Jake, Joan, Al and I arrived in Prague after an eight hour train journey from Krakow. Al and Joan relaxed with some movies, while Jake and I took advantage of the downtime to edit some photos and write. For lunch, we grabbed some snacks from the dining car, as well as a few Gambrinus beers - hey, they said it was happy hour! Might as well start the Czech beer experience while we're on the way there! When we stepped off the train, the first thing we noticed was the heat - it was just plain HOT. It'd been so long since I'd been in 90* heat that I had almost forgotten what it felt like. And I know I'm alone when I say this - it felt wonderful!
We checked in to our apartment at 6:15, right on schedule. The man who checked us in to our new home didn't speak more than three words of English (I think he was the husband of the woman I booked with on Airbnb), but was able to communicate with us through hand gestures well enough. Yes, we'll be sure to lock the door when we go to sleep. Yes, there are two sets of keys. Yes, we have everything we need, thank you! Before he left, he pointed at a piece of paper. "Weefee", he said. Ah, yes, the WiFi. He was a charming little man.
Based on our experience with the apartment in Krakow, and some recent reviews of the Prague apartment on Airbnb stating the "fully equipped kitchen" doesn't have a stove, we had very low expectations. Fortunately, the place had everything we needed and was actually quite perfect for our stay! First off, it was huge! It was the biggest we had stayed in so far - two full bedrooms, a TV room with a pull out sofa, a separate sitting room, 1.5 baths, and the kitchen. I was thrilled to have so much space for us all to spread out! Second, while it was true, there was no stove or oven, the kitchen was equipped with a hot plate and another large electric skillet, plenty of pots and pans, and an electric tea kettle - everything we would need to cook breakfast and simple dinners. Third, the location was excellent - just 10 minutes to the center of the Old Town! And bonus, the décor was kind of hilarious; dried flowers spray painted gold, metallic 80's prints covered the sofas, giant paintings of Buddha statues…the apartment had a lot of character and I loved it.
As soon as we were settled in our new spot we set out for dinner. Thankfully we didn't have to travel far - across the street we found U Balbino, a traditional Czech spot that, according to Trip Advisor, was a hit with the locals. It was a hit with us, as well! Our great server, Marek, took excellent care of us, providing us with suggestions of beer (their home wheat brew was really good) and food (the pork knuckle could feed an army!). Right after he took our orders, he had one more suggestion, "You should try slivovitz. It is traditional Czech liquor made from plums. It is like aperitif. You will like it. Would you like to try it?" Hey, when in Rome…I mean Prague! "Yes please!" Moments later, Marek returned with four shot glasses of clear liquid. I took one sniff and was instantly transported back to Budapest; it smelled just like Palinka! And it was strong! He gave us the Czech word for "cheers", "na zdravi", and left us to enjoy our aperitifs. We each took a sip and WHOA! This stuff is like fire water! "I think I just grew a few hairs on my chest!" I declared to my family. I'm pretty sure it could take paint of the walls. We each finished our shots just in time for dinner to arrive, roasted duck with two kinds of Czech dumplings for me, a giant pork knuckle with fresh ground horseradish for Al, schnitzel for Jake, and gnocchi for Joan. We feasted until we were about ready to burst.
I would say that, after a meal like that, we all slept like babies. Unfortunately, the street noise woke everyone up ever few hours throughout the night. I think every garbage truck in Prague drove down our street, idled in front of the apartment, and found every empty bottle to break in the truck. The sounds of cars, trucks, and breaking glass was accompanied by loud, intoxicated singing and yelling. I guess you have to sacrifice something to stay in a big busy city so close to the center of town. Good thing I'm a heavy sleeper and got used to it quickly! By night two I was sleeping soundly.
