No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Danube River Cruise Part VI & Last: Czech Republic

Tuesday 14 August

We've left the River Aria behind in favor of a double decker bus for the trip to Prague via Český Krumlov.

Český Krumlov is an lovely and amazing place. The Vltava (aka Moldau) River makes a tight S bend, making two peninsulas on which the town center is built. One side has a wide ranging castle complex, while the other has the main square and church. Daniel gave us a quick orientation and we were on our own. First stop, the ATM, to get some Czech koruna. From where we started in the main square, it's a short walk to the bridge connecting the old town to the castle side of things. Much of the castle's exterior and interior walls are covered with decorative sgraffito. Just outside the castle proper, we were told to look for the three bears. We expected statues, but no… there's three real live bears in the 'moat' under the drawbridge. We walked up to the extensive formal gardens to look around and get some views of the city below. Coming back down, we passed through some little stalls, where they were hawking things from leather and fur to sausage and cheese. We got a taste of some local licorice.

Going back to the other side of the bridge, we stopped for a local pastry, the trdelnik. It's a hollow spiral of dough wrapped around a rolling-pin sized cylinder. It's rolled in sugar and then roasted over an open flame in a little gizmo that keeps the cylinders rotating. And tasty, too.

Another neat shopfront was at the cafe of the Two Widows: a handcrank animated the widows to spin around, while a black cat raced back and forth between them.

We balked at the entry price of the Torture Museum and went to the cathedral of St. Vitus, which had tall skinny windows with simple stained glass that really lit the place up with the sun came out from behind a cloud. No photos allowed, though most disregarded this.

Back in the main square, Becca and I just had time to try out a small glass of an obscure local beer called Budweiser. OK, OK, it's not Budweiser Budweiser, but then again it is. A similar lager style, but a little more complex, and quite a bit bitterer than your average American megabeer.

Then a short ride to the home-hosted lunch at a private home in the hilly outskirts of Český Krumlov. These are a signature feature of Grand Circle Travel, Our hostess, Maria, was delightful. As she described herself, "Cook good, English bad." She offered us a tot of apricot liqueur, then some potato soup with vegetables from her garden, a moist and flavorful chicken leg with more potatoes, and an apfel strudel with apples from her community garden. She didn't speak much English, but we managed to make a little chit chat about her family and where we all came from, and our ancestry. I think she may have been a little dismayed or bemused by how many of us (virtually all of the six of us in her home) had German ancestry. The Czechs spent long enough getting rid of Germans, rather than inviting them into their homes. Though obviously time and tourism korunas have changed that a lot. We also oohed over her sewing and needlepoint -- she had made her tablecloth and other ornaments in the house. I'm not sure the home-hosted meal is the amazing experience the promotional literature makes it out to be, but it was cute, and no complaints.

Next the 3 hour bus trip into Prague, which boded to be boring, but turned out to be an adventure. After an hour or so, traffic ground to a halt. And stayed there. WOrd from one of the other buses was that they had been trapped even longer, but our driver, David, was a pro and knew the area, so we sneaked off onto a tiny 1.5 lane road in our huge bus, going through farm land. Apple and plum trees lined the road at times, and we occasionally faced off with tractors and had to negotiate a passage. The biggest surprise was when we took a fairly sharp turn and I looked behind us at a truck carrying 8 or 10 cars that was following us in our wake. David got much-deserved applause as we reached the main highway again and we finished our voyage into Prague, where we're staying at the Hotel Don Giovanni. Not in the city center, but it's very close to a subway stop.

A fair number of our group, including us, took Daniel's suggestion to walk to the Hotel Villa for dinner at their restaurant. Service was slow (a recent wedding had taxed the staff, and many were taking a break) but the food and drink and company were good. I had pork tenderloin with Dijon mustard and taters, and I practiced so I could order the dark beer from Velkopopovický Kozel. It's very good stuff, and I think my favorite from the entire trip. Becca's Gambrinus was also fine, but not as interesting. A late stroll back to the hotel along the wall of the new (i.e. 1787) Jewish cemetery and to bed.

