Friday, August 24, 2007

Ruminations on Prague

I have come full circle in my sleep pattern and would like to use these early AM hours to discuss some of what I think of Prague.

I am disappointed.

Perhaps it is a result of inflated expectations--the allure of modern Czech history, with its brands of politics/communism (Benes, Dubcek), popular revolts (Prague Spring, Jan Palach, Velvet Revolution) and the peaceful separation from the Slovaks; the cultural richness of its folk art (music, costume, tales, puppets); the literary pedigree of the city (Kafka, Kundera), the prospects for good Pivo and hearty local food, the enchanting architecture with pastel facades (no detail spared), squares ripe for political happenings, and the castle and lesser quarter which overlooks it all.

However, it could also be the fact that I learned about most of this history from a TimeOUT guide and a communism museum owned by an American ex-pat bagel entreprenuer with space leased from McDonalds in a Casino and most of the exhibits having been procured from local shops (which as far as I can tell no longer exist, or certainly now only sell mass produced plastic version of these wares);

-or that the only folkart I encountered comprised a stage set up in the main square for seas of tourists to observe some folk music and costumes (being much more refined tourists, we observed from our outdoor table with its Pilsner Urquell labeled umbrella, and two pound translated-in-all-languages menu (with tabs for each language) informing us on the cover that prices inside the restaurant were 55% cheaper), some cheap marionettes observed in the windows of souvenir shops and perhaps, maybe, the unappetizing pictures of food adorning so many restaurant windows (this is the only reason I can imagine anyone restaurant-owner would display such hideous things);

-or that the more I read Kafka and Kundera, the more I felt the culture and muse of a city was being bastardized by the euro/dollar

-the fact that all restaurants only served the one beer that had given it free logo'd umbrellas or glassware (or market consolidation gives them limited options) or that the restaurants all looked the same or the ones that had some uniqueness were dreadful incarnations aimed at designer wearing (with logos and other text adorning all parts of the fabric) europeans giving one another air kisses and drinking coffee drinks (any guesses on which country most of them were from?). I'm talking leopard skin chairs and purple flourescent lights here. However, I will say that Pilsner Urquell and Budvar are quite good beers and the Czech food we had was also good (although I think I may have salt poisoning if such a thing exists). We seemed to find one legitimate place hidden away in a basement where we tried rumpsteak and a pork dish and you can see the post below for our other Czech food experience. Also we had some good fried camembert and veggies at one place, but the decor was so lacking I won't discuss it further.

-and last the architecture, what I imagine must be a sad reality for a poor nascent democratic government and actually almost makes me too upset to write, but it appears the cost of maintaining ancient buildings and squares which were for forty+ years neglected by Moscow is to have tourist stores (kitsch) and restaurants filling the ground floors of those in the old quarter and to turn the area around Wenceslas Square into a poor man's champs elysee filled only with lower level international brands (G Star Raw was the closest thing I saw to a boutique) and fast food chains. To turn churches into nightclubs, the Charles bridge into an outdoor shopping mall with Times Square-like crowds, to fill the lesser quarter with the same touristy type places on the road to the Castle. This rant has really brought down my mood so I will not go on, but you get the idea. I'm sure at one point this place was enchanting, but it has yielded to throngs of tourists and kitschy places to serve them, all which preclude any standing back and getting a real feel for things. And while there were a few off the beaten track places that we found in some corners of the city, they were still surrounded by other touristy type places.

I believe that Prague has done itself a long term disservice with its get rich quick service of tourism in all its forms so much so that I mad a bet that there will be less tourists (total number) in 2012 than in 2007.

Beach in Berlin?

Beach in Berlin? How can it be? Never doubt the Germans! From the people that brought you Asprin, the Theory of Relativity, and of course, the "Ultimate Driving Machine" (BMW), it's the brand new "Beach-on-the-side-of-a-River-next-to-a-Train-Station-with-an-international-sand-sculpture-competition-to-boot!" Seriously, what will these people think of next!?!?

Some of the sand sculptures with the train station in the background...

Cool German "chaise lounges"...
LB relaxing...
And of course, like good Germans, they served huge beers from a little Tiki bar on their creative beach. A pic I snapped of us after a couple of cold ones...

Sodium overload

We are in food coma. Tonight we went for a traditional Czech meal and we didn't mess around. We wanted to start the meal off with something light, not too filling, just a "amuse bouche," if you will, so we decided on a light plate of fried cheese balls with sausage, sauerkraut, fried onions, and peppers. Sounds intense, but don't worry, we didn't stop there...

We didn't want to go home hungry so we sampled the authentic beef goulash (top) and the half roast duck (bottom.) The duck won the contest; it was incredible. I think both dishes contained enough salt to kill us both but thankfully we took down a enough Pilsner Urqell to dilute the system.

Oh yeah, the duck came with this lovely side plate of sauerkraut, red cabbage, bread, and potato if we didn't have enough food already.

