Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Impromptu Cambridge (Boston) Bar Crawl

Whether it was fortunately or unfortunately, our plans for traveling back to South Carolina after spending Thanksgiving in New England got switched around last minute...and left us in the Boston area on Friday night with only the vague idea of grabbing food and beers at Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square - to be followed by who knows what.

Cambridge Brewing Company's food, like some of their beers, changes with the seasons. Many of their current dishes are fall-inspired, featuring butternut squash, pumpkin and the like. We sampled their infamous (and delicious!) Great Pumpkin Ale along with their - err - New England take on hush puppies, to start. Between the five of us who dined we ordered everything from pizza to pasta to sandwiches to steak for our meals, and it was all exemplary.
No, we didn't order one of the beer towers - but that's not to say we weren't tempted!
Though I'd done a quick Google search of other bars near the CBC, I didn't realize that so many of them would be right on top of each other! After dinner, we made a few quick stops right in the same courtyard as the Cambridge Brewing Company - first Tommy Doyle's, which was a bit quiet so early in the night but had the appearance of what is likely quite a fun bar. We sat at a high-top table and had a great view of the painted wall across the street.

After some Irish coffees to perk us up, we walked right across the courtyard to Think Tank, which had some great VIP areas but was also fairly quiet this particular night. Think Thank seems to be predominantly Asian themed with its drinks, including beers, but they also have some interesting versions of old favorites - like a Manhattan and a Pimm's Cup - that are worth a try.

As we were leaving our this third stop they were pushing aside the tables and chairs and turning up the music, so I get the impression that late night Think Tank turns into a sort of club. Not really what we were looking for at this point in the evening, so we made one more stop in that little courtyard - The Blue Room.

Unfortunately, they were out of many of their house-infused liquors and to be honest the bartender wasn't the most pleasant fellow I've ever dealt with. We tossed back one drink and decided to make a last stop at the Meadhall, which was on the way back to the Kendall Square T station. But despite the Meadhall having been open when we passed it on our way to CBC, it was closed! It was only about 10:30 so needless to say, we weren't ready to catch the T back to my friend Jamie's apartment outside of the city, and there wasn't much else in the area - at least not much that was open. We ended up hiking it all the way to Central Square to see if the Enormous Room was open (it wasn't) and in the end we finished our night at The Phoenix Landing.

At least there was a decent DJ and some tequila to ease our annoyance at the fact that so many places were closed for Black Friday (seriously, Boston? seriously?)...

All in all it was a really fun night, even with that final necessary hike from Kendall to Central. We caught one of the last trains out of the city, but of course we didn't go right to bed...no, we did our best to marathon it back at Jamie's apartment, catching just an hour or so of sleep before making our way to Logan Saturday morning. We got lucky timing- and traffic-wise and were very early for our flight, which gave us time to eat breakfast (but really just kept me from a good nap for that much longer).
Waiting on breakfast at Logan. And yes, in case you haven't noticed, I often travel with fuzzy animal hats.
In case you can't tell, I really needed a Bloody Mary. Or something - anything - of the sort. Unfortunately, you can't get alcohol at a restaurant before 8 AM in Boston.

And everyone wonders why I love Vegas so much. ;)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Eurotrip 2011, Day 6 Part 2: Black Lights & Bread in Praha

Our second night in Prague was a "free night" - as in, there was nothing planned through Contiki - and Kiwi Katie convinced a fair number of us that we needed to see a black light theater show.

To be fair, the show that Kiwi Katie led us to wasn't one she herself had seen before, and she was very clear about that. She also made sure that we understood that her friend who suggested it said it was, in a word, "strange". Still, our curiosity was peaked and for about 30 Euro a person, we figured...why the heck not? Black light theater is apparently a big thing in Prague, and we assumed that no one show could really be that much worse than any other.

