|Travelogue: Prague 2000||
Rough Guide: Prague
Open Roads Publishing: Czech & Slovak Republics Guide
Author Richard Brodie and I met up in Prague for a weeks adventures. This "dueling travelogues" was one of the products of that trip.
Friday March 10, 2000
Off to meet Richard (by Andrew Sigal)
Flying in from Bangkok this morning with a stop in Frankfort. The Lufthansa lounge in Frankfort is huge and spacious, all done up in the Lufthansa corporate silver, blue and yellow. Very stylish. However, I wish they would work on some more function, and skip some of the form. For example, the telephones are very confusing, and you can't make a free local call with a laptop. Most other places in the world that is no problem. Here, problem. Hi ho. My old friend Richard is flying in from New York and we are going to be hanging out in Prague together this week. We met up in Frankfort without a hitch. The flight today is on a Lufthansa Airbus 319-100. I am in business class, which in Europe is only a small step up from coach.
Richard arranged for a good rate at the excellent Hotel Savoy, a member of the "Leading Small Hotels of the World" group. It is a lovely little boutique hotel with a nice location near Prague Castle. The staff and concierge are excellent, the room is attractively decorated and a good size. All quite nice. The Hotel Savoy is located at Keplerova 6, 118 00 Praha 1, telephone 420-2-2430-2430.
After getting settled in, Richard and I got a recommendation for a small Czech restaurant not far from the hotel for a little lunch. Though it was only a short walk to the restaurant, the weather was biting. It was in the mid 30's with a nasty brisk wind. According to the internet the temperature with wind chill was just 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Along the walk Richard asked me whose idea it was to come to Prague in March. I had to remind him that it was his. After the 90's of Bangkok this weather was quite a shock to me, so I was very happy when we got to Restaurace U Dragouna (Parléřova 5, Praha 6, at the corner of Myslbekova). As with all Czech menus, the list of items was surprisingly long and complex. In the end we both chose the "Bohemian Peasant's Plate" consisting of duck, smoked pork, and beef with potato pancakes, dumplings, and pickled cabbage. It was good and filling, though not great. I made the mistake of ordering a Pilsner Urquel beer, which knocked me out a bit.
Richard was committed to staying awake all day and thus get over his jet lag. My will power was not so strong. In any case, between exhaustion and the weather, neither of us could summon the motivation necessary to go out anywhere. I went back to my room and was asleep before my head hit the pillow. A couple of hours later I got a call from Richard asking if I wanted to go to the Vivaldi concert we had discussed. I have no idea what I might have said, but I assume it was something along the lines of "no." A couple hours later still Richard called again, this time from the Casino at the Marriott. It was now 7:10pm and I was awake enough to agree to meet him at Pravda Restaurant at 8pm. In order to avoid being ripped off by the notorious taxi drivers, I asked the concierge to get a taxi for me. Of course, what they did was to arrange for the hotel car to drive me, at the outrageous sum of 370kr (about $10) for what should have been about a 150kr trip. Oh well, better to be ripped off by a fine hotel than an unscrupulous taxi, right?
Pravda (Pařiûská 17, Praha 1) is one of our favorite Prague restaurants. I have always found it fun, attractive and stylish, though with food that does not quite live up to the décor. Richard has had better luck with the food than I have. Tonight was no different. He loved his appetizer of herring and the steak main, I enjoyed tasting his herring, and my salmon main course was good but not great. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant dinner. Afterwards we tried to walk around a bit, but it was too cold and we were both way too tired. For the return trip I started canvassing the taxis, all of whom wanted 500kr to go to the Savoy. It is basically useless to talk to the taxi drivers who are parked around the tourist areas. The only way to get a reasonable fare is to flag one down. Eventually I got a taxi "on the hoof", who took us back to the hotel for 200kr. I suspect that this too was an over-charge, but at least it was in the ballpark. [At the time of this writing, the Czech Korouna is at 37 to the US dollar, about 16 to the German mark.]
Take me to Praha! (by Richard Brodie)
The morning rush on the two 777 business-class lavatories was as bad as usual. I waited 10 minutes while two coach passengers finished up their business in our lavatories. Two for 49 passengers is bad enough without coach passengers coming up to compete for space.
Because of ATC delays in Washington and a last-minute no-show, whose baggage had to be removed from the flight, we arrived 25 minutes late in Frankfurt. That gave me 35 minutes to make the connection on Lufthansa to Prague. I fought my way to the front door and ran off just as soon as it opened. It was quite a hike to terminal A, but I made it in plenty of time. In fact, I beat Andrew, who met me on the bus to the plane after lollygagging a bit too long in the Lufthansa lounge. I tried to get us seated together, but Andrew had a business-class ticket and the LH agent didnít take the hint.
The short flight to Prague was on an Airbus 319. I was in the last row, seat 23F. I think these planes have the most comfortable coach seats and it wasnít bad at all, especially since my seat opponent was a cute young blonde German girl with a bare midriff smelling like grapefruits. Attention Shuttle by United: Somehow LH manages to serve a sandwich and full drink service on this 40-minute flight! I had a fresh ham and egg sandwich and a mineral water while I saw the rest of the passengers drink beer at 8:30 a.m.
Although I made my tight connection, my bag didnít. When the empty carousel slowed to a stop, we proceeded to wait in a slow line at the baggage claim desk (there was a Star Alliance Gold baggage desk but it wasnít being staffed), filled out the form (I have my baggage memorized according to that little pictorial chart: 22 black), and was told the bag would be delivered this afternoon to the hotel. Fine. It always has in the past, eventually.
We got cash at the local ATM (1Kc = 1 Baht) and stopped at the transportation information desk to inquire about a cab. We got a slip of paper that said 500Kc for the ride and were told to pay the driver. However, when we got outside a minivan driver told us heíd take us direct to the hotel for 360Kc, so we hopped in and he did (to the slight consternation of the other couple who had got in ahead of us).
We had booked what is reputedly the best hotel in Prague, the Savoy, through SRS-Worldhotels Internet reservations at the promotional rate of 320DM including tax and breakfast. Itís possible to stay in Prague for much less than that, but when I visit a city, rather than sample the true local flavor, I like to give them a chance to go all-out trying to please me. The Savoy treated us very well by way of welcome. In the first place, they had actually heard of the United Airlines Premier Suite Upgrade promotion - they just didnít have any suites available. Perhaps on Tuesday, she said. We got a surprise voucher for dinner at "HradŤany", the hotel restaurant, and welcome drinks in "Lobby Bar," the lobby bar. For some reason the Czechs frequently remind me of the Thais.
As we sipped champagne and tea (not mixed) in Lobby Bar, our room keys arrived. We headed up to the rooms and - surprise! - I got a large junior suite with a dining table big enough for all the dropout Presidential candidates to sit around and have a lying contest over dinner.
Since my bag had yet to arrive and we were getting hungry, we asked the concierge Jana, a young enthusiastic brunette with an infectious smile, to recommend a local restaurant. She sent us to U Dragoun ("The Dragoon"), where we had two "Old Bohemian Peasantís Plates": a mixed grill of beef, smoked duck, and pork with potato pancakes and potato dumplings. With a beer (22Kc) and a water (25Kc - you have to love a country where the beer is cheaper than the water) and the customary charge for the unasked-for bread (30Kc), the bill came to 272Kc ($7.50) for the two of us.
We spent the afternoon surviving the worst of the jet lag, I by whacking myself in the head while sitting at my desk writing, and Andrew by sleeping. I find if I can just stay awake through the first day that the worst of the jet lag is over. If I sleep it lasts forever. Around four my doorbell rang. It was my baggage! I finished up my writing then showered, shaved, and changed. What a great feeling to step out of those travel clothes, slip into that steamy stream of hot water, and rinse away all the stress and cares of the past 36 hours. For me this is when the adventure begins.
