Eurotrip 2011: Prague

A view of Prague.

It was raining for most of the six days I was in Prague, and I was really absorbed in the book I was reading (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which I’d been meaning to read for a long time), so I spent most of the first half of my stay lounging around my hostel. I was lucky that it was one of those hostels that puts a reading light on the wall by every bed. I was so into the book that I hardly even spoke to anyone.

It didn’t help that the hostel, Sir Toby’s Hostel, was in sort of a dull neighborhood far from the city center. I usually prefer walking to public transportation, and the walk from the hostel to old Prague took at least half an hour and required crossing many busy, pedestrian-unfriendly streets.

Apart from the location, Sir Toby’s was an A+ hostel, with a friendly staff, free computers, a well-stocked kitchen, and several balconies and a garden area to hang out in. There was even a free barbeque on Canada Day – the first time a hostel has offered me free non-breakfast food. Strangely, there was no barbeque for the 4th of July, which I celebrated by buying a Zlatopramen beer – I wanted to buy an American beer, but I couldn’t find any.

After it stopped raining, I spent a lot of time simply wandering around Prague, admiring its beauty. As I mentioned in my entry about Vienna, Amadeus was filmed in Prague due to its abundance of 18th-century architecture. Most of the buildings in the old city are the kind you would see in the background of that movie.

Prague is also a great city for Gothic architecture. Scattered here and there are big, black, menacing tower-gates. In the center of the city is the Old Town Square, constantly jammed with tourists, with a Gothic cathedral and a clock tower from which a man blows a trumpet to mark every hour. There are numerous alleys branching off the square, and I had a lot of fun turning into one of them at random and seeing where it led me.

The clock tower in the Old Market Square.

One of Prague's gothic towers.

Prague’s most famous landmark is probably the Charles Bridge, a Gothic bridge with one of those scary black towers at the end. Unfortunately, it is always crowded with tourists and people making money off them – much of the bridge is occupied by caricaturists. Across the bridge, on the same side of the river as my hostel, is the Prague Castle, which contains within its walls the Saint Vitus cathedral, one of the most impressive cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe. It was so big I couldn’t fit it all in one picture.

The Charles Bridge.

The difficult-to-photograph Saint Vitus cathedral.

The only museum I went to in Prague was the Communist Museum, which told the story of the Czech Republic’s communist era and the 1968 Prague Spring revolt which was brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union. I enjoyed the Communist Museum, but it was one of those museums that doesn’t have many real artifacts, only paragraphs on placards on the wall, so going to the museum is sort of like paying to read a Wikipedia entry. They did have some communist propaganda posters, however, which I always find fascinating and actually sort of inspiring in their earnestness. They obviously tried to make the posters as striking as possible in an effort to inculcate the masses with communist values.

The text says, "We are building communism, we unmask the saboteurs and enemies of the republic, we are strengthening the front of peace!"

Like with Budapest, communism didn’t seem to leave much of a mark on Prague, architecturally. There is one leftover of communism in Prague, though – its affordability. You can get a half-liter beer in a bar for the equivalent of just over a euro, and in a convenience store for about 50 euro cents. My hostel cost only 15 euros a night, a really good deal for a top-quality hostel in July.

On July 6th, I left Prague on an overnight train to Krakow – hopefully, the last overnight train I will have to take on my trip.

Eurotrip 2011: Budapest

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

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Eurotrip 2011: Budapest

A view from the Buda side of Budapest.

My Eurail pass expired while I was in Vienna, so I took a Eurolines bus from there to Budapest for 19 Euros. In addition to being cheap, the Eurolines buses are surprisingly comfortable. All three of the buses I’ve taken so far have been less than half full, giving me more personal space than I had on the trains. The interiors of the buses are so clean they seem new. It’s also nice that there are electrical outlets in every other row. The main downside is that the bus stations tend to be in out-of-the-way places, not in the center of the city like the train stations.

My hostel in Budapest, the Mandarin Hostel, was also on the outskirts of the city, only one metro stop from the bus station. The Mandarin Hostel was wonderful, despite being a 30-minute walk from the city center. I can usually tell by the time I reach the reception desk whether I’ll like a hostel or not. In the case of the Mandarin Hostel, I saw the tall ceilings, the old, elegant marble staircase, the courtyard with broken-in lawn furniture and grill, and the absence of dozens of people milling around the reception desk, and I knew I would like it. It also helped that the employee at the front desk (and owner, I believe), named Zoltan, was friendly and knowledgeable about the city, and reminded me of Bob Newhart, except he had a really deep voice.

Mandarin hostel also had a great kitchen with many cooking tools I had never even seen before, in addition to the crucial can-opener.

I became friends with some guys in my room – an English fellow, an Irish guy, and two friends from Singapore. One night we went to a few pubs with a Romanian girl and a Finnish girl also staying at the hostel. Before we even left, the Irish lad had enough beers and liquor to put me in the hospital, without even seeming buzzed.

The gang at the hookah bar.

We went to two excellent bars where I had a couple half-liter Arany Aszok beers. It was a Sunday night, and both bars had a nice amount of people – not crowded, but not empty. We didn’t even have to wait for the foosball table at the first bar, where we played a few games. Both also played great music. The first one had a jazz band performing, and the second was playing obscure tunes by Grace Jones and Kraftwerk. At the second bar, we ordered a hookah and smoked strawberry-flavored tobacco, which reinvigorated some of us somewhat, it being past three in the morning.

The Finnish girl and the Singaporean guys went home after the second bar, while I opted, against my usual habits, to continue the night with the others. We got another round of beers at another bar while it grew light outside, then we walked through the empty streets to a Turkish-style bathhouse, a leftover from Turkey’s occupation of Hungary, arriving just as it opened at 6 A.M.

