Sunday, June 30, 2019

Ain't Europe Grand (Tour) with Chryss and George (Day 3)

Jonesing for Bones

How's that for a map to put you in your place? We get to bus out with Viking to Kutna Hora, once (think 1300s) a center of silver mining and a challenger to Prague for most important Czech city, and our first stop is the infamous Sedlec Ossuary just outside town. It's a humble church but when you look inside, you discover why it's a tourist destination--it's decorated with approximately 40,000 human bones. Here's a chandelier you probably don't have in your house

and if you do have a family crest, you probably don't display it like this one

and then you might have some extra bones just lying around (Chryss poses for bones-covered-with-flesh scale).

There's supposed to be some soil at Sedlec from Golgotha, brought back during the Crusades. So people wanted to be buried there, too, at the local Skull Place, so to speak. Black Death = Lots o' Bones. Then in 1870, a guy decided to get artistic with them. It's kind of a small space for all the bones in it, so you don't stay long, and even with a ten minute visit, by the end you're kind of numb(skull?). Your mind sort of insists they have to be fake. How else to deal with so much memento mori? [Cool sidelight I just discovered, the wonderful surrealist Czech stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer, made a non-animated short film in 1970 called "L'Ossuaire."]

Canola All Ovah

OK, so this picture comes from before arriving at Sedlec, but I had to lead with the bone show, didn't I? As we noticed on our flight from Frankfurt to Prague, most of the Czech countryside is blanketed yellow. We find out on the bus thanks to our fine tour guide that one of the country's major crops is canola, but they aren't growing it for cooking, it's a fuel additive. And they call it rapeseed. Well, they call it řepka olejka, but I don't think I can say that (properly). It is pretty stunning to drive by, though, even on a crummy weather day.

Sharing St. Barbara

Obviously we were tickled that the major cathedral in Kutna Hora is named in honor of St. Barbara. Turns out she's the patron saint not only of lightning and gunpowder, but also of miners, too (you can sort of see how that works, no?). It's a another Gothic gem that took 500 years to finish, what with wars and silver running out and humans being poopyheads and all. You know, history.

Doesn't make it any less gorgeous. Not quite as big as St. Vitus, but they stuck with the Gothic style better through the centuries, so there's that. And it has been very well restored, as you can tell espying al the family crests painted onto the crenelated ceiling, not to mention the glimpse of some grand organ pipes.

And the great stained glass, of which this is just one example.

There's also a striking statue, as it's not religious at all, but it certainly reinforces who ran the town.

As for their St. Barbara, she sort of looks like a man in drag, but perhaps that's just because she's a saint most associated with a tower (symbol?). Note third windows (or nine, which is a bit confusing, but ok).

There's a statue of St. Barbara on the outside, too (Chryss poses stopping only briefly so not to freeze in place and become a statue herself).

Dining at Dačický

Part of the Viking tour was lunch at Dačický, the kind of place that is both quaint--it's got 400 year-old roots--and a bit of a tourist spot--busloads like us end up eating in one of its long back halls. As if knowing everyone there has been or is on the way to the Ossuary (well, I guess, aren't we all, bwahaha), the walls feature creepy art that is right up our Halloween-loving alley.

We get to warm up with bowls of Mushroom Potato Soup of the Lords of Rožmberk, so thanks all you Rožmberkians. It's very tasty--the mushrooms are definitely different here--if not so visually attractive to be worthy of a photo. But there is local lager, in both light (not lite) and dark versions, so I'm sure to try both. For reporting purposes, of course.

Every town has its own beer. That's charming isn't it? And we thought we invented something with microbreweries. For my main course I get the chicken in plum sauce, with enough potatoes for the table to share, except, of course, they've all got that many spuds too. It's a wonder anyone in the Czech Republic is less than 50 pounds over-weight.

Because there's apple strudel, too, the apple sliced very very fine, mimicking the layers of the dough. So good.

After lunch we get a whopping 15 minutes on our own to wander the cobble-stone streets of Kutna Hora. We don't wander far, as there's a wine bar just next door to our restaurant, and I power through--with some help from Chryss--a degustation of Moravian wines.

