Following the publication of my last piece, the Grand Tour, I’ve received a few queries on the nature of my unanticipated trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. As I mentioned, Prague is a city I never intended to visit in the first place. Rather, I had intended to give it little more than a passing glance out a train window.
How I did end up there is the best kind of story, the kind which hinges on a silly technical problem. It begins in Vienna, Austria, on a sunny summer afternoon. Earlier in the day, I had been given a lift home from Mödling by friend and winemaker Gregor with whom I had been attending a camping trip with the local scout group.
From my place in Langenlois, there was a mad dash to the train station in order that I would make my scheduled connection from Hadersdorf am Kamp on time. I’d given myself some leeway in that I could afford to miss this train and get the next one, but prior misfortune with European trains has taught me to give myself some extra time wherever possible.
Unlike here in Ireland, it’s not a given that the bus or train will arrive in or around the designated time. In Austria, if you’re late, you wait. Not wanting to be the one left behind, in my rush to get packed for Berlin I had neglected to charge my phone, something I would later realise was the singular problem which led to my downfall.
In Vienna, I had arranged to meet a friend with whom I had previously taken a course at the Goethe Institut in Dublin. Taking in the coffee scene, and reminiscing on our previous trips to the continent – him having been a Viennese resident in the past – time got the better of me.
The second mad dash of the day was from Wien Westbahnhof, where my train was intended to depart, to Wien Meidling in a taxi. Ciarán was kind enough to look this up for me to double check and I may still owe him the price of the fare, but we can square that away another day.
Arriving at the station, with moments to spare, we struggled to find an information board to point us in the direction of the correct platform. The station was undergoing renovation at the time, which left us with the sole option of asking passengers at each of its eight platforms where they were headed.
Like clockwork, a trundling locomotive pulled alongside its platform as I summited a staircase with enough breath left in me to just about blurt out the question of the destination. I was in the right place, at the right time.
The only thing missing was my ticket, which I had booked through Austrian railway company ÖB’s mobile app. My phone, having been dead since I left Langenlois, was of no use to me. But I thought I might be lucky and that I’d find a charging point on board, or that the staff would have a record of my booking.
I was right that the staff would have a record of my booking, my name was on the compartment door of the couchette I had booked, but wrong in thinking that there would be somewhere to charge my phone. The service I was on board is called the Metropole and is jointly run by three railway companies. Those of Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
It was staffed by Austrians, to whom I explained my situation and was told that there would be no problem. However, at the border station of Breclav, they disembarked and were replaced by their Czech counterparts. This crew was significantly less understanding of my problem.
Awakened in the middle of the night, I tried to explain that I had in-fact booked a ticket, but that it was a digital copy and that my phone had no battery. Then that my name was on the door and that I had ID to verify this.
Neither were acceptable to my questioner, who put it to me that he needed to scan a barcode and that if he couldn’t, then I had two options. I could pay for a ticket, of the police would be meeting me in Prague. Not wanting to have what I imagined would be a less than pleasant conversation with the Czech police in the early hours of the morning, I offered to pay.
My next issue was that I only had Euro, and that the Czech staff weren’t able to process a card payment on board. It was cold hard Koruna or nothing. Our next stop was to be Pardubice, so I asked how long we would have there and if the might be able to point me in the direction of an ATM.
“The train split, half Berlin, half Budapest.”
Despite my questioning in both German and English, none of the staff were familiar enough with the station to be able to point me to a cash machine. So, when the train shuddered to a halt in the station, I was left with no option but to pick up my bags and step off.
Pardubice isn’t a pleasant place. The town is famous for producing explosives and for having had one of the nicer railway stations in what was the Soviet Union. To a certain extent I can see the appeal but now, almost 25 years on from the fall of the wall, and in the early hours of the morning, things were looking a bit grim.
Prague being the only city I was at this point aware of in the Czech Republic, and it being the capital, I figured I had best make my way there as there was no way back to Vienna. I managed to track down a timetable which informed me that the first train would be leaving at 5am. A nearby ATM, reachable in two minutes if you knew where to look, provided me with enough cash to pay the fare on board.
Then I just had to wait. Three hours or so, nothing too bad. But in a strange city whose language you don’t speak and whose location you’re not aware of, such a wait can be a little disconcerting. While there I was offered vegetables, socks, and cigarettes by people who may have been either locals or travellers, I’ll never know.
I was the first passenger on board the 5am express to Prague, and very happily handed over my money for a ticket. Little of what the conductor and I were saying was mutually intelligible, but I was able to make out that I was not on my way to the central station.
Instead the commuter train left me at Masarykovo, which is not quite unlike Gordon Freeman’s introduction to City 17 in the computer game Half-Life 2. From here, I again had to navigate my way around a city I didn’t know in a language I didn’t speak.
The drunks outside the station must have taken me for easy pickings, because they moved towards me quickly, perhaps thinking they might make the next evening’s beer money from a naïve traveller. First helpfully, but very quickly threateningly, they offered to point me in the right direction for some amount of money
The last of my Koruna had been spent on the train, and I had no intention of getting more let alone doing so to part with it to these unhelpful souls, so a few choice words shouted in heavy Hiberno-English sent them on their way as I hopped on board the first tram that passed.
After working out where I wanted to be and boarding the necessary trams in succession, none of which were on the original line I hopped on, I made it to the main station. Begrudgingly I paid for a second ticket to Berlin and then sat down to eat breakfast.
First train in, first train out.
Words and photography by Seán O’Reilly