Monday, October 8, 2012

The Prague Blog, Český Krum-Love, or How to Take Your Honey to Hallstatt


I'm not exactly a quick learner.

Consider that I recently replaced 16 rather expensive rotating sprinklers in my yard (all the while cursing the Hunter sprinkler company) before realizing that their lack of rotation was being caused by my long-neglected and thoroughly-clogged irrigation system filter.

Which, upon inspection, was so blocked by hairy algenous growth that it looked like a Chia Pet.

Then, after a year's worth of slow and deliberate chin scratching over the mysterious decline in my riding lawn mower's ability to cut the grass I did what any fine son would do—I gave it to my dad and bought a new one.

And it took my dad exactly 2 minutes of casual study to discover the problem with my old mower: I had put the new blades on backwards.

(And yes, I had cut my lawn for a year with backwards blades. John Deere should use this in their marketing: NOTHING RUNS LIKE A DEERE. OUR MOWERS WILL EVEN CUT YOUR LAWN AFTER YOU STUPIDLY TRY TO SERVICE IT YOURSELF.)

So when I say that I've learned something, I do so with a kind of astonished pride.

And one of the few things that I've learned is how to take my wife to Europe.

And therein lies my point:

You can too.

So sit back and drink in the wisdom of an ol' sage like me. 

Step 1: Decide What to Do with the Kids

The first rule of traveling to Europe is to get your wife to relax. Which means that you must find a baby-sitter that is willing to lie.

You'll know a good, dishonest baby-sitter when she smiles and gets all excited when you ask her to watch your kids for twelve days.

Honest people will actually avert their eyes and say things like, "Hmm...gosh...I do have a bad case of the bubonic plague...and unfortunately I have a business trip planned to the Straits of Magellen."

Quality baby-sitters will hide any conflicts they have and say things like: "Oh my goodness! I've been hoping for the past 3 years that you would ask me to watch your kids!"


Believe me, if you aren't able to find a good baby-sitter your wife will never leave the house.

A good baby-sitter will:
1) Cheerfully agree
2) Deny any scheduling conflicts
3) Send you the occasional text during your vacation saying things like: “Everything is going great!!!”, even if your little boys just led their little cousins into your neighbor’s pool…unattended.

Consider the quality of our baby-sitters: Lori's mom and dad.

Burt and Robin Bullock raised 8 children during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. While Burt was building a restaurant business, Robin ruled the house with a stout list of chores and the occasional midnight run for Slurpees with the requirement that all the kids (and herself) dressed in the craziest costumes they could find.

They’re the perfect babysitters.

To keep Burt happy while he’s babysitting just give him a good sofa and a stack of Louis L’Amours. He’ll occasionally look up from his reading to heckle the kids but he’s largely harmless.

Robin, on the other hand, is the Energizer Bunny personified. Any hour of the day or night she’s game for an adventure.

Pack up the kids in the Suburban and visit all the local fountains around?

Check.

Bake brownies with all the kids at 1:00 AM?

Check.

Snuggle and talk with a teenager in their bed until 2:00 AM?

Check.

Believe me…the babysitter is the key. Take care of the kids and you’re halfway to Europe.

Step 2: Save Yourself a Lot of Money

I imagine lots of people consider a trip to Europe is only for snooty rich folk. Which brings to mind one of those imaginary and remarkably detailed scenes that plays out in my mind on a far too regular basis:

I sit in the morning light of our sunlit breakfast room—left leg comfortably resting over my right. The drape of my cuffed, gabardine slacks is the perfect compromise between style and comfort. I've naturally chosen the amber cuff-links because they match my Burluti shoes.

Looking down, I tsk at a small snag in my handwoven Italian socks. I must remember to throw those in the rubbish bin at the end of the day, lest I (embarrassingly) wear them again.

Lori breezes into the room looking like the sun itself—smart (and a little sassy) in her tennis club whites. She coos over me as I read the latest racing results in The Yachtsman. She kisses me lightly on the cheek (lest she leave her lipstick on my lean, tanned face) and lovingly adjusts my cravat before bouncing out the door behind Topham, her driver.

One more bite of the exquisite quiche truffle prepared by Gerard (on loan from my father's estate, Whitman on the Moor) and I rise to my feet to meet yet another day.

Not.

Most mornings it's far more likely that I wander into our kitchen (destroyed by my teenagers the night before), feeling all muzzy-headed and looking a bit rumpled in my lunch-stained Dockers to grab a bowl of Cheerios. Meanwhile, Lori uses her mommy-megaphone voice to threaten the kids to hurry up already before they miss their ride to school.

