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September 23, 2009

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Where's Ramona? ...                 Czech Republic



Czech Republic: Prague
A vacation in Prague and Karlovy Vary can provide something for everyone.
By Ramona Zacharias

You know when you build a place up in your imagination, so much so that when you actually go there, it can't possibly be as incredible as you imagined? Well, that is definitely not the case with Prague. Not only did this stunning city meet all my expectations, it repeatedly exceeded them over the few days I spent there. Walking down one cobblestone street, I would swear I'd never seen such a striking scene; that is, until I turned the corner and took a look down the next alleyway. Faced with an overwhelming number of possibilities and a relatively short period of time, we were lucky to have a fantastic tour guide who could steer us in the right direction.

If you're going to go all out, the brand new five-star Rocco Forte property, The Augustine, is spectacular. The service is impeccable, the rooms are beautiful and the history is intriguing. Made up of seven buildings, including St. Thomas' Monastery, which dates back to the 13th century, the setting is historic and serene. A functioning monastery still exists next to the hotel and tours of their facilities and library can be arranged. There is also a spa, a restaurant and two bars, one of which (The Brewery) is located in the cellar and serves the original recipe of the monks' beer. A nice touch are the four signature cocktails featured in the hotel's second pub, Tom's Bar. Each named for a different angel (and cheekily enough, each the color of said angel's loincloth), the bar draws on the property's history to have a little fun:

Michael (protection, power, initiative [red-purple]) Baileys, Chambord, Graham's port, Frangelico, Grenadine

Raphael (healing, consecration, truth [green]) Becherovka, Midori, pear pureé sugar syrup, lemon juice

Gabriel (love, tolerance, gratitude [pink]) Hennessy VS, Orgeat, lemon juice, cranberry juice

Jophiel (illumination, wisdom, perception [yellow]) Mount Gay Eclipse, lemon juice, pineapple juice, mandarins, fresh ginger

Rack rates range from 370 to 4,000 euro, depending on just how much you plan on pampering yourself! For more information, check out

Walk, walk, and then walk some more. The best way to familiarize yourself with this city is to stroll across its bridges and through its narrow streets, taking in all the beauty it has to offer. Make sure you arm yourself with a good map and a good pair of shoes and take to it. Old Town Square in particular is a great spot to take pictures and do some shopping. The Astronomical Clock is remarkable to view and photograph. However, although crowds gather in this area every 60 minutes or so to watch its animated figures ring in the hour, the whole ordeal is somewhat anticlimactic ... at the most, it lasts about ten seconds. Don't beat yourself up if you miss it.

The nice thing is that Prague truly is a city for anyone and everyone. From history lovers to film buffs (identifying locations from such flicks as Amadeus or Mission Impossible is surprisingly easy!) The city is packed with visitors of all ages and all manner of interests. For the slightly more adventurous, the Sex Machines Museum is fantastic! Boasting three floors of gadgets, attire, and, yes, machines, the museum is about a 20-second walk from the Astronomical Clock and is actually very interesting and educational. Really. DEFINITELY DON'T MISS ...
If you can only see one thing in Prague, my suggestion would be to head straight for the Pinkas Synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery in the Jewish Quarter. A truly moving experience, the synagogue's walls are covered with the hand-stenciled names of all the Czech victims of World War II, complete with date of birth and date of disappearance or extermination. Comprising 77,297 names, the walls are literally covered from top to bottom, creating a sobering, emotional atmosphere you won't soon forget. On the top floor of the synagogue are display cases housing drawings done by children while they were imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp.

Adjacent to the synagogue is a Jewish cemetery that dates back to the mid-1400s. Some 12,000 headstones are practically piled on top of each other; in some spots, trees have grown around them. Even more chilling is the fact that, in certain spots of the cemetery, the bodies are buried 12 deep because of the lack of space.

A truly extraordinary afternoon can be spent in this memorial and cemetery.

This all depends on how much time you have. If you want an authentic, laidback European experience, Cerny Kohout (The Black Rooster) is the place to go. A family-run business (literally; it's Mom, Dad and their son), it is small, intimate, and serves traditional Prague cuisine. In case you're wondering just what that is, on the menu that night was homemade goat cheese with herb crust and poached pear; pork tenderloin and duck breast with peas and brussel sprouts in a demiglaze; and a plum dumpling for dessert. This three-course menu cost about $40. A word of caution however: count on spending some time here. With such a small staff, if other patrons are there, you could be waiting awhile. Case in point? Besides ourselves, there was a group of about 10 also dining that night; we ended up being there for about three hours. For more information and daily specials, click here.

Just as pleasant (and much more time-efficient) is Zahrada V Opere, the restaurant attached to the Prague Opera House. A bright and modern interior coupled with reasonably priced entrees (average around $20) makes for a very enjoyable dining experience.

Beer! The Czech Republic is famous for it and for good reason. Light and smooth, the "Krusovice" goes down nicely on a hot afternoon. But not to worry if you're not a beer drinker; The Czech Republic is also known for white wines and there are plenty to choose from.

Porcelain is huge in Prague, but it can obviously be difficult to transport. A much more sensible option is a Czech garnet, which makes a beautiful souvenir. You should, however, know where to go for them so you know you're getting the real deal. The store Celetna Crystal, just off Old Town Square, specializes in porcelain, crystal and jewelry, and you can be sure you won't get ripped off. Whether you want something elaborate or just a small token, you can find something decent here. Their official web site,, is currently under construction; in the meantime just punch "celetna crystal" into any search engine for more information.