These didn't really stand out, although of all things the orange one (a pinot gris) might have been the best--certainly the most unusual.

Notable Nota Bene

We rest a bit once getting back to Prague and I start trying to scoop out where to have dinner, settling on Nota Bene. We get to take the Metro there--the stop is right at our hotel--so we feel extra proud figuring out some public transportation. Plus, you see a city's real peoples when you do that--here's all the young and gorgeous folks Prague is supposed to be famous for. Oddly enough, they don't hang out at the tourist spots.

The restaurant is smallish, clean and inviting, its walls covered in charming murals that almost seem like a child drew, but they're too clever for that.

They do set up what Nota Bene does very well--pleasing simplicity that's got more going on than at first appearance. For instance we all got an amuse that was big enough to be an appetizer, a whipped white cheese adorned with pickled rhubarb, a surprising touch.

The very helpful waiter led us to a great wine selection, too, a pinot from Moravia. I had never had any pinot form Moravian but this Springer certainly got me interested in more--lovely strawberry, cherry fruit but then some more ineffable mineral-stone notes. Delicious. Even better, just about $35 a bottle. On a restaurant wine list. In the States something this good would easily be $90 a bottle.

We share a smoked fish dish--carp, of all things--that comes with squash and apple, which work in ways I wouldn't have guessed. So much subtler to use apple than citrus for the fruit in a dish like this. And then a lovely green sauce not just for plating contrast but for herbal depth. Lots of layers in this plate.

I have what is one of the best duck dishes of my life, starting with perfect execution, the skin crispy, the flesh cooked rare but definitely cooked but tender in a way duck almost never is. With it is a light potato dauphinoise, very crunchy wild broccoli and beetroot, the beet's red adding to the duck's jus for a earthy sauce.

Everybody else was crazy for their dishes, too--Chryss's fish, Judy's curried veggie, Roger's big bowl featuring beef ravioli and making it clear how much Nota Bene likes to take Czech staples and elevate them (this ravioli is no mere dumpling). I like to think of it as Prague's answer to Santa Barbara's Barbareño, lovingly happy in a terrific town, but wanting to do traditions in the best, most modern, most well-sourced way.

Totally full, we still couldn't pass up sharing the sticky toffee pudding with its sour cream ice cream just the edge you need to cut the caramel and date sweetness. If Nota Bene were nearer, we'd be there a heck of a lot.

Go ahead to Day 4 of Ain't Europe Grand (Tour)

Go back to Day 2 of Ain't Europe Grand (Tour)

Friday, June 28, 2019

Frank Allen Goad: 1938-2019

Frank Allen Goad, who passed away June 1 at the age of 80, was one of the South Coast’s major artists too few knew. No doubt a writing teacher would want to rap her student on the knuckles if said student created a character with the doubly obvious name Frank Goad. The funny part is that Frank Goad did exist, even if he was quite a character, and was perhaps most himself being frank while goading people. But what else would we want from our artists but brutal honesty? Frank loved to tell the tale of his favorite rejection note. He would quote the disapproving editor: “Dear Mr. Goad, I think I know what you’re trying to do … and I don’t like it.”

Want to read the rest of this in memoriam then do so at the Independent's site.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Ain't Europe Grand (Tour) with Chryss and George (Day 2)

Breakfast with Baba

So it turns out that the Corinthia (and yes, I can't help but think of Ricardo Montalban saying, "rich Corinthian leather" in a Cordoba ad because I'm that old) has a spectacular breakfast spread, one full of nosh and nostalgia. See that plate up there and the pastry at almost 6 o'clock? I hadn't had something like that in years, but it's plum, with that delicious deep divot the fruit itself, and it's exactly what our grandmother had waiting for us when we drove up to visit on Friday nights after my parents got off from work when we visited her in Dunmore. Call me Czech mated.

Then there's the one pastry with all the poppy seed filling, not really the kolache I still make, but that flavor is so singular. And the poppy seed roll at 11 o'clock, another thing I forgot from childhood, when dinner-style rolls made an appearance on Sunday mornings, too. That's damn fine fried egg, faking it's poached, and pickled fish, and bacon, as you have to partake of pig every meal in eastern and central Europe or the pigs might take over.

