Better Together ?

Prague. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen this wonderfully preserved city. For Kelly, Prague was her first overseas trip and Todd has been there as well. But we’ve never experienced together.

We both loved seeing it individually, we figured that it will be even better together. So off we go with our favorite traveling partners – each other of course!

We booked the entire trip on points and we have a wonderful friend who lives there that is letting us stay with her for several days. A free trip to our favorite destination… What could be better ?!?!

Day one: After a long flight, our friend,Jessica, met us at the airport and we took the tram back to her place to drop our luggage off. Then we headed back into the old town area for some sightseeing and some dinner. After some goulash and authentic Budvar beer, we wondered around the area.
Admittedly it has been more than 10 years since we’ve been here, but it has certainly changed. The area has become much more westernized. Previously there was no American restaurants, almost no one spoke English and there were very few non-European tourists. Now there are numerous Starbucks, McDonalds and even a Hard Rock Cafe.
Jessica agreed that the country was opening up and attracting more tourists. Guess other people are realizing what we know.

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Day two:

Jessica had to run errands this morning so she gave us directions to get to Wenceslas Square and off we went. We wanted to get Internet access so we could check email without making our cell phone bill ridiculously expensive because Todd can never seem to turn his workaholic tendencies off. After spending too much time standing in the Starbucks entry, the Baristas’ evil stares told us we better buy another drink or leave.
So off we went for Todd’s favorite pass time… shopping! 🙂

Todd had been a bad son this year and forgotten to send his mother a birthday card until the last minute. When his mother’s birthday came and went and no card was delivered, she demanded that he bring her a gift from Prague to make up for the slight. She even told him exactly what she wanted – a light and flowy scarf. Lucky for him, Jessica loves scarves and had just the place for us to find a wonderful assortment. Of course the assortment was so wonderful that Kelly couldn’t resist adding one to her collection as well!

With the shopping done, we sat down in the middle of old town square to do some people watching and wait for Jessica to meet up with us. We are still amazed at the number of tourist here. There is a constant wave of large tour groups following their umbrella lofting guides around the cobbled streets. The last time we both came it felt like we were the only tourists around; like we had stumbled onto a precious secret. Unfortunately it seems less precious with all the crowds blocking the view at every turn.

Luckily Jessica knew exactly where to take us in order to get us away from the crowds and back to the true beauty that is Prague. A couple stops on the metro from the busy center and we were alone and enjoying the beauty of the the Vysehrad area. Apparently this was the original hill-top fortress and religious center of Prague. There is a beautiful church that had been redone in the late 17th century with an expansive cemetery and amazing view of Prague along the old fortress walls. We wandered, free of the crowds, learning about the history of the area and enjoying the views of the cloud-covered city.

When our stomachs started grumbling, Jessica suggested a Thai restaurant, called Yam Yam. She pointed out the “hell menu”, a list of three incredibly spicy food options and of course Kelly had to order the Hell curry.
After the waitress confirmed three different times that she understood how hot the food was on the hell menu, she came back with a disclaimer to be signed, confirming that she did indeed understand it was going to be spicy. It was spicy. So spicy that between tears, Kelly joyfully proclaimed that she had finally found a dish that was hot enough for her. Amazingly, she made it through the whole meal, despite the excessively running nose and burning lips.

After lunch we decided a nap was in order, so we headed back to the flat and relaxed and talked until dinner time. For dinner we headed to a crepe place that Jessica loves and enjoyed dinner and dessert. Next stop was The Friends coffee shop for Internet access and catching up on emails. Then we finished off the night with a couple beers at a local pub and headed home in the drizzling rain.

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Day Three:
Today we woke up and headed to Cesky Krumlov. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site, designated so because of its historic value and the beauty of the area. It took us about 4 hours. We had a tram ride, train ride, bus ride, second train ride and 2 mile walk to get there, but it was well worth it! It’s a beautiful little piece of heaven here. While there are tourist here, it’s manageable. More like what we remember it being like in Prague the first time we both visited. Cesky Krumlov is a beautiful little hillside town with a large castle, a church and a quaint labyrinth of streets, houses and small shops.

We mainly wandered around today, getting our bearings and deciding what we want to do tomorrow. We had another amazing, authentic Czech meal, some dark beer and eventually some desert. It was a lovely evening and we look forward to fully exploring the sites tomorrow!

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Day Four:
This morning we toured the palace, watched the bears they keep in the moat of the palace, climbed the tower and wandered around the palace gardens.

