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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parting the iron curtain

next stop:

Life on the road is all about beginnings and endings. Many of these transitions are never really concrete; the ambiguous dividing lines between legs of a journey, for instance. A lot of times these are only acknowledged (or noticed) after their passing. Sometimes it’s easier to tell when these lines we’ve made for ourselves have been crossed. You can feel it that split second after you step off a train to somewhere new and strange, it’s late, and you’ve still a ways to go before you sleep. Or the first time you use a foreign language with success, when you realize the strange sounds coming out of your mouth are being interpreted and responded to by native speakers in a predictable fashion. Traveling is all about these sorts of moments – moments that change your perception of the world around you.

Our time in Berlin had finally run out. The road called, in this case one made of steel, and we headed to Berlin Hauptbahnhof for a ride to our next destination. We were bound for Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The city of Vaclav Havel, the Velvet Revolution, and…goulash and beer? Something like that. Off the S-Bahn, down the escalators, and onto the platform we went. What would it be like in Prague? Would we find a holdover from the cold war, a Kafka-esque caricature on the Vltava? Or would it be westernized, more like the cities that we’d been wandering around in for a week and a half already? Before long, we’d find out. A string of scarlet-and-white Czech Railways carriages silently hissed onto our track. Time to boogie. We hopped aboard.

The train snuck out from underneath the station and onto the tracks headed for Prague. We were joined in our compartment by Colin, an American businessman from Portland sent by his company to help develop ties with renewable energy companies in Europe. The miles sped by as we chatted in our compartment, interrupted only by the ticket inspector who showed up soon after we left Berlin’s city limits. Kira and I settled in with lunch and a bottle of Bordeaux and watched the world speed by at 130 km/h, through the forests of northern Bohemia until we came upon the city of Dresden.

Dresden is a city which I fully intend to spend time in on my next trip to Germany, a city that rose from the horrific cinders of the Allied firebombing of February 1945 to become a modern, green city of three quarters of a million people. The scars are still evident; what buildings still remain from the prewar era are stained with soot from the firestorm. Today the only thing smoking were the handfuls of passengers clustered around the doors of the train, puffing down a cigarette before the conductor’s whistle caused them to leap back on board. This was Colin’s stop, so he left Kira and I the compartment to ourselves and with a handshake, our friendly train mate was off and on his way. For us: on to the border.

The forests and lowlands eventually gave way to the gorge that the Elbe River carves through the sandstone mountains which for thousands of years have been the traditional border between Saxony and Bohemia – and the gateway to the Czech Republic. Clouds began to roll in, and from the train’s route at the bottom of the valley we could see fingers of fog reaching among the trees. This part of Europe is staggeringly beautiful; it’s no wonder small spa towns like Bad Bentheim sprang up on both sides of the border over the centuries; it seems like a place as far removed from the urban conglomerations like Berlin as there can be. The train was quiet, families and businessmen alike settling in for a few hours’ nap before we reached Prague just past 9.30 P.M. On we went, the train slinking up the gorge and into Bohemia.

Eventually the signs on the station platforms flying past turned from German to Czech. Somewhere, miles distant now, we’d crossed over another one of those invisible boundaries, in this case the border between two now-Schengen states. Since 2007, there have been no border checkpoints between Germany and the Czech Republic, a sign of the former east’s western ambitions. The end of communism and the ‘Velvet Divorce’ between the Czech and Slovak republics meant the wave of western influence sweeping eastward would soon hit the banks of mighty Vtlava. Outside the train, the sun sunk down behind the hills, and we finally pulled into Prague under cover of darkness.

The doors open with a hiss, and I stepped out onto the platform and into the most alien place I’ve been yet. Culture shock is one of my favorite things, best when sudden and drastic. In this case, it came in several forms: the people on the platform speaking in strange, foreign tongues, the harsh greenish-blue station lighting, the darkness that hid the city streets around the train station from my prying eyes. At the station, we met up with a friend of mine from back home named Margaret. Margaret moved to Prague at the end of the previous summer, and had been teaching English and doing English-language tours around the city’s Old Town ever since. Her enthusiasm and ambition for traveling is matched only by her actions – when she tells me her goal is to live on every continent including Antarctica, I believe her. She may not exactly look like a seasoned hardcore traveler, but as with so many things, appearances can be deceiving.

