Monday, September 30, 2013

Tackling Stereotypes in Prague

You should not make sweeping generalizations about people or places but these thoughts occur regardless. Stereotypes can be harmful but with enough taste and good intention, can be hysterical. I must admit that I am easily amused by jokes based on stereotypes as long as they are well-meaning. Naturally, as I planned the Prague portion of my trip I would hear generalizations about the area. So I am going to review my encounters in the city and find truths to these stereotypes.

Prague Is Cheap 

So I hoped, and was the main reason I stopped in the Czech Republic in the first place. And it didn't disappoint! Those with a meager budget would thrive in Prague. My lower-end hostel only cost 20 USD per night, pints of quality beer about 2-3 USD and entrees at decent restaurants hovering around 10-12 USD. Longtime travelers complain about how prices have increased as the destination became more popular, but I was happy. It was a good respite from the mauling my funds would take in Amsterdam.

Czechs Speak English

Yes, all Czechs that tourists like myself needed to interact with (food service workers, staff at train/subway/bus terminals) spoke English well. I had my doubts due to past experiences: I was told that all Hong Kong residents spoke English but on one occasion, was reduced to making hand gestures at vendors on Kowloon.

Czech Cuisine Is Lacking

A difficult criteria to judge because it is totally subjective. Everyone's palate is different and perhaps the best venues of Czech cuisine were situated far from the tourist areas. But from what I sampled, it was "okay" and no, I did not include the desperate Subway snack after landing. I tasted the trademark "goulash", a stew served in a bread bowl, dumplings, sausages, and another type of beef stew with potatoes. All these dishes were good and would make great comfort food in the winter, but will not rank among my favorites.  My taste buds were not introduced to any new flavors but again, I would crave dumplings or goulash on a harsh winter night. 

Simple beef and potato dish (bottom) and dumplings with berry sauce (top)

The Beer Scene Is Exceptional 

True! The Czechs pride themselves as one of the first groups to develop beer centuries ago. It is easily accessible and once again, quite affordable. The king of beers in Prague is Pilsner Urquell, and I had about 4 or 5 pints during my stay. I even joined a beer tour and had the opportunity to sample the local selection. If the cuisine of Prague was the letdown, the brewing scene was certainly a redeeming factor. 

The staple, Pilsner Urquell at top right, and at a beer tour

Customer Service In Prague Sucks 

This stereotype extends far beyond Prague but applies to former communist regions in eastern Europe. I guess the lack of a free market economy in the past did not foster an environment for customer service? I found that in a group setting or tour, service was top notch and comparable to what you find in the US. The only spotty customer service I experienced was when alone and only once was someone gruff or short with me. Another instance was at a dive, I wanted a pint and was not acknowledged and I left after 10 minutes. Lastly, during my final meal in Prague, I had to wait 10 minutes to get a drink, an additional 10 minutes to order and another 10 to get my change. Long waits happen especially if your server is busy, but I was the lone patron. You also have to consider my ethnicity. I am not accusing Czechs of being racists but they do not encounter people of my descent often and may treat me differently.. it's human nature. So with isolated cases, we can reserve judgement on that later and like the food criteria, you will have to see it for yourself.

Does the region's communist past manifest itself in its customer service?
Likeness of Lenin at a communist themed bar
Thanks to travel bloggers, I had an idea of what to expect during my stay. I was able to shed the miserly spending habits temporarily, never dealt with language barriers and sampled the thriving beer scene. And although my palate was not challenged with exotic spices or methods of cooking, everything tastes good when you spend all day walking. The Czechs were kind enough and I believe the service industry will progress. One should not take stereotypes as the end-all-be-all. Get to know the individual or place and see for yourself, although there are some truths to these generalizations.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The City of a Thousand Spires

I spent nearly 48 hours in Prague and it is one of the most picturesque cities that I have ever been to. Like most European cities, it has an ancient feel to it but it seemed darker to me. The capital of Bohemia is an ideal city to visit because it is easily navigable, in a sense that most of the attractions are concentrated within a few square km and you can walk everywhere. In a directional sense, Prague can be quite confusing. I was also hoping to infiltrate a group of westerners to have dinner with because I felt like I was in pampanga during the Rome leg.
Clockwise starting from bottom R: Entrance way to Charles Bridge, 800 year old synagogue,
 statue of Jan Hus (burned at  the stake), and along the Vltava river
So on my first full day, I wanted to see the touristy sights: the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle and the Metronome. I was most impressed by the Prague Castle due to its sheer size. A few superlatives have been bestowed upon it based on the enormity and it is most deserving. The castle is nestled atop a hill overlooking the city, and probably gave ancient citizens comfort and a sense of pride. It was the first major European castle I have visited and well worth the grueling ascent to the top of the hill.
Prague Castle, clockwise starting from bottom right: Side view of chapel, battlements, view of Prague
view from Charles Bridge, and myself with a front view of chapel

The best decision during the trip is to join a “Free Walking Tour”. Let me explain how it works. You will see tour guides gathering participants at a popular landmark, and in Prague, it was at the Old Town Square. There are a number of companies offering free tours which last about 3 ½ hours long, with guides compensated solely on tips. The guides offer advice on the best ATMs to use, the latest conman maneuvers and nightlife spots in addition to the history and culture lectures. Furthermore, most guides are not indigenous to the area and can understand your outside perspective.

