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Trip Report Maitai's Central (Don't Call It Eastern) European Excursion

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Although I had been very excited about our trip that was going to take us to five countries we had never visited (well, had Montenegro had the decency to let us in their damned country, it would have been five), I felt a slight twinge of trepidation before we left. Was the pace going to be too fast? Were we trying to see too many things? Diesel or Super Gas (some events remain in your psyche forever)?

As it turned out, my fears were more than allayed, and the Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia and Slovenia far exceeded our wildest dreams, and when people ask me today what part of the trip was my favorite, I just answer, “All of it.”

As in 2005 and 2001, our friends Kim and Mary (obviously gluttons for punishment) joined Tracy and me on our four-week sojourn. Our travels would take us to Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Olomouc, Krakow, Vienna, Dubrovnik, Trogir, Plitvice National Park, Ljubljana, Bled, Rovinj, Venice and places in between.

Neither the intervention of a stealth Slovenian policeman nor the border guard at the Montenegro border (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Benito Mussolini) could put a damper on this 28-day adventure. Heck, we even lost Kim for three days smack dab in the middle of the trip, but that’s getting too far ahead of myself.

So before I have another Buza Bar flashback, it’s time to go on Maitai’s Central (Don’t Call It Eastern) European Excursion.

DAY ONE - THE HEATHROW NIGHTMARE IS ONLY A DREAM, IS THAT A BOMB UNDER YOUR HOOD AND “THE STAIRS”

A trip that had been one year in the planning was finally underway. My ingrown toenail dilemma that threatened to derail the vacation just a few days before we left seemed to be resolved (at least the toe hadn’t fallen off, and there was no gangrene to speak of). Kim and Mary drove up from San Diego, picked us up at the house, and we were off to LAX.

Kim and Mary had a 4:30 p.m. flight to London on Air New Zealand. We took off a little more than one hour later on American Airlines. Our first goal: attempt to navigate the living Hell we were told was Heathrow Airport and hook up with Kim and Mary for our 3 p.m. flight to Prague on British Airways.

“Be prepared,” we were warned by many, “you will be lucky to make your flight to Prague. Heathrow is a nightmare!” Even with 2 ½ hours in between flights, the words seemed ominous.

I had just read an article that said the number of bags lost each day at Heathrow was staggering. “How many bags do they misplace each day?” Tracy asked.

“I think about a million,” I answered, attempting to lower expectations.

Our flight was my favorite kind…uneventful. Even the two little kids right behind us cooperated by sleeping most of the trip.

The only unsettling event happened a few minutes before landing (well, at least when we were supposed to be landing). “We’ve been told there is a lot of traffic,” the pilot said, “and we will have to circle for about half an hour.” Cue Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis (yes, the good Out-of-Towners movie).

The flight arrived about 12:45, and we scurried off the plane searching for information on which terminal we should go to for the London to Prague leg of our journey. “Terminal 5,” we were told. We cringed.

“Oh no, Terminal 5 is the new terminal having all those problems.” Could we be doomed already?

The answer turned out to be an emphatic, “No.” So much for all the doom and gloom stories of Heathrow that we had heard before we left. They proved to be fiction (at least for us). We walked from the plane to where we would be transported from Terminal 3 to Terminal 5, hopped on the bus and soon we were at Terminal 5.

When we walked into Terminal 5, Tracy said, “What’s all the fuss about? There’s nobody here.” Sure enough, there were only about ten people waiting to go though Customs. One of the information people saw our amazed (and relieved) look and said, “Yes, the nightmare of Terminal 5 is grossly overrated.”

We zipped through Customs and less than an hour from landing, we were inside Terminal 5 looking for Kim, Mary and a drink (not necessarily in that order. Hey, we had four more weeks with them).

Kim and Mary also had an easy time switching terminals at Heathrow, and we all finally got a little sleep on the two-hour flight to Prague.

