Monthly Archives: March 2012

Kraków!

Kraków is the final city on my tour (save for a few bonus days in Budapest before I leave), and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I was fairly sure it wouldn’t be quite as well-trod as the more touristy areas of Prague, but aside from that, I was going in blind.  And I was kind of excited.

Our train pulled into the station after dark.  The Kraków station is attached to the mall (?), so we hauled our bags in to look for a place to catch a WiFi signal so that we could touch base with our hostess.  The opportunity presented itself as soon as we entered, in the form of Loża Cafe.  We sat our stuff down, and I got to speak my first words of Polish (dwa piwo, proszę) to a very understanding waitress.

Upon achieving Internet access, and mapping out our destination, a cloud was gathering on Jim’s brow. “I think this place is further out than I was expecting.”

As it turns out, it was deep, wayyyy deep in the suburbs.  It took us well over an hour on two different modes of transportation to get to the place; as we passed the time crammed into a tiny light rail car with four dozen other passengers, the stark reality of the situation became apparent.  Neither of us care for the suburbs in our daily lives, but especially when we’re trying to experience new major cities, living on the outskirts of town is horribly inconvenient.

Suffice to say, we got to the place, which was in a sprawling, nondescript apartment complex that could’ve been in any suburb anywhere.  We met our hostess, who was very nice.  We spent the night there, both tacitly aware that we had to get out of this arrangement as soon as possible.

The next day, we bailed on the suburbs and booked a room at the Aston Hostel, which was a seven-minute walk away from the Main Market Square.  Much, much better.

By the time we got settled in our new room, it was approaching the dinner hour, and so we headed out to Mamma Mia Trattoria.  Once we sat down, my eyes instantly fixed upon the smoked-salmon-and-avocado pizza (that also had rocket on it, because rocket is as ubiquitous throughout Europe as Ikea furniture, as it turns out), and try as I did to consider other offerings on the menu, my mind had already been made up.

Yum-o!

The service was great, and once again the waitstaff was exceptionally forgiving of our entry-level Polish skills.  (Thankfully, it’s similar to Czech in a lot of ways, so we at least had that working in our favor.)

The next day started with Irish breakfast.  I’ll just skip the backstory and get right to the picture.

Behold!

After a leisurely meal (because anything quicker than “leisurely” would have certainly resulted in cardiac arrest), we set out for Wawel Castle.  On the way, I got caught up looking at scarves and imported jewelry, and while I was indisposed, Jim went and did this.

It’s called “gorące czekolady”, which Jim had imagined to be hot chocolate, and I guess in a technical sense he was right.  It was hot, and it was definitely chocolate.  A 12-oz cup full of liquid chocolate.  When I found him outside holding it, I burst out laughing, it was that ridiculous.  In the end, what you see is about how much of it we managed to drink before handing it off to a homeless woman.

We walked the rest of the way down the street until we hit the castle.

A turret at Wawel Castle.

Wawel Cathedral.

The compound was beautiful, but I’m going to be totally honest: at this point we were a little castle-and-cathedral’d out.  After a turn through the Wawel Cathedral, we debated that very point, with Jim steadfastly maintaining that he never wanted to set foot in one again, and me appreciating the historical significance of the castles and cathedrals as they pertain to wherever I am at the time, but largely agreeing that the cathedrals in particular are rather a “seen one, seen ’em all” kind of thing (the one exception, in my mind, is the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague, which houses the Infant Jesus, the story of which we found fascinating).

Once we’d come to terms with our opinions on castles and cathedrals, we moved on towards Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of town which sits on the bank of the Vistula  River.

The pedestrian bridge linking Kazimierz and Podgórze over the Vistula River.

I wasn’t yet aware of the history of the area, but I would soon find out that leading up to World War II, the Jews who lived in Kazimierz were forced across the river into Podgórze, where they awaited deportation to the concentration camps.  But all that in time.

Our third full day in Kraków was full of wonderful things.  First, we realized our hostel was a block away from Stary Kleparz, an open-air market packed with produce, clothing, bakery, various odds and ends (for example, we couldn’t find a plug adapter anywhere in Prague for less than US $30, and yet this market had dozens for about $.66)… really great stuff.  I highly recommend a stop here.

Stary Kleparz.

From there, we walked to the Main Market Square.  The street that our hostel is on leads directly to it, and when you enter, you come face-to-face with St. Mary’s Basilica.

St. Mary's Basilica

I think that, out of all the cathedrals and castles we’ve seen on this trip, St. Mary’s might be my favorite (perhaps because we never saw the inside).  I think what I really love about it, besides the stately way in which it presides over the Square, is the asymmetry of the towers; after the mirrored towers of Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Vitus, and Our Lady Before Týn, I found St. Mary’s to be a refreshing change of pace.  Perhaps most interestingly, every hour a trumpet signal (better known as hejnał mariaki, or Cracovian hymn) is played from the taller tower, and cuts short before it finishes.  According to local legend, this is in remembrance of a guard in the 13th century who sounded an alarm to warn of the impending attack on the city by the Tatars; he was allegedly shot in the throat by an arrow before he could finish the tune, which is why to this day the signal stops so abruptly.

If you wander around Old Town for more than five minutes, you’ll notice the plurality of kebab stands surrounding you.  We initially took notice to keep track of which ones serve falafel, but there was something else we started noticing signs for: zapiekanka.

