2007 Prague, Czech Republic

Saturday April 21

Once off the ground on our way from Warsaw, Poland we make it to Prague without incident. We buy our three day metro pass at the airport and hit the tourist info center to get some maps, but all they can offer are metro maps. First thing I do in Prague is figure out that muny is men. Zeny is women. We take our collected information that we can and head to the bus platform. The bus takes us to the Metro station Zilcin and we take the yellow metro to Andel station. Unlike Warsaw, where the metro is spotless, the metro here is a little bigger, a little dirtier, and smells like urine- just like NYC. We exit the metro and the hotel is right around the corner from the station. It is called Hotel Ibis Smichov. We walk without difficulty and as soon as we emerge from the station, I really feel like I am in Europe. 

i just get a "european" feeling when i see these diverging street corners

i have no recollection of what this is the window of

I can tell this feels different than Warsaw and certainly feels different than home. We check into the hotel and ask how to say “thank you” in Czech. Similar to Polish, it’s "dikuyi”. We decide to take the metro into the old town since it looks like most of the stuff we want to see is in the old town. There is a scout convention so there a bunch of boy and girl scouts all over the old town square. We find the astronomical clock tower, but have about 50 minutes before it chimes. El heads to a church while I wait. We see so many restaurants, cafes, eateries, and bars. They are everywhere.  We see a sign for a pub called Pivnice U Kata and think we should be able to get food.

what are the chances? enjoying lunch with ken and kathleen of decatur, ga

We walk in and it is a very small place: 10 tables maybe. We look to get the attention of the single waiter to ask if we can wait for a seat (or maybe there is more seating on another level).  As we stand there we are motioned to sit by a couple, who invites us, in English, to join them. As we sit they ask where we are from which begins a meal long conversation with Ken and Kathleen, a couple from Decatur, Georgia. The short of it is that he is an engineer who travels the world for work and his wife joins him when she can. They seem in their 50's and are a great conversation for our first hours in Prague. I get a .5 litre of Pilsner Urquell and an appetizer portion side of pork with bread and dipping sauce. The pork is very crispy on the well done side and tastes great with the sauces (mustard and horseradish). We finish the meal and go our separate ways, but not before getting the advices of 1) "test your sauces for spiciness before diving in", and 2) if we were looking to take a walking tour of the city, the one they did last Sunday morning at 8:00am was fantastic- in part because they were the only ones on the tour! After lunch we go back to the clock tower and wait for it to chime. Luckily, it’s a clock, so you have a sense of when it will do its thing. It chimes, we take pictures and we head off to roam aimlessly. However, when it chimes, the skeleton turns the hourglass in his left hand upside down and pulls the cable in his right hand which starts the procession of 12 apostles parading past the windows above the clock. Then the rooster above the windows crows and the bell chimes the hour.

the first thing is the rosster on top crows on the hour

then, the skeleton turns his left hand hourglass over and pulls on his right hand cable

