Sunday, November 17, 2013

Zlata Praha

“This is shaping up to be a negative blog post,” my boyfriend spoke into the phone that I held to my ear as I sat in a hotel room in Prague at 2:00 am crying my eyes out. Not more than 45 minutes earlier I was having a wonderful time dancing with my friends to Rihanna’s dangerously addicting “S&M” at the hip club Nebe in the new part of the city. But after hours of walking around exploring the enchanting Czech capitol my feet were aching and I was ready to call it a night. My friends weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel so I walked up to a group of taxi cab drivers hoping to get a ride back to my hotel. 

“Zlata phhh,” I said making a “phhh” sound in place of the second part of the name of my hotel, which I could not quite remember. “Zlata Prana” they immediately responded and a man emerged from the group and motioned for me to get into his unmarked BMW taxi. “Is this a real taxi?” I dumbly asked ignoring my instincts. “Yes,” he assured me and pointed to the meter, which was already at 240 crowns, or about $10. That seemed high for the notoriously inexpensive former Soviet country but I again told myself that we were not far from the hotel so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to pay a bit more. It was cold out.

He began speeding through the city and on to the highway. “Near the train station?” I asked him as I watched what I thought to be that exact building whizz past. “Yes,” he again said. I noticed he had a picture of a baby on his iPhone that was docked within sight. A guy with a picture of his baby can’t be that bad I assured myself even though we seemed to be traveling further and further away from the center of town.

“Aren’t we past the hotel?” I finally had the courage to ask.

“You said Zlata Prana,” he responded.

“We are definitely past the train station. I told you by the train station.”

 “You said Zlata Prana, I am taking you to Zlata Prana.”

“I want to go back to the train station now,” I demanded.

“You said Zlata Prana!” he was screaming at me now. “You said Zlata Prana in Prague 6!”

“No, not in Prague 6,” I said now frantic. I looked at the meter and it read 800 crowns. I did the math on my phone. It was $40. “Take me there,” I pointed to a nearby hotel.

“No,” he screamed and kept driving.

He then got on his phone and started yelling at someone in Czech. I was contemplating ways to throw myself out of the taxi as he sped along the highway. Then out of nowhere he pulled over to the side of the road and told me to get out. I gladly jumped out then immediately realized that I was in the middle of nowhere. In Eastern Europe. At 1:30 in the morning. Bawling, I tried to call Kent. No answer. I waved my hands around in the air as taxis flew by. In the distance I saw a Hilton sign so I dejectedly started walking towards it then out of nowhere a taxi pulled over. Still sobbing, I jumped in and managed to show him on a map where my hotel was. My phone vibrated and I began to tell Kent about the ordeal and he stayed on the line till we reached my hotel, which I realized was called “Zlata Praha.”  

Art Deco Delights

I spent the majority of my time in Prague last weekend just walking around and gazing up at all the incredible architecture and design. All different styles and periods are visible from Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque to my personal favorites, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Unlike its fellow former Iron Curtain neighbor Budapest, Prague has done a spectacular job of maintaining and restoring all of its buildings and squares. It was also largely spared from the bombings during WWII that destroyed a majority of Europe.

Cheese Please!

One of my favorite things about Switzerland is their love of cows. I mean those guys are everywhere. At the highest tops of mountains, right outside your hotel room, along the highway, in front of an uber-modern factory, just chomping away.

 On our recent Switzerland roadtrip we randomly decided to stop at a small town to explore. Among the beautiful chalet-style houses with yards full of apple trees and flowers, we were amazed to discover a vending machine filled with milk, cheese, sausage and fresh eggs. It was incredible! The best of the country right at your fingertips! 

