It was the first time I had a driver waiting at the airport holding a sign with my name on it. The ApartHotel BV provided an airport pickup service, and there was our goofy-looking driver, ready to cart Amy, Sarah and me into Prague in a not-so-shiny BMW 5-series, complete with a stock of bootleg CDs. As we wound our way into town, we were treated to the strains of Van Morrisson, traditional Irish music, cheeseball trance, and the Bloodhound Gang, which made the landscape of gothic architecture and little bridges all the more surreal.
Smoke filled the entryway to the hotel's reception area, just as it does every corner of Prague. We checked in, found our way upstairs, to find a huge, spacious studio apartment filled with Ikea furniture, a nice kitchen area, and - god bless them - a bathroom with a proper tub and a washing machine. Sweet!
While the gals unwound, I made my way to the Albert supermarket, oddly located in the subway station in the middle of Wenceslas Square, or Vaclavskě Naměsti as the locals call it. There I purchased 2 large bottles of water, some fantastic bacon chips, a package of gouda cheese, 3 freshly baked rolls, a probiotic yogurt drink, and 3 pint cans of local beer. All for the grand total of 133 Kč, or just over five dollars. This place is cheap, to say at the least.
Vaclavskě Naměsti is huge and modern and touristy, with a little marketplace selling trinkets and food at the northern end. After browsing the wares, we headed north to the Old Town Square and... WOW. Wowie wow wow. That's all I could think, over and over, looking at the amazing architecture. The ornate astronomical clock rightfully drawing hordes of tourists, the Church of St. Nicholas flouting daily Mozart performances, and - I could go on and on, but my fingers would fall off typing about all the amazing views this tiny little area has to offer. And that's just a very small part of Prague.
Naturally, being with a pair of women, there was a lot of browsing and shopping to be done, and while grocery shopping was cheap, much of Prague's center is full of the same high street stores you'd find in London or Paris, with much the same prices. Bummer. But that didn't prevent us from finding great local stores, full of great Czech wares and remnants of Prague's communist era. Matryoshkas, Soviet trinkets, big fur hats - you name it. Sure, it's all geared toward tourists, but walking around and staring in wonder, I can't help but be yet another tourist completely taken in by the city's charms.
Some uncharming stuff here:
- Computer keyboards are totally jacked, with the Y and Z keys reversed for some reason. And punctuation is nearly impossible to find. I've had to do an insane amount of copying and pasting just to write this.
- Customer service is legendarily non-existent, but as advised by numerous guidebooks, the locals warm up quite a bit when you make any attempt to speak Czech. Luckily, my 2 weeks of learning the language have come in handy.
- There's no way of telling which brands of Absinthe are good, and which are just knockoffs for the tourist crowd. This is going to require some research.
- Beggars prostrate themselves on the street, face down, holding out a cup or hat in front of their down-turned head, not saying a word, in the hopes that someone will acknowledge their shame and throw them some loose change. While absolutely fascinating, it's sad and depressing, and not all that uncommon. Absolutely surreal. If anyone knows anything about this form of begging, I'd love to find out more - click the comments link and fill me in.
Of course, those are only minor annoyances. The city's good points clearly outshine the bad, coming in the form of beauty around every corner, cheap and plentiful beer, and food prices that are befuddlingly low.
At one point, we were feeling hungry and stopped in at a restaurant for a slice of pizza. At roughly 79 Kč apiece, we figured it wasn't an amazing deal or anything, but still pretty reasonable. It turns out each order was for a FULL pizza, some of which is now lingering in our apartment's fridge. Not freakin' bad!
The late afternoon pizza was just a snack, though. After plenty more trekking around, watching an awful Czech movie on TV, and necessary nap time, we walked over to the U Prince restaurant for a ritzy dinner. Carpaccio, Bohemian sirloin steak, two orders of chicken, some fancy mixed drinks and a couple of beers came out to 24 dollars a person. Sky-high in Prague, but a mere pittance at home for the caliber of food and drink we were served. All the while, we were entertained by an authentic Czech jazz band, playing a bunch of, umm, Dixieland standards. Did I mention this place is surreal?
A hot bath this morning did me some good, and here I am at another internet cafe while the girls are - you guessed it... Shopping! How can you blame them, though? There's so much cool stuff, the prices are more than reasonable, and we get a killer exchange rate for once. I'm going to have to dive in and do some myself before the week is up.
They're on a deadline, though. We have to catch a noon train to Kutna Hora and Sedlec, getting away from the throngs of tourists in town to have a little Gothic outing about an hour east of here. Bones and churches and castles, oh my!