Anyone that’s ever visited the capital of the Czech Republic knows that Prague is sure to leave its mark on you in some way or another. The city is filled with beautiful squares, striking building façades, breathtaking views and enchanting vistas.
I first came across Prague when watching the film Chasing Liberty (2004) starring Mandy Moore and Matthew Goode. The plot centres around the US president’s daughter as she decides to run from the Secret Service agents that monitor her every move in order to feel a sense of freedom and explore Europe without their constant protection. Long story short, she bumps into a man on a motorcycle in Prague, they fall in love and go on a journey through Venice, Austria and Berlin, without her knowing that he is actually employed by her father as an agent. It’s a cheesy romantic comedy but with lots of stunning European scenes. After seeing Prague as the backdrop in this film I felt a very strong desire to go there some day and experience the Bohemian capital for myself.
When I travelled to Mainz in September 2008 for my university exchange program, I knew that I had to put Prague on the top of my list of must-see European cities. Within two weeks of settling down in picturesque Mainz, I entered a travel agency in the city-centre to enquire about travelling abroad. Perhaps the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done is booking a ticket for an 8-hour overnight bus to Prague from Frankfurt departing the next day! Luckily for me we had acquaintances living in the Czech Republic that I could stay with. Nothing was going to stop me from squeezing in this trip before study would commence in October, as I knew that my course would take up a lot of my time.
So on a cold, dark autumn night I boarded the train from Mainz to Frankfurt and awaited the bus to Prague to depart at 10:45 pm. My memory of the trip is a bit hazy, as I was in and out of sleep, but I do remember the driver letting us out of the bus for a quick bathroom break at a petrol station somewhere in Germany. It was freezing cold and we were all happy to be back on that warm bus once again!
As dawn broke over the Bohemian capital, the bus arrived at Florenc Station and I had butterflies in my stomach, having never felt so uncertain in my whole life. I’d like to point out that this was the very first time (apart from my solo journey into Mainz from London on board 3 different trains!) I had ever gone on a holiday all by myself in a foreign country. Excluding Mainz, which would later become my home away from home, Prague was a really BIG deal for me as I was out of my comfort zone on so many levels. Even til this day I think it’s the bravest trip I’ve ever completed.
The city was only just starting to wake up. I took the metro a couple stops and disembarked near the main square. Dragging my suitcase along the old cobblestone path and making a heck of a lot of noise, I ended up in Prague’s empty Old Town Square. I was beaming with happiness and even though I still had the difficult task of finding my accommodation in a town miles away, nothing could stop me from smiling. I made it to the iconic Charles Bridge, usually filled with artists, musicians and entertainers with crowds and pick-pockets also a common occurrence. Upon seeing the view of Prague Castle (the largest ancient castle in the world) before my very eyes, I remember very vividly laughing out loud and whispering to myself “I’m here, I’m in Prague!!”. The bridge was deserted at that time of morning, making the moment just that extra bit special for me.
The research I did on the internet prior to travelling informed me that to reach the home of our family friends, I would have to catch a train from Praha Masarykovo nádraží Station. This proved a difficult task for a tired and hungry 19-year-old adventurer who was by then running solely on adrenaline. I ventured into a fancy hotel where the kindest lady printed out a map for me and pointed me in the right direction. Next thing I knew, I was on board the right train heading towards my home for the next 5 nights. I disembarked at Úvaly in central Bohemia.
With a hand-drawn map of the small town and the address I needed to find, I had absolutely no idea where to start. This was at a time prior to GPS tracking on iPhones I might add! After about 30 minutes of aimlessly wandering around the town, I located a name on a gate that sounded like what my dad told me to look out for, so I buzzed it. A second later, a lady appeared in the second-storey window of the building and started yelling something in my direction. I was so scared that maybe I’m in the wrong place but decided to tell her my name and the name of the woman I’m looking for. She nodded and granted me access to their property!
I wasn’t going to waste a single second and after a quick lunch and a short round of getting-to-know-each-other-better questions, I headed back for Prague. By this time I was already much more confident in my abilities to navigate myself to and from the capital and could now explore in a more relaxed way.
Prague is such a timeless city filled with many beautiful vistas of the Vltava River and countless bridges that cross it. Fragments of history are on every single building façade, monument, fountain and sculpture wherever you look. I must admit, I didn’t read a great deal about Prague before my spontaneous trip. I wanted to learn about it as I went and to be surprised by what I discovered. This had both its advantages and disadvantages. If I could do the trip all over again, I would patiently queue up for a visit to St. Vitus Cathedral, explore the Jewish Quarter more thoroughly, enter a few more notable buildings and try some authentic Czech food. As a young and inexperienced traveller, I only took inspiration from the exteriors of buildings, ate home-made sandwiches or store bought snacks and walked from morning to evening, never setting foot on any iconic Bohemian trams.
Enchanting Prague dazzled me from beginning to end. I walked up and across Charles Bridge to Lesser Town and up the winding roads for breathtaking views of the city from near the Castle. I marvelled at marionnettes and handmade glass in souvenir shops, felt the grandeur of some of the most striking national buildings and enjoyed river views second to none. Wandering the intricate lanes of the Old Town was my favourite activity and admiring the beautifully decorated façades of buildings that looked like they came straight out of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), made my days so much more enjoyable. I found the Czech people to be friendly, helpful and kind and their city mesmerising, magical and full of unforgettable memories. It was the jewel of Eastern Europe to me.
The journey back to Frankfurt was quite uneventful. I remember shopping in a large shopping centre during the evening, before taking the metro to Florenc Bus Station and awaiting my Eurolines Bus. I strongly remember how customs personnel boarded our bus, took everyone’s passports, left all of us sleepy passengers for about 15 minutes and then returned all our documents. I was so worried that something were to happen to my passport or that I would be given someone else’s back but thankfully not! I got back to Mainz by about 7am and spent the rest of the time convincing myself that it wasn’t all a complete dream. Prague is the land of fairy tales after all.