Zapiekanka is a cheap (and, judging by how readily it can be found, very popular) street food item in Kraków.  You begin with a baguette, sliced in half length-wise.  Then you cover it with mushrooms and cheese.  Then you bake it, and once it’s baked, you pour ketchup on top.  Upon learning about it, we decided we had to try it at least once, and today was going to be the day.

This is for real.

I can’t speak for Jim, but as for me, one was enough.  One was more than enough, actually; those things are huge. 🙂

That’s all for now– more Kraków to come!!

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The Bone Church

When we were planning day trips out of Prague, we had decided on Český Krumlov for sure; time permitting, we also wanted to take a trip to Kutná Hora, the town of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, or Bone Church.

The Bone Church is, as the name implies, a church decorated in the bones of an estimated 40,000 people (though some estimates put it closer to 70,000).  The story goes that the abbot of the monastery was called to Palestine in the 13th century, and returned with a bit of earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery.  This made the cemetery a most desirable place to be buried, and especially after the Black Death in the 14th century, the number of bodies to  be buried at the cemetery swelled to thousands.  Eventually a church was built with an ossuary underneath in which to store all the bones of all the people who were either displaced due to construction or moved to make way for new burials.  The bones weren’t arranged in their current configuration until 1870.  Très bizarre.  We had to see it.

We didn’t end up making it out there until Sunday, Sarah’s last day in town, and even then, we didn’t board the train until nearly 2pm (the aforementioned Pod Slavínem blitz having slowed us down considerably).  We did, however, have the foresight to make a thermos of Lord Nelson (our name for a concoction of Earl Grey tea & whiskey) and to bring some tangerines.

We got Lord Nelson, we got tangerines... let's go see some bones.

Kutná Hora is a small town about an hour’s train ride outside of Prague.  The Czech countryside is always idyllic, but especially on a day like this one, where the spring sun was determinedly trying to break through the wall of winter cloud cover.

After about an hour, the train pulled into Kutná Hora and we disembarked into the middle of nowhere.  We had been warned by Conor that the Ossuary is outside of town, and that outside of town feels like there’s nothing there, and he was right.  We began the twenty-minute walk to the church along a stretch of busy road, passing a few shut shops and what struck me as a very out-of-place Philip Morris factory.

Before long, we saw the church.

It was a lot smaller than I’d been expecting, perhaps because “Bone Church” sounds so epic.  We walked into the foyer, paid our 50Kč entrance fee, and descended into the strangest place I’ve ever seen in real life.

As you might expect from the name, there are bones everywhere, ornately arranged into chandeliers, ceiling trim, hanging garland, even a coat of arms.

The coat of arms is that of the Schwarzenberg family, a line of Czech aristocrats first mentioned as far back as the 12th century. They commissioned the current configuration of bones in 1870. Fun fact: the current head of the family, Prince Karel VII, serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Czech Republic. And, until 1918, the family seat was located in Český Krumlov!

In case all this wasn’t macabre enough for you, there’s a case of skulls which display signs of medieval battle, including a couple that show “evidence of healing”, indicating the owners of said skulls survived the battles.

I'm guessing the guy on the left didn't make it.

Near the stairway into and out of the ossuary, there’s also an arrangement of bones with IHS in the center of it, which, according to the placard, stands for “Jesus, Savior of Humanity”; according to the internet, it is also either the first three letters of Jesus’s name, or the pagan trinity of Isis, Horus and Seb which was adopted into Christianity when Rome went Catholic.  For some reason, an homage to Jesus, fashioned from bones of people who most likely died during the horrific bubonic plague, strikes me as the most macabre arrangement in the church.

As it turns out, you only need about 45 minutes in the Bone Church to get the gist of it.  It’s a curious spectacle.  The fact that someone took the time to arrange the bones so ornately is interesting, and the results are beautiful, if bizarre.  But after I overcame the initial awe, I found myself considering the people that these bones used to be.  What did they look like?  What were their lives like?  What problems did they have, and what do those matter now that they’re just bones on display?  And, to that end, how would they feel if they knew they’d been dismantled and made into a chandelier, say, or a coat of arms?  How would I feel if it were me?  I left the Bone Church feeling like my problems, and really everyone’s problems (political, religious, etc) matter not a whit, because eventually all they’ll amount to in the end is a pile of bones.

*                *                *                   *

The next day, Sarah went back to the States, and the day after, Jim and I moved on to Kraków, where we are as I write this.  Our time in Kraków so far has been lovely, and I’m getting the hang of Polish wayyyy better than I ever did with Czech.  But all that in time.  Dzien dobry!

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Killing Me Softly

Back in Prague, we stumbled off the train and headed for the Cupcake Palace and, more importantly, dinner.  It was nearing 9pm at this point, and we weren’t up to the task of sniffing out a new hidden gem, since that generally takes some time and we were hungry now.  So we went to Cartello Alto, the old fail-safe pizza place a block down the street from the Palace.  This was our third time there, and as usual, everything was top-notch.  I got a calzone the size of a small ironing board, Sarah had some cheesy pasta, and Jim opted for mushroom pizza.  And, also as usual, we consumed it all while watching glittery pop music videos on the overhead TV.  Laughed our way home and fell into carb-induced slumbers.

The next couple days in Prague would be our last, with Sarah heading back to the States on Monday and Jim and I leaving for Poland on Tuesday, so we resolved to spend our last few days eating and drinking as much as we possibly could (a dangerous pact to uphold in the Czech Republic).  Jim had to spend a little time working at first, which meant Sarah and I got to wander around and visit the Prague Beer Museum!

That's a lot of beers.

