Czech Republic (2015)

Yoga therapy NewtonFirst, a huge thank you to one of my yoga students, Jill, who innocently asked me “so where are you going this year?” and started this whole adventure. After spending a lot of time, money, and energy in Yoga Therapy training throughout 2015, I had thought I should just skip the trip this year. But her question made me realize I wasn’t OK with breaking my 14 year traveling streak just yet, and I decided to check out the city of Prague, in the Czech Republic, which is a favorite of several friends. It also helped that during my Eating Psychology Coaching training I met a lovely friend from there, so I was excited to get some tips and potentially get together. With that, here are my stories.

Day 1: Travel & Schnitzel

I won’t bore you all with the travel details, except to say a few things.

  • I miss going to London from Boston. From Austin it’s about 10 hours. Another short hop (<2 hours and you’re in Prague).
  • We left very soon after the attacks in Paris. I believe Brussels might have still been closed down. My philosophy?
    1. Something is going to get me. Whether it’s a terrorist plot, hit by a bus, heart disease, old age. I go when I go, so fear won’t stop me from doing what I love. That said, Devarshi’s mantra, “I’m infinite, eternal, and whole” helped a lot during a few bouts of turbulence.
    2. My old travel friend and I used to say, “getting there is part of the adventure”. It usually helped take the pressure off annoyances like delays, missed flights, etc. Note:  90 minutes is barely enough time to make the terminal transfers in Heathrow, so leave yourself some more time.
  • I was a bit worried about pain flares during the long flights, but packing a carry on filled with various cushions helped a lot. I still couldn’t sleep at all, but I was able to get in some breathing and meditations in, so I wasn’t as tired when we first arrived.

When we landed it was more like Novembers I know:  jacket, gloves, hat. Smell of impending snow in the air. Even though I dislike being cold, that first experience of winter weather was awesome. Upon seeing the sign to leave the airport, I asked our driver to say “Na shledanou” (goodbye!) for me. I’d been using this page to help me with basic phrase pronunciation, and I still didn’t feel I had the tongue for this one. As he slurred his response, I sat back. Oh well.

We arrived at the Art Deco Imperial Prague hotel exactly in time for check in. Showers, and orders of Pork Schnitzel all around. It was about 5 pm there, but we’d been traveling all day nd contrary to my usual plan of staying up, we both crashed around 6 pm.

Since this is a pretty sort entry post, here are a few funny things from day 1:

  • The non-GF dinner had something labeled “taste spread” in it. (This was supposed to pass as butter, I suppose, which was desperately needed to lubricate the bread.) We also received a small skinny pouch of milk–kind of like a sample-size shampoo. Bleh.
  • In London and Prague it’s called “baggage re-claim”. Now doesn’t that make more sense?

Day 2: Architecture & Cake You Could Dive Right Into

Yoga therapy NewtonAfter a night of sleeping and waking at strange hours, we practiced singing “Dobrý den!” (Hello, Good Day!) for the hostess and fortified ourselves for a day of initial exploration with the hotel’s buffet breakfast. A well-dressed man at the neighboring table soon struck up a conversation with us, assuming us to be from France. He and his wife were on holiday for her birthday, and he couldn’t say enough good things about the city. He even gave us a restaurant recommendation to file away.

Yoga therapy NewtonOur first goal was to see what was in our immediate area by taking a trek around the block. Useful: 2 mini-markets (with fresh fruit, bottled water, and emergency Belgian dark chocolate bars), a small vegan shop and restaurant alongside a coffee and dessert bar (score!), and an ATM. Turns out we were also very near a shopping center called the Palladium, where there was also a tram stop. Along the way we also saw our first church: St. Peter at Na Poříčí.

It was in the mid-high 30s (Fahrenheit) most of the time we were there, so ear coverings, gloves, and coat were definitely necessary for walking. As were good shoes. All the streets and sidewalks are made from cobblestones, which are beautiful, but can be pretty treacherous if one is too busy gawking at all the architecture. Speaking of which, no kidding. Every building was absolutely beautiful.

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Náměstí Republiky Square

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Powder Tower

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Municipal House

One of our first fantastic landmarks was Náměstí Republiky Square, where we were immediately taken by the Powder Tower (Prašná brána). This was one of the 13 original city gates, dating back to the 11th century, and originally used to store gunpowder (thus the name). Immediately next to it is the equally awesome Municipal House (Obecní dům) and across the street, the Hybernia Theatre (Divadlo Hybernia). We’d walk through this area countless times, bu the first time we discovered it, we were surprised to encounter what sounded like a pretty decent blue grass band–so decent we decided to purchase their CD as our first souvenir.

Yoga therapy NewtonWe also encountered many amazing statues that were integrated into the buildings or just outside, many of them covered with netting. (We learned later this was to keep pigeons off, rather than to keep pieces of the statues from falling on pedestrians walking underneath. LOL.) Another thing that struck us was the abundance of very large wooden doors teeming with HGTV-worthy “character”. Most of the doors have handles that lead you to believe they open the way that is opposite from what you would expect, so in restaurants, etc. they are often labeled “TAM” (which we interpreted as “push”) and “SEM” (“pull”). However, according to this site:

In Czech, the signs read sem which actually means here and tells you to pull the door towards you, and the other is tam, meaning there, in which case you have to push the door to open it.

There were lots of street performers in Old Town Square (check out these moves!), which reminded me a bit of Faneuil Hall but with a much larger open space. Although I knew we had to be close, we managed to walk around almost every side of the square and still miss the Astronomical Clock, though we weren’t too worried; we had a city-tour the next day and were sure we’d get to see it.