Our ultimate destination, the picturesque town of Gimmelwald, also had several neatly manicured plots of land with sheep, goats and cows roaming around. While wandering through it we saw signs for local, fresh mountain cheese (alpkase) so we followed them into the entry way of a house that had a little refrigerator set up where we could take whatever item we wanted and leave the proper amount of money in return. Talk about a low-carbon footprint!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rome If You Want To

I first visited Rome in December 2004 right before Christmas. I had just finished 4 months of studying abroad in Barcelona and my parents came from California to visit. They met me in Spain and then we traveled together to the famous Italian capitol. My parents were last in Italy in the 70’s when they briefly stopped there while travelling around Europe. Dad kept very detailed notes about the places they visited, including all the restaurants they ate at. It was his goal to return to those same spots. Unfortunately Mom came down with a cold so she spent the majority of our time in Rome in the hotel room. Dad and I were left to our own devices in one of the world’s foodiest cities. Surprisingly we found most of the restaurants that Dad recorded; whether or not they had the same owners/chefs was a different question. We had delicious 4 course meals for lunch and dinner, which might explain why I was at least 10 pounds heavier when I returned to Santa Barbara for the second half my junior year. While we toured the Coliseum, Vatican, Saint Peters, and the like,but what really stood out for me was all the delicious food.

In front of the Spanish Steps in August 2012

One of my favorite fountains in Piazza della Rotonda
The next time I went to Rome was in August 2012 by accident really. I had been living in Europe for just over 3 months and decided to take a solo trip to the Almafi Coast. I was a little unclear about the specifics of the Italian rail system so I just planned to get off my flight at the Rome airport (which is about 30 minutes outside the city) and figure it out from there. On the flight I began to chat with the Italian woman sitting next to me. I told her my plans and she warned that I would have to travel through Naples at night since it was already mid-afternoon and that was definitely a risky move considering I was traveling by myself. She suggested that I spend the night in Rome and take the train from Termini (Rome’s main train station) the next morning. That sounded reasonable as I had heard terrible things about Naples so I assured her that I would follow her instructions. The flight landed at the Rome airport and she accompanied me to the train that would take us into Rome proper. “Do you have a hotel in Rome?” she inquired. I said I had booked a hotel room for the trip back near the train station. She also said this was a bad idea and that the area around Termini was unsafe after dark. Yet another plan blown to pieces. I said goodbye to this too helpful Italian once we arrived at the train station and spent the next hour wandering around Termini trying to find an Internet cafe or wifi hot-zone in order to research a new hotel for the night. Unfortunately I came up empty handed.  I remembered from the last time I was in Rome that the area around the Spanish Steps was nice so I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me there. I walked up and down a few streets looking for a decent hotel and I finally decided on one. They had space available so I booked it. After all this ordeal I no longer felt like trying to take on this endeavor alone so I spent the next 4 days wandering around Rome, walking into every church I came across and eating more pizza and gelato than one person should probably consume alone.
Capitoline Hill at night
Chiesa del Gesu
Interior of another chapel in Rome

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Kent and I spent a lovely fall weekend in Baden-Baden a few weeks ago. We wanted to get out of Stuttgart for the night and being only 2 hours away, we chose the spa capital of Europe as our destination. The town itself is very nice with several outdoor cafes and restaurants, luscious gardens, friendly walking paths, a rambling river and open green fields. While it definitely caters to wealthy international tourists, the Caracalla Spa itself is affordable and extremely enjoyable. Just don't head to the top floor for the sauna if you want to avoid seeing numerous old naked men's butts.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Luxembourg Road Trip

Driving through the countryside on our way to Luxembourg, we observed rolling hills, sweeping valleys, rows of crops and cows grazing in the fields. This landscape is pretty par for the course in Germany so when my friend Katie and I arrived in Luxembourg City, the capital of Luxembourg, we were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, old city with grand, ornate buildings and cobblestone streets perched atop a massive cliff. Gone were the A-frame, half-timbered houses that the Germans so dearly love.

Only 4 hours away from Stuttgart, I was excited to explore Luxembourg because 1) I didn’t even realize it was a country until I met a boy from there while studying abroad and 2) despite the fact that the entire country is only the size of Rhode Island, it boasts the second highest GDP in the world and has roughly 500,000 residents.

