Thursday, January 26, 2012

These Are Special Times

I arrived in Prague and my first move was to get some moolah, and get to my hostel.  I stopped at an ATM to withdraw Czech crowns and then bought a ticket for the metro to get to my hostel.  Arriving at my hostel I was given an introduction to the city, and thankfully, allowed to check into my room.  Because the night train that brought me to Prague isn’t really the Ritz Hotel and because of all the rainy weather in Amsterdam, I was feeling pretty tired and had a sore throat.  So, after I went to the grocery store to get some lunch, I decided a nap and some reading was in order. 

Waking from my restful daytime slumber I decided to explore the area around my hostel a bit.  I found a nearby market that had lots of traditional Czech food and other local goodies.  After checking out the market, I decided to head down to the old town center to buy some cough drops, and grab some chow.  I managed to find Palladium, a new, large Czech shopping mall.  I hit the jackpot in terms of shopping!  First things first, I grabbed some cough drops and some McDo before heading back to the hostel.  I hung out in the basement of my hostel for a while, drinking tea, reading, and chatting with other travelers before heading to bed for an early night’s sleep. 

The next morning I woke up early to head to the airport and pick up Olivia and my dad.  After traveling on trams, metros, and buses for an hour I arrived at the airport where I only had to wait about 20 minutes before they arrived.  Understandably, these two were pretty hungry and tired after they arrived, so we went back to the hotel, got a delicious lunch in the restaurant next door, and took a nap.  (Now, let me just say right now, all the food we ate was phenoms!  Seriously, following the advice of our Rick Steve’s guidebook and exploring until we found something that look good, were two tactics that worked amazingly for us!  To sum up our visits to the Czech Republic and Poland, you could say that we ate a lot, and walked a lot!  There are pictures to document all the nom nom nommmy food we wolfed down.  However, due to the serious amounts of exploring and walking around we usually only ate breakfast and one other meal—whether that was at 3 in the afternoon or 9pm. Luckily, we had some candy to tide us over on those reallllll long days)

After the nap it was practically dark outside, which isn’t surprising considering that it was the 22nd of December.  We hopped on the closest tram and wandered around downtown Prague, checking out the many Christmas markets!  Prague was interesting because there was a Christmas market around every corner.  Each market might not have been very big, but you never had to walk very far to find one.  Since we had had a big lunch we decided to try the local sausages that were being sold at all the markets.  The sausages themselves were delicious, however, they came on a piece of dry bread.  This bread proved to be a problem for me due to the copious amounts of ketchup I prefer to consume with my sausages.  Needless to say, my bread became a crumbly bumbly mess and there was ketchup all over.  To “compliment” our sausages we all purchased the traditional Gluhwein, hot wine, which was being consumed by all the Czech people around us.  None of us enjoyed this wine, and we made sure that was the last Gluhwein we purchased during our trip.  

After standing around outside and eating our dinner we were getting a bit chilly so we decided to walk around inside the mall that I had discovered the night before.  After warming our fingers and toesies we decided to continue and wonder towards the main Old Towne Square.  We arrived to see the place crawling with Christmas booths and people exploring everything the market had to offer.  

Christmas Market goodies!

Don't buy these cookies!  They suck; we
learned that the hard way.

After doing a thorough examination of all the booths we walked on with no particular destination in mind.  We found a little shoe store that had signs for black boots for the equivalent of only 20 euros!  This, being too good to pass up, required a pit stop.  I managed to find a pair of good black boots that were really comfortable for walking, but I wasn’t sure they would look good with my other jeans.  So, I told the lady that I would be coming back the following morning in my other pair of jeans.  I’m sure she thought I was just joshin’ her and didn’t attend to ever see me again.  But she just didn’t know how determined I can be!  After our boot fashion show we continued to press on in our exploration of the city.  We eventually came across a man in a weird underpass area who was selling his paintings.  These paintings were different from any of the landscape paintings I had come across in other cities, they were very brightly colored and quirky in design.  Olivia found one that she had her heart set on, but we wanted to continue to see if there was anything better, so decided we would keep looking.  After we had finished exploring the greater part of the Old City, we hadn’t found a cooler painting for as good of a price, so we returned to the man in the weird underpass area to make our purchases.  We left three paintings richer and not too much poorer.  After those purchases we were cold and tired, so we decided to head back to the hotel where I read a little in our guide book to prepare for the following day, and we went to bed. 

