Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ireland/Czech - Day 10

Beautiful Irish weather for our last day of the trip!
Just as Lindsay had time to consider going to Fitzsimons Temple Bar last night, I had been thinking about going back to Il Fornaio since our first visit when I had identified the workers as legitimate Italians. As a result, I coerced Lindsay into accompanying me to visit them again for breakfast on our final day. This time, I greeted them in Italian and commenced ordering. Although I doubt that I fooled them into thinking I was legitimately Italian, they responded to me in Italian, so I was able to get some good practice in while ordering. It actually felt like one of those contrived scenarios you have in language classes –  

Me> I’ll have two cornetto, one plain and one chocolate, and two cappuccino.
Them> I’m sorry, we’re out of chocolate cornetto. We only have plain and almond.
Me> Okay, no problem. We’ll have two plain.


One thing we were unable to do on our first visit was go to Dublin Castle, so as we munched on breakfast, we headed that direction. This complex was first built around 1200 AD on the orders of King John I of England, though only the “Record Tower” is original construction – most of the buildings were constructed in the 18th century.

Record Tower on the right. Chapel Royal on the left.
Lindsay with Viking Construction!
 Over the years, the complex served as the seat of English government and is now a major Irish government complex. We wandered around the grounds for a bit and eventually went inside the Chapel Royal (adjacent to the Record Tower). The beautiful ceiling in this church was completed by the Stapleton brothers, but not those ones. One interesting tidbit - as each Lord Lieutenant (British governor over Ireland) left office, their coat of arms was carved on the gallery in the Chapel Royal. When space ran out, their coat of arms was placed in a window of the chapel. The last window available was taken up by Viscount Fitzalan, who ended up being the final Lord Lieutenant with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Inside of the Chapel Royal!
I liked this gate.

Directly to the south of the Dublin Castle is the Chester Beatty Library. This library was established in 1950 to house the collection of the mining magnate Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. Although we basically just stumbled on it, this is an amazing museum. Lonely Planet described it as “not just the best museum in Ireland, but one of the best in Europe,” and I agree. The museum is made up entirely of artifacts collected by one man, but “the collection captures much of the richness of human creative expression from about 2700 BC to the present day.” There are two large rooms, roughly divided into secular books and religious books. Each room would take at least an hour to get through in its entirety. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have time to do either room justice. One of my favorite pieces is right at the beginning of the museum – one of the Egyptian scrolls known as the Book of the Dead. It was amazing to see the colorful illustrations and well preserved hieroglyphics from several thousand years ago. The museum has a large collection of old bound and illustrated manuscripts that are nicely displayed and very unique. Perhaps my favorite thing in the museum was a scroll of the Qur’an that was written in ‘dust script’. (Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate an image online.) The entire page appears mostly full of black ink – up close, it resembles dust, and if you get very close, you can see that it is Arabic script. However, the real magic is that if you back away, the negative space is ALSO Arabic script. It’s amazing. A final interesting piece is a fragment of the Gospel of John from 150 AD – when I say fragment, I mean it: the entire fragment is maybe 4 x 6 inches, but it’s pretty neat to see in person. There’s a ton of other stuff in here, but suffice it to say that this museum comes highly recommended, especially since admission is free!
Back side of the Dublin Castle
Tour group in front of the library. We listened in on their conservation for awhile.
As per the aforementioned tour guide, this wall was built to prevent Queen Victoria from seeing the Irish poor people as soon as she woke up in the morning.
Since we were now in a bit of a hurry (more on that later …), we decided to drop by an Irish convenience store called Spar to pick up some deli sandwiches for lunch. One of my favorite things to do in foreign lands (or even in different areas of the US) is pick up their ‘generic cola’ and compare the taste. At Spar, their generic soda is called “American cola”, which I found amusing and tasty. We also dropped by Supervalu to pick up some Cadbury chocolate bars for the road - 4 for €5, what a deal!
American Cola!

Cadbury everywhere!
Finally, we grabbed our bags and headed for the airport. On the first leg of our trip, we took Aircoach to and from the airport. Although a bit pricey (I think it was €24 for round trip for both of us), the bus is a nice Greyhound-style bus and your luggage is stored underneath the bus in the luggage compartment. On this leg of the trip, we decided to check out the slightly cheaper option (€20 for round trip for both of us) called Airlink. As it turns out, Airlink is basically a normal double-decker citybus that happens to run between the city center and the airport. There’s a luggage rack inside the bus, but its relatively cumbersome compared to the Aircoach. On the other hand, you can sit on the second level and actually get a pretty decent view of Dublin and the countryside between the airport and the city.

