Tag Archives: prague

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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