Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cheap thrills in the Czech Republic! Ten things I learned!

Every time I go somewhere, I like to make a list of ten things I learned on my trip.  The Czech Republic is no exception!  Here goes!

In Cesky Krumlov...  another place I need to see again.  I climbed this tower, too.  Phew!

10.  It helps to speak some German if you go to the Czech Republic.

A lot of younger people do speak some English, but you'll find it's not as prevalent there as it is in other western European countries.  Bill and I have noticed that a lot of people speak German and some speak more German than English.  So, if you've been trying to come up with a reason to try harder to learn German, that's one right there.  It might help you communicate better in the Czech Republic.

9.  It's still super cheap to visit the Czech Republic!

Although it's in the EU and its economy has picked up in recent years, the Czech Republic still has its own currency.  And it's still really a cheap to visit this country.  For our three nights in a rented house, food, gas, and beer, we spent about $635.  And we didn't economize.  If you're looking for cheap and work at it, you can really score a bargain by visiting the Czech Republic.  However, if you want to save money when changing money, don't go to a Wechselstube.  Visit a bank or ATM instead.

8.  There's a lot to do in the Czech Republic... so much so that you may have trouble choosing.

Especially if you like beer, which Bill and I do.  You will have plenty of breweries to tour, beers to taste, and even some to soak in it if you are so inclined!  But if beer isn't your thing, you can still visit churches, museums, zoos, and take tours of other historical sites.

7.  If you are an aviation or military buff, you should try to visit the Air Park in Zruc-Senec.

For about five bucks a head, you and your buddies can walk around a very cool museum where there are tanks, airplanes, helicopters, and the like.  In the summer, there are guided tours, though in the winter, you are less likely to encounter crowds.  The museum has been open since 1993 by a father and son and is continually expanding.

6.  I love garlic soup!

Garlic soup is a Czech treat and it supposedly cures hangovers.  That's a win for me.  I would also imagine it's great for when you're sick with a cold or flu.

5.  Parking is cheap or even free.

I was surprised to find out that parking at Pilsner Urquell is free.  The nearby parking garage, which is within walking distance, is super cheap and secure.  It also has clean bathrooms that are free to use.

4.  I'm still fit enough to climb 301 stairs and not collapse.

Self explanatory.

3.  It's okay to do yard work on Sundays.

This is only a surprise if you've lived in Germany for awhile.  I'll probably go through another culture shock when we move back to the States someday.

2.  What Czech cities lack in aesthetics, they make up for in heart.

I'll admit my first impressions of Plzen after a nine year break were kind of negative.  It's an industrial city and there are lots of factories belching filth into the sky.  There are lots of ugly communist era buildings.  There's plenty of trash and pollution that we don't necessarily see in Germany or France.  However, once I was there and mingling, I realized that Plzen has sort of a scrappy charm that appealed to me.  I noticed the ugly factories less and focused on the older architecture, the delicious food and beer, and the warmth of the people, who were welcoming and kind, especially to our wallets!

*Note- Prague doesn't count as lacking in aesthetics.  It's still a beautiful city!  And cheap, too!

1.  I want to go back... soon!

There are still parts of the Czech Republic I want to discover.  High on the list is Brno, which I hear is an undiscovered and unspoiled gem.  I've heard it's even cooler than Prague is, which is a tall order indeed.  If we stay here long enough and run out of places to see, maybe we'll do a Czech tour of sorts.  I think that could be a fascinating trip!

Five Petalled Rose Festival in Cesky Krumlov, back in 2008.  That is a great time to visit the medieval town, because people dress for the occasion!  This festival takes place in June.

Cheap thrills in the Czech Republic! Part six

We woke to sunshine and slightly warmer temperatures on Sunday morning.  I was glad to see it.  After breakfast and a walk with the dogs, we started to plan our day.  We were about to leave for Plzen when Bill looked out the window and noticed a couple of guys doing yard work, blocking the gate to the yard.  I guess it's not a problem to do yard work in the Czech Republic on Sundays.  They were done soon enough, so we headed back to Plzen, parking in the same garage we used on Saturday.  Bill discovered a handy footbridge from the garage to the other side of the street.  Like I said in an earlier posts, things are surprisingly civilized in the Czech Republic these days.

