Thursday, December 31, 2015

Trip to Slovakia for the holidays: Part 2 - Prague

As mentioned in the last post, getting away for a few days on our own for a bit of an actual vacation was important, so we decided to head up to Prague, one of our favorite weekend getaway destinations when we were living in Bratislava. But while going to Prague from Bratislava involves an easy four-hour train ride, getting there from Podrečany, in the middle of Slovakia, is a bit more complicated.

We initially tried to book a night train from Banská Bystrica that would leave around 11:00 at night and arrive in Prague by 7:00 the next morning. This made sense since our time in Prague would be limited, and rather than waste valuable daytime hours sitting on our asses in the train, we could fall asleep in the middle of Slovakia and wake up in Prague. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, the overnight/sleeper train for that night was all booked, except for one cabin with three bunks, one of which had already been reserved by a woman. The reason this potentially mattered is because that woman could possibly have made a stink about sharing a cabin with a dude, apparently. You see, unless a male/female couple books a sleeper cabin for themselves first, the railway company tries to keep each cabin assigned to the same gender so as to avoid any possible awkwardness. The woman at the Lučenec train station ticket window was hesitant to sell us these tickets as a result.

We also asked about the sleeper train from Košice, but that was completely booked too.

The lesson: if you're planning to go somewhere overnight via these sleeper cars, you can't be so spontaneous about it. You really need to book them at least several days in advance. (When we traveled to Krakow via the night/sleeper train back in 2012, we purchased the tickets 3-4 days ahead).

The trek across the former Czechoslovakia

Since we didn't want to spend eight agonizing hours - i.e. an entire day - on the train, we had to settle for the next best option: take an evening train from Podrečany to Bratislava on Sunday, spend the night in Bratislava, then continue on to Prague early the next morning. Luckily, Hotel Mercure, a nice, modern, European hotel chain, had a standard room available for €60 that Sunday night, which worked out great since the place is basically right next to train station.

The four-hour train ride to Bratislava went by mercifully fast, or at least it did until about halfway through when this young woman who yapped in her "outdoor voice" to her boyfriend all the way to Bratislava boarded and sat in our cabin. Since the train car had enclosed, six-seat cabins, and this woman had no sense of how to adjust her indoor volume, there was no escaping her (or her cloud of cloying perfume, for that matter) unless we wanted to give up our reserved window seats. I cranked up my iPod in an effort to tune her out. Normally people are pretty quiet and respectful in these cabins, and the only thing you need to fear is someone who hasn't showered or used deodorant since the 80s coming in. (Totally unrelated, but we noticed she and her beau were speaking Hungarian, but Terezia noted that it was an odd mix of Hungarian and Slovak; perhaps a dialect specific to Hungarians living in Slovakia?)

We got off in Bratislava and walked through the eerily dense nighttime fog to Mercure, which turned out to be kind of a fun hotel. The €60 price must've been some kind of last minute deal, because the place looked and felt pricier, and a chart by the desk showed their cheapest rooms starting at €100 per night. I was amused by how the bathroom was separated only by a giant pane of clear glass with no door, so that you could watch the other person taking a shower from any point in the room.

We fell asleep watching West Side Story with Slovak subtitles (which Terezia noted weren't super accurate) on the large screen TV across from the foot of the bed.


We walked over to Bratislava's lovely, spacious, clean, architectural mecca of a train station early the next morning to catch the 8:00 AM train and got to Prague by noon.

Once out of the train station, the unseasonably warm, sunny weather had us madly unzipping our winter coats. Feeling like an early Spring day, the temperature was easily in the upper 50s Fahrenheit. Very unusual for Prague this time of year.

Though we managed to get a decent deal on our room at a place we've stayed at before (Green Garland B&B), we have discovered why Prague hotels significantly hike their rates between Xmas and New Years: the city is mobbed this time of year! It turns out that for some reason, this week is one of the busiest of Prague's tourist season.

After checking in to our hotel, we braved the crowds towards the main square and Tyn cathedral to discover that the Christmas markets were still in full swing. I was a bit surprised by this, since I remember when living in Bratislava the Xmas markets there were largely over by December 23rd. It seems in Prague they're milking it until New Years, and with this week being so heavily touristy, I suppose that makes sense.

We sauntered lazily around the old town, taking in the gorgeous architecture, cut through the mob on Charles Bridge, and made a pitstop at the ridiculously Baroque St. Nicholas church across the river.

We then wandered down to the Střelecký ostrov island (which is accessed via the Legion Bridge). They've recently redone this island and installed nice, clean, modern benches along its perimeter so you can plop down and gawk at the city. With the weather so oddly nice and warm, several young couples were out on these benches groping each other feverishly.