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After a few hours of walking, we were more cold than hungry, but it was technically lunch time so we stopped into a place called Cafe Louvre. This cafe had a pretty amazing history, which interested folks can read about on their web site. I had a piece of swordfish and a ginger tea, which honestly, wasn’t great. The fish was overcooked and tea was weak, but at least the plate had some decent vegetables and it was warm inside. There were also three turtles in a nearby tank that were fun to look at while we took a rest.

After a number of hours post-lunch, I of course had to use a restroom. In the Old Town Square there are plenty of public restrooms (labeled “WC”). However, know that you’ll usually need a Czech koruna (crown)–10Kč or 20Kč depending on the location (for reference at the moment of this writing, 10Kč = $.401 USD).

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“In Utero”

A memorable moment during our first full day exploration was coming upon what might be a fertility sculpture? I happened to notice two girls playing around it, and as we crossed the street to get a closer look, one of the girls popped her head out of the…. Anyway Danil hadn’t seen her and she totally freaked him out. (Neither of us climbed up inside.) We also did a quick scout for the restaurant where we were meeting my friend Michaela for dinner that night, as well as the one recommended by the British couple that morning. We were pleased to find (completely by accident) a place called Choco-Story, which was a museum and a store. At this point they were closed, but we vowed to return because Belgian chocolate would be readily available, and there’s nothing quite like it in the world.

IMG_0061Back to the hotel to change, we got immersed in watching a sumo match on TV, which was pretty much like: nothing, nothing, nothing, OK, one guy just stepped out of the ring without much apparent provocation. (This sports channel would be a fun “rest” between adventures, as we encountered many sports we just don’t get here in the U.S. Or rather, don’t watch??)

That evening we used my method of navigation–i.e. store windows (pretty dresses, dog statues in fur collars, etc.) to get back to Siddhartha Cafe, a restaurant attached to the Buddha Bar Hotel. I’d originally wanted to stay in this hotel, but because of the cost, I settled for checking out the restaurant. This was the first time we learned that even with a reservation, it is possible to stand and wait and wait without being addressed. (In fact, most restaurants expect you to come in, place your coat on a coat rack with those of other folks, and seat yourself.) Being health conscious as I am, Michaela explained that the menus in Prague have an allergen code listed next to each dish. It’s numerical, so if you know your number (e.g. gluten = 1) and you don’t see that number next to a dish, then it’s an option.

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IMG_0072Another “meh” choice for me in terms of restaurants (I seemed to do better later). Michaela then lead us to Maitrea for dessert, which I wished we’d had dinner at! This place had all manner of vegetarian fare, desserts, and awesome teas. Danil got the tiniest yet best (his review) hot chocolate of the trip, and I got a massive saffron tea, which got me to experimenting with saffron in tea at home. We all had different desserts and they were all spectacular, and the ambiance / decor was fantastic as well. Note: They didn’t accept credit cards when we were there. We learned also that Michaela had been translating Marc David’s books related to dynamic eating psychology/mind-body nutrition into Czech, and would giving a lecture at this place soon. Thank you Michaela, and best of luck!

Day 3: A 3-Hour Walking (& Shoving) Tour

Through the concierge at the hotel, we booked a private walking tour of the city. After a late and leisurely breakfast–where we kept accidentally choosing the “gently carbonated” water instead of still–we met our tour guide Olga to go over (yet another) map. (The concierge gave them out like candy!) She was interested in customizing the tour to what we wanted to see, because 3 hours would go by fast. We’d told her a little about our explorations yesterday, and our interests, and then we were off.

Passageway

Passageway

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Astronomical Clock

Fear of pain, new walking shoes, and cobblestones made me want to tread carefully, and Olga was very much like most people in Prague: a super fast walker. Years ago I would have been right along with her, but from the get go, we had to ask her to slow down.  She took us down the familiar route to Náměstí Republiky Square and shared with us some information about the tower and the Municipal House, and then we continued on.  Soon we were in one of the many tunnel-like passageways, and Olga described that the city of Prague is actually built on top of an older version of the city, so there are all these underground passages that one could explore. This different route took us to Old Town Square, where Olga immediately pointed out where the Astronomical Clock was–and sure enough, it was right there and we’d just missed it.

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Underground

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Apostles

Knowing we could see the outside at any point, Olga quickly ushered us into the church, and instructed Danil to buy tickets. A short elevator ride later, we alone were viewing the apostles from the back as the clock struck noon. Remembering my reaction about the buried bits of Prague, Olga talked with some of the ladies working and we ended up being some of the only folks in some of the underground passageways.

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Glass Elevator

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Town Square from Tower

Next it was up to the viewing tower, via a round glass elevator that held a lot fewer people than wanted to view the city.  Olga was a master director, instructing not just us but most of the crowd around her. Once we were at the top, there was some discussion of how terrible it was that people didn’t follow the direction indicated by the arrows, so in these very narrow ledges overlooking the city there was a great deal of shoving and pushing around. Olga pushed her way into good viewing spots and then promptly urged me to “come, come”, and gave up her spot.

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St. Salvator’s

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Another Stunning View

The views from all sides were absolutely spectacular, and on one side it cleared out a bit. Getting down was just as annoying with the mass of humanity, but I must say it was worth it. Plus, I ended up missing the line at the WC and got in right away.

From there, we made our way to the Charles Bridge (Pražský most). We took a few photos at the water, and then joined the pedestrians to take a leisurely walk across. There were many many statues to admire on both sides, as well as many street vendors and a few more musicians. Olga commented that it was rare for it to still be this busy, as it was the off season.

