Prague: budget air travel, hostels, gadgets
Budget airline travel is fucking horrible. My recent travels have been either by rail (InterRailing Italy) or on proper airlines where at least the memory of the glamour of air travel lives on. This had allowed me to forget just how unpleasant it is to be corralled into a 737 with 250 other people and kept there for two and a half hours at your own expense. Or to spend over three hours airside in Manchester Airport Terminal 3 because your plane is late. Or to be penned in to a small glass box in Prague and told nothing about the whereabouts of your plane, which is late, again, subsisting on vending machine fare and shooting angry glances at the screens insisting that your plane left on time when it hasn’t even arrived yet. I know, I know, it’s cheap and we should put up with it, but if someone offered a “Be treated like a human being” surcharge I’d be at the front of the queue.
I suppose the extent to which things like this are tolerable is tied up pretty closely with how good a sense of humour you have. Our 2300 plane out of Prague arrived at 2335. Fifty or so people immediately stood up and formed a line by the (unmanned) desk. The rest of us turned to one another in wonder, thinking out loud “Don’t they realise it’s full of people/baggage and not very full of fuel?” I tapped my travel companion on the shoulder to point out the arrival of this metal miracle.
“Is it a plane?” came the response.
“Is it a bird?” I replied without missing a beat, sending the woman in the seat opposite into hysterics. Life is seldom that funny, I am seldom that witty and people are seldom that receptive, so I enjoyed the brief moment when they coincided. Said travel companion found this slightly less amusing; familiarity breeds contempt, or at least predictability…
A sense of humour is certainly required upon returning to your hostel dorm hoping for an early night to discover
In their defence, the two Australian guys who had managed to remain in the vertical were doing their best to look after their semi-conscious mate, all the while reminding him just how far they hadn’t managed to get on their organised pub crawl before he drank himself into oblivion. The Dutch guys were really only grumpy because there was someone throwing up in the shower, which seems perfectly reasonable to me. The Japanese boy with the laptop? I have no idea. For the first two days I was convinced that he was somehow incapacitated, or else physically attached to his bed every time we arrived back at the dorm, be it early evening or the early hours of the morning, he would be lying on his front, tapping away at his computer, talking to people on Facebook. Sometime around 4am he would turn it off and collapse in exhaustion, proceeding to remain in exactly that position until sometime after whenever we left the hostel in the morning (any time between 9.30 and 11), not once showing any sign of being disturbed by the dazzling July sunlight, the cool breeze or the noise of showers, doors slamming, hairdryers, Australians… When we arrived back on our third day to find him gone, there was genuine surprise. Quite what they all made of two Brits looking on with a mixture of amusement, disdain and mild disgust I don’t suppose we shall ever know.
Prague’s public transport is brilliant, and a refreshing change from all of the above. That this has a lot to do with Soviet construction projects lends it a slightly chilling air, but that aside it is extensive, efficient and cheap. Everything is included, not just the trams and metros but the funicular railway to Petrin and the airport buses; how many cities try to screw the unsuspecting tourist by charging through the nose for airport buses or trains? Stand up Rome (where the airport train is “First Class only” to extract more euro from InterRailers), London (slow and expensive on the Tube or fast and even more expensive on the Heathrow Express, anybody?) and many others. In Prague, it’s all included in your 100Kc (£3.35 at the time of writing) 24-hour pass.
And the city itself? Beautiful. Magnificent, eccentric and just a little like a theme park at times, it’s a playground full of turrets, ramparts, Gothic spires, Romantic domes, squat medieval guard towers and creepy, blackened statues that line the bridges and walls. Western tourism has rampaged through the place, vomiting McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC in its wake. It’s the price we pay for being able to go there at all; pre-1989 it was all-but-impossible. Now it has a peculiar tourist-fed nightlife that exists in parallel to the traditional Czech pubs; bars selling Heineken, Stella Artois and vodka Red Bull that could be anywhere at all. Strange, especially in the land that more or less invented beer as we know it today. Krusovice, Bernard as well as Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen, all subtly different and delicious, and embedded deep in the culture. There seems to be no time or place when a beer isn’t the appropriate thing to be drinking; lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, cafes, restaurants or public spaces, a pilsner is never out of place.
Prague offers just the right mix of big sights and tiny ones; for every castle or square, church or monument there are a hundred little backstreet discoveries to make, for every souvenir shop full of standardised, westernised tat there are fascinating boutiques filled with handmade gifts.
In praise of two gadgets that made it a better trip
Canon EOS 40D, EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, EF 50mm f/1.8
This is hardly news, but my Canon D-SLR setup is really, really good at travel photography. Seeing as that’s why I bought it this should not be a surprise, but it’s still hugely satisfying to use. I bought the 18-135 because I needed a one lens solution for my USA trip last year at very short notice, and it continues to deliver usable results at both ends of its range. It’s not the quickest lens, but then it was 34c and unbroken bright July sunlight in Prague this week. Chuck in the ultra-light, ultra-cheap 50mm 1.8 for candids, impromptu over-the-restaurant-table portraiture and available light stuff and it’s not a bad way to shoot on the move.
The Hero is getting on a bit now and has been replaced by the newer, more shiny Desire. I can only assume this was why Orange gave this one to me on such a cheap deal. In my eyes it can do very little wrong. When it eventually gets Android 2.1 it will be even better, but last time I asked Orange about this three separate customer service advisers denied all knowledge. Ah well, you can’t have everything…
This was my first trip aboad with the Hero, and I couldn’t have predicted just how useful it would be. Using the hostel WiFi, I could get Google Maps directions to the tram stop or station. Currency conversion was a breeze thanks to XE.com’s app, which makes shopping in Wenceslas Square so much easier – it updates its rates online and converts just like the XE.com/ucc site itself, to/from any currency in any quantity. I installed the travel clock on the front page which displayed the time in “London, Dublin” on the left and “Prague 7” on the right, which meant when it was time to actually use the phone to call someone, I didn’t accidentally wake them up. The beauty of a WiFi enabled mobile device is that WiFi is now so ubiquitous; youth hostels have it, airports and stations have it and even if the restaurant/cafe doesn’t, chances are one within 100m will. Who needs expensive data roaming when you can rely on finding free WiFi several times a day? It even stepped up to photography duties on the last day of the trip when I managed, like a muppet, to leave the battery for my 40D on the charger and place the charger in my bag and my bag in the luggage room before calmly walking away and catching a tram. And of course as soon as I’ve taken a photo I can share it on Facebook or Twitter. The smartphone is beginning to feel like technology that has come of age. It WORKS, and if you’re disciplined it actually makes your life easier.
Lastly, a word of praise for an old-fashioned travel item. The Rough Guide people once again delivered a small slice of genius with their Prague guide. It’s compact, accurate, has all the maps you need to get around and the kind of recommendations that take you to obscure galleries (pictured above; Jan Svankmayer fans take note) down backstreets, to affordable restaurants a stone’s throw from the overpriced tourist traps, to the obvious and not-so-obvious sites. I wouldn’t go anywhere without one.
More pics at Flickr