Our Big Fat Hungarian Holiday - 2010
Anna and the Innkeeper go to Eastern Europe
Ok, so maybe we'll get further than just Hungary. Anna and the Innkeeper may well find themselves in Slovenia. And the Czech Republic. Our guest house, Mes Amis, is more like Chaos Manor at the moment. An absence of 6 weeks makes for a lot of stuff that we have to take care of. We have lists. Some of our lists have lists. But, in true South African spirit, we shall prevail!
Here is our itinerary:
Monday - George to Johannesburg in the morning and Johannesburg to Doha in the evening with Qatar. Tuesday - Doha to Vienna. Spend 3 days in Vienna. Friday - Vienna to Budapest by car. Meet up with our German friends Christine and Jochen. Tuesday 7 September - off by car in the general direction of Slovenia. From here on we have nothing planned - glorious freedom! Wednesday 6th October - fly back from Vienna
There is absolutely nothing that anybody can possibly do to make flying a pleasure. Except maybe an anaesthesiologist. The best it can get is tolerable. Qatar Airways Johannesburg -> Doha -> Vienna was tolerable. Everybody involved did their best : we provided money, the airline pretty decent aircraft with relatively comfortable accommodation, the flight crew smiled when they should and pretended that they were serving us haute cuisine. In the end, though, it was still flying. Still, we got to Vienna in the best shape possible. Despite the close attentions of an Arabic toddler who, was on his way to Vienna to enter the world tantrum championships. Kid's gonna be a shoe-in.
It is 11C in Vienna and it is raining. We'll unpack and contemplate our navels. Unpacking is a breeze. We travel light - this is what we took: The box on the right contains 6 bottles of wine for Christine and Jochen. 2 x Simonsig Tiara, 2x Warwick 3 Ladies and 2x The Chocolate Block. Never give someone only one bottle of a specific wine. One bottle is a tease. Unless, of course, it is a 1984 Meerlust Rubicon. Hopefully the weather will clear up tomorrow and we can wander around. Finding places to eat. Avoiding handbag shops.
Vienna Day 1
Our first day in Vienna was low key. Anna was recovering from a stomach upset and feeling distinctly iffy. Breakfast at the hotel followed by a hop-on hop-off bus tour to get oriented. Rolls, cheese and red wine for lunch. R & R consisting of a nap and reading. (Anna is reading Valley of the Horses by Jean M. Aeul on her Kindle and I am battling with The Man who folded Himself by David Gerrold on my Sony) A slow day in Vienna. Anna is recovering from a tummy upset, hence we did not do much - she needed time to recover. Breakfast at the hotel. The Best Western Das Tigra located in the old town. Spacious, comfortable, rather spartan but at 105 Euro for the room a good buy. Walking distance from practically everything of note. We decided to do the hop-on hop-off bus thing to get oriented. Hopped on and hopped off. Saw lots of buildings. Vienna is in fact full of buildings.
All sitting very smug on the foundation of centuries of history. All very sort of architectural. And boring. On Thursday we want to try to find the human side of Vienna. Most interesting discovery of the day was that Johann Andreas Liebenberg was mayor of Vienna in the year yonk. Anna's maiden name is Liebenberg. He also got a statue. Interesting that all the statues we saw were in honour of people long dead. Has nobody contributed to the arts since Strauss? Has nobody done something militarily splendid since Radetzky? Has there been no mayors since the worthy Liebenberg? How much of the identity of the Austrian people in caught up in the past? I don't know and will certainly not find out on this short trip. Anna was feeling better so off to dinner we went- in search, of course, of the perfect Wiener Schnitzel.We discovered the Esterhazykeller, an eatery deep in the bowels of the city.. Reputedly at this spot since 1683. Very cellary with black stone vaulted ceiling und als. Got the Schnitzels. And was reminded what a hohum dish it really is, even in the hands of, so we were assured, Vienna's schnitzelmeisters. Why did it ever get famous.... In any event, we have done the schnitzel thing. Service was, by the way, unusual. Nobody sidled up to our table and said "Hi, I'm Cecil. I'll be your waitron tonight". We were seated, served with wine and left to our own devices. We discovered that you had to practically grab a waiter by the gnarlies and growl at him that you want food. Refreshingly different. Score: Innkeeper 1, handbag shops nil!
Vienna day 2
In response to some person who wants us to actually feature in some pics, here is the Innkeeper updating this blog just after getting up this morning
and Anna standing outside a handbag shop. (Outside, mind!)
Anna is almost back to her normal feisty self. After breakfast we set off for the Stephansplatz. The weather was great and we had a pleasant stroll down the Graben, a broad pedestrian street with mostly designer shops along the sides.
On the Stephansplatz is the Stephansdom, a medieval gothic cathedral. No pics - it is undergoing renovations and most of the exterior is covered by large photos of what the exterior looks like underneath the photos. Give yourself a pat on the back if that makes sense to you. Inside it looks just like all the gothic cathedrals you have seen elsewhere.
Onwards via the metro to the Nachsmarkt, a 1.5km long food and produce market to the south of the inner city. Great fresh fruit and veg, fish, meat, nuts and lots of little eateries and drinkeries. Some stuff we found interesting:
Here we discovered Sturm, a fermented grape juice more or less halfway between grape juice and wine. The sweet edge of the grape juice is gone, the fruitiness remains and there is a hint of the taste of the wine it could have become. Great find. See how satisfied we both are:
Crunchy bread rolls for lunch and the afternoon spent wandering through the shops of the Graben. We will go looking for dinner later. Anna is packing. The taxi to the airport is picking us up at 7am where we will pick up a car and set off for Budapest. Me driving. Anna navigating. I plan to stay calm.
The score is difficult to compute. Anna actually went into shops and touched handbags. I call it a draw.
The only reason why I did not buy a beautiful red handbag, is because then there won't be space for all the others that I am going to buy in the next four countries. And, I must admit......Vienna is a bit expensive.
Off to Budapest
Lest some of you think that we lack culture, there a good reasons why we did not go to the opera or a music concert in Vienna. The serious season only started yesterday. The only concerts available were those touristy things where they wear 18th century costumes and play Eine Kleine Nachtmusic. And The Blue Danube. And the Radetsky March. Also I note that we did not write anything about the Danube. Well, it ain't blue, to start with. More a murky brown. The Viennese split the river to alleviate flooding (cleverly renting the idle machines used to dig the Suez canal) and the river is thus, where it flows through Vienna, less than its splendid self. We left Vienna at 8am, driving a Renault Megane. Seriously boring 230Km. The tedium alleviated only by the occasional cluster of wind turbines
where we met up with Christine and Joey.
After a crappy lunch we did the hop on hop off thing. Budapest looks great from afar
but as you get closer, sadly, the neglect is all too apparent.
Dinner at an Hungarian eatery. We did the veal paprikash thing. Too much paprika. In the excitement of meeting our friends, Anna forgot all about handbags. Innkeeper 1 handbags zero.
Driving and walking the streets of Budapest for the first time, I felt so sad. Like most things in life, you have to experience something yourself before you can imagine what is must be like for somebody else. It felt as if all these once beautiful old buildings were crying out for help. I think for the people living here now, the communist era must have felt like a prison.
Budapest day 2
We love markets and supermarkets. Off to the Central Market for breakfast. Big indoors market. A real people's market. The fruit and veg is sort of rustic and there is none of the delicatessen type stalls that we found in the Nachsmarkt in Vienna.Lots and lots of paprika.
On the first floor mezzanine is a row of fast food stalls with tables to eat at. Anna and Joey wisely stuck to rolls. Christina got the worst goulash soup in the world and I did battle with a wurst. Horrible, evil thing.
We bought a tram, train and bus pass that allowed free trips on all three, so it was pretty easy to get around. Even not knowing how the bus system works, we could get on the nearest bus heading in the right direction, get off when it veers off course and so bus-hop our way to where we want to be. Thusly we went to the Buda castle.
You take a funicular to the top. Great views of Budapest from the castle, which was, as castles go, not very interesting. Destroyed in the 2nd world war and reconstructed. Lunch at a place in the village around the castle was again a disaster. Restaurant looked like a remnant from the communist era. Waiting staff as well. Surly non-service. We should have walked out, but stuck it out, thinking that pizzas will be safe. They were not.
Bought wine on the way back to the apartments and sat down to sort out a strategy for the eating thing. We booked a table in a restaurant recommended by a friend of Christine's for the evening.
Dinner was, thank goodness, great! Place called Kehli Vendeglo far from the city center. Historic house,attentive staff and really good food made up for the travails of the day. Starters were goulash soup, pheasant soup and some onion thingy. Mains grilled carp, grilled perch, roast pork and Christina got stuffed cabbage. Lots of wine and schnapps (Anna loved the apricot and honey schnapps). And Tokai. Which I thought was vile and Christine thought was wonderful.
Anna made a swift and unexpected strategic move on the handbag front. She lost her handbag. Nothing of import inside, just the usual crap women cart around, but I have to confess that I am lost in admiration. Now the game is really on, but for today, it is Innkeeper zero, handbags one.
Budapest Day 3
On Sunday we decided to take a drive to the north of Budapest. The road, so we are told, runs along the Danube and we would enjoy some of the most beautiful views of the river in all of Europe. It seemed to take forever to get out of Budapest. Dreary rows of communist-era apartment blocks. Until we saw on roadside signs that we had actually segued into Szentendre, the first town we intended stopping. At this point we only had odd glimpses of a very sullen and murky Danube. At the Szentendre riverfront things looked up. Cobblestones and, serendipitously,
Omelettes for breakfast and, somewhat more cheery, we continued.
Odd glimpses of countryside. This was probably one of the dreariest stretches of road it has ever been my misfortune to traverse. Houses were scattered here and there and overlooked the road with an air of desperation. Disrepair and neglect were evident everywhere. We slowly sank into a silent depression. We never found the great views. Not that we looked very hard. We just wanted to get back to Budapest. We dropped Christine and Joey off near Buda Island in the middle of the Danube, while Anna and I decided to have a Sunday afternoon nap back at the apartment.
We had great difficulty wending our way home. The main street we needed to cross was blocked off and there were crowds of people everywhere. We eventually detoured, parked the car and trundled off the see what the fuss was about. It appeared that the Lizt and Mahler festival took place this year across Europe from the 5th September. To mark the start of the festivities, Budapest closed one main street, installed 6 gazebos along its length, about 100m apart, put a grand piano on a platform in each gazebo and got 6 classical pianists to play Lizt and Mahler simultaneously. How great was this! Some chairs were provided, and people crowded the street, sauntering up and down. The bars on the sidewalk were doing fire sale business. T
This certainly showed another, somewhat unexpected side of Budapest. We had booked a table at the Karpatia restaurant for dinner. A restaurant in the old style. Obsequious waiters and everything done in the grand style.
I had beef cheeks, Anna salmon, Christine goose leg and Jochen a collection of small bowls with stewy looking stuff while we shared a duck liver pate with ginger brioche for a starter (Excellent pate). In the true old fashioned manner, the food was brought to the table covered in cloches and "uncloched" with great ceremony by the uniformed waiters.
The salmon, beef cheeks and bowly things were pronounced good. Christine was mildly unhappy with her over baked duck. Great Hungarian merlot. We were, rather touristically, entertained by a gypsy band at the table.