After lunch we toured the cathedral and as we walked about, we noticed the American flags flying and discovered that the region was liberated on this day by the Allied troops during WWII. There was a reenactment of the liberation being put on by what appeared to be Czechs dressed up as both American and German soldiers. It was a bit of an odd sight to see the Nazi army on one side of the field and the American army on the other with their flags flying in the background. A very odd site indeed.

As we continued our aimless strolling about, we enjoyed a trdelnik – a spirally, doughy Czech pastry that is rolled in cinnamon. Absolutely delicious!
For an afternoon break , we sat in the main square, sipped a beer, enjoyed the sunny day and listened to the gun fire and marching from the nearby celebrations.
After that we did a bit tree hopping around the city, enjoyed some pizza for dinner and found a perfect spot to watch the glow of the lights illuminate the palace towering above.

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Day Five:
Today is another travel day. We are leaving Cesky Krumlov and heading back to Prague for the remainder of our stay. Two nights was about the perfect amount of time in Cesky Krumlov. We had plenty of time to leisurely wander around and enjoy the city without getting bored.

We took a taxi up to the train station and were enjoying the spring morning with the golden dandelions and birds chirping when a swarm of ten year olds with only two adults to mange them took over the train station. It appears that they are waiting for the same train we are and one of the “adults” with them just bought several beers and distributed them to the children … it’s going to be a long train ride home. 🙁

Our plan, for the remainder of our time in Prague is to wake up early and do our sightseeing before the tourist mobs really get up and going, take a nap mid day and then enjoy dinner, beer and people watching at night. We will see how that goes tomorrow.

The trip back to Prague was fairly uneventful, we made a run for the front of the train, while the ten year olds seemed to prefer the back. We didn’t see them again. Once in Prague we gathered our belongings from Jessica’s flat and wished her good bye for a couple days. Apparently she has to get work done or something silly like that :).

We have used Todd’s Marriott points, which he has been racking up with travel to Brazil since the beginning of the year, to get a few free nights at the one here in Prague. It’s quite fancy and in a beautiful part of town. It’s close to all the attractions, so it’s a great base for the rest of our visit.

With our new upscale digs we opted for wine tonight, instead of the world-class Czech beer we have been enjoying so far! We compared a Czech and a Chilean white and concluded that while the Czechs are among the finest brewers in the world, they have a long way to go before they can compare to our Chilean friends when it come to wine.

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Day Six:
Our plan worked as hoped! We were able to get up early and experience Prague without the hoards of tourists. It is always an experience to see how the city wakes up – trucks dropping off each restaurants’ allotment of food, street sweepers on the Charles Bridge with their hand held vacuum device cleaning away yesterday’s debris and the locals hurriedly walking to work in the brisk morning air. All a part of Prague waking up and getting about her business.

The best part was the walk through Old Town Square and across the Charles bridge almost by ourselves.
We walked through a few gardens, enjoyed the swans on the Vltava and decided that the peacefulness of the city was definitely worth waking up for.

After stopping for breakfast, the throngs of our fellow tourists were starting to emerge, so we figured that we would check Prague Castle and at least get our tickets before the lines got too long. And as luck would have it, we walked right up and got our tickets with almost no waiting!

We spent the rest of the morning taking in Prague Castle, St. Vitek’s cathedral and Golden Lane. The only disappointment was Golden Lane as they now charge to see it and many of the little cottages are nothing more than tourist shops – a bit frustrating to think our entrance fee got us into a tourist trap.

We lucked out at lunchtime. It had just started to rain and we had ducked into a covered patio with a beautiful view of Prague, surrounded by newly planted vineyards beneath the castle walls. As the rain began to fall harder, the waiters herded all the other patrons inside and we ended up with the only spot that was completely covered from the rain. Our waiter was gracious enough to run out to us from time to time to take care of us. We enjoyed our respite from the rain and crowds and our beautiful view while sipping some Czech wine. Finally the rain clouds broke, so we decided to venture forth to find the mysterious “sculpture” that Kelly had seen on her previous visit and that we could see down below us from our lunch perch. The best explanation of this sculpture is that from a distance it looks like a bunch of melting naked stone people trying to climb over a wall.

We had been looking down on it as we ate lunch, so it was a little harder to find it once we got down to street level. However, our luck continued as we stumbled upon an open door right around the spot we thought it might be located. And to Kelly’s surprise there were no melted stone people. It was merely a garden wall, attached to the Czech Parliament building that had been done up to look like a fern grotto – without the ferns. Welcome to the Wallenstein Gardens.

