...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Experiences aren't only in the guide books

Pictures and captions added 8 May 2009

Mala Strana (Lesser Town) and Charles Bridge at night

I heard conflicting information before going on vacation to Prague in the Czech Republic. First, I was constantly warned about tourist traps. I read about the over-charging taxis, their "super professional" pickpockets, streets full of tourist kitsch and overpriced food. Second, the same people also told me that Prague is "their favorite city", "the most beautiful city in the world", and throw in superlatives upon superlatives about the tourist spots I should come and visit. Other travelers, probably with the latter in mind but meeting the former, describe Prague as overrated and "a let down". And that indeed it could be – if your intention is just to see the landmarks that are already swarming with hundreds of tourists just like you. A few museums and landmarks later, you can add Prague to your "been there, done that, oh-my-it-was-beautiful" list even if what you actually had experienced was any other tourist story in any other tourist place – "but in Prague!"

Anyone can be in this situation – especially when under some kind of time pressure. And being the unembarrassed tourist also has its fun sides: just look at our 3-day Stockholm-on-a-shoestring trip with tourist cards! For the first time though, I spent five nights in a tourist city without paying a single entrance fee, without entering a single church or museum, had minimal contact with other tourists, and had the greatest vacation ever! – It's humanly possible! And come to think of it, why elbow my way through a horde of tourist groups while being on a vacation in a place already reputed for being touristy? Actually, when we booked this trip, there were just too many tourist landmarks to plan for and to go to that I ended up not planning anything at all – and I thanked myself for it.

I can recommend three things if you, like us, want to avoid the tourist spots when they're at their worst:

1. Visit Charles bridge, the town square and the Astronomical clock before 7AM, the earlier the better. Believe me, you will be rewarded by peace and quiet since the other tourists have likely just walked down to their buffet breakfasts. Two hours later, it will be hard to find a free square meter in those places. If you're not careful, perhaps you'll even have a hard time finding your wallet in all the commotion.

Charles Bridge at 6:15AM. Aside from ourselves, there were two other tourists. We saw a fisherman in the river, and the air was crisp!

A bonus for getting up early is seeing "real" people on their way to work. Most are catching trams and metros. The locals in the center are getting ready for the awakening of tourist life: trash are collected, windows are washed, vegetables are delivered. Even ATM machines are being polished for the tourists' arrival. It would be sad to miss this part of the tourism business. By the time people come out of their hotels and take pictures of the beautiful city ("It's so clean!"), everything would have been, well, photogenic.

2. Eat where the locals eat. It's delicious and cheap. We bought our pastry snacks at the metro stations and ate them on the go or in parks. We also bought our cold drinks in supermarkets, since cafés only seem to be the precinct of serious tourists and are on the pricey side.

For lunch, we walked away from the center for a good five minutes, and explored the side streets. For that walk, we were rewarded with reasonable lunch prices. The lunch menus might only be in Czech, but the food is good – locals eat there! The staff translated the menu for us, or in other cases we ordered Central European classics like schnitzel (they're not pre-fab, hooray!) or goulash. The staff are usually more direct in the smaller restaurants – they were there to serve us food, but there wasn't as many pleasantries as in the center, where part of their work will be to make us tourists feel noticed.

3. Bring comfortable shoes and walk. For two days, we took the very extensive tram-and-metro network to explore the city outskirts, which was also a joy, but for the rest of the days, and to get to the hidden and interesting places, we walked like pilgrims around the whole city, until our maps ended. So, you need a good pair of shoes and a positive attitude towards walking. Besides, it's to burn all that pork fat and beer.

Prague has many beautiful parks littered just around the city center, most are located on top of a hill and no two parks look the same. In bigger parks, there are kiosks where we could buy Czech beer in plastic mugs and sit where the locals hang out for an after-work drink. In smaller parks, there was a lot of "normal" city life to observe: retirees reading in the sun, ladies walking dogs (I've never seen happier dogs. They really benefit from the parks), joggers, and whole families on inlines.

In the afternoon, we walked up Letná Park which overlooks the bridges, including Charles Bridge, which is now full of people.

The bonus of going around aside from avoiding the tourist places at their busiest? Toilets are usually paid in the city center and in all metro stations, but a piss in a shopping mall outside of the center doesn't cost a thing. Besides, there's just another life outside the center, even in the side streets. It's a life that seems genuine, laid back and pretty without being hard-sell or being too loaded with tourist expectations.

I would do this trip all over again – we're even thinking of a Czech phrase book for the next time! After all, in a city like Prague, there's so much more to explore if you look at the map rather than the guide book, so I'm glad I didn't plan the vacation all too well.

Look, a "trainbow"!
This was taken in one of the smaller parks outside the center. Most parks had a view of the city below. This view was particularly breathtaking, almost like being in one of those sci-fi movies with trains moving vertically!

I've posted our pictures at Multiply: everything from tram and metro- pictures, to plates of food, from our groceries to beautiful Prague cityscapes, and yes, the usual touristy posing. We can't help being tourists after all. We are tourists. The point is though, even if you do end up following my advice to avoid the crowd, make the experience yours. You will feel so much more fulfilled if you're not only at the spot where everybody else already is.

Whee! Please, let's go here again!

Food and drink is for the next post. I just have to say: in Prague, beer is cheaper than water, cola, or juice. So expect a lot of pictures with beer.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great update! I approve of your travel philosophy, not easy escaping the tourist crowd. Checked out your photos - you look great! And beer is cheaper than water? Gotta go there! :)

6:59 PM

Anonymous Lara said...

enjoyed reading this, joy!

2:37 PM

Anonymous mercylcf said...

Luv the travel tips and the postcard-perfect pics...you're right, some people actually mistake Sweden for Switzerland.

6:21 PM


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