Monday, February 4, 2013

From Prague With Love

In the fall of '96, I met a beautiful man.  Little did I know, this was the man I was going to marry.  He was in NYC doing a postgrad internship, and it was the last month of his stay before returning to Germany to begin his new job.

Of course, I had no intention of falling for someone with whom I had so little time.  But as everyone who has experienced falling in love can testify, heart wants what it wants, and there’s very little we can do to control it.

From the first moment we’d ran into each other on rollerblades in Central Park, I knew it was going to be the start of something very special … something extraordinary, and when he left after sharing what seemed to be a dream-like month, I felt a void in my heart that I’ve never felt before.  After few months, I was on my way to Europe.   

Ironically, when I'd landed in Frankfurt, Europe was experiencing one of the coldest winters in almost a century.  Although I was used to the cold winters in NYC, I never felt the kind of wind chills and frosty conditions that I'd faced in Frankfurt.  It was absolutely brutal and so cold that even my teeth hurt.

Despite the syberian weather, I was determined to travel and experience places in Europe that I’d always dreamt of.  Prague had been on my travel bucket list for some time, and being so close to it, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.  Plus, I couldn’t think of a more romantic place to be with someone special in my life.  

So, we set out to spend a week in Czech Republic’s capital.  We took an overnight train from Frankfurt to Prague, an intercity (RegionalExpress), which connects regional destinations with larger cities.  Although it wasn’t as fast as the ICE, the high speed train in Germany, like most rail systems in Europe, it was efficient and not as costly.  However, being a regional train, it made stops in almost every major cities we’d passed, and with the conductor announcing the arrival and departure from these destinations on a loud speaker, sleeping became an impossible task.

However, I've always loved traveling by trains in Europe, and overnight trains, if in the right company (and I most certainly was), can provide an wonderful opportunity to get to know your fellow travel companion.  And although I was exhausted from lack of sleep, our talks during our train ride to Prague was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve shared with my husband.

6 hours later, we were standing at Prague’s main railway station, Praha Hlavni Nadrazi.  Even though we’d arrived at the crack of dawn, the place was buzzing with people, most of whom were offering accommodations in the city and taxi drivers who were underbidding each other for fares.  Being young and carefree at the time … not to mention, terribly naïve, we took an accommodation from the first person we met who didn’t look like an ex-KGB agent.

He offered us an apartment well-equipped with linens and a fully-equipped kitchen.  Although we had no plans to cook during our stay, we liked the idea of having an entire apartment to ourselves.  He even offered us a ride to the apartment, which meant that we didn’t have to find our own transportation or make our way around a city that was completely foreign to us.  We were more than happy to follow someone who knew his way around the city.

Of course, being a much wiser traveler now, I realize we were extremely lucky in finding an honest quasi-travel agent and that everything had turned out the way we’d naively believed, as the whole scenario could have just as easily turn out to be the makings of a horror film.  Although I don’t want to imply that there is an eminent danger in dealing with people who offer accommodations at train stations or on the streets, I know better now to do some research on places that I'm visiting and make arrangements for places to stay before I get there.

The apartment he’d taken us to was not shabby.  By all means no 5-star hotel, but it did have a bed and a well-functioning bathroom.  However, the fully equipped kitchen he’d described turned out to be a single electric stovetop burner with few dishes and utensils.

Nevertheless, I was ecstatic, finally to be in Prague!  Being there in the winter, it seemed that we had the whole city to ourselves.  We strolled through the empty streets, admiring the dream-like scenery, stopped at little cafés straight out of Tolstoy novels, and as we crossed Charles Bridge, I felt as if we’ve been transported to another time and place.  It was beauty beyond my imagination, and its alluring skyline left me breathless.
We spent day after day strolling through the lovely cobblestone streets, enjoying the stunning architecture, stopping to have tea and hours and hours of conversations at one of the many charming little cafes.  Our favorite was U Zeleneho Caje (19 Nerudova) on the way to the Castle District, and aside from the usual attractions and sights, I really enjoyed visiting the Jewish Cemetery (Starý Židovský hřbitov), which also happens to in a lovely little neighborhood away from the touristy area.

Even in the midst of a ghastly winter, we had a wonderful time, and our first trip to Prague turned out be one of the most romantic experiences my husband and I’ve shared.

Few years ago, we went back to Prague during a warmer time of the year hoping to find the movie-like experience we had the first time.  Unfortunately, Prague has become one of Europe’s premier tourist destinations since then, and it was a completely contrasting experience to be bombarded by hordes of tourists everywhere we went.  

Nevertheless, I’ll always remember our first trip to Prague, as it will always have a special place in our hearts, and perhaps we'll return again ... definitely in the winter.


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