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Greetings, email subscribers,

I know a lot of posts have been popping up on Next Stop: World lately. I’m trying to get caught up on last fall’s trip before Karen and I embark on our next one (to Belize, at the end of February).

To keep our beloved subscribers from feeling overloaded, I’m trying to figure out how to decrease the frequency of emails (which are currently sent with each post). Until I do, I totally understand if you feel the need to hit “delete” a few times. We’ll meet you back here when you’re ready to travel with us again.

Thank you so much for your friendship and for following Next Stop: World!

Ken (& Karen)

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The Next Street Over

It’s October. It’s cold and rainy. And just look at this.

Tourist mob

The great thing about Prague is that when you find yourself fighting a mob of tourists, you can dart down an alley to the next street over… and there’s still plenty to see.

Here are some of my favorites sights that don’t make the guided tour.

This actually does make it into the guidebooks: the Cubist streetlight.

Cubist lamppost

Spotted from the heights of Prague Castle, what the heck is that? Some kind of fake rock wall?

Senate from on high

Hey, wouldn’t it be nutty if it was inside the country’s Senate building?

Yeah, it is.

Castle Wallenstein does provide an impressive backdrop for Czech lawmaking.

Still, I’m convinced that you need a healthy sense of whimsy to work in this Senate building.

Public transit is one of the best things about Prague. You can ride a tram and/or subway for 30 minutes for 24 Kč (US$1.18) or 90 minutes for 32 Kč (US$1.58). In other words, it’s cheap enough to hop aboard on a whim. Sweet freedom for a traveler like me, intent on getting lost in this historic city.

Blue tram

Cheap rides mean that any part of the city is easily accessible. One day at dusk, I cruised south of the city center to the Vyšehrad, a historic enclave. Too late for tours or museums, I walked along the fortified walls, enjoyed the mild autumn temperatures, and sat on a park bench trying to figure out the self-timer feature on my new camera.

Walking back to the subway, I discovered this spectacular view…

Best apartment view

Which is the view from this apartment. If you ever move to Prague, rent this apartment…

Best apartment in Prague

Touren mit Rainer

At first, I wasn’t sure about contacting Rainer.

I spotted his profile on Couchsurfing: he’s a German living in Prague, willing to give tours of lesser-known parts of the city. He’s much closer to my age than the partying CSers I met the other night. So why the hesitation? On his profile, he wrote, “Please do not contact me if you just want to extend your photograph collection. The same is valid if you are not interested at all in history and architecture (in this case it might be boring for you).”

Just look at this blog- yes, I’m gonna take lots of photos! I wondered if that would annoy him. However, I truly am interested in history and architecture, so I gave him a shout. I’m glad I did.

Rainer and I met in Wenceslas Square and were immediately on the move. Maybe it was because he’s German, maybe it was because he had opera tickets for that afternoon, but we practically ran from place to place.

As we walked, we caught a glimpse of the Old Jewish Cemetery. How did a Jewish landmark survive in Nazi-occupied Prague? Hitler intended to create a museum here, so future generations could learn about the (soon-to-be) extinct Jewish race. Creepy.

Old Jewish Cemetery

At lunchtime, I wanted to eat an authentic Czech dish. Rainer set me up with Svíčková (I’m glad I’m typing that and not trying to pronounce it) and a Staropramen beer. Very satisfying all ’round. I insisted on paying for lunch, and Rainer insisted on treating me to a piece of cake for dessert.

Into every tour a little cross-cultural confusion must fall. When I mentioned my plans to visit Terezín (in the Czech Republic), Rainer was excited- he gives tours there and could advise me on things to see. Except he thought I was saying Dresden (in Germany). My ter-AY-sin sounded like his dr-AYs-din. Turns out Terezín rhymes with “magazine.” I’m going to Dresden, too, so we got that cleared up and I got his advice after all.

And we’re off! To the public library.

At Town Hall, our tour came to an end, and Rainer hastened to the opera. It was Couchsurfing at its best: he got to share his passion for Prague, I got a tour with a personal touch. For the record, I took 86 photos in three hours. In other words, I held back.

Vielen Dank, Rainer!

Rainer at tour's end

Wenceslas Square

Mustek metro stop

In Prague, all roads lead to Wenceslas Square. Or so it seems. This is the cosmopolitan center of the city, a hotbed of shopping, a grand open plaza, a transport hub, the home of the National Museum, and a good place to get a trdelník.

The Square has its quirky side as well.