As always our GPS had some difficultly navigating the car through the one way streets, many of which were blocked off due to construction, so after about 15 minutes of driving in circles, we located our hotel for the night.  Modern, clean, pet-friendly and decorated with modern art, Hotel Simoncini offered large rooms, unfortunately without the comfort of air conditioning, as is the trend in Europe. After dropping our bags off, we ventured out for dinner to Caves Gourmands, a French restaurant that was highly rated on TripAdvisor. We sat at a table outside and ordered off of the special menu that allowed us to pick an appetizer, entrĂ©e and dessert for a set price (one of my favorite French customs). I elected the fois gras terrine, lemon-caper sole and macaroon with berries while my friend ordered pork knuckle, chicken with chanterelles and ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. To drink, I ordered a glass of Chablis that the waiter promptly opened and poured for me. After a few bites of the amuse bouche and sips of the wine, the waiter returned to ask me how I liked the wine. I responded that it was good then he proceeded to tell me that the wine was actually undrinkable due to a rotted cork. This was slightly embarrassing since I hadn’t noticed the problem at all but he suggested a local Pinot Gris that I reluctantly accepted hoping another awkward situation would not occur. On the way back to the hotel we wandered around the town and discovered many hip restaurants and bars packed with patrons, which was surprising to see given it was a Tuesday night.

The next morning we woke up early and set off to explore the city. The first stop was the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin, originally constructed in 1613 in late Gothic style with Renaissance influence. It boasts bright stained glass windows in wonderful jewel tones and glimmering mosaics. The kind overseer even allowed us to bring in my friend’s dog so long as he was held.

From there, we wandered along the streets that bordered the Cliffside and overlooked the old town below. This path offered numerous photo ops. From there we found ourselves at the historic casemates, the city’s ancient military defense system. While the foundation of the casemates was originally constructed in the 10th century, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Holland and Prussia all took part in expanding the fortifications when each country had control of the city so that they grew to be over 23 km long. Today only 17 km of casemates remain and provide one of the top attractions in Luxembourg as tourists wander through the dark caves and peak their heads out of the holes that used to fit cannons and other weaponry.  While we only had time to see the casements, other tourist sites in Luxembourg City include the Neumunster Abbey and the modern art museum.

From there we drove about 10 minutes outside the city to the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial where more than 5,000 American soldiers were laid to rest, including General George Patton, Jr. White marble crosses and Jewish stars commemorated the heroic efforts of the allied forces as they strove to defeat Germany’s last major counteroffensive in December 1944 in what is famously remembered as the “Battle of the Bulge.”

 After another stop in the beautiful city of Trier, Germany, we headed back home to Stuttgart, just in time for rush hour traffic.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Beyond Heineken

In Amsterdam while exploring the Red Light District (strictly for anthropological purposes) my friend Heather and I stumbled across a place that we didn't feel like total creeps hanging out at. That would be Brouwerij de Prael, a hip and fun oasis in the middle of a lot of sex and weed shops. You can take a tour of the brewery then head around the corner to their new bar/restaurant to sample some beers, all of which are named after Dutch singers. While Heineken and Amstel are definitely the most well known Dutch beers, its fun to try some other types of brews that are trying to different things. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Christmas in Bikinis!

Last year I spent the Christmas holiday freezing my butt off. It was the first winter I had ever spent outside of California in my 29 years of existence and boy did those Europeans make sure it was a doozy. However, it was my boyfriend's dream come true: Christmas markets, gaudy decorations, gluhwein, carolers, skiing and snow...lots of snow.

Kent putting his French skills to work ordering Vin Chaud

Is that Santa scoping out the Christmas market or just a lady in a ridiculous outfit?
 We explored Christmas markets in Germany and France, rung in the New Year in Salzburg and spent a week skiing in the Italian Alps. I wore long underwear and a sleeping bag-esque jacket the entire time.

The town of San Cassiano, Italy
This year I will be wearing a bikini. After much deliberating and kayak-ing, we selected Belize for our winter getaway, followed by a week in Florida visiting Kent's parents. I am beyond excited. My family has somewhat of a tradition of spending Christmas in warm/tropical places like Costa Rica, Mexico or Hawaii, so this is exactly what I think of when it comes to the holidays. Kent will adjust, I'm sure.
Glover's Atoll in Belize