Thursday, October 27, 2005

Prague - Czech it out!

by Rosario Charie Albar

In the land of Mozart and Dvorak, jazz boats cruise the Vltava River. As a jazz fan, this is music to my ears. My new friend, Noubikko, a transplant from California, was shocked when I asked him to point me to a jazz club. “What? No Mozart concert for you?”, he teased me mockingly. Instead, we found ourselves in a five-story disco club where young people gyrated to the beat of heavy metal and hard rock. This is Prague. It is old, it is new. It minuets and it rocks.

On my first day in town, Noubikko showed me how to make my wish come true. Standing on Charles Bridge, he told me to place my hand on top of a gold cross embossed on the stone railing and my right foot over a tiny gold dot just below it. Then pointing his finger across the river, he motioned me to look as far as my eyes could see before making a wish. I hesitated, checking carefully to ensure my gaze extended to the most distant reaches of the Vltava to make this exercise a success. Several years ago, Noubikko had done the same thing. And his wish was granted. Today he is happily ensconced in Prague where he wants to be.

I can understand why Noubikko, a fashion designer, is drawn to Prague. Prague is like a well-dressed woman in its baroque and art nouveau finery. Sometimes a neo gothic window or balcony pops out of a 17th or 18th century building. Surprises like this and striking façades, often stop a visitor in his tracks.

The intimate size of the city invites the intrepid to explore it. Getting lost along narrow, cobblestone streets becomes a welcome distraction when stumbling upon a local market where fruits of the season are sold next to postcards and trinkets, or finding sculpture of an oversized, upturned female body on busy Na Příkopĕ, or uncovering the grim past in the concrete memorial of shoes worn by men buried alive during the Communist regime, or discovering Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movement of the glass entrance to the aptly named, Dancing House. Sooner or later the path leads to the river.

There’s something to be said about how a chance meeting with a local resident can transform a travel experience. Noubikko, who I met at the Church of Our Lady Victorious, led me on a gastronomic pilgrimage in a city whose reputation for haute cuisine has been closely guarded for too long. At Arzenal Siam I San, we savored memorable tom ka gai and pad thai in Zen inspired surroundings, drank wine from colorful, handcrafted crystal and browsed in their own art gallery. We sat for hours in Ambiente Brasileiro, as we slowly moved from the salad bar to the main entrées starting with half a dozen different types of red meat including beef from New Zealand and Uruguay, sausages from Brazil and veal from some exotic location. Then came chicken, pork, lamb, four kinds of fishes, shrimps, all brought to our table in a skewer by smiling, handsome waiters who sliced the meats as thin or as thick as we wished. We couldn’t get enough plantains. We ordered more. On another evening we relished freshly made pasta, served al dente, at Kogo’s outdoor patio. We toasted our good fortune.

After dinner, we walked past darkened streets to sit at cafés. They invented the “Kavárna (café) society” in Prague. And how! At Café Café, I indulged on a strawberry frappé. In the Grand Hotel Europa Kavárna Café, we felt like extras in the movie, Mission Impossible. The buzzword at HOT is “Where Asia meets Europe”. We admired the sizzling red and white décor and sat outdoors till closing, drinking Mattoni while people watching. At Kent Universe (KU) we were surrounded by beautiful, young ingénues from the fashion and film industry. When it started to sprinkle, we dove into a barge docked by the side of the river to while away the hours and watched the rain cleanse the time blackened statues of saints and martyrs on Charles Bridge. Alas, the cobwebs stayed.

Noubikko shared this old adage with me that sums up Prague. It goes, “You’ll never rest until you return to Prague!”.

* * *

Getting there: Delta and United Airlines together with their code share partners fly to Ruzyne Airport from major U.S. cities

Getting around: Prague is a walking city. But for trips outside the center, there is a three-line metro system that is easy to follow as well as trams that crisscross the city. A 20 koruna ticket is good for 75 minutes from validation and may be used in three fare zones. Check Prague Municipal Transport at for more information.

Sleeps: The Hotel Meteor Plaza is off Námĕsti Republiky (Republic Square) and metro station, Republiky on Hybernska 6. It is across from the Municipal House and a short walk to Old Town Square. It is also a stone’s throw from what’s being dubbed as the biggest mall in Europe which is scheduled to open in 2007. Buffet breakfast is included. Their web address is Phone: 420-224-192130. For apartment stays at reasonable rates, check out the West Group Company site There are photos of these centrally located apartment hotels which are reasonably priced. They also offer a luxury apartment by the Vltava River with a view of the castle. They can also arrange to pick-up guests from the airport for a fee. Phone: 420 732 350 574.

Eats: Arzenal Siam I San – Valentinska 11/56 Old Town, Phone: 224-814-099
Ambiente Brasileiro, Slovanský Dům, Na Příkopĕ 22, Old Town, Phone: 221-451-200
Kogo – Slovanský Dům, Na Příkopĕ 22, Old Town, Phone: 221-451-260 and on Havelská Street (in front of a farmers’ market)
Kamenny Most – Smetanovo Nabr. 195-196, Old Town, below Charles Bridge and on the river

Cafés: HOT, Václavské namesti 45, New Town (HOT serves lunch and dinner and has a 4-star rating according to Square Meal, the Prague Restaurant Guide); Café Café, Rytirska 10, Old Town; Kent Universe (K.U.) Rytirska 13, Old Town; Grand Hotel Europa Kavárna Café, Václavské námĕsti 25, New Town.

Sightseeing Tours: Premiant City Tours (phone: 420-606-600-123) or Martin Tour Prague (phone: 420-224-212-473) have kiosks all over the city and offer a choice ofhalf-day and full-day city tours, river cruises and out-of-town excursions. Your hotel concierge can also make these arrangements for you.

Photos by Rosario Charie Albar.