Getting Out of Prague – Czech Paradise and the Orlik Reservoir

With a month left in the Czech Republic, I finally got a student of mine to show me some proper Czech parts of their countryside at the weekend. After speaking in our last lesson about my desire to see some more of the Czech Republic before I go back to the UK, he invited my girlfriend and I to the Orlik Reservoir, an hour south of Prague on the River Vltava, a place he seems to have a love for which borders on the sexual.

Calling Zdenek a ‘student’ sound ridiculous to me as it conjures up the idea of him being below me in the ladder of life but he is in fact a successful civil engineer with a seemingly perfect Czech life and English which is arguably better than mine. Actually, hanging around with a student outside of class is a bit weird when it comes to error correction and ‘teacher talking time’. When you hear something that is blatantly wrong or something that sounds stupid, but you get what they mean, do you correct them in real life? I let a few mistakes fly but then I just couldn’t control myself when he repeatedly said he was ‘building a tent’. Luckily, he also had a fluent friend with him who had spent years in South Africa and every time Zdenek made an error – like calling the shore of the lake a peninsular – this guy would mumble ‘fucking hell’ to himself before laughing and walking away. Not how I’d learned to do it on my TEFL course but his way worked by shaming Zdenek into correction.

Zdenek was right as the Orlik Reservoir is a beautiful area of pristine water, thick forests and a quiet, calm atmosphere. Without a ring of surrounding mountains, it is a little more subtle in its beauty than, say, Lake Garda or Lake Bled, but there’s still plenty of tranquil natural splendour to soak up and activities to do.

We stayed at the Podskalni campsite where Zdenek was like a celebrity. He knew everyone there and even had familiar banter with the lady who sold us ice cream. As soon as we got there we grabbed a beer and jumped in the lake for a refreshing early evening dip whilst Maeve put the tent up (she is the man in the relationship). The second drinking stop was with two classic old guys, one of whom introduced himself as “Miroslav – there is no English equivalent”, and two minutes later they were generously sharing their Scotch whisky with us. Then we were joined by a group of Zdenek’s friends and accordingly the night took a turn for worse as one of the group began to ply us with Czech rum – not one of the Czech’s best achievements – with a simple form of peer pressure that my sheep-like character has let me get into many messy situations over the years.

Pretty worse for wear, we ended up at The White House, a kind of a social club in the middle of the woods which we’d been warned was awful. And awful it certainly was as, on a Saturday night, there were only three people there – one faceplanted on his table, and one receiving and one giving a blowjob in the corner.

The next day was a struggle but probably the most pleasant debilitating hangover I’ve had for a while. We spent the whole day swimming in the lake, sitting on the gravel beaches getting sunburnt, and stealing Zdenek’s dog so we could take it for walks (the most placid dog in the world which nevertheless decided to take a dump right next to a sunbathing couple). All-in-all, it was a really nice day.

The week before that we had a very enjoyable trip to Czech Raj – or ‘Czech Paradise’ – half way between Prague and the Polish border. It’s one of those places that I’d heard of but never really looked into. So, like a participant on a blind date with low expectations, I followed the group organiser (‘group’ being a grand term for four people and ‘organiser’ meaning the person who printed out the train timetable) first to the town of Jičin and then an uninspiring two kilometre walk – except for photo opportunities to rival the classic Windows desktop picture – to the start of a part of the area called Skalní Město.

This is probably why I was massively impressed when we suddenly came upon hundreds of sets of sandstone towers jutting up all over the place. Good old interactive fun as you can clamber up and down these stone structures, explore dank caves and ignore the safety barriers to your heart’s content. Also, very good for pinecone wars, ridiculous photos and getting lost.

Post-walk, we stopped in Jičin – apparently one of the Czech Republic’s most desirable places to live – for a couple of cheap beers. The same things always seem to happen when we take a trip outside of Prague and step away from the tourist crowds. The pubs and squares always empty at about 5pm never to fill up again, the trains we need to get home finish very early and we ask ourselves the same question – “I wonder if they need any English teachers here”. I love living in Prague but the crowds can get to you sometimes, especially when you need to be somewhere and a row of people stretch out across the pavement in a fighter squad formation. But these places are always to the other extreme and I could find them quickly getting pretty boring – a bit like teaching in Saudi Arabia except with more alcohol to numb the pain. Also, I’ve found myself getting used to the crowds and enjoying the constant hubbub of life on the streets.

