The final preparations were being completed today on the Christmas market on Peace Square (Náměstí Míru) in Prague. The market starts tomorrow and traditionally is the first one in Prague to open for the holiday season. The two largest Christmas markets take place on Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) and Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí).
Jeff and I tried the new Czech train service called RegioJet. It is operated by Student Agency, a company that started back in 1996 as an au-pair agency, became a successful national and international bus operator and is now the largest travel agency in the Czech Republic. It has distinguished itself on the Czech market by providing a high quality of service at affordable prices. The company’s first staple, introduced in 2004, was its “yellow bus” service operating between Prague and Brno and quickly spreading to other Czech and European cities. Student Agency set a new level of bus travel experience in the Czech Republic, combining low prices with unprecedented service on board.
The introduction of the RegioJet train service on September 26, 2011 ended the monopoly of Czech Railways. Without even realizing it, Jeff and I had been waiting for something like this for years. We like train travel and the type of train we have used most frequently is the good old rychlík (express). We find a peculiar sort of comfort in the tired, squeaky rychlíks with their sagging seats, overheated compartments, non-working windows (and sometimes doors) and emergency-use lavatories. Czech Railways also operate newer, good quality trains, such as the IC and Pendolino. For comparison purposes, there is not much added service on the IC, and the Pendolino is not an option for us because it does not cover the route we need. We don’t take the train often enough to benefit from any of Czech Railways’ customer discount options, so we’ve either paid full fare or, if we thought we’d use up 2,000 kilometers in six months, bought the prepaid kilometrická banka.
We were curious to try the new RegioJet service. I read through the website at regiojet.cz and called the help line with additional questions, which were answered politely and with patience. I set up an online account and put some credit in it. Then I booked our trip. My ticket was emailed to me but I knew I didn’t need to print it out. All I needed for the trip was my 10-digit account number for the stewardess to look up on the train and see the details of my reservation.
Our first trip with RegioJet was almost delightful. The fresh looking yellow train was clean and quiet. The young staff was pleasant and smiley. There was no mad rush getting onto the train because every passenger had a seat reservation, which is compulsory, but free. Hence, no scrambling for seats and no crowded aisles. The seats were firm, spacious, and comfortable. Our stewardess gave us each a small complimentary bottle of water and offered free newspapers and magazines for the trip. We flipped through a rather extensive menu containing, in my opinion, ridiculously low priced refreshments that included free coffee and tea. We ordered some croissant sandwiches and enjoyed them. There were electrical outlets and free WiFi in the compartment. The lavatory was clean, softly scented, with music playing and a flower in a little vase sitting on the sink. The trip was smooth and fast. The fastest I’ve ever experienced it, also owing to the fact that the train barely stopped along the way. We were helped with our luggage upon arrival. Our tickets cost 152 CZK each, compared to 206 CZK we used to pay for a 2nd class trip with České dráhy. Actually, we usually paid 309 CZK per ticket to enjoy a little more space and privacy in a 1st class compartment.
Now on to the two cons of RegioJet I can think of. There were only three trains a day running at the time of our trip, so we were not able to get tickets for our preferred date because the train was fully booked a week in advance. This should improve once more trains are put into service. Nine trains a day should be running starting in December. My other complaint has to do with a little glitch when boarding in Prague. Since Jeff and I are not used to having to remember or write down seat numbers before a train trip, we forgot to do that and only realized at the platform that we had no idea which car to board and what our seats were. Contrary to what is stated on the RegioJet website, we did not get any assistance from the staff when boarding the train in Prague. Not even when we were finally able to catch a stewardess and explain our problem to her. She didn’t have time to deal with us then. We were told to get on any car and wait for help. Which we did, blocking the aisle with our luggage for several minutes while other passengers tried to get by. A note to self: make sure you know your seat numbers next time. A note to RegioJet: A little more time to board at the start of the trip would be appreciated.
Let’s see how things pan out in the coming months. Czech Railways seem to be trying desperately to match RegioJet’s prices and services. I look forward to traveling with RegioJet again soon and have put more credit in my account.
Vinobraní, the annual Czech wine festival, takes place around the country in September. A semi-fermented young wine called burčák is always one of the big attractions. Here are some pictures I took this year at the popular festival on Náměstí Míru in Prague.
The world-renowned Prague Zoo first opened its doors on September 28, 1931. This year therefore marks its 80th birthday. A lot of reconstruction has been necessary since the flood of 2002 and new pavilions and expositions are still under construction. One of the biggest projects the zoo has ever undertaken is the construction of a new elephant exposition and hippo pavilion, which is going on now and is expected to be finished in 2013.
We just revisited the zoo and are posting a few pictures below. As an amusing anecdote, the Prague Zoo now sells elephant dung, which is supposedly a great fertilizer. A 1.5 kg bucket will cost you 70 CZK. Yet another reason to make a trip to the zoo.