Sun seethes on the horizon of a lurid Sunday Berlin morning as bag-eyed revellers train home from another gritty Saturday night. We’re inside the multilayered, glass-walled Berlin Hauptbahnhof, set to board a train four hours south to the Czech Republic. We’ve packed light; HK and I share the stealth-black Crumpler Vis-à-Vis, my primary travel trunk for this great European sojourn. It was there with me for the long haul from Melbourne, again on the trip over to Canada and Glastonbury with the MSO. And now, it’ll be chaperoning us for a cheeky weekend getaway to Prague.
Founded in my hometown, Melbourne, Crumpler have for nearly two decades been offering the world uncompromising, functional, design-focused bags for every facet of urban life – messengers, laptop bags, travel luggage, camera totes and sundry accessories. They create bags with character, bags built to last, bags they love to make. The 78cm Vis-à-Vis is the largest trunk in their current travel collection, designed for safety, durability and unforgettable style. Created out of a custom polycarbonate ABS blend, the features on the Vis-à-Vis are subtle but solid – the TSA lock system is neat and thoughtful, the grab handle smart, strong and easy on the palm; the main zip robust and the unique clothes compression system guaranteeing that your gear will be well suspended en route and not flying around inside. Aesthetically, the Vis-à-Vis is a straight up James Bond invention; deeply, sexily black, none more black, blacker than a Spinal Tap LP, blacker even than a dark Prague night.
The Vis-à-Vis heralds a new era of travel for me. Long gone are those raw halcyon days of lugging 20kg of jocks, socks and sundry clobber in a road-beaten backpack through foreign continents for months on end. I did that many times throughout my 20s, trips that opened my world and changed life for the better, as long distance travel tends to. One of the finest moments of them all was the very first time I took a train to Prague.
It was the summer of 2006; the World Cup was peaking in Germany and Europe was a simmering party tinderbox. I’d been on the road a while at this point, as far south as Morocco, as far East as Turkey, everywhere in between. On a hot, sultry night in Madrid I ran into two characters: Pam and Phil, a brother and sister duo from British Columbia – Pam, gregarious and hilarious, Phil, mischievous, not long out of school. Both enjoyed a good, loose time. Pints in Spain were closer to litres and late nights rolled seamlessly into the next. One night Phil and I drunkenly agreed to an impromptu haircut from a random Canadian in our hostel who was offering free shaves with his set of travel hair clippers. That he only carried a ‘number 1’ blade was unclear to us at this time – taking ‘a bit off the side’ meant that we would both end up with comically intense mohawks. Phil’s suited his slender head and looked relatively fetching. Mine was a travesty, more mullet than mohawk, with a carelessly severed fringe and unfortunate ‘Vanilla Ice’ stripes shaved above the sideburns. Recoiling in horror the following morning, hungover and late for a train to Seville, I planted my ‘Waynes World’ baseball cap on my munted skull, left Phil and Pam behind in Madrid and hoped for better times.
When the train screeched into Seville, I leaped off in desperate search for an emergency barber. Fortunately, a traditional ‘peluqueria’ was tucked away off a bar strip near the musty Casco Viejo. I peered through the window – a stocky barber inside in an old school white coat, snipping away, a line of old men waiting their turn thumbing through old magazines on a couch behind him. I joined the throng. A half hour passed. The barber looked over and waved me across. I lowered myself into his chair, slowly peeling off my cap, revealing the horror. The barber stopped stone cold, did a double take, froze. He stared a while, dead silent, before drawing his thick-browed gaze up to me in the mirror and, in his best and only English, muttered: “awwwww no”. Sighing with each snipped lock, Barber of Seville performed a miracle that day, re-sculpting my bashed follicles into something publically acceptable. I sauntered out of there looking like Forrest Gump fresh from the military, still deeply unflattering but a damn sight better than what I walked in with.
Months flew by as my Gump hair grew out and I eventually began to look half normal. Out of nowhere, somewhere in Germany in the throes of World Cup festivity, I heard from Pam and Phil.
“Camster, we’re in Prague, get your ass on a train, come meet up!”
I booked a ticket straightaway, compass fixed for the mysterious Czech capital. Disembarking at the grungy terminal hall of Prague Hlavni Nadrazi station, an intense shaft of gravity-defying hair entered my periphery – Phil, still rocking his mohawk with pride, the lovely, accepting Pam ever by his side. The reunion with Pam and Phil was truly celebratory, Prague debaucherously dark, the streets surrounding our apartment tenebrous and sullied. It rained on those amber-lit nights as we loitered through the Prague Old Town getting drunk on cheap Pilsner and Absinthe, free and lost in the world, rocking bad hair styles and loving life united.
Eight years later, now living in Berlin, a mere four-hour train ride from the old Bohemian capital, I decided it was high time to head back and pay homage to our old Czech stomping ground.
On a train to Prague…
I drift in and out of sleep as the train rumbles south across the forests and gentle rivers of southern Germany. The feel of the land changes noticeably when we cross the Czech border. We’re in Bohemia now, that mysterious land once feared and revered, so lush and taboo; it retains an air of past mystery.
