october 2002, praha (prague)


by early october of 2002, i had only spent about 5 days of my 30 days vacation, and burnout was looming. i was often tired and unenthusiastic about work, and desperately needed to get away. the excuse came in the form of a university friend, r-b, who is moving back to new zealand, but wanted to zip around europe a bit first. we sightsaw berlin for a couple of days, and then headed off to prague for 4 days. here is what it looks like just outside of berlin, in brandenburg. as we crossed the border, a czech ticket-controller came past. she had an extremely blank, borderline stern face, but when i asked her how to pronounce dĕkuji (thank you), she flashed a beautiful smile at me. we would see this reaction repeatedly. although the czech are typically dour on first contact, if you speak a word or two of their language, they warm up considerably. the towns in the czech republic were also noticeably dimmer than in germany. the lighting was simply sparser and less strong.
prague is not quite halfway down the from the northern border, and we reached it in 2 ½ hours (5 ½ total from berlin), including several stops. once we arrived in prague, we were greeted at the train station by a man who wanted to rent us a room. on the premise of being fair first, and bastards later, we agreed to look at what he was offering. it was a room with two (actually four, but we were promised the room to ourselves) beds at €20 per night each, in a small-time hotel/hostel called the manhattan, with private bathroom and a curtain-less shower. the manhattan was close to václavské námĕsti, a.k.a. wenceslas square.

he gave us lots of tips about prague, including not withdrawing money in the train station, since there are gangs watching people, who may try to grab it outside. we were told not to go to "parties" since it is not unheard of that people get drugged and wake up without all their stuff. then there is the usual stuff like not walking around in dark places, especially alone, especially if you are a girl. finally, don't pack valuable items in easy to reach places in backpack pockets, and be vigilant at all times. pickpockets are supposedly everywhere, although we saw no signs of them. it is not that prague is inherently such a nasty city, but there are so many tourists here, and the pickpockets follow.

anyway, the guy was nice enough and gave good advice, but there was just something about him that was unsettling, apart from the vague feeling that he might have smelled a little like urine. he seemed extremely nervous around us, but in a way that made me feel as if it was us, not him, that was the reason. eventually we paid and he started digging around for a piece of paper to write the bill on. i fetched one, but he insisted on digging around in his notebook, several times flipping past a couple of pictures of naked guys, in a way that could not have been a coincidence; the guy was trying to pick us up! anyway, we dispensed with him in short order and saw him no more. even if you ignore for the moment the fact that i am straight, i can't imagine what would make me want anything from a shifty old guy who smelled faintly like urine.

he left, and we went out, and i immediately took these pictures. i would recommend avoiding the wenceslas square area, simply because it isn't that interesting. there are two mcdonalds here, as well as a bunch of other junk you could find in any city. finally, the national museum supposedly is not that big a deal, so we didn't go.

afterwards we strolled down towards the old town square, in an effort to see as much as possible even though we were tired and wanted to sleep. we found out that some of the bars in this region charge more (59 kr., 1€ = 30 kr.) for a glass of beer if you sit outside than if you sit inside (25 kr.). we wanted to sit outside regardless and decided to just put up with the charge. we didn't encounter this price difference again though. we did see this sign however, a strong indication that we were no longer in berlin. "buddy, i'll leave my gun here, but the ice cream is coming inside with me!"

the next morning we woke up to the pink reality of our room. i don't think i need to say any more about that. it was comfortable enough though, even if i didn't sleep that well the first night, worrying too much about people who would try to sneak extra side-dishes onto our bills, pick our pockets, steal my camera, drug us and do whatever else people do when the straight and narrow no longer feeds them. in the end, we never really saw any of this. i think if you keep your head cool and stay alert, you avoid all of it. but it apparently all does happen to careless folk. for the record, and as a comparison, i have heard that barcelona is much worse.
we strolled around and familiarised ourselves with the city itself, which is the most photogenic location i have ever been. i ended up taking 210 pictures in 2 ½ days, and had to buy a second memory card for my digital camera after i filled the first in a single day.

