Viennese whirl

I managed a long lie in until the heady time if 7:00 before getting up for a rather awful McD’s breakfast and to jump on my coach to Vienna. As the Czech Republic is an Eastern European nation, we had to stop at passport control on the way out and two girls managed to get their passports stamped – I should have thought of that! The border guard quoted them 5 Euros per stamp and they were quite taken aback until he said he was kidding.

The coach dropped everyone off on the outer ring road, but it took a while to figure out where I was as there are three Eurolines stops in Vienna. I managed to wander up to the East train station in the sweltering heat only to find that half of their left luggage lockers were “kapput” and the other half were in use. Great. So I lugged my bags around with me all day.

This included a walk to the Eurolines office I would be leaving from in two days time, to colletc my ticket and to figure out where it was. I’m glad I checked as Lonely Planet has the correct address, but the dot on the map is around 4km away from where it should be. An underground ticket is a much better way of getting there than shoe leather.

I walked around a fair bit of the centre then spent an hour trying to locate a payphone to call my couchsurfing host, Thomas. I finally did and we arranged to meet just after 5pm at one of the underground stops.

Vienna does “grand” the same way Prague does “fairy tale” with some of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen. The parliament building is done in Greek style, the town hall more gothic (though I didn’t get any photos as some muppet had decided to put a summer festival up in front of it so I couldn’t see the thing), the music halls as good as anything in London or Paris… simply breathtaking.

Unfortunately, it’s also really expensive like those cities. Within the centre, at least, expect the internet to hit 5-6 Euros an hour. I wolfed down a Burger King before hopping on a tube to Ottakring, out to the west, where Thomas was waiting for me. His flat was only a short walk away and we were there in minutes where he got me settled in, provided me with slippers and showed me the ropes.

While at Thomas’ I managed to get in touch with Anita, another local couchsurfer and arranged to meet her the next night for some sightseeing and dinner. It chucked it down that night as I was trying to locate a pizza shop – quite a change from the bright sunshine earlier in the day.

I slept on the floor this first night as Jamie and Hanni from Singapore had decided to stay another night and they had first dibs on the couch. Thomas offered me a camp bed but I wanted to get used to my sleeping mats.

Swords and torture instruments

No, I didn’t head back to the restaurant from last night. Though the thought did cross my mind.

Early doors and before checkout, we moved my bags back to the Apple hostel where I’d booked another night. Viv was due at the airport by around 1:30 so we walked around aimlessly in the sunshine just trying to find places we’d missed before. In the Old Square, a medieval event was being set up with people walking around with swords and roasting dead animals on spits. All very interesting. We sat, ate cherries and watched the world go by. In helmets and chainmail.

The time came for Viv’s checkin and we took the quick journey up to the airport. Again, it was lovely to see her and have someone else to appreciate Prague with. I’m sure I’ll catch up again once I get back to the UK!

Back in the city I had a rather tasty Subway for lunch (with incredibly lovely staff to serve me – certain higher-class eateries could learn from these people). Then the Torture Museum just off the east side of the Charles Bridge. This was pretty cool, though small. I knew about virtually all the exhibits (my scary book collection is safe in my parents’ basement) but it was pretty impressive to see them close up. The comments book on the first floor seemed to vary between “this is cool and I want one of those pointy things for my ex-wife” to “you people are sick” – which is a bizarre thing to put in a book for a museum you’ve paid money to enter.

As I walked out, I bumped into Phil the bald Scotsman from the other night and we arranged a time for dinner. They’d got “stuck” in Prague, basically getting very very drunk for several nights and he looked like death on a slow roast.

9pm after I spent a fair amount of time online and… no show from Dom and Phil. Not to worry, they were probably being ill somewhere so I went exploring so I knew where the bus station was for the morning. In doing so, I found a host of cheap places to get food which I should have discovered several days ago. Ah well, I’ll know for next time.

Food. Room. Book. Bed.

I thought Parisians were supposed to be rude?

I’ll get to the title bit later…

We woke fairly early and went for another walk around. There was a street market not too far away where Viv bought a huge punnet of cherries and some souvenirs for the folks back home. We also stopped at a nearby coffee shop so she could fuel up for the day.

The long walk to the castle was worth it as we caught the changing of the guard, again in amazing sunshine. How those guys can stand there in that kind of heat I don’t know.

Locating one of the cheaper restaurants nearby, we sat down for a pleasant lunch with a lovely view and a cute kid entertaining himself at a table while his parents ate. Until he got confused and followed the wrong woman out of the restaurant and his mother went mental when she caught up with him. Whoops.

