Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Weekend in Czech

I came back from Paris on Tuesday evening, halfheartedly. I didn't want to come back. But I didn't want to stay in Paris either. I wanted to travel, far and wide. Who doesn't? My friends carried on to Rome. On Wednesday morning at work, it suddenly made no sense for me not to join my friends at Prague for the weekend. Within an hour, I booked my tickets and hostel for Saturday. See, you can just decide and fly out to a different country all together!

Cheap tickets come with their bane, the airport was in another city, no not city, it was in the middle of nowhere. It tougher to get to than to get to Prague. On Saturday I woke up at 3am and some 6 hours later I landed in Prague! From the airport to the city, I had to take a bus. I stepped into the bus and asked for a ticket to my destination. I realised for the first time in my life I was in a country of a completely foreign language without guidance. But it was not language that crippled me at that moment, but body language. He showed me a thumbs up. In India, the gesture is often used to mean a question, like what or where or why. I thought he was asking me where I wanted to go. I repeated my destination. He showed me a thumbs up again. I repeated. This went on for a few times. I was holding up passengers so I moved aside. An American walked up to him and asked him the same question and placed in front of him a note of 100 koronas. He showed her a thumbs and then a thumbs and the index finger. Then we understood. He counts on his fingers starting from his thumb! Nothing Czech about it though.

The hostel was a bright vibrant place where close to where everything is. However, my friends had seen a bit of Prague already and wanted to go to a place called Karlstejn where there was castle that my friend referred to as the Fairytale castle about 45 mins away from Prague.

The walk from the train station to the castle, crossing a bridge over still water in a valley next to a hill green with rich pasture and the still water reflecting every single detail every so perfectly was so beautiful I wish I could capture it all. Picture perfect! We walked up the castle hill and to the castle. There was no entry in unless you go as part of a guided tour.

A young and pretty Czech girl who knew just enough English to communicate clearly the facts of the tour walked us up to the castle door. She then opened the door with a set of keys, let us and shut the door behind us. She explained to us the map of the castle and how and what and why Charles the IV  built it. She then unlocked another room and took us in there making sure to lock it behind us. In the room we had a lovely woman dressed in traditional Czech clothes playing an flute and singing to us. We moved then from room to room with our guide unlocking and locking doors withe large set of keys she held taking us through the lives of the people who lived in that castle hundreds of years ago, with the preserved clothes, books and furniture. Fascinating experience, like as if someone was still living in that huge castle. On the way back, we stopped to grab a coffee at a cafe leaning on the hill side with nothing for the green trees to look into.

We came back to Prague and walked along the Vltava, past the Charles Bridge and sat down for some dinner by the river. The  river side was full of little restaurants cutely made up with flower pots everywhere.

Next day I convinced my friend to take a tour of the Prague Castle with the Sandeman's group. So tour we did. We went up to the castle stopping on the way at various points up the hill to glance back the city and look upon it like the Kings once did from their cosy bedroom chambers. We learned a lot about King Charles and his mixed roots that define Czech as a kingdom. We learned about its communist era. We learned a lot more about this glorious political leaders. We saw different kinds of architecture, the Roman Gothic and the Bohemian Baroque, a building with both that looks almost photoshopped.We saw the roman style of art on ceramic walls of houses depicting defenestration. We you do don't know what that means, click on it and look it up, it's hilarious!

We took a tram back from the castle to the city, walked on and stopped by at a cafe for coffee. The cafe was so pretty and had this amazing clockwork. Fascinating place Prague is I must say, everywhere you look you see something pretty. Then we walked to the old town square and saw the astronomical clock. By far the most fascinating thing I have seen. And when the hour struck, 4 status moved from left to right, the skeleton of death rang a bell, windows opened up to show four different statues one and a time moving to and away from the window which was pretty spooky. After the hour, a person (real one this time) popped into view at the top of the tower and blew a trumpet which was kind of funny actually.

Then we walked along to sit down at a restaurant and have some Czech food. I had potato soup in a bread bowl and medovino or honey-wine.  What a lovely day.

Now time to goof up. We took a tram to another part of the city which is known for it's many restaurants and vibrant life. If you kept track of time, you would know it was a Sunday. When we reached there, absolutely everything was shut and you could barely see anyone around. We got off the tram and started walking back past the many shut restaurant neon signs that give you a weird feeling. But one restaurant was open, so we popped in for a bit to have a small bite or dessert and fled back to civilisation as soon as we could.