You Got Cathedral in My Castle

This morning we get to take our first Viking-led city tour. You get broken up into groups, get hearing devices so you don't have to stand atop your tour guide to get the info, and off you go, battling amongst all the other tour groups, some of whom are very aggressive. It could turn into rugby.

But it's hard to fight when you get sights like these, as we spend the bulk of the morning in the Prague Castle complex high above the Vltava River (enjoy that consonant blur of "vlt"--its German name is Moldau), with all sorts of century's old history plus it's where the Czech president resides now, too. Also note, it's a nice weather day, at least for now, despite being relatively chilly, low 50s or so. There's a royal guard marching about, tons of tourists, and even glamour wedding shoots--it's hard to tell if this is a real couple or something for a fashion spread, if you ask me. (So many act at being married it gets tricky.)

Those are the doors of St. Vitus Cathedral behind them, worthy of a photo all on their own. St. Vitus is not just the patron saint of spastic dancing, it seems, but a big deal to the Czechs, even if he was Roman. It took them six centuries to get the massive building finished even if wars made them stop and start, and good King Wenceslas is entombed there, too. It's just the first of many Gothic cathedrals we're going to stare up at. You can see why god seemed like something to these people, given what they built to honor him. Just don't spend too much time thinking about the circularity there. Follow those pointy spires up to heaven.

It's impressive inside, too, of course, with what's happened recently at Notre Dame not far from anyone's thoughts. Here's hoping we don't burn too many more historic sites down.

We will want to learn how to make stained glass by the trip's end, too, after seeing so many varieties of it.

There's all sorts of history I could relate, which our guide did very well, but I figure it's just best to post pictures and point and say you need to see it for yourself someday. For instance this is the Golden Portal, the main entrance until the 20th century.

And then some spots might be more interesting to me, like getting my photo taken in front of every representation of St. George we could find. He takes down all sorts of dragons, it seems, some fierce, some more like bagpipes with tails. Although the townsfolk must have been just as happy if he defeated a bagpipe, I'd guess.

You Got Statues on My Bridge

As anyone who knows a koruna* about Prague realizes, its most famous spot is Charles Bridge, which was completed in 1402, decades before Columbus was a twinkle in a rhyming jingle's eye. It is beautiful, indeed, as you can see from this shot from a distance, all arch and grace. It actually slightly S-curves to make it harder on possible invaders.

*The Czech currency, for while they are part of the European Union (I mean, what country would be dumb enough not to want to be part of it if they were in Europe?), they aren't on the Euro yet. Right now the exchange rate is about 22 koruna to a dollar, so everything seems really expensive, and then you realize how cheap it is. And by it I mean beer.

Given Prague was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire for a bit, it's not a surprise there's a lot of holy hanging out on the bridge--30 religious-themed statues, to be exact. You know, ones with horrible Turks who had to be fought during the Crusades, etc. But they can make for fun photos.

And then there are the views from the bridge, not the least of which is of the Old Town Tower.

Or two slight variations of the same shot off the other side of the bridge into Little Town, with more statues for your graven image enjoyment.

Or the rest of Prague, pretty as a postcard, which I'm sure this shot is somewhere. Clouds are coming in.

Other Prague-nalia

We did walk around more than that, but I don't want to share every photo out of 100s. You're welcome. I mean, I'm the kind of guy who finds manhole covers gorgeous, and causes pedestrian back-ups trying to photo them. (The streets of scenic Prague teem, I tells ya.)

We almost picked up a doll, but we worried there might be strings attached.

We got to see buildings described as Fred & Ginger

and buildings lurking in other's reflections.

And then we got to Old Town Square just in time (Viking knows how to get you where they need to when) for Old Town Hall's astronomical clock to do its hourly clang that brings the apostles out for a parade.

Turns out they just take turns appearing behind windows; we found the death figure to the clock face's right that "tolled" the bell more impressive, but they wouldn't let us take him home to add to our Halloween displays. I mean there was a worker right up there to help us. Or maybe he was a mannequin too. Good thing we didn't have any absinthe or we would have been really perplexed.

