I approach the barrier at Gatwick long term car park. Having booked my space online I expected the gate to recognise my number plate and raise itself to allow me in - at least, that's what it says on the piece of paper dangling from my mouth.. I get closer...and closer....expecting the barrier to salute me, realising at the last moment that it's going nowhere! I slam my brakes on to avoid making a dramatic entrance with a red and white pole across my bonnet!
Once in I make my way to the transfer bus. My fellow passengers include an elderly couple peeping out from behind an enormous suitcase where they sit holding hands in nervous expectation of the ordeal to come.Another traveller is a black suited businessman jabbering away on his mobile some foreign tongue whilst his free arm spins around like a windmill and those around him bob up and down to avoid being given a black eye. It occurs to me that bus drivers enjoy the sport of human ten-pin bowling with the standing passengers as skittles, and the foot brake the ball as thy attempt to score a strike when arriving at the terminal. This driver is clearly a champion as several of the standees go hurtling down the aisle.
Security is much tighter than in the past and one of the devises used at the check-in is a kind of metal box made from tubes into which you insert your hand luggage to check whether or not it's too big to carry onto the plane. If it don't fit it don't go on! Anyway, the bloke in front of me is determined to make his bag fit, and although it dropped in relatively easily, there was no way it was coming out! Several passengers offer their help but to no avail! As I leave he is in the company of maintenance men who are starting in the process of taking the apparatus apart!
So, onward I go to have my bag scanned and go through the tin tunnel, and, for the first time ever, the alarm bells don't go off! My euphoria is short-lived however when I am pulled aside to have my bag searched.It's at times like this when you wish you had purchased new underwear and socks for the trip!
So far so good and off we go on a fifteen minute stroll to gate 111. Twenty minutes later we arrive and take our seats in the waiting area. It's odd that with thousands of people going to hundreds of destinations, I should find myself once again in the company of the elderly couple - still holding hands - and the black suited businessman with the gyrating arm.
We sit there, and sit there. Nothing happens. Still nothing happens until an announcement informs of a short delay due the late arrival of the incoming flight. Shouldn't be long though. Another half hour passes and then suddenly up pops the captain wearing a pained expression on his face. He claps his hands to gain attention waking several slumbering travellers in the process. Now we all no the cliche about policemen getting younger as we get older. Well, our captain doesn't look much older than my eldest grandson except he is sporting a BA uniform rather than the X-Men outfit I gave Billy for his birthday! He explains that is unable to fly because he has a kinked tube. My initial thought is that he has suffered some ailment and we will have to wait for another driver. As it turns out, it seems that aircraft has a hydraulic pipe squashed somewhere in the landing gear, and as a consequence we will have to wait for a Boeing 737 that in a full state of repair. This should only take a couple of hours he says (ONLY a couple of hours?The entire flight should only take a couple of hours!). Mind you, that's nothing to the three days it took me for the eleven hour trip to Bangkok not so long ago . Anyway, that's another story for another day.
Please excuse me - must get myself a glass of wine - helps keep the words flowing even if it does sometimes play havoc with the typing fingersas356gfy678yuj90¬!!!
I'm back, Where am I? Oh yes - we eventually arrive at Prague airport and after an uneventful taxi ride past Tescos, Ikea, Lidl and Toys'R'Us, I check into the Hotel Jasmin - or the Otel Yasmin as my driver calls it. Now the blurb says that it is in a leafy suburb a short step from the city. Now in fairness I do spot a couple of trees, but these have seen better days and leafy would hardly define them. As for the area, it looks pretty seedy to me- miles from the centre and surrounded by concrete blocks of flats which remind you of their communist past.
The receptionist tells me that I am staying in the block next door and gives me fairly vague directions. Off I trot and I come upon some double doors which I take to be the entrance. In I go and I find myself surrounded by mops, buckets and brooms. No bed - no wardrobe - so I come to the conclusion that I have actually walked into the cleaners' cupboard. I proceed further down the street and lo and behold I find my way in!
Now my room is pretty basic. Perfectly clean, modern,but basic. My faith in my accommodation iterned glass which stops me from seeing in. Anyway, undaunted I venture inside and find myself in a noisy smoke filled bar filled with early evening drinkers and not a woman in sight. I spy the dining room and boldly go forth in search of sustenance The room is cavernous with high ceilings, wood panelled walls and furniture from a long gone era. The windows that prevented me from seeing in now stop me from seeing out!