Wednesday 15 August

Had the buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Nice spread and enjoyed the little pastry with nutella inside, with sprinkled chocolate and coconut on top. Soon off to our morning tour of Prague.

Traffic was a little sticky, but the bus driver got us up to the Castle area, which afforded us some nice views of the city and the river Vltava on the way up. Much of the architecture up there dates to Maria Theresa's era and is the same sort of palace-y stuff, but not as grand as in Vienna. But the real star is St. Vitus' Cathedral, which is one of those ones that took 600 years to complete, finally finishing up in 1929 or so, but completed in the same style as the rest of the elements. One slight exception is that one 'stained glass' window is actually painted glass by Alphonse Mucha. The building is a grand gothic space with many fine details inside and out.

The castle area houses a number of other fine palaces and also affords views of the city. From there, the bus took us to the Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, which is associated with some astonishing WWII history. Early on, one of Hitler's right hand men, Heydrich, was made Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (i.e. the Czech Republic, more or less) and began the process of Germanizing the Czech lands, which was not so much about adding Germans as it was about subtracting Czechs.

The Czech government in exile (in London) worked with the RAF on a plan. In short, they parachuted an assassination and resistance organization squad of Czech soldiers. On 27 May 1942, Operation Anthropoid was successful in injuring Heydrich with a grenade, and he died of his injuries later. The assassins and other members of the Czech cell holed up in the crypt of this church, while the manhunt went on. Unfortunately, one of the Czechs [later hanged for treason] ratted out their hiding place, and pretty soon the church with its 7 Czech soldiers was surrounded by hundreds of Nazi soldiers. They held out as long as they could, but eventually they had to resort to their cyanide pills or their last bullet. In the aftermath, the churchmen and 100s of other Resistance figures were rounded up and executed. The church is now a monument to the event. We saw a short film about it all, followed by a short talk with the current priest in charge of the church. One interesting point, since the government-in-exile was not leftists (and neither was the RAF), when Czechoslovakia came under Soviet influence, the whole incident vanished from the history books.

From there, we managed to squeeze our whole group onto a streetcar and get a taste of the public transportation for a couple stops, taking us to the old town, where just about every building is worth looking at. Block after block of them. Sadly, the Jewish cemetery (where Rabbi Loew resides) is only accessible through the synagogue and there was not only a wait, but a steep fee to see all of the Jewish sites in town. If Judaica is your thing, then $15 is nothing after your pilgrimage to Prague, but for us… we'll pass. Also saw the house in which Kafka was born, now a museum dedicated to him. Around the corner and into the main square of Prague: a huge area, lined with great buildings each with its own story -- none of which I know. But at one corner stands the town hall, and there we saw the Astronomical Clock, one of my two must-see goals for Prague.

The clock is a pretty amazing thing (check this out to see the clockface motions speeded up) with the astronomical dial, the calendar wheel, and its little animatronics.

Our local guide timed it pretty well. We had a 10 minute wait for it to do its thing on the hour. (my video) Saints parade in the windows, the figures jiggle a bit, as death tolls the bells. After the show, a live trumpeter plays a fanfare up at the top of the tower.

Now on our own, we snuck off to regroup and caught some lunch at a place a ways off the square (we had been instructed that the closer you are to the square, the higher the prices -- we were advised to check the price of beer to help gauge things.) I really enjoyed my beef in sauce with cream and cranberries ( a traditional Czech dish called svíčková na smetaně, as the internet reliably informs me).

Here we parted. Carol & Judith had their own adventures downtown and later will go on one of the optional tours to the Czech countryside. Dr. Pookie and I set off for the train station. We walked down the long St. Wenceslas 'square', and hung a left at the Museum at the end. Sorting out the train system took some doing, but it helps that just about everyone speaks at least some English, and the staff at the train station were even better than that. After a bit we boarded the train for Kutná Hora. Pretty quickly you're out of the city and out in corn fields and small stands of trees and one or two small lakes, with their clothing optional sunworshippers. A little less than an hour and we'd covered the 70 km to the town. A helpful sign outside the station got us pointed the right direction and a short walk brought us to the Sedlec Ossuary.

