Monday, January 12, 2009

Last Days in Prague

So much for Absinthe and adventure. After a couple rounds of Battle Ship we have our nap, but Danielle wakes and her cold is getting worse so we decide to stay in for the evening. We get take-out from the Middle Eastern/North African Dahab just a few blocks from the pension and settle in for the evening.

We wake up on our final full day in Prague, have breakfast and finally locate the National Gallery. As it turns out the National Gallery is a collection that is housed in several locations, the largest is the Veletrzní Palace (VP), just across the river from our pension. Zach’s former professor has fallen ill and has to cancel our meeting this afternoon (but he gives us the contact information for two of his Ph.D. students whom we do not contact), which gives us as much time as we care to take at the National Gallery.

We choose to walk to the VP, which may not have been the wisest decision considering the weather and Danielle’s cold. After we cross the bridge we discover a neighborhood (Holesovice) where everything is much less expensive. We stop for a bite just before the VP at Fabriccia’s for a couple of slices of some very delicious Neapolitan style pizza. (Technical note: somehow Fabriccia’s gets their gas oven to hit 380ºC (just over 700ºF) for perfect Neapolitan crust.)

The VP is a massive “Functionalist” building with a very Cold War feel (whatever that means) to it. It’s five stories of the most eclectic collection of early modern to contemporary art to be found in the same building. The 19th Century European wing includes just about every big name in early modern painting: Monet, Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Rodin, Picasso, Braque, ... not major pieces but a good representation. Other wings include more contemporary European pieces not unlike what is seen in America but with a decidedly European flavor (if nothing else than a lack of popular themes and techniques characteristic of contemporary American art). The museum also includes a formidable collection of decorative art and architecture, including early blueprints for some of the major buildings and monuments to be admired throughout the city. The museum, bigger on the inside, exhausts us after a few hours and we decide to head back to town for a relaxing lunch.
We were originally going to go back to the Grand Café Orient, even though Zach’s professor was unable to meet us there that afternoon, but on our walk from the museum to the metro we see a few locals duck into a restaurant with a reasonable menu (all in Czech, we’ve decided that’s a good sign) in the window, and so we decide to follow them inside and enjoy what might be our last traditional Czech meal. Par for the course, we both order Smazeny Syr (fried cheese with “chips”), a typical garlic soup starter and beer cheese on toast because we wanted to know what it was. We wash it all down with two very large pivos. Danielle learned on a few prior trips to Prague that Czech food doesn’t settle well if you don’t finish it off with a good strong digestive. The Czechs drink a strong, cinnamony liquor called Becherovka that does the trick. Two of those and we are out the door, headed back to the pension for a battleship rematch and a nap.

After the nap it’s hard to motivate back out the door again, especially given the temperature. We thought we would just go the café we had planned for lunch but getting there just a few minutes before closing, we decide it’s bad juju. Referring to our Lonely Planet guide, we instead head to Klub Architectu, a refurbished 12th century cellar turned sleek international restaurant. Still quite full from lunch, we order for the first time, a vegetable crudité, smoked salmon with potato pancakes and sour cream, baked potato pancakes with cheese and herbs, and a couple glasses of wine. We quickly realize none of our fellow diners are Czech, but varied flavors of European and American and we decide this doesn’t spoil the ambience. The food is delicious, the service genuine if not a little clumsy, and the prices more than fair. It helps too that we were seated in a non-smoking section. Prague seems to be a haven for European smokers quickly falling out of favor with wide-spreading smoking laws. We’re looking forward to returning to Berlin where it’s much easier to avoid.

We’ve certainly enjoyed our stay in Prague, but the city didn’t quite offer itself up to us the way Berlin has. The language barrier we’ve largely breached in Germany has proven to be a divisive force in Prague and everything there has been a little more difficult. As we ride the train back now our shared sentiments are of returning to Prague when the weather at least is more agreeable and the aimless wandering on cobblestone streets through medieval architecture can be better enjoyed. The conductor has just announced that we are approaching the border and leaving the Czech Republic behind. For one, this means that the electricity in the dining car will be turned on (?), and that we will soon be back in Berlin for the last stretch of our vacation.

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