We got to know the city on our first full day with several hours of walking tours. The four of us wandered through town, across Charles Bridge, and through Mala Strana up to the castle, picking up bagel sandwiches at Bohemia Bagel on our way. The day was a hot one - over 90. We took in the impressive exterior of the St. Vitus Cathedral, and its less than impressive interior, and climbed the 287 stairs to the top of the clock tower where we surveyed they City of 100 Spires and oohed and awed at all of the red roofs. Earlier that morning I had found a walking tour online that I could print out - it wasn't very good, but we did it anyway. A highlight from that tour was learning about the signs above the doors of old buildings - a lobster, a swan, a lion. These symbols use to be used as addresses before street numbers were invented. For example, the house with the sign of three fiddles is where three families who all made fiddles lived. Along our walk we also stumbled across the gardens of the Wallenstein Palace where we made friends with two gorgeous peacocks, one the standard blue, and one all white from head to tail feathers.
After we completed our hot tour of Mala Strana, the four of us whipped out our headphones to start our Berlin Walk on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app. Good ol' Rick showed us all of the main sights of the Old Town - Charles Bridge and where Saint John of Nepomuk was thrown over to his death because he refused to reveal secrets about the queen that only he was privy to from confession, the Astronomical Clock and it's hourly show of saints that dance through the windows, the incredibly busy Nerudova Street, St. Wenceslas Square (where we all just kept singing "Good King Wenceslas looked down on the Feast of Stephen…), and more. We realized quickly that Prague is BUSY - it might be the most busy, and the most touristy city we've visited so far, perhaps second only to Rome. And, there is graffiti everywhere. The city is big and loud and dirty. But we liked it! That night the four of us cooked dinner in and spent time playing cards, a favorite pastime of the Wysocki clan, and relaxed after our long day of exploring under the hot sun.
We were up early the next morning to catch a train to Kutna Hora, a small town about an hour outside of Prague and home to the very strange Sedlec Ossuary and Bone Church. I had read about this church, which is decorated with the bones of 40,000 people, complete with a chandelier made from every bone in the human body, and thought it was too weird to miss. The sun was blisteringly hot that day, so after our 20 minute walk from the train station to the church, we were ready to find some shade. The church was just what we expected - weird. It was much smaller than I anticipated, and seemed kind of, well, fake, as if the bones had all been put there with the intent that it would be a tourist attraction. It just didn’t seem authentic. We snapped a couple of shots and headed back out into the heat, dreading the 40 minute walk into town that lay ahead.
As we got closer and closer to the main square of tiny Kutna Hora, we realized what a ghost town it was - most of the stores were closed, very few people were out and about, there were very few cars on the road. This was all quite strange for a Friday. We were happy to see a little bit more excitement by the time we got to the main square; a couple of busy restaurants full of tourist bus groups of old people. All of a sudden we heard loud music, the bass turned way up, and someone talking into a microphone. We looked down the street and noticed some kind of festival. "Maybe that’s where everyone is," I said. And we set off the check it out.
Well this place just continued to get weirder- it wasn't a festival. It was a Strong Man competition! Giant men, and I mean HUGE, were stretching, warming up their arms, and being rubbed down with icy hot by their girlfriends. The scene was too ridiculous to walk away from. These guys had arms bigger than 2x4s, barely existent necks, and lots of back acne - talk about steroid use! We posted up and watched for a while as they were introduced one by one, and through the first contest - flipping over a giant caterpillar tire four times up the road and four times back in the fastest time possible. It was still a fairly small crowd watching the competition, but it was the most excitement we'd seen in the town. Jake and I loved taking pictures and capturing this super strange event. We all grabbed some lunch before taking the train back to Prague.
We had another traditional Czech meal for dinner closer to the main square and people watched from our window seats. The night was still so hot, we were all sweating as we ate our potato pancakes, pork medallions, and dumplings. To cool off, we decided to grab some ice cream. I had read the reviews of a little shop called Angelato on Trip Advisor, hailing it as the 3rd best ice cream in the city (the first two being in restaurants that we didn't want to go to). I'll admit it - this stuff was REAL GOOD. I'm not usually a pistachio flavor kind of gal, but the decadent, roasted creaminess of the perfectly pale green pistachio gelato was just perfect. We wandered on home to play cards with my in-laws, a favorite Wysocki pastime, before saying goodnight.
In the morning we said goodbye to Al and Joan - it was time for them to head back to Gainesville. We had a really wonderful time exploring Krakow and Prague with them, and are so grateful for all that they did with us and for us during their visit. It's so great to be able to share this trip, these experiences, with friends and family!