Off the Beaten Track in the Czech Republic

After doing most of the prescribed tourist sights of the Czech Republic – Kutna Hora, Plzen, Česky Krumlov, Karlstejn – during my first year here it’s time to start looking away from the beaten track and finding more obscure places to visit. In this respect, the students that I teach are a goldmine. They can tell me if somewhere I find on google is an area of outstanding natural beauty or actually an industrial complex with low levels of gamma radiation and a cleverly-worded website. The last two weeks has seen two pretty warm weekends and two Bank Holidays so there’s been plenty of time to get out and about.

The first weekend, following a tip-off, we decided on the horrendously-named Telč (Telch – a place that sounds like you’ve just stood in something). Telč (I should watch where I’m walking) is a small town again in the middle of nowhere somewhere below Prague and it was sold to us as a ‘smaller Česky Krumlov’. With a large square bordered by multi-coloured houses and a series of town-centre lakes, it offered some excellent photo opportunities and was generally lovely – the kind of place your Grandma would love if only it wasn’t full of foreigners and strange food. The day took a welcome turn for the slightly odd as we arrived during a classic car fair which saw the square (more of a kite-shape) fill up with pretty cool classic Skodas and motorbikes, and more unusually military vehicles and tractors. Then there were dogfights between enemy aircraft over the town, jazz bands and kids’ pie eating contest which gave the place a bit of longevity and a great small-town-big-event atmosphere.

Next was Česky Sternberk – a 13th century Bohemian castle that I’d never heard of until that week and one that was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. A three hour train journey – anywhere, no matter how close to Prague, seems to take three hours – got us to our destination in the most picturesque way possible. The scenic train journey snaked along the Sazava river, through forests and past colourful meadows before eventually dropping us off at a tiny shed in the shadow of the Česky Sternberk castle.

The castle was pretty nice and fairly standard as castles go – nice views, lots of stone and an expensive, relatively uninteresting interior – so we spent a good hour looking around up top before deciding enough was enough and coming down the hill for the highlight of the day. Unashamedly, this was lounging for hours, slowly baking in the blazing sun, on a terrace drinking cheap beer facing the castle with the Sazava in front of us and nature all around. One of those times where walking around seems pointless but sitting around with a cold beverage fulfills every need.

As well as the fun of exploring a country more in-depth, getting away from Prague also gives you the chance to experience a slightly more open side to the Czechs in public. Most of my students are really nice, warm and friendly people but there’s no getting away from the face that the service industry is full of people that outwardly seem to hate you. Furthermore, the prices outside of Prague are always a lovely surprise as you get unbridled joy out of the smallest difference. Beer in Prague, for example, is gloriously cheap compared to Western Europe, but then you come out to the countryside and you can get a beer in the middle of a castle or on a sunny square for lessthan in Prague’s dingiest pubs. In British terms, the discount is pretty miniscule (discounts range from 10-15 pence) but it’s the disproportionate sense of happiness and satisfaction that counts. The tourist attractions are also cheaper as we got impressive panoramic views of Telc and the surroundings of Cesky Sternberk for not much more than an average Prague toilet entrance fee.

Neither destination is worth doing if you are in the Czech Republic for a few days and in a rush but both places are excellent if it’s a sunny day (everyone knows that the sun could make a landfill site look homely) and you’ve got plenty of time on your hands for exploring.

In the Footsteps of Charles IV

At the weekend I went walking In the Footsteps of Charles IV. Yes, the Charles IV of Holy Roman Emperor fame, Charlie-Boy. C-Bomb Number 4. No? Basically, I was apparently walking in the footsteps of a 14th century Czech king.

In the Footsteps of Charles IV is an organised public walk outside of Prague to Karlstejn that’s put on every year for anyone who wants to do it. The full route is 50 kilometres but it’s possible to do 10, 15, 20 kilometres or whatever you can be bothered to do. As a group of occasional walkers and hardcore gulash eaters, we did 15 kilometres.

