Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Yet another fun-filled weekend in Prague; we never seem to get sick of this place

It had been far too long since we'd last been to Prague, so it was high time for another extended weekend getaway to the spire-studded city that we never seem to get sick of. With hotel rates in the city center dropping as much as 50% when November 1 hits, the first weekend in November turned out to be a good time for a visit.

This time we were able to meet up with Terezia's close friend Zdenka Friday night in the Old Town, and on Sunday afternoon we trekked out to her and her significant other's abode in what I think was Prague 15, a district way out at the south-eastern edge of the city. This was especially nice because we finally got to meet Zdenka's awesome almost-2-years-old son, Alex. It was also interesting to see a more modern part of Prague that most tourists would never set foot in.

The forecast called for on-and-off showers, but it only drizzled a bit Saturday morning, forcing us to duck into the museum of medieval art for a bit, before things cleared up fairly nicely for the rest of the day, allowing us to stroll through our usual favorite streets and neighborhoods in the historical districts.

A climb up to the top of the St Vitus cathedral clock tower (for some reason we'd never ascended this thing before) afforded us stunning views of Prague's landscape. The way that the Vltava River snakes through the city, combined with the gentle, rolling hills on the Stare Mesto side, and the sharp, green hills on the castle side, really does lend it a kind of majestic beauty.

Sunday morning's more substantial rain just meant that we went back to the Veletržní Palace for a more relaxed look at Prague's awesome, sprawling modern art museum than we were able to do on our last trip. I mentioned this in the last Prague post, but this museum really has an impressive collection. Floor 3 contains an awesome array of not just Czech cubists, but a Picasso room and Braque pieces, as well as an impressionist section with a Van Gogh, some Monets, and a slew of Rodin sculptures. There was a smattering of other people there, but I honestly don't know why more people don't go to this place. I don't get why this place wasn't packed on a rainy Sunday morning. No, it's not the Pompidou, but few modern art museums are, and for central Europe, the Veletržní's collection is wonderful.

A piece from the Picasso room
Antonin Prochazka, Lady in Sweater
Another painting from the Picasso room
Josef Čapek, Accordion Player
The museum's one and only Van Gogh

As for the medieval art museum, like most of these, Prague's gets boring really fast. It's a great collection, but Terezia and I get sick of seeing painting and after painting (and sculpture after sculpture) of Mary holding baby Jesuses that look like creepy, pudgy little middle-aged men. But it was drizzling outside and we were in the area, so we thought we'd check it out, though it's certainly not something we'd return to.

Some readers may recall that in early 2012 we tried a couple of Thai places in downtown Prague, one of which sucked donkey balls (Lemon Leaf), and the of other which was solidly mediocre (Orange Moon). This time, determined not to weigh down our stomachs with Czech food every damn night, we tried another Thai place, called Občanská Plovárna, which has a highly visible yet slightly confusing to access position right along the riverbank between the Čechův and Mánesův bridges.

The restaurant looked posh, with lovely views of the Vltava through its massive, wall-sized windows, but the prices were entirely reasonable. I think we spent the equivalent of €30 for the whole thing. The menu offered more or less the usual range of Thai dishes. First, I should note that we are totally spoiled by Sri Thai Imbiss in Vienna, which makes some of the best and most authentic Thai food either of us have ever had anywhere, ever (which I've written about here and here)so that immediately puts Občanská Plovárna (or any other Thai place) at an extremely unfair disadvantage.

Having said that, Občanská's tom ka kai was… decent; definitely not amazing, but strangely quite spicier than I've normally had it. However, it lacked the intense aromatic flavors of Sri Thai Imbiss' version, courtesy of the generous helpings of kafir lime leaf, lemongrass, galanga root, and cilantro that Sri Thai's chef lovingly graces her soup with. Občanská's was more like what you'd find at any run-of-the-mill Thai place in the Bay Area, only spicier.

But the second starter, jum mum, consisted of these insultingly bland meat-stuffed dumplings that came with a revolting sauce that really tasted only of vinegar. There were no herbs, no seasoning, just unrelenting blandness and a near vomit-inducing sauce with no traces of Thai-ness.

Fortunately, the green curry chicken was actually pretty good. I wouldn't call it mind blowing, but it definitely had a pleasing, rich flavor and a pleasantly spicy kick. The chicken consisted of these kind of bland bits of chicken breast, and the little wedges of eggplant were not cooked all the way through, but overall, I was impressed enough with the flavor of the curry that I would order this dish again.

Terezia opted for this strange noodle dish (can't remember the name and I don't see it on their online menu) that was recommended by the waitress. It consisted of what appeared to be every kind of noodle they had on hand in the kitchen, plus bits of chicken, red bell pepper, cilantro, bits of fried egg, pepper flakes, and maybe a few other herbs. The flavor was decent if well short of life-altering, but it was a generous portion and it wasn't awful or anything. I'd probably try their pad thai next time. The curry was definitely the star of the evening.

Unlike the other two Thai places we tried in Prague, we'd actually go here again, but we remain convinced that there must be a better Thai joint in this city. (But at least this place is better than either of the two Thai places in Bratislava). Despite some redeeming qualities, I would still implore Občanská's chef to take a trip down to Sri Thai Imbiss in Vienna and see how truly good Thai food is made.

We also had an awesome meal at our usual Czech haunt, U Parlamentu, which makes a truly mean duck. On any given night, U Parlamentu seems to pulsate with boisterous chain-smoking Czech-speaking locals, making it a cool experience.

It's interesting to note that this is the first time we've been to Prague in the fall. In the past we've gone at different points during the winter, and I also went with my dad in July 2012, right smack in the middle of peak tourist season. In early November, however, the historical center's main arteries seemed to be every bit as tourist-clogged as in summer. And when we've gone in January or early March, it's actually been less congested and crazy. So, it seems like tourist season is still in full swing when November rolls around, but that it doesn't quite pick up again after its lull until winter is over.

I'm just glad the hotel rates go down in the late fall and the non-peak winter months. A friend of mine was told by someone who runs a travel guide bookstore that Prague hotels were encouraged by the people behind websites like Venere or Trip Advisor to boost their rates, essentially advising them about how much they can get away with charging, and how long they can stretch out their peak season rates. These websites get a cut of any booking made through them, so as troubling as this is, I suppose it's not horribly surprising. Of course, this means that Prague, which used to be a relatively inexpensive city to stay in, is now about as pricey as any other major European city, at least for most of the year.

At any rate, going to Prague is always bittersweet for us. We love exploring the city's narrow, old, atmospheric streets and lovely old bridges, and gawking at its overwhelming and colorful array of historical architecture. We also love that, unlike Bratislava, Prague actually feels like a city; it's so much more cosmopolitan, and it has a bustling urban pulse. So, it's always sad when we have to return back to sad, grey, bleak Bratislava. But at least Prague isn't too far away.

(Click here to see the full set of photos.)

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