Next Stop: Prague

Ken’s posts from his vacation last fall continue…

That’s odd: I’m six days into my Czech Republic vacation and haven’t yet set foot in the Czech Republic. Today was the day- which would turn out to be a rather odd introductory day to a city I’ve dreamed of for years.

I got up early, said goodbye to no one as I exited the unmanned hotel, and trundled off to Gatwick for an EasyJet flight to Prague. It was so darn… easy. Do the Brits know how lucky they are to be just two hours and 170 bucks away from so many cool places?

Next Stop: Prague

Yeah, a lot of them did and were boarding my flight. The guidebook says that Prague is a popular place for “stag parties” and “hen parties” (I think we would call those bachelor parties and bachelorette parties). Sure enough, I was flanked by several groups of boisterous males looking forward to cheap beer and god knows what else.

Airport reflected

Easy up, easy down, and I’m walking through Václav Havel airport (named for the last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, who served from 1989 to 2003). Easy trip through customs, too. Hey, no stamp in my passport? Oh yeah, the European Union is no place for stamp collecting- when you’re in, you’re in.

The car-less traveler takes a bus from Václav Havel to the end of the subway line, and then trains it downtown. I boarded the modern bus and, like the other passengers, stared into space waiting for it to depart. Suddenly, the burly bus driver appeared a couple rows ahead of me. Without warning, he began yelling at a teenage girl. No “Excuse me, miss,” no pleasantries, just yelling. Now that’s old school Eastern European.

I didn’t need to speak the language to know that she was doing something wrong. He pointed, she shrugged, he gestured at the plastic cup in her hand. No beverages on the bus. She protested, he protested her protestation, she skulked off the bus and ditched the cup in a trash receptacle.

The 100 bus… to Metro B line… to the fun-to-say Karlovo náměstí (Charles Square) station.

Karlovo Namesti
Quite a few Pargue metro stations seem to have been constructed from recycled glass jars

I’ll walk the rest of the way to the hostel, but which way is that? Prague’s tangle of streets was already getting the best of me, and since my “smart” phone wasn’t enabled for international data, I couldn’t rely on GPS. On the bright side, I stumbled upon a Communist-looking facade- just the sort of thing I was looking forward to seeing in Prague.

Strong introduction to Prague

I got my bearings and dragged my carry-on to ArtHarmony Prague, which their website calls an “original, completely atypical, family, romantic environment – an oasis of peace and harmony in the middle of a city.” It is “perfect for people with a tinge of esotericism and spirituality.” That’s me!

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Um, actually, I chose this place mostly for the location- the tram stops at the front door. I just needed to figure out how to use the tram. But first, the sordid question of coin. The balance of my bill up is due, and they want it in cash. We’ve found that the further you get from New York City, the less useful your credit card becomes. (Editor’s note: Nepal is very far from New York City.) For four nights, I owed €203.87, which was US$275.91, also known as 5,300 Kč (Czech crowns). I felt rich taking thousands of Kčs out of the ATM across the street- then I parted with them at the front desk.

By then, most of the day had slipped away. So, how shall I spend my first night in Prague? It just so happens that the local Couchsurfing group hosts a meet-up every Thursday night at a local bar, giving me a chance to learn more about Prague and meet people from around the world, all in one fell swoop. I took the tram through downtown to Wenceslas Square (I’ll get to those sights in a future post), then walked uphill toward the bar. As the street rose, it afforded me a spectacular view of Praha hlavní nádraží, the city’s main train station.

I couldn’t help but think that in Milwaukee, this is a train station:

Milwaukee Intermodal Station

While in Prague, this is a train station:


I rounded the corner and found the bar. Stepping inside, I scanned the room for a multiracial group of unshaven young people, most likely drinking cheap beer and tapping away on mobile phones even while chatting with other patrons. You know, Couchsurfers.

Couchsurfers, Prague style

And I found them… a whole lot of them… probably the most CSers I’ve ever seen in one place. Props to the Prague group for throwing such a happenin’ party every week!

Couchsurfing Ken

I soon found myself with a cheap (yet quite tasty) beer in hand, chatting with two Russians who go to school here and an Indian who works here and a British/Indian tourist whose holiday is just about over and a Chinese traveler who carries around an old-fashioned camera and shoots (gasp!) film.

Film lives!

It was a bit overwhelming. Braving the chilly night, a few of us sought refuge on the open-air patio. That’s when we saw the puma. Yes, there is a real, live puma living at this bar atop a hill in Prague. He/she walked in circles in a fenced run above the patio. I don’t know why, and I don’t approve. Besides the mistreatment of this animal… what if he/she were to escape?

Imprisoned puma
Imprisoned puma

Back inside, I showed my age and cashed in my chips just as the youngsters were deciding where to go next. I would later hear that they were out until 4AM. Not me: I started the long walk downhill and it started to rain. Within moments, I found myself wielding my flimsy umbrella against a downpour- the rain was coming sideways and I was getting soaked.

I had to laugh. It was the perfect end to a perfectly disjointed day: stag parties, surly bus drivers, Communists, korunas, pumas, and wet socks. And I’ve only been here one day.


British Reunions

Kettering train

I was all Who-ed out, and it was time to leave Wales behind. I hopped a fairly expensive (US$35) train, not to London but Kettering, home of my longtime friends David and Sue. Could it really be true that I hadn’t visited them in over a decade? Sure enough, it’s been long enough that their kids have moved on to university and only their pooch, Marley, remains.