Andrew was still asleep so I went for a long walk by myself down the hill and across the Charles Bridge. It got a little chilly after sunset so I stopped at a little store selling fur hats. I tried a few on but none were big enough to stretch over my colossal cranium. The store owner told me to wait a minute and he returned with three extra large hats, one of which fit perfectly. I bought it for 790Kc ($22) and asked one of the Oregon high-school students who were there looking at pocket watches if I looked like a Russian army officer. He replied that no, I didnít, not with my jeans and running shoes.
I continued walking through the main square with the statue of Jebediah Prague and then decided to stop in at the Marriott to check out the new casino. I quickly donated a few koruna to the cause and then called Andrew to see if he was ready for dinner. We agreed to meet at our favorite restaurant from last trip, Pravda, around 8. I stopped upstairs at the reception desk and said hi to Magdalena, our friend from last time. She took a second but then remembered me and asked about my friend. I told her he was here and said we would probably stop back later in the week.
I walked toward Pravda, locating the trendy boutique street Pařiûská by memory and getting only a little lost. Prague in March is a colder and emptier place than it is in the summertime. Gone were the outdoor tables full of happy and chatting beautiful people. On this Friday night there were only two tables in use and the bar was completely empty. The hostess said, "dobriy vyecher." "Dobriy vyecher," I replied, "and that is the full extent of my Russian so donít test me!" I think that exceeded the extent of her English so she just smiled self-consciously and I smiled back. I took a seat and had a mineral water as I waited for Andrew to join me.
The place filled up a little after eight and the food and service were as superb as I remembered them. I started with a special appetizer, the S.O.S. herring - herring marinated three ways, in mustard, tomato sauce, and curry, served with toast triangles. It was superb. I had chilled vodka to accompany. The menu is "from the global village" - each disk was labeled with a different country. For the entrťe I had beef tenderloin from Italy, rare. Hunnybear graduated from medium-rare to rare over the last few months and I think Iíll join her. It was superb, topped with patť de fois gras. Iím not sure what was Italian about it, but it was great. Andrew had Japanese salmon accompanied by tempura vegetables. He liked it but didnít rave about it. As a rule I donít eat dessert, but they had a frozen chocolate sea-foam from France that I just had to try. It was excellent.
We walked around a bit after dinner but it was cold and I was tired so we decided to get a taxi back. Andrew was determined not to get ripped off, so we tried a few different cabs and asked what they would charge to take us back to the Savoy. They all said 400-500Kc. Then we tried flagging a cab down: he agreed to take us for 200Kc. "Change the paradigm, change the results," Andrew said. I fired up http://www.dialpad.com/ talked to my Hunnybear for only the 7Kc/min local phone charge (20Ę/min) from the hotel, and crashed hard.
Saturday March 11, 2000
Mucha do about nothing (by Andrew Sigal)
This hotel is wonderfully quiet - probably my highest priority in a hotel room. I slept great, but I still cant get used to the way eastern European hotels make up a king size bed with two comforters side-by-side, each of which are two thirds the width of the bed. Richard has come in eastbound from New York, while I came in westbound from Bangkok. As a result, we each have jet lag in exactly opposite directions. I woke up this morning at 5:30am, he wasnít up till 9:30. This is a major role reversal for us, where normally he would be waiting around for me in the morning. As it happens I seem to have a slight head cold. I am still holding out hope that it is just residual crud from Bangkok pollution, but my sore-throat and queasy stomach are definitely pointing at "the real thing." Hi ho. I took a nice long shower to humidify my head, then went to get into the provided bathrobe. To my surprise, it turned out to be tiny. I could put it on, but just barely. When I went down for breakfast I approached the desk and told the receptionist about the problem. She looked very surprised and said "Oh, do you need us to move you to a different room?" "No," I replied, "just a new bathrobe will do."
The breakfast buffet here at the Savoy (included) is excellent. Had a nice freshly made omelet, smoked salmon, some other smoked fish, toast made from excellent bread (5 times through the toaster to get browned), different kinds of chopped liver and cold cuts, and outstanding coffee. The bacon was far too scary to contemplate.
Half of me really wants to go out and see more of this wonderful city, the other half is feeling my scratching throat and regarding the cold over-cast skies with trepidation. Finally around noon Richard and I headed out of the hotel. The weather was not great, but was better than I expected. Today I had my first experience with the Prague trams, which went without a hitch. We got a couple of 12kr tram tickets from the hotel reception desk, walked across the street to the tram stop, and got on the #22 tram in just a minute or two. On the tram you stamp your tickets in a time-punch machine and can then ride as much as you would like until your ticket expires. Tickets are good for 60 minutes during the week, and 90 minutes nights and weekends. A scant ten minutes later we were in the Nové MÆ sto district, just a few blocks from our destination, the Mucha Museum. The rain was falling lightly so I was very happy that I had bundled up and brought my trusty travel umbrella.
The Mucha Museum (Kauický Palace, Panská 7, Prague 1) is an odd little private museum dedicated to the life and work of Alphonse Mucha. Alphonse Mucha was a pioneering artist in the Art Nouveau style, and his work is as exciting and beautiful today it was when he created it in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The most interesting thing at the museum was the 25-minute video presentation on his life and work. However, the video left me somewhat dissatisfied with the museum itself, for a few reasons. First, it becomes clear from the video that Mucha was enormously prolific. After viewing the video the collection presented by the museum seems somewhat paltry. This impression was doubly strong because the video stresses the importance of Mucha's magnum opus: the Slav Epic. A series of 20 huge canvasses (18 x 24 feet each) depicting the history of the Slavs. Painting the Slav Epic occupied the last 18 years of his life. However, this most important of his works is not at the museum, and they donít indicate where they can be seen (or even if they are still in existence.) They donít even have photographs of them on display. Lastly, both the museum and the video fail to place Mucha within the context of other Art Nouveau artists. His work is very similar to that of Maxfield Parish, Erte, and others, but they are never mentioned. There is an implication that Mucha single-handedly invented Art Nouveau. Perhaps this is true. I have no idea and would like to have known more about his relationships to his contemporaries, who influenced whom, and what his place is in the world of art today. Oh well. [Note: after considerable searching on the internet it turns out that The Slav Epic is housed in the Mucha Gallery at Moravský Krumlov Castle in Moravia, 30km south of the town of Brno. Unfortunately it is only open from April to October so we wonít be able to see it this trip.]
Looking in our trusty Fodor's Prague & Budapest , Richard found an Italian restaurant call Bella Napoli (V jámÆ 8) for lunch. It was nearby, had big portions, fair food, and was a good value. My Prosciutto e Melone was gigantic, and I couldnít even begin to make a dent in the Spaghetti di Funghi e Prosciutto. In any case, I had fun ordering in Italian and saying "gracie" to the Czech waiter.
After lunch we took the tram back to the hotel and I went back to sleep. I am definitely catching a cold. In the evening we met a friend of Richard's at the hotel bar. The plan was to all go out for dinner, but my cold is progressing too far and I have no appetite at all. I could barely keep my eyes open as we talked over bottles of mineral water. Regretfully I sent them on without me. I had really been looking forward to Saturday night in Prague with someone who really knows the place. Oh well, back to bed. Eventually I called down for room service to send up some beef consommé, a cheese plate, and some tea. It was ideal.
Pivo, pivo, pivo! (by Richard Brodie)
Complimentary breakfast at the Savoy was high quality but sparse in selection compared to an American buffet or even the breakfast at the Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit in Bangkok. I had a nice omelet and a selection of fruits and smoked fish. We then set out to try the tram system for the first time. We bought tickets (12Kc = 30Ę each) good for an hour and a half (an hour weekdays) and took the 23 tram from the stop right in front of the hotel down to near the Mucha museum. Mucha was a founder of the Art Nouveau style back at the turn of the (last) century. His paintings reminded me very much of Maxfield Parrish. The museum was small and had just a few of his many drawings and only one oil. A 25-minute video on his life was interesting as was the large museum shop - almost as large as the museum itself!
