A bath in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary

We started today, the last of both our trip and the year, with American coffees and pastries at Gerbeaud, the most famous café in Budapest. Founded in 1858, it has survived the ages — and continues to serve up over-sized sweets some 150 years later.

dsc_0567

The café is right next to the Metro, which made it easy for us to buy a ticket and hop on the yellow line for a short ride to the Széchenyi Baths, the largest thermal baths in Europe. It’s a huge and somewhat confusing complex; there isn’t much help for non-Magyar speaking tourists, as we learned while trying to operate the lockers and rent towels.

dsc_0571
dsc_0573

Finally, we were suited up and ready to hit the outdoor baths. Steam rose from the pools, heated to around 38 degrees Celsius, as the outdoor temperature hovered around freezing. Hungarians around us had already begun celebrating the New Year with bottles of champagne; after the morning’s trials, we didn’t even think about asking where the refreshment stand was.

dsc_0575

Thoroughly pruned, we got out and made our way back to the changing rooms (which had begun to smell a little funky). Our Sofitel slippers got left behind as we walked across Hero’s Square to the Millenary Monument, a 36-meter high pillar, topped by Angel Gabriel who is holding a cross and the Hungarian crown (the same one we didn’t get a chance to see at Parliament).

dsc_0581

Afterward, we took the Metro back into the city center and returned to Culinaris, a small specialty food store, and bought some meats and cheese to snack on with a freshly baked baguette. On our way out, we picked up a bottle of champagne to share before our New Years Eve with Parov Stelar, a well known DJ from Vienna, at A38, a venue housed in a boat permanently stationed on the banks of the Danube.

Our Air France flight back to the States, via Paris, departs at 12:50 p.m. tomorrow.

Overcoming a crushing setback

Budapest, Hungary

We left room 645 a little after 10 a.m. this morning and walked up Budapest’s main pedestrian drag, Andrássy út, passing by the Hungarian State Opera House en route to Lukács, one of the city’s most decadent cafés with a gold-leafed ceiling and crystal handeliers hanging from above. The Continental Breakfast, with its pot of coffee and two freshly baked pastries, hit the spot.

dsc_0484
dsc_0492

Right next door was the House of Terror, a haunting museum that focuses on two tragic periods in this country’s history: the Nazi and Communist regimes. The building itself, at 60 Andrássy Boulevard, is historic, having served as the headquarters of both the Hungarian Nazis and, shortly thereafter, the AVH, or communist terror organization. Its rooms are filled with exhibits that tell this story — perhaps most profound were the basement’s reconstructed prison cells.

dsc_0498
dsc_0505

It was a pretty draining visit, so we walked back to the hotel and across the Chain Bridget to Pest. From there, we boarded the Siklo, an aging funicular that brought us to the top of Castle Hill. The wind had picked up and the temperature dropped, so we bundled up, avoided the touts for classical music concerts and checked out the former Royal Palace. The views of the Danube toward Buda were pretty impressive.

dsc_0516
dsc_0522

Matthias Church was largely under renovation, which fortunately did not take away from the magnificence of the interior stained glass.

dsc_0543
dsc_0540

We strolled Fishermen’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic masquerade built as a viewing platform in 1905 before retreating to a small café for sandwiches and fruit salad and then heading to the day’s main attraction: the House of Hungarian Wines.

We had read that this Budapest institution offered a crash course in Hungarian wines; a $20 ticket was to have given us two unlimited tasting hours of 50 varieties. When we arrived, thirsty and read to go, an absolute crushing setback: the House was permanently closed after a fire this summer. Needless to say, we were devastated (even more so than yesterday’s Parliament fiasco) and retreated to the lobby of a Hilton across the street to regroup.

It was there that we hatched a genius idea. If the House of Hungarian Wines couldn’t provide us with our introduction, we’d organize our own wine tasting. Conveniently, La Boutique de Vins, one of the city’s premiere wine shops was just a block from our hotel and the helpful owner offered up some suggestions.

Bottles in hand, we walked back to the Sofitel and set up a wine tasting in our living room. We had a 2006 Le Sommelier Merlot (from the Malatinszky Kuria region); a 2006 Chardonnay from the same region; and a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Malatinszky Villány. Some glass cups from our mini bar worked just fine.

dsc_0554

Here are our tasting notes:

  • Merlot: Meaty and full-bodied. Pairs well with steak and our uncomfortable couch.
  • Chardonnay: Lemony, would go well with chicken picata. We love watching International Travel Channel and uncensored German MTV reality television while drinking this.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Didn’t quite get to it.

