For many of us living abroad, traveling home used to be so unfathomably easy. A trip to the airport, a ninety-minute wait for your flight while snacking on a sandwich and perhaps sipping a beer, and then finally the flight and transit from the airport to your home. That was it. You could successfully transition from one world to the next without even needing to skip a meal.
As with many things learned during the coronavirus outbreak, we didn’t know how good we’d had it until it was all taken away. My journey from Valencia, Spain to Prague was proof of that: once an easy return trip it became a harrowing misadventure which would make for an unforgettable 24 hours of my life.
I’d relocated to sunny and lively Valencia from Prague before Christmas as a cheery place to work remotely and as an extended break from the cold and dark Czech winter. I’d enjoyed my experience in this beautiful coastal Spanish city but was ready to return to Prague, the place I’ve lovingly called home for many years. This is precisely when the coronavirus epidemic kicked into high gear across Europe and changed everything.
In Valencia and Spain in general during the lockdown, people have not been allowed to leave their immediate area beyond their residence. One can only take a trip to the nearest grocery store or pharmacy and then must go straight home, under risk of a fine from the many police patrolling the streets. Those repeatedly caught taking indirect routes to essential places, are put in jail.
Being stuck in this kind of home prison made traveling back to the Czech Republic, where people were free to move around (with a mask on) and meet with one friend at a time, felt like something I had to do.
The effect of the virus’s spread was like a tidal wave you see off in the distance but don’t realize how immense it is until you are right beneath its destructive shadow. Horribly tragic for many and incredibly disruptive for all, I feel fortunate to have been among those for whom the outbreak has so far proven to be merely the latter.
This first of those disruptions came when my scheduled flight for early April was canceled. I was concerned but figured there would be another flight option a few days before or after. This was Europe after all and one of the great things about living here was, up until now, just how easy it is to travel from country to country.
It was when I started receiving messages from friends saying that the Czech Republic would be canceling all flights from Spain that I realized the journey back to Prague was going to become a more serious ordeal, though I had no idea just how serious at this point. The rules were being made up as we went along.
Were the land borders closed? Could I connect flights through another country? What were the rules for non-EU citizens with permanent residency in the Czech Republic? I turned to Facebook groups which offered advice from individuals on how to get home along with stories of problems they’d encountered along the way.
Some of those stories were pretty unbelievable. People not being allowed to board planes due to last-minute government decrees about who could travel where, and how airport security and airline employees were not allowing airport entry to non-European citizens/permanent residents like me, despite it being our right to travel onward home. The bureaucratic and legal uncertainty was creating chaos, as individuals organizing their travel were receiving the latest info before airport employees themselves had been updated.
By mid-March, the options for traveling from Valencia to Prague were few and far between. Since all flights from anywhere in Spain to the Czech Republic were canceled, it was now necessary to fly to a third country in Europe to catch a connecting flight to Prague.
But as the days went on, more news emerged of European countries sealing up their borders to those traveling onward. And to make it more complicated, the Czech Republic was increasingly canceling flights from other European countries—so even if you found flights from Valencia to Amsterdam to Prague, by the time your flight landed in the Netherlands all flights to Prague may have been canceled by the Czech government.
“Stories emerged from Slovakia where all people entering had to do quarantine at a state facility before traveling onward. Being stuck in a Slovak-run quarantine center didn’t sound so appealing, so other options would have to be found.”
Stories emerged of travelers trying to get back to the Czech Republic through Vienna and being told they had to do 14 days in quarantine in Austria before being allowed to cross the border to the Czech Republic, where upon arrival they’d be required to do another 14 days in quarantine.
Worse were stories about Slovakia where all people entering had to do quarantine at a state facility before traveling onward. Being stuck in a Slovak-run quarantine center didn’t sound so appealing, so other options would have to be found.
My best bet looked like it would be traveling through Germany. Germany seemed to be a bastion of stability amidst the many European countries that were constantly changing their entry policies. More importantly, it offered a more secure land-travel option to the Czech Republic, so if one planned mode of transport failed then another could still be arranged.
I discovered there was a Czech government-organized bus from the Frankfurt airport to Prague and decided at that moment that Germany was going to be the country I’d choose to travel to from Spain and which would take me home.
Just as I was getting ready to book my flight, one last little bitter cherry was presented to me atop this horrid sundae: flights from Valencia to Germany no longer existed. This meant I would have to fly from Madrid to Frankfurt.
Madrid was among the cities hit hardest in the world by COVID-19 and most of the horror stories people heard about Spain in late-March/early April were taking place at the very moment I was meant to fly from there. The idea of traveling through this city was a worrying one. But there was no other choice.
I arranged all legs of the journey and looked ahead to the itinerary that lay before me. Three hours by train from Valencia to Madrid, a taxi from the train station to the Madrid airport, four hours of waiting at the airport, a 2.5-hour flight to Frankfurt, followed by a 5-hour wait at the Frankfurt airport before the 7.5-hour bus ride directly to Prague. For anyone counting, that’s just a little under 24 hours of anxiety-filled train travel across three countries by taxi, train, plane, and bus.
Departure day arrived and I said my final goodbyes to Valencia. With a mask and gloves on, I hopped in a taxi to the train station. After several weeks of sheltering in one place, it was strange to have any sort of movement and see new places. At the same time, it was also a bit frightening, as the thought of going to a train station and then getting on a train full of strangers was probably not the best way to avoid contracting COVID-19.