All in all not bad, but far too stuffy and staid. The bill came to about 180 euro. We decided to have a last bottle of wine and dessert at a nearby place that looked interesting, so we set off for the Apostle. Uncomfortable church pew seating, but great atmosphere and a sassy waitress. Anna feeling kissy My name is Baller, Jochen Baller
With the driving around and the Liszt and stuff I managed to avoid the lost handbag thing. Or rather postpone it. Tomorrow, I expect the matter to be tabled again, but for the moment, Innkeeper 1, handbag 0.
Monday morning we dropped Christine and Jochen off at the airport and said our goodbyes. The traffic back to Budapest was ghastly and during the slow crawl, as expected, the missing handbag was brought up. By the Innkeeper, not me. I was going to wait until later. Back to the Market, and ANNA BOUGHT A HANDBAG! DAMN! This is not really a bag, just a simple sling bag. Not a serious handbag. That will come later............
We left Budapest for Pecs, still in Hungary, later the morning. We realise that we could probably have, with a little more effort, made more of Budapest and found it charming, vibrant en beguiling rather than dreary. Our fault, but on the other hand, what we wanted of Budapest, and got in many other European cities, was not a long term relationship that required us to woo it. There are plenty other places that are charming, vibrant and beguiling right off the bat. Too old to waste time, that is the Innkeeper's view. We drove to the South West, towards Balaton Lake and then South East to Pecs. The countryside is totally different to the sad vistas we saw up north. Very pleasant indeed. Forests, orderly little villages (still with sad looking houses). Pecs is great. Smallish town, with a vey pretty medieval; town centre. Beautifully maintained for the most part. a centre for the arts, music and so. Glad Anna's research found this one. We booked into the Hotel Palatinus (100 Euros, b&b) and wandered down the cobblestoned streets. Or rather Anna wandered (sporting her new bag) and the Innkeeper drank beer. And read. Dinner was not good (duck burger, Coq au vin- boring, tough, in that order). So, on Tuesday we leave Hungary for Slovenia. Will we spend more time in Hungary? Budapest says no, Pecs says yes. Times will tell. Oh yes, the bloody score: Innkeeper zilch, Handbags 1. Cesky This morning it struck us - we have yet to see cattle or sheep anywhere. Plenty of pastures, but no actual animals. Maybe they grow them in vats... Forgot to mention the number of extremely rude people we encountered in Budapest - especially waiters. Unbelievable that people in a service industry can be so aggressively rude to customers. Not all the waiters, but the ones that were rude are unfortunately the ones that get remembered. Leisurely breakfast (the usual continental stuff, but at least the rolls are generally crisp) and then we set off for Ptuj in Slovenia. Pecs was really nice, at least in the old part of town. We were not inclined to wander around some more:- it was raining. Made driving more challenging....
The scenery travelling north-east was pretty much the same as that of the day before - forests, sunflower and corn fields. Still no animals. Also no paprika field. This will hopefully be the second of four longish days on the road. Bought lunch at a Spar. Awful. We really need some greens and veg before beri beri sets in. In several small towns we found people selling fruit and veg in front of their homes. No commute. Eventually into Slovakia, and off the freeway onto a small road leading to Ptuj. First farmhouse - we never saw what could definitively be identified as a farmhouse in Hungary. Far too early to tell, but Slovenia looks more like our sort of place. The villages looks like villages. Peculiar little structure near the front gate of some homes, looks like a one person chapel: We'll find out more and let you know. Ptuj was a great idea for a stopover. We were excited to find a town that matched our expectations. Nary a tourist in sight - just townsfolk going about their business. We checked in at our hotel, the Mitra (100Euro) and took a stroll around the old part of the town We will go looking for something nutritious tonight for dinner. And, of course, start sampling the Slovenian wines. Today: Innkeeper 1, handbags 0 overall championship standing: Handbags a short head in front. Something nutritious for dinner and Slovenian wines, I think I said. A guy who blogs as Slow Travel said that the Slovenians are in love with pizza and in Ptuj (pronounced Puhtwohee) one should try the pizza. There are two pizza places within 2 minutes of our hotel, so we thought it easy - trundle to a pizza place, get a bottle of wine and a pizza each. Robert Burns said "The best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley", and so it proved.
The nearest joint had about 4 tables inside, not necessarily a bad thing, sat down, on and ordered a Slovenian wine. Out came a 500ml carafe containing horse piss. The waiting person had disappeared, we think to cook the pizzas, so we drank the water that came with the wine and waited. Maybe the idea was to dilute the wine with water.....
Eventually two plates were delivered, containing two grotesque disks - what the waitress/chef we think fondly imagined to be pizzas. We tasted and had to swallow hard not to spit it out. There was a thick bready bottom, half cooked and half raw dough, topped with substances that could only have been dredged from the bottom of the Ptuj river.
We tossed some euros onto the table and left. Hurriedly. Lest the evil things on our plates follow us. Surely the worst meal we have ever not eaten. We looked in on one or two restaurants close by, but the menus did not appeal to us. So, on to the other pizzeria.
Ordered a different Slovenian wine. It came in a 500ml carafe. See a pattern here? It was mild, just drinkable paint stripper. The waitress called into the kitchen where we saw an old lady bent over the stove. Aha, we thought, the proverbial old Slovenian mamma preparing for us a pizza in the way tought to her by her mother. Two small deep pan pizzas were delivered.
Sort of ok and seeing that we were hungry, we ate the damn things and went to bed. The room was comfortable and we had a good rest. Off to breakfast.
When I researched Ptuj, I learned that it dates from the stone age, or the first human settlements on that spot dated from 1000BC. The breakfast we got dated from that period. The worst breakfast we have ever had. Lucky in love, unlucky in food!
We set off for Lubljana, the idea being that we take a quick drive through the city to determine whether we want to come back later and sleep there. Anna had booked us for three nights in Skofja Loka, much against my initial resistance. She liked the place, and thought that we could use it as a base for exploring a big chunk of Slovenia. It was raining, so anna navigated us to the freeway, which turned out to be sort of interesting. Very misty. Hills and forests all appearing very Transylvanian.
Lubljana is a small city by world standards - 220,000 people. We drove around a bit, found a place to park and wandered around. Here and there quite quaint, but without the sort of charm that we will mostly look to the small towns to provide. We had a sandwich and coffee and left for Skofja Loka, not sure whether we'll return. Just outside Lubljana we stopped at a shopping centre and bought a couple of bottles of Slovenian wine (A Quercus Merlot and an Urska Merlot - can't go wrong with a Merlot, right? About 6 Euro each) and some snacks. The countryside on the way to Skofja Loka is also hilly, and some of the views were breathtakingly beautiful. Skofja Loka looks splendid. We found our hotel on the banks of the river. The view from our room: Tonight we need to eat. We have enough stuff from the supermarket to roll our own (it is still raining). Igor Schuster, the proprietor, assures us that the eateries are good. Would you go to a restaurant recommended by a guy called Igor Schuster?
There seems to be a ceasefire on the handbag front. Probably because of the travelling time. Or is she just biding her time to strike when I least expect it? Time will tell......
Allow us to rectify any impression that we may have given that our host Igor is anything but the friendly, outgoing and helpful host he is. Really a charming man.
Anna made dinner last night - salad with the stuff in yesterday's pic. Including salami for me. Did I mention that both the Hungarians and the Slovenians are great salamists? Fortunately we thought to test the two Slovanian merlots we had bought. Can't go wrong with a Merlot? Hah! The stuff was merely a slightly better class of horse piss than the crap we got with the pizzas. Sort of horse piss aged in oak. We recorked and gave it to Igor. He admitted that Slovenian merlots are "strong" and best drunk with very very salty ham. For us, that is it. No more experimenting. No more Slovenian wines. We may be doing the Slovenians a disservice, but so be it. We drove to the supermarket (Mercator) and bought these:
This morning the affable Igor served us a continental breakfast. A good one, as the genre goes, and leavened it with scads of advice, marking maps und al. The Igor scenic route is what we undertook. It was, of course, raining. Driving around seemed like a sensible option. Slovenia is cheese to Hungary's chalk. It is a modern, prosperous country and it shows. The infrastructure is great, the people friendly, the scenery great and most towns ooze character and charm. There are lots of forests, and a large part of the country is alpine. In fact, most of the scenery we saw on the Igor route is very much alpine in nature. That, by the way, is also where the cattle is - up in the mountains for the summer, to return down to the towns for the winter. Sounds like Switzerland? Look at the window boxes: Here are some pics of our drive (apologies for the lack of contrast rain, remember)
After lunch a walkabout in Skofja Loka. The rain went and we had a sunny afternoon. Up to the castle, which we'll explore tomorrow.
Igor suggested a restaurant in the mountain, overlooking the valley. He offered to take us, and will arrange with the proprietor to bring us back. Sounds good - we'll go clutching two bottles of Pinotage.
All is quiet on the handbag front. Hah! He does not know what I've got up my sleeve! Prague is still a couple of weeks away......
The Slovenian language is one that defies description. There is no common base to any other language we know, making it bloody difficult to pick up words and phrases. Just when you think you are getting somewhere, up pops, say, "Podljubelj" and you are back to square one. You have to have respect, though, for a language that is mainly pronounced as if you are drunk. No way to tell the sober from the inebriated. Unless you fall over, of course.
Igor dropped us off at a restaurant called Gostilna Pri Bostjanu (the last bit is pronounced Boshtjanu - see what I mean?), with a bottle of Cape Pinotage. The place is in a farmhouse, about 5km outside Skofja on the side of a mountain. Friendly welcome, stunning view. We shared a plate of grilled wild forest mushrooms, picked, so we were assured, that very morning: A great example of superb food simply prepared - stunning! Anna ordered a pan-grilled turkey cutlet with veg, and I encountered this on the menu:
The waitress seemed nonplussed when I asked if this was actually horse meat. I thought it might be a mistranslation. "But of course". So I ordered it, of course. Anna's turkey and my horse fillet The thingies on top, one assumes, were the whortleberries, a type of wild blueberry. The meat was finely grained and butter soft with a very faint gamey flavour. Delicious.
Anna was mildly upset about the horse thing. The waitress took us back to the hotel. It is very easy to get around Slovenia using only English. Most menus are available in English and most people speak it well enough.
This morning we decided to hunt the cows. If they are in high pastures for the summer, surely we can find a high pasture somewhere and see actual cows. Igor pointed at a place called the Velika Planina on the map and we set off. There is no road to the Planina, and the whole thing turned out be more than the Innkeeper had bargained for. In one word - heights. We had to take a cablecar to start with.
Here is the evidence for those who know me, that I was actually in the damn thing:
At the top cable car station, you have to take a chairlift to get to the top of the mountain. On one day, I did two things that I had refused to do all my life. What was this? A moment of insanity? The chairlift part of the trip was seriously cold. We were now at high altitude and there was an ice cold wind blowing. The reward at the top though:
Going down the mountain was somehow less scary than going up. We drove back to Skofja and visited the castle and its museum, where Anna had visions of jingle bells....
Tomorrow we leave for Piran. I scored a major coup today, handbag-wise. Anna had saved up a place called Tritze, apparently a centre for leather work, to spring on me when we get close to it. Igor said this morning that the leatherworks had closed down. Yes! Innkeeper 1, Anna and the handbags niks.
