Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Prague, check!

Well, I figure I should put something up here about what I have been up to since I still havn't responded to the months-old messages I've received (I'm so sorry!). Mostly it has been a lot of traveling. Snowboarding in the gorgeous German Alps, Rosenmontag and the previous weekend (like Mardi Gras with everyone in costume) in Düsseldorf and Köln, showing Shane and then James around Stuttgart, then travelling through Italy with James, then visiting Daniel and Ryan in Innsbruck, Fulbright conference in Berlin, Copenhagen and a brief return to Hamburg to see the fish market, and most recently Prague and Vienna with Matt. Although I do hope to eventually at least briefly discuss each of my trips, for now I will only talk about my most recent since I can remember it the best.

While sitting in a tiny Bavarian restaurant listening traditional music and consuming traditional food and beer in Mittenwald not far from where my friends and I had spent the day snowboarding (or skiing) on one of Germany's tallest mountains, I lamented to my friends that all of them highly recommended I go to Prague, but they had all already been there. While most of them just said "Yeah, that's too bad," Matt exclaimed that he had not yet been to Prague and also really wanted to go! We discovered that both us also wanted to see more of Vienna so we decided to add that to itenarary and we set the date for two months in the future. The advantage to planning this far ahead is that it possible to find mind numbingly low ticket prices; sometimes the ticket fare itself costing nothing with only a low fee attached to it that has to be paid. After finding such tickets, Matt and I locked in a plan for about two and a half days in each city with an extremely cheap bus fare in between the two.

I met Matt in the Frankfurt Hahn airport for our flight to Prague because it was just about halfway between our two cities (he studies in Bonn). This Frankfurt airport of course is not the major international airport that I know even some of you who aren't living in Germany have been to. This is the tiny middle of nowhere airport that Ryanair uses as their central hub. I am not sure how they acquired it, but they are the only airline that flies in and out of this miniature airport which is a two hour bus ride from the real Frankfurt and is not close to anything. This is the sacrifice one must make for cheap airfare.

The flight passed quickly as we discussed the week and a half since we had parted ways in Hamburg and in no time at all we were surrounded by signs in a language that was completely incomprehensible to us even though our flight was not much longer than an hour (that still boggles my mind). Fortunately, Prague is not a place that is unfamiliar with tourists so we were perfectly able to use English to find our way to our hostel which was not far off the city square. We then ventured onto the side streets where we heard it was possible to eat for very cheap and we were not misled. We found a small place where the waitress seemed shocked that we would have to ask if they were still serving food at 10 pm, and were handed menus that we had to unroll like scrolls (something more places should pick up on). We each enjoyed a hearty Czech speciality and our first taste of Czech beer (rumored to be the best in the world) for a little more than 4 euro. Not bad.

We then headed back to the hostel so that we could get an early start the next morning. This was my first time sharing a hostel room with people I didn't know and although they seemed nice enough, it is not an experience I am eager to repeat. These particular people decided to leave the light on because one of them was reading and although I tried as hard as I could, I was on an upper bunk and almost right underneath the light so I could not. Finally at 4 am I got up and noticed that no one was awake, but they had still left the light on. I climbed down and turned it off and not long afterward, I was asleep.

This made for a very tired day of sightseeing, but it was still amazing. We toured the Prague castle which includes one of the most gorgeous cathedrals I have ever seen. I think it alone is worth the trip to Prague. Using our audioguides which were advertised as "The best, and only, audioguide of Prague castle" we learned much about the history of the place including that the royal gallery had only survived because it was hidden in Italy when the attacking Swedes tried to steal it so that they found nothing of value.

We paused for an unfortunately not basement bargain lunch of beef goulasch at the castle cafe, but it was still decently priced and extremely delicious. We decided to pass up the delicious looking cakes in favor of forging onward. After checking out another little church on the castle grounds, we decided to stop at another little cafe for some caffeine. At this cafe, they had Coke Blak for sale, which I had not seen in at least four years. This fact was not enough to make me buy it, but I had a good chuckle at its expense.

As we were leaving the castle, we saw some sort of grand stand being set up, but we were not really able to figure out what the event was because there were no large signs advertising it. Eventually, we saw a couple guys taking a picture with a hand-written sign claiming that Obama was going to be speaking there in a couple of days. We were suspicious of the veracity of this claim due to the fact that the sign was hand written and the web address for the US embassy it listed didn't end in .gov. We decided to investigate further. As it turned out, he was going to be speaking the morning we had decided to leave and since the bus company never confirmed our reservation for our trip to Vienna, we decided that we could if a little later if we had to and we should try to see Obama's speech!

