Parents, Prague, Petřin Hill!

Parents

After months of planning and scheduling (and a few hiccups along the way), my parents were finally able to come visit me in Prague! I’m really glad it all worked out like it did, and that they came when they did…after more than 8 months here, I’ve really begun to feel like a local. I was able to show them both the bigger tourist attractions and some of my personal favorite haunts.

I picked them both up at the airport, and could sympathize with their jet lag and travel weariness. Flying to Europe is no small feat: from JFK, you typically have to layover in another city before getting to your destination (Oslo, Brussels, London, you name it). Prague is a rather small city, compared to other European capitals, so there aren’t too many direct flights to and from the USA.

After lunch and a nap, the three of us went for a walk down to the Charles Bridge and then grabbed dinner. Here are a few of the many selfies and photo ops we took along the way.

 

Prague

Before my parents arrived, I had asked if they’d be interested in doing a day trip somewhere, like Dresden or Kutna Hora, but there’s so much to see in Prague that we decided to spend all of our time in the city. One of our bigger excursions was to the Prague Zoo, after walking around city center and seeing Charles Bridge.

Easter Sunday started with a service at St. Clement’s, an Anglican-Episcopal church near the Dlouha Třida tram stop. I haven’t been to church in a really long time, but all the hymns came back to me like muscle memory, and there’s nothing like being surrounded by native speakers in a foreign city.

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St. Clement’s Church

Knowing my mom, we went to the Cat Cafe in my neighborhood on more than one occasion. She had already fallen in love with a grey Maine Coon kitten named Muzzle before she arrived, thanks to the photo I had been texting her. The cool thing about the cafe is that the cats aren’t up for adoption; the cafe is their forever home. The owners rescued each and every one of them, and gave them a safe place to live. Cafe rules here are much more lax than they are in the USA. You don’t need to make a reservation beforehand, and you can sit and enjoy a drink with a cat on your lap. The ones I’ve been to back in the States make you sit in a separate room to drink a coffee or eat a dessert.

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Three of the cats at the cafe (Muzzle, my mom’s favorite cat, is the grey one on the left).

We ate out for almost all of our meals besides breakfast, and typically ended the day with some gelato at my favorite shop “Angelato,” and a walk around my neighborhood (Smichov). My parents particularly walking across the many bridges that separates Smichov from Old Town. I had pointed out a building called the Dancing House to my mom on our first walk after their arrival, and the three of us finally made it to its lookout tower for drinks and a stellar view of the river and castle.

 

Petřin Hill

We spent our last full day at the Gardens at Petřin Hill, enjoying the manicured lawns and city views. The lunch we sat down to was much longer than we expected, due to an overwhelming amount of guests, but we enjoyed the sunshine and good weather as we waited. My friend Michael had told me about the rose gardens when he came to visit me back in October, but I had no idea how much there was to see at the top! My parents and I took the “funicular,” a gondola-like ride up to the top and slowly walked our way back down.

I joked with my parents that I’d make a small building next to the big church up there my new home: it was so beautiful! We enjoyed amazing weather during my parents’ entire visit, so much so that I even got a bit sunburnt.

This has to be one of the best views in the entire city! My parents and I had considered doing a cruise on the Vlatava River, but after this, realized we wouldn’t find better sight-seeing than this.

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The view from the top of the Hill.

 

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Church at the top of the hill.
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My future “home.”
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A Weekend in Brno

On this cold and rainy Sunday, as I sit inside and watch “That 70’s Show” episodes on Netflix, I decided it was finally time to finish my blog post on my trip to Brno. Two weekends ago, my good friend Micha and I took the train from Prague to the charming city of Brno, Czech Republic. It’s the second most populated city in the country, and has a charm all its own. Our train pulled in late Friday evening and we unknowingly decided to grab dinner at an American-themed restaurant, with Nebraska license plates affixed to each bathroom door and old Texaco gas pumps stationed in each corner of the dining room. It’s always fascinating to see how other cultures view the United States, and more often than not, they see it as apple pie, deep Southern culture, and American football.

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You can’t make this stuff up!

Micha and I were so tired, that after unpacking and showering at our AirBnB, we went straight to bed to rest up for the day of sight-seeing ahead of us. We started our day with one of my favorite traveling activities: brunch at a cozy cafe, Cafe Placzek. I had a delicious scrambled egg and avocado sandwich, with a vanilla latte on the side. I’ll just have to make do with espresso until I can have iced coffees again.

Not surprisingly, Brno (as almost every European city does) has a gorgeous cathedral enveloped in the walls of its 13th-century castle. The walk up to the grounds was not nearly as rough as it is getting to the castle in Prague, and for that I was extremely grateful.

