Sunday, December 2, 2012

Prague, Czech Republic - Another beautiful city

June 18, 2012
I had a pleasant five-hour train ride to Prague today. I really enjoy traveling by train; it’s so pleasant to just sit back and watch the changing landscape. 

I meet a girl while we are both exchanging euros for Czech crowns, and we spend the rest of the day wandering around together. Prague is beautiful, full of amazing architecture.

June 19, 2012
I’m happy to find another free walking tour in Prague. I like hearing the stories behind what I’m seeing. I learn that the astrological clock tower in one of the many squares was the first of its kind. The officials of Prague invited the inventor to a meeting, but failed to mention that the purpose for meeting was to burn his eyes out in order to prevent him from duplicating the clock tower anywhere. For revenge, the inventor stuck his hand in the gears and broke the clock. It was decades before they could get it working again. 

It was also very interesting to learn more about living here during the communist regime - I think many Americans (myself included) don’t fully comprehend how bad it really was, how controlled and regulated the peoples’ lives were. When the regime left, many children were so excited to drink Coca-Cola, one of the many products prohibited during Communist rule. And wear jeans. And read books.

I have heard a few similar remarks during my journey from other travelers. One college-age girl declines a sweet because she “already had one today.” Another woman attempts to rationalize her indulgence in a street food by claiming that she “burned enough calories with all the walking” to eat a treat. Both times they are worried about weight gain. What about just enjoying the cultural cuisine? So what if you gain a pound because you are enjoying so many new and different flavors and dishes? It’s one thing to make eating choices based on health, moderation, and balance, but I found it kind of sad that these women felt too guilty to just let themselves enjoy the cultural cuisine. It’s not forever; why not just enjoy it freely? Maybe it’s not the best approach, but I’m grateful that I don’t have this hang-up, that when traveling I enjoy food to the fullest. And when I go home, a pound or two heavier, I just eat a lot of salad. ;)

June 20, 2012
Today, the plan is to hike from the small town of Beroun to Karlstejn Castle. Well, I take the train to Beroun, no problem, but I can’t’ find the trail someone told me about, even after asking a shopkeeper and a hotel receptionist. I end up walking along the river on a footpath at first, but then a road. Still, it is pleasant walking along in the hot and sunny weather, with greenery all around me... 

It is a ten kilometer walk to Karlstejn, and then 1.5 kilometers uphill to the castle (castles are ALWAYS on top of hills). Needless to say, I’m pretty beat by the time I arrive. If the walk alone wasn’t worth it, reaching this castle was. It’s one of the nicer castles I’ve seen. 

June 21, 2012
My last day in Europe! Three and a half weeks is the longest I’ve ever been from home, but it went quickly. I think venturing to a new location every few days contributes to that feeling. Always on the move, exploring new places, just doesn’t give time a chance to “slow down.” Today, I take the train to Kutna Hora, a popular day trip. There is an ossuary that’s decorated with human bones dug from their graves, and it’s pretty surreal. The chandelier contains every bone found in a human. In the town, there doesn’t appear to be much of any interest, so it’s a pretty quick trip. Still, I think it’s worth it to check out the ossuary - it’s almost difficult to pull your eyes away, it’s so hard to believe what you’re seeing.

Back in Prague, I see the marionette version of “Don Giovanni.” It is fun to watch, maybe a little corny, and I wish I thought to learn the story beforehand because it’s all music and puppetry - no words. 

I’m excited to go home. I feel lucky because probably not many people love going home as much as they love leaving for vacation - but I do. I miss Nick and my friends and my home. And my bed. :)

A bartender recommended Lucerne when I inquired about a restaurant that served typically Czech food. So, I went there for dinner and enjoyed garlic soup and goulash with bread dumplings. (I also discovered my fondness for hruskovy napoj, pear juice. It’s very refreshing on a hot day after spending all afternoon traipsing around with a large backpack. The brand, Cappy, offers much more interesting fruit juice flavors than the typical American orange or apple.)
Address: Vodickova 36, Praha 1

My first morning, I go to Cafe Louvre for breakfast, a cafe established in 1902 that knew Kafka and Einstein as patrons. I order the Czech breakfast, which turns out to be almost embarrassingly large. Instead of one plate, I get many - a basket full of bread, a plate of ham and cheese, a silver dish containing one hard boiled egg, and a plate with a generous slice of cake. It was good, but just too much - I would have been happy with cappuccino and slice of cake (like the girl sitting next to me, whom I enviously watch while she takes tiny bites of her chocolate cake). 

