Looking back six months after our arrival in Munich, I can say this was another very successful road trip. We accomplished everything we set out to do and had amazing family experiences we will all remember forever. Except for the kids of course, which is the main reason I write the blog. I would love to be able to look back at my own travels with my parents from when I was a kid but unfortunately most of those memories are gone forever.
There were very few disappointments among the cities we visited. I would say most met or exceeded my expectations, especially Kraków and Prague. The only slight letdowns were Vienna and Salzburg, but I wouldn't sacrifice any of the time we spent in those places. What was missing for us in Vienna? I'd say that it's a beautiful city with amazing architecture, but it feels a little sterile and almost boring compared to the relative chaos and gnarliness of the major Eastern European cities and Munich. Perhaps if I went again, I'd have a completely different experience. It's hard to say what makes us less compatible with certain cities that others find amazing. We don't care for Paris, Chicago, or Seattle either. Go figure.
I won't bother with a ten best meals list. The only standout gourmet meal was at Cafe Sochy in Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia, which came as a complete surprise. Lokal in Prague was amazing for local specialties and atmosphere. Steckerlfisch and other Bavarian beer garden classics at the Hirschgarten in Munich were unforgettable. We had very good dinners in Oberammergau and Innsbruck. However, the food overall was undistinguished. It usually wasn't bad but it wasn't particularly creative or delicious. If we had meals like that in a restaurant in Miami, we wouldn't go back. We won't be remembering this trip for the food, but rather for the long walks through beautiful and historic cities and our repeated encounters with the Danube, possibly the greatest river in the world.
10. Trhovisko Miletičova market, Bratislava, Slovakia 9. Linderhof Palace, Bavaria 8. Munich beer gardens 7. Český Krumlov, Czechia 6. Highline 179, Austria 5. Neighborhoods and markets of Kraków, Poland 4. Exploring the Wachau Valley, Austria 3. Walking around Budapest 2. Jan's farm, Slovakia 1. Walking around Prague. The most beautiful old town of the trip, hands down, and possibly the world. The Vltava river, castles and forts and bridges, and David Černý sculptures. We were blown away.
So how are we going to top this? Maybe we can't, but trying is half the fun. Over the summer we'll be doing our third round-the-world trip. Plans are still fluid, but the current projected stops are Taiwan, Mudanjiang, and Copenhagen. We've already bought the flights for Cleo and Ian's spring break from school this April, which we'll spend in Sicily and Malta. Aside from the fourteen hour flights, that one should be amazing. I still need to blog our recent trip to Nicaragua over New Year's. I expect I'll be getting started on that over the weekend if I get any time away from the kids.
When planning our trip I'd debated whether to stop for a night in Passau or Regensburg on the way back to Munich from Prague. At some point I realized I had an extra day in the itinerary due to having forgotten that there were 31 days in July, so we were able to visit both. I probably would have chosen Regensburg, the larger and more well-known of the two, but Passau proved to be a wonderful and unique city that would have been a shame to miss. That extra day proved to be very fortunate.
As with Český Krumlov, the unique character of Passau is made possible by the interaction of land and water. The Danube and Inn rivers converge obliquely to form a narrow tongue of land which contains the Old Town. At the northern bank of the river opposite the convergence point, the smaller Ilz river empties into the Danube as well. Overlooking this confluence is the Veste Oberhaus, a medieval hilltop fortress on the northern bank.
Our Airbnb was on Lederergasse, a narrow cobblestone street on the southern bank of the Inn. The winding street was lined with immaculate and colorful houses with stucco facades.
As usual, there wasn't much time to do more than check in and get dinner. We got a very good meal downtown with some delicious desserts to reward the kids for not being too horrible on the drive from Czechia.
We only had half a day to explore Passau, so we got an early start Friday morning. The main landmark of the Old Town is St. Stephan's Cathedral, which looked close as we crossed the Inn over the Mariahilfstrasse bridge but actually could only be reached via a long circuitous uphill route.