Her apartment is down an old cobblestone street in the Nové Město (New Town) district and up an old, clunky Soviet-era lift in a remodeled block of flats. Though it may not look it on the outside, the apartment she and her flatmates share is as big, modern and comfortable as any I’d seen in the UK. The real attraction, though, is the view. From her roof, one can see Prague Castle standing sentinel over the sleepy city below, like a slumbering ancestral giant. From its perch it has witnessed war, revolution, renaissance, and everything in between in its more than one thousand years of existence. If these walls could talk indeed.

The next day, the castle got a little closer. I headed up the hill half expecting it to be empty; it was a Tuesday, after all. Upon arriving, it finally dawned on me that Prague is not unknown to the rest of the world; in fact, the masses of tourists now scurrying about in front of my eyes are among millions who now flock to this ancient city to see its winding streets and spectacular architecture. During World War II, Prague, though occupied by the Germans for the duration of the war, escaped the bombing that so many other cities of Europe endured. Because of this, there exists in Prague the feeling that you are in a very, very old place; one untouched by the passage of hundreds of years, tens of thousands of residents, and whatever régime you wish. The streets are narrow and nearly always cobbled rather than paved; the buildings crafted with a character that seems absent in anything less than two hundred years old.

Back at the castle, I managed to meet up with Kira and we descended the side of the hill above the roofs of the Malá strana (lesser town). From somewhere below, we heard the faint strains of a violin. Slow at first, then quickening, the music pulled us down the hill towards the alleys below. Its source was masked by the myraid passages between buildings, echoing off the time-worn brick until it reached us. Farther down the hill we found our musician.

paris part deux

At the bottom of a stairway next to the River Seine, there’s a chair with a man wrapped a shiny gold sheet sitting on it. People of Paris, meet King Tut.

King Tut Guy was just sort of sitting there in his sheet, wriggling a thank you at the passersby who dropped change into his cup. This is Paris; sometimes…well, a lot of the time, things don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s okay, just chalk it up to the French being French, with their wine and their cheese and their Gauloises. They’re a bit different, right?

Paris, being an ancient city, has its fair share of famous monuments and architecture. I won’t go into depth about all these, since you likely have at least heard of them (and I loathe coming off as a tourist), but I’ll give a few of them a nod as it’s my first time seeing any of them outside of a book or TV show. Consider yourself warned.

Near the Eiffel Tower, little gangs of souvenir peddlers ply their craft, selling the same cheap Eiffel Tower knickknacks from big rings in their hands or the occasional blanket on the ground, ready to swoop everything up and relocate at the first sign of the flics. They have two separate tones of voice reserved; one, quieter and more hurried, is spoken only amongst themselves. The other, shouty and usually in broken English or German, is used to hawk at the masses of tourists under the vaulting, graceful arcs of the Tower. Either way, if it’s a souvenir of your time in Paris you’re looking for, these gents will be more than happy to hook you up.

setting up shop

The Champ de Mars just across the street, however, is (like a lot of the rest of Paris) a completely different story. Here in the park, even in the shadow of one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, life returns to a more Parisian pace. People dawdle, stroll around, couples stake out their benches and chat. It’s all a wonderful juxtaposition, and it’s not just in the Champ de Mars – it’s all over the increasingly globalized and frenzied city.

Paris is a city best explored on foot or by Métro. The Paris Metro is as much an attraction as anything else in Paris, a perfect example of how public transport becomes deeply intwined with the soul of a city. The Metro is a mirror upon which the image of Paris is projected. It’s not super clean. It’s not fast (the average service speed in the Metro is only 20 km/h (12.4 mph) due to the close proximity of the stations and tight curves in the tunnels). To get on or off the trains, you have to flip a lever or push a button on the doors to release them. Unlike the Underground, there’s no escalators, just miles and miles of stairs. Perhaps this speaks of the French attitude of self-dependence, maybe it’s France’s way of simply sticking up their collective middle finger at the droves of tourists who flock to the city. Regardless, it’s the Metro. It’s a beautiful, sweaty, dirty mess. And it can be, at times, a high-voltage, clandestine playground (if one has the time and the cojones as messieur dsankt does).