My envy gets the best of me, and I return on my last morning in Prague for a breakfast of coffee and chocolate cake. It’s delicious. I wish I ate cake for breakfast more often. :)

Address: Narodni 22, Praha 1

There are many street stands selling sausage. I had a klobasa sausage - it was huge and tasty. The mustard, called estragon senf, was really good, and I’d love to figure out the name of this type of mustard in English so I can get some!

Absinthe, an alcohol, is legal and popular here (it's illegal in the USA), but the closest I got to it was having absinthe ice cream, which tasted all right. 

Lokal - My dinner here was delicious. I ate roast pork belly with steamed cabbage and mashed potatoes.
Address: Dlouha 33, Praha 1

Free walking tour -

National Company Czech Republic Puppetry Performances - Shows are twice daily (17.00 and 20.00)
Address: Karlova 12, Prague 1

Day trip to Karlstejn Castle
Address: 267 18 Karlstejn c.p. 172

NOTE: I found it difficult to know how much Czech crowns to get, since I didn’t really know how  much anything cost. I traded 200 euros when I arrived. After four days, I converted my remaining crowns, and I received 50 euros. So, I spent about 150 euros on food, transportation, activities, and souvenirs (minus whatever I lost in conversion fees).

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Vienna, Austria - They love sweets as much as me!

June 14, 2012
I’m so happy to learn that Austrians love their sweets! There are plenty of konditoreis (cake shops) and so many varieties of cake - linzer torte, esterhazy torte, sacher torte - I will have to try them all. :)

While I’m enjoying a sweet on Kartner Strape, the main pedestrian street that leads to Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, two girls passing by catch my eye. I look more closely and realize that it’s the girls I met in Budapest and had dinner with! What are the chances!?! I call out a loud, joyful, American, “HEY!” and then turn and recognize me, too. Like typical girls, we giggle in excitement and laugh at the coincidence of finding each other again. I already have plans to meet up with Maria, my couchsurfer host, this evening, but we make plans to meet tomorrow.

June 15, 2012
Laura, Sophia and I have plans to meet at Schonbrunn Palace, where it’s free to wander among the beautiful gardens. We stroll along the paths and imagine the parties that must have happened amongst the flowers and trailing vines. 

Then, we go to the Prater where there is a famous giant ferris wheel, but it’s nine euros to ride, and we think that’s too expensive. That’s turning out to be the theme of Vienna - expensive. It’s too much money to go inside the castle, or take a walking tour, or order a cappuccino. Even the bathrooms cost money. Well, to be fair, I guess it’s not considered too expensive for many - they pay. I guess the possible experience isn’t justifying the price for us budget travelers (and I prefer the term “thrifty” rather than “cheap,” thank you very much). 

In the evening, we discover the ballet performance is projected on a screen outside the opera house, and we sit (for free!) to enjoy the dance. 

June 16, 2012
Maria and I are up and out the door early this morning. Today is the opera, the premiere of Don Carlo. We want to be in the first row of the standing section, so we need to be at the beginning of the line. We are the third and fourth person - yay! We alternate sitting on the sidewalk and chatting with others in line with venturing out for food and drink. Hours pass this way, and the line grows steadily longer. 

Eventually the doors open, but this only means that the line moves inside, so now we sit on the floor versus the sidewalk (some people have brought those tiny folding chairs - I’m a little envious). Finally, the ticket counter opens, and we purchase our tickets - only four euros each! Then we wait in another line to enter the theater. When the doors open, it’s a restrained mad dash to keep ahead of the crowd so they don’t pass us and reach our coveted spots first. We get the first row! By this time, it isn’t long before the opera begins, so there’s no time for dinner. Instead, we grab a quick pastry snack at the nearby bakery and return to our spots.

The opera was incredible. Their voices are beautiful and passionate. It was simply amazing to experience the capacity of the human voice. I was even able to follow the incredibly convoluted story because each seat has a small digital translation in German or English. I especially enjoyed the line sung by Don Carlo, “A dream smiled at me, and disappeared.” Sigh... The duet at the end even brought tiny tears to my eyes - simply a wonderful experience. Yes, I’ll admit that standing for three hours in the same cramped spot is a little difficult, but it’s definitely worth it, especially considering the price. (Note: There are men dressed in costume on the street that attempt to sell you tickets to performances. DO NOT FALL FOR IT. These are tourist performances that include a little opera and a little ballet. It’s not the real thing.)

