I fell in love with Prague two years ago. Lyrically dubbed the “City of 100 Spires” for its many multi-spired churches, Prague is a center of culture, classical music, and literary life. But I remember it best for having given me one of those rare sensations I so treasure as a solo traveler. It’s a fleeting feeling, never to be counted upon. It comes like a lovely surprise sometimes when I am alone in new surroundings. Somehow the setting fills me with an exciting sense that something unusual is about to play-out, and I am at center stage. That sort of enchanted feeling came upon me on my first visit to Prague.
Darkness approached as I crossed Old Town Square, draping the city and its many spires in fading twilight. Fog crept over the cobblestone pavement, sending wispy tentacles twining around my legs and coiling up against the medieval buildings lining the square. Spotlights embraced historic Týn Church, cloaking its steeples in a rising, dreamlike, ethereal glow. The scene so resembled a fairy tale setting, I felt as if I’d suddenly slipped into the pages of a Grimms’ storybook.
I heard the clatter of horses hooves. I held my breath. Would it be dashing Heath Ledger from the movie A Knight’s Tale? I was swept away then and there.
Okay, call me an incurable romantic, it was no star-crossed rendezvous with filmdom, only a tourist toting horse-and-carriage returning to the square. It doesn’t matter. It’s the feeling itself that counts.
In reality, the idea of movie stars appearing in Old Town Prague is not that far fetched. Time and again film makers choose this city for its 900 year-old, well-preserved architecture. As well as A Knight’s Tale, other films have been produced here recently such as the Affaire of the Necklace starring Hilary Swank, From Hell starring Johnny Depp, and Vin Diesel’s blockbuster XXX.
The memory of that magic feeling lingered on throughout my first three-day visit, and I left Prague with a hope to return and recapture it one day.
My next opportunity came the following December with a plan to visit the Christmas markets at Nuremburg and Rothenburg in Germany followed by three days in Prague.
I was seated on a flight from Frankfurt to Prague waiting for takeoff.
“Promiòte,” a deep voice said. I looked up, my eyes resting inquiringly upon a chiseled, handsome face.
“Excuse me,” he repeated in English. “Window seat.”
Standing to let him pass to his seat, I felt a slight flutter rise in my chest. Here, I realized, was that heightened feeling of anticipation. Was magic in the air once again?
As it happened my seat-mate and I clicked right away. Introducing ourselves, we started talking non-stop. Libor, a snowboard instructor was returning home to a small town near Brno, two hours south of Prague. He’d been living in Canada for a year. It struck me that we had the same sense of humor, and it was easy for us to talk about anything and everything. The hour-long flight passed in what seemed more like ten minutes.
“Don’t forget to try the potato pancakes, and Budvar beer!” Libor reminded as we stood in the terminal exchanging e-mail addresses, and a good-bye hug.
We parted ways in the airport – reluctantly on my part, I admit. Out of sight but not out of mind.
Meanwhile, outside, a December snow fell gently. I took a taxi to Hotel City where I had taken the precaution of booking a single room before arriving. The hotel proved to be just what I wanted – clean, safe, and comfortable, with helpful staff that included a long-haired, orange tabby whose titled portrait graced the lobby wall.
Cozy pubs dotted the quiet neighborhood. The metro and tram stop at Námìstí Míru, near the twin-spired St Ludmilla Church, was a five-minute walk away.
Skipping the tram, I took a brisk walk to Old Town Square, the scene of Prague’s biggest Christmas Market. Old-style wooden stalls surrounded a sparkling Christmas tree; the vendors’ handmade wooden toys and embroidered scarves were tempting, but I was not really in the mood for shopping.
The fanciful setting of medieval spires and drifting snow felt more in keeping with sipping hot-mulled wine and indulging wistful thinking. Was that it, I thought; were Libor and I just strangers passing time together? These musings were interrupted when gentle snowflakes turned into a wet drizzle, and I hurried for cover in the Town Hall. The view from its 14th century tower is really stunning, and luckily, just as I reached the top, the rain ceased, the clouds parted, and warming rays of sunlight beamed upon the spires of Týn Church.
Brightened by the change of weather, I resumed sight- seeing more cheerfully as I descended the tower just in time to catch Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock coming to life. Dating to 1410, the clock adorns the side of the Town Hall tower. On the hour, a parade of Apostles passes by two windows while the bell rings, then finally, a crowing cock announces the time.
After the performance, I ambled through the Old Town shops. In one devoted to marionettes, I accidentally collided with a girl who introduced herself as Petra, the store proprietor’s sister, and a puppeteer.
As serendipity would have it, I too have some background in puppetry, so I could relate to Petra on a professional level. We had a good chat about Prague’s long standing puppetry tradition, and I left the store with an invitation to a marionette show to be held that evening at Old Town’s Museum of Marionette & Puppet Cultures.
I arrived to find the museum buzzing with enthusiastic puppetry fans. First, show-goers viewed a large display illustrating the evolution of puppets, then, in the theater, we enjoyed a marionette rendition of Don Giovanni, one of Mozart’s most popular operas.
Later, I joined Petra and her friends Robert and Eda who were happily spending the evening in the pub across the street.
“Nazdraví!,” Eda said, raising his liter of beer. Remembering what I’d read about toasts in the book Culture Shock, Czech Republic, I looked directly in his eyes as I returned the salute with my lifted glass – part of the Czech drinking ritual. Each time I finished my wine, a full glass materialized as if by magic. Another Czech drinking ritual?
Hours later, pleased with the full day I’d had, and a wee bit on the tipsy side, I walked to my hotel. I wasn’t concerned about being alone as pubs were still open and quite a few people were on the streets, but I did keep to the main roads between Old Town, Wenceslas Square, and the Hotel City.
The remaining two days I had in Prague were filled with serious solo sightseeing, and thoughts of Czech friends were more or less relegated to a cozy place in the back of my mind. But, I had already decided to contact Libor when I got home – if he didn’t contact me first.
Libor did e-mail me about a week after I returned home, and our friendship grew through email and telephone conversations. I really started to like him romantically, so after about a month I asked him if he had a girlfriend. I was taken aback when he replied “yes,” he had someone whom he “loves very much” in Vancouver.
At that point I decided to tone down my feelings because I didn’t want to lose our friendship. Later, he invited me to come visit with his family and friends in Veverská Bítýška, near Brno. We hiked, rode bikes, and traveled a bit together.
In May 2003, I went back to Brno and spent six weeks taking a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course, and this time I met Libor’s girlfriend Renca with whom I have also become good friends. So while things didn’t turn out as I’d originally hoped, I feel very happy now as I have a whole new “family” of Czech friends.
For this reason, I doubt any visit to the enchanting city of Prague will be my last.
Info: Czech Tourist Authority.
Language: Czech is the official language, but English is spoken by some. Czech language help: www.locallingo.com.