In a bid to enjoy a protracted period of air conditioning, we bought two tickets for Die Hard 4 and also managed to find a bar / restaurant selling rosé wine so Viv could actually have a drink of something other than Sprite. The film was enjoyable but a little silly. I still think the first one is by far and away the best.

As the light started to dim, we walked down near the river and found an excellent second hand book store. I picked up a 4-volume Alex Rider collection for a shade over two pounds (a lot of train and bus journeys coming up) and a publisher’s proof edition of an Eoin Colfer novel which may find its way onto eBay when I get home.

We hopped onto a boat for a chilly one-hour river cruise. 7:30 in the evening is a good time as you get to see the city by night for the first half, and lighting up for the second. All very pleasant.

And then. The rude waiter. The restaurant we picked looked cheap, had great food and – I think – is recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s the Restaurace U Vejvodu on Jilska 4 and you should avoid it like the plague. No, I’ll be fair – you should avoid the bald waiter.

He looked utterly distracted when he took the order, staring around the restaurant while we chose our orders. Then he brought me two beers instead of one, and gave Viv a Sprite with no peach schnapps. And brought another unasked when she finished it. I ordered a beef steak in pepper sauce and when it arrived it looked both delicious… and remarkably like turkey. I checked. There was also a turkey steak on the menu which was 220 Crowns less in price.

After ten minutes of trying to get the waiter’s attention and failing, I thought “sod it” and ate the thing. It was delicious, but arguing the bill when it arrived was fun. The waiter refused to understand us, so he called over another guy whose English was much better. He was polite, understanding and genuinely attempted to help – exactly unlike his colleague.

Still, though, when they went to talk to the chef and came back to tell me it was “impossible” that I’d been given turkey, I was somewhat annoyed. When they then tried to tell me that the beef steak can look a pink/white colour I – frankly – lost it a bit. I’m 33. I’m pretty much a carnivore. I know “pink” beef and I know turkey. The texture, colour, taste, shape and amount of blood that squishes out is utterly different. I was not to be fooled though someone really needs to take their chef to one side and explain that the one that goes “moo” is the one that should be labeled beef.

Eventually, the bald man came back and literally threw the menu at us so I could point out what I had and the relevant price. He stormed off, dropped a handful of change on the table then suddenly stopped and pointed at a rack on the table. “Two pretzel” he announced, and pinched some of the change back with a manic look of pathetic triumph in his eye.

So there’s a lesson for you. Don’t assume that the pretzels on the table are free. And don’t forget the service charge which I really wanted to withhold. Waiting staff should be on a tip system. Frankly, I’d have given this moron’s tip to the guy with the long hair who’d actually tried to help.

Regardless, it didn’t spoil our evening but it did mean that there was no way we were ordering desert there. A good job there are so many ice cream shops in Prague! I went for a very nice slice of cherry pie from one of them and managed to eat most of it without dropping it on the pavement.

And so back to the room to watch the news and sleep soundly while my stomach digested the feathered beef steak.

Visitor from abroad

After my stupidly late night / early morning I had to force my eyes open at 9:45 to check out of the hostel and move all my stuff to a hotel a 15 minute walk away. Viv, a friend of mine from back home, was having a weekend in Prague as a break from life’s daily grind and we’d opted on sharing a hotel to keep the costs down and to make things a little nicer for her. After all, this was a holiday!

The new place was quite nice but the evils of free internet meant that I didn’t get a nice 2-hour nap as I’d planned. Instead I replied to mails, got depressed with the news back home and walked down to KFC on the corner to console myself with a Zinger menu. I then jumped onto a Metro, transferred to a bus and arrived at the airport to catch Viv arriving on her (early, amazingly) flight.

As ever, it’s good to see a friendly face from back home and we sat and plotted the conquest of Prague with the guide books she’d brought with her. A quick stopoff at the hotel to drop her bags, and off into the sunshine for an explore.

Between my hostel and the hotel is a brick structure being built for charity. It’s 1000 Crowns per brick, and you can draw or paint anything you like on it. I vaguelly recall this just starting when I was in Prague a couple of years ago. There are now three or four structures, one double-layered, with many crazy designs on. Superb idea.

Picking a street at random – or so Viv led me to believe – we ended up walking past and then into the Sex Machines Museum. I swear she had this planned. As it happens, Talia had begged me to go there and get photos of the corsets they have on display so I grudgingly agreed to walk around (ahem) and we spent a little over an hour in a fairly enjoyable walk, giggling like schoolkids at some of the items on display. I think Viv walked off with a silly number of ideas and a mentally dwindling bank balance for when she got home.

The aim of the weekend for Viv was to relax, so we just took a stroll over the beautiful Charles Bridge in the baking sun and around the Old Town Square. A huge crowd had gathered around the Meteorological Clock to watch the figuers pop out on the hour and we joined them.

