Thursday 31 July 2014

European Adventure: Day Three - Prague, Czech Republic

This morning we planned to be out by 7:30 but I delayed that a bit by being so tried! Brian actually got up at 3am but I stayed in bed until 7:10. Dad was up earlier, went for a walk and had breakfast, then Brian went for breakfast so we left the hotel at 8am. There had been some rain last night and the forecast called for a chance of showers. As such it was a very cool and overcast day - probably one I could have gotten away with wearing jeans and a sweater rather then capris. But the breeze was nice as it never got too hot, even on those rare moments the sun peaked through. 

We walked up to the Old Town Square and to the Astronomical Tower - which was beautiful. You can take tours of the inside and get photos from the top, but they didn't open until 9:00am so we figured we could do it later. But the amount of detail and workmanship that went into the clock is amazing. All of Prague is stunning - very old, but beautiful building line the streets, and there are these cute little side streets and alley ways everywhere. The cobblestones are a bit hard to walk on with my foot so sore, but I am managing. I did have to stop and take off the tensor bandage today - it was making the pain worse. I was trying to think of what place Prague reminds me of in Europe, but I couldn't. There are similar features to parts of England, France and Ireland but it really is it's own place. Dad never had a huge desire to come here but he's happy I picked it because it's a place worth seeing. 

We stopped at a Starbucks for Brian and I to get our elixir of life and for me to get something for breakfast. The Starbucks was great - friendly, English speaking staff and some really different drinks and pastries. I was unadventurous and stuck with my chai latte and croissant which  were delicious. It was expensive though - for two drinks and the pastry it was 14.00 CAD! It made me wish I had mom's magic Starbucks card! ;) 

Dad and Brian had seen a brochure about a Cold War/ Communism tour which took you down to a bunker below the city and went into detail on the this period in history as it related to Prague. That tour wasn't something I was interested in - just like the Toy Museum that I wanted to see wasn't their thing. So we decided to spilt up (Nanny don't be worried! The fact that this post is up and posted means it turned out fine!) We found a hop-on hop-off bus tour that left from the town square and bought 48 hour passes. Their tour started in the square and my toy museum was along the route. The plan was I would take the bus to Prague Castle (where the museum was) while they did their tour and then they would meet me at the castle in the afternoon. The hop-on bus couldn't come into the Old Town square so the first part was a 20 minute walking tour which took us to the bus. This was great because while we had seen some of these buildings yesterday in our wandering, we didn't know the history or details. This tour gave me the chance to learn about certain buildings and areas. 

(Outdoor market) 

One of the sights we saw yesterday was the Powder Gate - which we passed today. This tower was built in 1475 by King Vladislav II Jagiello to replace one of the original Old Town gates where some of the kings and royalty were living. They only stayed in the area for a few years though as the religious fighting worsened and Old Town became unsafe. This was when they moved back to Prague Castle. We also walked past an opera house which is gorgeous. It's styled after early 1900's Paris and many movies are filmed there when they are set in that time period. 
(Powder gate) 

The bus was parked a few blocks from the train station and was about half full. As with all City Sightseeing Buses there were headphones with tourist information in various languages. We drove out of Old Town and into Mala Strana which is the "little quarter". I think the three of us are doing the bus again tomorrow so we may stop there then. 

I got off at the 4th stop which was Prague Castle. I had read in Fodors that exploring the grounds and gardens of the castle is worth it, but the actual castle tour/admission is not. The castle is set up that you can enter the inner walls where there are many other museums, shops and cafés without admission, but can't get inside the actual castle or churches without a ticket. The Toy Musuem was located at the very far end if the castle grounds (the opposite end from where the bus dropped me off at). 

( main entrance to the castle) 

It took about 25 minutes to walk through the grounds, but I was stopping and taking photos. The Guinness book of records lists Prague Castle as the largest ancient castle in the world. It dates back to the 9th century and is still the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic. 

One of the most impressive sights was St. Vitus Cathedral which is a massive, gothic structure located in the middle of the castle grounds. I read it is worth seeing, but you need the Prague Castle ticket to get all the way inside. I was able to get into the entrance - this allowed me to at least see inside and it was amazing. The inside was just as impressive as the outside with high ceilings, gorgeous stained windows, and a grand alter way at the front. There seemed to be a lot of other areas inside (ones you needed a ticket to see) but I'm glad I got to at least go in. 

