The next-to-last stop on my tour, and my whole original reason for going on the tour, of East-Central Europe, was Prague. Some of the things I’d heard were true. The buildings were beautiful, and were being restored. The unrestored ones gave the place a quiet, land-that-time-forgot feel that could let you pretend that the last 50 years, at least, hadn’t happened. I also saw my first repainted tram, a dramatic and almost joyful departure from the drab institutional red that had covered almost all trams in the former communist countries.
I’d also been told that the people in Prague were wonderful, friendly, and liked Americans. Perhaps it was the experience of just having been in the friendliest places for Americans in Europe, Poland and Hungary, but I found most people polite at best, and rudely contemptuous at worst. They did like my money, too. I was also taken aback by the fact that a) I had to speak Russian to get around, as nobody knew English except the guy fining me for having the wrong ticket on the metro, and b) nobody seemed to mind. Now this was really surprising, given that when my friend had slipped up and said “Spasibo” (Russian for “Thank you”) in Kraków, an old woman hotly corrected her, “No spasibo! No spacibo! Dziekuje.” I tried English first everywhere, and then, apologetically, tried Russian, and in Poland and Hungary either they would reluctantly agree or pretend they didn’t know it. In Prague, however, people seemed quite accustomed to it and showed no resentment for the former imperialist power. People there also looked more Russian than those in Poland or Hungary–by that I mean their cheap plastic shoes, long, greasy hairstyles, and clothes. My experience in Russia had been somewhat disappointing, so this may have had something to do with my perceptions. And there were some nice people, and my last trip there went surprisingly well. And most people I meet really love Prague, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I may have simply had atypical experiences. I must say, though, that given a choice, I choose Budapest over Prague as a vacation destination.
It is a beautiful city. The first evening out, I saw the sunset over Hradcany (the hill with the exceedingly picturesque castle and cathedral on top…in front of an excessively scenic bend in the Vltava river), and had some dinner. At this dinner, I mistook what I though to be a deciliter of wine, which apparently was Czech for a carafe. At any rate, I got this great bloody pitcher of wine, and out of pride I drank about half of it rather than admit my error. The waiter had, though in Czech, expressed what I now know to have been surprise at my choice. Oh, well. I stopped just before it would have been impossible to find my way back to the hotel. This was the most expensive place I stayed at during my trip, for the same price as in Austria: USD 40 per night, one section outside of the old town. Prague was (and is) the most expensive city in the former communist states. I must admit, I had some price shock, despite my recent experience in Austria.
The next day, amazingly free of hangover, I saw the National Museum at the top of Wenceslaus Square, which is definitely worth a visit. It has an extensive collection of natural history, paleontology and geology, not only from the former Czechoslovakia but from around the world. The building it is housed in is also very beautiful and impressive.