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Blissful Airbnbs,Risky Segways,Vegan Tapas: Prague-Hvar-Andalucía-Madrid

Blissful Airbnbs,Risky Segways,Vegan Tapas: Prague-Hvar-Andalucía-Madrid

Old Nov 20th, 2014, 08:35 AM
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Blissful Airbnbs,Risky Segways,Vegan Tapas: Prague-Hvar-Andalucía-Madrid

PLEA FOR LENIENCY:
Although we go to Europe often, this is my first trip report on this board. I usually hang out on the mellower Asia and South America forums and have been somewhat intimidated to post here…Could be because our 22-day, three-part journey, pulled together less than a week before we left, violated many rules of sane travel.

But I received so much help here (thanks, everyone!) that I want to give back, especially because many Fodorites seem to be agonizing about a) whether to visit Hvar in August and b) whether to spend one or two nights in Ronda. I hope this report will shed light on those dilemmas.

ITINERARY (AUG -SEPT 2014):

PART ONE - FAMILY VACAY (with two sons, 20 and 23)
4 nights Prague - Airbnb
3 nights Hvar - Airbnb
1 night Split - Piazza Luxury Suites (day trip to Krka National Park)
1 night Madrid - a truly awful hotel to be avoided at all costs (more details later)

PART TWO – ANDALUCÍA ROAD TRIP (without the boys):
2 nights Sevilla - Hospes las Casas del Rey de Baeza
2 nights Ronda - Hotel Enfrente Arte
2 nights Granada - Hotel Casa Morisca
(day trip to Córdoba)

PART THREE – MADRID (no day trips – couldn’t tear ourselves away)
5 nights Madrid - Airbnb

WHO WE ARE
Harried empty nesters, joined for part of the trip by our two overscheduled 20-something sons - a miracle that we could all get away at once. After 10 days, Son1 headed home to work and Son2 began his junior semester in Madrid. (We thought he’d object to our stalking right after move-in, but he didn’t mind having us there at the beginning of his stay - especially to take all his friends out for his 21st birthday...and to help him get the right SIM card.)

This was our first time Czech Republic and Croatia. We’ve visited Spain before for work and play (I spent a month there twice), but we’d shockingly never been to the south. Mr. C speaks passable Spanish; I’m fluent (lived in Latin America). Rarely can get away for more than two weeks, so this was a landmark excursion for us.

A VEGAN IN HAMLAND
Mr. Crosscheck, a former lover of chorizo, has recently become an unlikely vegan. This made dining choices challenging, but not insurmountable.

KILLER VIEWS
Emerged as a theme of our trip. We stayed in FOUR places that could be contenders for Europe’s best vistas, plus one with the continent's most mediocre view...but in the running for a Best Mattress award. And we had the extreme displeasure of spending the night at a supposed 4-star hotel with the most horrific service in Spain.

NEXT: THREE OBSCURE AIRLINES
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Old Nov 20th, 2014, 10:19 AM
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Glad you decided to post a report. It can get a bit chippy here, but that’s mainly due to a readership that is extremely passionate about travel. Just go for it! Looking forward to hearing about your experience in Andalusía and especially Prague, my next destination. Your “Risky Segways” teaser has also grabbed me.
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Old Nov 20th, 2014, 12:42 PM
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I'm also glad to see some possible positive words coming regarding Airbnb. I get a bit bored with the usual naysayers, most of whom have never used the site and know nothing about it while they refer to those of us who do as cult members, or something akin. One cannot, apparently, simply like a thing. I look forward to it all, spontaneity being a virtue in my book.
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Old Nov 20th, 2014, 02:35 PM
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I've been scouring barcelona apartment sites and Air bnb has the best places I have found. It's a great resource.
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Old Nov 20th, 2014, 05:55 PM
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Looking forward to more of this report. good writing so far, and looks well-organized. more, please
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Old Nov 21st, 2014, 02:05 AM
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Crosscheck,
It's good fortune for me that you are writing a trip report, once again, on a region I will be traveling to within a few months! I loved reading your TR to India just as I was planning my own trip, and I'm now in the midst of planning a May trip to Spain. Your reports are incredibly helpful with wonderful detail and description, and good humor (a necessity for travel!).

