Wednesday, January 7, 2015

PARIS TRIP :)

A few days ago we returned from a trip to Paris. We spent New Years there and a few more days after that :) I will have pictures up very soon!--So do come back!!

Our 2 night, 3 day trip to France was a beautiful experience. While this would not be my first time in France, visiting Paris would be entirely new for me. This time, my husband and I became full-on tourists and took a tour bus with a savvy (yet chatty) guide. After our luggage was loaded into the under-belly of the bus, we were escorted from our lovely village in Germany to Paris, France. 

Paris was all I could have ever dreamed it to be! Going a-la-tour-bus style has its advantages—namely, your limited time is used very, very efficiently. An official tour trip will make certain that you see all the big sites of the city while also managing to get group rates for certain museums and events. Also, you needn’t figure out all the navigation, parking—which can become quite overwhelming and time-consuming if you don’t know what you’re doing. The city is so big and the throngs of tourists are so copious that, as a newbie, you depend upon a professional to be the arbiter of your travels.

The disadvantages of an official tour are:

  1. The talkative tour guide who disrupts you while you are trying to nap.
  2.  You are often pressured to go to venues (particularly for dinner) that are not always of your choosing and are often more costly (and less tasty) than if you had picked them out yourself.

Thankfully, we managed to figure out the Parisian subway and found our way from the outskirts of the city (our hotel location) to downtown Paris. Also, the subway was free while we were there.

The tour bus took us to all the major highlights of Paris which included: The Palace of Versailles, Notre Dame, The Louvre, downtown Paris, Arc de Triomphe, The Paris Opera House (with the famous Marc Chagall paintings on the ceiling), The Thinker sculpture by Auguste Rodin and also the Eiffel Tower (created by Gustave Eiffel in 1889)

 Of the major Paris attractions my two favorites were the Palace of Versailles and also, the Paris Opera house. I would highly recommend both of these! The Palace of Versailles was an outstanding, magnificent beauty that stands as one of France’s great treasures. Louis the XIV is someone who is regarded as incredibly ostentatious and led a life of untold decadence and someone who had a group of servants stand by to clap after he successfully crapped in his bedside commode.  By his decree he created a piece of architecture that will last for ages---bringing untold numbers of tourists that will perpetually enrich the country of France.

If you’re into sight-seeing and have a fancy for seeing thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands of tourists all at once—the Louvre is the place to go! Also, if you’re into sculptures or paintings, you are in for a treat too. In addition to seeing riveting art works that span millennia and include glorious religious scenes and all manner of Biblical themes, you will come across an entire room full of people clawing their way to behold the most famous face of all—the Mona Lisa.




Friday, January 2, 2015

MY PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC ADVENTURE!



 Over Christmas we decided to take a trip to Prague, Czech Republic. We booked a Van tour to Prague which meant we would be driven to the city in a tightly cramped van with other travelers. We would stay in Prague for a 4 days, 5 nights. While there, we would be expected to plan our own excursions. Happily, this meant that we didn't have to do any sort of “Group Tours” with the other travelers in our van. Simply put: A ride to a hotel in Prague and then a ride back to Germany 5 days later. What a fantastic idea! Even better, my husband speaks enough Czech to get us around in a pinch.

video

My Video: Sculpture of Men Pissing on Czech Republic
(in front of the Franz Kafka museum in Prague)


Once arriving in the city of Prague, we secured our hotel room located at a Best Western in the heart of the city. It had a very spacious balcony that overlooked the entire city. After unpacking and checking out Bohemia from the roof-top, we decided to venture to the Charles Bridge.









 The dark of night cocooned us as we trekked our way to the Charles Bridge which spanned the chilly Vltava River. Saintly, yet ghostly stone carved statues perched along the sides of the bridge as if watching over the bridge and the city. Sans the thick swarms of tourists, the Charles Bridge at night has a mystical—almost surreal quality to it.  We next made a brisk walk through the central district and saw the famous Astronomical Clock and also the Christmas tree in the center of the square. Also present was a statue of John Huss. This brought me back to 8th grade where I first learned about the Protestant reformer and martyr who was burned at the stake by those wretched Catholics.



Astronomical Clock


After wandering around the city in the deeply cold and dark night, we decided to go out to dinner. The first restaurant we ate at—U Karla—offered classical Czech cuisine like duck, venison, rabbit, pork, chicken schnitzel, boiled potatoes, red cabbage, candle sauce with roast beef, dumplings, goulash, crepes with whipped cream and plum sauce for dessert---the list goes on. These items—especially the meats—happen to be some of my husband’s favorite fare.  Never having Czech food before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I was mightily grateful after trying Czech cuisine and would recommend it to anyone who isn't a vegetarian.

Goulash

                                                    Beef with Candle Sauce

Beer!!!!


 One thing that I've discovered about Czech food is its pungency. The flavors of Czech cuisine are intensely strong.  Vegetables—like beets, cabbage—are delightfully pickled to death. Perhaps an even more notable item on the Czech menu is the beer. Thanks to this country’s long-history of beer brewing, Czech Republic is the place to come just for the beer. Forget Germany; go to Czech Republic for a good, dark brew!  Delicious, mouth-watering, malty beers are sure to delight even the most scrupulous drinker. Some Czech beers, particularly the microbrews—are unfiltered and unpasteurized giving them a freshness that is insurmountable in flavor.

