Central Europe 2008: From The Czech Republic to Poland to Austria to Croatia to Slovenia to Italy
Day One – The Heathrow Nightmare is Only a Dream, Is That A Bomb Under Your Hood and Introducing “The Stairs”
I had been very excited about our upcoming trip that would take us to five countries we had never visited (well, had Montenegro had the decency to let us in their damned country, it would have been five, but as time drew closer to leaving, I felt a slight twinge of trepidation. Was the pace going to be too fast? Were we trying to see too many things? Diesel or Super Gas (some events remain in your psyche forever)?
As it turned out, my fears were more than allayed, and the Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia and Slovenia far exceeded our wildest dreams, and when people ask me today what part of the trip was my favorite, I just answer, “All of it.”
As in 2005 and 2001, our friends Kim and Mary (obviously gluttons for punishment) joined Tracy and me on our four-week sojourn. Our travels would take us to Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Olomouc, Krakow, Vienna, Dubrovnik, Trogir, Plitvice National Park, Ljubljana, Bled, Rovinj, Venice and places in between.
Neither the intervention of a stealth Slovenian policeman nor the border guard at the Montenegro border (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Benito Mussolini) could put a damper on this 28-day adventure.
Neither the intervention of a stealth Slovenian policeman nor the border guard at the Montenegro border (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Benito Mussolini) could put a damper on this 28-day adventure. Heck, we even lost Kim for three days smack dab in the middle of the trip, but that’s getting too far ahead of myself.
So before I have another Buza Bar flashback, it’s time to get on with Maitai’s Central (Don’t Call It Eastern) European Excursion.
A trip that had been one year in the planning was finally underway. My ingrown toenail dilemma that threatened to derail the vacation just a few days before we left seemed to be resolved (at least the toe hadn’t fallen off, and there was no gangrene to speak of). Kim and Mary drove up from San Diego, picked us up at the house, and we were off to LAX.
They had a 4:30 p.m. flight to London on Air New Zealand. We took off a little more than one hour later on American Airlines. Our first goal of the trip: attempt to navigate the Living Hell we were told was Heathrow Airport and hook up with Kim and Mary for our 3 p.m. flight to Prague on British Airways.
“Be prepared,” we were warned by many, “you will be lucky to make your flight to Prague. Heathrow is a nightmare!” Even with 2 ½ hours in between flights, the words seemed ominous.
I had just read an article that said the number of bags lost each day at Heathrow was staggering. “How many bags do they misplace each day?” Tracy asked.
“I think about a million,” I answered, attempting to lower expectations.
Our flight was my favorite kind…uneventful. Even the two little kids right behind us cooperated by sleeping most of the trip.
The only unsettling event happened a few minutes before landing (well, at least when we were supposed to be landing). “We’ve been told there is a lot of traffic,” the pilot said, “and we will have to circle for about half an hour.” Cue Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis (yes, the good Out-of-Towners movie).
The flight arrived about 12:45, and we scurried off the plane searching for information on which terminal we should go to for the London to Prague leg of our journey. “Terminal 5,” we were told. We cringed.
“Oh no, Terminal 5 is the new terminal having all those problems.” Could we be doomed already? The answer turned out to be an emphatic, “No.” So much for all the doom and gloom stories of Heathrow that we had heard and read about before we left. They proved to be fiction (at least for us). We walked from the plane to where we would be transported from Terminal 3 to Terminal 5, hopped on the bus and soon we were at Terminal 5.
When we walked into Terminal 5, Tracy said, “What’s all the fuss about? There’s nobody here.” Sure enough, there were only about ten people waiting to go though Customs. One of the information people saw our amazed (and relieved) look and said, “Yes, the nightmare of Terminal 5 is grossly overrated.”
We zipped through Customs and less than an hour from landing, we were inside terminal 5 looking for Kim, Mary and a drink (not necessarily in that order. Hey, we had four more weeks with them).
Within a few minutes, Kim and Mary appeared, who had also navigated the “Nightmare Of Heathrow” with relative ease. We were all pooped from the Transatlantic journey, but fortunately we were finally able to get a little sleep on the two-hour flight to Prague.
