prague after dark

How do you get to know a city? A tricky question.

A city is more than the sum of its numbers; population, crime rate, area, and so on. It is more than what merely lays on the surface, apparent in the light of day to the casual observer. The onset of night, in particular, brings a different character; a change simple and routine, yet profound. The shadows that crept across the narrow alleyways of Prague turned the city into a moon- and neon-lit playground, one echoing not only with the half-hourly bells from the Týn church but with a sense of movement and electricity, even during the hours of the night.

night trams

kino svetozor

Margaret and I headed for U Sudu, a legendary Prague watering hole. I’d been told that it’s a hidden bar built out of old beer caves, tunnels and the like. Sounds right up my alley. We headed out among the denizens of the night, the sounds of tram cars clinking down the tracks and voices bouncing off the buildings acting as our soundtrack as we ventured through the medieval streets. Gone were the swarming hordes in Wenceslas Square, the tourists from all over the world who now slumbered in in their hotel rooms. The city at night seems to belong more to its residents, coming out from behind desks and out of apartments to enjoy the Bohemian night.

bohemian nights

night falls

U Sudu was indeed a cave, a concealed bar made up of dozens of interconnected underground rooms, mostly made from rough-hewn brick arches that once may have been used to store beer and wine, sausages, maybe even secret prisoners during the Soviet régime. The dark chambers narrowed farther back, much like the medieval sewers farther beneath the city. We found our way into the last chamber for a well-earned pint, the smoke from cigarettes and spliffs wafting through the air, the patrons speaking in hushed tones as if it were the Czech version of a Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy. Classy.

self-portrait, u sudu

Three A.M. came all too swiftly. After another ‘hidden’ bar: an art loft on the second floor of a nondescript office block, and yet another in the north of the city known for both its artwork (done completely in feverish twists of wire) as its drinks (ice cold shots of a local liquor called Becherovka), we found ourselves hopping off a night tram after crisscrossing the city. Before long, the sun would be rising over Žižkov hill to the east of the city, but we would be soon be sound asleep, exhausted after the hours of darkness.

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night bus

Sixteen hours on a bus sounded awesome, so Kira and I headed to Paris’ Gallieni bus terminal, where our transport to Germany was waiting. Also waiting at the terminal were a line full of lunatics, a bus driver who spoke two languages I did not, and a pack of screeching teenage girls. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our last ride on the Metro left us in the bus terminal on the outskirts of Paris. We were using the ubiquitous European coach company Eurolines, and their buses leave this huge terminal for all parts of central and eastern Europe. This particular station was busy at 7pm, with coaches loading up for night routes, travelers waiting with their bags and pillows. We found our bus, the service to Berlin, with a man who was waiting to tell us in Polish that we couldn’t get on the bus yet. I had no idea why at the time, as my knowledge of Polish consists of a few words I’ve heard my grandmother say. Kira finally got through to him in German, and he informed us rather gruffly that we’d need ‘bordkarte’ – boarding passes. We’d have to go back into the station, stand on line, and exchange our tickets for little plastic cards that allowed us on the coach – all with about 20 minutes until our bus left. Wonderful.

We flew down the stairs only to be met with – of course – a queue. It didn’t seem long, but just enough to make us repeatedly and acutely aware of the time. Slowly, achingly slowly, we moved toward the front. A woman standing in line behind me tugged on my bag. When I spun round, she addressed me very rapidly in a language I’d never heard. Not knowing what to do, I smiled and turned around again. More tugs. More rapid-fire gibberish. More ‘I have no idea what you’re saying’ gestures on my part. The woman then left the queue, oddly, and we continued our glacial march to the ticket counter.

Finally, the end was in sight. The last person cleared from in front of the ticket agent, and up we went. But not so fast – as soon as we had walked up from the queue, an argument erupted between a man behind us in line and the aforementioned tugging lady. From what I could gather, the lady had told me to save her place in the queue, and when she returned, the rather irate gentleman behind her didn’t exactly approve of her cutting in line. They shouted; at each other, at me, at the ticket agent, at nothing at all. I was being implicated as the saver of spots, but the only thing on my mind was the acute lack of time we had to make the bus. The people behind us were only shouting, one big chaotic indoor shouting match at the most inopportune of times. One strung-out look at the ticket agent and a few choice words in French finally broke through the wall of noise, and, bordkarten in hand, we ran past the still vocal crowd at the bottom of the escalators and out to our coach, still waiting just beyond the glass doors.

The coach was filling up fast. There was a group of teenagers from Paris who looked like adolescent hippies, taking a guerrilla theater operation with them. There were hung-over students on their way home from a weekend of partying, an older couple with a well-behaved child, and of course the inevitable noisemakers for the night, in this case a quartet of screeching teenage girls who seemed to be especially fond of playing tinny club anthems as loud as they could from their cell phones. Excellent.

We cruised out of Paris around sunset and headed for the Belgian border. Night would fall soon, and with it would begin the chase for a few hours of sleep. At times it seemed like a battle that could never be won, dreams dangling just beyond the ragged edge of consciousness, not coming any closer but at the same time never retreating fully. We passed through the forests of the Ardennes before nightfall, the landscape dotted with villages and the occassional wind farm rising from the landscape. The sun set, and we drifted in and out until our friendly Pole announced the stop for Brussels at about 12.30. I jolted awake and got my first impression of Belgium out the window. Four police cars rushed past in the night, their sirens wailing into the distance. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car ablaze down a street. A burning car, not even fifteen minutes into Brussels. Did someone say sketchy?

The coach rumbled into the terminal, and the cancer club disembarked for a smoke. Kira and I left our gear on the bus and stepped out. Not two minutes later, the driver inexplicably closed the back door of the coach, and thinking it was about to leave, I jumped aboard. The door shut, leaving Kira and three or four others still outside. All I could think was that my friend would be left here, in sketchy Brussels, at one in the morning with no money, no passport, no phone, nothing, and the look on her face said the same. I had a momentary freakout until I realized that the driver had no intention of leaving, and Kira was safe from the burning cars of Brussels. Not only that, but the bus had emptied somewhat, including the screeching banshees, and was now quiet as we settled into our seats for the push into Germany. There was still a lot of road left to travel, but thanks to some ridiculous French beer and sheer exhaustion, we wouldn’t see anything until the the sun broke through the early morning haze twelve hours later outside Berlin.

Kira shook me awake half an hour before we hit the German capital. The coach rumbled through the forests on the E30 Autobahn, the early morning fog still not yet burned off. We passed the ghost of Checkpoint Alpha on the motorway near Marienborn, a relic of the Cold War that survived the fall of the Wall, albeit in slightly rougher condition than its much better known cousin Charlie. A lot of wars have been fought in these woods between all kinds of men, always for control of the city we were about to hit. It took the Allies more than a year to reach Berlin – we did it in a hair under 16 hours. The coach lumbered tiredly to the tongue-twisting Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof south of the city center, and we emerged from the coach bleary-eyed but ready for three days in Germany.