Ireland Airport Transport Options!
 Our flight from Dublin to Boston left at 4:15 PM (local time). We had planned to leave our hotel at 1:30 PM, hopefully getting to the airport somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 PM. We ended up leaving our hotel closer to 1:45 PM, but it seemed like we would still be okay. From here, the story becomes speculative – we weren’t watching the time (perhaps for the better). I think we got to the bus stop around 2 PM. It must have just left, since the next bus was 17 minutes away, according to the board. (Lindsay actually ducked into a store and bought some Irish trinkets.) When it came on schedule, we boarded the Airlink. However, the Airlink makes quite a few stops on the way – more than our friend Aircoach – so we didn’t arrive at the airport until about 3 PM. Lindsay was able to “self check-in” and print her boarding pass, but mine wouldn’t go through. As a result, I had to go to the “full service” line whereas Lindsay went to the “bag drop” line. It was at this point when I started watching the clock, since I remembered in the back of my head somewhere that bags had to be checked 60 minutes before a flight in order to get on the plane. By the time I made it to the front of the line, it was 3:10 PM. “Just in time,” I said smugly to myself. The guy behind the counter looked at my ticket and said, “You are really late. You were due at the airport an hour and a half ago!” Whoops. Since this airport had WIFI, I was able to text Lindsay, “Just go to your plane. We are cutting it really close.” I assumed that she had already dropped off her bag, since she was in the ‘bag drop’ line (aka fast lane). At 3:15 PM, I got the reply: “I’m still in line.” and “Lots in front of me ….” followed quickly by “Go through [and] buy me chocolate.” (Lindsay had been unable to locate her favorite brand of Cadbury, so we were going to get it at the airport. Gotta have your priorities!) I responded with “lol. Priorities. Baggage has to be checked 60m ahead…” At this point, Lindsay got worried and started to ask people if she could skip ahead of them. 

For posterity's sake. Go through and buy me chocolate!
She eventually determined that there was a special lane for people running late. Although they normally wouldn’t check a bag that close to the flight, they let her check her bag since she was already in the line, then told her to book it through the “business class” lines until she made it onto the plane. Unbeknownst to us at this point, passengers at this airport on their way to the US have to go through regular security, then go through “US Preclearance” (aka Security Part 2), then go through Customs. While Lindsay was sprinting through the airport and hopping around business class passengers, I was waiting my time with the regular folks. Somewhere between Security and Preclearance, she passed me up. We still aren’t sure on the particulars, but we think she may have ran past me while I was filling out the customs card – there is a little area for you to do so right before the preclearance area. Either way, I texted her to let her know that I had filled out a card for the both of us and was waiting for her at preclearance. After I waited around for 2 minutes (getting anxious), I decided to get in line. I looked ahead of me (behind the glass), and there she was! Although I was selected for additional screening (aka gratuitous shoe and baggage swabbing), we were able to make it through customs by about 4 PM. Luckily, our gate was about 15 feet past the customs booth, and we made it on the flight with 10 minutes to spare.

Plenty of time!

The rest of the story is fairly mundane. The flight itself was pleasant, the ‘airplane food’ beef stew was actually pretty good, and our car was still in the lot when we got home. It was a great trip, maybe the best trip so far.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Ireland/Czech - Day 9

Today was our last day in Prague as well as the final day of the conference. I woke up early to use another Breakfast Voucher at the hotel, then spent the morning at the conference. By lunch time, the conference had wound down and I had one more thing I wanted to do in Prague before we left.

Final Day in Prague - beautiful weather!
On our tour, Ross did a nice job explaining how the Munich Agreement of 1938 led to the execution of Operation Anthropoid by the government in exile following the Nazi invasion. I had spent a couple days reading up on this bit of history, since I was a little too American in this area, and I was glad that I did. During my Wikipedia scouring, I discovered that the church where the Nazis finally tracked down and killed the operatives that assassinated Richard Heydrich had a small museum worth visiting. The St. Cyriland St. Methodius Cathedral is a 10 minute walk from my favorite metro station (I.P. Pavlova = “Eee-Pay Paf-Low-Fah”), an area of town we really hadn’t explored yet. I had planned to get lunch at Café Amandine, a French restaurant with outstanding reviews, but we really didn’t have time to stop by – next visit! Instead, I had another Clif Bar lunch – easy to eat on the go.

