Archive for January, 2008

Jan 11 2008

Welcome to Barcelona!

Published by under Barcelona,Spain

Barcelona! We had been including the city in our agenda since Day 1 of planning this trip, but my excitement about our visit had been growing over these past four months. It seems that every seasoned traveler we meet says the same thing: “You MUST see Barcelona.” And as if that weren’t enough, my parents and sister unexpectedly bought plane tickets to Spain, and would meet us in Barcelona to ring in the new year. After four months with hardly a familiar face but each other’s (undermining exception #1: The Mooneys, undermining exception #2: Mr. Ross), we were both eagerly awaiting this mini-reunion.

The oft-discussed plan was to meet my family in the Barcelona airport at the time of their afternoon arrival. But due to some faulty bus station information (thanks Lonely Planet!) we managed to arrive at the Barcelona airport about thirty minutes late. Back in the land of cell phones, this setback would be negligible after a quick phone call to update the parents on our status. But since neither we or my parents were carrying cell phones overseas, I could envision nothing but catastrophic consequences as we belatedly made our way to the airport. Without a way to call one another, how would my family know what had happened to us? Surely they would assume we were not coming to the airport after all, and attempt to find our rented apartment on their own. Without a knowledge of Spanish, they would be unable to locate the correct address, and become stranded somewhere between the airport and the city outskirts. They would have no means of withdrawing euros from an ATM, be unable to hire a taxi back to the airport, and, at dusk, be robbed by gypsies. With no remaining recourse but to adopt the mentality of their colorful tormentors, my strange and inevitable fate was to lose my family to the intoxicating gypsy lifestyle of inner Barcelona.

The family in Placa Catalunya, BarcelonaAs it turns out, Fate had other plans. We arrived at the airport to find that my family’s plane had arrived a little late anyway, and we had no problem spotting my shouting, jumping mother in the arrivals terminal. But still: how did people DO things like coordinate travel before cell phones? If you were forced to carve out an adult existence in the pre-cell phone, pre-internet dystopia, I applaud your hard-knock life.

Since my family had just taken three back-to-back-to-back flights, and Brittany and I had just endured a 24-hour bus ride from Prague, our newly formed fivesome quickly made our way to our rented apartment in the neighborhood of Gracia, and took a sensible nap to prepare for a full evening of sightseeing. Haha! That would be a twisted reality. Since the only thing we all like more than sleep is food, we unanimously decided that the first thing we should do in Barcelona is eat. Which should be followed not by a sensible nap, but by sleeping through the night. We therefore prepared for hibernation by stuffing ourselves in a neighborhood restaurant. The main thing I remember about dinner is that Abby (my sister) ordered something in Spanish that turned out to basically be a french fry sandwich. Needless to say, gastronomical expectations for this city were quickly set high.

Barcelona Living Statue: skeleton bicycle men!The next morning, we decided to spend our first full day in Barcelona strolling down that famous promenade, Las Ramblas, and exploring the adjacent Barri Gotic, or Gothic Neighborhood. We started our Ramblas walk in the city’s main square, Placa Catalunya, where we knew the next evening’s New Year’s Eve festivities would be centered. We made our way all the way down Las Ramblas to the harbor, and the most impressive sights on the journey were not pieces of the city’s famous architecture, or its lively markets. Without question, that distinction belongs to the living statues and street performers who define the length of the promenade. Their creativity knows no bounds, from the bicycling skeleton men to the most impressive Edward Scissorhands impersonator I could imagine, to Abby’s personal favorite, an elephant rider who aims to steal kisses from the ladies.

