Euroadventure 2014: Happy Birthday, David!

We managed to get out and about at a decent time Saturday morning. It was Dave’s birthday and we were headed straight to the Prague Castle via the #22 tram, which took us west across the Vltava and through the Little Quarter. Our stop was also directly in front of the castle entrance, and though for a second I was confused, the hoards of people confirmed we were headed in the right direction. Before entering the grounds, we I stopped to take a picture with the guards at the entrance.

with the Prague Castle guard

with the Prague Castle guard

Inside we bought the short tour tickets, an audio guide to share and a photography permit, which we could have done without considering no one was policing the taking of pictures at any of the sites. The audio guide was super helpful, especially with my y-splitter so Dave and I could each plug in our headphones. Rick Steves has a great guided walk as well, but it was nice to just listen to commentary and have the opportunity to look around rather than keeping your head in a book half the time.

Our first stop in the castle was St. Vitus Cathedral. This is the soaring building that can be seen from most anywhere in Prague, as it sits atop a hill. Construction began in 1344, but the church was not officially finished until 1929. Inside we saw beautiful stained glass, tombs of many great Czech saints and kings, intricate carvings (a beautiful relief of Prague) and sculptures and far too many large tour groups. (Hint: Click on the pictures in these galleries if you want to enlarge them.)

Next we toured the Old Royal Palace, with a massive Gothic-style hall that has been used for a great variety of happenings, from banquets to markets to jousting. I was fascinated with the high flower-shaped vaulted ceilings and chandeliers in Vladislav Hall. Dave was disappointed that the display of Czech crown jewels only held the replicas.

The palace exit put us in place to enter the Basilica and Convent of St. George, the oldest surviving church within the castle grounds, originally founded in 920. Taking a seat in the pews, we were happy to rest our feet and I was once again amazed with the ceiling, which was a deep, rich wood accentuated by the light stone walls. Walking toward the altar we passed under old archways and by beautiful frescoes then followed the stairs down to the crypt where tombs of several historical figures are kept. Just before exiting, visitors pass through a chapel dedicated to St. John of Nepomuk, where a skull and bones are enclosed under the altar. (Rick Steves says they aren’t real … but I say believe what you like.)

We were nearing the end of our audio guide rental (word to the wise: pay the extra money for an “all day” rental rather than the three hours for the regular rental) so we decided to listen to a bit of the commentary around the outside of the buildings about various sculptures and fountains in the courtyard areas. Snapping pictures along the way, we were glad that the morning tour rush had subsided a bit.

After turning in the audio guide, we made our way to the last main site of our castle tour, Golden Lane. The narrow street is lined with tiny colorful houses that were originally built to be homes for those who worked at the castle and on the grounds. Eventually it became a popular area for artists, and at one point Franz Kafka spent a couple years writing in #22. Now the houses are filled with souvenir shops, a pub and museums of sorts. At the end of the lane, we stepped into the creepy torture chamber in a medieval dungeon. It was super creepy especially as Dave began to fit in …

At this point we were ready to sit down and eat, so our mission was to find a nice spot with outdoor seating and maybe a view. We visited a couple places Dave noted on his list, but struck out twice. Finally we settled on Malostranska Beseda Restaurant in Little Quarter Square across from the Church of St. Nicholas. As it was after the lunch rush, we scored a nice table outside perfect for people watching. We toasted to Dave’s birthday with Czech wine and beer, ordered salads and hearty main dishes – beef and dumplings for Dave, gnocchi and lardon for me.

Stuffed, happy and ready to continue, we walked through the Little Quarter’s little boutiques, making our way toward Kampa Island and the Lennon Wall. We found several “love lock” covered bridges and allowed ourselves to stroll a little more aimlessly, enjoying the quaintness of it all while the storm clouds rolled in – luckily the rain blasted through pretty quickly while we ducked into some shops.

It was finally time to walk the pedestrian-only Charles Bridge (after almost three days in Prague) and I was fully prepared with the guidebook to provide history of the various statues. We took note of the spot where St. John of Nepomuk was thrown off the bridge after being tortured for refusing to tell the King his wife’s confession secrets.