We walked eastward among beautiful Baroque fountains and townhouses to the tip of the Old Town, which finally ended in an attractive park mostly surrounded by water. Across the Danube, the Veste Oberhaus loomed above us.
We took the easy way out and drove the SUV up to the Veste Oberhaus. We climbed the observation tower for panoramic views of the idyllic countryside and the Danube. On ground level we got ice cream for the kids at the cafe, which also had a sandbox with a view. Here and here are more blogs with pictures and stories about Passau.
We encountered the Danube once again in Regensburg, our last city of the trip. The Old Town of Regensburg wasn't as storybook perfect as Passau had been, but there was still a lot to see. We found an Italian food festival in the main square before having dinner in the shadow of Regensburg's enormous Gothic cathedral.
On Saturday morning we drove to the southern bank of the Danube in the Old Town to hunt for the weekly market, the Donaumarkt, but were unable to find either the market or anyone who seemed to know what we were talking about. Perhaps it doesn't take place every Saturday, or perhaps we were in the wrong place. Instead we settled for some views from the Stone Bridge and a sausage breakfast before leaving town.
Our last stop before returning to Munich was an unusual building called Walhalla on the bank of the Danube, about 15 minutes downstream from Regensburg. The monument was constructed in the 19th century to honor German cultural heroes throughout the centuries. Some might regard it as an architectural monstrosity, but I found it very serene and we were glad to have some final views over the amazing Danube.
We had booked a hotel near the airport for our early morning flight back to Miami, so we decided to spend our last few hours in Munich. Naturally we made a beeline for the Hirschgarten where we braved a steady drizzle to gorge on currywurst and Steckerlfisch one last time. The rain ruled out the playground so we sorrowfully got back in the SUV and prepared to endure another months-long exile from our favorite continent.
The original plan was to stop in Telč on the way from Olomouc to Prague, but we ran out of time. Fortunately it wasn't a major detour from our route to Český Krumlov, so we didn't have to miss it. The star attraction of the small village is the town square, which is surrounded by houses many of whose facades are decorated in the Renaissance style of sgraffito. Other houses display Gothic or Baroque facades. The overall effect is very striking and unique.
Not wanting to limit ourselves to the main attraction, we took a short walk outside the main tourist area. The old town is surrounded by ponds on three sides, the remnants of the ancient moat. Aside from that, there wasn't much to the town. The other good thing about our detour to Telč was that it took us through a beautiful area of forest and lakes where wealthy Czechs seemed to have their summer homes.
The only good thing about leaving Prague was that we still had Český Krumlov ahead of us. The old town packed into a couple of polypoid twists of the serpentine Vltava River is legendary for its medieval beauty. The city has one of the more interesting layouts I've ever seen, a linear arrangement of tiny peninsulas connected by bridges.
After settling into our Airbnb in neighboring Kájov, we drove to the town and found our way to the P3 lot. We walked through Městský Park, an attractive green space, and crossed the bridge to the Old Town. The layout of the Old Town roughly approximated three concentric rings with the narrow streets ascending to the main square Náměstí Svornosti in the center. The town continues to rise into the isthmus of the peninsula with the Baroque St Vitus Church occupying the highest point. We struck out hunting for a table at one of the highly rated restaurants in the Old Town and eventually had to choose the lesser of evils in the main square. We managed a decent dinner at our subterranean choice, even though it seemed to have all the markings of a tourist trap.
Thursday morning we made sure we were at Krčma Markéta as soon as it opened for lunch. This restaurant at the edge of the Castle Garden was generally acknowledged to be the best in Český Krumlov. It was interesting to see the meat being grilled on an open flame but aside from that we couldn't figure out what made the place distinctive.
The Castle Garden was colorful and well-maintained, with a large lily pond at the western end. We walked around for a while but couldn't find the castle that went with the garden. The only way out by foot seemed to drop down into the Old Town and I didn't want to have to push the strollers back up a steep hill. Instead we retrieved the SUV and returned to our old friend the P3 outdoor lot.