This was going to be a different type of trip for the four of us when it came to lodging. In order to save a few dollars so we could purchase extra wine, we had reserved some apartments instead of hotels along the way, and Prague was to be our first one. We had booked the Vlasska Apartments, which are owned by the Arcadia Residence.

The apartments had received good reviews on Trip Advisor, and I had liked the location in the Mala Strana area of Prague. Of course, since I had never been to Prague, that observation was a sheer guess.

I had been in contact with Pasquale, who runs the Arcadia Residence, and he said there would be a driver at the airport to pick us up, and he would meet us at the apartments. After getting our luggage (yep, not one lost bag, either), there was a gentleman with a sign with our names on it and a van that would transport us to our appointed destination.

Soon we were on a street adjacent to the Vltava River, and we turned up a street where the driver said our apartments were located. Suddenly, he pulled over to the curb, and two policemen told our driver to open his hood, and they started using mirrors to see if anything was lodged in the undercarriage. “What the heck is this?” we thought.

“They must have known you were coming,” Kim said.

Actually, it turned out our apartment was just up the street from the American, German and Irish embassies, and I was not a Czech government list of undesirables…yet. When we arrived at the apartments, Pasquale was there to greet us and, after showing us our apartments, he offered to take us on a little orientation walking tour.

The Vlasska Apartments are only about a five-minute walk to the Charles Bridge, so the location was perfect. “It is also much more quiet over here at night than in Old Town,” Pasquale said. As it turned out, he was right.

Since we all had a second wind (well, maybe a third or fourth wind by now), we decided to go out and have some traditional Czech cuisine. Pasquale had given us the name of a place that would fit that bill, and when we asked him how to pronounce it, he said, “Just look for the name of a restaurant that you will not be able to pronounce.”

When we saw the name “Baracnicka rychta”, we knew we had found it. The place was full of locals (well it was full of people speaking another language, so we made that leap with confidence).

We downed our first Czech pivo (beer), and our waiter suggested I try some “seasoning additives for your pivo.” Hmm, paprika and beer don’t seem to go together, but when in Prague.

Well, seasoning additives for beer actually consisted of Olomouc cheese, pickled in chopped hot peppers with oil and onions, seasoned with cumin and pepper. Not bad. Not especially good, either.

I believe I won the best meal award for my marinated pork ribs with four spices (cumin, mustard, onions and horse radish). Kim also had pork, Mary had turkey breast, while Tracy tried something called Moravian Sparrow, which I think was a mini roast pork and not something that flies around in our backyard.

It was not quite dark outside when we exited the restaurant, so we decided to hike up to the Prague Castle Complex to scout out the format to acquire tickets the next day. This would be our first encounter of climbing the more than 200 steps to the castle, a route that would be known in a few days as merely (and not kindly might I add) “The Stairs.”

As we started up “The Stairs”, the sound of fireworks started erupting. “What a nice welcome for us,” I said to three people who pretended not to hear any more inane comments from me on this night. At the top, we looked out over Prague. The sky was a glorious, velvet blue. What a night and what a view!

We scoped out St. Vitus Cathedral and the Prague Castle tour propaganda, got the needed info about opening times, took some pictures and headed back down “The Stairs.” Kim and Mary decided that was enough for one day and headed back to the apartment, while Tracy and I walked on the Charles Bridge and took the steps down to Kampa Island.

Although Kampa Island was relatively quiet, the Charles Bridge had it going on at 11:00 on a Saturday night, but the only thing going on for us was an onset of SVFS (Sudden Vacation Fatigue Syndrome), so we headed back for a good night’s sleep.

Tomorrow would be our first full day to explore Prague, but sadly it would be the quickest ever into a trip that Tracy would give me “the look” and call me an “idiot.” Of course, her wrath would be well deserved.

COMING UP: AN ASTOUNDING CATHEDRAL, BREW WITH A VIEW, NO ZLOTY ZONE AND TOM’S PRAGUE DEATH MARCH!

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