My attempt to draw the opera house while waiting in line

June 17, 20012
At Maria’s suggestion (because this is what the tourists usually do, she explains), I take the train to Bratislava, Slovakia (just over an hour away and only 14 euros round-trip). On the platform I meet a girl who lives in a town near Bratislava, and we end up sitting together. In the city, we have coffee and cake for breakfast before she has to catch another train. I really enjoy these random, spontaneous meetings with strangers - I always hear and learn new things.

Afterward, I wonder around the city. The historic part of the city is charming but small, so there aren’t many areas to explore. I visit the castle and some other important buildings, check out a couple thrift shops (Yay! These are so difficult to find in Europe).

For lunch, I order the national dish, bryndove halusky, at the Slovak Pub. It’s like the Slovakian version of macaroni and cheese, but I don’t like the taste of the cheese. I can only manage four bites. 

Two other travelers are sitting at the table next to me, and I offer the plate to them. They’re not impressed, either. They invite me to sit with them and share the two enormous - and tastier - dishes they ordered. After sharing food and conversation, I head back to the train station and return to Vienna.

One evening, I decided to have breakfast for dinner. I found the Austrian dish kaiserschmarrn, a delicious plate of cut-up pancake sprinkled with raisins, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with plum compote, at Palatschinkenpfandl. With my meal, I drank a glass of Veltliner, a type of Austrian white wine.
Address: Wien 1, Kollnerhofg. 4 / Grashofg. 4

I was drawn to Gerstner Cafe and Pastry Shop, an elegant cafe-konditorei (cake shop), more than once by the array of cakes in the display case. The first time, I picked up a slice of Linzer torte, a cake with one of the longest traditions. It was so delicious that I went back the next morning for breakfast. I had a slice of the caramel-flavored Dobostorte and a mocca (espresso). The cake is more expensive here than at the chain konditorei Aida, but I also think their cake tastes better and is therefore worth it.
Address: 1010 Vienna, Karntner Strasse 13 - 15 (It’s on the main pedestrian street, near Stephansplatz, so you’ll most likely pass it at least once.)

Aida is a chain konditorei, and I visited two of it’s locations - one on Karntner Strasse and the other on a corner across from the opera house. It’s cheaper than Gertner, but I also don’t think their cake is as good. I had a slice of the Esterhazy Torte (named in honor of a prince), and it was good, but based on my experience at Gerstner (see above), I think their version would have tasted better. What I did find at Aida; however, and thought it was incredibly delicious, is punschkrapfen. This may be my favorite sweet that I had in Vienna (and it may or may not be due to the fact that the cake was soaked in rum). Apple strudel is another typically Austrian pastry, but I didn’t think it was good here, and I’m sure much better strudel can be found elsewhere.

Another wonderful place for cake is at the Sacher Cafe, home of the original Sachertorte. You will find sachertorte in other konditoreis, and even in other countries, but this is the only place you will be able to taste the original recipe. It’s incredibly good, especially with coffee for breakfast. ;)  (I love how eating cake for breakfast seems socially acceptable, and even normal,  in European restaurants!)
Address: Philharmonikerstrasse 4, A-1010 Vienna (across from the opera house)

A traditional Austrian dish is wiener schnitzel, and I was told that the best place to eat this in Vienna is at Figlmuller. I ordered the veal, which is more expensive than the pork, but it’s the more authentic version. It’s also huge, so it’s great if you have someone to split it with (thankfully, my host was dining with me). We also ordered a side of the most delicious potato salad I’ve ever had - with no mayonnaise, it’s coated with a pumpkin seed oil that’s produced in another region of Austria.
Address: Backerstrabe 6, 1010 Wien (They have another location literally around the corner if this one is full.)

Sausage stands dot the city streets, and I had the pleasure of eating at two of them. The first time, I tried the kasekrainer, a sausage with cheese served in a roll with ketchup and mustard. It was delicious. The next time, I tried the curry wurst, sliced sausage drenched in a curry sauce and served with a thick slab of bread. Also delicious.

At the bar one night, I have the opportunity to try Most, an Austrian cider. I’m a big fan of hard cider back in the states, but their version is not as cold or bubbly, so I don’t like it as much.

Some other Austrian foods that I didn’t have the opportunity to try are: gulash, tafelspitz (beef soup), palatschinken (crepes), and germknodel (dumpling filled with jam).

Slovak Pub (in Bratislava) - If you make it here for a day trip, this is a good place to try Slovakian dishes. It was recommended to me by the Slovakian girl I met on the train. I can’t personally recommend the national dish, bryndove halusky, but other dishes are good.
Address: Obchodna 62, 81106 Bratislava