An Englishman in Prague: Wroclaw – Let’s Go to Plan B

Continuing my quest to visit every place worth going to within a 500 kilometre radius of my temporary hometown of Prague, I went to the lively, university town of Wroclaw (Vrot-slaf) in South Western Poland at the weekend. This fairly small city is renowned for it nice architecture and student vibe.

Compared to many cities in Central Europe, Wroclaw should be pretty close to Prague but it isn’t when you get the longest local bus in existence. A 250 kilometre journey took us over five-hours thanks to a bus that stopped at every town, village and tree to pick up old ladies with their shopping, families with dogs and escaped convicts to then deposit them in the next hamlet two-miles down the road. On a nearly empty bus my friend and I suffered repeatedly from those awkward moments where you’re having loud conversations along the lines of ‘if you had to shag an animal which one would you choose’ before realising that all the people in front of you can speak perfect English.

I am by nature a reserved person. Think of the classic Englishman complete with bad teeth but without any of the suave and sophistication. So when I go on holiday I normally put the emphasis on the sightseeing and to a lesser extent the culture. Hardcore partying takes a back seat. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely drink (like a typically unskilled Englishman that doesn’t listen to his limits) and do my fair share of bar-hopping but due to my lack of social skills/shyness I won’t end up naked in a sauna at 6am with a group of local girls or in a prison cell doing tequila slammers with the city police.

So a messy weekend in Wroclaw in Poland was a welcome change. I left the missus/ball and chain/old lady/trouble and strife/significant other at home and took my flatmate James – a guy who has a few talents I lack, including a total immunity to embarrassment, absolutely no self-censor, a total free reign on the ‘shit chat’ part of his brain and about half a metre extra height. This is a guy who within an hour of being in Poland had got into a shouting fight with a Polish shop-owner after urinating over the back of his shop and then walked around for the weekend with plastic bags tied around his feet to keep them dry. The entire weekend was spent with him playfully harassing every girl he could find with the line “Are you from Poland? …Where is good to party? …Can you come with us?” And, to be fair to him, it worked. We ended up being taken to many excellent bars by lovely people to drink cheap, good beer. In its compact city centre, Wroclaw boasts a huge amount of clubs, beer cellars, micro-breweries, bars, traditional pubs and possibly the cheapest English pub in Europe.

My Polish friend always bangs on about the Poles being very friendly and the being women amazingly attractive but he’s Polish so I usually take it with a pinch of salt. Mythbuster: the Poles are very friendly and amazingly attractive. It was a nice change from the Czechs who are lovely when you get to know them but in public have hearts of stone. Wroclaw is a really youthful city that’s full of students so this probably counted in its favour and I might just be generalising a little.

To be honest, drinking and being hungover were two of the only real choices open to us. Wroclaw as an actual tourist destination is attractive  enough but not spectacular. It’s a pleasant historical town with a charming town centre made up of multi-colour houses and more churches than you can count. We arrived after snow had been falling for a couple of weeks and the temperature was still a couple of degrees below zero which left most of the river completely frozen over. It’s the kind of scene that needs the maximum self-control not to do a running jump and face-plant on the ice and I don’t think I have never been so jealous of a duck. Unfortunately the sky was completely grey which made all the admittedly fine buildings seem very depressing indeed and our photos turned out far from impressive. There was no point walking around for anymore than an hour or two as even Rome or Star Wars’ Cloud City would look fairly unspectacular in the unrelenting greyness. We must go back in the Spring.

The Winter Cometh: Time for a Minus 14 Degree Run With Santa Claus

Not me but I think it sums up the spirit of the run

After an incredibly mild winter, the winter has arrived in Prague (and the rest of Europe) with a vengeance. Personally or otherwise, for too long, have I been the victim of mockery from across the Channel by the entire population of a temperate country who are getting more snow than me. Thanks to Facebook, whenever one snowflake falls in the UK, it is inevitable that the world will hear of it through a blanket social media coverage that makes it sound like the coming of the apocalypse. This year is no different as we are treated to thousands of unique pictures that say ‘look, no matter how bad you’ve got it, it’s much worse here’ and people initially getting snow-giddiness and then snow-moaniness. At least I don’t have to watch the UK news reports with its cries of ‘Britain is literally going to sink under the weight of 2 inches of snow. God help us all.’

One of the draws of the Czech Republic was the perverse desire to live through a really cold winter with lots of snow and eventually I have got a fraction of my wish. Over the last ten days the temperature has relented and hit minus 20 degrees Celsius and has been generally hovering around the minus 10-15 mark. This is an incredible 10 degrees colder than I think I have ever experienced before but only yesterday did the snow fall and it was a pretty poor effort that’s predominantly melted away so far.

I’m a big running enthusiast (they call me the Usain Bolt of Yorkshire) and the height of foolhardy stupidity came on Saturday morning when I joined the 2 Miles with a Smile race around Stramovka, one of Prague’s charming inner-city parks. This monthly event, organised by transcendental keep-fit fanatic Buddhists (http://cs.srichinmoyraces.org/) or some such, is a great way to pit you against yourself and others as you can rack up personal bests, which get updated on their website, as well as racing against others.

This Saturday, dressed in my girlfriend’s thermal leggings, I was joined by about a hundred other shivering fools, loitering around the start line aching merely to get started. By the end of the opening straight I was struggling to feel my lips, fingers and, more worryingly, my toes. In contrast, I could feel really intense pain in my forehead and, weirdly, the inside of my nose, and I just wasn’t warming up at all. I’m pretty sure that if my inner thoughts were projected outwards they would have sounded something like ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggghhhhhh’. For the best part of the run I gravitated towards two other guys running at a similar pace and we created a small heat-retaining pack. At one point, because of a feeling of camaraderie and self preservation, I had to fight a sub-conscious urge to bear hug them both.

