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Eastern Europe Tour

Day 1 Sunday May 20, 2007

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This old man seems to follow me around on these trips.

I fell asleep at 3:30 a.m. Central European Time, which was 9:30 p.m. Eastern. The high-tech chairs in business class were unbelievably good for sleeping. I awoke at 7 because I was the only person in the whole section who had neglected to put down his window shades. I soon remedied that problem and then slept until 8:30.

Yummy breakfast on Delta?

The flight attendants served us a delicious breakfast - an omelet with parmesan cheese and Roma tomatoes, chicken apple sausages, potatoes, fruit, rolls, and coffee. It was definitely filling. The food and the service on this flight were mind-blowing.

Sue missed the critically important hot towels for both meals. She was in the bathroom both times. I can't take her anywhere.

The Czechs call their capital Praha.

There was not a lot to see out the window as we flew over Ireland, Wales, southern England, a corner of France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, and into the Czech Republic. I was somewhat surprised that we could see quite a bit of forest land in Germany. Mentally I had always pictured developed Europe as pretty much denuded of trees.

Our landing at the Prague airport was smooth. As we taxied to our gate we passed some kids standing outside of the fence near the runway. They waved to us as we went by. I waved back, but It was doubtful that they could have seen us through the windows. We gathered together all of our stuff and exited the plane ahead of the plebeians in coach and headed for passport control.

Patti Corcoran right after passport control.

Patti's traveling companion.

It is hard to believe, but the Corcorans, who had flown in from London on Czech Airlines, were right behind us in the passport control line. We had only a vague plan for how we would find one another. I figured that it would be difficult to find them at such a busy airport, but we did not even have to look for them. As usual, passport control and customs were trivially easy.

Since I could not locate a Bankomat, as ATM's are known throughout Europe, anywhere in baggage claim, I obtained $100 worth of Czech currency, which came to 1,850 korunas after the commission, at one of the exchange windows. At Tom's suggestion we took the Čedaz minibus to the hotel. It was only 480 Kč, which came to only $6 each. We knew that the hotel's name was Centrál, but the lady at the counter said that there were two hotels with that name. She needed to know the street. I dug the hotel list out of my money belt and showed it to her. She told us that the hotel was located on Rybna Street and that Rybna meant fish.

She also gave me a card that said that the return trip would be only 300 Kč. We would not be going back from the hotel to the Prague airport until June 7. I expected it to be a significant challenge to avoid losing this over the next three weeks.

The scenery on the drive from the airport to Prague's Old Town was not very impressive. We saw a good number of old orange trolleys (they call them trams in Europe) and one brand new bullet-shaped one.

When we arrived at the hotel I could not find my passport. Panic! I looked through all of my pockets and my money belt. I looked again. I finally found it next to my wallet in my back pocket.

Our room at the Hotel Centrál.

Tom acquired some Czech money from a nearby Bankomat (ATM). He found it frustrating that they gave him one 2,000 Kč bill. It apparently cost extra to break it.

We got settled in our rooms. I took a shower and shaved. When I was done, I was ready for a long nap. I was outvoted. The other three New Englanders were fired up to go out and attack Prague.

We first located the Theater of the Estates, the site of our opera in a few weeks. As predicted, it was less than ten minutes from the hotel. We then headed through the Old Town Square toward the Charles Bridge. I was quite disappointed to discover that the Jan Hus monument on the square was covered up for renovation. Even so, the square was impressive. Since it was Sunday it was not overrun with tourists. Before we got to the bridge, exhaustion set in, and we decided to turn around and return to the hotel. Tom was sent on a reconnaisance mission to find a place to stop, rest, and sample our first Czech brew. We stopped for a Krušovice beer at a pub named Reykjavik. The building also housed the Icelandic Consulate.

The Theater of the Estates in which Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni.

The two spires of the Týn Church towered over Old Town Square.

Our first beer in the Czech Republic had an Icelandic accent.

When we returned to the hotel, Sue called Jana Liberská, the wife of Sue's distant cousin. Sue learned that Jana would not be able to see us on our first pass to Prague. She would be going to France for the next five days on business. My trips to Des Moines, Fresno, and Dayton no longer seemed quite so glamorous as before. Fortunately, we would be able to see Jana and her family when we returned to Bohemia after the tour.

The tour group met in the hotel's little restaurant at 5 p.m. As expected, we were just about the last to arrive. I would have preferred to meet some other people immediately, but Sue and I ended up seated with the Corcorans and our tour guide, Susana Minich. Almost all of the other tables had four people at them. It was apparent that most held two couples.

Susana told the group that she was a native of Bratislava who had grown up in Switzerland. She had worked for Rick Steves as a tour guide for eight years. She explained how things would work on this tour. In the cities we would have a local guide for half of the day and be on our own for the other half. It would therefore be pretty important that we research each of the cities, or half of our trip could be wasted.

We also learned that we would be on our own for drinks at all meals except for tonight. Tonight's supper would include one free beer. This pay-as-you-go approach is certainly going to take some getting used to. On the Village Italy tour we had each kicked in €50, and the supply of wine seemed endless.

