Arrival in Praha

When arriving at the Praha hlavní nádraží station, you’ll almost immediately see the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern.  The station (shortened on routes and maps as Praha hl.n) contained vestiges of its past glories as an important kingdom of the Austrian Hapsburgs (it was originally named in honour of Franz Josef I. In the new entrance, there is a distinctly more modern touch.

Your “money’s worth”

The Czech Republic is a part of the European Union, but is not a part of the Euro zone, and therefore not replaced their local currency with the Euro. If I had researched that before I had arrived there, perhaps I would have been less confused! One Euro is the equivalent of about 24.5 crown (koruna). This meant that every time I looked at a price, I would multiply it by about 0.04 to understand its relation to Euro. Although this was helpful for a budget (to keep me from spending all my money in one instance), it was highly impractical in trying to connect that value of my labour with the value of the item, as is usually done when one shops for goods and services. During both exchanges to crowns, I had lost some value of my US dollars to the exchange spread (a currency exchange’s difference between the value of a sold and bought currency). The value of each currency had fluctuated as well, distorting any easy translation in my head. Of course, I could have prepared an Excel sheet detailing the amounts lost and gained by exchange rates and costs, but I decided that wouldn’t be an efficient use of my time.

Money to blow

Please excuse the song reference, but the title aptly describes the way that I imagined the Czechs must have thought of my and anybody else for that matter. As I was keeping properly hydrated, I needed to use the restroom (the toaleta or toilette as it’s called in Czech and French respectively) more than 3 times while in Prague. For each time, including the one where I could barely make it up the stairs from holding it in so long, I had to dig in my pocket, count the crazy money and pay someone! Another time, there was this lady who held the keys to the “public restroom” on the hill near Prague Castle. She grumbled that I was disturbing her from her purchasing groceries in the store next to the toilets. She then swung the door open and angrily pointed to the sign that stated that I would have to pay 10Kč or 0.50 Euro. Now, anyone with half a mind can see that paying in crowns would save me the most money. The problem was, the idea of whole tens values on coins was still confusing to me. So seeing 10.00, while thinking how big that number seemed, while sifting through the Euro I had in my pocket only added to the confusion. Surprisingly, the lady for the first time in our encounter seemed nice and offered to count out the 10Kč for me. She quickly snapped up what I knew to be a 20Kč piece! I asked her to see it, pretending like I wanted to know how it looked for next time. She held it back for a while and shoved me to the restroom. I stood my ground and demanded to see it. She then flung it back at me and rudely pushed me out of the doorway and put the door in my face. I won’t write the thoughts that rushed through my mind at that moment, but I will say that I was happy to find an outdoor toilet that accepted 5Kč for 15 minute admission (I only needed 1 minute!).

Buyer beware

I purchased some groceries from a little food store located at the Praha Hlvani train station. I was trying to see how long the Czech currency I had bought earlier would last, so any time I could buy something with Euro or my credit card, I did. With mutual smiles and laughs, I left the register with food in hand, not bothering to understand what the gibberish on my receipt meant. Well, after walking upstairs and deciphering it, I realized that the sum she gave me in cash and the sum listed on the paper were off by about 100 crown. I immediately marched back down to levels to retrieve my missing money from her to the manager. Getting my money, even without understanding a word the other was saying, I was able to get the manager to have one of the cashiers give me the money. I am still a bit curious as to why she didn’t suspect me of lying, seeing as I had been from the store for a good 15 minutes, and she had not witnessed the sale herself.

Finally, I must caution you about any tour buses you pay for when you visit Prague. The bus service I used had a schedule of stop times, but clearly I must have either I been reading the list upside down or they simply didn’t care about customer satisfaction after a certain time. I stood at one of the last route locations with 3 more stops left for the day, after two of the times had passed, I realised that I had been gypped. You can see my lonely spot in the attached gallery (last photo).

Tip
  • When you exchange currency at a bank, exchange centre, or as a part of the purchase of commodities, always remember to properly examine your receipt. Languages are as different a they come, but mathematics will always make sense in any part of the world. Don’t leave the counter or the immediate room until you have verified your money.
  • 1 crown consists of 100 hellers (haléř), abbreviated as hal.Heller coins have not been in use as of September 1, 2008, but hellers are still incorporated into merchandise prices. The final price is always rounded off to the nearest crown value.The approximate value of 100 CZK is 4 EUR/6 USD. [cited from]
Please stay tuned to my posts or follow my Facebook to find out what I bought in the grocery store to eat that day.
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Odchod Berlín pro Praha (Leaving Berlin for Praha)

Once again, I woke up four times to disable the four alarms that I had set on my phone to wake me up on time. It’s a wonderful yet clearly horrible thing to know that your train station is situated two minutes from your hotel door! I woke up 3 minutes after my intended train had left. Anyone that knows me know that I usually wake up in a way that mimics someone being pulled out of the virtual reality system from the Matrix movie franchise. Instantly my head started buzzing and I wondered if I had the wrong time in my phone and added another hour to it and decided that I only had 20 minutes to get ready and leave for the next scheduled train. When I got downstairs I confirmed that the country had not mysteriously added another timezone while I was asleep! Even though it was brightly shining, it was still only 7:45am and I knew that many food places would be closed. Read about my crime against traveldom here.

