In a city like Prague, maps and guidebooks will only take you so far - but then, sometimes, not even there
After one of those deeply restful nights, the ones spent on an intercontinental, fully booked, no-way-to-sleep flights, my husband and I arrived at our hotel in Prague. We were politely informed that there were still two hours to check in. At that moment, I was overcome by a case of light-footedness, the state where exhaustion disconnects the brain from the feet. You walk but can't quite sense how. My husband and I decided this would be the perfect time to walk around the Old City.
I have a thing about getting lost in a foreign country, where speaking English produces strange responses and the signs are in hieroglyphics. I took a map from the reception, just to supplement the detailed map already in my travel guide. My husband, with his natural in-built GPS, thought little of this.
As we exited the lobby, I tried to place our hotel in relation to the River Vltava, while hubby asked the doorman for directions. I managed to orientate both the map and myself as we walked down a cobbled lane. I identified the street we were on and confidently informed him that there was a mall somewhere ahead. "Exactly 200m," he said, pointing at a huge flyer informing us in English: "Palladium Mall ahead in 200m."
We found a lovely Japanese restaurant. I tried to explain in English to the Japanese waitress, who spoke Czech, that we were pesco-vegetarians. Tall order, I guess, but the extra platter of vegetarian sushi to cover the confusion was a bonus.
In the morning, we decided to walk to the castle district across the 12th-century Charles Bridge, trusty guidebook and map in hand. Up to the bridge, the guide was a wonderful source of medieval humour and gothic amusement. But in a coffee shop at the foot of the castle, we realised the map was not going to work, what with the twisting medieval streets and even more twisted street-naming system. We made out the castle ramparts in the distance and just walked uphill in the general direction of the wave of tourists.
This theory, however, didn't seem to be getting us to the palace. Later I realised it probably had something to do with barricades, massive signs in hieroglyphics and the Czech penchant for suddenly closing off monuments for renovation. So we ended up exploring the medieval monastery instead.
The guidebook said a hole in the monastery wall would lead us to a lovely view of the palace area. I walked the length of the wall, arguing with my husband that if the guidebook said there was a hole in the wall, then there just had to be one (even if we couldn't actually see it). We finally wandered outside the fortress. At least it was quiet and leafy, even though we were lost. We discovered a gap in the fortress and entered a secluded woodland. As we caught our breath, we enjoyed the stunning view of the unreachable palace, with the blackened spires of St Vitus Cathedral rising into the sky.
On our final day, we took a short walk around the Old Town. We had bought crystal gifts but just couldn't find the right chandelier. As we walked, I had a dreadful realisation in the pit of my stomach - I had forgotten the map. Sure enough, we ended up lost with the Baroque buildings blocking off sight of any landmark. I guessed right, my husband left. We followed his lead.
Funnily enough, we ended up coming out at the town square, for which we had been headed. As we were arriving at it from a new direction, we noticed a small crystal shop. Within was a unique blue crystal chandelier. The shop was quiet and, since it was off the main tourist route, it was a bargain.
Sometimes it pays to get lost. You may learn many amazing things, such as that men actually do possess a sense of direction.