We headed for lunch around 2, finding a place called Bella Napoli recommended by Fodor. There I had excellent insalata di mare and veal scallopini with tomatoes, olives, and capers. The bill came to 1200Kc ($34) for the two of us including a Pepsi for Andrew and a mineral water for me. Though the price was high by Czech standards, the portions were very large and tasty. All the restaurants in Prague have the weight, in grams, of each dish listed on the menu - even salads! Apparently the chef has a scale and measures everything precisely.
Here is the city of music it was no surprise to find an older man playing the saxophone inside our tram car. What was surprising was that when he then moved through the crowd holding out his cup, more than half the people tipped him! Last trip, in summer, we walked everywhere. This time we are taking the tram. Itís still pretty chilly here.
I worked out in the small health club on floor -1 of the Savoy. They have a massage room, a whirlpool, and a beauty parlor in addition to the tiny exercise room. I had forgotten that Europeans think nothing of wandering around naked in spas and there were a few men and women revealing far more than would be proper in the USA. I didnít make a fuss over it though. The exercise machines were not in the best of repair. The step machine was broken and the treadmill was one of those mechanical model that gets stuck every once in a while and goes to a dead stop in the middle of running. Nevertheless I managed to get a half-hour in and Iím glad I did.
We went down to Lobby Bar where we had arranged to meet our friend Zloduska, a college student from Wisconsin on a one-year exchange program here and loving it. She showed up and had a drink with us, then Andrew decided he wasnít up to dinner because he was fighting off a cold. So Zloduska and I walked down to a place she had heard was good but hadnít been to, U Modrť Kachničky (At the Blue Duckling). They were fully booked, so we diverted a couple blocks and ended up at a place called U Vladař and had a good Czech meal that Zloduska said was overpriced at 1135Kc ($32.50) for two including a nice bottle of Frankovka Czech red wine that tasted like a Beaujolias with a strong overtone of berries. We rounded up to 1200Kc for the tip and headed out.
Zloduska wanted to show me her favorite club Ujezd, a three-level place with different ambience on each floor. She preferred the second floor, which was fine with me as thatís where the menís room was, marked with a drawing of a squatting demon. Being a couple pounds overweight, normally I donít drink beer, but I had my arm twisted to try the local draft, the original Budweiser. It was excellent and quite addictive and we ended up having three each and a round of B-52s. I learned how to order beer. "Dva krat pivo prosim" said with a kind of Transylvanian accent. It seemed to work, as the bartender started pouring the beers before I even finished by sentence. During this brewfest a somber Czech in a black toque sat silently, occasionally writing something in tiny letters in a tiny notebook. Then a smiling man came around and opened a briefcase full of beautiful hand-carved pipes of all shapes and sizes. "Genuine Czech crack pipes," he said. After a moment, I replied, "Thanks, but I donít smoke crack." He bowed slightly, closed the briefcase, and went away.
Zloduska pointed me back to the Savoy and I crashed around 5 a.m. having sampled a very authentic taste of local nightlife: drinking beer till all hours.
Sunday March 12, 2000
Not how I pictured it (by Andrew Sigal)
Oooh boy, am I sick. Had a nasty night of burning lungs and running nose. I only catch one cold per year, why does it have to happen when I am I one of my favorite cities? The previous cold I had was last year just as I arrived in Paris. The one before that was Amsterdam. Oh well. It is another distinctly gloomy late-winter day in Prague. Maybe if I am really good and stay inside, both my health and the weather will improve.
I had a long and boring day of snoozing, sneezing, and trying to extract my lungs piece by piece through my trachea. Ugh. Having no idea what had become of Richard, I had breakfast alone at about 10am, then lunch alone at about 2pm. Finally around 3pm I got a call from my absentee friend; evidently he had a very late night drinking the famous Czech Budweiser beer. After a brief conversation I sent him on his way without me; there was no way I was going out feeling like this.
In the end I slept straight through dinner time. Somehow this isn't how I had pictured this trip.
Room Service (by Richard Brodie)
The pivo demons sat on my head relentlessly until about 2 p.m., when I got up and started to do some writing. Around 3:30 I ordered breakfast from room service: they have complimentary 24-hour complimentary room-service breakfast here! I ordered a vegetable-cheese omelet and some fruit and toast. It arrived post haste. I signed a bill for 450Kc which I hope was just a formality because the printed materials in the room clearly say in a couple of places that there is no surcharge for in-room breakfast.
Andrew was still incapacitated with a head cold so I worked out again in the gym, watching a beautiful German girl talk on her cell phone for the entire half-hour I was on the treadmill. In Europe, unlike the United States, if someone calls you on your cell phone there is no charge to you. Around 7:30 I went out and walked down the long hill toward the river to find some place to eat dinner. It seemed that most of the best restaurants are in or near the Jewish Quarter so I headed over there and promptly became completely lost. This city seems to use the same meandering-cow-path system of street layouts that Boston does.
Finally I found the Jewish Quarter again, although tonight I never did set foot on Pařiûská St. But I looked at menu after menu and decided that I really wanted to try some seafood even though it was not really the specialty of this landlocked country. I ended up at U Betlťmskť kaple (At Bethlehem Chapel) in Bethlehem Square. There I had Peterís Secret, a fried appetizer made of "hard and soft roe" whatever that is - probably the internal organs of fish. It was interesting. My main course was perch-pike Portuguese style, which was a whole fried fish served with tomatoes and horseradish. It was good, tasting as fresh as frozen fish can get. With a vodka aperitif and a glass of Frankovka red wine, the total came to 280Kc ($8), which I rounded up to 300 for the tip.
I had quite an adventure trying to take the tram back to the hotel, which pretty much occupied the remainder of the evening for me. I knew I had to take the 22 or 23 tram, but there are no printed tram maps, only large ones posted on kiosks near Metro stations. Prague has large illuminated kiosks every few steps but most of them are advertising. Almost all the ads are for two products: Kentucky Fried Chicken strips and cell phones. (Since I actually walked by a KFC and noticed everyone inside eating chicken strips, it could be possible to surmise that the ads are working..) Nevertheless, by wandering I accidentally found a tram stop for the 22 and 23 and hopped on a 22 that was just pulling up. What luck!
Well, the tram wound uphill, stopping regularly. Then at one stop the driver made a long announcement in Czech. I was worried that the car was being taken out of service but he proceeded on. The trouble was, he proceeded into an area that I was pretty sure wasnít where I wanted to go. I now realize that the long announcement must have been something to the effect that this was no longer a 22, but now a 26. Yoicks! I got out of the tram and took the first car in the other direction. Fortunately it headed back towards downtown and when I recognized the Marriott hotel I jumped out and looked at a kiosk. It was about a mile walk to catch the 22 or 23 again, so I headed for it - and ended up exactly where I started from! So, an hour and 20 minutes later, I once again caught the 22, being certain that I saw the number 22 posted on every tram stop we passed. Sure enough we ended up at the Savoy at last.
Monday March 13, 2000
Another day indoors, very little trip to talk about (by Andrew Sigal)
Day 3 of a cold. I'm not getting any better, but at least I'm not getting any worse either. This morning Richard was up bright and early, so we were able to have breakfast together, but I again sent him off to enjoy Prague alone. Hi ho.
Finally around 1pm I found that I was really hungry but I just couldnít face more hotel food. So I bundled up, filled my pockets with the hotel's Kleenex (aka sandpaper) and headed out into the drizzle. This is definitely the kind of day ideally suited for sitting inside by the fire and sneezing. It had occurred to me to go back to Restaurace U Dragouna, since I knew where it was. But when I hit the rain and saw my breath in the air, I couldnít help wondering if there was sustenance closer to home. Just around the corner from the hotel I found a little snack bar (Snack Bar J. Rett) where my heart soared as I saw chicken soup on the menu. For something like 45kr (US$1.29) I got a bowl of piping hot chicken noodle soup, a 2kr stick of bread, and a tall glass of tea just like my great grandmother would have had (except without the cubes of sugar to drink the tea through.) It was great. I must say, good bread is such a joy after spending time in Thailand, Australia and Brazil; three countries utterly devoid of baking instinct.