The Toy Museum is in one of the castle buildings, in the former Supreme Burgrave’s House. It is the second largest Toy Museum in the world and consists of two floors with seven rooms of toys from all around the world. They have toys from Ancient Greece, and from all century's and decades including traditional and non-traditional toys, toy cars, planes, motorcycles, figures, dolls and stuffed animals. There was even an entire floor dedicated to Barbies! 

I am so glad I decided to see this! It was fantastic! There were 70 stairs to get up to the entrance which had my foot screaming at me, but it was worth it. (The fact that my foot is still killing me after almost 2 weeks is annoying). 

The toys displayed were organized by type, and their collection was massive. There wasn't much history and information provided - just a few notecards with a sentence or two explaining the origin/history or brand of a specific one. I was amazed at how much history there was in some of the toys - especially the trains and army figures. One display had an alien toy released during one the wars where aliens are envisioned as pink beings holding weapons. 


There were some crazy toys from the 50's that were mechanical and featured people doing things like seeing and drawing. One of them was called "the alcoholic" and he smoke and drank - with the card explaining that real smoke came out the end of the cigarette! Definitely not a toy you would see today! 

There were a lot of dolls ranging from the first ones made out of wax going into porcelain styles that are popular today. It was fun to see just how much the faces and clothing of the dolls has changed over the years. There were a few displays of stuffed animals - mostly just teddy bears some of which were from FAO Swartz. They did have a few displays on the origin of Christmas celebrations and Christmas trees which I of course found fascinating. Near these were Christmas Toys throughout time that included ornaments (which included creepy face ones!) and Santa's/Snowmen. 

The top floor was  devoted to Barbie and I was in heaven! I spent almost 45 minutes examining the Barbies and taking insane amounts of photos. I loved seeing the change in styles and clothing and was amazed at some of the Barbies - such as the pregnant one, and the 90210, Westlife and NKOTB ones! There was even a Brittney Spears one! Some of the dolls and clothes were similar to ones I had, but the whole experience made me want to A. Buy old Barbies on ebay and B. play with Barbies! 

There were some pop-culture items like Star Wars toys, and action figures - some of which Brian said he had had after looking at the photos. I wouldn't say I learned much from the museum but I loved every second of it! I would recommend that attraction to people of all ages! 

After leaving I went to the other entrance and got some amazing photos of Prague - people were pushing and shoving and the area was crowded but the views were breathtaking. There were a ton of viewpoints but I could only see the ones elevated by concrete steps - being a castle the walls are a bit higher then my 5'0! 

I walked back up the hill and stopped at a Christmas Shop which was really cute! I bought an adorable ornament that said "Praha" and was in the shape of a suitcase. Brian and I have started collecting Christmas ornaments on our travels! 

There was still time before Brian and Dad were scheduled to meet me, so I stopped for a drink at a outdoor cafe. It was a bit chilly so I ordered a hot chocolate which was delicious (being spiked with amaretto didn't hurt!) which warmed me up. Dad and Brian's tour ended at 12:30 so I turned on my data in order to iMessage them - and nothing. I also tried the walkie talkies and still nothing. From 12:30-1:30 I killed time wandering around the expansive castle grounds. Finally I used FaceTime and got ahold of them - their tour had just ended. We made plans to meet at the castle which was probably silly considering it has so many entrances! I started walking toward where I had come in and ended up at the whole new entrance - which I  assumed was the main one. I opted to stay here as I saw some taxi's and figured this is where they would be dropped off. The initial plan was for them to walk or take the hop-on bus but based on the time we decided a taxi would be best. My guess was correct and a few minutes later my walkie-talkie rang and I saw them heading toward me. 

They spent about 30 minutes wandering through the castle grounds and cathedral taking photos and seeing the main sights I pointed out. Then we walked over to the castle gardens were we had lunch at an outdoor cafe. It was starting to warm up and the sun was out so it was lovely. I tried a traditional dish which was like a potato pancake served with apple sauerkraut and it was yummy. We decided to take a cab back to the hotel afterward and headed to the main gates. Once outside dad walked over to the row of cabs and told the driver our hotel. Thankfully he didn't know where it was because I realized it was an unauthorized cab. Authorized cabs have the company name on the front, whereas many cabs in the city are just cars painted yellow with a taxi sign affixed to the top. The guide book and airport cautioned travellers to stay away from them as they have ridiculous rates. We managed to order a cab using a taxi commonly website and were picked up within minutes. Dad and Brian realized they must have used an unauthorized cab to get there earlier as the rate back to the hotel ended up being much less then they had paid for their shorter trip to the castle. 