Columbus points the wayAt the harbor end of Las Ramblas, a towering Christopher Columbus statue dominates all that dare surround it. Barcelona propaganda tells us that it was here that Columbus received his commission from Ferdinand and Isabella for the errant voyage that would wind up in America. With outstretched arm, the likeness of Columbus points directly out to sea, and, presumably, the New World. But due to the alignment of Barcelona’s harbor on the coast, it turns out that Columbus’ confident finger is actually pointing more closely to Libya. Oops! One supposes that those in charge of the project thought it would look silly for Columbus to be pointing overland to the west, and since no one’s actually nerdy enough to investigate whether the statue is aligned 100% accurately, Barcelona elected for the majestic orientation seen today. I find the entire fiasco amazingly appropriate, since if there’s one thing Columbus is not known for, it’s an accurate sense of direction.

It was also on this day that we discovered the almost-too-good-to-be-true Spanish dining phenomenon known as menu del dia, or menu of the day. Spaniards take a mid-afternoon lunch as their big meal of the day, and restaurants cater to this preference by offering a several-course menu del dia, for the palatable price of 7-10 euros a head. We found that the menu del dia typically includes a first course (salad, soup, or pasta), a second course (meat, fish, or pasta), a dessert, and an alcoholic beverage of your choice. The same menu selections at the same restaurants would cost you three times as much in the evening, so we didn’t need much convincing to quickly adapt to eating giant seafood meals at 2:00pm.

And while I’m on the subject of wining and dining, let me advise all who will come after me about that refreshing concoction known as clara. Clara = cerveza + lemon soda, and it’s sold in just about every bar and restaurant in Barcelona. We found that the key to making or breaking a clara is getting the cerveza:lemon soda ratio just right, so feel confident in the clara chemistry in those establishments where the bartender can clearly be seen guzzling clara on the job. It’s here that you are in the hands of the true masters.

Next time: a very merry New Year’s Eve! (OF DEATH)

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Jan 10 2008

Vlog: 24 hours on a bus

Published by under Prague

We attempted to film a video diary of the nightmarish 24-hour bus ride from Prague to Barcelona. Upon watching it now I realize it is neither funny nor interesting. There are two reasons for this.

  1. We did not have the camera on hand for the funniest moments — like when I woke Ben up to find that he had drooled all over himself.
  2. We did not have the camera out for our most desperate moments. You know, the moments when you scream FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I JUST WANT TO SLEEP and violently slam your seat back as far as it will go, even though you’ve been trying to be respectful of the very old, large German man behind you but you SWEAR if he wheezes, pulls your hair, or shoves your chair ONE MORE TIME you will rip the fold-down tray off the back of your seat and WHACK HIM UPSIDE THE HEAD. It was probably best I didn’t have the camera during such moments lest I fling it out of envy at those lucky folks that were inexplicably able to sleep. Instead, I cried silent tears into my jar of Nutella.

It’s funny, though, because almost immediately after disembarking, you forget those moments of agony and convince yourself it wasn’t that bad and you’d do it again. Note to my future self, who is considering taking a 24-hour bus ride: remember that time your leg was so cramped that you could no longer feel it, and in order to mobilize it you had to wrap your hands around your thigh, lift your leg up and place it in the aisle? That wasn’t fun.

I’ll go ahead and post the vlog anyway. Perhaps my mom will like it. Or the guy that searches for “dirty keebler elves” and somehow ends up on our blog.

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Jan 07 2008

Prague Free Guided Tour? Czech!

Published by under Prague

IMG_3175It’s a rare event for us to be seen taking a guided tour, because we’re both cheap, and convinced that we already know everything there is to know. But of these two character flaws, cheap always wins out, which explains how we came to join the ranks of camera-toting tourists in Prague’s FREE guided city tour on the morning after Christmas. (or “Boxing Day” for you Canadians/Australians/other non-American purchasers of English language calendars.) We motivated ourselves to roll out of bed at a decent hour in order to take the four hour walking tour, all in the name of a bargain.

Monica, our Czech tour guide, first led our gigantic group of misers through the part of the city known as the Old Town, but I was too preoccupied with 1.) the numbness in my frozen toes, and 2.) calculating our money saved by taking a FREE tour, to really retain any of the facts I was supposed to be absorbing here.

