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Trip Report - Prague, Budapest, Bruges and Amsterdam - June 2006

Trip Report - Prague, Budapest, Bruges and Amsterdam - June 2006

Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:34 AM
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Trip Report - Prague, Budapest, Bruges and Amsterdam - June 2006

I’d like to thank those who answered not only my questions but questions asked by others that were relevant to our trip.

Preamble - Planning
I had enough AA air miles for a trip to Europe. Since I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, I thought that would be the focus of this trip. Soon after, Budapest was added.

As we were permitted a stop over on return, I decided that touring the towns in Tuscany and Umbria for a week (we’ve visited Venice, Florence, Rome and Sorrento several times) would be a good change of pace. After attempting unsuccessfully to book the appropriate connections, I gave up and selected a return through Brussels. This would permit stops in Bruges and Amsterdam (visited about 20 years ago).

The trip then took shapes as follows for the first half of June (2006):
Fly from Miami to Prague (most of 5 days) with changes in New York and Brussels
Train to Budapest (3 days)
Fly to Brussels and immediately train to Bruges (2 days)
Train to Amsterdam (3 days)
Train to Brussels (1 day) and fly back to Miami through New York.

Other than the outgoing and final returning flights, all city changes were planned for late in the day.

The train from Prague to Budapest was originally going to be an overnight sleeper. However, I changed my mind when I found out that we would be awakened twice during the night upon crossing borders. It’s tough enough to get a reasonable night’s sleep when you aren’t interrupted. The 6-7 hour trip went surprisingly quickly. The hotel arranged for a taxi driver (fixed price) with a name sign to be waiting for us. So arriving at 11:30PM wasn’t a problem.

There was one weak spot in the plan that could have been a problem. We flew from Budapest to Brussels and trained directly to bruges. Has the plane been an hour or so late, it’s possible we could have missed the last train to Bruges and had a problem.

I can’t understand how we did it so quickly and smoothly. The plane arrived at 9:45PM. We got our luggage and cleared customs. The customs agent told me the train station is one level down (-1) and to followed the signs. We passed a ticket machine and I decided not to stop and figure it out. The ticket counters were closed at that time of the evening but I had no intention of stopping anyway. We took an escalator down one level and there was a train sitting on the track. As luck would have it there was a conductor standing right beside the train. He told me the train goes to Brussels. We ended up on the 10:04 train having landed at 9:45PM. Amazing!!! On the train the conductor sold me not only tickets to Brussels but directly to Bruges.

As it turned out, Prague, Budapest, Bruges and Amsterdam were excellent choices. If I were to plan this trip again the only thing I might do is remove one day from Prague. And that’s only because we were able to see all on our list a little more efficiently than I originally thought.

Scams
While we never encountered the “I’ve converted your purchase to American dollars for your convenience” scam, I believe were victimized by a variation of it.

The hotels in Prague and Budapest quoted their rates in Euros but charged us in the local currency. Of course, they used their exchange rate which always seemed to cost more than my very quickly calculated mental estimate.

On our last night in Brussels, we met up with some friends and decided to have dinner at one of the tourist restaurants across from Grand Place and right next to Galleries Saint Hubert.

While the fixed price menu was prominently displayed outside the restaurant, we had to ask for it several times once we were seated inside the restaurant. They would have much preferred if we used their choice of menu given to us.

Pickpockets
While we never saw or heard of any problems, I implemented a defensive strategy for our previous trip to Spain and continued it on this trip. On previous trips I did nothing and depended on luck.

They are professional crooks. They do it for a living. I’m a tourist with my mind on the sights. Who has the advantage? I decided that I would make the experience very unrewarding for them.

I hung two very small, flat card holders from my belt on each side of my body. They neatly slipped down the inside of my pants. There’s no way anybody could get to them without….. Inside one I kept our passports and some future cash. Inside the other I kept my credit card, drivers license (identification) and the equivalent of about $50. In my pocket I kept the equivalent of about $20, my street map and metro card. Nothing else.

I did not hesitate to pull out the credit card holder in stores, use it and then return it to its storage location.

Not much of value available to them.

Language
Those of us whose language of conversation is English are extremely fortunate. English is the universal language. When we travel I usually learn the basic “hello”, “good-bye”, “thank you”, “your welcome”, etc. However, there’s no way I was going to remember these in Czech or Hungarian. No problem. Everybody spoke English.

