Saturday, April 7, 2007

Lufthansa Business Class- Prague-Frankfurt-LAX

In the morning we have a 6:30 AM flight to Frankfurt to catch. The hotel has a taxi waiting for us at 4:45 AM and we are at the airport by 5:05 AM. The driver uses the meter and it costs us 560 kr.

Because the hotel has given me the bottle of Becherovka, and it's liquid over 3 oz, I've packed it in my bag and we are going to check our luggage through to LAX. We do this with no problems and head off to the gate.

I have 180 kr left and I'm determined to go home with no money. The only thing I can find for this amount is a big Lindt dark chocolate bar. Sold! We have some extra time so we go to the Lufthansa business class lounge. This lounge is fantastic. There's tons of free food and drinks, newspapers, and free computers with Internet. In Frankfurt, the lounge is just as nice, only much, much larger. They also have a separate First Class lounge there. I can only imagine what that is like. United needs to take a page out of Lufthansa's book for their Red carpet rooms.

Our business class seats are in the nose of the plane, since it's a 747 and First Class is upstairs. We're in row 4, at the back near the door. The seats are fine and have multiple configurations. They are slightly more comfortable than the ones on Austrian Airlines. The food however, nowhere near as good as on Austrian. What does shine however, is the inflight entertainment system. There are about two dozen programs and movies movies, "on demand" with the ability to pause and rewind. I watch 4 movies during the flight instead of sleeping.

We arrive in LA with no problems. I love it when the customs and immigration officials say "welcome home!". It puts a big smile on my face as we walk out of the terminal.

The Gourmet Club

Our last evening in Prague ends with dinner in the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, “The Gourmet Club”. This dinner is included in our package and is three courses with a bottle of domestic wine. When we arrive, we are the only guests in the restaurant. As we dine, only one other couple comes in. Consequently, we get fantastic, attentive service. There is a piano player playing on a grand piano the entire time we are there.

We are offered menus and told we can choose anything we like off them, one appetizer, one main course and one dessert each. The sommelier gives us the wine list and lets us know if we want anything not Czech there will be an additional charge.

I order the Terrine of Fois Gras du canard with roasted apples, cherry chutney and anise seed (560kr) and Mom has the Cream of Sweet Pea soup with mushroom tartlet (210kr). The Fois gras is excellent as is the sweet pea soup is extremely flavorful with a wonderful little puff pastry floating in the center.

Between courses we discuss wine with the sommelier who tell us all about Czech wines. We select a bottle of Chat Dowina Michiovsky, Rulandske Modre, 2003, a Czech Pinot Noir. It’s “decent” but not fabulous, and certainly not worth the almost $50 it would have cost.

For my main course I have the duck-Magret de Canard with roasted oyster mushrooms, caramelized shallots and spring vegetables (780kr). Mom has the veal medallions with asparagus, lime foam and roasted potatoes (780kr). The entrees here fall flat compared to the apps and come across as standard hotel dining room fare. Technically fine, but uninspired and boring.

The desserts don’t do much better. I order the “mint cream” which turns out to be mint flavored whipped cream (surprise!) in a tasteless chocolate cup with sliced fruit. Mom has some ice cream which is better in its simplicity.

In all, the service was wonderful, but the food, certainly not worth the approx. $200 the meal would have cost us if we’d paid for it.

Dancing building

The train ride back into Prague is uneventful. I look at my map and determine that if we get off the train at an earlier station and transfer to the Metro, we can walk past the famous Gehry “dancing” building. This is a good idea and a bad one. Good because my map reading was sound, bad because we had to get on the metro and did not have tickets nor change. Lots of walking around the station ensures that we miss the next metro and have to wait 15 min for another one. Then, once we get to the right station, we have a hard time figuring out which way to go. We don’t even realize we’re there until we’re right under the building. It’s smaller than I expect, but still charming and I’m glad we see it, if only quickly in passing, while trying to find a place open with a restroom at the same time (not easy on a Sunday).

We walk back through OTS one last time and decide the weather is so nice we’re going to spring for a glass of wine in one of the cafes. It’s 10 min to four in the afternoon and somehow, we manage to snag what is probably one of the best tables on the square for watching the clock do it’s thing on the hour. We’re right, front and center for the show, and it’s amusing to watch the crowd gather, oooh and ahhh for 1 min and then disperse just as fast.

Karlstejn Castle

We finally reach the castle entrance and it opens onto a central courtyard. There is a ticket booth and the entrance fee is 220 kr per person, compulsory 1 hour tour of castle included in various languages. The next tour in English is in 25 minutes so we walk around the exterior of the castle and down to the well tower.