Since the Prague Beer Museum is really just a bar with a lot of taps, we decided to go with a sample tray and I, the dutiful girlfriend, took copious notes for Jim (the homebrewer)’s perusal.  I’ll spare you the mundane details, but the Merlin was delish, the Sweetheart tastes like candied sugar, and the IPA, which I was so excited for, lacked any floral hop character in favor of dry bitterness.  Serves me right for expecting a Northwest-style IPA in Europe, I suppose.

We made short work of that...

The next day was particularly indulgent, which is really saying something in this town.  The three of us walked across the Vltava at an unfamiliar point, stopping at what we would soon deem a deeply disappointing breakfast spot (which shall remain nameless on the chance that they were just having an off day).  Its food and service were so glumly administered with such unsatisfying results that we ate, paid, and left to find another spot to fill what Jim called “the potato-shaped hole” in his heart.  We found a suitable spot in short order, and filled other holes in our hearts that were in the shape of beer and onion rings as well.

From there we continued north until we started recognizing landmarks, like the Church of the Infant of Prague.  We knew the Charles Bridge was near, so we headed towards it.  Apparently someone still had a potato hole in their heart because suddenly we were passing around a paper cone full of freshly-fried potato chips as we crossed the bridge.

Not content to stop there, we wandered into the Square and hit up the trdelník stand once more.

Mmmmm... trdelník....

Jim got a cup of hot punch, which did not pass the test, so we ditched it and went for the sure bet of hot wine.  Feeling tremendously hedonistic, we then headed for home and nap-time.

That night, we wanted to eat at a restaurant we found while coming down from Vysehrad: a Mexican restaurant called El Paisa.  The idea of Czech Mexican food (or “Czech-Mex” as we started to call it) was curiously irresistible and so we hiked back up the hill, found the restaurant, and sat down.

The server (host? owner?) greeted us immediately and asked if we spoke Czech, English, or Spanish.  Spanish!  I haven’t had a chance to speak Spanish since we were in Argentina four years ago, so I leapt at the opportunity, as did Jim (mind you, I hardly speak it, but I’m proficient enough in a restaurant setting).

The menu is not overly expansive, tacos being the main feature, but I did see one item that I had to order, for my mother’s sake.

That, my friends, is a heaping plate of nachos el pastor. And, because it's the Czech Republic, there's also bacon.

Incidentally, we also ordered the cilantro cream soup (partially visible behind the giant nacho plate) and it was simply out-of-this-world amazing.  On the chance that you find yourselves in this part of Prague, go to this restaurant and order it.  Assuming you’re the type who likes cilantro, it will change your life.

That night, we went back to MegaSportBar with Conor & Co., for more Street Basketball and pinball.  Our mojo wasn’t working so well this time around, and many of my rounds with Sarah devolved into hysterical giggle fits.  Oh well.

The next morning, we wanted to plan to get out to Kutná Hora to see the Bone Church, but we got a pretty late start.  Jim had some work to do, and I had some schoolwork to finish, so we had to find a breakfast spot that was close, fast, and with a reliable internet connection.  The quickest answer: Pod Slavínem.

I’ve mentioned “Pod Slav” in passing, but its epic Czech offerings really do deserve a more thorough description.  The first time we went there, I ordered a bacon omelette that was the size of a large pizza, with thick pieces of ham and a pile of cheese on top, and a generous bathing of olive oil throughout.  I couldn’t finish it, not even close.  Second time there, I went with ham and sauerkraut on a pile of homemade dumplings, maybe the size of a breadbox.  Couldn’t finish it.  This time, I learned my lesson.  Jim and I decided to split a potato pancake.  In case that doesn’t sound like much, this is what a Pod Slav potato pancake looks like.

That's at least 11 inches across.

We also decided to split a piece of apple strudel, but of course, because it’s this place, it was no mere piece of strudel.

There's strudel under there somewhere...

And for her part, Sarah went with svíčková (svitch-kova), which is braised beef served in some kind of orange sauce, topped with (what else?) whipped cream.

This is the half-portion.

It was after this meal that we decided we could no longer eat like the Czechs.  Our bodies were starting to reject even the idea of more meat/ cabbage/ potatoes/ pastries.  After a day trip to the Bone Church (more on that later), we celebrated Sarah’s last night in town at Maitrea, a vegetarian restaurant with incense burning and Enya playing in the background, lots of bamboo accents, trickling water features, and a general lightness in ambience that was very welcome after the ton of gastronomical bricks we’d been hit by over the last few days.

Up next: the Bone Church.

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Český Krumlov (or, My Rick Steves Dream Came True)

A couple weeks before I left the U.S., I was watching a PBS program that wrapped up ten minutes before the hour, and in the interim between shows, I happened to catch a Rick Steves travel segment.  It began with something along the lines of “My favorite place in the Czech Republic…” and I immediately perked up to see what place he could be talking about.  It wasn’t Prague.  It was a little hamlet of red-roofed buildings set on tiny cobblestone streets, nestled around a serpentine stretch of the Vltava River: Český Krumlov.

I was so excited that something about the Czech Republic happened to be on TV so soon before I’d be there myself, so I hopped on the Internet to see where Český Krumlov was and how likely it might be to swing a side trip.  Alas, it’s in the southern end of the country, almost on the Austrian border, and probably a 5-hour drive from Prague.  The chances of us getting that far out of town seemed unlikely, so I just enjoyed the coincidence and put it out of my head after that.

