Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Visiting the Czech Republic

 A few things about visiting the Czech Republic to help get around.  First, in any of the major cities, violent crime tends to be low, especially in areas where tourists frequent.  However, theft, especially pickpockets are common.  Also common are various frauds.  The Russian mafia owns many of the shops that sell tourist items, especially garnet jewelry.  When they write your certificate of authenticity on a card by hand, that should set off alarm bells.  That said, garnet isn't exactly expensive and it is nice to look at, so as long as the price is right (haggling is allowed and usually encouraged), you can still get nice stuff, just don't pay premium prices for something that isn't real.

The easiest way to tell if, really any gemstone is real or synthetic, is to look at it closely.  In natural gems, especially garnet, there will be flaws.  It is extremely rare to find any gemstone without flaws, and that's why they sell for premium prices.  If you're not at a high-end -place like Tiffany's and you see a flawless gem, you can almost guarantee it's fake.  Look at it closely.  Like ultra close, if you can use a magnifier, do it.  If there's flaws and imperfections in the gem, it's probably real.  If your store is staffed with Russians, make sure you take that close look.  Again, I'm not against buying a fake, I think that they often look better, but you don't want to spend diamond prices on a cubic zirconium.

The Czech Republic is part of the EU, but has not adopted the Euro.  They still use the Czech crown(CZK), or in Czech, koruna. Check the exchange rate, and keep it in mind when you go there.  Of course this varies, but it's usually around 25 crowns to a dollar.  In fact, the word dollar has a Czech origin, from the silver coin from Joachimsthal, an ancient silver mining town, called the Joachimsthaler, shortened to Thaler, which became dollar.  Anyway, with exchanges, you will see many exchange booths, all with different rates.  Most places that do exchanges will have two rates for each currency, a buy rate and a sell rate. The sell rate is the rate at which they sell foreign currency in exchange for local currency. For example, if you were heading to Canada, you would exchange your currency for Canadian dollars at the sell rate.  For most tourists, this is NOT the rate you will get.  You will get the buy rate.  The buy rate is this is the rate at which they buy foreign currency back from travellers to exchange into local currency. For example, if you were returning from America, we would exchange your dollars back into euros at the buy rate.  The buy rate is usually significantly cheaper than the sell rate, which is where the booths make their money.  The other thing to notice is a lot of the booths have big differences in rates.  A lot of the ones with the seemingly best rates have big surcharges, which makes their rates not as attractive.  Of course, do the math, if you're exchanging a large amount, the better rate with the surcharge may be better than a lower rate without.  Ask up front about fees.  In Czech, the word is připlatek, the phrase is máte připlatku (ma tah pri plaht koo)?

Speaking just some basic words of any language can pay huge dividends.  People will treat you a lot better if you at least attempt their language.  Sometimes you run into someone who doesn't speak English very well, so being able to even struggle through a few basic words is a great help.  To tell a story, I was with my mother in Slovakia.  We had eaten lunch and I had ordered mine in Slovak.  The waitress generally spoke English, but talked with us for a minute because I did speak Slovak.  When we were finished, we needed to use the restroom.  The directions were more complicated than our waitress could give in English, but she remembered I spoke Slovak and just explained where it was to me, which worked well.
I covered in an earlier post places to go, so I won't do that here, but I will talk about how to get there.  The Czech rail system is pretty good and continues to be modernized.  There is now high speed rail service to major cities, especially between Prague and Ostrava (a big industrial city on the Polish border in the East).   Prague has one major train station with international service, the main station, Wilson Station or Hlavní Nádraží (abbreviated hl. n.) which is in the center of town and with a major metro station.

If you fly into Prague, the airport, as most airports, is on the outskirts of town.  There is bus service between the airport and the main train station, either with the city bus, requiring a transfer to the metro, or by the airport express bus.  The express bus runs every 30 minutes and runs between the airport and the main train station for about 60 CZK.  Taxis in the Czech Republic are notoriously expensive and known as a rip off.  It is usually best to avoid them when possible. Public transit is very good though.  The regular city bus is route 119, which then drops you at the Dejvicka metro stop, and from there it's easy to get downtown.  

The Prague metro system has 3 main lines, Line A (green), Line B (yellow), and Line C (red).  There are three transfer stations in the center of town.  You purchase a ticket at one of the machines (hit the button for English) or any number of other places like newstands, and then validate your ticket at the machine when you either get on a bus or tram or as you cross into the fare required area in a metro station.  You must stamp your ticket for it to be valid.  The metro system has officers who conduct spot checks, but there are not gates or turnstiles.  The officers will show you a badge and you must then show them a valid ticket.  If not, you will receive a fine, which they often demand in cash.  They have been known to rip off tourists by demanding more than the legal limit, which is 800 CZK, or if you pay immediately in cash, can be reduced to 400 CZK.  They really like to hang out at in the tunnels between lines at the transfer stations.  Best to avoid this by having a valid ticket.  A typical ticket is good for 90 minutes, but you can purchase a 24 hour and a 72 hour ticket.  Also, if you take luggage, beyond a backpack, purse, or similar bag, you have to purchase a luggage ticket in addition to your regular ticket.  You can be fined if you are caught without one of these tickets when transporting luggage. 

This sort of proof of payment system is typical of metro systems in other cities in the country.  Make sure you by a ticket and validate it.

Taking trains around the country is fairly easy.  Now there are ticket machines all over the train stations, as well as pre-purchase options (that can save you big money, so check them out before you go).  Some trains require a reservation, and most high speed trains have an upcharge.  Fares are distance-based, so the farther you go, the more it costs.  There are also ticket windows where you can purchase your ticket.  On regular trains, you can also purchase a ticket on the train from the conductor, but they are allowed to charge extra.  Usually it's easier to just buy your ticket before you board.  Trains are easy to use, and usually the cheapest way to get around the country.  Buses are also available.  In Prague, the main bus station is at Florenc, which is a metro transfer station.  You can purchase tickets either on the bus itself from the driver or reserve a seat and purchase your ticket from the window in the bus station.

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