Walking through Městský Park, we could see rows of beautiful houses on the opposite side of the Vltava as well as kayakers paddling in the shadow of St Vitus Church.
We crossed the river into the Old Town and soon found ourselves in the main square once again. In the light of day the appealing colors and outlines of the buildings lining the square were much more apparent.
It wasn't long before we came to another bridge, this time crossing from the north side of the Old Town to the castle area. Here we could finally see the massive Český Krumlov Castle looming above us. As we entered the castle we passed the brightly-colored six-story tower, constructed in a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles. We could see people moving around in the observation deck of the tower but decided that wasn't for us.
We weren't sorry to have passed by the tower, as the views of the Old Town from the castle ramparts were spectacular. There was a bit of a competition for the best vantage point, with views of both the castle tower and St. Vitus Church, but we were able to negotiate a few seconds for an unobstructed photo.
We didn't tour the inside of the castle but we did get to see this magnificent trompe de l'oeil decoration of one of the inner courtyards.
Czechia was the last new country of our trip, but we still had a couple more days in Germany and we intended to make the most of them. It was time to get back on the road to Bavaria.
Tuesday morning we started the day at Vyšehrad, an old fort on the banks of the Vltava south of the New Town. There was a great playground with a mini zipline and 360° views of Prague, as far as Prague Castle.
Next was another short road trip, this time eastward to the historical town of Kutná Hora. The town is best known for the majestic Church of St. Barbara and the creepy Sedlec Ossuary. The church contains a mixture of Gothic and Baroque elements and wasn't completed for more than 500 years after construction originally began. The three sloping pyramidal roofs fenced in by multiple spires give the church a unique and ominous appearance. From the plaza in front of the church we could see the rest of the town and the surrounding valley for miles.
The kids fell asleep once we left the church so Mei Ling went into the Sedlec Ossuary on her own. I'm not a big fan of internal decor created out of human bones anyway. More extensive background and photos of the ossuary can be found here.
It was Ian's third birthday, so our top priority on our return to Prague was to find a memorable place to celebrate. I decided Malá Strana was likely our best bet given the high concentration of tourist attractions and restaurants. On our arrival in the neighborhood, my decision was rewarded with that rarest of Prague black swans, a green parking spot. In Prague the parking is divided into blue, orange, and green zones. Most of the parking is blue, which means it is for residents and can get you booted without a permit. The general feeling seems to be "Don't risk it". Orange is two-hour metered parking from 8 am to 6 pm. There was a fair amount of this in the New Town where we lived which meant we didn't have to get to our car until 10 am as long as I fed the meter the previous evening. I'd never even seen a green spot until this moment, let alone a free one. Green meant a full six hours without having to return to the meter. It was already after five so an orange would have sufficed just as well, but I considered the unexpected appearance of a green spot to be a good omen.
We let the kids shake off a little energy clambering up and down the sloping sides of the World War II monument while we enjoyed the sight of a dignified stand of weeping willows in front of a line of resplendent townhouses. South of the Mánes Bridge, we were able to walk right to the edge of the Vltava where ducks and swans awaited handouts from tourists. Just a little further upstream was the Charles Bridge.
In front of the Kafka Museum a little further south we encountered the most shocking David Černý sculpture of all, two metal figures with swiveling hips and waggling penises standing in and urinating into a shallow pool in the shape of the Czech Republic. Many people seem to think the sculpture's name is "Piss", but it's actually "Proudy". Apparently if a message is texted to a number written on a sculpture, the men will write the message with their streams. It's easy to focus on the sheer audacity and offensiveness of the sculpture, but the figures are quite evocative completely independent of their activity. I didn't even notice until I looked at my photos afterward how the corrugation in the metal surfaces blurs the men's features and outlines creating a sense that they are either materializing from or vaporizing into the ether. Regardless of one's interpretation of Černý's meaning, there's a lot more going on here than shock value. Černý himself has been resistant to explaining or justifying his work, having previously stated “I just enjoy pissing people off." I like that. His sculptures challenge pedestrians to move beyond their gut reactions and examine their own assumptions about culture and politics. More about David Černý can be found here and here. You would never see a sculpture like this on the streets of any American city, and probably not in western Europe either. The Černý sculptures are a great example of what makes Prague unique.