The only redemption for our disappointment ( we wanted hundreds of melting naked bodies!) was the fact that the area was also home to two large owls and several peacocks. We roamed the parliament gardens and decided to head to yet another garden down the street that was supposed to be even prettier.

This time we weren’t disappointed. The garden was very picturesque and even had a bee hive inside of a carved wooden gnome. We spent some time relaxing and taking pictures before returning to our hotel for a well deserved nap. As we walked on a neighboring bridge and looked over at the hoards on the Charles bridge, we patted ourselves on the back for a job well done 🙂

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Day Seven:
Today was a day of wandering. We started the day looking for something to bring back for our fathers. The mothers had been easy, there are scarves, jewelry, bohemian glass and several more items in every shop you go into that would have made a perfect gift. It seems that the popular male pastimes in Prague are smoking and drinking – neither of which our fathers partake in, so we may have to go home empty handed.

Next we headed to the Jewish area of town only to find out that they now charge for things that used to be free. We thought about touring the cemetery again, but they wouldn’t sell tickets just for the graveyard. Instead, you had to buy a package to see the cemetery and several synagogues in the area. Since we had both seen the cemetery in our last visits and did not care to see the synagogues, we contemplated the choice of “all or nothing” and choose “nothing”.

Since we elected the “nothing” on our first choice of the day, we decided the next needed to be a bit more challenging. So we headed up, up, up to Petrin Hill. It was about a mile hike up slippery stones, through a blooming orchard and countless steep steps.

At the top we found a pretty park area with beautiful views of Prague and a small replica of the Eiffel Tower. We strolled through the gardens on the top, watched the funicular chug up and down the steep slope and enjoyed the sun as it periodically broke through the clouds.

For dinner we met up one last time with Jessica. It’s hard to believe we have to leave this enchanted city tomorrow. We dined at an Italian restaurant on the river with a nice view of the Charles bridge. After dinner we all wanted to chat some more, so Jessica lead us up to an outdoor beer garden in the middle of a park with wonderful views of the city. Good beer and good conversation – it was the perfect way to end our visit. We will miss Prague, but feel like we have truly explored it to the fullest. We both agree that it was definitely better together!

Tomorrow we head to London, arriving at 4pm. We will attempt to see as much of the city as possible before we have to get some sleep to catch our 7:45am flight. Should be fun!

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Day Eight:
Today we start our long trek home, with an stopover in London. Hopefully we’ll have time for some evening site seeing.
Our cab driver to the airport was wearing a “Keep Austin Weird” shirt (we have several at home). His sister went to the University of Texas for a semester and he spent some time in Texas with her – it really is a small world in the grand scheme of things.

We spent our last Czech Korunas at the airport on pretzels and a Coke Light (aka European Diet Coke). We are slowly transitioning out of Czech mode.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in London, it was after 5:30 pm. We quickly dropped of our luggage and asked for directions to the closest train station to get us into the tourist center. We jumped on the train and headed to Paddington Station where we headed down and took the tube to Westminster. Our goal was to ride the London Eye (the large Ferris wheel on the river Thames), see a bunch of the sites from above and the walk to any that looked close enough.

When we got to the London Eye ticket line, there was a 10+minute queue for regular tickets or there was an empty line to purchase the fast passes. The extra money for the fast passes was totally worth it on our time-crunched tour of the city. We walked right on without waiting in line and enjoyed our 30+ minute experience of floating above the London city scape. We had a birds eye view of Big Ben, the parliament building, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s cathedral and much more.

When we got off, our stomachs and tired feet let us know that dinner and a place to sit for a spell was more important than site seeing and we headed down the river in search of a restaurant. We found several and they all seemed to have 10 times as many people as you would find in the same sized restaurant in the US crammed into large tables and benches. We chose one that served Chinese food and sat down on a bench with 10 strangers. We quickly gave up on the idea of having a conversation during dinner as we couldn’t compete with our fellow diners yelling at one another.

After a hurried and deafening dinner we felt more energetic and decided to make the walk to Trafalgar Square. Unfortunately they were readying the square for an event and most of it was closed off, but we got a couple pictures and headed back to the river for a closer view of Westminster and Big Ben – it was getting dark, so we had the chance to see London lit up in all its night time glory.

A few more pictures and we were back on the tube heading to Paddington where we caught the train back to our hotel. We made it back at 10:30 p.m. A solid 5 hours of site seeing in London, so we will be marking off London on our map. 🙂

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