Tour guides with an identifiable umbrella, pictured in front of the Tyn church
The guides always had an interesting way to present information and a history guy like myself just soaked it all in. At the end, you have the choice of leaving a tip if you found their tour to be informative or funny. Here are some tidbits that I will never forget from my tour:
  • Prague had a violent past from shifting religious ideologies (Catholicism vs Protestantism), WWII and communist occupation
  • The city was largely spared from German bombing in WWII because Hitler wanted it to be his eastern capital. His Paris of the east if you will.
  • The statues on the Charles Bridge are replicas
  • Locals are amused by tourists who gather in throngs around the astrological clock at midnight waiting for it to ring and are rewarded with nothing.. The clock rings randomly.
  • Con men liked to swindle tourists by exchanging euros and dollars for bulgarian/bratislavan currency. The Czech Republic does not operate on the Euro and most tourists do not know what the local currency looks like. So instead they get useless cash from eastern European countries at a value that can be 10 times less. I was asked at least 5 times by these con men if I wanted to have a superior exchange. TIP: Use an ATM and cover the keypad with a map as you enter your PIN.
Tour guide explaining Kafka
Lastly, the best reason to join these tours is to meet like-minded people, which is crucial if you are traveling solo. There is safety in numbers and lone travelers need to join groups if they want to let a loose a bit and be out late. You should not be out by yourself after sundown in most most US cities and it is the number one rule of safety while abroad. Plus, who would want to want to trek a former eastern bloc country with a history of violence and urban legends at night? Prague can be creepy at night.. However, I was fortunate enough to meet some personable people from a range of different countries to have dinner and a beer tasting with. I even got a couple of facebook friends out of it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Prague: On My Own Now

After 3 nights in Rome, I boarded a budget airline (less than 120 USD) for the Czech Republic's capital of Prague. The flight had a pleasant view of the Dolomite Alps and the only annoyance was what seemed like an entire class of Italian middle schoolers. The teeny boppers were loud and erupted with every bump during the flight and did not know English.

Flying over the Dolomite Alps
After a smooth flight, I was in my first former communist state, totally alone. During my coddled Rome visit, I had unofficial tour guides who would navigate for me. Now I had to find my own way, and I have a terrible sense of direction. Coupled with the fact that I was again ill prepared for this leg caused my first five hours in Prague to be miserable.


Powder Tower, last picture before I realized how lost I was.
The Czech capital's roads are windy, cobblestoned and hard to distinguish from each other. I took screenshots of Google maps from my subway stop to the hostel but it was not detailed enough. Prague is an old city and not organized in neat blocks like American or Canadian downtowns. It was hard to admire the architecture when you are cold, hungry, lost, lonely and being pestered by con men who offered bogus exchange rates. So to combat hunger, cold temperatures and loneliness, I turned to something comforting that reminded me of home: A meatball sub on italian bread at Subway, lightly toasted

Yes, I know I should be trying local cuisines but when has anyone raved about Czech cuisine? So while at Subway, I was able to get my bearings and although the Czech sandwich artists had no clue where my hostel was they were able to point me in the general vicinity. Within an hour, I was checked into my hostel and got to rest up for a bit. I even had a chance to salvage the night, I ran into 2 Americans who gave me sound directions. Turns out, the hostel was only 5 minutes from the Old Town Square, which was an important point of reference. I had the opportunity to snap a few photos of the square, enjoy a crepe and even witness the astrological clock ring. An achievement because it does not ring on a consistent basis.



After enjoying the sights of the Old Town Square, I decided to call it a night. Although I had my bearings around the hostel, I was not confident enough to explore Prague solo around midnight and risk walking into dodgy areas. Unfortunately, that would not be the last time I would get lost in Prague but by then I was comfortable enough tackling it on my own.


Armed with a crepe and a detailed map
Panorama of Old Town Square, iPhone 4s
There are always "walls" or tough stretches during a trip of this magnitude, I just happened to run into mine in Prague. Oh, and always bring a map.

**EDIT 09/25/13

I found the not-so-trusty screenshot that I relied upon:



Sunday, September 15, 2013

Roma

My 9 day jaunt in Europe would not have been possible without the assistance of my cousin and his in-laws who were happy to host me for a few nights in Rome. And that's where my first foray into mainland Europe started, in the eternal city where I spent three days.

My overall impression with Rome was "so-so". I was of course excited about the main attractions like the Vatican, Coliseum, etc but not much else stood out to me. That may be judging Rome unfairly because due to circumstances, I was unable to enjoy it as much as I could. My cousin was heading back to the Philippines for a visit and had no choice but to get his documentation set at the embassy and there were some strikes that resulted in the cancellation of the Castelli Romani plans.

From Borghese Villa

I am a big fan of Anthony Bourdain's travel shows and in his Rome episode of No Reservations, he gushed about "Caca y Pepe" and i really wanted to try it. My cousin's family seldom go out to restaurants and instead save money buying street food or making their native dishes from Pampanga province. So I actually had lots of good filipino food that I have not tasted since my last visit in early 2011. No complaints there but I could have made a better effort at trying some Roman classics. To salvage Rome's food scene, I did have "white pasta" and gelato. Bourdain makes it look so easy...

I am ashamed to say this but I did not get to see any of the attractions at the Vatican. No museum, no St. Peter's Basilica and definitely no Sistine Chapel. The lines were longer than the unemployment line at your local county offices.. Honestly, the lines were long. The only way to skip them was to pay over 100 euros. Had I planned this trip a little better, I may have been able to come up with alternate sites, but I did get to have numerous photo ops.

Just missed a public mass on a Wednesday morning, Vatican City
Again, not a whole lot to say about my Rome experience. Although I did not get to experience Rome, I at least got to enjoy my cousin's company and see his new life in Europe.