Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Day After New Years

My short-lived hiatus from recounting my Prague adventures is due to a serious addiction to television drama. The two culprits being LOST and Entourage. But now that I have my fix and am caught up to date with both shows I can pick up where I left off.

Immediately upon waking up I felt what I assume the majority of people feel after a great New Year's Eve, hungover. We manned up though and got ready for our delicious breakfast at the hotel. This was my favorite breakfast because the old man who owns the hotel taught me a valuable lesson. When he was clearing my plate he told me to keep my knife. I didn't quite understand, but he explained that in Czech there is a saying that, for your own defense, you must never sit at a table with a woman without a knife. I just chalked it up to one of those cultural differences that just doesn't make sense directly translated and continued with my breakfast after he entered the kitchen. What happened next had me laughing to tears. The old man comes roaring out of the kitchen with a GIANT butcher knife, about as long as my forearm, saying, "See!? I work with wife so need much bigger knife for respect!" And then his wife comes chasing after him out of the kitchen with a big meat tenderizer with a jokingly fierce look on her face. It was one of those experiences that feels half dreamed, thanks to the hangover and just having woken up. They were great people though and I'm glad we had the pleasure of staying with them.

We took a short nap after breakfast because we knew facing another day of tourists and cold would just be miserable hungover and tired. Since it was our last full day in Prague we went souvenir shopping and found some ok deals at the big street market. Feeling hungry not too long after we shared a medium pizza at this sketchy Greek restaurant. I think we were both just tired of the people and all the hustle and bustle, so we took the tram over to the Little Quarter for a much needed escape from the big city feel. This quarter of town I imagine would be perfect in spring or summer. There are plenty of parks and you can walk along the water admiring the beautiful buildings of the Old Town from a distance. It was too cold to really enjoy the outside but it was a very mellow atmosphere, as if this part of town was recovering from a collective hangover. It was a good change of pace. We saw the Charles Bridge (the opposite end from where we were molested) and decided to try our luck. It was awesome. The statues are impressive, there are way fewer people, and the stroll was just great. We walked up the the castle again to take some more pictures before stepping into a tiny restaurant for dinner. As it turned out we were once again surrounded by Germans, but this place ended up being very worth it. We had some good dark beer (to cure the hangover of course), and I had rabbit with spinach and some potato dumplings. The food was so good, and we had a total of four beers, an appetizer, two entrees, and desert for less than $30.

After saying goodbye to Prague and one more night at our hotel we took a taxi to the airport the next day for our early morning flight back to France. When we arrived, guess who was parked right next to us in the taxi station... the crazy cab driver from New Year's Eve! There is no way we could have mistaken him, just a small world.

Before we left our hotel, our gracious host told us about life under communism and gave a stern warning. He said we have to be careful and watch out for China before they move in, take control of the US, and make us all communist! I know they own a large portion of our national debt, but if China takes over I'm moving to Prague, where all I need to command respect is a giant knife.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Year's Eve '09

And what a New Year's it was.

This was by far my favorite day in Prague, despite being half-trampled by large groups of Italians and Germans... but I'm getting ahead of myself. We started out with the feast of a breakfast again at the hotel before heading into New Town, the (as you're probably surmised) modern part of Prague. Barely a 10 minute walk from the Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square in the heart of New Town is like being transported from the middle ages to 1989, or, the fall of Communism in Prague. The Square, really just a long, walkable space on a large boulevard, feels much like any other big city in Europe. Tourists standing around looking at their maps, actual Czechs heading to work with a Starbucks in hand, and taxi drivers who must be imagining their lives are a real version of Grand Theft Auto. But like the rest of Prague, the buildings and history here are just as juxtaposed. It was in this square, like the area surrounding our hotel, that you can really feel the faded Communist presence. The functionalist buildings were perfect examples, but also the National Museum, showing the pockmark-like scars caused by Soviet bullets when putting down a local uprising against Communism in 1968. A little way down the square in front of the statue of St. Wenceslas is a memorial to two students, who, not being able to stand living under such oppression, set themselves on fire on the steps of the National Museum. All these little reminders of how life was like gave me some idea of what they must have felt, but also reminded me of how thankful I am for the life I was given.