And I've booked 2 AirBnB apartments for our upcoming trip and completely agree with macdogmom that they are some of the best places available, generally at a very reasonable price.

Paule

PS - I wouldn't call the Asia forum exactly "mellow", although it may not reach the --ahem-- intensity that sometimes exists on this board!
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Old Nov 21st, 2014, 08:33 AM
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Thanks, everyone, for following along. And again, I appreciate the sage advice of everyone who helped with my last-minute planning.

BelTib, Our skipperless boating was actually riskier than the segway excursion, but that seemed too mundane for a headline.

Mme, About to do a major pitch for Airbnb. I credit them with the success of this trip. Can't understand the controversy, especially because renting apartments is hardly a new thing - perfectly legal in most places and the other rental sites are so 20th century.

macdog, My son (the one studying in Madrid) just stayed at a perfectly-located Airbnb in Barcelona for half the price of a hostel.

taconic, Thanks for the kind words. Wish the rest of my life were well organized.

progol, So happy you're following in our vacation footsteps. Agree that 'mellow' is a bit of a stretch for the Asia board, but it's definitely more zen than here (could be the Malarone??)
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Old Nov 21st, 2014, 08:52 AM
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Crosscheck, I agree entirely with your take on Airbnb. But as you well know, there are those here who would rather know-it-all, even when they don't. And "so 20th century", perfect.

Now...looking forward to the rest of the story.
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Old Nov 21st, 2014, 09:11 AM
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SHAMELESS PLUG FOR AIRBNB
I am now Airbnb’s #1 fan. One of the best travel developments of my lifetime. With a different sort of lodging, this could have been a vanilla vacation. Thanks to Airbnb, we drank homemade grappa with a Croatian family at sunset on a stunning terrace facing the Adriatic. We curled up and watched DVDs with our boys in an enormous three-bedroom loft where Kafka had hung out, for way less than the cost of two hotel rooms. And we became regulars in a cool café on Madrid’s most charming small plaza.

I have considerable vrbo experience renting villas in the tropics for a group of three picky families, and we've also booked European farmhouses and flats through agencies. Airbnb has updated, streamlined and personalized the process, and has added another dimension with its dual rating system. You do have to know how to read between the lines, just as when you search for hotels. I already had an account set up because I had done a dry run in Portland (and I’m proud to report that the owner gave me a stellar review).

It turned out that only one of our places -- the one in Hvar -- was owner run. The other two were cross-listed on apartment sites and we ended up saving 25% by renting the one in Madrid through an agency (after I found it on Airbnb). But even though we didn’t technically use Airbnb for all three rentals, I hope they see this report and reach out to me to head up their PR department.

WEATHER
Prague: 60s/70sF - one drizzly day
Croatia: Perfection - 70s/80s, glorious sun
Spain: Days - 90s, hot, but not oppressive. Nights - warm, wonderful - 70s/80s.
Siesta was invented for a reason. This was an ideal time to go if you adhered to it.

PACKING
Mr. C is usually a carry on fanatic (see my previous trip reports), but he gave me a waiver this time because Son2 needed to check his duffle with his stuff for 4 months. This meant a) I was able to bring some little boots for Prague and b) it only took me 15 minutes to pack because I didn't have to edit. Got to see how the other half live.

ORIGINAL PLAN
In late July, all family members declared their availability and we decided on 4 nights Prague/4 nights Istanbul. Snagged 4 LAX-LHR biz tickets using way too many AA Anytime Miles and 4 BA award tickets from Prague to Istanbul. Son2 planned to head to Madrid on his own.