We spent the night in this thermal spring town in West Bohemia, about two and a half hours outside of Prague. A beautiful city, Karlovy Vary is known for its thermal waters, its Becherovka (a potent, but popular, digestif) and its annual film festival. It just so happened that there was an exhibition by a company that does Christmas lighting the night we were there, and walking through the town after dinner was magical.

We stayed at the Savoy Westend Hotel, a luxury spa resort just outside the main tourist area. The property is gorgeous; the main building is over 100 years old, and served as the residence for the first Czech president on his frequent visits to the city. Besides an elaborate spa and swimming pool, the hotel also has a bowling alley and billiards room, complete with bar. Rates are reasonable; you can get a double occupancy room right from their web site from as low as 215 euro.

Be forewarned, however, that, while the property is beautiful and the amenities are great, the atmosphere is somewhat chilly. The food isn't nearly as fantastic as you would expect, and the service is, at best, mildly pleasant. You might be better off spending your 200+ euro elsewhere.

Once again, walking the city makes for the best activity. There is also a cable car that will take you up to the Diana Lookout Tower, which has a beautiful view of the entire town. If you decide you don't want to cable car it down, there are forest paths that you can follow back into the city.

Shopping down the main tourist area is also a decent pastime in Karlovy Vary. From upscale clothing boutiques to tacky tourist traps, a stroll through this area (and perhaps a cappuccino one on of its patios) makes for a relaxing afternoon.

For more information on the different museums Karlovy Vary has to offer (such as the Moser glassworks museum), check out

Not the water! There are taps throughout the city where you can taste the famous thermal spring waters, but considering the strong smell of sulfur that hits you before it even gets near your mouth, you might want to pass.

The aforementioned Becherovka is produced in Karlovy Vary and is something of a mystery, as only a few know the actual recipe. Very strong, it tastes better sipped ice cold. Small bottles of Becherovka also make a nice souvenir and will only run you about $3.

And for the avid shot glass collector in your life ...

Let's face it, shot glasses make for some of the best souvenirs. Small, affordable and easy to fit in your suitcase, they're available everywhere. And once in a while you find a place like Karlovy Vary that puts an interesting twist on this little memento. Due to the abundance of thermal springs in the city, locals and tourists use ceramic mugs with a built-in straw for a handle to fill up as they walk down the street. Miniature versions of these little porcelain mugs are sold all over the town and make for a unique addition to any shot glass collection.

Whether you're in the heart of Prague, or traveling through one of the smaller towns, Czech Republic is a beautiful country. Like most places in Europe, the history alone is mind-boggling and in the Jewish Quarter, also very sobering. But with much to do and see, it is a vacation that can be tailored to all manner of ages and interests.

Czech Republic recently became one of the 25 European countries to participate in Eurail, one of the best options for economical travel throughout Europe. There really is nothing like seeing the European countryside through a train window. And with four different pass options (Global, Select, Regional, or One Country) you can find a pass to suit your timeframe and the type of vacation you want to have. For example, with the Select Pass (also known as the "Flexible Pass") you can travel in three, four, or five bordering countries for five, six, eight or 10 days within a two-month period. Sound confusing? It is! If I can stress just one point, it's do your research! The pass is fantastic and the experience is wonderful. However, with so many countries, and so many options, you should know exactly where you want to go, when you want to be there, and if you're going to run into any trouble along the way. And I'm speaking from experience. Even with our reservations made and everything pre-arranged for our night train from Prague to Budapest, someone thankfully realized before we boarded that we would be passing through Slovakia, a country that does not accept the Eurail pass. And as much fun as being stranded in the Slovakian countryside at 2am would be, we had reservations in Budapest the next morning and didn't want to appear rude by not showing up. This oversight was fixed easily enough with the purchase of a ticket valid for travel between the borders of Czech Republic/Slovakia and Slovakia/Hungary for a mere 10 euro, but had our friend not realized this in time, we could have potentially found ourselves in some trouble.

If you do get the chance to take a sleeper train, I would highly advise it -- unless you're claustrophobic and can't afford a single sleeper. About the size of a decent walk-in closet, the compartments feature a small sink and up to six (SIX!) bunks. But at the risk of sounding juvenile, it's so cool! There's a small snack bar that sells beer and pop and cookies until around 10pm. Our group happened to have an extra compartment, which we deemed “the living room” and we sat around, and chatted, traveling through the Czech countryside. Our conductor took coffee orders for the next morning and we were woken up a half hour before arrival in Budapest with our coffee and a light breakfast (and by "light breakfast", I mean a packaged slice of chocolate cake).

Eurail just celebrated its 50th anniversary and with good reason. Train travel in Europe is a must. Just know what you want and how much you want to spend. For all things Eurail-related, visit

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The Augustine Hotel, external


The Augustine Hotel, suite


The Augustine Hotel, The Brewery


Bridge view of city


Old Town Square


The Astronomical Clock


Museum of Sex Machines


Sign indicating the Jewish Quarter


Pinkas Synagogue


Old Jewish Cemetery


Old Jewish Cemetery


Group photo at Zahrada V Opere restaurant


Czech beer


Bridge view of city


Violinist outside Prague Castle


Hillside view of Karlovy Vary


Christmas in June!


The Savoy Westend Hotel


Street view of Karlovy Vary


Main shopping and tourist area


Thermal spring tap


Kiosk selling signature digestif, Becherovka


Prague train station


Catching the night train


Typical single sleeper


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