by Laura Marriott
My journey to Prague did not get off to an auspicious start. I arrived at Vaclav Havel airport in a little bubble of anxiousness, fleeing the wreck of a disastrous year. Multiple bereavements and family illnesses had made my final year of University more of a trial than a pleasure. Then, I was offered the opportunity to spend a month in Prague, much of it on my own; hopefully giving me time to recover in peace. First I was to attend a political sciences summer school at Charles University in Prague and then I had several weeks of nothing but the heat of my own company. The accommodation that I was staying in was painted in the industrial yellows and greens that are more often than not to be found in hospitals and forever carry with them an air of sickness. It was the cheapest and the worst accommodation I have ever stayed in. I hoped to spend as little time in it as possible.
As I walked into town in a heat wave that made the future shimmer, I realised that I had never been more confused. Further, it soon became apparent that I did not have the language or map reading skills to navigate my way around the city tram system with ease. Eventually, it became easier to accept my status as permanently ‘lost’. All I had to do was set off on foot and try to remember the way back.
Prague is like a maze of ever decreasing circles, with the city becoming older the further into it you go. The outskirts are marred by the grey Communist architecture that can be found across much of Eastern Europe. The centre of Prague is still dominated by medieval architecture which survived the cities more recent Communist past. Sandwiched in between the gold plated orthodox churches are souvenir shops selling crystal beads, and English and Irish pubs broadcasting the premier league; intended the market Prague as the perfect destination for city breaks or stag weekends for the (marginally) more affluent West. The further into the centre you go, water begins to out price beer, and restaurants selling goulash and absinth stay open all night to catch the drunken footfall as people make their way home.
I walked every road, alley, and cobbled street in the city, stamping out my frustrations and confusions on the ground; using them to propel me further. After many hours spent walking in circles and going down the same roads repeatedly, I eventually started to find my way around without relying on the old fashioned ‘getting lost and hope to find your way back before dark trick’. The more I walked, the more I found that the city became real to me, and the tangled knot of problems that I had bought with me started to form straight lines. By my second week in Prague, I could find my way from one end of the city to the other with little trouble, getting off at random tram stops and exploring the parks and restaurants that are off the tourist trail.
Eventually the heat wave cooled, the haze lifted, and the world around me became real and solid. Every church or museum I went to transformed the city into something tangible that I could latch onto. Midway through my stay in Prague, I had run out of new places to visit and found myself back at my accommodation. Standing outside one night, on a bit of scrubland masquerading as a park, looking out over a duel carriage way, the phone call came. My final year of University hadn’t been a failure; I had passed. I looked over the railing separating me from the road and watched as people sped home to their families and finally felt free to enjoy the rest of my stay.
After this I began to travel further away from the centre, visiting the tourist attractions and countryside that are so easily missed when exploring a city in just a few days. Although I felt freer now, I was still directionless. Each day I would set off with no other plan than to be back at the accommodation by the time darkness fell. I learnt how to navigate the city by day with my feet, but finding my way around at night still eluded me. Each street and alley way looked the same and I could spend an hour walking just to find myself back where I started. However, every morning I would set out and try to find something or somewhere new. I just kept walking until this city started to become more familiar to me than my hometown. Soon however, it was time to leave.
In the weeks after I left, I had recurring dreams in which I walked the cobbled streets and roads that twist in on themselves, mapping the city with my feet. As I made sense of the street map, I started to make sense of myself, becoming less afraid of where I was going and more willing to just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
LAURA MARRIOTT is an aspiring British travel writer and poet now living in Dublin who takes any opportunity to discover new places and rediscover new ones.