The World A to Z, Uncategorized

Prague Part 2 – And now, for something completely different…

Before we even got to Prague, we knew that we needed to go to the Prague Castle.  There it was outside our airplane window on our approach to the airport, sitting on top of a ridge overlooking the entire city.  As we got out of our taxi at the hotel, there it was above us, urging us to visit.  We just had to see it.

IMG_5291When we first arrived at our hotel, the clerks provided a list of tours offered by licensed, local guides.  So we jumped at the chance to take a tour of the castle with a personal guide and booked a three-hour walking tour (“a three-hour tour” … you’ll thank us later for that ear worm) for the following day.

We came downstairs bright and early where Eva was waiting for us. She offered us a choice: walk and enjoy the views or head straight for the castle and tour the inside. We chose the walk and started our trek up the hill. Young and vibrant, Eva talked while Judy and I huffed and puffed our way up the steep incline.  She pointed out the many type types of architecture in Prague, ranging from Gothic to Baroque to Renaissance.  We found out she was an architect, which fed the inner wanna-be-architect in me.  Our first stop was the Strahov Monastery, which afforded wonderful views of the river and the old city beyond, despite the gloomy gray skies.  IMG_5182

Next we walked past the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through a charming neighborhood that included the smallest house in Prague, onto the expansive grounds of the castle.
Avoiding the crowds gathering for the palace’s changing of the guard, we ducked through a side entrance into the main square outside the cathedral.  Eva pointed out the rich history of the classic Gothic church.

Remembering a cartoon book I read in my early teens about the building of the Notre Dame Cathedral, I relished in the intricacies of the flying buttresses and gargoyles, and was amazed to learn that while originally planned in the 13th Century, the Cathedral wasn’t fully finished until the mid-20th Century! IMG_5209You could even see the differences in the stones through the ages. We continued down the hill through Prague’s oldest vineyard, bidding Eva goodbye right where – and exactly three hours after – we started.  All-in-all, it was a great introduction to Prague history and architecture from someone who really knew her stuff and was incredibly charming. Starved, we had a late lunch at a riverside restaurant Eva had recommended just as it started to rain.

The following day, after a morning stroll in the old town, it was time to pamper ourselves.  We took full advantage of the Ecsotica Spa at our hotel, the Alchymist, having booked their “Fairytale Afternoon” spa and dinner package.  Descending the steps into the grotto-like spa, the receptionist gave us each a glass of prosecco while she told us about the spa and its features on a brief tour.  We enjoyed a swim in the underground pool and a cleansing private sauna.  ecsotica spaThen, we were led to inner sanctum of the spa for our 90-minute couples’ massage.  Judy and I are huge fans of massage therapy, having learned the value of a good, relaxing time at the hands of a professional muscle manipulator, but this was something completely different.  For one, the room’s décor was in the manner of old Bali, with ancient looking teak massage tables, tropical flowers and heady aromas. Our massages were traditional Balinese deep tissue rub downs; at one point, the therapists even climbed up on the tables to ensure they applied appropriate pressure on our backs!  Too soon, however, the massages were done, and we had about 30 minutes before our dinner reservation that was part of the “Fairytale Afternoon” package.  We returned to our rooms to shower and dress, and then headed downstairs.

Up until this point, we had only eaten breakfast at the hotel.  But the hotel restaurant was fantastic!  The package included an excellent three-course meal with wine and an after-dinner drink.  The food was incredible and the service impeccable.  We laughed and smiled as we enjoyed each other’s company, and quietly dished about the other restaurant patrons.

IMG_5243The next day, Thursday, we were up early to get some pictures and make our way to another kind of spa experience.  Thursday was the coldest day of our visit, but also the clearest, so we walked down to the river and got some excellent shots in a park and along the waterfront.
From there it was just a few short blocks to Spa Beerland, Prague’s Number One Beer Spa.

Wait…what?  The American couple who joined us on our food tour had told us about this unique experience and we had to try it out.  Once again, spa itself was downstairs in a very private room for our one-hour experience.  The hour-long package included 25-minutes in a beer-hops-and-malt-filled hot tub, a sauna followed by a very brisk cold-water shower, and time to relax on a straw bed while eating fresh beer bread.  Of course, unlimited beer flowed from taps in the room so you could drink beer to your heart’s – or stomach’s – content. IMG_5258 The receptionist told us the beer bath is very good for the skin and metabolism.  I cannot vouch for that, but I can tell you that the experience is nothing like we’ve ever experienced before and completely worth the price of admission (which was still quite affordable). We paid for the deluxe package that included the larger of the rooms…big enough for a small party with its three hot tubs and spacious straw bed for relaxing. I’ll let your mind wander from there…

Back to reality, we had one other quest to fulfill on our Prague adventure.  The Czech Republic is known for its crystal, and we had come with our minds set on buying crystal aperitif glasses to round-out our wide-ranging bar collection.  We had shopped dozens of stores and finally found a set we liked.  It was time to break out our credit card and make our purchase… The clerk very carefully wrapped each piece in layers of bubble wrap and boxed up our find.  Having fully met our Prague goals, we made our way back to the hotel to pack for our return flight. We were ready to come home, but certain that Prague is one of those places worth a second visit.

