Just returned from an amazing two weeks in the Czech Republic with family – one week in and around Prague, and another to the South in the medieval village of ÄŒesky-Krumlov, tucked in against the base of the Bohemian forest. From those two rental apartments, we fanned out to neighboring areas on side trips. So many adventures packed into a short stay – different / amazing experiences packed into every day. Will try to keep my notes short, but more is told in the photos than in these words – be sure to check out the slideshow (full-screen please!).
7/10 Red-eye to Prague via Paris, almost no sleep on plane, found our way to tastefully appointed apartment packed with 1960s furniture and chatchkes near the Vitava River. First Czech beer (Bernhards) and dinner at next-door bistro. Needed sleep badly, but barely able – jetlagged. Up at 6 am, wandering Prague treets of in search of coffee and amazed to find none (not even the Starbucks – which I wanted to avoid – is open until 8:30!) Breakfast knishes, then wandered with family for hours. Had our minds blown at the Museum of Torture. Went on first geocaching foray – found our 600th cache in an old turbine removed from the local hydroelectric plant. Out again with family to dine on meat and potatoes and the ever-present Pilsner Urquell (on tap), then got good and lost (on purpose). All told, walked ~20-25 miles today. Absolutely fried.
7/11 Walked the Charles River Bridge – chock-a-block with tourists but still beautiful after a thousand years of weather. Miles fell in love with a pair of pigeons, which he wore upon his head for a few brief moments, then got kissed by a Golden Girl – a ritual he found completely embarrassing. He reluctantly threw a few Koruna her way anyway. Rode the funicular to the top of Petrin Hill, then climbed 300 feet to the top of the observation tower, looking down over all of Prague and the winding Vltava. Experienced the fastidious subway – clean, beautiful, well-organized. Except when it â€œconnectsâ€ to trains that arenâ€™t even in the same station.
7/12 Insomnia, running on fumes now. Moved through the day in a haze. Morning visit to the Mucha Museum – father of Art Nouveau in Central Europe. Gorgeous. Loverly evening performance of Dvorak and Mozart pieces by an 8-piece orchestra at the Municipal Hall. Acoustics astoundingly smooth, players top-notch. Traditional Czech dinner of pork-fried steak, mushroom chicken, potato dumplings, gravy, fried onions, precision potato salad. If it werenâ€™t for insane amounts of walking, weâ€™d be packing on the L-Bs already.
7/13 Breakfast at the Imperial Hotel. Chalky cheese, gritty yogurt, pickled herring, bagels. Meandering through streets built on top of cow paths and centuries of wanderers. Enough cobblestone to twist an ankle on. Miles discovered the joys of Segway riding for the first time, and we took off on a rented a pair for half an hour. Thunder clapped and the rain started almost the minute we stepped on. Absolutely drenched, but the experience was ecstatic – crowds cleared out and left the paths all to us. Also tried on an Oculus Rift for the first time (Prague virtual fly-through), which was just so-so (generation 1, low resolution). Later, discovered Lokale – cavernous restaurant with great beer selection and traditional dishes harvest from local meat and veggie suppliers. Loved the art scratched into back-lit wood paneled walls.
7/14 Fascinating to be in a country that was living under communism for so long but that is now â€œfree.” So much of the infrastructure, and some of the attitude/vibe still remains. The Czech Republic straddles 1st/2nd world status; colors vascillate between drab slate grey and psychedelic. Transfering from a modern techno bullet train to a 1949 communist electric trolley considered normal. Today’s adventures mostly consisted of figuring out transportation systems to get to/from Kutna Hora to see the Ossuary at Sedlec. The bone abbey (“kostnice”) contains the bones of more than 40,000 monks and nuns. The main chandelier contains at least one example of every single bone in the body. “A reminder of the impermanence of human life and inescapable death.â€ Haunting, musty, and gorgeous. A reminder to re-watch Jan Svankmajerâ€™s film voyage of Kostnice, which I havenâ€™t seen for years (YouTube).
7/15 Up early for 3 hr bus trip to ÄŒesky Krumlov, a medieval town in the south, close to Vienna. Entered a whole new world here – a magically preserved bubble universe, astounding views at every turn, the river snaking through town in a dramatic, giant â€œS.” More heavily populated by tourists than I had imagined it would be – seems to be a favorite destination for Germans especially, and we may have arrived in the middle of the European equivalent of Spring Break – large numbers of college kids towing bottles of vodka and rum on strings behind their rafts as they paddle down the river. Spent a couple excellent hours at the Egon Schiele museum, then sat down to (finally) dine on boar’s knuckle, aka knee of pig. The knee is fire roasted, leaving the skin a tough cracklinâ€™, while the fats under the skin melt down into the tender meat hidden inside. Some of best pork tastes Iâ€™ve ever had in my mouth, served with a small mountain of grated horseradish, mustard and pickles.