On Christmas morning we began our day with a buffet styled breakfast provided by Czech hotel staff. After consuming a decadent meal and then swearing off lunch, we found our way back outside, on this cold winter morning. Thankfully, many tourists were not out yet as the city still seemed to be in slumber.

We wandered over to Wenceslas square with the giant King Wenceslas monument in the smack of the shopping district. We then trekked our way over to the Jewish History Museum. We also entered a medieval Jewish cemetery that dated back to before the 1200’s. I learned a little about the history of Judaism. One of the museums showcased many preserved artifacts. For instance, an entire glass case featured Torah Pointers.


Jewish Graveyard dating before the 1100's
(near Jewish History Museum)

Me checking out a Gothic arch in the Jewish District of Prague


After discovering nearly the entire Jewish quarters of Prague we then embarked upon the Charles Bridge and found our way to the Prague Castle. The Prague Castle sits on the hill and seems to overlook the city of Prague. Here this Gothic Cathedral is built upon the ramparts of a very old castle. The cathedral, itself, is a feast of Gothic architecture endued with Gothic arches, flying buttresses and feisty gargoyles. Inside this Gothic masterpiece are brightly colored Biblical stories enmeshed in stained glass. One of the stained glass windows was designed by the famous Czech artist Alphonse Mucha.








All of the exquisite elements of the museum created a dramatic impression upon the throngs of tourists in the cathedral. They pushed their way to the statues of saints or the Virgin and child or to the giant crucifix on the wall.  Some travelers were praying in front of the statues and wall murals or the stained glass icons, others were simply gawking.


Overlooking Prague from Old Town, on the way to Prague Castle


                                 Downtown Prague, near the Municipal Hall

The weather was frigid during all of our meandering through the city. One afternoon we decided to visit the Franz Kafka museum. This museum detailed the life and work of the great literary genius. The darkness and sense of nihilism that pervaded Kafka’s writings seemed to match well with the dark lighting and depressing ambiance of the museum. My husband, an avid reader of almost all of Kafka’s writings, could more fully appreciate this museum than someone like me—a Kafka novice who once read “The Metamorphosis” over a decade ago. Walking through this museum, you could spy the other Kafka enthusiasts—not too different from those venerating the saints in the Prague Castle.

We also had to visit the Alphonse Mucha museum. Alphonse Mucha was a famous 19th and 20th century Czech artist who created lithographic, Art Nouveau style paintings (usually of young women) in earthy, natural scenes.  Plants, flowers, woods and forests were settings in many of Mucha’s paintings but the focal point was usually a lovely lady. His work, to me, had a uniquely 2-dimensional, poster look to it that I found to be visually arresting. He is now one of my favorite artists! We also learned how Mucha used his fame for the good of his country and worked to influence public policy during his time.

After our trip to the Mucha museum, we swam through the city of tourists and their selfie-poles to an underground dungeon where we ate lunch. In the early evening we also made sure to attend a classical Christmas chamber concert. A group of local musicians entertained a big crowd of us in an art-deco styled concert hall. Their cellos and violins played to the tune of Brahms, Dvorak, Bach and Mozart. I really enjoyed it when they played, “Hungarian Dance no. 5” by Brahms. Sadly, we didn't get to hear any of Smetana’s compositions.

We used the subway in Prague on many occasions. I highly recommend using the subway if it gets too cold during your stay in Prague—just know that you will be surrounded by only Czech people and not a single tourist. This is very nice! It is also helpful that my husband can speak quite a bit of Czech which helped us immensely during our travels.

One night we went to a traditional Czech beer hall—a venue patroned by almost all locals. Instead of offering dinner guests a table for two, you are seated right beside random strangers on long benches parallel to long tables; as if by magic, mugs of dark beer are dropped right in front of you. The beer hall was a lively, vibrant place where every 15 minutes a waiter comes by your table with a platter of shot glasses—urging you to take one after another. Baskets of rye bread are plopped on the table before you. The food we ordered was quite delicious! Another cool thing is that a very skilled accordion player comes around the long tables and will serenade you as you eat. I learned that Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption in the world per capita.

Across the Charles bridge is the Mala-Strana (little district) or “Old Town” where there are plenty of narrow, cobble stone streets. In this district, quaint, tightly packed gift shops loaded with Bohemian crystal, pottery and chintzy souvenirs are everywhere! Also present are plentiful kiosks scattered about offering hot mulled wine sure to enthuse any dedicated alcoholic or anyone else interested in a hot spicy flavored brew on a chill-to-your-bone day.


Charles Bridge



On the fifth day it was time to leave Prague. We made our way out of the city. The outskirts of the city were full of big-block buildings reminiscent of the former communist regime. Our trip was wonderful but too short. 4 nights and 5 days is not enough to experience this lasting jewel of Europe.