Cathedral of St. Bartholomew.

We wandered around the Main Square in Plzen and I noticed people were climbing the tower at St. Bartholomew's Cathedral.  I am in piss poor physical shape these days, but somehow I can't resist climbing a tower, even if I'm sore for days afterwards.  So that's what Bill and I decided to do.  We walked up 301 steep, narrow steps to get to the highest point in Plzen and the highest church spire in the Czech Republic itself.

I paused to take pictures of the bells... and catch my breath.

It costs 50 Czech crowns to torture oneself in this manner.  You pay at a station about a third of the way up.  Once you get to the top, you are treated to views of the city, which can be exhilarating, depressing, or terrifying, depending on your point of view.

Yes... it's a very steep climb!  There are pictures of the views from the top at the bottom of this post.

I found it harder and scarier to go down than to come up the stairs.  Yes, climbing the stairs up was harder work and got me more winded, but coming down was really scary.  You're already tired from the climb up and the steps are really narrow and steep.  I found myself holding on to the bannisters for dear life as I slowly made my way down each step, praying I didn't miss one and take a fall.

On the way down the tower, we ran into a couple of police officers.  I wondered why they were going up there-- although they did look pretty fit.  Bill said maybe they were taking a "break".  Or perhaps they were checking for snipers?  I don't know.  If I had to walk up those steps every day, I have no doubt I'd be in shape in no time.  However, two days later, I'm still a bit sore and the climb itself was kind of hard on my knees.  I'm glad I did it once, but I'm not sure I want to do it again!

Just as an aside about Czech cops... I happened to catch a TV show that appeared to be inspired by our own Cops TV show in the United States.  Although I didn't understand anything that was being said, it was interesting to watch how Czech police officers handle their arrestees.  I noticed the guys being arrested were cuffed, put in the back seat, and strapped in with a seatbelt.  The cops didn't bother buckling up.  Somehow, I figure the seatbelt was used less for safety reasons and more for security.  Or maybe they don't wear seatbelts because they need to be able to react quickly.  Who knows?  Personally, I hate the damn things, but if I don't wear mine, Bill turns into Pat Boone.  Besides, cars today are like nannies and will beep at you incessantly if you don't use them.

Inside the cathedral.

After the tower experience, we walked into the cathedral.  Supposedly, you have to pay to see it, but I never saw anyone collecting money for admission.  Anyway, there's a gate at the front of the cathedral, so you can only peek in there.  I'm not sure it's worth the 35 Czech crowns they supposedly collect for that.  I did manage to get a few photos.

Then we went searching for lunch.  I thought we might try Buddha, an Indian and Nepalese restaurant I noticed near the Brewery Museum.  It smelled delicious and they had an English menu.  I also knew Bill would get a thrill because he loves Indian food and I don't.  Alas, they were closed on Sunday, despite their sign signifying otherwise.  Oh well.  If we go back to Plzen, we'll have to try it.  It gets great reviews on TripAdvisor.  Even without the reviews, my nose told me it was a good place to eat.

It was okay that we missed Buddha, though, because I found another fabulous restaurant.  I had actually noticed it as we walked into town.  I am naturally attracted to alcoves when we travel.  I like to explore things that aren't on the main drags.  This restaurant was actually on the main drag, but had its entrance in an alcove.  Called U Makicke Brany, the outside of the restaurant looks distinctly Eastern European.  The inside is very inviting, with cavernous ceilings and an upscale bar area.  I was especially attracted by the great music they were playing... lots of classic rock!  Good music, excellent beer, and delicious food is an invitation for me to pig out, which is exactly what I did.