Everyone in the snack bar was Czech, and I found myself toasting back and forth with a middle-aged man sitting across the restaurant from me. He points at his drink and says "rhum", indicating by sign language that it is for his toothache and would also help my sore throat. I suspect that it is rum in hot water, but I am not sure.
I followed my soup up with a ham, cheese and pickle sandwich on an awesome seedy bread roll and then a fantastic desert cookie of two disks of meringue around a big blob of yummy cream. Wow. Eventually my coughing and sneezing got the better of me, so I headed back to the boredom of my hotel room.
Some time in the middle of the night I woke up covered in sweat, but feeling almost good. It was as though my body's immune system had "figured out" this cold virus and was now burning up fighting it off. Who knows, perhaps I'll get to see some of Prague after all.
Aqua Man (by Richard Brodie)
Because of a group meeting in the restaurant, breakfast this morning and last was up in the Presidential Suite. It was a cozy room with a territorial view. I ordered oatmeal, which arrived cooked in milk as it usually does in Europe. I prefer mine straight. The spread was much the same except that eggs had to be ordered and brought up from downstairs.
Around noon I took the tram down to Malostranska and walked around some streets that I hadnít seen. Iíve begun to figure out the signs posted at the tram stops. What I originally thought were lists of connecting routes are actually timetables! These streetcars run on a precise schedule. In fact, since I started noticing, I have not seen a single tram more than one minute off schedule! I gave up buying tickets after realizing that no one else ever did. I only ever saw two people time-stamp their tickets. Apparently the fine if youíre caught without a valid ticket is 200Kc ($5.50), making it a good bet to go without as long as youíre caught less than every 17th time. Apparently there are rarely inspectors on the trams.
The tram stop at the Savoy is called Pohoûolec, pronounced kind of like "po-WHORE-zhe-lets" except that thereís not really an English equivalent to the r with a little hat over it. The composer Antonin Dvoûak has one and Iíve always pronounced it "duh-VOR-zhak" but apparently the sound is made like an "r" and a "zh" at the same time. Iíve been practicing. That means that the Rodeo Drive of Prague, Pařiûská, is pronounced kind of like "par-ZHI-shka," except with the "r" and the "zh" pronounced at the same time. To make matters worse, the Czech word for "three" is "tûŪ," pronounced "trzhee," except with the "r" and the "zh" pronounced at the same time. "Four" is even worse. I think thatís why people order pivo two at a time.
I crossed over the Charles Bridge and passed one of the restaurants mentioned in the New York Times article, Bellevue. The menu looked pricey but excellent. I continued to a busy-looking place on the corner called KavŠrna Slavia and decided to have lunch. I got a nice table by the window and had a small portion of goulash that would probably be considered overpriced by Czech standards at 160Kc ($4.50) including mineral water and cover (for the bread I didnít eat). I overtipped 20Kc.
Another interesting linguistic tidbit is that casual greetings here are either made with the Italian "ciao" or with the even more amusing, for a landlocked country, "ahoy"! I didnít get up the nerve to try it myself yet. I was afraid I would burst out laughing. I planned to try it on Andrew.
I worked out for the third straight day in the health club, which I need to do to have an appetite for all the food Iíve been eating. I was alone this time. After 20 minutes on the treadmill I decided to try the rowing machine but I broke it after a minute so I got back on the treadmill. Later I took the tram back toward downtown for dinner. I had more insight into why they run on time: a tram was blocked by a car for a few seconds. When the car moved, the tram tore down the street at breakneck speed, catching up with its schedule!
I walked over to the Bellevue, expecting to try out The New York Times recommendation for dinner. I noticed that the Czechs seem to have a great deal of difficulty translating venison dishes. The other night I ordered "roe deer" (it didnít say whether it was hard or soft roe) and tonight on the menu posted outside Bellevue was listed "filet of fellow deer." I didnít get to order it, though, because I was stopped by three secret-service agents at the door who informed me that the restaurant was closed for a private party. There must have been some government officials eating there. So instead I determined to find Pařiûská St. Now that I knew how it was spelled I wanted to know where it was.
The trick was following the Vlatava River past a couple of bridges all the way to the Inter-Continental Hotel. That was the end of Pařiûská St. I turned right and went into Barock, one of the four restaurants run by the Bacchus Group, which also owns Pravda, my favorite. I had been to Barock, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, last time. It was pretty good but obviously youíre not going to get the freshest fish in a landlocked country. I decided to head over to Aqua, their newest restaurant, which was just across the river although it was more than a half-mile walk to actually get across and into their driveway.
Aqua shares an old wooden building with a casino. Inside itís trendy and elegant, white with high ceilings and point lights, exposed kitchen and glassware, and a view of the river from every table. I started with chilled Absolut vodka, which arrived along with fresh Italian bread and cold marinara paste to go on it. The waiter asked if I would like herbed butter as well, although he never did quite get the pronunciation of "herbed" down (he may have been part Canadian), and I said yes. I ordered a mixed salad, which arrived in a large mixing bowl with strongly flavored items on the side so that I could choose which ones I wanted to add. I mixed in generous helpings of goat cheese, cashews, pickled vegetables, and sun-dried tomatoes but left out the pickled onion and green olives. The dressing was simple but delicious and he brought extra bottles of oil and vinegar for either the salad or the bread.
For the main course I ordered peppered beef steak rare. It arrived perfectly done, seared and delicious, accompanied by thinly sliced potatoes and basil tomatoes. I enjoyed it with a glass of the most expensive Czech red wine they had (130Kc). It held up well to the beef but really wasnít as good as the lighter and cheaper Frankovka. As a rule I donít eat dessert, but I ordered a chocolate cake with caramel sauce that sounded yummy, along with a glass of sauternes. The cake was audaciously served in do-it-yourself manner, the small wedge of flourless chocolate standing on its rim pointing up, flanked by two chocolate shavings. Beside it was a double shot glass full of caramel sauce with a honeyed cone of sweet cream nestled inside. I eagerly assembled and devoured the creation. Total bill, 1255Kc ($35), rounded up to 1300 with tip. This is one of the most expensive meals to be had in Prague. The food and service were competitive with any city in the world, but in Seattle the meal would have cost 50-100% more.
When I arrived back at the Savoy there were two secret-service men in the lobby giving me the eye. Apparently a couple of the himuckimucks who were dining at Bellevue had retired to Lobby Bar for an after-dinner drink. They let me by though.
Tuesday March 14, 2000
A bit of the old Prague (by Andrew Sigal)
Got up this morning feeling quite a bit better. Not entirely well, but certainly on the mend. Had breakfast with Richard here at the hotel, then we headed out to see some of Prague. We hopped on the faithful #22 tram down to Malostranská, then walked across the Mánesö v bridge to Jan Palach square (Jana Palacha NámÆ sti). Jan Palach square is flanked on one side by the absolutely beautiful Rudolfinum building, a grand neo-classical building (according to my guidebook) with statues of the worlds great composers around the top. Just then it started to drizzle, so we headed across the street to our second destination, the Museum of Decorative Arts (UmÆ leckoprö myslové muzeum.) Unfortunately, most of the building is currently closed for major renovations. The admission was reduced to a scant 20kr (about 60 cents US), so it is pretty hard to complain. As is so often the case with me, I was far more interested in the building than its contents anyway. The building is wonderful, with a fantastic staircase leading up to some beautiful stained glass windows. The decorative arts displayed were very nice, but clearly did not approach the collections at such places as the Louvre and the Getty. I certainly felt like I got at least two dollars worth of enjoyment for my 60 cent admission, but I think Richard was pretty bored. My favorite moment came when I was checking my backpack (required.) The coat check room had a counter set at a reasonable height for someone coming at it from the visitor's side, but the check room itself was set down a couple of feet. The old woman working behind the counter couldnít have been even 5 feet tall. As a result, the top of her head did not make it over the top of the counter. I smiled.
