Once Upon a Time: Prague Castle

I’m not going to lie – of all the major touristic attractions that I had known about, heard about and made plans to visit, the thought of going to Prague Castle made me unexplainably excited. I’d heard so many things about Prague being such a beautiful city, and the thought of a castle on a hill that overlooked the city inspired foolish, romantic notions of fairytale settings and wonder and magic. Of course, realistically I know it was just going to be a castle, but I let part of myself get swept up by the fantasy daydream.

***

The following morning both Tomas and Matej had to leave for work, so they left me to my own devices to explore the city, with nothing but a key so I could come and go as I please. And a fair bit of advice, of course, as to which buses to catch to get where, and what things I might like to see. “If it’s your first time in Prague, I assume you want to go to the castle,” Tomas had said as he’d told me all this before he’d headed out the door. He’d been right. So I set out on the bright and sunny morning to catch a tram that would take me across the river and up the hill to the castle. As we got closer, it became harder to see the castle, as we drove through areas of greenery and it became a lot harder to look up from inside the tram windows. The line map on the top of the tram car had a little picture of a castle next to the stop that you were supposed to get off at to visit it, but… it was sort of in between two stops. I wasn’t sure which one to pick. My Lonely Planet guide was no help. There were no obvious English speakers that I could ask, and no one seemed friendly enough to approach. Oh well – in the end I just followed a bunch of other tourists who seemed to be on some kind of tour.

When I got off the tram, my surroundings were slightly off-putting. It was like a ghost town – other than the group that had gotten off with me and were wandering slowly away, there was not a soul in sight. But I was left standing in the hot and heavy sun, in a cobblestone area that looked like a set from a Shrek movie (except it was obviously real, not an animation), making me feel like I was in a deserted theme park more than anything. Was I already inside the castle complex? Was this just some random town, or village? I was so confused, but in the distance down one main road, I could see the spires of the castle emerging above the closer rooftops. I set my course towards them, and made it just in time to see the final procession of the changing of the guards, not unlike the display I had seen in the Old Town of Stockholm in Sweden. As they marched off down in the direction I had came from, I turned to the main gate of the castle grounds. It was topped with intricate golden metal framework and statues of men that appeared to be in various stages of combat. The picture was, of course, completed by the tourists doing typical tourist things such as taking photos with the stern, solemn looking guards at their posts at the castle grounds entry. I chuckled and took a few photos of the gate itself before wandering into the grounds.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

As I began wandering through the courtyards, I realised that the castle itself was not one huge ancient building, the the greater limits of an area that included a few large churches and palaces. I wandered through the first courtyards looking for my way into these said palaces – I could see the spires pointing up into the sky above the buildings immediately in front of me, but it was like a maze to get through everything.

The spires of the chruch taunting me - just out of sight... sort of.

The spires of the chruch taunting me – just out of sight… sort of.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

When I finally made it to the churches, there were some guide ropes set up, as though there was some kind of line to get inside, but there was no one lining up so I simply walked on through and into the building. I had just entered into the halls of the St Vitus Cathedral, and was gazing upon the St Wenceslas Chapel. The echoing chamber was full of people, but the chapel itself was beautifully lit up by the sunlight pouring in through the windows. However, while it was gorgeous, it was just another church, so I headed back outside after taking a quick look around.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

I doubled back the way I came until I came to a ticket office – wait, tickets? Yep, while wandering the castles courtyards and gardens were free, apparently you needed tickets to enter into each of the main attractions… including the St Vitus Cathedral. I wasn’t about to pay to visit it again, and they had weird ticket packages and bundles that had different validity dates for certain things, and it all just seemed too confusing. I had managed to sneak into the first church undetected, so I figured I would move ahead and see if there was any way around the entry fee to see some of the others. I never ended up even finding the Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace, but I did come across the Basilica of St George. However, it was a much smaller building than the first cathedral, with one entrance where someone was collecting tickets. I pressed ahead, figuring I could return later with a ticket if I so desired.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

There were a lot of beautiful courtyards and minor buildings throughout the castle grounds, and when I reached the edge wall there was a view that stretched into the horizon, the view from the castle of the old kingdom below. However, in the end I found the whole of Prague Castle to be an underwhelming disappointment. Yes, it holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, and it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Yes, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are there, but they’re kept in a secret, hidden room, and I didn’t catch a glimpse of them. In the end it was just another set of churches to look inside, and unlike most of the churches I’d seen in my travels, like the ones in Cologne, Rome and Zürich, you had to pay to get inside all of these. After swearing that I had seen enough churches to last me this journey, it was a little more than I was prepared to do. So I followed the stepped walkway that led to Prague Castles exit, and crossed the Vltava River and headed back to Old Town Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Truth be told, even though the castle ended up being a bit of a let down for me, I still took immense pleasure in wandering the streets and enjoying the ancient and natural beauty that resonated throughout Prague. The castle was a nice aesthetic touch, visible across the river in the distance, but there was no need to actually visit it to get that fairytale feeling.