So, no. Snooty we ain't.

And although I make a comfortable living, I'm a fan of a bargain as much as the next belly-bulging, middle-aged, hairstyle-stuck-in-the-fifties sort of guy. 

Which is why we've become fans of the American Express Delta SkyMiles credit card.

Yes, I said credit card.

Okay, whoa there.

Before you pick up your pitchfork, rouse the drunken villagers, and storm our house shouting, "BIG FINANCIAL MISTAKE!", let me ‘splain (as Ricky Ricardo used to say).

We never buy anything with our credit card that we don’t have the cash to pay for…and we never carry a balance. The card gets paid off in full every month.

Okay, are you feeling better?

(You can extinguish that torch now.)

Frankly, I’m not even sure why American Express lets us have a card…because they make almost no money off us. Sure, there’s an annual fee. But they don’t earn any interest.

Yet, after a few years of normal spending, Am Ex and Delta will give us two free tickets to Europe.

It's crazy.

We put everything we can on that card.

That means medical bills, groceries, gasoline, phone bills—you name it.

If we can pay for it with our American Express, we do.

If our mortgage company would allow us to pay the mortgage with our card, we would.

Why? Because every dollar we spend earns us another mile towards going to Europe again.

Think about it: If you can take the sting out your trip budget by knocking $3,000 off your total bill—that makes a big difference.

And yes, most roundtrip flights to Europe cost about $1,500 apiece.

So do yourself a favor and get a SkyMiles card.

Just make sure you pay it off in full every month.

Step 3: Relax. There's Plenty of Stuff to Do.

Together, this was our third trip to Europe. We've been to Scandinavia and Italy too. I won't blame you if you kind of panic and read every travel book you can find—and then over-plan your trip down to the smallest detail.

Been there, done that.

On our first two trips we knew that Rick Steves would be a great reference for things to do, where to stay, and where to eat...but that didn't stop us from buying lots of other publishers' travel books as well.

Ha! Silly us. We're much more relaxed now, thank you very much.

Buy Rick Steves' books and sift through the pre-trip planning sections. It's practical stuff about passports and international driving permits and safety. Then pick a few of his recommended hotels or bed & breakfasts and email them for reservations. (No worries, they read and write English.) Reserve a car rental. Bring the right clothes and travel accessories.

Go ahead and take a peek at all the cool stuff there is to do in the cities you’ve picked. Maybe come up with a vague idea of things that interest you.

But don't sweat it.

Just arrive in a town, take Rick Steves' book along as your guide, and start walking.

Step 4: Choose Prague

Lori and I touched down at the Prague airport on a sunny Saturday in June.

Waiting for us was the smiling face of Jan, the owner of a local bed & breakfast located in the embassy district of Prague. Jan loaded us up in his stale-cigarette-smelling car and chatted happily as he set the land speed record over rounded cobblestone.

When we can, we choose bed & breakfasts. After all, hotels tend to be insular—keeping a kind of professional barrier between the vacationer and the country. Choose a bed & breakfast and you're far more likely to get a good dose of the local people.

First, a bit of history.

Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic and our destination that day, is 1100 years old. It's known by the nicknames, "Heart of Europe", "The Golden City", and "Mother City," (just to name a few).

It's so beautiful that even Hitler refused to bomb it.

Unfortunately the Czech Republic has a czeckered history with Communism. Originally thought to be the saving grace from the Nazis, Communism gained power with its allure of caring equally for everyone. But that's just the glossy coat on the Communist brochure. The reality was neighbors spying on neighbors, getting shot in the woods if you tried to leave, and the forcible confiscation of businesses and property.

Fortunately, after 41 years of Communist rule, the people rejected it in 1989 through what they call the Velvet Revolution.

But 41 years is gonna leave a mark.

So as Jan demonstrated his NASCAR prowess in his Volvo, we flew past blocks of grey, melancholy, Communist-era apartment buildings en route to the "City of a Hundred Spires"—perhaps the most fitting nickname of all.

And maybe that's what makes Prague all the more stunning—because it tends to be sandwiched between the remnants of Communist Bloc lifelessness.

But soon we dropped down into the Prague Valley—and the wonders of the last 1100 years opened up before us.

There's simply too much of Prague to take in all at once.

In fact, a slow walk doesn't do it either.

You have to see it from all angles—looking up, looking down, looking behind you. It needs to be seen in different lights—under rain clouds, in the golden hour before the sun goes down, and at night.