Jake and I took advantage of the down time that day to relax and edit photos, and wait for our next visitors to arrive - Tom and Beth! Years ago, these two made a pact that they would use their passports at least once every year. For their international excursion this year, and also to celebrate Beth's 30th birthday, they decided to meet up with us for a week! Despite it being Beth's birthday, their visit was a real gift for me - I miss them so much and I was SO eager to see them and explore with them! And we feel truly honored that they came all this way to see us. Do we have some amazing friends and family or what? So, on July 4, they kissed their adorable 20 month old, handed her over to her grandmas, and boarded a plane. By 8pm on July 5th they were walking down our street, rollie bags trailing behind them on the cobblestones.
I threw my arms around Beth when they arrived at the door and quickly showed them around the apartment. Beth handed me a bunch of stuff I asked her to bring (like more deodorant - I don't like the spray stuff they have over here), and she handed me two more little presents. One, a small white box tied up with a purple bow from Lois Hess, Abby's mom. In the box was a beautiful pair of dangly glass bead earrings that she made - the woman is incredibly talented and makes the glass beads herself! Remember when my bag was stolen in Rome? Well in that bag was all of my jewelry, including some beautiful blue glass bead earrings that Lois had made me before. I was devastated when I lost them to the thief. Lois surprised me with brand new ones, even more beautiful than the first pair. Thank you Lois! The second little present was another piece of jewelry - Beth's own silver four leaf clover necklace. My gold clover necklace was also in the stolen bag, and Beth new how much I loved that necklace. In fact, it's her necklace that I was copying when I bought it - I loved hers so much that I just had to have one of my own. Beth handed me her necklace and told me that she wanted me to have it, to replace mine that was taken, and to bring us luck on the rest of the trip. "I can't have you going around on this trip without any luck!" Her simple act of sheer selflessness and kindness made me well up with tears. I hugged her and said thank you quickly so she wouldn't see me get all misty eyed. I really do have the best friends. Once everyone was all settled, we set out to dinner - back to U Balbinu to give Tom and Beth a good introduction to delicious Czech cuisine.
Jake and I retraced many of our steps that next day wandering around Mala Strana and the castle with the Schaals, pointing out the church, and the old signs above the doors of the old buildings. Because we loved it the first time, we took them to Bohemia Bagel for lunch before continuing our tour of the day. Tom and Beth like to take in culture by wandering the old streets, popping into the occasional museum, and tasting the local delicacies, but they also like to do what we do - spend time in a pub or beer garden and learn about the area through a cold liter of beer! So it was off to the Letna Beer Garden we went, an outdoor spot with picnic tables shaded by chestnut trees on a hill that overlooks the city. We sipped our cold beers (which were delightful since it was SO HOT outside), and took in the surroundings. Just as we were starting to think "Maybe we should come back here at night, it's so cute!" we started to see spiders. Everywhere. They seemed to be ballooning from the sky. They would appear on the table, on the benches, on my arm, in Tom's hair…it was time to go, and no we were NOT coming back later. I didn't want the afternoon to turn into a scene from Arachnophobia, so we finished our beers and headed home to relax before our beer tasting that evening.
At 6pm we headed to the number one activity on Trip Advisor, The Grand Bohemian Beer Tasting! For about $28 per person, we learned all about the Czech Republic's different kinds of beer and how they're different from others. I've learned a bit about wine (for my Sommelier Level 1 exam), but had not really learned much about beer except for wandering through the Guinness Storehouse and drinking IPA at Lagunitas in Petaluma. I loved learning about different roasts of grain will change the flavor of the beer, the difference between ales and lagers, and how water determines the kind of beer one can successfully brew. Based on the chemical makeup of the water, certain brews will be better - that's by stout from Ireland tastes so good, but Stout from Mexico just wouldn't work out. With our tastings, of which there were nine, we also got a little meat and cheese plate full of traditional Czech salumi and salty cheese. In the middle of the tasting, our host took us downstairs to see the remnants of old Prague - the city, like Krakow, was originally about 10 meters lower than the modern street level Over time, the original streets were filled in with dirt and rubble, raising the street level to where it is today. The basement cellar of the palace where we were tasting is the original, and you can see where the old fireplace used to stand in the corner, and the old windows that looked out onto the original cobblestone streets. It was cool and dank down there, and all I could think of was how perfect it would be to store wine.