***

The next day was something a little bit different. Tomas was a landscape architect, and when I arrived on Tuesday he had told me that on Thursday they were going to get a visit from the mayor of Prague. The apartment complex in which they live had had a garden that was ugly and dying, not good for anything, so Tomas had taken it upon himself to put in hours and hours of hard work to restore the garden, complete with spaces for children in the complex to play, for people to plant gardens and vegetables, and a general sitting area for anything from an outdoor feast or picnic to catching up with a neighbour over a cigarette. Somehow, their garden had been entered into a competition, and unsurprisingly, had won. “There’s going to be a TV crew and everything,” Tomas had told me about the mayors visit. “They’re probably going to interview me too.” I could tell he was excited about the whole thing, but a little nervous about being on TV. Matej had been busy preparing food the day before, and that morning there were a bunch of official looking people, camera crews, TV hosts, as well as all the neighbours out in the garden. I watched on by the table of food, not really understanding any of what was being said, but feeling a little special to catch an inside glimpse into what was probably a special event for a lot of them, but what was for me as authentic an experience as I might get in everyday life in Prague.

Or maybe that’s selling my time in the city short. It was an interesting and non-touristic experience, but I also spent a lot of my time in Prague just hanging out with Matej and Tomas, eating local food at their local favourite places, walking around the beautiful city, or hanging out at night and watching movies, with them introducing me to some strange Czech ones as well as sharing their favourite Hollywood films – Death Becomes Her was a hit all around. I just only just now started to feel fully recovered after my excessive Pride binging in Southern Europe, and I realised it had been roughly two weeks since I had done any kind of crazy partying – extremely uncharacteristic of me – but I was rather enjoying the break, and it had given me the time to fully regain my strength.

I did spend one afternoon with Tomas and his friend Ondra having a stroll through a lush green garden area. I was amazed at the luck I had been having with the weather, and the daylight had been coming long and strong for weeks now. Beer was free flowing in most parts of Prague – you could could get it in plastic cups to go from many places, much like the set up for Pride in Paris, and so the three of us got our big cups of beer and took them outside to enjoy them on the grass. Ondra was a little quirky, but still a nice guy. He only spoke in English half the time, the other half in Czech, which made him a little mysterious to me, but I think Tomas explained it as that his English just wasn’t that good. Or he just didn’t like speaking English, whatever. But the three of us managed to have some funny conversations, with Tomas a relaying translator, having a couple of deep and meaningful discussions as well as laughing at the random and silly things we observed in the park around us. Tomas also took me over to a nearby church at the park. It was open, and free to all, but photography was prohibited. Inside, there was a case that contained some ancient relics, including bones and artefacts that belonged to saints from centuries past. It was a cool little thing to glimpse, and the church was virtually empty – a sign that I had definitely diverted from the tourist path and off the beaten track.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

***

I’d enjoyed my very brief time in Prague, and once again it was a little upsetting to have to leave behind people who I had just met, yet had grown so close to in such a short amount of time. “Don’t worry,” I had assured them as I had packed my stuff up on my final night. “I’m breezing through Europe so quickly this time, it just means that I’ll definitely have to come back one time to do it all probably.” They seemed to like that, although they were such nice guys that I’m sure they’d find plenty of new and fun Couchsurfers to fill my place when I left. But I was glad that once again I had taken the opportunity to Couchsurf and meet some amazing people and see some pretty cool and interesting things.

But for now, my time in Prague was at an end. I headed back to the train station on Friday morning, and when I saw the crowds I felt a moment of panic, having not reserved a ticket in advance. But there was just enough room on the train, luckily. I couldn’t really blame everyone for wanting to go where I was headed, because as I boarded the train I was overwhelmed with anticipation and excitement. I’d tried my best to see as much as I could during my time in Europe, and while you would think that that wouldn’t involve visiting a city for the second time, there was just something about the allure I felt that I hadn’t quite managed to shake: I was heading back to Berlin.