You can be forgiven for standing dumbly in the middle of a tourist-packed Saint Charles Bridge trying to make sense of the spectacle of gothic, baroque, and renaissance cornucopia swimming before your eyes.

It's a cobblestone adventurer's dream.

And it's not bad on the wallet either.

Honestly, there was something about the Czech Republic that just made me giggle. Whenever I had to pay for something I was amazed at how cheap it was. Lori and I would have an incredible meal in a cozy restaurant and I’d think: Well, this will be about 60 bucks.

Nope.  $30.

Everything was exactly half the price I thought I should be paying.

Three hundred dollars for a three night stay in a charming bed & breakfast?

Nope. $150.

Are you kidding me?

We spent 2 days flying to and from Europe and 10 days "in country" and it cost us a total of $2500.

And 3 of those days we were staying in the more expensive Hallstatt, Austria.

But I digress....

We spent three days and nights in Prague exploring all the dusty corners we could find. We packed in all sorts of adventures in those three days—like walking the Jewish Quarter and feeling the century-old echoes of the shadowed synogogues, taking our first Segway tour through a light rain—and renting our very own motorboat to tool around on the Vltava River ($25!). We climbed towers and studied the Astronomical Clock, and laughed at weird gargoyles and peeing statues. We visited the famous Wenceslas Square where the Czechs and Slovaks rejected communism. We attended a classic blacklight theatrical show that tried hard to be entertaining—and then sat mesmerized by an hour-long concert by members of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

And all the while my Nikon went click, click, click—because when it's all over—all we have are the photos and the memories.

Step 5: Drive to Český Krumlov

No trip to Europe can be complete without sluicing through the countryside buckled tightly inside a tiny European car.

Somehow my car-loving self just isn't satisfied until I've not only "been there and done that", but driven that.

So it was that we found ourselves encased in a bright yellow Fiat Panda zipping past endless fields of barley and winter wheat towards the 800 year-old medieval town of Český Krumlov.

But not before we entered the Bohemian Forest.  If there was ever a home for the characters from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, surely the forest surrounding Český Krumlov is it.
And the very impenetrable nature of it made our first look at the old, medieval town all the more surprising when we suddenly rounded a bend and there it lay below us.

The town is so perfectly entwined around a sharp S-curve of the Vltava River that it seems to grow from the very rocks and hills themselves. It’s like a pretzel—all bumps and curves and hollows.

There’s a broad castle—broodingly guarding the town—and a maze of twisted, cobblestone streets with a surprise around every corner.

My internal compass utterly failed me as we descended, climbed, and twisted right and left—then right again—attempting to find our bed & breakfast.

But getting lost is half the fun.

We finally found the B&B down a narrow alley—and it couldn't have been better—although my smattering of Czech phrases and words didn’t quite cover the language barrier between our host and me.

*****

Soon we were hiking the cobbles doing what we do best—looking for something really good to eat. When we saw a sign for a restaurace, we walked into a building—then into an open-air courtyard—and backwards hundreds of years in time. There, standing over a roaring open fire was a loud, mustachioed, pot-bellied man throwing steaks onto his wood-fired grill.

Ahhh….

I still dream about that steak snuggled in among the potato cakes….

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast, we walked to the river to begin our canoe trip down the Vltava.

Seriously…who gets to do a canoe trip down a storied river through the Bohemian Forest?

It was just Lori, the Vltava, and me…paddling along.

Oh, and a bunch of high school kids on a field trip. So we tried out our various “hellos” in Czech as the kids paddled by.

*****

The man who owned the canoe business told us that we should stop and buy a hot sausage from a friend of his along the way. So, as we came around a certain bend in the river…sure enough—there was a Czech summer camp filled with kids, grilled pork chops, sausages and jaunty polka music.

Never ones to pass up a good meal, we waded in among the kids, filled our plates with delectables, and talked and laughed with the Czechs.

Step 6: Take Your Honey to Hallstatt

As long as you’re that close to Austria, you need to drive to Hallstatt.

And Hallstatt is the perfect place to slow down.

Let’s just say that Hallstatt is such a perfectly beautiful Austrian lake-side village that the Chinese literally built its clone in the Chinese province of Guangdong.

In fact, Austria itself is one, big scenic view.

It’s like a master gardener has trimmed and cut and sculpted every tree, leaf, and blade of grass. 

Crossing the border from the somewhat tangled Czech Republic and entering the beautiful and orderly Austria is something we’ll never forget.

The site where Hallstatt now sits—surrounded as far as the eye can see by the Austrian Alps—has been home to hard-working salt miners since prehistoric times.

