Sunday, December 02, 2012

Backpacking through Prague and Budapest

I spent my Thanksgiving break in Central Europe with my too-heavy backpack, the people I met along the way, and myself for company. I landed in Prague’s Vaclav Havel airport at 9AM on the 22nd and made my way into the city using their awesome public transport system, much like the public transport system at every other major European city. I got out of the subway and headed towards The MadHouse, the one hostel whose address I had written down. The confident strides I’d started my journey with quickly switched to a halt as I realized that I had no idea where I was going. If it weren’t for the kind citizens of Prague who noticed my situation (illustrated by a huge, unwrapped map in hand, and an utterly lost look on my face) and pointed me in the right direction, I would have tired myself out walking in circles around the subway station.

One of Prague's many cobblestone streets

“Are you checking in?” asked Jess at The MadHouse. “Well… I haven’t made any reservations,” I said before explaining that I was visiting for three days and that I was thinking about spending one of them in Budapest. “You’re in Europe for 3 days… and you want to visit Prague and Budapest? But Budapest is 8 hours away by train...” “Yes,” I replied, settling into the chair across from Jess who looked at me like I was a crazy person, “I’m planning to sleep on the train.” After confirming out loud that I was indeed not of sound mind, she suggested I pay for a bed on Saturday and leave my bag in their storage room while I walked around Prague and Budapest for the next two days. This was really nice of her; most hostels wouldn’t have let me keep my bags lying around two days before my actual check-in. I signed up for Saturday and received a welcome beer in return. Nothing like cool Czech beer at 10 in the morning.

Old Town Square

Enjoying a morning buzz, I bought overnight train tickets to Budapest at the main train station (Praha Hlavni Nadrazi) and then made my way towards the city square. The weather was chilly and gray, just in case the miles away from Seattle were to make me feel home sick. I spent a couple of hours walking around in awe of the narrow, curved streets (I’m a sucker for cobblestone), stopping every few minutes to take multiple pictures of beautiful buildings hoping at least one would stick. Lunch was pizzafood isn’t one of the highlights if you’re a traveling vegetarian in Central Europe. People had their oh-you-poor-thing face ready whenever I asked for their vegetarian options. After pizzait was fine, just like pizza in any other cityI headed to Old Town Square. It didn’t better Venice’s St. Mark’s Square for me, but it was still pretty special. All I need is good street music to romanticize a city, and there was this happy quartet lighting up the afternoon with the ‘Church of Our Lady before Týn’ as their backdrop.

The Jewish Quarter

Cal, our walking tour guide, was an Australian who had recently graduated from Charles University in Prague. Over a couple of hours he gave the group a fascinating account of the city’s history as he led us through the public square, Josefov (the Jewish Quarter), Namesti Republiky (the Republic Square) and the Wenceslas square which houses the National Museum. The Jewish Quarter with its incredible synagogues and various architectural styles is the most affluent part of Prague today. “Luckily, the buildings in the Jewish Quarter were left untouched during World War II,” Cal said before adding, “Well, luckily is a strange word to use. Hitler wanted it to be a museum of an extinct race. And so he let it be.”

The John Lennon Wall

You, you may say 
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one

As I rounded the corner to the Lennon Wall, Prague’s most colorful expression of love, hope & freedom, a street musician was kneeling in front of it, guitar in hand, singing Imagine. His earnest cries of “Imagine all the people” just made it a perfect, perfect moment. I had asked Cal if it was worth checking out the Lennon wall in the night and he said, “Actually, it’s strangely better when there’s little light out.” The wall is different every day as artists, good and bad, let loose with their spray paint to make their mark on this awesome canvas. Great artwork does get painted over, but then there’s always the promise of something newer and better. I scribbled on it too, an unimaginative “Hey Jude”. It felt pretty good.

Waiting at Praha Hlavni Nadrazi for the train to Budapest 

“We’ll reach Budapest next week,” joked Bela, a man in his mid-fifties, sitting across from me in the second-class compartment of the train from Prague to Budapest. It was 3AM and it seemed like almost half the people in the train were getting out. “This is just Brno, long way to go,” he confirmed with a smile. I nodded my thanks, and stood up to stretch. I had fought terrible jet lag the previous evening by forcing myself to keep walking through the streets of Prague. The plan was to catch up on sleep on the train ride to Budapest. No suck luck. There were no sleeper berths in second class. Each cabin consisted of 2 rows of 3 seats each, and there was an elaborate feet shuffle to ensure that you didn’t step on the shoes of the person across from you. I was beyond frustrated when I first saw the seating, jetlag beating the shit out of my mind. In hindsight, the poor seating was the best thing that could have happened.

The hallway of nocturnal chatter

“The Wire is the greatest show ever,” declared Sandor, a fellow passenger who also couldn’t sleep, towards the end of a two-hour long conversation that amongst many topics covered the similarities and differences between train systems in Ukraine, Russia, India and the Czech Republic, the various film and T.V. adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, the economic struggles in Hungary, and how Baltimore stood out the most for Sandor when he visited the US (“And this was even before I saw The Wire!”). He teaches English (Neil Gaiman and Agatha Christie, in particular) in a city north of Prague called Liberec and was on his way to Budapest to meet his girlfriend. “Budapest is a poorer city, a tougher city than Prague,” he said when I asked him what to expect. “I used to live in a college town in Finland when I was working on my Ph.D., and I met more assholes within minutes of arriving in Budapest than I did in all my time in Finland.”