By some miracle of human perseverance I pulled myself out of my comfortable, under-used bed at 8am and with my flatmate met a gaggle of similarly hungover looking people at Prague’s Main Station. From there we took a short train journey out of Prague to some random, ramshackle place called Černošice where we would start our walk. After an almost uninterrupted five months of bleak weather that made going out into the Czech countryside less appealing than a weekend in Chernobyl, this weekend was the first tempting chance leave the urban sprawl of Prague and get in touch with mother nature. Or something.

The Czechs love the outdoors and, one thing I’ve learned from my students is that they are always out in the nature (as the endearingly incorrect Czechism goes). Inevitably out on the walk we met hundreds of families, dog-walkers and couples sampling the beautiful spring sunshine and we even passed a women’s football game. Possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long while.

The walk was pleasant as the route snaked through Czech villages that were pretty and Czech villages that were under construction, past colourful meadows and through forests, ending at Karlstejn Castle – a touristy but charming little town which sits under an imposing Gothic castle. To be honest, the scenery was charming but not spectacular and the pace and elevation were never quite taxing enough yet it was just the ticket to brush off the winter cobwebs and dissipating hangover.

Somehow, for the second time this month, I managed to finish the day with a bright red forehead and a rosy neck, so at this rate, the year’s going to be filled with peeling skin and a head permanently coloured like a tomato. Interestingly enough, with a forest continually to the right of me and open space to the left of me, it was only my right which turned red and so I ended up with a ridiculous kind of football strip of skin.

Probably the highlight of the day was the finish where we received a diploma to mark the momentous occasion of finished a 15 kilometre walk in the mammoth time of five hours (thanks to much sitting and eating) – on green card with my name written in felt tip pen. I felt as happy as a small child and now it’s up on my wall just next to my Nobel Peace Prize and Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Prague Half Marathon – Destroying Pavel Nedved

Left hand side in the blue and black - that's me

Ever since waddling through my chubby teenage years, running has been my thing. With poor portion control and a love of everything savoury, it’s also going to be only way of avoiding heart-disease and obesity until my knees inevitably give way in my late-Twenties. Over the last nine years I’ve competed in half marathons in Newcastle, Glasgow, Prague (in 2008) and Leeds and slowly trundled through a full one in Pisa and now I proudly have a trophy cabinet (box under the bed) full of medals. Yes, these medals are all for merely taking part but that’s the best sporting achievement I’m ever likely to obtain.

The Prague Half Marathon on Saturday was my first decent-sized run of a busy running season and it crept up on me and arrived a few weeks too soon. A life-shortening weekend in Wroclaw coupled with a disproportionate cheese-to-everything-else diet and a couple of weeks of icy conditions not suited to running, left me in a perilous position only a month or so before the run. I did my best to get myself in shape but I felt like I left it too late so I had to dig into my arsenal for my two main weapons. First, was pride, I had to beat a friend who had recently excelled in his first half marathon and the second was my classic Yorkshire cheapness – I was not going to spend €50 on a race and not get a PB.

On the greyest day outside of a Soviet-era soap opera, 11,000 people took to the streets of Prague to do one of the most attractive urban runs in Europe. The first five kilometres alongside the river was a giant mess of people and so I had to use my third and final attribute – my pigmy size – to pick my way through. Afterwards, the congestion eased and everybody spread out and I could run at my own pace as I tried to put my foot down to alleviate constant feeling of self-doubt (an annoying lack of clocks) and a bladder that felt like it was going to explode from the start. I traditionally try to sprint the last two kilometres and this time it nearly killed me, especially as the organisers tantilisingly count down every one hundred metres with a kilometre to go.

In the end, I finished with a really pleasing PB of 1 hour 30 minutes, 30 minutes behind the clichéd group of front-running Kenyans but a whole 17 minutes quicker than Czech football legend Pavel Nedved. Always said he was over-rated.

Little amusing things always happen in a run that help you get through with an occasional smile punctuating the almost ever-present grimace/sex face. Like at one point, the course loops round so you double back on yourself and run past people a fair way behind you. Here, I met the 11,000th-place runner loping along very slowly being followed a few feet behind by an ambulance crawling along presumably waiting to scoop her expired body up off the pavement. It was like watching a zebra caught in the eyeline of a waiting lion.