(The unauthorized cabs in the background) 

Dad and I Face Timed mom for a few then Brian came to get me. The hotel had left a note in our room that we needed to move due to a plumbing issue. To make up for the inconvenience of having to repack and move everything they upgraded us to a much nicer room. We had been in a small double before where we were tripping over each other but the new room is large and spacious with a nicer view 

We all spent some time relaxing and resting in our rooms and met down in the lobby at 7:30 for our Medieval Tavern experience I had booked tickets for. I had first heard of this place from @OMGFacts on Twitter, when they posted a photo of the inside. It looked really cool, so I did some research and found what I hoped was the right place. When booking I couldn't tell if there were two Medieval Taverns in Prague, or two different ways to buy tickets. I went with the site I could actually understand and hoped for the best. (It was cool inside but not the one that I had seen a photo of!) 

The evening included a 5 course traditional Czech meal, wine/beer, and Medieval themed entertainment. Going into it I wasn't sure what to expect. Dinner consisted of Cheese mousse and fresh bread, followed by traditional pancakes filled with spinach and garlic. That was served with southern-Czech Kuba which is a pearl barley baked with mushrooms and garlic. This was followed by (what was supposed to be) boneless pork roasted in black beer with fried potatoes  (it ended up being a shank), and then some traditional brewer's style beef goulash which was served with bread dumplings. Desert consisted of a selection of homemade cakes.

The entertainment included a historical show and spanned the whole evening. There were performers like swordsmen, jugglers, and dancers who were all dressed in costumes from the Middle Ages. The tavern had a very Medieval atmosphere with candles everywhere, stone walls and wood features. There were iron and metal weapons hanging down and the whole look was really interesting. There were only a few single groups like us - the bulk belonged to a bus tour. Their meal was a bit different then ours, but I can't tell which one would have been better. 

The food was decent - the bread was tasty and Dad liked the cheese thing that you spread on top (Brian and I didn't). I loved the potato thing and the barely dish was excellent. The pork was incredibly fatty so I didn't eat much if that, but the need goulash was delicious! Desert was a bit if a disappointment (some strange mini-pastry) but the evening was worth it. 

The staff were friendly but there was a bit of a language barrier, and the entertainment was enjoyable. Some of the things got a bit repetitive (like the two running around after each other) but the music and dancers were awesome. At the end they brought out the dancers who now had some sort of fire with them - that was pretty cool!  

Overall I would recommend the tavern as a fun way to spend a night but it's not something I would do again. Still it was different and much better then similar dinner show entertainment I have been to in Scotland and Ireland.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

European Adventure: Day Two - Arrival in Prague, Czech Republic

Because we booked flights using Aeroplan miles we didn't have a lot of flexibility on the routes. After leaving Toronto, we flew to Montreal on Air Canada where we had a 3 hour layover. Dad had enough miles to book business class on all the flights which was amazing. I am not a good flyer to begin with, so having a little extra space and the added luxury did help calm me down.

Leaving the lounge and heading toward our gate I was dismayed to find a Jo Malone store in the Toronto terminal. This is a brand that I have unsuccessfully hunted for each time I have been in Europe. It's a line of women's fragrances and creams that's have a variety of scents - including the ability to customize a mix. Of course I find it when I have no time to browse! Apparently they are now in select Holt Renfrew stores so that's on my to-do list for when I get back - Amanda.G I think we should take a trip to Yorkdale and get you new items for your upcoming trip! (and of course stop at Holt Renfrew!)

We boarded the plane at 3:45 amid a lot of pushing and shoving. My pet peeve is people who don't bother listening to the announcers and just rush to the gate long before they are supposed to. Listening to and following instructions isn't a hard concept to grasp, yet more people seem to lack the ability.  Once on the plane I noticed some men in orange maintenance vests working on the flight desk - just the sight every anxious flyer wants to see before take off... 

