(or, Hlavni Nadrazi, for the Unicode-impaired)

Hlávní Nadraží, Wilsonovo Nadrazi, Prague Central Station, Prag Hauptbahnhof: to most from the west, the gateway to the Golden City of a Thousand Spires. Just beyond lays a city of beauty and brilliance and timelessness and vitality, but within is found sleaze and dank and the shells of the souls who, unlike most of the rest of the city, were crushed by over forty years of Communism. Despite its manifold charms, Prague can be a daunting and unnerving place; the most unnerving part of Prague may very well be Hlávní Nadraží.

Most who go by train into Prague from the west will arrive through Hlávní Nadraží. Some will go through the secondary station, Nadraží Holešovice, many of those will take the subway then to Hlávní Nadraží, the central station to get into the center of town. At first, this central station seems like any early 20th century train station: big windows, cast iron, open air, lots of light. Nice enough.

Then you descend.

Down into the passageway from the platform to the station, down into communist architecture and the seventies. Hlávní Nadraží was built from 1900-1909, designed by Josef Fanta in the Art Nouveau style. It was then remodeled in the 1970s under communist rule, a combination which did not treat the station kindly. Red paneling, stained concrete, and weak fluorescent lights line your path. You emerge into a cavernous room, poorly lit, filled with bad men and the wrong colors. Just beyond is the escalator down to the Metro, the C line. Around that is what appears to be a mini-casino or a sleazy bar or discotheque. Scraggly thin men with beards and long, thin, stringy straight hair stroll around. Aged thin women wearing too much makeup with smoky voices looking like East Bloc tarts stroll around. With luck, you won't have to talk to any of them.

This is not Munich, this is not Paris, this is not Vienna. No Bahnhof café, no cheery vendors selling good sandwiches at good prices, no snappily dressed salesmen boarding sleek ICE or TGV trains, no photomats with cute girs in costumes in them, no helpful ticket agents, no helpful tourist information, no shiny new payphones that get the Internet on them. Welcome to Prague. (Things can get interesting here).

You look up to the ceiling, where you expect helpful signs to be. They're all in a scary gibberish language, except for one: "TAXI", which points to the right. Except... look! There's another, "TAXI", pointing to the left. Both are hand-written on green paper and carefully hung with scotch tape. Both are scams. Soon, a man approaches you and offers you a taxi in mediocre English. The rate to your hotel? 500 crowns, he says. Say no, and walk away. Pay no attention to him; the ride should cost no more than 100kc. Illegal hustlers may offer you rooms; they are also to be ignored. Communism may not have treated Hlávní Nadraží well, but capitalism isn't treating it well either.

Probably by now you want to get out. Don't worry, the station isn't dangerous, only creepy. Still, there are better things to see in Prague. It is possible to leave Hlávní Nadraží by taxi without paying through your Western nose: walk straight ahead, find the nearest exit there. You'll go under a highway and through a dark and scary park (not very dangerous, just don't dawdle at night). Just keep on straight ahead until you reach the street. There, stealthily hidden away, is a legitimate taxi stand. You can trust these people. They may not speak English well, but they will not cheat you. Get into the taxi, and go to your hotel or hostel or pension. Leave the station. (You'll probably want take a taxi if you've not been on the other side of what used to be the Iron Curtain before, especially if it's night-time. There are trams and a fine Metro system, which are excellent options for those a bit more familiar with the city. Just remember: if a taxi driver tries to overcharge you, simply pay him 100kc and walk away. He won't follow you.) The station isn't dangerous, just a bit creepy. As for public transit, the Metro is easily visible from the main hall and provides excellent service, while myriad trams are available outside at the north end of the station.

Hlávní Nadraží deserves another look, but later. First, let the charming majority of the city of Prague sweep you away.

Later on, you've decided to brave Hlávní Nadraží? Do, do go back. You can take the Metro line C right into the station, or any of a multitude of trams to the station's north end. It's even walkable from the Old Town. Notice the huge elevated highway in front of the station? This is Wilsonova Ulice (Wilson Boulevard), the construction of which obliterated the beautiful Art Nouveau front of the station. So it goes. Go inside the station. Pass briefly into the hellhole of a main hall you experienced earlier, and go upstairs. You have now entered a different world. A large dome and beautiful glasswork adorn the mostly vacant rotunda. You can go outside and admire the traffic, or you can sit down at the café for a cup of coffee.

Welcome to what little charm the station has left. Savor it, it's worth a visit. Sit and wonder, stare up into the dome, remember things before you were born, imagine. Hlávní Nadraží was a beautiful station, and it still can be. Through all the torture and destruction it's been through, its heart can still be seen; the recent past flows through it like a bitter and sticky sludge, while the flowery nectar of its Art Nouveau past lies beneath. Take the station with you as you ride away in your train.

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