Epilogue

If there’s one thing we’ve come to count on in our travels, it is German efficiency.  Trains and planes run on time.  So we were quite a bit surprised when our flight from Prague departed late.  We had a tight connection in Frankfurt, but one that Lufthansa said was well within their window of acceptability.  We RAN nearly across the entire Frankfurt airport to catch our connection to Dulles, only to be loaded onto a bus that took us to our plane located mere steps from the flight we just got off! Apparently, there was a last minute “equipment” change that necessitated the histrionics.  The good news is that we made our flight and enjoyed an uneventful ride home. The bad news is that our bags did not arrive with us.  Since, thanks to Global Entry, we breezed through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, we were early to baggage claim. We were surprised to hear my name announced over the PA system with a request to see the Lufthansa rep. Judys bag damageHe let me know our bags were delayed, would arrive the next day and be delivered to our home. This was GREAT customer service in my view…we didn’t have to wait until all the bags came down the carousel before realizing that ours didn’t make it.
We grabbed a cab for the ride home. The adventure continued when the brand-new hard-sided composite bags were delivered the next day. They were BOTH broken.  To say we were a bit miffed is an understatement.  All’s well that ends well, however.  Judy contacted Lufthansa and after a few quick weeks, we had a full refund for the cost of our bags.

The moral of this story…when traveling, stuff happens.  But it’s no use ruining a trip just because your bags don’t make it or you miss a connection.  Roll with the punches, be firm but nice with the folks trying to help, and let things work themselves out.

There’s a whole world out there, just waiting to be explored.  Isn’t it time you booked a trip?

 

 

The World A to Z

C is for Czech Republic

By Judy

Growing up a child of the “Cold War” and having served in the military overseas for 6 years (2 more in the U.S. – yes, I’m a veteran!), I have always had a healthy curiosity about eastern Europe. I lived in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. That was years ago, though, and now there are an awful lot of places, tourist destinations, where I wasn’t allowed to go in my younger days.  Prague is one of those places. I’ve always wanted to see Prague. As I began looking for a “C” destination, the Czech Republic moved quickly to the top of the list and stayed there.

Thank goodness for the internet! I planned my trip to Prague because I was able to find a little boutique hotel (U Tri Korunek) that was just two blocks off the streetcar line. Staying outside the city center means saving a lot of money. It also means lower cost restaurants and typically better grocery stores. That’s important because getting to Prague and seeing what I wanted to see was going to test the edges of my meager budget. Here are a few cost cutting tips:

Whenever possible, stay in a hotel that offers free breakfast and eat a hearty one. Hey – you’re paying for it, take advantage, but don’t be rude and try to sneak food out for lunch or something (well, maybe ONE piece of fruit).

Dinners can be had on a shoestring from just about any grocery store. Grab a half a roast chicken (most grocery stores I’ve found in Europe and even South America sell them), a roll from the bakery, a fresh piece of fruit, maybe a tomato and VOILA! dinner in your room for a LOT less than you’d spend in a restaurant.

If you’re going to travel on a tight budget, pack for it – you might want to throw in a set of silverware from the dollar store and a corkscrew. Trust me on this one. You’ll need a knife for cutting up fruit or tomatoes … but only if you’re checking your luggage, otherwise you can usually borrow one from the hotel.

TAKE THE BUS … or streetcar, or subway or whatever. Taxis are expensive. Rental cars are ridiculous – you’ll spend way too much time trying to read a map and figure out where you are and looking for parking spaces. Besides, you can meet some really interesting people, or at least ask for directions and pointers, from the locals on the bus.

Part of the plan in going to Prague was to take an overnight side trip to Czestochowa, Poland. There’s a very famous Catholic religious icon there known as “The Black Madonna” at the Jasna Gora’ Monastery.  It’s also the home parish of Pope John Paul II. I hopped on a late train out of Prague and slept until daybreak, crossing into Poland sometime during the night. It was foggy and cold when the train pulled into Czestochowa, but my research served me well and I walked the road up to Jasna Gora. It was such an amazing experience! I felt a little like a pilgrim. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to stay longer, but I had a return train to catch. A quick stop at the gift shop and I was headed back to the train station and Prague.