Between maintenance delays and another plane blocking us we were an hour late taking off. Fortunately there was a chunk of time between our flights so we weren't worrying. Our plane did have to take off with the landing gear down and not rise it until later then normal due to one of the wheel ends (or brakes) not registering. Again, not too reassuring for an worried flyer! But the pilot was great and made frequent announcements to keep us updated. 

Our seats and service were a real treat! Despite only being an 1hr and 10 min flight we had the seats that turned into beds. Each of us had our own little oval shaped area with fancy controlled seats. They could recline, a foot rest came up, and you could fully extend into a laying position - which I didn't test because I knew I would look strange laying down on such a short flight. The Air Canada stewards were friendly and helpful showing us where the TV screen and table trays were as they are different then the usual seats. We also got a "snack" of a warmed chicken pot pie. This snack was probably better then any potpie I could make! There was a fair amount of distance between the three of us despite being in the same row. My back was angled away from dad, but I could see Brian. The one downfall of these seats was that I was unable to hold Brian's hand during take off. 

The flight was shorter then expected - probably only about 45-50 minutes in the air before we reached Montreal. In candy crush terms that meant I played all my 5 games during take off but by landing only had one new game waiting for me! Taking off was fine - the plane was just a little bit shaky, but as we started our decent the motion got worse. It didn't feel like typical turbulence but rather was more of an actual shaking sensation. Maybe it felt different due to where/how I was sitting which was the first row of the plane and on an angle. 

We had almost two hours between flights so we went up to the Maple Leaf Lounge in Montreal to wait. It was almost the same as the Toronto one - spread out seating, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and light food like veggies, hummus, soups, rice and chicken. On the lower lever there was even a chef making customized pasta! This lounge had a shower in it that you could get a key for if needed. I can definitely see why business travelers like my uncle utilize the lounges they are worth it. I must have looked strange in the lounge as I had to spend a few minutes cleaning up my liquid and gel bag as my pink nail polish had spilled everywhere. I managed to get most of it cleaned/dry but dads carry-on now smells like nail polish. Thankfully it was in a plastic bag and didn't stain all his stuff. But I don't think he will be carrying that for me on the way home! 

The plane to Munich had delayed boarding due to a medical emergency - so we were about 40 minutes late taking off. But the gorgeous seats and cabin made up for it! Lufthansa is amazing! Mom told me she had heard good things and she wasn't wrong. We were in business class - and you would swear it was first class. (Brian peaked at first class there isn't too much physical differences just a bit more room, wood paneling and roses). Business class had three rows of two seats across and 6 rows back. The seats were spacious and comfy and also reclined into beds. There was a ton of storage in front of the seat, an in-flight entertainment system, pillows, blankets, free bottled water and a toiletry kit. 

The plane was a A330-300 and it was the best plane I have been on. There were separate entrances for each class - first, business, and premium/economy. As soon as we sat down we were offered a drink of orange juice, Champagne or water.  We were also given dinner menus offering us salad, choice of beef, sea bass or gnocchi and a desert. There was even an extensive wine and beer list! I think this has shown dad and myself that redeeming Aeroplan miles for economy trips in the US is pointless. It makes much more sense to redeem them for international travel in business class. A one-way one-person flight on just this route/airline next Tuesday starts at $2500.00! We only paid the taxes and fees and that also included our Toronto-Montreal flight and our Munich-Prague flight. It makes more sense to save miles and travel like this on-haul journeys. I am an awful flyer but I was able to relax and not be super anxious based on the incredible surroundings. 

The business class cabin wasn't full - so there was a lot of room as all the passengers were spaced out. I think I counted 9 people in the 24 seats. Brian and I sat beside each other at the window with dad beside us separated by the aisle. Dinner was served quickly, Brian and I both had beef which was decent and dad had the sea bass which he said wasn't the greatest. The salad was delicious, as was the wine and cheeses for desert. The stewardess came by very few minutes offering more drinks, bread or chocolate and was on hand when we needed help with adapters and the remote. Sadly the inflight WiFi was down, but the price was pretty steep so I didn't care. After dinner I moved up a seat and reclined into the bed position so I could sleep without trapping Brian. I think I slept for almost 4 hours, only waking once during some turbulence. It wasn't the most comfortable bed I have slept in, but for being on a plane it was great. Dad watched two movies and Brian played on his tablet - but I think both of then slept for at least few hours. I got the most sleep and woke up after breakfast which was about 45 minutes before landing. The whole flight was relaxing and comfortable, and despite the slight turbulence was a fantastic flight experience. 