Fast forward to our first night in Prague, at the Hanging Coffee.  Conor asked us if we had any plans to get outside of the city, and Jim mentioned Karlsbad as a possibility. “Oh man,” Conor replied, “if I were you, I’d go to Český Krumlov over Karlsbad.  It’s one of my favorite cities in all of Europe.”

My eyes got wide and I grabbed Jim’s arm.  There it was again!  Clearly the universe was directing us to Český Krumlov, and so on Jim’s birthday we bought train tickets, and two days later, we boarded the train.

Five hours and several transfers later, we arrived.

Český Krumlov, with the castle in the center

We began the long walk into town from the train station, immediately struck by the quaint beauty of our surroundings.

Standing over the Vltava River, with Český Krumlov Castle behind me.

The train station was almost directly on the opposite side of town to the place we would be staying, which meant that we got to walk through the town and familiarize ourselves with landmarks and possible places to visit once we got settled in.

Eventually we made it to the other side, to our home for the night.

The Dilettante's Hangout and Artist Retreat

The Dilettante’s Hangout & Artist Retreat is two private rooms in the house of Maty Dio, an “eccentric transgender performance artist” whose paintings cover all the walls of both rooms.  Immediately upon entering, we were greeted by the commingling aromas of incense and tea.  Maty wasn’t in at the moment but would be returning soon, we were assured, and so we picked our rooms– Jim and I opted for the Nirvana Boudoir and Sarah took the Buddha Suite– and got settled.

The Buddha Suite

One corner of the Nirvana Boudoir. You can *just* see one of the corner posts of our canopy bed.

Once we got settled, Maty arrived.  He spoke marvelous English with an accent that both Sarah and I agreed we could listen to for days, and went about explaining the places to go (Deli 99 for coffee) and the places to avoid (vegetarian restaurants), using a copy of a hand-drawn map that I’m assuming he made himself (there’s a stack of them in the foyer for guests).  Once we had been given a sufficient run-down, Maty left us to ourselves and we descended into the little town.  Behold the quaintness.

There's that castle again.

Using Maty’s map, we found our way to Šatlava (note: the angry “s” makes a “sh” sound), a medieval restaurant on the site of the old jailhouse where your meat is cooked on an open fire.  We walked in and took a seat in the dark and cavernous space, near the fire so we could see the action.

The kitchen.

I was very enamored of the salt and pepper dishes, as opposed to shakers. May have to borrow the idea.

Mixed grill, cabbage salad, klobása with horseradish, potato pancakes... yum.

After the marvelous meal, eaten to the soothing sounds of medieval flute music, we were tempted to stay for another beer (pivo) but decided we needed to see what else the town had to offer, so we paid the bill and went on our way.

The Gypsy Pub is another joint in town that comes highly recommended by practically everyone.  I can definitely see where it would be a hot spot during the high tourist season, but on a Wednesday night in March, it was pretty quiet: besides the three of us, it was the owner, the owner’s friend, and the owner’s friend’s dog.  The owner was kind and the beer was good; I hope I’m able to return sometime when it’s a little more active, because the word is that you can catch some good live Gypsy music if you go on the right night.

After the Gypsy, we went to a place that we’d passed on the way to the Dilettante’s Hangout, that I knew I wanted to stop at before I knew anything about it: The Gorila Rock Pub.

The sign on the door says: "No guns. No Communists. No drugs. No ties."

We went inside and sat down.  This was more like it.  Young kids populated the place, some with dogs.  There was music and raucous laughter.  The table next to us was a group of guys who spent their time rolling spliffs and smoking them at the table.  [Side note: This is something I’ve noticed in the Czech Republic– marijuana is smoked pretty openly, and while it’s still technically illegal, proprietors turn a blind eye to its use.  In return, people smoke it responsibly and subtly.  I find this attitude fascinating, because where I come from, it is a no-tolerance Schedule I narcotic alongside the likes of heroin and MDMA, use or possession of which can land someone in jail for a long time.  I marvel at how peaceful and self-regulatory the situation can be when neither side deigns to make a big deal about it.]

After a few beers and a few rounds of “Win, Lose, or Banana“, we decided to head back up the giant hill to the Hangout, talking the whole time about the Czech Republic and how it’s fared against our expectations so far (conclusion: it’s exceeded them all).  Upon arriving, we parted ways into our respective rooms, and I fell asleep in a canopy bed for the very first time.

The next morning, I took a hot bath with some epsom salts I’d purchased the day before (cannabis-scented– for 79 crowns I couldn’t resist).  With a steaming cup of coffee and my Michael Palin travel book, it was a scandalously lovely way to start the day.

We went that morning to Deli 99 for what Maty said was the best coffee in town, and it didn’t disappoint (Jim’s waffle, however, was another story).  Afterwards, we only had a few hours to check out the town before our train departed back to Prague, so we decided to walk up to the castle.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the castle is that it has a bear moat.  That’s right.  A moat full of bears.

This is the sign warning you not to feed the bears in the bear moat.

Unfortunately for us, there were no actual bears in the moat that day, but the fact that they exist, and that there are signs advising tourists not to feed them, was good enough for me.

We continued on into the castle compound, and I immediately recalled Rick Steves’ description of the castle tower’s “fanciful paint job”.  As it turns out, much of the decorative architecture of the compound is painted on.

Those aren't real bricks.

From atop the castle’s bridge, you can see the the whole town.

I can't get enough of it. It's too picturesque.

