Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pivo Dobrodružství

When I began the planning for our 2014 trip to the Czech Rebublic, one of the first issues I confronted, was I knew absolutely nothing of Prague.  The more I read, the more I realized I was out of my depth and that my previous strategies might not work there.  Before, my usual plan after arriving was to just head out, wander aimlessly, and become familiar by getting lost, more-or-less constantly.  Praha presented some considerable stumbling blocks to this approach: it covers a large area; the people speak a language I was totally unfamiliar with; use a different currency; their history was an unknown which had been further clouded by decades of Communist control; and I was totally clueless about their public transportation system.

With all this in mind, I did something I hadn't done before; I booked a couple of guided tours for our time in Prague.  One was a general walking tour to give us some history and help us orient ourselves to the city.  The second was one I happened to notice while on the tour company's website, and was called The Prague Beer & Czech Tapas Tour.  It was described as a casual 3 1/2 hour evening stroll from one neighborhood pub to another, sampling the best of Czech craft beers and typical pub foods. Neither my wife nor I are big beer drinkers, but the idea of a leisurely guided evening stroll about Prague was very appealing, and seemed like a good way to become familiar with the city.

Wenceslas Square
And so it was on our third evening in town, we made our way from our room in a converted monastery, across the Stare Mesto, or Old Town, to Wenceslas Square.  The Square turned out to be more a pedestrian oriented boulevard, rather than a true square, and we found ourselves meandering its length.  We arrived at the foot of the statue of the Czech patron saint - King Wenceslas - which was the focus of so many demonstrations during the Velvet Revolution.  Being a few minutes early, we sat and got to engage in one of our favorite travel activities...people watching.

Niki - Our guide
After a few minutes, a young man strode past wearing a red shirt with the name of our tour company, and when confronted, admitted he was Niki, our guide for the evening.  Another 2 couples soon joined us, and Niki herded us down the escalators of a nearby metro station and onto the Prague subway.

Getting off at the next station revealed a more modern residential section of the city.  Heading towards our first pub, we saw we were close to the large television tower which is visible from most of Prague.  Niki told us it had darker alleged purposes in addition to TV, primarily revolving around intercepting and jamming signals from the West during the Communist era.  One of many unusual art installations we encountered in the city was "Babies", installed on the tower in 2000.  At first glance, it is a group of babies climbing the outside of the tower.  What can't be seen from the ground, is that the babies have no faces, but rather bar-codes.  Supposedly, this was a jab at the old communist regime's attempts to force uniformity and squash individuality.  It also was intended as a warning of how dehumanizing our dependence on technology threatens to become.  Czech artists definitely march to the beat of a very different drummer.
Žižkov Television Tower

The first pub was not far from the tower's base and was in the Žižkov neighborhood where Niki lived with his wife and son.  It sat next to a small park, or green space, and the pub's name actually meant Pub at the Park.  Niki ordered for us, selecting those beers which each pub specialized in, or did the best.  Beer in Europe, and especially in the Czech Republic, is very different and far superior to the swill foisted upon Americans at home.  Even my wife, who doesn't normally drink beer, enjoyed it, although she didn't drink very much on the trip.  Transportation for the evening was primarily by foot, although we did hop a bus once we headed back to Old Town.

Pickled Sausage - Had the consistency of SPAM

Small neighborhood pubs and historic watering holes were both explored, with our guide Niki keeping up a running commentary about the venues, different types of beer and typical Czech appetizers. It was obvious he was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic in his never-ending quest to find the best pubs and beers for his clients.  At a couple of the pubs, he got a different beer from what he ordered for us, which he said was "research" for future tours.  It's a rough job, but somebody has to do it!

As the evening and the tour progressed, it became clear the 3 1/2 hour estimate was only that, an estimate.  Everyone was having such an enjoyable time, Niki added a pub to give us the chance to make a pilgrimage to the location of the historic first ever beer "draw".  Up to that time, beer was served in barrels and beer was dipped out using a pitcher or bucket, resulting in the brew getting flat and quickly changing the taste especially as you got close to the bottom of the barrel.  This was the first time a system allowed for the barrel to remain closed, preventing contamination so the last beer tasted the same as the first glass.