Dinner at Restaurant Struman in Skofja. We wanted to go to a well rated Chinese restaurant 5km away. I know what you're going to say. Fact is, however, that Slovenia does not have an indigenous cuisine. They borrow from the neighbouring countries, Hungary, Italy, Croatia and Austria, make a few changes and call it Slovenian cuisine. So Chinese is not eschewing local cuisine. Nothing came of it, though, because they were not prepared to accept our bottle of Pinotage. Even when offered exorbitant corkage. Struman was cool with the Pinotage. Hearty, forgettable peasant style food. For example my pork cutlet was covered with melted Emmenthaler-like cheese, which in turn was covered with prosciutto, which in turn was covered with two sunny side up eggs. The whole was doused in a pork gravy. Just the sort of thing to stick to your ribs during a long day in the forest. Anna had decent calamari, the pic of which is blurred. What was remarkable, and memorable, was the side dish of French fries. The individual fries were boat-shaped, exposing a big area to the oil and resulting in a beautifully crisp fry. I was told that they buy them blanched and frozen from a wholesaler. Business opportunity in SA? After breakfast we bid Igor and Irena adieu. And set off for Piran. Slovenia has a miniscule coastline - only about 40Km - and Piran is one of two towns on this stretch of the Adriatic. Very popular holiday and weekend spot. Piran was part of the Venetian Empire. In the 18 century it became part of Slovenia, then a province of Czechoslovakia. We drove the smaller roads and were rewarded by great scenery. The mountainous parts of Slovenia are truly magnificent. There is a manicured look about the meadows - almost as if it gets mown during the night.
About 70Km from Piran the topography changed. Flatter, fewer forests and not as lush as before. In fact, the last part of the drive may well have been any of a dozen places in S.A. Spoilt, we were. Approaching Piran, the Italian influence was soon visible, both in the architecture and the fact that all road signs were suddenly bilingual. We parked in a garage outside Piran and took a shuttle in to town. Only residents can get into Piran with a car. Very picturesque, and very much geared for tourism.
Drank beer, took a nap (it was 28C). A bit later we opened a bottle of French merlot that we had thoughtfully purchased in Skofja, and settled in on the balcony to watch the sun setting over the Adriatic. Very romantic.
Whereupon we ventured forth to find dinner. Which we did at Pavel 2, right next door to Pavel. Apparently father and son who did not get along in the same restaurant and wisely decided to open a second one for the son. We decided to try a Slovenian Rose. I was a bit apprehensive when the bottle was presented: but it turned out to be a good rose, fruity and off-dry. A hell of a lot better than the reds. If ever you find yourself in Slovenia, and are offered either Resforsk or Civic, run. Fast. These two brands are the plonk that we were assaulted with when eating pizza in Ptuj. There are on every menu everywhere, frequently as the only choices. Come to think of it, this is more than somewhat strange. No restaurant in Slovenia that we visited had a wine list. Reforsk, Civic, Merlot, Cabernet - those are the four musketeers of Slovenian wine lists. Not Skofja Loka Merlot or Bidinic merlot, just merlot. I suspect that these four come in barrels like draught beer..... Dinner was sea bass, grilled veg and ff. The bass was superb. Memorable. As expected, the sea front places are a tad more expensive, so we retired, 60 Euros lighter, but well satisfied. We have decided not to return to Hungary. The wine there is streets ahead of the Slovenian reds, but it is otherwise the poor cousin.
We had really hoped that we could settle in a place for two or three days, drive nowhere and just chill. We are finding this difficult. And no, it is not just the Innkeeper. I have deliberately suppressed my wanderlust, only to find Anna wanting to up and go. In any event, Sunday we head to Bled. Not a handbag in sight in Piran. A safe haven.
We are a tad late updating the blog. This is due to the Innkeeper managing to allow the camera to be swiped out of the car in Bratislava. Here are, for those of you who wish to attain a similar level of stupidity, the steps: 1. Park in a major European city in a parking lot run by a person bearing an uncanny relationship to Bubba, he of Alcatraz fame. Complete with tank top. 2. Lock the car, leaving the driver side window open. 3. Go wandering around Bratislava. 4. Return an hour later and be thankful that the seats are still in the car. 5. Look in vain for Bubba, who has made off with your 5 Euro parking fee.
Soooo.... the Bled pics are gone. What follows, pic-wise, is swiped from the internet but are, I swear, true representations of reality. After breakfast in Piran, we set off for Bled, a small town in the Julian Alps about 150 Km from Piran. Its main feature is the lake, which was formed when the last piece of a glacier melted, leaving a hollow.
Very picturesque and very busy. Sunday in late summer is not a good day to arrive in Bled. Not at all. It is just across the border from Austria and the place is packed with day and weekend visitors. We tried to get into guest houses and canvassed the hotels along the lake edge. Either full or too expensive. Had a toasted sandwich while we contemplated our navels. We decided to call it a day and head towards Slovakia. Walking back to the car, we spotted a restaurant with apartments above, and found ourselves an apartment. Very basic, no amenities, but located right on the lake with a balcony and a great view.We immediately broached our last bottle of Pinotage in celebration.
Balcony in the middle. There is a pathway right around the lake which, so we were told, will take only an hour to circumnavigate. We strolled along the path for a while. The weather was perfect: about 22C and sunshine. People were feeding the ducks, chatting and strolling. Nobody in a hurry, everybody polite and smiling. A near perfect, lazy sunday afternoon. We passed a boat dock where gondola-like boats set off with a dozen or so passengers for the island in the middle of the lake, with the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church perched on its top.
The boatman, Marjan, rowed us across the lake at a sedate pace, fitting for the general air of lazzez faire that imbued Bled on this Sunday. The island is tiny. We walked around it in 10 minutes. The church is unremarkable. After half an hour we returned to Marjan's boat and he obligingly took us back to shore. We finished the Pinotage, watched the sun allowing evening to be, and walked downstairs for dinner. The food was boring - anna had a pork schnitzel and I grilled rump steak. We tried the wine again and had a Merlot. As bad as we remembered. We have now had it with Slovenian wine and Slovenian food. Go to Slovenia for the scenery, Hungary for the food and wine. Were it not for this, we would recommend Slovenia to all and sundry for a holiday. It has everything you would want for a holiday. Except for good food and wine. The food one can work around and it is not unbearable. The wine, though, is another matter. If you love wine, bring a case or two.
Our travels through Slovenia end today. after breakfast we will head for Bratislava in Slovakia to see what we can see. www.viamichelin.com is a website that plans routes, We fed in Bled as source and Bratislava as destination. You can then choose to be given a scenic route, the quickest route, the shortest route, etc. The quickest route will lead us over the austrian alps to Klagenfurt, the Graz, then Vienna and the Bratislava.In all 4.5hours.
Anna has made a handbag move this morning. Her comment was that we should bypass Bratislava, go to one of the small Slovakian towns and then return to Bratislava over the weekend when, and note this, there is a large market. Does she think the Innkeeper is asleep? Hah!
We left Bled, heading for the Austrian border near Klagenfurt, thence to Graz, Vienna and Bratislava. About 450Km. We soon left Slovenia, passed the deserted Austrian border post, and descended the Austrian Alps. The photographs we took would have blown you away - award-winning stuff, each and every one. We got the history bit sorted. Slovenia was, with Croatia and other odd bits like Bosnia, part of Yugoslavia run by Tito. Socialist, but never part of the USSR. Slovakia and the Czech Republic was Czechoslovakia, part the the communist block. It was striking that alpine architecture is the same, irrespective of country. You find this in Slovenia in the highlands, in Austria in the mountains, and if memory serves, in Switzerland. With a small variation here and there.
The trip was, after we left the mountains, pretty boring. we wanted to get to Slovakia. Latish afternoon we arrived in Bratislava. Parked at the ill-fated parking lot. Set off to find a place to stay. The whole of the old city part of Bratislava is reserved for pedestrians. Which we were. After parking. We found a great apartment just off the main square - a huge bedroom, dining room combo with high ceilings and drapes. (120euro per day, b&b). T
he reception lady, Martina, directed us to an electronic shop where we replaced the camera. Perhaps we will settle for a day or two three - lots to see and do. Dinner was forgettable, but thanks goodness - there was an actual wine list. With drinkable wines. We had a Chilean merlot. we will experiment with local wines tomorrow. Today we wanted something reliable to raise a toast with. On our way back from buying the camera, I discovered why Anna was so enthusiastic to stay longer. Tough times ahead..... Today we had a very good breakfast. The Skaritz apartments have a very sensible arrangement with the restaurant next door to do the breakfasts for them. As a result we had the best continental-style breakfast so far. A very satisfactory way to start the day. Bratislava is a beguiling city, especially the old part with its pedestrian only streets. Narrow streets suddenly open up into a square with pubs and restaurants lining it.
Quirky suprises here and there serve notice that some Bratislavians, at least, have a sense of humour. We ambled amiably through the old town, on our way to find a hop-on hop-off bus. Seems as if all the lampposts have flower boxes. They have, in Bratislava, small bus that tours parts of the old city and goes to the Bratislava castle. So, on to the bus we went. The multilingual thingy was broken, so we tried our level best to understand the German commentary over the speakers (the rest of the bus was German). Perhaps as well, because it sounded boring. Through the streets and up to the castle we went. No access to the castle as such. We had to make do with glimpses of its glories. Good views from here, though. That is the Danube on the right. Seems as if the Danube runs through every major city in Europe. Interesting view to the left of the new bridge's pylon. Communist era apartments..... All in all a fun morning. There is, remarkably, a Tesco in Bratislava. We had to find some wine and needed a few odds and ends and Tesco seemed to fit the bill. I love foreign supermarkets, so the short shopping expedition turned into a rather lengthy examination of what they have to offer. Nothing hugely interesting, except mangosteens.
The red part is inedible and the white somewhat like litchees. Except that it is more like a mangosteen that anything else. Lunch was fun. Anna was famished, so we got her the soup of the day and a pizza. She fell onto the soup like a famished wolverine. after consuming most of it, she discovered stuff that looked ominously like it came from something bovine. And so it did. Calf parts. She was not happy. Even the rather sour Slovakian wine suddenly tasted better. And yes, alas, the omens arte not good. It looks increasingly likely that the Eastern European reds, Hungary excluded, are uniformly crap. We will do some more testing, though, he said with a heavy heart. The afternoon we found a place to repair Anna's fingernails, and explored the rest of the old city. This evening we went to a restaurant that serves only Slovakian dishes. They actually had a wine list - a welcome change. We bravely bought Slovakian. Not great, but not totally bad, either. It still, despite a hefty price tag, had the sour undertone that we found typical of Slovenian wines. Two violins, a piano and a base were doing Slovakian folk tunes in the corner. We politely applauded. Which immediately sent them into "lets milk these tourists" mode. They approached. And serenaded Anna. If I did not cross their palms with silver, they would probably be still at it. Outside our apartment window. To be fair, they played well and enhanced the evening for us. Anna got a chicken cutlet, covered with cheese, covered with a half peach. And I had duck legs with sauerkraut and dumplings. Anna's chicken was surprisingly light, tender and juicy. My entire dish was beyond stodgy. Those dumplings! I think there is a subtle strategy at work here.
