Heading home…

The Tulip Room in Prague

The train for Prague left at 9:35 am so I had plenty of time for breakfast and to check out.  I bid farewell to the staff at Nossek, who really had been very gracious and friendly, and set off for the Meidling train station.  I got there early – around 8:25 am – and had to wait till my train came up on the Departure screen (they usually only show about an hour’s worth of trains) so I could see what track I was leaving from.

After about 10 minutes, it came up and listed Track 5.  It also said that it was delayed twenty minutes.  Rats!  If I’d know that, I wouldn’t have left so early.  Regardless, I headed out for the track and plopped myself down on a seat to wait for the train.  Around 9:55 am, it finally pulled in and everyone got on.  It was quite a crowd and I was a little worried that I wouldn’t find a seat.  I hadn’t bothered to get a seat reservation, but I finally found one (plus an empty one next to me), and settled in for the long 4+ hour ride to Prague.

The scenery was pretty but relatively uneventful except for the occasional glimpse of some ruins or a pretty church.  Mostly I read or worked on my journal.  We made a few stops and at one point, a Czech man got on and sat next to me.  Luckily, it was only for a brief time as he stank of stale cigarette smoke.

Finally, we got into Prague around 2:30 p.m. and everyone piled out into the station.  This was the first time I’d been to the Prague train station, since I’d flown in before and we left by bus, so I had to look around before I found the Metro.  I bought my ticket (plus one for the next morning), validated it and soon found myself on the way to Lesser Quarter, where I had booked a room once again with Castle Steps.

This time, I was in the Tulip Room.  It was not as big as the Buttercup Room, and didn’t have the enormous bathtub, but it WAS at the base of Nerudova Street, which means I didn’t have to climb the hill.  In fact, it was right off the square, so it was very convenient to the tram.  It was in an apartment, and my room was on the second floor.

View from bridge

Once I got settled, I headed out.  My sole goal was to spend the remaining 300 Czech crowns I had (courtesy of Pat), and to eat dinner.  I was tired after a long travel day, and all I wanted to do was rest in my room.  So I headed for Manufaktur, a very nice shop that only sells items made in the Czech Republic, and bought a small gift for my daughter.

Having divested myself of the Czech money, I took the tram to Cafe Savoy in New Town and had a nice dinner of sausage, ham, cabbage, potatoes and wine.  Afterward, I indulged with an apple/cheese tart and Cafe Savoy’s house coffee, which had cinnamon and chocolate in it, and paid with a credit card.  I still had Euros left, but those can always be used again on another trip.  I wanted to get rid of the Czech money because I wasn’t sure when or if I would be back here.

Finally, it was time to go.  I walked back over the bridge and looked out at Prague in the evening dusk.  I could see the castle sitting high on the hill above the city, and had a brief spurt of melancholy that I was leaving this beautiful area.  But truth be told, I was ready for home.

View of castle in distance

When I got back to the Tulip room, it was blessedly quiet and peaceful.  I did some hand-laundry, worked on my blog and finally got everything packed up and ready to go.  The bed was huge and very comfy and I was soon fading away….

The next morning, I was up early as I had to catch a tram, metro and bus to the airport, and I wanted to make sure I was there two hours before my 10:35 a.m. departure.  Since I wasn’t going to be able to eat breakfast at Castle Steps, I stopped at Bohemia Bagel and got a couple of bagels and a cup of coffee to take with me. The bagels are great – just like American bagels – but the coffee was pretty weak.  However, it was hot and had caffeine, so I drank it down.

I made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare.  I usually fly just with carry-ons but because of the gifts I was bringing back, I had to check a bag. So even though I had checked in online, I still had to go through the check in process. There was a moment of panic when I saw a huge line at the Delta counter.  However, I noticed the Business Class section (which only had a few people) allowed all classes of Medallion members to check in – I’m silver class. I was able to get my bag checked in record time.