We chose up buddies, but Susana did not make sure that everyone understood how this was supposed to work. Also, Sue and I, sitting next to Susana, had to fill out a form indicating what we wanted for dinner in Kraków while everyone else picked buddies. By the time that we had done so, everyone had paired up with the other couple at their table! It seemed obvious to me that this would not work, but no one said anything. This annoyed me much more than it should have. I let Susana know that Sue and I were unable to get buddies. Two people were forced to abandon their buddies in favor of us Enfielders. So, Joanne Anderson, who was from the Seattle area, received the sixteen-day assignment of trying to spot the grey hair sticking out of my visor. Sue's buddy was Marge Brimmer.

The monument to Jan Hus on the left was under repair.

Lenin has been hanging around in Prague since the revolution.

Susana then led the whole group on an orientation walk that was almost identical to the one that we four New Englanders completed earlier. I learned that Susana was a student of religious history, among other things, and knew all about the Council of Constance and its trial of Jan Hus.

Supper was downstairs at the Klub Architektů. The appetizer was pate with some bread and basil-flavored butter. Then came a salad that consisted of olives, feta cheese, tomatoes, peppers, and a little lettuce. The cheese was quite good. The main course was chicken with vegetables, fried potatoes (very good), and sliced carrots on purple lettuce. The dessert of cake, ice cream, and strawberries was exceptional. I would give the dinner a solid B. However, the service was so poor that my annoyance level increased dramatically. The affair dragged on for two and a half hours.

Klub Architektů.

The room with the worst acoustics in the world. At my table were Liane and Tony Gerczak, Marge and Mike Brinner, Audrey and Harly Thompson, and Angela and Rawlins McKinney. At Sue's table were Lee Anderson, Paul and Anne Miller, and Joan and Ray Cresap.

The worst part of this meal was the acoustics of the small room in which most of the tour group was seated. It was nearly impossible to understand anything that anyone said. Even comments from the person immediately next to me or directly across from me were unintelligible unless she yelled, and I bent my head over. I have never encountered such a thing.

At dinner I met Liane and Tony Gerczak from the Sacramento area. This would be their first Rick Steves tour. They recently retired from their human relations business. I was naturally interested in whether they had sold their business. They told me that there was nothing to sell. I surmised that most of what they did must have been consulting.

The wall was to my right. Seated to my left was Audrey Thompson from Winnipeg. Both the Gerczaks and Audrey and her husband Harlyn flew into Berlin and took the train to Prague. Liane and Tony were surprised to learn that we had been able to use Sky Miles for the tickets on our flight from Atlanta to Prague. They had tried to get on the same flight, but they were unable to get seats. I told them that Sue had spent nineteen hours arranging it. They said that Delta was by far the least cooperative at letting people use their miles. I was astonished when Liane said that our tickets from Atlanta to Prague would have cost over $9,000 if we had paid cash. I had to wonder if any of the thirty-six passengers in business class had actually shelled out so much money. I had noticed that at least a few people got upgraded in Atlanta.

The area around the Charles Bridge was magical by night.

After dinner the whole group walked to the Vltava River, which was not far from the restaurant. We ended up at a place just north of the Charles Bridge. It was a perfect spot to photograph the river scene by night. Two neon stick figures appeared to be walking on the river. Unfortunately, I did not know how to set my camera properly for a night scene, so my photos came out badly. I took heart in the fact that I had several more evenings in Prague to remedy this situation. Also, I felt certain that I would easily find time to research this in my camera's manual.

From where we stood two stick figures appeared to be walking on the Vltava River.

The rest of the group walked to the Charles Bridge. Sue, however, was ready to drop, so we excused ourselves and strolled slowly back to the hotel. I managed to find our way with no difficulty. On the walk back we passed an establishment that offered table dancing. It was called Pussy de Luxe. I was not sure what the phrase meant in Czech. I made a mental note to look it up in Sue's phrase book.

The zipper on my $1.98 Wal-Mart camera case had broken. I had to rip the nylon fabric in order to extract my camera. I would need to buy a new case. I had heard that there was a department store near the hotel. Presumably I could purchase one there on Monday.

Sound seldom has bothered my sleeping. However, at midnight I was awakened by the chiming in the bell tower. I could not get back to sleep, so I eventually got up and worked on my journal and a few other things. This pattern had better cease, or I would be crabby for the entire trip.

This was the first time at this early stage that I had felt anything less than boundless optimism about the tour. If it continued to be as hot as the Weather Channel website forecast, Sue would be miserable. Maybe we would get to do as many cool things as on the other tours, but it sure doesn't sound like it. Meanwhile, I would try to use my sleep mask and earplugs to get a little more shuteye.

I seemed to be having more and more trouble with the switch[1] that activates my trusty laptop. If at some point I become unable get it to function, I would be a very unhappy camper.

[1]  When I got back home, I called Dell. They talked me through the fix for this problem. It involved removing the panel that surrounded the on/off switch and making sure that a jumper was attached securely.