As for us, we retired that night to a hostel in the northeast of the city, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique near Metro Hoche. We exited the Metro around midnight, meaning that the neighbourhood we suddenly found ourselves in was, shall we say, less than savory. The nearest cash machine had a lurker prowling near it, never straying far for fear of missing a victim. We booked across the street, sticking out like sore traveling thumbs with our packs. Haste was a good idea. This was a different Paris, a Paris that was not so casual, not so bright. I could feel the pointed stares from the people around us in the shadows, sizing us up, wondering what the bloody hell two obvious foreigners were doing in this part of Paris at this time of night. Finally, a few blocks away lay the hostel, a place that was mercifully less dodgy than the surrounding neighbourhood. Up the unlit stairs were our bunks, spartan and creaky. This was a real backpacker’s hostel, no frills, all business. My kind of place. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I hit the pillow.

The next morning, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais had morphed back into Dr. Jekyll. Once again, Paris was Paris, the cafés already drawing their early morning crowds, the street merchants setting up shop near the Metro station. My roommate that morning was a 25-year-old grad student from Los Angeles; I said hello in French and he answered in dude-tinged English. Thousands of miles away from home (and two days out), I had encountered my first American on the road. He’d been out much longer than me; two weeks prior in Italy (where he’d been studying) and Spain, now Paris for the next week. We traded war stories while I loaded my pack, my tales of living in London, his of the last few months spent studying in Siena. Before long my pack was ready to go, I bade my new friend goodbye, and we were off across town to hostel #2, the new St. Christopher’s on the Canal d’Ourcq. We checked in, dropped our gear, and proceeded to do exactly what we’d done so well the last few days: wander aimlessly around the capital of France.

We had lunch that day at a café near the Sorbonne, in the Quartier Latin, so named for the extensive use of Latin in the world of early French higher academia. Cafés are still very important to the French, still very much the centre of social circles, much like the pub is to the British. The tables outside are the best, always facing the street, the world around you, never letting go of the pulse of daily life in the city. Today this pulse was especially strong, as we had only been sitting at our table 15 minutes or so before all of Paris rode past on rollerblades.

Also, if I may, a word of advice. If you go to the Louvre, be warned that the world’s biggest art mosh pit surrounds the most famous painting on the planet:

The banks of the Seine have always defined the city, from the physical separation of the two halves of the city to the more philosophical distinctions between the rives gauche et droite. The river must have a lot of stories; men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo strolled its banks much as we did. It’s all terribly charming, for reasons that I’m sure have been laid out in innumerable forms of media. Every single reason is valid. From the banks, the sound of the traffic on the streets above becomes only a muted whoosh and the world takes on a sort of tunnel vision. Everything takes on a different perspective from here, the colors seem to warm, the sounds of the people near the river seems to amplify. It’s also annoyingly picturesque:

Our last day in the capital of France passed us by, but by no means did we have an easy night ahead. Back to the hostel we went, packing our gear and making a last minute run to the marché for the essentials: wine, potent beer called Beélzebuth (11.8%!), brie, butter, and from a small boulangerie on the Avenue de Flandre, baguette. Perfect baguette, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. These small wonders would get us through the night ahead: 16 hours on a bus crossing parts of four countries, destination Berlin.

smell the fresh bread right here (in photographic form)

baguette!

I have a tumultuous relationship with my backpack. Let me be clear about this: I really do love my luggage. It never complains about being tossed around by savage baggage handlers, and it doesn’t make a scene at metro turnstiles. It is by almost all measures the best piece of traveling kit I own. But it makes my back hurt once in a while, and it always, without fail, is just barely large enough to need to be checked on airplanes. This last one wasn’t as important on the first stage of this trip, however – because bags are free on the Eurostar.

The time had finally come to take on mainland Europe. Term had been over no more than 10 hours before we awoke in the darkness of 5 A.M. to catch a bus to Wood Green tube station in the north of London in time to get the Tube to King’s Cross, or more properly St. Pancras International train station, the terminal for one end of the Eurostar service to Paris and Brussels (and sometimes Avignon). We’d be going to Paris.

Allow me at this time to introduce ‘we’. This is Kira.