then the windows open and the apostles parade two by two into the windows

Then everything goes quiet for another hour. The clock is part of the city hall building and you can pay to go up to the top and overlook the old town square. We did not do that, we just got our pictures and moved on. Next stop is the tourist center just to the left side of the clock and get brochures on the different walking tours offered. Since today is Saturday and tomorrow our only Sunday in town, we need the information now. All of the tours look the same so we think we will go with the company Ken and Kathleen recommended, Prague Walks. We head back to our hotel neighborhood and explore there for the remainder if the day. On the way we stopped for beer at a pub called Barecek U Krale Jiriho. He serves Pilsner Urquell and we each get one. Everything seems so cheap. Our two beers cost about $4.15. Mine is .5 liter and El drinks .3 liter. Very reasonable.
We head back to the hotel with our Prague Walks brochure in hand to sign up for a tour as you do have to book one day in advance. We ask the front desk to call for us and he is told to call back in one hour to determine if the tour will go. I catch a nap for the hour and El checks the free internet in the hotel lobby and has the second call made to reserve the tour. We set out to walk around the area near the hotel. Before long we head to dinner at a place near the hotel. It is called Hlubina.  They have a window menu, but it is all in Czech. The prices look reasonable, inside is three floors down. The ground level is very smoky so we go down one floor. Also smoky, but no tables are available. We go down again and are the only people on the floor. We sit and (surprise) the waitress brings us English menus. We order Pilsner Urquell's around and look at the ample menu. There are so many offerings. I order a southern Czech meat platter. It is a ham slice, 1/4 roast duck, and a kielbasa link on a bed of sweet, red cabbage. Bread and dumplings are sides that come with it. I also order potato pancakes. I ask for apple sauce and/or sour cream, but our waitress doesn’t speak English and neither word is in our guide books’ handy conversion list. I find the word for apple and make a mashing motion, but it doesn’t go over well- I guess my charade skills need polishing. Anyway, the potato pancakes have way too much garlic and with no sauce, they don’t quite do the trick. The bread on the side of the plate is unsalted, so it tastes very different than what we're used to.  The dumplings are sort of gross. They are as solid as a brick, and if laid out for 1/2 hour, will sub for a hockey puck. They are super dense. However, on the bright side, the duck is excellent, of course I love the sausage, and the ham is very decent. It is salty and when I put it on the bread it mixes well. The cabbage is also very nice. This is a very nice local restaurant, with nice wait staff. I like it. We sit and digest with another round of beer. After some Scrabble and discussions, we decide to get some dessert. I opt for the apple strudel and a latte. I also get a shot of Slivovic to show El what she was unfamiliar with. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but suffice it to say, I will not need to order it again...ever. We are signed up for our early tour so we decide to head back to the room and call it a night.

Sunday April 22
We get up early to make our tour appointment. Eat at the hotel which is nowhere near as good as the hotel in Warsaw. I think I found the poppy seed cake I have wanted to try so I get a slice of what is labeled "traditional Czech cake". It looks like the poppy seed filling I have seen in photos. It tastes like...oh, it is, a prune tart pie. Good thing I didn’t take two slices!
We make our way to the metro and go back to the clock tower to meet the guide. On the way we find an ATM that offers instruction in English. We now wait for our guide, Inka. As expected, she is right on time. At this hour on a Sunday, there are very few people in the square, except some shopkeepers and cafe prep people getting ready for the day. It is freezing out. Good thing I wore a heavy shirt though my choice of shorts is questionable. We exchange pleasantries with Inka and start the tour at the clock tower. We are in luck and are the only two people on the tour! Personalized touring is the way to go if you’re lucky enough to get it. As we depart, she snickers at the group of tourists that are meeting their tour guides at the same clock before 8:00am, as the clock chimes she says she doesn’t know why anyone would bring a tour group here before 9:00am, as that is when the "performances" start for the day every hour. We saw the clock do its thing yesterday so we know what she means. As any good tour guide she gives us the history of the squares buildings, features, statues etc. we start out on what is slated to be a three hour tour. She takes us all around the old town, to the Jewish quarter, Charles Bridge, lesser town, and finally to the Prague Castle and royal gardens.

one of the many statues lining the pillars on the karlov most (charles bridge)

the cemetery in the jewish quarter. when filled, they would build the sides up and fill with fresh dirt allowing for layers of graves to be buried one on top of another. 

Sgraffito, defined as a technique where potters can put a layer of glaze or slip on a piece of pottery, let it dry, then use a pottery carving tool to scratch at it to show the base layer of color. 