So far the best book I have read on Prague has been the Open Roads Publishing: Czech & Slovak Republics Guide , by Ted Brewer. His commentary raved about wandering the back streets of Malá Strana, so that is where we headed next. We crossed back over Mánesöv bridge and headed left, flanking the Vltava river as we walked the lovely little roads of Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarter.) Sadly, much of the beauty and charm of this area is being diminished by the world's ever-spreading plague of graffiti. Some of it is large artistic murals of some merit, others appear to be political messages which certainly play a part in the life of this city. But block after block is soiled with mere "tagging", where young people have felt that their need to say "I was here" is more important the beauty of a simple stone wall. If I could wish spray-paint out of existence, I would do it in a heartbeat.
I was ready for lunch, so we stopped at one of the innumerable pubs down by the river. I had a really excellent plate of beef goulash and some tea, while Richard enjoyed a soda water. The pub was really cozy feeling, making me want to just stay there having more and more tea. Eventually I overcame inertia and we headed back out. We walked a little way and found a large open garden (Vojanovy Sady) through a doorway. It had not yet awakened from winter, but somehow it made me feel very peaceful and happy in a slumbering winter kind of way. Walking up the busy Karmelitská street, I managed to find #25, a doorway with no sign, behind which is reputed to hide a beautiful baroque garden called Vrtbov Garden (Vrtbovská zahrada). We went through the doorway and up a little cobblestone lane, eventually finding a sign for the gardens, but all the doors padlocked shut. I'm afraid Prague simply does not open until April.
A little further on we hit Malostranské NámÆstí, where the Church of St. Nicholas (Chrám svatého Mikuláëe) is found. This stunning baroque church is well worth the 35kr (US$1.00) admission for its beautiful marble pulpit and lavish gilding. Of particular note is the frescoed ceiling which uses trompe l'oeil effects to make the architectural features of the building appear to continue into the painted ceiling.
By this point Richard was now hungry, so we looked in both Fodor's and the Open Road book for nearby restaurant suggestions. Richard found a place called David, which was just a little way up Nerudova street. David Restaurant TrûiëtÆ 21/611, Praha 1, telephone 02-57-53-31-09, http://www.btcguide.cz/david) is accessed through a doorway at Nerudova 13, and appears to be a very fine restaurant indeed. Though they are open all day, they seemed a bit surprised when we rang the doorbell at 2:30 in the afternoon. Nonetheless, they seated us at a table beautifully set with fine china and crystal. They started us with a little pre-appetizer of pate de campagne with a wonderful red currant jam. I then had the lightly smoked goose breast appetizer, while Richard had carpaccio. The goose breast was served paper thin and very rare, like a carpaccio of goose. It was accompanied by pomegranate kernels which had been soaked in liquor. I can't say I liked the effect though; they mostly seemed like the pomegranate had simply gone bad. I then had a very good vegetable consommé with a strong parsley flavor. The soup had bits of vegetable gnoccioletti and some kind of vegetables in blocks of tofu floating in it. It was interesting and good. For desert I ordered "dough pockets filled with plum jelly, sprinkled with sugar and poppy seeds and covered with hot butter." The sound of it made my mouth water, though I couldnít help wondering if I was ordering a jelly donut. What came out was nothing like I had imagined. It was a set of six jam filled raviolis with ground poppy seed paste and a blob of whipped cream. I'm afraid I didnít really care for it, though the decaf coffee was excellent.
Afterwards we took the tram back up the hill to the hotel. I went back to my room and fell instantly to sleep. I slept straight through dinnertime and didn't wake up until the next day.
David, a work of art (by Richard Brodie)
After breakfast in the presidential suite, Andrew and I took the tram to the museum of decorative art (UPM). They let us in for a reduced rate of 20Kc (50Ę) because the museum was undergoing renovations. Only a small exhibit was open, featuring mostly furniture and china. Afterwards we walked around the streets of the Little Quarter (Malo Strana). Many of the buildings had signs saying they were only open April to October.
We popped into a tavern for Andrew to appease his renewed appetite with some goulash. They were playing the new Madonna CD inside. Weíve heard a wide variety of music here, everything from Beethoven to a Czech version of "Sloop John B."
We continued walking around a while longer, then it was time for lunch in earnest. We looked in the guide book and found a restaurant recommendation nearby: David. It is hidden in a tiny alley off Nerudova, the long narrow street that leads from the Little Quarter up the hill to the palace and the Savoy. We rang the doorbell to get in and discovered that we were the only customers in this tiny but charming place. Each table had an unusual setup: a side table with its own glasses, corkscrew, matchbook, and a paper package containing a round disk that could be inserted into the mouth of a wine bottle to prevent dripping. The walls were decorated with the work of Czech artist Michael Halva, an oil painter whose style reminded me of a neo-primitive Kandinsky.
Food was outstanding. I had a beef carpaccio that was great and Andrew had a smoked goose that was even better. I needed a break from all the meat, so I ordered salmon even though I realized it would not be the freshest and it wasnít, but it was still well prepared. As a rule I donít eat dessert but Hunnybear had told me they were having ice cream cake back in Santa Monica so I ordered one so we could share the experience halfway across the world. It was phenomenal, served in a pool of hot caramel with a generous helping of fresh strawberry halves. The bill came to 1445Kc ($40) for the two of us (Andrew didnít have an entrťe so that brought the price down). I overtipped and rounded it up to 1600Kc.
I liked one of the paintings at David so much that by the time we took the tram back to the Savoy I decided to buy it. Since it was raining I decided to take a taxi. I had the concierge Jana call me a reputable one who said the fare would be 200Kc ($6) maximum for the round trip. The meter read 103Kc after the trip down, and by the time I paid for the painting and the staff (including two well-dressed women who appeared out of nowhere for this sole purpose) wrapped it for me, the meter read 163Kc. I thought the driver was going to be in trouble with his estimate, but he was able to drive right up the one-way Nerudova and park right in front of the Savoy with the meter reading 197. I gave him a 200Kc note and hauled my prize into the hotel. Now I just needed to ship it home.
After that lunch I couldnít face another big meal so I skipped dinner and walked down to Old Town (Stare Mesto). I popped into a pub that served Budwar and embraced the pivo demons along with two Brits and a Canadian who had me sample two local pub staples, a cheese with garlic oil and a cold sausage. I made it home at the more reasonable hour of 2 a.m. by means of a 200Kc ($6) taxi, since the trams had stopped, and made sure I drank many glasses of water to drown the pivo demons before retiring.
Wednesday March 15, 2000
You want weather? We got weather! (by Andrew Sigal)
Dawn came to Prague at 6:30am with a beautiful pink, blue and white sky. The clouds are moving very fast, so I imagine it is windy out, though the courtyard below my window is as quiet as ever, looking like a drawing by Edward Gorey. The Czech flag on the schoolhouse across the way is standing straight out, and the giant antenna on top of the building (which I had at first thought was a full-scale model of a DaVinci airplane design) is jerking back and forth. It could be quite a brillig day out there, thought this is the first morning I have seen any blue sky at all and it is a very cheering sight.
Unfortunately the blue sky was not to last. By the time we finished breakfast it was a blizzard outside with the winds in the courtyard blowing huge snowflakes straight up into the sky. Instead of visiting the castle today, perhaps a glass of grog and a good book? The strong winds are causing a kaleidoscope of weather. Five minutes of sunshine, then five minutes of lightly wafting snowflakes, then five minutes of full-on blizzard with the snow moving by horizontally. Makes it kind of hard to plan a picnic.
During a pause in the weather I dragged Richard around the corner to the J. Rett snack bar so that he could watch me have another cup of chicken soup. We seem to be on very different eating schedules. We then hopped on the #8 tram (without tickets this time) and rode it for quite a few stops until we at last came to Prague 7 and the stop for the museum of modern art (ready for this? Take a deep breathÖ In Czech its name is "Veletrûní palác sbrika moderního a soucasného umÆni". The museum is located on Veletrû ní at Dukelských hrdinö, telephone 02-2430-1111.) Getting off the tram we plunged into a light snow and wind as we pushed our way towards the museum. Looking up for a moment I had my breath taken away by an absolutely stunning building. Painted a warm sunny yellow, it had a huge fresco in the middle, surrounded by wonderful statuary and topped by a fantastic tower. That is what I love about Prague; you're walking down the street and bam! you're facing a building like that.