Once the tour starts, everyone must stay together and the guide opens doors to each room with a key, locking us in behind her as we go. No photos are allowed inside, yet there is a family (mom, dad, two teenage boys) who are surreptitiously taking photos when they think no one is looking. The woman is brazenly videotaping at one point, using the kids as lookouts. This is such a bad lesson for the kids, “the rules don’t apply to you, just don’t get caught”. My mother says to her, “no photos” and the woman just shrugs and keeps doing it anyway.

After the castle tour, we walk back down the hill. We have about an hour to kill before the train and I’m hungry. I make the mistake of ordering a doner kebab from an outdoor vendor and it’s so bad it’s barely edible. We end up in a restaurant right next to the big parking lot where the tour buses park. Lunch is surprisingly decent, but rushed- good goulash in bread bowl, fries, and an undressed Greek salad for 220 kr.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

"One Euro"

My mother complains as we walk up, and up, and up the hill toward the castle giving me the adult version of “are we there yet?” It is a long way up, but really, not that steep. There are supposedly horse drawn carriages which will take people almost to the top (no cars allowed) but we don't see any the entire walk up. Later, we discover the pick up point is near the parking lot at the bottom of town. I think it's $6 per person.

As we walk up the hill we pass a man with full dark beard, dressed in medieval garb with a full sized owl on his arm. The owl sits there looking stoic and slightly sleepy, while the man stands, calling out "one euro, one euro!", waiting for people who would like to have their picture taken with the owl on their arm. There is a sign in three languages saying that the money raised here goes to support “handicapped owls”.

I look at the man and ask (referring to the owl), “Is he handicapped?”
He replies, “Yes, handicapped, one euro”, holding out the leather arm cover and the bird.
“No”, I say, “can he fly?”
“Fly, yes, one euro”.
Hmmm…how does that work? What we have here folks is a failure to communicate.

I decline the photo op, slightly irritated by the guy who is maybe just out for a buck (or euro), uncertain as to whether or not the bird is being exploited, and not wanting to contribute to it. Looking back on it, I slightly regret my decision, as I would have liked to be able to hold the owl up close.

The Best Strudel in Three Countries

March 11, 2007

We wake up go to breakfast and are still considering our day’s options over coffee. Finally, we decide on a trip to Karlstejn Castle, only a 40 minute train ride from Prague. It will allow us to see a bit of countryside and a cool old castle. Other day trips seem much farther away and as it’s already getting late, we opt for the closest choice.

Unfortunately, once we finally decide, we have to rush to the train station because the 1once per hour train is leaving in 30 minutes. The station is only a 10 minute walk from the hotel but once inside, we have a hard time figuring our where to go.
The clock is ticking and the train is leaving in less than 10 minutes. Finally, I manage to purchase two round trip tickets for 122kr.
Five minutes to go and we are wondering which track. Karlstejn is not the final destination of the train, so it’s hard to tell from the signs. Finally, I see a sign with “Karlstejn” on it and we step on board with only 3 minutes to spare.
The train is packed. We walk from car to car, trying to find two seats together. There are none. By the time we get to the last car, it is standing room only.

It’s Sunday, where is everyone going? People on the train are very friendly, want to know where we’re going, and eventually will even tell us when to get off the train. There are also electronic signs in each car which scroll the next stop and final stop.

I strike up a conversation with a woman who says she’s going "to country cottage" to go fishing. It’s an absolutely beautiful day and the scenery is really beautiful as it rolls by. Gradually we get out into the countryside and we can see these teeny-tiny cottages. Each look to be about 15 feet by 15 feet with a little plot of land and a garden. There are many riverside fishing spots along the train’s route as well. People are out and about, enjoying the first warmish Spring day of the year.

Once we arrive at the train station, it’s a 10 min walk to town, across a bridge. We just followed all the other day trippers.

Since it appears to be quite a long walk uphill to the castle, we needed fortification and stop for coffee about midway through town. Inside they have some baked goods in a case and right there on the counter, a plate of apple strudel. I order a piece (only 9kr!) because it looked fresh. Who knew it would be the best strudel in 3 countries? It’s light and flaky and fresh out of the oven. Not refrigerated and microwaved. It’s so amazing, I have to order another piece because I don’t leave enough for my mom to share. The coffee is decent too.

Later, I confirm with the woman inside that they indeed do bake it right there (you have to pass through the kitchen to get to the restrooms upstairs) and I do my best to convey to her how excellent it is. I don't know the name of the place, but it has a striped awning with "Cukrarna-Kavarna" printed on it and it's on the left as you walk up toward the castle.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Prague-Kogo Restaurant

Kogo Restaurant, Havalska 27, Prague 1

This is an Italian place, right off the same square as the market on the edge of Old town. The restaurant is split in two by an exterior corridor. The side on the right does pizzas as well as the regular menu and appears more casual. We eat in the one on the left with white tablecloths.
There is a large pasta selection and decent wine list, but it seems expensive (like most wine everywhere here.)
We have the antipasti platter which comes with small hunks of cheese-parmesan, gorgonzola, and something plain. There's also mortadella, prosciutto, olives and small salad. They nicely split it on 2 plates for us. There’s a bread basket with bread like little pizza dough pillows and it’s good.

Mom has the mixed grill-pork, chicken, sausage, beef, etc and I have the grilled sirloin which is a very thick piece of meat, grilled a perfect extra rare (even though I’ve ordered it medium). I eat every bit of the cooked parts and there is still a very rare (almost raw) piece of the center left the size of my fist.
We also have eggplant, roasted, which comes with tomato and melted cheese and oddly, slices of hard boiled egg in the layers. Still, it’s quite good.

We have a couple of wines by the glass ( a Montenegro red and a Rubrato) but decide to leave without having dessert when the 4-top next to us all light up cigarettes and smoke us out of the room. The server apologizes but tells us Czech law prohibits them from not allowing smoking (could this be true?). Credit cards are accepted. Total about $75.

more misc photos

After the monastery, we walk back toward the palace, downhill, stopping for our daily latte and strudel at a place called Cafe Zlata Hvezda. The coffee is fine but the strudel is a disaster- it’s over-microwaved, tough and drowning in choc syrup.

We walk back across the Charles Bridge, pausing for a moment to watch a man setting up his marionette, but don’t stay to watch his show. We have sausages again for lunch, and this time I count my change.

After lunch, we walk across the street, unencumbered by heavy coats left in the room, and use our tickets to the Mucha museum that came with out package. This is a lovely little museum dedicated to this famous Czech Art Nouveau artist. The drawings and paintings are stunning. There’s even a movie which chronicles his live playing in the back of the museum.

March 10, 2007- Strahov Monastery

In the morning, we take the tram #22 across the river and up the hill behind the castle to the Strahov Monastery.
The main draw here are the famous libraries. There are two; one called the “Philosophical Hall” and the other called the “Theological Hall”. The Philosophical hall is the “newer” of the two, having been built at the end of the 1700’s and has bookcases reaching 50 feet in height and a painted, barrel vaulted ceiling. The Theologial Hall, on the opposite side of a courtyard, was built some 100 years earlier but mirrors the other one with bookcase lined walls and barrel vault ceiling.
Philosphical Hall

Unfortunately, the rooms are roped off so one can only peer in through the doorway. Gray haired ladies patrol like hall monitors, just waiting for someone to step out of line and (gasp!) take a photo without having paid a fee for the privilege. There is a fascinating “Cabinet of Curiosities” filled with all sorts of dried sea creatures, closest to the Philosophical Hall.

Back outside, we wander around a bit, peek into the little Renaissance Chapel (which was closed) and decide against visiting the Picture Gallery (filled with religious art) or the Miniature Book Museum (which looks more like a gift shop). Just beyond one of the monastery walls at the back of the complex are steps which walk down toward town. There’s a small vineyard and a fantastic view of Prague.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Restaurant David

For dinner we take the tram back across the river and walk up to Restaurant David, around the corner from the US Embassy and the Alchemist hotel.

We arrive and must ring a bell to be admitted. We hadn’t made a reservation and we are greeted with a look of shock when we admit we don’t have one, but we're still given a table. I’m unable to tell if the look was serious or not. As it turns out, the gentleman who answered the door is the only one we see all evening serving food and my guess is that he was a tad bit over-worked.
It’s a small restaurant with two (maybe 3?) little dining rooms and they are about ¾ full. The room we're in is filled with foreigners, some American, some British, and a table of 2 Portuguese couples who are clearly having a fantastic time. Later, an American woman at a table across the room is so loud that I by the end of the evening I feel I know her entire life story, what she likes to eat and drink, and what she does not like to eat and drink. I'm horrified- she's such a cliche of the typical "ugly American tourist" I just want to cringe.

The menu looks modern and creative for Prague. I say "for Prague" only because I have not been particularly impressed by what I've seen on menus so far. Not intended to sound snobby.

We order the fois gras appetizer to share and mom orders a glass of Clos du Choi du Roy Sauternes (150kr) to go with it. The server seems a bit disappointed when we do not order a bottle of wine, as there are decanters sitting on each table, obviously meant to entice diners to order full bottles.

Before any food or wine arrives we are served a little amuse bouche of some sort of unknown liver terrine. It's rustic and good.

The foie gras comes with caramelized apple and red onion marmalade and turns out to be a good sized portion 390kr. I love fois gras torchon. The caramelized apples are in the center of the triangular torchon and the red onion "marmelade" is the color of beets.

