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.

Siesta to Sunrise

During the day, Barcelona was a charming city with beautiful attractions that brought forth scores of bustling tourists, particularly in the summer. However, for me the major drawing point had been Spanish nightlife that supposedly emerged after the sun had well and truly gone to sleep. Emphasis on the “well and truly”, because that thing about everything running several hours later in Spanish culture is especially prevalent in the nightclub scene. The general idea I had gotten from both friends and guidebooks was that Spaniards usually ate dinner at 10pm at the earliest, which carried on for a few hours. Afterwards they would head to the bars at around 1am, and not even head to nightclubs to go dancing until around 3 or 4 in the morning. I felt like that might have been an exaggeration – how could people possibly function in daily life if they were not just coming home, but going out at 4am? So I was sceptical – but apparently I still had a lot more than the language during my time in Spain…

***

Despite getting a terrible sleep the previous night on the train from Paris, and spending most of my first day in Barcelona walking around with Rich, we still had plans to hit the town that night. So in the afternoon we had a siesta – I swear, the best thing about Spain is that afternoon naps have been incorporated into their way of life so well that it’s basically a sacred ritual – and then made some dinner and drank some delicious Spanish wine as we got ready to go out. It would have been around 11pm when we left, but our first stop wasn’t a nightclub – it was a shot bar called Chupitos Espit, and it exactly like the Chupitos I had visited with Gemma and Atze in Groningen. They did the same marshmallow toasting shot, which was called the ‘Boy Scout’, the blazing and sparkling Harry Potter shots too. Rich picked out one for us to try, which was some sweet multicoloured shot that we drank through a straw. Then it was my turn – in my defence, the list of shots doesn’t detail their ingredients, only the name and the price. In retrospect, I don’t know how I could have expected anything else when I ordered two drinks by the name of ‘Hot Shot’, but Rich and I exchanged looks of horror when the bartender poured two shots of vodka and then topped each of them off with a hearty dose of Tabasco sauce.

The bar around us was packed with other tourists, and most of them looked just as horrified as the two of us, but in the end we just had to suck it up and down them. It tasted awful – why anyone would knowingly order such a drink I will never be able to fathom – and it was also very spicy. Even Rich, a Thai girl who absolutely loves her spicy food, was pretty disgusted by it. We had only planned to have two shots each, but after that disaster I quickly ordered a couple of Boy Scouts.
“I need something, anything, to get that taste out of my mouth”, I shouted over the thumping music as we roasted our marshmallows over our flaming section of the bar. I burnt my tongue shoving it into my mouth after the shot, but at least the sweetness was enough to overpower the Tabasco sauce that had been lingering on my pallet. There were a bunch of English guys and girls around us who were all getting Boy Scouts, so almost half the bar top was ablaze and we all clinked glasses as we threw back the shots.

After that Rich and I left at bar to head to another nightclub at Plaça Rieal called Jamboree. By Spanish standards it was still pretty early, but Rich had got us put on a guest list that meant we had to be at the bar by midnight if we wanted to get free entry. Loathing cover charges as much as I do, I decided it was a preferable option. As expected, it the club was pretty dead when we arrived, so I got a beer and Rich and I wandered around and explored the space. There was an upstairs room that was playing 90s music and current pop hits, while the lower floor played more urban and RnB tunes. We sat down for a little while and I had a few more drinks as crowds of people trickled into the place. Rich had some other friends who would be coming later, but eventually we hit the dance floor and began to work up a sweat, sticking mostly to the RnB room. Rich has an awesome sense of style that earned her comparisons and descriptions such as an “Asian Rihanna”, and she filled those shoes well, so together we busted some moves on the still relatively sparse dance floor.

I thought back to a conversation I had had with Ralf in anticipation to my trip to Spain. “Barcelona is a little more classy, not like Berlin at all,” he had told me when I had been wondering, like a typical gay man, when I’d get a chance to wear some of the nicer clothes I’d brought along – sometimes I’d been dressing like a homeless person to get into places like Berghain. “You can get away with dressing up: collared shirts, that type of thing. Madrid is a little more casual and dressed down though.” Looking around me as the club filled up, I observed that Ralf’s assessment of Barcelona couldn’t have been more wrong about this particular place. Every second guy was wearing a singlet, and I was one of the few people who wasn’t wearing thongs, or some form of open-toed shoes. I wasn’t too drunk, so I started paying closer attention to the people around me. Between overhearing voices as I was jostled between the shoulders of others dancers, and the shouts and cries as multiple glasses were dropped and smashed on the dance floor, I made the horrific realisation that I was surrounded by other Australian tourists, all of whom who were already beyond wasted. I don’t have anything against Australians, but I can safely say I did not travel halfway around the world to dance in a Spanish club full of them, and my evenings with Ralf and my epiphany about the binge-drinking habits in my own culture were still very fresh in my mind. Combined with the fact I was in a straight bar – something I swore I was done with a long time ago – I quickly realised I had no desire to dance with any of the sweaty bodies around me, and they didn’t have much interest in me either.

