Trails and trials of the writer who walks
George turns his back on the biting March wind and leans on his stick. He is probably wondering if our internet bargain of four nights in Hotel Fortuna City, in a suburb of Prague, was the right choice for a pair of unsteady pensioners.
This is our first day. The hotel is comfortable and conveniently close to the tram stop. Helpful reception staff have provided us with three-day passes and a route map. Our plan is to sightsee through tram windows, riding the full length and back of all three lines.
The number 11 murmurs to a halt, presenting a platform-high step. Now we notice something. There is no platform. George is reaching gamely for the hand rail when two teenagers jump off and heave him up by his buttocks. A young woman immediately vacates a seat for him. Our confidence rises.
In the city centre, we change to a number 22 – this route deserves more than a number. Ignoring twinges of arthritis, my head is on a swivel. The River Vltava, too old to be impressed by a mere thousand years or so of palaces and cathedrals, sweeps under Charles Bridge while I take in the piped meringue gables of the New Town Hall (1377) and the three-horse chariot plunging across the roof of the National Theatre (1868).
The tram crosses Charles Bridge, passing under the vigilant eyes of its many baroque statues. Snowflakes begin to settle on the turrets and cathedral spires of Prague Castle, the city’s centuries-old guardian. The windows steam up so we make portholes. Eventually there is nothing left to see except the bleak turning circle that is Bila Hora terminus. The driver asks, with mime, if we are going back and allows us to wait on board while he takes his break.
We are rattling homeward on the number 11 when George spots a bar and hits the bell like a game show contestant.
As we enter, a cloud of cigarette smoke rushes out. We discover our favourite black lager (cerny, pronounced chair-knee) on one of the pumps. The room is packed with men watching football. We work out which team they are supporting and they adopt us into their camaraderie of ecstasy and anguish as goals are scored and missed.
The match ends (our side lost) and we are elderly tourists again, thinking about our tea. The barman brings a menu written in Czech and jabs his finger enthusiastically at one particular item. It takes two-thirds of our entire vocabulary to order it: dva prosim, two please. Our other word is pivo, beer.
A steaming bowl of peppery goulash arrives with side dishes of pickled cabbage and thick slices of dumpling. The silky black beer is perfect with it, and the tram stop has a platform, so we settle back for a few more.
Later, in the snugness of bed, we hear the whine of the number 11. George switches on his light and reaches for the route map.
February 2011 – Off to Hong Kong!
And then I was give just a week’s notice to prepare a review of the holiday which was going to be published in the Guardian as part of the promotion for the next annual travel writing competition. The hotel had been desperate for a good review (even though I didn’t know I was going to be asked to write one) and had upgraded our room to one with a superb view of the racecourse, so they had to get a good mention didn’t they! Writing for a tight deadline made me feel quite professional! Here’s what appeared in the paper:
Finding A Space
On a crossroad opposite Causeway Bay metro station, there is a tiny leftover triangle of space due to the rounding of the pavement. Perfectly filling it, between the traffic and the boiling river of pedestrians, is a tent. It’s unoccupied —the overnight residence of someone who is busy doing his job elsewhere in the city. Before it, neatly placed, sit a pair of clean trainers awaiting their master’s return. It’s someone’s space, defended by a wall of respect.
Here is the yin and yang of old and new, not opposing but harmonising — a place where female construction workers fix traditional straw brims to their hard hats using duct tape.
A time machine clangs and rattles to a halt. It’s double-decker and narrow-gauge with bum-numbing wooden seats. We watch the Gucci world shape-shift into Dried Seafood Street — all the way to Kennedy Town and back for the price of a carrot.
The tram returns us to China’s future, where each head office seeks to outdo the next in lavish elegance. Looking up, so high I may fall on to my back, the glass and chrome reflections are like a mirror maze reaching into the sky which is a small blue handkerchief far away.
In the underpass, two casually-dressed young women have slung a blanket over the handrail and anchored the other side with water bottles. They sit on a clean duvet, quietly reading, taking their safety and privacy for granted.
Above ground, we have discovered the East End Brewery which recklessly allocates space to an outside courtyard. Over a never-ending supply of peanuts, and a few beers, we observe the commercial apprentices networking on smartphones in their fashionably nerdy lensless glasses.
Around the corner, the number 5 will skirt Happy Valley Racecourse and deliver us to the door of the Cosmopolitan Hotel where we have planned an evening on the horses — in our room. Sitting at the window, we watch every race and, when it’s over, a changing pageant of light from the neon skyscrapers.
And in the morning, we will linger over the breakfast buffet, happily combining dim sums and tuna rice with bacon and toast as the fancy takes us — a little yin yang to start the day.