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IMG_0159There are a few points on the bridge to note. The first was the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, who:

was thrown into the river in 1393 for allegedly refusing to divulge the queen of Bohemia’s confession secrets to suspicious King Wenceslas IV. The king reportedly had him thrown into the Vltava [river], upon which Nepomuk’s body is said to have miraculously lingered at the surface with five stars shining above it. John of Nepomuk (Jan Nepomucký) was canonized in 1729, despite some questions about the authenticity of the stories.

IMG_0177IMG_0179People touch the statue for good luck (or maybe luck enough to make it across the bridge unharmed)!? The second was a cross with five stars, just a bit further down, representing the exact location of the infamous toss. A lot of selfies were being taken here and it was also very superstitiously being touched. This is where Olga stopped to tell us most of the story. She got tired of all the selfies and positioned herself in the way, turning her back to the folks trying to take photos. A young Russian tourist asked her to move aside, and they kind of got into it. Olga reprimanded the girl and insisted she not touch her (to move her aside). It was a bit uncomfortable and Olga apologized later for her annoyance at the Russian people being disrespectful in her country.

As we were already running out of time, Olga ran us to a tram she’d already had tickets for, which took us up to Prague Castle (Pražský hrad). Before we’d gone, there had been some rumors that the castle would be closed in late November, Olga insisted that was not true. The gardens were unavailable (as one might expect in inclement weather), and there was also a very visible presence at the castle due to the terrorist attacks in Paris the week before. No cars were allowed up to the castle, and in addition to the standard, unblinking guards at the front, there were also men with machine guns in fatigues. We were only allowed to go into one of the two entrances (although that changed when we returned a few days later).

IMG_9951Lastly, Olga took us up to the doors of St. Vitus’ Cathedral where she pointed out some of the reliefs depicting St. Wenceslas. We also took a quick peek inside, as far as we could without purchasing a ticket (and to warm up)! At this point Olga bid us farewell, and we had to decide: would we explore the rest of the castle today? We were very tired and cold at this point, and Olga had indicated there were a few cafes nearby on the castle grounds. So, we ducked into one to have a sit, snack, and defrost our toes while we considered.

IMG_0215It was at this small cafe that I had my first hot red wine, and we shared an apple cake. After some discussion we decided we would learn to take the tram ourselves another day when we felt more up to exploring the castle. (Up into this point, I had thought the Prague Castle was just a castle–I didn’t realize it was really a “castle complex” with several different buildings and grounds to explore!)  With that in mind, we walked down the hill in search of a proper lunch. One of the things we spotted at a street vendor was a fried spiral potato. It was very interesting and although we were hungry, we never ended up trying it.  Instead at my craving, we stopped at Meet Burger, which was underwhelming to say the least. It was here I discovered that hot red wine was supposed to have a ton of sugar in it (the one at the cafe didn’t). After making a mistake and bringing me regular red wine, they wouldn’t take back the sugary hot one. What had caught my attention on the menu was the white rabbit burger, but it was nothing spectacular.

IMG_0247After this late lunch, we stopped into a few souvenir shops on the way back, as well as checked out Choco-Story, which had been closed the day before. They had a little touch screen that asked you questions, and matched you to your favorite chocolate based on your answers. Sadly, we left without buying anything!

IMG_0252Back at the room this decision was regretted. Although it was now very late, I was hungry so we went out again, thinking we’d try the vegan place we discovered in our initial scouting. But it was closed. Not wanting to eat at the Cafe Imperial (where we had breakfast every morning), we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant around the corner that had a “Czech plate” and garlic soup. We shared some Belgian dark chocolate Danil had picked up for me at the mini-market earlier when I was cranky for dessert. Have I said that Belgian dark chocolate is the best.thing.on.earth!??

Day 4: Wenceslas Square & La Degustation

This morning we were a little late getting going. I decided to try the porridge for breakfast as options were limited, but it was very nice. We bought tickets for a day trip to the Bone Church that was recommended to us, and discussed what we wanted to do with the time we had left, which felt like were going fast. We still needed to do Prague Castle, we were interested in one of the Black Light shows, still had Divini’s (the English gent’s recommendation), and perhaps a concert or marionette show.

But today was a relatively free day, so we decided to explore Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí), which isn’t really a square when you look at it on the map, but really a long race-track shape (did I mention we were also watching indoor bike-racing on TV??), with stores and shops on each side and all around. It connects the New and Old Towns.

IMG_0263IMG_0268When we arrived I was absolutely thrilled to see a store I adored in Brussels: Desigual, so I dragged Danil in there. I clearly disrupted their perfectly folded clothes, and tried on a few things (which of course I left with).  Being a bit cold, we then stopped into a Starbucks, which turned out to be one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. The first floor was pretty standard for a smaller store, but when you walked up the stairs it was so spacious, with lots of sofas and very modern decor, and painted windows too.

IMG_0270 As we had heard, the National Museum (Národní muzeum) at one end was closed for reconstruction, but it was still very beautiful on the outside, and I’m not much of a museum person anyhow. As we rounded the corner to come down the other side of the street–coincidentally as we had finished our beverages–there was another Starbucks. Definitely shopping area! We also noted Como, a restaurant that looked nice and seemed to have some gluten-free options. I’d originally wanted to get lunch at one of the sausage stands since I read that there were many here and I practically grew up on kielbasa. But once I saw them, they looked much less appealing than the ones in Old Town square (i.e. more “fast food” and less “cultural street food”), so my desire waned.

