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Posts Tagged ‘Prague’

When a tour guide’s day goes bad

August 1st, 2009 Comments off

I enjoy driving friends down the Las Vegas Strip as their personal tour guide.  The Strip has such rich history, you know. Goes back years.

Ah, the Mirage, which brought Vegas into a new era of luxury hotels when it opened in 1989. Steve Wynn ordered models of the waterfalls to determine which was the best angle of the falls to generate the most white water. And if you smell pina colada, that means there’s a natural gas leak in the burners that feed the volcano.

Ah, the Luxor – which, when it opened in 1993, was the tallest hotel in Southern  Nevada. And it looks so small today compared to all the new high-rises! When designers built the model of the pyramid to determine how best to support it, the structure collapsed onto itself, so the architects decided to throw in huge support cables, anchored at the four corner bases. Must have done the trick. On opening day, we saw the talking camels and took a ride down the interior canal  that was pitched as a ride down the Nile. Man, that was cool.

Ah, the Flamingo, the place that mobster Bugsy Siegel opened way, way back in 1946. See that floral-themed entrance? In a reconstruction of the hotel, an architect – who also designed floats for Pasadena’s Rose Parade — thought it would be sharp to bring a sense of sweeping flowers to the Strip.

What great insights a good tour guide can offer, and what a command of history he must have. I can even talk to you about Las Vegas’ early history, going back nearly to the turn of the century.

Imagine, then, how smart our tour guide was in Prague, which was founded around the year 880 with the construction of a castle that, today, is the largest castle complex in the world. The castle’s centerpiece is the spectacular, Gothic-designed St. Vitus Cathedral, which dates to 1344.

So let’s see. Vegas is 100 years old, Prague is more than 1,200 years old. Man, I bet that city’s got some stories!

Our tour guide, Vlastmil, was soft spoken, reminding us of actor David Morse, with a sweet, quiet sense of humor. And he certainly looked young, considering he must have been in his 50s. He told us he’s been a Prague tour guide for 35 years.

I asked Vlastmil, who speaks Czech, English and French, what constitutes a bad day at the office?

“It’s when the tour operator says he has set you up with a bus of English speakers and, when you get on the bus, it turns out they speak Turkish, Chinese and Portuguese.”

Walking in Prague

July 31st, 2009 Comments off

Tom has been poring over the still photographs of our vacation in Europe, and today I started looking through my movie collection.

I had to stop at this one and share a snippet with you. The scenery isn’t so great. In fact all you can see is feet walking. My feet are walking across cobblestones and pavement, and other people’s feet are walking. I have a great pedicure, thank God, but others do not. Sometimes you can also see our daughter’s feet walking beside mine. And sometimes the feet are walking sideways as if on the walls of buildings. It is an interesting but unexpected study of feet walking on a castle tour in Prague.

I have other interesting studies: Movies of trees standing alongside the road. Movies taken of my denim jeans inside a moving bus. Strange bouncing images of people moving along beside me on streets have revealed themselves to me as I watched my movies.

I wish I could say that I am an avant-garde film maker. I am not. I am an inept movie maker. I wonder what pictures I missed that I thought I was taking when the camera was not on. Yes, you have guessed my secret — I confused the “on” beep for the “off” beep.

Don’t get me wrong, I really love this little camcorder that is 4 inches by 31/2 inches with great sound. You can hear the footsteps on the pavement. So many in fact that I can supply a soundman with great sounds of walking feet. And most of my movies turned out surprisingly well considering they were being taken by an idiot.

Yes, I have memories that were a surprise and kind of nice actually. Because we did do a lot of walking on cobblestone streets with each other and other people. And those are good memories. I’m glad I’m not so swift with technology or I would have missed capturing these moments.

Every moment of this wonderful trip was worth recording. If only I had left the camera on more times accidentally or on purpose.

A day of transition

July 13th, 2009 Comments off

We began our Monday returning to one of the old districts of Prague, called “lesser town” because it is below “Castle Town.” We walked across the historic, 650-year-old St. Charles Bridge to reach this part of Prague, which now is very commercial.

Caricature artists, musicians, photographers and a few jewelry makers hawk their wares along the bridge, and the town is filled with little retail outlets — chief among them, jewelers selling all things garnet, plus the requisite crystal stores.

Daughter heard from travel writer Samantha Brown about a wonderful rooftop restaurant at the Aria Hotel that affords a beautiful view of parts of Prague. We found the hotel and went upstairs to the roof, and the view was quite special — not a sweeping vista of the entire city, but a stunning one of the neighborhood.

We were on the road for Poland, and for a campground outside the gates of Auschwitz, by 2 p.m. It took us about 6 hours, along major highways and through small towns where we had to slow for hay wagons and farmers returning home in their huge combines.