Crispy pub fries

The photo below was stop #4 out of 5 on our pub crawl. I'm not much of a beer drinker anymore, but I have to say they were all very good, with none of the chemicals and preservatives found in American beers.  By this point, I had long since abandoned any idea of actually finishing every beer, and contented myself with just sampling each one.  The food was great, too - not at all what I was expecting based on bar food in the US.  

We are sitting on the right, while our guide Niki, originally from Finland, is in the red shirt across from us.  The couple next to him are from Sweden, and the couple next to us are from Toronto. He was born in South Africa and has lived all over the world. She was born in Paris.  They had just finished university in Canada and were preparing to move to France.  Niki had just turned 31 and was the oldest of the group other than us, so we were easily old enough to be everyone's parents.  Even with that age disparity, and our limited capacity for partying, we still had a great time.  See how interesting fellow travelers can be when you spend 5 hours or so of quality time together?  This is why we make that personal connection with people.

Old Folks

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Holiday in Vienna

Pizza a la Halal

We are told travel is an educational experience, and that was certainly true of our 2014 trip through Austria & Germany. I now know to check for any holidays which happen to fall during our trip, as they can seriously impact the ability to visit certain sights and also where you are able to dine.  As Americans, we have adopted a much more relaxed approach to how holidays, especially religious holidays, are observed.  In the German speaking part of Europe, this lackadaisical attitude is definitely verboten, with most stores, offices, museums and restaurants closing so their employees can celebrate appropriately.

The Ascension Day, or Christi Himmelfarht, holiday found us looking for a restaurant on the Praterstrasse in Vienna, and one of the few open was Koko Pizza. It only took a few minutes of looking about the small shop and reviewing the menu to realize this was a different kind of Pizza parlor. The reason it was open at all on this religious holiday was because it was a Halal restaurant operated by Muslims. This meant no beer or wine to wash down our pizza, but rather orange sodas.

A veggie pizza and meat pizza were ordered along with a Greek salad. The salad was made with wonderfully fresh ingredients, as we have come to expect in Europe, and was by far the best part of our meal.  The vegetarian pie was interesting with thin sliced slivers of onions and peppers atop the tomato sauce, cheese, and crispy crust.

The meat pizza was the mystery segment of our meal.  We were never able to determine exactly what sort of "meat" was on it, but the rather thin mixture was definitely poured out of a can.  It tasted okay, but we were kept guessing as to the contents.  It was one of those very unfamiliar tasting meals which many American tourists never experience by sticking to only the familiar and the ordinary.  We found this to be another of those interesting multi-cultural experiences that make some of the best travel memories.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Remembering D-Day - 70 Years After

(Written in July 2014 in the town of Wertach)

A very strange feeling.  Sitting in the Bavarian Alps, watching all the coverage of the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy surrounded by those who have a very different point of view of the event. 

A few days ago, we visited the local churchyard, and found gravestones for young men who never made it home alive during those war years.  A memorial with a large statue of a German soldier, furled flag over his shoulder, looks out over Wertach, gazing towards the nearby Alps.  The associated plaque remembers those from this small village who sacrificed all during both the Great War of  1914-1918 as well as the second World War of 1939-1945.

 A number of the individual stones bear engraved representations of the Eiserne Kreuz, or Iron Cross, next to the soldiers’ names.  The large national cemeteries located in Normandy certainly convey the magnitude of the losses, but it is these memorials in small towns which remind us of the personal aspect of that terrible war and its affects on so many. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Prague Pho

A "light" lunch in Prague.
One hazard of visiting Prague wasn't obvious to me at first.  I had expected to do lots of walking over rough cobblestones, interact with people using unfamiliar languages, and eat strange and wonderful foods.  What I hadn't anticipated was that every meal would be quite so substantial.  It seemed we couldn't eat any food without encountering the ever-present dumpling.  The only question was whether the particular dish called for bread dumplings or potato dumplings.  We were made to understand there was a system as to which was served...bread with some dishes and the even denser potato dumplings with others.  We never quite grasped the rationale of why each one was supplied with a specific food, but learned to accept whatever was placed in front of us.  