Bill looks at the menu.

U Makicke Brany offers menus with German and English translations, which was a huge help.  I can often figure things out in local languages, but Czech is a mystery to me.  Our waitress and the bartender also spoke English and/or German, which was also helpful.  Actually, speaking some German is useful in the Czech Republic, because even if someone can't speak English, chances are they will know some German.  I have noticed it on all of our visits.  Bill can speak basic conversational German and it does come in handy when we go to the Czech Republic.  

I loved the bar!

And the beer...

But I especially loved the garlic soup!

As we were looking at the menu, I noticed the restaurant offered garlic soup, which is apparently a popular hangover cure in the Czech Republic.  I noticed the Brewery Museum restaurant also had it on the menu.  I was intrigued by the ingredients, which looked really good to me.  There was garlic, potatoes, barley, bacon, and croutons.  It sounded perfect for cold weather.  But I also knew I wanted dessert and I knew the main course would also fill me up.  Thankfully, Bill was happy to order it with two spoons.  Our waitress was adorable and beamed when I enthused about that soup.  I think she and the bartender had some chemistry going on.  I noticed they seemed to be enjoying each other's company.

This garlic soup was delicious!  I need to find a recipe.  It wasn't too garlicky, but had just enough of an essence.  The croutons tasted homemade and buttery, which really added to the comfort level of the soup.  It smelled amazing, too.  

Bill sensibly followed up with a chicken Caesar salad.  It also had bacon in it.  Bacon makes everything better, right?

I went with smoked duck breast and gravy.  I told you, I love duck... even though they are so cute and cuddly.  I wish my tastebuds hadn't evolved before my ethics did.  The duck came with baked potato discs that absorbed the gravy in a most appealing way.  Or course, I was thinking to myself that green vegetables had been missing from my diet while we were in the Czech Republic.  I'll have to make up for that this week.

For dessert, we shared cheesecake with blueberry sauce.  This was just the right size.  Not too big, heavy, or rich.

And I had one more dark beer for the road... a Master, which packed a good punch.  Between us, we had five beers, a bowl of soup, a salad, an entree, and dessert.  It set us back less than $40.  Cheap!

A few shots of the outside.  In the summer, they also have outdoor seating.

I noticed the street name as we waited to cross the street.

Views of Plzen on a sunny day.

Inside the tower as I recover from the climb.

We decided to go back to the dogs and watch more of the Olympics, since by the time we were finished with our sumptuous lunch, it was mid afternoon.  Once again, we were too full to go looking for dinner.  Instead, we had more croquettes.  Even as I was cursing myself for being so lazy on this trip, I realized that with better planning, we could really fill our days up in this part of the Czech Republic.  Not only is there Plzen, which in and of itself offers a lot to do, there's also Karlovy Vary, which is a beautiful spa town, and of course, Chodova Plana, which offers Chodovar.  If we'd wanted to, we could have spent a week and not done the same thing twice.  Maybe that's why we didn't go out as much as we should have.  There were so many choices that we were overwhelmed with making decisions.

Bill and I mostly stay low key on our trips, anyway.  We kind of like to soak up the atmosphere, people watch, and do the odd activity, sandwiched with good food, beer, or wine.  We also love meeting new people on our trips.  We almost always have something interesting happen to us, if only because we're less focused on seeing things and more attuned to simple experiences.

Sunday night, Bill discovered where he could find Chodovar beer in Plzen.  It was available at Billa, a grocery chain in the Czech Republic.  On Monday morning, as we were leaving Plzen, we drove to a really seedy looking part of the city, complete with communist era apartment buildings.  I remarked that it will take a long time before those vestiges of communism will go away.  Those buildings are ugly, but functional.  I used to live in a couple of them myself, when I lived in Armenia.

I enjoyed a Chodovar last night!