Then we walked down another large boulevard to the Mucha Museum, my favorite museum in Prague and one of my favorite museums ever. I didn't know much about Alfons Mucha before this trip, but Caitlin had been dying to go and I'm very glad I tagged along. Mucha is a Czech national credited for being the founding father of Art Nouveau (which he started in Paris around the end of the 19th century), and even if you don't recognize the name if you googled Mucha I'm sure some image will pop up you've seen before. The museum itself isn't very large, but is well laid out, with English descriptions and even a nice 30 minute video. Continuing with the Art Nouveau theme we headed over to the Municipal House, a large building designed by, who else, but Mr. Mucha. It was very lavishly decorated inside and out, and even had an "Ameriky Bar" inside. As if there aren't enough of these opposites in the city, the Municipal House (built just after 1900) shares a block with the Powder Tower (built in the 1400s). It is amazing how often this occurs and it's not an eyesore.

But getting hungry we found a restaurant with some pretty good soup. At least my goulash was great, but Caitlin's garlic soup tasted like just garlic and water. I finished off her soup and made sure not to stand too close when asking someone for directions, lest they pass out. Little did I know it might have come in handy, as we headed for the Charles Bridge, the most characteristic bridge in Prague, and one of the best in Europe. This is where we almost died for the first time that day, the second being after dinner.

Before I relive this horror for your reading pleasure, I have to point out that Prague seemed inundated with tourists for New Year's Eve. I think the closer nationalities-Germans, Austrians, and Italians-traveled in just for the night. Either way the city felt packed. We could tell there were crowds on the bridge but it wasn't until we were a good quarter of the way across before the panic set in. Half of the bridge was closed off for renovation, so turned into a math equation: Half the space + twice as many tourists = .... you get the idea. It seemed like instantly Caitlin and I were swept into the mob of loud Germans and smelly Italians trying to get across. As if that wasn't enough, a large group of mean, fat, German women were trying to push their own way through, as if they had much more pressing business getting to the other side. I could see Caitlin wasn't taking it well and although I tried to reassure her that it must clear up soon enough, I was blessed with my mother's genes and therefore couldn't see anything over the towering Europeans surrounding us. The breaking point was when I was carried a good 10 feet without my feet touching the ground. Then I grabbed Caitlin and we somehow crossed into a one lane stream of people heading back the way we came, where we eventually escaped to freedom. We decided to call it an early day to head back to the hotel and rest/get ready for our evening out.

Caitlin found this website where we could book a restaurant for a New Year's Eve meal, and she couldn't have found better. All dressed up we took a joyride into town, where we transferred to a funicular that took us up Petrin Hill to our restaurant, Nebozizek. It was perfect. We sat next to the window, which, high up on the hill, overlooked the floodlit city with amazing views of the castle. The restaurant was pretty classy and there was a man playing piano all night who somehow seamlessly switched between playing Mozart to Abba. The six course meal was delicious (I have a picture of the menu in my photos) and even better was the Czech booze. We each got a half bottle of white wine, a half bottle of red wine, a glass of champagne at midnight, and unlimited beer all night. I had a great time. I had such a great time, in fact, that I almost forgot about it being New Year's Eve, until our waiter came to us with a thin package. I opened it up and it turned out to be a lantern of sorts. This was actually a really cool idea. We went outside with everyone else and what you do is light a fire underneath these paper lanterns and let them float off in the sky. They were coming up from all over the city, and that with fireworks going off in every direction was just incredible. Not to mention all this was seen through drunk goggles. At the end of the night, and one beer too many, our waiter called us a cab, which was the scariest/funniest ride of my life. "Scary" in that he spoke no English besides "No worry, no stress," and drove along a walking path in thick smoke and fog winding along the hill towards the castle, barely avoiding pedestrians who obviously had the right of way. And "Funny" in that it was ridiculous and I wasn't too serious about anything at that point. After speeding through several intersections and a U-turn across the median of the freeway, we made it back to our hotel where it felt good to be alive after the ride in what I affectionately named the "Death Cab" and we stumbled up to the room. Hands down, best New Year's ever.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Prague, Part Deux