The southern anchor of the square is the imposing National Museum building, a natural stop on my architectural quest. I was disappointed to learn that its collection is being moved next door while the main building is renovated. However, for just a few more days (said in used car salesman voice), there were classical music concerts being held in the lobby, giving visitors a final peek. Vivaldi and Dvořák were my ticket inside.

The temporary home of the museum has “utilitarian socialist crackerbox” written all over it. Sure enough, it was home to the federal parliament during the Communist era, and later housed Radio Free Europe, until the fear of terrorism chased RFE into more secure digs.

After seeing them all around town for a few days, I finally tried a trdelník in the Square.

And night after night, I found myself passing through the plaza on my way back to the hostel.

Puppety Prague

Don Giovanni

Come for the architecture, stay for the puppets! I vaguely knew of the Czech Republic’s propensity for puppetry, which dates back to the Middle Ages, but I wasn’t expecting marionettes to lurk around every corner. USA Today quotes puppeteer Vlad Brodsky saying, “Puppets are to Prague what pizza is to Rome.”

(I haven’t been to Rome- is there really pizza everywhere?)

Walking across Charles Bridge, the tour guides each hold aloft a garishly-colored umbrella to keep their hordes together. Except this one, who goes for a bit of local flavor.

Follow the puppet leader

On my first afternoon in the city, I spotted a poster for a puppet performance of “Don Giovanni.” Clearly I would be attending this show at some point- why not right away?

Marionette theater crowd

A couple dozen of us, including a few children, slid onto the creaky wooden benches in the small theater. A pre-recorded track of the opera began to play, and the first characters appeared.

Don Giovanni's balcony

I was expecting marionettes, but the performers used a mixture of stringed puppets and hand puppets, which gave them a greater range of movement. Lucky thing, since the mischievous main character spends a lot of time prancing around, peeking through windows, and engaging in sexual shenanigans. Actually, I’m not entirely sure what was going on: the libretto was sung in Italian, I had no previous knowledge of the plot, and my early morning was starting to catch up with me.

Don Giovanni's swing

The audience appreciated the clever moments, with puppets breaking into sword fights and set pieces flipping around to portray alternate locations. Overall, the show got a little long, and we patrons of the arts darted out of the theater immediately after the curtain call.

Don Giovanni sees red

One possible explanation for this artistic shortfall was that I may have seen the wrong “Don Giovanni.” Relying on websites listed in the guidebook, it wasn’t clear if the National Marionette Theatre (the one mentioned in USA Today) and its adjoining museum still existed. Take it from me: if you’re headed to Prague, don’t rely on puppetart.com or marionettemuseum.com, both of which are for sale (one in Japanese).

Better to surf to mozart.cz, which promises a dazzling puppetary display.

What I couldn’t miss were the marionettes populating numerous storefronts. Most were a bit creepy.

Which made it all the more delightful when I came across this shop, offering truly fun and artistic designs.

Magnificent marionettes

I was tempted to take one home with me, though I was wary of damage on the flight home and the high price tags. Then again, working on this blog post made me go to their website, where they accept online orders.

Are you listening, Santa?

Prague by the (Guide)book

Stacked towers

Why Prague? My quick answer: architecture. But for a dose of European architecture, why not Florence or Rome or a passel of castles in Germany? For me, Prague has the added attraction of having been part of the Soviet bloc (I visited the USSR in 1987 and am fascinated by communism, in all of its excesses).

And another thing: upon my arrival, I was relieved to discover that Prague is less expensive than the UK. Not the-Wall-just-came-down cheap, mind you, but no more seven dollar rides on the Tube.

Ken on Charles Bridge

Followers of this blog know that I like to read the guidebook and scramble from museum to theater to ghat to astronomical observatory. In Prague, things were different. I found myself walking… and walking… and walking, taking in the sights without much of an agenda.

There are a few sights you simply must see… at least according to the guidebooks and tour guides. Looming over the city and orienting the wayward traverser of crooked streets is Pražský hrad (Prague Castle).

Prague Castle over the Vltava River

Prague Castle over the Vltava River

One or two (thousand) other tourists have discovered Prague. Even in shoulder season, tour groups flock to the historic Charles Bridge, where religious figures gaze down upon the hawkers’ booths and beggars.

The Astronomical Clock shows up on every must-see list, and it sounds intriguing: a mechanism tracking the position of the sun and the moon, plus the signs of the zodiac, and a parade of apostles on the hour- but wait, there’s more- a skeletal figure of Death striking the chimes! Wow!

In reality, an eager crowd gathers every hour for a fairly underwhelming performance.