Our wine tasting ended in a short nap, after which we headed out for dinner at Kheiron, a restaurant that billed itself as “The place where the gastronomy meet with the mitology and art.” Despite the terrible spelling and translation, we split a delicious caesar salad and then had solid steak and rosemary chicken dishes. After the sour cherry strudel disaster last night, we skipped dessert and instead jetted back to our pillow-topped bed.

Highs and lows in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary

It was kind of nice to sleep in this morning after three jam-packed days in Vienna. When we did venture out, the air was wicked cold and a thick cloud of pollution hung above the city. The Sofitel looked a bit nicer last night than it did in the daylight — perhaps we’ve been a bit spoiled — and it’s clear that the hotel’s recent remodel focused on some areas (lobby) and not as much on others (room furnishings). Not to say that this is slumming it, and to the Sofitel’s credit, the concierge and front desk have been fantastic.

Adorned in hats, mittens and scarves, we arrived for a breakfast of museli, fresh fruit and lattes at Negro, one of the city’s new breed of modern cafés. It did the trick and at $15 bucks for the two of us, sure beat the 29 euro (per person) offering back at the hotel. The café was in the same square as the Basilica of St. Stephen, the city’s cathedral, whose Baroque interior, with its stained glass, was impressive. We really enjoyed checking out St. Stepehen’s petrified hand, enclosed in a glass case in a back chapel, while surrounded by Asian tourists frantically snapping pictures.

dsc_0407
dsc_0416
dsc_0425

On our way to Independence Square, featuring one of the city’s few remaining memorials to the Soviet army, we passed a Mercedes SUV that might have made a slight wrong turn a few miles back.

dsc_04321
dsc_0431

Next, we crossed four busy lanes of traffic to see Shoes on the Danube, a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who were shot and thrown into the river by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. Sixty shoes, cast in metal, line the river and offer a poignant reminder of past atrocities.

dsc_0435
dsc_0440

There was a really long line for a tour of the Hungarian Parliament, an imposing building on the river’s banks, so we huddled up with the masses to wait for a ticket. An hour later, we were freezing, but had nearly made our way to the front.

dsc_0442

Just five people stood between us and a peak at the Crown of St. Stephen, a Hungarian national icon housed inside. Wouldn’t it be just our luck that moments from warmth, a fur-hat wearing guard would spin around and plop down this sign, which curtly read: “There aren’t any tickets left for today.”

dsc_0444

Defeated, we walked to a nearby café for a cappuccino. With hot fluids coursing through us again, we set out for the Great Synagogue, the second largest in the world. Completed in 1859, it can seat 3,000 worshippers. Thankfully, there was no line, so we spent some time checking out the sanctuary, a museum and a Holocaust memorial — a metal tree with victim names inscribed on leaves — in the back courtyard.

dsc_04491
dsc_0452
dsc_0465

The stop got us hungry for Jewish delicacies, so we headed to nearby Carmel Prince for matzo-ball soup and an Israeli salad sampler.

dsc_0472

Back at the hotel, we hit up the gym, which was kind of small and outdated. The pool was overrun by far too many Speedo-clad tourists. Having left mine at home, we passed. Our late dinner at Dio was a contemporary take on traditional Hungarian food. The pork chops with fresh herbs & cheese potato pancakes were delicious; the sour cherry strudel for dessert didn’t taste like sour cherry and was missing sugar. We would have been better without it.

With the wind whipping up and the pollution cloud rolling in, we high-tailed it back to the hotel and were welcomed with a warm blast of air after passing through the revolving doors.

