Saturday, March 12, 2016

Europe 2015 – Salzburg to Prague: Gothic paradise

Prague was number one on my list of places to visit before I croak. If I were sophisticated enough, I’d rattle off that I was drawn to its exquisitely well-preserved gothic architecture or its famous 15th century bridge or maybe even its medieval astronomical clock. But no, this child of the ‘80s had one reason and one reason only to visit the City of 100 Spires: it looked awesome in INXS’s 1987 video for “Never Tear Us Apart.” It only took 28 years.

But before we got there, we googled a midpoint between Venice and Prague and settled on Salzburg, Austria, a city we knew nothing about.

As we crossed the border from Italy to Austria and in keeping with my unsophistication, I started reading signs in my most exaggerated Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. But a few miles in, my family was spared when my idiocy came to a screeching halt of laughter. One of the first exit signs in Austria read: “Arnoldstein.”

With that out of my system, I appreciated Austria’s world-class interstate system. Rather than winding around the majestic Eastern Alps, we drove straight through mountains. The state-of-the-art tunnels saved us an ungodly amount of time without shortchanging us on scenery. Turned out, the scenic route could also be the shortest - in Austria. Tunnel after tunnel, we saw some of the most spectacular mountainous landscape we've ever seen.

Beside stopping to eat and stretch, Salzburg had the eerie allure of a Ray Bradbury short story – “The Town Where No One Got Off” to be precise. On a whim, the protagonist gets off in an unknown town just for the hell of it.

Little did this doofus know Salzburg is hardly a town where no one gets off. Apart from being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the setting for "The Sound of Music," it's also the birthplace of a little known pianist named Mozart. Our 30-minute pit stop turned into a two-hour shotgun stroll. We whisked through Altstadt’s or Old Town’s baroque buildings and sprawling squares. With a castle in the distance, we imagined how beautiful this town must look snuggled under a blanket of snow. We vowed to return one day, preferably around Christmas.

We topped off the stop with a quick but savory bite at Mazz Café, specializing in authentic Austrian food. Its modest façade deceived us. The tender meat cubes in their hearty rindsgulasch (beef goulash) disintegrated in our mouths, and the sauce was so tangy and tasty, we sopped up every last drop. This neighborhood café may just be one of the best places we ate during our trip.

We then hightailed it back to the car and continued to Prague.

Maybe remnants of the Cold War or perhaps more recent security measures to address the Syrian refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, but when we crossed into the Czech Republic, it was the only time during our trip that an armed officer asked to see our passports. He took a quick look at the kids, smiled, and waved us in.

In terms of infrastructure, the contrast with Austria was stark. We immediately went from superhighways to dilapidated country roads. But it appeared to be a work in progress. Highway sections were under construction and 50 miles from Prague, we were finally on a highway. We drove to our AirBnB flat in Old Town Prague, cranking “Never Tear Us Apart,” naturally.

Our host and her husband welcomed us to their clean, tidy place and thoughtfully reserved a public parking spot. They helped us unload and left enough food to get us by for several days. Deniz and the kids were a little under the weather, so I ventured out. Once again, Deniz nailed our lodging. We were a few blocks from the heart of Old Town and essentially across the street from the Vltava River. I felt guilty about appreciating too much without them, but I did indulge a little. I stopped to admire Jaroslav Róna’s surreal memorial to local literary great Franz Kafka near the Spanish Synagogue. The statue features a headless and handless man carrying a smaller man on his shoulders (photo from

With only two full days in Prague and everyone back at 100 percent the next morning, we got going. My parents, who were doing their own globetrotting, flew in from Madrid and tagged up with us. We walked through Old Town Square, one of the most elegant, cleanest, preserved historic city centers we visited. Historians believe it has remained mostly untouched since the 10th century. The gothic Tyn Cathedral towers over the square, and its dark spires seem to claw at the sky. The spires feature four enclosed pseudo balconies, reminiscent of the Disney castle. You almost expect a princess to step out looking to be rescued.