Monday morning, I woke up again at 3, took a night tram and a night bus to the airport, flew back to UK, took a train to London and a tube to office, all the way wondering why I didn't stay back in beautiful Praha!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

4 days in Paris

4 days... one day with an old friend, one day as a tourist with friends, one day at an amusement park and one day by myself.

A beautiful Saturday morning to wake up, pack a backpack and take a train to another country. No, you can't just go to another country in a couple of hours on a train! Well apparently you can.
I gazed through the window occasionally, taking my eyes off the economist I have so begun to love as a part of traveling on weekends. I waited. Sunny and bright it was outside my window. Then a long tunnel so dark I fell asleep. When I woke up it was all a bright and sunny country side. There was no difference except for an occasional hoarding in french. And so I reached Paris.
I went down to cité universitaire to meet an old friend from college. The place was beautiful calm and peaceful. They had a festival on with each country house showcasing their local culture in different forms. I ate Egyptian food and watched some Japanese drumming. My friend and guide (and not yet a philosopher given he isn't pursuing a phd) took me to Louvre, not inside. We walked along the Seine, we walked the narrow lanes of Paris, we crossed bridges, we talked about old times. And in the end, I wondered why I don't stay in touch with my friends enough.
I left my friend to his thesis and waited at my hostel for my friend to turn up worth whom I had planned my Paris trip. She and her three friends finally turned up. Late in the night we hear that Champs Elysées is still open. So we went up there saw the Arc de Triumph and walked down the Avenue des Champs Elysees without realising the historical significance of the place being built my Napolean to mark his victory and to ride his soldier down the Elysian fields of Greek mythological to walk to heaven. So literally the stairway to heaven, not to mention one of the most expensive real estate in the world. Yet we didn't know it. And walked back for the day.
We were excited in the morning to go up the Eiffel Tower. On first site we were disappointed when we approached it. My friend would not even believe that this metal scaffolding is actually THE tower, much like all the Parisians when Gustav Eiffel built it. We stood in the queue for a long long really long time to get up to the third floor in the lift. We eventually did. And suddenly everything was worth it ! Paris looked beautiful and the Seine was twisting and turning through the city under the bridges in the sunshine.
We got off the tower and went back to St Michael's crossed over the bridge to Notre Dame de Paris. It is by far the most fascinating building I have seen. Vast, impressive, Gothic, Roman. Some sacred buildings are built to make you feel small and remind of the powerful existence that is beyond. This is one of them. The we walked along the Seine to Louvre, too late it was closed. But the glass pyramids were there, such an eyesore compared to the rest of the massive Louvre which was a magnificent palace once.
After a tiring day all over the place, what could be more apt than to sit down and relax at cafe on the road on Seine and discuss the concept of true love.
The next day was a trip to Disney Land, where it rained most of the time, all the thriller rides were fun but gave me a bad headache especially when we went 360deg twice, we didn't want to wait 90mins to take a pic with a princess and Sleeping Beauty's castle was far less impressive than inside my head. But the thriller rides were pretty good actually. The one where we fall down vertically in an elevator and the one roller-coaster with Aerosmith singing-shouting in your ears were particularly awesome.
On my last day in Paris, I woke up lazy and relaxed, my Canadian roommate was still there while my Vietnamese roommate had left the city. I had a peaceful breakfast, a long hot shower and went on to the Sandeman's walking tour of the city. This should have been the first thing we did! We started at St Michael's and walked all over. We walked along the Seine, past Notre Dame, across the bridge of locks, through the Louvre, into the Jardin des Tuileries, to Place de la Concorde where the Obelisk was placed in the middle.
Something so fascinating about the Obelisk, everything rather! It's just there, piercing through the sky!  As our tour guide mentioned, it is the melting pot of cultures so symbolic of Paris, the Greek Champs Elysees to one direction, the Roman Parliament building and the Church of Mary Magdalene to two directions and the French palatial gardens of Tuileries final directions, the center itself being Egyptian Obelisk from the Valley of the Kings. We walked on more, but the Obelisk stayed with me. Paris to me remains this point, the octagon of Place de la Concorde.

But that's because I haven't seen Montmarte, which I should. And Versailles as well. Another trip to Paris is required. For now, 4 days in Paris was all I ever wanted.

When I got back to Gare du Nord and thought back at my 4 days, the one thing I will take back is the hospitality of the French. Once when I was traveling in the bus by myself, an older man got up to give me a seat. Said I was a guest to his country and he must be courteous to me. Where else would I encounter an incident of this kind ? An Indian village may be. Not a metropolitan certainly ! Ah Paris !