Kačka for dinner

For dinner we hit up our favorite spot: U Parlamentu. This joint was recommended to us by the hotel on our very first visit to Prague back in late 2010, and we've been going back with each visit ever since. With tasteful dark wood paneling, dim lights, and big windows, U Parlamentu has a warm and inviting feel. Whenever we've been there, the clientele has consisted mostly of Czech locals, and one long table along the back wall seems to be permanently inhabited by a group of several chain-smoking, shaggy haired guys (and a few women) in their 50s-60s who look like a cross between liberal arts professors and Frank Zappa fans. I swear, these same exact guys are at this same table downing beer and cracking each other up every single time we go there.

But the main reason we come here is they do a really good duck. For less than €10 (215 Czech korunas), you get a quarter duck - basically the leg and the the thigh it's attached to - with a pile of sauerkraut and two kinds of dumplings: potato and steamed. The duck is super moist, tender, and flavorful, almost like confit. It's admittedly a heavy plate of stick-to-your-ribs Czech fare that neither of us can ever finish, but we savor as much of it as we can.

Trdelník - a hot coil of sugary goodness

For dessert we strolled back to the Xmas market in the main square and got a trdelník - a yummy treat that you definitely won't find in the states, and the only thing I'd happily wade into a crowded Xmas market for.

I've heard that there has been some dispute between the Czechs and Slovaks over who created the trdelník, but Slovakia nevertheless managed to register the Skalický trdelník (named after the town, Skalice, along the Slovak-Czech border in which it was said to originate) as a protected EU food item in 2007.

The trdelník is made by taking a long strip of rolled dough and coiling it around a wooden rod, which is rotated over a bed of red-hot coals until the outside is browned. The coil is then removed from the fire and the rod, and rolled in what's typically a mixture of sugar, ground nuts, and cinnamon, and served piping hot on a napkin. When trdelníks are fresh, the dough on the inside is steaming, soft, and chewy, while the coated outside has a nice bit of crunch to it. A little messy, since bits of the coating fall down the front of you each time you take a bite, but fun to eat.

Interestingly, the trdelníks we've had at the Bratislava market were always a little better. I'm not sure if they simply use more ground nuts in their ratio of coatings, or if they use a more interesting variety of ground nuts, but the flavor just seems to pop a little more. They're a bit bigger than the ones in Prague too. But we've never been to Skalice to have a genuine Skalický trdelník, so I've no idea if those are even better.

Steering clear of the crowds

We both love standing and gawking at the insanely picturesque main square (easily one of Europe's prettiest), but the packed Xmas market crowds made the place a bit less pleasant. At night they had some choral group on a stage donning medieval garb and singing songs about local hero Jan Hus, which only exacerbated the craziness.

When Prague is this crowded, it can be a fun and surprisingly easy challenge to avoid the congested main arteries and take only quieter side streets. With so many eager tourists descending on the old town, it's surprising how sheep-like most people are in the way that nearly all of them tend to stick to the main artery from the Powder Tower through Celetná street to the main square, then through narrow Karlova street to Charles Bridge. People seldom stray from that general path, so even when Prague is super congested, it's not too difficult to have a more tranquil experience taking the side streets, which are nicer anyhow because they have far fewer of those brightly lit, Russian-owned shops selling useless tourist tchotchke vomit.

Similarly, the best way to enjoy Charles Bridge and have it more or less to yourself is to get there by 9 AM. In our experience, the hordes don't start descending on the place until after 10, so before then you can take an absolutely lovely, tranquil stroll across the bridge and enjoy all the ornate statues and cool scenery in peace. If you go there any time after noon, trying to cross the bridge is akin to wading through a thick crowd at an outdoor concert festival.

Charles Bridge before the mobs descend on it.

Next, the arguably more scenic and certainly less crowded route up to the castle is via the Zámecké steps. It's another quiet and beautiful route that hardly anyone else ever seems to take, which is fine by us.

Once up at the castle, we never get sick of the views over the city, nor the castle's St. Vitus cathedral, though the tourist throngs start materializing there pretty early. That majestic tower and beautifully ornate south side of the cathedral, in particular, with intricate Gothic details and Klimt-like filigree, never fail to mesmerize.

Museum of Czech Cubism

After strolling back across the river and eating a quick lunch, we headed over to the Museum of Czech Cubism. It's a small two-floor exhibition in a building inspired by Cubist painting, but honestly, you'll find a larger and better selection of Czech (and other) Cubist paintings at the vastly bigger Veletržní modern art museum across the river. I would only recommend the Museum of Czech Cubism to people who are short on time or who desperately must see everything related to Czech Cubism. Still, we thought we'd come back since they'd changed up the paintings since our last visit a few years ago. The place seems to have more furniture than paintings or sculptures, which is a bit disappointing, since the furniture is less interesting. Nevertheless, you can find a few paintings (and sculptures) by the usual suspects: Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubišta, Josef Čapek, Otto Gutfreund, etc.

The cafe on the second floor was nice and continues the exterior's vaguely Cubist inspired angles with the interior design, but it was a bit stuffy and formal, with lots of well-dressed European tourists. And my coffee was a little weak.

(Back in 2012, a temporary exhibition in downtown Bratislava's Palffy Palace had what was probably the biggest and most impressive collection of Czech Cubism we've ever seen).

