So what is it like to travel in winter? That was the question that got us on the road this time. For us winter had never been the time for travelling and exploring and it hadn’t been too long since we got addicted to spending our free time dreaming and thinking about seeing new places to give us an urge to live another day. As much as we as a nation are supposed to be equipped to deal with low temperatures and no matter how much exquisitely beautiful poetry has been inspired by Russian winter, for me it had always been a perfect time to curl up and get pensive about what lies ahead when life is back at full swing again, which is when spring comes. But would winter feel different if we got away? We’d been toying with this idea for a while but it had never been something we would seriously consider. But once we thought why didn’t we just squeeze in a chance to experience winter on the road this time instead of waiting to hopefully do it in summer? But with the economy as it was, would a chance ever come up in summer? Travelling is a lot about grabbing this chance as long as it is here, just to experience, just to live that dream. Yes, that would have to be a very brief trip but we still might have the summer to hope for so we were fine with that. Now what about the destination? We had a few options and they all seemed to us very a beautiful getaway to experience winter in the way we’d never known before. But what about going somewhere we’d already been to see if being there on our own would feel different to what we’d seen being there with a coach group? Coach trips are good for leaving you yearning for more because whatever place you’re visiting, you hear yourself promising you must come again but on your own. That’s the reason we’re done with coach trips. It’s nicer to get a decent taste at once than to take a few tentative bites that might fail to give you a decent taste anyway. So what was this place we’d got a little bite of that we could afford to get a more solid bite of now? It was a random decision but it was mine this time I think. So in the end we opted for Prague which seemed perfect for us. We got a very incomprehensive idea of the city on our one and only visit there and I believed in Prague having this potential and magic to really transform our sweaty and hot perception of it we got on our brief guided tour of the city. What would the Czech capital be like in winter and what would winter be like there? Not as cold as back home probably but what we were also looking to explore was the whole idea of being away from the Russian winter… Of course Prague has a great variety of things to offer and it wasn’t until I started reading up, which I’d learned the hard way to do after what seemed to me like missed opportunities to see beyond what an average tourist gets to see, that I realized that those amazing but somewhat superficial things like good beer and vibe were just a backdrop for that Gothic magic they were essentially part of. As I was doing my research, all those places I remembered briefly visiting started coming alive and that’s how I knew I had to thank that quick coach trip for giving me that urge now to explore my feelings for Prague because as they say and rightfully so “You can’t miss what you’ve never had” and I have a few places to miss now and so many more I’d like to make acquaintance with and miss when I’m back. Anyway, reading guide books felt like walking a blurry memory lane and I was determined to make some illuminating memories to shine a light in my heart. It was a very special feeling of reconnecting with what you think you might have seen and it makes you wonder how resilient and lingering memories can be if you shine a little light on them. It was somehow coming together as we were approaching the start of our trip. We knew 2015 would get off to an amazing start and when the clock struck midnight and it entered our lives, we didn’t even have to make a wish because it seemed almost there, just a train journey away to Moscow in a few week’s time when we would get on that plane and that’s when it would start seeming real. It seemed so strange to be packing my bags in winter, almost as if time had turned back or ahead. I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that I was about to set out on a trip in winter! Another thing which seemed difficult to figure out was my wardrobe. It was freezing cold at home at the time but according to the weather forecast, in Prague it would feel like spring but as much as we wanted to get away from the Russian winter, we still wanted to experience the flurry magic of Prague in winter…
Anyway, after a pretty cold train journey, we found ourselves in our capital city at about 5 a.m. before the metro was open so we had to wait around at a little café at the train station and as I was watching the snowflakes in the drowsy capital sky, I was hoping I would get this same image when we got to Prague. We wanted to catch the first express train for the airport and had to stand outside for a while and that was when I realized what is not so much “fun” about travelling in winter. Another thing I was hoping for was that would all be worth it in the end. We safely got to the Sheremetyevo Airport which seemed quite deserted (the number of people travelling rapidly declined at the time because of the economic crisis our country was plunging into and we were happy they didn’t use the Euro in the Czech Republic). It all felt so easy this time round – checking in our luggage, going through the passport control… We had a lot of time to kill and get astonished at how overpriced things in the duty-free shops were. As we were waiting for the boarding to start, we took seats in a lounge where we got a perfect view of planes taking off and that got me so emotional that I thought I might shed a tear. There’s just something about airplanes that I find utterly fascinating. They looked so amazing on that crispy winter morning. I was wondering if there would be someone sitting there just like I was watching our plane as it was taking off and wondering where we were going… I couldn’t understand how this woman who looked like a staff member was just standing there talking on her phone instead of watching the magic of travelling unravelling through that window. She might have had enough of seeing it every day I guess. It was now time to board and it was all very quick. Just as the first time, I wasn’t getting flight anxiety, I was just fine.