Bill scored seven bottles of Chodovar and a few bottles of the awesome flavored sparkling water from there.  I found myself planning another trip in my head.  Next time, maybe we'll return to Chodovar, which offers a good centralized location for notable cities in the area.  Maybe we'll spend a few more days, just wandering the beautiful countryside, touring breweries, and hitting the spas.  That's the life for me!

Those buildings aren't going away...

Next up... my usual ten things I learned post.

Cheap thrills in the Czech Republic! Part five

There was one thing I remembered from our first visit to Plzen.  In 2009, I remember Bill driving down a main drag and seeing a large "Thank You, America" memorial.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring my camera with me on that trip and, at that time, didn't own a smartphone.  I was hoping we'd get to see the "Thank You, America" memorial on this trip, since it kind of makes me feel a little pride for my country.  It was built in 1995, fifty years after the United States Army, led by General George Patton, liberated Plzen from the Nazis.

Sadly, we missed the memorial, not because I didn't have my camera, but because apparently it recently disintegrated.  I can't help but be reminded that the memorial's decline is not unlike the decline in the United States right now.  It seems almost symbolic.  But anyway, for those who would like to see a photo of Plzen's "thanks" to America when it was still standing, follow the link.

I am heartened to report that the memorial is being repaired and will be reconstructed with French marble, which I guess is sturdier.  I guess the materials available in 1995 were of poor quality, which doesn't surprise me, since in 1995, the United States was sending Peace Corps Volunteers to the Czech Republic.  That was a time when things weren't as prosperous in the Czech Republic as they are now.  Anyway, the memorial will be back at some point, probably as good as new.  Hopefully, our country will likewise be repaired in the coming years.  Incidentally, there is also a museum and memorial for General Patton, for those who are interested.  In fact, I saw a lot of references to America in Plzen, including a street named for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

We came back to our little cottage with beer, wine, "crocketts", breakfast pastries, and other odds and ends.  I had looked in vain for Chodovar beer in the Kaufland.  They didn't have any of that.  They did have some interesting wines, though.  We picked up a couple of bottles from Bulgaria, as well as a couple of Czech wines.  We tried the Bulgarian merlot, but the others will have to be tested later.

Potato croquettes.  We discovered these on an earlier trip to the Czech Republic.

Because we were really full from lunch and it was cold outside, we decided to stay in and watch the Winter Olympics on the big TV.  We had "crocketts" for dinner.  What I call crocketts are actually potato croquettes.  They are all kinds of delicious.  We discovered them in June 2008, when Bill and I visited Passau, Germany for my 36th birthday.  Passau is not far from the Czech border, so on the big day itself, we drove into the Czech Republic and visited Ceske Budjovice and Cesky Krumlov.  We had lunch in Budjovice, which is where the "original" Budweiser is made.

I don't remember exactly what we had for lunch on that visit.  I probably had duck because I love it.  But I do remember that whatever we had came with a side of potato croquettes.  Our waiter pronounced it "crocketts", which we thought was funny.  I know you can get potato croquettes in Germany, but somehow they seem different in the Czech Republic.  I actually went hunting for them at Kaufland.  It wasn't easy, but I finally found them in a sea of frozen pommes.  There were only a few bags.  I guess the Czech people love them, too.

We watched skiing, including multiple replays of Czech skier Ester Ledecka, an adorable snowboarder and Alpine skier who won gold in the Super-G competition.  She was so cute, because after she finished her run, she looked absolutely stunned to be in first place.  She had borrowed the skis on which she won her medal.

We also watched multiple interviews with Czech men's figure skater, Michal Brezina, who is married to a retired American skater and trains in California.  I got a huge kick out of his hair.  I probably enjoyed that as much as I did his long program.  It was a treat to get to watch the Olympics, since we don't get local TV.  I guess if we could watch them at home in Germany, we might have been more inclined to eat dinner on the town.

After a few hours of Olympic coverage, chowing down on croquettes, and drinking Bulgarian wine, we went to bed.  I was determined to do more on Sunday.

