After a few days in Prague, I had toured much of the city, but hadn’t seen the city at night. I asked the strange old resident of the hostel (doesn’t every hostel have its strange old resident?) Steve, where the best place to see the city at night was and he said simply, “Easy. Prague Castle.” If you’ve ever been to the Hostel Elf in Prague, chances are better than average you know Steve.
I grabbed my camera, hat and gloves, put on my headphones, turned on my CD player and walked out the door. From the Hostel Elf, it’s a long walk to the Prague castle. The air was cold and crisp. It was the type of cold that chills your lunges. It felt like it could snow at any second. Typical Czech weather in January I would presume.
Along the way, to the right of the castle, I saw another small little building up on the hill that looked cool, so I started heading in that direction. After walking through Prague’s “Old Town,” center and across the Charles Bridge, I was getting closer. I found a path that led me past some sort of pendulum and up the hill, until I was in front of the building. It was a quaint and cool little restaurant with a cozy atmosphere inside.
Considering I was on the outside and didn’t have enough money to eat in this type of restaurant, the atmosphere didn’t do much for me. Not to mention I was starting to feel the bite of the Prague cold the longer I stayed out in it. I headed to the castle. I wanted to get there quick. I figured the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I was already up on the same hill the castle is on, so I just had to find a way to get there. I started walking through a park, when a fence blocked my way. The fence blocked my way only monetarily, because I jumped it. I came up on a wall, so I climbed it. I kept an eye on the castle the entire time, jumped another fence and was suddenly in a very nice and very well managed garden.
I couldn’t help but be impressed in my surroundings. Wherever I was, was gorgeous. A lawn that looked like it was trimmed with scissors. Flowering bushes were neatly ordered in what appeared to be a color coordinating system. Old yet up-kept buildings flowed almost organically from one to another.
I walked down a little brick street, with the castle to the left of me, and I saw an odd looking building made completely of glass. Bend a notebook in half long-ways and that’s the sort of long, round shape this house was in. It had a few steel beams running over it and a ladder or two going up one curved side and down the other.
I looked out at the city and through the trees and bushes I could see a decent view of the night-scape. The river. The bridges. The castle. The pointed steeples of not only the churches, but of the astronomical clock and other buildings surrounding the main square. The Opera House. The city.
All of this was visible, but only able to be seen through the obstructed branchy view. I looked at a ladder going up the building and thought that the vantage point from up there was probably much better than where I was. So I climbed the ladder. As I made my way up to the apex of the curve, I turned around to admire the city. The sound of someone yelling at me in Czech broke the spell I was under and I turned around. In front of me, on the other side of the building, standing on the ground was a really big man dressed in camouflage, with an even bigger gun aimed at my chest.
In a moment of panic and desperation, I threw my hands up and said, “I don’t speak Czech! I don’t speak Czech!” The man looked at me as if he should shoot or not, then in a commanding yet not loud voice said, “Stay where you are.” Oh man, what did I get myself into this time?
He kept his gun pointed at me with one hand, while the other went to his shoulder to turn on his radio. I was still standing in the middle of the roof, so I asked him politely, “Sir, may I come down?” He kept on talking on his walkie-talkie, put his hand back on the barrel of his gun, aimed his gun at my head and said, “No.” Great. After another minute or two of him talking on his radio, he motioned and told me to come down. He told me that he had called the castle police and that I had to go with him.
I landed on the ground and the large man resembling Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, swiveled his gun up the path which said, “Walk that way you stupid tourist.” without saying a word. Seriously, this guy didn’t need the extra-large gun he carried. He was a monster and probably could have killed me with one hand. So I walked. Not knowing what was about to happen, I tried to make small talk. I asked about the buildings in this area, and why they were so nice and everything was so well kept. He didn’t say a word.
After about five minutes of walking, we arrived at a gate. Through the gate I could see the entrance to the castle. I thought to myself, “I almost made it” In front of the entrance to the castle and also behind the gates of where-ever I was, was a cop car. The gate opened and the police car drove through. A police officer opened his door, got out of his car, and started to speak to me in Czech. Again, I apologized and said that I didn’t speak Czech. He just laughed.
