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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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our first real day

A lot has happened since Wednesday.  Well… that’s kind of true.

Wednesday was spent cramming Hungarian pronunciation into our brains (“sz” = “s”, “s” = “sh”, and so on); then in the late afternoon hours we walked down the main drag to a restaurant called Lugas which was recommended to us by our landlord.  We spoke meekly to our server, laying on the “köszönöm”s once she picked up on the fact that we don’t speak a lick of Hungarian and spoke back to us in English.  We still ordered in Hungarian, which was where the pronunciation crash course came in real handy.  Stuffed cabbage for me, falafel and fried rice for Jim, and whopping pints of Soproni Ászok for both of us.  I didn’t take pictures, sadly, but I think we’ll go back there again, in which case I won’t be so delinquent in my travel blog duties.

Thursday was another lazy day.  We didn’t even make it outside during daylight hours.  Perhaps in recognition of this fact, our Thursday evening priority was to get to a WiFi-enabled café to plan out what to do on Friday so that we didn’t waste another day in our (admittedly adorable) apartment.  After another walk down the main drag, we saw a pizza joint with the WiFi symbol in the window, and decided that we might as well have dinner since we were there.  Dinner was buffalo caprese and pizza with anchovies & capers, since we were feeling adventurous and neither of us had ever had anchovies before.  I can’t speak for Jim, but for myself, once was enough.  They’re very salty.

Friday, we resolved to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, which meant getting out of the apartment by noon.  We made it out by 1pm (baby steps, people).  On our way to the museum, Jim announced that he was suddenly famished and that our planned post-museum lunch outing should be bumped ahead in the schedule.  There was an Indian place nearby, and I love me some Indian food, so that’s what we did.  The first order of business was beer.

Pilsner Urquell tastes better here.

Once the beer was present and accounted for, the real task began.  Budapest is lovely in that, of the restaurants we’ve visited so far, the menus all tend to be in at least four different languages.  Usually one of said languages is English, but the presence of French or Italian guarantees my ability to have some idea of what I’m going for.  I opted for the Vegetable Madras, and Jim went with Vegetable Korma, and they were both amazingly delicious.

We didn't think to take the picture before we'd eaten some of it... sorry.

While we ate, Jim looked up the hours for the museum, and discovered that on Fridays it closes at 2pm.  Since it was already after 3pm at this point, we had to devise a Plan B.  I’d mentioned earlier that I wanted to check out the Ethnographic Museum (because I am a sucker for folk history), and that was open until 6pm, so we headed there.  Bonus: it’s across the street from the Parliament building, one of Budapest’s most recognizable architectural icons (and a personal favorite of mine).

There are better views of it from the river, but it's gorgeous from anywhere.

The “lobby” of the museum is covered in marble, and rather dark, which gave it a sort of haunted feel.  We could hear echoes of voices and footsteps off in the distance somewhere, but could see no one.  The folk history portion was great: lots of examples of primitive tools, beautifully embroidered clothing, archival footage of traditional holiday celebrations, etc.  Additionally we saw exhibits of artifacts from the Amazon and Oceania, as well as rooms upon rooms of handmade rugs.  Definitely worth the 1400 HUF.

A trip to the Spar for mulled wine makings capped off the day.  We’d planned to make more soup for dinner, but the Indian food tided us over for the entire rest of the day, and so we settled into the apartment Friday evening and didn’t do much else.

Can’t wait to see what Saturday will bring! 😀

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