We pretty much spent the afternoon walking around admiring how beautiful a city Prague is. Everything’s so clean, but also now quite expensive. I swear things are pricier than they were when I visited for Colin’s stag party.

We picked a nice-ish restaurant for dinner and sat watching the passing people. Ice cream and a baked pastry doughnut kind of thing were munched as we walked around. Prague changes “tone” later at night as the more risque nightclubs open up. Stag parties trailed from one to the other as I was – for once – roundly ignored by the scary men trying to convince lone males that they really really wanted to part with a huge sum of money for one beer and a semi-naked wrinkly woman gyrating on their lap. It’s handy have a nice lady with you so you look like a couple!

Amazingly, despite the silly lack of sleep the night before, I made it to 1:30am before the need to sleep crept up and coshed me violently over the back of the head. I’ll get him for that. Ow.

Prague – again

I was here a couple of years ago on a stag do, so I kind of knew my way around. This helped when we arrived as nobody else had a clue where we were going. The two Scots met three girls from England who they’d had a night with in Krakow and together we headed for the hostel I’d booked for myself, a short(ish) walk from the station. Everyone looked bleary-eyed. I think I got more sleep on the trains in India – at least you were only bothered by ticket inspectors once in the journey there.

Everyone else grabbed a room at the Apple Hostel with me and we dumped our bags (far too early to Czech in haha) and jumped on a Metro and then a bus to Pilsn (or Pilsner as the Germans called it). My aim was to climb the church tower, go down into the tunnels, visit the brewery and walk around the brewery museum. But this was not to be.

For starters, we got there later than I’d hoped. And half the places were shut – it appears that July 5th is some kind of holiday. The bus dropped us of a fair walk from the brewery, so we hopped in two taxis to get there and then paid for a tour each. It turned out to be one of the more interesting brewery tours I’ve been on, partly as the Pilsner Urquell company invented lager as we know it. The main company was formed by a conglomeration of several separate local breweries and the first “golden beer” was sampled in 1842.

Sadly, this technically means that crap like Fosters, VB and Special Brew are all their fault. But I’ll forgive them as their own beer’s pretty damn good. One of the best parts of the tour is, of course, the tasting. This one is rather special as the beer sampled can only be drunk on this tour and nowhere else. To ensure that modern brewing methods don’t mess up the taste, traditional methods are used in small quantities. Huge barrels are stored in underground catacombs and this brew is compared regularly against that which comes from the 125-or-so 16.7million litre metal vessels now used. The barreled beer isn’t filtered so it’s cloudy and it tastes delicious. Mind, so does the modern finished product. Which we sampled a lot of in the bar upstairs afterwards. At around 50p for half a litre it would have been rude not to.

Oh, I forgot to mention – it was Phil’s 25th birthday. He’s Scottish so therefore we all had to get drunk. It’s a law, or a custom, or an old charter. Or something.

To this end we returned to the hostel and swiftly shower, shaved and… the other “sh”, got on our best togs (well, a partly-cleanish Toon top for me) and headed out for some grub and some beer.

Eventually we settled on a nice looking foodery near the Charles Bridge where we rattled up a bill of around £100 between six of us (plus the two Swedes from Krakow who turned up late in proceedings to add to the bar bill). Not bad, all things considered. But still more than we expected, especially after totalling it ourselves and coming up with something nearer £90.

Of course, the sneaky “service charge”. My menu actually had the part with the charge on ripped out. So beware of this in Prague as it’s hugely common.

From there we crossed the bridge and found a cool jazz bar where we sat (and drank) for maybe an hour. Michael went through a row of shots, the girls tried out cocktails with more colours than a very poorly family of rainbows, and the rest of us supped nice Czech beer.

Next stop, another bar playing U2 and Linkin Park where Tommi started snorting sugar and trying to pour it into beer (it gets very fizzy when you do this) before we moved on to an Irish bar. I settled on Hoegaarden here because I like it and we were turfed out after last orders. It was barely 2am so we walked back to the previous bar and kept on ploughing through the yellow fizzy stuff for another hour until this started to shut up shop.

At this point everyone else was heading hostelwards, but I’d got talking to a Norwegian girl who was slightly bored as both her friends had pulled a Czech guy each. Silly Czech guys – Carina was by far the prettiest of the three girls. maybe they were intimidated. However, I ended up in a taxi to another club which was playing my kind of music and selling beer at my kind of prices.

I ended up dropping Carina at her hostel (a whole 50m down the road) at 6am and collapsing in bed at my own hostel around 6:30am. Big mistake – I had to be up again at 9:45am to check out!