Eastern Europe

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic is magical but overrun with tourists in the summer months. Although it made our lives more difficult in some respects, I was none the less happy that we had booked an apartment in District 10 on the outskirts of town rather than in the heavily trafficked Olde Town.  The street our apartment was located on roughly translated to “uranium” street, so named in the cold war, which gives you a tiny hint to the utilitarian, communist past of this now thriving tourists mecca.


We arrived sleep deprived (are you sensing a theme here yet?) from an overnight train from Krakow, Poland. The trip was a “red eye” and we had reserved a sleeping compartment for all three of us. The compartment was tight, the train had no dining or bar car so we promptly flipped the beds down and tried, pretty much in vain, to get some sleep.

I’ve taken several trains in my lifetime and they usually are calm, monotonous things, generating almost a lullaby of white noise (in fact there is a “Train” effect on my white noise app on my i-phone), but not on this train. The clamoring of the tracks felt like it was just below us (perhaps because it was and always is, but usually doesn’t sound thus) and the constant starting, stopping as we pulled into one town after another made sleep upon the narrow, fold out metal bunks with wafer thin mattresses just next to impossible. We all pretty much just catnapped during the 7 or so hour journey from Krakow.

Taxis in Eastern Europe are, by and large, an under-regulated mess resulting in thousands of over charged fares from unsuspecting (and in our case, even suspecting) visitors to airports, bus & train stations on a regular basis. Indeed, travel pros though we may be considered, we were not immune to this scourge of corruption that has been allowed to fester and grow as the former iron curtain countries pursue the capitalist’s dream of ripping off their fellow man.

With Gaelle in front of the old clock tower.
With Gaelle in front of the old clock tower.

Luckily, our kindly and hospitable apartment host, Pavel, had arranged for us to be picked up by Tic Tack Taxi, a somewhat respected transportation company that is reportedly trying to help revolutionize the taxi, bus and transportation system in Czech Republic.

Our taxi ride from the train station to Pavel’s was semi-luxurious (a leather seated Audi with an extremely polite English speaking driver with GPS and even free bottled water for each of us) with the fare a fraction (about $10 U.S) of what a taxi hail or worse the taxi line at the railroad station could have run us.

Loreta Museum and Church
Loreta Museum and Church

After meeting Pavel, our super gracious host on whom we would all come to rely heavily upon, we all crashed for a couple of hours and decided that it was extremely inefficient from a work POV to take overnight trains. We’ve since sworn them off but we’ll see if this trend sticks the remainder of our journey (as my friend, coordinator and part time travel planner Margarita pointed out, it saves tremendously on the cost of lodging for one night).

We would have slept longer but we had arranged to meet Gaelle, a French expat now living in Prague and author of Zoukside Down. Gaelle is a dance teacher and  ardent enthusiast of Brazilian Zouk Dancing, a style of dancing that has recently taken hold in Prague. Gaelle agreed to show us around some of the more basic touristy sites in the old town before we were to head to a Zouk Party to watch her in action. The party was hosted at a lovely hillside restaurant that offered some absolutely amazing views of Prague at the magic hour of sunset.

On the Charles Bridge with cameraman Scott.
On the Charles Bridge with cameraman Scott.

If you think it’s unusual to feature a French native who dances Brazilian in an Eastern European, well, I must admit I had my reservations as well. But what we’d quickly find out on this trip was that Prague was full of ex-pats from all over the world. It is truly an international city of the highest order.

There were literally bucket loads of Americans, Australians and others living and working in Prague and thus speaking English was almost never a problem with the exception of when we went back to our apartment in the almost 100% non-touristic District 10. By the end of the journey, this would become a fun game with the locals who, while not exactly smiling, warm people were simply wonderfully patient when dealing with us funny speaking foreigners and almost ended every awkward difficult conversation with a smile of some sort.