We arrived at the Munich airport 1 hour and 50 minutes before our next flight which turned out to be plenty of time. The airport is huge, but well organized and streamlined to ensure everything moves quickly and efficiently. There was a lot of walking which my injured foot wasn't too impressed about - hopefully when I start wrapping it it won't be as painful! Customs/border control was a breeze - we handed our passports over to the guy, he looked at them and then he looked us, then he stamped them and said a simple "enjoy". That was probably only time I haven't had to say anything except "hello" and "thanks" when dealing with an agent. 

The Munich airport was awesome - so many shops, cafés, beer/wine areas and restaurants. There was even the new model Audi in the terminal which looks incredible! We didn't have time to wander which was unfortunate, well maybe fortunate considering it's only day two and I'd have to start lugging whatever I found to buy around! Our gate was at the far end of the airport and was more like a small holding area. Brian was happy as there was a smoking booth right above us which was convenient for him. From our little waiting area we were shuttled by bus to a completely different Tarmac where the smaller planes were. It wasn't the smallest plane I have been on, but it was similar in size and capacity to the plane from Athens to Chios last summer. We also had business class for this flight so we were seated in the first row. The flight from Munich to Prague was only 40 minutes but they also served business class a lunch/snack. I declined, but Brian and dad enjoyed a strange collection of tuna, venison, pea purée, beans, peppers and mango salsa accompanied by bread and desert. Lufthansa really goes above and beyond for their business class customers and is how I would love to travel on all my Europe trips! I did tell Brian this is how I wanted to go when we eventually (a long way away) do Australia and New Zealand. 

We landed at the Prague airport just as it was started to cloud over and rain but the plane connected directly to the terminal - we didn't have to walk outside like we did to get on it. The Prague airport was a decent size and very clean! Not as many shops and cafés like Munich but still would have been fun to wander through. We made our way to baggage where we were reunited with our luggage... I don't know why but I had some odd feeling at last one of them would go missing! Thankfully I was wrong. Dad bought a SIM card for his unlocked phone so that took some additional time, but it was nice to find it at the airport rather then wandering around town looking. I had called Telus to put a roaming package on my phone and was quoted a decent one that included 200 minutes, unlimited text messages and 500 MB of data. However when I called back to add it I was told that that it was only for consumers and that since I was on a business plan we couldn't have access to it. The plan I got instead was 25.00 less and had 50 less minutes, only 200 text messages and only 100 mb of data. I tried to see if there was anything the rep could do, but he couldn't and I was stuck with it. Dad also added that package and  between the two of us combined we have less data then the consumer plan offers. I tweeted them my frustration and of course heard back right away. We are officially In a world where complaints over social media are dealt with more effectively them those over the phone with so-called customer care people. Still even the tech guy who called me back couldn't do anything to make the plan better and just summed it up as "business clients get additional perks". Really? We aren't seeing it. We have been with them since the beginning and have 6-7 phones that rack up a lot of charges --- yet when we travel we get screwed over. Even dad agrees it's time to start looking for a different business provider when we get back. 

I could barely stay awake in the cab to the hotel, and went directly to the room for a nap when we arrived. We are at the Clarion Inn Old Town for the next 3 nights. It's a decent hotel - a little run down, but clean and comfortable rooms. But the location is amazing! Location was where my main focus was in booking our accommodations. All three of us napped, and then met at 6:30 to head out. We wandered along the cobblestone streets and came to a Pizza/Pasta restaurant - Pizza Nuova. The salad and pizza we all had were delicious, so it was an excellent dinner choice. It's taking some time to get used to their money here, right now it involves complicated math of dropping a zero and dividing by something (I think Brian and dad must be making it more complicated then it is!) 

We walked through a cool outdoor market and past two huge malls. We spent the next two hours wandering up and down the streets stopping at places like the Opera House, Powder Tower, and the Old Square. Prague is stunning. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful cities I have been to. I can't wait until tomorrow when we have the chance to see more!