Anna popped into a few handbag places, declaring that she has given up on finding anything that suits her. She is, she said, about to give it up altogether. I have to think about this...... The blog is late. That is because we have been on the road a lot. To find out why, continue reading. Be warned, though, some of the details may offend sensitive readers. We left Bratislava in high spirits. A good start to Slovakia. The next stop was Bankska Stiavnica. As we are wont to do, we turned off the motorway and wend our way along small secondary roads. Much more to see. We passed through little villages surrounded by farmland. Rather uninspiring landscape. The villages were uniformly dilapidated. No maintenance, no cleaning, no tidying up.
Slightly bigger towns would have the inevitable row of soviet-era apartments: and a Tesco Tesco must have moved into Slovakia big time when the Soviet Union folded. Along the road we found, here and there, lanes of apple trees. Anna picked one - small and sour. A fitting part of the countryside we were passing through. Eventually we arrived in Bankska Stiovnica, a village that the reviews on the Internet raved about. We had to stop to have lunch, otherwise we would have entered and exited in quick succession. The meal's only grace was its price. Anna tasted and left her fish (3.5Euro). I managed to down my sandwich (1.5Euro). Here is one of the building in the main centre of town. On our way out of BS and driving to Banska Bystrica, we devised the Fucked Up index. Remember, you read it here first. This concept is due to revolutionise international commerce. Basically skilled practitioners, such as Anna and the Innkeeper, will upon request and against payment of a huge fee, compile an FU index for a country. This index is the mean of component FU numbers for small towns outside tourist areas, small towns inside tourist areas, capital city, food and wine. On the index, 10 would be completely FU as in and 0 would be pristine and perfect. Bankska Stiovnica was an 8 on the FU scale. We arrived in Banska Bystrica. About a 5. That would be sort of ok, but the place had no soul. It was devoid of charm. Sort of empty without being empty. So, on we went. We had the name of a converted castle in Liptovsky Hradok, towards the north, rather pompously called the Grand Castle. Maybe we could settle in at the castle for a day or two three to catch our breath. The scenery changed - more hilly with verdant meadows. Even the small towns dropped lower on the FU scale.
About 30Km from Liptovsky, a cop informed us that the road ahead was closed due to uprooted trees. This was a bit of a blow, as it was by this time 5pm and the detour would mean another 2 hours of so of travel. It was getting dark and we fired up Susy the GPS who promised to get us there asap. She got lost, gave up on us and went to sleep. Slut!
Anna phoned the castle and could only get the chef, who gave directions. And again 10mins later. We tried him again for a last double check, but by this time the answering machine was on. Guy was probably off cooking dinner, and who can blame him. We later found that the only two people around were the chef and the waiter, the one cooking and the one waitering. We arrived just before 8 and had to kidnap the waiter to check us in. He was, understandably in a hurry - there were several tables occupied in the restaurant. He took one look though at the darkness in the Innkeeper's eye and meekly showed us around. The pics are from the next morning. Bloody nice castle. We lugged luggage and went to dinner. Our table was, serendipitously, decorated with a plastic protea. We thought it appropriate to order the Delheim Merlot on the wine list, and did so. The food was outstanding. By far the best meal we have had this vacation. Anna had pan-grilled chicken breast with a white wine gravy and veg. The chicken was exquisite. Tender and juicy. The sauce was splendid, light but with enough oomph to lift the chicken. The Innkeeper had a grilled pork loin with roast potatoes and veg. We waited 45 minutes for the food to arrive - entirely due to the roast potatoes, which were clearly freshly made. The pork was perfectly pink and the gravy was evidence of a sure hand. We sent a glass of wine in to Matthias, the chef/direction giver and contemplated staying longer. At the bar we had a slivovitz each and met up with the owner, Dagmar Machova who also owns a flat in the middle of Prague, which she promptly and very graciously offered to us. Free of charge. Which we, after token protestation, accepted. A week's free accommodation in Prague is not to be sneezed at. We slept poorly. Anna was upset - our bed had no bottom sheet and we slept on the mattress cover. Breakfast was really really poor and we decided to move on. We were in the foothills of the high Tatras mountain range, and thought it a good idea to trundle into the mountains and see what we could see. So off we went: Christine emailed us and asked "Why the hell did these wine-and-food-loving people decide to choose East Europe for their vacation?" A good question, and one that deserves an answer. Two reasons - we travel to see new stuff that we have not seen before. Secondly because even if the stuff we see is not so great, we are together. Even if the wine is shit, at least it is shit shared. As we got closer, it became apparent that the mountains were indiscriminately stripped of trees 20-30 years ago. The stumps were rotten and blackened with age. It was simply awful. We called at a few mountain hotels in a desultory fashion, only to found that they we all fully booked. apparently the Slovakians go to the mountains come the weekend. We left, not unhappy to do so. Anna had read that one of the best preserved castles in all Slovakia can be found at Bojnice, so to Bojnice we went. Apparently parts of the Harry Potter movies were shot here. The drive was through the Tatras foothills, making for quite pleasing landscapes. And villages that hovered around FU 4. In Bojnice, we discovered the castle. Wow! We arrived together with 53 million Japanese tourists and could not fit in the castle tour. The hotel Pod Zamkom at the foot of the castle had a room for us. We will do the castle tour tomorrow. In the light of the lingering memories of the previous night's dinner, we do not want to strain the capabilities of the Pod Zamkom kitchen brigade. There is a pizzeria across the road, and that is where we will go. We have an unspoken ceasefire, given the travails of the past two days. The week in Prague is looming large, though..... (Tee-hee!) We are nearing the end of our trip through Slovakia. There are things we do not understand.
Probably the foremost of these is why some parts, especially the small rural villages are so run down and other, equally small ones quite spiffy. Enquiring minds want to know.
A Google or two brought an interesting article to light. It was written by Laura Setana, who emigrated with her parents to the USA around the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the late 60's. The nature and effect of the transition from communism to capitalism was the subject of a study she conducted in 2008. I quote "“Life seems different here than I remembered it from my previous visits. People seem weary, tired, and worn but not in a hectic sense of being occupied by too many things to do. There is weariness in people's eyes, as if each day is a struggle and one does not rush to the next because it is unknown what awaits them there. People stroll, with purpose but not quickly. Colors are faded as their lives seem to be. They are emerging from a past of black and white and grey to color and are stuck somewhere in-between. Slovakia has emerged into the Western world but many do not yet feel a part of that world.” and "Bittersweet—that is the best way I can describe the general sentiments I heard during my stay in Slovakia. Although the fall of communism brought many positive changes, some negative impacts have awakened nostalgia for the past era and inspired the bittersweet feelings held by many. For those who are retired or near the age of retirement, the rising cost of living, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the reduction in social securities represent some of the negative aspects of the present day reforms. Many reflected that during communism “everybody had a job and a place to live,” but today life is full of uncertainties, such as unemployment, which can come as a crushing blow to those who never believed that they could one day be unemployed. The transition from communism to democracy and capitalism is slow and often painful and difficult for those who must live through the changes, even though most of those interviewed remain optimistic about the future."
Could it be that most of the high FU villages we saw are now predominantly occupied by the aged poor? It is in any event evident that geographical location also plays a role. North and West we saw far less obvious evidence of poverty and neglect. In fact, the village we slept in last night, Bojnice, is well looked after and quite pleasant. Very sleepy, though. We did not intend to mention dinner. Pizzeria across the road. The Innkeeper ordered wine and two pizzas. We have not mentioned the language thing. In Hungary, practically everyone speaks Hungarian and German (Austro-Hungarian Empire, remember) and some English. In Slovenia almost everyone speaks English. In addition to Slovenian, of course. In Slovakia, they speak Slovak and almost nobody speaks English. Some hotel receptionists do and that is about it. Very few menus have English translations. It can therefore get quite interesting when ordering food. At one point a few days ago the waiter and the Innkeeper were drawing pictures at each other.
Back to the pizzeria. Anna wanted the vegetarian one, without onions and olives. The Innkeeper, using his masterful command of Slovak, pointed at what looked like the vegetarian option and requested that it be delivered without olivy (easy one) and without syr. As any South African in Slovakia will agree, syr has to be onions. Anna's pizza duly arrived without a smidgen or hint of syr on it.
Problem was, syr turns out to be cheese. No bloody cheese at all, no mozzarella, nothing.
I shared mine with her. I suspect I have not heard the last of this.... (So right, my dear, so right) Breakfast this morning started well. We were actually presented with a menu with at least 20 hot eggy type dishes on it. We ordered omelettes. They fried them in at least 2cm of oil. Oh well.....
Trencin is our last stop in Slovakia. After the breakfast, we were not exactly sparkling and did not hold out much hope that it would buck the trend. Nevertheless, off we went. It was raining hard . We passed through small towns, all at more or less 3 to 4 FU. The speed limit through towns is 50Kph. We were trapped doing 70kph. A 50Euro spot fine. Strange thing. As we passed through a small village, we heard music. Every lamppost had a speaker fixed to it, blaring Slovakian folk music. Nobody in sight, just the music playing for the 500m that the road ran through the town. Trencin was a pleasant and welcome surprise. Exactly what we have been looking for in Slovakia. Charming and stuffed to the gills with character. We noticed techies setting up a stage in the main square. It turns out that a free open air classical music concert is due Saturday night. We don't know who or what will be performing, but decided to stay an extra day and attend. Found accommodation a block away - 60Euro. A leftover, we are sure, from the communist era is that you have to complete a form containing address, nationality, purpose of your presence, etc., sign it and hand to the person checking you in to the hotel. They send it off to the local police station. Nobody knows why or what the police do with the forms, just that it has to be filled in very meticulously, and the fact of completion entered into a ledger. Trencin has a castle on a hill just a stone's throw from the main square of the old town. Built in the 11th century and restored in the 1990's. Slovakia has lots of castles, mostly 8+FU, but some, like this one, very castle-like. Most of the castles in Slovenia are more like large manor houses. Dinner was at Restaurant Flavius, promising family food at good prices. Well, we can't very well live off pizza, can we. Anna had potato pancakes filled with chicken and served with veggies, and I had pork fillet with mushrooms. My pork was tasty - just too much. Also everything was drowned in a pork gravy. Anna's pancakes were rubbery and her chicken sort of ok. She gave up fairly early on. One way to deal with Slovakian food is an obligatory Slivovitz to settle the stomach (thanks, Christine!). I worry that Anna now has her sights set on Prague. She waltzed by several handbag shops today with nary a glance. So, the Innkeeper will gird his loins and prepare for what promises to be The Battle of Prague. We had a hazy lazy day in Trencin (Trenchien). Nowhere to drive. Latish breakfast - how I hate a continental breakfast that does not include crisp rolls. This morning's were hot dog buns. Ghastly. Bad coffee. We decided to take our books, hang around in one of the many coffee bars and read and just chill. Really a great day. Sun shining. Order more Kava. Your second Slovakian word - coffee. If you have been paying attention, you should also know the word for cheese. We still like the town a lot. A whimsy in one of the squares.