It's a crazy and amazing place. In 1870, when the land changed hands, an artisan turned the bones of the ossuary into works of art. Urns, candelabra, tombs, monstrances, the coat of arms of the patron, a chandelier, and even the signature of the artist, all rendered in human bones. It's smaller than I imagined, and much brighter on a hot summer day, but still a marvel. We also saw the small upper chapel with its hand pumped free-standing organ. The cemetery around the ossuary building itself is also interesting, with well-cared for and decorated plots.

Before starting the journey back to Prague, we bought a couple beers from a local store. They were from a local brewery, Dačický. The two varieties were pretty similar in taste, the main difference being that one was 4.1% and the other was 5.1%. The best part? The half liter bottles cost $0.90 and $1, respectively. The promised land of cheap, good beer!

Despite a little uncertainty about which train to take back -- sorry French girls, you didn't listen to us and wound up on the local instead of the express -- we made it back to Prague, and then made use of the metro station in the train station. The metro is clean, modern and easy-peasy to navigate.

After a breather, we set out on foot to the Flora mall, which would be right at home in any upscale neighborhood in the US. From the Apple Store and Guess to Sephora and the IMAX theater. The food court left us cold, though, with the presence of McDonald's and KFC making us suspicious of the other, less recognizable, options. Fortunately, Daniel had given us a map with a few restaurants marked on it, and we would up at U Sladečku. Starting off with beer, Becca had the amazing Velkopopovický Kozel dark, while I had something I can't remember with too many consonants. I think it was Plzeňský Prazdroj , which is actually just a fancy name for Pilsner Urquell. For starters, some sliced sausage with gravy and onions, alongside one extremely hot pepper. I had a steak from Uruguay that was mighty fine, accompanied by roasted potatoes and the Czech version of chimichurri. A big table of 8 guys or so did nothing but shout at each other, drink beer, and rotate through the WC. Until they all sang Happy Birthday in English to one of their number.

We walked back to the hotel, I scribbled all this, and now lights out.

Thursday 16 August

Mostly free time in Prague today. For once, we could get a more leisurely start to the day. Even so, Charles Bridge was relatively uncrowded when we got there … some of the caricature artists were still setting up shop as we walked across admiring the occasional statues and the view. On the other side of the bridge were some shoppes and we took a peek inside one or two. Saw a couple more of the sweet rides that you can take for city tours. Oh and then the tricked out Trabant advertising Thai massage.

Back across the bridge I had another quick look at the Astronomical Clock. I seem to have some sort of faulty memory that the calendar wheel had some sort of special gizmo that took care of leap years, but I didn't see anything, and the interwebs is not backing me up. I can't even find out what clock I *was* thinking of. Perhaps it was all a dream. While we were there, a bride and groom were having pictures taken there.

We then took a circuitous route to see a few things. The cubist lamp post (not worth it), the upside down horse at the Art Deco-era Lucerna mall (sorta worth it), and the Mucha Museum (worth it, but pricy).

No photos allowed at the museum, but lots of neat things, including many posters done for Sarah Bernhardt productions, even one for her Hamlet, in which she played the title role. Other posters were for Czech cultural events, a few of which include their pagan 3-headed god, Triglav. Others were just beautiful art pieces, and many sketches, and photos of models and his studio, and the hijinx there, like Gauguin playing the studio harmonium without pants.

We threaded our way to the Beer Museum & Pub, where they have 30 local microbrews on tap. I chose Únětické, which was a fine crisp lager, but my favorite was the Sedm Kulí, which was complex and very tasty -- allegedly basil goes into the mix, but I couldn't taste it. Černý Ležák was a dark beer that was a little too sweet for my taste, but still interesting. We also got some nice sausage with fresh grated horseradish and a traditional Czech pretzel, which was good, but was perhaps the kind of pretzel dreamed up by someone with a big resentment against German people. It had more of a hard breadstick texture.