With our last Prague landmark out of the way, we devoted our full attention to finding a restaurant for Ian's birthday. I found a hotel restaurant that was highly rated for food a short distance away and when we arrived it was clearly a great choice. We were seated outside with a pleasant view of the square and I arranged for Ian to get a cake and candle with Happy Birthday sung to him in Czech. Dinner was good and the birthday surprise went off well, except that they didn't give me a heads up before coming out so by the time I got the video started the Czech birthday song was halfway over.
One unavoidable consequence of our Saturday evening arrival in Prague was that we missed the Naplavka market on the bank of the Vltava on Saturday morning, which is apparently the best farmer's market in Prague. Our consolation prize was the Jirak farmer's market in the upscale Vinohrady district, which runs from Wednesday through Saturday. After having lunch at the market and buying some fruit for the day's drive, we took a short walk in the area to admire the beautiful Baroque architecture. I realized that despite the difficulty of meeting my high expectations, Prague had actually exceeded them. I had been amazed by the majesty of the Old Town and the Vltava, the beauty of the residential neighborhoods, and the great spirit of the residents. I concluded that Prague was now my second favorite city in Europe, ahead of Barcelona. I'm sure nothing will ever displace London from the top of that list. It was time to bid farewell to Prague but we were excited about our next destination, Český Krumlov. Here's some more about Prague farmers markets and the Vinohrady area.
Somehow in 47 years of extensive travel first with my parents, and then on my own, I had missed out on Prague. For some time it had been the number one city on my list of the unseen, so I had a hard time controlling my expectations. I would have been disappointed if it was anything less than the top experience of the trip. I had scheduled four nights in the city, a duration only equaled by Vienna on this journey. Thanks to our stop in Brno, we arrived in Prague after dark on Saturday and had to scramble to get dinner once we'd gone through the rigamarole of getting the kids and bags upstairs.
Sunday morning we set off on foot to explore the city. We were staying in the New Town but it was only a fifteen minute walk north to the famous Old Town Square. Even though the square was full of tourists, the buildings and views were breathtakingly beautiful. Most impressive was the 14th century Týn Church, which looked like a suitable home for the Wicked Witch of the West.
We explored a few of the Old Town's narrow alleys around the square but we were getting hungry and I had my heart set on lunch at Lokál Dlouhááá, a nearby pub that served Pilsner Urquell straight from the tanks as well as classic Czech dishes. The food turned out to be excellent and the portions huge, so that my stomach felt like it was halfway up my chest by the time we walked out.
South of Lokal we found more beautiful buildings to admire including the Powder Tower, one of the original gates to the city. Cleo and I climbed to the observation deck and were rewarded with great views of Old Town rooftops and the Týn Church. Afterwards we strolled the main pedestrian street in Prague, Wenceslas Square, which is more of a wide boulevard than a square.
One interesting thing we encountered on our walk was an enormous layered sculpture of a head with a reflecting surface and three levels that rotated independently in different directions. Later I learned that this was a new installation by Czech modern sculptor David Černý and that the head was a bust of Franz Kafka. I actually had a few of his sculptures on my list of things to see in Prague but I wasn't aware of this one.
At this point we were a little overdosed on sightseeing and very close to where our car was parked, so we decided this would be a good time to head to the Vietnamese community of Sapa. Prague apparently developed a sizable Vietnamese population during the Communist area, and their numbers have increased substantially over the last two decades. At first, I thought Sapa represented an ethnic Vietnamese neighborhood within the city of Prague but once we got on the road I realized that it was an entirely separate locale. It took more than half an hour to get there from central Prague, most of it highway driving. Despite being a rather unattractive place that resembled a chaotic, low end strip mall, Sapa had very authentic Vietnamese grocery stores and delicious Vietnamese food. I take this last on faith from Mei Ling because I was still too bloated from my pork knuckle lunch to try her pho. I also got an overdue and inexpensive haircut. .