Cafe Savoy

As I made my way back to the assigned gate, I noticed that I had not gone through any security lines, which seemed very strange. I was just starting to wonder if I’d accidentally slipped past them when I realized that the Prague airport has the security lines at each individual gate.  It certainly makes it a lot easier and convenient.  I’m curious whether it’s cost-effective for the airport to do it this way.  On one hand, you can move personnel from one gate to the other, depending on flight times.  But on the other, you need a lot more equipment for each gate.

At any rate, I made it on my flight and joined the rest of the passengers as we taxied out of Prague Airport. The flight home was incredibly long, but the man sitting next to me was very nice.  He spoke with an American accent, but several times, a young high school boy came up and talked to him in Czech.  I assumed it was his son, but he told me that the young kid was actually a Czech pitcher who just turned 17 and has just been signed by the Philadelphia Phillies.  My seatmate was a scout for the Phillies and was bringing the boy (his name is Marek Minarik) over for instructional training in Florida for a month.  Then he comes back in the spring for actual spring training.  Marek was very tall (probably 6’1″ or 6’2″ and the scout said that he is still growing.  He was very cute, though, and obviously very excited about coming over.

We finally made it to JFK, where I had the pleasure of a six-hour layover at the world’s dirtiest airport. But finally I was on my way home to CVG – and already planning my next trip!

Day 3 – our last day in Prague

Sunday morning was another bright and beautiful day in Prague.  Have I mentioned that the weather has been just about perfect?  Sunny during the day and cool in the evening (I was very glad I brought a light jacket).  After some early morning putzing around, we headed up the hill for breakfast (same fare – bagels, vegetables, cereal, yogurt, etc.). 

This morning, we headed for the Jewish Museum, which consists of the old Jewish Cemetery, various synagogues, and the Old/New Synagogue.  It is a very popular tourist attraction, which is why we wanted to hit it early.  The cemetery is a place for contemplation and I didn’t want to be distracted by hordes of tour groups loudly commenting at each stop. 

The Jewish Cemetery

 

We found the place without too much problem, bought our tickets then headed for the cemetery to walk along the paths between the tombstones.  It was difficult to look at this without being deeply moved.  The Czech Jews who lived in this small area could not expand the cemetery, so they were forced to stack the bodies and stones on top of each other, as much as twelve deep.  When we got there, there were only a few other people and the experience of seeing the old stone markers hit by splashes of sunlight filtering through the trees made it a unique experience. 

The Old-New Synagogue

 

After we left, we visited several of the other smaller synagogues, then made our way to the Old-New Synagogue, which is one of the oldest places of worship for the European Jewish community (dating back to the 13th century).  As I slowly moved through the synagogue, which still holds actual services, I read about the various practices of the historic Jews.  I know a little about Judaism from a class I took back in college, but seeing and reading about the ancient Torah and viewing other historic religious artifacts was fascinating. 

Our next stop was St. Agnes convent, which dates back to the 13th century.  The convent was commissioned by St. Agnes, sister of the aforementioned King Wenceslas I.  Agnes and her brother are both buried here.  Agnes lived to the ripe old age of 70 – an amazing feat during that period.  When I see such ancient history right in front of me, it sometimes just stupefies my mind – it is hard to comprehend how something so old can still be seen and enjoyed today. 

St. Agnes Convent

 

On the way back from St. Agnes’s convent, we stopped at Bakehouse, a local Prague bakery renowned for its pastries.  After splitting a small cheesecake topped with berries, I will add my praises. It was on the expensive side but worth it.  After our mid-morning fortification, we headed down to the main square of Stare Mesto. Since we had about 40 minutes before the hourly viewing of the Astronomical Clock, we walked over to the Church of Our Lady before Tyn and wandered through the church, which was built beginning in 1365. The interior was unprepossessing but rich in history.  Since there was no admission charge, I dropped some money in the donations box when leaving. 