Weather
I checked the 10 day forecast each day for the week prior to departure. It was not very promising. Cold, cloudy, showers and rain. Well, we’ve been very lucky in the past and it was bound to happen on one trip.

As it turned out we arrived in Prague to cloudy cool weather. It didn’t rain but got a bit uncomfortable in the evening (we’ve lived in the Miami area for the past 13 years). By the second day the sun began to come out and the temperature got warm enough to take off my sweatshirt. Evenings were still a bit cold and breezy but much better than the rain that was in the forecast.

From Budapest onward we had clear skies and temperatures ranging from the high 70’s to mid 80’s. Weather makes all the difference since we don’t spend all day in museums.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:35 AM
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Prague
Upon arrival we went to the Cedaz booth and took the shuttle directly to our hotel. We could have saved some money by taking the shuttle to Republic Square and walk from there, but decided that wasn’t the time to save money.

We stayed at the Hotel Maximilian on Hastalska. It’s a five minute walk to the Old Town Square, about the same time to the Jewish area and a few more minutes to the Charles Bridge. Good location. This hotel may not be to everybody’s taste. It has an ultra modern design and a fresh, new appearance. Not the quaint look many desire. The rooms were large, modern and comfortable. An excellent buffet breakfast was included and there was a computer room with two computers available for guests to use. For us this was a very good choice.

While we may or may not have gotten our money’s worth (by that I mean if we added up the price of individual tickets it may have come to less than the price of the weekly pass), we decided to buy 7 day metro/tram passes. The convenience of not having to buy and validate tickets and the ability to jump on and off trams at will made the passes very convenient and a good decision. We did the same in Budapest.

Prague is a beautiful city. It’s clean and the buildings have a freshly painted look about them. No crumbling buildings here. Cobble-stoned streets.

It’s not often I get turned-around and disoriented. In this city that was a common occurrence. I just knew that restaurant had to be within a block but the street just kept moving. Sometimes that’s fun and sometimes it’s frustrating.

I thought the Castle and its associated buildings were a bit sparse and not really worth more than a brief visit. There were other sites that were of far greater interest. I guess cold weather puts a damper on wandering.

I have a great body clock. In the evening of the day we arrived, I thought it might be nice to see the Charles Bridge without all of the crowds and as the sun rises. Well think of it and it happens. I woke up just as it was getting light and it didn’t take me long to get to the Bridge. What a site!!!

I like to travel in early/mid June. We beat the summer rush but still have the longest days. We were still surprised by how long the days really were. It didn’t get dark until about 10:30PM!!!

We found out how late the sun sets when we decided to watch the lights on the Bridge and Castle turn on at sunset before going to dinner. Well, we didn’t get to dinner until almost 11PM!!! But what a sight with all of the people walking the Bridge. Just something about that Bridge!! Cant’ put my finger on it.

My plan was to visit the Jewish Museum (and associated complex of sights) on the second day (June 2). I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware that it was a holiday that day and closed. I noticed the sign posted on the Jewish Museum sights on my way to the early morning Charles Bridge visit. This called for a bit of a change in plans for the day.

We walked around the Old Town, went to buy our train tickets to Budapest at Cedok (the girl convinced me that there was no reason to buy 1st class tickets as 2nd class was fine) near Wenceslas Square. Mid-afternoon we decided to train to Karlstein to see the castle. While the town’s main street is littered with souvenir shops, there are amazing unobstructed views of the Castle above. I got to the Castle not long before closing. I had read that the view of the Castle was much more impressive than the inside so I opted to wander around rather than go inside.

The biggest surprise in Prague was the Wallenstein Palace. Much is written about the Gardens being a “don’t miss” sight (and free). It really is impressive and worth the visit. However, very little is written about the Palace itself. This is actually (not sure if it still is) the government Senate building. It’s open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays only and is free of charge. It’s a beautiful building and well worth scheduling a visit to Mala Strana on the weekend.

After this we took a tram to the Petrin Hill funicular and had amazing views of the Charles Bridge and Prague. Does anybody know anything about that odd sculpture that has something to do with communism at the bottom of the park about a 100 yards from the funicular?

We visited the Jewish sights in each of Prague, Budapest and Amsterdam. By far the Prague presentation is the most complete and impressive. One ticket includes about six locations (all in very close proximity) each with a different theme and very well signed in Czech and English. Extremely well done and worth the visit. We decided the Museum told a complete story and we passed on the separate admission to the Old-New Synagogue.