In the meantime, we walked around Prague some more crossing the famous Charles Bridge, which is lined with statues of various saints. One of which is one of the Czech Republic's patron saints, Sigismund of Burgundy. He was a king in the early 6th century and was worried about his son usurping him, so he had him strangled. Afterwards he felt really bad about it and apparently that was enough to make him a saint. Not only a saint, but a patron saint of their entire country. Another one of their patron saints is King Wenceslas, who you might remember from that song whose name currently escapes me. He was actually a pretty good guy and the Czechs believe that every one of their rulers after him is only borrowing the right to rule from him as he was their one true king. The audio guide mentioned him quite frequently causing the song to be stuck in our heads for most of the day.

We also wandered the Easter market in the main square which hosted not only many of your run-of-the-mill tourists, but also a large group of sports fans who were chanting and banging drums in the square for a solid couple of hours. At first we assumed they were soccer fans and could not figure out where they were from, but later we discover that they were Greek and they were volleyball fans. Who knew volleyball fans got that rowdy? Further meandering led us to discover that people were carrying something delicious. It looked kind of like a pizza, but the dough part of it was deep fried and the cheese on top was not melted. We eventually found a stand selling them and it was delicious! It also had a garlic oil on it besides the visible tomato sauce and cheese and the whole thing went quite well with a Czech beer.

Prague was where I finally saw my first opera, Die Zauberflöte. Less than an hour before the performance, Matt and I were able to score very cheap tickets and the seats we had were not terrible. It was fun to see an opera in German because during the speaking parts, I could actually understand most of it! Afterwards, we headed back to the hostel because we had decided to get up at 4 to make sure we got to where Obama was speaking in time to have a good place in line before the gates opened at 7.

We ended up having new roommates, but they also enjoyed reading until very late and were also seemingly able to do so only by the room light. I tried once again as hard as I could to sleep since I was very tired and we had to get up very early, but I had no success. Finally around 2, I decided to offer the reader my flashlight on my phone since I was going to turn the light out when I discovered that he had also fallen asleep without turning the light off. I was just about to do it myself, when the last roommates returned. They had just about climbed in bed without turning the light out when I, as patiently as possible, requested that they do so. They just mumbled a confused "Uh," and gestured towards the the girl using her laptop and she said that was okay. Why would she need the light to use her laptop?!?!

Despite getting a little over an hour of sleep after not being well rested the previous two nights, I was still able to get up in order to see Obama. We ended up getting in line not long after 5 and although there was a decent group of people already there, I felt like we lucked out because it I am sure it could not remotely compare to the size of a crowd outside of a similar event in the US, no matter how early. As a trade off, we had to deal with the poor organization of the event. No one running it seemed to think that it was a bad idea to have only one entrance that people lined up at, and that vehicles came in and out of. This meant that every time a police vehicle wanted to come in, or a moving truck wanted to come out, the mass of gathered people had to squish against the buildings along this already tiny street they had us in so that a vehicle barely had enough room to come through without running anyone over.

Next they wanted us all to move back, but at first they just yelled at us at the front of the group in Czech (the group was almost entirely Americans) and then when they did do it in English, they still only told the front of the group. This meant that the people at the very front pushed back, but the people at the back who couldn't hear what was going on just saw movement and got excited and pushed forward. This meant that all the people where we were just got compressed. The two girls behind us decided at that point that they were going to pass out and throw up respectively. I think the former did end up passing out, but fortunately the latter did not throw up. Given the choice, I think that worked out for the best because all though the vomit would have had plenty of places to go, the fainted girl was well supported by the masses and did not really have any chance of falling.

When the gates did actually open, it was not bad at all because they very carefully regulated the amount of people coming in and the speed at which they did it. I was worried it would be a repeat of the people trying to cram into the Oktoberfest tent when it opened, which was kind of scary. After we got through security, we found a good place to stand where we could actually see the podium, which was exciting. We couldn't find anything that said when he was actually going to be speaking, but eventually we started hearing rumors that it would be 10. It was a long wait. They had a Czech bluegrass band that played to help pass the time at least.

By the time he got on stage, the crowd was huge. It at least filled the entire square in front of the castle, but I could not see all the way back so I don't know just how big it was. Although people went crazy taking pictures, I was actually able to see him for most of the speech and I thought that was extremely cool. His speech was really interesting too. I thought the focus would be on the financial crisis, but he mostly talked about the threat of nuclear weapons and called for new policy on and a global summit about the reduction of said weapons. If you are interested, you can find the transcript of the speech on the Prague US embassy's site.

After the speech was over, Matt and I rushed back to the hostel to grab our bags and then on to the bus station. Were already cutting it pretty close to when the last bus was supposed to leave when we had a miscommucation and Matt and I got separated in the subway system. Fortunately, we both ended up near the bus station at the same time, but we had lost precious minutes. We got to the station before the bus had left, but it was already sold out. We tried other bus companies, but they were all sold out too. Finally, we headed to the train station, only to find out that trains to Vienna didn't leave from that train staion. We got to the other train station 20 minutes before the next train to Vienna left so we were able to finally eat, which we hadn't done since the night before, and to rest our very weary feet before the train came.

Coming soon: Adventures in Vienna!