I don't know that waking up that second day in Prague could have been any better. First, it was nice to sleep in a bit and not have to worry about traveling, something Caitlin and I had been doing for the past 3 days in a row. Second, from our second story window we could see the courtyard was covered in a fresh layer of powdery white snow. Now it may seem a bit weird to get excited about snow, but a) it just looked picturesque, and b) I knew it would mean that because of the humidity we wouldn't be as frozen out on the town as we were the day before. After taking in the scene we walked down to breakfast which quite literally made my day. It was my first hearty breakfast in three months! I almost ate till I was sick. I started with a roll on which I put butter and honey, then had granola and yogurt, followed by a made-to-order eggs, ham, and cheese scramble, and an apricot-filled doughnut to finish. All of this of course accompanied by very tasty fruit juice and two cups of American style coffee (finally). I think once again I'll reference my dad (who can out-eat anyone) in thanks for a metabolism that allows me to eat this much and not burst at the seams. Plus this was all included in the price of the hotel so I was only eating what I already paid for... An added bonus was that starting the day off with such a large meal meant Caitlin and I really didn't need to spend that much on lunch. We had some bread and a bowl of really good Czech potato soup that easily tided us over till dinner.

After breakfast we waddled our full bellies over to the Castle Quarter which was actually not far from our hotel. It was impressive, albeit not the largest or pretty castle I've ever seen. In fact the best part, in my opinion, is the view of the rest of the city offered from the hill upon which the Castle Quarter is situated. But we visited all the highlights, from the Royal Palace to the Cathedral, before taking a footpath down to the main part of town. It was at this moment when I realized just how much of a walkable city Prague is. It seems rather large, especially on a map, but I think you can walk from end to end diagonally in about 20-25 minutes. It only took us 15 minutes to walk from the castle to the Jewish Quarter, our next stop. It was before we tackled the 6 building "museum" that comprises the main part of the Jewish Quarter that we stopped for our soup lunch. When we got our check the woman had charged us for two deserts we never ordered. Rick Steves warned us that Czech restaurants are notorious for overcharging tourists, but I didn't truly believe him until that moment on. Our waitress wasn't even apologetic about it, she looked more sad that she got caught. We "stoopid Amurikens" sure showed her! But just in case we never went back there to avoid the certain revengeful dish of "Soup a la Loogie."

The Jewish Museum, which includes four synagogues (Pinkas, Klaus, Maisel, and the Spanish), the Jewish cemetery, and a Ceremonial Hall, for me, really pushed the Jewish stereotypes. First of all, the "discounted" price to see these museum was already about $20. Second, when we got to the ticket booth and tried to get the student discount, the stingy woman wouldn't give it to us because our student ID's didn't have the right validation stickers! Granted, I'm no longer a student, but Caitlin is. And isn't the whole purpose of the student discount to account for the want to be educated but serious lack of money to pay for these expensive museums? In which case I am 100% qualified. I was a little peeved but we were here to see the sights, and see them we shall. Lastly, there was a fine for anyone caught taking a picture in, near, or around the sights considered part of the museum, enforced by mostly stern looking old ladies on the other side of who's wagging fingers and nagging reprimands I was sure I didn't want to be. So while this was one of the most interesting parts of Prague, and definitely the most interesting Jewish site I've visited, I have absolutely no photos of it. The synagogues were impressive, especially the Spanish Synagogue which was very elaborately decorated. I think the most impressive, however, was the Jewish cemetery. It's barely the size of a city block and for centuries was the only place Jews were allowed to bury their dead within the city. Because of the Jewish belief that bodies are not to be moved after burial, they are stacked on top of each other, creating a small plateau. The headstones are falling over every which way because of the marshy land they rest on. Very moving to say the least.

