Travel Journals

Prague Vs. Prague Part II

Part II: June, 2018

The train from Munich was spacious and comfortable. My wife and I had the whole compartment within our passenger car to ourselves...until we crossed the Czech border that is, where the perfectly groomed farms and country side of Bavaria gave way to abandoned buildings and yards of rusting soviet-era vehicles. In Pilsen (where the best beer on earth is made), the train stopped and everyone had to get off, walk over the tracks and through bushes to an non-air conditioned bus for a 40 minute ride to another train station (it was 90 degrees out). It was unexpected. The next train was crowded, also non-air conditioned, and smelled of B.O. Welcome to the Czech Republic. We arrived in Prague in a couple hours. Just outside of the train station I saw a homeless person poopin' in the bushes off the crowded main walkway. Welcome to Prague! So, my first impression was that the city was going to be much the same as it was 12 years before. Once we arrived in Old Town, I was proven wrong. 

 Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Our AirBnb in the Jewish Quarter of Old Town was super-modern and very comfortable, but cost a lot more than the apartment I'd stayed in during my first trip. That wasn't an issue. I'm not a burrito slinging punk-rocker on a shoestring budget anymore. We enjoyed breakfasts and late-evening beers on our balcony. We spent mornings and evenings wandering the streets and photographing the cityscape. It was another great experience in Prague, but a bit different this time.

The first thing that struck me this time around were the crowds. Prague is popular now, the new Paris, packed with selfie-stickers, walking tours, and long lines for sites and museums. Old Town Square, once filled with sausage stands and craft peddlers, was packed to the gills with tourists. The food and hand-made local goods stalls were diminished and had been pushed into a small corner of the square. The highly-touristy "authentic Czech" restaurants were still there, but this time there were lines for them. Price gauging was blatantly obvious. Prague is still a relatively cheap place to visit, and the same beer (and better food) in Old Town Square can be purchased a few blocks away for a fraction of the price. Granted we were visiting at the beginning of the height of tourist season for Europe, but I never expected so many other visitors even at the extremes of the day.

 View of the crowds and restaurant lines in Old Town Square from the Old Town Hall Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

View of the crowds and restaurant lines in Old Town Square from the Old Town Hall Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

 View of crowds on the Charles Bridge from the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

View of crowds on the Charles Bridge from the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

The Charles Bridge was an introvert's nightmare as there was barely anywhere to stand. Even at 4AM it was still bustling with (mostly drunk British) visitors. Weaving through the crowd as a couple was difficult. A leisurely stroll to enjoy the views and statues was nearly impossible due to tour groups and professional wedding photo shoots. Also, serious artists who once sold paintings along the bridge had been replaced by people selling Chinese-made Prague souvenirs (like overpriced keychains and other useless trinkets). I got really fed-up with hearing street musicians playing Coldplay covers on their squeezeboxes, instead of regional music that fit the atmosphere. It was a stark contrast to my experience years before. Things change.

The second big difference this time around was how relatively clean the city was. Buildings had fresh paint and many had been restored to their former glory. This is actually a good thing, but took away from the humble and charming Bohemian feel the city had before. Stare Mesto (Old Town) and Mala Strana were as clean and colorful as Stockholm. The street that I stayed on in 2006 was unrecognizable. My wife and I went out looking for the hostel where I stayed in for cheap over decade ago. Before it was dirty, seemingly every other business was an absinthe bar, and many buildings were in disrepair. We never found the building because I simply couldn't recognize it. That neighborhood, just a few blocks off Old Town Square, is now the upscale shopping district. Prada and Rolex among other high fashion retailers now line the streets along with trendy bars, Starbucks, and hipster restaurants. It was actually difficult to find an authentic and affordable Czech meal. Sausage stands were nowhere to be found! 

This shows that Prague is looking up economically, mostly because of the recent surge in tourism. That's great for the small country and citizens. However, I was a bit disappointed that the entire atmosphere had changed. It didn't feel like the same Prague. It was "Prague-Land" now - a bit diluted and heavily influenced by Western culture.

The third difference was that every Czech person we interacted with spoke English very well. Czech is a bit difficult to learn, so I struggled with communicating on my first trip, especially in restaurants. This time there was no issue speaking English. Every restaurant had an English menu. Prague has a young population and English and American influence from music, the internet, and TV have obviously made an impact over the last 12 years.