Funny thing - nobody seems to know when the concert starts. Or who is performing. Or what they will be performing. Or why? Who is footing the bill, the Trencin town council? Big setup. Everyone knew about the concert, but the details were really hard to come by. Eventually we found the Trencin info office, where a helpful, English speaking lass cleared things up. It turned out that the concert is actually a political event, sponsored by one of the candidates in the upcoming Trencin mayoral election. We had pizzas for dinner. Anything but a repeat of the previous night's cholesterol feast. Still, I did momentarily contemplate the duck. Menu perusing is a serious business. Especially if you come across gems such as these. and they are actually serious. So, after dinner, at around 8pm, off to the concert we went. We found two vacant chairs in a sidewalk cafe with a good view, ordered wine, and settled in. The Innkeeper flashed his knowledge of Slovak again. Got a very sad white wine instead of the red he thought he had ordered. At the concert - performing, courtesy of the Candidate, Richard Rybnicek was the Bratislava Philharmonic. But first, the Candidate spoke. He seemed a modest man - the gathered multitude applauded frequently. And then the orchestra played. With the Candidate never far away. This guy really has class. He's got our votes for sure. If we could vote. Which we can't. But we would. If we could. We had great seats, and kept the orders going to the Omar Cafe, feeling guilty to just sit. It was getting cold, and slivovitz kept us warm. We enjoyed the performance. The setting was ideal, we could keep ordering slivovitz, and the orchestra performed admirably. And the Candidate did not speak again. They even had a soloist, a cello player. He was really good. Stands to reason. He wore a red shirt. On the way home, the castle loomed above our hostelry. A fitting end to a classical evening. Okay - you try and find something that rhymes with Czech. Chuntering, Chugging? Hah! We expected the more prosperous western part of Slovakia to be reflected as we continues into the Czech Republic. It was so. Very pleasant drive to Olomouc. Rolling meadows and all in all a pleasing aspect.
We passed through forests and country lanes bordered by pear trees. Some still bearing pears. Olomouc is a forgettable country town. but we did not mind. We needed a base from which to plan The Assault on Prague. Found middling guest house in a great little street with a restaurant just opposite. We spent most of the afternoon napping, drinking a Chilean Merlot and figuring out how to wend our way through Czech. Decided not to take up the castle woman's offer of an apartment - we felt uncomfortable taking occupation of a stranger's flat. I mean, what do you do on the last day - wash all the linen and sleep on the floor? So we gracefully, we hope, declined and will make our own arrangements. We have set aside a week for Prague and will head north tomorrow. Dinner was at the U andela (sic) across the road. We were waiting for our food when an australian couple came by and we got talking. As a result, there is no pic of my carp, nor of Anna's pork. Not that either of them merited recording. We had a Chianti, not wanting to brave Czech wine on day one. We did manage a pic to add to our menu oddities collection. Ended with a slivovitz. This is fast becoming a habit. The Aussies did not join us. Sissies! Typical. This episode will probably not do much for the ratings, but watch this space! We left Olomouc this morning, cheered by our efforts to get the visit to Prague sorted. When we started sifting through Anna's research and made a few phone calls, it quickly became apparent that it would be difficult to find a good apartment in Prague for the coming week. We pushed the visit back a week, and got what looks like a great apartment for a week at 106Euro a day. We had to break the "don't rent without eyeballing" rule- good accommodation in the old city is not easy to come by.
We also booked a ticket for a performance of Aida in the Prague State Opera. Anna insisted that we also go to the ballet. I initially dug my heels in, but she wheedled and wheedled until at last, to keep the peace, I gave in. Excuse me! He made the suggestion to go to the ballet - he, the Innkeeper himself. I was perfectly happy to go to the opera only. So, we also have tickets for Swan Lake. Remarkably cheap - R2000 for all 4 tickets. In good seats, nogal. We had planned to drive to Teplice on the North-West border, a goodly distance of about 450Km. Did not sound too bad, as it would give us an opportunity to wander through the small towns of Eastern and Northern Bohemia. We left early, around 8am. The countryside is soft on the eye. all the villages we passed through scored very low on the FU scale. More pear tree lanes. Mid-morning Anna needed a loo. No loos around, but the odd patch of forest, I thought, should supply sufficient privacy. Off she went. During the process, she managed to get entangled with stinging nettles and came storming out of the forest, her behind on fire. Fortunately we travel with enough pills and ointment to stock a third world pharmacy. No lasting effects, I am pleased to say. A while later, we realised that we have a further problem. The Eastern and North-Eastern parts of Czech are village rich. One every 9 Km max. Mostly one every 3 or so Km. Some very small - 8 or 9 houses. The main road runs through each and every one of them, mandating a speed change down to 50km between the entrance and exit town signs. This was seriously eating into our progress. After 4 hours travel, we had managed only 120Km. Drive 4 or 5Km at 70, drop to 50 to pass through a village. Repeat at nauseam. How many bloody towns can there be? Turns out plenty, boet, plenty. At that rate, we had better lay in some supplies. And a tent. Ain't no way we gonna get to Teplice tonight, ma'am. Better hunker down, light a fire to keep off the critters and hope for a better day in the morn. The solution is easy, right? Hie ye to the freeway and off you go, right? Hah! Susy, the satnav, soon got her knickers in a knot with road closures and road repairs, so we had to rely on the map. Some of the bloody little towns are so small that they don't appear on the map. So you go through three or four, only to find at the first recognisable signpost that you should have taken a left three towns back. And so ad nauseam. At 1:30 we came to the freeway, flung ourselves on it with the joy of shipwrecked sailors spotting an island and arrived in Teplice at 3. Town looks good, but at this point it would have to have been Ice Station Zero for us to drive on. We quickly found a great room in the rather grandly named Hotel Prince de Ligne. Booked in for two days. It is rather cloudy, so pics of the hotel and Teplice will have to wait for tomorrow. Here is Anna with our pillows on her way to the room. You may remember that we brought two vacuum packed pillows along. They were unvacuumed after we got the car, and has been the main reason why we have slept well. No matter the state of the mattress, no matter the linen - our pillows will always be exactly what we require. We had dinner in the hotel's restaurant. This week they have what they call "a week of Fruit in Gastronomy." Here is the menu (I reproduce it as is). It shows remarkable command of English, and is a welcome departure, we hoped, from the stodge we have become accustomed to. Cold Starters Papaya stuffed with piquant prawn salad R50 Rucola, parma ham, peaches and cranberry salad R40 Soup Gratinated coconut R12 Warm Starters Goose liver with juniper and grape R25 King Prawns with chilli and mango R77 Specialities Dumplings filled with plums served with grated cottage cheese and sugar. R40 Little beef fillets with skewered fruit and honey dip R92 Marinated beefsteak spilled with cranberry sauce R98 Pork medallions with hot grilled honey in pineapple R92 Hot pan with grilled chicken mixed with fruit R62 Roast duck with orange and potato croquettes R62 Chicken breast with apples and apple wine R62 Turkey breasts fried in banana batter R68 Juicy Salmon Steak with salsa of tropical fruit and lime R95 Talking of awards, Christine was honoured over the weekend by being awarded one of the 11 German Radio prizes for 2010. She got the award in the category "best interview". We are happy with you, Christine, and proud and have lifted a glass or two. Of slivovitz. And of red wine.
On to last night's dinner. Anna had the prawn and papaya salad starter, and I the goose liver. Mains were the hot pan with grilled chicken mix and tropical fruit for Anna and duck for the Innkeeper. Here are the pics, in that order. I managed to mangle the duck before remembering to photograph it, so it is absent. Use you imagination. It looked exactly like a roasted duck. Leg and thigh. The pic of the papaya thingy is blurred because we were laughing so hard. This was so unbelievably kitch and bad, just unimaginably bad that we could only laugh. The thing that was carved to be the bowl, and looks like a melon, was the papaya. If it was a papaya, and the jury is still out on that one, we intend informing the papaya police immediately. The "papaya" was filled with 10 shrimps the size of ants, and with copious quantities of sliced paprika and tomato. The whole elegently topped off with a dollop of sour cream. My goose livers were sort of ok. This was not foie gras, but small individual livers which may as well have come from chicken. Overcooked and dry. The mains were, surprisingly, actually pretty good. Anna's chicken was fresh and light and my duck was, well, duck. It came accompanied with three hude sliced of grilled orange. I was not sure whether this was intended as a sort of do it yourself orange sauce, or whether I should simply eat them, but the duck was good. We will return tonight - Anna has a yen for duck and I will attempt something bovine. So, the prize is to be shared between two of the favourite women in my life. For he exact nature of the award, you will have to wait. I have stuff to arrange - press releases, TV and so on..... We like Teplice. This is the view from our hotel room: The city park is close by and after breakfast we went for a walk, intending to spend time in the park reading and just chilling. That is pretty much what we did for the rest of the day. The park is quite magnificent. Huge old trees. which made Anna happy.. We walked through the trees read, had a totally forgettable lunch in a place with a witchy theme and Anna conversed with a swan. The Czechs smoke a lot. More of them than, it seems, the Slovaks, Slovenians and Hungarians combined. The hotel restaurant actually has a sign on the door to reassure diners that smoking is allowed. No seperate areas - as a non-smoker jou take pot luck and hope that the guy with the large cigar is not headed for the table next to you. Yet, strangely, hotels all have non-smoking rooms. For lunch we eat outside, but dinner, methinks, will be interesting. Last night we did not have many smokers in the restaurant, so it was tolerable. Nose plugs, anyone? Tomorrow we head for Karlovy Vary, or as it is also known, Karlsbad, known for its spa hotels. Not known for leatherwork. At all. Hah! I may or may not post a picture of the duck tomorrow. That is the dead one. On Anna's plate. That is if she orders the duck. Which she may not. She had the duck. Here it is. Or was. Because it ain't no more. Because she's eaten it.