On the train to Praha from Berlin, I hadn’t made a reservation because it wasn’t mandatory. I was happy to find that there was an unreserved seat near the door I entered. The seats on this train were different from all the others I had been on. The seats were situated in sets of six separated by walls with private doors. After a few minutes of loading onto the bus, three young men filled the remaining seats in my cabin.

About 10 minutes into our journey three women of Asian descent alerted us that those three seats had been reserved by them. Two of the men were asleep and the third pretended like he didn’t understand. So unlike myself, I sat there and waited with the ladies for a train officer to come and clarify the situation. He finally came and ordered the men to leave and give the women their seats.

A few stops before we left Germany, German police officers came down the cabins to verify nationality. As he spoke in German I couldn’t help but smile as I sat there in total ignorance. I had to ask to other passengers I had been chatting with for the majority of the time I had been awake on the train. One of them was American and the other was German.
The police took a long time checking the passports of the three asian women in the cabin (one of them specified that she had French nationality). He didn’t bother asking for those of the other two men or mine though. After the police left, the German explained that countries have those immigrants they love and those they don’t really like too much. I was, understandably shocked and hoped that wasn’t the reason he had taken so long on their passport check. But, then again, he had only taken the word of the German that the other guy and I were American. On the other hand, seldom encountered passports (like the ones the women may have had) would be subject to greater scrutiny, in addition to the fact that they pretty much handed him their passports without his really asking.

As we neared the German border, we rode parallel to the Elbe River near Bad Schandau Station on to Praha. The scene was exceptionally beautiful. The river had carved a valley into the barren rock that now lay jutting out of lush green forestland. Houses big and small were also perched up in the hills and on the banks of the river, adding to the picturesque ambiance.

After the two men left the train, one of three women started a conversation with me. She was originally from Laos like the others, but lived in Iran and had previously acquired French nationality. She spoke fluent French and was very good with English.

Tips: 

  • Place your wake-up alarm device in a place not immediately accessible to your sleeping area. I will try putting my phone deep in my backpack at night and let you know how that works out.
  • Get friendly with the German (or other local) guy in your train cabin.
  • Keep your passport in a well-protected, but easily accessible place in your luggage when you’re crossing any national borders, including those within the European Union.

My “German” Breakfast

The first commandment of travel clearly states that “thou shall not eat from large American fast-food chains when traveling abroad.” – Exploration Abroad

Being next to a train station has its perks. I was able to walk into an onsite Burger King and order breakfast. This German version of one of my favorite menus was quite interesting (inclusive of prices, which weren’t anywhere newer low). First thing I noticed was that there wasn’t an option to get hash browns and the “meal” consisted of what I’ve always defined as a bastardization of that title: one sandwich + one drink. What is a meal without a side? Well, I guess I could have paid for the hash browns separately, but that didn’t make much economic sense at all!

In order to justify my crime against discovery, I had to purchase a non-regular menu option. I ended up getting a breakfast burger made with eggs, tomatoes, cheese, a beef patty, and light mayo (I ordered it light) on a sesame seed bun. I would never have thought to put those things together, but knew that it would be wonderful. And it oh, it was!

The savory goodness of the beef mixed so nicely with the juicy tomatoes. No breakfast is complete without eggs, and they added the nice protein kick I craved. The nicely toasted bun was kept nice and soft with just the right amount of mayonnaise. I was feeling a bit on the sick side, seeing as I hadn’t slept enough (8 hours) in a few days. What I’ve discovered is drinking lots of orange juice keeps my immune system boosted and really staves off colds and coughs early. The natural sweetness is also unmistakable better than all the processed sugars in sodas and other popular drinks. But of course, this is a fast food joint and wasn’t included in the meal (meal is coffee, no choice). So I paid an arm and half of leg for one of those small kiddie juice boxes. But it was so good, and so necessary. So, all was well with the world 🙂

In ending this post, just so that we’re clear: I know this sandwich sounded so good, and you may be tempted to go to Germany (or where ever else they sell it) and buy one, but once again, I’d like to point out that I do not endorse companies or their products on my website.