When we left, we hurried over to the Town Hall to see the clock. This time, instead of watching the clock, I watched the other tourist’s faces.  It was fun to see everyone’s oohs and aahs as the Apostles came out of their hiding places in time with the music.  Pat noticed that the music was coming from a live trumpeter on top of the high tower. After his “concert,” everyone applauded. 

Our next stop was the Municipal House and Powder Gate.  Powder Gate is an old medieval tower in the Stare Mesto area that is connected to Municipal House, a gorgeous Art Nouveau building with some of the most beautiful ornate early 20th century decoration I’ve ever seen.  We walked through as much of the building as we could, ogling the decorative chandeliers and tile work throughout. 

Municipal House

 

Powder Gate

 

It was time to head back to the hotel as we had tickets for Don Giovanni that evening at the Estates Theatre. I was looking forward to it, as this theatre actually hosted the premiere performance of Don Giovanni in the late 1700’s, and Mozart himself conducted. 

We decided to have dinner before the performance at Bellavista, a restaurant located up by Strahov Monastery, with beautiful views of the city. According to the information booklet, Sean Connery and members of the Rolling Stones have eaten here.  After freshening up at the hotel, we walked up the hill to Bellavista. 

We had a remarkable dinner–I had salmon glazed with fresh basil pesto, rosemary potatoes and a wonderful glass of Merlot.  Pat had beef goulash with mushroom sauce and dumplings. The meals were delicious by themselves, but even more so given that as we ate on the terrace, we could watch the city below us. We would have liked to linger, but needed to hurry to get to the theatre before 7 pm. 

Dinner at Bellavista

 

 

That required some maneuvering–we wound up taking the tram to the metro, then transferring trains to get to the theatre.  We arrived at 7 pm on the dot and took a second to admire the theatre from the outside – a lovely pale green jewel box. Presenting our tickets, the usher led us up to our seats.Walking through the door, I realized that the seats were in a box on the third floor, and hastily walked back out again. 

You should know that I have a fear of heights.  A bad fear of heights.  I had mentioned it to Pat (who bought the tickets), but it didn’t occur to her that a third floor small theatre box would be considered high (and to be fair, probably wouldn’t to most people).  I tried to go in–I honestly did, but my legs started trembling and I got dizzy, so I decided that seeing Don Giovanni was not in my immediate future. 

Heading back downstairs (I insisted that Pat stay and watch the show), I tried to explain to the box office manager what happened, and hoped that there might be a seat available in the lower stratosphere, but she didn’t understand.  So I ventured out into the evening and wandered around.  Luckily, the theatre was near to Wenceslas Square, which was hopping that night.  I bought some ice cream, then hung out at a coffee shop with a cappuccino and my iPod Touch. 

Around 8 pm, I decided to go back to tell Pat that I was going to head back to the hotel, and wrote down directions for her to get back.  When I arrived, however, it was the first intermission and Pat said that she was ready to go.  The theatre box was very hot and she was getting sleepy from the heat. 

Since she hadn’t seen Wenceslas Square yet, we walked up that way before heading back.  It was a beautiful evening and the square was all lit up, with lots of people bustling in and out of restaurants and pubs.  The National Gallery at the top of the hill was shining like a beacon, and the statue of King Wenceslas sat proudly before us.  Aside from the opera fiasco, it was a perfect ending to our last night in Prague. 

Final night in Prague - Wenceslas Square

 

Tomorrow–on to Cesky Krumlov!

Day 2 in Prague – the castle and a Dancing House

Saturday morning, I woke up feeling fully rested and refreshed after a long night’s sleep.  After showering and getting ready, I headed up the hill for breakfast.  Castle Steps provides a free breakfast but the restaurant is about a block up the hill, so you get a little exercise in the morning before you eat.  Breakfast was very good (somewhat surprising, it was all vegan) and consisted of large, tasty bagels, fresh bread, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, fruit, thick yogurt with various cereals and granola, juice and coffee.  The hotel also provided a number of computers for guests to use and a printer, alone with wireless access. I had a netbook back at the hotel to use (courtesy of Pat) but the printer came in handy. 