But Monica captured my focus when we entered the old Jewish Quarter, as she conveyed the history of Prague’s Jews during World War II. Much like back on Crete, the Jewish population here was almost entirely decimated by Nazi-led deportation to death and concentration camps. It can be difficult for those of our generation to remember just how recent this history really is, but the point is painfully driven home by the Pinkas Synagogue in this part of town, which displays pictures drawn by Jewish children in the nearby concentration camp, Terezin. Terezin itself can be visited as a day trip from Prague, which is an excursion we did not take, but one that came with an emotional recommendation from a fellow hosteler.

Continuing through the Jewish Quarter, we also heard from Monica about a Jewish legend that likely goes back through the centuries: the tale of Prague’s Golem. For those not indoctrinated into the nerdy fantasy realms that occupied the majority of my childhood twenties, a Golem is a lumbering giant made of stone. Prague’s Golem was mystically created by a character named Rabbi Loewe, who ordered the Golem to protect Prague’s resident Jews. Sadly, the Golem proved too powerful for its own good, and Rabbi Loewe was ultimately forced to destroy his creation. There are those who believe, however, that the Golem eluded destruction at the hands of the Rabbi, and is still hiding somewhere in the Jewish Quarter today. I didn’t find the Golem, but I did find the official Golem Coffee MugTM in a tourist shop, and promptly purchased the very necessary souvenir.

Street Jazz on the Charles BridgeMonica’s tour took us over the famous Charles Bridge, where we found street jazz musicians entertaining the crowds, exactly as all Prague guidebooks promise. I liked the hep cats, the street artists, and the foggy river views. I did not like the epic nation of seagulls that engulfs the bridge, rabidly dive-bombing those who dare cross, all in the name of their quest for tasty saltine crackers.

Our tour wrapped up at the Prague Castle, which provides a satisfying view over the entire city. The main attraction at the castle is actually the church that it surrounds, and since we’ve been desensitized to ancient churches after four months in Europe, we hastily appreciated it, and then beat our own path toward some more culturally rich destinations. I couldn’t make out exactly what the Czech people were calling our next few stops, but it sounded something like “toureest trahps.” Presenting…

Prague's 1/3 Size Replica of the Eiffel Tower!The 1/3 Size Replica of the Eiffel Tower!
I don’t know why a 1/3 Size Replica of the Eiffel Tower! was deemed necessary in Prague, but I can tell you that it comes exactly as billed. I’ve yet to see the actual Eiffel Tower, but if the experience of climbing to the top of Prague’s swaying replica is only 1/3 as terrifying as the real thing, then I may need to enjoy the Paris original from the safety of Earth.

Tiny usThe Labyrinth of Mirrors
Right next to the 1/3 Size Replica of the Eiffel Tower! is the so-called Labyrinth of Mirrors, which does not exactly live up to its billing. It’s more like a Hallway With a Few Turns, But No Choice of Path of Mirrors. Some interesting photo ops (see inset), but not really worth the trip even if it were free. And it isn’t free.

The Largest Equestrian Statue in the World
Prague’s aggressive tourism industry wasn’t finished with us quite yet. Multiple city brochures reference the “Largest Equestrian Statue in the World” as one of Prague’s can’t-miss attractions. It’s even indicated on our city map by a picture of a horse that looks ready to crush downtown underfoot, Godzilla-style. It wasn’t until boarding the metro that would bring us to the LESitW that I even questioned our zombie-like ambition to visit the monument.

“Uh, Brittany, are we sure we want to see this thing? Have we ever even cared about equestrian statues? This sounds an awful lot like The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine to me.”

“Of course we want to see it! It’s the Largest Equestrian Statue IN THE WORLD.”

“Hmm, I guess you’re right.”

