I don’t really like vacation.
Well, that’s not completely true. I do like getting away from things, having time to relax a bit. But I don’t like doing nothing at all. I like moving, I like working, I like having a purpose and going to it. Whenever I go back to the open country in the middle of the US to visit family or stay for a while, I’m just done with it after a few days. There’s nothing to do.
And to a certain extent, I’ve approached this trip as a sort of work. A very enjoyable sort of work, to be true, but when I’ve visited these different places, I’ve approached them with the best writer’s eye I’ve got (my right, of course), and tried to really pull some meaning out of them, something I could take away and share, both with you here and with my future self. When people on this trip have asked me how long I plan to be on vacation, I usually have to blink and think about what they’ve said for a second or two: I’m not really on vacation here. I don’t really like vacation.
Prague, on the other hand, is definitely a vacation town. It’s probably a combination of a few different factors (including that the weather is much hotter here, 81 degrees today, and that it’s a weekend), but the streets here are just flooded with tourists. I’ve seen tourists on the rest of my trip, of course, but those have always been manageable. Only once, in Berlin, when I wanted to use a sports bar for writing and a bunch of hooligans wanted to use it for watching a soccer game, was I really frustrated by crowds. All the rest of this past month, I’ve basically wandered the streets and museums in rapt awe, just enjoying the exploration, the discovery, and seeing the occasional group of people with cameras and backpacks was more of a cute distraction that reminded me of LA than anything else.
Until today. Here in Prague, the heat has been stifling to me, and the crowds have been so frustrating. The guy with the way-too-expensive for what he’s doing with it camera who stops in the middle of the street for no reason at all, taking a picture of a building he knows nothing about. The old grandmothers from New York City, who thought they’d come to Prague for fun, and spend their time shopping in the exact same retail stores they do back in America, where only the price numbers are different (and actually more expensive). The idiots who tour down an old Prague street, see a TGI Friday’s and decide to eat there for the night. And the bros — from all countries — who are about nothing at all but dude dude dude fuck dude, where we drinkin’ tonight dawg?
Ugh. Ugh to all of it. And the worst part is that from what I’ve seen, there’s nothing here to make all of this heat and all of these crowds worth it. The architecture is gorgeous, for sure, but unlike the main corridor of Europe, where I’ve been so far, relatively nothing has happened here over the centuries. I saw the sights: I walked through Wencelas Square, where I saw the elegant National Museum — but couldn’t go in due to construction. Then down to St. Henry’s Tower and the Powder Gate, so named because it was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century. I continued down the king’s coronation road, saw multiple really beautiful cathedrals and the Astronomical clock. At noon the sun just became too much for me — I had to head back to the hostel, sit in the cool bar and read for a bit.
And then I headed back out in the evening, and even at 5pm, the sun still burned down, not a cloud in the sky. Across the St. Charles Bridge, the heat was too scorching and the crowds were just too dense to enjoy the statues on either side. And going up the hill to the old Prague castle, supposed to be the crown jewel of the region (not least of which because the crown jewels are themselves held there), was torture. I couldn’t even run to get out of the sun because of the indolent tourists in the way, idiots stumbling along covered in fanny packs and designer backpacks and chattering in various foreign languages.
When I finally arrived at the tower, sweaty and angry, I at last saw a museum that was supposed to be interesting, was supposed to tell the “Story of the Prague Castle.” But of course, on a weekend at 5 in the evening, the woman closing the doors in front told me it was closed. I made my way to the St. Vitus Basilica, and it was so impressive to see from outside — I couldn’t wait to get inside and see what it was like. But no — closed for an organ concert. Fine, I said, how much is the organ concert? 800 crowns — over 40 bucks. I’d seen Notre Dame for free. I’d seen the whole of the Louvre for 8 euros. I passed.
There was a tower to climb for just a few crowns less, and I considered it, but then I saw the sign outside the door. Go ahead and guess the most interesting feature of this tower, the number one thing that they advertise outside the door? You can’t, I bet. Because the most interesting feature of the tower was that it had a bell, put in the tower in the 1800s, that predicted a flood … in 2002. This cathedral was built back in the 1300s, and the most interesting thing that’s happened to it was 10 years ago? I tried to at least see the crown jewels (since I’d already seen the crown jewels of both Britain and France this month), but nope, they’re only shown to the public once every eight years. Makes complete sense to me. Because you know, there’s so many other interesting things to see around. I was livid.