Pronounced very good. That is because Anna dislikes pan roasted duck breast - too raw. Too tough if well done. Roasted in the oven until crisp, though... This may just mean that we can revive duck for dinner at home. I had a rib-eye steak. Very good. Interesting that I was not asked how I wanted it done. Nevertheless, it came medium-rare. We reprised the Chilean Merlot and ended with the obligatory, and by now also customary, slivovitz. The Czechs do not bugger around with wee tots of the stuff. The morning dawned misty, with the sun rising over the two twin churches on the square in front of the hotel. After breakfast we set off for Karlovy Vary. I want to go on record again that I am now gatvol with continental breakfasts. There are always common denominators: cereals, yoghurt (sweet, very sweet), cheese (2 types), ham, salami and bread - sliced dark bread and, hopefully, crisp rolls. If hope avails not, you will make do with hot dog rolls. Fruit "juice". Or maybe "Fruit" juice. Tea and coffee. The highlight is if they can do a proper espresso. This morning it was coffee in an urn. Now and then you will find a chafing dish containing, inevitably, wieners drifting disconsolately in tepid water, and eggs of some nature. This morning they were fried. At, I think, 1 or 2 am. By the time we got to them, they were sad. Very sad. So, colour me gatvol. At least in Prague we are going to cook our own in our apartment, said he, rubbing his hands in anticipation. Were was I? Oh yes, off to Karlovy Vary. Only 120Km, so we set off into the hills. The roads on our map are colour coded according to size. Yellow with red edges are the big buggers. Green next, then red, then yellow then white. Anna plotted a course on yellow. You do not want to drop down to white. These are seriously FU roads - at least a 9. To do the hilly thing, we had to dip into Germany and back into Czech. Pleasant drive through forests. When we got into Germany, we passed through several towns and were reminded what an FU of 1 and 2 looks like. Almost every small town in Czech has at least one house that's painted in a loud colour. Strange. Lots of wind power thingys around. At around midday we arrived at our destination. Karlovy Vary used to be Karlsbad when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and later, part of the Sudetenland ceded to Germany just before WW2. After the war it got lumped back into Czechoslovakia. Well known since the 14th century for its healing waters. We found a great hotel right in the centre of the spa area - the Hotel Promenada. The price made our eyes water, but hey - this is Karlsbad where the Russian oligarchs go. And other famous people. Who are all rich. Whose eyes probably never water. Also, so we are told, the place houses a restaurant of great repute. Yes. Sounds familiar. Nevertheless, we settled into a very nice room, classy touches all over the place and had a quick lunch in the hotel's snack bar. First decent toasted sandwich we've had. And explored. Karlovy Vary oozes European charm and class. It is really really the most charming town we have so far visited. The first pic, to give you an overview, was lifted off the Web from http://en.academic.ru. We know about the Russians because all menus and most signs are in four languages: Czech, German, Russian and English. We had to buy a Spa wafer, a speciality of the area. , A large round wafer consisting of two very thin wafers with a layer of chocolate or some other flavour inside. So, on to dinner. At the hotel Promenada restaurant. Recommended by all and sundry. Including Russian oligarchs. Petr brought the wine list. He was the sommelier. I mean, an actual sommelier! My eyes started watering. The Italian wines started around 150 euro. The French ones at around 200 euro. Fortunately we found an S.A. Pinotage - Ernst Gouws, at 35Euro. Thanks, Ernst. It was beautifully presented. Really a good Pinotage. On to the food. For starters, I had to see what they will do with a classic French onion soup, and Anna opted for herbed snails. Both were excellent. Nay, bloody good. For mains, Anna had Perch and the Innkeeper fell with a cry of glee onto the lamb chops. Both dishes were superb. Real food executed with love, Anna opined. I agree. My eyes stopped watering. Until we got the bill. Think 4x S.A. prices. However, we will be back. This is seriously good food. We spoke with the sommelier about wine things and specifically about Czech wines. He said that the lack of sunshine during the vital ripening time cause the grapes to have a high level of acidity- the sour, harsh undertone typical of Eastern European red wines. However, the owner of the hotel has a vineyard planted with pinot noir, cabernet and merlot. When the ripening period lengthens, the character of the wine softens. The wine is kept for friends and for the hotel. He produced a cabernet and a merlot from 2006 for us to taste. Both were streets ahead of anything local we had tasted. So, we will return. Is it worth trying other places? Dunno. We'll test via lunch. We found tickets to a performance of Dvorak's Stabat Mater on Saturday night - performed by, can you believe it, the Karlovy Symphony Orchestra. I spent most of the morning expounding knowledgeably about the effects of the presence of Russian Ologarchs on local economies. Especially prices. Especially of leather goods. Did not help much. But she's a sensible lass. The prices are indeed horrendous. The part of Karlovy Vary that we are in is known as the spa area. This is because they have spas here. As opposed to the rest of Karlovy Vary which is also quaint but with no spas. The Russian oligarchs don't go there. They, so it seems, like spas. Together with the Germans, they make up 102% of the population of Karlovy at any given moment. You know that you are in the spa area when all the shops sell either jewellery, shoes, handbags or furs. and, of course, when your eyes start watering. We had, please note, a great continental breakfast. It turns out that it is not the genre I object to, bu the implementation. We got all the usual suspects, except that there was 4 types of cheese and 4 hams. I n addition bacon, good scrambled eggs, a sweet corn, broccoli and cheese quiche, grilled veggies and a great assortment of crisp rolls. I'll take some pics tomorrow. Oh, and freshly brewed espresso. It is sort of hilly and woody around where we are. Tall hills. It turns out, almost inevitably, that there is a funicular that goes up the tallest of them. It also turns out, as inevitably, that Anna wants to go up. So, up we went. (I love the woman to bits, but sometimes....) The hill was high. I am sure I saw Telsat II whizzing by. I survived, though, and dismounted thankfully. (Does one dismount a funicular or just sort of tumble out?) My relief was short-lived. Right at the top of the hill they had the silly idea of building a tower that allows you to go higher yet. So, yes , up we went. What can I say of the tower? It was high. Anna reports that the view is pretty good. I cowered against the lift shaft and will have to take her word for it. We were too early for the restaurant at the foot of the tower. I think they probably make a fortune selling slivovitz to people who get dragged up the tower by their wives. Anna had a yen to see the non-spa Karlovy, so we mounted a train type thingy and went up the hill. We could have taken a horse-drawn coach but these are reserved for visiting Russian oligarchs. This part of Karlovy Vary was worth visiting, and we wandered around the streets for a while. Coming back, we explored parts of the spa area. Found a cigar and spirits shop with the most splendiferous bottle of Russian vodka in the window at only 300 euro. How about this glass symphony orchestra at just 1500 euro? All the souvenir stands (guess they can't afford the rent in the shops), sell peculiar little ceramic cups with a ceramic straw for a handle. Of all the spa towns, Karlovy is renowned for the digestive cure its waters impart. The fountain pushes 3 million litres of water a day into the town, bearing 18 tons of minerals. If you just swig the stuff from a nowmal glass, apparently it discolours your teeth horrendously. The cups are intended to allow you to such the healing fluid past your teeth. Water fountains are set up everywhere so you can take the cure whenever you want. As long as you have your cup thingy to hand, of course. We have not tried this yet. Good digestive systems. Why try to fix it if it ain't broken? We had a quick dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Wanted to eat, not dine. Anna was keen on testing out her newly found crispy duck theory, and I joined her. The other stuff on the menu looked so-so. We order 2 x crispy duck with noodles. What arrived was this Enough duck to feed four people and 5 dogs. We did the best we could, with very little assistance from the bottle of local Cab. Petr, where were you! The duck was good - crisp and all. We skipped the slivovitz tonight and opted for a Pinotage in our room with some of the Monty Beaujangles chocolate we have left. No handbag alarms today. I think the eye watering thing makes it difficult. Couldn't take a breakfast pic this morning - too crowded. Probably Sunday morning, when we'll leave early. The weather forecast for tomorrow is bleak (heavy rain), so we'll lie in. Taking advantage of the sunshine, we thought to see what the other major spa town, Marianske Lazne, also known as Marienbad, looks like. So off we went, after having the car brought to us. Parking is scarce in Karlovy, and the hotel parks the guest cars somewhere mysterious. Marienbad is about 50 Km away. We drove through a forest. The autumn colours are really starting to show
A still lake caught our eye. Marienbad is smaller than Karlovy and also less compact. The spa area has a big park right in the middle. Same ornate hotels. We walked through the park. Like Karlovy, Marienbad has a collonade. We do not know the purpose of these things, other than being ornamental. They are pleasing of aspect, but do not contain anything. Much like a blonde, he said, ducking for cover. The one in Karlovy is full of pillars. After an unremarkable lunch we returned to Karlovy. I can report that Anna has now started drinking coffee. Every day. At least twice. Only cappuccino as yet, but still.... Our hotel has a pipe from the spring, feeding into its spa. Almost all hotels in this area has a spa. Where you can, presumably, bathe in the water in addition to discolouring your teeth with it. They also offer various massages and, so says their brochure, can do unspeakable things to your body with seaweed. And mud. And stuff. Maybe if the weather is foul tomorrow, we'll allow them access to our bods. As we walked back to the hotel after the Innkeeper's afternoon beer, and Anna's cappuccino, we noted again how many ads are aimed at Russians. Here is an estate agent board - the property details are also in Russian: Dinner at the hotel again. Life is too short to bugger around with crap food. If you can help it. Which we do. So, we could not resist the forest mushroom starter. Mushroom two ways - sautéed and baked with garlic and with a cheese covering. Apologies for the pics - the place was packed and I did not want to use the flash. A great dish. The baked version could maybe lead to a chef's choice on our breakfast menu - porcini mushrooms, sautéed in garlic butter, placed into a ramekin, covered with barely cooked scrambled eggs, topped with Emmenthal cheese and finished under the grill. For mains Anna had a trio of fish - salmon, trout and pike with veggies and fried seaweed. The Innkeeper had pork loin stuffed with fruit and served with an apple compote, beetroot with fennel, carrots and round green things the name of which we have been battling to remember. Maybe too many distractions from the pork, but still excellent. Why do we cook pork to death back home? The reason disappeared many years ago with improved standards at the abattoirs. So, note this down: medium cooked pork is stunning. We fell to talking with Svatopluk Pazderka, we think, the owner of the hotel and the brother of the guy who owns the vineyards. He arranged a table for us for tomorrow night, when we are due for the concert. We will have a glass of wine and a starter before the concert at around 7pm, and return after the concert at 9pm for the main course. Svatopluk will at that time, arrange an extensive wine tasting of all the wines his brother produces. We will have a nap beforehand, methinks. Anna got fed up today when she saw the Russian tags on the handbags. An official truce has been declared. I asked her until when. "Until I decide otherwise", she said. Hah! Got the breakfast buffet pics. Quality is not great - there were other people and I did not want to flash. Or rather, did not want the camera to flash. Anna may just be upset if I flashed.