Brittany and the LESitWFor the benefit of those who may come after us, it turns out that the LESitW really IS a whole lot like The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine. Once you get there and see it, you can’t remember why in the world you came. Who is the man on the horse? What does this commemorate? Why would anyone be interested in seeing the Largest Equestrian Statue in the World? These questions may never be answered. Fittingly, we would later read that no one actually knows if this equestrian statue is the largest in the world. In other words, Prague simply makes the unsubstantiated claim, and no one else in the world can imagine caring enough to challenge them on the point. Prague Tourism Industry 1, Ben and Brittany 0.

Next time, on a very special episode of Euros Ate My Dollars, suffer vicariously through our 24-hour bus ride from Prague to Barcelona. But until then, practice your Czech with this beginner’s language guide!

Dobreh Den = Hello
No = Yes (good luck with this one!)
Ne = No
Dekuji = Thank you
Prosim = Please/You’re welcome/Can I help you?/Fo shizzle my nizzle
Pivo = Beer

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Jan 07 2008

Christmas Carp Addendum

Published by under Prague

Allow me to add my $0.02 to our Christmas Eve misadventures in trying to locate the fabled Christmas Carp. While it is true that we never found the alleged bathtubs of live, splashing carp for sale, all was not lost. While wandering through Old Town Square, we stumbled into a line of people stretching across the common area. I followed the line to its source, and discovered that volunteer chefs were ladling out bowls of soup to anyone willing to endure the line. A little probing was enough to discover that the soup was FISH soup, and I think I understood that it was made from fish heads. Of course, that was really all I needed to hear, so I ran to join the line.

our old guy friendWhile waiting for soup, I made friends with the elderly Czech man in line in front of me. We didn’t speak a word of each other’s language, but we shared a spiritual understanding that crossed language borders. We ended up eating our fish soup together, and Brittany and I experienced some true Czech generosity when our new friend reached into his plastic bag to retrieve a loaf of bread for his soup, and produced a loaf for Brittany and me as well. Fish Soup is Czech for Merry Christmas!

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Jan 06 2008

Christmas in Prague

Published by under Prague

The story of Europe goes like this: beautiful, irreplaceable, historically significant buildings and towns stood carefully preserved for 2000 years. Then the Nazis came along and blew everything up during World War II.

The war devastated Europe, and you’re now just as likely to see a war memorial as you are to see an ancient monument or gothic church.

the charles bridge + prague castle + birdsPrague is unique it that it somehow escaped Nazi bombing, making it one of the best-preserved cities on the continent. Wandering the streets of the old town and Jewish ghetto is a remarkable experience – if you’re able to ignore the hordes of camera-wielding tourists, it feels as if you’re walking through a medieval village. Instead of pointing out the site on which the oldest synagogue in Europe once stood, we were able to actually see the oldest synagogue in Europe. On our hike up to Prague castle, we saw a sign on the door of a bar that said, “open since 1492.” Now that’s something you don’t see in America.

Since the country shed communism in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Prague has become a huge tourist destination, and you’re just as likely to run into a fellow English-speaker as you are a native. And because their city is constantly overrun with annoying foreigners, many of the Czech people we did meet were pretty grumpy. If you ever find yourself in Prague, after visiting the typical hotspots, I’d encourage you to turn off of a main avenue and get yourself seriously lost in old town. Either that, or ride the metro to a random stop and get off, without a specific destination in mind. There is always something incredible to see. Our hostel was located across the river in a working-class neighborhood, where the people were friendlier, and the food even better and cheaper.

We could never explore for too long, though, because it is seriously cold in Prague. I don’t know if we were particularly wimpy because we were coming from balmy Southern France, or because we’re acclimated to the coastal climate of Virginia, but I couldn’t stay outside for more than thirty minutes without screaming that I JUST CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE and running through the nearest door. Which is how Ben and I ended up drinking beers throughout the day, as we often and suddenly found ourselves shivering in doorways of random cafes.