IMG_0283 IMG_0282We perused a bookstore for quite some time, looked in on the Prague Masaryk railway station (Praha Masarykovo nádraží), which was uninteresting save for the juice bar and many dirty lamps that might have been nice if clean. Nearby were some great veggie and nut stands. After a bit of confusion we found the actual vegan restaurant near our hotel–Loving Hut–it was hidden upstairs from the store, juice bar, and (seemingly unrelated) cafe. It was also spacious and had a nice buffet, but they were out of soup, which is what I had been craving. The woman at the checkout thought I spoke Czech, which always feels cool until I don’t really.

IMG_0293IMG_0292 We then decided to investigate some of the local grocery stores (as we like to do to see what it’s like to live in a place): Albert and Lidl seemed to be the ones around us, and they had some interesting things. However, one of the little markets had these strawberries near the door that captured my attention the other day, and they still were over-flowingly delicious looking and smelling in their carton, so we purchased some for the room. We stopped up at the room where Danil got lost in Wikipedia again, and I did a practice as my body was hurting.

IMG_0295Tonight though was our big dinner at La Degustation, so at 5:30 we dressed up, and had little trouble finding the right street once we were back outside, although we ended up traveling down a darker side street to get there that made me a bit nervous for a moment. We were given a table closest to the kitchen, and I gave in to doing the 10 course. I also opted for the wine pairing, but what was really nice is that they also offered a juice pairing, so Danil tried that.

IMG_0300IMG_0314We had fun trying the juices with each course (I sipped a few). They were very good about being gluten and dairy free for me, and unlike some places where we’ve done tastings together, I didn’t feel cheated out of anything. They even had rice flour rolls so when the bread came I could have something. (Of course I’d been cheating and eating gluten around town, but when we’d made the reservation we had specified the restrictions!). The only thing that Danil loved that I HATED (and properly gave up without regret) was the foie gras, which I never expected to like anyway but tried just the same. Danil’s face on some of the juices was pretty priceless, and I must say they were pretty incredible (and interesting). I’ve already made the apple & leek juice with our juicer and got it pretty close, although I think it depends on the apples one uses. So far ambrosias win out over envy’s in our opinion.

My only complaints about the place were that I had to ask them to turn off the air (after they had taken my jacket away and it was almost freezing outside), and the fact that the waiter made a bit of a stink when I got up to use the ladies room because a course was ready to come out.

Feeling very full, we were happy to have to walk back to the hotel before calling it an easy day. Along the way we got to finally see the Astronomical clock from the outside. I was THRILLED because actually my favorite part is the little skeleton (right side) pulling the cord.

Day 5: Fish, Bones, Miners & Buses

IMG_0264Before I go on, one thing I forgot to mention is how many Thai massage and “fishy pedi” places there were around the city. With all the walking we did, it was occasionally somewhat tempting (or not). Many people who got these pedis were also placed on display in a front window like this–or they worked there, maybe they got a discount? Anyway, there were no fish chomping on our crusty feet this trip!

Day 5 was our day trip to the historical town of Kutná Hora and it’s famous “bone church“. A fellow traveler had recommended we do this trip, and apart from the fact that this was one of our coldest days, it was well worth it. After some weird scuffling getting from van to van and meeting up with a few more English speakers, we were of. It took about 90 minutes from Prague city center to arrive at our destination. The bus was comfortable, which was helpful since my stomach was in a bit of a jumble from the variety of food and drink the night before.

The driver was quite fantastic–he drove like me, weaving in and out of traffic with expertise! 🙂 After living and driving in Austin for 2 years now it was nice to be in a familiar type of driving environment. What was also interesting to me was that in the city, the cars drive on the same streets as the tram (unlike Boston where the T above ground has it’s own “lane”). So you’re dodging cars, pedestrians, and trams, making it even more fun! I was very glad we didn’t decide to rent a car though. Although the cars were like ours and they drive on the same side of the street (unlike our New Zealand adventure!), but the driver was taking a new exit every 5 minutes or so to get us out of the town and onto the proper highway. With all the speed our hesitation would have gotten us into trouble for sure, not to mention the likelihood of wrong turns.

Anyway, our guide was interesting at first, telling us little thing about our destination and what we were going to see. I’d completely ignored St. Barbara’s and the town in the descriptions, so it sounded like a full day. Since we were sitting up front we also learned while he was talking to another couple from Africa that he spoke seven different languages. When we arrived at the bone church, our first stop, our guide asked all of us where we were from, and we were actually the only Americans. Closest were Canadian, others from Spain. To be efficient he explained he would speak in English unless it would help to clarify in Spanish.

IMG_0362 IMG_0354We looked around the outside of the Ossuary for a bit while he bought tickets for us all. Once inside he took us directly to some skulls and proceeded to tell us how we could tell how the people died by how their skulls were damaged, and how male and female skulls were different. He used some of us as “props” for this discussion, and we began to notice some gentle teasing in his personality. He then gave us a whopping TEN MINUTES to explore the church on our own. To be fair, it was small, but I’d preferred not have felt rushed. Several people looked around a bit and then wandered to the cafe across the street for a WC break and warm drink. Danil made an interesting observation that some of the bones appeared not to have been “useful”–i.e. there weren’t many wrists, ribs, feet. All I could see (of course) were sacra and ilia.

IMG_0412IMG_0378We loaded back into the bus and then drove a short distance to St. Barbara’s Cathedral (Chrám svaté Barbory), where I feel like we spent way too much time. LOL. But I guess I’m more into bones than into the religious opulence. Our guide pointed out how there were several different architectures going on with the cathedral because it was added onto by different people at different times. The tour guide told us about the miners–St. Barbara is the patron saint of miners–and how they wore the apron on their backside to slide down into the mines, were small people, made a ton of money and left rich widows.