All in, it was a great Czech dining experience. Cheers.


Boasting high levels of street cred due to our "B-boy" shoes and attitudes, we have been introduced to the ultimate urban sport--Parkour. Rather than waste time describing it to you, here is a link to a video of our current favorite Parkour team, Monos Urbanos.

A member of this team is Kat Parkour, in our opinion the best female Parkour (also known as a traceuse). For a solo video of her, check out

We are in Prague now and have scoped out some urban jungles to practice our moves, pics to come...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Transformation

Many come to Europe to find themselves or love or that "higher calling" (I stumbled upon that in Amsterdam) but we came for something far less cliche--we came for cool sneakers. Call us simpletons, call us phony, call us what you like, but we call ourselves "b-boys."

Where we found our true b-boy calling--The Overkill Shop.

The shop was geared towards others that shared our interests in graffiti (it's street art, we just need to express ourselves,) graphic tees, and limited edition kicks. And it was here that the transformation began...

One of our b-boy brothers (also our sweet, soft-spoken salesman.)

The final product. The still image can't adequately capture our moves but this is just a taste of what our new sneakers did for our skills.

LB's signature double jump flick...

AH's--"The Look"

And, "The Pullback"...

And it began...

It is already day 7 of our trip, and I have finally just set up this blog. To get a sense of our itinerary, we spent Friday morning through Tuesday morning in Berlin, then traveled to Prague by train and it is now 6:30pm local time on Thursday. This is our attempt at a photo journal of our trip:

This is us getting ready to face Berlin at our hotel. This is a blurb on our hotel that we wrote when we were much more ambitious about documenting our journey.

After an uneventful flight, preceded by a mad dash involving rugby workout type sprints to check a bag an hour before the flight, we arrived in Berlin around 9 am local time (GMT +1.00). Once through customs and bag pickup (first siting of German engineering here) which they do right at the gate in Berlin, we took a cab to our hotel. The cab was way overtippped as a way of saying thank you for not giving me the runaround, which can negatively color a whole trip if you take pride in your urban sophistication.

In Berlin, we are staying at the Radisson SAS which is a newer hotel (2-3 years old) splendidly well done. The rooms are small[1] but filled with nice design touches, the highlight being the bathroom door which is engineered in such a way that it can be used to seal off two nearly perpendicular doorways. The hotel is nicely situated along the Spree river and only about a 5 minute walk from Hackeschermarkt, a popular outdoor café and restaurant spot. The square/pavillion serves as a starting point for a walk north into a neighborhood similar to Soho in feel but with a maze of streets like the West Village. The streets are lined with galleries and other artsy shops with what appear to be upscale residences above. The majority of buildings had an older feel but with the clean lines one would expect from a German neighborhood. Modern condos with facades of glass and steel were woven into the mix nearly seamlessly with no building over four to five stories tall (the developers on the LES could learn a thing or two from this area.) Nearly every building we passed had a hidden, but accessible, courtyard, often home to a garden, a quiet café or pub, or just a couple of chairs for the employees of the neighboring art gallery to use during their afternoon smoke break.

For some pictures of the hotel, check out AH’s favorite site

Getting coffee/espresso at the Berlin equivalent of Starbucks “Balzac” to help us cope with our jet lag…

Some sights around our hotel - TV Tower and soccer world cup bear (I overheard a guide saying there were 400 of these in Berlin)

Even the facades of the buildings in northern Mitte are very similar to Soho only without the fire stairs Soho is so famous for. In fact, even the genesis of the areas is analagous, poor artists in Soho and squatters in Mitte, followed by gentrification.

Again, one thing that separates Mitte from Soho is its open courtyards and abundance of playgrounds….

I took this picture of a traffic cop because she annoyed me just like the ones in the US do.

We walked around Sophienstrasse and Gipstrasse and back down Rosa-Luxembourgstrasse. They were quite deserted, much as Soho is after the tourists go home for the day.

Here’s us playing with the camera in our first of many beirgarten photoshoots. This one was under the train tracks on Rosa-Luxembourgstrasse.

We split a salad too. Haha, got to love the first days of vacation when you still hold out hope of potentially eating healthy on the trip.

After our walk around Mitte and visit to the biergarten, we were exhausted and went back to the hotel for a nap. Here are some pics of the lobby. Unfortunately we did what we too often do and slept until 11pm which left us no choice but to sprint down to the hotel restaurant for some asian noodles (shame).

After dinner, we went out for a few drinks at a bar next to the biergarten we had been at earlier in the day, called Riva. Here we stumbled upon some great mixology and I found a new drink for myself called a Stinger, Hennessy VS, Crème de Menthe White. (After the asian noodles, I definitely needed a digestif) We also got a kick out of how the menus have sections on them called “High Alcohol Drinks” and “Low Alcohol Drinks.” Why anyone would ever order from the latter is beyond me.