Kira is one of the other students on my program, and one of my best friends. Over the last four months, we got to know each other (and our preferred methods of travelling, namely backpacking) quite well living in London. We’d be traveling together until Prague, where she’d head to Frankfurt for her flight back to the US, and I’d head for England via Amsterdam. Two and a half weeks and more than 2,000 miles (3,218 km) racked up on a combination of trains, buses, and ferries – no planes. Our route would look something like this:

We emerged from the first trickles of Tube commuters at King’s Cross and hurried across the street in the chill of early morning, the sun barely peeking over the top of the London skyline. Through the big glass doors, the station buzzed with the frenetic pace of wave after wave of commuters hustling through on their way to jobs in the city. Both domestic and international trains call at the new St. Pancras, which took over the Eurostar service from Waterloo in 2007 when the High Speed 1 rail link opened, connecting the new international station with the Channel Tunnel.

Thus far, it had seemed in a way as if this whole thing was a rehearsal, a practice run for some grand trip we’d someday take. It didn’t feel real until we were finally past the ticket barriers and into the inner sanctum of the station. A French customs agent looked me over, examining the still-expanding two page stamp collection in my passport.

“How long are you going to be in France?”

“Four days.”

“Anything to declare?”

“No.”

He looked me up and down once more, fired off a few more questions, and then, satisfied, he brought his stamp down on page 8 with a satisfying thwack – leaving fresh, sharp ink in its wake. The big “F” surrounded by the stars of the EU smiled back at me from the page. We were in, even before we had left English soil.

At the top of the lift was the platform and our sunrise train to France. We scooted aboard minutes before the conductor’s whistle blew and the train pulled silently out of the station.

Eurostar is a brilliant thing. It’s cheap (comparatively), fast, and drops you right into the middle of Paris. There had been a few airfares that were slightly cheaper for our given day, but since all the low-cost carriers in London fly out of Luton or Stansted, one must tack on an additional £10 or so to get to the airport, plus the same on the other side to get from de Gaulle or Orly to the city, and baggage fees…it makes so much more sense to take the train. It’s miles more comfortable, too.

By the time the train left the first tunnel, we were already doing 100 mph (160 kph), faster than any train I’ve ever been on in the States. We picked up the pace as the train snaked its way through Kent towards the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. The landscape of southeast England became nothing but a blur on the train as the passengers settled in for the two-hour ride to Paris. Well-timed snoozes came to many of the people on board.

Before I could fall asleep again, we were under the English Channel. We entered the Channel Tunnel without pomp or circumstance, soon staring out the window into nothing but dark and the occasional crossover between the bores. It’s an odd feeling; the Chunnel seems like any other railway tunnel (though a very very long one), and there’s nothing at all to indicate that one is two hundred feet below the bottom of the Channel, except the *pop* of your ears as you descend into the depths. We finally burst into the sunlight on the French side, after about 20 minutes of darkness. Time once again slowed down, the endless fields of northern France finally yielding to the banlieues of Paris as we approached Gare du Nord. Paris! One of the cities I’d only ever heard about, only ever dreamed about was minutes away. Time to see if mon Français was up to the task.

paris nord

After dodging the beggars who welcomed us to Paris (the Roma ladies with the cards that ask you if you speak English/French/German), the Metro took us to Châtelet, where, after escaping from the labyrinth of passages connected to the Metro station, we fell into the warm embrace of the Paris sun. We rested under a tree in a park and listened to the bells of St-Eustache ring into the quiet afternoon. This was the life for sure. We walked the streets of the 2nd arrondissement and soaked it up – the chatter from people at the innumerable cafés bouncing off the narrow alleys and cobbled streets, the occasional bicycle bell, the distant ring of church bells.

It’s not for everyone, I can admit. Paris cannot be called a super clean city, but of course if it was, it would not be Paris. There’s something terribly endearing about the grit of the Metro, the dark alleys between the mazelike streets of the old parts of the city, even the crazy looking panhandlers along the Seine. It’s Paris; you don’t think about things like that, you just feel.

sauf velo

jammin

That night, we met up with a friend of a friend who had a couch we could sleep on near Montparnasse. We arrived to find that our host had an apartment in one of the tallest buildings for miles, and Paris is a very flat city. As we turned the corner from the elevator, I snatched a glance out of a 32nd floor hallway window. The view pulled me in until my nose pressed against the glass. The entirety of Paris was laid out before me, complete with an illuminated Eiffel Tower in the distance, its beacon light broadcasting silently into the stillness of the night. Dashing out once more into the night, we found a Parisian off-license down the street and bought our first bottle of wine from a man with a beard who spoke only French. It was red, shockingly cheap, and absolutely delicious.

illuminated

more delicious frames from Paris right here for your hungry eyes.