On Christmas Eve, we spent an unusually long amount of time outside on an unusual quest: the hunt for the Christmas carp. Before coming to Prague, we had heard that the traditional Czech Christmas dinner includes carp. On Christmas Eve, there are alleged tubs of live carp for sale on street corners. This was a sight Ben in particular was eager to see.

So that afternoon we set out amongst the neighborhoods of Prague to find Christmas carp. We were confused when we’d wandered for a while and there wasn’t a carp in sight. So we started asking people. We’d run up to the nearest Czech and say, “fish? carp??” while doing swimming motions with our hands and make fish faces. We learned the Czech for carp was “capr,” which we unsuccessfully tried to pronounce. Inexplicably, everyone we talked to seemed to think there was a tub of carp right around the corner (well, that, or seemed bewildered and slowly backed away from us, as we screamed “FISH! PLEASE! THANK YOU!”). All we can figure is that there is a wide-scale conspiracy to keep fresh carp out of the grasp of evil tourists, because our exhaustive search elicited no fish, alive or dead.

We selected Sir Toby’s Hostel primarily because it provides a free Christmas Eve dinner. So, hoping to allay our disappointment after our failed hunt for the carp, we trudged back to the hostel in order to be the first in line for the feast.

christmas eve dinnerThe meal helped Christmas feel a little bit more like Christmas for Ben and me, with home-cooked stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, turkey and delicious desserts. Having missed out on all the goodies at home on Thanksgiving, we both appreciated the comfort food, despite Ben being disappointed that carp wasn’t served. There was a Czech spin on the meal, however, as all the food was served with the obligatory abundance of beer.

Our hostel also organized a visit to a midnight mass at the local Anglican church. In an effort to make it feel a little bit more like Christmas at home, we decided to brave the sub-zero temperatures of Prague at night and tag along. I can’t remember too much about the service because 1. I was freezing (the only heat in the cathedral was a pathetic foot warmer beneath the pew), and 2. the preacher was scary. He had a booming, deep voice that resonated loudly throughout the old church as he bellowed his sermon. He stood atop the pulpit with a dim spotlight shining from above creating frightening shadows on his face. I couldn’t pay attention to what he was saying for fear that he was condemning me to eternity in the fiery depths.

Christmas day was a lazy one – we slept in, hung out with fellow hostellers, enjoyed the Christmas markets and talked to our families on the phone. That evening we had tickets to a performance of The Nutcracker at the National Theater. The Nutcracker in Richmond is a Christmas tradition for us, and we are often forced to pay up to $60 per ticket for seats. So we were a bit more than pleasantly surprised when we discovered that tickets for the production in Prague cost 30 crowns, or about $1.50. Granted, the only seats remaining were in the very back row of the gigantic theater. But we had fun playing with the small binoculars provided for those in the nosebleeds.

fun binoculars!The performance was incredible — it was technically a strange combination of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, so Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit had starring roles. In an inexplicable twist, the dancer who played Bob Cratchit also played a shirtless devil that danced around with demons dressed like mummies. I was confused during that scene.

We returned to the hostel to find the downstairs pub lively with Christmas cheer, and spent the evening teaching Australians a few American drinking games and learning about all the crazy animals they have down under. They have exotic/terrifying animals such as seven-inch wide spiders and yet are amazed that we have squirrels running around our backyards.

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Jan 04 2008

Czech, Please! (don’t worry, more puns coming)

Published by under Prague

Most people travel the world to see the ancient buildings and natural wonders that the many nations have to offer. And I say: Good for them! But we travel the world to eat the food. There was a point in time when we could have denied such a vicious accusation, but that fleeting moment has long passed. Our names are Ben and Brittany, and we strike museums from our travel itinerary in order to make room in our budget for the appetizers, drinks, and sweets of the world. There it is, the first step toward a recovery that I will always resist.