Baby in a Box at the Communist Museum
Baby in a Box at the Communist Museum

In District 10 we ended up frequenting a lovely little ice cream parlor (we witnessed ice cream being consumed at most every time of day, even seemingly for breakfast at 8 or 9 am) and café that served the small, exotic handmade sandwiches and desserts.  Pointing and holding up the number of each sandwich was the only way to order. It was surprisingly efficient by day 3 or so.

But the highlight of our trip was perhaps meeting Ladi, a local Hungarian who runs the Bunker, a former nuclear bomb shelter designed and built for communist party leaders. Today it’s a really cool government subsidized community & event space and communist museum.

The Bunker hosts concerts and gatherings on a regular basis but the communists’ museum was my personal highlight. Seeing all these relics from the Cold War brought back memories and it occurred to me that it appeared that either I had missed the vast majority of the paranoia of the cold war (I heard that it most likely peaked in the 1950’s and 1960s) or the East was just much more prepared than the West. For example almost all the Metros in Eastern Europe we road had been built very deep underground. In case of nuclear attack, they could serve as an impromptu shelter for hundreds of thousands of members of the “working class” who could not fit into one of the bunkers.

Trying to fit in at the Bunker
Trying to fit in at the Bunker

The biggest kind of “what the…..” moment came when we saw the “Baby in a Box” display, which was a wooden box (imagine a small casket with a clear, vinyl see through cover) and a wooden foot pump to pump oxygen). The idea of the Baby Box was that in case of nuclear attack, a baby could be housed in the box and the mother (or father or surviving loved one) must hit the pump every 15 minutes or “no more baby” as our funny and expert guide, Ivan “The Hilarious” so eloquently observed. This s really brought the potential horror of the cold war into focus for me.

Growing up in the fear of total destruction of the 1980s, I’m very appreciative of the fact that we can all have a chuckle about these things now. Back then we felt truly threatened and though the source of the threats may have changed, is mankind any less threatened today?

Ladi & Pavel were like long, lost pals. Ladi had lived in Florida (playing in a rock band there) and Pavel had been a photographer in the former Czechoslovakia prior to the fall of communism and later he worked for the Associated Press as one of the few premiere photographers covering the Velvet Revolution as it unfolded and helping to tell the story of what was happening to the west and the rest of the world.

Outside “Cafe in the Dark”

Both were invaluable to our largely smooth travel through Prague and to both I owe a debt of gratitude.

I like Prague, a lot. And though the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and history of the old town are nothing short of awe inspiring, that’s not why. I like Prague because of people like Ladi, Pavel, and the regular folks like the sales clerk at the local Foto Escoda (a local photography store) who was so helpful to us when we had to replace a lens for the camera. The countless other locals who made us feel at home I can’t thank enough; people like Eleska Mertova of Segrasegra clothing designing some very cool bike clothes out of recycled bicycle inner tubes.

Trying on the designs of SegreSegre clothing
Trying on the designs of SegreSegre clothing

Or the fine folks at the Cafe in the Dark where I and my cameraman Scott were able to experience TOTAL darkness and get a feeling for what it was like for the sight impaired folks of Prague while raising money for them. Or Veronica our beautiful and informative guide at the Loreta Museum or Woody from the local band Rocket Dogz who toured us by the cool cats at Lucky HazzardClothing.  I hope to someday be able to return the favor for their generosity of their time and spirit.

Prague before the Velvet Revolution - Courtesy of Pavel Horejsi
Prague 1980’s – Courtesy of Pavel Horejsi

It was good that we had Krakow and Prague to begin with because next up were Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria. They were to be our very first real challenge and bump in the road on this journey. Thankfully, we were beginning to gel as a team both in terms of our travel and our production chops.

With Woody and pal at Lucky Hazzard

Stay tuned for our adventures in Bratislava, Slovakia and yes, Vienna, Austria (Raw Travel Style) up next.

For more photos from our travels through Prague, please visit our set on Flikr HERE.