By Bob Bestor
And now for something really stupid.
I refer to our decision to check two pieces of luggage on our December rail trip from St. Gallen, Switzerland, to Prague. Though we have ridden European trains from time to time over the past 25 years, we are not rail "buffs" and could hardly be considered expert or even particularly knowledgeable. In our naiveté, we assumed checked luggage on a train is the same as on a airplane. How wrong we were.
We rose that morning in Appenzell at 7 a.m. It had snowed all night and our rental car was buried in it. This was the day we would, in Euro-speak, "transit Prague." We had to shower, dress, breakfast, pack, check out of the hotel, dig the car out, negotiate the snow-covered 20 kilometers from Appenzell to St. Gallen, find the Avis car rental office, get a taxi to the railway station and board our train, the Albert Einstein Eurocity Express, by 10:41. The road was open, but as every mountain driver knows, in these conditions a jackknifed trailer-truck can turn a 20-minute drive into a three-hour traffic jam.
Stephan Heeb, whose family has owned and operated Appenzell's excellent Hotel Säntis for several generations, had a suggestion. Five kilometers along the road to St. Gallen, in Sammelplatz, is a garage which some rental car firms use as a drop station. Across the road from the garage is a train stop. We could leave the car at the garage, jump on the little regional commuter train and roll right into the St. Gallen station. A call to Avis got a "no problem." It worked beautifully. We were there with 40 minutes to spare.
Here I must remind you that we do not travel light. Computer, video camera, still camera, film, hand-held audio tape recorder, tape cassettes, power converters, guidebooks and maps all seem to be necessary in the collection of data for Gemütlichkeit. And, by the end of any trip, we will have accumulated anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds of literature collected from various tourist offices, hotels and restaurants. In addition, I have never resolved the shoe dilemma. I need walking shoes, running shoes and, for the fancier hotels and restaurants, dress shoes. Once in a while, I even throw in hiking boots which have the twin disadvantages of being bulky and heavy. Like Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr in King Solomon's Mines, we need native bearers. Thus our ill-fated decision to check the two biggest, heaviest bags. We simply didn't want to haul them to our rail car and up into the overhead racks. There was also a concern that our compartment could be full and there might not be enough space for all our paraphernalia.
We stood in the same line as rail/air travelers checking bags for Swissair flights out of Zürich that day. The Swiss Rail luggage checker asked to see our passports and rail tickets. After looking them over, she asked us to complete some paperwork (here I should have heard the warning sirens) and pay 40 Sfr. ($28) (more sirens).
Assuming again this was essentially the same transaction as checking luggage on an airline, I was surprised at the charge. But it had taken a good five minutes for the paperwork while others behind me in line waited and I would have felt a fool backing out at the last minute. So I paid the lady and kissed our luggage good-by. Little did I know I wouldn't see it for four days.
Prague Rail Station
A little over nine hours later we were at the Prague rail station trying to figure out how to get our luggage back. Except for the many signs which said "hotel" or "change," there seemed to be none in English, or even symbols, indicating baggage claim. But after a few minutes' searching we finally spied a baggage symbol which directed us down several levels to a place where luggage and freight are dealt with. A man at the window smoked and chatted with two women. He paid us no attention at all.
After a few minutes a small, middle-aged woman in a full-length working smock, no doubt noticing the puzzled looks on our faces, approached and examined our luggage receipt. She shook her head sadly and said something in Czech. Realizing we weren't comprehending, she tried a single German word, Morgen. It suddenly dawned on us that she was saying we wouldn't be retrieving our bags until morning. She then motioned us to follow her up one level where she pointed to an hours-of-operation sign on a door. Whatever was behind it, it wouldn't open until 7 a.m. the next morning. We concluded our bags were somewhere in that locked office.
I was so preoccupied with the fact that we would have to go on to the hotel without them that I didn't express proper appreciation to this woman who had gone out of her way to help us. We were also, at that point, just realizing that all our clothing and one other very important item, the container of pills Liz takes three times a day was in one of those bags. Never in a million years would we have put them in airline checked luggage but on the train we didn't give it a thought. We simply assumed the bags would be in another car of the train.