Once we’d had our fill of the castle, we agreed that it was probably time to head back to the train station for the long journey home.  We made it up the hill with an hour to spare, and there are a few thoughtfully-placed pubs surrounding the train station, so we made our way into one and played a game of pool while we drank a beer and waited for the time to come.  Eventually, sadly, it came.  We paid the tab and ran to the station, found a roomette that was empty, and had a ukulele sing-along the whole way back to Prague.

Pretty much, yeah. 🙂

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Jim’s Birthday

Jim had his 29th birthday in Prague.

I am simultaneously envious of his having a birthday in Prague, and immensely grateful that I could be here to share in the enjoyment.  The day began with another ascent up the shoulders of Vyšehrad, to Caffé Fresco, a hip little spot that served eggs and coffee and everything else we were after.  Since it was a special day, the general consensus was that we needed to find and eat a lot of cake, which didn’t seem like it would be all that difficult, considering how much cake we’ve come across on a normal day without even trying.  Eventually, with cake on the brain, we began quoting Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or Death” bit at length as we made our way.

Walking from Vyšehrad into the city, we spotted a sign for Café Amandine, which had come up in previous internet searches for breakfast spots.  We decided to check out their cake selection, and were immediately excited at the prospects as soon as we entered.

Look at all that cake!

It’s a very fashionable spot, with fashionable cakes to match.  In fact, the aesthetic was reminiscent of our very own Cupcake Palace.

Sarah ordered French onion soup, and Jim and I went with desserts: French apple pie with caramel ice cream and cinnamon whipped cream for me, and a chocolate ganache cake served with carmelized plums for Jim.

Someone's got his cake-face on.

From there we walked to the train station, because we decided that a day trip to Český Krumlov was in order (more about that later).  Jim had a cheat-sheet filled with what to say in order to purchase the tickets, which he relied on heavily; once the transaction was complete, the woman at the counter said something in Czech that sounded like “information” and threw down three silver coins.  Vaguely confused, Jim collected the coins and the ticket, and we wandered haplessly toward the information booth.  It turns out that the coins, which were the no-cash-value amusement park type, were for the soda machine directly in front of us, from which you could choose either water or Pepsi.  Sarah laughed at our confusion, because apparently the woman had said “Free drinks” in English, and Sarah was the only one who heard it.  So we got our free drinks (we all chose water) and continued on our way.

We were going to meet up with Conor at 9pm, and still had some time to kill, so we went to Hidden Bar, a place that is probably 25m from our front door, and has pinball, foosball, and beer.  A few half-liters and a game of dominoes later, it was time to leave to meet Conor, who announced upon arrival that we were going to a place where beer and games were in abundance.

The place, called MegaSportBar, lies at the end of an unremarkable, graffiti-lined alleyway.  Upon opening the doors, you descend down five or six stairs into a huge, smoky ballroom filled with billiards and snooker tables– something about it gave me the feeling of going to a speak-easy, or some other underground establishment upon which the authorities would certainly frown. When you enter, you get a ticket that you must keep on you at all times because anything you purchase (beer, billiards, or any other game that isn’t coin-operated) gets tallied on and you pay for everything at the end.  We bypassed the tables, fetched some beers at the bar, and headed to the back room where the pinball and foosball games resided.  Most of the people in our group jumped right into pinball, but Sarah and I found what would soon become the all-consuming game of the night: Street Basketball.

Street Basketball is the jam.

We occupied that game for the better part of the night.  At one point we did take a break from basketball to play an hour’s worth of bowling.  The bowling was ridiculous; the pins were hung on strings, the lane listed pretty heavily to the left, and none of the balls was lighter than 12 lbs.  But it was spectacular fun.

Janky bowling.

After bowling, it was back to Street Basketball for the rest of the night as members of our group took turns trying to best each other’s high scores.  Soon it was after 1am and time to move on.  We went next to Chapeau Rouge for drinking and dancing.  Interestingly, in our normal lives neither Jim nor I dance, but it was a special occasion and so dance we did, and quite ridiculously at that.

After another hour or so, it was very much time to head home.  Conor made sure we knew the way to go, which we did (albeit in a very general sense), and then we all parted ways.  Sarah, Jim and I walked home in high spirits at the conclusion of what we all agreed was an excellent day, and then we turned a corner and ended up in Old Town Square.  At 3am, under a bright moon and a handful of visible stars, and no one else around.

It’s hard to convey the feeling of seeing what we’d previously only seen in daylight, surrounded by the cacophony of a half million people all striving to see the same thing, suddenly shrouded in pale moonlight and silence.  The view of the Týn Church’s towers beneath a smattering of stars was indescribable (and, unfortunately, not able to be captured by our cameras).  It was as though we had the whole place to ourselves, which imparted a feeling of peace not likely to be experienced here again.

Look at how many people there aren't!

Most amazingly, we got to have a moment with the Astronomical Clock on our way out of the square.  Looking at the clock mechanism, up to the tower, and then to the stars beyond, was a moment of sheer poetry.

After that, it was a long but lovely walk back to the Cupcake Palace.  We didn’t hit the beds until nearly 5am, which meant the next morning didn’t begin until the afternoon, at which point we stumbled across the street to Pod Slavínem for mountains of Czech comfort food.  The next day, we’ll head out for Český Krumlov, and we cannot wait.

Happy birthday Jim!

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v Praze

PART ONE

Soooo… Prague.

I’ve started writing about it a dozen times by now, and for some reason I’ve found it exceptionally difficult.  Since time’s a-wasting, I’ve decided to abandon over-thinking and just start writing.

