Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prague, Afternoon of Day 1

  Let's start off with a sign in a tourist kitsch shop window:

  I'm pretty sure the beer stains in Prague are free, actually (with the purchase of a beer).  For the non-native English speakers: a "stein" is a mug for drinking beer, which is what they intend to sell, while a "stain" is a mark left on clothing by, say, a spilled drink.

  So now I'm following the "Mala Strana walking tour" in my Lonely Planet guidebook.  I started out in the palace gardens, just below Prague Castle:

  On to nearby Wallenstein Garden:

  Now the walking tour led me onto a little island in the Vltava called Kampa.  I got super lucky, and stumbled here upon a music festival.  They had several stages going, with different acts, all for free.  Totally groovy.  The first act I saw was a hula dance ensemble:

  Then came an arty group with a Goth-ish singer, playing rock but with violin and electric cello (or some such):

  That was quite fun.  The crowd seemed almost entirely Czech:

  The out-of-the-way location made it unlikely that tourists would find it, I suppose; I just lucked out.  The last group I watched was my favorite (leave on a high note):

  Gotta love a band with a good horn section.  They reminded me more than a little bit of Oingo Boingo, although their vocalist was admittedly no Danny Elfman.  Their sax player was great, though.  When the band was setting up, he was noodling around playing riffs on Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, a piece I really love.  And he had cool sunglasses, and a great attitude; he was just having a hell of a good time up there on stage, and it was infectious.  I have no idea what the names of these groups were, by the way; sorry!

  Onward to the John Lennon Wall (again, see Wikipedia):

  Nice to see that Lennon still means so much to so many people.  Turn me on, dead man.

  Now Vrtbov Garden, which was small and pretty, and had (yawn) another amazing view across the city:

  OK, now we come to the Lonely Planet guide's shining moment.  Check this out for sheer obscurity and wonderfulness: "A few hundred meters beyond the German embassy there's a little park and playground on the left; leave the street and turn left along the dirt track beyond the wall at the far end of the playground, and you'll be able to peek into the back garden of the German embassy to see David Cerny's famous sculpture Quo Vadis."  That, in a nutshell, is why I'm a LP devotee.  And there the sculpture was:

  It's a memorial to refugees from East Germany at the end of the communist era.  A Trabant on legs.  It makes me wonder, actually, about a sculpture I used to see every day from the Caltrain on my way home from SJSU to Menlo Park.  Somewhere around Palo Alto, there was a small park with a sculpture of a car walking on two human legs.  I always wondered about it.  It now seems likely to me that that was either another Cerny piece, or a piece done in imitation of this piece of his.  Anybody know?  I always used to wonder about it as the train rolled by, but I never encountered it while on foot.

  Anyhow, I now gained a whole lot of elevation (paying the price in sweat) and ended up on the top of Petrin Hill, on the southwest side of the city, where there was one last garden:

  There is also a lookout tower there; I didn't get a photo, but think Eiffel Tower, scaled down considerably.  Naturally, I went up it for more views of the city, including what I think it the best view I got of Prague Castle (last photo):

  All that climbing had made me rather thirsty.  Just a little ways down the hill is a restaurant, Petrinske Terasy, that LP said nice things about.  With a few false starts, I found my way there:

  I'm guessing their name is due to the rather spectacular view from their terrace, but maybe that's not what "terasy" means.  Anyhow, here's the part of their menu that I ordered from:

  That's the Petrin Hill lookout tower on the cover, actually, I think.  Eiffel Tower wannabe.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a dark beer on the menu, and before I knew it I somehow had a glass in my hand:

  Very tasty it was, too; Czech dark beers are not well known (to me, at least), but they are quite good.  More on this later.  I also got a bowl of their cream of mushroom soup; I pretty much have no choice but to order that when I see it on a menu.  It was a fine example of the breed:

  All the evidence was that this would be an excellent place for dinner, and if I were a wiser man, I would have stayed. A bird in the hand, and all that.  But over my beer, I came up with a hare-brained plan for the rest of the day, which I promptly put into execution.  I paid my check and headed off down the hill, though the very orchard I had seen earlier from the tower at the end of Charles Bridge:

  Back across the river, on Legion Bridge:

  South along the east bank of the river, past Prague's famous "dancing house":

  Past a Cubist house (Cubist architecture is scattered around Prague, it's a major artistic phase the city went through, although I'm not sure I'm terribly impressed by the way Cubism ends up looking when rendered in architecture):

  And now, finally, my objective is sighted through the trees:

  This is Vysehrad, the huge fortress on the south side of Prague.  It is now mostly a big garden.  In through the gate:

  A quick peek at the cemetery, though a locked gate:

  Jan Neruda is a famous Czech poet.  On past some fortress-y edifices:

  Stop to admire the view from the high walls:

  As you can see, I'm just about out of the built-up part of Prague.  On to the Church of St. Peter and Paul, a lovely church inside the fortress (wouldn't want to miss service just because you're under seige!):

  The focus of my hare-brained scheme was right next to the church: a restaurant called Rio's Vysehrad, which my guidebook said very nice things about ("an attractive modern restaurant in an ancient building... a lovely spot for an outdoor meal in summer... seared tuna with Japanese pickled ginger... Czech classics such as roast duck").  The place was completely taken over by a wedding party, however; they were blasting atrocious music at such a volume that I heard them from the other side of the fortress (but didn't yet know it was them), and drunken guests were more or less dancing on the tables, and I didn't even attempt to go in.  With tears in my eyes, I walked off into the sunset looking for another place to have dinner.  Didn't find one.  Until I came to a side road, and off the side of the side road was a little place called Oliva:

  Fancy restaurants always win big points from me when I show up on their doorstep hot and sweaty, in t-shirt and hiking pants and boots, with my belt pack and my water bottle, and they don't bat an eye.  So it was at Oliva; they sat me in their main dining room, at a window seat, in plain view of their fancily dressed Czech clientele out on romantic dates.  Their food was correspondingly excellent.  Their menu:

  They brought, for free, some exceptionally good bread, with two kinds of olive oil, one Greek, the other Spanish.  Always a fun game.  The greek was dark green and very flavorful, the Spanish, yellow and creamy.  I got a half portion of the tagliatelle:

which was excellent, and a fish special of monkfish with pancetta or some such, with spinach gnocchi:

  The spinach gnocchi were too much spinach and not enough gnocchi, but the rest was great.  Their wines by the glass:

  I made the mistake of getting the Czech red, for the experience.  I guess there is a reason Czech wines are not famous.  Should've gotten the Rhone one.

  With taut tummy, an evening walk back along the river; I think this is a monastery:

  Upscale monastery, huh?

  And so the day was done.  Day two will be posted this weekend, I imagine; right now, my laundry is done, my tummy is full of stinky cheese and salami and beer, and it is time for bed.

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