After several days of hearty stews, goulashes, and roasted meats accompanied by the endless supply of dumplings and rich gravies, we were barely able to move.  With all the stick-to-your-ribs type food, it got to the point where I never felt hungry.  Wandering the streets one evening, we debated what to have for our supper that wouldn't add to our increasing gastronomic overload. 

The apartment we rented while in Prague, was in a 12th century monastery located about a block from the Vltava River.  Our apartment was entered through the inner courtyard, 
which once served as the kitchen garden for the nuns.  The green space and roses gave us a little relief from the busy city streets we found throughout the Stare Mesto area.  Built into the outer wall of the convent, facing the street and almost below our room, was a small Vietnamese restaurant we passed each day.  It was entered through an adjoining small market which was run by the same family. 

A nice bowl of pho sounded like maybe just what my overworked belly needed to begin to calm down a bit.  We entered the market and found our way through into the small dining room, and discovered it really was a family run enterprise.  After we seated ourselves, we realized we were the only customers in residence, and had arrived at what was obviously the family meal time.  Grandpa was watching and entertaining the little ones, Mom was busy in the kitchen preparing the family's dinner as well as ours, and the sons shuttled between minding the market and setting the table for their meal.  Between kitchen duties and the need to man the little store next door, the entire family never sat down together.  It was rather more like a much-rehearsed and fast-paced ballet, with one or two persons always in motion.  All was fine until the two small boys(maybe 2 & 3) managed to escape without attracting Grandpa's attention, after which any attempt at order was abandoned.

We sat and watched all this and any tension or stress we were harboring was quickly left behind.  The pho was delicious and just what I needed.  We valiantly struggled to contain our mirth as the youngsters were quickly evicted from their hiding place and returned to Grandpa's custody.  It was easy to see this was nothing unusual for this group.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

They do things differently here

05 June 2014, Wertach im Allgäu

Neighborhood pub in Prague
One of the great things about travel is getting to meet people from different lands, interact with them, and learn about them and their culture.  One of the favorite ways we experience and learn about people and places is by trying out new and sometimes unfamiliar local foods.  Dropping into a sidewalk café and ordering something off the menu by just pointing can lead to interesting discoveries.

Even though this is not our first adventure in this part of the world, we are still learning that things don’t work the way they do back home in Texas.   This was most obvious some years past when we went to the backwoods of Italy, spending a week in a little town far from the usual American tourist hangouts.  There was only one restaurant in the tiny village, and we never did find it open despite trying at different times for the week we were there.

Our view as we walk down into Wertach
Here in the Bavarian Alps, it is not quite so extreme, but there is still some need for adjustment on our part.  Many of the smaller shops are closed from 12-2 for lunch.  This hasn’t been much inconvenience for us since shopping isn’t our top priority.  Most restaurants are open all day, but we have discovered that between “lunch” and “dinner”, say 2-6, there may be only a bare-bones cold menu offered.  So long as you only want cold cuts, cheese and bread or such, no problem.  For us, our routine when traveling in Texas or some of the other United States, is to have a late breakfast and an early dinner around 5 or 6pm, skipping lunch altogether.  Here we are forced to become night owls, not eating dinner until 7pm or even later…horrors!  It is amazing that any of us poor Americans actually survive traveling through a world where the inhabitants just don’t know how things are supposed to be done!