7/16 Three of us hopped in a raft to paddle/float down the Vlatva, 8.5km to a nearby town. After a while, we stopped working for it and just lay back and watch the reeds drift by. There is nothing in the world more relaxing than moving at exactly the speed of the river. Then, typical afternoon rains hit; we were drenched with nowhere to go – all the better. Sausage grilled to perfection at a pull-out on the riverbank, where I stubbed my toe so hard on picnic bench I was worried it may have broken (still healing slowly). At the pull-out, exchanged boat for pre-arranged bikes and headed off on one of the most gorgeous bicycle trails we’d ever ridden, through fairytale villages and fields of barley (with big black snakes!), over hard-pack dirt through dense forest and babbling brooks, meeting up with baby goats… it just didn’t seem real. Goal was a chairlift to the top of a mountain, from which we’d ride back down to base – but things went south. Way more uphill than the rental agency had promised, and family became too exhausted to press on in the heat. On arrival, we found the chairlift closed (schedule confusion), and ended up calling for a rescue car. No matter – unforgettable day.
7/17 Fresh-hot crepes around the corner from our pensione, then trekked up to the spectacular and imposing State Castle and Chateu – a wall of raw and chiseled stone from below, a baroque novel from within. Daily rain hit just as we were entering the great tower – took shelter in Yet Another Stone Spiral Staircase. As we came to the top, wind was pelting rain against one side of the tower, raindrops looked like shooting stars as they whizzed past us to bomb glistening red roofs below. Bumped my head on Yet Another Low-Hanging Doorway. Cappucino and cakes inside, then into the museum and on to the great castle gardens. Later, geocaching adventure as I wandered up to a hill above the city and found the woods peppered with mysterious altars. Turns out there was a 200-year-old church at the top which had been bombed out in WWII – the altars dotted the path up to it; all now abandoned (graffiti added later). Traditional dinner of heavy meats, robust veggies and pilsner (more pilsner!) on a terrace looking down through trees over the snaking Vltava.
7/18 Early bus to Lipno Action Park in the South, where a 40-meter spiral ramp ascends into and above the forest canopy – views that just wouldnâ€™t quit – and a polished steel spiral slide to get you to the bottom. Frisbee golf, mountain bike course, the Czech Republicâ€™s longest toboggan ride, rigorous ropes course, and a graceful, winding train for gravity/kick-bikes. Didnâ€™t have nearly enough time for it all – bus schedule was limited and confusing, but Miles and I did wear ourselves completely out on the ropes – drenched with sweat toward the end, and muscles we had no idea we had were sore by end of day. Not many Americans find their way here – few English speakers or signs; did our best to navigate the logistics of it all. Later, took off geocaching on another remote hill. Found a 100-year-old observatory tucked into the woods, then back for roast duck and Pilsner. M unfortunately suffering some dehydration/heat-exhaustion – need to stay on top of that. On advice from travel guides, we decided not to rent a car while there. That turned out to be very good advice when hanging out near city centers; terrible advice on the longer side trips. The train and bus systems are mostly excellent, but figuring out schedules can be a challenge for English speakers, and we had to cut some trips short to meet schedules.
7/19 Amyâ€™s father passed away five years ago, and sheâ€™s been holding onto some of his ashes ever since. Because his parents were Czech, and he identified strongly with that heritage, Miles suggested we bring them along and scatter them in the Bohemian forest. Headed up to Mt. Klet with Ben in the backpack, and quickly found the perfect spot. Each of us scattered some of his ashes in a mossy, rocky glenn near the peak. Amy had closure with her fatherâ€™s passing, and we had some quiet moments together. Miles and I made a geocaching travel bug in California with a mission to visit every country in the world at least once. Finally found the perfect cache on Mt. Klet to set â€œSpringyâ€ (an industrial spring) off on his journey. We wanted to ride kickbikes (â€œGravity bikesâ€) back down to ÄŒesky-Krumlov, but were bummed to find they were all reserved, leaving us to walk back to town, via the Bohemian Forest. Had intended to do some hiking anyway, but got confused by the Czech trail marking system. Itâ€™s designed to be internationally readable, but it sent us into a loop instead of the route we intended. Found some great geocaches and natural drinking springs (enshrined!), but ended up doing around 15 miles by the time we found our way to a 1950s commuter train in Hulobov. While waiting, cooled our heels in a community pond – the kind of scene youâ€™d never see in modern America – no lifeguards, no rules, no walls, no admission fee, and a high-dive in the deep end. Felt glorious. We opted not to rent a car for this trip and rely on public transport. Thatâ€™s mostly worked well, except for today and yesterday, when we headed to more remote areas. Chewed up a lot of time that could have been used for other things, but on the other hand, walking brought us to all kinds of wonders we wouldnâ€™t have found otherwise. Dinner on the banks of the river as drunk teenagers threw each other overboard from inflatable rafts.