Other delights include a woman I passed twice, who I can only guess spent the entire race singing the Rocky theme tune (not Survivor, but you know, the other one) over and over again…on her own to no-one in-particular.  There was world’s laziest spectator who was not only sitting down but using wooden clappers to take the effort out of slapping two hands together. Oh and there was my Mum who failed to respond to the shout of “MUM!” both times I passed her. That embarrassing moment when you know everyone has seen you fail and you just have to pretend you weren’t waving but scratching your head and sprint away from the scene of the crime.

In two weeks it’s the Pardubice Wine Half Marathon – not entirely sure what that consists of but I’m looking forward to a mid-point tipple of wine and cheeseboard. Then in June it’s the Gorlitz Marathon which I am not looking forward to at all.

Derby Day in Prague – Sunburn and a Scoredraw

Ever since being teargassed at a bad-tempered Prague derby in 2008 I’ve been hooked on watching football in Europe. It’s much less sanitised – for better or worse – than England and always offers something interesting, if not always on the pitch. I’ve experienced the electric atmosphere of the San Siro in Milan, Hertha Berlin at the impressive Olympicstadion and the rustic charm of Artmedia Bratislava in a cowshed in Slovakia and I hope to see a lot more football action in the future.

On Saturday, it was again the Prague derby of the city’s main rivals, Slavia and Sparta. This year’s contest didn’t really look like it was going to be a classic with Slavia underperforming after some crippling financial difficulties and Sparta sitting pretty on top of the league. And, in the end, it wasn’t, as the two teams played out a spirited but rather toothless one-all draw but it was still a really nice day at the shiny Synot Tip Arena topped off with a much-needed bout of sunburn.

Slavia took a surprise lead after a beautifully delivered corner found Martin Latka’s head and the underdogs could have had a few more. Then after forcing Slavia ‘keeper Martin Berkovec into a couple of stunning saves, Sparta eventually scored through Tomáš Přikryl (just try saying that) before the game petered out a bit and the off-field antics became a lot more interesting.

Three of us were sat right next to the Slavia Ultras – a set of hardcore fans who seemingly model themselves on the British fans of the Eighties (even down to their use of British flags and terms like ‘The Slavia Gentlemen’). These guys never sit down and certainly never shut up – even down to the children’s match at half time as the fans went crazy when a seven year old Slavia lad scored and then wheeled away with a classic airplane celebration. I’d definitely recommend that you try to sit by them but maybe not in amongst them though as you might find yourself out of your depth as they don’t take too kindly to tourists.

There seemed to be quite a few measures in place to placate the Ultras and to avoid any violence. For one, only non-alcoholic beer was served, which scuppered our plans of drinking in the glorious sunshine, but could be understood. Secondly, their every whim was catered for. Whenever they wanted to unfurl banners across the section, set off a couple of flares or cart in a tonne of flags, the officials were happy acquiesce, stand by and watch and do the occasional bit of firefighting. Overall, they whipped up and raucous yet non-violent atmosphere and a fun, awesome spectacle.

Cooped in the opposite corner the Sparta Ultras were obviously jealous of this attention, threw their toys out of the pram and kicked off in the second half. It started with what looked like a toilet seat being thrown onto the pitch. Then came a series of plastic seats that had been ripped up and flares were then let off in the middle of the mass of fans. The firefighters’ unenviable job was to get amongst them and to put the flares out whilst the police went in and arrested the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, kind of behaviour is virtually institutionalised in football in Central and Eastern Europe now which leads to families staying away and for a pretty intense, unwelcoming atmosphere. Add to that a generally poor standard of football and a game in these parts shouldn’t be a great prospect but somehow it is. Tickets are cheap, beer is normally plentiful and if you choose the right section in which to sit and the right game (derbies, historic rivalries and top-of-the-table clashes are always best) then the entertainment should be there. It’s an experience that I don’t think should be missed especially as almost every city in Europe has at least one decent team, each has a unique atmosphere and it’s a chance to see the locals at their best and their worst

8 of the Best Times to Visit Prague

March is a busy month in Prague – there’s two film festivals, a half marathon and a football derby between the city’s fiercest rivals. It’s always great to match a sightseeing visit to a city with an event, special season or a festival so, here is a list of eight of the best times to visit Prague.