All the while telling us historical facts about the rulers, builders, and architects. She tells us of recent history like the 2002 flooding that left water level marks on some of the buildings' walls and of reconstruction efforts. She also tells us legends and fun facts while we go along. (Did you know that when Michael Jackson was here he had a statue of himself erected on the top of a mountain so he could view it from his hotel window? - it stood for four days and was taken down when he left!)  Part of the tour includes a cafe stop (and the coffee). Since it is just the two of us on the tour, we really get great personalized attention. Inka is a college student majoring in history, so it sounds like she knows of what she speaks. She helps us with directions to landmarks that we ask about and suggests places to see and pubs to find. We well recommend the tour as I am certain we would not have seen all of the features on our own. We most certainly would not have gotten the historical perspective, or the good conversation. Call Prague Walks, take the tour, ask for Inka. We part ways with Inka and head down the hill from the castle. We find a pub that I had read about called U Sedmi Svabu medieval tavern (www.svabove.cz). Inka had told us that this translates to "seven cockroaches". We find it and walk in. It is very dark and takes several seconds for our eyes to adjust. They do not serve Pilsner Urquell so I am introduced to Krusovice beer. It is really bland and not that good, but luckily I have only ordered a small. For lunch I order an appetizer portion of sausage with bread, mustard, and horseradish. Very good. The whole bill runs 123 Kc (Czech Krowns) ($5.50). El wants to head back to the Prague Castle and go into the St. Vitus church. We grab the tram up the hill, although some choose to walk it.  We arrive during the changing of the guard. Same idea as the London Beefeaters with a little less fanfare. The portion of the changing ceremony we saw was quick. El heads into the church, I head to the courtyard to catch up on my journal.  Inka had said that even though you can go into the church all day, the best time to go is around 4:00pm when the sun shines directly through the giant stained glass windows.

stained glass windows inside saint vitus cathedral

stained glass windows inside saint vitus cathedral

stained glass windows inside saint vitus cathedral

stained glass windows inside saint vitus cathedral. you can see on the wall how when the sun is intense can create beautiful patterns on the walls inside the church

I speculate that every tour hits that Castle at sometime between 9:00am and 2:00pm. Not too many tours that we saw seemed to start that late, so in the afternoon you only compete with private tour groups that probably know the tricks of the tourism trade. When we are done we look to find and lunch at a restaurant that Inka recommended to us called U Pinkasu. We sit down with some Pilsner Urquell’s and order some more appetizers. I get an order of veal sausage with mustard and horseradish. The sausages arrive well cooked and El compares them to New Jersey ripper hot dogs. I concur and they are good. The mustard is not too hot and the horseradish is fresh shaved. It’s a very different taste and texture than I am used to, but still good. We head back to the hotel with the intention to see the Vincent Black Shadow at the Roxy tonight. We freshen up and go to the show, finding the club with little problem, but as we get to the door we see it is 690 Kc each for the tickets! This is around $32 each for us to see an opening slot act of a band we saw a couple of months ago. We make the decision on the spot to pass. We head back to the trams to get back to the hotel with some beer stops on the way. First stop: the Bar Bambus. Nothing special, but the WiFi written on the window catches our eye. Pilsner Urquell for me and a Coke Light (they don’t call it diet here) for El hit the spot. We finish a game of Scrabble and check this weeks weather on the free internet connection and press on. El wants to barhop in the hotel neighborhood which seems surprisingly vibrant for 9:30 on a Sunday night. First place we try is closing so we step to the side of the sidewalk to look for beer medallions over doors. This method doesn’t take long and in no time we find a door that reads "non stop". Not sure if this means we have stumbled upon a 24 hour bar, but it fits our bill now. We get what is becoming our "usual". One large and one small Pilsner Urquell and the bill is 53 Kc ($2.50). We sit in the bar which has a big screen TV that is literally the same size as the bar. The room is so small you have to go outside to get to the bathroom. The TV plays the Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers. I didn’t think I could care any less about a basketball game, but surprisingly, I learn when the play-by-play is in Czech, it is entirely possible to indeed, care less about a Suns/Lakers game! I turn my attention to updating my journal. El is hungry so we head out to look for food. And we are in luck as the place next door looks like a beer hall still serving food. It is called Andel Plzensky Restaurant. We order our "usual" and ask for menus. The waiter asks if we want English menus and I think to myself that if he wants to sell any food, the menu should be in English. It is becoming quite apparent that Czech is a very foreign language and with the exceptions of salat and biftek we really have no idea what these menus read. Most places have menus that have the entries written in two or three languages. I get a plate of smoked pork with plum sauce. The waiter asks if I want potato dumplings with it and I politely, but firmly decline. I don’t need a repeat of last night- once bitten etc... One of the tips that we saw in the tour book was to decline any nuts that are brought to your table as they will cost sometimes more than an appetizer. El does NOT heed. As we sat she sees other tables have these little wooden stands draped with large pretzels. She asks our waiter for a rack of the pretzels, figuring that since every table has them they could be free like bar nuts in the states or olives in Spain. When the bill comes of course they charged us 10 Kc per pretzel. They were stale and not very crunchy. I wonder how long they have been sitting on the wooden rack since even though they are on every table it does not appear that anyone is actually eating them. The waiter comes around and offers last call. I notice he goes around and collects all of the wooden racks with the uneaten pretzels and puts them in a storage case, as is. He will add more pretzels to these racks tomorrow and put them on other people’s tables. It’s a good thing I didn’t sneeze on these ones. When all is said and done, though our total bill is 263 Kc which is just about $12- we are satisfied and head back to the hotel for the night.