Returning to our hotel, we showered and dressed up for Dave’s birthday dinner at Bellevue, a riverside restaurant with beautiful castle view. I made a reservation far enough in advance that we were even able to get window-side seating perfectly timed with sunset. The menu offers several tasting options and we both decided on the “build your own” version with wine pairings – Dave chose the broader European wines, while I decided to go local with the Czech wines. Presentation was perfect, the food exquisite and service exceptional. We enjoyed all the wines, especially one from Italy, and Dave got a nice pre-dessert treat from the restaurant staff and then an after dinner surprise back at the hotel!

There is so much more that we could have seen and done. I definitely would like to go back, but after three busy days, I was ready for our next stop – Vienna!

 

Euroadventure 2014: Sleeping All Over Old Town Prague

The drive from the airport to our hotel, Eurostars David, was quick and took us through some very nice neighborhoods then over one of the bridges that crosses the Vltava River. We were a bit early, but still able to check in, change and freshen up. Our room had a view of the “Dancing House,” which is a more modern building completed in 1996 and said to resemble famous dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

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our hotel room

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view of the Dancing House from our room

David in front of the Eurostars David

David in front of the Eurostars David

Even though we were exhausted, we forced ourselves to get out into the city. I was determined to make the most of our time, and that did not include naps. First we walked past the “Dancing House” and over to the river in search of a place to grab lunch. This little restaurant boat looks touristy, but many customers spoke Czech and one table was a group of guys who actually pulled their boat up to dock alongside the restaurant! I was already craving greens after #OMVBach (Olivia’s bachelorette party the previous weekend) – her recap over here – so I had a goat cheese salad (my favorite chèvre chaud from France as seen here and here … surprised I didn’t mention it more actually) and Dave got chicken risotto. Both were quite good, especially for just picking a random place!

Continuing along the river and marveling at all the paddle boats, we walked past beautiful gardens to the Petřín Hill funicular, where we bought tickets and rode to the top for a sweeping view of the city. At the top we were both in need of a restroom and quickly learned that they are not easy to come by, and it is nearly impossible to find a free WC. (I experienced the pay-to-pee situation both in France and Italy, but it was nothing compared to Eastern Europe. Dave was in shock though, “You have to pay to go?”) This bathroom – if you could even call it that – was really a run down hut guarded by a man who took your money before allowing you to enter into the dark and stinky cesspit. We were both a bit desperate though, and it did the trick.

From there, we bought our tickets for Petřín Tower and began to make our way up the steps, but only made it to the first observation platform. The second platform is almost 300 steps up, we were exhausted already and the view was pretty great at that level anyway.  (It is supposed to be a mini Eiffel Tower, but I prefer the real deal!)

view from Petřín Tower

view of Prague Castle from Petřín Tower

Walking back down the hill, we found the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the base. It’s a series of statues that represent the diminishing effects the regime had on its many political prisoners between 1948 and 1989. As time passes, the body continues to decay and eventually the person disappears almost completely. The bronze ribbon running along the stairs between the statues is etched with powerful numbers estimating those who were victimized during the Communist era: 205,486 arrested, 170,938 forced into exile, 4,500 died in prison, 327 shot trying to escape, 248 executed.

Before evening we stopped at the hotel to change and then headed back out toward the Old Town Square for dinner and our walking tour. The streets all over Prague are cobbled, winding and narrow, giving it a very “Old World” feel. As we rounded another corner, we saw the Astronomical Clock and caught a glimpse of the square with the Týn Church peeking out at us. Dave was in awe; he’d never seen anything like it. To be honest it was pretty amazing, even compared to Place du Tertre or Piazza Navona.

After looking around at several of the square’s tourist trap restaurants, we settled on one that seemed to be the least touristy – Cafe Bílý koníček. (One restaurant directly next to ours wanted to charge 50% more just to be seated outside!) I had a white wine cocktail, Dave had a beer and we both had traditional Czech dinners – I chose beef, cranberries and dumplings and Dave had pork, cabbage and dumplings. (Their dumplings are not like ours, but look like slices of bread instead.) We ate and drank into the sunset and watched the people in the square – tourists, artists, musicians and a variety of interesting performances.