THE UNBEARABLE TOURISTYNESS OF PRAGUE
Everyone we knew had great things to say about Istanbul. But THREE friends with taste we trust (from different crowds) confessed they were not impressed by Prague. All compared it to Disneyland and said they had found it beautiful but insanely crowded and tacky, with a lack of museums and interesting high culture. However, our Czech Mary Poppins, who had cared for the boys from ’97-‘02 had been begging us to visit for many years. And our sons, whose backpacker friends raved about the cheapest, best beer in the world, were down to czech it out.

ALT PLAN
When turmoil struck in the Middle East, we decided to substitute Croatia for Istanbul (w/full BA refund). This was a relief to me because I secretly craved some downtime at the beach, and there is nothing like a pebbly Mediterranean vibe to bid farewell to summer (despite our boating misadventures). Then found out we could take extra time off in September and decided to add on 12 days in Spain. Booked flights on two airlines we had never heard of, SMARTWINGS from Prague to Split (38E a person!) and AIR NOSTRUM from Split to Madrid (an Iberia code-share/BA award). Found a super saver award flight home for Son1 on United, but we had depleted most of our miles, had no luck finding anything for us and decided to keep checking. (In addition to his carry on policy, Mr. C also has a strict rule about only using ff tickets for holidays.)

So we headed off to Europe in high season with no return flight, secretly hoping we'd get stuck there and get to do OUR semester abroad.

NEXT: SEGWAY TO HEAVEN
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Old Nov 22nd, 2014, 03:00 PM
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Wow. You are brave! can't wait to hear more.
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Old Nov 23rd, 2014, 11:50 AM
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Not sure how many people are reading, so I will attempt to make this briefer than my other reports. Will go into excruciating detail about the first night and day, then cut to the chase.

AA FILM FEST
Excellent AA flight from LAX-LHR. Worth hundreds of thousands of miles to entice our kids to continue to travel with us. Lie-flat experience was awesome, of course, but what stood out was AA's much-improved vast entertainment selection w/ Bose headphones. Freakily, three out of four of us chose to watch Wes Anderson films.

BA LHR-PRG
Don’t remember anything about changing planes at Heathrow, nor anything about this short flight. Thanks, Xanax.

OUR FABULOUS ATTIC LOFT – Lost of reviews on TA, so I’ll post that link. But I still recommend hassle-free booking on airbnb: http://www.tripadvisor.com/VacationR...a.html#reviews

Rached, our Airbnb contact, arranged for a driver to meet us in a roomy X5. Passed a scenic city light overlook featuring Prague in all its fairy tale grandeur. Headed to Hastalska, an authentically old, quiet cobblestone street in the Josefov area, where a rep let us into our three-bedroom loft. Perfect location – 2 minute walk to the river, 5 minutes to Old Town Square, but sheltered from the madness. Just down the block from cool shops and restaurants…and from our extraordinary breakfast place, Bakeshop (still dreaming of the chocolate croissants, and I’m not a pastry person).

Nightly cost of loft, which is 2500 square feet and sleeps 7, was under $250. (It’s more now; we must have found a last-minute special). Superb wifi and multi-media set up. Great light despite small windows - full-on castle and rooftop views were a big hit on instagram. Beams everywhere (a ubiquitous Czech thing). Well-equipped kitchen with Nespresso and a box of teas.

A plaque downstairs proclaimed that Max Brod, a writer who was Kafka’s best friend, had lived there (found this out when our Czech friends visited – they were quite impressed with our place, said it was iconic Prague and have since recommended it to others).

We (I) had agonized about location – Our naysayer friends said Old Town was convenient but shockingly packed (true, this), so we lucked out by being close but not in the throes. We had originally thought about staying in New Town near the Dancing House - would have been a mistake. Bottom line: Don't hesitate to stay where we did. If apartments are not your thing, there are two appealing boutique hotels on the same street - the Agnes and the Maximilian.

