Saturday, June 9, 2018

New Year's Eve Zaniness in the Heart of Berlin

11:55 pm, December 31st - New Year's Eve. Standing on Unter den Linden just a few blocks away from the Brandenburg Tor; in the midst of a few thousand of my fellow revellers it's apparent that for 355 days of the year Berliners are sane humans but New Year's Eve brings out the "pyro" in both Berliners and visitors alike.

One day every year, December 31st to be exact, anyone in the city of Berlin, or any German city, can legally buy the most amazingly high powered fireworks made (by US standards) just about anywhere. In fact we bought our fireworks pack in a stationery store of all places! The entire day is spent in anticipation of sunlight leaving so the day's purchase of skyrockets can be unleashed into the darkening sky without repercussion from the police or other authorities.

Dinners are planned with almost military-like precision so that meals are completed prior to midnight when most of the noise and lights of the fireworks erupt. Then the party moves outside to let the real festivities begin… fireworks that look like mortar boxes are set off in the street just a few feet away…fireworks of gold, green, red, orange and even a purplish blue scream overhead, launched from the building rooftops lining the street… sometimes ducking around a building corner for temporary cover is required in this free-for-all madcap frenzy of pyro-activity. But oh, the adrenaline rush and excitement of watching the sounds and colors associated with the exploding all around you is so utterly contagious!

After the fireworks are finally done and the last lone flash and scream in the air is over the crowd slowly disperses, with most wandering toward the closest well-known Ubahn stop. Tag along with a local and catch a less crowed subway line just around the corner to get back home within a reasonable length of time. Beware tho, even on the Ubahn and the Ubahn station you can encounter firecracker activity so stay alert! If one lands next to your foot you can either move away really fast or (if you are lucky) stomp on it really hard with your shoe to put it out!

Venturing outside the next morning, New Year's Day, brings a shock to those who are new to the Berlin style of NYE partying. On the streets and along the sidewalks sit massive amounts of spent fireworks papers, bottle rocket sticks and finished fuses — it looks like a war zone! By the next morning though (January 2nd) the masses of debris are neatly swept up into piles 2 to 3 feet deep alongside the streets awaiting pickup by the trash collectors!

My advice—if you EVER get the chance to travel to Berlin for New Year's Eve, GO! You will never forget the experience!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Top Winter Holiday Activities To Do in Prague

1. An evening walking tour of Christmas lights —
To shake off your jet lag take a relaxing walk through Wenceslas Square (known in Czech as Vaclev Namesti)to gaze in awe at the brilliantly lit and decorated gigantic Christmas tree located at the southern end of the Square. Be sure to look closely at all the different beautiful tree ornaments and lights. Try to decide which is the prettiest if you can! Afterward walk toward Republiky Namesti via Na Prikope Avenue. Make sure to pause and view the fantastic blue and gold themed holiday display at the entrance of Moser's glassworks on Na Prikope (definitely save viewing the interior of Moser's for another day). Continue walking on the newly falling snow until you arrive at Republiky Namesti and gaze on the splendor and elaborate Art Deco designs of the Municipal building facade.
2. Experience a traditional Christmas Eve dinner —

Since most Czechs celebrate the main holiday meal on the evening of Christmas Eve, a reservation at La Republica, just 2 blocks off Republicky Namesti, is a must. Groats and mushrooms being the 5 course feast. Groats are a barley based grain that have a distinctive mushy taste when eaten - definitely an acquired taste! The second course, a fish soup offering, reveals a buttery, slightly salty taste of broth in which cooked vegetables and crispy brown croutons swim. The main course is a flavorful fried carp served with a mouthwateringly tasty potato salad. As usual, with carp, there are many small bones to crunch so do be forewarned. The fourth course (as if you weren't stuffed enough already), as announced by the English version of the menu, consists of pear dumplings with gingerbread and cottage cheese. As unlikely a pairing (no pun intended) of foods as this sounds, the blending of savory, sweet and tangy flavors is absolute gastronomic delight! (Yes, it is THAT good…) The grand finale of this festive feast are the elaborate Christmas butter cookies for which the Czechs are famously proud,served with coffee or tea. Candied fruits, sprinkled sugars and/or flavored icings crowned the homemade shortbread or sugar cookies as per the culinary whims of the baker. All are equally delicious.

After surviving this very filling feast it is time to once again immerse yourself in Prague's holiday atmosphere, taking time to stroll the Namesti while watching the glow of the numerous colorful holiday lights and listening to the lively toe-tapping local holiday music around every street corner.

