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European Vacation - Prague & Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

When we last left off, we were headed to a rendevouz in Prague with Mom and Dad Harder. Before we left, they looked at our itinerary, and decided that the Czech Republic, Austria and Italy seemed the safest and most comfortable bets. This meant an immediate upgrade in accommodations compared to our recent style of traveling.  

We got to Prague first, and found a nice apartment that was being rented out. Can't step off the train without being accosted by touts offering their apartments up for cold hard cash. But, two for two, it has been a bonus. The apartment was clean, nice and centrally located and we never saw our flat-mates. We had the city to ourselves while we waited for the eminent arrival of the family. Or so we thought. 

 In seems that in my decade long absence, mass tourism had 'discovered' the hidden gem of Europe. The Germans and Americans were out en force. The place was crawling with tour groups and hoards of crowds.  They graze like cattle at one sight then move on to the next, in their inane package T-shirts behind a tour guide waving an umbrella like a shepard's staff. The town was completely overrun.  What was my favorite city in Europe a decade ago, was close to the bottom, if not the last on my list. Mark my words, Budapest will be the next Prague...

We met Mom and Dad Harder and immediately transferred to their luxury accommodations. It lacked the charm of our other flat, substituting sterility and amenities in its place. We set out to show them the city. 

Our best experience was not seen but heard.They give glorious recitals and concerts in many churches in town, the repetoire heavy with Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Almost every night they play, with fees that range from free to moderately expensive. We heard an exquisite rendition of Mozart's Requiem complete with full orchestra, horns, oboes, drums, full choir and soloists, an hour of aural ecstasy, heard in a beautiful church, in the manner  it is meant to be experienced, outside of a funeral.

And we ate like gourmets on a quest. They said the best food in town and we found places that fit the bill, their bill at least. The best, by far, was a small place, cozy and yet luxurious at the same time, deep under the Charles Bridge at the foot of the castle. The menu was a set degustation with matching wines, and it raised our palates to new heights and set the tone for the following days.

Breakfast in bed overlooking th old city of Prague

From Prague, we travelled to Cesky Krumlov in southern Bohemia and stumbled across the annual Five Petal Rose festival.  We were lucky to get accomodations in the best rooms in town, a converted Jesuit monestary. We literally stayed in the tower belfry, and had to keep our windows closed because of bats. Above our bed was the huge wooden mechanism for opening the tower and ringing the bells. The rooms were spartan, white with dark mahogony furniture, and it suited the place well. There was an open courtyard, where roving troupes performed ballards and short plays as part of the festival.



The town itself is a charming array of red peaked roofs and the occasional steeple stabbing upward while the river winds through the town like an S, with the castle rising dramatically on one side.  



For the festival, all the townspeople dress in medieval and Renaissance clothing ranging from simple peasant wear to extremely elaborate costumes complete with men in Elizabethan pantaloons and women in full hoop skirts. I couldn't help but inquire into how the town pulled off such a major production. The answer? The Prague Historical Society supplies all the costumes and have been for ages. Weeks before, there is a lottery to see which part they will play, peasant or prince in that years festival. 

They were everywhere, as the festival is mainly local, and one could easily imagine what life might have been like back then. The main square was the center of it all, a large stage dominating with smaller booths of food, drink and wares. The first night they led a procession through town, with all the costumed revelers carrying torches of fire and led by drummers and a pack of dogs.  It was eerily hypnotic.  There was also jesters and magic shows and Renaissance music staged throughout the entire weekend.

The whole event was capped by a strange audio-visual multimedia spectacular with dancers and goofy special effects including what appeared to be a twenty foot onion.  Since it was narrated in Czech, the effect was even more disconcerting, but from what we could make out, we think the onion was a time machine which told the story of the founding of the town. It was all set in very dramatic setting, below the towering castle against a stony cliff right at the river's edge. The audience watched from the far shores. The show was capped off with a fireworks display set to Pink Floyd (again disconcerting)

As with any good festival, one has to sample the beers, and here in southern Bohemia, so close to Budvar, the beer has to be good. The local brew is called Budwieser, not the local swill produced in the states, but a very tasty, full bodied variety, with the bitter taste of hops, and more importantly, it was only 30 cents for 16 ounces, we got well dehydrated a few of those nights. For beer connaisseurs, Budvar(the Czech brewer of Budweiser) first coined the term but then Anheiser Busch borrowed it. Recently, they got into some legal wrangling over the use of the name, and basically came to a settlement that the American swill can't be sold in Europe while Budvar cannot export to American.  Oh the shame, its so good.

We traveled on to Salzburg, Austria, home of Mozart and set in the Austrian Alps. Some highlights include a cable car ride to the top of the Untersberg, a 5000 ft mountain, with a jolly barkeep at the top ready to fill us with his homemade schnappes, which Mom enjoyed while Dad was terrified from start to finish from the heights involved. We had another memorable meal, the best in Salzberg in a small house off the main drag. The perfect degustation that lasted four hours. The Europeans know how to eat.

The last night we walked around to see the town lit up at night and take some memorable pictures.  We reached the towering fortress that was atmospherically lit on the mountainside.  As I was focusing the shot in the viewfinder, it suddenly went black.  Someone just flipped the switch.  CLICK!  And off it went.  The castle, the fountains, the churches, everything in town, just went dark, and I never got the shot. I think I remember screaming something about turning it back on for just a second but to no avail. oh well, sometimes the shot is not for you to get.

Traveling with the parents is great.  We are sampling wonderful cuisine, no milk bars for this crowd. We have our own toilets, sometimes two if you count the bidet. We ride first class (ok six seats instead of eight but they have headrests!) And hot high pressure showers, all we want.

Ten four good buddies

over and out

ann and doug

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