By 8pm we were giddy, full of new knowledge and delicious beer. We each bought a bottle of our favorites (the wheat beer for me and Jake, of course), and headed out into the night with our roadies. In Prague, there's no such thing as an open container law, so we could walk around drinking freely, like Vegas! It's so liberating! We set out for dinner back in Mala Strana at U Mlynare. Trip Advisor reviews said this place was supposed to be a great value, have good food, and have a cute interior. All of this was correct, and we really would have enjoyed it a whole lot more if it weren't so absurdly hot inside. While the night had cooled off a bit, the restaurant was a furnace. Still, we had a wonderful time enjoying sausages and molesting a weird statue/doll of a chef seated directly behind us. Perhaps the heat made us delirious, because we thought we were hilarious. We strolled home around midnight, pausing on the Charles Bridge to capture some night shots, and singing "Doe a Deer" from The Sound of Music (and apparently teaching Tom the words to the song.)
The next morning came quickly since Beth, Tom, and I headed out early to catch a yoga class. Beth was yearning to get a good stretch after the long flight and googled yoga studios in Prague. She came across a studio that advertised an outdoor "Yoga and Coffee Morning" on Wednesdays. I told her I'd happily take an adventure to a yoga class somewhere in the outskirts of the city. It had been quite some time since I'd taken a workout class of any kind, and I've only done yoga a few times (definitely less than 20), so I knew it was going to be an interesting morning! Yoga isn't quite Jake's thing, so I kissed him goodbye and headed out with the Schaals to Prague 3 to find "Camp Prague". The tram ride took about 20 minutes and took us through graffiti-riddled parts of town (but who am I kidding? All of Prague is graffiti-riddled), to a neighborhood full of communist architecture. Let's just say it wasn't nearly as pretty as Prague 1. We wandered off the main road and down a pedestrian path lined with a long, narrow sandbox and playground. On the other side of the path we noticed a camp ground scattered with small tents, RVs, a giant tee-pee, and an outdoor coffee shop. Sure enough, there above the locked blue gate was a sign, "Camp Prague". Tom and I looked at Beth, our eyes saying, "What the hell did you bring us to?" Beth responded verbally, "Yup, I think this is a hippie compound." The three of us were giggling about our surroundings and preparing ourselves for what we were about to experience when a woman approached the gate. "Dobry den," she said quietly, calmly. It was still early and people were sleeping. She was also the yoga instructor and I think her quietness was just part of her zen personality. "Um, hi! We're here for the yoga class and coffee?" She looked as us apprehensively. "Yes, good. Do you speak Czech?" "No, we don't." "Do you have yoga mats?" "No, we don't." She eyed us, the unprepared and eager yoga students that we were, and graciously welcomed us inside, "we'll figure something out. Please come." As we wandered into the property we saw a stage for live music, a kids playground, and many sleepy campers who had just woken up. In a few minutes, Tatiana was back with mats for us, and explained that she was going to teach the class in English since there were so many international travelers in attendance - it seems we weren't the only ones who didn't speak Czech! As she began the class, we all got comfortable under the giant trees and welcomed the cool breeze, thankful that the temperature had dropped from 90 to about 65 from the day before. "Thank you everyone for getting up so early to come and share your morning with me, this is Morning Bliss." Did she say "early"? Even I would sleep in every day until noon and I can say that an 8:30am start of a yoga class is not early. I couldn’t help but wonder what everyone does for a living where 8:30 is early. Then I reminded myself that it was a Wednesday at 8:30 and these people were with me, at a hippie yoga compound doing yoga. This probably IS what they do.
