I’ve started writing about it a dozen times by now, and for some reason I’ve found it exceptionally difficult. Since time’s a-wasting, I’ve decided to abandon over-thinking and just start writing.
The train ride from Budapest to Prague took about 7 hours, through Hungary, Slovakia, and into the Czech Republic. We passed dilapidated castles on faraway hilltops, sailed through tiny towns we’ll probably never see again, and mused at the differences we were noticing in the language. I would later learn that the Czech alphabet contains 42 letters, 8 of which have a háček (ˇ); the most fearsome of these, I would come to find, is the “Ř”. But at the time, still completely unfamiliar with the many ways in which Czech differs from Hungarian, we deemed all the háček letters “angry”, since the symbol calls to mind a furrowed brow.
We made it into Prague just as dusk was settling into night. The first order of business was to figure out the exchange rate, and we discovered that we’d be working with much smaller numbers here than in Budapest, which was a relief in some ways but a little confusing at first. The second order of business was to buy tickets for the tram to the apartment. We had originally intended to meet our landlady at 7pm, but ended up getting there closer to 7:45pm. When we got off at our stop, a girl asked, “Hallo, are you looking for an apartment?” and at first I thought she was soliciting. In fact, she was the landlady. Immediately after we made that connection, Conor, a friend of ours who’s living in Prague, came around the corner. He’d been waiting for us as well, since we also told him 7pm. The landlady walked us all up to the apartment, showed us around briefly, and was gone, leaving us to marvel at what we would eventually deem the Cupcake Palace.
Once we were settled, Conor took us to The Hanging Coffee for our first meal, which was a harbinger of meals to come: lovingly prepared, delicious, heavy as all hell, and always with beer. The name of the place comes from a custom wherein a customer buys two cups of coffee, but only drinks one; the second is left “hanging” for someone else who may not have the means to buy coffee for themselves. I like that.
After dinner, we walked past the John Lennon Wall. I took a couple pictures, but it was pretty dark out. I’ll try to get some more when the light is better.
The Lennon Wall is interesting because, during the days of Communism, it would be continually painted over by the authorities, only to have Lennon/Beatles quotes and flowery graffiti repainted on it the next day.
After that, we went out to drink beer and play pinball, which would become a pretty common occurrence during our time here. Stayed out really late drinking beer, among other things.
The next day, the combination of a big day of travel and a long night of revelry meant we slept in in a big way. That day was very low-key, and we enjoyed some down-time in the Cupcake Palace, observing our surroundings. We live in a small neighborhood at the foot of Vyšehrad Castle, across the street from a little church and a restaurant that serves Czech comfort food in intimidating portions. There’s also a grocery store a couple blocks down the rail line, which we visited so as not to have to eat out every meal (which would almost certainly kill us).
The third day, Sarah and Jim and I ventured out to see the tourist-packed sights of Old Town. I don’t generally enjoy tourists, though I am often one myself. Tourists move through main thoroughfares in large numbers at infuriatingly glacial paces. They cause tacky souvenir shops to sprout up in their wake by the dozen, each one bumping its own selection of bass-heavy American pop music and offering the same exact stuff as all the others. And, worst of all, tourists make the beer more expensive. However, one must learn to deal with tourists if one is to get to see things like this:
Around the perimeter of the square, vendors sell sausages and pastries and various crafts. There was one place that Sarah was ordered by a friend of hers to patronize: a stand selling the Czech version of kürtőskalács.
The trdelník is smaller than its Hungarian counterpart, but admittedly more delicious. It comes in just one flavor, versus the Hungarian four or five. We shared it amongst ourselves and enjoyed it thoroughly, and then got a few cups of svařák (the Czech version of forralt bor) to drink while we continued walking around.
While crossing the Charles Bridge, we heard the unmistakable sound of a hot jazz band playing “Blueberry Hill,” and were stopped in our tracks by these guys.