1)      Prague Museum Night – June

Once a year Prague hosts a nocturnal festival of free museums throughout the city. A diverse range of museums, including the National Museum, the Jewish Museum and some exhibitions at Prague Castle, are all open for free from the early evening into the small hours. A complimentary bus service is also in place to shuttle you around the city and there are many musical events at the various attractions to liven things up. This night is a great way to learn about the history and culture of Prague without spending a fortune and getting them all out the way in one night lets you spend the daytime exploring.

2)      Witches Night – April 30

On the April 30 the Czechs gather in parks throughout the country to burn effigies of witches on bonfires to signal the end of winter (makes more sense than the UK’s Guy Fawkes night). So, find a park in Prague (you may have to go out into one of the suburbs) or go local and travel to one outside of the city, and you will find plenty of lively entertainment, crowds of locals in an excitable mood and lots of fire.

3)      Burčák Season – Autumn

Burčák is a (literally) explosive wine that comes to fruition in autumn and grips the drinkers of Prague. It’s a sweet wine that hasn’t quite finished fermenting so it can be pretty dangerous as the process keeps going when bottled and even when in your stomach which can lead to messy consequences if the pressure valve is not released or your consume too much. This brightly coloured beverage basically tastes like a mix between lemonade, fruit juice and wine and can be tasty and pretty strong (the quality and strength varies from batch to batch). With its arrival also come a number of markets and little festivals that sprout up around the city as they bring the usual accompaniments of sausage and Prague ham. A nice way to see out the warmer months.

4)      Prague Marathon, Half Marathon & 10k – March, May and September respectively

Surprisingly, this is probably the most stress-free way of seeing the Old Town. The streets are closed off to traffic and, more importantly, pedestrians and you have the freedom of the streets. Sure, it’s crowded but the steady torrent of runners always keeps going at an acceptable pace and rarely do you get stuck in a frustrating bottle-neck. These three runs are some of the most beautiful urban runs going and depending on how hardcore you are, you can jog along the historical streets of Prague over 13 miles at the end of March, 26 miles in May or a more feasible 10 kilometres at night in September.

5)      Easter and Christmas Markets – the run up to Easter and Christmas

Although the squares of Prague always look pretty, the markets of Easter and Christmas give them a little bit more personality. Hundreds of market stalls cluster round the monuments selling handicrafts, Czech specialities and hot and cold alcoholic beverages to suit the season. At Christmas there’s usually an ice rink to try out your ice skating skills and keep an eye out for carp tanks on the pavements selling live fish to be cooked later for the Czech’s Christmas dinners. Easter offers more of the same with another slightly odd tradition making the difference. You’ll come across many colourful wicker sticks that, as tradition dictates, are used by guys, mainly outside of Prague, to playfully spank their ladies. Probably best not to try it out yourself though.

6)      Sparta vs Slavia Prague – twice annually between August and May

The derby can sometimes get out of hand

See the locals at their passionate best (and worst) at this inevitably heated football game. Until recently Sparta and Slavia Prague were the two best teams in Czech football but Slavia’s fall from grace has not taken away from the intensity of this bi-annual match that gets the raucous fans out in numbers. The atmosphere in the always sold out stadium is normally electric and far out-weights the below-average quality football on show. The two teams normally play twice a year at either Sparta’s AXA Stadium in Letna, which is the easier to get to from the centre, or Slavia’s Synot Tip Arena Stadium, which boasts better facilities but is out in Prague-Vršovice.

7)      United Islands Festival – late June

Throughout the spring and summer Prague hosts many little outdoor music festivals and events and United Islands is one of the most hyped and impressively-attended of these. Set in fantastic island surroundings, right in the middle of Prague within viewing distance of Charles Bridge and Narodni Divadlo (the national theatre), there’s no better place to relax and soak up the friendly atmosphere and variable-quality of music. With no entrance fee and a central location you are free to come and go as much as you like so this doesn’t have to be the be-all-and-end-all of your trip if it isn’t to your taste.