The hour long class was actually quite wonderful. It felt great to get some good stretching in, and workout some muscles that I haven't communicated with in a long time. Awake and refreshed after the class, the three of us decided to see what the coffee portion of the morning was all about. The coffee shop was more like a wooden patio with ledge seating decorated with big fluffy cushions and hanging lanterns, small metal tables and big comfy chairs, and signs that say things like "Stress Free Zone" and "Relax". It was like the store Anthropologie made met up with some Berkeley people and made a coffee hangout spot. We grabbed a table in the middle and took in the peaceful surroundings. I loved my latte, and Tom and Beth happily sipped their drips. "May I offer you our breakfast? It is a plate of a few slices of our fresh baked bread, cucumber, basil, and olive oil." Of course it is. "And in 15 minutes we will also have fresh croissants with nutella or jam." We'll try it all, please! Moments later we had a pretty little place of dense, seeded bread and bright green accoutrement, and it was surprisingly delicious. These yogis might be on to something! We devoured the light and fresh plate of goodies just before the hot croissants appeared. So much for being a little bit healthy - extra nutella and jam, please! This little adventure had a hilarious start, but Tom, Beth and I ended up having a lovely time in our little commune. We took the tram back home feeling relaxed.
That afternoon we decided to cook a late lunch/early dinner (which proved more difficult than expected - it took over an hour to boil a pot of water for pasta on the hot plate) and then strolled around town. We toured a small island park as the sunlight turned golden and watched dozens of pedal boats full of happy tourists float around the Vltava River. It truly felt like a vacation day, so we indulged in afternoon beers on a permanently docked boat on the island. This boat bar, complete with a grill and a DJ, was a great spot for people watching. We continued our evening stroll determined to find some sweet treats - Jake and I had noticed stands all over the places selling chimney cakes, aka kurtos kolacs from Budapest, and we were eager to introduce them to Tom and Beth. We found a stand with a line around it, a good sign. As we approached, the chimney cake cook had just taken several hot ones off the grill and rolled them in cinnamon and sugar. They were perfect. So warm, the perfect thickness so that the outside was a little crispy and the inside was doughy and soft. These might make my Top 10 Sweet Treats. YUM! Next on the list - more ice cream! Angelato was too good to not share it with the Schaals, so the four of us headed around the corner and indulged in a few scoops of creamy goodness before heading back home for the night.
My favorite experience in Prague was our dinner at a place Tom found called Art & Food in Mala Strana. This restaurant was ranked as one of the best, according to Trip Advisor, and is decorated with paintings from local artists (including our server's father). Little did we know on our walk over there that this small place would turn into one of my favorite meal experiences of the trip so far. The four of us were particularly excited about a three course wine pairing option! When we arrived, the dining room was alive with activity - every table was full, a few servers were running around, and the piano man overlooked the dining room while playing great dinner tunes from Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble. We already loved the vibe. We said hello to Vlatimil at the door and asked for a table for four. He sorrowfully explained that they were full as every table was occupied. "That's ok, we'll wait. Can we put our name down?" I realized after we asked that they probably don’t use this practice of waiting for a table here like we do in the US. In Europe, dining out is the main event, and the table is yours for as long as you want it. Servers are not trying to turn tables to seat as many guests as possible. So Vlatimil looked at us despairingly, wanting desperately to accommodate us and understanding that we weren't going anywhere. "I have the downstairs, it is usually for private dining for groups, but you can sit there. But you will not be able to order food for about 30 minutes because the dining room is full and the kitchen is very busy." Sounds good to us! I liked how up front he was - he perfectly set our expectations and still made us feel welcome. We followed him down the spiral staircase beneath the piano balcony to the private dining space. Every bit of available wall space was covered with colorful (albeit strange) artwork, and dozens more paintings lay stacked on the floor in the corner. He led us to a table in the corner with big, green, velvety chairs. They were remarkably comfy! While Vlatimil had told us that we could not eat for a while, he wasted no time in bringing us drinks. We knew that their specialty was wine, and I wasn't going to let that expertise pass me by. "What do you recommend to start with?" I asked. Vlatimil, almost giddy, started talking about a straw wine (made from raisins rather than fresh grapes) produced by a local winery exclusively for the restaurant. He described it as sweet with red fruits, a typical Czech wine that is very popular with appetizers. "I will bring it, you can try it, and tell me if you like it." I love this man already. He quickly returned with a small, chilled, label-less bottle and poured the rose colored wine in my glass. It was sweet, but not cloying, thick but not syrupy, and smelled and tasted of strawberries and red currants. It was definitely sweeter than we ever drink, and instantly made me think of or Hungarian friends, and I loved it. He pulled up another small table next to me, preparing a wine station for our meal. We were off to a great start.