We tried to get good views of the Tyn church, but it's just impossible due to the closeness of the other buildings around it, and the narrow lanes. So we settled for ice cream, or as the Czechs say -- with as few vowels as possible -- zmrzlina. I had pistachio. We made our way to the river, and walked along the embankment to the Metro, but not before we spotted a funny balloon. I think they give rides up and down on it.

Improbably, three separate groups of GCT travelers bumped into each other on the same Metro car on our way back to the hotel. Our trip is starting to come to an end. Up next, a farewell drink, a farewell dinner, a last sleep and off to the airport.

We assembled in one of the conference rooms for a last drink and some logistical information about the airport. So we had a few laughs and champagne and then they pulled out the Becherovka, an herbal (or as Daniel pronounced it, hair-ball) liqueur from the Czech Republic. Reminiscent of Benedictine. The traditional manner is to slam it all in one go. I cheated a bit to get a taste and then knocked back the rest. Not bad, and it sure warms the stomach.

Minivans carted us off to the restaurant, the Two Camels. We were separated by groups, so it was 'just' 37 or so of us. The place was right downtown a short walk from the astronomical clock.

Dr. Pookie raved about the mushroom soup, declaring it the best thing she'd eaten on the trip. I'm not a fungi fan, but the proprietress very kindly brought me an enormous green salad with balsamic vinegar. Goulash and (burnt) potato pancakes were only so-so, as was the ricotta-y dessert thing (other opinions at the table seemed even lower, as the dessert was picked apart). But I did get a chance to taste the Budweiser Dark -- I liked it better than the light. That's been my general impression. They may have invented and perfected the lager, but they're not that much more interesting than American-style lagers. But the dark beers are much more impressive. Anyway, back to the hotel and up early for

Friday 17 August

A light breakfast and then the shuttle to the airport. Picked up boarding passes, dropped off luggage, navigated security, and pretty soon in the air for Frankfurt. They served perhaps the healthiest airplane food ever: a little bowl of muesli with a tiny bottle of milk/yogurt. And a tiny collapsible spoon to eat it with.

Short flight to Frankfurt, where we again ran the terminal gauntlet, and did security [Frankfurt security has been very tight -- they they re-x-rayed my shoes] and at last hit the promised land of the Duty Free, where we shed euros by buying Cuban rum and a German herbal liqueur. Now some time to kill before enjoying the endless afternoon as out 747 chases the Sun west. Leave at 2 pm, arrive at 4 pm, with an elapsed time of 11 hours.

A little excitement as Lufthansa asked for volunteers to go through Chicago to LA arriving at midnight for 600 euros. Very slightly tempting, but they seem to have a cluster of people at the desk already taking advantage of the plan. At least this'll keep us from being bumped.

Survived the trip, despite Lufthansa's attempt to provide the worst movies possible. It's strange how hypnotic the screen can be (after 6 or 7 hours) even when you have no headphones. And how easy some parts of the language of film are to decipher with just the visuals. Oh, that's the training montage in Mirror Mirror. Oh, that's the build up to the touching resolution of 1000 Words. Oh, that's the steaming pile of 3D crap that is The Lorax.

Made it through Federal Inspection and saw a dedicated, hardworking TSA agent in the baggage area. A dog, of course. He gets excited next to the Asian girl and the handler asks if she has any fruits or vegetables. Girl produces two giant green apples. Dog gets treats.

We clear customs and the crabby cabby and make it home to kitties and Negativsteve. Now we're hanging out with Steve as the cats decide whether to stop ignoring us or not. The End.

If you've enjoyed this trip, you might like some of Mike's other endless travel accounts, such as:

Italy 2000
Austria/Germany 2003
Western States Road Trip 2004
Eastern Med Cruise 2006
Western Med Cruise 2009
Peru 2011
Tags: art, bio, cruise, food, history, travel

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