We are now staying in a quiet, small town in southern Bavaria which is far removed from American infiltrations.  There are few here who are comfortable with speaking English, and our German certainly is lacking.  On our first full day in town we stopped in a Gasthaus for something to eat in the middle of the afternoon.  We were hungry and didn’t want to wait for the dinner service, so we pointed at a couple of items on the short "cold" menu.  They didn’t sound totally familiar, but I was hungry.   My wife ordered an open-faced ham & cheese sandwich.  When my order arrived, it turned out that the TellerSulz I asked for was thin-sliced pork roast with pickles & veggies covered with thin-sliced raw onions.
It was only when I moved some of the onions out of the way I discovered the entire meal was encased in gelatin.  Think headcheese and you'll be close.  Each of the ingredients was good and very tasty, but with the gelatin holding everything together, it was very much like eating cold pork covered with undercooked egg whites…every bite proved to be slimy.  I tried to scrape the gelatin from the pork to no avail.  All I could do was chase the slippery slices around the plate with a chunk of brown bread.  Even though each bite seemed to grow in size the more I chewed, I finally finished. 

A quick check of my dictionary after we got back to our condo confirmed I had really gotten what I ordered.  Since then I make a point of carrying it with me to avoid further embarrassments, even though we like to think we are semi-knowledgeable regarding German food.  I'd rather look like a tourist thumbing through the phrasebook, instead of blindly ordering something I'll regret and feel like a fool while eating.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

MayBelle Redeemed

04 June 2014, Wertach im Allgäu

 Many people of a certain age have a love-hate relationship with technology.  The very young embrace the newest gizmo without hesitation, and the very old mostly ignore them.  Then there are us who are neither young nor old, who really want to have the latest gadgets, but can’t quite figure out how to operate them effectively.

This is my lot in life.  I own a computer, a laptop, and a “smart” phone.  I have spent several decades building a tenuous relationship with my computers, but occasionally yearn to return to a simpler time and type in a few DOS commands (children ask your parents). 

 My telephone is a popular brand which has a partially eaten fruit as its logo, and currently, I am on my third one of the same brand.  The reason for my apparent brand loyalty is simple…each new version operates exactly the same as the previous.  No learning curve!  My Lovely Bride has her own “smart” phone from a competing brand, and she is quick to point out its superiority over my allegedly old-fashioned one.  Her bragging sessions usually end with some discussion of the inability of old dogs to learn new tricks.

At any rate, my fruit-flavored phone does what I ask of it, and it functions pretty reliably no matter where we travel.  One of the newer (for me) uses, is the phone’s map function which allows me to plan trips around Texas and other states, even telling me when and where to turn.  Please understand…I have wandered back and forth across Texas since I first got my driver’s license at age 14 with nothing more than a paper map from my uncle’s ENCO station.  Aside from locating a specific street address in one of the larger cities in Texas, the map was rarely dug out of the overstuffed glove box.  After all, it was lost could I get?

My wife doesn’t understand my new-found affection for my map/navigation program, which I’ve named MayBelle.  She is constantly asking why I persist in turning on the map feature to go places I already know how to find, especially since I invariably ignore Maybelle‘s directions and tend to get into arguments with her (MayBelle - not my wife.)  The explanation that I don’t want to go the way MayBelle wants to go somehow doesn’t satisfy her.

We are currently on vacation in Bavaria, with a rental car to explore some of the back roads and find things we weren’t looking for, and I knew ahead of time the car was equipped with a fancy satellite navigation system for our use.  However, on collecting the car we discovered the GPS was set up in German with no discernible way of switching it to English, so MayBelle was called upon.  For probably the first time, I faithfully followed MayBelle’s instructions.  Wonder of wonders, we actually found our apartment in the Bavarian Alps.  Then today, a trip to the lakeside town of Lindau, passing through some of the most beautiful countryside, and most confusing small villages and towns I’ve ever seen.  MayBelle managed with nary a misstep nor wrong turn.  Oh, I missed a turn or two, but she quickly got me back on track each time.  Her only real shortcoming was her pronunciation of German place names, anything ending in -strasse, came out as -stress, and the names of most of the little towns and villages were indecipherable.  Her pronunciation of “Sankt Ulrich Strasse” has to be heard to be believed.