Prague has skyrocketed to the top of my “favorite cities” list because it knows that the path to my heart goes through my stomach. Or, alternatively, my wallet. And when the Czech Republic’s delay in adopting the euro means that beer is cheaper than water, Prague is the belle of the ball. By way of tasty lineup, allow me to present the culinary distractions of Prague that thoroughly shielded me from absorbing any unnecessary culture.

Trdelnik in PragueWhat: Trdelnik
Where: Multiple competing booths in any Prague Christmas market
Huh?: Do not allow its abundance of consonants intimidate you into avoiding this cinnamon-sugar ring of fried dough. This is exactly what the International League of Purveyors of Easily Pronounce-able Desserts (ILPEPD) is deviously banking on, as they continue to peddle over-priced, low-quality snacks with 3 letter names. Eat a trdelnik, and viva la resistance! Just make sure you keep your napkin from becoming baked on to the hot, sticky exterior, lest your girlfriend make you eat the papery section while she enjoys trdelnik sans napkin.

Dumplings + Kraut + Gravy = Yaarg!!What: Dumplings and Sauerkraut
Where: Authentic Czech restaurants. Which means anywhere except Prague’s tourist-packed city center.
Huh?: For the equivalent of a couple US dollars, you can get a heaping plate of pork-filled potato dumplings and kraut, topped with thick gravy and a half-liter of beer. Yaarg! (read: manly Viking/Pirate roar of delight). Maybe girls have trouble with the Viking/Pirate roar, because Brittany’s version in these restaurants tends to sound more like a resigned groan. Bonus Insta-Authenticity Litmus Test: Does the restaurant staff speak English? If yes, try again.

Dough + Ketchup + Garlic + Cheese!What: Word can not be pronounced due to lack of vowels. Emit a low gutteral grunt in order to receive one from nearest Czech.
Where: Right next to trdelnik booths
Huh?: It’s basically fried dough again (hooray for Prague!) but with a Hungarian twist. The fried dough is flat, and covered in garlic butter, ketchup, and shredded cheese. A satisfying lunch, but only for the bold. Also, only for those who didn’t already have one yesterday. Trust me on this one, because it can get ugly.

What: Lo Mein. Yes, you read that right.
Where: Prague traditional town market
Huh?: Yeah… Before we ever made it to the town market, multiple locals told us about this authentic dish we simply HAD to try. They called it fried noodles, so we were instantly sold. When we found the recommended stall in the market, we knew exactly what to order. And when it arrived? Lo mein. Don’t get me wrong, I love lo mein as much as the next guy, but I think the Czechs are in for a rude awakening if they ever visit a shopping mall in the U.S., and find out what is being served at 3/5 of the restaurants in the food court. I, for one, didn’t have the heart to break it to them.

Look at that half-liter glass!What: Beer!
Where: In the bar, in the supermarket, in your heart
Huh?: The Czech Republic is home to some fantastic beers, which must be why no one drinks less than half a liter at a time. A 12 oz (33 cL) bottle is a rare sighting in Prague, and is generally associated with toddlers being weaned off the baby formula. In bars, I drank a lot of Kozel at 17 Czech crowns per half liter. (25 crowns = 1 USD). Pilsner Urquell is more like 25 crowns, and the cheapest water I ever found in a bar was 27 crowns. Out of habit, we asked for water with our first meal in Prague, a mistake that was not repeated. Looking back, the bottle of water is the fail-safe identifier of the Czech Republic rookie.

What: Medovnik
Where: Sweet shops in residential neighborhoods
Huh?: It looks like cake, tastes like Golden Grahams, and maybe best of all, can be pronounced by the Capitalist tongue. They’re also dirt cheap, which explains why old ladies don’t feel bad about shoving three of them in their mouths at once. We smuggled some of these onto the bus at the end of our Prague diversion, but short-sightedly polished them off before the bus could leave the station. Old Czech ladies everywhere would be proud.

Next time: Czech out the continuing journey of food at Christmas Eve dinner! (can’t say I didn’t warn you…)

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