The next morning, we enjoyed the traditional Czech breakfast offered at our hotel and meandered to the Old Towne Center to start our day.  The first stop was at a money exchange booth where Olivia needed to get some cash.  We later realized she was ROYALY ripped off.  I found it to be absolutely hilarious, and continued to ask her if she need some money every time we passed one of those booths.  We were able to laugh it off and joke about it for the rest of the trip. 

The famous Prague Astronomical Clock that we
stopped to watch while walking around.

He was so proud he got this going!

Stop number two was the boot store.  The lady was beyond surprised to see us there.  I made my incredible purchase and we then we were able to commence our game plan for that day.  It was Friday the 23rd and the many Jewish synagogues would be closed on Saturday, so we were going to tackle the many different synagogues there were to see.  We bought our package tickets or all of the synagogues and began to explore the first building.  The first building has a small synagogue and there were names written on all of the walls of the building.  There were thousands of names of the individuals who were members of the synagogue and who died during WWII.  It was quite interesting to see all of the names of these individuals.  It was organized alphabetically by last name, and we were even able to find about 20 Haas’ written on the wall. 

Practically out the back door of this building was one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in all of Prague.  It was a small area that was crowded with thousands of tombstones and absolutely astounding.  It was impossible to imagine that in this small, confined area there were thousands of bodies buried.  There were many Jewish people who had come to pray and a specific tombstone, and that was very touching to see. 

At the opposite end of the cemetery was another museum containing many garments and relics from past Jewish ceremonies.  The museum explained the different customs that the Jewish had for burials and religious ceremonies.  After completing this museum we were getting a little hungry.  We took the advice of our guidebook and went to a small Czech restaurant not too far away.  The book stated that many locals go to this restaurant to enjoy the good and fairly priced lunch menu.  We made the right choice in going there.  There weren’t any other tourists and the food was great!  My dad and I got salmon and fries, while Olivia got a traditional goulash dish.  We had our 3 very satisfying meals plus drinks for the equivalent of about 18 dollars!  We could barely go to McDonald’s for that price! 

After being satiated we left to continue to explore the Jewish museums.  My favorite of the ones that remained was the Spanish synagogue.  Every inch of this building was hand painted and it was absolutely gorgeous!  I seriously loved it, and it is probably my favorite building I saw on the entire trip!  We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but I knew that I wouldn’t ever want to forget this building when I’m old and my memory fails me. Soooo, I snuck a couple of pictures on my iphone without flash—I mean, how much damage could I really be doing?

We toured all of the Jewish museums, and then just decided to wonder around for the rest of the night.  We walked to the famous Charles Bridge, found the Dancing House (which a building constructed to look like two figures dancing with each other), and after a walk around the backside of the building, found the Opera house.  By this point we had essentially walked the entirety of downtown Prague and decided to head back towards the Old Towne Square to get a drink and some dinner.  We stopped at this bar we knew was geared towards tourists, just to sit and get a drink.  I got some red wine that I could only describe as skunky, while dad and Olivia had beer.  After we got our free entry drinks, which were shots of peach schnapps, we decided to try and find a place to get a bite to eat. 

View of the Prague Castle and Cathedral
from the Charles Bridge

The Dancing House.  My vote is that
the left structure is the girl!

The Prague Opera House

This was quite the process!  We just couldn’t decide what we wanted or where we wanted to go.  A man working on commission to bring people into a little restaurant on the second floor of a building right on the Old Towne Square, convinced us to enter his restaurant.  We went all the way in, sat down, and then looked at the menu again before deciding we didn’t want to stay there, and getting up and walking out.  It was one of our classier moments.  We eventually settled on this little Italian/Pizza restaurant/bar.  Again, we made the right choice.  The pizzas that my dad and I got were super delicious, and Olivia really enjoyed her pasta.  Olivia and I split a carafe of red wine while my dad got some beer.  At this point Olivia and I decided that we were going to drink red wine every day for the rest of the trip, and we succeeded with that goal for the following 4 days at least.  After we finally finished dinner and our drinks, it was pretty late and we decided to call it a night. 