The train ride from Budapest to Prague took about 7 hours, through Hungary, Slovakia, and into the Czech Republic.  We passed dilapidated castles on faraway hilltops, sailed through tiny towns we’ll probably never see again, and mused at the differences we were noticing in the language.  I would later learn that the Czech alphabet contains 42 letters, 8 of which have a háček (ˇ); the most fearsome of these, I would come to find, is the “Ř”.  But at the time, still completely unfamiliar with the many ways in which Czech differs from Hungarian, we deemed all the háček letters “angry”, since the symbol calls to mind a furrowed brow.

We made it into Prague just as dusk was settling into night.  The first order of business was to figure out the exchange rate, and we discovered that we’d be working with much smaller numbers here than in Budapest, which was a relief in some ways but a little confusing at first.  The second order of business was to buy tickets for the tram to the apartment.  We had originally intended to meet our landlady at 7pm, but ended up getting there closer to 7:45pm.  When we got off at our stop, a girl asked, “Hallo, are you looking for an apartment?” and at first I thought she was soliciting.  In fact, she was the landlady.  Immediately after we made that connection, Conor, a friend of ours who’s living in Prague, came around the corner.  He’d been waiting for us as well, since we also told him 7pm.  The landlady walked us all up to the apartment, showed us around briefly, and was gone, leaving us to marvel at what we would eventually deem the Cupcake Palace.

Pink walls and gilded curtains. Yummy!

This is our room. Note the Flying-Spaghetti-Monster light fixture.

Once we were settled, Conor took us to The Hanging Coffee for our first meal, which was a harbinger of meals to come: lovingly prepared, delicious, heavy as all hell, and always with beer.  The name of the place comes from a custom wherein a customer buys two cups of coffee, but only drinks one; the second is left “hanging” for someone else who may not have the means to buy coffee for themselves.  I like that.

After dinner, we walked past the John Lennon Wall.  I took a couple pictures, but it was pretty dark out.  I’ll try to get some more when the light is better.

The Lennon Wall is interesting because, during the days of Communism, it would be continually painted over by the authorities, only to have Lennon/Beatles quotes and flowery graffiti repainted on it the next day.

In my life, I loved them all...

After that, we went out to drink beer and play pinball, which would become a pretty common occurrence during our time here.  Stayed out really late drinking beer, among other things.

The next day, the combination of a big day of travel and a long night of revelry meant we slept in in a big way.  That day was very low-key, and we enjoyed some down-time in the Cupcake Palace, observing our surroundings.  We live in a small neighborhood at the foot of Vyšehrad Castle, across the street from a little church and a restaurant that serves Czech comfort food in intimidating portions.  There’s also a grocery store a couple blocks down the rail line, which we visited so as not to have to eat out every meal (which would almost certainly kill us).

I still don't know the name of this church, but Pod Slavínem is on the right.

The Gothic spires belong to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, at Vyšehrad Castle. I love our neighborhood.

The third day, Sarah and Jim and I ventured out to see the tourist-packed sights of Old Town.  I don’t generally enjoy tourists, though I am often one myself.  Tourists move through main thoroughfares in large numbers at infuriatingly glacial paces.  They cause tacky souvenir shops to sprout up in their wake by the dozen, each one bumping its own selection of bass-heavy American pop music and offering the same exact stuff as all the others.  And, worst of all, tourists make the beer more expensive.  However, one must learn to deal with tourists if one is to get to see things like this:

The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, built in 1410.

The Church of Our Lady Before Týn, initially built in the 14th century.

Around the perimeter of the square, vendors sell sausages and pastries and various crafts.  There was one place that Sarah was ordered by a friend of hers to patronize: a stand selling the Czech version of kürtőskalács.

Sarah is in the red coat, and this picture is proof that she did as she was told.

The trdelník is smaller than its Hungarian counterpart, but admittedly more delicious.  It comes in just one flavor, versus the Hungarian four or five.  We shared it amongst ourselves and enjoyed it thoroughly, and then got a few cups of svařák (the Czech version of forralt bor) to drink while we continued walking around.

While crossing the Charles Bridge, we heard the unmistakable sound of a hot jazz band playing “Blueberry Hill,” and were stopped in our tracks by these guys.

I found my thrill...

They’re called Jazz No Problem, and they were knocking it out of the park.  Something about hot jazz being played on a bridge by a bunch of middle-aged Czech guys went straight to my heart like an arrow, and I was in love.  It probably has something to do with the fact that they are seriously good; the clarinet player in particular caught my ear, in a similar way to the harmonica player of Mojo Workings.  And I’ve decided that I absolutely must build a washboard set-up like the one they were using, complete with wire whisks.

We crossed the bridge and heard a couple guys playing Bob Dylan songs underneath, so we followed the sound.  They were pretty good, but we kept walking, because it had been hours at this point and the sun was starting to go down.  We passed a park that featured some giant black baby statues in mid-crawl; what made them particularly creepy was the fact that they all had indented rectangles where their faces should be.  We took pictures, but they all turned out way dark, so I’ll spare you the weirdness.  I learned that there’s a radio tower on the east side of town that features the same creepy babies climbing up it.  I’m not really sure what the creepy baby thing is about.  Oh well.

On our way to cross the Vltava river to get back home, we spotted a “farm store”, featuring produce that was a lot better-looking than the sadness we’d picked up at the local grocery store the day before, so we went a little crazy.  Broccoli!  Red peppers!  Zucchini!  Cucumber!  Pickles, feta cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, etc. etc. etc.  We’d only been in Prague a few days at this point and already the importance of vegetables was irrevocably impressed upon us.

