Research is so much more fun when you get to travel to a different country!
16.03.2015 - 20.03.2015 5 °C
Hello all! I returned to Besançon from Prague on Saturday afternoon, but a week full of deadlines has gotten in the way of a timely post. (Speaking of deadlines, I realized that I forgot to post news of my first big presentation! It went pretty well; a bit less polished and probably a lot less interesting than the other presentations in the class, but the professor seemed pleased with the finished product. I’ll just consider it a warm-up, because I have another one next Tuesday for a different class!)
My arrival in Prague was a bit of an uphill struggle; after 17 hours on a bus, the last thing that I wanted to do was navigate the two kilometers to the hostel. To make things more interesting, my French bank card was not working at the station’s ATM, so I didn’t know if I’d even have the money to take the metro. And my phone had about 5% battery and would not allow me to send the obligatory “I’m still alive; the bus didn’t crash on the way to Prague” text to Mom and Dad. Fortunately, there was a currency exchange at the depot (although closed for a 20-minute break). So I camped pathetically in a corner next to an outlet waiting for the exchange people to come back. Once I had a bit of money (Czech kurona/“crowns”) I headed down into the metro. There was a HUGE line in front of the ticket machines, because as it turned out, all four of them were broken. About ten or fifteen minutes later, I had my ticket and was off!
By this time, it was about 5pm, and I was ready to be done for the day. Luckily, the hostel (The Madhouse) was even closer to the metro station than it appeared on the map (though it was so inconspicuous I walked by it a couple of times)…
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside it was awesome! The lady at the desk explained that there was free pasta, rice, and cereal in the kitchen, loaned me a free towel, gave me a really good map of the city, and pointed out the giant beer fridge (20kč a beer – that’s about 75 cents…). Pretty much none of those things happen at other hostels, so I was already happy with my choice. She also hooked me up with a sweet mandatory wristband with the hostel’s address on it. (Both because very few tourists to Prague speak Czech and have a tendency to get lost, but also because this was a “party hostel” and sometimes people find themselves in a state even less capable of sound navigation…)
After a shower, I headed out to find an ATM that I could use, then some groceries; luckily I found both just down the block. When I got back, the kitchen was bustling with “family dinner” preparation. Every two or three nights, staff members prepare a huge dinner, open to everyone for 100kč, or about 4 euros. That night was an awesome Argentinian stir-fry, and it was a great opportunity to meet some of the other people staying there.
I had intended to learn at least a bit of useful Czech before my trip, but my schedule didn’t really permit much. So I pretty much just had “hello” (dobrý den), “please” (prosím), “thank you” (děkuji), and “Do you speak English?” (Mluvíte anglicky?). Many of my conversations took place in an awkward hybrid of English and hand gestures, but a lot of people spoke English quite well, as I had heard would be the case.
On Tuesday morning, I headed straight to the Holešovice neighborhood to visit the Veletržní Palace, whose exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic was the main motivation for my trip to Prague. All 20 monumental canvasses were displayed in one enormous hall, and between fervent notes, copious photographs, and general awe, I spent six straight hours in that one room. Even if it hadn’t been research-driven, it was definitely worth the trip!
Obviously, I was the only person who spent this much time in the exhibition; most people went through in about 20 minutes. But there was one very old Czech man who was in there quite a bit longer, maybe an hour. While I was taking some notes, he came up to me and said something that I did not understand at all. I’m sure I started to look a bit embarrassed, and he asked, “Česky?” I said, “Uh, no…” and he kept talking for a while, then smiled to himself and walked over to one of the guards and struck up probably the same conversation. (I learned that night that the Czech word for “yes” is “ano” – pronounced “UH-noh”. So that was a bit awkward. But on his way out, the same man came up and tapped me on the shoulder. He gestured around the room and said, “Primo, non?” Not trusting myself to say anything, I just nodded my head furiously.
I had one more museum, the Mucha Museum, that I had to visit for my research, but after Tuesday’s marathon museum visit, I wasn’t in a huge hurry to get there on Wednesday morning. So I went on foot and did a bit of wandering and sight-seeing (and pastry-eating) in the Old Town on my way.
