Prague, my first European city, has held a special sway over me since my first visit as a closed-in American who had really never left the confines of New England. At first, I hated it. The language was weird. I was freaked out. However, since then I (luckily) had the presence of mind to reslly reflect on it, and it’s allure was something that began to grow, and has never quite settled. For two years I schemed and tried to plan a way back. With my current job of teaching in Spain, I’ve had that chance. Well, I suppose I’ve had the chance twice, but that’s a story for later. My first return was right after Christmas- I was to see Prague for New Years.
My re-exposure to Prague, late as it was, was a transition far easier than I could have ever imagined, exhausted as I was from my chronically-terrible travel arrangements. In sharp contrast to my first time around, I fully expected the largely alien nature of the Czech language. I almost yearned for it. Like overcoming a fear of heights to become a skydive instructor, I’ve gone from fearing and loathing the non-Latin Czech to loving it’s (entirely relative) oddity.
My biggest difficulty going back was attempting to think in factors of 26 (the Euro to Koruna conversion rate). I have been since asked why not think in far-easier factors of 25, like any rational person should have done. In that regard I plea the Fifth.
My first day back was wholly spent in a cross-city trek, back across my old routes and shortcuts, rewriting the faded lines of the city’s map in my head. From my old “home” near Vyšehrad (a castle in the south of the city, and the “š” is like a “sh” sound, just to say) to all of the huge squares and the foot of the Charles Bridge. I must note with some small amusement that my original difficulty of going from Old Town Square to the Charles Bridge is still adorably bad. To those who don’t know: A. the distance between the two is really quite short, and B. my sense of direction (or lack thereof) is known well on both sides of the Atlantic, so it’s an unerring source of entertainment and frustration for all involved. It was just like old times, and I went back to where I was lodging for the week (a friend and her family were exceedingly generous to open their home to me) with severe foot pain and an ear-to-ear grin.
New Years itself? Unrelenting madness. Inexpressible cacophony (well, nearly inexpressible or else I’d feel rather silly pecking out nonsensical strings of consonants and vowels for a few thousand characters) and oddity for almost 24 hours. New Year’s Eve began waking up at around 07:30 and meeting new people at around 08:30 on a quite frigid December morning. We all were delayed by the tardiness of one other person, so the suggestion was made to seek refuge in a nearby café. Sound plan. Far be it from me to presume the nature of what constitutes breakfast, but I’ve never started a day with a half litre of beer before. Not a complaint, I may add, there was already a sort of muted expectation of drinking all day followed by a night of drinking, followed by an early-morning of yet more drinking (sorry grandma). Eventually our last member showed up, we finished our fizzy breakfast, and hit the road. And, er, nobody who drove drank, I must politely point out. They saved that for the climbing at the castle carved from a mountaintop. We’ll get to that.
As we drove, I was beginning to become acquainted with the driver, the boyfriend of a friend of a friend- one of those kind of deals- and I was told that there was a choice of only three artists in the car. A Czech rock artist, an unremembered, Tina Turner/ Whitney Houston type of singer, or ABBA. Czech rock was playing at the point of this discourse, and that quickly changed to ABBA. It was at this point that the whole scope and beautiful oddity of the situation was briefly shown to me. We were tearing across the Czech countryside with the thumping opening of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” blaring out maxed-out speakers, already one generously-sized beer in, and heading to a day to be spent at a rural castle in a mountain. The sheer surreality of being thrust in this situation was both staggering and beautiful.
We eventually made it to the base of the mountain, outside of a small village. Piling out of the car, cigarettes were lit, and some shopping bags crinkled in protest as they were laden with cans of beer. After taking stock of the mountain’s slope and a perfunctory stretching of legs, our alcohol and tobacco powered train popped tabs and puffed whispy trails as we sallied forth. Indecipherable Czech campfire songs were sang, roots jutted out to catch our shoes, and rocks banked to roll ankles with admirable grace. Eventually rough-hewn oblong ports could be seen in the rising face of the mountain, leading to a long, narrow tunnel to the real rocky ascent.
Narrow metal stairs and bars guided us forth, but there was a refreshing sense of freedom- a lack of hand-holding safety measures so readily found at so many locations I come to expect in the United States (or any real touristy place, as it were).
The sprawling view of the countryside became more and more awesome the higher we ascended, finally peaking in a sort of rough-carved, poorly secured big-kid fort. It was a real fort, back in the day, but a fear of a marauding hoard wasn’t exactly at the top of our priority list. Did I mention poor security measures?
Well there were poor security measures. It was great. It was around this point of marvelling the sheer drops and craggy lips of most paths that I pondered the finer points of the human body’s remarkable ability to balance itself in the face of extraordinary circumstances. “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down?”
We played here for some time, accompanied by hikers kitted out in far more practical (and suitably flashy) outdoorsy clothing. Stretchy fabrics, funny shoes with wiggly soles, real hiking boots, those sort of things.
For the curious, the location itself is called “Drábské světničky (It’s just the name, I can’t discern a further meaning, and it’s roughly pronounced “Drabske svyetnichky.” Say that one at work tomorrow, I promise you’ll have fun).” Apparently from around the 13th century, it was later abandoned in the 15th century. So any would-be invaders, this is your chance; they’ve had their guard down here for six centuries- they’ll never expect it. EDITOR’S NOTE: The author does not actually endorse the invading of sovereign nations.
When all was said and done, we descended the mountain to eat at a fantastic hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where I had a particularly interesting hare gulash. Finishing this (amongst several beers), the adventure was concluded with a well-needed lie-down for all of an hour or two back in Prague, then getting up to go out for New Years.
But that’s next time.