Friday, 4 October 2013

My 16 Hour Journey to Prague

On Thursday 19th September I finished packing my two gipsy-looking bags for Prague. I was quite nervous, wondering if I had all I needed, if I didn’t forget anything, if I wasn’t bringing too much, if I wasn’t bringing too little, etc… After checking and rechecking a thousand times my suitcases, at 1 am I finally decided to go to bed, exhausted. The travel plan was that I flew to Krakow for a wedding, from there took the train to met my father in Prague. In theory it’s straightforward, but in practice … it was a long and exhausting journey.

Woke up early on Friday morning, got prepared, said goodbye to my parents and brothers; before 9 I was out of the house, waiting for the bus down my road.

Step 1: Taking the W bus from Rhode-St-Genèse to Gare du Midi.

Living in the suburbs of Brussels is a pain because it takes forever to get anywhere. On a week day, at rush-hour it takes over an hour to get to the city center. So that’s what happened: I was stuck in traffic for an hour going down Chaussée de Waterloo. When I arrived at the train station, I had to go to the European ticket sell-point to actually get my train ticket from Krakow to Prague.  

Step 1 and a half: Buying My Train Tickets.

Took a waiting number, took a seat, realized that I was 20th in the queue and only 3 desks were open… The patience game was just about to start… 

After waiting patiently for 15 mins I realized that the queue was progressing much slower than what I’d expected. I calculated the average time each person took to buy their tickets: about 7 mins, and based on that estimated the time I had to wait for my turn. I started to get agitated because I still had get to the airport and so if I waited too long I would miss my flight. 175, 176, 177, 178… I couldn’t stop counting the number of people before me and looking at the clock ticking. 

After 25 mins it became harder and harder to stay cool: I was considering the possibility to just go to any desk when they call the next number, or ask someone if they would be kind enough to swap waiting number with me. After 35 mins it became un-bea-ra-ble: I knew I was running late for my flight but, I couldn’t leave before I got my train ticket. I imagined the fight with my parents if I missed the flight. I started to get panicky, getting up, walking across the room, looking at the time, coming back to my seat, sitting down, repeat. People in the waiting room were just starring at me as if I was a nutcase, but maybe I am. 

After 42 mins, the number just before mine showed up on the screen, I jumped up like a football supporter would when his team scores, it was a small victory. When the next desk freed I looked at the man selling the tickets as if he was the Holy Grail, I was going to get my train ticket for Prague: something that seemed intangible in that waiting room.  Before my number was even called, I was standing in front of the desk looking eagerly at the sells man.

With a surprised look on his face the sell’s man asked: 
-“What can I do for you?” 
I felt that I was begging on my knees when I said:
-“I need a ticket for Sunday from Krakow to Prague, any time will do” 
-“All right” and he started to type on his computer that looked that it was from the early 90’s while I was thinking in my head “Come on, faster, faster, faster”… him typing slowly…Me becoming really impatient… He looked up:
-“Sorry Miss, it seems like there is no trains going from Krakow to Prague”…. I froze, imagining that not only I waited 45 mins for nothing, but on top of that: I was going to miss my flight and wasn’t going to get to Prague
-“That’s not possible, have you checked the one with the connection at Katowice?” 
-“Kato-what?” with a blank expression 
-“Kato-wice!” I cried 
-“Where is that?” 
-“In Poland, not far from the Czech boarder” -“Never heard of it” 
-“Can you please find me a train from Krakow to Katowice and one from Katowice to Prague” I said on the verge of tears. He types on his computer, I am just there: desperately starring at the man… waiting… the time is ticking by…I’m breathing very nervously…calculating how much time I had left before my plane… Finally he looks up smiling: 
-“I found one leaving Krakow on Sunday at 7.53 arriving at Katowice at 10.35 and then from Katowice there is a train at 11.11 to Prague and arriving at 16.45” 
-“Perfect! How much is it?” I said with a huge smile, he looks at me with a hesitant expression: 
-“Sorry Miss, I am not entirely sure that I can sell you this ticket”…Literally I felt that I was stuck in limbo just about to hit my head on the desk. I got firm: made it clear that I was going to get that ticket and the faster the better. I am not sure that he understood that I was in a rush because he kept asking questions on and on “Wouldn’t you prefer a night train? What class? Wouldn’t you prefer another time? Window or corridor? Cash or card? ...” I just replied fast and briefly just to accelerate the process. While the tickets were printing he asked me where I was from, … a big mistake. 