Prague is magical! There’s just no other way to describe it. My introduction to this “ABC plan” is all about my trip to Prague.  I often say I try not to go back to a place twice because there are too many places I haven’t been yet, but Prague is a place I really hope to see again.

The World A to Z

Introducing my ABC the World Plan …

By Judy

When I hit 40 I experienced that typical mid-life crisis. I reevaluated my life and realized most, maybe even all of the things I’d always wanted to do, I had done. I found myself wondering, “What’s next?”

Then it came to me. There’s a whole wide world out there just waiting to be explored. So I came up with a plan, a nice, long 26-year plan to see the world. I’d start with “A” and go through the alphabet, one letter a year. I only have one rule. My destination must be outside the continental 48 states. It allows me to be flexible, for instance the first year “A” was for “Alps.” I really wanted to go to Australia, but that was a little (OK a lot) out of my budget.
I spent almost eight months trying to decide what to do for “B.” I ended up in Belize. I found a great resort on the internet and cheap round-trip tickets. The trip was in November. It turned out to be the perfect time of year. Being the slow tourist season, I was the only guest of the resort for half the week.
“C” was a little easier. I picked the Czech Republic. Eastern Europe has always fascinated me. This is a work in progress. The stories of my ABC trips. There are plenty of pictures, and lots of laughs. Click on a letter to see where I went and read my story. I hope you enjoy them as much as I am.

For “C” I chose the Czech Republic. The fascination of Eastern Europe is one that may Cold War era people will understand. Once again, I turned to the internet for cheap air fare. I saved money on a round-trip flight from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to Prague with a three hour layover each way in Amsterdam, but it was worth the savings. Besides, Schipol airport is not a bad place to spend a layover.
I also used the world wide web to find a hotel in Prague. You take something of a risk doing it that way. I found a few choices and spent several days surfing down sites where travelers could give their opinions of the hotels. That ended up being a wise decision. My first two choices were soundly panned by previous guests. I picked the Hotel U Tri Korunek and made the reservations on-line. Total cost for seven nights including a hot breakfast every morning — less than 10,000 Czech Koruna.
Next stop – the bookstore. I found a Prague Guidebook and a city map. I really wasn’t sure what there was to see and do in the Czech capital, so I needed the research material. I picked a couple of “must-see” locations and left the bulk of the week to chance. I could always sign up for a city tour once I arrived if I decided I needed it.
Since the Czech Republic is so close to Poland, I added in a side trip, too. I settled on a day trip to Czestochowa. It’s a religious pilgrimage site and home of the Roman Catholic Church icon, “The Black Madonna.” Booking train tickets from Prague turned out to be more than I could figure out on my own, so I went to a travel agent. I decided to take an overnight train that would arrive early in the morning, spend about half the day and take an afternoon train back to Prague.
The week in Prague was an absolute delight. The churches are magnificent. I spent an entire day exploring the Prague Castle. The Karlov Most (Charles Bridge) is a main thoroughfare from one side of the city to the other, so I crossed it several times enjoying the vendors who line it and the view of the river and the city. I wandered the old heart of the city admiring the art and architecture for almost two whole days. Prague, as it turns out, is extremely affordable. The guide book had said Czech cuisine includes a lot of wild game, so I looked for a restaurant to try some.
Most of the restaurants post the daily specials and menus outside. It’s a very European thing to do and helps you decide whether or not to go inside for dinner. That’s how I stumbled upon U Certa, a charming eastern European restaurant. A big board posted next to a funny looking statue of a devil, touted the wild boar, venison steaks and hare. It was exactly what I had been looking for. I ordered the boar which came with your choice of a fried potato pancake or dumpling. The dumpling looked like it had been cut off a dumpling loaf. It was a slice of half-inch thick heaven, especially when dipped into the gravy for the meat.  I went back later in the week for venison and the potato pancake.
To save a few dollars here and there, I usually opt for a half a roast chicken and fresh baked roll from a grocery store a couple of nights. Throw in a bottle of wine and some fresh vegetables that don’t need to be cooked and you’ve got a picnic dinner in your hotel room.
The perfect vacation is one that isn’t over-planned. Build in lots of time to wander into places you pass that look interesting. If every minute of every day is planned, you can’t do that. Plus, vacations are supposed to be a little relaxing and refreshing. Take a few minutes to stop on the Karlov Most and watch the river or the people walking by. Wander up the hill next to the castle, through a beautiful park. Prague is a delightful city – take the time to enjoy it.