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August 2, 2006

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                            Praha (Prague)

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Nazdar from the Czech Republic! Nazdar (pronounced "NAH-zda") means hello. (For more basic Czech words and phrases, see the translation links in our resource section.) We left off last week (here’s the link to the archives) on an SAS flight from Newark to Praha (Prague, in English) with a connection in Copenhagen. I could have flown nonstop on Czech Airlines, but my last-minute ticket was much cheaper on SAS. When I landed in the Czech Republic a medley of emotions raced through my head. Fear of a new place -- including its communist history -- was one. But excitement quickly took over as I explored the first nation on a four-country jaunt. If you’re up for something new, hop on – we’re on my maiden Central/Eastern Europe tour! If you’re in a hurry or have ADD, don’t worry; there’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week’s story.

Not many people get upset when their airport layover is too short. I’m an exception, because that’s how I felt when I had to run from one flight to the next. It wasn’t that I wanted to wander around Copenhagen’s sleek airport, shop duty free or check out the beautiful Scandinavian women. The reason was because the last time I was in this airport was with my mom, back in 1999. It was our last trip together, and one of the best times of my life. Although I did not get to sit down and reflect, the little bit that I saw brought back many pleasant memories – and that made the 387-mile (1 hour and 10 minute) flight to Praha even more enjoyable.

I quickly cleared customs, bypassed baggage claim and went straight to the lost baggage counter. Because my connection was so tight I was sure there was no way my bag would make it on time. Unfortunately, I was right. The good news: I was first in line to fill out the form, and my bag was delivered to my hotel five hours later. Before leaving the airport I hit the ATM machine. TIP: It’s always a good idea to do that -- but find out before you board the plane what your exchange rate will be (I use as my currency converter). Right now, $1 USD equals 22 CZK. CZK is an acronym for Czech Republic koruny, but most people call the Czech money "crowns." It always freaks me out when I’m in a foreign country and am about to press a button to withdraw thousands of whatever the local currency is. My brain can’t comprehend that it’s only a couple of hundred dollars.

Instead of a 20-minute taxi for the 12-mile ride into the city, I planned to save a few crowns by taking an 8-passenger airport shuttle called Cedaz Transport Service (Tel.:420-220-114-296; email: for 468 CZK ($21). Next time, though, I’ll spring for the extra $15. We made five stops -- and of course I was the last one – for a total travel time of 1 hour and 15 minutes. A much cheaper (12Kc = 53¢) and shorter route (40 minutes travel time) would have been city bus number 119, which takes passengers from the bus stop at the right of the airport exit to the Dejvická metro station. But that requires taking a bus and a metro, and schlepping your bags all around town.

This was my first trip to Praha – in fact, to this entire region of Europe – so I was a bit nervous. I wasn’t familiar with this territory that opened up to Westerners in 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. I was nervous about the horror stories I’d heard and read: for example, neo-Nazis looking for trouble, visitors robbed by scammers dressing up as police, and taxi drivers ripping people off. I thought I would find them untrue, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure. Fortunately, I found most of what I worried about to be completely false. During my entire time in Praha I felt safe – day and night. Of course, no matter where I am I make sure to guard my valuables (wallet, passport, etc.), especially in crowded areas and on public transportation. The only negative truth I found was that taxi drivers do rip you off. This happened to a friend, who got taken for some extra dollars. It’s not a big deal, and it happens in almost every city in the world, but my friend hadn’t gotten the local tip before he left. NOTE: The best way to prevent Czech taxi drivers from ripping you off is to find out the going rate from a local citizen or the internet, then negotiate the fare in advance with the driver. Be sure to have him write it down!

Other than the taxi drivers, only one other thing upset me about Praha; When you sit down at a restaurant, you’ll find potato chips in a basket. You’d think those stale potato chips -- and the unrequested bread they later bring to the table -- are on the house. But no! Whether you eat the chips and bread or not, they still charge you. It’s just a few dollars, but you still feel like you’ve been taken. TIP: Ask the server to remove the potato chips before you sit down, and say "no thank you" to the bread.

If the taxi driver didn’t rip you off, you should tip him about 10 percent. In casual restaurants and pubs, if service wasn’t included on your bill just round it up to the nearest few crowns. In fancy restaurants, the tip should be about 10%. And don’t forget about the porters, who should get one US dollar per bag.