After breakfast, I decided to take a quick run up to the castle.  I didn’t plan on doing any extensive touring till Pat got here but I wanted to check out the layout in advance.  Rather than walking up the very steep hill that the castle sits on top of, I took the tram up the hill to the stop above the castle. 

 

You know, if there is one thing Prague has got going for it (other than its charm and beauty), it’s great public transportation.  You can get just about anyplace in the city by tram, bus or metro.  And it’s dirt cheap, too – a ticket that is good for 75 minutes and endless transfers only costs around $1.35.  It’s easy, too – especially the trams, as you just jump on and off.  I like walking, and have certainly walked my feet off here, but it’s nice knowing that when you’re tired, you have access to a quick ride. 

Anyway, back at the castle, I wandered around the compound, which is absolutely huge!  It consists of endless buildings – the Royal Palace, St. Vitus Cathedral, the Basilica of St. George, and a gazillion royal gardens (okay, maybe not a gazillion, but at least 3-4).  I took a brief peek inside St. Vitus to catch a glimpse of the Mucha stained glass window, then headed towards the front of the palace, through the formal gardens and down a steep winding stone staircase in the direction of town. 

I wasn’t sure exactly where it would leave me but trusted blindly to luck.  As it turned out, once I got to the bottom, I found myself at the Wallenstein Palace and gardens. Wallenstein Palace, which is the home of the Czech Senate, was not open to the public, but I toured the gardens.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think about a grotto that looked like petrified plant life (and a few scary faces) creeping down a stone wall but I snapped a photo and enjoyed the experience. 

After I left the gardens, it was time to meet Pat.  Her flight got in at 11:50 am, and because I was afraid she would get lost trying to find our room, I thought it would be best to meet at the Starbucks at the Malastranski namesti tram station.  I usually HATE to frequent American fast food places in Europe, but figured that logistically, finding a place that she was familiar with made sense. 

I didn’t have to wait long—within 20 minutes or so, Pat showed up and we headed up the hill to our room. She refreshed herself and we talked about the day’s schedule, deciding that it would be best to hit the castle first since we were already halfway up the hill and could easily walk the rest of the way.  And let’s face it–it is an incredibly scenic walk up to the castle. 

So off we went up Uzov (which is a continuation of Nerudova).  Along the way, we detoured to Loreta Square. 

Loreta

 

This is considered one of the more beautiful squares in Prague, and is the home of Cernin Palace, which we did not go in, and the Loreto Shrine, which we did.  For an extra 100 crowns, we got a photo pass and I made good use of it.  The church inside the courtyard–the Church of the Nativity– was quite ornate with lots of silver and bronze and gold throughout.  The Loreta included the Treasury room, which has a large displace of ornate religious objects encrusted in various jewels.  One piece–a monstrance (whatever that is)–was encrusted with over six thousand diamonds. 

Pat and I took turns taking photos of each other with the diamond spokes coming out of our head. 

 
 
 

Shrine at Loreta

 

Next stop was the Prague Castle compound. As I explained before, it is indeed a compound.  Huge doesn’t even describe it. 

Guard at Prague Castle

 

 Luckily, I had bought a map from my earlier foray so we were able to find our way around fairly easily.  The crowds were intense and we tried to avoid them by ducking into St. Vitus Cathedral. St. Vitus, by the way, is the patron saint of epilepsy, which is where the term “St. Vitus’s Dance” comes from. The cathedral is beautiful, with huge stained glass arched windows (including one by Alfons Mucha) and high cavernous ceilings. 

Unfortunately, Golden Lane, which I had wanted to see, was closed this year for extensive renovations. So instead, we took off for the Royal Gardens, which were clustered with groups of people wandering through the green spaces.  There was nothing flowering that I could see, but the formal layout was quite charming and it was a nice change from the overpowering palace and cathedral. 