Part six

Cheap thrills in the Czech Republic! Part four

I mentioned in previous posts about our Czech Republic trip that this is a country that loves its beer.  Czech citizens drink more beer per capita than any other country, including Germany, Ireland, and Belgium.  This is a country where beer costs less than bottled water and they've been making beer since 993 A.D.  So it's not surprising that a lot of beer lovers come to the Czech Republic to taste their suds and visit breweries.

Bill and I had every intention of touring Pilsner Urquell's brewery, which is based in Plzen.  On our last visit, back in 2009, we toured Plzen's awesome Brewery Museum and really enjoyed it.  But as we approached Pilsner Urquell, I noticed how huge the place was.  Then I noticed all the tours were timed, because they are offered in different languages.  We could either take a 1:00pm tour or a 2:45pm tour.  We could tour Pilsner Urquell or Gambrinus... I actually found myself a little overwhelmed.  I need more than a weekend to do all of this stuff!

The big gate at Pilsner Urquell in Plzen.

Bill figures out the map at Pilsner Urquell.

It's a big place!  Free parking is available there, but there's also a large parking garage nearby that is super cheap.  Bill paid about 70 cents for several hours of parking on Saturday.  The parking garage also has clean WCs.  I was surprised by how civilized it was.

"Man, that's good beer!"

My stomach started rumbling and we decided we'd rather have lunch first.  We walked out of the Pilsner Urquell complex, crossed the large, busy street, and headed toward the Brewery Museum, which has a restaurant.  We ate in the restaurant the first time we visited Plzen, so we knew we'd find English menus there.  It was very busy; consequently, lunch was a leisurely, but delicious affair.  I really love Czech cuisine, which is somewhat like German cuisine, but with more or different seasonings.

The Brewery Museum's restaurant has very good food.  We were spoiled for choice.

I eventually settled on duck leg confit with onion gravy and bread dumplings...

Bill had pork with mashed potatoes and gravy.  That pork was delicious!  Very tender and flavorful.

Although it's a good idea for me to eat before I try to sightsee, I also have a tendency to take too long at lunchtime, especially when there's beer being offered.  We each had a Pilsner Urquell, but then we tried a lovely dark Sladko, pictured below.  It was rich, malty, and kind of like a beery milkshake.

Oh, this was sooo good!

By the time we were finished with lunch, the urge to tour a museum or a brewery had left us.  However, I do want to get back to Plzen if only so we can take the Historical Plzen Underground Tour, which is offered by the Brewery Museum.  I wish we'd done this on Saturday, because it's only 50 minutes and offers a look at about one kilometer of Plzen's 14 kilometers of underground tunnels.  Actually, looking around Plzen, I could see that any visitor who likes beer will be kept busy for several days.  Trying to make a choice of what to see seemed overwhelming, although having seen the Brewery Museum during our first visit, I would definitely recommend that to any visitor.  It's very well-done and translations are offered in 15 languages.  Pilsner Urquell also offers a virtual tour online, for those who'd rather not tour the facility and say they did.

An example of Czech advertising.

I actually took this photo to remind me that there are things for young people to do, too.  Plzen has a zoo and other activities for kids.

One of the prettier views in Plzen.

St. Bartholomew's Cathedral.  It dates from the 13th century and opened in 1529.

Around the square.

Off in the distance, a brand new bride and groom were having a photo shoot.  I felt sorry for the bride, because it was really cold outside and she only wore a wrap around her shoulders to cover her dress.  Kudos to her for not freezing!

For the kids to play on...

The guys in this photo were all dressed in medieval garb.  Bill said they were probably going to spar with each other.

By about 3:00pm, we decided to go to Kaufland to pick up a French press for coffee and maybe a few odds and ends for dinner.  The Kaufland reminded me very much of a Real on Saturday.  It was packed with people.  Still, we managed to find what we needed, including a bag of "crocketts".  I'll explain that in the next post.

I got a kick out of this wienie eating dude.  We bought some of his franks.