Sunday, June 22, 2014

My Log 429 June 22 2014 Visit to Prague (1): Finding one’s way through the maze of travel possibilities in Europe these days is a daunting task

Prague (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn DeLight (back again))
Prague (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn DeLight (back again))
I decided the other day that an alternative way home from Dubrovnik, Croatia,  where I am until towards the end of July, would be not to fly from Dubrovnik to Frankfurt, as my return ticket indicates, but to visit Berlin, perhaps, or Prague, and then take a bus to Frankfurt to pick up the remaining part of my ticket to Montreal.
Full of enthusiasm for the idea --- a woman who had lived in Berlin and just returned from there was so enthusiastic about it in comparison to Paris, that she had me hooked right from the start --- and hoping, of course, to keep the costs down to the lowest possible --- a vain hope in this world of modern mass tourism, where all the prices seem to be directed to gouging the maximum out of every class of tourist ---- I spent a lot of time trying to find a cheapish bus route to Berlin, but unsuccessfully. It might be possible once I reached Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, but I had no wish to go to Zagreb, and in face of discouragements I decided to try the lowcost airlines that have proliferated over here, to see what they could offer. I came up on one called easyjet, whose advertised fare, direct from Dubrovnik to Berlin, was certainly cheap. So decided to book it. I booked it and was passed through the signing up to the point where I had to receive a confirmatory email message. But that email message never came.
So, the next day I tried to find my booking on the easyjet web site, only to discover that no such booking existed.  Some foulup, I decided, probably of my own doing, I imagined, and tried again, booked the whole thing through for July 14, the date I wanted, but with exactly the same result, no confirmation, and, on inquiry, no booking. 
Okay, so much for easyjet and their promises. It began to look as if this flight, so much cheaper than anything else available, did not really exist but was merely a come-on to inquiring passengers. I wrote them an email inquiring what might have happened to my booking, but by the time they replied I had decided a lowcost carrier did not seem to be the answer. All easyjet said, in their form letter, was that I should try again. By this time I had expunged lowcost airlines from my lexicon (at least for the moment) and was vigorously pursuing a lead given to my partner-in-crime by a woman friend, born and raised in Prague, who said she knew of  a bus service that was cheap, and that ran direct to and from Dubrovnik to Prague. Pressed for more information she gave us a Prague number, who told us the bus would take off on a Saturday evening at 7 o’clock, arriving the following afternoon in Prague. Now I mean no disrespect either to my partner-in-crime, Sheila, nor to her Prague-born friend when I say that, although I know they have both travelled the world extensively, I would not be prepared to make solid arrangements for my future based on what they might tell me, because they both have a way of adding to a sentence intended to suggest precision, some unexpected additional element that I might call one of vagueness.
For example, when I pressed Sheila whether she knew for certain that the bus would leave every Saturday evening at 7 pm, she said, “Yes, of course….” And after an almost indiscernible pause added, “I think so.”   To me, that “I think so” could have been translated into “no, I’m not really certain.”
So off we went to the bus station, a month ahead of our proposed departure date, where we would surely be able to confirm all this at the information office.
Some hope, compadre!  At the ticket station they said that no such a bus, if it existed, came to the bus station. 
Meantime --- I am sure you, dear reader, are on the edge of your seats at this exciting narrative --- I understood how fortunate I had been that easyjet were  somewhat sloppy on confirming reservations. I had described some of this to my son, Ben, who lives  in Austin, Texas, just as a matter of passing. He makes his living flying around the United States on various musical tours, and can keep you fascinated for hours with his tales of the misdeeds one encounters in the course of modern-day air travel.
“I would strongly advise you against skipping the Dubrovnik-Frankfurt part of your return ticket, because what happens when you don’t turn up for the first leg is that they immediately cancel the whole ticket,” he wrote. “The only way I would do that is if you can get assurances from the airline that you can do it ( and the assurance should come from a managerial person at the airline who will go on record with their policy, ie: get their name etc). I know you used to be able to do that, but after 9/11 everything changed.  Now they won't even allow you to take the first portion of a flight and get off before the second portion.”
So I regarded that as advice from the horse’s mouth, wrote to Croatia Airlines for confirmation, and, needless to say, they confirmed that Ben had it exactly right.
Since I had to take off from Dubrovnik in July I  abandoned my project to vary my way home. (Of course, you will be saying, he could have paid to have his ticket changed: but experience proves how costly this procedure is nowadays: the last ticket change I was involved in cost a cool $600 (which amounted to a third of the price of the whole return ticket) merely to change the date of the return leg, and the one before that was $400. They’ve got you at every turn these days.)
Indeed, the pitfalls lying in wait to trap an innocent traveller are manifold.
But by this time my partner-in-crime, Sheila, had the sound of Prague in her ears, the smell of Prague in her nostrils, and no matter how often I said I had abandoned my intention to move north, she acted henceforth as if our trip to Prague was a fait accompli.  Thus, in collaboration with her Prague-born friend, she discovered that the reason the bus information office had denied existence of the Saturday night departures direct to Prague was that the season had not yet started when we inquired, but it would start the very next weekend. Sheila’s friend told her this bus ran back and forth every weekend, and the fare was something around 66 (or maybe that was 56) Euros, which could have been either for the one-way tip or the return  fare.
