JEWELS OF BOHEMIA SEPTEMBER 2016 Part 1
The day has arrived for Paul, me and our good friend Jennifer to drive to Kansas City and board the first of three planes that will deliver us to Prague, Czech Republic. Can it really have been a year since the three of us chose to book the OAT tour called Jewels of Bohemia?
Our trip is off on a good note since all of us received pre-check tickets when we printed them at home yesterday. This means we don’t have to practically disrobe nor remove our liquids from our bags. Boy does that speed things up. Our flights to Minneapolis, then to Amsterdam, and finally Prague are on time and smooth, actually we arrive early in Prague. The early arrival proves to be the first hiccup in our journey, (other than the fact that none of us slept on the planes much), because there is no placard with our names emblazoned on it in the maze of drivers waiting to deliver plane passengers to their hotels.
The three of us continue to scrutinize drivers as they walk into the arrivals area but none of them are holding up a Miller/Gehrt sign. Jennifer spots a young woman who is holding up a Grand Circle placard which is affiliated with OAT travel. We approach her and tell her we are traveling with OAT but there is no one to meet us yet. The friendly woman whose name is Adella (sp?) promises to call on our behalf if no one shows up in the next few minutes. Adella knows that Milan is our guide for this Central Europe tour and adds that she will be the local guide for our Prague tour tomorrow. Terrific, sometimes things just work out.
When no one has come to claim us after ten minutes, Adella calls Milan, who calls the driver and then Milan calls Adella to say our transport man will be with us shortly. The miracle of cell phones! Within ten minutes a stocky, tattooed man rushes over to us and breathlessly apologizes in broken English for the fact that we had to wait for him. We assure the fellow that it is no big deal and we follow him out to his van. Our luggage is loaded into the van, (which I am proud to say consists of only carry on luggage for all of us), and we continue on the final leg of our journey to Hotel Esplanade.
As we wind our way through a long and circuitous path to our Hotel, I must say my initial impression of Prague is not too favorable. Everywhere I look there is graffiti scrawled on doors, retaining walls, building walls and any other flat surface that the vandals can find to mark their territory. Ugh.
We arrive at Hotel Esplanade which is rather impressive at least from the outside. We check in and once we have settled into our very nice rooms, we Kansans ask the polite receptionist if there is an authentic Czech restaurant nearby. The woman tells us to turn right as we walk out the door, walk to the corner and turn right again. She informs us that there are two restaurants within a couple of blocks. Great, let’s go!
We walk into the first restaurant we come too and note that there are only locals eating here. This is exactly what we were looking for. The small cafe has long tables which seat 6 or 8 people and most of them are full. There is a table where one man is dining alone. We get his attention and indicate we would like to sit at the table too. He nods his head at us and goes back to eating his lunch. Since the menu is in Czech I just point to what the man at our table is eating as it appears to be stroganoff and looks delicious. Jennifer opts for this dish too. Paul points to what he thinks means goulash on the menu and says goulash and the waiter confirms that he is correct. We also order our first beer of many on this trip.
The food turns out to be delicious and cheap; if I remember right our meals were about four bucks apiece including the beer. The goulash Paul is served is nothing like the macaroni, onion, hamburger, tomato sauce mixture that I used to make. This genuine goulash consists of chunks of tender beef smothered in a tasty brown sauce accompanied by four slices of dense dumplings. I realize half-way through the meal that this cafe called Ferdinanda was a recommended restaurant on a website I found while searching for Prague restaurants frequented by locals. Talk about getting lucky.
After finishing our tasty lunch we wander around a bit and end up on a bustling boulevard that is lined with restaurants and shops. There are throngs of people here, both tourists and locals, quite a contrast to the street where we ate lunch. A huge statue of a man on a horse looks out over the area from the upper part of the wide street. We look around a bit but our long and sleepless flight is catching up with us. We meander back to the hotel, stopping at a small shop near our hotel to buy bottled water. Paul and I take a nap once we are back in our comfortable room.
The group is meeting in the lobby at six p.m. and Paul and I arrive a few minutes early. Everyone else is already there except one other member. Wow, we aren’t used to being the last ones to show up. Once we all are assembled our very tall guide, Milan, introduces himself to those of us who weren’t on the pre-trip to Berlin. Milan then asks us to go around and give our names and say where we are from. When Jennifer, Paul and I have finished giving our spiel, one woman pipes up and asks if Jennifer is our daughter! Well, one member of this Kansas trio is feeling quite good after that question:).
Milan leads us out into the Prague night; it is already getting dark at six p.m., and talks about a few things along the way. He points out the Opera house that is very near the hotel and the Natural Museum which is undergoing renovation. We find out the busy area we were on this afternoon is called Wenceslas square and that the man on the horse is the patron saint of Prague, St. Wenceslas. This part of Prague is called New Town, never mind that it was laid out in the 14th century by whoever was King then, as a horse market!
Milan leads us away from the noisy, lit up square and takes us to a restaurant several blocks away. This is our welcome supper meant to give us a chance to visit and get to know members of our group. Oh yes, there are 14 people in this group, of those 14 there are only 3 men! Everyone but we three and one other woman, have traveled with OAT multiple times, anywhere from three to seven trips with OAT if memory serves me right. That is a good testament to OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel). I don’t recall what we had to eat that night but remember that the food was very good. Unfortunately the place was so noisy that it was next to impossible to visit with those sitting around you. Oh well we have two weeks to get to know each other. We return to the hotel around nine; well actually I think the three energetic sisters from California go off to explore Wenceslas Square. We Kansans are out of energy and ready to hit the sack so return to the hotel.
