Friday, September 5, 2008

Abiding by the rules of travel

We decided on a real adventure for today -- the zoo. I saved this for last so I could dangle its promise over their heads the rest of the week to elicit their best possible behavior and their at-least-feigned interest in our other destinations. You just can't argue with the allure of a tiger.

The Prague Zoo has won all sorts of awards and consistently makes lists of "best zoos in the world." I know my kids were profoundly impressed at the placard at the entrance trumpeting the fact that the Jolie-Pitt brood had recently visited. (Yeah, not so much.) We really did have a great time, even with that whole incident where the kids ended up in the tiger's cage:

Yes, Grandma, I'm kidding.

Animals, great weather, lots of exercise: day well spent.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It rained today.

And rained and rained. And we didn't feel well anyway. The hotel walls, the view from the window, Czech TV, and a soggy walk to the park sufficed today. Really, there's only so much touring we can take anyway...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tourism, part deux (or "dva"?)

After Jeff finished this evening we decided we needed to include him in some of our adventuring, so the four (and a half) of us set off for the other mecca of all Prague tourism: Prazsky Hrad, aka Das Schloss, aka The Castle to End All Castles. Another quick ride on the subway, then we had what the guidebook described as a "short walk up a slight hill" to the uppermost entrance. The pregnant lady found it to be neither short nor slight, just for the record. At least it was relatively picturesque.

We got there at the changing of the guard, so there were double the number of soldiers to see my children being completely unimpressed and climbing all over the fountain in the first plaza. (Actually, they both watched nicely, thank you.) Note that I said "first plaza." This is evidently the largest castle in the world, and it is most decidedly imposing -- it's the castle you pictured as a kid when you thought that royalty must live in buildings of endless halls and countless rooms, not the stone-mansions-masquerading-as-castles that dot the rest of Europe's landscape. Pfaff. This one has the imposing St. Vitus Cathedral in its second plaza, whose height managed to impress even our architecture-weary crew. (You should really click on that picture to enlarge it and get a sense of the indescribable scale. It's not La Sagrada Familia, but it's impressive.)

In stark contrast to the last time I wandered the castle grounds shoulder to shoulder with the flocks of summer tourists sweating all over each other, this evening we had the grounds nearly to ourselves and perfect weather in which to explore them. Not much was open, but we only wanted to walk around anyway. The best, of course, was getting to the area that opens onto a vista of the entire medieval city. After taking a million self-portraits against the skyline, we walked the steps down into the cobblestone lanes and red-roofed abodes of Mala Strana and then toward Karlův Most, Charles Bridge.

The iconic bridge is the cultural epicenter of the city (whether its residents want it to be or not). It is open only to pedestrians, so it's the most coveted location for street vendors to ply their wares and street musicians to set out their hats since thousands of people wander over it each day in search of the whole Prague Experience. Yes, there is a McDonald's within 100 yards of the end of the bridge, and I'm sure it does brisk business. Our trek had made us hungry by then, but we eschewed the questionable allures of McDonald's and settled for a couple of pieces of authentic Czech (ha) pizza and moseyed out to the middle of the bridge where we watched the dinner cruise boats and legions of seagulls and pigeons from the bridge while we noshed.

Duly fortified, we moved on to our second visit to Stare Mesto where Aislin happily told Daddy everything she remembered about the Astronomical Clock and the kids got a second crack at the horses. Then a quick visit to Wenceslas Square and it was one last subway ride with some exhausted kids. Me, I was still ready to go the distance. The distance from a taxi to my bed, maybe...

Stare Mesto, ho!

Poor Jeff. Turns out that having actual business in such a lovely city can really cut into your enjoyment of it. Good thing the kids and I aren't weighed down by any albatrosses of guilt over getting to enjoy a city sans Daddy, especially when the weather is as balmy and perfect as it was today.

So we braved the subway. The ticket machines were actually the same as I remembered, so it was just a matter of finding the right coins -- the Czechs are not yet part of the European monetary union, so they still use the koruna. (Parental travel note: small denominations of foreign currency = cheap souvenir.) Armed with our tickets, we hopped the train downtown toward our destination (and that of every tourist within about 100 miles): the old town square, Stare Mesto. As usual, the train provided adequate diversion for the kids...

After navigating through the narrow cobblestone streets of the Old Town, we emerged into the huge square with its ever-so-European fountain and medieval churches. Boy, were the kids impressed. Not. Until, that is, we saw the horse-drawn carriages lined up waiting to take tourists on a short and pricey circle of the area. While I found a shady bench on which to consult my map and shelter my pregnant bulk from the unseasonable heat, I let the kids wander closer on their own to watch the horses (file under "Things I Would Never Have Done A Year Ago").

Another woman heard me admonishing the kids to keep a respectful distance from the carriages and stay in my sight, and approached to strike up a conversation. Guess my American accent stands out a bit in Prague. At any rate, it turns out she was from New Jersey. We had an entertaining conversation about the difficulties of choosing between Clinton and Obama and about how crazy McCain has gotten since the Republican convention. (A digression: I have to say that talking politics has gotten far more entertaining and rewarding since moving out of a reactionarily conservative county in the American South, where my generally moderate political positions are considered anything from merely radical to threatening to their way of life. I realized as we talked that it's been a blessed while since I carried on a political conversation in which I wanted to kill myself or the other party... largely because I'm finally finding others who share my views. Look, I'm perfectly conscious of being as petty and closed-minded as the next guy, okay?)