Normally I love having the quick chat with people and the man was very nice, but here it was not the right moment. So, I had to explain in 30s my complicated background and my plan of going on Erasmus and he was obviously very curious and just kept asking more and more questions. It was the prefect example of the awkward moment when you’re trying to end a conversation with someone and they just keep on talking. As soon as he handed me the tickets, I said goodbye, he wished me good luck and I dashed out of the train station.       

Step 2: Getting from Gare du Midi to Charleroi Airport … by any means.  

Don’t be mistaken: the Brussels-South-Airport-Charleroi, is not in Brussels, it is a 40-50 min bus ride from Brussels. So running out of the train station I knew that I needed a bus leaving in the next 10 mins for me to get to the airport on time. As I was rushing to the bus stop, dragging my suitcase along, a man came up to me and slyly asked “Charleroi Airport, right?” Initially, I didn’t understand the meaning of his question. The man was from a taxi company, convincing me that for the same price as the bus one of his colleagues would leave in the next few minutes driving me and a few other people to the airport. I thought that it was probably a dodgy idea and a rip-off, but after seeing that in the mini-van there was a strong Eastern-European guy that would be able to pull off a fight; I decided to go with it. I sat in the cab next to the driver, and as soon as the mini-van was full, we drove off. On the way, I was praying that it was not going to be a bad idea as I always take the shuttle bus to the airport. I was looking nervously at the road making sure that we were going in the right direction. On the highway, the taxi was driving slightly over the speed limit and just before the airport the taxi-man switched off the meter. I was pleasantly surprised: we got from Gare du Midi to Charleroi in about 30 mins, we each had to pay only 13 euros and I had plenty of time before my flight!

Step 3: Flying from Charleroi to Krakow.

Brussels-South-Airport-Charleroi should be renamed “Ryanair’s Airport in Belgium”. For those who never been: it is a tiny airport, in the middle of nowhere, where there are no trolleys for your suitcases, and curiously Ryanair seems to be the only airline serving this airport. Check in, security check, buy some Belgian Chocolates for my hosts in Krakow.

And it was a typical Ryanair flight: people queuing at the gate half an hour before they call for the boarding, staff checking scrupulously with a ruler that your hand luggage is no more than 55x40x20 cm, people having a hard time picking a seat in the plane, while you’re trying to sleep during the flight every 10 mins there is an announcement that they are selling food, drinks, coffee, smokeless cigarettes, scratch cards, bus tickets, perfumes … you feel the plane smashing on the tarmac and then a trumpet announces that you’re arrived on time. Until next time Ryanair! I had arrived in Krakow.

Step 4: Getting from Krakow Airport to Krakow City Center.

When I had arrived and picked-up my suitcase I still had 3 hours until the wedding reception, I wasn’t in a rush but I couldn’t dillydally too much. I asked for some information and decided to take a bus that apparently went near the city center. For the next 50 mins or so I had no clue whatsoever if I was going in the right direction, sitting on the bus, glancing out the window, listening to music, completely spaced out while the bus didn’t seem to follow an entirely illogical route. The bus arrives at this final destination, I knew I was walking from where I was staying but I didn’t have the courage to start asking for directions...

Step 5: Taking a taxi  
…So I just took a taxi for what was a 10 min walk.      