On the left are individual quiches and on the right grilled veggies. It was raining. Not hard, but persistent. We went for a quick stroll to settle breakfast and to scout the least rainy path to the theatre. , and spent the morning reading. Lunch at the hotel was a very good Bouillabaise. I asked Petr to demonstrate the workings of his decanter. You mount the bottle of red wine, light the candle, supposed to gently warm the neck of the bottle to improve breathing, and the turn the handle which gradually lowers the neck of the bottle and decants the wine. The rest of the day we napped and played Canasta. So, off to the two part dinner we went. The first part did not happen. We sat down, ordered wine and two starters. Got the wine. The starters not. We left 10 minutes before the start of the concert, to the howl of anguish from Svatopluk. something got lost somewhere. Whatever. The theatre is small - 400 odd people. We had seats in the first row on the at first balcony. It is a small theater, very intimate, with two tiers of seats and balconies. The conductor could not have been more than 10m from us. The performance was like the curate's egg - good in parts. The bad bits were the dubious baritone and the mezzo-soprano that was dressed like a Valkyrie and sang like one. The rest was very good. Dvorak's Stabat Mater is a bit repetitive but on the whole we enjoyed it. As evidenced by the fact that we did not walk out. Besides, we were out of the rain. And our table would only be ready at 9pm. Back to the hotel restaurant for what was supposed to be part 2 of dinner. Lots of bowing and scraping and apologising. The Innkeeper slapped a few wrists and Peter the sommelier produced 5 bottles of wine for us to taste. all Slovenian, and all from the vineyards of Svatopluk's brother, Slivovitz. No wait, thats what we drank later. The brother is Slatovitch. From left to right: Rulandske Modr Cab Modry Portugal Frankovke Svatovavrinecke (Hah! try saying that after a slug or two of Modry Portugal) We tasted one after the other and were hard put to keep a straight face. These wines had won prizes. This was some of the best the Czech Republic has to offer. They were uniformly bad. Very, very bad. Thin, watery with an acidity level that seared your taste buds. Unadulterated crap. This is it. We are done, totally done, with Czech wines. This we pledge you: Not a drop shall pass our lips. On to the food. Anna had stuffed quail and the Innkeeper venison. Both were excellent. The venison was deer. Very mildly gamey, but perfectly cooked. We skipped dessert - time flies and we needed to get going early in the morn. Did the slivovitz thing and went to bed. Prague awaits, and with it, the handbag thing. Damn! I was having such a good time..... We left Karlovy Vary with the rain falling steadily. Not pouring, but not drizzling either. A pouring drizzle? Bloody wet in any event. 8C outside. Inside, warmed by the purity of our hearts, we were fine. The drive took us wetly past wet landscapes along a wet road. About 20km from Prague, or Praha as us old Czech hands call it, we found a sign for a Tesco Hypermarket and went thither. Respite from the rain and we needed supplies for the Prague apartment. Foreign supermarkets are always fun. We had a great time stocking up. Even found a 2liter box of Robertson Merlot! Ye who have not tasted Czech wine have no idea of the elixer that box contains. The Tesco was in a rural area and the selection of wine limited. The French are all vin de payes that we do not have siufficient knowledge to judge. Lots of Aussie shiraz. We'll get in amongst a better variety tomorrow in Prague. And, hopefully, wine lists that suit us. Lunch at the Panda fast food outlet in Tesco - a Chinese franchise it seems. Found the letting office for the aprtment in the middle of Prague, found the apartment a block from the river, four blocks from the old city centre. Had to park the car underground 2 metro stops away. The apartment is great. As we do not have much to show you today, gentle reader, here are some pics of it. We will cook tonight. It is still raining and we spent the afternoon planning our next few days. Anna prepping: Given our limited pantry, we'll keep it simple - A chicken sautee for Anna, with diced vegetables, roasted garlic and rice, and for me grilled pork loin marinated in balsamic and honey, with the same side dishes as Anna. Enjoyed with copious amounts of the boxed Merlot. Finished with ice cold slivovitz. We won't post pics of the dinner. Nothing to be specifically proud of. Talk has started of places where women's accessories can be found. I turn a deaf ear, but it seems that the game is on again.......
I have been accused of concealing evidence of crap cooking. Not so, no, not at all. And to prove that I am, besides being pure of heart, also like driven snow, here's what we cooked last night:
Today dawned rainy. That is, if one can call the wan light diffused through the rain dawn. Forecast is for rain the whole day. So, we cooked breakfast (cheese omelette for me, muesli with chopped fruit and a roll for Anna) and strategized. Rain does not make for good exploring. So I suggested, as a pre-emptive strike, that we spend part of the day exploring the indoors. If we happen to pass a purveyor of handbags, I offered magnanimously, why not make a small contribution to the Czech economy and buy one. I am sure you follow my thinking - get it out of the way in one fell swoop. First, though, we had to buy a 5 day travel pass. Which can only be obtained, for some obscure Czechy reason, only at one specific metro station. Whence we went. At the ticket office, we found a queue of approximately 5 million people standing in line. We joined them. The Red Cross people were passing up and down handing out water and food parcels and reviving those who had fainted from exhaustion. We waited. A camaraderie was developing in the queue. People were making friends, getting engaged, marrying and having babies. Eventually we arrived to the second position. In front of us was a shortsighted Japanese person who had difficulties filling in a form for, we presume, a year travel pass. The single assistant assisted him. He would pass the form to the assistant, only to receive it back with something missing, which he would fill in laboriously, peering myopically through his bifocals, This happened about a gazillion times. The Innkeeper had be restrained. Eventually, just before he broke Anna's grip on his arm, the Japanese Treaty was completed, and we were in the front. We bought two 5 day passes, asked for maps and things and were still thinking of ways to extend our stay in this exalted position, when the weight of the stares at our backs made us back away. It was still raining, so into a shop or two we went. After a short while, dear readers, I was able to record The Event, the moment at which the Innkeeper's Anna reigned triumphant: Here is the object: (Note that it was he - the Innkeeper, who started this. I was happy to just explore Prague, but, no, now all of a sudden I had to buy a handbag. To keep the peace, that is what I did. But this was his handbag. I have not yet bought mine....) Still raining, so we thought to travel the trams. Hah! I don't think the Praguers understand which tram goes where and how the system works. We got onto random trams and went random ways. When it seemed as if we headed into the sticks, we got off and reversed direction. This cunning strategy mostly resulted in us arriving back at the exact same spot at the Republic square. We would set off in good cheer, but eventually this palled as the thing to do in Prague. We had the odd beer and cappuccino here and there and eventually decided to head home, buy some fish and cook dinner. Problem is, we have no feel for where to go to find something decent. Also, with it raining outside, cooking for ourselves looks the best option. We discovered a Tesco three blocks away, got two carp fillets. While I was writing this, I knocked over a glass of wine, the contents spilling in a neat arc against the wall. Nogal a pretty decent Chilean as well. Shades of the wall in the Coquis' place that I similarly adorned. (I've been here before. I love the Innkeeper, but he has this problem with keeping wine glasses upright. That can't be why he married me, can it - to scrub his wine stains?) We scrubbed, and the Innkeeper got a dressing down from Anna about being more careful. He was duly contrite: I have just read Anna's bit about the handbags. I thought that this was it, that I could relax. The red handbag is a fait accompli and the victory conceded. Now there is talk of a second one! Where will this end? Will I have to rent a container to get them all home? Egad! I am aghast! Aghast, I tell you! Another gray, drizzling day. Supposed to stop raining later. We went back to the letting agent two blocks away to try and get them to explain the tram system. Me: "I understand that, if I'm standing at a tram stop and see tram 22 approaching, by looking at the map, I can see where it started and also the stop where it will turn around. How do I know what route it will follow in from where I am to the end stop?" He : "You don't". Me: "That does not help much." He: "I know. You will learn how it works in time." Me: "How much time?" He: "A year or so."
Hah! We will just have to do a lot of walking. Which is what we did today. First stop a chemist. Anna's digestive system is on strike. (Not my cooking, I swear!). Here is an interesting exercise for you to try. Explain to a non-English speaking Czech chemist what Anna's affliction is. Only by miming. And still observe the proprieties and be delicate about it. Eventually a light dawned and she produced pills. Fortunately the box contained a word in Czech very much like "diarrhoea". Now to explain to her that the problem is actually the opposite to what she thinks..... We got the right muti in the end: The rain was patchy and we walked into the old town. Near the old town square we encountered the clock tower that sports, appropriately enough, a clock. Quite a famous one - It is an astronomical clock built in 1490. On the hour the skeleton top right pulls a rope and sets the bell ringing. Two doors at the top open and the 12 apostles march past the windows. Not the actual apostles, of course. We are loathe to post too many pics of Prague at this point. The overcast conditions are not conducive to good pics and we really want to show you Prague at its best. It is immensely captivating. We have never seen so much history preserved in such a small space. Quite astounding. The place is in parts reminiscent of Paris, with chic boulevards and tree-lined streets. We really like Prague. All our doubts about planning a week here have vanished. We took a one hour drive-around to get properly oriented Had lunch a few blocks from the main square, where everything is so touristy and so geared to separating the tourist from his huffles. And there are still lots and lots of tourists around. Tonight we are due to see Swan Lake at the National Theatre, just two blocks from our apartment. I borrowed a pic of the theatre from picturesfromprague.com. Off to the ballet we went, not quite dressed to the nines, but not shabby either. The Czech National Theatre is as ornate as we expected: Gilt and paintings on the ceiling: and balconies with more gilt. Swan Lake is a ballet. By Tchaikovsky. It is all about a woman who was enchanted to be a swan by day and a woman by night. Doesn't sound so bad to me- no housework in the day and you party at night. In any event, she meets up with this prince who wants to make an honest swan of her. If he does so faithfully, she gets to stay human. This is the sort of thing you get arrested for back home. The bad guy sees to it that he fails, they commit suicide and that is that. Geared with these basic facts, we watched the curtain rise. Swan Lake is the kind of ballet that starts at seven o'clock. After it has been going two hours, you look at your watch and it says 7.20. Half an hour in, we had yet to see a swan. Or even a lake. There were people kerfuffling in a castle. Executing what seemed to be traditional Slavic folk dances. On pointy toes. The men wearing indecently tight tights. Everybody twirling and jumping in the air with gay abandon. Mostly on pointy toes. Why is anybody's guess. It did not seem to have much to do with getting the guy to meet the swan. There is no question that these people are immensely talented. Perfect legs and behinds all over the place. Graceful and all. As a medium for telling a story, however, ballet sucks. Hah!, you may say, it is not about telling a story, it is about the music and the artists interpreting the music. Yes, indeed, and may they have a prosperous and happy life doing so. As happy as the Innkeeper will to allow them to do so. Without his scrutiny. (Take what he said, deduct 50% just because he is the Innkeeper, and you have how I feel. Graceful and beautiful people. Great music. Yawn!) The ballet ended. We applauded loudly, more from relief than appreciation. Off to dinner. In our block is an Afghan restaurant called Kabul and we thought it might be a good idea to see what the occupying forces have to deal with, culinary-wise. Small place : about 25 pax. We had them open a fine Chilean Cab. and perused the menu. Not an Anna friendly one. One chicken dish and one fish - carp, which we cooked last night. The carp was, by the way a most delicious fish. Pity about all the very fine bones that made it difficult to eat. By the time we realised how limited the choices were for Anna, we were too deep into the wine to contemplate leaving. So, she had a pizza. Not authentic Afghan I guess, but it was on the menu. I had a most interesting mutton kebab. Clearly marinated for a long time. Garlic and yoghurt is my guess, then grilled over charcoal. served with a yellow dhal. With yoghurt. Not great food, but the mutton was interesting. I'll make sure that we pick a place with more options for Anna tomorrow. I bought a pair of shoes today. Very happy for a few nanoseconds that this move had evened things up. Then she bought a pair as well. So there we stand. Innkeeper 1, Anna 2. After the ballet, I swear I'm contemplating buying meself a handbag..... Still sort of gray outside. No rain, but no sun either. Oh well, we'll make do. How bad can it be, after all? Two people in love in Prague? When in Prague, one of the must-do things is to walk across the Charles bridge. The bridge is pedestrian-only. We borrowed two pics of the bridge that seem to be in the public domain.
