I was told that Prague would be cold. That it would be farcolder than London - even London in the middle of January - I was told to expect something like -3 or -4 degrees Celsius. (That's very chilly for a Londoner.) But even after popping on two more layers at the airport, I realised I wasn't prepared enough for the biting wind that hit my face as I wheeled my suitcase out of the sliding doors at Prague airport. Flecks of snow drifted about the air, barely enough to even call it snowing, and my cheeks flamed a pretty shade of pink.
Prague airport is a small airport, and looked fairly deserted to me. There were only the last few stragglers of my flight who remained drifting about the Terminal - those few who had been lured in by the few small shops full to the brim of duty free perfume, cigarettes and alcohol, just before the baggage collection. This meant that the odd bag remained circulating around and around the baggage carousel looking for it's owner.
Among the stragglers were two girls around about my age - who were loaded with duty free Benson & Hedges and a bottle of Sailor Jerry spiced rum. They looked far too bright-eyed and fabulous to have got up at 5:00am that morning, and were laughing to each other, waving their arms expressively as they talked. I was less a straggler; more half asleep. I imagined the state I must have looked; hair all frizzy on one side from my thirty minute nap, sleepy baggy eyes framed (or rather, hidden) by my 'comfortable glasses', rather than my sophisticated Prada ones.
I took in my surroundings for a moment. The large, familiar yellow and red M sign stood out to my left, calling my name, willing me to take stock of the situation over a Chicken McNugget Meal instead of standing aimlessly in the main hall of the terminal. It was slightly disorientating that all signs were in Czech (not that I was expecting anything else), but English was kindly written underneath in an italic font, coming to the rescue of lost tourists such as myself.
Right. I need a bus. A bus to the centre.
I noticed that the two girls I'd seen earlier had made their way to what I guessed was a little travel kiosk. It had photos of a bus, a train and a tram pasted on the wall behind the desk.
Aha, pictures - the universal language.
They looked confident enough with where they were going, so I followed them over to the kiosk and joined the queue. I clutched my entire weekend's spending money which was still stored in the Post Office envelope it had arrived in, as I had no idea how much it might cost. The notes were in pretty colours and it felt like Monopoly money as they were all in hundreds and thousands. I thought about how I was going to come across as polite, whilst unable even to try and make the effort to speak Czech to the assistants selling tickets behind the counter.
I thought I would go and speak to the two girls, partly because I had been following them for the last fifteen minutes (I didn't want them to think I was completely weird), but mainly because I still had no idea which bus stop I needed to stand at. I approached them, teeth chattering.
"Hi, I'm really sorry, is this the right stop for the city centre? I'm on my own, and I've just bought this ticket - and I'm hoping it's the right one..." I rolled my eyes and laughed.
"Yeah, think this is the stop. We're going there too. We've been told we gotta get the 119 bus... You can tag along with us if y'like?" Said the smaller of the two girls.
She was tiny, with long dark hair, shaved up behind her ear on one side, and had a pretty diamond stud in her nose. I noticed she was wearing the black Doctor Marten boots I'd wanted for Christmas. Her friend, who was slightly taller, had cropped, blonde curly hair, and she nodded and smiled at me. If I hadn't have already guessed from their accents, they told me they were Aussies, living in London for the moment. I've always found Aussies to be generally chatty and friendly - and these two were no exception.
We piled onto the bus together stamping our feet to keep warm, and laughing about how we'd been told off by the bus driver for not placing our ticket in the machine correctly. We chatted about where in London we lived, the best markets to go to, the quirky pubs which we'd discovered down the back streets of London, and then why we were in Prague. I told them I was here because it was Graeme's 30th birthday - my mate from Manchester - a born and bred Glaswegian Scotsman - and proud of it. There are eight of us in total, I explained; four gay guys and four girls - sharing an apartment which overlooked the river. They were booked into a hostel just outside the centre of Prague - the best way to meet new people - they'd said. They were staying for the weekend, just the two of them and a bottle of Sailor Jerry spiced rum.
Throughout the twenty-minute bus ride, we passed enormous warehouses and open fields - not of green, but of hard brown soil frozen on the ground. Large billboards loomed to the side of the road, advertising Czech beers such as Staropramen and Pilsner. The buildings were high rise flats of a simple and practical design. It was rather bleak, but then, most airport surroundings are. Finally we reached the end of the line, where I was to jump onto the Metro at Dejvická. I parted ways with the two Aussies, wishing them a lovely time in Prague, and we left with promises of meeting up again when we got back to London. As they walked off chatting together, I wondered if we would. I sailed through the tunnels of the Metro, following the crowds and navigating my way through (thankfully) only one line change, before I was to reach Karlovo náměstí station; where Graeme would be waiting.
Prague Metro Map
Four months of living in London, and it's only very recently that I can say that I've got the hang of using the London Underground system. I know to stand to the right of the escalators, I know to wait until people have got off the train, before getting on, I know that the tubes are pretty much useless on a weekend, and I also know, it is incredibly easy to go the wrong way up the line.
But I can hold my hand on my heart, and say honestly, that I was incredible at navigating the Czech Underground (or the Metro, as it's really called). Unlike London, they have only three coloured lines (rather than eleven), they do not name them after national places, people or events (such as the Hammersmith and City, Victoria or Jubilee lines), but instead name them simply A, B and C (genius, if you ask me), and far easier to navigate, if you don't speak Czech!
The hardest part of my journey, was choosing which escalator to go up once I'd reached Karlovo náměstí station- to make sure I came out by the river. In the end I just chose one, and as I ascended onto the street, I understood why everyone had called Prague simply beautiful.
It was as if I had walked back in time. Narrow streets, with characteristic cobbles, ran in between elaborately designed buildings, most of them, probably six stories high. No expense had been spared over the stone work; with statues of angels, saints and virgins looking down on the street below from their perches on the windowsills high above me. The walls had been painted in various pastel colours, warm and tasteful, as if to brighten up such a freezing cold city. Some of the walls even had gothic, geometric designs painted upon them, to look like expensive tiles.
The wind whipped across the river, which was lined with tall cast iron lamps which could have come straight out of C. S Lewis' Narnia. I read somewhere, that Prague was a city untouched by the bombing of the world wars. I loved this fact, and could imagine people strolling up the river, taking trips on boats as horse-drawn carriages pulled by, because the city must have looked just the same now, as it had a hundred years ago.
Graffiti sprawled up the one of the walls of the subway, and drew me back into this century with a bang. It was quiet on the pavements in this part of town, although the beeps and shuffles of the traffic along the river kept the wind from whistling too loudly.
I took a right turn to walk alongside the river, ensuring I didn't veer too residential, and 3walked far enough along to reach the gothic Charles Bridge, where Graeme would be waiting.
I saw him walking briskly across the zebra crossing, cars whizzing past him, front and back. As usual he had his head held high, his shoulders back, striding with purpose and just a little bounce in his step. He could hardly believe his eyes as he saw my determined little form dragging my suitcase proudly over the cobbles waving frantically, because he promptly dropped his cigarette on the floor, flung his arms wide open to hug me, and yelled in his thick, Glaswegian drawl, "Betty!"