8)      Jeden Svět and Febiofest Film Festivals – March

March is movie festival month as there are two distinctly different small-to-medium sized ones to choose from. Jeden Svět is a collection of human rights themed documentaries that will both entertain and, at times, depress and Febiofest concerns itself with mainstream and independent efforts from throughout the world. Neither are on the scale of Berlin, Cannes or nearby Karlovy Vary but they boast an unpretentious and lively atmosphere and give you a chance to sample some below-the-radar films that usually only come to this final outpost many months after the rest of the world.

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.

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.

An Englishman in Prague – Teaching English to the Capitalist Classes

Looking up at the whiteboard, in an office-turned-classroom covered, with the four Conditionals – the relativity theory of English grammar – prettily annotated with timelines and in a way that my student actually understood made me just a touch proud of how far I’ve come as an English teacher. I’m not deceiving myself by thinking that I’m a good teacher, as a lack of confidence, serious application and decent chat hinder elevating myself to that plain, but I’m certainly better than the rookie of March 2011.

When I started my TEFL course in Prague alongside twenty-two other scared and confused potential teachers of the world’s most lucrative language, I was shocked by how little grammar I knew. In fact, it was the Dutch contingent, learning vocabulary from terrible English-language films and grammar at school, who had the jump on us. A pronoun and a verb were as far as I could go whereas vital grammatical terms like the Past Perfect Continuous or the Gerund (which, to be honest, still perplexes me) just sounded like complicated nonsense.

By trial and error I now know enough to get by in most situations until an advanced English speaker calls me up on it and inevitably embarrasses me. Being a grammar Nazi is definitely a curse as you hear mistakes from native and non-native speakers outside of the classroom and the smartarse part of your brain wants to point them out but you know you will always sound like an obnoxious know-it-all, so you can’t. There are also the depressingly geeky arguments to be had with friends; ‘Is stupider a word?’, British English versus American English, and so on. And not forgetting a Scrabble war but the less said about that the better.

I work full-time for a school who use their client database to give me lessons with adult learners either in businesses or public courses in their premises. Like with any job, teaching English has good points and bad. For one thing, it’s an incredibly disjointed affair as a typical day involves four hour-long lessons spread over twelve hours with the gaps usually filled in with lesson planning and travelling to far flung areas of Prague. Since Capitalism began steamrolling through the country post-1989, multinational corporations have been popping up in every spare space in their glass fortresses. So, this forces me to regularly travel from one end of the Metro line to the other then to Narnia and finally to the Centre of the Earth, with a good book as an essential anti-zombie device.

On the other hand, the pay is pretty decent. It’s nowhere near the standards of the gold mines of South Korea and the Middle East where they pay you in Swarovski diamonds and unicorn dust but I earn enough to live in a flat in the most beautiful area of Prague next to the Old Town Square and eat out and casually drink more than I could ever afford to in the UK. This is subsistence living though as I’m very unlikely to ever save for as much as a pair of jeans. What’s more, I often have long days but I don’t work long hours. Not many other jobs would give me the time and flexibility to lounge around a park all afternoon when it’s hot, watch a Tuesday morning Sopranos marathon in my boxer shots or write this blog in the middle of the day (fully clothed).

The differences in language and culture allow for many humorous moments to collect and share. Take the following disturbing exchange from my first ever private lesson whilst still in training.

“So Katja, what are your interests?”

“I like my dogs.”

“Okay, what else?”

“I like baking cakes.”


“And I like handjobs.”

“… I’m sorry?”


“Hmmm how do you mean?”

“Sewing, knitting…”

Once I had worked out that she meant handicrafts, my heart retreated back down my windpipe. After all, Katja is certainly not a beautiful, blond Czech nineteen year old but a housewife in her sixties who likes knitting jumpers and baking chocolate sponges.

There are also many other small instances that brighten up an average day spent with frequently dry businessmen, like a student repeatedly referring to the outcome of a project as ‘the final solution’ and my own accidental ability to make my drawings of the United Kingdom look like incredibly detailed penises (or is that peni?).