Now it’s a peaceful, traditional Austrian village that clings to a steep mountainside over a deep, blue lake.

How can I describe the beauty of that little-known corner of the world?

The village is perched on the mountainside like a painting—there are houses of blue, gold, red, pink and age-worn natural stain. Pear and peach trees are carefully pruned and attached to the houses as living décor.

There is a whimsical quality to Hallstatt. It’s all cobbles and corners and stairways and steeples.

The lake literally laps at its footings—and it’s that kind of mysterious blue that looks deeply cold and clean.

We explored every stair and every alley while my Nikon clickety-clicked. 

We found a pastry shop and loaded up a brown paper bag with more pastries than any two people should eat.

We rented an electric motorboat and explored the lake—stopping at the lonely and empty Schloss Grub (Castle Grub) across the lake.

Driving around the lake, we challenged Lori’s fear of heights by taking a cable car up the steep sides of Mount Dachstein. Up on top—the Alps stretching to the horizon like rolling waves—we hiked the alpine tundra and hung suspended over the valley on an engineered overlook called the five fingers.

It was a perfect place to pause, slow down, and soak in the last few days of an incredible European trip.

It didn’t even matter that it rained the last few days—we just fired up some umbrellas and kept going.

Step 7: Pay Your Respects at a Concentration Camp and Stay Your Last Night in a Windmill

Unfortunately, dotting the map in this part of Europe are some of the remnants of the holocaust.  And we felt like we couldn't be this close without visiting one of them.

So on our long drive back to Prague, we stopped at Mauthausen.


Mauthausen Concentration Camp, not far from Linz, Austria, is one of the lesser-known camps run by the Nazis. Yet, with its quarry pit, “stairs of death”, and rows and rows of stark barracks, a visit there pierces your soul.

It was nearly overwhelming as we listened to the audio guide while walking from place to place throughout the camp—hearing the stories of cruelty and suffering that took place at that very spot.

But there is something about facing history in that way—standing where brutality stood and paying your respects to those who suffered—that is somehow both sobering and cathartic.

*****

For our last night in Prague, we had chosen a very special place to stay. To call it a bed & breakfast simply doesn't do it justice. The Pension Větrnik is more like an old-world inn. First built as a chapel, then converted to a windmill, it is now a grand old estate in the middle of the concrete jungle of the (now) bad side of Prague.

But enter its protected walls and you are transported to another time and place.

The proprietor, Milos, is not only a great talker who will entertain you with endless stories, but he’s also an incredible chef.

Let him make you dinner as you kick back and enjoy the old-world charm of his hundreds-of-years-old house.

Oh, and don’t forget to let him make you breakfast too. 


*****

So yeah...I may not be a quick learner, but I've figured out how to take my honey to Hallstatt.

Honestly...you can do it too.

Find yourself a good babysitter, get American Express and Delta to pay for your flights, take along Rick Steves as your guide, and drop into one of those fascinating European towns.

Just don't let me touch your sprinklers or your mower.

To see more photos of our trip, click here

6 comments:

Sally said...

Derek, you and Lori had such an amazing trip and I want to thank you for sharing it with us....What a lovely memory you had and what a lovely memory your children had....lucky for all of you!

kemendenhall said...

Looks like quite an adventure, and fun!
Kent Mendenhall

Barry said...

Lori and Derek, with your description of all you did it was like being there with you. Thanks for sharing.

Barry said...

Derek, thanks for the creative post. Your humble admission of yard/home repair foibles makes me feel better as I do similar things when left without professional help. And your comments about communism's effect on the country rang familiar to me as I'm currently reading about Thomas S. Monson's experiences in East Germany behind the Iron Curtain. Your travel tips make me want to upgrade my Amex whose points have so far covered the cost of rental cars for some fun interstate trips. Now I'm looking from the road up to sky's possibilities. And one more thing: when you employ your terrific style in writing a book someday, I want to design it.

Dozen Senses said...

Somehow I missed this not-to-be-missed blogpost last year! I'm enjoying some downtime catching up on reading my favorite blogs this morning but didn't realize how long it's been.

Ditto on "Barry's" thoughts above, except for since I don't have the skills to design a published book: "When you employ your terrific style in writing a book someday, I want to"....be among the first to buy it & read!

Dozen Senses said...

My favorite description: "But there is something about facing history in that way—standing where brutality stood and paying your respects to those who suffered—that is somehow both sobering and cathartic."

Your entire album alone, without a written word, is also as poignant as photography can be.