In which mulled wine warms my soul

Prague, Czech Republic

Our alarm either didn’t go off or we slept through it. Either way, we had a late start this morning. The day before Christmas is more religious and important here in Europe, so much of the city, attractions and restaurants were closed. That provided a good excuse for a coffee and muffin at the Starbucks overlooking the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock, an absurdly mechanical spectacle with figurines that come alive every hour on the hour. “That’s an intense clock,” an Aussie sitting next to us said as dozens of tourists gathered and the clock struck noon.

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We walked a few blocks to Josefov, the city’s former Jewish ghetto. The Nazis purposely left several synagogues and the cemetery intact here — what they said would become part of the “museum of an extinct race.” We visited the Old-New Synagogue, which completed around 1270, is Europe’s oldest working synagogue.

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Outside, we peaked through the wrought-iron gates into the Old Jewish Cemetery, Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish graveyard. Built in the 15th century, its crumbling 12,000 stones are in complete disrepair. The small site is said to contain about 100,000 graves, piled in layers due to lack of space.

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With a light rain falling, we walked back over the Manes Bridge and up to the Castle. It was largely quiet inside as we retraced our steps from yesterday. A hotel map guided us to Novy Svet, a picturesque cobblestone lane said to be the most beautiful in Prague. To reward ourselves (and warm up) we had a cup of hot mulled wine at a small, family-run café there.

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Petrín Hill is one of the highest points in the city. Since we were nearly at its 318-meter peak, we pushed onward (or upward). Unfortunately, the weather turned sour, which spoiled the view. Our walk home was interesting — having lost the paved trail, it involved mud, dead rabbits and hobos living in sewer drains. We were back inside by around 16:30 and after a visit to the fitness center, got ready for an early dinner.

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The hotel had recommended Luka Lu, a Croatian restaurant just a few blocks away. It was strangely decorated (the highlight being a baby doll hung from the ceiling) but the home-cooked food was simple and authentic. We both opted for non-pork dishes — chicken stuffed with gorgonzola and spinach, a nice steak grilled medium — with a large caesar salad to start.

For dessert, we made one last trip to the Christmas Market. The trdelndelík (sugar donuts) were just too good not to have one more. We wondered if perhaps Crate & Barrel or Williams Sonoma might sell trdelndelík kits before packing up for our trip to Vienna tomorrow.

Defenestration in Prague

Prague, Czech Republic

Our hand-written weather forecast card placed on our bed during last night’s turndown service said to expect snow and highs around 3 degrees Celsius today. But when we opened the curtains this morning, we found only partially cloudy skies and temperatures considerably warmer. Perhaps luck would be with us.

We opted against the Mandarin’s 24-euro breakfast and instead walked down the street for a quick egg sandwich at Bohemia Bagel. Our first stop of the day was the Prague Castle, the largest castle in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s 570 meters long and an average of 128 meters wide, covering an area of about seven football fields.

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Our tickets allowed us entrance into essentially all of the complex buildings, including the grand St. Vitus Cathedral, whose foundation stone was laid in 1344. One of its last doorways was completed 1953, making for one long, 600+ year construction project.

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Next, we checked out the Bohemian crown jewels and other artifacts in an exhibit called Story of Prague Castle. Just next door was the Old Royal Palace, one of the oldest parts of the castle, dating from 1135. We entered into Vladislav Hall, a vast, cavernous space used for banquets, coronations — even indoor jousting matches — that has recently served as the backdrop of the swearing in ceremonies of Czech Republic’s presidents. Our favorite tidbit though: it has also been the site of several defenestrations, that is, the throwing of people out of windows.

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We warmed up inside the Convent of St. George, which now houses an art collection from the National Gallery. Directly adjacent is the red-bricked Basilica of St. George. On our way out, we visited Golden Lane, an alley lined with colorful cottages that once housed the castle’s goldsmiths. Today, it houses tourist shops hawking soap, t-shirts and other crap. We passed and instead made our way to the castle’s entrance for another tourist spectacle: the 12 noon changing of the guard ceremony.

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The walk down the castle steps wasn’t nearly as bad as the walk up, and offered a sweeping view of Prague.

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We crossed the Manes Bridge and cruised through the Stare Mesto neighborhood to Grand Café Orient, the city’s only Cubist café with a retro and authentic feel to it. The ham and cheese baguette and goat cheese salad was solid — as was the Kavi Grand Orient, a potent coffee beverage with espresso, Bacardi, Kahlua and whipped cream.

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The café is housed in the House of the Black Madonna, whose top three floors contain the Museum of Czech Cubism. It’s a modest collection of paintings, sculptures and some really sweet furniture.