Before resigning ourselves to the fact that we would have to leave the rail station without our bags, we bounced around for awhile trying to find someone, anyone, who could shed light on our situation.
Lonely Planet's Prague guidebook says the rail station is not a place to be at night and we concur. Even in the daytime, it is heavily populated by a community of non-travelers that consists of mendicants, drunks, street urchins and a colorful but possibly dangerous cast of characters who are no doubt involved in all sorts of shady doings. Those who work behind windows dispensing rail tickets, food, accommodations, currency exchange and information speak little English if at all and are not an especially helpful or friendly lot. When asked if they speak English, most say yes, but if you ask more than the most routine travel-related question you're in trouble. Sometimes we were simply ignored.
In the hometown of Franz himself, we lived a Kafkaesque nightmare, lurching vainly from window to window. At the "official" information counter, the one with the international "i" over it, a man with rotting teeth, dressed in what seemed to be the grimy remains of a some sort of military uniform, was more interested in having a beer with friends in his booth than dispensing information. He claimed to speak English but when we queried him regarding baggage claim he just shrugged.
After a while our goal became to simply find a fluent English speaker. Reasoning that among the many cubicles advertising accommodations we might find such a person, we began to approach windows signed "hotel." No luck. At one place the response was to simply not look at us or respond in any way. No doubt this is a carry over from communist days.
At a Czech Rail window we tried to reserve seats to Weimar on a future date. We had the necessary rail passes, we just wanted the reserved seats. After much figuring on a calculator and typing on a computer terminal keyboard, the agent pushed a scrap of paper toward us on which he had written the amount owed 3,700 korunas ($137). Since the reservation fee should be no more than about $10, we decided to try another window. There the agent took one look at our Czech Rail passes and reserved two seats at no charge.
After about 30 minutes of futility we gave up and began to look for a taxi to the hotel. Signage in the station, at least for a non-Czech speaker, is inadequate, confusing and, in at least one case, incorrect. Exiting one door which had a "taxi" sign over it took us on to a forbiddingly dark ramp which contained only a few beat up cars and several sinister looking loiterers. No taxis. We had better luck on the other side of the station. There, at least, was a taxi rank, even if most of them had seen better days. Everything we have heard and read about Prague's taxis is that they overcharge tourists. Guidebooks advise getting a cab from the City Taxi company and making sure it has and uses a meter.
The first cab in line was a rickety job piloted by a scruffy but friendly enough fellow who, in retrospect, seemed far too eager for our business. But there seemed no other option. I asked how much to the Savoy Hotel and, through a series of English and German words and a few gestures, we were told the price would be determined by his meter. The driver took us directly to the hotel and charged the 963 Kcs ($36) indicated on the meter. It turned out to be double the amount we paid a few days later for the same trip. We should have phoned and asked the hotel to send a cab.
At the Savoy, our luck began to change. At check-in we were offered a glass of champagne, warmly welcomed and given a spacious, luxurious room with most of the five-star amenities.
We explained our problem to the front desk clerk who promised to track down the missing luggage first thing in the morning.
She was as good as her word. By 9 a.m. someone was already on the phone to the rail station. But the news was not good. Our bags were not there, they had not been on our train. Perhaps later in the day, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps... The woman in charge at the front desk said she would stay on top of the situation.
At that point I phoned Swiss Rail in St. Gallen and was told we might not see our bags for as long as a week! I learned that it is standard operating procedure that luggage checked from Switzerland to the Czech Republic (or any other foreign country) goes on a separate train (or trains), often via a separate route, and can take several days to arrive. The Swiss Rail person implied this is common knowledge. Well, we didn't know and most everyone I've asked since then didn't know. Swiss Rail is a fabulous transportation system, no doubt the world's best; I suggest, however, they have a responsibility to inform travelers with foreign destinations checking bags, that the checked items will not accompany them. Looking back over the check-in procedure, I wonder why, if such bags are treated as freight rather than checked luggage, the agent needed to see our rail tickets? (I also wonder as you no doubt do why in hell we simply didn't save $28 and haul our own bags? Good question.)