After visiting all the sites it wasn't quite dinner time, so we headed out to find a bar to hang out in and warm up, maybe have a beer or two, before dinner. We ended up finding this little place, not too smokey, with really cheap beer. In fact, it was Budweiser. Now I know what you're thinking... "Really, bud?" But actually it was the Czechs who invented Budweiser in Germany way before Anheuser-Busch fought for the right to call it's beer the same name. As one photo shows, there is even a dark Budweiser which was a really great dark beer, and I'm not a huge fan of dark beers. Also, that's the way pretty much every bar in Prague is. They have two beers: one light, one dark. And again, a half liter cost about $1.50. Being much "warmer" a liter of beer later, we headed over towards the Christmas market in the Old Town Square to try some market food. Caitlin got a bratwurst on a bun and I ventured to try these pancake-shaped things with sauerkraut, both meals costing about $2 a piece. I still don't know what exactly my mini pancakes were made of but they were good, and pretty filling. It started to rain pretty hard while we were eating and it had been another long day, so we took the tram back to our hotel and stayed dry for the night. Besides, we had to prepare for New Year's Eve (which was the next day) with plenty of rest, which turned out to be well worth it...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My stint in Eastern Europe, Part 1

Where to begin... luckily for this trip (and likewise updating this blog) I kept a journal, outlining the day's events and marking down interesting things. Since there is so much to tell I'm dividing it into manageable parts, but the general plot is this: Caitlin came from Portland to visit me for two weeks, the first of which was spent in Prague celebrating New Year's.

It started off a little sour in that, thanks to the wonderful weather the Northern Hemisphere has been enjoying this winter, Caitlin's plane was delayed and she arrived in Paris (where we would then fly to Prague) a day later than expected. All told it wasn't that bad of a set back as it could have been worse. The only day we had in Paris was pretty low-key; lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant on Rue Cler, walking down the Champ de Mars towards the Eiffel Tower, and visiting the Christmas Market and ice rink set up in front of the Trocadero. Our plane left early the next morning, which for Caitlin meant heading back to the Charles de Gaulle airport barely 24 hours after landing. Unfortunate.

Despite the glacial temperatures our plane left on time, with the only point of interest being it was the first time I boarded an airplane by climbing stairs straight up from the tarmac itself. I felt like the president or something. After arriving at Praha International we took a taxi, relatively inexpensive and convenient considering we were carrying suitcases, to our hotel. I was a little skeptical as we entered the neighborhood of our pension, but when finally standing outside of our home base for the next week I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. Surrounded by communist apartments built in the functionalism style, this place was an oasis. The building itself was rather large with a sizable courtyard and tennis court. As I learned out from our very friendly hostess, Blanka, the building comprising the hotel is half newly constructed (after communism fell around 1989 and private businesses became legal), and half 1,000 year-old windmill. Pretty impressive.

We settled into our nice, cozy room with a large bathroom and view over the courtyard before deciding to head into town. I hesitated on booking a hotel outside of the city center because of the travel to and from but once again we could not have fared better (literally). The tram, a gift from organized communism, is a 2 minute walk from the hotel, a 20 minute or so ride into town, and only about $1 each way. Considering a hotel in the center was bout twice what we paid for ours, it was a great deal. Plus the trams started well before I even thought about getting up and ran as late as midnight. As we rambled into town and roamed through the streets I couldn't help but stare at this city. Prague is one of the most beautiful places I have been to, and that was in below-freezing temperatures. The Old Town Square is a perfect example of this, and, in my opinion, the best town square I've ever seen. It's just massive, surrounded by huge buildings, each one sporting an unique facade. You'd see Baroque, next to Neo-Renaissance, next to Gothic, next to Romanesque... and the list goes on. How something so amazing survived the second World War AND the oppression of Stalin I never came to understand. The crowds of people visiting the stalls at the still-open Christmas market and the soaring towers of nearby churches added to the grandiose of this town square. Had it not been freezing I think I could have easily spent a whole day there.

