South from Prague

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Monday, October 3, 1994. Everyone who has been to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, will tell you about its enchanting beauty and how much they enjoyed their visit. Some will tell you that Prague is overrun by American and German tourists and has lost the innocent charm it once had. Some will tell you how inexpensive Prague is, how you can live like a king on just a few dollars. All of these things are true.

What they may forget to mention, while telling you the facts and statistics, is that you cannot help but feel at home in Prague. As you wander spellbound around the magnificent town square of Stare Mesto, then through the maze of narrow cobbled streets, over the majestic Charles Bridge, and up the hill to the castle, you will notice a feeling of peace and contentment. I cannot tell you where this feeling comes from, but I can tell you it is quite real.

Sweet is the Night

Prague’s beauty is even more dramatic at night than it is in the day. All of the important monuments — the Charles Bridge, the castle, etc. — are well-lit, providing a fairy-tale illusion that they are the only buildings in Prague. Every night, there are several different operas to choose from, all for under US$5. Mozart’s Requiem was written in Prague, and is performed every Friday and Saturday night.

It is turning cold now. The nighttime temperature in Prague is just a few degrees above freezing. I’m staying in a clean, inexpensive hostel, a short way from the city center, called Pension V. Podzamci. The hostel is run by a Eva, very friendly Czech woman with a disarming sense of humor. If you walk in and say “I have a reservation,” she will reply coyly “Are you sure?” She is particularly fond of Australians. Even if the hostel is full, she will find room for you if you are from Australia. When I called her for a room, it was late in the evening and the hostel was already full. I mentioned that I had four Australian friends there and that I was hoping to stay with them. She found me a bed.

I’ve met an American woman, Ann, traveling alone and staying here at V. Podzamci. We discovered that our immediate travel plans are the same: we both want to see Greece and Turkey, but neither of us wants to go alone. We will leave the car in Germany, take the train through Italy, and then catch a ferry to Greece.

Let Me Take You Down, ‘Cause I’m Going To…

Friday, October 7, 1994. Before I met Ann, I had arranged to go to Budapest for a few days to reconnect with Jen and Christie, the two Americans I met in Hallstatt last week. Two nights ago, I drove from Prague to Budapest, Hungary with Amber, a Canadian woman who is traveling alone. The drive took longer than I expected, almost nine hours. We could not take the most direct route — through Bratislava, Slovakia — because Canadians cannot enter Slovakia without a visa and Amber had not paid for one. Another Canadian woman we met in Prague had told us about spending a day in Slovakian jail for not having a visa. When her train from Budapest to Prague went through Bratislava, she was arrested and thrown in jail for a half-day, and then eventually put on a train back to Budapest. She was especially distraught because they spoke no English and she did not know how long she would be in jail.

For those of you who plan to travel on the cheap and expect to see Budapest, let me tell you this. We spent two nights in Budapest, at two different hostels listed in Let’s Go: Europe. The first was the worst hostel I have ever seen and the second was the best I have ever seen. The first, called Hostel Ghost, aka “Number Three”, run by More Ways Than Company, is a dump. Do not stay in this place. It was unheated, filthy and generally unpleasant. (Actually, Number Three is not listed in Let’s Go, but Number Four is, and they will send you to Number Three when they are full.) The second place, called the Backpack Guesthouse, was wonderful. The front of the house is grafittied with the warning “This Place is Addictive“. Many people I met there said they never wanted to leave. One guy from Seattle had originally planned to stay only a day but wound up staying for more than three weeks. The rooms are painted with different motifs: I stayed in the Safari Room, with jungle vegetation and wild animals covering the walls and ceiling. The owners, Alex and Attilla, organize caving expeditions, can direct you to Budapest’s Turkish baths and historic monuments, and are just generally helpful and friendly. I met a number of other travelers with whom I spent the day sightseeing and the evening getting drunk on various Hungarian liquors and wines. Do stay in this place if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 8, 1994. I said goodbye to Amber, who was headed for Madrid, and drove back to Prague with two Australian guys I met at the Backpack Guesthouse. On the way, we called Eva at V. Podzamci and, needless to say, even though she was full, she had room for two more Australians.

This Bud’s For You

Monday, October 10, 1994. The western half of the Czech Republic is Bohemia, and the eastern half is Moravia. Bohemia is the birthplace of two of the world’s most famous beers: Pilsner Urquell and Budvar(better known by it’s German name, Budweiser). Czech Budweiser is a strong, yeasty beer that bears no resemblance to it’s American namesake. Pilsner Urquell is the original pilsner beer, taking it’s name from the town of Plzen where it is brewed. Today Ann and I drove from Prague to Southern Bohemia to spend a couple of hours in Czesky Krumlov, a town highly recommended by one of our guidebooks. Czesky Krumlov is a cozy, romantic little village, surrounded by a small river that arcs nearly 360 degrees. The tourist information office pointed us to a small, wood-paneled bar where they serve half-liters of the dark, potent local beer for 18 kcs (about US$0.60).