Stockholm Syndrome

Scandinavia as a region is not known for being cheap, and Stockholm is supposedly one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It was an unsettling thought – the progressive price increases hadn’t let up since I left Thailand. However, Susanna had assured me I’d only really need two days each per city to the see the best bits of both Stockholm and Copenhagen, so I could take small comfort in the fact my time in this expensive area would be relatively brief. Aside from being expensive, Stockholm was also renowned for being a beautiful city – both in its physical aesthetic, and the people who lived inside it. “Stockholm is such a fashionable city,” Susanna had told me in our discussion about my future travels. “Everyone there is just incredibly good-looking and so well dressed. I swear, if you lived there you would have to spend nearly your whole paycheque on clothes just to keep up with the fashion.” From what I’d seen of Swedish men during my time in Australia, I can’t deny I was more than a little excited to be entering this supposed treasure trove of eye candy.

***

Unlike the trip over from Helsinki, navigating the Stockholm upon my arrival was not such smooth sailing. From the map in my guide book I could see that the port was a fair way out from the main city. Actually, that’s only half true – I could very easily see the city and the part of Stockholm I was trying to get to. As the crow flies it would have been a relatively short walk. The problem was that it was across a huge gulf in the river that ran through the city. Later, a local would tell me that Stockholm is known as the Venice of Scandinavia – I hadn’t heard the term before, but by the end of my stay I certainly believed it. Unfamiliar with the public transport system that didn’t even really seem to come down this far in the first place, I was forced to catch a taxi. I asked for the meter – he said there was traffic, and offered me a price that would supposedly be better. He asked for it Swedish Krona – I only had Euros. It was a complicated exchange that didn’t even seem to be helped by the fact he spoke English, but in the end I think the price was fairly decent. I tried not to think about it to much – You’re in Stockholm now, I said to myself. It’s not going to get any cheaper than that.

During my time in Helsinki, I had attempted to search for Scandinavian hosts in Sweden and Denmark, so far to no avail. While I was still desperately clinging to the hope of finding a host in Copenhagen, I resigned to the fact that I would also be paying for accommodation in this beautiful, expensive city. I arrived at the hostel without a reservation, hoping for the best. The hostel had a nautical theme, and a large number of the beds were located in cabin dorms, inside a renovated ship docked out the front in the river. Lucky, they still had room in the 17 bed dorm, located on solid ground and considerably cheaper. Check in wasn’t until 3pm though, so I used the shower, dropped off my bags in luggage storage and set out to explore the city. Stockholm lived up the expectations. Everyone just looked so good. Even people who weren’t conventionally attractive were so well dressed that walking down the streets felt like being an extra on a TV show or movie where the detail in every single background character had been so meticulously planned. The fact that I had been wearing the same tired clothes and repeated outfits for nearly two months didn’t do wonders for my self esteem, and a mild paranoia kicked in where I felt as though just being there was letting the city down, and lowering its standards.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

***

Like most cities in Europe, Stockholm had a travellers pass, the ‘Stockholm card’, that you could buy which provided you with either free or discounted entry to many of the city’s attractions, and free unlimited use of the citywide public transport. At first this excited me – regular readers will know how excited I get about good public transport – but further investigation revealed that Stockholm as a city didn’t really have that much public transport. In fact, it just wasn’t a very big city. There were also other passes that gave you access to public bike stands around the city – you swipe the card, the bike rack unlocks a bike, and you can ride it anywhere so long as you return it to another stand somewhere in the city within three hours. However, all these options were only really of any value if you were there for at least 3 or 4 days – the bike pass itself came for a minimum of three days. Given I was only staying for a maximum of two nights, it hardly seemed worth it. I wasn’t planning on visiting a huge number of museums, and I wouldn’t be straying too far from the city centre, which was near enough to my hostel. And so began my extensive walking tour of Stockholm.

Traversing the city by foot was actually a great way to see the city, in my opinion. With the exception of the Gamla Stan area, whose streets mirrored olden days of the 12th Century, there was a quaint, modern beauty to the streets of Stockholm. Clean, refined and operating like a well-oiled machine, it fit the model of typical Scandinavian efficiency that they were generally well known for. Crossing the road was easy because the cars drove slow and steady, but once again locals seemed reluctant to even contemplate jaywalking. I visited a few of what appeared to be the major sights – I honestly didn’t know that much about Stockholm, and had never heard of any ‘must see’ attractions. There was the Riddarholmen Church, a beautiful old building that was home to a large number of tombs, mostly containing nobility from Swedish royal houses. After that was the City Hall, which included a huge tower that provided 360 degree views of the surrounding city. When I went to buy a ticket to go up, the attendant gave me a warning. “The elevator is broken today, so you’ll have to climb the stairs the whole way.” I couldn’t help but laugh – the building looked so old I hadn’t even expected it to even have an elevator. I’d been climbing up the steps of every attraction from the Great Wall of China to St Isaacs Cathedral, and a took a moment to think of Kaylah as I assured the woman that I would be fine with the stairs. It would have been she had wanted.