Outside of the Church - obviously the right spot.
When we arrived at the Cathedral, it was relatively obvious that we were in the right place. The only window to the Church’s crypt is scarred with machine gun fire and a large plaque (in Czech – blast!) as well as a smattering of tourists. Downstairs, there is a small museum that contains a variety of artifacts from the Operation. I particularly liked the area that explained the amount of training and preparation for each soldier. Since they trained with the British (in Scotland), the official records that were posted in the museum were in English and only partially translated in Czech, so it was finally an advantage to be an English speaker! A sad part of this section was the original copy of their wills (in Czech), a reminder that the soldiers knew they were essentially on a suicide mission. 

My favorite artifact in the museum - picker piece.

Finally, the crypt itself was very moving. Each operative had a small bronze bust and plaque about their career, and the whole place is riddled with gun fire. I appreciated seeing the entrance that the soldiers used to enter the crypt – basically just a hole in the ceiling. In total, definitely a very unique, interesting, and moving experience. Admission is 75 CZK / $3.75 USD per person.

The window (from inside the crypt).
Stairs the attackers discovered and used to finally enter the crypt.
Entrance the soldiers used to enter the crypt.
Although we thought we were running a bit late to make our ride back to the airport, we made a quick detour to see the Dancing House, which happens to be within spitting distance of the Cathedral. Although the Dancing House is somewhat controversial to Czechs, as it is an extremely non-traditional design by Frank Gehry that tends to clash with the very classic architecture of Prague, I had previously lived near and learned in a different Frank Gehry building (Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University), so it seemed like I at least needed to visit the building. The site itself was vacant as a result of the accidental bombing of Prague by the US at the end of World War II (apparently they mistook Prague for Dresden?). In any event, we quickly took some pictures and headed back to the metro. Our final stop in the area was a quick dash into the thrift store “Second Hand London”, where Lindsay picked up a purple tie and I laughed at seeing a hat from Cedar Point.

The Dancing House in all its "glory".
Although we thought we were going to be late getting back to our hotel, we made it basically right on time (2:30 PM). The guy from our car service was waiting for us, but this time he didn’t have a sign. He ended up following us around with his phone as we entered and then exited the hotel, eventually pulling up our name and asking if he was supposed to be picking us up. Although still nice, this guy was a little stranger than our first driver. First, he insisted that we put ALL luggage in the trunk – suitcases, laptops, everything – for “everyone’s safety” (?). When we arrived at the airport, I got out of the car, but he quickly requested that I don’t close the door – apparently his fancy Mercedes has the “no slam” doors and he didn’t want me to test them out for him. Either way, the car service itself was timely and affordable, so no real complaints with Prague Airport Transfers.
This building is across from the Dancing House. Lindsay said she really liked it, so I made her pose.
We flew Ryanair from Prague back to Dublin. Ryanair doesn’t open the ticket counter until they feel that you really need to check in, so we actually arrived about 30 minutes before the counter was even open. I took this opportunity to exchange the rest of our stockpiled Czech money back to USD - fortunately, not a giant ripoff. On the plane, Lindsay sat next to a Czech who was moving to Dublin. Although it was unclear if she had a job or even a plan in Ireland, she said she was moving because she was dissatisfied with the people in Prague. This was actually a fairly common sentiment that we encountered in Czech Republic. Actually, the first real Czech we met (our first car service guy) said, “Prague is great. Well, the city is great. The people – not so much.” I think maybe something is lost in translation. During our stay, we discovered that Czech people, in general, are not very warm. It’s not that they are rude or even sad, Czechs just generally seem to hold others at arms distance. This topic (the “Czech Mentality”) is actually discussed at length in a variety of places on the internet – check out, this article, or just google if you are interested.

Ever since we left Dublin, Lindsay had been itching to visit Fitzsimons. On the first leg of our journey, we discovered (too late) that they have Irish Dancing to accompany traditional Irish music in the evenings. We took a bus into the city center (more on that later), dropped off our bags, and headed over to Temple Bar to get a seat at Fitzsimons. 

The traditional Irish duo at Fitzsimons!
The first thing I noticed is that we had become accustomed to prices in Czech. Although Prague wasn’t dirt cheap, it was high quality at a very affordable price – especially beer. It wasn’t uncommon in Prague to find beer for around 50 CZK, and some places offered a half liter of beer for as little as 25 CZK. My pint (that’s 0.47 L) of Guinness at Fitzsimons was €5.70 - about 160 CZK! Either way, we spent most of the evening enjoying the occasional Irish dancing that accompanied the traditional Irish music – this time a guitar and fiddle combination, which I preferred to the guitar and banjo. There were some cute Australian kids in the audience that had learned to Irish dance, so they invited them on stage to do a “reel” – one of the first Irish dances one learns. 

Some lively Irish folks playing in the street - including a penny whistle!

Another crowded Irish bar with music!