LATE DINING: A TREASURE HUNT
We were so pleased with our digs that it was after 10:30pm by the time we got it together to go out for dinner. Rached had recommended Kolkova for authentic Czech food. Looked as if it would fit the bill, but it was closed. The rep had said to try Lokal – also stopped in there, an enormous modern beer hall (yes, full of lokals) but they only had sausages at that hour, far from vegan friendly. Ended up at Kozicka, a buzzy underground club with a dining area in a small cavern. Also many locals. Ordered a range of Czech dishes, far from foodie, but a decent atmospheric choice for our opening night. If we hadn’t been recovering from the flight, the boys surely would have stayed. Then strolled through the dreamily-lit, picturesque streets to Old Town, which, even at 1am, was a zoo.

PRIMO ACTIVITY, MINOR MISHAP: PRAGUE SEGWAY TOUR - http://www.prague-segway-tours.com/en/
Booked this for Day1 at 1pm. (Saw much of the city on the way there because took the wrong bridge, then had lunch at a yummy sandwich place a block away.) Segways sound cheesy, but this was a super-fun, eco-friendly way to get oriented, see ALL the landmarks, get a comprehensive history and architecture lesson, marvel at the panoramic vistas and see a bit of nature. Worth it for the photo ops alone. We did the group tour, which was just the four of us plus a young Aussie couple, who were also staying at an airbnb.

Had considered bicycle tours, but, trust me, Prague is way too hilly unless you’ve been seriously training all year. Son2 became obsessed with segways and wanted to rent them again the next day.

SAFETY CONCERNS/KLUTZY EPISODE
- Aussie wore flip flops. Not a good idea. Enough said.
- About 10 meters from the end of our tour, Mr. C, the consummate athlete, bumped into a curb and took a tumble. (He was fine, just embarrassed, especially after he had just remarked that he wanted to buy a Segway to use at home - The tour guide said his fall was classic, that people become over confident because they're so easy and intuitive, especially moments before the end of the tour.) I was feeling very smug about my balance abilities and cautiousness…at least until our next Segway tour in Madrid…

SPLURGE-WORTHY
Dinner at Hergetova Cihelna, Czech/Continental, Stunning setting overlooking the Charles Bridge. Witnessed the most insane tourist foot traffic any of us have ever seen on the way there (worse than Florence, worse than Paris, worse than Venice, etc. etc.) But once inside it was all worth it because this is where we had our emotional reunion with our former nanny and her boyfriend. Our boys were 9 and 11 when we last were together. Now they were the age she had been when she cared for them. A truly special occasion dinner.


NEXT: CONCISE WRAP UP – OUT-OF-TOWN CASTLE, IN-TOWN ALCHEMY
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Old Nov 23rd, 2014, 12:16 PM
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Enjoying your report, crosscheck. We were in Prague in the early 90s when joyful street musicians and pork and bread dumplings ruled the land.
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Old Nov 23rd, 2014, 12:26 PM
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good to know
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Old Nov 23rd, 2014, 03:55 PM
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Very much enjoying this. You hooked me in your first post with that "killer views" paragraph. And I'm eager to read about your experiences in Andalucia.

Paule
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Old Nov 23rd, 2014, 06:22 PM
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Hi Crosscheck

Just stumbled across your TR & am thoroughly enjoying your account - thanks for making the effort. Looking forward to the next chapters.
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Old Nov 24th, 2014, 03:59 AM
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Another Airbnb fan following and and enjoying...
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Old Nov 26th, 2014, 04:16 AM
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Airbnb fan here too, waiting for the next part of your report!
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Old Nov 26th, 2014, 05:48 AM
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loving your report - and what a find with that apartment (I bookmarked it!).

patiently waiting...
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Old Nov 26th, 2014, 11:28 AM
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Marija, Happy to find my 'Asian' buddy here. We didn't experience the simplicity you found in Prague, but did experience the dumplings (there were even some for the vegan in our midst).

Everyone else, So glad you're following along. If you're planning trips, I do recommend all of our destinations - Just not sure about August, especially for Prague. And Hvar is so jet-setty that it's complicated. More about that later.

