticket for the castle and environs was the lamest we've gotten so far. One of the most fun parts of the trip for me is acquiring little tidbits of knowledge from various sources that, when combined, and as a result of actually seeing the physical space where an event took place, give you greater impressions and understanding. But it's difficult when you can't actually get any information, because the brochure says nothing, or because you can't speak the language very well. This brochure looked impressive; it was three pages, front and back, and printed on large-sized paper. But all it really told me was which places the ticket was good for. You essentially buy a three-day ticket that's good for the castle, the cathedral, the Powder Gate, and a couple of other things. There was a map of the castle on the last page but that was it. No juicy details about the lives of the people who lived there, not even any dry, boring dates. Ah well. Enough of my ranting about that.
We took the tram up to the western end of the castle complex, as I'd read somewhere that if you walked from that direction, it was all downhill. The castle itself was begun in the 9th century, and has been renovated and added onto ever since. It's still the residence for the President, although we never saw Mr. Havel, unfortunately. There is an imposing gate at the entrance to the castle. Unfortunately a poor color choice was made for the guards' uniforms: powder blue. It's really hard for anyone to look manly in powder blue. It began raining the minute we entered the gates. Not very hard though. The ticket office was closed and there were very few clues about how you might otherwise procure a ticket, but we finally tracked down a woman selling them in a corner of the St, Vitus Cathedral. Anyone can go into the Cathedral, but only the privileged few who have figured out how to buy a ticket are admitted to the front and down into the spooky crypts. After being allowed through the pearly ropes, we turned back to the rabble to gloat. It was great.
The Cathedral was begun in 1344 and was only just finished in 1929. Good King Wenceslas is buried there in a beautifully appointed room with impressive, massive doors. There's a huge painting behind the altar which depicts the story of St. John, and in it John's dog is shown being held back while John himself is seized. The dog is again displayed very prominently in the foreground. We did go up the clock tower of the Cathedral, all 287 steps up the narrow, stone spiral staircase, with people moving in both directions. We almost didn't make it,I because of claustrophobia, Paul because of his knee. The views were only so-so from the top because it had started to rain again. Also, the other tourists were seeming really pushy, which I'd really had enough of. It's sad to said I wanted to get out of the city I'd waited so long to see again because it's become too crowded and touristy.
Lots of the castle was woefully unimpressive. The Hall of Columns, reached by walking forever through winding corridors, contained only 6 columns and could barely be counted as a hall at all. The Main Hall, however, was really huge with a great wooden floor fashioned from wide, sturdy planks. To one side was a wide stone ramp that gave access from the outside, and was used to admit horses into the hall for indoor jousting tournaments during inclement weather.
We had lunch back at the campground: mouldy cheese and old bread. Not very inspiring, but we had miscalculated and planned on being able to get food at the little restaurant there, but it is closed during the day, only open for breakfast and dinner. It felt to me, as it always does when I want time by myself, that Paul was being excessively clingy. I don't think it's true, it's just that I'm trying to find an hour or two of free time and I feel crowded because Paul's not. It would be much easier if he wanted time alone too. I still hate to say it out loud, because Paul feels rejected when I say it. It's the same old story for us. I finally burst out with it, so we agreed that I'd go for a walk by myself before we met at the boat up by the zoo that we had planned to ride into town for our evening rendezvous with Morris. It was only 45 minutes or so, but it was enough to shake off the claustrophobic feeling of the pushy, ruthless crowds of the last few days and be reassured that I wasn't disappearing. Paul met me at the boat a little before 5:00 and we sat down at a table on the ferry with a couple of beers for the journey. The ride was 10 km up river into the Old Town. We figured we'd have plenty of time to walk from wherever the ferry stopped to the cafe where we were to meet Morris at 7:00. But we hadn't reckoned on inebriated ferry pilots and strong winds, nor on long queues of ferry boats at the locks. Not 10 minutes into the trip, we turned in to shore to pick up some passengers waiting at a little dock. However, when the ferry pilot tried to pull up to the dock, the strong steady wind that was hitting the ferry broadside made it impossible to hold the ferry steady. The winds were blowing counter to the current, which probably made things more difficult, but we thought that there was really no excuse for missing the dock three times. The 4th time, the captain maneuvered around up river of the dock and tried to pull up along side it facing into the wind. Well, he managed to hit the dock all right, but he hit it so hard it was dislodged from it's moorings (it was a floating dock) and dragged the walkway away from shore to fall into the water. A couple and their young child were on the little dock at the time, desperately clinging to the flimsy railing. After dislodging the dock, the frightened would-be passengers climbed down to the end of the walkway, which no slanted down into the muck along the shore, and were help ashore by passers-by. The ferry pilot, giving up on the dock entirely, instead backed up, got a running start, and just ran the front end of the ferry right into the river bank. Then a few crew members clambered off, helped the couple and their child up over the gunwales (though I don't know why they would get on the boat at all after that performance - we were seriously discussing getting off at this point) and then set about trying to repair the damaged dock. Eventually they gave up, leaving it lying askew in the water, and after a half hour delay, we were finally on our way.
