Monday, June 9, 2014

Brussels and Prague anyone?

    A little over a month since my last post and two new trips under this Rover's belt means it's time for an update!

  The last Saturday in May, TomGong and I went day-trippin' in Brussels. We caught the first flight out and the last one back. It was fantastic! I've been to Belgium before (Bruges and Antwerp) so I had a fairly good idea of what to expect but still was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. We both came away shattered from such a long day, but completely satisfied in our undertaking of it. We saw everything on my list and then some. When I say we caught the first flight out that means our alarm went off promptly at 3:30am and we were in the car by 4:15.....soooo basically before the ass-crack of dawn. The day's first bit of adventure came when we parked in the lot for Heathrow's Terminal 5 and then proceeded to get into what looked like the Mini Cooper of space shuttles, called a POD. It is a self-driving transport system that takes you directly to the terminal. Imagine one of the those futuristic rides straight out of Epcot Center and you've got it.

    Already the day was off to a fancy start. Cut to Tom and I reading the paper and filling up on free coffee and breakfast in the British Airways lounge. From fancy to fancy-pants! You'd think with all my travelling I'd for sure have access to an airline lounge somewhere, and yet this was my first taste of elite airline privileges.... mama likey! A London to Brussels flight is an hour if not slightly less, just enough time at cruising altitude to have drink service then touch down again. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
   We then hopped the train from the airport directly into the center of town, got a map from the hotel near the station and we were off. We headed first toward the main square of The Grand Place (Grote Markt) which has  tons of restaurants and some beautiful and eclectic architecture from three different eras. Most notable are Maison du Roi aka The King's House aka the Breadhouse and the Town Hall which is easily mistaken for a castle or a church because of it's gothic fa├žade. We wandered through the Royal Galleries of St. Hubert which is basically just an arcade of chocolate and jewelery boutiques, but the architecture of the arcade itself is exquisite and definitely worth a walk through. There are no shortage of opportunities to do some chocolate and beer tasting but would recommend the places off main squares and more along the side streets/alleys for price as well as selection. The shop where we got 'help yourself' bags of treats even had gluten free chocolates! Also on my list of Brussels must sees are:
  • Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
  • neighborhood of Grand Sablon
  • the Atomium
    • We didn't feel the need to pay the admission fee to go up into the actual 'atoms'. Seeing the structure from the outside is impressive enough, and there is a lovely Central Park-esque area just beyond it which is lovely and a nice break from the city. The trees in there have eyes and definitely encourage hugging ;-)

     Just three days after this little jet-set, on Wednesday the 4th, our alarm went off yet again at 3:30am for our flight to Prague . The main reason being my 13 (and a half) year old niece is part of an auditioned children's choir and they were on tour. We would get to see her AND my sister (who was chaperoning) Wed and Thur before they hopped over to Vienna Friday morning. Tom and I initially wanted our coming to be a total surprise for my girl but when the itinerary and concert time changed, it was only fair to give her some warning. That being said, the first time we met up with them was Wednesday afternoon for their first concert of the day. While I knew as a ridiculously proud auntie bear I would essentially lose my shit the moment I saw her (and I did). What I wasn't expecting was that the first time she saw us that she would lose her shit too. Her reaction only made mine more intense and I had to look away until I could compose myself and not distract her any more or embarrass myself as a total blubbering fool. I also wasn't expecting Tom to join us in the tears brigade, and yet he was right there with me... although more manly about it of course. She is that cool and awe inspiring a kid! Eventually she and I stopped collapsing into tears and were able to make eye contact, and T and I could just smile and appreciate the performance like normal adults.
The reunion with my sister afterwards was all that wrapped in a hanging on for dear life kind of hug. Tom had only met them via Skype and FaceTime, so while this was their first official meeting seeing him with them was like they'd known each other forever. My niece took to him straight away and loved showing his accent off to all her friends who were equally entranced. Pretty cute!
We actually got more time with them than I expected; dinner that night and after hours chat, parallel Prague Castle tours the following morning, and one final concert Thursday night.
     Family aside, Prague is such a beautiful and cool city! I would definitely go back although to be fair we owned that city in those three days! Other than going back to simply be and enjoy, I can't think of anything that we 'missed.' Definitely pack comfortable shoes as it is such a walkable city and the best way to take it all in. We took the underground once on our first day, which is also very easy to navigate, but the weather was so fabulous we wanted to be out in the sunshine as much as possible. Not that I'll take all the credit, but the initial forecast for those three days was rain, rain, thunderstorms and rain.... that is until I did a lil spell and each day I checked after showed sunny and 70's. Just sayin'.