There was a titter of “that’s it?” laughter when the apostle parade ended. Call me morbid, but I did rather enjoy Death clanging away for us.

A better use of time: ascend the clock tower for a view of the square and beyond.

Prague has its modern touches, too, the most famous of which is the Dancing House.

Dancing House

The Cubist landmark comes into its own at night.

Dancing House at night

 

Next Stop: Prague

Ken’s posts from his vacation last fall continue…

That’s odd: I’m six days into my Czech Republic vacation and haven’t yet set foot in the Czech Republic. Today was the day- which would turn out to be a rather odd introductory day to a city I’ve dreamed of for years.

I got up early, said goodbye to no one as I exited the unmanned hotel, and trundled off to Gatwick for an EasyJet flight to Prague. It was so darn… easy. Do the Brits know how lucky they are to be just two hours and 170 bucks away from so many cool places?

Next Stop: Prague

Yeah, a lot of them did and were boarding my flight. The guidebook says that Prague is a popular place for “stag parties” and “hen parties” (I think we would call those bachelor parties and bachelorette parties). Sure enough, I was flanked by several groups of boisterous males looking forward to cheap beer and god knows what else.

Airport reflected

Easy up, easy down, and I’m walking through Václav Havel airport (named for the last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, who served from 1989 to 2003). Easy trip through customs, too. Hey, no stamp in my passport? Oh yeah, the European Union is no place for stamp collecting- when you’re in, you’re in.

The car-less traveler takes a bus from Václav Havel to the end of the subway line, and then trains it downtown. I boarded the modern bus and, like the other passengers, stared into space waiting for it to depart. Suddenly, the burly bus driver appeared a couple rows ahead of me. Without warning, he began yelling at a teenage girl. No “Excuse me, miss,” no pleasantries, just yelling. Now that’s old school Eastern European.

I didn’t need to speak the language to know that she was doing something wrong. He pointed, she shrugged, he gestured at the plastic cup in her hand. No beverages on the bus. She protested, he protested her protestation, she skulked off the bus and ditched the cup in a trash receptacle.

The 100 bus… to Metro B line… to the fun-to-say Karlovo náměstí (Charles Square) station.

Karlovo Namesti

Quite a few Pargue metro stations seem to have been constructed from recycled glass jars

I’ll walk the rest of the way to the hostel, but which way is that? Prague’s tangle of streets was already getting the best of me, and since my “smart” phone wasn’t enabled for international data, I couldn’t rely on GPS. On the bright side, I stumbled upon a Communist-looking facade- just the sort of thing I was looking forward to seeing in Prague.

Strong introduction to Prague

I got my bearings and dragged my carry-on to ArtHarmony Prague, which their website calls an “original, completely atypical, family, romantic environment – an oasis of peace and harmony in the middle of a city.” It is “perfect for people with a tinge of esotericism and spirituality.” That’s me!

Um, actually, I chose this place mostly for the location- the tram stops at the front door. I just needed to figure out how to use the tram. But first, the sordid question of coin. The balance of my bill up is due, and they want it in cash. We’ve found that the further you get from New York City, the less useful your credit card becomes. (Editor’s note: Nepal is very far from New York City.) For four nights, I owed €203.87, which was US$275.91, also known as 5,300 Kč (Czech crowns). I felt rich taking thousands of Kčs out of the ATM across the street- then I parted with them at the front desk.

By then, most of the day had slipped away. So, how shall I spend my first night in Prague? It just so happens that the local Couchsurfing group hosts a meet-up every Thursday night at a local bar, giving me a chance to learn more about Prague and meet people from around the world, all in one fell swoop. I took the tram through downtown to Wenceslas Square (I’ll get to those sights in a future post), then walked uphill toward the bar. As the street rose, it afforded me a spectacular view of Praha hlavní nádraží, the city’s main train station.

I couldn’t help but think that in Milwaukee, this is a train station:

Milwaukee Intermodal Station

While in Prague, this is a train station:

Praha

I rounded the corner and found the bar. Stepping inside, I scanned the room for a multiracial group of unshaven young people, most likely drinking cheap beer and tapping away on mobile phones even while chatting with other patrons. You know, Couchsurfers.

Couchsurfers, Prague style

And I found them… a whole lot of them… probably the most CSers I’ve ever seen in one place. Props to the Prague group for throwing such a happenin’ party every week!

Couchsurfing Ken

I soon found myself with a cheap (yet quite tasty) beer in hand, chatting with two Russians who go to school here and an Indian who works here and a British/Indian tourist whose holiday is just about over and a Chinese traveler who carries around an old-fashioned camera and shoots (gasp!) film.