Monday April 23

Having no big plans for the day El and I choose to sleep in and take a late start. We eat at the hotel, and discuss the plans for the day. The first thing we do is take a funicular car ride up to the top of a hill. It’s actually a real metro stop so our three day train pass covers this ride. There are two stops on the hill. We opt to go up to the top hoping for a good photo op. There are some gardens like the ones we saw at the palace yesterday. Unfortunately we don’t feel like spending all of the walking around time looking for the scenic overlook. We take the next car ride down one stop and get off.

midway tramstop overlooking the castle and saint vitus cathedral

This stop has a lot less trees and a great view of the Prague castle. We take some pictures and wait for the next car down. Our next stop is the Museum of Medieval Torture Devices near the Charles Bridge. The museum exhibits 60 devices complete with historical drawings, etchings, and detailed explanations. Wow, those Spaniards were inventive! I am surprised to hear of some of these devices were used as recently as 1975 for executions and that one is still in use today (although I can’t recall if it said where). It’s quite a gnarly contraption where the head it placed in a metal brace with a block of wood under the chin. The brace is then constricted to the point that first the jaw and the teeth crack, then the pressure forces the brain from the cranium. They had torture devices for everything from the obvious heresy, to the lesser known offences like the one for bad musicians whose music offended the ears of the nobility. This thing looked like a clarinet that would trap the fingers and secure them until released. That'll learn you to practice your instruments and not take them into public until you are good and...well, good. Seeing this caused me to laugh out loud in this museum that for obvious reasons has a bit of a somber mood. After the museum which is just steps from the Charles Bridge, El and I split for a couple of hours. She tours the museums in the Jewish quarter and I first head to the train station to get a train schedule to Budapest tomorrow and see if I can reserve a seat on the train. I get all of the information I need and make my way next to a street we have been told has some used CD stores. The street is not that long, but there is just one used CD store there. They have a pretty good selection for its size. I look around and wind up buying the full length CD’s of the Sweet Desolation Boulevard and Sweet Fanny Adams. These were always released in the US as one disc missing original cuts.  Last year in Sydney I saw the two discs and figured they had re-released them in the states too. They didn’t, and this was my first opportunity since then to buy them. I am glad I found them and at very reasonable prices. Next stop is a restaurant that was recommended online. El and I meet in front and go in for lunch at U Medviku. It looks like a small beer hall. I read that sometimes they have an oompah band play in the middle of the room. We saw that in Munich and that was very fun, but of course if there’s enough business for the band, seats may be hard to come by. Without having enough time to see the menu El orders and appetizer. I know I could have objected to wait for me to find something, but I didn’t and just look for an entree. I go with the beef sirloin tips Stroganoff with wild rice that turns out to be very good. This is also my first time able to try the Czech beer called Budvar/Budweiser. It has nothing to do with Anheuser-Busch. It’s better than Bud, but the Pilsner Urquell still tops my list. We discuss plans for the evening, and think we will tool around Smichov tonight near the hotel. Our train tomorrow is 7:30am, so an early night it shall be.