Well...we were wrong. Or at least, I can only hope we were.
Aspects of Alice - the strangest show I've ever seen
You see, we were given the impression that this show - Aspects of Alice - had something to do with Alice in Wonderland. I'm still not sure how that was the case. The music was more annoying than anything and there didn't seem to be any credible storyline to follow. If you really want to have an unforgettable evening watching something like that, all the more power to you...but I'm thinking we should have either avoided black light theater entirely, or gone to see a more generally popular show.

When Aspects of Alice was over, we stumbled out into the waning twilight, hungry and confused. From there we made our way to U Modre Ruza, or At the Blue Rose, located at Rytirska 16 in the Old Town. The hotel had called in our reservation earlier that day and we prepared ourselves for what we hoped would be a meal something like our amazing dinner in Berlin two nights prior.
Inside At the Blue Rose

At the Blue Rose is located in gothic cellars that date at least as far back as the late 1300s. It was a very quiet, dimly lit restaurant and this did a good job of invoking the perfect atmosphere. Meals were a bit pricey - my "Peter Vok's Duck" ran 550 crowns, which is between $30 and $35 US - but while Natalie C didn't care for her pork, I was very pleased with the meal.
Peter Vok's Duck dish, At the Blue Rose
My main complaint was about the darn rolls. Yes, I had been warned - by both my guidebook and Kiwi Katie - that the basket of rolls they inevitably place in front of you at Czech restaurants are not included with the meal as they are, oh, nearly everywhere else in the world. If you eat them, you will be charged. So when our waiter placed that basket of rolls in front of me, I merely eyed them warily.

And then we waited. And waited. And waited for our food. About 20 minutes after he had brought out the rolls, the waiter returned and made sure we understood that even though he had placed them in front of me, they were for the whole table. Now, we had been hungry when we sat down for this meal - by now we'd been there over half an hour and we were starving. So Steve and I and the Natalies debated. Would they really charge us for these rolls? I mean, this was a nice restaurant. At $25+ US a plate, surely they wouldn't feel the need to charge for the rolls as well. Plus, the waiter was so insistent that we eat them. Would he be that insistent if they weren't included? And besides, they were just little rolls. What could they possibly cost? Certainly not more than 20-30 crowns each.

So we dug in.

Big mistake. While those rolls were certainly delicious, when we got the bill my jaw must have hit the floor. Those rolls ended up costing us 100 crowns each. That's about $6 US, folks.

No roll is worth that.

My cheeks were literally burning red at my own stupidity as we paid the bill, left the absolute minimum tip, and rushed out of the restaurant.

But not before snapping a mocking picture of me with a cardboard cutout of our waiter...who was apparently also the owner of the restaurant.
Oh well...at least we got a good story out of it.

At this point we all needed a drink. Or ten. So we decided to head over to the club that Kiwi Katie had talked up earlier in the day. "The biggest club in Prague!" she said. "It has five levels!"

Of course...we aren't the five-level club types, but we decided to give it a chance anyway. And I'll say this for Karlovy Lazne - they do love their black lights. (As if we hadn't had enough of those earlier.)
The building that houses this astonishing FIVE LEVEL CLUB used to be some sort of factory, which was probably the most interesting thing about it. They have left some of the factory - err, decor - intact, which makes for some cool hangout areas.
Like this hollowed-out silo that now houses a sort of VIP table. Oh, and we're pretending to be mafiosos here. I don't know.
Somehow we still stayed out until 3 AM, despite the fact that the dance floors did end up being ridiculously crowded (as compared to how completely empty they were just three hours prior) and the music was just so-so. We made it fun, but not surprisingly, we still aren't "Five Level Club" type of people. And even more interesting was the walk (yes, walk) back to the hotel. You see, cabs in Prague are apparently questionable at best, and hey, there were four of us. And Steve's a guy. How bad could it be? we thought.