IMG_0443 IMG_0432We drove another short distance and then walked about the town for a bit. Some more interesting tidbits of information from our guide again–especially the one about the WC essentially being behind a curtain in the boardrooms so men could continue meeting / negotiating while relieving themselves, and how anything emptied into that WC pretty much shot out the side of the building and ran down the street, only to be washed away with a good bout of rain. Maybe he made it up, who knows! At one time apparently there was great competition between Kutná Hora and Prague, although the former always appeared to lose! (The second photo is the “competitor” to the Charles Bridge, and St. Barbara’s was supposed to be built to rival a much larger church in Prague–I forget which one–although it never turned out that way.)

Around 3:45 pm we finally got an hour or so to have lunch in the square, and most of us went to the same place–Cafe LavandeIMG_0475IMG_0472–since it was easy. It was warm in there, thank goodness, and I must say this was one of my favorite more “local” feasts. I had borscht and Danil had pork schnitzel; we both got hot chocolate that was so thick it was more like pudding. We also split a sausage, which was probably overkill but at this point we’d had little since breakfast. When we were through, we captured a really beautiful moon as the sun was setting, which helped re-inspire my meditation practice for several days to come.

I actually managed to nap in the bus on the way home! We arrived back late, and I didn’t want to eat late, but wasn’t quite ready for bed, so we decided to try to do Black Light IMAGE theater at 8 pm. We discovered we were low on local cash but time was also short, and figuring we could do a credit card, we hustled to find the place. My ankle was also giving me some trouble this day, so hobbling fast was a fun challenge. When we arrived (in time), we found they in fact did not take CCs but would take our American dollars. Whew!  This was supposed to be the best of the Black Light theaters in the city (there were several others we heard about or saw in our meanderings). The show alternated between two guys acting out various skits and trippy music with dancers dressed in light-able outfits, often moving with fabric and mirrors in interesting ways. The walk home was even more challenging for me, and we decided that for Prague Castle we’d learn how to use the tram to save some walking.

IMG_0479Back near the hotel I found myself craving rice (!) and so we stopped in at Zebra Asian Noodle Bar. Wow was it good! We ordered the crispy duck and chicken noodle soup to share. The servers were very kind, fast, and although it was kind of “fast food” it was really lovely. While we ate we watched some fancy party going on at a coffee shop (it seemed), complete with video cameras and flowers. I wonder if it was a corporate thing or some local “stars”.

Once back at the hotel we digested way past midnight, and thus ended up missing our hotel’s breakfast offering the next day!

Day 6: Exploring Prague Castle & Tiny Houses

IMG_0482 IMG_0483However, I knew exactly where to go, and it was near to the tram stop we needed. Cacao had caught my eye a few times, and I was eager to try it (though not for ice cream!). The decor was really cool, the service OK–I’m not sure the waitress spoke as much English as we required. I made a poor choice by picking a cold dish–the acai berry bowl was frozen like a slushy. They also had nice egg dishes and infused waters of many kinds. Having “real milk” in a latte was strange too!

tram_tixToday was our trek back to the Prague Castle, but I didn’t want to walk so we could learn about the tram and save our feet for the exploration itself. To get to the castle from our hotel was pretty simple in theory: take tram #5 (which stopped close to us, near the Palladium, to tram #22, which would drop us pretty much at the castle (with some walking to get to the entrance). We purchased our tickets in advance from the concierge at the hotel, for convenience-sake. This tips site lists other ways to buy them (you can’t do it while on-board), including via SMS! There are little yellow boxes that you put the bottom end of your ticket in, which stamps it with the day and time. Once stamped, you have 90 minutes (in the case of our tickets) to use them. No one asked us to see our tickets either of the times we rode, but apparently there are inspectors and you have to be able to produce a valid pass whenever you might be asked. This site was useful for learning what type of ticket to purchase and how to use the machines. Honor system!!

Security had eased a little from the few days before. At the information booth, we decided to purchase tickets for Circuit B, which included St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, and Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower.

IMG_0511IMG_0487 IMG_0504First up was St. Vitus’ Cathedral, which we’d actually seen a bit of as we wrapped up our tour with Olga. This time we were able to walk all the way around, gawking at different stained glass windows and statues. Danil amused me with witty comments about several of the stained glass windows and statues, and we were both puzzled at how the royal crypt was closed for “technical reasons.” St. Wenceslas has his own chapel toward the back, which is in a completely different (yet equally elaborate) style from the rest.

IMG_0521Next was across the way to the Old Royal Palace. The initial room was essentially the largest dance floor I ever saw. At one time members of the royal family had lived in the building, but over the years it evolved to have more of a government/office-type function. Records of legal decisions were kept here, and a great fire in 1541 caused much loss. Tons of stone, lots of wood. Open floor plan but a bit drafty. I wondered about the heating bill for such a place!

After snapping one, it was here that I learned no photos were allowed. Well, not without a “license” anyway. Apparently you could buy one for 50, and I wondered why they didn’t just include that in the ticket price (to catch you breaking the rules and fine you more)?

IMG_0529Again no photos inside St. George’s Basilica, which was probably my favorite church. It is very long and narrow on the inside, and there are several tombs inside including that of prince Vratislav, father of St. Wenceslas. The first thing you see is a huge double staircase that winds up to a platform, and at the base of the stairs (and a bit below) the tomb. We walked up the stairs, and at the top I said, “acknowledge your audience” and we looked out at the people sitting in the pews. I suppose that’s what it’s like to be royalty? There was also a wooden statue of Jesus that looked as though he was melting off the cross–we learned a few things about the crucifixion statues from our Kutná Hora tour guide, such as whether his shins were crossed one over the other or not–I think it has something with dating the period of the statue.