     Some things to watch: The city will nickel and dime you. For example, public bathrooms are not free so always have loose change. In restaurants, double-check your bill. In more touristy parts, you even have to pay attention to things like the bread basket. One might assume that would be complementary, and maybe for locals it is but in some cases unless you ask for it to be taken away they will charge you. So ask! Feel comfortable in bartering. Tom ended up paying something like 5 quid for a tiny pot of cherries. Things like water are waaaaay cheaper on little side streets away from attractions. I would say avoid cabs because they will take the longest, most roundabout route and basically take your pants down as Tom said. Try and look at a map before getting into one so you have some idea how far you're going and can barter if you disagree with the fare. Also, some attractions require you to have a photo "license" ....meaning you can take pics if you pay a fee ahead of time. If you know these little tips beforehand it's fine. It was the only bit about the city that I found a smidge off-putting, but certainly not enough to deter me from highly recommending anyone and everyone to go check Prague out.
What to See:
  • St. Nicholas church in Old Town - very small, but absolutely beautiful
    • check their classical music concert schedule
  • Old Town and the Town Hall Astronomical Clock
  • Charles Bridge
    • Make a wish: A little ways down from the statue of St. John of Nepomuk is a small marker of where he was actually thrown in the river. There is a brassy cross on the stone wall and a small brass plaque depicting this scene above it on a bit of wrought iron. Make a wish and rub the brass cross as well as the St. John above it. Legend says whatever you wish will come true :-)
  • Prague Castle
    • There is a long and a short visit ticket... we got the short visit and felt more than complete with what we saw.
    • St. Vitus Cathedral has the most beautiful stain glass I've ever seen.
  • Petrin Hill
    • Lovely park and switchback path up to the 'fake Eiffel Tower' as the kids called it. We didn't pay to go up because you get enough of a wide city view from the walk up.
    • Funicular railway
    • Mirror maze
  • Kampa Island
    • find the love padlock bridge!
  • John Lennon wall
  • Jewish Quarter
    • Because it's such a small area, we didn't know that there was an admission ticket so it was a bit of a shock, and I can't quite say that you get your money's worth but I also won't say to skip it because it's very powerful!
   As for food and drink, there is something for everyone! There are several vegan/vegetarian restaurants (although I left my list at home), there was even a raw one near my sister's (Tom ate a 52cm one to himself), gyros, Italian, seafood, chicken wings. On our last day we found a great ramen soup bistro called Kitchen. As for beers I can recommend Staropramen and Krusovice.
Both Brussels and Prague get the Rover's stamp of awesome-sauce approval :-)

   On a slightly more personal note, whilst I still haven't found a job I have been writing more although you wouldn't know it from my (lack of) blogging. I've been exploring what I feel is my writing niche - Creative Non-Fiction and submitting stories and articles to said contests and magazines so send good energy toward those endeavors por favor.
The next travel stop on our agenda will be ..... wait for it..... Abu Dhabi, for my birthday.... which is ..... wait for it again ..... during Ramadan! Ha! Tom booked it before realizing it was in the middle of a religious holiday. For those who might not know, Ramdan is the Islamic month of fasting. No food or drink during the day. Food is at least served before sunrise and after sunset, thank gawd, because with temps being in the 100s there is serious potential for me getting a bit hangry.
Anywho, you know me, I'll do all the research about it, find some way to pull the symbology out of it, tie it in to my birthday and make the most of it :-)

Till next time:  Love, Hugs and other 'Drugs'