Taking off was easy and the view I got from my window reminded me of winter outside. I was finishing reading my guidebook and that built up the excitement for me. Our Prague experience officially kicked off as our plane safely landed and I saw a sign that read “Welcome to the Czech Republic!”. From what I saw through my window, I assumed winters were really warmer there and it looked like a Gothic winter outside. Václav Havel Airport wasn’t crowded either and the first time we felt ourselves grinning from ear to ear about what was to come was when we saw a huge goat figure advertising the famous Velkopopovický Kozel beer which we would be getting a lot through the course of the next few days! We were almost ready to start living it up!
We got on a bus that would take us to the city centre where our hotel was. We felt so hot, poor Russian things! We were saying we might have to invest in some lighter clothes, otherwise we would get heat strokes! Yes, we now knew what winter might feel like! In the Czech capital city it looked more like an early spring but the sun wasn’t shining. There was an international crowd on the bus. The outskirts of Prague seemed to be full of Stalin-era apartment blocks and there was nothing exciting about them. In a way I felt sorry my country’s regime was to blame for making this part of Prague ugly… We literally had to elbow our way to the exit (very Russian way, I know) because I realized the driver might not stop the bus at this very stop and it was so handy for us to get off here rather than at the final one. We did eventually get off and I was so happy I was making progress at navigating because I had figured out right that our hotel would be just a few meters away from the bus stop and I was relieved! The guy at the reception desk started speaking Russian to us and we were aware people would be trying to do that because some Czechs speak Russian and there are quite a lot of Russians in Prague. It wasn’t comfortable to be speaking my native language because I wasn’t sure if this guy would understand me but we were fine in the end. We got up to our room and it looked really nice and comfy and there was a beautiful painting of the Old Town there and I couldn’t wait to see it later that day! Yes, we are in Prague! For the second time! And this time there would be lots of Gothic magic with a lot of sightseeing, food and beer! Yes! We were still sweating and determined to get some T-shirts to wear underneath our winter coats! After getting some rest, we were ready to refuel our energy levels the Czech style. I checked online to see if there were any nice places to eat in the neighbourhood and of course there were quite a few! I had checked back home but now that I was actually here it seemed easier to wade through the options. We decided we would go for this place called Lokál just across the road. As we entered it, I knew this idea of what this country was about was coming alive inspired by Jaroslav Hašek and his famous The Good Soldier Švejk that I remember sitting in a book shelf at my parent’s house. Somehow being at this place brought back what being too young, I failed to put to words as I looked at a picture of this clumsy stout man on the book cover. There was nothing pretentious about this place, it seemed run down but just as run down as you would want your proper Czech experience to be. I could well imagine Švejk sitting here casually sipping on his beer. Pivo – this one word for beer that we share with the Czechs! That was time to get our proper taste of it, a taste of the country. Beer was so much part of the Czech culture and it is no wonder that it has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world! We went for Velkopopovický Kozel after struggling for a bit with the menu in Czech, which we were a bit ashamed of as we know that Russian and Czech are in a way similar but I believe we had some quirky symbols Czechs use for writing. I’m not a big fan of pivo to be honest, but I’m a fan of getting new tastes of all various lives and for me holding this huge glass of beer in my hand surrounded by people sipping on their portions of the national drink felt like getting