Budapest, by the Danube

A grim, gray air hung over Budapest, the fog obscuring the tremendous buildings lining up by the Danube. Bela, the friendly Hungarian from my train cabin, was kind enough to show me the way to the Parliament, the huge Gothic landmark I’d decided to use as my starting point. Bela, who had lived in LA for six years, added to what Sandor said, about circumstances being dire in Budapest: “I’m going to the hospital today to give blood because my friend’s brother needs it and the hospital has none. This is 21st century Europe, and a hospital in Budapest has no blood.” I walked along the Danube, and maybe it was because it was Saturday, but there was hardly anyone out on the streets. I checked out the view of the city from atop Buda Castle, walked a bunch to shake off the jet lag, took breaks from walking to rest my feet which were in pain due to my terrible shoes, and then had to walk a bunch again because sitting down meant falling asleep on a bench. The only thing that kept me up at the station that night as I waited for the train back to Prague was the really cold weather.

The tram ride up to Buda Castle

I was sure I’d sleep on the train ride back to Prague. No such luck, again. I gave up on sleep at around 11PM when a Slovakian cop came in to fine the four Greek girls in my cabin for smoking on the platform. “Now that we’ve paid,” said one of them handing over 10 euros to the cop, “can we smoke?” They were from Crete and were visiting their friend in Brno. At Brno, I moved to a cabin occupied by four college students and a really cute musician who had quit college and moved to Prague. She spoke about her travels, about how she once hitchhiked her way to a town in Southern France, and played music on the streets to pay for the trip. “There’s no way you could have seen the old Yugoslavia,” countered one of the college students at one point as she was talking about her childhood. “You’re far too young for that,” he asserted, and then started a tangential conversation about how he's doing a Bachelor’s degree in Peace at Brno. A Bachelor’s in Peace. “It’s the toughest program ever,” he said. I don’t doubt that.

Early morning Prague

I looked out at rooftops and church spires, at streets and bridges, at the sun attempting to peek out from behind a curtain of clouds. It was about 6:30 in the morning and I was atop the Prague Castle, with only two silent guards at the castle entrance for company.  I had arrived at the Prague train station at 4AM with time to kill as the hostel’s reception opened only at 9. After spending a couple of hours writing, it struck me that I had the perfect opportunity to see the sunrise. I took a train to Prague’s castle district and walked up the Old Castle Stairs (Staré zámecké schody). I looked over the railing every few seconds as I climbed up and struggled to believe that I had all these incredible sights around me, all to myself. There was no one around and this was tourist packed Prague. Finally sunrise, and I felt shivers running through me. As I headed towards the hostel, I walked through side streets and tiny walkways, a slow wander through a city whose citizens hadn’t risen yet to meet the day’s demands. The opportunity was rare, to walk unhurriedly and in silence through one of Europe’s most magical cities.

The Charles Bridge, built over the Vltava River, seemed to be the most popular tourist attraction in Prague, and with its numerous artists, baroque statues and photo-ops, it wasn’t hard to see why. I went for a late afternoon walk on the bridge, my final few hours before heading back to Seattle, and was struck most by the lovely music on display. I crossed the bridge and entered Nerudova, a street packed with stores, hotels and restaurants. I took a random turn at an intersection and somehow ended up in front of a church. In a city full of tremendous buildings, this church wasn’t out of the ordinary. But that was the crazy thing, that this magnificent building, with its imposing scale and incredible attention to detail was not out of the ordinary. At this point, I was exhausted, my body beaten up from the walking and the jet lag, and I was far away from anywhere I could call home. But I had this moment where I realized that I was surrounded by beauty, by structures that reminded me of the strength of the human will, the capacity of human creativity, and I thought to myself: I don’t know if I’ll ever be here again, but at this moment… I’m here. I sat down on the pavement, pulled out my notebook and jotted it all down, with the hope that long after the fact, I can read about it and relive a wonderful trip.


amas said...

Awesome travelogue! Felt like I too travelled with you the three full days!


Chirag said...

fascinating read!

Snigdha Jain said...

Hi, this a beautifully written post. Reading this brought back wonderful memores of my own Prague trip :)


Mohit J said...

Incredible imagery in your writing. Fantastic stuff, as usual!

Niyantha said...

Thanks all for the kind comments!

Siddhu said...

You should be a writer, Niyantha. This post would do Bill Bryson proud.

Niyantha said...

Wow, thank you Siddhu. Means a lot. Really, thanks.

rt said...

just stumbled upon ur post by accident. beautiful writing. feels like I ve made my trip to prague too. Good luck , keep travelling!

Niyantha said...

Thanks rt! :D

MITR said...

Hi, came across your blog. I am planning a trip to prague and budapest via vienna in december ( christmas in prague and new yeard in budapest) from india.. Any suggestions??