After we left Fitzsimons, we strolled around Temple Bar but didn’t find anything that particularly tickled our fancy. The major problem with touristy Irish pubs is that they all play the same 5 or 10 songs – we wished that they would branch out a bit! Lindsay has informed me that the bars outside of Dublin generally have a wider variety of pub songs -- we'll have to check it out next time we are in Ireland!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ireland/Czech - Day 8

Today was theoretically the most important day of the trip, since I was giving my presentation on ‘Skeletal Blood Flow in Bone Repair’ at the conference. I was pleased to receive the invitation to speak, and had the privilege of presenting in the same session as two of my scientific heroes. Although I probably could have been more familiar with my material (a week of vacation does that to you!), the workshop went very well and I had a lot of positive feedback. In general, the conference was great.

The auditorium where I presented. Tori Amos just played here!
Because we had decided to attend the “Cultural Evening” that the conference provides at a significant discount (free for me, €15 for Lindsay), we had limited time for dinner and decided to check out the hotel’s restaurant. We were seated promptly on the outdoor patio to enjoy the gorgeous weather – today was, by far, the best weather of the trip. Lindsay decided that she wanted some soda, so she ordered a Coke. Soda in Prague usually comes in glass bottles – I don’t recall encountering any soda fountains in Czech at all, though cans of soda were available in grocery stores. When our server brought her soda, he held the end of the bottle and poured it like it was champagne … then proceeded to set the bottle down and arrange the label so it was facing her. In other words, this serving staff was well-coached on appropriate ‘western’ serving manners, although I’d say they might have gone a bit overboard! Either way, the food was at least as good as the service. I had “sous vide of pork” that came with mashed potato with onion and parsley as well as roasted spinach (169 CZK) whereas Lindsay had the “Tandoori chicken breast” that came with Basmati rice and pepper salsa (189 CZK). The bottle of coke (59 CZK) and the half liter of Pilsner Urquell (79 CZK) rounded out the 496 CZK / $25 USD total. [Yes, the menu is online so I could look it up!] Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend coming to eat here, if you are staying at the hotel, it’s quite convenient, tasty, and reasonably priced.

The special Coke! And our very nice food/weather.
We finished dinner just in time to walk out and get into the bus that was taking us down to St. Jakob’s Basilica. The concert was supposed to start at 8 PM, but we didn’t even get the first bus moving until about 7:45 PM. By the time we had collected all three bus loads of conference-goers and arrived at the venue, it was about 8:15 PM. Fortunately, this was a private concert and the organist was kind enough to wait for us all to arrive and sit before starting. St. Jakob’s is home to the largest instrument in Prague – a pipe organ with 4 manuals, 91 registers, and 8277 pipes. The concert program was performed by organist Irena Chříbková. Although organ music isn’t typically “my thing”, I enjoyed the concert. Lindsay and I agreed that we would have preferred to be able to wander around the very pretty church instead of sitting, since we weren’t able to actually see the performer – the organ is up in the loft whereas we were on the ground floor.

The organist is up there somewhere!
The very front of the church. Very pretty. We speculated about how much that glittered was gold.

St. Jakob's Ceiling
The concert ended about 9:30 PM, and we decided that we were finally going to go visit the Black Angels Bar (the place we had intended on going our first night in Prague). Although Lindsay didn’t really need much convincing, I was particularly insistent because I had heard so much about it before coming on the trip. I had gotten a little put-off since being in Prague, however, since the bar itself is directly in Tourist Central and directly below our first semi-tourist trap experience (U Prince). Either way, it was our last night in town so we went for it. On the other side, I can firmly say: if you consider yourself even vaguely interested in cocktails and mixology, this is a must-do in Prague.

 The bar itself is located in the second basement of the building that had previously been called the Black Angel. It was designed in the Speakeasy style of the 1930s, though you are surrounded by Gothic and Romanesque masonry from the 13th century. When you enter, a hostess greets you to determine where you would like to be seated and also reminds you of their strict “no photography or video recordings” policy. For the record, I highly recommend sitting close to the bar if at all possible (the bar area is relatively small and does fill up). We were sat down at the bar and quickly opened their extensive cocktail menu to find that it was entirely in Czech. This was somewhat surprising to me especially, since Prague is generally exceedingly English-friendly. However, we quickly had a bartender come ask us (in English!) what we were interested in drinking. Although I came with an agenda (I quickly ordered a ‘Penicillin’), Lindsay was more wishy-washy. He asked her a few questions - Favorite liquor? Flavors? Sour or Sweet? – and then said, “Thanks” and got started.

