Monday, June 13, 2005

Czeching out Prague (HA! HA!)

Friday, June 10

After a smooth flight from Dortmund to Prague on EasyJet, we arrived in Prague around 1:30 in the afternoon. After getting our bearings, getting some crowns, and finding the Cedaz Airport Shuttle, we paid to be dropped off at our cost about $20. We were stuffed in a car with a bunch of Germans and a smelly driver. I had to sit next to him in the front seat, and Lance sat next to me. For the entire very scary drive, the driver kept jabbing me in the ribs every time he shifted, and I was digging my nails into Lance's leg. We got into several near-collisions, and the driver continued to increase his speed and weave in and out of traffic, making sharp turns, and convincing me that I was going to die before my 30th birthday. Even Lance was freaked out, and he doesn't scare easily. The driver dropped off the Germans first, and then after a few more nail-biting moments, he had us at our hotel. We did not tip him, although maybe we should've given him a little something for at least getting us there in one piece.

Anyway, we checked into our hotel. I didn't know what to expect, because the rooms all seemed different from the photographs on their website. We were assigned room 11, which was right next to a staircase, so it wasn't the quietest room. But it was beautiful and had a nice, comfortable king sized bed and a huge picture window that overlooked a small backyard garden with a fountain. That also ended up being a problem, because we were on the ground floor and people were sitting right outside our window until late at night, talking and drinking. But it was really only an issue the first night. I also found it interesting that we got so many different television stations: English, German, French, Russian, Czech (of course), and I think Hungarian...even Hebrew (MTV was in English with Hebrew commercials).

After settling into our hotel, we decided to walk around and explore the immediate area, particularly with a mind toward getting a late lunch. We found a Bohemia Bagel Express a few blocks from our hotel in some cute little square, and since I had seen Bohemia Bagel mentioned many times between our guide book and internet sources, we decided to eat lunch there. The menu was in Czech, but there were pictures of everything and the woman behind the counter was very helpful in telling us what everything was. So we both ordered bacon, egg, and cheese bagels and sat on a park bench nearby to eat. We smelled some pot that some of the people around us were smoking, but it wasn't too bad, so we just tried to eat as quickly as we could and I fed a few pigeons and we moved on.

We decided to check out Wenceslas Square, which was only a few minutes' walk from our hotel. So we wandered around there for awhile and then decided to get some ice cream. I got cinnamon, which was good. We decided that we were a little tired, as neither of us had slept really well the night before, so we walked back to the hotel and took a little nap.

Around 7-ish, we decided to check out places to eat on Wenceslas Square. Lance saw a sign advertising an Italian place off the square, so we decided to eat there. There was nobody in there and the prices were really cheap. We were greeted by a really cute Golden Retriever when we came in. We had a really good meal there. But we were both feeling stuffed and kind of gross after our meal, so we went back to the hotel for the night.

Saturday, June 11 - my 30th birthday

Shortly after 7 am, my Mom called from California to wish me a happy birthday. My two brothers sang Happy Birthday to me along with her. I got to talk to all of them. It was a very good start to my day.

We had to pay for breakfast at the hotel, so we decided to go down to the breakfast room first to see if it was worth it. They had the typical spread: meats, cheeses, breads, yogurts, assorted cereals, a couple kinds of eggs, sausages, tea, coffee, juice. So we decided to eat there since we weren't going to get a better breakfast elsewhere (although there was a McDonald's -one of about a million, it seemed - right around the corner from our hotel).

Our first plan for the day was to take the tram to Narodni Trida and find the restaurant where we would be eating that night so that we knew where it was in reference to the National Theatre (where we had tickets to see Giselle). We bought our day passes for public transport, hopped on the tram, and in less than 5 minutes, we were at Narodni Trida. It took only a few minutes to find the restaurant and it was maybe half a block from the theatre. Great! So we walked to the theatre, which is right along the Vltava River, and walked along the river to Charles Bridge, which leads to the Prague Castle complex that looms over the city (I cannot possibly express how unspeakably gorgeous the Prague skyline is).

We got to Charles Bridge pretty early...before the tourist congestion anyway, which was very fortunate. We enjoyed our walk and then we had a huge hike up steep cobblestone streets and stairways to get to the castle. Once there, we walked around all the areas that were free. The castle was pretty crowded and there were long lines to get into everything that charged admission. We didn't feel it was worth it. We were content just to take in the views of Prague below us and listen to a military band that was giving a free classical concert on the grounds.