A short break at our familiar cafe since I knew I liked the red wine there. This time, the plum cake. Yum! What was interesting though is that the area for “non-smokers” was large, but in the back and with windows all around, so all the warmer tables for for smokers. We moved back inside to near the counter (where there weren’t actually any people smoking). I moved the ash tray to the window sill, and about 5 minutes later someone came by to try and give me one! Reminded me a bit of all the smoking still in New Zealand. Hard to believe it was only a year ago we were on that adventure.

I was pretty done at that point, but Danil convinced me that we should have a look at Golden Lane anyhow, and boy am I glad he did. We started at a gallery of armor, weapons, and torture devices. We spent a good deal of time there, and it was equally amusing and annoying to listen to three collage-aged American boys reading about the weapons: “holy &#@$*! It’s a gun-sword-crossbow combo!” “What year was that thing made?” “It’s an ax-gun!” They were incredulous about how inventive the old weapons were.

Loft bed!

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Herbs

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Golden Lane

The lane itself was a row of colorful tiny houses, originally built for the “lesser classes”, including goldsmiths who lived there and for whom the lane was named. Some of the houses were museum-like showpieces you could look into to see how people lived. I took photos of a few houses that interested me, including that of the Herbalist Doctor and of fortune teller Madame de Thebes. We noticed that some tiny houses, like that of the fortune teller and the one used as the pub, were “double-wides”.

IMG_0562Others were little shops like Manufaktura, where I ended up getting several souvenirs, and a puppet / toy store, where we marveled over how many marionettes in different styles and sizes were available for sale.

IMG_0570Last was the Daliborka Tower, which had been a prison. Lots of brick and cool wooden beams on the ceiling, but at this point we were tired, and started to leave the castle grounds. On the way out we were puzzled by the statue of a young boy, which many tourists were rubbing for good luck. (I’ll let you check out the image for where they were rubbing.) What was slightly disturbing was that this statue was outside the uh…Toy Museum (Muzeum hraček). Leaving the gawkers of the boy statue’s bits, we walked back down to the tram where we had transferred earlier, and missed it by just a minute. Fortunately they all run on time, about 5 minutes apart, so we weren’t shivering for long.

That night we tried the Englishman’s recommendation of Divinis, and we were not disappointed! The linguini with octopus and bacon was amazing, as were the other dishes we had. Gluten free options were available. On the way home we cut through the Palladium mall to stay warm. It was quite beautiful all decorated for the holidays. Which actually brings me to an interesting point: although it was already December at this point, the decorations for Christmas were still in the process of getting put up. In fact, you can see in the photo of St. George’s above that the wooden shop stalls had just been pulled out. I loved this. It didn’t appear as though the city celebrated Christmas starting before Halloween, which made it feel more special (and much less obnoxious). Can we go back to doing that in the U.S. please??

Day 7: The Two Faces of the Jewish Quarter

IMG_0608Today we decided to try the omelet station at the hotel breakfast, and well, meh. It was OK. I had however, gotten very used to and excited about my little “chocolate twisty” pastry. It reminded me of my trip to Italy–specifically Florence–where I think I had cappuccino and a much larger chocolate croissant for breakfast every day. (Of course that wreaked havoc on my blood sugar, but I ate very differently in those days.)

IMG_0615Anyway, after breakfast we set out for the Jewish Quarter (Josefov). The shops we encountered were quite different from those in the Old Town, or in Wenceslaus Square, for example. VERY high end. Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Dolce & Gabbana, etc. As we walked by, sometimes suited gentlemen from inside peered out at us suspiciously. We didn’t dare go inside.

IMG_0619It was during these walks that we came across an interesting road sign. We had fun trying to interpret the message it was attempting to convey, and were even more puzzled that it was clearly a “do not…”, and if our interpretation was correct we should have seen a corresponding “it’s now OK to…” version (which we didn’t until way later).

IMG_0622We were very cold and so stopped into a quaint little cafe called The Illusion Factory (Továrna na iluze), which had wallpaper of black and white movies all around. It was VERY warm inside, which was perfect. Instead of a hot red wine I decided to try the hot brandy drink, and was not disappointed. It was kind of a lazy-feeling day so we people watched for while. It was notable that not one person was on a laptop or a phone, and people seemed to meet there to be in each others’ company and chat, catch up. Every coffee shop I’ve been in in Austin we all pretty much have our noses in technology. Here is also where I started noticing that some women were donning REALLY high-heeled boots, and I feared for those with the very skinny heels with all the cobblestones outside!

IMG_0636After our rest we walked over to the river, noting how there were lots of empty boats. Then we bought our ticket to explore the various buildings that were part of the Jewish quarter. First we stopped into Pinkas Synagogue and viewed the children’s drawings that were part of the permanent exhibition. Many were very good artists! We also walked through the memorial where the walls were covered, and I mean COVERED with names. It was hauntingly quiet inside, and I couldn’t help wondering about the artist(s) who wrote out all those names. At one point we had some levity when there was a chair in the balcony labeled with a sign that said: “not a seat”. We begged to differ.

IMG_0641 IMG_0640Outside, the cemetery was probably my favorite part of this day. I’d captured some photos through a gate before we entered, and once again photos weren’t aloud inside without license. But it was absolutely too magnificent not to capture. According to the site linked above, 20,000 graves in 12 layers! The tombstones are in various states of disrepair, and they all lean in different ways. It was beautifully serene, and we walked through slowly. Many tombstones had little rocks, flowers, notes, or coins placed on them. What I didn’t know before was that:

it is believed, that the dead can fulfill your wish. But beware, the stone has to be brought from the place where you live. Picking up a stone from the graveyard, or even from another grave, can be seen as a disrespect by the dead.

