Category Archives: Czech Republic

Prague Castle and thereabouts

Another day of perfect weather Sunday and we joined hordes of tourists — no joke, I’m talking Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade size crowds, Iowa State Fair Size crowds, Obama’s (first) inauguration size crowds – crossing the fabled Charles Bridge to head up the hill to the Prague Castle complex, a series of grand buildings centered around the massive St.Vitus Church, where we watched the rather amusing changing of the guards, who wore shades and powder blue uniforms designed by Hollywood director Milos Foreman’s costume designer Theodor Pistek (at the then-new president Vaclav Havel’s request, no less!). (see bottom photo) Church construction began in 1344 and ended in 1921. yes, you read that right. Although the glorious Alfons Mucha art nouveau stained lass window came later, in 1931. (This trip has made me a mucho Mucha fan.)

Much of the complex required an admission ticket, alas, which we didn’t feel like paying. We did pay to wind down from the palace through some lovely terraced formal Royal gardens (
Zahrady gardens…see first photo below) and landed at Besada, a surprisingly good restaurant in Malostranska Square for lunch that we just chanced upon, that served surprisingly good hearty Czech food- snitzel, pork medallions, potatoes, potato and sauerkraut pancakes.

Next stop, we walked up and up and up steps of a nearby park to the funicular, which we used to sail down the north bank. Then we walked along the river, admiring the boats and the Sunday strollers until we reached the Charles Bridge again, this time dominated by a French food fair and a boisterous French brass band that the locals and tourists seemed to love.

Back at our pension, the lovely Green Garland Pension (Pension U Zeleneho Vence) on RetezovStreet, we had one last coffee (tea for some) at Montmarte, an atmospheric cafe across the street and excellent gelato at a good place near the hotel, Creameries Milano ( 12 Husova) before bidding a sad goodbye to our London friends who flew home to London. We had adequate Italian food near our hotel at Olive Nera, enjoying eating at the outdoor cafe overlooking a pretty square and people watching. (Our evening was marred only briefly by a garbage truck that parked right in front of our table to pick up, slowly, the trash. On a Sunday night no less.)

On Monday morning we took one last wander around the area behind the big church in the Od Town square, finding even more gorgeous art nouveau and art deco buildings. And then off to Prague’s airport where I flew to London (on a decent British Airways flight) and then to Chicago (on a worn-out American Airlines plane)  after going through three security checkpoints for that flight alone. (Another in Prague.)

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Prague fairyland

Prague is stunning. My neck seems to be locked in an upward position as I walk through the OlD Town staring up at one spectacularly ornate building facade and church after another. Ornate decorative details everywhere you look, rococo and baroque and art nouveau; buildings adorned with sculptures of buxom women, elaborate iron balconies, gold leaf, geometric patterns. My favorite today hands down was the incredible art nouveau Municipal Building and a small museum devoted to the work of alphonse Mucha. Also walked across the Charles Bridge in early eve.

We are staying in the heart of it all at the Green Garland Pension, a 14th century building on Retezova Street, a narrow street made of old paving stones. Already we have eaten very well, first at The Bake Shop, which we found instead of the Jewish deli we were looking for and has a wide selection of salads, breads, meats, pastries; later at Club architecture, which served nouvous Czech cuisine…I had an excellent beef goulash with dumplings. We also had coffee yesterday morning across,the street at an old place called Montmarte and beer at a brew pub down the street and tonight at another bohemian bar, Literati Kavarna Retezova.

Tonight we splurged for Russ’s 56th birthday at Celeste, a fancy French restaurant atop Frank Gehry’s building on the river known as Dancing House (because you cn almost make out ginger and fred dancing). excellent food, spectacular view of the castle across the river high on a hill above the river. AFter that went to a small cavernous blues club around the block from our pension to hear a band fronted by a guy from small town Oklahoma.

We also had good thin crust pizza at a little open air place near Wenceslas Square, pulcinella, (via melantrichova #11) and coffee and pastry at a hard to find place, Mysak, opened on 1911.

We toured several,incredibly beautiful synagogues and a very old Jewish cemetery in the Jewish district, including one temple,where the walls are painted with thousands of names, one afte another after another of Czech jews who died in the holocaust. very moving. We also walked across the elegant Charles Bridge and into the main town square.

we met up,as planned with our friends from London Francine and Russ who,we,last traveled with last october in New Orleans. I have traveled,to 17 places and counting with Franc during our 34 year friendship, about a third if those the trips with our husbands in tow, to a,variety of places from Arkansas to Ireland, Santa Fe to Paris.

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krakow This and that

OLD TOWN

Bar Smak, for Bigos, pickled cabbage with bits of meat, sausage, onion,garlic,mushroom, and pierogi filled with spinach.
– CK Browar, well known microbrewery, classic beer hall interior, cloudy warm ginger, wheat, dark, light beer
– Yellow Dog, hip minimalist Asian restaurant looked good but decided to stick with bar Smak, small untrendy,popular with locals. When else will we have authentic Polish food?

KAZIMIERZ
– Plac Nowy outdoor grill for kielbasa and fruit stands for fresh blueberries, raspberries, cherries(we couldn’t bring ourselves to try the zaplekanka, a toasted pizza – ish half an old baguette topped with
Smoked Cheese, salami, garlic sauce, mushrooms, pickles, whatever. We saw people eating this late at night, presumably taking a break from a beer garden.
– beer garden across the street from our Kupa Street hotel, Karmel,, on Jozefa Street.
-warsztat, recommended little restaurant among the busy ones on the one block but hopping Izaake Street, just north of our hotel.