After all the climbing, we decided we needed a break, so we stopped at a sidewalk cafe for some drinks. I needed to warm up (it was so chilly that I couldn't believe it was mid-June!), so I sipped a cup of hot tea while Lance had a Coke. We just sat for awhile and watched the throngs of tourists that were now clogging up Charles Bridge (it pays to get out early!). Finally, we decided to move on. Our next stop: Petrin Hill.

We walked back to the National Theatre and walked up that bridge to get to the funicular that takes you to Petrin Hill. You could walk up there if you wish, but since we'd already done considerable climbing, we wanted to take the easy way out. So we bought our fares for the funicular and took the ride up there. On the hill, there are some really pretty gardens, a monastery, and a small replica of the Eiffel Tower that you can climb to get good views of the city (we skipped that). We just enjoyed walking around for a bit and seeing what there was to see. We were looking for a beautiful Ukrainian church that was somewhere on the grounds, but we never found it. We finally gave up, and since the funicular tickets were only good for 90 minutes, we came back down. It was going on two by that time and we hadn't had lunch, so we decided to look for a place to eat.

I had heard about this place called the Globe, which is a bookstore/internet cafe. They were rumored to serve a good weekend brunch, so I thought that was worth checking out. It's also a huge expat hangout (particularly for native English speakers). So we walked was just a short distance from the National Theatre (and oh yeah...we took the tram back there from the Petrin Hill area...we were getting sick of walking). They were still serving brunch, so I got the french toast and fruit salad and Lance got an omelet. Yummy. I also checked my email there and I looked around the bookstore, but didn't see anything I couldn't live without.

After that, we went back to the hotel to rest a bit. We had a big night ahead.

Around 5:30, after we had showered and changed into our nice clothes, we took the tram back to Narodni Trida to have dinner at Le Patio, which is the restaurant that I chose for my birthday dinner. It's not only a restaurant, but there is a store in the basement that sells items very similar to what Pier 1 sells. Their stuff is just beautiful. And the restaurant is decorated like that...there were all kinds of really beautiful lanterns hanging on the ceiling...hundreds of them. The restaurant had a very lush decor with an Indian flair. The food was amazing. I ordered a fixed price menu, which came with the soup of the day, a shrimp and spinach risotto, and cheesecake. The soup was beet borscht. Although I was skeptical, I decided to give it a go, and I was glad I did. Oh my God. It was INCREDIBLE. The risotto was absolutely delicious. The cheesecake though...well, it wasn't satisfactory. It was okay, but very citrusy (I thought lemon, Lance thought lime) with a gingerbread crust...not really cheesecake, in my opinion. Lance had the lasagna, which he thought was excellent, and he also had the cheesecake. I think he liked it more than I did though. It was a nice, leisurely dinner since we gave ourselves almost 2 hours to eat. Lance ordered a couple glasses of the local brew, which he decided that he really didn't like (Pilsner Urquell, for anyone who's been there). I just had mineral water.

Anyway, shortly after 7:30, we decided to head to the theatre for the 8:00 performance of Giselle. I couldn't wait to see the inside of the theatre. But I was actually disappointed. It was small and cramped and I didn't think it was as nice as the Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Although it's definitely more beautiful on the outside. We had good seats for the performance - 8th row orchestra - although since the theatre was so small, I don't think there were any bad seats. The ballet was very nice and the orchestra was lovely. I've seen better ballets at home. The Nutcracker is still my sentimental favorite. But it was still well done and I enjoyed it. And I give Lance a lot of credit for being such a good sport. I don't think he hated it.

I wanted to take pictures of the restaurant and the theatre, but there were no cameras allowed in the theatre, so I didn't bother. But so many other people brought cameras anyway and now I wish I had.

After the ballet, we took the tram back to the stop nearest our hotel, and called it a night. I have to say that this was the best birthday I have ever had. It had almost everything I love - travel, great food, ballet, and at least one person I love.

Sunday, June 12

After breakfast, we decided to go to the Museum of Communism, since that was something that Lance really wanted to see. I found it to be pretty boring actually, but he liked it. So that's fine. We really needed to do something that he wanted to do anyway. I'm glad he enjoyed himself. The most interesting aspect for me was watching the films of all the demostrations in Prague in 1989 right before the Velvet Revolution (the day that ended communism in the Czech Republic). It's so hard to believe that all this happened a mere 16 years ago, and Prague still retains some traces of its Communist past.

After the museum, we walked to the Old Town Square. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about with this astronomical clock. Every hour on the hour, it gives tourists a show. The 12 disciples come out and there are some characters on the clock that ring bells and move around. So we stood there for 20 minutes waiting (with a swelling crowd) to see this at noon. At then it was over almost as quickly as it began. Lance and I just kind of looked at each other and went, "That's it?" But when in Prague...