Film lives!

It was a bit overwhelming. Braving the chilly night, a few of us sought refuge on the open-air patio. That’s when we saw the puma. Yes, there is a real, live puma living at this bar atop a hill in Prague. He/she walked in circles in a fenced run above the patio. I don’t know why, and I don’t approve. Besides the mistreatment of this animal… what if he/she were to escape?

Imprisoned puma

Imprisoned puma

Back inside, I showed my age and cashed in my chips just as the youngsters were deciding where to go next. I would later hear that they were out until 4AM. Not me: I started the long walk downhill and it started to rain. Within moments, I found myself wielding my flimsy umbrella against a downpour- the rain was coming sideways and I was getting soaked.

I had to laugh. It was the perfect end to a perfectly disjointed day: stag parties, surly bus drivers, Communists, korunas, pumas, and wet socks. And I’ve only been here one day.

British Reunions

Kettering train

I was all Who-ed out, and it was time to leave Wales behind. I hopped a fairly expensive (US$35) train, not to London but Kettering, home of my longtime friends David and Sue. Could it really be true that I hadn’t visited them in over a decade? Sure enough, it’s been long enough that their kids have moved on to university and only their pooch, Marley, remains.

I caught up with David, my corporate soulmate. I met him in 1997 when we worked together on a Snap-on Tools video. Though he left the company shortly thereafter, he has recently returned to Snap-on… just as I have returned to having Snap-on as a client. Once the Kenosha, Wisconsin, toolmaker has its hooks in, it doesn’t let go.

After a few nights in a Welsh hostel, nothing beats lounging at a friend’s home.

David, Sue, & Marley

Sadly, in the morning the British weather robbed me of the chance to take Marley for a walk in the fields surrounding the house.

Then it was back to London. This is about when I started to notice how expensive things are in the UK (with partial blame going to the US dollar’s exchange rate). Since I didn’t book the train in advance, that hourlong train ride cost almost US$70… one way. I can make the Milwaukee to Chicago trip on much-maligned Amtrak for $48… round trip.

Back in London, you hop on the Underground and- gulp- pay £4.50 (over 7 US dollars!) for a single ride. Then you get smart and buy a rechargeable Oyster card, which discounts single rides to a mere £2.10 (US$3.45). Clack-clack-clacking along beneath London, I fondly recalled dollar rides on the metro in Bangkok and 30-cent trips in Mexico City (though fares have recently risen to 40¢ there, prompting protests in the streets).

To offset my transportation expenses and save a few £s, I found the cheapest hotel I could.

Itty bitty Brit room

Itty bitty Brit room

Among the “features” of the Stay in Chelsea Guesthouse: a tiny room… a shared bathroom with a head-bonkingly angled ceiling… half the power shut off to protect some painters downstairs… sketchy wi-fi… and no staff. That’s right, there were no hotel employees on site. I had to phone ahead for someone to let me in, and I got there by Tube before he turned up on his bike. He showed me the keypad combination for my room, made a half-hearted apology for the lack of electricity, and pedaled away.

The upside: a low price (US$60) in a location (Chelsea) near my dinner date.

Throughout our travels, we’ve met loads of Brits, a great many of whom reside in London. So I emailed them all to see who could come out for dinner on a Wednesday night. Emma responded- we met her in New Zealand, the day we rolled down a hill in a giant plastic ball. Lisa, whom we met at a friend’s wedding in Colorado, was also in, along with her boyfriend, Chris. Table for four. And this being London, we were destined to eat- what else?- Indian food.

Britain's favorite food

As fellow travelers and Londoners, I was hoping Emma and Lisa would hit it off. Little did I know that a moment after they met, Lisa would say to Emma, “You look really familiar.” Sure enough, they knew each other. Not only did they once work for the same company, Emma crashed on Lisa’s floor one weekend in New Mexico or some such unbelievable tale.

Honorary sisters Emma and Lisa

We ordered plenty of small plates of different dishes. Since I tutor a Sri Lankan student at Literacy Services of Wisconsin, I added a Sri Lankan dish to the mix. Admittedly, I couldn’t tell much difference between the cuisines, though my student Dinesh could surely set me straight. I emailed him a photo, and he said kottu is often too hot even for him. My version was definitely toned down for civilian consumption.

Ceylon Kothu

Ceylon Kothu

Many glasses of wine and many laughs later, we went our separate ways. Until we meet again, fellow travelers.

