I did not sleep well during my last night at the Hotel Sonata. I had done some extra internet research about the journey to Prague, so I knew what all the stops would be, but I still kept thinking about how I would make sure I was getting out at the right place. So it took me ages to drop off; and then it rained hard in the night – enough noise to wake me up – and then there were the early church bells. It was still raining when I dragged myself out of bed at 7am.
Over breakfast we helped David to compose a rather more favourable review of the hotel for TripAdvisor than the one that is currently on there. The rooms are sparsely furnished but they are comfortable; the lift practically qualifies as a high-thrill theme park ride (there is no interior door); the food is excellent (I had the deep-fried camembert twice, guilt guilt, I have put on about half a stone during this trip); and the staff are lovely, especially the waitress who couldn’t stop giggling over Dave’s attempts to speak Czech. Two tiny little dogs live at the hotel, and there are dog toys in reception so you can play with them – it gives the hotel a relaxed, family atmosphere. So we thought it deserved far more than the one star it currently seems to have.
The minibus arrived shortly after breakfast, along with the headteacher of the performing arts school, her husband (a teacher there) and their daughter (either a student, a former student, or a teacher, we weren’t quite clear). They were there to wave us off, which was jolly nice of them. Unfortunately the minibus radio was playing ‘Road to Hell’ as we departed, which wasn’t very appropriate.
As we approached Ostrava-Svinov station about 30 minutes later we passed the most enormous Spar supermarket I have ever seen. Normally they are quite small corner shops but this one was huge. We had also seen more Tesco and Tesco Expres stores, but we have seen so many now that it’s starting to get a bit creepy. Anyway, we arrived at Ostrava-Svinov with an hour to spare before my train (the first to go) was due to leave. We found a cafe and Dave and David accidentally had a hazelnut coffee each (well, they started it – but they didn’t get very far. It tasted very … hazelnutty and not at all coffee-y). We looked at the handy train-plan – a picture of each train showing its composition, so you can find where your coach is going to be and stand in the right place on the platform. I went to the loo and found that (a) this costs 10 CZK and (b) the toilet paper dispenser is outside the cubicle, so you need to take some from it with you into the cubicle. Unfortunately I found this out too late.
My train was announced as ‘approaching’ at 10:05 so I took myself to platform 4. The rest of the Fellowship turned up at 10:15 to wave me off and the wretched train still hadn’t arrived (to be fair, it wasn’t due until 10:20, but then why did they announce it so early?) We had time to take final photos before the Breaking of the Fellowship, and then my train turned up. Thanks to the handy train-plan, I was standing in exactly the right place on the platform if it had been coming from the opposite direction. Sigh. I sprinted away from the Fellowship, because you don’t always get a lot of time to board, so we missed out on the hugs and double kisses of our other Comenius farewells – I just stood in the train door and blew kisses to them all.
The train was the sort with compartments of six seats. I knew I was in the right coach, but I had no idea of my seat number, so I just found a not-too-crowded compartment, and settled myself by the window. When the conductor came round to check tickets, she moved me to the correct seat in the compartment next door (also showing me where the number was shown on the reservation, so I will know where to look the next time I’m travelling with Czech Railways). My new compartment was empty except for some beer cans, but it smelt a bit of spearmint gum, so I squirted a bit of my shoe-freshener spray into the air. As I was doing this, I noticed luggage on the overhead racks. Oh. I had fellow-travellers, then.
Indeed I did. Meet Petchro and Miros, keen beer-drinking Slovakians (it was 10:30 on a Sunday and they were on their third cans by the look of it), who were determined to talk to me, even though I had no Slovak and they had no English (Miros actually had a little bit, including the words ‘sexy teacher’; he mimed to show that he used to drool over her in lessons which is why he didn’t learn much English). I used maps, photos, and the Slovakian Comenius programme (which fortunately was in both Slovak and English) to explain what I had been doing and where I had been; I also explained that this was ‘skola’ (ie connected with school) but Petchro pointed out the number of references to ‘hotel’ on the programme and decided I was in politics – I think he thought that I was an international agent. They were very friendly and nice but I had hoped to spend the journey either gazing at the Czech scenery or sleeping, rather than miming, and inhaling the smell of their revolting sandwich. I don’t actually know what flavour it was but it smelt like tuna, egg and onion.
I wasn’t imagining the intensity of this smell, because when two ladies (mother and daughter) boarded at Oloumac, the first thing they did was to open the window (Petchro and Miros had gone off for a smoke). Petchro tried to engage daughter as a translator, after she unwisely admitted to having a little English early in their new friendship, but she wasn’t having any of it, although she did supply Petchro with the words ‘good night’, which he asked for when he saw my eyelids starting to droop. After that, Petchro and Miros disappeared for the whole of the rest of the journey, and I slept almost all of the rest of the way, waking up to find the train being held at Pardubice for a connection (at least I assume that’s what the announcement said: mother and daughter sighed, the train sat there for 15 minutes, and then lots of people got on). I ate my huge golden delicious apple, which I bought a week ago at Lidl and which has come on almost every excursion with me since, and after this I thought I probably wouldn’t need any lunch, which would give me a bit of extra time for exploring Prague.