King Charles IV laid the foundation stone of 5 April 1357 at 5:13am, a date and time his astrologers deemed propitious. Fierce looking guy, our Charlie. Wouldn't want to get him mad at me. "Whaddaya mean we gotta be there at 5?" "'Cause the King says so." "5 is good." This is the tower at our end of the river. Which is known by the Czechs as the Vltava, and by everyone else as the Moldau. There are 30 statues along the bride, including one of St.John, with a brass inlay that is said to grant wishes when rubbed. Here Anna is, rubbing away. Had I but known, I would have embarked on some serious rubbing myself.... The view from the middle of the bridge is special. At the other end of the bridge is the so-called Prague Little Town. Probably called little because of its littleness. As we entered the little town, there was this small shop named Prague Ladies with intriguing ceramic figures in the window. We fell in love with the figurines and bought two. While the shop attendant was wrapping the purchase, Anna struck and negotiated a deal for a hand painted handbag and purse with the woman. I was left helpless. We wend our way through the little town, Anna humming a merry tune and the Innkeeper muttering incantations to keep his spirits up. Things were looking bleak. Bleak, I tell you.... The metro took us back to the old town square, where we found a pop concert blaring away. In Czech. There were crowds of people around, waiting for the astronomical clock to produce the apostles. There was even a newly married couple looking a bit incongruous. We slowly wend our way home, past several marionette shops. There is even a small marionette theatre running opera productions: And found vintage cars available for a tour of the city. On the way we came across a market. selling fruit and interesting handicrafts and stuff. Wooden toys, for example. and, alas, also handbags. Anna pounced. I am now officially giving up the contest, conceding victory. I am clearly outclassed by a wide margin and cannot compete in this league. The final score, therefore: Innkeeper 1, Anna 4. Scheisse! (The Innkeeper must understand that these bags cannot be found back home. They are special and not even expensive. Besides, I am a professional. Did he really think he could win? As he would say : Hah!) We had dinner at the Monarch wine bar a block or so from the apartment. On the way home, we popped in for a glass of wine (a Bruchard Pinot Noir from France at R20 a glass) and shared a pheasant terrine with foie gras and black truffles (R50). Absolutely superb. They have a cheese fondue on the menu and, seeing as this will be Anna's victory dinner, that is what had. The wines are a bit steep by the bottle. They listed R380 for a 2006 Rustenburg Cab. To add a smidgen of protein, I ordered some Serrano ham. We had an Argentinian blend of cab, cab franc, malbec and merlot. Very good, with the typical cab dustiness up front. What was quite interesting, was the label on the back. A wealth of detailed info that I have yet to see on an S.A. wine. The food was reasonable - R180, the wine at R280. Tomorrow the sun will shine. We are confident. And if it doesn't, it doesn't. Also ok. Methinks the Prague Castle will be our destination in the morn. When we get up. Which has been around 9am of late. Gonna be a problem when we have to start the Mes Amis day. We are now missing the dogs and the family. Starting to pet other people's dogs in the street. A sign that the holiday is getting to an end? "Lyk my ons staat nou end se kant toe, ou vrou.."
The blog is a day late because nothing much happened on Thursday. Except that the Innkeeper's feet called a halt to proceedings around midday, forcing us to curtail further exploration.
Thusly we came to the square. Borrowed pic: The pile at the top is the National Museum, containing old stuff. We visited a museum in Karlovy. Fossils, rocks, stuffed animals, suits of armour and so. All with detailed explanations in Czech. No translations available. We were told that the National Museum is the same. Maybe they don't want foreigners peering at their stuffed animals. We skipped it and wandered down the square. The sun made a welcome appearance. Rather garish hotels here and there. Down a pedestrian only boulevard. Glass, ceramics and crystal are big in Czech. At midday the Innkeeper's feet went on strike, and we went home. Got foot muti along the way, and spent the afternoon playing Canasta. And drinking wine. Anna won. She's a card sharp, this woman, be aware! The sun never got its act together and the afternoon was gray and cold. Dinner at restaurant Stoleti, a block from our apartment. Interesting thing was that the mains are unaccompanied by any side dishes. These are listed separately and you choose your own. I prefer that the chef decides what goes best with his protein. I had rump steak and chose what was described as potato-polenta cakes. The steak was ok - the piped pile was apple butter. The hockey pucks at the top were less successful. Anna ordered grilled chicken breast topped with mushrooms and cheese. She selected a spinach souffle as the side dish. The green things in the foreground was the souffle. It was in fact a terrine, the white being pasta. A feet rub later we we happily ensconced in bed. On Friday we will have sunshine, the weather forecaster assured us. Methinks they are sponsored by the Tourism Office. It was gray to start with. We had planned the day meticulously. Petrin hill first, across the river, then on to Prague Castle. A tram no. 22 would do the trick, taking use everywhere we wanted to go and back home again. The tram took us to the bottom of the hill. There we found steps with a monument consisting a bronze man repeated up the steps, gradually getting more fu the higher he stands. Anna speculated that it represents how fu one gets if you climb the stairs all the way up the hill. Seemed reasonable. We learned later that it is in fact a monument dedicated to the victims of communism. On Petrin hill the Czechs built, for reasons best known only to themselves, a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Except smaller. It also does not look much like the Eiffel Tower. There is a funicular to the top of the hill. This is to prevent you from looking like those victims of communism. We took the funicular, the Innkeeper by now as cool as a cucumber after all the lofty things we did earlier in the trip. The view from the top was great. It included a view of the Prague Castle, our next destination. While waiting to go down the hill later, a friendly Japanese person took a pic of us. At the Prague Castle we rented two audio commentaries and went exploring. First up was the St.Vitus Cathedral, built in the 1300's. I have a problem with the ornate Roman Catholic Cathedrals, filled with statues of long dead bishops and other dead people. Lots of gold, silver and gilt. To me, it is almost as if God is an afterthought, almost an excuse for excess. I know that this is not how the RC feel. This is how the Innkeeper feels. I admire cathedrals as objects of beauty. (I agree. There was no bling about Jesus and His life.) So, a beautiful Gothic cathedral. Stunning gargoyles around the roof edges. No gutters - the gargoyles serve two purposes - they spout rain water out from the wall and, on cathedral roofs, reassure the faithful that the devil is kept outside the church walls. It turns out that the Prague Castle is actually not a castle as such. but a huge complex of buildings enclosed with a wall. One of these is the old royal palace, containing a huge hall that houses the crown of Charles IV, he of the Charles bridge. Great views of Prague from various vantage points. The entire area was spotless and in good repair - in fact zero fu. We had lunch at the only restaurant in the complex. Anna had a bread roll and I the Czech version of bunny chow - bread filled with a beef goulash. accompanied with a dark Czech beer. Very tasty indeed. The footsies were holding up well, so we decided to stroll down the hill through the Royal Gardens. All in all a stunning day. We do not quite know where we'll dine tonight, but will include that in the next blog. Time flies like an arrow (and fruit flies like a banana). We will only blog thrice more - once on Sunday morning (tomorrow's Aida lasts 4 hours!), then once on Tuesday morning about our day and a half in Cesky Krumlov. The last blog we intend to be a look-back and summary that we'll do from home. Saturday we wanted to do some shopping, hang around the old square and enjoy the feel of Prague. Also, Anna wanted to find a hairdresser. She could not possibly go to the opera with her hair looking like it did, could she. So that is how the day went. Coffee on the square.
We saw another couple either about to be married or freshly married. And a guy that runs a sightseeing bike. Only thing is, you have to pedal.... People sightseeing on Segways. Pity we only saw this on the last day - would have been fun. And a menu board outside a small restaurant. Pork knees? The smoking thing was in the end easy to manage. We always managed to find a non-smoking eatery. There are quite a few around. There was a small stall selling gluhwein and sweet rolls. The latter is dough wrapped around a tube and grilled - see inset. A hotel had a bronze guest seating in front. In the afternoon, we found Anna a hairdresser and in she went. I sat and read. A good thing that I was on hand, or mayhem may have ensued. A strangled noise made me look up. Anna was apoplectic. Her hair looked like a mare's nest. Only worse. She was waving her arms at the hairdresser, who did not understand English. I made soothing noises, we obtained an interpreter and 30 minutes later all was more or less well, as you can see: Off to the opera we went. We had a bowl of flied lice and sort of Peking duck at a place close to the opera house. Pretty good. This is the Prague State Opera: And inside: This Aida was a small production - smallish cast and minimalist sets. Probably because they perform 18 different operas a month during the 4 month season. As a result, it was less spectacular than we would have wished. The Tenor also sucked big time, as did the baritone. Nevertheless, the music was great and even if the big choral parts were a bit thin choir-wise, we enjoyed the evening. On Sunday we will be off to Cesky Krumlov, the oldest surviving medieval town in Europe, we are told. The drive from Prague to Cesky Krumlov was uneventful, if boring. The day was overcast. Our tedium vanished once we arrived, though. Cesky Krumlov is a breathtakingly beautiful town. Not quite medieval- it dates from the 13th century. The castle was renovated in the 17th century. It and the town belonged to the Schwartzenberg family from 1719 until 1945. We went up to the castle and took overview pics of the town from there.
And spent time wandering around the castle gardens. We encountered a friendly Japanese couple who took a pic for us. Seems you cannot turn around in Europe without bumping into a Japanese couple, or a couple of couples. Friendly or not. Some toting tripods in addition to huge lensed cameras and earnestly taking pictures of everything in sight. Tuesday we strolled around, enchanted by the narrow cobblestoned streets. Touristy? Sure, somewhat, as testified to by the large number of restaurants and the odd really kitchy shop. Still, it is touristy because lots of tourists visit it, but is has not lost its charm. Cesky Krumlov was an ideal note on which to end our visit to Eastern Europe. Despite the overcast weather, the town was a highlight of the trip. We'll update you on what we ate as part of our final travel blog when we are back home, but for the moment sign off with some pics of the streets of Cesky Krumlov. Tomorrow we leave early for Vienna and start the journey home. We had our last dinner in Cesky Krumlov at the Restaurant Katakomby. Interesting how the Czechs import foreign words by adding a "y" at the end - "snowboardy", "computery", "tortury" etc. The restaurant is located in a deep cellar below the main square.
We met friendly Japanese people at the next table who took a pic. Anna had chicken with garlic bread and spinach pancakes (very good) and I had a skewer with beef, chicken and pork (sort of ok). With a salad consisting mostly of onions (really bad). And so our holiday came to its inevitable end. On a high. Because of Cesky Krumlov. We drove the 280K to Vienna, got on a plane, flew to Doha, got on a plane, flew to Johannesburg, got on a plane, flew to George. It was good to be on S.A. soil. At O.R.Tambo we met up with a friendly soul with whom I felt connected. Because we both wore hats and because we are both Africans. Looking back, we would not have missed this holiday for anything. 1. We learned that, deep down, we are explorers. We want to see what lies beyond the next hill and cannot sit in one place for long. We thought that we'd chill when we find a charming little town, and spend some days just reading and doing nothing. Hah! We now know better and no longer wonder about our wanderlust. We revel in it. 2. The journey was in a sense an affirmation of the love that binds us together. Never was there a moment of tedium, a single instance where we were bored with each other's company. Or irritated. (Irritated? No way. This was our third holiday together and this time he did not do the round-and-round-the-roundabout thing. I would not have shared this holiday with anybody else than the Innkeeper.) 3. Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic has the crappiest red wine known to mankind. Visit there by all means, but do not drink the red wine. You have been warned. 4. We will return to Prague and to Cesky Krumlov, maybe to Karlovy Vary, maybe to Bratislava. 5. The language issue was a problem in almost the whole of Slovakia, and in the countryside in Czech. Elsewhere one can get along fine with English. Should you travel that way, practise miming. It helps. 6. Did I mention the crap wine? 7. We had almost no prior bookings and were glad that we didn't. We had the freedom to bypass unexpectedly disappointing places and never had a hassle obtaining good accommodation. Travelling with a small netbook was a boon. Aside from the blogging, it enabled us to do a lot of research on the fly. We had free internet access in every hotel and apartment we used. Overall we are glad that we went. We saw a part of Europe that was terra incognita to us. We explored, we ate (sort of), drank (sort of), discovered Slivovitz and had more fun than you can shake a stick at.