By this time, we were in desperate need of a break so we left the palace compound and found our way to the stone walkway leading down to town.  Fifteen minutes later, we were happily sitting in a sidewalk café–me with a Budweiser beer and Pat with a cappuccino. Budweiser, by the way, is a product of a local brewery in Cesky Budejovice–not Anheuser Busch’s “Bud.”  Anheuser-Butch has or had a number of lawsuits against the Czech brewery for patent infringement.  However, so far the courts seem to be siding with the Czech company, noting that it has been around for more than 700 years, compared to AB’s fairly recent beginning in the late 19th century. 

Finally, hunger took over and we set out in search of a restaurant.  Jennifer from Castle Steps had recommended Café Slavia in Nove Mestro, so we decided to walk up that way so that Pat could see some of the area.  It wasn’t that far and by the time we got to the café, we saw the Dancing House up ahead (aka Fred and Ginger) so we took a short detour to view the buildings.  It really does look like the building is moving.  We took mega pictures and then made our way back down to the restaurant where we enjoyed some typical Czech fare of pork and dumplings.  I drank a glass of Czech red wine but it wasn’t the greatest and I wish I would have stuck with beer. 

The Dancing House

 

After that, Pat was about wiped out so we started making our way back to the hotel. Of course, I had to stop for provisions at a local patisserie called Café Savoy, which makes an incredible apple cake.  Back in the Buttercup Room, we enjoyed our late night (well, not-so-late night) dessert and then Pat went to bed, while I piddled around writing and looking through guidebooks. 

Tomorrow — the Jewish cemetery and museum!

Arrival in Prague – Day 1

  

After a long, tedious flight from Cincinnati via JFK, I arrived in Prague on Friday morning.  The airport here is colorful, clean and easy to get around in (unlike JFK, which remains a smelly, dirty mess).  Within minutes, I found an ATM and armed myself with Czech cash, then headed outside to find bus number 119.  

The bus arrived very quickly and soon I was winding my way through the suburbs of Prague toward the city center.  Twenty-five minutes later, I got off at Dejivsky station, and disappeared into the underground to catch the metro towards Malastranska.  Once at Malastranska, I got off and headed back up to the street where I caught the tram to Malastranska namisti (Square).  From there, it was a long steep walk up Nerudova to Castle Steps, especially with luggage.  I pack very light – one small carry on and a tote bag – but by the time I reached my destination, I was about ready to drop.  

My room wasn’t ready yet (it was around 9 am by this point), but the staff told me they would hold my luggage for me, and asked me to come back at noon. So off I went (downhill this time!) to discover Prague…  

My first impression was that I was in a giant architectural candy box–the buildings in old Prague are an incredible mix of medieval, Baroque and Art Nouveau.  The street my hotel was on – Nerudova – was originally filled with craftsmen, artisans and artists and many of the houses that line the street retain huge medieval doors and pictorial house signs, such as the House of 3 Violins or the House of the Golden Cup.  

House of 3 violins on Nerudova

  

As I walked closer to Stare Mesto (Old Town), the picturesque quality grew.   I crossed over Charles Bridge, a stone bridge built in 1357 and lined with dozens of statues of saints on each side.  

Statue on the Charles Bridge

  

On the other side of the bridge was Staromestske namesti, the main square in Stare Mesto, which holds even more architectural treats, such as St. Nicholas, circa 1737, Municipal House (Art Nouveau), and the Church of Our Lady before Tyn from the 14th century, which dominates the skyline with its dark twin pointed spires.  

Church of Our Lady before Tyn

  

At that time of day, the square was relatively empty, but a cluster of tourists were starting to crowd around the Stare Mesto Town Hall for the hourly showing of the Astronomical Clock. On the hour, the chimes start and the 12 Apostles parade above through two open windows. The building (and the clock) have been around since the 15th century.  

