*To the Tune of Over the Rainbow.
I think West Texas has been pulling our lariats.
Ever since God create the Jackalope, a sign advertising the “Czech Stop” has stood along I-35 outside the town of West, Texas.
Yes, the town is really named “West”, and in the 1850’s the I-35 corridor would have been on the border of Comancheria (Home of the Comanche Empire), so that was about as far inland as European settlements encroached until the Parker family tragically set up shop a bit too far west, but I digress.
The claim to fame for West is a “Czech” bakery that promotes their Czech ancestry, and does a land office business in a delightful form of yeast bread filled with fruit jam, cream cheese, or sausage called a kolache (“ko-LACH-ee” in the local dialect). More on this later.
This year the Lost Traveler ventured to the homeland of the infamous kolache, the Czech Republic and its capital city Praha (aka Prague).
In all honesty, I was expecting another slog through the open sewer that most of Europe has become due to unchecked migration, social unrest, and general institutional decay. (For reference, see this post on the expedition to Greece.) I realize I could have stayed in the US, and seen exactly the same things in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, L.A., San Francisco, on and on Ad Nausea, so don’t bother flaming me. You go somewhere new to get a break from the crap you live with every day. In this case, it worked.
Prague was a surrealistic shock. If Walt Disney had designed a prototypical western European city, this was it. I felt like I was suddenly back in 1983 when my best buddy and I spent two months on a drinking being’s tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands.
Crossing Charles’ Bridge in Prague
The city was like a “Euroland” theme park full of spring breakers. Most tourists were friendly and well behaved. Just folks having a good time without public drunkenness and hooliganism associated with spring breakers.
Old Town Square
Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square
According to our guides, about 80% of the Czech economy is tourism, and based on the crowds, they are making some serious cash. The oddest thing we found was the inability to use credit cards except in hotels and some restaurants. Cash is definitely king, so plan accordingly.
Be wary of currency exchange offices that offer a 0% commission. By law, a currency exchange must provide a client with a receipt detailing the exchange rate and all fees related to the transaction. The client is supposed to sign the receipt at the time of the transaction, and the client has the right to return to the exchange within 3 hours and get their money back. The crooked places don’t follow these rules, and some of them will attempt to pass the client old Bulgarian currency in place of Czech, so make sure you know whose picture is supposed to be on the bank notes.
This four-day life experience began with the usual “Hop-on- Hop-off” bus ride around the city. These bus tours are great. Plug in your ear buds and listen to a recorded audio track that talks about sights along the way. The main benefit of this type of tour is to orient yourself within the city as much as to help you find things/places you might want to visit. If something catches your attention, get off the bus, go see and do, then catch the next bus that comes along. Usually, there are multiple companies offering this service, so shop for the best deal. The company we chose included a 1-hour river tour that was more than worth the time.
Prague Castle holds several Guinness records for the largest occupied castle, and the longest seat of government among others.
Cathedral at Prague Castle
Entry to the castle grounds is free. Some of the art exhibits and other buildings cost money. The Hop-on company offered a “free” guided tour provided by a great guy named Vaclav (That’s pronounced Vass-lav.) who was very well prepared, and like most Czechs, spoke excellent English. Many Czechs also gladly speak Russian, German, and other languages, so finding someone to ask directions from is not a problem.
We took in some small local curiosities at the insistence of the Amazon that lives at my house.
Prague floods every 6-8 years. One of our tour guides suggested skipping Prague in 2024 unless you have fins. As a result of these recurring floods, the street levels of the city have been raised several times. Instead of bringing in tons of fill, the new streets were built on top of the old streets and buildings resulting in catacombs that tourists can visit. The Prague “Underground” takes you though some of the old medieval homes and streets left over from previous centuries. During the second World War, the Czech resistance used these chambers to spy on the Nazis and a number of Jews survived the occupation living beneath the very feet of the SS soldiers. Warning: Some of the tunnels and stairs are very rough. This is not a tour for folks with mobility issues.
The Alchemy Museum provides a look into an actual alchemist’s workshop. More steep stairs and uneven surfaces on this tour, but a bit easier than the Underground tour.
If Fifty Shades of Grey was your thing, then the Museum of Torture Instruments should be on your list. This museum shows what criminal justice really should be. The descriptions of use are fairly clinical, but no less frightening for their sterility. Be prepared to climb some stairs.
Two day-long bus tours took us to a pair of popular destinations outside of Prague.
If you are a fan of Bauhaus, you will love the “Bone Church” of Sedlec.
This active Catholic church houses an ossuary containing the bones of thousands of people dating back to the Black Death. A tour of a beautiful cathedral dedicated to St. Barbara followed the ossuary.
Karlovy Vary otherwise known as Charles’ Baths is the town located atop 30+ hot springs. If you want the ultimate cleanse, check into one of the numerous spas for 90 days to get those impurities out of your system.
This water is coming out at 74 degrees Centigrade. That’s 165 degrees Fahrenheit!
Another attraction in this city is the Moser glass factory.
The factory floor was closed on the weekend, but we got to see the museum. Moser is all handcrafted glass and crystal artifacts. if you even think about looking at the price tag, you can’t afford it.
Speaking of the finer things, we come to the topic of “traditional Czech food” which seems to consist mostly of pork, sausage, root vegetables, dumplings, bread, cabbage, and beer.
Goulash is a meat and vegetable stew most commonly associated with Hungary, but the Czechs make a fine version of their own.
My personal fave was the “pig knuckle”. It was like a ham shank turned on a spit until the skin is deliciously crispy. Prepare to have grease behind your ears by the time you get done with this dish.
I cannot say I am a fan of Czech dumplings. They are like a slice of heavy potato bread smothered in gravy. Tasty enough, but nothing to write home about.
Beer is mission critical to any pub crawl, and there are many ways to enjoy said elixir vitae including driving, or at least peddling while someone else drives.
Texas boast a number of regions settled predominantly by immigrants from specific countries. The Hill Country just north of Austin was primarily Germans hence the existence of the Schlitterbahn, one of our more famous water parks. Shiner, Texas boasts of their Czech heritage, and the Shiner brewery makes a fine dark beer of Czech roots that tastes like most of the dark beer I drank on this excursion through the Czech Republic.
What I failed to locate in the environs of Prague was a single solitary example of the kolache in its natural habitat. I studied the windows of every bakery and bread shop we passed as we toured the city. Zero, Zippo, Nada.
I asked the staff of the hotel where we stayed. I can get my face slapped in about five languages, but nobody would admit to knowing anything about a thing called a kolache regardless of how I asked the question, nor were any available on the pastry table of the breakfast buffet. After the hotel in Edinburgh had haggis and black pudding on the breakfast menu, was it unreasonable to expect something as universally beloved as a simple kolache to be excluded from the buffet in Prague? Apparently so.
Now that Texas dirt is back under my boots, I’ll just have to drive down to West and demand some answers.