Unfortunately, in the ongoing spirit of Prague being closed from November to April, all (yes, all) of the museum's permanent exhibits were closed for renovations. Nonetheless, they charged us 90kr (US$2.60) to enter to see the three temporary exhibits that they were showing. The first was a display of modern interior design. Oddly shaped desks and sofas, complex chests of drawers, lamps made out of blocks of Jell-O, and surprising objects that turned out to be pencil holders. All of the signs were in Czech only, except the "do not touch" signs. The guards were seriously overzealous, carefully following us around and staring. It made me so uncomfortable that I really wanted to get out of there. One furniture exhibit had a brochure attached to it (clearly designed to be taken and read) which another American couple reached out to look at. I thought the guard was going to have an aneurysm.
The next exhibit was clearly the major draw - a history of collage featuring the works of Jiri Kolář (pronounced "collarshe"), whom I am assuming was the inventor of collage. Of course, all of the signs were in Czech, so I wasnít able to confirm this. At the start of the exhibit was a huge collage-covered apple which I really liked, and there were two or three other objects that struck my fancy, but most of the pieces really did nothing for me. We did have a fun time collecting up all the different names for the different styles of collage: collage, chiasmage, prollage, fringe collage, assemblage, rollage. I donít know if Kolář invented all these names, or the exhibit designers did. Anyway, I found the exhibit interesting only from a linguistic standpoint.
Finally we headed to the 5th floor where the last temporary exhibit was housed. I'm not sure the welcoming committee on the 5th floor was really aware of what their job was. When the elevator door opened, we were faced by two guards who just stared at us, blocking the exit. I was assuming that this floor was closed and we weren't supposed to be there, but poked my head out anyway. Richard asked one of them if there was an exhibit here, and they both kind of perked up, looked surprised, stepped away from the elevator and waved us over to the door to the exhibit floor. Very odd. The exhibit itself was the work of a single artist; I must say I hated the first 4 or 5 large canvasses we looked at. Richard didnít seem to care much for them either, so we just left. The museum is an absolutely huge building and it was a bit of a weird feeling to be in this large, open, empty space. It would be interesting to come back when Prague is open for business.
We walked around a bit, then took the #8 tram back to the Malá Strana district to get some real lunch. Restaurant U. Dvou Srdcí (at U Luû íckého semináře 38) looked good, so we went in. Having already eaten a light lunch, I simply ordered a spinach omelet. It was excellent, light, flavorful, served with fennel flavored potatoes and drenched in butter. One of the best things I have eaten in Prague.
Tonight we had dinner at the hotelís restaurant, Restaurant Hrad¹any. When we checked in we were each given coupons for a complimentary dinner, so why not? Restaurant Hrad¹ any is reputedly one of the best fine restaurants in Prague, so I was really looking forward to it. They started us with a pre-appetizer of ham rolled with aspic; this is certainly an acquired taste, which I did not manage to acquire on the spot. I started with dumplings of mushroom and crawfish tails. Sadly they were disappointing. The pasta was heavy and uninteresting, the filling was flat, and the dish was served lukewarm. My main was veal with a morel mushroom crust. This was OK, but the veal was extremely tough and I ended up only eating half of it. Richard had ordered the same dish and on tasting mine commented that my piece was significantly tougher than his was. For desert the waiter strongly recommended the "Champagne mousse" served with strawberry fritters, a house specialty. This was a very odd mousse with a texture that made me think that perhaps it was made with gelatin. It reminded me of what the Australians call a "bavarios". The dominant flavor was really vanilla, with just a hint of champagne. The mousse had been put inside a wrapper of cake and allowed to set into this stiff un-mousselike state, then the whole business was sliced off into 1/2 inch slices. The end result was good, but not really a mousse. The strawberry fritters were very good. Though Prague is a wonderful city with fantastic architecture, I do have to keep reminding myself that this is not Paris, and you donít come here for the food.
After dinner we met up again with Richard's friend Zloduska and headed out to a couple of pubs for some beer. After about two hours I was running out of steam and headed home.
Playing post office (by Richard Brodie)
I needed to get my new painting shipped back to the US, so after breakfast (downstairs in the restaurant this time) I had Jana the concierge order me a taxi to take me to the main post office and get a customs declaration. As the taxi arrived I looked out the window and found it was snowing! It actually snowed off and on all day.
I carried the painting into the post office along with the required letter from the artist saying I wasnít stealing valuable national treasures. It was a large post office with many counter windows. I looked around and found one that had a sign reading something like "Kostom" so I figured that was the one. I lugged the painting over there and the clerk tried out a couple languages on me. I said "English?" and he went back to find the one clerk who spoke a little English. He asked me for the letter, looked at it, laid it down on the counter in front of me, and sent me to the next window. A woman there motioned for me to hand her the painting, which I did. She and two other clerks looked at it and talked amongst themselves for a minute.
Jana had said that they would have boxes and packing materials, but apparently they didnít have a box big enough for my obraz. Failing that, she said, I could get the customs approval and then pack the painting and ship it from any post office. I tried in vain to get them to give me the approval but failed to make myself understood. Finally I asked for the picture back, lugged it back to the cab, and 300Kc ($8) later found myself back at the hotel.
My policy is if at first you donít succeed, get someone else to handle it. So I figured Iíd ask Jana to call DHL and see if they would handle the whole thing for some outrageous sum of money. I sat in the lobby waiting for Jana to get back from her lunch break. When she showed up, she was mortified that I had been unable to get the correct form from the post office. I assured her that I would rather spend the rest of my time in Prague doing something other than shipping this painting, so she called DHL and set up a pickup for the next morning. They would pick up, pack, and ship the painting for one outrageous sum. Handled.
One interesting thing about Prague: on the taxi ride back from the post office we got stuck behind a really bad driver who had a large blue letter "L" attached to the top of his car. I assumed that drivers who were found to be "losers" were required, as a matter of punishment and public safety, to wear this "L" and I thought it was a terrific idea. In fact, I think some people ought to get the letter "L" tattooed on their forehead for the same reason, just to give everyone a heads-up.
The shipping all but handled, Andrew and I took Janaís recommendation and went to visit the palace housing the museum of modern art. We needed to take the No. 8 tram to get there, which left a couple blocks from the hotel rather than right across the street. We had no problem finding it and guessed correctly about which stop to get off. Immediately upon exiting the tram we saw a huge palace-like building which turned out to be a church. We headed in the direction we thought the palace would be and after a couple blocks found an enormous boxy building that said, sure enough, "palace." I do not think that word means what they think it means.
As it turned out, the permanent collection was closed briefly for reinstallation, but we saw an interesting show of modern interior design and a retrospective on the career of Czech collage artist JiřŪ Kolař (pronounced YEAR-zhee KO-larzh). I asked if the word "collage" was named after this guy but apparently the pronunciation of his last name was just a coincidence.
After the museum we took the tram to Malostranska and found a very nice restaurant where we had a bite. Andrew had an omelet, which apparently is only eaten by the Czechs for lunch and dinner, the opposite of Americans, and I had a delicious local plate of duck and two kinds of pork served with cooked pickled cabbage and boiled potatoes. This place was overpriced I think and they added a couple of charges that I didnít understand or bother to ask about: total came to 469Kc ($13) for two of us.