Today is the first day that Ann and I have traveled together and, fortunately, we seem very compatible. Neither of us likes to plan things too carefully and both of us are flexible when plans change. Although we had originally intended to see Budapest together, Czesky Krumlov is almost at the Austrian border, near Linz, halfway between Salzburg and Vienna. This means that, if we are heading to Munich to leave the car, Budapest is 300 km out of our way, in exactly the opposite direction. Instead we’ve decided to go to Hallstatt, Austria. I told Ann about my prior visit to Hallstatt and how beautiful it was. Hallstatt is not far out of the way and will be a good place to stop for the night.

With a Million Stars All Around

The last time I was in Hallstatt, the town was nearly empty. There were only a few other people at the hostel where I stayed. Driving back to Hallstatt, I did not have the phone number, so we just chanced it. We arrived at the hostel at about 7:30pm only to find it full. The owner was kind enough to direct us to a couple of inexpensive private pensions. This was a stroke of terrific luck. The first pension we called had a large, comfortable double room available, with a tiny balcony overlooking Lake Hallstatt. Leaning on the railing, with the Milky Way drifting overhead, we shared our first kiss.

Hallstatt is as magical as I remember it. We called tonight our “first date,” meandering through the town arm in arm, bundled up in hats and coats against a slightly chilly evening. We had dinner at the Brauhof while a choir — a family of ten or so — practiced their peaceful, angelic carols at a table nearby.

After two glorious days in Hallstatt and an afternoon sightseeing in Salzburg, we drove to Munich. My friend Dorothee has been amazingly generous and helpful on this trip. She gave us her apartment in Mauern for the night and let us leave the car there while we continue to travel.

My Girl

Okay, I’ve been holding back so far, but I suppose it’s time to tell you a little bit about Ann. Ann is 22 and from Seattle, recently graduated from the University of Washington; “U-Dub” as it’s called. She is beautiful, smart and funny, and we have really hit it off together. Ann had been traveling for a month when I met her, and intended to travel for another month before heading to London to find work. She does not plan to return to the States until next May. Now that we are traveling together, all of her plans — and my own as well — are subject to change. Of course, I will keep you posted as our trip progresses.

What’sa Matta You?

From Munich, we took a night train through Austria to Florence, Italy. In theory, you can sleep on the train and avoid wasting an entire day. In practice, you are woken up every hour or so: by border guards for passport checks, by train conductors for ticket checks, and by customs officers with german shepherds for drug checks. They don’t knock; they just throw open the door, turn on the light and blurt out something unintelligible in German or Italian. As you might expect, the Italian word for passport is “passaporta”. Status: RO

The train station in Florence was bustling. There was also some sort of demonstration or parade going on; hundreds of Italians marching, waving Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags and blowing whistles. We were also assailed by numerous locals offering cheap accommodations. Instead, we called one of the pensions listed in Let’s Go, and were told “Yes. Come.”

The nicest thing about Italy is the warm weather. After the near-freezing temperatures in Prague and Budapest last week, it is nice to be wearing shorts and T-shirts again.

We tried to spend the afternoon sightseeing, hoping to get a look at Michaelangelo’s David, or perhaps the view from the bell tower at il Duomo, the main cathedral in the center of Florence. Unfortunately, government workers were on strike. Now here is a real oddity of Italian culture. Every other day while we were in Italy, all the government employees would go on strike for four or five hours — shutting down trains, museums, state-run youth hostels, etc. — and then return to work as if nothing had happened. They know in advance when they are going to strike, and for how long, but they don’t always tell you. This has the effect of really screwing up your schedule and getting you frustrated, without making travel and sightseeing completely impossible. Eventually we did get to see David and Il Duomo, but we had to pass up the Uffizi — perhaps Italy’s most famous museum — for lack of time. In truth, we just wanted to get the hell out of Florence and away from the noise, crowds, pollution and unbelievably rude waiters .

If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out

Sunday, October 16, 1994. A short way north of Pisa, on the Italian Riviera, is an area called Cinque Terre, five picturesque little villages where you can hike, swim, drink red wine, and watch blazing Mediterranean sunsets.

Ann and I arrived in the first town, Riomaggiore, in the evening and found our way to Mama Rosa’s, a hostel recommended in one of Ann’s guidebooks. Mama Rosa’s was described as friendly and festive. In truth, it was more like a full-tilt frat-house party. If you get excited at prospect of getting butt-wasted with several dozen American college students and drinking until you pass out, you’ll really like Mama Rosa’s. But if you hope to get more than just a few hours of sleep, you really ought to stay somewhere else. Also, although Mama Rosa’s is relatively clean, her many unnamed cats have given the place a powerful stench of cat-pee.

On Monday, we took the train up to the third town, Corniglia, and lugged our packs up the long, winding brick stairway to the center of the village. There are no hotels or hostels in Corniglia, so we just wandered until we found a sign advertising private rooms for rent. There was no one home, but a large old woman carrying an unlabled bottle of wine beckoned us from across the street and led us through the twisty little pedestrian streets to another house a few blocks away. For 30,000 lire apiece (about US$20), we rented a surprisingly clean and spacious double room overlooking the hills and ocean. In the evening, we took a bottle of the local Cinque Terre white wine to the edge of town — a stone terrace at the top of a 25-meter cliff, about 100 meters from our room — and watched the sun sink into the sea with slow, flaming brushstrokes.

Cinque Terre would be an easy place to get stuck for a while. If you come to Italy, I strongly encourage you to visit Cinque Terre and see how long you can get stuck.

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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt