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.