Prague: Peeping Through the Gates (March 2020)

After an adventurous trip to Amsterdam in the winter of 2018 and several days exploring New York City in the winter of 2019, I have definitely been bitten, or more accurately, mauled by the travel bug. I was eager to add some more city breaks to my belt and experience more new countries and cultures. My ex-boyfriend and I booked a relatively last-minute trip to Prague in February, for the beginning of March, 2020. Just our luck that we arrived on the day Czech Republic closed their borders and went into a full lockdown…

En route to Edinburgh the afternoon prior to our flight, our phones began buzzing away with notifications – from my mum, his flatmate, my friend…

“Czech Republic are closing their borders to the UK! Are you still going to Prague?”

“Czech Republic are going into a full lockdown! Is your trip cancelled?!”

After several attempts of calling the travel company and hours spent ‘Googling’ our trip, the lockdown rules, the restrictions, and seeking out the lowdown on whether or not we’d be able to enter and leave the country or get our money back, I was stuck in a revolving door of speculation. EasyJet wouldn’t answer due to massive wait times for calls, and I was being repeatedly disconnected. Furthermore, globally, it seemed that no one had a fecking clue what was happening or what a ‘lockdown’ really entailed.

Eventually, tired, stressed and desperate for a good meal, we ventured out into Edinburgh City Centre for some dinner – only to find most of the city was closed. It was 8pm. On a Thursday night. In Edinburgh City Centre. But the lights were out. The shutters were down. The cobbled streets were deserted. Had we somehow stumbled upon the set of a horror movie? Bear in mind, this was before the UK had so much as uttered the word ‘lockdown’ never mind implemented restrictions or curfews. Though, the sense of foreboding was a little overwhelming to say the least. Eventually, we uncovered a little Mexican restaurant where we had just enough time to order and eat a lovely meal before they too closed their doors.

Still contemplating what to do, we wandered around the ghost town until we came across an ambiently-lit pub where we continued to discuss our options and scour Google for any further information on the Czech Republic lockdown. We finally found an article declaring people from the UK would still be allowed into the country the next day and would be permitted to leave; and our flights were still showing as “on schedule” for the morning. After a quick call to my dad – the ever-calm and collected, level-headed legend that he is – we decided to take our chance and show up to the airport with the hopes of a successful trip.

A very early start, some frantic yet unnecessary double-checking of under the bed in the hotel and quickly grabbing our bags, we set off for the airport, still a little bewildered. Would we be able to go? If not, would we get a refund? If we did make the trip, would we be allowed to return home? “This ‘Covid-19’ fiasco really does seem to be getting serious”, I pondered to myself.

After being reassured by multiple members of staff that our flight was going ahead and that as of yet, so was our return flight, (I literally asked every single one I could see and was met with reassurance and a pitiful look as if I was truly batshit crazy for being concerned – yes, I was unashamedly that person), we checked in, had a tasty, albeit overpriced, airport breakfast, and off we went!

Upon arrival in the beautiful city of Prague, we clumsily found our tram, and ventured to our accommodation, The Caesar Prague Hotel – an old-fashioned yet stunning hotel near the city centre. We dumped our bags, wrapped up and set out to explore.

After wandering around for a couple of hours, hunger got the better of us and we sought out a restaurant to eat in. So far, so good. The city was lively, shops, bars, restaurants were all open for business as usual. As we were seated, I received a call from an unknown number. I answered curiously, to be addressed by an Easyjet employee with an apology for the cancellation of our trip. Hold the phone. What?! “But we’re in Prague right now?!” I exclaimed. “So, did you get checked into your hotel without any issues?” replied the puzzled man on the other end of the line. “Yes.” The call was cut off and they phoned again. I then had a mini ‘Groundhog Day’ experience of replicating exactly the same phone call word for word another three times. Yes, THREE. After several disapproving looks from the waiters, I eventually gave up on the phone call attempts and sat back down to a plate of delicious pasta (and a much-needed vodka…hey, it was lunch time! Plus, acceptable drinking times don’t apply when you’re abroad, right?).

We continued our sight-seeing escapade; viewing the stunning Charles Bridge, visiting the Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock, St Vitus Cathedral and the Dancing House, to name a few.