The train was properly spaced out with the few passengers there being at least two meters apart. There was a sense of unease looming, no doubt because we were all about to enter a city which had been ravaged by coronavirus. An eerie silence pervaded the train, with nervous, darting eyes seen above masks. Fortunately, the three hours went by relatively fast and I arrived in Madrid with one leg of the journey complete.
I walked up to a taxi waiting outside the Chamartin station in Madrid and the driver told me it was a 30-euro fare for the 15-minute trip to the airport. I wasn’t in a position to haggle and certainly wasn’t going to take public transport in a city with a huge population of infected people. The only cars we saw along the empty roads and highways were police vehicles. Checkpoints at each on-ramp to the highway were set up to make sure only essential travel was taking place. It was both stunning and sad to see this vibrant, majestic city of 6.6 million people in such a state of void and stillness.
I was dropped at the airport in front of the one terminal which remained open. At the entryway I was met by a tired-looking security woman who asked for my flight info and my ticket. The sight of the enormous and empty terminal—usually buzzing with the sounds and sights of thousands of travelers and workers—felt like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.
I explored the empty airport and walked past dozens of shuttered stores before finding one place open. It made me laugh that the sole open store was a gourmet shop that exclusively sold jamón, Manchego cheese, and vino tinto. Some things in Spain even the coronavirus can’t stop, I suppose.
I went through the daunting border check without any issue after presenting my myriad of documents. Just as I was ready to exhale and move towards my gate a masked man walked up to me, and cryptically asked, “Did you forget something?” I wasn’t sure how to answer that, except to nervously say, “I hope not.”
Worried that I might be recalled to security for some reason, the man held up a clear plastic sleeve with about 500 Euro in cash and a credit card in it. I must have dropped it when I was taking out my documents. The man smiled and wished me a pleasant journey and I finally exhaled.
As moments like this seem to attest, a positive connection made through a good deed and a genuine thanks has an incredible amount of value among strangers sharing difficult times together.
Arriving at the Frankfurt airport, I knew that what lay ahead was going to be the most challenging part of the journey, the 7.5-hour bus ride to Prague. I had a lot of time to kill at the airport and was feeling utterly drained of all energy. In truth, I wanted to lay down and quietly weep for a while, as the exhaustion of several near-sleepless nights and the anxiety from the 11 hours of travel to this point had finally caught up to me.
The time to catch the bus was finally coming near—with a 90-minute delay, of course—and I walked to the parking area past the terminal to wait for it. Dark and empty, the bus terminal area seemed like the perfect setting for a scary movie. I decided it was a good idea to walk to another bus-stop waiting area where I saw a young guy waiting with a few bags.
We said hello and he told me that he was also waiting for the bus back to Prague. We proceeded to exchange travel stories and he said that he was an off-shore worker at the end of a journey which started in Alexandria, Egypt, 24 hours earlier. I thought I had it bad, but this poor guy had traveled from Alexandria to Cairo to London to Frankfurt and when all was said and done would be undertaking about a 32-hour trip in total.
The bus pulled into the parking lot at about 1 am. It was a yellow RegioJet bus, similar to many I’d seen driving the highways of the Czech Republic. As soon as it stopped and the doors opened, dozens of people hurriedly came streaming out. The looks on their faces showed a combination of exhaustion and relief to be off the bus for a few minutes.
I chatted with a few of them who said they’d been coming from London where the bus originated, with stops in different European cities on the way. They were on the sixteenth hour of their voyage.
I stepped on the bus and could see people of all ages, from old men to babies still nursing. Most of them seemed to be younger people in their 20’s and early 30’s, likely working or studying in London, who desperately wanted to get back to the Czech Republic and this was their last means of doing so with the flights being shut down.
The hot, uncirculated air was filled with the scent of oily fish and chips bags, sweat, and bad breath. I settled into a seat, with my anxiety running high, and took a sleep aid in hopes I could knock myself out and shorten the voyage.
We made it to the Czech border in about 4.5 hours. Soldiers and policemen waited next to makeshift tents as the driver brought our IDs to be checked. After about 20 minutes we got the all-clear and the bus lurched onto the open highway of the Czech Republic.
I expected a round of applause or a rousing acapella version of the Czech national anthem, but nothing happened. That wouldn’t have been very Czech. So no response seemed to be the perfect response. For me, a feeling of relief washed over my soul for a moment as I realized that I’d made it back and a smile came to my face as I passed out for some much-needed sleep.
“A red sunset hung over the Czech countryside, a sunset with more intensity of light and color than I could ever recall.”
Maybe it was just the emotion of the moment making it feel so intense and meaningful. Either way, it’s a moment I’ll never forget, and an ending to a trip that symbolized a feeling of hope and relief to finally be back home. The 14 days of isolation that faced me were almost welcoming, knowing I could do them in my beloved Czech Republic.
I woke up as we were about 30 minutes outside of Prague, still in a rural area of the country. Now that I could see our surroundings, it all looked so incredibly different compared to Spain. We passed small towns with the typical high spired, cream-colored churches and clusters of old red-roofed buildings. The landscape of rolling plains with small forested hills surrounded us on all sides. A red sunset hung over the Czech countryside. It was a sky with more intensity of brilliant light and color than I could ever recall.