We were surprised at check-in with a complimentary dinner for two at the fine hotel restaurant Hradčany, and we chose tonight to take advantage of it. We dressed up and arrived to candlelight and piano music. We handed the certs to the captain and were told we could choose any appetizer, entrťe, and dessert on the menu. I had a stupendous smoked duck appetizer while Andrew had crawfish-and-mushroom raviolis. We both ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, saddle of veal encrusted with morels. Mine was delicious although Andrewís was a bit tough, perhaps because it could not stand up to being ordered rare. As a rule I donít eat dessert but it was included, so we both got something called "fine champagne mousse" which was a tasty thin slice cake-rimmed crŤme. It actually came with two large delicious strawberry fritters that dominated the dish. I had a Becherovka and a glass of Cabernet. With outrageously priced San Pelligrino at 240Kc ($6.50) for a large bottle, the drinks alone came to 760Kc ($21). The meal would have been an additional 3000Kc ($80) so the vouchers were a nice perk.
Zloduska met us in the restaurant just as we were finishing up and we headed out to a couple bars to sample pivo. One was a small place near Wenceslas Square that decided to cart out an astonishing number of empty beer kegs through a wide-open door as soon as we sat down, freezing us out pretty effectively. We then followed Zloduska to another place that turned out to be the same place I ended up the other night! After that meal I couldnít drink more than about one and a half pivos, so the pivo demons were merciful. Zloduska told me about the special night tram service that runs every 40 minutes and stops at the same place we took the No. 8 this morning, so I took it home.
Thursday March 16, 2000
A walk down the garden path (by Andrew Sigal)
Breakfast again here at the hotel, followed by a pleasant nap. Around noon Richard and I headed out into the ever-changing weather to check out the monastery just around the corner from the hotel. Though the monastery held a certain mysterious intrigue, most of it was closed to the public, being reserved for the quiet perambulations of the monks. Part of the collection of the Czech National Gallery is housed here, but neither of us were really up for it. Richard's friend Zloduska had suggested that we go to see the "Old Palace", but none of my guidebooks gave such a reference. There are a lot of palaces in Prague, none of them specifically called "old".
Instead we went off to see the Wallenstein Palace Gardens (Zahrada Valdëtejnského paláca), which I had heard were delightful. I wasnít sure this was really the best weather to see them in, but the guides all indicated that they were open year round, so I figured we could get at least some sense of the place. We took the tram down the hill and disembarked at the Malostranska stop then walked a short way down Letenksá street to the garden's entrance. Tacked to the door was a notice that this entrance was closed and we should enter through the Malostranska metro station. Neither Richard nor I could recall seeing a Malostranska metro station, but it was clearly indicated on the map so we walked back to the Malostranska tram stop to look for it. The reason we hadn't noticed the metro station was that it was closed and completely torn up for massive renovations. No getting in this way. Around the corner was the Wallenstein palace, which now houses the Czech Parliament. Thinking that might be a way in, we headed off. An information officer at the Parliament building informed us that the gardens were closed.
My motto is "when in doubt, have lunch", so we did. On a corner near Malostranské námÆsti we went into U. Schnellö where we each ordered the "#1 menu" of Prague onion soup, beef goulash, and apple strudel. It was a very cozy, quiet, old place that made me feel very much at home, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself though the food itself was not particularly noteworthy.
Richard arranged for tickets for us to see a saxophone quartet and then dinner at Kampa Park. After two trips totaling almost 2 weeks in Prague, it was nice to finally go to one of these famous performances. The performance lasted about an hour, and was intriguing. Richard then did an excellent job navigating the short walk to Kampa Park (Na KampÆ 8b, telephone 573-134-93). From the front door onward this place screams chic and stylish. White walls contrasted with black couches and hip-modern wood chairs. The place was open and comfortable, the reception gracious and efficient. We were presented with a complimentary pre-appetizer of a potato chip filled with crème fraishe and caviar, which was delightful. I stared with "salsify soup", described as "a vegetable soup", it turned out to be much like vichyssoise. Topped with a cream "foam" and bits of grilled bacon, it was excellent. For my main I had a lovely dish of lamb rack, served rare (á point), just the way I like it. The whole meal was very, very good, making Kampa Park my new favorite restaurant in Prague. The place was virtually empty when we arrived at 7:15, and quite full by the time we left around 8:30.
The Siberian express (by Richard Brodie)
DHL was supposed to come between nine and 12 to pick up my painting. I went down around nine for breakfast and stopped by the concierge desk where the second-string concierge, a nice Russian woman, was filling in for Jana who told me yesterday that she needed to take a few days off to be with her daughter, "and besides, I have already been working hard enough." The new concierge had never heard of any of the arrangements I had spent so much time making with DHL, but I reassured her that her only responsibility was to come find me in the dining room or in my suite when DHL arrived. Andrew had a decaf waiting for me by the time I finished my discussion with the concierge. I had been enjoying the delicious coffee all week. What a surprise to learn that they had replaced the brewed decaf here with Folgers Crystals!
Right after breakfast I stopped by the concierge desk to let her know I was going upstairs, and who should be standing there but the DHL man, security badge dangling. He measured and weighed my painting and decided that I would receive the courtesy rate of 50% more than I had been quoted yesterday because of the high cost of prices and all. I watched as he filled in my address and phone number and told me that tomorrow night my package would be shipped, Saturday morning it would arrive at JFK, and then Tuesday it would arrive in "sunny California." I was looking forward to that sun as I checked the Yahoo weather forecast for LA: Sunny and 74. The prediction for Prague: "blizzard."
We bundled up and I let the ear flaps down on my Siberian fur hat that I had bought the first night. Andrew and I decided that we would visit the nearby monastery that was a starred attraction in the guidebooks. We found it, like many places in Prague, hidden behind an unobtrusive narrow doorway up a flight of stairs. It was apparently a working monastery and therefore mostly closed off to viewing. There was a museum there with some ancient manuscripts but we passed on them because we figured we could download them off the Internet if we really wanted to see them.
Next we took the tram back down to MalostranskŠ to look for a large garden that Andrew wanted to see. We found the doorway but there was a sign advising us that this door was closed for renovation and we should enter around the corner through the Metro station. We went around the corner but the Metro station was closed for renovations. We found ourselves at the Czech Senate building and went in to ask about the gardens. Not possible, we were told. Itís nice that Prague is largely tourist-free this time of year but the flip side is that many of the tourist attractions are closed. Fortunately that doesnít apply to restaurants, because by this time it was time to start thinking about lunch. Hunnybearís mom says all I ever talk about are beds and meals. Thatís not true. I talk about the highlights of my life. It just so happens that very frequently those are beds and meals.
We ended up in a cozy little Bavarian place called U Schnellů and were served by three leggy blondes in short skirts. Halfway through the meal two important-looking men came in and the three of them bunched with nervous smiles attending them. We each had the No. 1 lunch, which was onion soup, beef chunks with yummy bacon dumplings, and apple strudel for 240Kc ($6.50) each. With tea, water, and cover it came to 580Kc ($16) total. I tipped some of the change I had been accumulating.
We took the tram back toward the Savoy and on a whim jumped out at the stop for the Palace. We wanted to see the grounds again after enjoying them last year in a torrential rainstorm. The blizzard never came but it was extremely cold and windy - I could feel the chill blowing through the sides of my Asics running shoes. We cut the Palace visit short after popping inside the beautiful cathedral and made our way back to the Savoy, where I worked out down in the gym.
We decided to catch one of the mini-concerts held every evening in Old Town, so we booked two tickets through the concierge, who tacked on a 25% courtesy charge without telling me in advance, explaining that only wealthy people stay in this hotel. That brought the ticket price to 500Kc ($14) each. We took the tram to the nearest stop, which was still a 10-minute walk from Old Town, and found the Frank Kafka Center right across from the fabled Astronomical Clock. We climbed up two flights of stairs and found ourselves in a small music studio with chairs set up facing the windows that looked out on the Clock. We took two seats that gave us a view of the skeleton, which we didnít get to see last year because it was closed for renovations. When the clock struck six, the figures moved and the skeleton flipped his hourglass and dangled his pocket watch. Strangely chilling.