a taste of something vaguely familiar but oddly new and that was my idea of the Czech Republic at the time. We were really impressed by how the waitress brought this paper where there were lots of pictures of beer glasses and ticked off the amount we had ordered and that was only two to start us off. There were about twenty in that paper and that was when we got a feel for how much beer Czech people were capable of consuming and I was afraid we hadn’t been in Prague long enough yet to be up to this challenge. We raised our glasses for this new little winter trip that we hoped would have this special winter magic. The gorgeous Old Town was just a few blocks away and I was really eager to reunite with it, that was so beautiful to be living that moment and I felt I was coming alive from all the things I didn’t like about the Russian winter and about my daily routine as I had all of this magic to look forward to right here in the heart of Prague! Our main course was very substantial and nourishing and consisted of a few knedlíks which are basically potato pastry and served with lots of meat (goulash) which Czechs famously love. That was delicious and filled us for a long time! Yes, the Czech cuisine is far from being healthy but it’s so good! We stayed at this amazing place for a while admiring its authentic “run-down” atmosphere and decided to go for a little evening walk around the city centre.
Yes, days were still short and we were aware of that. Dlouha (“Long”) Street was lined with lots of beautiful medieval buildings. I was loving the Czech language signs around me and feeling so lucky we would be living in this particular street. Streets like this one are often overlooked by tourists who tend to gravitate to bustling central squares unaware of these queiter streets just around the corner. That was also our first encounter with a quirky side of Prague’s architecture. Right at the road intersection there was a very odd monument by David Černý showing a curvaceous heavily pregnant lady looking very exposed. It wasn’t until back home that I realized that standing between her legs wasn’t actually awkward at all (as some people who saw my photos assumed). The whole idea behind this monument was to enable us to step back into this huge glass-looking womb. Looking back, it’s clear to see we are in fact born again whenever we come to a new place and that evening was our new birthday indeed!
On the right there was what looked like a laid-back bar (there are plenty of them in central Prague) with a large photo of James Dean who starred in “Rebel Without a Cause” and sadly passed away really young, a terrible loss to the world – a handsome talented male which is a perfect muse for a female yearning to embrace life and that’s exactly how I felt that evening. Another look around the area made us aware of Czechs’ love for opulence and wealth that Russians are notorious for. You never know, fancy cars parked outside might have also been owned by fellow countrymen whom you find a lot in the Czech capital. It might be good for material things to make a statement but that was a rather arrogant one and made me want to take a quick photo and go on to explore something else.
There were some fancy boutiques as well and one was named just as my sister (Tatiana) which made me assume it might have been owned by a Russian as well. Next there was the Spanish Synagogue, a very extraordinary piece of architecture, in the Jewish Town, which is a very vibrant and nostalgic area of the city we would encounter later on our trip. Right next to it happened my first encounter with Franka Kafka without whom a visit to Prague won’t be complete and it’s not quite possible to avoid this Prague-born writer while here. Kafkaesque might well describe a Prague experience because a sense of something quirky unravelling wouldn’t stop haunting you while exploring this city. The monument to Kafka showing his figure sitting on top of a large suit with no head with the latter carrying him definitely added to this feeling. There was a group of Spanish tourists listening to their guide. Happy we were on our own at the moment, we took a quick photo of us next to it.