 An authentically meaty Czech meal with duck, ham, sausage, bread dumplings, cabbage, and beer....can you say "meat sweats?" Prague, Czech Republic

An authentically meaty Czech meal with duck, ham, sausage, bread dumplings, cabbage, and beer....can you say "meat sweats?" Prague, Czech Republic

I imagine this to be the case with all places. If you return to a location in decade-long increments change is to be expected - I've changed much as well. My wife, Alison, enjoyed our time in Prague, but she had a different experience than I did years earlier. I was happy to have made loads of images this time around. Prague is still well worth the visit. It is a very beautiful place and people have now caught on to that fact. I would recommend shoulder seasons and probably spending time in smaller Czech towns for a more laid-back experience, however. 

To see more of my images from Prague, visit www.jonreaves.com/europe/ 
Read Part I of this series, here.

 

Prague Vs. Prague Part I

Part I: March, 2006

In 2006 I boarded a plane for the first time. I had never been out of the United States. I had barely been outside of my home state. I was an antsy 20-year-old with no money working at a burrito restaurant and trying to pay my way through community college on $8 an hour. This was after my mildly successful rock band split up. My girlfriend of the time had already done the backpacking through Europe thing and was ready to head back. I scraped up every penny I could over a few months and was willing to go anywhere. She picked Prague. I didn't know much about it, and didn't really care where I was going. I just wanted to go somewhere and see something different.

After a convoluted route on three different flights, we made it to Prague. We had no cell-phones. The internet wasn't easily accessible, nor all that reliable at the time. We had a slightly out-of-date travel map, and my experienced travel partner, who was in charge of logistics, forgot to look up the address for our hostel. We wandered around Old Town, dragging roller bags loudly behind us on the cobblestone streets (my bag was actually sent to the wrong country and had to be shipped to me in Prague the next day). We asked several locals for the location of the hostel, but no one we asked spoke English. Eventually, cranky and tired from 3 flights and a long bus ride, we found the hostel. The lady at the desk, maybe a few years older than us, didn't speak any English. 

 Prague's famous Astronomical Clock, March, 2006

Prague's famous Astronomical Clock, March, 2006

It was early March, cold and snowy. I was used to experiencing allergy attacks and sunburns by that time in Southeastern North Carolina; but in Prague, I was chilly in a peacoat and hat. Despite the weather and the frustrations upon arrival, I quickly fell in love with the atmosphere. I had never seen such dramatic and ancient architecture. I had never been any place where the evidence of thousands of years of history stood right in front of me in present day. The cityscape was dramatic. The streets and buildings were dirty. There were a fare amount of homeless, street peddlers, sausage stands, and restaurants with creaky floors, heavy-wooden tables, and fresh beer for cheap. Wide-eyed, I walked the narrow streets under towering gothic architecture in awe of the bohemian beauty. 

I wasn't a serious photographer yet. I had a 4-megapixel Kodak point-and-shoot camera and had barely ever taken a picture of anything before that trip. I shot everything...the towers, Old Town Square, every statue on the Charles Bridge, the Castle, and every endlessly winding cobblestone street I walked down. I primarily ate cheap sausages and hot-dogs from stands and drank legendary, yet equally cheap, Czech beer.

 My first black and white image. I think this was made in the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, March, 2006

My first black and white image. I think this was made in the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, March, 2006

Our hostel was $200 USD for 5 nights, but it was wasn't really a hostel at all. Despite the run-down appearance of the building's exterior, that spacious studio apartment with a full kitchen and modern bathroom (which we had all to ourselves) on the top floor with a view of Old Town is still one of the nicest places I've ever stayed in Europe. So, $200 wasn't bad at all! 

Tourism was low at that time. Prague wasn't quite the popular destination it is now. There were no Pinterest or Instagram influencers or travel vanity to drive millennials in. It was a bit grungy. Absinthe bars and youth hostels were the most prevalent businesses filling dirty and under-kept buildings in Old Town. Traditional Czech restaurants were easy to find. The Charles Bridge was lined with poor peddlers and artists desperately trying to sell their works (some to the point of crying and screaming at you to look at their paintings). Street vendors in Old Town Square sold hand-made wooden crafts, Kafka books, and t-shirts with X-rated graphics. There was a Bohemian charm. I had a great time; I was sad to leave and knew I'd return one day.