We rest up a little at the hotel and tie up some loose ends like mailing our postcards, clearing our room bill for quick departure, and packing our bags. El is not feeling well so I let her guide the evenings pace. We stumble upon a heavy metal bar called Hell's Bells: a rockin' pub (since made more famous as the bar that refuses to pay Anvil in the movie Anvil: The Story Of Anvil). www.hellsbells.cz Well, with the obvious AC/DC reference we head down and are greeted with loud metal music and a mural of the Kiss solo albums on the walls. This is my kind of place! And its one of the more busy bars we’ve been to in the area. I am introduced to Staropramen beer. It’s a lager that does not really taste too good. Sadly there is no other choice. As with most pubs there is not much in the way of beer selection. You get the tap choice or soda. Some may have two beers brewed by the same brewery, but its not like we are used to where everyplace has Heineken no matter what other brands are available. OK, after a CD of White Lion we are thinking that if the next one is of equal lameness we will press on...and then the bartender puts on Slayer - South of Heaven in its entirety- I prepare to order another round and settle in for the next 45 minutes. I love this record and haven’t heard it all the way through in years. I know El is just indulging me, but that’s one of the things that makes her MY perfect travel mate. We wind up spending the whole night at this one bar. We play more Scrabble, and the rounds keep coming. We ask if they are serving food, but the bartender does not speak English and does not know what I am asking. We opt for a bag of potato chips instead. Our choices are plain, sour cream and onion, and paprika. I order the sour cream and onion and return to the table. I tell El of the choices and she insists that we need to try the paprika flavored ones. I order them next. I am not 100 percent on this but it looks like paprika might just be the word for pepper (as in green or red pepper). The bag has red peppers on it and they don’t taste anything like Hungarian paprika, we agree they are a little too mild flavored for our tastes. We switch back to sour cream and onion for one last bag. I put in a request for Saxon on the sound system. We endure some insufferable band that sounds like Norwegian death metal. And then he puts on Iron Maiden Seventh Son of a Seventh Son from beginning to end. Not my favorite, but better than the last. I tell El that if I don’t hear Saxon soon, we can call it a night.  As I order my next round I tip the bartender generously and tell him that I need to hear some Saxon. The next thing I know, I hear the Wheels Of Steel album in its entirety. Saxon rules. Judas Priest Freewheel Burning brings the Saxon set to a close. El is getting tired and she has endured enough for the night, I will finish up and get ready to head back to the hotel and bid a fond farewell to a fantastic city that I most certainly want to revisit.

Tuesday April 24

We have what could at best be considered a lousy night’s sleep. Dehydrated from the beer and chips, too hot for covers, too cool for no covers, we wind up getting up 45 minutes ahead of the alarm clock. We take advantage of the extra time to get to the train station with plenty of time to spare. We are taking the subway and run into a little bit of a question mark here. Evidently, Prague has two train stations. The main station and the lesser station. Trains to Budapest leave from both. Our ticket specifies the main station (Holcevice), but the 7:32 am train leaves from the smaller station (Hlavni Nadrazi). I am thankful that we have allowed extra time to figure this out with the information booth. Unfortunately, if we cannot take the 7:32 train from the small station, the next Budapest train from Holcevice is not until 11:30- then we will really have ample time to get to the station. As usual we did a precheckout last night with the expectation that we can just drop the keys and run. There’s nothing worse than needing to pay for one phone call and checkout and you get to the desk just as a whole tour group is checking out. So we always arrange to checkout the night before so that we can drop the keys and go. When I did this, the clerk arranged for a take away breakfast for us. What a pleasant surprise. A ham and cheese sandwich, apple juice box, a tangerine, and a slice of, what has been eluding me the whole time in Prague, the poppy seed cake! We make it to the station an hour early and are told that we can take the train from this station with this ticket.  We wait. El gets a coffee and some bite size pastries. We share the pastries which would be better with something to drink. I am saving my breakfast for the train, so I go without- it’s only two bites. We get our platform assignment and hurry to the train. We pull out of the station on schedule as Prague sees the first rain we've seen on the trip...what good timing!

I learned of some disappointing news last night as the Saxon concert we are set to see in Budapest has been rescheduled for unclear reasons. So the good news is they have already scheduled the new date for September 20, the bad news being that I won’t be here to see it. Although El and I have seen several concerts on our trips, this is the third time that a planned show was cancelled (after Jewel got in a horse riding accident she cancelled her Paris show in May 2002 and David Bowie's seemingly career ending heart attack occurred two days prior to our visit to see him in Vienna 2004).  Well, maybe we'll get lucky enough to find another Hell's Bells type of pub that'll play some Saxon for us!