Soon enough it was time for our ghost tour. At this point, we had pretty much been up for over 24 hours, since we left PA for the airport the morning before. It was 8:30pm and the tour was expected to last two hours. We agreed that we may not make it through to the end and might slip away from the group to return to our hotel if necessary. When we met the group though, we found there was only one other couple so we realized that was not really an option.

Our guide was very knowledgeable,  enthusiastic and even dressed the part. He led us from site to site, recounting in his thick Slavic accent old tales of scandal and mystery that had been passed down through generations. As interesting as it all was, the two of us were struggling just to stay awake. During one story, Dave told me he fell asleep six different times with his eyes open! At the end of the tour, we took a picture in front of the Astronomical Clock with Peter and made a bee line for our hotel room.

Note to self: don’t schedule a nighttime walking tour on the first day of a trip! More to come …

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Euroadventure 2014: The Journey Begins

Our trip unofficially began on Tuesday night as we made our way from DC to Bucks County, PA. We were leaving the dogs with Dave’s mom and sister for the duration of our trip and would fly out of JFK the following day. It has become our tradition to stop for Taco Bell anytime we head to PA (don’t judge), except this time we stopped at a different location than usual and were both pretty disappointed in our meals – don’t worry, we made up for it at the end of the trip.

The next day we “slept in” and then took our time getting ready, leaving the house around 11 a.m. for long-term parking at JFK. It was an uneventful drive and we quickly made it to the terminal after dropping off the car. Our goal was to carry on our luggage, but the weight restrictions were really limiting even though we both packed light so we ended up having to check our suitcases. We were also disappointed to find out that TSA Pre-Check was available in our terminal, but we couldn’t use it because we were flying a foreign carrier. Luckily security did not take long, and before we knew it, we were sitting down with food and drinks to kick off the #euroadventure! At this point, we both turned off our work emails and made sure out of office email and voice mail were set.

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Let's get this party started! #euroadventure

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On the plane we settled in with our pillows, headphones, gadgets and the amenity kit (complete with socks, an eye mask, toothpaste/brush and earplugs) provided by Air Berlin. I purchased our seats in advance so we could have a set of two rather than being in the middle section with four seats. Shortly after take-off, the crew began their in-flight service – full meals and complimentary beer and wine. I had the pasta and Dave chose chicken. Neither were much to write home about, but the potato salad was actually pretty good!

After the service was finished and our trays had been taken I watched some music videos (e.g. this, this and this) and tried unsuccessfully to read. Eventually I decided to get ready for “bed” by taking off my makeup and rinsing with mouthwash in the bathroom.  Travel Tip: Bring a pack of facial cleansing towelettes and a travel size mouthwash; they will come in handy throughout a trip and help yourself feel fresh on a long journey. (More packing tips here.)

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our view

Neither of us slept much, but we tried to rest as much as possible since we planned to hit the ground running as soon as we got to Prague. After a few hours with the cabin lights out, the crew turned them back up and began the breakfast service. I loved the mini plastic coffee cups that came with our trays and the coffee was actually very tasty. I still have a hard time eating cheese and deli meat for breakfast, but I guess … when in “Rome?”

We landed in Dusseldorf around 7a.m. and had a very anticlimactic experience going through “customs” since there was no paperwork to fill out and we weren’t really asked any questions. The officer glanced at and stamped our passports and then we continued to our connecting flights. We didn’t even have to pick up and recheck our bags.

The flight to Prague was delayed, so Dave tried to nap while I walked around the airport. It was definitely one of the nicest I’ve seen!

Finally it was time to board our next plane. We were ready to reach Prague and luckily the flight was pretty short. I. Passed. Out! Dave tried to wake me up when we landed, but it was difficult to move even after we parked at the gate. Once off the plane, I stopped to brush my teeth and we pulled some money from the ATM. Despite the delay, our driver met us just outside the secure area and our bags arrived quickly. We were ready for our #euroadventure to officially begin!

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