I caught up with David, my corporate soulmate. I met him in 1997 when we worked together on a Snap-on Tools video. Though he left the company shortly thereafter, he has recently returned to Snap-on… just as I have returned to having Snap-on as a client. Once the Kenosha, Wisconsin, toolmaker has its hooks in, it doesn’t let go.

After a few nights in a Welsh hostel, nothing beats lounging at a friend’s home.

David, Sue, & Marley

Sadly, in the morning the British weather robbed me of the chance to take Marley for a walk in the fields surrounding the house.

Then it was back to London. This is about when I started to notice how expensive things are in the UK (with partial blame going to the US dollar’s exchange rate). Since I didn’t book the train in advance, that hourlong train ride cost almost US$70… one way. I can make the Milwaukee to Chicago trip on much-maligned Amtrak for $48… round trip.

Back in London, you hop on the Underground and- gulp- pay £4.50 (over 7 US dollars!) for a single ride. Then you get smart and buy a rechargeable Oyster card, which discounts single rides to a mere £2.10 (US$3.45). Clack-clack-clacking along beneath London, I fondly recalled dollar rides on the metro in Bangkok and 30-cent trips in Mexico City (though fares have recently risen to 40¢ there, prompting protests in the streets).

To offset my transportation expenses and save a few £s, I found the cheapest hotel I could.

Itty bitty Brit room
Itty bitty Brit room

Among the “features” of the Stay in Chelsea Guesthouse: a tiny room… a shared bathroom with a head-bonkingly angled ceiling… half the power shut off to protect some painters downstairs… sketchy wi-fi… and no staff. That’s right, there were no hotel employees on site. I had to phone ahead for someone to let me in, and I got there by Tube before he turned up on his bike. He showed me the keypad combination for my room, made a half-hearted apology for the lack of electricity, and pedaled away.

The upside: a low price (US$60) in a location (Chelsea) near my dinner date.

Throughout our travels, we’ve met loads of Brits, a great many of whom reside in London. So I emailed them all to see who could come out for dinner on a Wednesday night. Emma responded- we met her in New Zealand, the day we rolled down a hill in a giant plastic ball. Lisa, whom we met at a friend’s wedding in Colorado, was also in, along with her boyfriend, Chris. Table for four. And this being London, we were destined to eat- what else?- Indian food.

Britain's favorite food

As fellow travelers and Londoners, I was hoping Emma and Lisa would hit it off. Little did I know that a moment after they met, Lisa would say to Emma, “You look really familiar.” Sure enough, they knew each other. Not only did they once work for the same company, Emma crashed on Lisa’s floor one weekend in New Mexico or some such unbelievable tale.

Honorary sisters Emma and Lisa

We ordered plenty of small plates of different dishes. Since I tutor a Sri Lankan student at Literacy Services of Wisconsin, I added a Sri Lankan dish to the mix. Admittedly, I couldn’t tell much difference between the cuisines, though my student Dinesh could surely set me straight. I emailed him a photo, and he said kottu is often too hot even for him. My version was definitely toned down for civilian consumption.

Ceylon Kothu
Ceylon Kothu

Many glasses of wine and many laughs later, we went our separate ways. Until we meet again, fellow travelers.

Lisa & Chris
Lisa & Chris
Farewell... for now
Farewell… for now

The Rest of Cardiff

Loyal readers: My solo trip to the UK, Czech Republic, and Germany was way back in October, and it’s taken me until now to go through the photos and write up the stories. Thanks for your patience.

Now, cast your minds back a few months and join me in Wales…

Cymru letters

Admittedly, I wouldn’t have come to Cardiff if it weren’t for the Doctor Who Experience. That said, I wouldn’t have come all this way if there weren’t other things to see. Cardiff turned out to be a comfy tourist town.

It wasn’t always so. For decades, the harbor was more badass, right down to its name: Tiger Bay (Bae Teigr in Welsh). It was a major gateway for transporting coal throughout the world, but after World War II, shipping dropped off and the area fell into disuse. Beginning in the 1990s, the tiger was tamed, the bay renamed, and public and private money flowed into a revitalization project, creating the TV-ready sights that sci-fi fans now recognize from Torchwood.

Wales Millennium Centre
Wales Millennium Centre, with Roald Dahl Plass and the Pierhead in the distance

Cardiff Bay is home to the iconic (in the Doctor Who world) Wales Millennium Centre, which is an arts and theater complex. Just out the front door is Roald Dahl Plass, a plaza flanked by Welsh governmental buildings on one side and shops on the other.  The “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author was born in Cardiff and christened at the nearby Norwegian Church (now an art gallery).

During my October visit, the harbor was a bit of a ghost town. Tourist season had passed, and chilly temps and a brisk breeze meant that I shared the sights with only a few other brave souls. I think water is supposed to run down that silver monolith, but not this week.

Wander back to town (by bus), and you’ll find yourself in a compact grid of streets with the usual trappings: storefronts, coffee shops, a mall. In the northwest corner of downtown stands Cardiff Castle, which dates back to the 11th Century and underwent numerous additions and changes in subsequent centuries. Clambering up the keep was pretty cool, offering an overview of the castle complex, with ultra-mod Millennium Stadium in the distance. My home base in Cardiff was the River House hostel, just across the river from the stadium.

During World War II air raids, almost two thousand people took shelter in tunnels built within the castle walls. Artifacts and a museum tell the tale.

With just one night left in Cardiff, I set out to explore the city by moonlight and found myself drawn to the water once again. For me, all roads lead to Cardiff Bay.

Roald Dahl Plass under the moon
Roald Dahl Plass under the moon
Cardiff Bay development
Cardiff Bay development (pretty much deserted)
Wales Millennium Centre at night
One more look at the Wales Millennium Centre