7/20 Riding a train through the Czech countryside from ÄŒesky-Krumlov back to Prague sounds like a blast. Except… not. College kids finishing their summer party break all heading back to the city at the same time, standing room only on the train. Temps hitting 95F, with no A/C, no source of water, no food car. Guys with no shirts (even one woman who stripped down to her bra to deal with the heat!) People sprawled out sweating and sleeping. Miles almost collapsed from heat exhaustion. Took all day for what would have been a 3-hour bus trip… if we hadn’t blown the bus connection. Not quite the dream train one might imagine. Americans are used to finding drinking fountains everywhere, to being served free tap water at restaurants, and itâ€™s jarring to find none of that here. Itâ€™s as if hydration just isnâ€™t a thing. People pay for bottled water everywhere, which rubbed me very wrong (I support bottle bans), but thereâ€™s no fighting it – you just have to be prepared to pre-fill bottles where you can and carry them with you. Not sure what the right solution for the restaurant scene is.
7/21 Learned a bunch at the Museum of Communism – deep reading and great displays of 1940-1989 equipment, gas masks, spy gear, text books. Got straight with our Marx and Lenin, Vaclav Havel and Plastic People of the Universe. Traipsed over to phono.cz – the most â€œseriousâ€ LP and turntable shop in CZ, and fell head over heels in love with a relatively high-end Czech â€œTeslaâ€ turntable. Talked with proprietor and engineer about the prospect of having it shipped to the US, but decided against. Between the 110/220V and (more importantly, frequency) conversion problems, multiple challenges of shipping it overseas without damage, and the shipping expense itself, decided it just didnâ€™t make sense (changed my mind about this once Iâ€™d returned home!). But damn it was a work of art (three months of restoration work). Wonderful shop. While in the store, the proprietor put on Blondie’s â€œRaptureâ€ (1981) and described it to someone else (imagine broken English with a sort of Soviet accent): “This is first white woman ever to rap – amazing.” Then I started singing along – everyone in the store amazed I knew almost all the words. Found a geocache at the 1989 site of protests leading to the Velvet Revolution – one of history’s few transitions of government power absent bloodshed. So amazing to be here. Heat wave crescendoed at 97F, then collapsed as storm clouds butted heads and the skies opened up. Cobblestones in warm rain, dinner of kielbasa boiled in beer, cabbage and onions.
7/22 First day our group traveled apart – Amy and Linda went off to see the concentration camp at Terezin, while I took Miles to see Prague Castle and Cathedral, then to Prague Zoo (we made the tough call earlier that the horrors of the holocaust would probably be too intense for him, and it turned out to be the right decision). Mâ€™s first experience in a medieval cathedral – fantastic to see his jaw drop to the floor once inside. Classic hugeness of marble and gilt and organs pipes, gargoyles, pulpits, paintings and stained glass. Getting to the zoo turned out to be way more complicated than expected. Buses, trams, subway, walking, and even a short ferry ride on a small dinghy (cool that it accepted our all-day bus pass!) – an unexpected delight in the middle of a frustrating commute. Prague Zoo is easily the best Iâ€™ve ever visited. Impressed at how close they let the public get to the animals. We were allowed into the lemur enclosure, where one perched on a fence right next to Miles. In the nocturnal animals space, bats fed off hanging fruit just inches from us, then flew out over our heads. We could almost touch the amazing tribe of mud skippers, as well as the bald eagles. Biggest mountain goat environment Iâ€™ve ever witnessed (gorgeous creatures). To avoid the return travel hassle, ended up taking a steamboat back down the river to our apartment rather than trains and buses, which was a totally chill way to go in comparison. Spent every last Koruna on a sumptuous dinner – duck, pork cutlets, two kinds of sauerkraut, last tall glass of Pilsner. Satisfied and exhausted.
7/23 The long journey home – almost 24 hours to return from Prague, including a five-hour busted plane delay at Schiphol. Had to go through security three times, plus customs, passport control, shlepping long distances through Amsterdam airport multiple timesâ€¦ Completely crispy fried and disoriented after the long journey, but good to be home.
Notes on coffee: First drip coffee in two weeks – tasted so amazing! Coffee in the Czech Republic is fine if you like espresso and espresso drinks. I don’t mind a cappuccino every now and then but really prefer a good cup of pour-over, while the concept of â€œbrewed coffee” simply doesn’t exist there. The closest you can get is an Americano (espresso with hot water added back in) and that just isn’t the same (honestly, I hate Americanos). You try to describe what you mean by “drip” or “brewed” and they just look at you with a confused expression. However there is the quite popular “Nescafe” option which is basically instant coffee. Not as bad as it sounds but definitely not an adequate substitute. â€œIced coffee” is only served with ice cream and whipped cream. Eventually we figured out we could get by with Nescafe in the apartment and cappuccino in the streets. I know, first world problems, right? Not actually complaining – just didn’t expect that brewed coffee was such an American concept, and realized how “programmed” I’ve become.
A week after returning, my mind is still wandering back to all of these experiences and adventures daily, trying to digest all weâ€™ve taken in. There are other worlds within this world – so many – and the experience of them always makes your heart larger for the bigness of human experience.