CONTINUE READING: Prague Vs. Prague Part II

Postcards from Europe

I'm drowning in pictures...thousands. In six weeks of solid picture making I have really racked up the images. It's a good problem to have, but means I'll be glued to the computer for the next couple weeks at least. Two weeks spent exploring Eastern Europe by train this month provided many great experiences and photo opportunities. 

In typical travel photographer fashion, I rose at 4am most days and photographed until well after sunset. I had a long list of shots that I wanted and luckily was able to get all of them. I was also able to get my fill of great beer, sausages, and schnitzel.

I shared the experience with my lovely wife. In large part, it was a celebration of our five-year wedding anniversary and ten-year anniversary of togetherness. We met in 2008 on a study abroad trip to Europe. That's also when I started this whole crazy photography thing.

I've selected a few images to share. I will hopefully complete the editing process soon and be able to provide more detailed articles about my recent experiences in Europe and the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. Please, bear with me (pun intended). 

 Prague Castle at Twilight, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle at Twilight, Prague, Czech Republic

 Hungarian Parliament at Sunset, Budapest, Hungary

Hungarian Parliament at Sunset, Budapest, Hungary

 Marienplatz, Munich, Germany

Marienplatz, Munich, Germany

What's in my camera bag? Click here to find out!

Khutzeymateen

POSTCARDS FROM THE KHUTZEYMATEEN

I not only brought home 2,294 images of British Columbia's wild rainforest grizzlies, I also brought home one of the worst colds I've ever had. The last few days have been spent sleeping, sneezing, coughing, and staring at the walls. I've barely begun to dive into the bear photos. I've also barely started preparing for my next trip, which is to begin in only two days! 

The Khutzeymateen is an amazingly beautiful patch of wilderness near Prince Rupert, BC. The inlet cuts through dense old growth forest just on the B.C. side near the Alaska border. It is the most northern area of what has become known as the Great Bear Rainforest. And rain it does. We had four full days of rain. My so called "waterproof" clothing soaked through, and I had to borrow rubber rain gear from the guide. The $7 (for a pack of two) rain covers I bought for my cameras worked great, however. My gear actually fared much better in the soggy weather than I did.

 Preparing to board a float plane for a 20 minute flight to the remote Khutzeymateen Inlet. The views of coastal British Columbia from the plane were stunning to say the least. Prince Rupert, BC.

Preparing to board a float plane for a 20 minute flight to the remote Khutzeymateen Inlet. The views of coastal British Columbia from the plane were stunning to say the least. Prince Rupert, BC.

Each day was spent searching the inlet and estuaries for grizzlies in an inflatable boat that held 5 people. Our base was a sailboat anchored in the inlet. Only two vessels are allowed to anchor in the inlet and lead multi-day tours into the estuary. I chose SunChaser, led by Captain Dan Wakeman. Dan was instrumental in the creation of the Khutzeymateen as a sanctuary for grizzlies. He is extremely knowledgable about the bears and passionate about conservation. He has been leading tours into the area for 30 years. He is aided by talented and knowledgable conservation photographer Steve Williamson, who was also our inflatable boat driver. 

Despite less than favorable shooting conditions (it's really freakin' hard shooting from a moving zodiac with a 500mm lens!), we had great encounters with bears every day. Dan and Steve knew each bear, their life story, and their temperament. I appreciated that Dan and Steve put the well being of the bears first. The bears mostly went about their business. If a bear changed its behavior at the sight of our boat, we'd simply move on to another bear that was not bothered by our presence. It was a great privilege to get to spend time with wild bears in such a pristine environment (from the relative safety of a boat).

I plan to write a much more in-depth piece about my Khutzeymateen experience in the coming weeks. First, I have to be off to Munich in a couple days. My wife and I will be exploring the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Austria for much of June. It should be quite a bit different than roughing it in the B.C. wilderness. Here are some of my favorite shots so far from the Khutzeymateen. Thanks for reading and best of light. - Jon

 Grizzly swimming in the Khutzeymateen Estuary, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia

Grizzly swimming in the Khutzeymateen Estuary, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia

 Two newly-weened youngsters resting by the inlet during low-tide, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia

Two newly-weened youngsters resting by the inlet during low-tide, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia

 A particularly animated bear named "Junior" refuses to give up his spot on the beach as the tide closes in, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia

A particularly animated bear named "Junior" refuses to give up his spot on the beach as the tide closes in, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia

What's in my camera bag? Click here to find out!