From 8pm that night, the city closed. Entirely. We were able to eat breakfast in the hotel dining room the following morning but only with a limited number of other guests in at a time. Stomachs satisfied, we gambled off out to see the city, unsure of what to expect. Luckily for us, the sun was shining despite the cold, and so being outdoors all day was a very pleasant experience. We were able to explore everywhere on foot and see the sights through the closed gates. All food places were closed unless they were able to serve food and drinks through the doorway – including a bar serving cocktails and playing music outside that night with a crowd of 20-somethings dancing as if mentally in their own internal nightclubs. All retail shops were closed, all except for Supermarkets and mini-marts, which sadly meant we couldn’t even purchase souvenirs!

Throughout that day of glorious sunshine and the obscure atmosphere, we continued to explore the city through the key-hole. We discovered some of the curious art displayed in the streets – such as the Franz Kafka Rotating Head and the Statue of Franz Kafka, and posed for pictures at the Lennon Wall!

Those who know me will understand exactly how much I love food and will not be in the slightest surprised that one of my highlights was having an infamous “chimney” cake (known as “Trdelník’). I opted for mine to be crammed with Nutella and strawberries, and topped with whipped cream! Although extremely worth it, tackling this was an adventure in itself! Picture eating this dream food with the wind blowing very long, curly hair into your face (and the chimney cake); you’ve got nothing but a feeble plastic fork and a flimsy napkin to “contain” the mess (which was repeatedly being almost stolen by the breeze. It was quickly smothered in chocolate and cream, and so rapidly rendered redundant anyway). There were also no toilets anywhere to wash your hands (and face – no shame, it was well and truly worth the chocolate chops)!

The lack of toilets posed a more serious issue though – I had to hop around with my bladder on the verge of bursting the dam for three hours until we got back to the hotel! I then “smartly” ended up severely dehydrated by the end of the day by not daring to drink anything else in fear of ending up in the same predicament as the early afternoon. Due to everywhere being closed, we trekked around searching for food, and eventually settled for chicken kebabs. I say ‘settled’ but they were absolutely delicious, just a tad awkward to eat en route back to the hotel (but after “successfully(ish)” tackling the chimney cake, this was barely a challenge).

Another highlight for me – the nature-and-animal-loving-weirdo that I proudly am – we met the Coypus! (Admittedly, I excitedly exclaimed “Look! There’s a beaver!!!”… Upon googling them later, yes, they are in fact called “coypus”. I also saw a swan having a “square go” with a coypu, which was definitely a unique experience! We crossed over the Legion Bridge in the middle of the Vltava river to Střelecký Ostrov (Shooters Island) which was swarming with the cute ‘river rats’ (yes, that sounds less cute) called coypus or nutrias. They were swimming around in the river, roaming along the banks and enjoying the waste veg left dotted around the grass for them – as well as flamboyantly posing for photos.

The next morning, we were advised we could no longer eat in the dining room and had to take our breakfast up to our room to devour – again, another odd little experience but as far as the past year has been, it doesn’t quite make the top 20. Before we had time to plan our day, my concerned mum contacted me in a panic advising she’d heard flights were being cancelled. Anxiety rising, I checked our return flight online to find it was in fact cancelled. Shit. Thankfully, the mystery phone calls from EasyJet a couple of days prior had paid off – I had the mobile number of the caller and so could contact him directly. He confirmed the cancellation and advised they’d be in touch with us soon to rearrange our journey. However, little miss over-analyser here was already two steps ahead. I’d already checked the Internet to find there was a flight returning to Edinburgh that afternoon with available seats. Jackpot! He called back quickly after checking and confirmed we had to get to the airport asap to make the flight.

The airport on the way home was also a bizarre experience. Around a third of the travellers were now wearing face masks, and again, all retail and food outlets were as lively as a graveyard. Of course, it was very apparent when we reached our gate: in true rebellious Scottish style, none of the travellers had any semblance of a face covering in sight. (Please note that this was months before face masks were implemented in the UK – I fully advocate people wearing masks to protect others if their health permits! … And even moreso if it muffles some of the idiots from spouting shit).

I think this trip taught me that these experiences really are what you make them. I had a good time just taking in the exteriors of the architecture and seeing as much of the stunning city as I could. It was a shame we couldn’t go to romantic restaurants for dinner or experience the wild nightlife or soak up the culture properly, but there was still plenty to see from the outside. Don’t get me wrong, I fully admit that I’d have turned into Moaning Myrtle II if it had been wet and windy weather and we’d been confined to the room… Despite the cold and it being very breezy, we lucked out with dry, often sunny weather – which is just as well as when you’re banished to the outdoors!

The UK followed suit with the lockdowns within a week of us returning home. Little did we know, the madness was just beginning.

Did anyone else experience another country in lockdown? If so, please share below!

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