This was going to be a different type of trip for the four of us when it came to lodging. In order to save a few dollars so we could purchase extra wine, we had reserved some apartments instead of hotels along the way, and Prague was to be our first one. We had booked the Vlasska Apartments, which are owned by the Arcadia Residence.
The apartments had received good reviews on Trip Advisor, and I had liked the location in the Mala Strana area of Prague. Of course, since I had never been to Prague, that observation was a sheer guess.
I had been in contact with Pasquale, who runs the Arcadia Residence, and he said there would be a driver at the airport to pick us up, and he would meet us at the apartments. After getting our luggage (yep, not one lost bag, either), there was a gentleman with a sign with our names on it and a van that would transport us to our appointed destination.
Soon we were on a street adjacent to the Vltava River, and we turned up a street where the driver said our apartments were located. Suddenly, he pulled over to the curb, and two policemen told our driver to open his hood, and they started using mirrors to see if anything was lodged in the undercarriage. “What the heck is this?” we thought.
“They must have known you were coming,” Kim said.
Actually, it turned out our apartment was just up the street from the American, German and Irish embassies, and I was not a Czech government list of undesirables…yet. When we arrived at the apartments, Pasquale was there to greet us and, after showing us our apartments, he offered to take us on a little orientation walking tour.
The Vlasska Apartments are only about a five-minute walk to the Charles Bridge, so the location was perfect. “It is also much more quiet over here at night than in Old Town,” Pasquale said. As it turned out, he was right.
Since we all had a second wind (well, maybe a third or fourth wind by now), we decided to go out and have some traditional Czech cuisine. Pasquale had given us the name of a place that would fit that bill, and when we asked him how to pronounce it, he said, “Just look for the name of a restaurant that you will not be able to pronounce.”
When we saw the name “Baracnicka rychta”, we knew we had found it. The place was full of locals (well it was full of people speaking another language, so we made that leap with confidence).
We downed our first Czech pivo (beer), and our waiter suggested I try some “seasoning additives for your pivo.” Hmm, paprika and beer don’t seem to go together, but when in Prague.
Well, seasoning additives for beer actually consisted of Olomouc cheese, pickled in chopped hot peppers with oil and onions, seasoned with cumin and pepper. Not bad. Not especially good, either.
I believe I won the best meal award for my marinated pork ribs with four spices (cumin, mustard, onions and horse radish). Kim also had pork, Mary had turkey breast, while Tracy tried something called Moravian Sparrow, which I think was a mini roast pork and not something that flies around in our backyard.
It was not quite dark outside when we exited the restaurant, so we decided to hike up to the Prague Castle Complex to scout out the format to acquire tickets the next day. This would be our first encounter of climbing the more than 200 steps to the castle, a route that would be known in a few days as merely (and not kindly might I add) “The Stairs.”
As we started up “The Stairs”, the sound of fireworks started erupting. “What a nice welcome for us,” I said to three people who pretended not to hear any more inane comments from me on this night. At the top, we looked out over Prague. The sky was a glorious, velvet blue. What a night and what a view!
We scoped out St. Vitus Cathedral and the Prague Castle tour propaganda, got the needed info about opening times, took some pictures and headed back down “The Stairs.” Kim and Mary decided that was enough for one day and headed back to the apartment, while Tracy and I walked on the Charles Bridge and took the steps down to Kampa Island.
Although Kampa Island was relatively quiet, the Charles Bridge had it going on at 11:00 on a Saturday night, but the only thing going on for us was an onset of SVFS (Sudden Vacation Fatigue Syndrome), so we headed back for a good night’s sleep.
Tomorrow would be our first full day to explore Prague, but sadly it would be the quickest ever into a trip that Tracy would give me “the look” and call me an “idiot.” Of course, her wrath would be well deserved.
Day Two – An Astounding Cathedral, A Brew With A View, No Zloty Zone and Tom’s Prague Death March!
As I have often stated, at home, you have to drag me out of bed on Sunday morning. On vacation, however, I am The Energizer Bunny.
On this particularly beautiful Prague Sunday, I was standing on The Charles Bridge at 7 a.m. shooting pictures while the others got another hour of sleep. A person I met on the bridge said this was the first day in weeks where they expected really nice weather. “Rain,” he said. “We’ve had lots of rain.” “Timing is everything,” I thought.