So now we had to deal with two problems: Liz's medication and the fact that our luggage might not arrive before we were scheduled to leave Prague.
As to the latter, we could easily wear the clothes on our back for four days, but if we left Prague before our bags arrived, would we ever see them again? The hotel was willing to fetch them from the rail station and deliver them to Swissair who would fly them to the USA, but the hotel would not be allowed to retrieve them. We had to be there in person with passports. Fortunately, we never had to resolve this dilemma.
Clothes we could do without, but Liz's medication was another matter. And here the hotel was just terrific.
At one point that morning there were three hotel clerks on the phone at the same time, all dealing with our problem: one was calling pharmacies to see if they carried the needed medicine, another was on with the rail station and a third, in case we couldn't get the medicine directly from a pharmacy, was trying to find a doctor to write a prescription. (By the way, we were not known to the hotel as owners of a travel publication, just two not very bright American tourists.)
The Great Pill Hunt
As it turned out, local pharmacies had never heard of the medication and so the hotel made an appointment at the Canadian Medical Centre, a private English-speaking clinic. The bellman sent us off in a spanking clean, late model Audi cab with a polite, uniformed driver. Half an hour later we drove on to the grounds of the clinic, which is located in a large old house in a residential area several miles from the town center. They were ready for us and, after completing five minutes of paperwork, showed us to a comfortable waiting room. Shortly, a nurse came to get Liz. The young, friendly Czech doctor, who seemed eager to practice his English, gave her a brief examination (blood pressure, pulse, stethoscope on the heart and lungs, etc.), then prescribed medication equivalent to what she was taking.
The cab, which had been waiting, then took us to a pharmacy where, after standing in line for 10 minutes, it dawned on me I might not have enough cash. Our driver knew of a nearby Citibank, but it turned out to be a corporate branch office with no ATMs. The Citibank receptionist, however, provided directions to the nearest ATM and, after yet another cab ride, we found the money machine.
The pharmacy was unlike any I've seen. It consisted of two small rooms divided by a wall into which was cut a window-counter, tended on one side by several white-coated women. The room behind them was stacked high with boxes and bottles of medicine. A line of 10 to 12 customers filled the tiny room on the window's other side. Prescriptions were submitted and the women in the white coats immediately handed over the necessary boxes and bottles. There was no counting of pills, measuring of liquid or individual containers of medicine with typed instructions. Boxes and bottles were dispensed as they come from the manufacturer. The line moved quickly.
Mission accomplished, the cab took us back to the hotel. The whole process took about two hours. The taxi fare was 980 Kcs. ($36). The medicine turned out to the same stuff Liz had been taking at home but under another label. It cost about $30. The Canadian Medical Center charge was approximately $35.
We explored Prague for three full days in the same clothes. Late in the afternoon before we were to leave, the front desk got a phone call announcing the arrival of our bags. The baggage claim office at the rail station closed at 5 p.m. but we could get them the next morning. What could be more convenient? (Read heavy sarcasm here.) We had to be at the train station anyway; why not pick up our bags before boarding the train to Weimar?
To be on the safe side we arrived at the station two hours before our train. Presentation of our receipt and passports at the baggage office created a little flurry of activity. The Savoy had quite obviously gotten their attention. We were expected.
Then, like a climactic movie scene with the music swelling, a tiny woman in one of those colorless working smocks came toward us down a long dark hall. Ahead of her she proudly pushed a low, flat cart. On it were our two bags. She was smiling - the only smile I ever saw in the Prague main rail station.
(More about Prague and the Hotel Savoy next month. The Canadian Medical Centre is at Veleslavnsk 1/30, 162 02 Praha 6, tel. 316 5519, 316 6491 or, after hours, 0601 21 23 20.)