You also learn a lot about a country. For instance, the Czech Republic as a whole is pretty tolerant but is a tad racist towards certain groups. A shameful tried and tested method amongst English teachers to fill any dead space at the end of a lesson is to merely utter the word gypsy. This incendiary term is like saying immigration to a closed-minded Brit or like a drop of blood to a shark. Inevitably, the incredibly racist person begins with the ominous stock phrase of ‘I’m not a racist but’ and lurch into a fifteen minute tirade about the gypsy evil.

At the end of the day, it’s a job that lets you live in some pretty cool places and all you need is your mother tongue. Looking towards the summer when I will most probably move on from Prague – the world is my oyster.

An Englishman in Prague – Affordable Skiing for Incompetents

The average Czech person loves the outdoors nearly as much as their beer. When asked about the weekend, nearly every one of my students – except one group whose extra-curricular activities are harder to get out of them than secrets out of a dead person – will inevitably answer (wrongly but endearingly) ‘we were in the nature’ – a stock Czenglish phrase which is the equivalent of the Germans ‘making a party’.

The extent to which the Czech’s love their outdoor sports is evident no more obviously than on the ski slopes and ice skating rinks. As the visibly English skaters lurch around the ice rink with the smoothness of Frankenstein’s monster or precariously wind their way down the slopes there are inevitably hundreds of six year old kids doing figure-of-eights around them making these despondent figures feel as small as possible.

Skiing in the Czech Republic is very cheap, especially when done as a daytrip like my first one that I joined on Sunday. For the same price as my hastily-bought, modest ski trousers (about £40) I got return travel from Prague to the ski resort of Herlikovice, one-day ski hire, a lift pass, two meals and two beers. Herlikovice is one of many fairly small resorts in the popular Krkonoše Mountains on the border with Poland and boasts just four major slopes – one for beginners and a couple of intermediates – and a few minor expert runs. This is ample for those that only have a day to spare or those that want a gentle reintroduction to skiing, like a ‘once every five year’ skier like me. The main complaints from the Czechs is that the ski resorts can get quite busy which is why many of them choose to travel to the Austrian Alps instead.

The only way in which I can be classed as a real man is that I really can’t multitask. This is especially true when it comes to any mechanical or technical things like driving, typing and skiing. Behind the wheel, when I am concentrating on the physical act of driving I lose all sense of direction and my conversational skills are even worse than usual. This one-track mind really came into effect when I was skiing on Sunday. The skiing itself went okay – no injuries, a minimum of wipeouts and a gradual curve of improvement – but walking without falling over, standing still and carrying skis all became tasks that I couldn’t competently juggle with the responsibility of not killing myself on the slopes. Really, I felt like a childlike walking disaster when in the presence of the other members of the group.

The day began in ignominy as I failed to master even the simple manual ski lift. Sitting on the horizontal bar rather than letting it drag me, I soon came tumbling off in front of a bumper audience surely mocking me under their collective breath. I gathered up my scattered equipment and tumbled down the slope Bambi-like to rejoin the queue. The embarrassment didn’t stop there as, when I tried traversing the rather simple turnstile for the second time in ten minutes, I managed to somehow get caught straddling the barrier with one leg and ski on one side and a leg and a ski on the other with the metal hurdle stuck on ‘do not pass’. A new crowd formed behind me as I struggled like a cow stuck on barbed wire and I had to awkwardly take the skis off and regroup on the other side with people again taking sniggering side glances in my direction. Eventually I got to the summit of the beginner slope by showing the kind of concentration reserved for a tennis player in a grand slam final or a surgeon performing major surgery on the Pope.

The remainder of the day passed off relatively trouble free except for a pivot that ended in the splits right before a group of teenage girls who shouted some kind of abuse aimed at my permanently damaged genitals. The weather was really good for skiing as the snow pleasantly fell throughout the day and the slopes stayed largely ice-free. Due to my cowardly temperament I never fully enjoy skiing as my mind always stays finely balanced between terror and self preservation and excitement so I believe I always hold back a little and never truly let myself go kamikaze-style.

The main thing I learned from this experience is that you can’t become a professional ski master with one day of skiing every five years.