Just before we knew it, we stepped into Old Town – Stare Mesto. Finally I reunited with it and it did feel like a winter miracle even with the weather feeling quite warm (at the time it was getting a little chill, which felt very appropriate for the moment). The magnificent spires of the Tyn Church, a Prague landmark, were peering from behind into the sky which was growing dark. That was the sight I couldn’t have possibly got on my first visit. To me the dark sky made them seem as if they were made of corrugated paper. The National Gallery building, a monument to Jan Hus, an influential thinker and reformer, and the famous Old Town Hall Tower with the world’s oldest Astronomical Clock. Now I felt I was 100% in Prague!
This is where I gave my palette another taste of the city with a trdelník, a sweet pastry that came fresh from a wooden stake (trdlo) and constituted a part of Prague’s magic. It went down so well with hot wine and made the moment feel a little Christmassy. While standing here in the heart of Prague, we started thinking we might not have to get any lighter clothes to wear. I was loving it in fact! Our first evening in Prague wouldn’t be complete without a walk through the iconic Charles Bridge and it was a short walk from Old Town Square. Before that we were to witness another miracle and watch “The Walk of the Apostles” of the Astronomical Clock (Orloj). It was amazing to watch the crowd gathering as we were approaching 6. I was happy I was about to experience again what a lot of people cite as one of the most disappointing attractions in Prague now three years later. To me it then summed up the capacity of things captivating people even in this day and age when we are bombarded with all sorts of images. I felt emotional as the clock started striking and each of the apostles made an appearance to the crowd just to make a comeback an hour later as the show got underway again. It was so sweet! A funny thing was that the crowd stood there for a few minutes after the show was over as if waiting for it to restart.
As we stepped a little from the Tower, I was really delighted to get a really good view of the Tyn Church and people bustling around the square. I had a feeling the next few days would turn out great! I missed you, Europe! Being able to walk this way to the Charles Bridge and walk it the opposite direction from the first time we were here felt amazing. Cobbled streets full of people (not as much as if it had been summer though) enjoying a lovely evening walk was what I missed and needed a lot! Seeing some of travellers bundled up in layers of clothes gave me a clue as to where they might come from. I knew we wouldn’t be getting souvenirs this time but I was happy to see them cutely displayed in window shops.
The Charles Bridge was somewhere around and I couldn’t fail to recognize it when we started approaching it coming out of a maze of central narrow streets full of wonders of a varying scale. It was just as magical in the dark as I had imagined it would be! Iconic views of the Prague Castle were incredible though a little blurred. As we started walking the bridge, my sister got a bit grumpy and went on about how depressing the view seemed and I decided I knew better than to get into arguments for now and silently enjoyed the moment as the bridge seemed a bit rickety under my feet (or were they getting tired in those shoes I had decided had to match the coat?). I don’t think that was the beer we’d had earlier but this first walk on the trip seemed a bit surreal and blurred as if we were submerged into the Gothic darkness. Deep down inside (so as not to wind off my sister), I felt happy to see this depressing side of the bridge. It was a very complex feeling I guess to be happy to be depressed and travelling is all about feeling and all we had to do was to let the city work its magic on us and our feelings.
We walked both ends of the bridge and found ourselves in Old Town Square again, stayed here for a while and made it back to our hotel. The city centre was getting really queit and it felt unusual. I guess people were now hanging out in bars and pubs. We were going to have our dinner back at the hotel instead and popped into one of the supermarkets in our neighbourhood to get some food. Well, beer was plentiful of course and incredibly cheap! It’s amazing how these ordinary shops give insight into the local culture. Figuring out the prices takes a while because your head is working in the rouble mode. We actually felt happy after we’d done some mathematics – it was all a very good value! Deciding on which beer to have tonight was a bit tougher though. These type of choices are hard to make when you’re in the world’s beer capital. Back at our hotel, we were really happy to rest our feet and have this very casual meal sipping on our amazing beers! We will be going casual and quirky for the next few days! That’s the Prague style for you! Of course as tired as I felt on my first night in Prague, I couldn’t go to bed without listening to some local radio. Me in a new country, a dark hotel room with dim lights coming through the window and a foreign language in my ears – I felt alive!