25 July, 2007

Praha in a Day

My first metro ride in Praha was a success. The Hostel City Center is about a five minute walk from Karlovo Namesti station, and since I got in at around 730am, the front desk staff told me to leave my bags, come back at check-in time (2pm), and sent me off with a free city map. So, tired, hungry, and jetlagged, what did I decide to do? Well, obviously have some breakfast first. And then, take a six-hour deluxe tour of Praha, what else??? No time to waste, I take my sightseeing quite seriously. Mind you, it's not really six hours of walking, but rather about four(!!) hours. The latter part included a typical Czech lunch at a local non-touristy pub, followed by an hour-long small boat ride on the Vltava river.

As I approached the Stare Mesto (Old Town), magnificent Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral came into view, with the famous Charles Bridge in the foreground. Not really sure where the Old Town Square is, I simply did the only logical thing: follow the crowds up and down the winding cobblestoned streets of the Old Town until I was standing in front of the Astronomical clock. The tour was led by Marketa, a tourism student who had just passed THE EXAM and was leading her first-ever group! How 'bout that? A daunting baptism of fire with me, a notoriously cranky tourist (jet-lagged or not) and two British women??? But we did get along well actually (see pic) and bantered a bit. Her English was decent, though she admitted the need for improvement, and her knowledge of facts about each magnificent building unsurpassed, if somewhat bookish.

The walking tour itself passed by all the highlights of Praha, from the Jewish cemeteries to Franz Kafka's house to Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter). Along the way, we passed by numerous historic churches, stately mansions and lavishly decorated government buildings of various architectural styles, and Marketa would rattle off facts about them, that it all became a dizzying mess in my mind. Confident that I would return to Mala Strana later during the trip, I put off taking pictures and regrettably, didn't manage to have the time to explore the area later. Too bad. We managed to reach Prague castle's main entrance in time for the daily Changing of the Guards ceremony at noon, and later queued up along with tons of other tourists to get inside St. Vitus Cathedral. The heat was taking a toll on me, and I looked forward to having lunch and pivo (Czech for beer, the one essential word any idiot tourist knows). We crossed the Charles Bridge back into Stare Mesto, stopping from time to time to admire the different statues and take pictures. It is quite a challenge to cross the perenially busy bridge, as progress is usually impeded by other tourists doing idiotic things like walking too slow, blocking the path while stopping to listen to the jazz musicians (and getting pickpocketed in the process), and my favorite pet peeve - wandering in front of a statue oblivious to the numerous photogs on the verge of clicking on their cameras. (I usually glare at them - men, women, and children alike - as a sort of non-verbal "Getouttahere!" imperative, and the wiser ones scurry away. Haha).

Eventually we emerged on the other side and thus my first encounter with Czech cuisine commenced. We entered the pub which wasn't too far from our starting point four hours earlier, and were ushered into the homey basement dining room. According to Marketa, the agency allowed each guest one beer and one entree (included in the price) - scanning the unappetizing list, I tried my luck with the "roast pork leg, Bohemian dumplings, stewed cabbage" and crossed my fingers. (Notice the reasonable prices - 95CZK - for most of the entrees, the same dish at a touristy resto near the Old Town Square can cost almost double). Gulping down the Pilsner Urquell was a welcome relief from the heat, and as I found out, the best part of the meal.

The pork loin itself was so-so, but the bread dumplings (why they are called dumplings remains a mystery) lacked any trace of flavor and were quite heavy. Despite my profound hunger, I managed to force myself to eat only two loaves and left the other two untouched. Unfortunately, being a staple of Czech cuisine, the Bohemian dumplings make an appearance at every meal and accompany every dish. Two pivos later (I shelled out 32CZK or $1.60 for the extra one), we proceed to take the boat ride on the Vltava. Not that I could tell you much about it, as I was overcome with fatigue and half-slept my way throughout the ride and missed most of the commentary. All I remember is the girl doing the talking was attractive. Found my way back to the hostel, checked in, and promptly drifted into unconsciousness.

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