For dinners we ate at Kogo (between the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square) (very good Italian food), Ryukevik on Karlova near the Bridge for chicken wings and ribs (also very good) and Kolkovna on Kolkovne right near Pariszka in the Jewish quarter (also very good although I shouldn’t have ordered the dumplings (what possessed me?)). I’m amazed that excluding drinks our excellent meals for two came to about 30US each. We just selected the meals we wanted from the menus.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:35 AM
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Budapest
We stayed at the Marriott Executive Apartments. Excellent location, price, value and breakfast.

Again, we bought 3 day transportation passes and the convenience definitely made it worth it.

I found the Castle district to be nicer than that of Prague (maybe the sunny warm weather had something to do with it as well). The walk from the hotel to the Chain Bridge and over to the Castle funicular was really nice and a comfortable distance. Wandering the area very enjoyable.

I don’t understand why anybody would pay the admission (whatever it is) to Fisherman’s Bastion when the level just beneath it offers the same spectacular views with no charge.

I took the metro to City Park and happened to see the filming of a video for a rock band. The director told me it was for a Canadian group Wolf Parade (anybody ever hear of them?). I think some of the members of the group were in the video.

I thought I’d sneak some photos. The actors started to group together and pose for me in different settings. They checked my photos and re-posed when they didn’t like how they looked in a photo. Funny. Eventually they had to get back to work.

We visited the Jewish area. The contrast to that of Prague was striking. Without the efforts of Tony Curtis there would be nothing. As it is, there is one totally renovated and amazing synagogue and another that is in dire need of renovation (with none funded or planned). That’s it. We walked around the area and it almost looked like many of the buildings had been bought up by developers. Old furniture was lying in the streets waiting to be removed.

On the way back from the Jewish area we wandered on some streets and ended up at the Central Market. Very different from anything we see today. We picked up a few things and a snack.

Out of curiosity, we had bought tickets for the opera in advance. Casse Fan Tutti (Mozart). It’s really too bad I wasn’t exposed to some of the “finer” things when I was young as I might have a better appreciation. It’s obvious they’re very good. We actually made it to the end.

On our second day we decided to take a cruise (1 ½ hours) up the Danube to Szentendre. Doesn’t this sound great? While this very small town may be quaint, it was quite difficult to see as wall-to-wall souvenir shops with their wares hanging in front are not very appealing. After an hour or so of wandering we headed toward the train station and took a commuter train back to Budapest.

For dinner we ate at Café Vian Kauehaz after the Opera, an outdoor restaurant in Liszt Square (very good) and Restaurant Dunacorso on the River at Vigado Square (excellent). Excluding drinks the meals for two were about 25 – 30US. Again, I was very surprised how inexpensive good meals were.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:36 AM
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Bruges
This little city doesn’t play fair. They ruin it for every other destination.

I have never been to a city before where every corner, every turn, every canal and every building is more beautiful than the last. We even named one spot “the view”. It’s difficult to say any more!!!

We stayed at the Hotel Prinsenhof located about 5 minutes from the Markt. A very nice, quiet little hotel. An excellent choice.

After wandering around town (and stopping in at the train station to buy tickets to Amsterdam and return tickets to Brussels) we decided to rent bike the next day. We had a choice of optional activities for the second day that included a short bike ride around town, a longer bike ride to Damme or a paddle boat ride to and from Damme. The paddle boat schedule really wasn’t very convenient as we planned on leaving for Amsterdam about 5PM.

We opted for a couple of hours of biking around town. Riding on narrow cobble-stoned streets being share with pedestrians other bikers and cars didn’t prove to be the challenge I thought it might be. We biked to the North-East part of town and began to ride on a bicycle path that circles the town. I selected that rout so that we’d pass and stop at the four windmills. We biked half-way around the town and then through the middle back to the bike rental. We passed many of the same sites we saw the day before was no problem. Not in Bruges.

We were in Bruges for one evening and ate at a tourist restaurant (Café Belfort) just above the Markt square. I had what appeared to be a bottomless bucket of mussels and got a “mussel cramp”. They were excellent. I had to take a bath after that. Excluding drinks the meal for two was about 55US.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:36 AM
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Amsterdam
We arrived in Amsterdam about 8:30 in the evening. I immediately realized that Amsterdam is more spread out than I expected or remembered from a visit about 20 years earlier. Trams would be convenient and required. Actually, the trams aren’t air conditioned and the sunny hot weather (mid 80s) made the trams somewhat uncomfortable.