For my entrée I order rabbit roasted w/polenta and bacon -450 and a glass of unknown french cabret-190kr.
Mom orders veal with morel mushroom cream sauce and gratin potatoes-590kr
Both are very good, with generous portions we cannot finish. No room for dessert. Too bad we could not bring home the leftovers. With 2 small waters, the total bill is slightly over 2000 kr Credit cards are accepted.

My rabbit dish at the bottom of the photo.


Would you hurry up and take the freakin' photo already???

The tour ends at the boat dock so we have to walk back. Yes, as usual, we eventually get lost. Finally, we get to Wenceslas Square and stop at one of the many sausage stands. We buy a sausage and it's excellent. The sausage and a bottle of water cost only 70 kr.

The experience is marred only by my being shorted 100kr, or about $5. I know it happened at the sausage stand because I gave them a 1000 kr note and when we got back I only had 800. I thought I had counted it, but in my haste I obviously miscounted. We didn't stop anywhere or spend any other money. It's a valuable (and expensive) lesson. I never think it's a good idea to stand and count a bunch of money in public. On the other hand, if you don't you risk being shorted.

Four Words

On the way back to the hotel we stop at the kiosk for the tour company. We get a free tour of the city with our package and it turns out to be with a local company called "Premiant". The tour we are offered is the "Prague Panoramic" which is a 1 hour bus tour combined with a 1 hour walking tour of the castle district (with no entrance into anywhere that needs paid admission). Unfortunately, we've already seen everything they offer just by walking around on our own. So, one of the tour touts offers to let us switch out the tour for the "Vltava River Cruise with a Drink" tour valued at the same price (390 kr or $20). Great, we think.

We go back to the hotel and switch rooms to the “junior suite”. This room is essentially not different from the other one and might be smaller. It is, however, on the exterior of the building, so it gets lots of natural light and we have what turns out to be the only balcony on the building. We decide to keep it.

At 2:30 we board a claustrophobic mini-bus which drives us in circles, complete with guide and narration, until we arrive at the river boat docks. We're then given tickets for our "free drink". The "cruise" moves excruciatingly slow down the river to the Charles bridge and then back up. We could have walked it faster. The tour is narrated by a recording that repeats everything in 6 languages and provides absolutely no useful information.

I have 4 words for this experience; Massive Waste Of Time.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cafe Lobkowicz

There are a number of cafes at the top of the hill and we stopped at the Café Lobkowicz which is inside the Lobkowicz Palace, near the North end of the Palace complex.
This turned out to be an excellent choice. It was quiet, close to empty (not usually a good sign, but today it was) and had an amazing view of the entire city from the terrace.
We each had a latte (90 kr ea) and shared a bowl of tomato soup (85 kr) and a grilled mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwich (195 kr). All were excellent.

St. Vitus Exterior

Exterior of St. Vitus cathedral. If it looks a little funny, that's because I've stitched together 4 photos to make one. It was impossible for me to get far enough away to get the whole thing in one shot.

Exterior mosaics on side of Cathedral, below.

Rear view of Cathedral

The Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral

Once we get to the end of the bridge, we decide to follow a (modified version) of a walking tour in our guidebook and then head uphill toward the castle area. During the walk, we get to see the famous “John Lennon wall” On the way we pass by Restaurant David and check out the menu, deciding we will return for dinner.

We walk up and up and up, eventually arriving at the top. We check out St. Vitus Cathedral. It is possible to go inside without paying. If you want to go further than 20 feet in however, you must buy a ticket. We decided to forgo the ticket, enjoyed the view from where we stood and then exited to admire the outside.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

More Charles Bridge Photos

Prague- March 9, 2007

In the morning after breakfast at the hotel, we’re up and out early, determined to find the Charles Bridge and walk up to the Palace. We’ve booked our two hour tour with the hotel concierge, which turns out to be one of those local minibus tours where everyone wears headphones speaking “20 different languages” for an hour on the bus and then an hour walking tour of the castle area. We’re not exactly thrilled about this, but we have until 2 PM to decide to bail out of we want.

Our first stop is back at the market we found last night.

We continue walking, this time actually following a map and find ourselves in Klementium Square. I turn around, and there is the Clementin Hotel, a place I considered staying. It’s a 13th century building, one of the oldest and thinnest in Prague.

Through the narrow streets, and suddenly I can see the tower at the edge of the bridge. Finally! We are not lost!

It’s a beautiful morning and we are blessed with clear, cold weather and a relatively empty bridge. The souvenir vendors, painters, and sketch artists are just beginning to set up shop. It’s filled with perfect opportunities for photos, including one of me (with my new hat) and the castle in the background!