3. Attend a Christmas concert —
One thing that Prague is known for — MUSIC!! There are almost as many venues presenting concerts during the winter holiday as there are types of music to play. Catch a classical concert near the Prague Castle complex at lunchtime if time permits. Energize with jazz in the evening at one of Prague's many jazz clubs. Feel the Latin rhythms pulsating at a late night salsa dance club! Whatever type of music you enjoy, Prague is sure to please.
4. Winter tour of Prague Castle —

This isn't just your ordinary castle but a complex that houses one of the most awe inspiring cathedrals in all of Europe, the impressive St. Vitus cathedral. Other historic venues within the walls of the Prazsky Hrad complex include the Old Royal Palace, St George's Basilica, the Powder Tower, Rosenberg Palace, the Palace gardens and Golden Lane. Golden Lane, created as housing for the complex craftspeople and servants, shows a well preserved glimpse of how these workers lived within the castle walls. There is an extensive collection of armor, fighting helmets, weapons and other metalworks along the entire length of the Golden Lane's second floor (WOW gamers rejoice!).

Adult admission for a regular castle tour ticket costs 250 Kc (Czech crowns) which at the time of this posting is approximately $13 USD.

5. Cobblestone walk over Charles Bridge —
Late afternoon or evening in winter is the most magical time to wander the length of this magnificent bridge, It's difficult to view everything this bridge has to offer in just one walk. Between the vendors hawking everything from tourist caricatures to watercolor paintings of Prague to jewelry and other handicrafts to the buskers playing their upbeat and lively music that can be danced to, it's difficult to concentrate on the craftsmanship of the 15+ statues lining the sides of the pedestrian walkway. Don't forget to rub the dog located at the base of one of the statues for luck! You can't miss it — it's the only bright, shiny piece of the statue.
6. Shopping at the Open Air Christmas Markets —
The two largest open air holiday markets in Prague,located on Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, are an easy 10 minute walk from each other. Both markets have cabin-like booths featuring everything from delicate handmade Christmas ornaments to amber jewelry to miniature medieval metal masks and everything in between. Food offerings at the holiday markets range from chocolates, a variety of wursts, roasted pig on a spit, roasted chestnuts and, my personal favorite, fried camembert cheese with lingonberry jam. Remember to wash the food down with a good Czech beer or very warm medovina (honey wine). HINT: Try to time your Old Town holiday market visit with a viewing of the top-of-the-hour activities of the famous Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Hall tower.
7. Vltava River viewing from Vysehrad Castle —
Take tram #22 along the Vltava River and wind your way along over to Vratislavova Street to begin the trek up the steep road, follow the turn and climb upward some more. Just when you think you can't climb anymore, enter the grounds of Vysehrad Castle, the birthplace of the city of Prague. Even in winter the red tiled roof views of the city are spellbinding, standing along the top of the castle walls. Look through the mist to the northwest for an amazing view of Prague Castle. How regal it appears, perched majestically on the hilltop, towering over all the wonders of Prague — the city itself, Charles Bridge and the Vysehrad! Walk over the well worn, moss edged cobblestone walkway, past the row of chestnut trees and snow lined dormant gardens to the western wall of the castle complex. Gaze in wonder at the activity on the River Vltava and her many bridges. Stroll north past the castle vineyards to the mosaic encrusted doors of St Peter and Paul church. Marvel at the brilliant, vibrant stained glass windows inside. Visit the cemetery next to the church if you dare. Complete your visit descending back down the road with lunch at El Paisa, the best Mexican restaurant in Prague (Really!). Don't forget to say "Hi" to American ex-pat owner Elliott.
8. Shopping and Chocolate —
Wintertime in Prague demands the occasional cup of hot chocolate. After intensive power shopping in Old Town, at Blue Praha for reasonably priced, authentic, elegantly hand crafted Czech crystal ware and the Swarovsky store for the chance to purchase the latest in Czech crystal jewelry designs, make a stop at either Choco Cafe on Liliova (if you don't mind the 20 minute wait and sometimes lackluster service) or meander over to Cafe Louvre on Narodni (for a relaxed, refined pace evoking the times that Einstein frequented the place). Both have great options for those wintertime chocoholic cravings!
9. New Year's Eve along the Vltava —
The Czechs REALLY love their NYE celebrations! There are spur of the moment firework displays on many street corners the week between Christmas and New Years. Official fireworks are presented at 6 pm on New Year's Eve and at the same time on New Year's Day with the largest fireworks display presented on a small island on the Vltava River late in the evening on December 31st. This massive display is a sensory overload of sound and color for a good 30 minutes and it's also accompanied by live music! A fantastic way to ring in the New Year, Czech-style!
10. Lunchtime Cruise on the River —
Combine two activities into one outing — Toast to your boarding with a pre-lunch drink. Enjoy the sights and sounds of the city while relaxing on board a riverboat and listening about the history of Prague with insights from your tour guide. Delight in the local and regional culinary choices of food offered at the extensive all-you-ca-eat buffet featured on board. Feel the boat gently rise and fall with the level of the water when traversing the river locks. 2 hours of entertainment that passed by in the blink of an eye. Time well spent!