It was our second night in Prague, and the Old City shops were closing early and making me angry. Mark, my husband, and I were delayed by my dives into shops whose proprietors had not locked their doors. We were running out of time to get to the Charles Bridge by sunset.
I walked by the storefronts. Beautiful glass figurines were displayed, jewelry with interlocked stones, metalwork of knights and kings. Amazing works of art were everywhere, but I could not partake. Because our hotel shuttle was driven by a drunk vampire with mutton chops and we arrived late.
He dropped us off at 2 p.m., as opposed to 10 a.m., swerving and smelling vaguely of gin. How could I know there were only two shopping hours left?
We saw sights for two hours and then found closed shops. We’d learned never to stay outside the Old or New City, but no guidebook had shared this information.
I was almost ready to give in when we turned a corner and everything went quiet. There, without warning, was the Prague Castle. It looked as if every existing castle had been picked up, thrown into a whirlwind of magic and glass, and sent back to earth. I was frozen, my mind blank at the sight of it.
The sun was beginning its horizon rendezvous. The castle's spires and windows were highlighted by a mix of sun and moonlight. Towers and golden tributes to past leaders shined in the fading sun, and the river below formed the bottom of an intricate frame.
And when we turned, there was the Charles Bridge.
The bridge is fantastically designed, with religious, political and historical art worked into the iron. Gold detailing complements the bridge’s lines and curves, and artists sell stories, paintings and music.
It has an odd feel to it, Prague does. Driving out of the more touristed areas, you can still see "Khrushchevki" apartments spanning the outskirts as barren tributes to the dead Soviet leader. They are square cement rooms grouped together to form a larger square with dead grass in the center and no sign of life.
Inside the Old and New City districts, there's a more vibrant feel, but not a warm one. Prague has suffered, and it makes almost no effort to cover the pain. It wears it instead as a badge of survival. The people endured. They fought back but paid a price.
Lost boys in the train station ask for money disguised as station employees, their eyes too glossy to be real. In the New City especially, scam artists abound – although they're oddly noncommittal. I suspect it’s because they feel they were meant for more. There is scam and then guilt. There is desperation and a very old soul waiting to reclaim its own.
And that bridge. It is the ghost’s home: the soul impatiently waiting to take back a birthright. The people would likely say it’s Wenceslas himself, dead but not gone. As the sun set, one side showed the castle ethereally lit as oil-lamps were set ablaze. The sky exploded in a mix of blue, yellow and red. From the other side, a modern skylight shone modestly and barren trees collided with the fusion in the sky.
Musicians played for anyone or no one. A few trained and talented artists sold paintings and sketches to remaining tourists. Old men walked the night talking about whatever European men talk about on nightly walks.
With a snap, the sun was gone, and a cool mist escorted us back to our hotel. Where I really didn’t want to go. Where the Czech version of a mojito still graced my bedside table because the cleaning staff's motto was, "Welcome! Piss off."
At the shuttle area we found our vampire absent. Two Northern Irish couples, the men clearly soused, indicated through slurs and points that they too were waiting. About 30 minutes in we tried to call, but nothing was open to sell a phonecard after a payphone ate mine. Someone eventually reached them, and they said he'd already been there – which was only true if the driver was invisible. He wasn't coming.
So, with no bus tickets (the stores were closed), we decided to ride buses back to the hotel. We had no idea where we were going because we couldn't read the signs, but, honestly, why not? Taxis had disappeared.
Hours were spent switching buses and reading complicated station maps, some of them in English. Two hours in, one of the men said what we were all thinking – "there's six of us without tickets, they can't arrest all of us, right? Hahaha.... Right?"
A short four hours later we were back at the hotel, and there was my "mojito." We'd had some fun with our new friends and arrived safely. I decided to have a drink, take a shower and call it an interesting "travel night."
And that's when I set the room on fire.
The outlets were old, and my appropriately outlet-fitted hairdryer proved too much. It started with a spark and a "holy sh*t" from Mark, and then the cord was burning. Someone got the great idea to pour the mojito on it – because alcohol is always what you should turn to when extinguishing fires.
I learned something then. My $20 "mojito" had no alcohol in it. Out went the flames. Thank God my hair was wet. Thank God nothing flammable hangs out in Soviet-era hotel rooms. Mark called the desk. Someone would come by tomorrow to take a look. 'K.
I would have requested a hotel refund, but you know what? I don't like vampires with drinking problems and my credit card information angry at me. So, we just headed for London in the morning. Where the sockets don't try to kill you.