Berlin Part Two (Video Post)

Night Wandering

I had made free reservations to see the Bundestag (yes, you need reservations to go inside the cool glass dome). Because I had arrived a few hours later than originally planned, I wasn’t able to take the tour and only got to see the German federal government buildings from the outside. I know I missed something special, but I was not to disappointed, because as I continuously discovered, the Germans sure know how to impress! Outside the Hauptbahnhof (on the Washingtonplatz side) there was a huge area for events that had large photo displays with work from local artists set up like a maze. There were also two outdoor bars with flashing neon lighting (I like flashing neon lights, that’s why I mentioned this). I crossed the bridge near the plaza (Friedrich-List-Ufer I think it was) that had a man-made beach area under it on the other side. It was too packed for me to order anything, especially because everyone there seemed to be in groups.

I ended up strolling down the “pier” and ended up in an open area with two large walls on either side. To this day I don’t know what those two walls were for, but they seemed to funnel your attention, and large crowds perhaps, towards  a really tall building. Not until I went closer did I realize that that building and the others that were emblazoned with light were the ones I had always read so much about. To my right was the Bundeskanzleramt (Germany’s head of state is a Chancellor or Bundeskanzler, his staff are housed in this building). To my left was the Paul-Löbe-Haus, a building associated with the Bundestag (German federal lower legislative chamber) that has extra office space for MPs. In the video, this is the building that is in the final freeze pane. Walking further, I was able to pass over the wonderfully manicured lawn with fountains in front of the majestic Reichstagsgebäude, the German Parliament building for the lower house, the Bundestag. My camera doesn’t take great night video or photos, so I didn’t take that many, but I think the ones I posted didn’t turn out too badly.

As I walked down Dorotheenstraße, I saw the amount of building space dedicated to parliamentary purposes was astounding, considering most office spaces I’d seen for the same before were relegated to one square or block. Now that I’m looking at the Google map, I can see what I was unable to at night: that the building is divided into sections and each section has its own courtyard. Turning onto Unter den Linder from Wilhelmstraße I was able to see what I considered the most beautiful sight of the night: the Brandenburg Gate. A restored former wall of old Berlin the old city.  It reminded me of other triumphal arches around Europe I had seen, but the neoclassical design, sheer size (up and out), and brilliant lighting led me to believe that it must have been a modern creation. Further research proved otherwise: Wikipedia.

As I knew I had an early day ahead of me, and the fact that everything was so quiet in the darkness, I decided to head back to the hotel with no stories of sordid drinking and revelry or the like.

Tips for next time:

  1. Don’t rely on tour guide maps being available after dark.
  2. Plan out night spots (events or photo ops) so you don’t wander aimlessly in the dark without knowing where the nightclubs or fun spots are.

Below is a very short video of me snooping around the train station outside the Bundestag. Pretty audacious having it so close to government buildings. Also thought it would be cool to show a bit of the opulence dripping off the smoothly polished stone. Standing by my opinion that Berlin knows how to impress!
Also, I uploaded the Germany Facebook album just now. Get it here.

Berlin Part One

On the way to Berlin, the night had crept thickly over the landscape and I could barely see anything outside. The city lights were a welcome guest to my bored eyes, and I was excited to be at the end of what felt like my longest leg so far.

 

Arrival

The second I stepped off the train, I was reminded that Germany was the powerhouse of the EU. Berlin Hauptbahnhof is simply amazing! With 5 levels, 54 escalators, 6 panoramic elevators, a 1,800 m² solar roof, the station forms fitting testament to Germany’s industrial or economic might. Trains whizz above and below you with their tracks floating on almost invisible structural supports. It all looked like something from a set of a futuristic space hub. The stations that I had seen before either centred around an outdoor or indoor design. This station took both to a whole other  level and them combined them!

Putting my bags away

Not only was this station the most brilliant I’d seen thus far, but it’s surroundings were no less impressive. I knew my nightly accommodations were close by, but couldn’t have imagined that it was effectively attached to the station! The Meininger Hotel Berlin Hauptbahnhof was exemplary in every way and was my favourite accommodation thus far. It was a pity I only stayed for a single night though. The company’s website poses the question, “so what exactly is the difference between a hostel and a hotel?” and showed me that there can be as little difference as the company chooses to emphasize. I will give details during my hostel/accommodation post series. But I will say that I paid the price of an upscale hostel and received the service given at a regular hotel, in addition to proximity to the centre of things as much as many a 4-star property.

Don’t forget, more photos are included in my Facebook fan page gallery(click here)