Boundaries for travel are getting pushed back every year, with some exceptions due to political unrest, and more and more of the world is opening up for tourism. This ranges from the once closed Sultanate of Oman to previously war torn Sierra Leone.
In Western Europe we were once locked out from our neighbours in the east by the notorious “Iron Curtain”. It seems hard to believe now, that countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and the then Czechoslovakia were difficult, if not impossible, to visit. Accommodation outside of grotty overcharging hotels was tough to find unless you had the requisite contacts and correct papers.
Speeding tram in Prague
After the fall of the Berlin Wall all that began to change, it meant that their citizens found it easier to visit the west but it also meant that budget travellers could head east and see what the fuss was all about. The Czech velvet revolution had just occurred in the winter of 1989 and four of us were mad keen to head over to Czechoslovakia and visit Prague, its enigmatic capital.
Our mission started in London at a small hostel in Bayswater where, alarmed at the price of beer, we started a discussion on where in Europe had the cheapest. A fellow backpacker produced a battered set of notes a friend had written down about his recent trip to Prague and in bold was written 10 Cents for a pint of Pivo! At that point I think we were all in, notwithstanding the fact that we had absolutely no idea what Pivo tasted like.
Tower at the end of the Charles bridge
We managed to get flights to Munich (where we easily could have blown all our savings just at the Hofbrauhaus) and secured an overnight seated train for Prague. The trip was routine and uneventful until we reached the frontier where Immigration and border guards came on to the train to inspect our passports. Three of us were British and that presented no problem, our passports were stamped and they moved on. Our other team member was Australian and was dozing in the luggage rack, they gave him a bit of a poke and he woke up and handed over his passport. They examined this for a while and asked where his visa was. This woke him up smartly and he replied that he didn’t need one. That was probably not the wisest move as they hauled him down told him to grab his bags and threw him off the train!
By this time we were all fully awake, the train started to pull away slowly as I leaned out of the window and shouted that we would wait for him at the main station in Prague at midday for the next two days, after that he was on his own!
We arrived at Hlavni Nadrasi, Prague Central Station, the next morning bleary eyed and like lost souls. We had no guidebooks or maps so that was the first thing to take care of as well as change up some money. There were a few tourist info boxes and one set us up with a hotel, The Narodni Dum in the working class area of Zizkov which set us back about USD$10 for the room… a bargain!
My first thoughts of Prague on the way to the hotel were grey, grey and grey! It was freezing cold and damp, people shuffled along the paths and the sky was leaden. Not a welcoming feeling.
Things brightened up when our missing team member turned up at the station at midday, they had held him until the train had left then stamped his passport and made him wait three hours for the next one. He was unfazed by this and as keen as the rest of us to explore.
Food was our priority so we scouted around for a café or something similar. After a short while with no such type of restaurant showing up on our radar we asked a few locals, one spoke reasonable English and directed us to a small shop without any sign and said that would be a good choice.
Result! Pivo in Prague
It was just like the scene in American Werewolf in London where the two backpackers enter the pub on the moor and all talking stopped as the locals stared at them for a while before carrying on as normal. Fortunately a table was free and we hurried over to minimise the fuss.
This was definitely a neighbourhood café, not catering to any tourist trade, but the waitress was friendly enough and after handing out a stained one page menu said just one word… pivo?
We all smiled and the tension was broken, our first pivo was to arrive but what the heck were we supposed to do about the menu? All in Czech and it may as well have been Greek! Naturally, and we all know this now, the beer was excellent and sure enough it was cheaper than water. We solved the food crisis by wandering around the café, smiling at other diners and looking at their food; they must have thought we were nuts.
Meat, dumplings, gravy and some cabbage looking stuff seemed to be the favourite so we went with that. Happily it was tasty and inexpensive; we were getting to like Prague although we had yet to see any of the old city. That was about to change, time for some culture!