i must mention here that i cannot imagine how hellish it must be in high season. even this late there were loads of tourists, and the locals obviously had mixed feelings about the whole thing. once we learned how to say good day (dobrý den), please (prosím) and thank you (dĕkuji), the locals smiled at us a lot more. most tourists don't bother. i tried to learn the czech pronunctiation, but didn't quite manage in the four days we were there. i did buy an english-czech dictionary. i love dictionaries.

this clock is very famous, but as i am visually and not historically interested, i don't really know why. it was old and neat. the bricks were made of paper or wood and i got a good chuckle out of the sign's translation.

karlův most (charles bridge) is one of the most famous structures in prague, unsurprisingly. not only is it old, but the statues along it and the towers at the ends are simply gorgeous. unfortunately it is covered in soot, tourists and people hawking all kinds of junk. we refused to buy anything on the bridge, hoping that if enough people do this, eventually the hawkers would leave it alone. as it was, it was really a mixed blessing. being a painter would have been fine, as you can choose whether or not to paint people into your picture. being a photographer is not quite as flexible. we would return here often, and get better and better pictures. i also bought some really nice watercolours of the bridge, two of which will go to friends and family. i am keeping the third one myself.
there are still indications here and there that this used to be a communist country, but sadly this particular poster is being used to hawk remnants of communist ideology to snickering tourists. i would have liked to pick some copies of it, but ran out of time to find the store. although communism eventually failed to work (in fact, it was never really practiced in its purest form), it was a time of lofty ideals and much political movement. those days are gone, and although capitalism seems to ultimately have been the stronger ideology, it does leave a bad taste in my mouth.
eventually we made it to the famous castle, and the photo-opportunities multiplied. today prague is incredibly photogenic, but apparently it wasn't always so. as recently as 1987, there were missing roofs all over, and extensive damage to many buildings. tourism has given the cash-influx needed to fix everything, but the price has been heavy. prague is incredibly full of tourists now, many of whom don't appreciate it properly. there were lots of teenagers who were seemingly here to get a prague patch for their backpack and to get drunk and laid. even a gesture as small as learning three words in czech was so widely appreciated that i had to wonder what the average tourist behaves like.

anyway, the castle is a mishmash of styles, some old (as old as 904), some much newer. i preferred the older style, finding the katedrála sv víta, st. vitus cathedral too large and domineering, but it was admittedly pretty. the first couple of days we were not that lucky with the weather, getting mainly grey skies with scattered showers. the leaves were fantastic though, and we did eventually get blue skies.

the river vltava runs through prague, and there are many bridges running across. karlův most is the most famous of these, but many of the others are also quite pretty. from the tower of the st. vitus cathedral you get quite a good view of the city, including the bridges. note the funky little spiral staircase up the inside of the adjacent tower.
the inside of st. vitus is also quite pretty, although to be honest it is not that different from many other cathedrals in europe.
the original michael jackson nose!
i love pictures of details, as you will already know if you are regular visitors. here are some funky doorhandles. i especially like the round one.
up the back of the hill south of the castle is the hunger wall which leads to some really nice park areas, as well as the petřín tower, which looks like the eiffel tower in paris, but is much smaller. i would recommend visiting this, as the view is quite spectacular.
coming down from the hill there are a few different paths, one of which had the tree with the roots shown here. the rock was pure graffiti, but of a type which requires a patience probably lost on the kids who now tag buildings everywhere with their initials: it was scratched into the side of rocks.
there were some particularly delicately decorated buildings here and there. this one was perhaps the most elaborate. the column was really nicely done. at some point i would like to try my hand at sculpting, but this type of work requires incredible visualisation skills, i imagine. this is from a hall in one of the older buildings in the castle. at lunch time we had beef goulash in a restaurant close to the south wall of the castle, and it was quite delicious and not expensive (compared to berlin; for pragueites it was probably monstrously overpriced).
when you are trying to see everything in prague, you frequently find yourself crossing the karlův most. it really is a very beautiful bridge, soot and all. the details in prague are simply everywhere, and it is hard not to find even something as simple as an old door beautiful. the rooftops were beautiful, even if they were quite new, and not that unlike the rooftops in other european cities.
these pictures were all taken from karlův most. beautiful facade, bummer about the privacy in that place.
that night we had dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, lotos, and then snapped some night-time shots before returning to the hostel. we would often be approached at night and asked if we wanted to see a strip-show. apart from the fact that neither of us are really the type to go to these places (not that we wouldn't have enjoyed it or anything, but you know), we were also warned about them. it is not unheard of to have someone slip sleeping drugs into your drinks, and then you wake up the next morning in an alley without your valuables.