The concert began the instant the Clock stopped its dance. Tonightís program was five pieces for saxophone quartet. If I ever wondered why more music wasnít written for saxophone quartet, I no longer wondered. The reedy instrument with its noisy valves and breathy tones doesnít really stand up to a solo performance, even with four of them. I had been told that these concerts were cheesy and I have to say the performance was not impressive. However, in honor of Andrew and me attending, the highlight of the program was a fine rendition of the United Airlines theme. The baritone sax player was a statuesque brunette with hair as long as her instrument who filled the room with her smile if not her playing.
Dinner tonight was at the fourth and last member of the Bacchus Group of restaurants, Kampa Park. This charming place, just reopened from being closed for renovations, frequently featured guest chefs. This month it was Alex Freij from New Yorkís Mercer Kitchen. There are only 70 seats in the winter but in summer there are two huge outdoor decks. We started with a delicious homemade potato chip filled with crŤme fraiche, caviar, and a single chive. I started with a superb venison carpaccio and ordered seared tuna for the entrťe. When it arrived Andrew declared, "Tunahenge!" It was a potato pancake with sautťed onions, topped by the tuna, topped by a bite of foie gras. It was marred only byb arriving with a cold center, so they kindly replaced it with another portion that was only slightly overdone. This was the best dinner I have had in Prague, with impeccable service and a great atmosphere. We passed on the "drunken chocolate monkey" for dessert. The bill came to 2220Kc ($62) for both of us and we rounded up to 2400.
After dinner we had a final drink in Lobby Bar and reflected on our time here. I had a 7 a.m. wakeup call and an 8:15 taxi for my marathon flight back to New York.
Friday March 17, 2000
Exit, stage left (by Andrew Sigal)
I woke this morning to a thin blanket of snow covering the courtyard grounds. Winter refuses to leave Prague, though I will be doing so in just a few hours. This is still one of the most beautiful cities in the world, though clearly March is not the month to enjoy its many charms.
At 8:45 the bellman came to collect my luggage, by 9am I was checked out, sitting in the back seat of a AAA taxi, and watching the spires of Prague recede en route to the airport (350kr with tip.)
Checking in and clearing passport control was as breeze. As soon as I entered the departures area I had a flashback of incredible chocolates from last time I was here. I found the Neuhaus Belgian chocolates shop and splurged on three of their irresistible butter creams. I had some trouble finding the Lufthansa lounge until I realized they shared the "Holiday Club" with about a dozen other airlines.
My travels today take me to London, with the first leg from Prague to Dusseldorf. The equipment is another fucking Canadair CRJ plane. It's not my favorite aircraft. There is just a single class of service, the seats are cramped and uncomfortable, and the thing bounces and rocks around in the sky like a paper airplane. Even though the plane is only 1/3 full and I have a business class ticket, they have put me next to a large German fellow who is clearly very upset to be sitting next to me. All the seats next to and in front of us are open, so he wasted no time in changing his seat. Fine by me.
Shortly after takeoff the two children of the family behind me started crying explosively, so I moved up a couple rows. Just before arrival they handed out a questionnaire asking about my experiences today with "Team Lufthansa." I was pleased to fill it out, since I would love to have them hear my impressions of Lufthansa. Part way through the survey were several questions about my knowledge of Team Lufthansa, did I realize I was on a Team Lufthansa flight, and had Team Lufthansa been explained to me. Of course the answers to all these were "no." If I hadn't chosen to do the survey, I would never have realized that I had been enjoying "Team Lufthansa", and I still have no idea what that really is.
As with the last time I was flying through Germany, at Dusseldorf airport I had to go through passport control and enter Germany to go to the Lufthansa Senators lounge. Very odd. As with all Lufthansa lounges, the design and color scheme perfectly match the corporate image, but it is actually neither functional nor comfortable. Hi ho. Oh, and the no-smoking zone is the payphones. I think I prefer the regular departure area, which is where I headed anticipating a safe and pleasant flight to London.
Nù Jrk (by Richard Brodie)
I went down to check out and discovered that the hotel had charged me the courtesy rate of 500KŤ more than the quoted rate except for the first two nights. The rate was actually quoted in DM but a sign read "by law we are required to convert room rate to KŤ using our conversion rate at checkout." The conversion looked fairly reasonable but the rate went up on the third day. The clerk, and then the manager, told me that the supersaver rate that I had booked was only valid for the weekend. I showed her the confirmation email from the now-much-hated SRS-Worldhotels reservation system and pointed out that it showed one rate only: 320DM ($160) per night, including tax and breakfast. She relented but insisted that it was a "miscommunication."
Next I pointed out that I had been charged for the complimentary room-service breakfast that I had ordered the day after the pivo demons. She insisted that breakfast was only complimentary until 11 a.m. I told her the in-room guide clearly stated that complimentary breakfast was available 24 hours. She had the bellman fetch the in-room guide then turned borscht-red as she saw I was right. She finally removed the 450KŤ for that. By that time it was too late for me to have breakfast and I forgot to use the remaining cash I had to partially pay the bill. The bellman came over and said my taxi was waiting. The manager told me it would be 690KŤ. I said why so expensive? It turned out that the second-string concierge had called the Mercedes rather than the cheap taxi. The manager said if I could wait 10 minutes they could call the cheap taxi and I said no. Then the bellman said there was another taxi outside who would charge 500KŤ and I said fine.
The bellman loaded my luggage into the taxi, which was one of the dreaded white Mafia taxis with the meter from hell. But when we set out I was relieved to see the meter clicking away slowly at about the same rate the reputable AAA Taxis had. As we approached the airport, though, I saw the driver had laid his hand casually on the gearshift for a long time and looked at the meter. Sure enough it was clicking away like a Geiger counter at Chernobyl. By the time we had reached the airport it read 519. I handed the driver a 500-crown note and he seemed happy with that. He popped the trunk and gestured at my baggage. I unloaded it myself and headed into the airport.
The Prague airport has an unusual check-in system. There are no fixed signs for different airlines at the check-in stations. Instead, each flight is listed on an individual TV monitor above one particular line. I found the Lufthansa line and stood in the line for my flight, still over an hour away. There was no Star Alliance Gold checkin, but it went quickly nonetheless. There was a long line at the one passport-control line for people from countries which neither require a visa nor are part of the European Union. Since there was no line at the "visa countries only" line I went through there with no problem.
Lufthansa told me the departure lounge was on the first floor. As I passed an escalator up I realized that in Europe the "first floor" is the second floor! I went up and found the small shared lounge. There was no Internet access but they did have a large selection of candy bars, so I had five or so different kinds for breakfast.
The short flight to Frankfort was on a Lufthansa A320. I had a middle seat empty next to me and a nice seat opponent from Kuwait who was worried about a close connection. Breakfast service was the same kind of sandwich we had on the way over, ham or cheese on a long roll. I took one bite and found it slathered with huge gobs of butter, so I left the rest. We landed in Frankfort just 10 minutes late but taxied for 10 minutes and parked at a bus gate that left us fairly close to the transit desk. I was eager to try out the fabled Lufthansa Senator lounge and was not impressed. The dťcor was cold, I thought, and the room was crowded and had no Internet access or laptop-friendly desks that I found. Snacks were soggy bacon sandwiches with typical European undercooked bacon. They did have a nice full self-service bar but it was still morning so I didnít avail myself. Instead I went to the Red Carpet Club where I was greeted nicely and asked if I wanted to do the security questions now or later. I opted for now and let on as how I didnít have a bomb in my luggage although I did have my handy electric nose-hair trimmers.
The RCC was nicer than the Senator lounge as far as dťcor and seating, and there were two desks for credit-card Internet access that I availed myself of. The charge was 1DM for the first minute and .10DM for each pulse. I wasnít sure how long a pulse was but I guess Iíll find out when I get the bill. I used my Diners despite the 2% conversion fee because I hadnít yet used it in March and it was a small amount. American Express lost about $2000 in charges on this trip because of their 2% commission on foreign purchases - I put everything on my Mileage Plus FirstUSA MasterCard.
© 2000, Andrew Sigal and Richard Brodie
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