I checked in at the Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa. This 47-room luxury boutique property is beautifully designed in Renaissance and Baroque style. The Italian owner has given the interiors a Mediterranean feel – except for the Asian Spa downstairs, which features Indonesian décor, a sushi bar and seven Balinese masseuses. Besides a variety of massages, a pool and workout room are available at no extra charge. The rest of the hotel is staffed by locals. I found the service similar to shops and restaurants I visited all around Praha. The Czechs seem a bit cold or distant at first, but they warm up if you smile and don’t behave like an obnoxious tourist. I loved my room at the Alchymist. It included free high-speed internet, a flat screen TV, DVD player, air conditioning, and a plush marble bathroom with a tub, firm shower, bidet and fluffy towels. Breakfast was very good, and was included in the daily rate which begins at 180 euros ($230) a night. Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa, Tržište 19, 11800 Praha 1; tel.: 420-257-286-011.

The hotel was conveniently located across the street from the American Embassy. On the other hand, all cars driving past get searched for bombs, so I’m not sure how convenient it actually is -- unless there’s been an international incident, or you have a passport problem. I needed more pages added to mine, so one rainy morning I decided to take advantage of the proximity. After going through airport-like security and leaving behind all electronic devices at the front desk, I found the line for U.S. citizens (it was much shorter than the other line). The "more pages for passport" form took only two minutes to complete. I discovered that adding pages to a passport at an embassy is much easier, quicker and cheaper than mailing it in. The entire process took only 25 minutes, and I did not have to part with my passport for the normal two weeks. The U.S. Embassy, Trziste 15, Praha 1 (tel.: 257-530-663), is open Monday to Friday, 8 to 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 4 p.m. Helpful link: U.S. Department of State: How to Add Extra Pages to Your U.S. Passport.

I was traveling with two childhood friends, Matt and Mike. Mike and I have traveled a bunch of times to Europe together, but this would be the most special trip of all because at our final destination -- to be revealed in a later newsletter -- he’s getting married. That’s going out in style! The only problem traveling with three adults is that most European hotel rooms are small, and/or have laws requiring no more than two adults per room. So squeezing Matt in was not an option. He was fine with that, because he had decided to come with us at the last minute, and actually prefers not staying in swanky hotels. If you’re looking for a 3-star hotel for under $100 a night, Matt recommends Hotel Koruna. He wrote a brief description of his experience, which can be found here.

Matt and Mike arrived a day before I did, so they already had the city mapped out. When I met them at my hotel I asked how they liked Praha. Both excitedly said it might be their new favorite city. I asked why, and they said the architecture -- comprising Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings – is amazing. I was surprised by their decisive statements, because both have traveled extensively. Needless to say, I was excited to explore. Obviously I can’t list every place to visit, so I highly recommend a good guidebook. I used Frommer’s, but there are plenty to choose from.

My favorite attraction was the famous Charles Bridge. Built in 1357 and originally called the Stone Bridge, it was renamed in 1870 to honor King Charles IV. The 1700-foot bridge spans the Vlatava River, and links Prague Castle with Old Town. The 100-foot wide, pedestrian-only cobblestone walkway is filled with tourists checking out the 30 mostly Baroque-style statues, erected around 1700. This amazing structure is my new favorite bridge in the world. TIP: The best time to walk on the bridge is at sunrise, when no one else is around. If you watch the JohnnyJet video below you’ll see I got up very early to experience what it must have been like in medieval times.

A short walk from the Charles Bridge (and even shorter from the Alchymist hotel) is the monster complex of Prague Castle, built around 880. It sits high on the hill. If you’re not up for the moderately steep walk, take tram number 22 or 23 and get off at either the Královský letohrádek, Pražský hrad or Pohorelec stops. There is no fee to walk around the complex, but you are charged to enter any of the top sights (St. Vitus Cathedral, the Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, the Powder Tower and Golden Lane). There are individual ticket options; purchase a combination costs adults 350 CSK ($15). Children under 6 are free. The attractions close at 5 p.m., but you can walk around the area at night, dine and see the incredible views. For more information, log on to the Prague Castle Information Center or

I had been told that no trip to Praha is complete without a river cruise. There are many options, including lunch and dinner cruises. However, all we wanted was a basic cruise. We didn’t go with the company that aggressively approaches customers on the Charles Bridge, and was three times as expensive as the little one we found on the other side, down below on the Charles Bridge. We paid 150 CSK ($7) for a 50-minute boat tour. The old adage "You get what you pay for" is definitely true. This tour is only for people wanting the bare minimum river cruise (with a nonstop 4-language recording that is very annoying).