OUR DAY TRIP - Karlstejn Castle - NO TRANSLATING
This excursion was planned by our ex-nanny and her BF. It was fantastic getting out of town, and also a welcome relief to have someone else plan and arrange. Not sure how easy it would be get there on your own, but it gave us enough of a glimpse of the countryside that we now want to return and travel the Czech back roads.

Karlstejn is a well-preserved, photogenic gothic castle surrounded by fantastic scenery, with dramatic lighting. There are various tours - our Czech hosts bought the tickets in advance, so we didn't have to decide which English-language one to choose, but I think we were on the shorter one. And yes, there really was a sign that said 'No Translating.' The tour in Czech is cheaper and the authorities don't want it spoiled with constant English commentary.

The longish uphill walk to the castle is an excellent workout, perfect if you're feeling guilty about a segway vs. bicycle decision. Castle admission includes a kitschy wax museum (actually worth seeing, outlines Czech history). Not many international tourists but lots of tacky shops and a few cool flea market-y stands. All in all, not the most fabulous castle in Europe, but a great day with great company, good exercise, good food and lots of insight into the culture.

THE STANDARD SIGHTS
- Jewish Museum - Self-guided walking audio tour. Not just a museum, an entire neighborhood of synagogues, exhibits and the iconic cemetery, an image that will stay with you forever. Absolute must. Allow more time than you think you'll need.
- John Lennon Wall – also a must, but a quick stop is enough, then walk over the Charles Bridge and touch the good luck statue.
- Old Town Tower - follow the crowds to see the cuckoo on the hour, just before sunset (anticlimactic) then ascend tower for photo op/view of city

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
- Mindmaze Alchemist Chamber - The whole family is locked in a wizard's chamber for an hour and has to collaborate to get out. Good way to analyze family dynamics. Feels as if you’re on the Amazing Race. Reservation essential.

TAXI SCAM
- We gave our driver a large bill and ended up with bogus Hungarian bills as change. Probably a $50 rip off and sadly, a common occurrence: The Mindmaze staff was not at all surprised when we tried to use Hungarian money. Uber has now come to Prague and I would use them in an instant next time.

FOOD RECS:
Our M.O. was to try to sample Czech cuisine for lunch (yes, it's heavy) and go with something international or lighter for dinner. Mr. C usually ended up with a giant salad or a plate of roasted veggies and potatoes, which we all devoured.

- Awesome brunch place/cafe/wine bar: Cukrkávalimonáda (no I didn't remember the name, but just re-located it on Google maps because it was near the segway place
- Chic soup, salad, sandwich spot next to the Jewish quarter: Mistral Cafe
- Neighborhood Italian: Aldente - red checkered tablecloths, incredible pasta and fish, feels like Italy
- Asian/French fusion: Nostress – Perfect name. Interesting food combos. Chillest, nicest people in Prague.

MARIONETTES/PUPPETS:
We didn't buy any, but you MUST see the puppet shops in Old Town, even if you think you don't like puppets.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS:
We had a wonderful time, but can also understand why some travelers are not fans. Yes, it's a fairy tale, but fairy tales are somewhat out of fashion. So if you're craving cutting edge design, Berlin is probably a better choice.

On the surface, this is a city that might have lost its soul to tourism. We tried to peek into St. Vigus cathedral and it was more jammed than Times Square on NYE. And there was a 45-minute line for the Kafka Museum, the one museum I wanted to see. But living in our own giant airbnb counteracted the insanity. And so did the segways, because although these scream 'tourist,' they gave us the chance to zip into the outer reaches.

I'm sure May or October would have been preferable crowdwise, but the weather in August WAS a fairy tale - highs in 70s, lows in the 60s.

And..If you're under 30, go anytime: Our sons had none of these concerns and would have been happy to stay for weeks.

NEXT: WE SPLIT FOR SPLIT
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Old Nov 26th, 2014, 11:50 AM
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I guess I'm glad we went to Prague over 10 years ago. But I would love to have stayed in your huge B and B!
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