Prague – Pretty & Preening (2007)

Prague – Pretty & Preening (2007)

When I check into the elegant Schlosshotel Cicilienhof at Potsdam near Berlin, I have little idea of the historic significance of the location. It is only when I stray into the adjoining wing of the hotel, now converted into a museum, I learn that this is indeed the same place where three great statesmen Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met and conferred on the contours of post-war Europe in July-August 1945. It would have been a great place to lounge around, but the weather plays spoilsport. A winter storm is upon us and I have three days to kill before I head home. Even as I mull the prospect of wandering through Berlin in this bleak weather, my hosts tell me Prague is just five hours by train. Perhaps if I move south, the weather would get better. I check the website of the Czech Embassy in India which tells me I can “transit” through the country if I have a multi-entry Schengen visa which I do. So I hop on to a train from Berlin Hauptbahnoff and head for the Czech Republic. The train cruises along the Elbe river and a picture-postcard landscape unfolds. The sun struggles and breaks free of the clouds, bathing the countryside in its golden rays. What more can I ask for?

Troubles begin

A lot more, as I would soon find out when a Czech immigration official boards the train at Decin on the German-Czech border. He asks me where I propose to go from Prague. In all earnestness, I tell him I have to fly back to New Delhi from Berlin and hence would be returning to Berlin in a couple of days, probably by the same train. Whereupon he tells me in a sickening tone of finality that I cannot do that. I can only “transit” through Czech territory which means I have to exit the Czech Republic through another Schengen country. He stamps my passport with “transit” and leaves me to wallow in my anxiety. Geography has never been my strong point and I have no clue which other Schengen States adjoin the Czech Republic. I am not sure which EU countries are part of the Schengen agreement. In fact, I am not even sure how many countries now form part of the enlarged European Union. After all, these things have been changing rather rapidly in recent years, haven’t they? I can no longer enjoy the gorgeous scenery that fleets past my window. Instead, all I can see in my mind’s eye is a cartographic confusion of the different countries of Europe in various permutations and combinations, their borders outrageously distorted no doubt – with Czech Republic at the centre of the scheme. I will have to consult Dr. Google to put me out of my misery.Which is what I do as soon as I check into a budget hotel in Prague city-centre. And he has bad news for me. The only other Schengen State which shares a border with the Czech Republic is Austria. Salzburg, the Austrian border town is at least seven hours away by train! I quickly check the flight options and find them way too expensive for my emaciated wallet. I have two options now either to skip Prague, keep travelling through Czech territory by bus or train and reach Austria and continue on to Berlin which I might reach just in time for my flight back home. Or just risk the wrath of Czech immigration officials, and stay on in lovely Prague and face the consequences! I opt for the latter.

Pure joy

Being in the Bohemian capital on a sunny winter day is unparalleled joy. There are few tourists about although according to locals, this winter has been the mildest in the collective Czech memory. The temperature is a balmy 14 degrees Celsius. The Vltava, a tributary of the Elbe, snakes through central Prague splattered with Gothic, Baroque, Rococo and Jewish architecture. Many elegant bridges span the river, but none so ornamental or ancient as the Charles Bridge, the spirit and soul of Bohemia. My first glimpse of Charles Bridge is at night. With the flood-lit Prague Castle perched on a hilltop as a stunning backdrop, the Bridge is the most happening place in Prague. Locals as well as visitors converge on this 14th-century bridge to hear local musicians play and generally lounge around. The bridge is guarded by three towers and an impressive parade of 30-odd statues and statuary adorn the sides. Once you cross the bridge, the rounded dome of St. Nicholas Church comes into view.

Historic complex

The next day, I take a guided walking tour of Prague and end up in Prague Castle atop the hill. Built in 850 AD by the first Bohemian royal dynasty, the castle has undergone several additions and modifications. It is one of the few structures in the world to have been continuously inhabited and used. Now it houses the Czech government and its Prime Minister’s office. The complex sprawls with abbeys, basilicas, bishoprics, churches, convents and royal residences and is protected by a fortified Romanesque stonewall with towers. The most stunning structure in the complex is the elaborate and exquisitely chiselled Gothic Cathedral of St. Vitus with its twin steeples and myriad gargoyles. Inside are interred the Czech monarchs and clerics. From the top of the castle you get a sweeping view of Prague town.Prague has Europe’s largest square, St. Wenceslas. Or at least so the tourist pamphlets claim. To me it looks more like a boulevard, adorned on both sides by cafes, bars, haute clothing stores, banks, sleaze joints and the ubiquitous Bohemian crystal shops. Originally a horse market, this square was named for St. Wenceslas, a Bohemian prince. The square seems to have witnessed a lot of political action through its long history such as the national movement of the 19th century, of the Declaration of Czech Independence of 1918, of Nazi muscle-flexing, political demonstrations, immolation, vandalism, the works. Today it looks innocuously sleazy and unabashedly commercial. A stroll up the gently sloping boulevard brings you to the Czech National Museum which I skip to wander around the delightful alleys of Prague. When my aching legs complain, I enter a café and order hot wine, that typical Czech specialty to cure you of Bohemian weariness!

Heading home

On the third day, I am back on the train to Berlin. I consider hiding under the seat, but it is too narrow for my bulk and the light above the train toilet lights up red the moment you shut the door. That means I can’t hide in the toilet either. I decide to brazen it out. At Decin, the dreaded Czech immigration official a woman this time boards the train. When she confronts me, I lapse into a rapturous description of how beautiful Prague was and how much I enjoyed seeing their lovely city. She is unmoved. Then I sheepishly pull out my air ticket and show it to her saying this is the only way I can really catch my flight back home. “So you’re tranziting through Czech Republic a second time?” she asks, as she stamps my passport. I nod appreciatively and heave a sigh of relief!

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