Old Town was one of my favorite areas. This is where many historical events took place -- both good and bad. During our visit, there was a lot going on. Besides the beautiful pastel-colored buildings, and all the shops, restaurants, cafes and street vendors, we stumbled upon a military demonstration, a shop shaped like a soccer ball (to promote the World Cup), and the Long Beach, CA high school choir performing at famous St Nicholas Church. (That beautiful building, constructed in 1735, features a glorious high ceiling.)

We scored a corner table at Kovarna café directly in front of Old Town Hall's famous Astronomical Clock (Orloj). Interestingly this clock, dating back to 1410, does not tell time. Instead it shows the days, seasons, phases of the moon, equinoxes and Christian holidays. To find the time, look at the very top of the 230-foot tower. If you go all the way up there, you’ll also find great views of the city. What’s special about the clock is that a 30-second, politically incorrect medieval morality play begins there every hour, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Crowds start to gather 20 minutes early to see the two doors slide open, and the statues of the 12 apostles glide by. Meanwhile, the 15th-century conception of the evils of life -- a "Death" skeleton, a preening "Vanity," a corrupt Turk and an acquisitive Jew -- shake and dance below. At the end of World War II the horns and beard were removed from the moneybag-holding Jew, who is now politely referred to as "Greed." According to legend, after the timepiece was remodeled at the end of the 15th century, clock artist Master Hanus was blinded by the Municipal Council to prevent him from repeating his fine work elsewhere. In response, Hanus threw himself into the clock mechanism and promptly died. The clock remained out of kilter for almost a century. (Source: Frommer's Prague & the Best of the Czech Republic).

The Jewish Quarter, just a short walk from Old Town Hall, contains the remains of Praha's former Jewish ghetto. There are many synagogue and attractions here. It’s a beautiful area, but depressing when you hear all the tragedy -- especially Hitler’s Nazi camps. The most popular building is the Old-New Synagogue. Built around 1270, it is one of Prague's earliest Gothic buildings, and the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe. The Old Jewish Cemetery -- built in 1478, and Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery -- is another major attraction. Because there was so little space, people were buried on top of each other – 12 times over. There are 12,000 gravestones, for the 100,000 people buried there. The last person buried was in 1787.

We had no idea where to eat. There are plenty of restaurants, pubs and cafés, but none of us had any recommendations from friends living there. Our hotel recommended only expensive places, so we followed the Frommer’s guidebook suggestions. We tried three places, and all turned out to be excellent. My favorite one, Strelecky Ostrov, is located right on the Vtlava River. It has great service and atmosphere, and serves good Czech and international cuisine. My beef soup, goulash and bottled water cost 600K ($26). Strelecky Ostrov 336, Praha 1, tel.: 420-224-934-026.

One restaurant, U Vladare, was not listed in the guidebook. We stumbled upon it because we were starving, and wanted to watch the World Cup on their big screen TV. The food was good. I had bottled water, soup and chicken Malta. It came with veggies and potatoes, and cost $20. The waiter had a little attitude, and he charged us 85 CSK ($4) for bread, but he taught me a valuable lesson: Just say no to bread in Praha! U Vladare, Maltezske Namestri 10, Praha 1; tel.: 420-257-534-121. NOTE: Almost every restaurant has menus in English so don’t worry about translating.

My impression of Praha is that it is indeed a beautiful, romantic city. But I didn’t find the people to be overly friendly and the whole thing with the bread really bothers me. The city is not the bargain it used to be. In fact, it is quite expensive -- probably because it’s so crowded with tourists. TIP: The only way to combat the tourist crowds is to get up really early -- or go to the outdoor attractions when it’s raining and the museums when it’s sunny. Still, I am so glad I got to see the city. It’s definitely a must to visit for a couple days.

Here’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Praha. With high-speed the video takes about 1 minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.