From the highway, it looked like several towns had clusters of huge apartment buildings, strung along in a line, and we’re not sure what to make of them.  Their equivalent to publich housing projects?

At one point, Miss GPS must have had a hangover from too much pilsner because she didn’t know where we were, and was directing us across open fields.

When we entered Poland, I assumed we would need to stop at some sort of border control so I pulled over at the first opportunity, into a parking lot filled with trucks.  Turns out there is no border crossing protocol and I was lost in a sea of trucks. We got some strange looks as we wormed our way out and back onto the highway.  Luckily our license plates say Belgium, not U.S., so I wasn’t the stupid American.

By dusk we were pulling up to our campground, one that we had chosen purposely for its proximity to Auschwitz. But we didn’t know the story behind the place, and are ever the more thankful that we came here.

The facility is a combination hotel/campground retreat center, operated by a Catholic organization dedicated to dialogue and prayer, focusing on what lessons can and should be learned from the genocide that played out here.

I am typing this story in the lobby of the hotel, where I met the night clerk, Gosia.  She’s 29, learned English while attending community college outside Washington, and started here, at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim, two months ago. She grew up in Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is, but has only visited Auschwitz three times. After each visit, she said, it takes her a month to recover.

“People need to come here, to see Auschwitz,” she said. “It cannot be explained, the same way you cannot explain a color or a taste. You need to touch it, to sense it. That is one reason I want to work here, to meet people and for the spirit of this place where we can talk about our feelings toward Auschwitz. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future.”

My last photo today was sunset over Auschwitz, from our campsite. We are at its threshold, and I look forward to tomorrow with dread, and with hope that in time, peace among men will prevail.

Marvelous Prague

July 13th, 2009 Comments off

Prague may have been the single most important stop on our trip, because Czechoslovakia was home to one branch of her family. You could spend days visiting Prague and not tire of it, but given our ambitious itinerary to see as much of Europe as possible, we are not spending too much time at any one city. Imagine skipping a stone flint across a pond — skip skip skip skip before it slows down and sinks. We are skipping across Europe.

We decided, then, to take a walking/bus tour of Prague to see as much as we could. Our guide looked 40 but said he had been giving tours for 35 years, which puts him around my age, 57, I’d guess. I didn’t ask him because he was shy.

We were in a small tour van, about 15 of us. It had been billed as an English-speaking tour but there were French speakers on board, too, and our guide was trilingual — Czech, French and English.  We visited all the “towns” of Prague — New Town, Old Town, Lesser Town (on the way up to the castle) and the phenomenal Castle town, with the only functioning castle in Europe and perhaps the finest cathedral I have ever seen. I was more impressed by it than by Notre Dame, which we saw on our last trip to Europe to visit Daughter.  (Daughter is expanding our horizons, you see.)

While walking the castle grounds, I asked the guide what is the greatest frustration of his business. “It’s when I’m told I’ll have a van filled with English speakers but when I get in, I discover there’s not a single English speaker among them. They are Turkish, Chinese, Portuguese… and there is just nothing for me to do.”

I won’t go into a blow-by-blow description of our day, but rest assured we ate local food (for dinner, Jeanne had what she proclaimed as the best duck of her life, and Daughter and I had pork ribs; for lunch, the ladies had beef goulash and I had lamb). We ended the day at the ballet, “The Best of Swan Lake.” Because of ticket confusion — we wanted reserved seats and were sold general-admission seats — we were re-seated in the third row center. 

Back now at the campsite, I’ll see how many photos I can download into an album called “Prague” for you to click on if you want to see some of the sights. As time permits — maybe after we return home — I’ll add more. 

Prague is very photogenic.

Moving in to Mobi, finally

July 12th, 2009 Comments off

It’s Sunday night, almost midnight after a full and wonderful day in Prague. It is a most amazing city, seeming much larger, more dynamic and more filled with energy, history, beauty and architectural wonder than its population of 1.5 million or so would warrant. We will spend part of Monday there revisiting one of the neighborhoods before moving on to Auschwitz and Krakow as we begin week 2 of our 3-week mad-cap RV trip through Europe.

If I sound in good spirits, it partly is because I’m finally moving in to Mobi. It is now a five-room house: the family room with its two chairs (when the driver’s and passenger’s seats swivel around), two couches and dining room table; the kitchen with its three-burner range, sink and ample-size refrigerator and freezer that is cold enough to make ice in ice-poor Europe; the full if tiny bathroom with its sink, cabinets, medicine chest, toilet with the swivel seat and shower stall (which we have yet to use because the campgrounds have had nice shower facilities); the master bedroom with overhanging cabinets and privacy curtain, and the basement. I’m guessing our house is about 140 square feet, not counting the basement.