The reports are correct. If you want to be on The Charles Bridge without hordes of people trampling you, early in the morning is the only time to accomplish that trick. By about 9:30 or 10 a.m., it’s every man, woman and child for themselves.
As I traversed the bridge, looking up at the Prague Castle and out onto the Vltava, I noticed there was one statue that seemed to garner much more attention than any other on the bridge. I recognized it as the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, who, like most saints, received his sainthood status the hard way. Nearly everyone who passed the statue rubbed on the gold engraving, which is supposed to grant each person one wish.
Believers, I don’t want to spoil a good story, but it doesn’t work, and my wish was not very complicated. Oh well, maybe it just doesn’t work for Presbyterians. I met up with the rest of the gang about 8:15, and after some incredibly overpriced espressos and cappuccinos, we walked up “The Stairs” to the Prague Castle Complex. Mary asked, “Isn’t there another way to get up there?” Well, yes there was, but it wasn’t until we returned home that I was reminded of that easier method to transport people to the castle. But, what the heck, we had to get in shape for the rest of the trip.
After trudging up “The Stairs”, we were able to go inside St. Vitus just before Mass, and the sun streaming through the stained glass windows was a spectacular sight to behold. We had to scurry out, but knew we would see the entire interior of the church at the end of our audio tour.
The Castle audio guide tour cost 250 Kč per person, and it included entrance to the Old Royal Palace, St. Georges Basilica, the Golden Lane, Daliborka Tower, and (best of all) with the audio guide, we would also be allowed in the exit of St. Vitus Cathedral when it reopened, bypassing the long line waiting to get inside. It was like having a Paris Museum card in Prague (only a lot larger and heavier).
While traveling down the Golden Lane, we found a tiny, little residence, where I could take a photo of Tracy that made her look like a giant.
I was going to e-mail her mom and tell her that Tracy had consumed a magic Czech potion that made her grow substantially in size, but decided against it. There was also a tattooed dude playing with fire.
After getting through the first four parts of the tour, and since St. Vitus wasn’t going to open for another 90 minutes, we put our audioguides in our pockets and headed up to Strahovský kláster (Strahov Monastery & Library), the second oldest monastery in Prague.
I don’t know if they frown upon tourists taking audio guides off the premises, but on this day we did without any ramifications. Plus, they had my driver’s license, so they knew where we lived. We viewed the incredible ceiling in the Theological Hall of the library. The old collection of books and the now extinct Dodo bird on display was kind of cool, too. All of this culture can make a group thirsty (a dodo bird is culture, right?), so after touring the library, and since we still had time before St. Vitus opened, it was time for a libation.
Close by to the monastery, we spied a restaurant that had a magnificent view of Prague from its outdoor patio. It was noon, so it must be time for beer. In just a few minutes, we were to reach pivo nirvana. We sat down at a table at the Bellavista restaurant on this warm day and ordered an Urquell dark, draft pivo (at least I think it was Urquell). I am not a big beer drinker, but this beer was stupendous. For a dark beer, it was light, flavorful and even a little sweet. If we hadn’t stolen four audio guides and needed to get back to St. Vitus, I could have stayed here all day (our group later wished I’d spent the day here, too).
The menu items looked interesting, and we decided to come back here for dinner one night. In a magnanimous gesture, I offered to pay for the pivos and handed the waiter some money. He looked at the money and started laughing. “Sorry, we don’t take Polish money here.” I had mixed up my zloty with my koruna. “Just like the old days before the euro,” I thought. As we walked toward the entrance of the castle complex, there were a bunch of guys in uniform, and I was afraid they had sent out troops searching for a group of Americans with stolen audio guides.
Fortunately, it was time for the changing of the guard ceremony. By now, the castle was packed with visitors. The line for St. Vitus was long, but when it reopened, we went in the exit and wound our way through the cathedral. The four of us have visited many (sometimes we feel too many) churches and cathedrals, but St. Vitus vaulted into all of our “Top Five” lists.
Although we had done a lot of walking, there was an “opportunity” for us to walk up the 287 stairs to the top of St. Vitus. Since I never met a set of stairs that could not be vanquished, up we went. The views out over Prague were astounding.