The other police officer got out of the car and asked me what was I doing there. I told him that I was just walking around. I said I was sorry and I didn’t know where I was, but I just wanted to find a place to take good pictures of the city at night. He then said to me that I was in a restricted area and that this is, “very very bad.” I apologized again. Again, he asked me, “What are you doing here?” I told him the same answer. I just wanted to see the city and the castle at night. “Yes, but this is restricted are”this is very bad. Do you have passport?” Luckily, I did bring my passport and handed it over to him. He got back in the car and started to write something down. The thought of going to jail in a foreign country entered my mind. Something every traveler loves to think about.
He opened the door, stood up, leaned against the roof of the car and again asked me what I was doing there. I repeated myself for the third time that night, told him I was just out for a walk and wanted to take some pictures. He then said, “No, what were you doing standing on the glass house?” I told him I just wanted to get a better view. “Yes, but that is the President of Prague and the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic’s house you can’t just do that. What were you thinking? What were you trying to do?”
“The President of Prague and the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic.” Way to go Andrew. You certainly know how to pick them. Even if something did get lost in translation, I was in a very restricted place and climbed on the roof of a very important person’s house. Not good. I thought at this moment that I was screwed. Again, I repeat myself. I told him I was just out for a walk, that this was my first night in Prague (a little white lie), and I wanted to see the castle.
“This is very bad. Do you have any money?” At this moment, I wondered if they would try and take me for everything I was worth. Although I had a few hundred Czech crowns secretly stuffed down my pants, I reached my hand into my pocket and pulled out the lint that was at the bottom. I found a 20 crown coin in my other pocket. I told him that’s all I had, and he asked me why I didn’t have more money?
I told him that I had not been to the ATM yet, and the only money I had was what was left from the money I exchanged when I first got into the city – a good story. I don’t know if he didn’t believe me or not, but again he asked me for money. Again, I told him I didn’t have anything. Repeating myself seemed to be the theme of the night.
You have to hand it to these guys, they definitely were thorough. He then asked me what I was doing climbing on the house. I told him the same thing I had already told him previously. I just wanted to take pictures of the city at night and thought there would be a good view. In broken Eastern European English he then said, “What if something break? What if something boom? This is very bad.”
Great, so now this guy thought I was a terrorist or wanted to blow up the building I was standing on. He talked to Drago for a minute and then wanted to know how I got into the compound in the first place, because there are signs all over the place saying, “Keep Out!” Seriously, I didn’t see any signs on my way over the wall and two other fences. I told him I didn’t see any signs, and he got really angry. He said that he knows there are signs all around and that I was lying.
At this moment, I was more worried that this guy thought I was a terrorist and wanted to blow up the building I was on. I shifted the conversation by telling him I would go back to the glass house I was standing on and show him nothing was broken and there were no bombs planted. He told me to get in the back seat of the car, and at this point, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. I asked them what was going to happen and they didn’t respond.
They drove me down the path I had come up and we parked in front of the house. He shined the lights of his car on the ladder I climbed and asked if this was the same ladder. I said yes, and he and his partner got out of the car. I sat in the back of the Czech police car not knowing what was about to happen: jail, prison, torture, or worse? He got back into the car and shook his head. “You cannot climb on president’s house. This is very, very bad.” One thing was for sure – this was very, very bad. All I could think of was what would happen to some foreigner if he was caught walking all over the roof of the White House? In my mind, I conceded that I was going to jail and was happy that the guy that looked like Ivan Drago did not shoot me and then ask questions.
I did not cry, but I certainly began to apologize a thousand times over for walking on the roof of the glass house. I asked them what was going to happen and if I was going to jail. Silence. In my mind, I was already behind bars. I pictured my mom and suddenly became afraid for her, knowing she would be terrified if I called from a Czech jail or prison. I wanted to know where they were taking me. “Please can you tell me where we are going?” Again, nothing. I don’t know why I asked. It’s not like I could’ve called someone for help.
We drove back to where we were before and he told me to get out of the car. Uncertainty clouded my mind. What was going to happen next? We walk to the gate and he opened it. He gave me back my passport and said, “In America this is big, big problem, but me, I’m happy. Go, but never again” I hugged the man and then before he could change his mind, ran through the gates and walked into the Prague Castle. I finally made it to my destination, but was too strangely excited that I had just successfully talked my way out of not going to jail, that I forgot to take any pictures. Taking pictures was the last thing on my mind. I happily strolled through the streets of Prague as a free man, and made my way back to the Hostel Elf where I re-enacted everything that had just happened to some new friends. The joys of traveling.
photo by StrudelMonkey on Flickr