Getting a small museum dose

Vienna, Austria

We hit the gym, packed up, checked out and stored our bags with the concierge before grabbing breakfast again at Aida and hitting the streets for our last day in Vienna. It was a quick walk to MuseumQuartier, a complex of museums on the site of the former imperial stables that was completed in 2001. We bought MQ Duo tickets, which granted us entrance to the Leopold and MUMOK.

dsc_0385

The Leopold houses the impressive former private collection of Rudolf Leopold. It’s a white-limestone building and natural light floods into the rooms — which was great, since the sun made a rare appearance today. My favorite paintings were portraits by Christian Schad, while Charlotte was into the Klimts.

dsc_0368

Across the courtyard, standing in marked contrast to the Leopold, is MUMOK, the Museum of Modern Art, housed in a black-basalt box with no windows. There was a solid collection of Joan Miro and Josef Albers, both of which were really cool, as well as an audio and visual 3-D installation by Peter Kogler. In the basement was perhaps the strangest part of MUMOK, with a bizarre exhibit called Mind Expanders. This was performance art — or art that makes you ask: is this really art?

dsc_0373
dsc_0382

We needed a break and some fresh air so walked over to Bitzinger Wurstelstand, an outdoor food stand, for an order of Kaskrainer, cheese-filled sausage wish mustard, and a Coke Light. Nearby, Oberlaa re-caffeinated us up with cappuccinos and a raspberry and truffle torte.

dsc_0388
dsc_0390

A visit to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without some time at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of the finest art museums in the world. It includes much of the Hapsburg art collection and pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Bruegel, Raphael and all those other big shots. My favorite pieces though were the “vegetable” portraits by Guiseppe Arcimboldo.

dsc_0400

We returned to the hotel, grabbed our bags and got a taxi to the Westbanhof Station for our OBB train to Budapest that left at 17:50. It was pretty empty, so we got our own cabin and read up on our next destination as we passed through the countryside. The smell of wood-burning fireplaces permeated through our windows as the lights of Budapest drew closer.

A little before 21:00, we disembarked at the Keleti Pu Station and hailed a cab to our final hotel, the Sofitel, on the Pest side of the Danube River. It’s a big black box from the outside, but in the lobby, a retired plane hangs from the courtyard ceiling and a somewhat European trendy vibe resonates.

dsc_0479
dsc_0482

We booked a Queen Suite, a huge room with a pillow-topped bed, two flatscreen televisions and delicious Hermes products in the bathroom. Another bottle of champagne was a nice touch.

dsc_0403

Good job, Hungary.

U-Bahn’ing like it’s my job

Vienna, Austria

After yesterday’s ridiculously packed day, we cut ourselves some slack and slept in this morning before hitting up the gym and walking to Naschmarkt, the largest market in Vienna. Saturday mornings are the busiest time, when vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, as well as olives, cheeses and breads.

dsc_0293

We worked up an appetite walking around before ducking into Naschmarkt Deli, whose glass walls provide a fishbowl’s perch out onto the action. The Turkish breakfast — which included olives, feta and other market vegetables — and a bagel sandwich, whose contents we’re not entirely sure of, were both awesome.

dsc_0297

On Saturdays, at the end of the market, right by Kettenbruckengasse, is a huge flea market. There’s really something for everyone — from war trinkets to old fur coats strewn on the ground — including this guy, selling (quite literally) a kitchen sink.

dsc_0298

We bought 24-hour passes and hopped on the U-Bahn green line to Schonbrunn. Our Sisi ticket, which we bought yesterday at the KaiserAppartements, included entrance to Schloss Schonbrunn, a palace said to be second only to Versailles in its opulence and wealth. Built in 1700, it has some 2,000 rooms and was used by royalty — as well as Napoleon from 1805 to 1809 — until 1918. About 40 of its rooms are now open to the public, which we toured with our ears attached to audio guides as we battled the tour group masses.

dsc_0306
dsc_0308

Afterward, we strolled around the gardens, which would have been much more enjoyable had it not been 30 degrees outside. Still, we got a chance to check out the Neptunbrunnen, the Neptune Fountain opposite the palace.

dsc_0320
dsc_0314

We walked back to the U, and with a transfer at Schwedenplatz, took the red line to Wien Praterstern. The Prater is one of Vienna’s many parks, dominated by the Risenrad, an old ferris wheel built in 1897. A 20-minute ride aboard the historic cabins offered some great views of the surrounding countryside, including the Vienna Woods.

dsc_0341
dsc_0347

Back on the U, we transferred at Volkstheater and took the orange line to Zieglergasse Station for the last attraction on our Sisi ticket, the Hofmobiliendepot, essentially a converted storage warehouse for royal furniture and everyday objects. There are over 6,000 items on display, rows of chairs, coat racks, foot-stools, mirrors and candelabras. With no tourists to compete with, we had an absolute blast here.

dsc_0362

On the U for one last trip, we returned to Stephansplatz and bee-lined to Trzesniewski, said to be the country’s best sandwich shop. If it was good enough for Kafka, it would be good enough for us. The egg and paprika, salmon and bacon and herring and horseradish two-bite sandwiches, washed down with a glass of carrot-apple juice on-tap, hit the spot.

dsc_0365

Meinl is Austria’s answer to specialty food stores like Chapel Hill’s Southern Season (or perhaps it’s the other way around). While it was a bit smaller and didn’t have the same variety, it did have some pretty unique foodstuffs for sale and we didn’t have any trouble filling up a basket.

Back at Le Meridien, it was time to hit the gym again before a late dinner at Cantineta Antinori, a Tuscan winery that has opened a few select Italian restaurants around the world. We started with an antipasto sampler and arugula salad and then split wild boar and mushroom gnocchi. With a couple of glasses of red wine, it hit the spot.

On our walk back, we stopped at Palmenhaus, a bar set in an old restored Victorian palm house. Its high arched ceilings and roaring digital fireplace above the bar offered a perfect backdrop for a Johnny Walker nightcap.

Nothing like Austrian royalty

Vienna, Austria

We started the morning with a latte and plum pastry at Aida before crossing the street for our 10 a.m. tour of Staatsoper, the venue for music here in Vienna. It was built between 1861-1869 but was largely destroyed during the war. Our guide showed us the lavish lobby and intermission rooms before taking us on stage, where crews were frantically scrambling to prepare for the evening’s performance of La Boheme. It was an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s most famous opera houses — plus, at 3.5 euros, cost us a whole lot less than tickets to a show would.

dsc_0210
dsc_0224

Our next stop wasn’t far, just a 5-minute walk to the Albertina, said to house the greatest collection of graphic art in the world. The museum was featuring exhibits on Picasso and Monet, which we enjoyed, along with some really cool contemporary, mixed media pieces.

dsc_0233

The main attraction in Vienna is the Hofburg, the former imperial palace of one of Europe’s most powerful empires, so we made our way there next. We first checked out the NationalBibliothek, which was once the imperial library — and is now the largest library in Vienna. Our ticket granted us entrance into the Prunksaal (Grand Hall), an absolutely amazing space whose walls are lined with 200,000 leather-bound volumes dating back to the 15th century. Pictures don’t do this place justice.

dsc_0247
dsc_0236
dsc_0244

The Schatzkammer, which was next door, showcases all of the Hofburg booty and treasure. The precious-stone encrusted crowns and other opulence — like a 2,860-carat Colombian emerald — were pretty amazing.

dsc_0253

We saved the best for last with the KaiserAppartements, the former living quarters of Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth. These “apartments” offered insight into how royalty once lived — and how they often faced the same issues as us laypeople. Elisabeth was neurotic about her appearance and weight. She rarely appeared at dinner and had exercise rings installed in her door frame so that she could get in workouts before bedtime. No photos were allowed inside, but here’s me in the courtyard.

dsc_0265

It was a lot to take in and we were getting famished. For lunch, we picked out Figlmueller, a Vienna institution known for having the city’s best (and largest) schnitzel. We ordered a Figlmueller Schnitzel to share along with a side order of potato-field salad. Not disappointingly, the huge schnitzel, deep-fried to perfection, hung off of our plate and went well with the mustard-y salad. Good pit stop.

dsc_0270

We detoured to Judenplatz, the old Jewish Quarter. It’s a maze of tiny, cobblestoned streets but we found our way to the Holocaust-Denkmal, a memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. The names of concentration camps line the base and the spines of thousands of stone-carved books face inward — representing the untold stories of those lost. The square was appropriately quiet and solemn as we took it all in.

dsc_0275
dsc_0280

Having saved some room from lunch, we stopped at Café Sacher on our way back to the hotel for a cappuccino and the famous Sacher Torte, a rich chocolate cake that was once favored by Emperor Franz Josef.

dsc_0288

Properly in a sugar coma, we arrived back at the Meridien and promptly hit up the gym — which strangely, like the rest of the hotel, had mood lighting. Try reading the display of your treadmill bathed in purple ambient lighting. Form over function, anyone?

Being in Vienna, we had to hear some classical music so got spiffed up for a Strauss & Mozart concert called Sound of Vienna at the Kursalon. The tour buses out front were an ominous sign, but we entered anyway and bought the cheapest tickets in the house. Inside, we were shown to the back before promptly moving up about 20 rows when the ushers weren’t looking. The orchestra was actually quite good, which more than made up for the absolute tourist cheesiness of some of the guests in attendance.

We bolted downstairs after the encore to beat the masses to the coat check and then made our way back to Stephansplatz. Across the street from the grand church is the DO & CO, whose Onyx Bar, with fantastic views, is one of Vienna’s hippest spots. We grabbed a table and ordered a couple rounds of cocktails (including, a Frozen Blackberry, Monkey Business and some dirty martinis) as well as Asian inspired appetizer sampler to nosh on. A hundred something bucks later, with the clock striking one, we made our way back home.

Christmas in Vienna

Vienna, Austria

We returned to our favorite breakfast spot, Bohemia Bagel, early this morning before checking out of the Mandarin. We were sad to go — this really is an almost magical hotel. As a thank you, the concierge gave us two gift certificates for complimentary 90-minute Ultimate Body Massages, valid on our next two-night visit. Since we don’t plan on returning for some time, we’re happy to pass them along — simply mention promotion code “FANS” upon making a reservation. You can thank us for the 290 euro present later.

We took a cab through the deserted streets to the Prague Main Train Station, an Art Noueveau building built between 1901 and 1909, that is largely under renovation right now. Our 10:57 a.m. SuperCity Train to Wien departed promptly on time. There were three other passengers in our car — making us glad that we had paid extra for reserved seats.

The train made a couple of stops in the Czech countryside before an uneventful crossing into Austria. A new crew came on board and rechecked our tickets. Somewhere close to the end of our 4-hour journey, perhaps while flipping through Lonely Planet, we realized that there’s a lot to do in Vienna. The next three days would need to be well planned if there was any hope of seeing the bare minimum.

We pulled into the Sudbahnhof Station, unloaded and grabbed a cab to our next hotel, Le Meridien. It wasn’t long after passing through the bird-chirping revolving door and entering the vibrantly lit, strangely decorated lobby that we understood why this hotel has been called the city’s most contemporary accommodation.

dsc_0150

We were given #812, an executive room on the highest floor, with mood lighting, a glass headboard, hot pink bathtub and huge flatscreen. A bottle of champagne welcomed us. Needless to say, the place would do.

dsc_0136
dsc_0143

To hit the ground running, we dutifully followed our guidebook’s “Essential Vienna” walking tour, which we hoped would provide a good introduction to the city. Our hotel was in a great location, just across the street from the Staatsoper (Opera House) and Hofburg Palace. We made our way to Stephansdom, the iconic church, with its tiled roof and skeletal southern tower. Christmas Mass was just getting underway, and the Pummerin, Austria’s largest bell at 21 tons, was offering a resounding call.

dsc_0165
dsc_0163

Backtracking to Graben Street, one of the city’s grand pedestrian drags, we hit up Demel. This café is best known for its Ana Demel Torte, a chocolate and nougat cake that necessitates an almost immediate trip to the gym.

dsc_0170

dsc_0185

We treated it as an amuse bouche and went in search of Ra’mien, an Asian-fusion restaurant that Lonely Planet called a “sheer delight.” Unfortunately, this sheer delight was mismarked on our guidebook’s map, so we spent the next 90 minutes hunting around the city in search of it. Helpful locals pointed the way but we somehow kept walking around in circles. The best part: when we finally got there, it was closed.

LP, prepare for my complaint letter – if my fingers ever thaw.

We walked back to the Meridien and noticed a restaurant a few doors down. It looked nice so we stepped into MartinJak, whose décor was straight out of an Alpine ski lodge. The friendly host showed us to our seats; we ordered up some Maker Marks for warmth and a wild mushroom risotto and spicy beef goulash. Homemade bread and some chive butter went well with both. We were happy.

Afterward, we walked back to the hotel, popped our champagne and waited patiently for Santa.

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.

dsc_0102

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.

dsc_0117

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.

dsc_0115
dsc_0111

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.

dsc_0121

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.

dsc_0131

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.

dsc_0032

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.

dsc_0064

dsc_00361

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.

dsc_0062

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.

dsc_0056

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

dsc_0027
dsc_00301

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.

dsc_0089

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.

dsc_0006
dsc_0008

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.

dsc_0091
dsc_0093

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.

dsc_0077

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.

dsc_0086
dsc_0088
dsc_0085

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.