The next day, Christmas Eve, was our last day in Prague.  We had plans to go visit the St. Vitus Cathedral and the Prague Castle.  However, because of the death and funeral for Vaclav Havel we couldn’t visit the castle.  Vaclav Havel was a Czech politician; he was the last president of the Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.  He fought against communism and was one of the most liked men in all of the Czech Republic.  His funeral was the 21st-23rd of December, so we could therefore go into the cathedral on the 24th, while the castle was still closed.  By the time we got up and made our way across town, across the river, and to the top of the hill it was after noon.  The cathedral was beautiful and the large stained glass windows were stunning.  After visiting the cathedral we wondered around the castle grounds a bit before we were hungry for lunch. 

A memorial for those who suffered from communism

Inside the Prague Cathedral

Prague Cathedral!

View of Prague from on top of the castle hill

By this point it had started raining a bit and we didn’t have much patience for wandering trying to find a good place to eat.  Scoping out the options on a couple of blocks we finally settled for this little café where we got some food that was good, but just couldn’t compare to the previous meals we had eaten.  The desserts, however, were wonderful!  We split a crêpe and a tiramisu!  The best part about that café was the mom and son that came and sat at the table next to us.  They were French (not surprisingly, since I mentioned in my previous post that I saw a lot of French people on this vacay).  When they arrived we were half way through our meal and it was nearly 3pm.  They were just getting drinks and getting out of the rain.  The cute part was what the little boy, who was probably around 6, said.  He was talking to his mom, in French obviously, and asked his mom if we were eating dinner.  She said “no,” and then he proceeded to ask what time it was.  She said it was 3pm, and in the most shocked voice ever he says “they’re eating lunch?!”  I couldn’t help myself and I laughed.  Crap!  I blew my cover!  They had heard us speaking English and I am sure assumed that I don’t understand French.  But he was honestly so surprised, and so adorable I couldn’t help myself from laughing at his comment.  I tried to cover my laugh with a cough, but I’m pretty sure I failed big time.  I proceeded to look away embarrassed, and try and start a completely different conversation with dad and Olivia.  Real smooth Emily, real smooth. 

After finishing lunch, the rain had pretty much stopped, and we had already accomplished seeing all the major sights we had wanted to see.  So, we decided to just walk around and meander the streets.  We ended up walking all around that side of the river and eventually made our way all the back up to the top of the hill.  We stopped and looked in several tourist shops along the way, but didn’t really find anything that tripped our trigger.  After a while of this we decided we should probably head back downtown.  We accidentally overshot our tram stop by one stop on the way back.  This kinda sucked because it was cold and raining again.  However, it ended up working out well because we ended up walking past Wencelas Square, where people had placed thousands of candles for the mourning of Vaclav Havel’s death.  It was beautiful; it showed how much this man really meant a lot to the Czech people.  I felt so fortunate to be there at that time and to be able to experience that moment. 

Fully taking in that moment left us wet and cold from the rain, so we decided to sit down some place for a drink.  The problem was that it was about 6 or 7pm on Christmas Eve, so not many places were open.  We finally found a traditional Czech restaurant/bar that was open and completely packed with people, mostly tourists.  We sat down for a drink, myself with the classic red wine, and Olivia and dad with their beer.  Time was passing and it was getting to be closer to when we needed to catch our night train to Krakow, Poland.  We decided we needed to get going on the search for some kind of food that we could take on the train.  We were nervous that it was going to be incredibly difficult to find something considering how difficult it was for us to find that bar.  Luckily, we only had to walk a block before we stumbled across a little pizza and Panini place.  Also, the predicament was that we only had 250 crowns (I’m not exactly sure how much it was, but it came out to about 10 dollars) in cash left and didn’t want to have to take any more money out of an ATM—and I wanted to use up that cash because I didn’t want to be stuck with it after we left.  We were able to purchase 3 sandwiches and 3 drinks with just that much money and only change to spare. 

From there we went back to the hotel to grab our suitcases before heading to the train station.  Fortunately, we had left ourselves plenty of time because the trams were running very infrequently because of the holiday, and we therefore had to walk to the train station.  We arrived we just the perfect amount of time to find our train, board, and get settled in our room before we took off.  The timing couldn’t have been planned to work out better!  The only unfortunate thing was that this sleeper cabin was not nearly as nice as the previous one I had been on, on the way to Prague.  The beds were very hard, and I knew that a good night’s sleep was not going to be had on this train.  Despite this, I was still very excited for all the marvels that Krakow had to offer us the following day!

All in all, Prague was a beautiful city.  It’s a big city that is very manageable and it’s Old Towne Square are gives it a small town feel.  We saw some amazing things, ate delicious food, and had a great time in the Czech Republic!