Made it back to the Cupcake Palace to watch a Russian movie which we soon found out had no subtitle options.  We decided to watch it anyway, and devised our own plot, which can be summed up by the phrase “Uncle Grandpa Baller Gangster Fight Vacation”.

I love it here.

PART TWO

One of our next wandering missions was to explore our neighboring castle.  Conor had already taken us up to Prague Castle, which was gorgeous and majestic but ultimately packed with tourists.  He had mentioned his preference for Vyšehrad for the exact reason that it was a lot more laid-back, which sounded great to us.  Before we went to the castle, we wanted to find breakfast, and so we headed up a hill to the east of the Cupcake Palace in search of Passe Partout, which sounded like a promising spot.  However, once we crested the hill, and walked to the spot where it should’ve been, we discovered that it had been replaced by some upscale-looking bistro place that none of us was particularly enthused about patronizing.  Looking around the square, we found Café ZanziBar, scoped out their menu, and decided to go in.

After a satisfying meal, it was time to make our way to Vyšehrad.

I don't know what this is but I liked it.

This made me feel like I was on a religious pilgrimage 500 years ago.

It’s actually a little ridiculous how close our apartment is to the castle, and now that I’ve been made familiar with the compound, I’ve realized that we can actually see part of the wall from our window.  Once we got to the top, the view was amazing.

All of Prague, with Prague Castle in the distance.

Me and Jim admiring the view.

We wandered around the perimeter, taking pictures of various structures, most of which are centuries older than the current iteration of our home country, which is always a staggering thought.

St. Martin's Rotunda, the oldest building in all of Prague (circa 1100). Wrap your head around THAT.

At the southern end of the compound, there was a little museum that cost 50Kz (around US $3) to enter.  We paid and went in, and were confronted by a millenium’s worth of history of our immediate surroundings.  Vyšehrad has many myths surrounding it, some involving Vratislav I, the first King of Bohemia.  King Charles, for whom the famous bridge is named, was also a prominent figure in the stories told.  There were artifacts encased in glass that predated Columbus’s arrival to the Americas.  I was awe-struck.

From there, we went to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the glorious Gothic spires of which can be seen from our bedroom.  We could enter the lobby, but, as with St. Vitus at Prague Castle, there was an entrance fee to see the rest of it. (According to Conor, this hasn’t always been the case, but I’m not surprised that it ended up being so; a nominal fee, times a ga-million people per day, ends up being quite a lot of money, and why give history away for free when there’s money to be made?)

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

After that, we wandered the cemetery, and were slightly surprised at how recent most of the graves were, considering how long this place has been here.  Sarah took some pics of some of the statues, except for one very unsettling one, which she refused to photograph because we became convinced it would follow us if she did.

This wasn't the one, don't worry.

Dinner that night was at a pizza restaurant we’d visited once before, and at this point we’ve become regulars (it’s tied with Pod Slavínem as the neighborhood place we’ve frequented most often).  The pizza is pretty outstanding, and they’ve got WiFi, which is always a plus since the one drawback about the Cupcake Palace is that it lacks internet access.

On to Jim’s birthday!

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szia budapest

SATURDAY

With Sarah in town, it felt like a little bit of Portland had made its way to Budapest.  That feeling was compounded when we woke up on Saturday with the undeniable urge to go to brunch and found Most Bistro.

PDX in Budapest

From the moment we walked in the door and saw the lobby walls papered with black-and-white images of audio cassette tapes, we knew we had found our people.  The tables were mismatched, the walls were covered with abstract works of art, and everyone in the place was sub-30 and very hipster-looking.  Bloody marys and mimosas were offered up alongside omelettes, eggs Benedict, and a list of indulgent French toast variations.  And the soundtrack upon our arrival was Gotan Project’s rendition of “Paris, Texas”, followed by a Clancy Brothers tune.  Hallelujah.

This is what I had.

After brunch, in true Portland spirit, the next item on the agenda was a gastronomical festival taking place at Erzsébet Square, called Gőzölgő.  There were various food items available, but given the fact that we just ate an enormous brunch, and given that we were still hugely addicted to the forralt bor, we opted to drink instead.

There’s hot wine in that mug

A couple mugs of forralt bor later, we decided we did have to indulge in one food item we found: Kürtőskalács, or chimney cakes.  If anyone reading this has seen my Pinterest page, you’ll recognize this pastry as something I decided early on that I needed to try.  Pastry dough is rolled into a long, thin rope, and then wrapped around a wooden spindle and roasted until the outside becomes brown.  Then it’s brushed with butter and rolled around in any number of coatings; on this occasion, we chose one vanilla and one cinnamon to split between the three of us.  And oh man, was it delicious!  The wooden spindle ensures that the inside of the pastry hovers on just the right side of under-done, which complements the crispy outer side extremely well.

As it turns out, after the brunch we had just come away from, two kürtőskalács between the three of us was something of a feat of strength, but we triumphed.  Feeling rather hedonistic at this point, we left the festival grounds to go for a walk, and made it about half a mile before we found a place to stop and have a beer.

The rest of the day continued on like so, with some walking and sight-seeing, and then stopping for beer or coffee.  We ended up walking through the tourist-trap part of Pest, which I’d recognized from our first trip because of the H&M– at that time, it was a familiar landmark to which I could desperately cling, but this time around I found myself annoyed at all the commerce going on around me.  We pressed on, heading south, to Central Kavéház for some Weiner Mélange and decadent pastries (which I neglected to photograph, but Sarah ordered a giant macaron that looked like a raspberry hamburger, for what that’s worth).  Dinner that night was at a place called Vörös Postakocsi, which promised more Fat Thursday prices but failed to deliver, and none of us was up to the task of challenging the bill in our extremely limited Hungarian.