The train cuts and curves as it lugs into Hlavni Nadrazi station. Nostalgia and déjà vu rush through me as we exit the terminal. I half expect Phil’s mohawk and Pam’s smile to appear. It’s steaming hot out and invigorating to be back. The lay of the city still fresh in my mind, I manage to navigate us through the maze of cobbled Old Town alleys, through the Town Square that opens up from those alleys like a hidden fantasy, mythic and magical and laden with gold spires and immaculate Czech Baroque architecture, just as I remember it from years ago.
Seemingly little has changed in Prague, except perhaps that there are even more tourists (if that’s even possible). They’ve cleaned the place up a bit too – as we wander along Wenceslas Square, I smell the same cheap Old Prague sausage wafting out from vendor grills; they’re four times the price now and the Square was much dirtier, rife with soot and grit and an edge that seems to have been whittled away with rising affluence and an endless stream of tourism.
We find our way to a secluded strand, ‘Retezova’, where our cosy Airbnb apartment is situated, locked behind a medieval wooden door with steel rivets. Prague is a labyrinth of cobblestoned alleys and plazas and already we’ve given the Crumpler Vis-à-Vis and its sturdy roving wheels a good and thorough work out. If it manages to survive the trip, I reckon it’ll be good for anywhere. Its black mirror veneer glistens in the hot sun, rumbling over cobbled ridges, owning the stone rivets, no match for it. Our apartment upstairs is cute and elegant, modern with chaise longe simplicity and lace curtains masking windows that open out to a cobblestone alley that, after midnight, will turn into a hidden passage for boozy revellers and lost night owls.
The apartment is a minute’s walk from the Charles Bridge, one of the major sights in Prague, where hoary statues like that of John of Nepomuk lord high over the glistening Vltava River. The Charles links the Old Town, or ‘Stare Mesto’ on the east bank with the ‘Mala Strana’ district on the west, where the foreboding Prague Castle and its spires of majestic bohemian gold hold court and stare down high up on the towering hilltop.
Our first point of order: cold brews and a feed. HK and I discover tasty pizza at Giovanni’s café nearby and wash it down with a few delicious pints of crisp Pilsner. It’s already late afternoon and as the sun sizzles into evening we wander over the river, settling into a riverside bar for more refreshing pints of local brew. Unexpectedly, we’re privy to a funkified set from the ‘Wombo Orchestra’, an audacious 10-piece funk-soul-ska outfit on tour from Paris. Prague hums away as the late sunset claims the city, alleys everywhere lit by amber glow as we slink back to the Old Quarter for a nightcap.
In the morning we head to Café Louvre for breakfast, an elegant diner where Vaclav Havel and Einstein used to share ideas over coffee and sweets. The coffee is good and strong, giving us juice to spend the rest of the day climbing the cloistered lanes of Mala Strana all the way up to Prague Castle. Afterwards, we cool our efforts with litre brews in preparation for a succulent dinner of smoked Argentinian meats at El Barrio De Angel in the nearby Zizkov neighbourhood. It’s HK’s birthday; we scrub up nice, ride out on a red tram and celebrate in style.
Post-meal, torrential rain coats the city. We get soaked as we stroll across to Jazz Dock, a bar on the river where a visually amusing and very talented jazz band, ‘Limbo’, is performing a hectic evening of experimental jazz. The saxophonist is our favourite member, dead ringer for an East European Ray Romano. Hauntingly dark and wet outside post-show, we wander home with the band in the drizzle and I think of Milan Kundera’s Prague as its grand castle watches over us from on high above, luminous on the Mala Strana hill as we slink over the bridge back to the maze of cobbled alleys and our Retezova home.
In the land of beer, it’s beer you drink. The next day we spend enjoying more of Czech’s finest at a riverside bar right next to the Charles where the ferries dock and come and go again. Evening arrives all too soon. We track down the ‘Hemingway Bar’, indulge in delicious absinthes served with Belle Epoque water fountains, photos of Papa on every wall, smoking pipes in boats, some taken mid-novel, some with full beard. It’s dusk when we leave, and thankfully, no rain tonight. We relish in more Old Town romance, another night full of verve and intoxicated wanderings.
As is always the case with return journeys, it seems as if we’ve acquired more luggage than we came with. On this, our final morning, we squeeze everything together in the Vis-à-Vis with ease, curling its reinforced zips around our ball of shared belongings, the bag’s army green coloured interior shells effortlessly malleable, neatly corralling it all.
Our train is delayed getting in from Budapest; we bide time in the arrivals hall of the main station, watching people come and go. The train pulls in an hour or so later, we board, the Vis-à-Vis resting snugly on the metal storage rods above our heads, its wheels jutting out off the top bar, barely a mark on them.
The air-conditioned carriage of the train muffles the speeding rumble and clack of the outside as we rock gently all the way back to Berlin. I read Orwell’s “Why I Write”, drink coffee from the restaurant carriage and watch a pink-orange sunset drop on the nowhere horizon. Mind alive with the transience of trains and the romantic lull of the tracks barrelling forward and fast, I think of Pam and Phil and the Barber of Seville, of epic trips with heavy backpacks. I think of youth and freedom, bad haircuts, old times and good times in Old Towns.
All photos by Honor Kennedy