Thursday, July 26, 2012

Part IV B : Team Praha


With Thomas, Michael and Byron on their way to Wien (Vienna), Alex, Nick and Joyce stayed behind to enjoy the Czech capital of Praha (Prague). We checked in and settled down at the Chili Hostel, a raucous and lively dwelling located in the center of the city very close to the Vltava River. However, a long day of cooped-up driving and an acute lack of belly-fullness led us almost immediately back out to the streets in search of dinner, which we had no trouble reading. After strolling by a few places closeby and inspecting the menus, we eventually settled on some delicious thai food that looked reasonably priced by US standards. We quickly discovered that, not for a lack of quality, the Czech Republic is rather less expensive than the US. Our “reasonably priced” thai meal turned out to be a rather large feast in a rather fancy restaurant.

With a new found abundance of belly-fullness and a temperate evening at hand, we then decided to explore the Old Town section of Prague. From the restaurant we meandered along the river to the famous Charles Bridge. It was an odd mix of fascinating and annoying. Fascinating in that the bridge has numerous historical sculptures and significance, annoying in that it is a tourist hot spot and therefore set upon by hosts of pushy merchants and their gimmicky wares, even at night. Unfortunately, most of the interesting activities across the bridge were closed for the evening so we ventured back to explore Old Town Square.

Even in the late evening and night, Old Town was brimming with life and energy. Huge crowds flocking across the open square and spilling into the narrow streets beyond. Along one of these streets was a small Absinthe house that caught our eyes. Having never tried it before, we were all game for a taste and asked the bartender to recommend three can't-miss Absinthe experiences, which she did admirably, including one that was fermented with a giant beetle of some sort (Alex chose to try that one). Even ordering Absinthe is an experience. Because the real stuff is at least 70% ABV, it is set on fire along with a sugar cube suspended by a slotted spoon. The burning sugar is occasionally dipped into the burning alcohol until it changes from pale green to deep amber and the flames are suffocated. Then, you alternate sips of the alcohol and water to bring out the complex flavors (like opening a scotch). For the record, the beetle Absinthe was the team favorite.

After we finished our respective drinks (with much sharing, of course) and on Rally-veteran Bert's recommendation, we had a mind to check out Propaganda Bar. As it so happened, the Absinthe bartender used to work there and, after giving us a look of surprise when we told her that was our next destination, she gave us characteristically European directions. That is to say, they were relative rather than absolute. Armed with nothing more than a vague list of proximal landmarks and a buzz from fermented beetle juice, we set out to track it down. This proved to be an ultimately unsuccessful quest. Despite numerous exploratory wanderings and questioning more than a few locals (all of whom had never heard of the place), we acquiesced to defeat and began the lengthy, but pleasant, walk back to the hostel. Along the way we hopped a few fences (to avoid some particularly rowdy locals) and took a detour to a basement bar for a couple of local beers.


The next day began in fits and starts. After getting up early to re-up the parking meter (parking in Prague is somewhat of a hassle as 90% of the spots available are for residents only and tow trucks are only too happy to enforce that fact), Joyce and Nick decided to get breakfast at another of Rally-vet Bert's short-list locations: The Globe. Alex, in the midst of his characteristically comatose sleep cycle, tacitly decided to sleep in.

Run by self-described “ex-patriots”, The Globe is a coffeehouse/restaurant/bookstore that is particularly friendly to American travelers (not that Prague isn't in general), and provided the perfect location to adjust Joyce's return flights to accommodate the previous delays in the UK.

With everyone well rested and readjusted, Team Prague set out for a full day of sightseeing. After fording the river of tourist on the Charles Bridge again, the first stop was the St. Nicholas Cathedral (at Nick's request). Although this is not the most famous building in Prague, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful and ornate places anyone on Team Prague had ever seen. It was almost hard to gauge how intricate the inside of the building was because the intricacy was so dense. Gold and bronze statues, carved marble, and masterful woodwork covered every surface of the interior. Needless to say, many pictures were taken. To top it off, there was a gold-plated Porsche parked right outside the church as well.

After the splendor of the cathedral, we set off towards Prague Castle. Relative to the buildings around it, the size of the castle is second only to the number of Gothic spines that adorned its roof (it would feel right at home next to a giant porcupine). Unfortunately, the full castle experience was uncharacteristically expensive, so we opted for the free walking tour of the main room and its stunning stained glass windows that appear dark and dull from the outside, but positively glow with every color inside.

With eyes sore from boggling and legs even more sore from all the walking we returned to the hostel, but not before stopping off at yet another Bert-spot (and his favorite at that): a donor kebabish. Although Google seems to have no record of this place, we are 95% sure it was not a dream or some hunger-induced hallucination. This was by far the best donor any of us had ever had, and was high in the running for best food ever. It really was that good.

A few food comas and some internet research later, we decided to further explore the Czech beer scene. Although the Czech style of beer is nothing new, it is arguably the finest example of its breed. Primarily pilsners (a style invented in Plzen, CZ), the fresh local brews completely break from the dullness of their mass-market American counterparts while somehow undercutting the price (0.5L beers averaged about $1.50). This is a very welcome state of affairs for a night of bar-hopping. Thanks to the previous research, we even got to experience Propaganda Bar (apparently there were two places with that name and we were actually recommended to the much less sketchy one). With Prague successfully painted red (though most of the city is already that colorful anyways), we called it a night and prepared for the drive to Vienna the next day to meet up with Thomas, Michael and Byron.


The next day started with some good news: Team Wien had decided to go on a hike, which gave Team Praha some unexpected, but welcome, time to do some general shopping, stock up on groceries, and visit the (hopefully, thanks to this blog) legendary donor kebabish once more before hitting the road to Vienna. It should be noted that this was no mean feat since both people with modern navigation devices were already in Vienna. We had to do this one old school. That sucked.

Leaving Prague was challenging but doable, and the highways between the cities were as easily navigable as the interstates we are used to. Vienna, however, is another story. An unfortunate combination of poor signage, labyrinthine one-way streets, and a serious case of internet-enabled techno-coddling left us hopelessly lost in the Austrian capital. After several double-backs and misguided guesses, we were sitting at a stoplight discussing our next move when, through the open window, a pair of Bosnian truck drivers couldn't help but overhear our predicament. They offered to help and we pulled over to plumb their comparatively infinite knowledge of Vienna for directions to the hostel. In a matter of minutes, we were pulling up to the hostel, checked in, and set about reuniting with Byron, Michael, and Thomas that evening.

Stay tuned for the next update!

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