Ah, the basement.

It is the storage locker that is accessible from the outside back of Mobi, and from inside Mobi by pulling up the master bed mattress (which sits on a wood frame on hinges). Imagine the Wizard of Oz, when the tornado is coming and Dorothy’s family is rushing to the storm shelter, and someone (not Dorothy) lifts the door to the storm shelter. That is how we lift the bed  to get into the basement. Except that there’s a mattress on top of the door, and sometimes a sleeping spouse.

When we picked up Mobi, the basement was stocked with toilet chemicals, the electrical cord, the water hose, the swivel do-hickey that opens the awning (which we have yet to do), and an emergency something-or-other.

I began referring to the storage locker as the basement, and it seemed the perfect place to store things like toilet paper and paper towels.

Now everything goes down there.  After Daughter found cabinets to put her clothes in, she put her empty duffel bag in the basement. When we stopped by a small grocery store in Germany that she knew had great prices, she bought 8 bottles of wine, so now the basement is our wine cooler.  We store the tabletop fan in the basement when we don’t need it, and the sling-canvas camping chairs). There are bottles of water and diet Pepsi down there too, and when I stepped in some dog poop the other day while walking along a river that cut through downtown Munich, I put those shoes in the basement (after cleaning them as best as I could). 

And I had been putting my duffel bag — filled with my clothes –in the basement, too.  And every time I needed something, I would have to lift the master bed frame to reach down into the basement to grab a fresh shirt, a pair of socks, whatever.  This could be problematic if Jeanne was in bed; she’d have to roll over to the far side of the bed so I could lift the hinge on her side. If this was in the morning and Jeanne was sleeping, this task would be too daunting. It would be like trying to roll over a sleeping bear that doesn’t like being awakened. I’d rather face the tornado and take my chances with the mean witch.

So tonight, after my shower, I finally emptied my duffel bag, claiming two cupboard spaces above the bed that have been empty. I am now moved in, with my duffel in the basement now empty. The bear can sleep without my bothering her.

I’m celebrating by indulging in a chocolate-covered banana cream cake pastry that I bought a country ago. It may not be healthy but, by God, it is local food and everyone says I should try the local food.

Life is good.

Welcome to Prague, Nevada

July 11th, 2009 Comments off

We arrived in Prague Saturday evening after a thankfully uneventful day — in fact, a good day, considering how it started.

We had filled our water tank in Munich and, in the course of trying to figure out our hot-water problem, we ran the tank dry. So we had refilled it on Friday, and this morning we were going to run the hot water to wash the morning dishes. Not only was there no hot water, there was no water, period.

This was the last straw! The Gormans have turned into magicians!  We can fill a 100-liter water tank and make it disappear a day later without even turning on a spigot!!

For the third day in a row, we called the dealership in Belgium. This time, a real person answered. And he apparently was a mechanic, because when I told him there was no way a water tank could end up empty in a day without even using it, he said yes, there was one way.  He instructed me to look beneath our bed, through a tiny door, where the boiler mechanism for the hot water is.  “It is possible that the water boiler bled the tank empty without you knowing it,” he said. “It would have pulled the water in, and then drained it beneath your Mobi. You wouldn’t know.”

And the solution? “Do you see a red button?” Yes. “Push it. If it releases and goes higher, that is good.” I pushed it. It shot up higher, like an old-fashion car lock. Bingo. “You will be fine now. Fill your tank again. Everything should be fine.”

Since he was helpful, I mentioned that the valve to our wastewater tank could not be closed. I told him that the handle for the open-close valve just turned and turned and turned and never seemed to lock in an open or closed position, and that every time we run water in the Mobi, it pees on the ground. “Next time,” he said, “press the handle toward the plate right in front of it. Squeeze it. That will engage the valve.”  Oh, squeeze the handle while turning it? The snot-nosed kid at the dealership who taught me how to use the Mobi a week ago never mentioned that.

I went outside, knelt on the ground, reached under, grabbed the handle, pressed it and — bingo! again — the handle this time engaged with tension and I definitely could feel it opening and closing, not unlike a fireplace flu. So I think our watewater tank will now hold water.

So, with hot water (we assume — we won’t be trying until after dinner tonight), and a functioning wastewater tank, we set off for Prague. The German countryside was beautiful  — rolling fields of tall corn and other crops, with a backdrop of lush forests, and we drove through small villages with beautiful homes. We wondered what the Czech Republic would be like. It’s not like the countrywide would suddenly change…

We entered the Czech Republic, paid about $20 for a motorways windshield sticker at the border (no need to see  passports or proof of car insurance or anything, just the money, please) and discovered we were entering some knock-off version of the United States. More specifically, Nevada, if not for the trees.