The Penicillin - not my picture, but definitely the right one. Note the "whiskey ball"
 In 2013, the magazine Spirits Business ranked this bar as one of the Top 6 in Europe. I’m not surprised to find out, since Black Angels bartenders obviously take a lot of pride in their craft. One of the things we noticed right away was how much attention each drink receives. Although the bar has a wide selection of the usual suspects (no well stuff, though – expect ‘name brand’ drinks), there were also a variety of potions laying around on the bar – homemade concoctions such as honey-ginger syrup and freshly squeezed lemon juice. In addition, the bartenders have access to three different sizes of ice behind the bar – some really large chunks, normal size, and small pieces. After choosing the appropriate liquids and ice, the bartender vigorously shakes the drink – thinking back, it’s almost comical how much they shake each drink, making a little dance out of it when they were entertaining their customers. Importantly, they use straws to taste everything before serving it. (I imagine everything starts to taste great later in the evening - haha!) My first drink, the Penicillin, came beautifully presented with a whiskey-infused ice ball on a small platter. The drink itself was garnished with a large slice of ginger. In general, the drink was amazing. It really gets you in the back of the throat – it’s packed full of ginger, so it has that spicy/tangy flavor, but it’s also a bit sweet. Also, the flavor of the drink changes over time, since the ginger spice is essentially being diluted by whiskey and water from the ice ball. (When I later interrogated the bartender about the drink, he claimed that the inventor of the Penicillin (Sam Ross, Milk & Honey) said that Black Angels’ Penicillin was better than the original, thanks to the addition of the whiskey-infused ice ball.) I won’t go into too much detail about our drinks. However, I also had my favorite ‘normal’ drink, the classic Old Fashioned, which was also amazing. If Lindsay’s drinks had names, I don’t know what they were, but each was tasty and unique. I was particularly impressed with Lindsay’s second offering – the bartender built a small “basket” out of ice, then placed a variety of fruits in the basket as a garnish. As the ice melted, the fruit settled down into the drink. It was really a work of art.

Some other random stuff we liked about Black Angels Bar. First, there is a live piano player who is very talented. No singing, just playing of a wide variety of Prohibition music mixed in with some classics (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and not-so-classics (“Nothing Else Matters”). Bohemian absinthe (or Czech-style absinthe) is commonly served in Prague. At Black Angels, they don’t follow the traditional “fire ritual” – instead, they just light it on fire and toss it around behind the bar! Similar to some of the ‘potion’ bottles, they had a variety of spirits in perfume bottles that were sprayed onto the drink to finish it – pretty neat. We also found their tremendous selection of glassware to be pretty interesting and varied. Finally, the bartenders were extremely knowledgeable and friendly, even to the nosy tourists. I noticed one of them making a very strange drink – he left the bar to go track down some yogurt, which eventually became the base of the strange drink. Curious, I asked him what he was making – he said it was orange liqueur, yogurt, and lemon juice (I think he also grated some orange zest into the drink). Honestly, this sounded kinda repulsive to me, and I believe I said as much. Unprompted, he made an extra portion that he divided four ways (Lindsay, myself, and two others at the bar) for us to try. Actually, it was pretty good! Plus free drink! Speaking of free drinks, the prices were actually pretty reasonable. For four drinks and an extra shot, including an American-style tip (about 20%), the total was 800 CZH or $40 USD.

Our final night in Prague. Taken by a Slovenian Biker. Thanks dude!
I feel a little embarrassed that I just gushed so much about Black Angels, so now I’ll write about something else. Although I haven’t mentioned it explicitly, it should be fairly obvious that I don’t speak any Czech. However, we hadn’t expected that we would be so comfortable speaking English with the locals – almost everyone we ran into spoke perfect English. Before our trip, I memorized a couple of phrases – “Thanks” (“Dekuji”) and “Do you understand me?” (“Rozumite mi?”). As I previously stated, the metro system in Prague is completely on the honor system – you buy a ticket, but you don’t need to scan it or present it to anyone. However, occasionally the Metro Police set up a checkpoint to check everyone’s ticket. Coming home from Black Angels Bar, we ran into one of these checkpoints. I wasn’t exactly paying attention, since we knew the metro system pretty well at this point, so when someone pulled me aside and started talking Czech to me, I backed away slowly and said the only thing I knew in Czech – “Rozumite mi!” At the time I thought I was saying “I don’t understand”, but apparently I just butchered it well enough that he restated his question to me in English – “Tickets, please.” Fortunately, we had followed all the rules appropriately and he waved us on without incident.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ireland/Czech - Day 7

First (real) day of the conference was very good. ECTS is a bit smaller than most of the conferences that I normally attend, but the scientific portion was actually pretty solid – they bring in a lot of great speakers (like me! Just kidding). The main sponsor of the conference was Lilly, who brought a couple baristas with them to make us all free coffee drinks. They had a little “stamp” of cinnamon powder that they put on top of the drinks – it was actually kinda cool. Each day, a large box lunch was provided, containing Czech delicacies like “Tatransky” bars. Additionally, the conference concluded each day with a poster session and beer reception. Pisnell Urquell was on tap and several other Czech varieties were provided in cans.