it occurred to me that it was not necessarily the case that prague was always a big strip-show city. it is perhaps more likely that enough people ask for it that it simply starts because it is a business opportunity. everyone who goes to some foreign city and asks for a strip-show is creating a demand by asking, and thus kick-start a whole industry.

i often felt ashamed of being a tourist when seeing how others behaved. on the other hand, i have no sympathy for the snotty prague citizens who act as if the tourists should all be asked to leave. they themselves have most likely travelled, in which case that stance is completely inconsistent. the point is that people should be more considerate when they travel, and aware of what effect their behaviour has at the local level. what happened in bali is very indicative of a tourist industry completely out of touch with the effect it has on the local culture.

this all leads to another question: how does one act like a good tourist? apart from staying away from strip-shows, drugs, and other industries that this supports, simply trying to live in the local way, and understanding the local culture would go a long way towards mitigating the problem. travel destinations are not just there to provide photo-opportunities; people live there. and whatever you do, do not ask for a big mac anywhere. it is well known that the tenth time someone asks for a big mac, a mcdonalds outlet instantaneously sprouts out of the ground.

r-b was tired that night, but i went out once more and found some bar. although initially empty, it unfortunately quickly filled exclusively with drunk tourists trying to get laid. it eventually closed around midnight, which oddly seems normal for these places. maybe there is somewhere else where the town stays alive longer.

on the way down i passed just behind a girl who was standing on the sidewalk. just as i passed, she saw me and looked at me and said "sex?" :) she really asked too late and i just continued without answering. later on when i returned, she was still (or again) there, and came over to me again, put her hand on my shoulder, and walked along beside me:

- sex?
- thank you, but no.
- why not? it's good!
- i know! but no thank you.
- c'mon!
- *smile* no.
- don't you like sex?
- of course, but no thank you.

eventually she gave up. the next day when r-b and i came back past again, she saw me and shouted "hey!!! sex?" and i laughed and said "no thank you". she was actually very pretty, and seemed nice and happy, not at all like the prostitutes in most places, but it sadly just isn't my thing. a shame, really.


the next morning we grabbed brunch before heading down towards the river. we were warned about restaurants trying to add things to the bill, like side-dishes of bread and so on, so when two unrequested donuts showed up at our table, we asked what they were, and they were promptly removed. then we read the menu: "to every our coffee, free doughnut!". doh! the walking man (if you can call him that; try that pose for a second) was one of the more amusing icons. the second hand family... well, what can i say. we picked up a really nice used family, which was only slightly tatty around the edge, but they confiscated it at the border.