We walked the kids up to the Prague Orloj, the ornate astronomical clock, mounted on the side of the Old Town Hall, just in time for the rather subdued noon show. A few figurines and a skeleton moved around, a few bells chimed, and the large congregation of onlookers wondered, “Is that it?” Of course, when you realize it's from the 1400s, the clock merely tick-tocking should be reason enough for applause.

The open square also served as the stage for some of the most talented and entertaining street performers we saw during our trip. Aylin and Emilio particularly enjoyed the guy making all the bubbles. They also pranced around to the hypnotizing rhythms of Grál, a bagpipe, percussion and strings trio, decked out in medieval garbs, including pointy, spiraling poulaine boots. Nearby a few shacks served local street food, including Prague prosciutto, klobasa sausage, and a rotisserie-baked pastry called trdelník. We had a taste, but in hindsight, saving our appetites for our sit-down lunch was the right call.

Mama Lucy’s, serving Czech grub right outside the square, hit all the right notes: cheap, delicious, fresh, and authentic. We returned the next day. Each plate better than the next. We initially treaded lightly on the raw beef tartare – finely chopped tenderloin with spices – but one taste gave us the confidence to devour. The roasted eggplant with tomatoes and goat cheese melted in our mouths. The rack of juicy, marinated ribs rolled off the bone and could easily compete with any American barbecue pit. And you can’t be in the Czech Republic, home of the pilsner, and not enjoy a frothy mug of something-something. We washed our food down with pints of smooth Kozel – a dark, but surprisingly crisp beer from the nearby Bohemian village of Velke Popovice.

When my parents offered to take Aylin and Emilio back to their hotel for the night, we took 'em up without hesitation and were on our way. To grease up the joints, we picked up some Malibu, poured it into our plastic bottles of Coke Zero – a sneaky concoction we affectionately call “Coke with Love” – and wandered through Prague at night. Coke with Love notwithstanding, it’s an experience so transcending, liberating, and spiritual that everyone should experience at least once. For me, it may have rivaled, if not surpassed, our night stroll through Paris.

We hit many of the same places, but at night with all the buildings lit up, it’s a vastly different experience. We then walked to Prague's main attraction: the Charles Bridge. The 1,700-foot cobblestone pedestrian bridge commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357 is at its most photogenic at night. Lined with 30 religious baroque statues – each worthy of admiration – the bridge earns your respect. It took us more than an hour to slither across.

The Charles Bridge messed with the senses. Apart from physically transporting us over the Vtlava from Old Town to Prague Castle, it teleported us to another time. You can almost imagine horse-drawn carriages and cloaked villagers with lanterns passing by. But those pesky selfie sticks and other modern gadgetry anchored us to the present. One modern distraction we welcomed was the sight of city employees dressed in bright orange jumpsuits emerging from nowhere everywhere. Armed with cleaning tools ranging from mechanical hands to pick up cigarette butts to a street vacuum cleaner-like pushcart, these gainfully employed Czechs were behind the first-world cleanliness of one of the world’s most well preserved cities.

Historic, 600-year-old buildings that should be fragile ruins remain perfectly intact and muscular. This is because Prague is somewhat of an aberration among European cities. Throughout its history, the Czech capital has been spared certain annihilation, even if for sinister reasons. For example, although the Nazis wiped out most of Prague's Jewish population, historical documents show that A-hole Hitler himself gave orders to preserve Josefov or Prague’s Jewish Quarter and declared it a “museum of an extinct race.” Then during the World Wars, Prague - unlike many of its neighbor cities - was relatively unscathed. And finally, in 1989, then-Czechoslovakia transitioned out of communism during the “Velvet Revolution,” characterized by mostly peaceful demonstrations and uncharacteristic restraint by a government that had shown anything but that during its 41-year reign.

Although the Czech Republic is still pulling itself out of its dark past - its metro system and highways could use a little sprucing - the country has one tremendous advantage: It doesn’t have to rebuild anything. If there was one city we could have picked to get a little break from the kids, it was Prague: romantic, clean, safe, and unforgettably beautiful.

To view more photos, click on the photo below:
Europe 2015 - Prague

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