Riddarholmen Church

Riddarholmen Church

The interior of Riddarholmen church - complete with token scaffolding.

The interior of Riddarholmen church – complete with token scaffolding.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

There were a lot of stairs though – the upper reaches of the tower, where the elevator didn’t go, was a narrow red brick hallway with a pointed ceiling, which went around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around to the point where I thought that I was trapped in some kind of magicians trick and I was going to end up at the bottom of the tower without ever having emerged at the top. I finally reached the summit though, and it was definitely worth the hike. The panoramic view gave me a better understanding of the city’s layout: the different islands and peninsulas it was composed of; the wide river and multiple canals that divided them up; the obvious architectural distinctions between the old city and the newer parts of Stockholm. It was a cold and windy day, but I stayed up there for quite a while drinking in the sight. Unlike St Petersburg, Stockholm was a city that was quite beautiful from both the street level and from an aerial perspective.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

***

My second day in Stockholm had substantially better weather, clear blue skies and wam, invigorating sunshine. I set out into the bright morning to explore Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm. It was a tiny, charming area of the city, with narrow cobbled streets that were sloping in all directions, with some so steep I was actually a little out of breath after climbing them. This was the picturesque Stockholm that looked like it could have been lifted out of a fairy tale, or a children’s storybook. I wandered around the narrow roads until I got to the palace, where I had arrived just in time for the changing of the guard. A whole bunch of Swedish soldiers marched out of the main courtyard, half of them comprising a marching band on horseback, while another set of guards moved in to take their place. I joined the throng of tourists that had gathered to watch, thoroughly impressed by the ability to play their instruments on horseback, more than anything else.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

There were lots of sightseeing tours in Stockholm, most of them by boat. It seemed like the most obvious and easiest way to see the city, dissected as it was over and over again by the multiple canals, but as I examined the list of tours and respective prices, I couldn’t help but feel it was such a grossly touristic thing to do, not to mention they seemed far too overpriced. So instead I spent my afternoon on an island called Skansen. All the islands of Stockholm are joined by bridges, so I strolled through the more modern streets of the city until I reached Skansen, an island almost completely made up of greenery: forests and parks and grassy clearings and trails through the woods. There was even a theme park with a few rides, but I had a more leisurely afternoon in mind. Everywhere there were people exercising, going for their afternoon and evening runs, and I followed along the roads that ran along the outside of the huge island, stopping to admire some of the statues along the way, before turning inland and hiking off a short way up into the hills. It was like a slice of natural heaven, completely isolated, right in the middle of the city. You would never have guessed it though – there was only the faintest sounds of the city in the distance, so quite that you really had to strain your ears to even notice them. I found a sunny clearing at the top of one the hills, and took a break to sit down and work on my blog. There’s something about that kind of natural environment that really gets the creative juices flowing. Or maybe I was just so far from any kind of distraction – it’s hard to be sure. All I know is that I spent a long time hanging out on that island. It was as though the weather was trying to make up for the unusually long and cold winter, and I was more than happy to enjoy the penance it was paying.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

Skansen selfie.

Skansen selfie.

***

It’s hard to really say what I did with my nights in Stockholm, because there was really so little of them. I’d spent longer than I’d realised on my first night pouring over maps and timetables, trying to get a better idea of where I was going in Europe and when I would be there, to potentially avoid some of the anxieties I’d had upon arriving here. When I decided it was time to start thinking about dinner – I’d assumed it was approaching six o’clock – I was shocked to see that it was already well after nine. The days were so long that I was literally forgetting to eat. I was there during for a Monday and Tuesday evening, so I decided to give checking out the nightlife a miss – it would probably be, yet again, very expensive, and to be honest the city wasn’t really inspiring a party mood in me. I hung around the hostel and chatted to a few travellers – a few nice and friendly people, a couple of shy and quiet ones, but no one of particular note, or anyone I attempted to stay in contact with.

I guess I spent a lot of time on my own, reflecting on how far I’d come on my journey, and how it was really only a fraction of how far I still had to go. After the close confines of the Trans-Siberian the solitude still felt like something of a luxury, though I knew sooner or later I was going to get sick of being alone. But Stockholm had definitely been a suitable city for solitude and contemplation – the gentle and non-confronting beauty was the perfect background for being alone with my thoughts.