But hunger played a large factor in our walking swiftly through in order to find someplace to eat. We eventually found Pizenska Restaurace u Dvou Kocek (or, Restaurant of the Two Cats) and decided to try our luck. The food in Prague, really anywhere we went, was very good and pretty cheap. The fist lunch at the Two Cats I had roast beef, dumplings, and delicious sauerkraut, all for about $5. Plus a half liter of the original Pilsner Urquell for about $1.50. Being in France for so long, away from the beer heaven that is Portland, I missed a good beer. The restaurant itself was interesting too, a beer hall feel but on a smaller scale. There was even an accordion player! The Czech Republic hasn't yet caught up with the rest of the European Union in banning smoking inside restaurants, so it was smokey but not terrible. The meal was definitely a highlight of the day.

Making it back to the Old Town Square we checked out the sights, which were some churches (St. Nicholas and Tyn Church), the Old Town Hall with the Clock Tower, and eventually the Klementium, a centuries old library started by the Jesuits and now public. The tour was definitely worth it as it included a climb to the Astronomical Tower with great views of the city and the castle, all of which was lit up as night had fallen during the tour.

After the tour was over we asked our tour guide if there was a grocery store nearby so we could buy some food for dinner and she gave us directions to Tesco, which turned out to be an odd hybrid of a store, as if Macy's and Fred Meyer's had a lovechild. All in all it was a great stop because after such a hearty lunch we were content to have a light dinner. We ended up getting a bag of chips, two pre-made wraps, and three bottles of beer for about $8 total. I would like to point out that the wraps were the majority of the cost, and two of the bottles of beer were about 50 cents each... score. We did a lot of running around that day and it felt good to just come back to the hotel, eat, drink, and watch some German MTV knowing that the first day in Prague was a success.

One of my favorite parts of being in Prague was trying to figure out the Czech language. It's kind of fun to listen to, but I'm sure that's the linguistic in me talking. You can see in some of the pictures that we share the same alphabet but they add all the diuretics (the marks above the letters) to describe the unique sounds in the language. Czech even has a sound that appears in no other language on Earth (a mix between a rolled "r" and a "zh" sound as heard in "leisure"). I tried my hand at pronouncing a few words here and there but it's a notoriously difficult language for Westerners to get right. There are just so many consonants! A perfect example is the popular churro-esque desert called "trdlo." As if it's not enough that this word has four consonants in a row, the r's in Czech are rolled, like in Spanish. Yeah, go ahead, try it out loud... ... trdlo ... ...anyone giving you weird looks yet? Another word was, "dekjui," Czech for "thank you." We must have asked six different people how to pronounce it, getting six different pronunciations. Luckily for us, however, everybody there knows English (at least enough to get by) and German since their economy relies heavily on tourism. We tried to have fun with the language though and for the most part I think the Czechs appreciated it.

Whew, all that just for day one! I'll add some more after I massage this carpal tunnel syndrome out... can you even get that from typing?

Monday, January 11, 2010

More photos

These past couple weeks have been nuts. Caitlin came to visit me for New Year's, which went Paris, Prague, Toucy, Paris... We barely got a chance to relax, so my updates have been lacking. That said, what a great break I had! I knew things would get really busy so I took meticulous notes in a journal in order to describe more fully my adventures with Caitlin across the continent. For now I added two more links to photos of Prague (of which there are quite a few) and Paris (not so many).

Later this week I'll write about what an awesome New Year's we had in Eastern Europe.

Till then!