some pictures of the type i prefer to take. they don't show anything unique to prague though. these could be anywhere. okay, maybe anywhere in an old european city.
more pictures approaching the castle.
just across the moat from the castle to the north was a little garden with a nice building, the summer palace. there was also a funky fountain with a weird creature underneath. it looks like part man, part woman, part animal. a satyr of some sort? there was also a nice view of the castle.
on the north side of the castle was a moat, currently without water. in this moat was a little park with very picturesque paths. underneath the old bridge to the castle was a modern tunnel where i got a couple of shots of the interesting lighting.
back past the karlův most...
here i tried to show how frustrating it can be to try to find a good exposure for a photo. first i exposed for the sky, and got a nice blue with puffy white clouds. then i exposed for the buildings (okay, they are a little too light) and lost the sky. with b&w photography it isn't as bad, as you have about 7 stops of latitude, but with colour film you have only 5, and i have a feeling that the digital camera may give less. i actually ought to check all these numbers over, but those are the traditional values anyway.
i have no explanation for the "ho pass", gastroturky or not. there were some strange czech-english translations in prague, like this pearl from a restaurant menu: "have a good taste". then again, that beats the hell out of the kind of czech you might find on the menu in an english-speaking country. we almost got caught by a storm on the way back this time.
saturday night i convinced r-b to go see a jazz show, and we managed to pick a great one. the style was mostly 50's or a little later, similar bill evans, but with a little samba thrown in here and there. there was no regimental solo-trading or anything contrived like that, just fun and a good show. highly recommended. u maleho glena. we saw the castle again on the way there and the karlův most on the way back.

on the last day, we finally got some proper blue skies.we also discovered that the market which we had been passing every day was established in the year 1232. the market was nothing special, but it has still been running roughly three times longer than canada has exited! on this half-day (we took the train back at around 15.00) we made another run up to the castle to pick up one last watercolour for r-b, and on the way we stopped in at the west tower of karlův most where i got one of my favorite pictures from this trip, looking down at two people walking under an arch. i had to wait a while for the two people.
on the way up to the castle and also on the way back down, we saw yet more of the doors, arches and openings which so characterise the old part of prague. just below the walls of the castle was a little internet cafe where we had a good cappuccino.
from the south castle wall we kept seeing this bizarre grey wall down below, which looked like it was made from skulls, except that the hue was too dark. we tried to find it on a couple of occasions, but it wasn't until the final day when we stumbled in through the gates of the parliament buildings that we succeeded. our final journey was to the train station, and we passed the karlův most one last time on the way.
the first two of the following pictures are still in the czech republic and the third one is in the german state of sachsen. i think i will make a separate trip to sachsen at some point; it is very beautiful.

i will make a note here that booking a ticket is very recommended if you plan to travel on fridays or sundays. the train was packed way over capacity from dresden to berlin, because so many students had bought un-dated tickets and simply showed up. i don't know why more of them didn't book. they were sitting on the floors along all the cars, trying to get a little sleep, completely miserable. a simple reservation could have netted a forward-facing double-seat in non-smoking for anyone who cared to have it.

another note: the departure times on the schedule we picked up in berlin was wrong, at both ends, and it was even wrong with respect to which station to depart from. you would have thought that after missing the 13.00 train in berlin and having to wait to hours at a different station before the next one departed, we would have learned our lesson. you would be wrong. we showed up at the prague downtown station where we had arrived, and found out that we had missed the 13.00 train again, and that we were in any case at the wrong train station. we schlepped up to holešovice (ho-le-sho-vit-se) and caught the next train two hours later.

here is my loot from the trip. i brought back two bottles of krušovice (kru-sho-vit-se), a bottle of absinth with up to 10% thujon (this drug appears to be illegal in germany and many other places, but those looking for the original absinth experience so well documented by people like van gogh and oscar wilde—"After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."—are well advised to seek out this stuff), an absinth spoon, several small watercolour paintings, all (unintentionally) of the karlův most, some bookmarks, a dictionary, some maps, and other little things. the prize (once the absinth is gone anyway) is a book on franz kafka and prague with beautiful pictures accompanied by some of his writings. finally there are some postcards which i couldn't send while down there since i had left my palmpilot (actually a handspring visor prism) here. they have now been sent and have started arriving.

i was a little worried that the border guards would find and confiscate the absinth, but they never asked for more than our passports, which incidentally, they do right on the train.

i leave you with a final view of prague, taken from the petřín tower on the opposite hill. i will be back here one day with my hasselblad, spotmeter and tripod, and lots of time to compose individual pictures, now that the tourist visit is out of the way. i will take long exposures with neutral density filters, so that the people disappear :)