The baths.

We were the youngest people in the baths by about 30 years, and we got unpleasant looks from the other patrons, as if they intuited that we had been out all night drinking. The baths complex was what I imagine the ancient Roman baths to be have been like: pools of varying temperatures surrounded by ornate columns, arches and statues. We started in a warm outdoor pool that had a whirlpool in the center. Then, we took a short but painful dip into a cold indoor pool that immediately chilled the bones in my toes. We proceeded to an even hotter indoor pool, then we returned outside.

The baths' interior.

The others remained out there (some of them managed to catch a few winks in the pool), while I went back inside to try the thermal baths. They had already been to the baths a few days before and weren’t eager to come home smelling like sulfur again. The thermal bath gave me a pleasant tingling sensation all over my body, and I felt very tender and relaxed afterwards, although I did end up with a rotten-egg smell that remained even after another dip in the normal pool. After more than an hour at the baths, we took the metro back to the hostel and crashed.

A cathedral in Budapest.

A beautiful but neglected building.

The ornate surroundings at the baths were not unusual – Budapest has a lot of beautiful architecture in unexpected places. A stroll through the city will take you by many unique buildings showing a mixture of Western and Eastern influences. Unfortunately, many of the buildings are falling apart, probably due to neglect during the communist era and damage caused by the rebellion of 1956. Hungary’s current economic situation has also probably played a role. It is clearly less wealthy than European countries to the west, with levels of homelessness I haven’t seen since I left the U.S. Budapest also reminded me of American cities in that its metro trains seem to be many decades old.

Budapest's riverfront.

Budapest’s riverfront rivals Porto’s in its beauty. The Buda side (Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, joined together) is hilly, heavily wooded, and relatively empty, with a medieval palace atop one of its hills. The Pest side is dense with gothic churches and government buildings. Despite being under communist rule for decades, there are very few ugly concrete-and-glass buildings in Budapest.

One day I took a long bus ride to Memento Park, where the propagandistic statues of the old communist regime have been deposited. Some of the statues were actually really powerful. One that struck me was of a worker striding forward with his arms raised in triumph and a determined look on his face, presumably meant to represent the impetus of the communist revolution. Looking at the statue, I felt like the man had enough forward momentum to break free from the platform and walk out the park.

A Red Army soldier.

A statue of Lenin.

The rebellious worker.

Budapest was another place where a great hostel plus a great city equalled a great time for me. I’m glad that I’d decided to book a generous five nights there.

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

A public square in Vienna.

I only booked three nights in Vienna because someone told me it was ugly. I don’t remember who told me that, but the idea took root in my head. I imagined a bombed-out city of wide streets, awkward green spaces and glass office buildings, like the worst parts of Berlin and Hamburg.

Actually, Vienna was an exceptionally beautiful city, and I regretted not spending more time there. Maybe the person who misled me about Vienna held a personal grudge against the city because he was mugged there. Maybe he was thinking of another city that was ugly. Or, maybe I was mistaken and it was another city he said was ugly.

A surprisingly high percentage of Vienna’s center consists of beautiful baroque buildings, giving it an architectural uniformity almost equal to that of Paris. While walking through the crooked streets downtown, I often had a flashback to the scene in Amadeus in which Mozart drinks a bottle of wine while walking to his apartment past horse-drawn carriages and street-performers. The architecture in Vienna was so similar to that of the movie that I assumed it was filmed there – especially since it takes place in Vienna – but a look at the IMdB page shows that it was filmed in Prague, where I will be soon.

A typical beautiful building in Vienna.

The Stephansdom cathedral.

The Votivkirche, blocked by an unfortunate advertisement.

There are also a few magnificent Gothic buildings scattered about, including two cathedrals and a Rathaus. Unfortunately, all three of these wonderful buildings were undergoing renovations during my visit, and one of the cathedrals had an advertisement hanging rudely from it. I also stopped by the Secession center, an Art Nouveau building used as a meeting place by artists like Gustav Klimt who rebelled against the conservative establishment in Vienna’s art scene in the late 19th century.

The Secession building.

One of my favorite buildings in Vienna was Karlskirche, a baroque church framed by two triumphal columns inspired by Trajan’s column in Rome. According to Wikipedia, the columns illustrate scenes from the life of St. Charles. I think it’s very interesting, although probably not totally appropriate, that an architectural form originally used to trumpet the military exploits of an emperor is used to tell the story of a Christian saint.

Karlskirche.

My hostel – the Hostel Ruthensteiner – was wonderful, with a great kitchen and a beautiful courtyard with plenty of comfortable chairs. However, it became so crowded during breakfast and dinner-time that it was difficult to cook or meet people, simply because of a lack of space. Luckily, I already had a friend in the city. Dhika, the Indonesian student I met in Florence, is completing her Masters in Vienna, so she showed me around.

The day I arrived Dhika took me to the Schonbrunn palace, once the summer getaway for the Holy Roman Emperors, now surrounded by urban sprawl. It reminded me a lot of Versailles. We strolled through the gardens to the top of a hill with a great view of Vienna.

Schonbrunn

The last day of my stay was the first day of Donauinselfest, an annual rock concert held on an island in the Danube river. That night, Dhika and I took a train there to watch a German rap-rock group perform. They weren’t playing my kind of music, but they weren’t bad. I had a good time despite cutting my hand while attempting to open a bottle of beer with a key.

Donauinselfest

Later that night, back at the hostel, I was awoken by someone who seemed to have had too good of a time at the festival – one of my roommates was puking onto the floor by the window. Everyone in the 10-bed room seemed to wake up, but no one said anything as he heaved a few times and walked casually to his bed. I simply returned to sleep so that I would be well-rested for my bus ride to Budapest the next morning.

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul