Friday, October 31, 2008

Holly Highlights

The Fabulous and Honorable (well, she works for a judge) Holly S recently spent a week in this Fair City. She arrived on Saturday morning (Oct 11), and after a short respite at Chez Gunter, we whisked her north into County Meath to visit Newgrange and Knowth. This was Bill and my second (successful) visit to Newgrange and it was just as fascinating on repeat viewing. Standing in a room built over several generations 5000 years ago (which conveniently fills with light on the winter solstice) is a singular experience. Plus, the surrounding countryside is pleasantly green and sheep-covered. After the neolithic site we dropped by to visit the crosses at Monasterboice. Holly has a vague memory of driving back to Dublin and eating Indian takeaway that evening.

Sunday we headed south into County Wicklow for lunch at Avoca cafe, a stroll through the woods at Glendalough and a drive through the Wicklow Mountains. Holly was getting into the Ireland groove by this point and declared that you just can't find such natural beauty only 30 minutes from any major city in the US.

On the way home, we stalked some sheep.

Monday, Holly and I rode the Dublin Tour bus and visited the Kilmainham Gaol. Tuesday started out pretty soggy as we headed for the Museum of Decorative Arts and Irish History. Once we were safe and dry at the museum, we had a lovely afternoon and learned all kinds of stuff. The one fact I remember is that Balbriggan, a town north of Dublin, used to be a center for hosiery manufacturing, and cotton long johns were called Balbriggans.

Bill met us in town Tuesday night. We were searching out Irish food and tried the Carvery at O'Neils. It was okay. The Guinness and Bulmers were tasty, however.

I worked Wednesday morning and Holly had a bit of a lie in. She met me for lunch and then we spent the afternoon shopping. We were going to visit Leo Burdock's for a fish-n-chips dinner, but the afternoon turned rainy and chilly, so we decided to return to Raheny and try a chipper closer to home. We'd heard good things about Soprano's in Kilbarrack, a short drive in the car. Not quite as memorable as strolling the streets with a piping hot cod from Leo's, but it was decent fish enjoyed in the comfort of our own home. On Holly's last day she visited Malahide Castle, and then we met her for a lovely dinner in Malahide.

It was great having my longtime friend here for a visit. In her short six days, Holly experienced sunny spells and chilly rain, ancient ruins and modern city buzz, serious shopping and serene countryside. A very successful trip!

Prague Castle

Prague Castle is the largest castle complex in the world and a much-beloved Czech national symbol. Founded in the 9th century and expanded several times since, it is still the official presidential residence. Our Lonely Planet-suggested itinerary placed it at the beginning of the tour, and since our hotel was so close anyway we spent the bulk of our first day there. We arrived during the noon Changing of the Guard, a ritual instigated by playwright and President Václav Havel in 1989. After the guards were changed we made our way past the throng, purchased some tickets, and entered the castle complex.

The dominating feature of the castle is St. Vitus Cathedral. I thought the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was a long-term project, but St. Vitus was begun in 1344 and not finished until 1929. We postponed the cathedral because of the long line and went to the Story of Prague Castle museum first (very cool exhibit, but no pix because they weren't allowed). When we came back to the cathedral and looked at our tickets we realized that they allowed us to enter through a different entrance and circumvent the line entirely. This was almost as cool as the line-circumvention feature of the online-purchased tickets for the Guinness Storehouse.

The interior of the cathedral is pretty awe-inspiring. The perimeter is divided into a number of chapels dedicated to various people and Saints. The stained-glass windows are gorgeous. We particularly liked the art nouveau Mucha painted glass window. The strangest chapel, though, was the one dedicated to St. John of Nepomuk. One of his symbols is a tongue, and the sculpture in his chapel includes a cherub pointing to a blazing tongue. One of the miracles leading to his canonization is that after he died his tongue never decayed (he was martyred in part because he refused to betray the Seal of the Confessional). Later research has proved that the tissue in question is not actually his tongue but his brain. Not quite as miraculous but interesting nonetheless. The Wenceslas chapel houses the crown jewels of the Czech Republic. They are sealed behind a door with seven locks and each key is held by a different official of the government. They are brought out only rarely for special state occasions.

After touring the cathedral we went to the old Royal Palace. This picture is of Vladislav Hall, designed by Benedikt Ried in the late 15th century, where all the presidents of the republic have been sworn in. The balcony affords a lovely view of Prague. We finished our tour of the castle with a walk down the Golden Lane, which wasn't memorable enough to photograph. Our Lonely Planet guide reserves half a day for the entire castle. We spent half a day there and saw only half the castle. Lonely Planet authors are a bit more ambitious and energetic than we are.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dining in Prague

Bill and I were looking forward to visiting Prague, a land awash in dumplings and goulash. And happily, we had two excellent Czech meals. The first was our delightful riverside lunch where we had suckling pig with a leek dumpling and red currant sauce. I had some mint tea and we had our first taste of Pilsner Urquell, a highly refreshing beverage.

Sunday evening we had a splendid dinner in a cozy restaurant called U Modré Kachnicky (At the Blue Duckling). We started with some Czech Michlovský sparkling wine. I was overtaken by a spirit of "When in Bohemia..." and chose two items I've never eaten before: Beef Tongue and Pheasant. The tongue was tasty, served with horseradish sauce and pickled onions. I'm a sucker for horseradish, and now know it goes great with thinly sliced cow-part-you'd-rather-not-think-about. The pheasant was wonderful, very mild but not flavorless. Bill started with duck rillettes and chose roast wild boar for his entree. Bill is a sucker for wild boar. Really, he is. Bill had a baked apple for dessert, and I had lemon sorbet, and although that's not what I ordered, it was a perfect end to the meal.

Although the late night takeaway is hard to find, food carts are plentiful during the day. We particularly enjoyed the sausage wagon (with real kraut!-- a scarcity in Dublin), and the rolled cinnamon sugar bread.

So Bohemian

Sunday morning in Prague we ventured to Nové město (New Town) to visit the Antonin Dvorák Museum. The museum is housed in an 18th century home, and chronicles Dvorák's life and development as a musician and composer. Bill really enjoyed seeing the scores of some of his favorite pieces written in Dvorák's own hand.

After the museum, we wandered to Wenceslas Square. The square features a statue of its namesake, the patron saint of Bohemia. Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia from 921 until he was murdered by his brother in 935. Canonized due to his martyr's death, Wenceslas is considered the eternal ruler of Bohemia. Legend says that when the Motherland faces great threat, the statue in Wenceslas Square will come to life and--by raising a sleeping army and finding a legendary sword--will slay all enemies of the Czechs. Let's hope the correct statue is awakened, as there are two statues of Wenceslas within a few blocks, one being an installation by Černý (the creator of the gentlemen of The Piss) that features Wenceslas upon a dead horse, hanging by the hooves.

Monday we explored the narrow streets of Nový Svět and walked on the grounds of Prague Castle, and then took the tram to the funicular for a ride up Petrin Hill. We exited at the top of the funicular track and walked through the woods. We saw the Hunger Wall, a fortification built in 1360 under the reign of Czech King Charles IV that provided wages to workers during a time of famine. We stopped for coffee at a scenic cafe halfway up Petrin Hill. After a late lunch, a bit more shopping (chocolates!), and another walk on the Charles Bridge, we headed for the airport around 6:00.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

When the Sun Shines But Is Not Hot

When we learned the meaning of the Czech word for September, září, we knew we had chosen the perfect time to visit Prague. We had four days of gorgeous weather and indeed the sun shone, but wasn't hot. Although it did feel quite warm and we both got a little pink. (We've decided the sun just bleaches you in Ireland.)

Our flight out of Dublin on Thursday (25 Sept) was delayed by three hours because of traffic control problems in the UK, so we arrived in Prague around midnight. As we left the highway and drove through the dark streets our taxi began to shake a bit. Cobblestones, Bill said. Our mustachioed innkeeper was waiting for us, the only lighted window within several streets. Our room was lovely, simply furnished and bright. The wireless access was free. Continental breakfast was served in the adjoining hotel restaurant. The first morning I pointed to a diet coke in a refrigerated case. "Oh, not for breakfast," the server said, meaning the sodas were not included with breakfast. I held up my fingers and rubbed them together, "I can pay?" I said. I felt a bit ridiculous, but I got my diet coke.

Our hotel was in Loretta Square, a 10 minute walk to Prague Castle. We spent Friday afternoon touring the castle. (More on the castle later.) We ate an early dinner in the hotel restaurant (schnitzel for me, goulash for Bill) and rested in the room for a bit. Around 8:00 we walked back down to the Castle and enjoyed the evening views. We stopped back by for a snack at an Asian restaurant called Malý Buddha.

Saturday dawned bright and we headed down the hill into Malá Strana, one of Prague's oldest boroughs. The steep street is lined with shops and restaurants, even a Mystic Pizzerie. At the base of the hill we were intrigued by a "Tower Open" sign on the corner of the Baroque marketplace, Malostranské náměstí. The Tower of St. Nicholas was built by Jesuits in the 18th century. We climbed 215 stairs of diminishing size, taking a short rest in the former apartment rooms of the fire watchman, passing the bell, to a balcony circling the tower. The view is gorgeous, surveying the red tile roofs (not just for haciendas!), the Vltava River, and Petrin Hill.

After the tower we wandered through the cobblestone streets, and saw a well known statue installed in 2004, The Piss--two animatronic guys peeing into a pool shaped like the Czech Republic. Whimsical or Political? You decide.

We lunched by the river, enjoying suckling pig with a leek dumpling and red currant sauce. After lunch we crossed the early 15th century Charles Bridge into Old Town Square in Staré Město. We saw the Astronomical Clock and the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. We wanted to visit The Old Jewish Cemetery, but it was closed, Saturday being the Sabbath. This area is also Kafka territory with several of his residences dotting the map.

Saturday evening we attended a concert at Prague's Art Nouveau Municipal Hall. Classical concerts are heavily promoted to tourists in Prague (which is not a bad thing to peddle). We were quite amused at the flyer for the concert we attended proclaiming "50 musicians on the stage!" Indeed, the North Czech Philharmony Teplice contains at least 50 musicians. The program included Dvořák, Beethoven and Glazunov. The performance ended around 10:30; we looked around for a place to eat, but were concerned about making the last train at midnight. So, we thought a takeaway would be perfect, however none could be found. Note to Prague: Few less statues, few more takeaways. We headed back to our hotel, but found all cafes and stores locked up tight, so our large, late lunch served us well, and a granola bar snack staved off starvation.

We were already loving Prague and still had two days left.