Oops. I left my shiniest coin in the wall of the oldest stone (from the 1400s I believe). I meant no disrespect. In fact, I was in total awe, and I didn’t make any wish. It was more of an acknowledgment. After the cemetery we headed over to Klausen Synagogue where we spent a lot of time walking around and reading the plaques on the walls, and then to the Ceremonial Hall, where I started to really fade. Although I’m somewhat fascinated by burials and death in general, I kept having dizzy spells the entire time we were in the vicinity of the Jewish Museum. Again it reminded me a bit of Italy–Venice in particular, where I kept feeling like I was gently rocking, as if on a boat. Perhaps I picked up on some energy in the place?

IMG_0643I clearly needed a break, so we decided to head back to Les Moules restaurant, which we’d seen in our walks and was reputed to have the best mussels. Unfortunately, we were instantly pegged as “American” and the service (for us in particular) was terribly slow. The mussels were OK, but nothing to write home about. We did have snails, which is always one of the fun things I like to eat for a special treat, but so far our food today was less than spectacular!

IMG_0646IMG_0650Lastly we visited the Spanish Synagogue, which was quite dark but ornate inside. We also stumbled upon this awesome bronze statue of Franz Kafka, made by Jaroslav Róna. Afterwards we stopped into (yet another) chocolate shop where I picked up the perfect little bag of dark chocolate almonds for a friend. We also picked up a Christmas ornament of a reindeer (or cat, we can’t decide) that is made of delicate wood and pieces of amber, which apparently next to garnet is THE stone to purchase in Prague.

IMG_0657That night we decided that one of the things still on our “to do” list was a concert, and I’d had my mind set on one at St. Salvator’s, particularly because of the baroque organ and the fact that two Bach pieces were on the program. We bought tickets but it was too early to be let in, so we were directed to the Art Cafe, where we purchased two hot chocolates that were the perfect consistency. We sat below a large world map with pins, and it was the first time I admitted I was “from Texas”, sticking a large flagged pushpin in Austin. Time flew though, and quickly enough we had to get back over to the church for the concert.

IMG_0670 IMG_0669The church was unheated, but the pews had “seat warmers”, as the ticket seller instructed us. On top of the pulpit was something that appeared to be a flat screen computer monitor, which we thought was interesting, although my guess it was a speaker. The concert started on time, but it was a bit strange to be facing forward and having all the music coming from the balcony behind us. We also wondered why the tickets to sit at the “front” were more than the ones we bought, considering there was nothing to see in terms of the musicians, and an hour is a really long time to stare at (an even beautiful) altar. At one point Danil said something funny, and feeling a bit punchy I got into a laughing fit, which is a dire thing when one has to be quiet, and even worse when it’s in an echo-y place with lots of other people being serious. When he broke into the chicken dance I all but lost it. The concert ran 5 minutes over (from starting 5 minutes late), but the butt warmers were on a timer, and it was noticeable when they shut off.

IMG_0690IMG_0678Post concert we knew we should have dinner but were still full from the hot chocolate, so we wandered around and ended up at Captain Candy, where the workers followed you around with a stern eye, didn’t allow you to bag your own candy, and you couldn’t take photos. Oddly enough as we were leaving a large group of teen- or college-aged kids came in, and that whole way of being went out the window, as there weren’t enough workers to keep up. I took a photo of one of the pigs being roasted, and we found the sister shop of our favorite chocolate museum/store.

IMG_0686IMG_0694When we got hungry we ended up at Staré Časy, which FINALLY gave us a good meal today. Of course it was late, we were hungry, and therefore way too much food was ordered. I could have been fine with the cabbage soup and the bread (fantastic!) but we also got the grilled sausage with mustard and horseradish (fresh, shaved!) to split. What I found interesting while looking for places to have dinner was that even though it was cold (near freezing), many of them had outdoor seating. Some had heat lamps, but most just had blankets thrown over the backs of the chairs.

IMG_0697After that we felt like walking, but took a wrong turn to end up back in Wenceslas Square, which we had intentionally decided NOT to go to that night because we didn’t want to walk that far. Oops. Once we got our bearings we visited some of the little Christmas shops that were sprouting up everywhere, and then called it a night.

Day 8: Chocolate Chocolate, Cafe Cafe, & Pizza Pizza!

This was our last day in Prague, so it was going to be a short day. Our flight would leave at 7 am on Saturday, which meant we had to wake at 3:30 am, which meant early to bed for sure! We also had some places to check off our list, and lots of chocolate souvenirs to buy.

After breakfast, we spent a lot more time in the Choco-Museum to select presents for folks. Once we’d purchased what seemed like a ton, we decided we didn’t want to carry around the heavy bag all day, so Danil ran it back to the hotel room while I ducked into a little shop of crystals and stones, where I purchased some pendants for necklaces or bracelets I have yet to make. More walking, and at this point we started recognizing some of the street performers in Old Town Square and immediate vicinity–especially one in particular, who was dressed and completely painted in gold. He was supposed to be one of those “statues” that stood still, but we never actually managed to see him that way. He was always talking or smoking!

IMG_0712Looking for a break we found a trendy cafe called none other than “Cafe Cafe“. I’m pretty sure it was down the street from a place called “Sushi Sushi”, but we didn’t do that this time. We ordered our (by now) standard hot red wine and hot chocolate, and I poured through some architectural and design mags while Danil read his kindle. We marveled over the fact that I found a toilet-bidet combo that costs $9K. It was kind of nice, having this calm before the storm! The hot red wine here wasn’t too sugary, and I decided that the presence of a sugar container on the table meant that the restaurant would put less in by default, but I can’t promise that’s true. There were also a several great food-related quotes on the menu there, including my favorite, from Kafka:

So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.