I had thought that seeing Prague from the water would be scenic and give us a different perspective from land. Unfortunately, there's a lot of industry right up on the water, so most of the views on the way in were of rusted cranes and building in new of fresh paint. Once we got into town, we had to go through a series of locks. The first one was fun, but they took so long to get through, and there was a queue to get into the lock. A little 7-year old kid came up and asked if we spoke English. He was very please that he recognized us speaking in English and told us he learned his English in Norway where he'd lived most of his life 'til now. He'd just gotten to Prague and told us he didn't like it at all.
At about 10 minutes to 7:00 were were stopped underneath the bridge near where we were supposed to meet Morris, waiting in another queue for the lock. There were two boats ahead of us, so things were not looking good. Unfortunately, we were tied up to a stone pier in the middle of the river under the center of the bridge. If we'd bee tied up to the shore, we could have just hopped off the side of the boat. There was another guy that was also hot to get off the boat. He had climbed out of the boat onto the stone pier and was trying to get a couple in a paddle boat to come over and give him a lift. He even waved his wallet for emphasis, but the couple wouldn't go for it. Four guys in another overloaded paddle boat we more amenable, but there was no room. SO the guy finally climbed back in and went to discuss things with the captain. Paul tagged along to see if he could get us included in any emergency exit planning. It seemed there was nothing to do about it until we got into the lock, which happened about 5 minutes later, along with the two boats in front of us. It was a bit crowded in there, but we all managed to squeeze in. As soon as we were in, the pilot pulled the boat up against the side wall of the lock, and we three climbed out onto the ledge on the edge of the boat and the stepped over to one of the emergency ladders that climb the side of the lock. We clambered up, even as the lock doors closed and the boat began to rise, jumped a few fences and dashed across the bridge to arrive at the Slavia Cafe at the stroke of 7:00 and bursting to tell Morris of our little adventure. The story loses some of it's punch though when the person you were racing to meet is late himself. Morris had been in another cafe, where he'd gone to read the paper. But some friends of his noticed him and insisted he chat with them for a while, so that's why he was late. I believe Morris thought he was meeting with the other Johnna Armstrong from Thunderbird (believe it or not there were two of us there at the same time). He didn't recognize me, by covered very well. After I had said hello and Paul had introduced himself, he asked "Where's Yuri?". When I said "Who's Yuri" he covered very well, saying that he'd gotten our meeting confused confused with another appointment. He was being very tactful. But I realized later that the other Johnna Armstrong had been in Russia, and I surmised that Yuri must be her significant other. When I'd talked to Morris on the phone, I'd said I'd just gotten married and I was in town with my husband. I can just see him sending email out to everyone that knows the other Johnna Armstrong saying "Johnna and Yuri got married!". It was pretty funny once I figured it out. But Morris was a wonderful host and if he was disappointed, he never let on.
Morris has been in the Czech Republic for five years no and speaks Czech quite well. We were at the Slavia Cafe, which is the Art Deco equivalent of the American Silver Diner. We had a drink there and got caught up on our professional lives, talked a bit about old times at Thunderbird and people we knew, what they're doing now, the usual stuff. After our drink there we headed out to a real Czech restaurant a couple of streets behind the National Theater. It was a small place, in a cellar really, with animal skins and murals of Czech peasants on the walls. We had a round of Becherowka to start, which Morris described as an herbal liquor digestive that is great to have before a meal, but you really don't want to get drunk on it. I can only imagine that he knows this from bitter personal experience. I really liked it - it reminded me of a similar Italian herbal liquor we had with Gordon and Alberto in Edinburgh. We found out later in Karlovy Vary that it's made there and is very famous.
After the aperitif we ordered our food: I had a wonderful chicken dish with mushrooms and some really disappointing mashed potatoes (watery potato puree with no milk, butter, salt or pepper) but on the whole i was quite pleased. In Poland, the chicken been very fatty wherever we went. This was really good. Paul and Morris seemed able to choke their food down as well. We might have had a beer or two as well. I had a real czech coffee (like Turkish coffee) for dessert. I think Morris expected me to be horrified, but I really liked it.
After dinner, Morris took us on a tour of the Old Town by night. He was surprised at how touristy everything has become. He must only do the Old Town tour when he has friends in town. We walked along the river for a view of the castle at night, all lit up on the hilltop. It was really beautiful. I asked Morris about St. John and his dog, but all he could add to what we knew was that the tourists had the superstition about touching St. John and his dog all wrong. There's a cross embedded in the bridge itself that you're supposed to touch. So I may never know the story of the dog.