For more on Sapa check out the blogs here and here.
On our return to Prague I drove to the Zivkov TV tower to see David Černý's crawling babies. It's a testament to the spirit of Prague that Černý was actually requested by City Hall to perform an installation on the tower, although he had to obtain his own permits. The babies look tiny against the 709 foot tower but are actually about ten feet long. Most people who don't know about the sculptures don't even notice them when they look at the tower.
From the TV tower we drove to Malá Strana, the section of old Prague across the Vltava River from the Old Town. This seemed to be the closest location to see Prague Castle, the top attraction of the city. However, we had to carry the strollers up an enormous series of staircases to get to the castle gates. The views over Prague were spectacular. We decided against buying tickets to the castle, which would have been a major time sink, and walked for a while around the castle district of Hradčany. We realized ruefully we could have easily parked in that area and saved ourselves all the work we had done climbing up from Malá Strana.
Back down in Malá Strana, we took the obligatory walk over the Charles Bridge with its carnival of tourists, performers, and beggars. The famous baroque statues on the bridge are actually replicas, with the originals having been placed in the National Museum to protect them from tourists attempting to clamber on them.
We had dinner at the beer garden in Riegrovy Sady, a large park just west of the TV tower. The crowd seemed to be an even mix of locals and expats enjoying a cheesy American movie.
Monday morning we drove to the north side of the Vltava to check out the Holešovice daily market, the only real permanent outdoor market in Prague (the Havel Market in old town is more of a collection of souvenir stands and overpriced fruit for tourists). We're always happy to be in any kind of community market or farmers market, but Holešovice was a weak competitor to the main markets of Bratislava, Budapest, or Kraków. Prague is more like an American city where people prefer supermarkets. There was a short row of ethnic restaurants including a Vietnamese place, so I got my pho in the end.
After lunch we drove to Karlštejn Castle. This 14th century Gothic repository of the royal treasures is one of the best-known castles in Czechia. Despite being only a short distance from Prague, the small roads around Karlštejn were so bereft of vehicles that I began to wonder if I was in the right area at all. Then we suddenly came upon an enormous parking lot full of cars and it was clear we'd arrived at our destination.
My research indicated that we should get transportation from the parking lot to the castle, but the taxis were asking exorbitant prices and the carriage driver wouldn't take us without more passengers. We waited around a while, but everyone seemed to be walking so we decided to follow suit. At first the walk was level and relaxed, and the castle soon became visible on a hilltop overlooking the small village. However, a steep incline soon appeared and eventually the walk became an exhausting, sweaty slog pushing the two strollers with Spenser on my back. Once we finally made it to the top of the hill, we saw that tours of the castle weren't going to be feasible since they were lengthy and required a lot of climbing. Instead we took turns taking the older kids around the parts of the ramparts that were open without a guide. From the gaps in the walls we had pleasant views of the surrounding forest.
It was still relatively early so we decided to keep heading southeast to the town of Pilsen for dinner rather than returning to Prague. Once we arrived we found a festival in progress in the main square. There was a music pavilion, a tent where performers taught circus tricks, plenty of food, and of course lots of Pilsner beer. We never did find out what the festival was celebrating, but we had a great time celebrating it with a very local crowd under the watchful presence of the enormous cathedral of St. Bartholomew. The colorful Baroque townhouses that lined the square reminded us that the classical was never far from the modern in central Europe. After the festival, the kids played in one of the gilded Ondřej Císler fountains in the square.
Here's more about Republic Square and Pilsen. Thanks to the festival, we didn't have to worry about finding a restaurant for dinner and drove directly back to Prague and our comfortable beds.