The Old Town Square is just beautiful anyway, so it's worth going just to see all the gorgeous pastel colored buildings and to check out the people.

We got drinks and sat on a park bench in the square for awhile, antagonizing some pigeons that were begging for crumbs. Then we decided to take a Vltava cruise. We had seen almost everything we wanted to see anyway...the rest was just killing time.

So we walked up this street that took us through the Jewish Quarter. We got to the river and bought our tickets for the 1:00 cruise. While we were waiting, some stupid drunken ass...well, did something really disgusting in public (what people generally do when they drink too much) that was seen by us and everyone else waiting for the cruise and everyone at the cafe right next to the departure point. Yeah. That was fun. At least I wasn't would've killed my appetite anyway (and that was, thusly, the low point of the trip).

The cruise lasted an hour and it was cozy. Only about a dozen people could fit on the boat and they had blankets for us, which was good, since it was still a bit chilly (although warmer than Saturday).

After the cruise, I was still disgusted by what had happened right before, but I was also hungry. So we walked through the Jewish Quarter in search of food. I snapped a few photos along the way (only one turned out, sadly enough). We stopped at some pizzeria. I got the Italian vegetable soup and the "homestyle mashed potatoes," which were nothing like mashed potatoes. It was a mound of fried-semi mashed up potatoes with fried onions. Still tasty. Just not what I had in mind.

We didn't really know what to do after lunch, since there was nothing else we really had to see. So we just meandered around, poking down any cobblestoned alley that captured our interest. We happened upon a small market, so we walked around there for a bit. Quite by accident, we found the Prague Symphony Orchestra building, which was absolutely magnificent. And we stopped for ice cream bars.

After doing this for awhile, we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. We take a lot of afternoon naps when we travel!

At 7, we decided to go to TGI Friday's, since we chanced upon it in our earlier wanderings. I knew there was one in town, but I didn't know where it was and it hadn't occurred to me to even eat there. It was Lance's idea. But we don't get American food that much anymore when we eat out, so it turned out to be a really good idea. I got the chicken quesadilla and I didn't realize how much I missed food like that until I was eating it (although oddly enough, it's not on my list of favorite restaurants when we're back in the States, but you have to take what you can get). Lance got the burger, which made my mouth water, but I was more in the mood for chicken than a burger.

No, we never had Czech food. Honestly, it's not that different from German, and we've had that and it doesn't agree with me.

Anyway, leaving TGI Friday's, we ran into a senior citizen who was lost. He asked us if we lived in Prague, and we said no, but he looked so lost that my heart went out to him and I asked if we could at least try to help him. As it happened, he was looking for the subway station and we were walking there anyway. So we told him to come with us and we got to talking. He's from Dublin, Georgia (not far from Warner Robins, where Lance lived) and he used to be in the Army. He was with a group of other seniors, so he called them over and we all walked to the subway station together and we hit it off pretty well. We even had to get on the same subway, but Lance and I got in a different car. We wished them well (they were getting ready to leave Prague for either Budapest or Bucharest) and they wished us well and we parted ways. It's a small world after all.

Today, June 13

We woke up at 7:30, had breakfast, and then lazed around our room for a bit. The airport shuttle was arranged to come get us at 10, so we had a leisurely morning. We checked out around 9:45 and the shuttle showed up about 5 minutes later. The driver was just as scary as the first one we encountered, only this time, we had the van all to ourselves, so I could at least put on a seatbelt. And this jerk kept honking the horn at anyone that was in his way. He was really obnoxious. So we didn't leave him a tip either.

The flight was REALLY bumpy at first. But Lance wasn't worried (and he's literally spent thousands of hours in the air in a similar jet), so I had no reason to fear. After we got through the clouds, it was smooth.

Oddly enough, it was warm in Prague today. And when we got back to Germany, it was cold. :P Dammit.


Saturday, June 4, 2005

Windmills Aplenty at Kinderdijk

Today I had the pleasure of participating in a volksmarch in Kinderdijk, Netherlands. Kinderdijk is close to Rotterdam and is famous for its 19 windmills, 8 of which are among the largest in the world.
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Kinderdijk (pronounced "kinder - dike") itself is a quaint little town surrounded by canals. This is what a typical backyard looks like in Kinderdijk.
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During the course of our 10 kilometer trek, we were able to stop inside one of the windmills and take a self-guided tour. It's hard to believe that people live(d) in them! I have to say, the museum home that we visited sure is cozy.
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The living area inside the windmill.

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The old cook stove.

All of the windmills were built in 1740 and are extremely well-preserved. Some of them were even operating today, including the one that we visited.
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View from inside the windmill.

More photos here