Thursday, January 15, 2009

Prague - Praha

In Prague, we found a jewel of a city. On the way in to the city, remains of the occupation behind the iron curtain greet our bus. The day matches to architecture, Communist Grey and foreboding. Our tour group departs at the Marriott Prague. The hotel is jammed and guests are invited to meet in a half hour to go over the procedures for using public transportation. We stand outside and wait for our ride as my brilliant wife has booked us at the Hilton. Bart informs those of us staying at the Hilton that we do not need to worry about using pubic transportation as we will be within walking distance of city center. We are quite encouraged and it just keeps getting better as the bus driver states that he will take us to the hotel and no need to wait for the cab. He delivers us to the grand entrance of the Hilton Prague. The vast conference center and hotel is impressive and it keeps getting better as we walk up to the counter and check in without waiting and move quickly through the check in process and up to the room, which is remarkable ans spacious with a view of the sprawling city outside.

Prague is an unexpected surprise in many ways. First, the food is wonderful and more varied than I thought it would be. I had heard of veal schnitzel and goulash and they certainly did not disappoint but the soups and breads along with delicacies such as harlusky were wonderful. Second, Czech beer is know then world over for its complexity and flavor but all the varieties we drank - St Norbert exclusively found in the pub on the grounds of the Strahov Monastery and Pilsner Urquell were special standouts.
Even to the non-beer drinkers I suggest and recommend all the beers to visitors. However, perhaps the most surprising part of our visit was the city, its architecture, people, and romance. Aside from Venice and perhaps even above Venice, Italy Prague was a romantic city. At every corner, another alley with new and hidden jewels. Entering every town square. new picturesque sights and grandeur. The city sneaks up on the traveler. Walking is so safe and hidden treasures for shopping and sights make the city a hidden romantic getaway.

I was so unprepared for Prague and the Czech Republic. My family is German and I've seen the Sound of Music more times than any person should admit, so I at least had some background for both. Up until we checked into the hotel, I kept thinking, I'm going to Czechoslovakia - no, I mean the Czech Republic (it's ok, it turns out. Georgi one of our tour guides summed it up - it was Bohemia for 1000 years, then Czechoslovakia and now Czech Republic, I say Bohemia). I could write hundreds of words about the lovely castle, great food and atmosphere, but it's the Czech people that to this day make me smile. My Spanish language background has always provided me a certain amount of pride/security when visiting the Romance language countries (Italy, Spain and France). I soon found out, the Czech language had letters I had never seen before, and certainly couldn't pronounce. And unlike, Greece where everyone under 40 speaks, English, most Czechs outside the tourist areas, do not. Ultimately, it didn't matter. A smile, a gesture, a glimpse, the Czech people made me feel like a most welcome guest.

I had arranged a private tour with Eva Travloka, a private guide I found on Trip Advisor dot com. As we wound our way down from Prague Castle and across the Charles Bridge, I experienced one of the most touching moments of our visit. Eva and I discovered were the same age, we were talking about our youth and college. That's when she spoke about growing up in a Communist country. She explained how her parents listened to Radio Free Europe at home, but they would always warn her not to tell anyone at school. People were arrested for less. She spoke about the Velvet Revolution, how in late 1989 she and her friends rattled their keys at the president's home telling him to leave it and their country. I was immediately proud and ashamed of my easy life here in the U.S. We looked at each other and the moment was broken when she laughed and said "Now we have a new ruler, money. Between the two of them, I'll take money".

Because we visited Prague in December, it will always mean Christmas to me. Prague Castle, The Imperial Cafe, the city streets and of course the Christmas markets were decorated in traditional Czech straw and dried fruits. We spent most of our time at the Old Town Square Market. David and Tim indulging in Mead. We all had grilled sausages on baguettes for lunch. I brought back the most elegantly decorated ginger bread cookies for our niece and nephew. An unexpected bonus, our last day in Prague, December 5, was Nickolas day. Young men dressed as St. Nicholas, his angels and the devils that travel with him, ask children if they've been good or naughty. We were swept along with the crowd, unnoticed as the Czechs celebrated their festival.

We were outsiders, but it was easy to feel the holiday spirit. The evening ended at the wonderful Cafe Imperial, restored to its Art Deco glory in 1999. We had dined earlier in the week at the Imperial. When we commented to our charming waitress how much we enjoyed our meal, she returned with the reservation book and said, "When will you return?". We laughed and said, "Thursday?", she replied "Thursday is no, good my day off". So, Friday after the St. Nicklaus festivities it was.