I sat down on a bench in the shade and calmed down. Prague was obviously a disappointment. My sister had warned me away from it, to Vienna, but I figured there was too much to do there in just a few days, and Prague would be much simpler. I don’t know what Amsterdam would have been like, but I thought that I’d probably made a mistake by coming here. This just wasn’t my kind of town.
The last thing I wanted to do during the day was, as I had promised, find some real Czech cuisine to eat. Looking online, I found two targets that I thought would be pretty easy to find. One was called bramboráky, which were some potato pancakes that were supposed to be good. The other was utopenci, which was pickled sausage of some kind. Both, I learned, were supposed to be pretty common in bars, and pretty cheap, so I figured I had a good chance to find them. There were other specialties, including roast pork, potato dumplings, and something called smažený sýr, which was breaded and fried cheese that I’d actually had the day before, when I ate that fried cheese sandwich. But I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find these at a price I wanted, with all of the tourists hanging around.
The first restaurant I tried wasn’t bad — it was higher up on the hill, near the castle itself. But when I sat down to eat there, the place was completely empty. And checking the menu, they had some czech dishes, but nothing I was looking for. It just didn’t feel right to have this meal represent my time here, so I got up, returned the menu, and went looking for another place.
I tried another restaurant — the menu outside was in czech only, but I definitely spotted my bramboráky on there, and figured I could at least get that. I went in and sat down — and had to wave away a cloud of fruit flies. Well fine, I thought — maybe that will just make this place more “authentic.” But after a few minutes of waving away and swatting at fruit flies, I decided that wouldn’t work, authentic as the place might be.
So not only had I had a terrible day of fighting crowds in the sun, but now I couldn’t find a single decent restaurant. Coming down the hill from the castle, I found one more restaurant. This one had bramboráky on the menu, and it didn’t have my sausages, but it did have some relatively cheap pork on it, in a special local cream sauce I’d read about called knedlíky. I figured with the pancakes and the pork, I could make a meal.
And, as it turned out, the meal was terrific. I got a house pilsner to go with it, and both the beer and the basket of bread I got were quite good (the butter had chopped up peppers in it, which I really liked). The potato pancakes were fantastic — they were served with a salad on a bed of sauerkraut, and the ‘kraut was the best I’ve had on this whole trip, even without any meat on it.
The server recommended that I try potato dumplings, another czech specialty, with the pork, and so I assented — they were a little bit more, but I went for them anyway. Turns out he was exactly right. The pork was amazing, and the sauce was just brilliant; sweet and creamy, a perfect companion to the tender meat. But those dumplings! They were almost like a steamed potato bread, and they just soaked up that wonderful sauce.
This could have been the best thing I’ve eaten on this whole trip. I wanted to call out to the water as I soaked up that sauce with the dumplings. “You have redeemed your city, your country, with this meal, my good man!” I wanted to say. Instead I just ate the last of the sauce, and when he came by, thanked him for recommending the dumplings to me.
Heading back to the hostel, full of that food, I actually felt better — the sun had gone down, things were a little cooler, and I was relaxing. Maybe I do like vacation, I thought. I sat on a bench, read some more, and tried to enjoy myself a little bit.
Unfortunately, the walk back home proved all of that wrong — I ran into crowds yet again, and at night they were even worse, blocking my path and teeming right in front of where I wanted to go. I passed a Burger King and saw it packed with people wearing backpacks and cameras, shook my head and cursed my own kind. I saw drunk guys pushing and shoving each other, bumping into me and others around. I saw people taking pictures mindlessly, and every time I had to walk in front of those inconsiderate morons I threw an angry glance into their camera.
It’s kind of a shame — I had hoped this little stay here would be quiet and simple, a nice buffer between everything I’ve seen, and the big flight and then returning to my usual rhythms back home. But at this point, if I want to get any of that done, I may just spend my day tomorrow here in the hostel bar, writing and reading by myself.
Posted on Sunday, April 29th, 2012 at 3:56 am. Filed under general.