One thing the cold is good for is a personal best as you want just want to get to the end in the quickest way possible at any cost. I shaved a whole 5 seconds of my previous best – which means I can hope for a flat 12 minutes by April 2014. At the end of the run you get what is at that point the best food and drink imaginable – a pancake and a hot tea – before scarpering home to be back in bed by 10am. All for just 20 crown (less than a pound).

I’ve met a Czenglish woman who’s helped me decipher the Czech running calendar and is willing to take me into the wilderness to compete in cross countries. I’ve done two so far when the season starts again in March I will happily be there running up right-angled hills at 9am in the middle of nowhere. I was in a strangely proactive mood last night and ended up signing up for the Pardubice Wine Half Marathon (which places a large emphasis on post-race food and drink) and the Gorlitz Marathon (a historical town on the German-Polish border) to go alongside my existing registration for the Prague Half Marathon in March.  Whether that was foolish remains to be seen but it means I should lay off the goulash and dust off the grey Rocky tracksuit once more.

If anyone in Prague is interested in joining me one Saturday morning for a pleasant 2 mile run just send me a message or look me up on Twitter (@johnguzdek).

An Englishman in Prague – Castles, Hairy Backs and Lenin in Budapest

This weekend was my second visit to Budapest. I had been before when I went interrailling about four years ago but this visit showed me how poorly I had done it the first time round. Last time, the weather was horrible, my travelling buddy began to smell slightly funky after his showers became less frequent, bars were a real mission to find and we didn’t really do anything. That was except for one of the weirdest tourist attractions in Europe – Memento Park. This crazy spectacle is basically a field outside of Budapest where they dumped a load of statues of random Communist leaders for posterity. To be dwarfed by surrounding giant stone replicas of Lenin and heroic workers wrestling with evil Nazis is a surreal experience.

The coach tickets were a present from my girlfriend and there was a twinge of ‘couldn’t you have chosen a different city?’ But I’m glad we went as now I know what a great city it can be.

Budapest and Prague are close on the map but seven hours apart on a coach. We went by Student Agency who are a much better version of Eurolines for travelling around Central Europe, if only because you get free hot drinks and movies to keep you occupied. They’re normally better than the trains too because they’re much cheaper and in this part of Europe they tend to build railway lines in concentric circles that eventually bring you to your destination.

Sometimes the aggressive form of customer service that was the inspiration for Guantanamo Bay really annoys me but occasionally the lack of political correctness, health and safety and not caring about offending anyone is strangely refreshing. Take the unusual choice of movies on my coach journey which included a kids movie, a film about grieving and incest and ended with Venus, a hugely disturbing Brit-flick following a pensioner’s attempts to get into the pants of a teenager, casually showing boobs and dropping C-bombs to at least ten kids on the bus. I used to work for a travel company in the UK and that would have resulted in a lawsuit, nationwide housewife boycott and a televised apology by the Queen.

The first thing you notice about Budapest when you arrive is that the language is very. very confusing, making it the most westerly country in Europe where you feel totally out of your depth. I always try and at least mumble incorrect foreign at people but this time I didn’t even try, it was a lost cause. First stop, McDonalds. Don’t judge me.

The second thing you notice is that their underground system is not exactly aesthetically pleasing. The blue trains – or in the words of the American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, more of a dirty blue – turn up looking like they made it all the way through the Communist era only to end up in a drag race. However, these little stallions did their job pretty efficiently alongside the excellent, and less depressing, tram system.

The highlight of our trip – as any guidebook will tell you – was the thermal baths (an impossible phrase for someone who can’t say their ths). We stumped up for the Szechenyi Baths which are one of the more expensive ones but amongst the elite for getting your sweat on. This really was a pleasant Sunday morning experience as on a freezing cold day we uniquely got to sweat out the Hungarian wine in an boiling hot outdoor swimming pool. We also made use of the indoor thermal pools and saunas and got to see more hairy backs and middle-aged women who shouldn’t be wearing two-piece bikinis than you can shake a stick at.

After regaling you (four readers) with the inanities of a bus journey and the Budapest transport network, I should probably at least mention the sightseeing attractions of this predominantly (the new town is pretty seedy and has more stripclubs that I could visit in a night) beautiful city. Castle Hill and the Matthais Church are really impressive, peaceful places to spent a few hours and the happy snappers will have a ball. Buda, on the West of the Danube, is where most of the sights are at and from here you can get great views of Pest and the pretty remarkable parliament building that puts London’s to shame.

Budapest isn’t the kind of place you’d travel from far and wide to go for a wild night out. The bars in the centre are a little sparse but there are a few decent efforts if you stumble down the right roads near the Oktogon. There are some unpretentious bars that are very welcoming and sell Hungarian wine (no idea if it’s good wine but it’s generally cheaper than beer so had my attention), like Szimpla (on Kertész utca), which was packed with locals to listening to a weirdly eclectic mix of music and having a good chat. We also stumbled upon a bar themed entirely on the 1953 6-3 humbling of the English football team by the Lions of Hungary which reinforces the view that Hungary have not exactly been a sporting powerhouse since then.

Like in most cities we ended the nights with a kebab – not, don’t judge me again, Hungarian goulash. There are a lot to choose from here as the Turkish influence is pretty huge and I wasn’t complaining as mixing the sophistication of wine and the dirt of a kebab brings the night out to a nice, neat zero balance. This again reminded me of my interrailing days when, from the overwhelming Greek Feta Kebabs of Brussels to the near perfect Durum Kebabs of Germany, we accidentally embarked on a kebab tour of Europe. Now I can tick the Hungary box.