The first thing to strike me is that the eaters are all men. Groups of four, five and six. My curiosity is further arroused when I hear the strains of Franky Goes To Hollywood belting out YMCA! Imagine my relief when I spot a young boy / girl couple in a corner! I can only assume that in a lower working class district such as this, the men go out drinking and eating while the ladies stay at home.
A small woman waddles towards me wearing a black dress, with black hair and a black expression.She hands me a menu and I nervously utter the one word understood in any language - beer! In no time at all a flagon of frothing lager is placed before me and I set about trying to fathom out the food offering. I reckon on on porc being pork, and steik being steak, but I'm not entirely sure. Noticing my confusion, and without uttering a word, the lady in black turns over the page of my menu, and reveals a page entirely in English!
I order a starter and a main. I'm famished.
The first course arrives. Difficult to describe. Sort of toasted bread topped with mince, topped with melted cheese and topped off with boiled cabbage. By the time I've worked my way through it I'm stuffed! My empty glass is replaced with a full one without me even asking, and my second course arrives. A mountain of chopped pork topped with melted cheese, topped with boiled cabbage and......CHIPS!!! I eat what I can. Oh look - another beer has arrived! I eventually manage to turn off the human beer tap, pay my £6 bill, struggle to feet and totter of back to the Yasmin.
Day two dawns. My first full day in Prague.I make my way to breakfast where I greeted by an array of cold meats, frankfurters,muesli, boiled cabbage and various breads. Give the meat a miss methinks and stick to bread and jam.
Now for my first glimpse of Prague by daylight. Oh dear- it looked bad last night in the dark, but now.......
So off I go to catch the number 136 bus to Viscizenco where I plunge underground leaving the leafy suburb behind me. Minutes later I surface to bright sunshine in the middle of the city.
Suddenly all is forgiven. Trendily dressed people criss cross the cobbled square, tram bells ring and tour guides are followed by groups of happy snapping Japanese and efficient looking Germans. Around me are cafes where folk sit drinking coffee, eating cakes and reading papers. To my right Marks and Sparks, to my left Debenhams and in front MacDonalds. This is Oxford Street with attitude!
I spend the day tramping the cobbles of Old Town, the Jewish Quarter and the Bohemian backstreets. Around every corner another breathtaking view, another stunning piece of architecture and another fairytale square.
Lunchtime! Diced beef, a familiar cheesy sauce and more boiled cabbage, all of course washed down with a constant flow of Staropramen.
I must say, the Metro is wonderful and no problem to master, but I think I'll leave the trams 'til tomorrow!
It's day three and there is not a cloud in the sky. The graffiti on hotel walls positively glows in the sunlight. And to think, this time last week it was snowing here. It is said however that Prague takes on an almost fairyland appearance when covered in snow and I can quite believe it.
I've just left the breakfast room where I was stunned by just how much Johny Foreigner eats ! One chap started with orange juice, attacked a plate of salad, red cabbage and sourkraut and went on to some white meat or other which he crowned with seven - yes seven frankfurters! This he liberally decorated with a gallon of ketchup! As I left he was performing a balancing act with a heap of sweet breads and a selection of preserves!
Anyway, we're off for some culture today - churches, galleries etc.
I make my way downtown and find tram 26 which I am reliably informed will take me to the funicular railway. Success, and in no time I'm standing atop a hill looking down on Prague which has taken on the appearance of a patchwork quilt of textures and colours. I must tell you though - on the way up I a sat opposite and elderly gentleman wearing a cloth cap,with an elderly blue rinsed lady on each side. They sat with their bags on their laps and stared into the middle distance in complete silence. My suspicion that they were English was confirmed when suddenly, and at the top of her voice, lady one says 'What's this thing called?'. She was clearly a a little hard of hearing, so the other lady yelled back 'Funicular dear'. 'Fennicerty?' said lady one. 'No Dora', shouted her friend, 'FER -NIC -YEW - LAR' A moments silence. ' Particular? no , that can't be right'.