So determined were we to go by this time that on the assumption we would catch that bus the following Saturday and return the following weekend, I negotiated a five night booking in a central, small Prague hotel, and (full of an uncertain hope) we turned up at the bus station with 200 Euros believing that Sheila’s friend had reserved us two seats, the fare for which  we must pay directly to the driver.
Once again there seemed to be no bus bearing Czech identifications, and only an intensive search by Sheila’s son discovered a smallish minibus, which, it seemed, we would be sharing with two handsome young women with two very small babies in command. They turned out to be Czech girls, one of whom spoke English, and one German. They told us that since the Czech language is very similar to Croatian, they were able to understand the locals easily, my first of many surprises on this trip. Their children turned out to be mercifully well behaved, but the baby around one year of age from time to time exercised his vocal chords vigorously, to such an extent that I suggested to his mother she should put him into training for an opera career, so regularly did he hit the highest of screaming notes. When they left the bus somewhat short of the terminal in Brno, they stood waving and waving to us as our bus pulled away. Perhaps in recognition of our forbearance towards the children: they couldn't have known that between us we had raised seven children, and were accustomed to the squawking and howling of babies.
So, we took our seats, pulled out of Dubrovnik headed north under the command of a driver wearing t-shirt and shorts with a few words of English, giving the whole expedition, I thought, rather the appearance of a freelance, seat-of-your-pants operation, which, in fact, it turned out not to be. The minibus was operated by an outfit here called Tourbus, a well-established line whose prices are known to be lower than those charged by some of the Europe-wide lines that also operate.
We did not appear to go through the Alps, but when once daylight arrived we were in a countryside that appeared to be extremely well-tended, with cultivated fields surrounded by belts of trees for windbreaks, bearing a wide range of crops --- grapes, hops, hay, and many other things that neither of us could identify. We could not be sure what country we were in. At first, when still in the former Yugoslavia, some attention was paid to our passports, but I never remember the driver after collecting them, showing them to anyone. But once past what I imagined to be Slovenia --- formerly part of Yugoslavia, but now a member of the European Community --- no further inquiry was made for passports, and there was no further indication that either of us saw as we travelled on that we had actually passed into or out of, for example, Austria, or the Czech Republic. The thought did occur to me that Europe, after several hundred years of bitter wars, seemed to be in the process of doing away with these national distinctions; whereas in former Yugoslavia, they had fought the most brutal war of modern times (and the stupidest, in my opinion) with the intention of establishing borders just as their northern neighbours were abolishing theirs.  Such is modern Europe.
The driver seemed to be following his own route, once stopped to allow us to relieve ourselves in the early-morning countryside. Once when he was struggling for more English, and his Czech was falling on deaf ears, I put my hand on his shoulder and said "I have two words for you. Jaromir Jagr!"  His face creased in an immense smile, and he said something to the effect that Jagr had finally given up playing hockey, even in Czech Republic." He made gestures indicating how great Jagr was and added, "I play hockey. I play every week," or words to that effect. So from that moment we were friends with the driver.
For many miles as we drove through these meticulously-tended fields the arrangement seemed to be that farmhouses were gathered into small villages, rather than sitting at the end of the farmers’ fields, as is more customary in North America.  Those villages  looked prosperous, full of handsome houses, beautifully kept, painted in various pastel shades, homogeneous in nature with no brilliant colours to disturb the general patterns,  the reddish tiled roofs sloping to take care of winter snowfalls, the whole making a most pleasing spectacle, which indicated a population that has treated its lands with great care. Anyway, to make a long story short, after an overnight drive, in mid-morning we were deposited in Brno, about three hours’ drive south of Prague, to wait for four hours for the bus to Prague, making sure, our retiring driver told us, that we did not have to pay anything extra for the last part of the trip.
We had enough time to mooch through a nearby shopping mall, which contained a really impressive book store whose range of translations into Czech of every sort of book really astonished me. This must be, I decided, a highly literate nation.
In Prague we were deposited at the bus station, taken by taxi through a maze of small streets free of traffic jams, and set down before the hotel in which we had booked for five nights. Somewhere along the route of this saga of indirection and uncertainty, we had discovered that the return trip by this Tourbus company would be leaving the following Friday at noon, which enabled us to book a hotel with some degree of certainty that we would turn up at the appointed time. The Betlem Club Hotel, stands in Betlem square, which is graced by the Bethlehem Chapel, where Jan Hus, a follower of the Englishman,  John Wycliffe,  in 1402 denounced the corruption of the contemporary church, giving rise to much of the nation’s later religious experience. The hotel is one of the tens of thousands of four or five storey buildings, almost all of them heavily ornamented by modern standards,  that distinguish Prague from any other city I have ever seen, and is within walking distance of the many interesting attractions of the Old City, a section of Prague into which we plunged for the next four days.
Believe me, the journey to Prague was worth it, as I hope to prove in a later piece.

No comments:

Post a Comment