They’re called Jazz No Problem, and they were knocking it out of the park. Something about hot jazz being played on a bridge by a bunch of middle-aged Czech guys went straight to my heart like an arrow, and I was in love. It probably has something to do with the fact that they are seriously good; the clarinet player in particular caught my ear, in a similar way to the harmonica player of Mojo Workings. And I’ve decided that I absolutely must build a washboard set-up like the one they were using, complete with wire whisks.
We crossed the bridge and heard a couple guys playing Bob Dylan songs underneath, so we followed the sound. They were pretty good, but we kept walking, because it had been hours at this point and the sun was starting to go down. We passed a park that featured some giant black baby statues in mid-crawl; what made them particularly creepy was the fact that they all had indented rectangles where their faces should be. We took pictures, but they all turned out way dark, so I’ll spare you the weirdness. I learned that there’s a radio tower on the east side of town that features the same creepy babies climbing up it. I’m not really sure what the creepy baby thing is about. Oh well.
On our way to cross the Vltava river to get back home, we spotted a “farm store”, featuring produce that was a lot better-looking than the sadness we’d picked up at the local grocery store the day before, so we went a little crazy. Broccoli! Red peppers! Zucchini! Cucumber! Pickles, feta cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, etc. etc. etc. We’d only been in Prague a few days at this point and already the importance of vegetables was irrevocably impressed upon us.
Made it back to the Cupcake Palace to watch a Russian movie which we soon found out had no subtitle options. We decided to watch it anyway, and devised our own plot, which can be summed up by the phrase “Uncle Grandpa Baller Gangster Fight Vacation”.
I love it here.
One of our next wandering missions was to explore our neighboring castle. Conor had already taken us up to Prague Castle, which was gorgeous and majestic but ultimately packed with tourists. He had mentioned his preference for Vyšehrad for the exact reason that it was a lot more laid-back, which sounded great to us. Before we went to the castle, we wanted to find breakfast, and so we headed up a hill to the east of the Cupcake Palace in search of Passe Partout, which sounded like a promising spot. However, once we crested the hill, and walked to the spot where it should’ve been, we discovered that it had been replaced by some upscale-looking bistro place that none of us was particularly enthused about patronizing. Looking around the square, we found Café ZanziBar, scoped out their menu, and decided to go in.
After a satisfying meal, it was time to make our way to Vyšehrad.
It’s actually a little ridiculous how close our apartment is to the castle, and now that I’ve been made familiar with the compound, I’ve realized that we can actually see part of the wall from our window. Once we got to the top, the view was amazing.
We wandered around the perimeter, taking pictures of various structures, most of which are centuries older than the current iteration of our home country, which is always a staggering thought.
At the southern end of the compound, there was a little museum that cost 50Kz (around US $3) to enter. We paid and went in, and were confronted by a millenium’s worth of history of our immediate surroundings. Vyšehrad has many myths surrounding it, some involving Vratislav I, the first King of Bohemia. King Charles, for whom the famous bridge is named, was also a prominent figure in the stories told. There were artifacts encased in glass that predated Columbus’s arrival to the Americas. I was awe-struck.
From there, we went to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the glorious Gothic spires of which can be seen from our bedroom. We could enter the lobby, but, as with St. Vitus at Prague Castle, there was an entrance fee to see the rest of it. (According to Conor, this hasn’t always been the case, but I’m not surprised that it ended up being so; a nominal fee, times a ga-million people per day, ends up being quite a lot of money, and why give history away for free when there’s money to be made?)
After that, we wandered the cemetery, and were slightly surprised at how recent most of the graves were, considering how long this place has been here. Sarah took some pics of some of the statues, except for one very unsettling one, which she refused to photograph because we became convinced it would follow us if she did.
Dinner that night was at a pizza restaurant we’d visited once before, and at this point we’ve become regulars (it’s tied with Pod Slavínem as the neighborhood place we’ve frequented most often). The pizza is pretty outstanding, and they’ve got WiFi, which is always a plus since the one drawback about the Cupcake Palace is that it lacks internet access.
On to Jim’s birthday!