It was now after two in the afternoon, and I made the huge mistake of saying, “Let’s eat lunch over in the Staromestské Námestí (Old Town Square). By the time we found a place to sit down and eat, it was after three, the weather had become quite warm and I could see that our walking warriors were getting a little testy with their fearless leader. Sitting outside gave us a good opportunity to people watch while we devoured some pommes frites, soup and a refreshing pivo. I could tell everyone was tired from the day’s already packed schedule.
Did that deter my first-day walking tour of Prague after lunch? Well, not really. As I sat in the square, looking out at the statue of Jan Hus (who was burned at the stake in the 1400s, but who did get a statue of himself built here 500 years later), I had this idea to walk over to a famous beer garden after lunch.
As it turned out, by the time we got there, Tracy, Kim and Mary had notions of burning me at the stake. But before we started walking, we looked at our watches, and it was 15 minutes before the hour. A huge crowd was hurriedly gathering in front of The Old Town Hall orloj (Astronomical Clock).
Yes, the dance of the glockenspiel was only moments away, and people started jostling for a good position to watch. For a Southern Californian, it was similar to being at the scene of a Lindsay Lohan arrest.
At the top of the hour some goofy little characters did a dance (well, they shook anyway), and then, poof, the spectacle was over. When it ended, almost as soon as it had started, there was a vocal, collective sigh that filtered through the crowd, as if to say, “I wasted 20 minutes of my life for this.” Speaking of collective, although our collective feet were tired and getting more and more sore by the step, we walked toward our next stop, U Flecku, one of the oldest beer gardens in Prague.
On the map, it didn’t look that far. In reality, it was turning into a big Tom mistake, and as we finally sat down at the table in the beer garden, my beautiful and trusting wife gazed at me and said lovingly, “What the Hell were you thinking, you idiot?” Sometimes I don’t relish my role as tour director. Kim, always there to help, equated the last part of our walk to a death march, while Mary just looked happy that she was married to the “other guy” at the table.
We walked back across another bridge, and the river was full of paddleboats, canoes, kayaks and other floating devices. Spring had sprung, and the citizens of Prague were taking full advantage of the sunshine. Everyone was in a jovial, cheerful mood…well except for my three traveling companions who were muttering something about a “mutiny.”
Then it was up the stairs to the Charles Bridge and back to the apartment. Looking at our watches, it was after 6 p.m. Tracy wasn’t talking to me for the moment, so I had a chance to reflect on the day. We could not have been more fortunate that the weather had cooperated, and we experienced Prague on such a gorgeous day. The views both from and of the Prague Castle were stunning. The city was so vibrant, and although Prague was filled to the brim with locals and visitors, it was not even a minor nuisance.
Old Town Square was really cool with the spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn rising above it. It would have been nicer had there not been a structure built right in front of it, which I think was the doing of Hapsburg era folks.
We had not had a large lunch, and by the eight o’clock hour both my wife and friends were once again speaking to me, as was my nearly empty stomach. There are an abundant number of nice, little restaurants on Nerudova Street in Mala Strana, and we wandered nearly all the way to the top of the street checking them out (just can’t get enough walking). We decided upon Vpodhradi (Nerudova 8), which we had passed early in the walk up the street. It was very cute and had a garden in the back, but since it was reserved, we ate under the nice vaulted ceiling in front. The dinner was good, and they had a good selection of steak, chicken and fish dishes. Mary sampled a goulash with very bizarre bread dumplings. What we noticed most about the restaurant was its intricate plating. Over the course of the next few weeks, it became apparent that in many restaurants in Central Europe (or at least the ones we frequented) plating was an important part of the presentation. It also became apparent that the food was going to be better than what we had expected. We walked back near the embassies and happened upon a very neat wine cellar that would become our home away from home in Prague and then we had a quick drink at an Irish pub.
It was here I made the error of saying, “Geez, my feet are killing me.” I tried to stop, but it was too late. It was the first “collective look” I had ever received. The following day our friends Doug and Jackie (who had just flown in on this night from Southern California) would hook up with us for a day of sightseeing, and I decided we would go at a more leisurely pace. What I did not know was that we were going to dine at two fantastic restaurants.
Next: Day Three – A Jewish History Lesson, Thai-ing One On, Seeing Red, Cellar Dwellers, Beware Of Flying Mice And Perhaps One Does Come To Prague For The Food