Well played.
After the conference, Lindsay and I met up in secret agent fashion - "Meet me at the place we had gelato our first night. Bring nothing, tell no one." Maybe just the first part. We wandered around New Town (not that new) looking at the various shops. We stopped at La Borsa, a small chain of Italian purses with shops all over Prague. Lindsay thought about pulling the trigger, but couldn’t find the right one. We also were able to enjoy a demonstration of candy pulling (and tasting) – too expensive to buy anything, but it was quite tasty. 

Free sample!
Since it was nearly dinner time, we decided to drop into one of the restaurants that had been recommended to us – Propaganda. This very cool cellar bar was very empty at 6 PM. We explored for a bit and only found 1 guy sitting at the bar. I assume that he worked there, though he didn’t greet us and he wasn’t actually behind the bar, so who knows. Either way, it didn’t seem like we were there at the right time, so we left without getting anything.

Hellloooo? Anyone home .... ?
At this point, we had already been across Charles Bridge several times – once on our tour and a couple other times by ourselves. However, it’s worth pointing out that Charles Bridge is a really neat place to visit. It’s about a half mile long and nearly 30 feet across, decorated with 30 baroque-style statues. (By the way, the statues have been replaced with replicas. The originals are in the National Museum.) This bridge was the only way across the river in Prague from its construction in 1357 until 1841. The bridge itself is usually packed with tourists, street vendors, and musicians. On this particular journey across the bridge, I spent some time listening to a nice jazz band playing dixieland and big band stuff. I eventually escaped their clutches and met up with Lindsay on the far side of the bridge.

One of the Charles Bridge Statues
We had crossed Charles Bridge in order to visit the Lesser Town location of Lokal, the restaurant we had tried to eat at previously. Lokal ended up being a real treat. First, I really appreciated their ‘beer card’ – when you ordered a beer, they would bring a card to your table and cross off one of the markers. There must have been 100 markers on a card. Apparently they expect you to drink a lot! 

The beer card!
Lokal is very into serving authentic, tasty Czech cuisine. We were interested in trying some potato dumplings, but our server was convinced it wouldn’t go very well with the dishes we had ordered. When we looked crestfallen, he decided to prove it to us by bringing out some dumplings (both potato and bread) for us to try. They were pretty tasty, but he was right. Lindsay ended up ordering a traditional Christmas meal in Czech – pork schnitzel with potato salad. On the other hand, I had a pork tenderloin skewer and mashed potatoes with onion. While we were waiting, our server brought out a little “Guide to Czech Cuisine” as a gift. It was basically a translation guide for food – very thoughtful! Either way, the experience was very fun and everything was super tasty. Lokal is also reasonably priced – about 550 CZK total for us – and a must when in Prague.

Lindsay's Lokal Guide. Dumplings on the plate.

Lindsay picked up this neat drawing of a rat while I was at the conference.

After dinner, we went strolling around the east side of Lesser Town, basically underneath the Charles Bridge. It's a pretty area, though it seemed unsurprisingly pretty touristy. Lots of places to stay, though.

Under the bridge!
Since we were in the area, we decided to head over to the Lennon wall. This landmark is just a normal wall that has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti since the 1980s. There are also occasionally musicians that play at the wall – Beatles music, of course. The wall is constantly in flux, with new graffiti regularly covering up the old. Local legend says that when the authorities would try to cover the wall, the next day it would be repainted with poems, lyrics, and flowers. Today, the wall is officially owned by the Knights of Malta, but they have permitted the “art” to continue as it is a major tourist attraction.

The Lennon Wall!
The end of the Lennon wall is strictly enforced!

It was getting dark, and we stumbled out onto the river just south of Charles Bridge to take some pictures.

Panorama taken while I dangled over the top of a sign. Lindsay thought I'd fall into the river, which would have made quite the story. Ended up being pretty tame.
We ended up walking in the park ("Kampa") because it seemed like a nice night for a stroll. However, we ended up stumbling upon a very extensive exhibit about Sir Nicholas Winton, the "British Schindler". It was very moving.

One of the many billboards in the exhibit.