Needless to say, Aislin and Dylan were no longer in their previous positions by the time I finished my conversation, but after a moment of panic I located them... immediately under the nose of the lead horse. A fairly disgruntled-looking driver was barely tolerating their presence and that of two or three other kids, but he did let them pet the horse's nose. At that point it became nearly impossible to drag them away -- remember the travel rule about animals? Yeah. So much for the intrigue of the Astronomical Clock right around the corner.

At least I managed to get them there about five minutes before the big show on the hour when the doors of the clock open, the apostles file by, and other bits of the machinery come to life. We took our places amongst the throngs of Japanese tourists and waited. After a lengthy explanation of what they'd see, lo, they were actually captivated for a few precious seconds while I kept a paranoid eye out for pickpockets.

Then it was on to the very cool Anagram English-language bookstore where we perused nearly every book in their great little kids' section, bought a very cool fairy tale-ish book about a little girl from Prague, and resisted buying yet another book about dinosaurs for my dino-obsessed darling. Then we spent an hour in three-story toy store Sparky's, at which point it was time for some gelato refreshment. Breakin' every rule. Unbelievably, I managed to keep up with them this whole time, but we three intrepid travelers were mightily worn out by the time we made our way back to our room. Definitely a day to make Daddy jealous.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Prague, ho!

We arrived in the city late at night, which was a very good thing given our large vehicle (by European standards) and the narrow, convoluted cobblestone streets of our destination. Shockingly, the city has changed somewhat since I was last here in 1995. They actually have an enormous IKEA and an even more formidable Tesco out by the airport now, and development has extended well beyond the borders I remembered. Our hotel is quite near the dorm where I stayed, and in fact, we checked our email at the university where Jeff is giving his talk. I hardly recognized the neighborhood except for the subway stop at Dejvicka. Most of the buildings' facades no longer resemble the crumbling Communist apartment blocks I remembered, but have been rehabilitated to some semblance of regional architecture. The district is now thriving with businesses, many upscale -- the Maserati dealership across from our hotel was most decidedly not there in 1995.

Breakfast was very similar to what I remembered from Kajetanka. Everyone got to try some of the yummy Czech rohliky, the rolls that embody the best attributes of croissants and baguettes, and some of the very rich Czech yogurt. Mm.

Then Jeff had to head to the conference and the kids and I set off to explore the neighborhood a bit. Since I'm more waddling than walking these days we didn't go far, but we did get far enough to locate at least one of The Prerequisites. As any traveling parent knows, the Three Magic Prerequisites for successful travel with children are, not necessarily in this order:
  1. playgrounds (the simplest sandbox will do)
  2. animals (zoos if you're feeling fancy, although squirrels and ducks do famously)
  3. ice cream
Granted, there are plenty of other activities that'd be advisable to include, e.g. unusual forms of transportation (cogwheel train, watercraft of any stripe from paddleboat to speedboat, hang glider, etc.), impromptu public performances of music or goofy theater, or any sort of toy store; but the cardinal three are available anywhere in the world one might be going and, we've found, provide a lovely mix of familiarity and local color. So there's the sum total of my travel wisdom.

In this case, we located a modest playground about three blocks from our hotel which happened to be located next to a field through which a steady stream of dog owners walked and tossed frisbees to their assorted charges... in short, a very successful combination of elements one and two. All we needed out of our trek into the Czech unknown for one afternoon.

After Jeff returned from the conference, we went for a longer walk around the neighborhood and found this neat fountainy thing where the kids got to run around with local kids. A highlight for our little naturalists was seeing the mosquito larvae squirming in front of the lights in the water -- yish. They also lingered in front of a store window chockablock with traditional wooden toys, many suspended from long springs so as to bounce languidly in a manner hypnotizing to little brains. Nothing like a little cheap entertainment. Then it was off to bed to rest for the big adventure tomorrow...

Monday, September 1, 2008

We conquer inertia

Off to Prague, only a day later than initially anticipated (look, it takes time to get this stuff done, especially when the resident spectroscopist is on a 20-hour work schedule that precludes anything more than the occasional nap, not that I'm casting aspersions or anything). GPS and Google maps say it's about 9 hours, but it's now looking like just over 12. Unbelievably, the many hours spent sitting in American-made booster seats broken only by the occasional rest area doesn't appear to have strained the good graces of our veteran-traveler tykes except for one post-dinner episode of "s/he's TOUCHING me!" that was quickly rectified by erecting a formidable Berlin Wall of pillows and stuffed animals.

Before passing out long after the 9 p.m. sunset, Aislin remarked that she hadn't really even pulled out anything to do from her backpack because she'd been so enjoying the German scenery that she'd forgotten to get bored. Then she described the sunset out the rear windshield for us: "There's a cloud that's like a golden dolphin diving over the sun." I couldn't make this stuff up.

Quite frankly, it wouldn't take very beautiful country to impress us after a year on the polders, but the A4 traverses some pretty striking landscape in NE Germany. Not striking like the Alps are striking, but actual rolling hills stretching out as far as the eye could see definitely struck at the hearts of these Midwestern-Southern transplants to the flatlands. Easy to see why so many Germans settled in the American Midwest. Oh, and castles every few kilometers the whole way. "Look kids: hills... castle..."