Sunday, 11 July 2010

Hotels - Europe I

For our trip to Europe this year, we decided first to return to Prague, a city that Tom especially likes. Our plan was to look for glass sculpture there and in the northern towns of Novy Bor and Zelezny Brod, since the Czechs are known for the quality and variety of their contemporary glass art as well as for their colored, engraved, and etched traditional glass vessels. Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova pioneered in making cast glass sculptural objects and architectural enhancements. Their students, followers and associates continue to create unusual and engaging works of art in glass. At first we planned to follow Prague with about a week in Poland, but when we didn't find a lot of art mentioned in the guidebooks we decided to limit our Polish visit to Krakow and Wroclaw and use the saved time to make our first visit to Dresden. As the schedule developed, we were spending 16 nights in 7 hotels in 6 cities. I don't know whether it's a result of the economy or if Central Europe is just less expensive, but we found that we could easily book hotels for well under $100 a night and decided to set that as our goal, with one exception, a splurge at the end for $130 a night. We used, Expedia, and a couple of local hotel-finding websites. It took a while to find what we wanted, but we've been surprised and delighted with the results.

Prague, Eurostars Thalia ($88.88, breakfast and free wifi included)
Our first attempt was in Prague, which we expected to be expensive. Tom had discovered somewhere and it was there that we found the Eurostars Thalia, which is close to the Vltava [Moldau in German] River, across the street from the National Theater, and a short walk from both Wenceslaus Square and Old Town. The photo of the façade looked a bit tired, and we expected an older slightly down-at-the-heels place. And we were somewhat concerned that we had never heard of the booking agency with the lowest price: Skoosh. But having been happy with the results of booking flights on Easy Jet and Tuifly in the past, we took a chance on it and paid in advance. Our dowdy impression of the hotel was incorrect. Recently upgraded, the Thalia is freshly painted and has a very clean, contemporary interior. There's a huge bar/lounge on the main floor, elevators to all floors. Our room was large, clean and well designed, with a large bathroom. Everything worked, the shower was excellent, there were soap, shampoo and lotion, large towels and a large flat-screen tv, on which we could get a couple of English stations, as well as Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Al Jazeera. We watched some of the World Cup first-round games in our room. In the lower floor restaurant we found a spectacular breakfast with a vast array of meats, cheeses, breads, pastries, eggs, bacon and sausage, cooked tomatoes and peppers. At the end of the trip, we still thought this was the best deal we had gotten. Skoosh and proved excellent, reliable sources.

The Thalia staff was also helpful in getting us tickets for the ballet "Faust" at the Estates Theater, although they seemed to have no idea where the theater is. This is a venue I would recommend no matter what they are offering. Last time we were in Prague we saw a Mozart opera in this theater where Don Giovanni premiered in 1787. It was an innovative, well sung performance, surprisingly not at all an imitation of 18th-century staging. The ballet "Faust" was a reinterpretation set in Nazi Germany with music from many sources, including the Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and the movie "Schindler's List." An unexpected, powerful and disturbing reinterpretation, it unexpectedly set the stage for the rest of our trip, since World War II and the Holocaust played such an important role in shaping the cities we visited and it still reverberates strongly in the consciousness of Central Europe.

On our first day, we had lunch at the Frank Gehry Dancing House (nicknamed "Fred and Ginger"), an excellent meal with a terrific view of the river and Prague Castle. We spent the first days looking for glass galleries, a surprisingly difficult task given all the glass you see as a tourist, since we were looking for serious sculpture rather than decoration or table settings. Museums in Prague are widespread and the collections are not always very impressive. The Museum of Decorative Arts had a show of glass by students at the school at Zelezny Brod; the rest of the collection is somewhat stodgy and stops around 1950.
But the Museum of Czech Cubism, housed in a cubist building – The House of the Black Madonna (she's on the corner) - and with a cubist café, was a revelation: a group of Prague artists made cubist paintings and prints as well as furniture, design, and architecture. African sculpture was included in the gallery of prints, demonstrating the interest the cubists had in this work. As a result of this exhibition, we followed the Fodor's guide to Vysehrad to see the four cubist houses there. We also enjoyed the Alphonse Mucha Museum, which displays posters and drawings by this master of art nouveau in France and Prague, plus a good video in English about his life. This inspired us to return to the amazing Municipal Hall with its interiors by Mucha. A striking thing about Prague is that so much of it is art nouveau. Buildings everywhere are decorated with floral tendrils, lithe women with languorously flowing hair, chubby babies, colored tiles and mosaics, and floral wrought iron gates. I couldn't stop looking up.

Visiting the restored Bethlehem Chapel, we were able to learn quite a bit about Jan Hus, the Catholic reformer burned as a heretic in 1415. His impact on the religion and politics of the area also helped us define the place better. He seemed to turn up everywhere and imbued the place with a protestant, protesting foundation that may help explain Czech independent spirit under Communism. There's a huge monument to him on the Old Town Square, erected in 1915 to commemorate his death, and the day of his death is a national holiday.

After four nights in Prague, we left for a two-day weekend at the Hotel Villa Conti ($82.40 a night, breakfast included) in the medieval/Renaissance town of Cesky Krumlov, a popular tourist destination, particularly for Czechs and Germans, since Germany is less than an hour away. We booked this hotel though the local Cesky Krumlov hotel service. Although we couldn't find the hotel, with virtually the whole town center closed to traffic, we finally got there after inquiring at a gas station, where the salesperson sold us a map and kindly called the hotel to get directions. The Villa Conti is a small hotel with perhaps 8 rooms. Our room was huge, with a canopied bed and an enormous marble bathroom. The oval tub/shower had a convenient seat at the side. I thought the bed might be too hard, but was asleep before I could test that theory. Breakfast was a bit smaller than at the Thalia, but plenty of cheese and ham and breads with jam and butter. On the second day the manager scrambled us some eggs.

The town is a typical medieval village with the Vltava/Moldau River flowing on both sides. Thousands of people seemed to be spending a weekend in the country there. We went to the Egon Schiele (the German expressionist artist who died of the flu in 1918 at age 28) Museum. It has only a few Schieles, but a good biographical video and several exhibitions of work by contemporary Czech artists. Schiele spent some time in Cesky Krumlov until a neighbor became outraged to discover him with a child posing nude in his garden.

We loved the traditional Czech food goulash, sausage, duck or pork cooked with dumplings, potatoes, sauerkraut and cabbage. One restaurant, U Dwau Maryi (The 2 Marys), with tables close to the river and a most pleasant view, served medieval food, adding some unusual grains, root vegetables, and fowl to the mix. We also kept getting ice cream, which is more like Italian than American ice cream, with stronger flavors, especially exotic fruits and less cream. Tom almost always got lemon – I liked raspberry, grapefruit, and hazelnut.

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