Off I set on the five mile walk to the cathedral , castle and palace which sit way above the city, all within a wall which is guarded by blue uniformed soldiers in front of blue and white sentry boxes. At this point I simply don't have the words with which to describe the awe- inspiring magnificence and grandeur of this place. Mere words can,t do it justice so I'll leave it there.
All this excercise gives a man a thirst! No problem though - everywhere I look beer seems to be on sale! Talking of beer, the constant availability, the automatically replenished glasses and the low cost of the stuff means one is constantly on the lookout for a loo! Now these establishments are few and far between in Prague being mainly situated in Metro stations. And to add insult to injury you have to part with twenty five pee a wee! One therefore has to add this additional cost into the price of your pint when working out how much you're paying!
Everywhere you go in Prague someone tries to sell you tickets to the literally hundreds of concerts and clubs there are in the city, from grand opera to Saucy Suzies' Caberet Bar! This can become a bit of a bore, so I decide that the best way to avoid it is to disguise myself as a local. Shouldn't be difficult - they have same number of ears and legs as us after all. I do this by arming myself with a complimentary copy of the Metro newspaper which is given away on public transport much like in London or Brighton. I'm sitting on the tube flicking through the pages trying to look as if I know what I'm reading, when suddenly the passenger next to me stabs his finger at page six and starts to rant on about whatever the article is about. His tutting and animated gestures make it quite clear that this is a very emotive subject and he is obviously expecting me put forward my point of veiw. All I can manage is a feeble grin and a shrug of the shoulders at which point he decides he'd probably be better off sitting somewhere else. Undaunted, I set off through the city centre with my paper folded with title outwards, held tightly to my chest. Bingo! I'm invisible! Until that is, some lost soul assumes I'm local and asks for directions. At least, I think that's what she wants. After this has happens three times I decide to abandon my plan, dump my paper, and get sold a ticket to a classical concert at the Municipal House.
A funny thing happens on my way to the concert ! I arrive far too early and decide to have a look at the lavish cinema complex over the road. I walk the red carpet leading to the entrance . As I'm doing so I am suddenly aware that on either side of me are hoards of photographers , and in front of me a TV cameraman accompanied by a bloke with a headset and one of those furry lollipop things. Nobody seems to taking any notice of me so inside I go. The foyer would put the Empire Leicester Square to shame. Not just the usual 'concessions' but a fine dining restaurant, a couple of bistros, several different bars and a designer clothes emporium. Add to that an exclusive looking jewellers, a display by Aston Martin and I think you have the picture! I suddenly become aware of cameras flashing, and as I look around I find myself being swept along by what I assume to be an army of Czech celebrities ( I never seem to have heard of British celebs on those dratted reality shows, so I stand no chance of recognising this lot!). Anyhow, after the stampede dies down I manage to escape and make my way outside where I spot a banner proclaiming that tonight is the premier of the new James Bond!
Back across the road I enter the the truly fantastic theatre with it's three concert halls, three restaurants and, of course, several bars. The interior is a wonderfully over-the- top extravaganza of Art Noveau at it's vulgar best! A riot of colour , marble and stained glass. I take my seat in the auditorium and the musicians tune up their instruments on the stage. The Czech Collegium is a string...................er......................(let's work this out. Solo,duo, trio, quartet, something-tet, sextet). Anyway, there are five of them, and they will occasionally be joined by a trumpeter and a soprano. The programme is the kind of selection you would chose if you were introducing someone to classical music for the first time. Safe stuff you can hum along to . One of the Four Seasons, a Little Night Music, Bachs' Aire on a Thong with a couple of different Ave Marias thrown in for good measure. You know the kind of thing. I did smile though when part of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 struck up. You could spot all the English people in the audience as they were reminded of a certain television advert and whispered as one - 'Hovis'!. I have to say the event was superb and and was a fitting climax to a short break which will remain in my memory for as long as I live.
So what about Prague? Plus points - It's clean, the people are welcoming, the beer is awesome, the architecture is jaw-droppingly beautiful and the cobbled streets add a magical touch. on the minus side, hardly any thing - except the aforementioned cobbled streets which are painful to walk on and the truly aweful food! That's it really.
All I can say is "HOORAH FOR PRAHA"
Just discovered that bits of Casino Royale where filmed in Prague - hence their excitement in seeing me!