Step 5 and a half: the wedding    
Just after I arrived, I went for a drink with my cousins and friends at the Dym bar and I had my beloved White Russian, and it felt so nice to be back in Krakow and catching up with people. Then we went back home, quick shower, got ready and we were off to the wedding reception. Weddings are my favorite parties because everyone knows that everyone is somehow related, they have a nice family feeling to them, everyone dances and has fun. When I told people that I was on my way to Prague, they were excited for me, some were telling me that I have no excuses not to come up to Krakow for week-ends, some were telling me that they will come to visit me. Someone even bet with me that he’ll bicycle from Krakow to Prague: I am waiting for it. It was a great night, I stayed until late and by the time we came back home I was exhausted after such a long day: travelling for 8 hours plus the wedding.

 The next day, there was brunch (actually more like “dunch” because it was between lunch and dinner) in the countryside just outside of Krakow with lots of polish food, tea and soup. Several people were sneakily hiding behind their sunglass. When we came back to Krakow, we went to a friend’s place for a casual drink: the plan was to drop by and come back home before 12 to go to bed because I had my train early the next morning. It didn’t quite work out that way.... 

....and I ended up having only 3 hours of sleep. I was meant to be up before 7 am…I didn’t hear my alarm…I only heard Wiri’s alarm ringing for the second time at 7:10….quickly got dressed, quick breakfast and then Wiri and I were off towards the train station walking like 2 zombies. When we got to the station we realized that the train was leaving in less than 5 mins, by the time we found the train the train officer was whistling to signal that it was time to close the doors. Luckily, the officer saw me giving me enough time for a quick goodbye and to hop on the train, literally if I had arrived 20sec latter, I would have missed the train.    

Step 6: Taking the Train from Krakow to Katowice.      

I realized my luck when the doors closed just after I managed to pull my suitcase unto the train, before I even started to look for a seat: the train was already moving. The train was empty and I was shivering while glancing out the window. For the whole train journey I was fighting the temptation to fall asleep because I knew that if I fell asleep there was a chance that I would miss the stop at Katowice. The fact that I was so cold in that train was probably why I managed to stay more or less awake during the journey.  

Arrived at Katowice, I had a little touristic tour of the modern train station, had a sandwich and then I was waiting for the train to Prague.

Step 7: Taking the train from Katowice to Prague

While waiting on a bench, freezing, I noticed a few people with back-packs speaking English with foreign accents and that most people waiting for the train spoke English. That sort of made me realize how international Prague was going to be. I went euphoric when I saw this:

This was the ultimate step, I was reaching the end of my journey, the last mode of transport that I would take, in 5 hours I would arrive at my final destination: Praha! I was surprised how modern the train was: there were plugs next to every seat, there was a board saying what was the next stop and the speed of the train, the service in the train felt like being on a plane. My journey was quite interesting: there was an old British couple seating in front of me – planning their cultural trip around Prague and analyzing the books they were respectively reading. Behind me: an Asian hipster, getting drunk on Martini, listening with loud speaker to some kind of Asian techno. There is no doubt that the old couple and the hipster did not really get along. When we crossed the Polish-Czech boarder we arrived to this stop:  

And the train stopped there for about 30 mins, no clue why. It seems like that the schedule of the train was to be redone because at some stops the train stopped for half an hour and at other only for less than 5 minutes. It was a nice journey as I discovered quite a bit of the Czech landscape from Bohemia to Prague. It varies a lot: there are flat fields with cute villages where people grow their own vegetables behind their wooden houses, then forested valleys where the train meanders along a tinny stream through these gorges, then beautiful lakes and peaceful rivers were men fish on a Sunday afternoon and then gentle rolling hills. It goes rustic rural to bucolic rural to enchanting medieval villages to run-down small towns that have a strong hint of a communist past. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to how beautiful the Czech countryside is. During the last hour of the journey I started get butterflies in my stomach, I was getting really impatient and looking forward to arriving. And then I noticed that we were at the outskirts of a city, buildings appeared, and I had this view from the train: 

It took me: 1 plane, 2 trains, 2 buses and 2 taxis and 16 hours to arrive to Praha.  


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