IMG_0717IMG_0715After our stop, we walked along the length of a large outdoor mall that had all sorts of trinkets and fruit for holiday purchase. Danil noticed that many of the Astronomical Clock souvenirs lacked the proper dials. We ducked into a chili shop hoping for something interesting, but the red absinthe wasn’t peppered as we expected. We also found the corollary to our sign the other day, which as my friend Michaela pointed out is the start/end of a residential zone, where speeds are reduced.

IMG_0710IMG_0718Back now (intentionally) in Wenceslas Square, we found a large hollowed out Christmas tree, where Danil stepped inside and we started to take photos. Almost immediately a man came up to shoo us out, and we realized he was just a dude trying to get in to take photos with his family. We decided we needed to start being pushy and say NO, like Olga!

IMG_0730IMG_0728For late lunch we made it back to the restaurant I’d seen our first time in the Square, Como. It was very fancy, and had GF options. Courtesy of a coupon I found in our hotel’s handouts we both received a free champagne. The food was nice, and we had a seat facing the window so we could people watch. I had deer, and Danil had pig knee. At the end of the meal we were gifted with a heart-shaped gingerbread cookie with the name of the restaurant painted in creme, and a bright pink flower so that I could become a walking ad on the way back to the hotel (nice idea)!

Since we’re nearing the end of sight seeing, I’ll say one other thing we did while there. Since the terrorist attacks on Paris had happened pretty close to when we left the U.S., upon entering the hotel from a time out we’d always check the large TV that was in the hotel bar near the elevators, and gauge the danger level by what we saw. This day, the news was all about the Pope’s visit to Uganda, so we figured we were safe.

IMG_0723Back to the room to pack most of our stuff, and decide what to do for dinner. (This day is really all about the food, isn’t it??) I was kind of hoping to try one of the raw food places that were close to us–perhaps even doing takeout so we could spend more time getting ourselves ready for the trip home, but because it was so cold, my body just didn’t want to eat raw. (For raw food lovers, my local friend Michaela’s recommendation is Secret of Raw–which from the web site looks fantastic, but we didn’t have transport to get there.) There was a restaurant called “Beer Restaurant” almost across the street from us (which we thought was funny). They had a live band, and that band happened to be playing one of our songs. Still, it didn’t seem to have the vibe we wanted.

IMG_0735We ended up at a place practically next door: Pizza Colosseum. We passed on the bread to have, well, bread in our pizza, which was made gluten free and had chicken, artichokes, and arugula. They were a bit surprised we only ordered one, but we were still pretty full from the late lunch. (The pizzas weren’t “personal” sized either, they were more like a regular small.) They also had interesting photos of models wearing spaghetti wigs on the walls. Since we had a view of the street, people watching was easy. At one point though, Danil spotted the tram driver get out, grab a hidden lever from down inside the street, and (maybe?) change the direction of the track? Of course as we walked back he had to try and figure it out by going to the center of the busy street, in the dark, where it was kind of wet….

Day 9: The Longest Saturday Since…Well, New Zealand

After struggling to get to sleep, Saturday looked like this:

  • 3:30 am SATURDAY — wake and take shower, pack last minute things
  • 5:00 am — grab breakfast boxes from hotel and get car to airport
  • 7:00 am — no line at passport control, wait for gate-specific security to open doors, get on flight to Heathrow
  • 9:00 am — reverse the maze we did on our arrival (transfer between Terminals 3 and 5), which somehow seemed easier this time. Requires taking a bus, escalators, walking, another bus, walking to more security. Danil’s iPad continues its record of being flagged (even outside the bag) each time, and as it’s sent down the “special” aisle with a boat-load of other things ahead of it, I decide to go to “Giraffe to Go” and see if I can’t get a real breakfast. Which I do! Two eggs with tomato and avocado and onion! Latte! Danil nearly walks past me while looking for his girlfriend. LOL. Another tram and more walking to the gate.
  • 10:00 am — some breathing room! I’d highly recommend making a transfer time in Heathrow be about 2 hours. 90 minutes may technically seem fine, but with all the connection one has to make, it’s a heck of a lot better to have a few extra moments IMHO.
  • 11:15 am SATURDAY — board plane to Austin.
  • Fly fly and fly some more. I watched two movies on the way back: Woman in Gold and Love & Mercy (just for Cusack). I need to get the former again to be able to read some of the subtitles that were too tiny on the plane monitor. I actually did learn a few things I didn’t know on the latter, and recognized Paul Dano from one of my favorite movies, Ruby Sparks. I also finished The Yoga of Breath which inspired a few of my yoga classes when I returned.
  • IMG_07404:30 pm SATURDAY — customs was easy, and then we’re directed to a kiosk that asks us practically the same questions that are on the blue card we get and fill out on the plane. We re-answer the questions on the kiosk and then to our horror, two things happen: 1) Danil’s name is misspelled. When prompted about whether the name is correct, we say “no”, but then there’s nothing else we can do about it. We say “yes”. We’re tired. Is this going to cause a problem? 2) The kiosk takes PHOTOS of you as you’ve arrived. Yup, you think your passport photo is bad? SURPRISE!
  • 5:30 pm — we’re home.
  • 7:00 pm — I’m in bed, asleep. Trip officially over! (Note that it’s now 2 am in Prague on Sunday.)

If you haven’t had enough yet, you can view the full photo album.