Walking back across Charles Bridge at night.

Lindsay wanted a picture with this cool old well.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ireland/Czech - Day 6

Today was the first day of the conference (ECTS 2014), ostensibly the reason we are on this trip. I put on my monkey suit, checked in, uploaded my slides, and quickly checked out - the sessions today were largely irrelevant to me, and I had some serious vacationing to do!

Vysehrad - the original seat of Czech Royalty
Since our hotel is technically in Vysehrad, we decided to take some time to visit the fort, containing the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul as well as the Vysehrad cemetery. The local legend is that Vysehrad was the first settlement in the area which later became Prague, though the direct linkage is unsubstantiated. Either way, this is one of the oldest settlements in the area, with spectacular views across the Vltava to Prague. Additionally, it was the seat of Czech royalty in the 1100s.

On the walls of Vysehrad - it was windy!
 We toured around the ground for a bit. There is a nice park with sculptures by Josef Vaclav Myslbek. We also poked around the cemetery, which is relatively new - the oldest burials were from the late 1800s. However, it is well known because a lot of famous Czechs, particularly artists and musicians, are buried here. (At first, I thought that “Rodina” was a very popular name in Czech – it turns out to be the Czech word for family or kin. Whoops.) The cemetery is adjacent to the basilica, which we poked our head into but didn’t pay admission. However, the doors to the basilica were really neat, so I took some pictures next to them. Apparently we missed the oldest building in Prague, which is St. Martin’s Rotunda – the only undamaged monument from the times of Vratislav I. It looks vaguely familiar, so it’s possible we walked by it unknowingly.

Neat doors to St. Peter and St. Paul - Are you allowed to have 2 saints for 1 church?
I think the Rotunda was behind me when I was taking this picture.
For lunch, we decided to go back to Cukrkavalimonada, since it had been recommended to us and it looked tasty when we were there. According to Google maps, the quickest way was to take a tram. This was our first (and I think last?) experience on the tram, which was fairly uneventful. (Public transportation in Prague is generally very nice.) 
English menu
We arrived and sat down inside. The restaurant is essentially Italian, though I don’t think they would bill themselves that way. (Officially, they serve “fresh pasta, salads, or pancakes.”) The house specialty appeared to be tagliatelle – Lindsay had it with pesto and I had it with bacon. Both were very yummy. 

Pesto Tagliatelle + Coke
I noticed on the menu that they had Elderberry Drink and Elderberry wine. I decided to order the wine (since it was smaller). I’m fairly certain that I got their home made elderberry lemonade - neither what I ordered (Elderberry wine) nor the other option on the menu (Elderberry Drink), but I’m glad I ended up with it. It was really tasty and had a giant mint leaf in it!

Elderberry drink!
I feel like we had to pay in cash, but it was very reasonable – maybe 400 CZK ($20 USD) total. In case you are wondering, Cukrkavalimonada means “SugarCoffeeLemonade”.

At this point, I really wanted to go back to the Strahov monastery to get into their library. We had been up on the hill yesterday, but were too late to get into the building, which closes at 5 PM. However, it had started raining when we were eating and didn’t show signs of letting up. I made an executive decision to just go for it – we had jackets on and I’ve been wet before. About 2 minutes into our journey, we ducked into a shop to buy some umbrellas. We ended up using these a lot for the rest of our trip, so it was a good purchase.

On the way with umbrellas!
Admission at the Strahov Library is 80 CZK, but it was nice to get out of the rain. There is an additional admission if you’d like to be able to take pictures (strange), so no pictures from inside. However, there are plenty available on the internet, so I don’t feel like I really needed to take pictures anyway. (In fact, the largest indoor photo is in the world is of the library itself - click here).

No pictures allowed, so I made Lindsay take a picture with our admission ticket. We were here!
Strahov Monastery was founded in 1143, and survived through a large fire (1258), Hussite Wars (1419-1434), Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Swedish invasion (1648), as well as the Nazi occupation and the Communist takeover. They have an extensive collection of old manuscripts, books, maps, and artifacts. We especially liked the various preserved animals, the books with bark bindings, and the map of “Europe as a Virgin” from 1592. 

Europe as a Virgin (1592) is on display in the Strahov Monastery. I think this is actually a picture of the postcard they have available for sale. Either way, #weird.
One of the premier pieces is the illustrated Strahov Evangeliary from the 9th century – roughly the same age as the previously mentioned Book of Kells, though the Irish book is about 60 years older (and prettier).

Strahov Evangeliary from someone who paid the photography fee!
 Of course, the main attractions are the two halls – the Theological Hall (“the library”) and the Philosophical Hall. They are truly spectacular. Some stock shots below from the internet, though pictures don't really do them justice.