Lisa & Chris

Lisa & Chris

Farewell... for now

Farewell… for now

The Rest of Cardiff

Loyal readers: My solo trip to the UK, Czech Republic, and Germany was way back in October, and it’s taken me until now to go through the photos and write up the stories. Thanks for your patience.

Now, cast your minds back a few months and join me in Wales…

Cymru letters

Admittedly, I wouldn’t have come to Cardiff if it weren’t for the Doctor Who Experience. That said, I wouldn’t have come all this way if there weren’t other things to see. Cardiff turned out to be a comfy tourist town.

It wasn’t always so. For decades, the harbor was more badass, right down to its name: Tiger Bay (Bae Teigr in Welsh). It was a major gateway for transporting coal throughout the world, but after World War II, shipping dropped off and the area fell into disuse. Beginning in the 1990s, the tiger was tamed, the bay renamed, and public and private money flowed into a revitalization project, creating the TV-ready sights that sci-fi fans now recognize from Torchwood.

Wales Millennium Centre

Wales Millennium Centre, with Roald Dahl Plass and the Pierhead in the distance

Cardiff Bay is home to the iconic (in the Doctor Who world) Wales Millennium Centre, which is an arts and theater complex. Just out the front door is Roald Dahl Plass, a plaza flanked by Welsh governmental buildings on one side and shops on the other.  The “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author was born in Cardiff and christened at the nearby Norwegian Church (now an art gallery).

During my October visit, the harbor was a bit of a ghost town. Tourist season had passed, and chilly temps and a brisk breeze meant that I shared the sights with only a few other brave souls. I think water is supposed to run down that silver monolith, but not this week.

Wander back to town (by bus), and you’ll find yourself in a compact grid of streets with the usual trappings: storefronts, coffee shops, a mall. In the northwest corner of downtown stands Cardiff Castle, which dates back to the 11th Century and underwent numerous additions and changes in subsequent centuries. Clambering up the keep was pretty cool, offering an overview of the castle complex, with ultra-mod Millennium Stadium in the distance. My home base in Cardiff was the River House hostel, just across the river from the stadium.

During World War II air raids, almost two thousand people took shelter in tunnels built within the castle walls. Artifacts and a museum tell the tale.

With just one night left in Cardiff, I set out to explore the city by moonlight and found myself drawn to the water once again. For me, all roads lead to Cardiff Bay.

Roald Dahl Plass under the moon

Roald Dahl Plass under the moon

Cardiff Bay development

Cardiff Bay development (pretty much deserted)

Wales Millennium Centre at night

One more look at the Wales Millennium Centre

My Day with the DOCTOR WHO Lives in Wales

When my plane touched down at Heathrow, my adventures were just beginning. I took the Tube to Paddington Station, had breakfast and a typically British walk in the rain, then caught a train to Cardiff, Wales. In search of the Doctor.

Who? That British television character who travels through time and space in a blue police box… and lives in Wales. Sort of.

BBC cymru wales

Doctor Who has been a soaring success since its return to the airwaves in 2005. Not only is the show produced by BBC Wales, but Cardiff figures prominently in the plot of several episodes. And that’s how I ended up in Cardiff Bay.

As you can see, the Doctor Who Experience is the ultimate playground for dedicated Whovians (like me). And what better time to experience the Experience than in the show’s 50th anniversary year (it debuted the day after President Kennedy’s assassination)?

Upon entering, visitors embark on a 3D adventure with the Doctor himself, Matt Smith, complete with Daleks, Cybermen, and a chance to take the controls of the TARDIS. Cheesy, yes, but I appreciated the knowing winks to the audience: when the Doctor first appeared, he was disappointed that instead of his usual companions, all he got was a bunch of “shoppers.”

For old school fans like me (I spent many a night watching the earlier incarnation of the show on US public television in the ’80s), the real treat comes next. A veritable Museum of All Things Doctor Who, sprawling across two floors of the hangar-like building.

[Click on the pix to see the full-size images.]

Here’s something that struck me as I exited (through the gift shop, of course): back in 1997, I visited BBC Television Centre in London, dutifully took the tour, and exited through the gift shop. And there was almost nothing related to Doctor Who available. Longtime fans will recall the Dark Years, in which the BBC abandoned the show and tried to sweep it under the carpet like it never existed.

Now, of course, the scene is a bit different.

I mean, you can buy a Tom Baker scarf bathrobe! Which I considered, but there’s no room for it in my luggage. After all, I still have two weeks of vacation ahead of me. If only I could climb into a little blue spaceship for the trip- who knows, I might even arrive before I left.

Happy anniversary, Doctor.

Tom Baker's bathrobe