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.