Bratislava, Slovakia! This place is going to surprise you – it sure did me.

Happy Travels,
Johnny Jet

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Pictures From

The Trip


Flight from Copenhagen


Ruzyne Airport


Czech Republic koruny


Shuttle Van To City


Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa




Sushi Bar In Hotel


My Room








American Embassy


Matt and Mike




City At Night


Charles Bridge


Statues on Bridge




View of Prague Castle


St. Vitus Cathedral


River Cruise Anyone?


Military Demonstration


Tasty Treats


Astronomical Clock


Apostles Gliding By


Jewish Quarter








Train To Slovakia



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  • Johnny, you have the BEST job in the world! You get to travel the world and see it all! I love reading your articles and have actually used a lot of the info from your articles in my travels. Kindest regards, Royce - Jackson, MS
  • Very well written and fascinating!!! Susan D – Hot Springs CA
  • Love this week's newsletter. I have to agree that Embassy Suites is fabulous. I travel quite extensively with my husband and two kids and stay in an Embassy Suites wherever and whenever. Imagine the savings we get with the complimentary breakfasts and the manager's receptions with four of us (kids 12 and 9). We recently stayed in the ES on Broadway in Tucson for 11 nights. The experience was as we expected...convenient, friendly staff, spacious two-room suites with kitchenettes, and great food. We have joined the Hilton Honors program and will be enjoying a free weekend stay in our state's capitol (Charleston, WV) for our daughter's birthday. We have enjoyed free nights in the past with the same great service as if we were paying. Tammy Traveler - Pine Grove, WV
  • The past few newsletters have been great reading. Funny how much traveling you’re doing knowing you’re like me and don’t really like to fly. We’re heading to New York the end of next month to attend a Yankees game. We fly into La Guardia – any advice how to get to midtown from LGA? Geof O’Connor - San Diego and San Francisco. REPLY: I would either take a taxi or call Carmel (212-666-6666) or Tel Aviv (212-777-7777) car service -- the price will be about the same price -- $28.
  • All I can say is that you have more energy than anyone I know. I love all your pictures and how clear and easy they are to upload. Can't wait to read all about Prague. M.S. - Beaverton, OR
  • Awesome and those sidebar trips to NYC (my favorite place in the world) were great.) What ever happen to Amber Airplane? I was away in Korea on a mission for 18 months and she disappeared when we got home. Sniff Sniff she was fun. I figured all that travel got to her. Jude S. - REPLY: Thanks for the kind words and support! We really appreciate it. Amber and Johnny broke up in 2004 but they are still good friends. You can read about their relationship with these links: May 26, 2004 & July 7, 2004
  • Going to Amsterdam and Prague this fall myself. So your report coincides well. I would like to hear more about things to do while there. A friend of mine went to Prague for a couple of days a few years back and said he liked it so much he stayed a week due to it's charm. Please mention something about crime and safety in Prague. I've read there are scammers posing as police who try and steal your passport when they ask for it. Is using ATMs safe or are people being robbed there too? They say there are neo-nazis about making trouble. I'm a little concerned about safety especially at night. I know all large cities have crime, but knowing what to look out for helps in staying alert and helps avoid becoming a victim. Sometimes people exaggerate about how bad things can be too. I know before I went to Spain and South Africa everything I read made these places sound awful. Carjackings, purse snatching, muggings, pickpockets and scam artists. Luckily that turned out to be the exception and not our experience. REPLY: Thanks for the email. The only thing I encountered were taxi drivers who charged too much and restaurants who suckered you by charging you a few dollars or soggy potato chips and bread. You will have a great and safe time if you just use basic common sense.
  • I enjoyed reliving my trip from a year ago May to the Netherlands. Thanks for the pleasant memories. We enjoyed all the your traveling sites and also a sixty minute highlights trip through the Riksmuseum covered by the Amsterdam Pass. Traveling by train, tram and bus is all you need, along with a good plan and good walking shoes. Christine -- Macomb, Michigan
  • I loved the article about the Netherlands! Petra is truly a beauty! Great choice of music for the video. M.T. – South Australia
  • Great newsletter and glad to hear that you are having so much fun – saw your quote in USA Today and a friend emailed me and saw you on a KABC news segment. Ken P – San Diego

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