Monday, August 4, 2014

DAY 46 – 31 July 2014; Warsaw to Prague

While completing the check out formalities at the Mercure Hotel in Warsaw I was told that I have to pay for the parking provided by the hotel in their garage. When I had parked there on 29 July I was under the impression that the parking facility came along with the room booking. I was mistaken. The two day parking cost Euro 40 (INR 3200)! However, the experience in Warsaw pointed to the fact that this would be the norm in the rest of Europe. Last evening Manoj had handed me the navigation device in his car and had set the route to Prague, including the street where the Hotel is located. The availability of the device was certainly a confidence booster.

I had a light breakfast since the drive was a long one for the day. Various route options on Google Maps indicated between 630 to 690 kms spanning nearly 8 hours of non-stop drive. I had a small problem leaving the hotel garage. The sensor of the barrier has to sense the car before it is raised and the garage door opens. I tried to get the garage ticket scanned in advance. I had been at it for some time when a kind gentleman in a swanky car told me to take the car as close to the barrier as possible and scan the ticket. I did that and the garage door opened – the modern day “Open Sesame”!

The navigation device took over once I drove out of the hotel garage. I was impressed by the accuracy with which it judged distance and radar controls. Without any hassle I was on the road to Wroclaw. When I was cruising along on the highway the device asked me to take turns I thought were not right. That became the story of the day. The navigation device guided us through the shortest route, which meant going through villages and small towns. That was an experience. We passed through some lonely wooded areas of Poland near the Polish-Czech border. In one instance, a temporary entry restriction in a town made me go around a bit. Once I crossed the border into Czech Republic I decided to ignore the short cuts suggested by the device and stick to the highways. The country roads helped us appreciate the extent of farming in Poland – wheat, barley, mustard, etc. Later we came to know that Poland is a net exporter of grains to other countries in Europe. Even while driving through smaller roads in mountainous places on the border I was taken in by the good condition of the roads and the discipline of using them. Not one place did we find garbage strewn around; of course, there were neatly piled up garbage bags at some locations waiting to be cleared. Just as we crossed the border we stopped at a restaurant, where we were the only customers, for lunch. The kind man could not understand any English and therefore, requested his daughter to help us with the order. I failed to understand if it was her shyness or the lack of understanding of the language that kept her from saying much. Finally we ordered pork and beef steaks, WiFi kept us engaged till the order materialised. It was an hour before we re-emerged from the restaurant and resumed our journey.

The navigation device turned a most trusted ally within the city limits of Prague. It took us correctly to the street with just one stop for physical confirmation of the destination location. By the time I located the hotel I was too close to get a parking lot. I overshot a couple of blocks and located a reserved parking lot. Leaving Lal with the car I walked to the hotel. They did have booking for me and the hotel was a short walk away from the main attractions of the city. However, the lady at the reception said that I would have to park the car in the Central Parking Garage located some distance away from the hotel. She said that it would be better for me to park the car and complete the check in formalities, which I agreed to. But finding the parking lot was easier said than done. The restriction on free movement hits you in such places, but it is the restricted access and observance of them that makes traffic flows absolutely smooth and without chaos on the city roads. It took me about an hour to locate the car park suggested by the hotel. Even though I had done the 620 kms from Warsaw to Prague in under 9 hours with en route stoppages it took me a tenth of it to park the car! I was directed into the garage but could not find free parking space there. A young guy asked if would be okay for me to leave the key with him so that he could move it into a free lot in due course. I agreed on the condition that he would take care of the car and its belongings. It turned out that the chap had lived in Pune for 3 months and for some more time in Panchgani! He also promised to give the car a proper wash and spruce up – for a fee, of course!

Younus Mohammed had requested to meet with Lal if we were travelling via Brno. Since the city was not en route to Prague he offered to come to Prague and show us around the place. It was an offer out of the blue. He was in constant touch with us during the drive to Prague. As we emerged from the Central Garage he was there with his friend, Christo Cheriyan. While Mohammed was working with IBM in Brno Christo was a medical student in Prague. Together they helped us with the luggage and we completed the check in requirements in the hotel.

We decided to utilise the left over part of the evening to see as much as the legs would permit. We started at the Dancing House, which is presently a restaurant with magnificent views of the river and the waterfront. The walk beside the River Vitava gave us an insight into the tourist activity in the wonderful city. Each building was a ‘stop and stare’ monument. The streets were filled with tourists of all nationalities and were most visible in the cafes, souvenir shops and restaurants leading from and to the Charles Bridge, the major attraction in the city. The bridge begun in 1357 by Charles IV was completed only a half century later. It was built to replace the Judith Bridge that was destroyed by floods. Both ends of the bridge are fortified by towers. The bridge connects the Old Town to the Lesser Quarter. A series of 30 stunning sculptures and sculptural groups of saints arrest your walk on the bridge. The major theme is that of Our Lady. Many of the statues were destroyed in the wars and have been replaced with copies. Musicians, painters, cartoonists and other artists provide entertainment on the bridge. We walked across the 515 metres long and 10 metre wide Bridge and through the Lesser Town to the Prague Castle. The view of Prague City from that point is like no other and the City itself was unique in its beauty and the sights it had to offer. The City is almost fully intact because it was not affected much by the World Wars. The priceless architecture and monuments survived the horrific days.

The Lesser Town, the Mala Strana, is one of the oldest parts of the City. During the Middle Ages it was the main centre of Germans in Prague. The extremely beautiful and picturesque place is a favourite with movie makers. In the centre of the Town is a baroque square with small boutique shops, restaurants and pubs, some located in ancient cellars, and hence, attract a lot of visitors. The Hradcany Square is next to the fascinating Prague Castle and is also surrounded by many Palaces such as the Archbishop’s Palace, the Schwarzenberg Palace and the Sternberg Palace. The Prague Castle is the main attraction. It is considered the biggest ancient castle in the world being 570 meters long and 130 meters wide. The 9th century castle underwent many transformations in the 12th, 14th and the 15th centuries in style and form. Today it serves as a historical and political centre of the City and is the residence of the President of the Czech Republic. We walked around the Castle, the St Vitus Cathedral (possibly one of the most majestic church structures anywhere in the world), the Palaces and the St George’s Basilica before returning to the Charles Bridge and spending more time across it.

Christo had provided crucial information about the sights and was almost professional in the way he conducted our walking tour. It was now time to wet the parched throats and sate the hunger that was natural after the long walk, mostly on the cobbled streets of Prague. Accompanying the local beer was a plate of Goulash and plain rice. The setting was perfect for us to soak in the ambience of the city. The restaurants, pubs and cafes were busy and crowded but not noisy. There seemed to be an order in everything that went on and there wasn’t an unruly event the whole evening.

Lal and I took leave of Mohammed and Christo late at night and promised to meet up the next morning for a full day tour of the City’s remaining sights. Christo promised to make a composite itinerary so that the tour could be done in an organised manner. The City had captivated and mesmerised us in a short while and we wanted to see it all.

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