June 7-9th: Prague, Czech Republic
“You Must Remember This…”
Two full days in Prague, an optional extra on the Danube Waltz Tour, costs an additional $1500 per couple, and includes three nights at the very handsome new town Hilton. Breakfasts there are the same comprehensive assortment from nuts to soup that we encountered aboard ship. The coach ride from Passau, Germany, takes four hours through the historic Sudetenland, the dispute over which ended in the fateful Munich Agreement of 1938, last stop on the road to World War II.
Viking starts you off with a comprehensive guided tour of Prague, using a coach with walking intervals. The city struck us as as the most prosperous we’d seen. And the grottiest, with a lot more rubbish about than Passau, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava and Budapest. Everything I could hope to tell you about Prague, an architectural wonder, you can find on the web, so this report is restricted to what we saw on our own and recommend seeing.
Mucha and Lobkowicz
At the charming Mucha Museum you’ll find many images by Alphonse Mucha, who defined art nouveau and made Sarah Bernhardt immortal. His precise lithographs decorated everything from biscuit tins to cigarette ads, and he was a pretty fair oil painter too. His small, one-floor museum with a fine 30-minute video is well worth a stop.
Mucha devoted the second half of his career to patriotic themes during the Czech national reawakening 1900-18 and the republic 1918-38. He was a local figure of repute, so the Gestapo arrested and questioned him, then let him go. Alas he died in the ordeal, aged 78. He’d be pleased with the revival of his country, albeit truncated since the division with Slovakia—certainly the Czech Republic is one of the most prosperous in the old eastern bloc.
The Lobkowicz Palace is part of Prague Castle, restored to the family after the Bolshies were thrown out in 1989. The present Count has spent half a lifetime and lots of money finding and restoring the art treasures. This proved a perfect place for a concert of flute, viola and piano, Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi began. Then the great Czechs Dvorak and Smetana, whose “Moldau,” is the national concert piece. It sounded as good on one piano as it does with a full orchestra. This is one impressive country, thanks to national hero Vaclav Havel, who brought it back to life in 1989.
Dining amid splendor
With the aid of Yelp and some locals, we were delighted with the restaurants we chose for dinner on two evenings, which we can recommend with every confidence. No Euros here: the Czechs are reluctant to give up on the koruna. ATMs, which snort up world currencies and spit our crisp koruna bills, are everywhere.
Suzanne’s horror over the size of her martini (yes, that was the drink as delivered) was the only bad news at this place. Yelp it and you’ll see what we mean. Barbara’s marinated foie gras was spectacular. The chicken roulade with Italian sausage and barley risotto out of this world. Though busy, the ambience and service were equal to the food.
At Café Imperial you dine in big Victorian easy chairs surrounded by porcelain mosaics and art nouveau ceramics. The bill is enough to keep your socks on. Dinner for four, including three drinks and a bottle of wine, came to $80 including the tip. Yes, that is twenty dollars per person.
Rick: (Bogie): “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine…. You know what I want to hear.”
Sam (Dooley Wlson): “I don’t think I can remember….”
Rick: “If she can stand it I can. PLAY IT!”
I half-expected Ilsa/Ingrid and Victor/Paul to walk in that very moment. There were no Nazis in the corner singing Die Wacht am Rhein. There was no Lazlo to drown them out with Le Marseillaise. Similar atmosphere, though. Just no Moroccan archways, and no frightened Peter Lorre looking to escape German clutches.
The cabbie said this was one of the most expensive restaurants in Prague, and the bill really rocked us. Two bottles of wine (one a blend of Cabernet and Czech grapes with unpronounceable names that could pass for a classified bordeaux. Two cocktails each. Starters and duck entrées for four plus bottled water, coffee, dessert and tip. It came to a staggering $57 per person. The entrées included one duck dish listed under “venison,” possibly because the duck had waddled under the deer when the latter was shot.
Also, the cab fare back with tip was $8, which will get you through two traffic lights on Park Avenue. If you get the impression you can dine like King Wenceslaus in Prague for very low numbers, you are right. We could have spent a week sampling the bistros.
Avoid Heathrow Terminal Transfers!
No matter where you fly from, and where you’re going, avoid any route requiring you to change terminals (typically from 5 to 3 or vice-versa) at London’s Heathrow Airport. It took us most of an hour, with lengthy walks, long queues, a shuttle bus, a transit train and complicated security lines. Formerly on inter-terminal transfers, you were bussed in a sealed shuttle and passed through without another dose of frisking. Not any more, probably because of enhanced security against the lunatics we have to share the world with.
Heathrow is a victim of its success. Many years ago when the essential decisions were taken, the present scale of air travel was unforeseen. North London is crowded, yet each time another huge investment was made, it became the more difficult to abandon Heathrow as Britain’s chief airport. Now after many years of dithering, a long-awaited report will decide between expansion at Heathrow and expansion at Gatwick. It had better be the latter.
(Note added five years later: They made the wrong choice….)