We stayed at the Hotel Toren. One of my requirements for all hotels was air conditioning and elevators. This hotel is located on a quiet part of Keisergracht about a block from Anne Frankhuis. While the hotel is really beautiful, if I had it to do again I’d probably stay a few block closer to the bottom of the “U” in the Canal Ring.

I had pre-booked tickets for Rembrandthuis. Normally they have very few of his paintings. However there was a special presentation “Rembrandt – Quest of a Genius” that included several dozen paintings. It was an excellent choice for one of the few museums visited on this trip. Well worth the time, effort and admission.

We also visited the Jewish Historical Museum as well as one of the canal house mansions; the Willet-Holthuysen home. It was very interesting to see how the very wealthy lived.

Just before leaving for our return to Brussels and out of curiosity we decided to walk through the Red Light District. How can I describe this nicely? I would have thought that if you have a product to sell, you would make it look as appealing as possible. Then again, maybe the better looking products are not on display at 4:00 in the afternoon.

It was quite relaxing meandering up and down the canals. However, after doing the same in Bruges it was hard to get excited about them in Amsterdam. Bruges just doesn’t play fair.

World Cup is big stuff in Europe. We were in Amsterdam when the Netherlands played their first game. It’s nice to see how a little country comes together. Orange was in. Hats, t-shirts, dog bandanas, streamers hanging from building and baby’s diapers. Everything orange.

On our second evening we ate at a very nice Italian restaurant. As luck would have it Italy was playing. The kitchen was in the basement and in the middle of our meal we heard a loud yell coming from the basement. There was an immediate stampede of the entire restaurant staff down to the basement to watch the replay of the Italian goal. It was funny to see a restaurant full of customers and no staff in site.

They take this World Cup thing seriously.

We were in Amsterdam for two evenings and had two excellent meals at Spanjer & Van Twist (Leliegracht just off Keisergracht and around the corner from our hotel) and Casa di David (Italian) on Singel at Spui. Both meals for two excluding drinks were just under 50US.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:38 AM
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Brussels
Brussels wasn’t selected as part of the trip. Since we returned to the US from Brussels (an American Airline gateway city), I decided a day in Brussels would be fine.
We stayed at the Best Western Carrefour de Europe located about a block from the train station. That’s also a block from Grand Place and Galleries St Hubert. The hotel was very nice and so was our room. We were on the third floor with a front view onto a small square. We could actually see some of the buildings in Grand Place.

With this location, it wasn’t very difficult to see the main attractions.

After Grand Place and Manneken Pis we decided to walk over to Grand Sablon. I’m glad Petit Sablon is a very nice park directly behind as Grand Sablon is no more than a parking lot bordered by some designer shops.

The only rain we encountered on the whole trip was during breakfast in Brussels.

As it turned out, Brussels wasn’t a bad place to end an excellent trip and pick up some chocolates as gifts.

We met up with a friend who trained from and back to Switzerland and who I had never met in person. We had a great time with him and his wife.

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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 08:12 AM
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Thank you, Myer, for your report, especially the Prague portion (I'll be there in a few weeks-- will be staying at Maximilian also). Lots of good tips, thanks!

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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 11:55 AM
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Since nothing seems to bring this report up other than searching sequentially and I spent a lot of time writing it, I'll top it once or twice for those interested.

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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 11:58 AM
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Myer...

Thanks for posting this trip report. I'll be in Prague and Budapest in September and the information in your report will be very useful to me!
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 12:11 PM
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Myer, Thank you for posting this great report. I am so looking forward to going back to Prague and Budapest (in a few weeks!) I was starting to get a little stressed about it, but now I am excited again! Thank you!
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 12:35 PM
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Myer,
Great report.Brings back memories from this past October. We went to the Dohani on Yom Kippur. An experience to remember.We also found the other synagogues unimpressing, especially the delapidated one with wooden barricades. As for the Maximillian Hotel in Prague, did you get a good rate & how did you book it? My friends ar going in October & want to stay there. Thanks
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 01:17 PM
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Syl,

I don't remember the exact rate but the number 145Euros keeps sticking in my mind. I could check this evening when I get home.

Included was an excellent and filling buffet breakfast. It lasted easily until dinner.

There's a restaurant right next door that we boycotted because it doesn't take credit cards.

If I remember correctly, I booked online then called directly and got a cheaper rate over the phone. I think I could have gotten an even cheaper rate had I not taken the 48 hour free cancellation. It's usually my policy to only stay at such hotels.