OLD TOWN
– Watched troupe of German kids perform quasi circus tricks (unicycles, juggling, acrobatics, dance) before a large crowd in Rynek Glowny, the elegant main square that’s reportedly Central Europe’s largest square (not Europe’s as previously written here.)

FREE WALKING TOUR
We spent much of our last day in krakow on a free walking tour, first of,the,Jewish district and then of the old town. Great deal. Our guide worked for tips,which we gave him. he was funny and well informed and we also met a sweet 23 year old guy from Chile who reminded me a bit of my son and of my much younger self. He was traveling on a budget of 15 euro a day (about $20), hitch hiking and sleeping at hostels or couch surfing (something they did not have in my carefree youth.) It was fun to meet people from so many places on our English speaking tour – Ireland, Mexico, Portugal, Kurdistan, Idaho, Pennsylvania. We had drinks with an Indian guy from Stockholm.

TRAIN from Krakow to PRAGUE
And now we are on the overnight train to Prague which is all good except that our sleeping cabin is next to a loud American woman whom is having an argument with her grown son who apparently doesn’t appreciate the trip she is funding. My ear plugs are not up to the challenge. I may have to resort to my iPod which Dirck, on the upper bunk, has already employed. I am definitely glad that we booked these tickets well In advance because the sleeping cabins appear to be full. photos below of area outside train station in Prague and aboard krakow-Prague train.

full.

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Lessons learning while buying train tickets for Eastern Europe

Deutsche Bahn AG
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Who would have thought it would be easier to buy train tickets online for  Peru than for Germany  and  Eastern Europe? Okay, I’m not willing to say that’s true yet. But buying tickets online for train trips this summer through Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic was harder than expected. I managed to find some of the train schedules on the DB Deutsche Bahn website (a German company http://www.bahn.com) but the site didn’t always list  the fares – or indicate when or if the tickets could be purchased online. (In some cases, it looked like I’d have to buy them by making a phone call to Europe.)

Rail Europe Logo

Meanwhile, on the site that I could buy at least some tickets online – Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) – I couldn’t always find schedules or fares. I finally had to call Rail Europe and pay a $15 fee for phone assistance – which turned out to be worth it, even if I had to leave my name on an answering machine and wait for  an hour for Rail Europe to call me back (better than lingering on hold I guess.) Here are some things I learned through this process:

– If you can find a train schedule but NOT the price or when/if the tickets can be purchased via DB Bahn, email their help line (Sales@bahn.co.uk) and you will get some if not all the information. (This is helpful especially if you’re trying to see if it costs more to take the train or fly.)

– If you can’t figure out how to buy the tix online via Rail Europe, call and pay the additional fee ($33 all toll when you add the processing fee, which includes the cost of mailing the ticket – which are paper and not available for online printout.)  I was told that it would have been very hard  to do-it-myself online because the three train trips I needed to book are unusually complicated. They’re not the typical Yank tourist routes (Berlin-Gdansk anyone? Not to mention Gdansk-Krakow and Krakow-Prague). And they involve three different countries with varying ways of selling train tickets. (The Poles, for example, won’t let you buy your ticket more than a month in advance but I could buy the tickets involving Berlin and Prague about two months in advance.) I also found help by emailing service@raileurope.com.

– Figuring out the price and booking a sleeper for an overnight train is tricky because the countries we’re visiting – unlike some others, apparently – require that you buy two separate items for each journey (a ticket, which  gets you on the train, and a reservation, which specifies a seat or compartment on the train, – as I understand it.)

– A Eurail  pass, which   we’ve used in the past, didn’t work for this trip because of our particular schedule and because we’re taking two overnight trains. Oh well. I liked the ease of the Eurail pass – but then I was traveling for months, not weeks, when I used one on several occasions.

– Read the fine print – especially to see how many stops the train makes! There’s also various classes/speeds of train. I never really figured this all out.

– The Polish Rail website wasn’t much help.

– Rick Steves’ website also has some good information on train travel http://www.ricksteves.com/rail/

– Trains vs. Planes: Sometimes flying is comparable in price to riding the train (ex: Gdansk-Krakow) but not always (example Krakow-Prague where flying was much more expensive.)  Planes of course are a lot faster – for Gdansk-Krakow flying takes 1.5 to 2.5 hours (direct vs. connecting flight) while the direct overnight train takes  11 hours. But we went with the train 1) because we so seldom get to ride a train, especially an overnight train and still find this romantic (that may change.) 2) the times of the direct planes didn’t work well with our schedule  – one was 6:30 a.m. and the other 5:30 p.m.   3) It’s often a hassle to get to the airport vs. the train station. 4) we  do save money by taking an overnight train and not paying for a hotel that night, for what that’s worth.

– I did opt to fly (EasyJet) from London to Berlin rather than take trains. (way too complicated…)

– Paper tickets. Apparently I can’t print tickets out online. And the paper tickets won’t be mailed out until a few weeks before our departure date (even though I bought them two months in advance) because the Polish ticket can’t be issued until a month before we travel. Grrr… Here’s hoping it all works out.

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