Eating pečené vepřové koleno

For dinner that night we wanted to go to a place called U Trí Ruží, which we'd been to before. They brew their own craft beer and make decent, traditional Czech food. However, the bartender, who, as in many restaurants, is also the guy in charge of seating, indifferently told us to come back in half an hour because the place was full. So, we thought "screw it" and went back to U Parlamentu, but this time I insisted on ordering something I've always wanted to try in Prague, but never had the guts: the massive, legendary pork knee.

This Czech staple comes in the form of a giant cut of the knee, complete with the bone, skin, and everything, served with mustard and horseradish. It's intended for two (or three) people. There's no way you can cut through the skin since it's practically leather, so you have to turn the thing over and basically cut/scoop the meat out from underneath. The sections of meat that were close to the bone and those which were connected to the outer layer of fat were the juiciest and most intensely flavorful, while the layer in between was lighter and a bit dryer. The good parts were absolutely delicious. This thing may look intimidating, but with such a massive bone and such thick, fatty skin, a good deal of it isn't actually edible. Still, by the time we were full, there was enough meat left for a third person. I'm glad we finally tried it.

Meeting a friend in a smokey pub

Later that night we met a childhood friend of Terezia's, Martina, at Literární Kavárna Řetězová, a pub/cafe that was literally right below our hotel. Martina is married to a Moravian Czech guy and they have been living/working/raising a family in Prague for several years. I like the ambience of this particular pub with its massive, vaulted, medieval ceilings, photos of political activists and interesting art adorning the walls, and locals both young and old downing shots and beer. The cigarette smoke is annoying, but it's pretty much unavoidable in Prague if you want to go any place where regular locals tend to frequent.

At one point, we had an interesting conversation about some of the differences between Czechs from Prague and Slovaks from Bratislava. Terezia and I noted how seemingly everywhere in Prague you see these older guys with this particular kind of Berkeley, CA, look, e.g. long or shaggy hair, full beards, dark clothes, etc., yet you see very few people like this in Bratislava. Martina said people in Prague are perhaps a little more German in terms of attitude and culture (i.e. a little more western, or "free thinking"), which makes sense given the proximity to Germany, and the fact that for centuries Prague had a large German population.

By contrast, people in Slovakia tend to be more religious and conservative than Prague Czechs, and also more obsessed about what other people have (in terms of money and social status) that they lack. We've heard this from other people here as well.

I mean, you're obviously going to find some of that in Prague too, but there seem to be more people in Bratislava who are preoccupied with materialism and conformity. I don't want to overgeneralize and slip into cultural stereotyping, but Prague really does feel like a vastly different place at times from Bratislava, and that's partly why it appeals to us more. (And I don't want to overstate this: at the end of the day, Prague is certainly not as cosmopolitan or forward as, say, Paris or Vienna, but compared to Bratislava... And of course Bratislava was always at an unfair disadvantage compared to Prague and has lots of catching up to do, but understanding that didn't make living there any easier for us).

But at least Slovakia is far more developed than, say, Romania. Martina noted that on a recent business trip to Romania, cars on a four-lane highway were having to pass horse-drawn carriages in the slow lane, and that the country still feels at least 20 years behind Slovakia. Terezia said that even during communism, Czechoslovakia was always a couple decades ahead of Romania.

Segways - the scourge of Prague

Sadly, I have to report that tourists on Segways are becoming a total nuisance in Prague. At times it feels like you're dodging these things everywhere. They're fast becoming the Rascal Scooter of Europe, except the people using them are perfectly healthy, able-bodied, and often young. Sometimes you can see tour groups of 10-20 Segway-riding idiots all snaking through already congested streets and squares.

Honestly, how lazy do you have to be? How hard is it to use your legs and just walk? Terezia and I do it all the time. It's an extremely walkable old town. If I was mayor of Prague, I'd push to have every Segway rider shot on the spot, and every Segway rental company or tour group tried for crimes against humanity. Resisting the temptation to clothesline some of these imbeciles with my arm as they cruised by was mighty difficult.

The ride back home

While we managed to avoid spending eight solid hours in the daytime on a train when going to Prague, there was simply no avoiding it on the way back. We had a tight connection at Bratislava, with only 10 minutes to get off the Prague-Budapest train and catch the train for the middle of Slovakia. Luckily, the trains were on time and it wasn't a problem.

We started getting fidgety and irritable only on the last leg/hour of the trip, after we transferred in Zvolen to the slowpoke train that took us the rest of the way to Podrečany, which stops at every damn little podunk village along the way.

The slowpoke train's conductor shouted at us when we entered the last car: "this car is for us - you have plenty of seats in the other cars!" Terezia's response of "Well, why don't you put a sign on the door then?" elicited no reaction. Later, when checking tickets, the same conductor stumbled through the car like he'd been hitting the sauce all afternoon, and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make out our complicated ticket. After emitting a series of odd sighing and grunting sounds, he told us to have a pleasant journey.

Stay tuned for part three...

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