SUNDAY

Sunday was a day of work for Jim, so Sarah and I decided to hit the town.  Originally we had hoped to see an opera, but when we went to the ticket office, the cheapest seats were around US $37.  Not outrageous, mind you, but a far cry from the US $2.50 we were aiming for.  So instead we decided to pub crawl our way back to the neighborhood in the hopes that Jim would be finished working by then.  The first place we stopped at was called B City Bar, where the walls were plastered with movie star memorabilia.  The featured work of art in the room where we sat was a rendition of the Last Supper, wherein Jesus was replaced by Brad Pitt, and the apostles were likes of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Deniro, Al Pacino, etc.

At some point we went from not having any idea where we were to arriving at the main drag where we knew exactly where we were and how to get home.  So, not yet ready to call it a day, we turned down a side street and headed away from the apartment.  We were looking for another pub, but we came to a tea house instead, and went inside.

We were greeted by the distinct and inviting aromas of nag champa incense mixed with various teas, and a giant mural of the Himalayan mountains on the far wall.  Apparently it was a special day, because the place was packed. We ordered the “Advent Tea” because its description contained the most Hungarian words I could understand (narancs, ananász, etc.), all of which sounded delicious.  And it was.

The picture’s kind of dark, but that’s a tiny mug of honey

After our relaxing tea session, a woman with a friendly face, who was perhaps near 50 if I had to guess, came up to our table.  She spoke a decent amount of English and asked us if we wouldn’t mind coming over to where her and her colleague were sitting.

“You see,” she said, “today is a very special day in this place, and we are offering re-energizing service to everyone.  But there is someone who has been sitting there a long time, and if you come with me, we can say ‘Oh, sorry, these girls would like to sit down now’ and maybe he will leave.”  Sarah and I looked at each other, nodded, and grabbed our coats to go be re-energized.

We were seated  back-to-back, and given energized water to drink.  The woman working on Sarah spoke no English whatsoever, so the first woman, whose name was Valerie, became the interpreter.  We chatted during the whole session, which involved a wand being waved in circles above each of our chakras; she asked if we were students and we said no, to which she reacted with some surprise since, as she put it, “Hungary is a small country and not a lot of people know it is here.”  She seemed extremely pleased that we were just there to visit, which pleased me in return.

As the session was drawing to a close, Valerie was summing up what the effects of the energizing process would be. “Tonight, if you are up at 3am, you will think of us!”

We thanked her and paid for our tea, and left to go back to the apartment, thoroughly charmed by our experience.  Our plan was to collect Jim and go to dinner.  After a brief internet search, our choice destination was the Old Man’s Music Pub, not only because of the menu but because they stream their live music online in real time.  We could hear that the band for the night, Mojo Workings, was just getting tuned up, so we refreshed ourselves and headed out.

The Old Man’s Music Pub is down in the basement of the building, and when we arrived, Mojo Workings was in full swing.  It’s a group comprised of three men– a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a harmonica player– who all wear the same hats and who sing American blues with adorably thick Hungarian accents.  I was in love from the first moment I heard the harmonica.  One of the songs they performed, “Chevrolet”, has since become an integral part of the soundtrack of this trip.

Sadly, Mojo Workings packed it in before our food came, and a DJ took over.  We ended up hanging out there all night, and when it got to be 2:30am on our walk home and we were still in high spirits, I thought of Valerie and her colleague.

MONDAY

The bummy thing about staying up past 3am is that the next day is guaranteed to be a late one.  We didn’t wake up until almost noon, and our plan was to go to Castle Hill because it would be Sarah’s only chance to see it.  However, Most Bistro had re-awakened our brunch lust, so the first item on the agenda was food at Cafe Brios.  The food was good, so good in fact that we opted for breakfast dessert in the form of Nutella-stuffed French toast and fruit.  Finom.

From Cafe Brios, we headed down the river to the Chain Bridge, and did and saw many of the same things we did the first time.  The exception this time around was a stop at Ruszwurm, the oldest pastry shop in Budapest, and with good reason.

After our indulgent afternoon on Castle Hill, we decided to head south on the Buda side to the Cave Church, a Pauline establishment that was walled up during the Communist occupation.  Though I’m not religious by any stretch, I have an historical appreciation for the impact of religion on Western history, particularly as it pertains to wherever I am at the time.  Thus I found the Cave Church wildly fascinating, especially since it’s only been reopened for two decades, since the end of Communism.  There is a guided tour that leads you by headphone set through the caves, past a host of statues and relics, and gives you the story of each in delightful accented English.  By the time we finished the tour, it was dark outside.  We thanked the man who was handling admissions and souvenirs and headed back to our apartment, at the end of the day, for one last time.

Thus ended the Budapest portion of the trip (though I’ll be back at the end of the journey in order to fly back to the States).  We left the next morning, by train, to head to Prague.  I’m excited to get to know Prague, and visit the Czech Republic (or, as I’ve affectionately dubbed it, the Mother Country).  What I know right now is that Budapest has captured my heart; the people are friendly, and the city is magnificent without being heavily trod.  It’s a city to which I never thought I’d go a first time, but I find myself immensely thankful that circumstance allowed me to come again.

Szia Budapest!  Ahoj Prague!

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