The museum was fascinating – I mean it was dedicated to one of my favorite artists – but I was somewhat relieved that it was rather small, and that I was able to get all the information that I needed and see the entire collection in about two hours. Then it was lunch time! I obviously needed to get me some real Czech food, so I found a little place nearby that looked like a happy medium between “Yes, we serve tourists who speak little to no Czech” and a place that locals wouldn’t mind being seen by other Czech people. I ordered the goulash and dumplings, one of the more iconic Czech dishes. It was pretty good; a hearty beef stew-y mix with deliciously soft and bready dumplings.
That afternoon and Thursday were devoted to tourism and other fun things. After lunch, I just explored a bit around the Staré Mesto (the Old Town) which was very touristy but still pretty charming. Because the city is quite compact (and I had a good map), I decided to really turn myself loose and just wandered, walking towards anything that caught my eye. This is probably not the most time-efficient method of tourism, but I’ve found that it really suits me well. And you still find cool stuff!
Wednesday night was another “family dinner” – this time it was super delicious lasagna made by the owner of the hostel. Afterwards, a bunch of us went to play laser tag. As usual, I was awful, but it was a good time.
On Thursday, I spent a bit more time on the west side of the river, in the Mala Strana district. This area is home to Prague Castle, the treasury, more museums, and other pretty things. Most of them are clumped together on a big hill, which was quite a pleasant climb and yielded a breathtaking view of the city from the top.
Of all of the choices of buildings in this neighborhood, I chose the Strahov Monastery, which advertised a couple of beautiful libraries.
I headed back to my side of the river for lunch, where I stumbled across this awesome vegetarian restaurant called Maitrea. It was super chill and definitely off the tourist path. Fortunately the hip youngsters who worked there spoke enough English that it all worked out. I ordered a cup of tea, which ended up being slices of peeled raw ginger steeped in hot water – delicious. I will definitely be making it myself. For my meal, I just picked a random thing on the “Czech Specialties” page. It turned out to be a vegetarian goulash and dumplings. When I saw it, I was a bit disappointed that it was something I had already tried, but not for long! It was infinitely more delicious than the beef version of the day before. This one was made with a meat substitute and was in this incredible sauce that had all kinds of intricate layers of flavor going on. It was a tad bit spicy, with a strong citrusy presence. And it was really pretty, with a lime slice, cranberries, and unsweetened whipped cream on top. Vegetarians for the win!
The afternoon was spent in more aimless wandering, the eating of a couple of kolaches, and being proud of myself when I navigated back to the hostel without my map at the end of the day. That night was a big party night at the hostel; one of the long-term guests/honorary staff members was going home the next day, so we all went out for the evening. I think that my favorite moment in Prague came when I was walking back with a couple of friends, well into the morning. The streets were generally deserted, and even though we were in the same Old Town that is swarmed with tourists during the day, you couldn’t tell. All of the storefronts were closed, hiding the flashy signs and advertisements. It felt like traveling back in time, with just cobblestones, old street lamps, and big wooden shutters.
Sadly, that was my last night in Prague, as I had to catch my second 17-hour bus the next day. Short anecdote: Prague has a pretty good public transport infrastructure. Between the subway, cable tram, and bus, you can get where you need to go pretty easily. But their ticket system SUCKS. All three systems run on the same ticket, which is handy, but they can ONLY be purchased at metro stations. You can’t hop on a tram and buy a ticket; you have to already have one with you. And a ticket is not valid unless it is stamped at the time that you enter your chosen mode of transport. So there I was, feeling pretty accomplished and worldly on my way to the bus station, because I knew how to buy a ticket, and which trains I needed to take and whatnot. But somehow, I forgot to feed my ticket through the *tiny* little stamp box (You know how most cities use turnstiles, so you can’t help but validate your tickets? Not the case in Prague. There are little yellow boxes mounted on the wall near the entrance to the metro terminals, and if you’re not paying attention – like me – it doesn’t cross your mind to get stamped.) But then I got a pretty abrupt reminder when, at the exit, a transport official asked to see my ticket. After an initial failed attempt in Czech, he asked in English why it wasn’t stamped. I tried to act like I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was determined. He asked for my ID and explained that traveling with an un-validated ticket is punishable by an 800kč fine (not quite as awful as it sounds…about $35). I didn’t have the cash on me, so I got escorted to the nearest ATM. He was nice enough, but I was so mad. But I got a rare Prague souvenir out of it all.