Theological Hall!

Philosophical Hall!
On the way down the hill, we stopped at a few tourist shops as well as a legitimate antique shop. Lindsay has promised me that if she ever gets super rich, she’ll go back to that antique shop and buy their candelabras. (Only 100000 CZK each!)

Having tired of being rained on, we decided to stop somewhere and get some coffee on our way to the next stop. We ended up at U Zlateho (run by the same people as U Prince from earlier – maybe should have been a warning). We got some cappuccino and a banana desert while sitting under the awning with the heaters. We had a very nice time people watching, and Lindsay enjoyed one of her favorite things about outdoor seating in Prague – blankets! We did end up gaping a bit at the price – 139 CZK ($7) for each ‘jumbo’ cappuccino! To be fair, it was legitimately jumbo. On the other hand, we didn’t intend to order the Big Gulp of cappuccinos. Either way, “I’m on vacation” says I.

Lindsay with Blanket and Banana Dessert
Our next stop was the Klementinum, one of the largest building complexes in Europe, including an Astronomical Tower with the longest running weather experiment in the world, the Mirror Chapel, and a baroque library. We had passed through the Klementinum on our tour, and I had noticed that it was open late (until 11 PM), so we decided to save it until now (about 6 PM). The Klementinum was founded by the Jesuits at the urging of the Habsburgs, in an attempt to Catholicize the Czech Republic. 
The Klementinum from the Sky. Charles Bridge is just out of view in the upper left corner.
When we arrived at the complex, it wasn’t obvious where we should go. I headed for the library, which seemed like a logical place to start at the time. We got into the library, but it seemed like we might be in the wrong place. Nonetheless, the sign said we had to leave all of our belongings in a locker or with the coat check person. I decided to get a locker, since it was only a 50 CZK deposit. The person that was supposed to rent me a locker was very confused and didn’t speak much English. However, I was clearly not in the right place – “Students only!” 

Can we come in here?
We retreated back to the sign to try to figure out what was going on. As I rounded the corner, I noticed the giant blue sign that said “Tours Here”. Whoops. We walked into the office and found two people sitting behind the counter. I generally asked if it was possible to poke around – the good old self-guided (see: free) tour. At the time, I didn’t understand what the person meant when she replied, “7PM”. In my attempt to clarify if that meant at 7PM or before 7PM or if they were going to shoot me at 7PM (not very friendly Jesuits), the other one loudly shushed me, exclaiming “There is a concert!”. Apparently we were in the antechamber of the Mirror Chapel, where they hold concerts from 6-7 PM. Whoops. 

Mirror Chapel - not my picture, obviously...
“No worries”, I thought to myself as I left the chapel and headed over to the other door I saw – figuring this to be the entrance to the Tower or the Library or something. Unfortunately, when I opened the door, I only found semi-discarded counters for selling tickets and some generic stage prop stuff in an empty hallway. I thought this strange, but decided to press on a bit and see what there was to see. As I got about halfway through the hall, three people appear at the end of the hallway and start walking towards me. This was encouraging – maybe there was something to see at the end of the hall! Quickly, I realize that only two of those people were tourists. One of them was a tour guide, who was giving me the “Why must I work with tourists?” look while slowly giving me “the hands”. I asked if there was anything to see and she said “Tour only!” while quickly hustling me and my embarrassed wife out the door. Outside, the guide abandoned us, but we met up with another (lost) tourist couple who were equally perplexed at the situation. I briefly informed them about what I had discovered - “Don’t go in this door, there’s nothing to see and they don’t like it. Behind that door, you will find hostile tour guides with nice music. Either a tour or a ritual beating of tourists is at 7 PM.” Since we apparently couldn’t see anything else without paying for a tour (220 CZK / $11 per person), we decided to move on. Since then, I have developed an amusing grudge against Klementinum Jesuits.

Beware ye all that enter!
One of the locations in Prague that we had heard a lot about but hadn’t actually visited yet was Wenceslas Square, one of the main city squares named after the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas. Apparently, it used to be a horse market during the Middle Ages. Now, it’s full of shops and people. It’s also the site of a lot of celebrations, demonstrations, and general public gatherings. 

Sausage in Wenceslas Square! It was tasty.
Our tour book told us to make sure to check out the Kronus Palace, a shopping mall with a spectacular dome of stained glass from 1910. We did, but honestly it was only ‘meh’ compared to the rest of Prague. 

Kronus Palace Dome  - meh
Although the night was fairly young (probably about 9:30p), we decided to head home since I had to wake up early the next day.