At which point Rich’s friends arrived. It was getting late – by my non-Spaniard standards, at least – and I had had an extremely long day, so I took the opportunity to take my leave from the club. I had ceased having fun a while ago, and now I wouldn’t be leaving Rich by herself. I said goodbye and left, and on the lonely walk home I couldn’t help but feel extremely disappointed with my first experience of the nightlife in Barcelona.

***

The following day I did a little bit more research, determined to find my way to a gay bar and do the kind of partying I actually wanted to do. I’d had a blast hanging with Rich, but sometimes a gay has gotta do what a gay has gotta do. However, the evening started relatively early when Rich and I headed to a bar where the school she was studying at in Barcelona was hosting a social drinks event. I got a couple of free drinks because I was with Rich, and a few of the other people there were girls who I had met with Brendon and Rich in Bangkok, so we caught up and shared travel stories of how we all ended up in Barcelona. I also got chatting to a couple of other people, in particular a girl named Selma. She was from Morocco, but was studying here in Barcelona with Rich and the other girls. As I told Selma more about my travel plans, she got very excited when I mentioned I would soon be heading to Rome.
“Ahh, yes! I love Rome! Where are you staying?” When I confessed that I hadn’t gotten that far in my planning, she told me of the lengthy time she had spent in Rome, and that she might have some friends who could help me out. “But maybe if you like, I can give you some ideas of things to do, or an itinerary? There is so much to see and do in Rome, you need to plan it to make the most of it.” So we exchanged contact details, and I thanked her in advance for her help. As the event wrapped up, Rich and her friends were planning to head towards another bar down near the beach, but that was there that I parted ways with them in search for a gay venue.

I wasn’t particularly close, but I had so much time I decided to walk. Outside the historical centre Barcelona really feels like any other modern city. One thing that was strangely common was people selling beer on the street – guys with plastic bags with one or two six-packs, selling cans for €1 each. I remembered drinking on the streets was legal in Germany, but I also knew it was a law that differed country to country. Not that that has ever really stopped me – I mean, I drank on the street in Sydney all the time – but the whole thing just seemed slightly dodgy, and with Rich’s warning of crafty pickpockets ringing in my mind, I avoided eye contact with the beer vendors and passed them without so much as a nod of recognition. So after getting lost a few times in the twisting streets and admiring the illuminated city along the way, I finally arrived at Metro, what I had read to be one of the better gay bars that was open on weeknights.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

I could hear music coming from inside, but there weren’t a lot of people around. All the employees I could see were just standing around casually, like they weren’t even expecting anyone to be there. When I moved over the doorman, he gave me a strange look. “You can come in if you want, I guess… It won’t be busy ’til at least 2:30.” I checked my phone – it was only 12:40am. I sighed and headed back to the street. Maybe there was another bar I could have a drink or two at while I waited? But I had already reached the peak of my inebriation, and my stomach was telling me it was more interested in food than alcohol. As a sat down with a greasy burger in the diner around the corner, I reflected on this situation. It was like my night was playing out in the reverse order that it should have – a long, lonely walk through the street, a sobering meal of junk food, soon to be followed by drinking and dancing at the club. Or so I thought.

While I was eating my burger, I tapped into the free WiFi and checked the various apps on my phone, doing my best to kill some time. As I cycled through them all, I opened one of the gay “social networking” apps, thinking I might find some advice from locals about other places to have a drink or kill some time. I got chatting to a guy named Inti, and after some friendly banter and explaining my predicament, he told me he lived literally right across the from the diner I was in, and that if I wanted to I was welcome to stop by and hang out with him while I waited for Metro to pick up a little bit. The kindness of strangers had been working for me so far, and I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so I took him up on the offer. Inti actually turned out to be a really nice guy, and he even had a couple of beers in the the fridge that he let me drink while I was waiting. I asked if he wanted to come to Metro with me, but he declined the offer, saying that he did have to go to work in the morning.
“I might have something else for you, though,” he said as he shuffled around and searched through some draws, looking inside pockets of clothes as though he had lost something important. “Aha! Here you go.” Inti handed me a couple of small squares of paper. “They’re passes for free entry into Metro.”
“Wow! Thank you so much!” The cover charge for the bar was €19, something I hadn’t been too keen to pay for a mere weeknight.
“I used to live right above Metro,” he said with a reminiscent smile. “Those things used to cover my apartment like confetti!”
We laughed and chatted more, but as 2:30am rolled around I realised that I was starting to fall asleep right there on Inti’s couch. There was no way I was going to last in that club. but I was dreading the idea of trudging all the way back home in my current state. In the end Inti let me stay at his place, so I gratefully collapsed as he went to bed and relinquished myself to my need for sleep. My second night out in Barcelona had again been not what I was expecting, and while it could be viewed as something of a failure, I ended up meeting a really nice guy and making another friend, so it wasn’t a complete waste. But the following night was my final night in Barcelona, and I was determined to party properly.