There is no rush to get up this morning as our tour doesn’t start until nine o’clock. We enjoy the breakfast buffet which has a wide variety of food from cereal, fruits, breads, eggs, cheese, bacon, and so on. I discover that the croissants are superb as is the yogurt which almost tastes homemade. If the meals so far are an indication of what is to come the old waist line will be expanding if we are not careful.
Ach, we are one of the last to appear in the lobby even though it is not quite nine o’clock. It looks like we will have to up our game to keep up with this group. Our bus and driver are waiting for us as we exit our hotel. Adella is also here and we all load on the bus where Waessik, (I think it is pronounced Veesik, hope so as that is what I called him), drives us to Prague Castle. You can’t miss Prague Castle as it dominates the landscape above the Vltava River. Before we disembark Adella warns us to keep our valuables close as there are pickpockets around. Actually, Milan has recommended that we leave most of our valuables in our room safes including our passports! Leaving my passport behind was very hard to do but he convinced us that just carrying a copy of our passports in Europe is fine.
We approach the castle from a side entrance and since we are a bit early, Adella takes the opportunity to give us some information about the castle. I will admit right now that I don’t remember much of it:). I do know Prague Castle is a Unesco World Heritage site and that this high point was chosen for building a castle back in the 9th or 10th century. The president of Czech Republic lives here today and building have been added through the century’s which has made Prague Castle the world’s largest castle complex that is still in use. Our group dutifully follows Adella in to the castle grounds. Our group enters a courtyard where we are overshadowed by a towering cathedral called St. Vitus. I do recall that it took centuries to finish this impressive building. The cathedral was started in the 14th century and finished in the 20th century (o.k. I had to look those dates up).
There is a large group of monks, some staring in awe at the cathedral, which helps me imagine that we are back a few centuries ourselves. We are not taking a tour of St. Vitus but we are allowed to enter the nave and we gawk at vaulted ceilings and gorgeous stained glass windows. Of course there are lots of other lookers so getting jostled is to be expected while taking a photo without being photo bombed proves to be tough.
Upon leaving the interior of St. Vitus we scrutinize the exterior more carefully. The rain spouts are gargoyles and I find them very grotesque as they look like they are throwing up. The Cathedral spires are so tall I find I can’t get the whole face of the building in a photo. Adella leads us around to the side where we can kind of see the various building stages of the cathedral. There is also a cool statue of St. George fighting a dragon, along with other beautiful buildings.
Adella leads us out of this courtyard and into another area that has the appearance of a small town. There are two enormous sculptures depicting men in mortal combat flanking the gate we walk through. Across the way two real men catch my attention because they are suspended by cables from the roof top of a grandiose building. The two fellows are busy painting and even though they have a small seat to sit on it looks like an extremely uncomfortable position to have to work from.
We walk across the street from the Castle to a restaurant, settle into the outside seating which are shaded by umbrellas and enjoy warm apple strudel. The view from our seats is stunning as we look over red-tiled roofs of the houses below. Milan points out a small white building in the distance and informs us that it sits on the grounds of the American embassy.
When we have finished our strudel, Adella tells us that it is time for the changing of the guards in front of the Castle gates and we walk back across the street where we will be close to the action. Our group along with many others watches as the blue clad guards trade places with those that have been standing for an hour in their small striped shelters without moving. How do the men do that? Can you imagine the discipline it would take to not scratch your nose if it itches?? Once the men have swapped places and the guards that were relieved have disappeared, one of the fresh guards turns his back on us to attend to something we can’t see. Adella is astonished and tells us that this is not acceptable and she has never witnessed this behavior before. I would love to know what the heck the young man was doing.
It is time to move on and as we leave the Castle grounds we are astonished at the long line of tourists waiting to enter the inner courtyard. Wow does it pay to come early at these popular places. Adella and Milan take us to Lesser town from Prague Castle and we walk old, narrow cobblestone streets where the houses have wonderful paintings above the doorways. There are more beautiful buildings to be admired as we shoulder our way through other tourist groups. We reach Charles Bridge and are pleasantly surprised that it isn’t packed with tourists. There are musicians playing for tips and artists displaying their wares on the historical, statue-studded bridge. The most famous statue, St. John, has two places where the bronze gleams from tourists who rub the statue for good luck. Our group is no exception and I think most of us join in the tradition of touching the statue in hopes of good luck.
Once across the Charles Bridge we enter Old Town, (I know, it’s very confusing), and Adella tells us about more of the historical buildings along our path. Adella then takes us to the Astronomical Clock which is 600 years old (I think) and we stand around waiting for the clock to strike on the hour. Once the hour chimes the apostles appear one at a time in the open door and on the outside a skeleton nods and turns an hourglass over. At the very end the golden rooster gives a rather weak cock-a-doodle-doo. I can’t say this was a spectacular show but when you consider how old the clock is you have to admire it.
Adella leaves us after the Clock spectacle and we all thank her for the wonderful morning and for sharing her knowledge of Prague with us. Jennifer and I thank her again for her help at the airport yesterday. Milan takes over now and will walk us to a restaurant for lunch. Along the way, Milan dispenses more history of Prague and the buildings we pass by.
Milan leads us through the front room of the “Restaurace Mlejnice” restaurant where people are allowed to smoke. We continue to the back room which is nonsmoking where a long table has been reserved for us. When the waiter appears to take our drink order I ask for lemonade. The waiter states “mint or lemon”. I look puzzled and tell him I want lemonade. The young man testily repeats “mint or lemon” to which I say lemon since I don’t know what the heck I would want mint for! It seems that lemonade can be flavored here. Anyway I wasn’t the only one stumped by the question from the brusk waiter. The lunch of salad, roast pork and mashed potatoes was delicious but the portions were huge. This is my kind of food!
Next installment. Exploring Prague with our Austrian friend Birgit