Pigging Out in Prague

And now we get to the George Eats sections of the day. For lunch we kind of randomly if it turned out wisely wandered into U Medvídků, partially as those clouds rolling in decided to start spitting a bit. As you probably know, Eastern Europeans favor pilsners and lagers, so since the previous night was a Pilsner Urquell evening, it made sense to go for the classic lager Budvar, a name that might look all-too-familiar. For yes, it's what Budweiser is based on, but that's sort of saying I'm based on George Clooney. Plus anything that comes from a tap source like this one has to be delicious.

Refreshing, crisp, clean--why don't we make beers like this in the U.S.? I know some microbreweries do lagers properly, but why does mass market always go down to price instead of up to quality in our country? Oh, wait, I forgot who our elected president is.

I didn't have this amazing coil o' sausage, Roger did, but you certainly don't get something like this in the U.S. either.

I instead went for Bramborové knedlíky plněné uzeným masem s hlávkovým zelím, which, no, I didn't even try to pronounce or I'd still be ordering. What that is is potato dumplings filled with cabbage and smoked meat, and was all sorts of delicious.Gravy. There aren't enough dishes floating in gravy.

And Chryss got to have something called Old-Bohemian "Kuba" (baked barley with mushrooms, garlic and marjoram), which proves there is vegetarian food even when you get an order a sausage acting like an anaconda on your plate. I don't have a photo, sorry.

Suddenly Sardinia

For supper we opted to go in a completely different direction, as our DK Top Ten Prague guidebook recommended Ichnusa Botega Bistro. Plus, a seafood semeed a good way to help our pork abatement program. A quick Lyft ride to the interesting Little Quarter location and we were seated in the front room that doubles as the daytime deli and wine shop--its that kind of a neighborhood joint. Our waitress knows English well and Sardinian food even better, guiding us through the somewhat unfamiliar dishes, even with props--she bring over a bag of uncooked fregola so we know what it is. And then there's this flatbread pane carasau, lathered in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt that you can just keep eating as it's so darn thin.

We washed it down with this, er, full-bodied Sarndinian wine; Cannonau is Grenache (yeah, we had to have a whole different language experience amidst being lost in Czech, too).

A bit rustic and not too heavy, it played well with our seafood, and not just the ones with a bit of tomato worked in to the sauce. For instance, this lovely orange (there's a lemon for juicing, but it's orange in the salad), fennel, salmon yumminess.

I did go for the fregola, which came with all sorts of seafood atop, all cooked just to doneness, which often fails to happen with a dish like this. That is, each item was itself and not a muddy mess.

Chryss, meanwhile, went with a seafood mixed grill, all that good smokiness meeting all that salty seaness.

So, yes, we were all hoping to make our next trip be one to Sardinia. Did we dessert? Well, wouldn't you? Two for four people makes you feel like you're all working together and not pigging out, after all. One as this semifreddo,with the amazing cushiony consistency that's so singular. Plus gooseberry atop.

The other something, a seada, is truly Sardinian, if, of all things, sort of dumpling-esque, so perfect for Prague, too. Some honey atop, but then the citrus zest adds acid and inside it's stuffed with cheese and that's semolina for the dough. Truly unique.

Speaking of, that lovely waitress also was wise enough to point us in the direction of a distinctly Sardininan after dinner pour, Mirto de Sardegna. Think amaro, but made from myrtle, a tad sweet and a lot spicy. I wanted to smuggle the bottle home. What a lovely evening at Ichnusa.

An After Dinner Shot

So we braved the cold and crossed the Vltava and hung about Old Town Square, quite empty at almost 10 pm. Indeed, we saw a cleaning crew complete with cobblestone zambonis head out--it is a surprisingly clean town for all its bustle. Viking has a shuttle bus loop from the Corinthia to the square, given the hotel isn't walking close, and soon we were headed happily to our beds. But it was this beautiful at night alight, so we were glad we had such a peek.

Go back to Day 1 Ain't Europe Grand (Tour)

Go ahead to Day 3 Ain't Europe Grand (Tour)