(In the summer of 1991, while studying at the University of Glasgow, I set off to ‘discover’ Continental Europe on my own, inter-railing through one country after another, following my successful solo adventure in Germany two year before.)
In my carriage after boarding in Vienna, I sat opposite to two Spanish girls heading toward the same destination. We swapped our travel stories and agreed to look for accommodation together. The girls had been touring for two weeks and Prague was the highlight of their trip. They were budget tourists like me.
From their Spanish guidebook, Maria and Rosa found “the cheapest youth hostel” in town. “It costs only three marks per night,” Maria read out in excitement, as her not-so-pretty face shone, her dark eyes brightening up.
“Suits me,” I was pleased. A One-Pound Hostel was indeed cheap enough. My French friends were right. The former Communist state had its advantages.
Upon coming out of the train station early the next morning, numerous people approached us offering accommodation. “Ten marks one night, good house,” one man offered, in his heavily accented English. They obviously loved the German currency here, although they might not have very good memories of WWII.
With my new friends, we headed for “cheapest hostel” and had no trouble in locating it – a bold sign just outside a rather rundown apartment building. Unfortunately, it was fully booked, even at the crack of dawn. That said something about the sheer number of budget tourists pouring into the popular Czech capital.
We eventually found a private apartment for rent by a civil servant, who used his four-bedroom property as a supplement to his meagre salary, as many in his position did. There was already a tall, blonde Swede there. After a brief introduction and dropping our rucksacks inside our respective rooms, the Swede offered himself as our guide to the old town. “It’s my final day here, and I might as well revisit some of the places.”
Intuition told me that it was the slim, dark-haired Rosa who caught his attention and aroused his generosity. Still, it was great to have a willing male “escort” who was familiar with the city. Following our self-appointed guide, we bought tickets from the nearest kiosk and made our way downtown.
“We’ll go to the Old Town first, and I’m sure you’ll like it,” announced the confident Swede.
Half an hour or so on the tram brought us to the Old Town Square. The sight was magnificent. Unlike many other European cities, Prague was unscathed either by wartime bombing or natural disasters. The medieval alleys and Baroque architecture were fabulously preserved, and it felt like going back in time when standing in the middle of it. I was grateful to the Swedish gentleman, whose name was far too complicated to pronounce properly or be remembered accurately. Without him, I would have been lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys.
The Charles Bridge was packed; thronged with curious tourists and hassling hawkers. It was the most recognisable landmark in the city.
Everything in Prague was cheap in comparison to the other places I had travelled, and the sights were quite unspoilt by modernisation. Cafés and small restaurants were dotted around the Old Town, and it was a relief to take a break after hours of exploration on foot. For the equivalent of one pound, I had a baguette for lunch. That evening, the four of us enjoyed an Indonesian meal on one of the cobbled streets, overlooking the Goltz-Kinsky Palace and the gothic Power Tower.
As much as I loved this marvellous city in the centre of Europe, I stayed only for one night. I will be back, I promised myself.
Excerpt from The Same Moon
(18 years later in 2009, I went back to Prague with my husband John. Please watch the video below with photos from this recent trip. If you would like to read more about my travels throughout Europe and beyond, download a copy of The Same Moon from Amazon or browse through various travel logs on this site. Enjoy!)