The Astronomical clock (the Apostles coming out on the hour)

  

The Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Hall

  

Did I mention that most of the streets in Prague (at least, the parts I have been through) are cobblestone? Pretty to look at but hell on the feet after a while. I was wearing very comfortable Naot leather walking shoes, but I was soon wincing so I took a break from walking and headed for a cafe for some coffee. After I finished, it was noon and time to check into Castle Steps, my Prague “home” for a few days.  

I (well, we, as soon as Pat got in) were staying in the Buttercup Room, a huge room with antiques, hardwood floors and a bathroom with a tub that was to die for. And all for the incredible price of 55 Euros a night. The staff was very friendly and Jennifer soon got me settled in. I was tempted to take a nap, but past experience has taught me that it doesn’t help with jet lag – the best thing to do is stay outside and keep moving…  So that’s what I did.  

This time I headed in the opposite direction on Nerudova – up the hill towards Prague Castle. I was saving that for later, but I knew there was a monastery at the top along with some breathtaking views of the city. Sure enough, not much further up, I stopped by a wall and caught my breath at the view from the top of Nerudova. There was a lot of green in between – a beautiful valley dotted with small houses and grape vines – and the tiled roofs of the city below.  

View of Prague from Strahov Monastery

  

After reaching the top, I strolled through Strahov Monastery and then relaxed with some Czech cuisine (pork, sauerkraut and dumplings) and a glass of St. Norbert ale.  The setting was incredibly peaceful and beautiful, and I rested my feet and enjoyed the scenery.  After that, I headed out towards Petrin, a huge wooded green space in the middle of the city.   It was cool and solitary and quiet, and I relished the change from the bustle and crowds of the city.  As I walked, I noted a huge old wall next to me that seemed to stretch for miles. I later found out it was built in the 1460’s by the Emperor Charles VI as a project to help the poor.  It is now known as the “Hunger Wall” for that reason.  

Coming back was much easier as it was downhill all the way.  Now it was time to head to Nove Mestro (New Town).  It is called New Town and was a planned community from the 14th century.  It’s strange to think of medieval leaders as being pioneers in urban planning, but the evidence is here in Prague.  Getting here was simple – I picked up the no. 22 tram from Malastranska Square, which dropped me off a few streets from Wenceslas Square.  And sitting up at the top of the square was a huge bronze statue of (Good) King Wenceslas, of Christmas Carol fame.  He was a real king who ruled in the 10th century.  He was later canonized and is now considered the patron saint of the Czech Republic.  

King Wenceslas statue

  

By now, it was around 6 pm and the lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me, so I headed on back to the hotel.  I debated briefly stopping to eat dinner someplace, but instead, grabbed a sandwich, a Pilsner beer and an apple strudel, and took it back to my hotel.   After eating, I soaked in a lovely hot bath in the enormous tub then headed off to dreamland.  

Tomorrow – my friend, Pat, arrives in Prague!

Let the planning begin – two months till departure!

The flight has been booked for awhile, but this past weekend, I really dug in and started planning the trip.  You know – hotels, destinations, car rentals.  Usually, I tend to wait till I’m there to decide, but since my friend, Pat, is coming with me, I figured I’d better do a little planning ahead.

We fly into Prague on Friday–actually, I get in on Friday and Pat on Saturday.  The plan is to stay in Prague until Monday, then leave for Cesky Krumlov.  On Tuesday, we’ll take a bus to Linz, Austria, then grab the express train for Munich.  Once in Munich, we’ll rent a car and take a 2-3 days tour of Bavaria, starting south in Oberammergau, continuing to Neuschwanstein Castle (of Disney fame), then up the Romantic Road, with a few detours to some towns along the way, like Rothenburg.

After then, we’re heading west then south again to Eichstatt, in the middle of the Altmühltal Nature Park, then rounding our way back down to Munich.  Pat leaves on Monday, and I will head on solo to Austria.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

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