The sun had come out, and I was listening to ‘Bohemian like you’ (quite appropriate, really), as the train approached Prague. What I hadn’t realised, and what should be made more of in my opinion, is that the train approaches the main station on an elevated section of track. So we had the most fantastic panoramic view of the city below us. I almost felt I didn’t need to venture away from the station, and I felt this even more strongly when I discovered I didn’t have the correct change to use a left luggage locker. DAMN. That meant I would be lugging my backpack, my co-op bag, and the two additional carrier bags of Stuff I now have, all around the city.
My map of the city was a bit rubbish for identifying good places to go, so I just wandered towards a huge dome on the skyline (which turned out to be a museum), turned right, down a very wide main street – like Oxford Street in London, wider, but with shops like Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, C&A, and down the centre some sort of food festival, because there were stalls selling all sorts of things, some of which seemed very tempting right up to the point where I saw the number of wasps crawling over the wares. At the end of this street I turned right, and after a little way there was a sign for Wenceslas Square on the right. This was somewhere people had said I should go, so I followed this sign, and walked through an L-shaped arcade back onto the wide street I’d just come from. So, either the sign was wrong, or I’d just walked along Wenceslas Square, which isn’t very square. I retraced my steps and stopped at a cafe for a latte and piece of chocolate gateau. The sun was still shining, and a street musician was playing what sounded like ‘Roll out the barrel’ on an accordion. And quite suddenly, I thought about my family at home, and missed them dreadfully.
I walked to a bridge, had a look, walked back, sat down for a bit in Republic Square – what a lot of pigeons, but do you know, I don’t think I’ve seen pigeons anywhere else in all of my adventure? – looked up at the buildings (which are really rather splendid, I can see why people go on about them), managed not to get run over by any trams, and eventually returned to the railway station. I had just over an hour and a half before my train was due, and my task list ran:
Find a wi-fi hotspot and go on Facebook. Annoyingly, I had clearly at some point in my wandering around Prague managed to log into a wi-fi hotspot without realising it, because I had some new emails and Facebook notifications. But I couldn’t find one that would do anything for me at Prague main station.
Buy my dinner. I decided to go for a baguette and smoothie rather than my original idea of a Burger King – mainly because this left me more cash so I could
Buy some cheap tobacco. Ho yus. 50g of my normal smoke for the equivalent of £6 – less than half the price at home.
Use up my remaining crowns. I bought some super-cheap tobacco with most of the coins, and found myself with 12 CZK. I calculated this would be enough to visit the loo, which it was, so I am bringing home only 2 CZK, about 30p. I was quite pleased with how this had worked out.
After I had done all this, and visited the ‘historical building of this station’, which was worth a photo, it was just a case of waiting … and waiting … (and trying to stand closer to Burger King so I could get a decent speed on their wi-fi). The trains had some good names: I could have caught the Albert Enstein, the Johann Brahms, or the Gustav Mahler (if I had wanted to end up in, say, Vienna, rather than Cologne). While I was outside having what I had decided would probably be my final cigarette in Czech Republic, the departures board acquired the platform number for the City Night Line ‘Phoenix’, so I set off for Platform 7. And there, in the wall of the subway to the platforms, I found a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, and his quote about democracy. It was President Wilson who created Czechoslovakia so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a memorial to him here (especially as the station is situation on Wilsonova Street). But it is years and years since Mrs Davidson taught us about the Versailles peace treaties and I didn’t really expect to trip over a piece of my old history syllabus as I was lugging myself and my stuff towards the final stages of my European adventure.
The train arrived, with 20 minutes to get everybody on board and settled before its departure time of 18:29. And then we were delayed by 20 minutes. By the time we finally left, I was very settled in my cosy little sleeping cabin. After the six-berth Paris-Munich I’m awash with luxury here. There is a little sink and towels in a neat corner cupboard; a hanging rail; a key-card system to keep the cabin secure while I go to the loo; a proper bunk with sheets and a duvet; and I’m sitting on the end of my bed, next to the window (out of which, because it’s dark, I can now see absolutely nothing) writing this in Word, in the hope that I will be able to upload it before I get home.
I would have liked to have seen more of Prague. But I had my luggage, and I’m a bit of an old woman when it comes to catching trains – I really don’t like cutting it fine, and I knew that wherever in the city I went, I would need to turn back for the station, from wherever I had ended up, in plenty of time. By the time I was ready to explore, it was 2:30, so I told myself that wherever I went, I needed to turn back at 4:30 – but in fact I had mostly gone in a circle, so the return was much quicker. I also should have found myself a much better map. But I did what I intended to do (sit at a cafe and watch Prague go by for a bit).
I’m not sure the City Night Line will tell us when we’ve actually left Czech Republic and entered Germany (ooooh, worth having the blind up, we’ve just passed one of the CityElefant double-decker trains, they are so cool). So, as I will wake up in another country (at the rather ungodly hour of 5.40am), this is my farewell to Czech Republic. I liked it here; I met some lovely people and had some amazing experiences. But now …
… now, I’m on my way home.