Having a trip planned for Sept 26, 2001 (my wife refused to leave the US) that ended up costing me a total of about $10 to cancel (tickets to the Alhambra in Granada) taught me how valuable that is.


The rooms were large.

My advice would be to try and get the rate in Crowns and not Euros as I did. Upon checkout they covert the Euro rate to Crowns at the rate in their computer. My quick mental calculation had me overpaying.

What made it feel like a bit more of a ripoff was that they convert money as a service to guests. The rate posted for this service is much better than the rate used to pay the bill. Which is more correct? I don't know but I can tell you the hotel bill is going to be many times larger than an amount of money you may want to convert.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 03:28 PM
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Myer,
I just checked my reservation for July at the Maximilian. It is quoted in Euros and was booked on their website. Interesting about the conversion. Are you saying I should call them ahead of arrival and get the rate converted to crowns?
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 06:02 PM
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Kopp,
At this point I'm not sure if they'll do it or what good it will do.

If you ask for a fixed rate in Crowns they'll convert. Who decides what the rate should be. You'll say one thing and they'll say what their rate is at "their bank".

Don't aggravate yourself over it. You do what you can and at the end of the day just enjoy yourself and pretend you never had the extra few dollars a day.

We were there 4 nights and I'll bet it came to 10-15 dollars a day.

I just looked at it as an expense. I've learned not to get aggravated.

My intention is to have people negotiate from the start in the local currency.

Anyway, it's a very nice hotel, good location, big rooms and excellent breakfast. So four out of five are good.

They have a computer room for guests that has two computers. Two of our hotels wanted 8 Euros per day for internet use. This hotel included it.

Have fun.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:04 PM
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Thanks for the report!
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Old Jun 23rd, 2006, 07:12 PM
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ttt
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Old Jun 24th, 2006, 03:45 AM
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Syl,

I just checked and at the Maximilian we had a Dbl Superior room (it was quite large) and the rate was 148Euros for early June.
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Old Jun 24th, 2006, 09:09 AM
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Myer,
Thank you for your excellent report. I have just booked our AA award tickets for Prague, Budapest & Vienna for next May. I am trying to figure out how long to spend in each city You said that you could have cut Prague by a day. How long did you spend there? We were planning to see the Jewish sites with a guide in each city, the castle, old town, market, etc. Thanks.
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Old Jun 24th, 2006, 12:56 PM
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Big,

We were in Prague part of five days. We got there at noon the first day and took a 4:20PM train to Budapest on the fifth day.

We probably walked more than most on the first few days so we were pretty efficient.

I really don't know why you'd hire a guide for the Jewish areas.

In Prague, essentially you have two choices; a) the jewish Museum in Prague sells a tickets for about half dozen sights. They're all within 3 blocks of each other. They consist of several synagogues (each having their own but coordinated theme of presentations), the cemetary and adjacent ceremonial hall. b) the Old-New synagogue that located right on the corner. We passed on this as we felt the Museum Presentation was so complete (in Czech and English) that we had seen enough.

In Budapest, other than the main synagogue there really isn't much to see. It's rather run down in the area. A contrast of two cities.

Actually, I believe if you want to wait a few minutes for their schedule, the admission to the synagogue also includes somewhat of a tour. Really, not much else to see.

We made a transportation decision. We didn't want the hassles of buying, validating and proving it in Prague and Budapest. In Prague we bought a 7 day pass (they don't have 5 day) and Budapest a 3 day pass.

With a pass we just jumped on and off transportation at will. Did it work out cheaper. I don't know and don't care. Being stopped by an inspector at the metro was pretty easy. Show the pass.
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Old Jun 24th, 2006, 01:26 PM
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Myer...fine report..good detail and comments.
Thank you. Having been several times to all the cities mentioned, it was a good exercise in nostalgia for us.....wonderful memories, like the time we crashed a press conference with Vaclav Havel by merely telling the guard that we were representing the los Angeles Times (a lie) and he didn't even look up while writing out a Press-Foto badge for each of us. My wife gingerly took notes (not undertanding one word), while Havel held court. With my little sure-shot at that time I snapped away and got some great photos of Havel. I was doing some "old Prague" research for my historical novel at that time also and ended up with all the archival data I needed to fully describe a 1904 Prague for a chapter in the book.
I agree with you on Brugge...marvelous place...we once biked the canal path to Damme and it was worth it.

When we last saw the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam it was full of graffiti...still so?

Thanks again for the memories..

Stu T., L.A.
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