The answer? Not too too bad. There was a moment where a gypsy-type woman followed us down a barely-lit winding road, trying to call out to us, but we ignored her and as soon as we entered Old Town Square she disappeared. The Square itself was practically deserted and the lighting quite eery...it was actually really cool and we spent a few minutes gawking...
...until we realized that a creepy elderly man was stalking us. At which point we rushed out of the square and practically ran back to the hotel without looking back. We lost him once we broke out onto one of the [surprisingly] busier streets, but this was one of very few times I regretted not having my pepper spray with me. Or not being in a city where you can actually trust any car that has a "cab" sign on it. First world problems and all that.

So our first full day in Prague came to an end, and we fell into bed happy that we didn't have to meet for our bike tour until 10:45 AM.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Eurotrip 2011, Day 6: Prague by Land & River

I have to admit that it was a bit unfortunate to wake up on our first full day and Prague to one heck of a dismal morning. We donned some warm clothes and piled onto the bus with the Natalies, Kiwi Katie and the rest of our tour mates to ride up to Prague Castle. The plan was to visit St. Vitus's and then take a walking tour down through the Little Quarter and across the Charles Bridge.
St. Vitus's
Inside St. Vitus's
View of Prague from the Castle
The thing is, I wasn't too keen on this walking tour. We could hardly hear our guide half the time. We got no time to actually see the inside of Prague Castle - and I really wanted to see the Riders' Staircase. Then we basically ran through the Little Quarter and saw absolutely nothing there. In hindsight, I wouldn't have gone on this tour even though it was included through Contiki. I would have taken the bus up to Prague Castle and made my own way from there.
Little Quarter (told you it was overcast)
These hitching posts (or whatever they are) really amused me
We finally reached the Charles Bridge, and it was seriously as cool as I'd expected it to be. The views of the city, the statues, knowing that it was actually built with raw eggs and wine in the mortar...no wonder everyone who visits Prague flocks to this landmark ;)
On the Charles Bridge
King Wenceslas by the Old Town Gate of the Charles Bridge
After we'd crossed the bridge our tour made its way into the Old Town Square, famous for its astronomical clock and the cafes surrounding it on all sides. As usual we couldn't hear a word the guide was saying, but after viewing the famous clock for a bit we had time to grab an espresso at one of the cafes before heading to our afternoon river cruise. It was a bit chilly still and we were very excited to see that the cafes provide blankets for those who want to sit outside! A very nifty idea, if you ask me.
As you can see, the skies cleared just long enough for me to snap a great picture of the Astronomical Clock!
It was about a fifteen minute walk from the Old Town Square to board the boat for our river cruise, and once there it felt really good to sit down. In the warmth. Our guide continued on the boat with us and this time we could actually hear her talk while we ate a pretty darn yummy buffet and enjoyed some included drinks - one shot of herbal liqueur each, plus two more tokens per person that were good for beer or wine. This river cruise was one of the Contiki optionals and it was absolutely worth the extra cost!
Showing off our shots and drink tokens
There were tons of swans on the Vltava.
Old fortifications along the river
Enjoying our lunch and drinks with the Natalies!
A different sort of view of the Charles Bridge
When the cruise ended we headed back up around the edge of the Little Quarter and crossed the Charles Bridge again. Along the way we ran into an...interesting...little parade.
I don't get it, but these Czechs LOVE their smurfs.
We actually split off from the Natalies at this point, as they wanted to do quite a bit more shopping than we did. Steve and I stopped in a few kitschy souvenir places on our way back to the Old Town Square (and definitely got a bit, err, turned around in those windy little streets), but eventually we made it back to one of those infamous cafes to enjoy - you guessed it - a Pilsner Urquell!
Now, quick little side note - of course you pay a premium to eat and drink at these cafes. That beer that Steve is drinking cost about 80 crowns (at the time, that was about $5 US). Had we not wanted the experience of hanging out on Old Town Square, we could have wandered two blocks off the square and paid about 32 crowns for the same beer. Ah well!

