I was awake at 4am, unable to sleep. I was having anxious dreams all night about something going wrong on the way to Prague. We got up at 6:30 and had the usual (awesome) breakfast. I watched a group of Japanese businessmen pouring kimchee on their eggs, and mixing up ramen. One of our favorite games in the hotel restaurant was to pick out the Americans. It was harder than I expected.
We checked out and took the metro to Keleti Pu, our train station. We had no clue how early one had to arrive for a train, assuming it was much like flying. We were wrong, because we were there way too early. We rolled our bags up and down the station, figuring out how things worked. We had about an hour before our train would even show up on the board. We checked with the ticketing lady to make sure we had everything we needed, and we were good to go.
In our wandering, we found the post office. We walked in and were instantly confused. None of the signs had any meaning. We finally found the right window, and waited in line forever. When we got to the window, I was worried we might get beaten up for having so damn many postcards. But the girl there was very helpful. She totalled it all up, we paid, and she pulled out 3 different stamps and an airmail sticker for each postcard. I wanted to die, but I figured we’d found a good way to kill an hour. Only she didn’t give us the postcards back. She said she’d do them herself. Wow.
We went back and sat on the platform with our suitcases. Since the station is open on one end, it was a little cold. I tried not to doze off. I sat there wondering whether they’d have food I could eat in the dining car, and whether there would actually be a dining car at all. I didn’t know! I’d never taken a train across Eastern Europe before. I decided to stock up just in case.
I wandered off downstairs to one of the million bread/pastry shops in the metro station, and returned proudly carrying a pretzel larger than my head. I was set.
our train car
Our train had come up on the board, so we rolled our way down the track and found the car. We had seat reservations, so it was easy. The train’s final destination was Zoo Station in Berlin, and according to the labels, we’d have our compartment to ourselves until halfway through the trip. Rock.
It was a six-seat compartment, with two rows facing each other. There were racks overhead for luggage, a door that slid closed, and mirrors above the seats. I discovered later that the mirrors made finding your compartment by the people in it really confusing. I’d see Bertine and go to walk into one compartment, when actually she was in the last one. Train funhouse!
the obligatory crappy mirror shot
We sat in the station for about half an hour while the train loaded, and then we were off. I was way excited about things like using the train-WC (we had started calling it the WC since arriving there), and visiting the dining car. I’m a sucker for novelty.
sitting at the station
Shortly after the train left [train movie], a guy came around checking our tickets. After that, passport control came through. They were usually a team of two, one with a stamp for the country you were exiting, and one with a stamp for the country you were entering. You could hear them coming by the chunkCHUNK of the stamp, as they progressed down the hall. Having looked at the railroad map beforehand, I figured we’d be entering Austria briefly to go through Vienna, then heading into the Czech Republic. Imagine our excitement when we looked at the passports the officer handed back to us, and realized we were in Slovakia.
Train travel is slow, and the train rocks in such a way that it makes you really sleepy. I spent the time alternately knitting and dozing. Though I hate sleeping on airplanes, it was easy on the train. I saw the towns of Bratislava and Brno, cities I’d heard a lot about in Russian classes but never expected to see. Most of Slovakia and the eastern part of the Czech Republic looked like it was made up of little fairytale villages.
We got some new compartment-friends in Bratislava. One of the guys put a big bottle of beer up on the shelf, where it proceeded to roll around a lot. There was also a teenage girl, who Bertine saw being waved-to by her mom from the platform. She looked very nervous, and didn’t say a word until we reached Prague.
We decided to try the dining car shortly after Bratislava. The guy who worked in there was awesome, and we loved him. He was so over-the-top. He didn’t want to serve me soup, because it came from a packet. I got the cheese plate instead, because, you know. Cheese. Bertine got paprika chicken, and we had Czech beers. As we were eating, we crossed the border into the Czech Republic. Passport control came through the dining car. In the back corner, we were alternately amused and annoyed by a group of crusty British guys who were bitching about not having smokes. One of them said, ‘We just went an entire country without a cigarette!’ At one of the stops, they lined up at the door, waiting for the second it opened. The train would only stop in small towns for perhaps a minute, and people would rush to get on or off. They sprang back into the dining car with a pack of cigarettes they had purchased in a mad rush from one of the booths at the station. So funny.
We paid for our food (note: the dining car is really expensive, and they made some extra money by obviously rounding up in the conversion from euros to, in our case, forint) and headed back to our compartment. The guys had gotten off the train, so only the girl was left. We spent the rest of the trip to Prague dozing off, and peering at the travel guide.
We arrived at Holešovice Station around 5:30pm. As before, we first stopped at the cash machine. Prague only had single-day travel passes, so we had to get change for the metro ticket kiosk. We stopped into a little shop to buy pop and food, and I realized I could just buy a ticket there. We were on our way to the hotel.
Thing is, I didn’t know exactly where the hotel was. It was called Hotel Ibis Smichov, and there was a Smichov station, so that seemed obvious. The directions in the guide were as if you were driving, so I had to guess. In the metro station, we were immediately stopped by a transit cop, who checked our tickets. He told me I needed another 10Kc for my suitcase. We decided to play dumb-tourist and risk it anyway.
We took the metro to Smíchovské nádraží and walked out onto the street. We didn’t see the hotel, so we walked around and tried to find street names we’d recognize from the tiny map I had. We saw a couple signs with promising-sounding names, but had no clue where we were. We were freezing, and it was dark. I tried to call the hotel, but couldn’t figure out how to dial a local number; all I knew was how to call the US. OSKAR, the local cell service, kept telling me ‘the number is being cheeky’. The neighborhood was pretty dodgy, and I was tired of rolling my suitcase over cobblestones. We finally went back to the metro station and Bertine managed to find a nice woman who knew where were were headed. She told us our hotel was actually at the previous station. We were relieved.
We hopped back on the metro with no ticket, hoping we wouldn’t get caught. We got off at Andel, and walked out to find ourselves in an infinitely nicer part of town. It was all fancy shopping and bright lights. For a second, it struck me as downtown Las Vegas.
While we stood at the metro exit looking for the street name for our hotel, a guy came up and asked what we were looking for. We told him, the Hotel Ibis on Plzenska (which I later realized was ‘Pilsner’, like the beer). He looked excited and waved us after him. I muttered to Bertine that we needed to watch out for that guy. He rushed us around the corner at the main intersection and headed down Plzenska. We could see the hotel from there, so we stopped and thanked him for his help. I dug quickly in my wallet and came out with a bunch of coins. I handed it to him and he said no, and pointed at my wallet. I said, ‘Sorry! Thanks!’ and we hurried off. I’m pretty sure he probably ended up with more Hungarian forint than koruna.
hotel ibis smichov
We were so happy to find that hotel. We were even happier at the location. It was right by a big mall with lots of restaurants (immediately named ‘The Mall of Prague’), and a brand-new Humanic store that Bertine was positive would open up just for us. We checked in and dropped our stuff off in the room, then immediately headed over to the mall to find dinner.
big flush, little flush
We called the folks back home to wish them Happy Thanksgiving, and let them know we’d made it to Prague and were beyond thrilled to be there. We circled the mall and headed up to the food court, which was way nicer than the usual American version. We decided on the Turkish place. Yes, we had falafel, hummus, Turkish coffee, and chai for Thanksgiving. We rule.
giant nutella display
Afterwards, we stopped at ‘The Target of Prague’, i.e. Carrefour. It had a huge grocery on the lower level, and everything else on the second floor. We marveled at the crazy European candy, and decided to come back for souvenirs before we left. We went back to the hotel and went to bed shortly after 9pm.