The first billboard we saw was for a poker tournament. The next, for a casino. It was called “American Chance Casino”  but before we could react, we already were past the off-ramp. Then we saw a McDonald’s billboard. And a topless joint called Pamela’s. And another McDonald’s.  In fact, in the next 45 minutes we would pass no less than 10 McDonald’s restaurants. And McDonald’s wasn’t the only English we saw. About a third of the billboards — actually, they were signs hanging across the freeway, attached to overpasses — were in English, which confuses me.

The other remarkable first-hour discovery about Prague, as we drove through town, was the amount of graffiti. It was bad, with only one or two displays of graffiti art, and the rest mish-mash.

We found our campsite for the evening without too much trouble (the address didn’t show up on our GPS but when we pulled to the side of a road near the Prague Zoo to figure things out, a passing motorist pulled over, too, and asked if we needed assistance, and then pointed us in the right direction.)

The campground is one of maybe 10 along a street of what was once, apparently, a very fancy neighborhood with larger  homes and larger back yards.The homes have been turned into B&Bs or hostels, and the back yards converted into campgrounds.  Interesting. We are parked next to a mom and daughter from Switzerland; the other mobis around us are empty, suggesting that their occupants are still walking around the city and haven’t returned yet.

There is only one computer here, in the reception office, so there will be no photos with this post. I’m hoping to grab some time on it when the line thins.  I told the young man operating the office that the owner should invest in wireless. He said the owner has balked, due to cost.  I told him I would pay $10 a night for wireless. He said he gets lots of offers like that.

At this moment, we are sitting outside, 8:15 Saturday night. I’m sipping my rusty nail (scotch and Drambuie), Daughter has her wine (she bought 8 bottles in Germany today because the prices were incredibly cheap), Jeanne her diet Pepsi. We’re in our sling camp chairs, at a burgundy, round plastic table that was sitting nearby that Jeanne grabbed. It’s maybe 65 degrees, beneath an early-evening blue sky.

People all around us are talking. We don’t understand a word. Daughter is getting ready to cook dinner. Later we’ll see if the hot water works.

Tomorrow, Sunday, we will go into historic Prague.  Life is good.

Following the push pins across Europe

June 30th, 2009 Comments off

We leave for our European RV vacation in just four days, and we thought we’d better sit down and figure out what our basic plan of attack is once we get there. Plan of attack. Sounds like we’re planning a military assault. I’m hoping I can just pull the mobi out of the dealer’s lot without causing a scene. It’s heavier and larger than anything I’ve ever driven before. Well, there was that semi when we moved our daughter to college.

Our goal for this three-week vacation is to see as much beautiful countryside as possible, so we will immediately drop southeast out of Antwerp, where our daughter and her boyfriend live, and head east for Germany’s Black Forest, rather than heading northeast toward Berlin. We’ll cross southern Germany, through Bavaria, then head northeasterly toward Prague in the Czech Republic, then into  Poland and brace ourselves for Auschwitz. The basic route then takes us southwest, across western Slovakia and into Austria (Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck) before heading into Switzerland (Zurich, Bern and Geneva as the main targets but surely being seduced onto highways leading higher into the Alps). Then, we head back to Antwerp via Dijon and Reims, France.

We will, of course, be taking country roads versus the major highways, and targeting campgrounds outside the cities. And once in country, we’ll refer to our specific guidebooks and maps and solicit the advice of locals. In other words, we don’t know where the heck we’ll be, any given night, but probably we’ll be in the shadow of a huge blue pushpin.

We created a very general Google map showing the very basic route. It’s about 2,100 miles as the crow flies (are there crows in Europe?) but we’re assuming we’ll put in 3,000 miles or more. We are hoping, too, that the GPS doesn’t crap out, or we may end up in Slovenia instead of Slovakia.

Jeanne has been doing most of the research, and has relied heavily on what has turned out to be her favorite reference guide, “Central Europe” by Lonely Planet. She also has a lot of tabs sticking out of “Europe by Van and Motorhome” by David Shore and Patty Campbell, and is poring over Fodor’s “Eastern & Central Europe” and “RV and Car Camping Vacations in Europe” by Mike and Terri Church.

We could buy more specific guides, of course, but there is a weight limit to our luggage.

My diet-demanding health coach will be tickled pink with this news: Our route should take us to Uttenweiler, Germany, where we will visit her family’s bakery and we can say hi! to her cousins Gertrude and Paul. And pick up some streudel while weíre there.