After enjoying our beers for a relaxing half hour or so, we decided to make our way back to the hotel to get ready for a night out. On our way we found the Powder Gate!
Aaaand I had to be super touristy and consult my map to figure out where in the world our hotel was in reference to said Powder Gate ;)
Obviously we found our way just fine, and got to kick up our feet for a bit before our big night out in Prague.

And it was a very interesting big night out...but more on that later.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Eurotrip 2011, Day 5: Berlin to Prague via Dresden

On the 5th day of our Eurotrip, it was time to leave Berlin and head to Prague - which I was actually really excited about. But thanks to the fact that the distance between those two cities encompasses only about...five-ish hours...we were able to make some interesting stops along the way. And I was not complaining about that ;)

First things first - the East Side Gallery. We visited this on our way out of Berlin and I am very happy that I got to see it! I honestly didn't know what it was, though once I saw it I realized some of my friends had recently posted pictures of it on Facebook! Basically, the East Side Gallery is a just-over-1 KM-long section of the Berlin Wall that has about 106 paintings on it. Paintings depicting - fittingly - freedom, equality and the like. Another absolute must if you're ever in Berlin, for sure.

After about 30 minutes to explore the East Side Gallery, we were on our way to Dresden! We would be stopping there for lunch and a bit of sightseeing before continuing on to Prague. I'll discuss our time on the bus more in my eventual review of our tour as a whole, but for now...Dresden is the word of the day! :)
First decent view of Dresden
Our bus dropped us off by the river and we walked into the historic part of the city to eat lunch. We ate at a little restaurant called No. 3 - it wasn't amazing but better than any rest stop food for sure! Some other people in our tour had a less positive experience there, from what I heard, but the price was right and the food was decent so I don't have any major complaints.
Martin Luther statue and the Cathedral
No. 3 menu :)
After lunch Kiwi Katie met us back at the Frauenkirche Cathedral and we had a quick tour of Dresden before going back to the bus.
AmpleGAL sighting!!!
The beautiful Frauenkirche was basically completely destroyed during World War II. They rebuilt it using as much of the original material as possible and it really is an amazing symbol of German resilience. Dresden was a beautiful little city and I am still super excited that we got to stop there, even if it was just for a few hours :)
Dresden Sgraffito
Dresden Opera House
We continued on the road to Prague, our stop in Dresden lasting about three or three and a half hours. My one complaint about our arrival in Prague is that we were dropped off quite far from the hotel. Apparently buses couldn't fit up the streets in the Old Town, or weren't allowed in them, or something. I was okay with that but the walk was definitely much longer than I was expecting :-/ That, and we weren't allowed to use the stairs in the hotel! Which meant one heck of a wait for the elevators to get up to our rooms that first day. Still, we had time to freshen up before our included dinner, and when we made our way downstairs to meet for it, the day sheet was up!
The included dinner was just a five minute walk from our hotel and it wasn't half bad. Steve and I enjoyed our first Pilsner Urquells of the trip...little did we know that we would grow quite sick of them over the next couple days, haha.
After the dinner we had a bit more free time at the hotel before meeting up for a non-sponsored "bar crawl" hosted by Kiwi Katie. We went to the first bar and stayed for a couple of hours, but honestly...it wasn't really our type of place. The Natalies left quite a bit earlier than Steve and I did, but about the time the rest of the tour group was heading on to the second stop of the bar crawl we broke off and went our own way. And I'm very glad we did. We stumbled into the "Prague Beer Museum Bar" and this ended up being the only place in Prague that we saw beers other than Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen or Krucovice!
Prague Beer Museum Bar taps...constantly changing!
If you end up in Prague and you're a beer lover, you need need need to check out the Prague Beer Museum.

Unfortunately, at this point it was getting late and as usual...we had an early morning to look forward to. We headed to bed around midnight, but not before I shot a picture of Steve in front of one of the many Smurf posters we saw on this trip. I mean, those Smurfs are apparently very popular in Europe, but they really really love them in Prague.
After a long day of travel and just a couple hours to explore Prague, we were ready to really see the city the next day!