With the sun starting to set, we made our way past tubs filled with carp (sold live for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner) toward Wenceslas Square, once a medieval horse market. Its wide boulevards are now lined with department stores and shops. We checked out the Christmas Market, which was much of the same, before walking back to the hotel.

A perfect day in Prague wouldn’t be complete without beer, so after resting and changing at the hotel, we took the #22 tram a couple of stops to Pivovarsky Dum, a local microbrewery. The New York Times told us that there would be no chance of getting a table, but we went anyway.

There wasn’t much English being spoken when we arrived and the brash maitre de curtly informed us that the wait would be an hour, but we stuck it out — ended up waiting only 20 minutes — and were rewarded for our perseverance. A sampler of the pub’s brews included banana, vanilla, coffee, wheat, light and sour cherry. They were all really good and complemented our beef goulash and roast pork and potato dumplings well. We felt very Czech.

For dessert, we took the tram to Café Savoy, a recently restored café originally built in 1893. With glowing crystal chandeliers overhead, we had a glass of port and split a piece of chocolate cake. Right next door was Olympia, which was good for one last night cap, a glass of draught beer and shot of becherovka, a potent mixture that kept me warm for the entire walk home.

Hitting the road again

Prague, Czech Republic

“In order to pursue leadership positions beyond the creative realm, I need a broader understanding of how companies operate. Part of this involves gaining the necessary quantitative and general business management foundation that I have had only a limited, informal exposure to.”

This is from my application essay last year to Kenan-Flager Business School. My case for admission at the time was pretty straight-forward: with no formal business background, I sought the fundamental quantitative skills, knowledge, and network that were critical to successfully starting and growing my own business. It’s safe to say that after only a semester at UNC — one that has included ten courses, including macro and microeconomics, financial tools, corporate finance, business strategy, marketing, operations, statistics, organizational behavior and financial accounting — I’ve taken a big step forward in building that foundation.

It’s been a whirlwind and immersive four months, but one in which I’ve learned a great deal, met some fantastic people and started working toward achieving that post b-school goal. It’s also been an exhausting semester, making my winter break trip to Central Europe — a ten-day jaunt to Prague, Czech Republic, Vienna, Austria and Budapest, Hungary — a real treat.

After a taxi and bus ride, we arrived at Dulles last night a little before 9 p.m. for our Air France flight to Europe. We checked in, struggled to put our bags on the scale and then went in search of Five Guys nourishment at the airport’s new B Terminal. Our hearts were nearly broken when we learned that one of the locations was closed so we trekked to the A Terminal for Little Cheeseburgers, Freedom Fries and A&W Root Beer. It was a solid final meal on American terra firma and provided the necessary fuel for the 20-minute walk back to our gate, just as our flight was boarding.

We found our seats near the rear of the plane, listened to safety instructions in French and were soon airborne en route to Paris. Strong trans-Atlantic headwinds, the captain said, would make the flying time just around 6 hours. It was enough to have a couple complimentary Heinekens, watch Pineapple Express and catch a few hours of sleep.

A short layover didn’t provide the time we’d hoped for a Parisian coffee and croissant. Instead, Charles de Gaulle was kind of a mad house, with long holiday lines at the security checkpoints. Bleary eyed, we boarded Air France flight 1982 and after an uneventful 90 minutes, were wheels down in Prague at 15:02, a few minutes behind schedule.

Our bags were some of the last on the carousel and we found it strange that there was no customs or immigration checkpoint to pass through. Not even a passport stamp. A quick cab ride brought us to our first hotel of the trip, the Mandarin Oriental, opened two years ago in the city’s Mala Strana (Little Quarter) neighborhood, in the shadow of the famous castle. It’s a beautiful place partially housed in a restored 14th century convent, with radiant heated bathroom floors, exceptional service and all of the amenities you would expect in what has been said is Prague’s most luxurious hotel.

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Our room, #106, overlooked the monastery’s old courtyard. We hit up the rain shower, bundled up and then made our way to the Charles Bridge, a Czech landmark. Built in 1400, the bridge is lined with 30, mainly religious, statues of saints and bishops.

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A walk through a maze of streets on the other side of the Vltava River brought us to Old Town Square, one of Europe’s biggest. The mood at the annual Christmas Market was festive. Food and crafts stalls circled around a huge tree, while a tuba band played a rendition of Rudolph and the spires of the Church of our Lady Before Tyn soared overhead.

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For dinner, we sampled some traditional Czech dishes: klobasa v baguette (sausage with mustard on a baguette), bramborácky (dank garlicky potato pancakes) and trdelndelík (sugar donuts cooked over open coals), all washed down with a couple glasses of hot mulled wine. Very delicious.

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Exhausted from our day’s travels, we headed home, climbed into our exceptionally high thread count sheets and hit the sack.

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