If MayBelle is able to keep up this level of performance, I may have to rethink how I utilize her after we get home.  Maybe I should start trusting her to get me to San Antone or College Station without second guessing her. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

In Search of the Elusive Wasserfall

Written 05 June 2014, Wertach im Algau

After yesterday’s big outing to Lake Constance and the city of Lindau, I knew my Lovely Bride would not be stirring about too early this morning.  One of the premier activities which had been associated with Wertach by our hosts was hiking in all its manifestations.  And so I was determined to get out in the clear mountain air and go for a walk, while allowing Susan to enjoy a more leisurely beginning to her day.

I clamped my shapeless boonie hat upon my head, hung a small pack with a jug of cold water over my shoulder, made sure my map & phone were with me and set out.  There was no well defined destination for my tramp, just a tiny notation on a map of the area surrounding Wertach which indicated the presence of a wasserfall up a nearby trail.  For a Texas boy who has been living with constant drought for the last decade or more, this was an irresistible lure.

Trail-side Shrine
The trek began easily enough.  The first stretch of trail began only steps from our apartment, and was straight and trended slightly downhill.  As I began, I encountered a small shrine beside the trail, which looked eerily similar to the roadside crosses which dot most Texas farm-to-market roads to indicate where some unfortunate lost their life in an accident.  I continued on with a sense of foreboding and about a kilometer down the trail, I was faced with my first decision.  The trail to the wasserfall made a 90 degree turn off the original trail and followed alongside a mountain stream.  There were actually two trails, one on each side of the stream, with one being steep, narrow and overgrown in appearance, while the other was level, well graveled, and well marked.  Fifty meters later, my choice, the well cared for trail, naturally turned out to be the wrong one and I was forced to ford the stream to get to the correct trail.  Not an auspicious beginning! 

Once on the correct trail, the path was easy and presented no problems.  Stopping now and again, I would have a swallow of water or take a photo of the countryside.  Strange bird calls including a loud & persistent cuckoo could be heard, and the trickling of the small stream kept me company.  Thirty minutes into this stage, I began to hear a high-pitched ringing which gradually got louder.  I emerged from the stream bed at a small farm track, and the mystery of my tinnitus was solved.

Just across the road was  a small group of young heifers.  As they spotted me and began to move along the fence in my direction, I realized each had a bell around its neck.  I wasn’t sure of why they were so interested in me, but they followed along the fence as I sought the continuation of the trail.  As I started up the next section of trail, I heard a noise and turned back in time to see a farmer on his tractor drive up to the youngsters with a bucket of feed.  They weren’t really interested in me, it was breakfast time!

I left them behind and trudged up the trail.  No longer the well cared for path, now mud and wet leaves were the norm.  The farther along, the more the conditions deteriorated.  The rougher the trail, the more I kept thinking of my wife’s parting words…”If you hurt yourself again, I know you’ll be fine, but I don’t want to have to deal with that in a foreign country!”  Just because a guy makes one little mistake, they never let you forget.  Well, it was actually more than one...maybe more like 3 or 4 over the years.  But it’s not like I meant for those things to happen.  Really, I don’t enjoy helicopter rides.

Trail conditions kept getting worse, and I kept scrutinizing my map.  After all, my whole purpose was to find that wasserfall and take its picture.  I kept edging up the steepening path, and never saw more than a trickle of water over the rocks in the bottom of the gorge.  By now, the slimy trail had occasional honeycombed concrete pavers reinforced with t-posts driven into the mud trying to keep it all stabilized.  A last map check showed me well past the point where the wasserfall should have been, I decided discretion was the better part of valor, and headed back to more solid ground in Wertach.  I remembered the military truism that retreat is more hazardous than the advance, so I took my time and carefully picked my way down the gully until I found myself on terra firmer. 

Arriving where the farm track crossed the trail, my bovine friends had left for greener pastures, and I decided to follow the track back into town.  A mere 10 minutes found me closing on our apartment, rather than the 1½ hours the trail had taken.  And that phantom wasserfall?  I think I’m going to stop at the Rathaus and have a little talk with the Chamber of Commerce about their map.

Musical cows