As we compared the three and five course wine pairing meal options with the rest of the daily offerings, the four of us realized that we wanted to try just about everything on the menu. We bailed on the three course pairing in favor of ordering several different items. For appetizers, we shared beet carpaccio with goat cheese, beef carpaccio topped with arugula, lemon, and parmesan, a deliciously stinky cheese plate, and a spread of 70% chicken pate + 30% fois gras, all paired with one of the most interesting white wines I've ever had - Hibernal Pozdni Sber by BiZa, bone dry, herbal, and so minerally that my tongue tingled. And with all of this Vlatimil brought us a basket of the best, dense foccacia I've ever had. We were already full by the time our main courses arrived - fish patty, pork meatloaf on greens, brazilian beef on a sizzling cast iron plate, and pork medallions smothered in gravy with potato dumplings, all paired with the most tannic local cab I've ever had, Vyber Z Hroznu also by BiZA. Czech wines sure are interesting! We each started with an entrée, took a few bites, and passed them counter clockwise, relishing in each different flavor. In between our courses we sipped our wine and analyzed the paintings around us - perhaps it was the wine, but most of them seemed to have a strange sexual nature to them. While the colors were quite young and playful, we realized that these are not paintings for children! Vlatimil returned and asked us if we would like to have anything for dessert. We were all so full and so content with our lavish meal that we declined, a rarity for us! He wouldn't let us go without one more special item - vodka! Those Central Europeans sure do love their flavored vodkas! Berry flavor for the ladies, and apple for the gentlemen. What a fun end to our four our dining event! During dinner, Tom had asked if Jake and I ever have moments where we sit back and think "Oh man I can't believe we're doing this. This is awesome." This meal was one of those magical moments for us that make us think how lucky we are to be here, to be traveling and experiencing the word like this, and to be sharing the experience with our best friends. Yes, this was certainly one of those moments. I grasped my four leaf clover necklace around my neck, thankful for the whole experience. Oh, and the whole dinner was less than $150!
We had hoped to get one more day trip in before leaving the country, but all of the morning buses heading to the one place we really wanted to go, Cesky Krumlov (3 hours away), were sold out. So we added the town to our list of "To Do's" for our next European tour someday and relaxed instead. Tom and Beth caught a classical music show and toured a museum, while Jake and I worked on details for our upcoming Southeast Asian tour. We needed one more good Czech beer experience before leaving, though, so we grabbed dinner at a favorite among locals called Bredovsky Dvur, one of the few places that serves unfiltered Pilsner Urquell straight from the tanks. Much like my Guinness experience, Pilsner Urquell was never really a beer I enjoyed, but this stuff, some of the most fresh brew you could get in the country, was delicious! For dinner, we started with a sampler plate of perfectly crispy duck, pork, and dumplings. As we ate we noticed a nearby table's ginormous burgers and we couldn't pass them up. We ordered two burgers to share. These things were roughly about the size of my head and perfectly cooked, as in they were perfectly seared on the outside and bright red and luke warm on the inside. Typically, a burger this rare would scare me, but the four of us enjoyed the velvety texture and the perfectly spiced beef topped with bacon and mayonnaise. Thankfully, no one had any tummy trouble later! After dinner we had one final stop to make, The Prague Beer Museuem, which is really a pub and not a museum. With 30 taps, there's something for everyone. In the spirit of education, we got samplers of 12 beers, putting our knew knowledge of lagers and ales to the test (ok not really), and enjoying the subtle differences of each one. My favorites were the cistrusy floral wheat beers, and my least favorites were the IPAs.
We walked home through the main square, taking in the sights and sounds of Prague's nightlife one final time before hitting the hay. Prague is a really neat city. Sure, it's dirty and covered in graffiti, but the red roofed buildings are beautiful, the beer is good, and the people are nice. I'm glad we chose this place to slow down a bit in, and really be able to relax and take it all in at our own pace. And I'm thrilled that we got to experience it with family and friends.