***

The next night I did everything right. I had a proper siesta. I ate dinner late. I consumed several beers at home and didn’t leave the apartment until after midnight. I still walked half an hour to the club, but I bought beers in the street and drank them along the way. I even had the entry voucher Inti had given me, but was told it didn’t give me free entry, but rather a discounted price from €19 to €10 and a drink voucher for once I was inside. That still seemed like a good deal to me though, so I passed through the front doors and down the stairs into the booming nightclub below.

The place was… I don’t want to say it was deserted, because it wasn’t, but it definitely did not meet my expectations. It was a Thursday, and everyone knows that for homosexuals and the unemployed, the weekend always starts on a Thursday night. But this night in Metro was looking like some kind of messy, underpopulated soirée. I was given a Bingo game card for the game of gay Bingo that supposed to be happening. It wasn’t, and there was no indication from the staff that it would be happening in the near future. I discarded the Bingo card as I claimed my free drink, and stood inconspicuously on the edge of the bar and watched less than a dozen people awkwardly dance around the open spaces of the place that constituted as the dance floor. It would have been an awesome club had it been full, but right now it felt like a vibrant, colourful, yet empty dungeon.

So I sat back people-watched for a little while. The crowd was sparse and the pickings slim, but eventually I saw a group of people standing in a circle close by the bar, looking around with a similar mixture of nervousness and intrigue that I can only imagine that I was exhibiting too. Tired of standing by myself, and realising that the chances of anyone approaching me in such an underpopulated bar were quite low, I picked myself up, not without minor social anxiety, and took myself over to the group.
“Hey there, how’s it going?” I was hoping that I didn’t come across as awkward as I felt. “Just thought I’d come and introduce myself to the obvious tourist group.” A small joke to try and break the ice, but it was lost due to the noise that was emanating around us. One of the guys turned to look at me, and seemed slightly confused for a moment. I don’t think he had heard me the first time.
“Hi, I’m Robert”, I introduced myself.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Fausto.” He had an American accent, so I knew I had been right in spotting the tourists. He introduced me to his friends, two German guys named Holger and Malte. As it turned out, the other two people with them – a Hungarian man and a Korean woman – were people they had only just met, and as I chatted to the three friends, the two of them both dissipated into the sad excuse of a crowd. Even so, I didn’t see them again for the rest of the night.

Fausto and the two Germans were great guys, and I had a great time chatting with them, but here was some underlying awkwardness on my end of the interaction. I was just trying to be nice, chatting to the guys so I wasn’t standing by myself, but I think some of them – if not all of them, had mistaken it as flirting with them. There were a few subtle, tactile moments, but for the most part I kept my distance with all three – I didn’t want to be losing any friends as soon as I made them. But unfortunately, the crowd never really picked up, and the night at Metro began dying too soon after it had kicked off.

“We’re gonna go now,” Fausto told me, “but you should totally come over and hang out with us at our hotel tomorrow. We’re gonna go down to the pool and relax, it should be really nice.” I had to leave the next day, but my train out of Barcelona wasn’t until the afternoon. I told Fausto I’d have to figure out the logistics and get back to him, so we exchanged numbers, and shortly afterwards I said goodbye to my three new friends as they left the club. I hung around a little longer and spoke to a couple of people – an Italian guy who was spacing out on some kind of substance and, of course, an Australian guy from Melbourne – but no one really engaging, so I picked myself up and left not long after Fausto, Holger and Malte had departed. I stumbled home as dawn broke over the city, glad that I’d eventually made a few friends, but not without the overall feeling that I had been seriously disappointed with the nightlife Barcelona had to offer.

***

In retrospect, there are a few things to take into account. Firstly, it was gay pride in Barcelona the weekend before – the same time I was in Paris – so it was quite possible the gay scene had gone into an extended siesta for the week following their major party season. I was also only in Barcelona for weeknights, which can be hit and miss at best. Finally, I later learned that there had a been a series of violent raids on the gay bars in Barcelona before I had arrived, during the weekend of, and the week leading up to, pride. I can’t say for sure, but that may have had something to do with the turnout at the club, and the lack of locals that I met while I was in Barcelona. I can’t say I was impressed with the nightlife in Barcelona, but I would definitely consider returning one day to give it another chance.