Despite appreciating the beauty of the church and its surroundings, I have to say that my favorite part of the day was visiting the Brno farmer’s market in city square. I honestly felt as though I wasn’t in the Czech Republic anymore, and instead, was perusing an Italian market. This was probably due to the 60-degree weather and fresh vegan gelato stall stationed just outside the market entrance. I enjoyed a delicious scoop of lavender-blueberry and bought a half-pint of fresh raspberries as a snack. After becoming so accustomed to the Christmas market culture of Eastern Europe, this summer-like market was a breath of fresh air.

And what would a trip in the Czech Republic be without a locally brewed beer? Pilsner Urquell is popular everywhere, but Brno actually has its own small brewery and beer called Starobrno, which Micha and I got to try at the Starobrno Brewery downtown after visting Brno’s (rather ugly) astronomical clock. It gave me a deeper appreciation for Prague’s own clock.

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Check out this absolute monstrosity. 

The changing of the seasons here in the Czech Republic, from damp and grey to sunny and cheerful, has really changed my overall mood. I’ve loved being able to join my students for a game of dodgeball during recess, sans jacket, and take a stroll down to the local cafe in my neighborhood in my Birkenstocks. I’m hoping that this change in the weather means more weekend trips and local excursions, too. I was experience cities like Vienna and Krakow as they are meant to be seen, with snow on the ground and a chill in the air, but now it’s time for flowy dresses and picnics at the park. Stay tuned as I make the most of my last four months here!

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Brno’s city center at night.

 

Hungary for Adventure

Day 1: St. Stephen’s Basilica. Invisible Exhibition. Chain Bridge. Shoes on the Danube. Parliament Building. Dinner at Budapest Bisztro.

My first day in Budapest was my busiest by far! I started my sightseeing by going to one of the most famous attractions in the city: St. Stephen’s Basilica. For a 1 Euro donation, you can head into the cathedral and take in all the beautiful architecture and stained glass windows. Basically every big European city has a must-see cathedral and I try to go and see them all. I found this cafe called “California Coffee Company” after leaving the Basilica and had to try it out. I wondered what Hungarians thought Californian coffee should taste like. My latte was delicious but my bagel left something to be desired. The barista toasted it with the cream cheese already on the bagel, and its consistency just didn’t measure up to NJ bagels.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

The Invisible Exhibition was actually one of the only things I planned in advance for my trip, and I’m so glad I reserved myself a spot. The exhibit takes place in a number of totally dark rooms, and a blind tour guide takes you through them. You get to experience what it would be like to be blind, and you have to put all your trust into your guide. My group and I felt our way through an apartment, busy intersection at rush hour, log cabin, a park (with a bridge!), and finally a bar where our guide made espresso in the dark. It was very impressive. The tour was like nothing I’ve ever done before, except for maybe the Touch Tunnel at Liberty Science Center, but even then I was too chicken to actually finish the tunnel. I was hoping we might get to see the rooms after with the lights on, out of sheer curiosity, but I realized that would be against the point. The experience really impresses upon you what it’s like to be visually impaired, and makes you appreciate your sight. Our tour guide, Julia, was so kind and ready and willing to answer any questions we had.

Before grabbing dinner, I took advantage of “Golden Hour,” right before the sun set upon the Danube River, to visit Hungary’s Parliament Building and see the Shoes on the Danube. The shoes are hard metal and attached to the cement on the edge of the river, and are meant to honor the Hungarian Jews who were marched down to the Danube and shot by fascist militiamen during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot point-blank at the edge so that they’d fall right into the river and be swept away by the current. The single pair of baby’s shoes in the sea of women’s high heels and men’s loafers will be with me forever.

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Views of the Hungarian Parliament Building
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Shoes on the Danube Bank

Day 2: The Goat Herder Espresso Bar. Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Pozsonyi Kisvendéglo for a late lunch. Budapest Jazz Club.

Why aren’t thermal baths a tradition back in the USA? Because let me tell you, they are one of mankind’s greatest achievements. This day was probably the most relaxing one I spent in Budapest: I stewed in mineral-rich waters for an hour and even treated myself to an aroma-therapy massage. I went to the baths on Wednesday at around 12 noon, and the best part of the experience was just people-watching. There was a young Russian man in my pool teaching his daughter how to swim, some overly touchy-feely couples, and a lot of retirees who chatted into the late afternoon. (Heads up: You’ll be hit with an overwhelming eggy smell the further into the bathing complex you go. Some baths contain more sulfur than others, but apparently, the healing benefits are unparalleled).

Since I decided to visit one of the city’s most famous Roman baths, the architecture followed suit. There were huge white pillars supporting the inner structure and carvings hidden in the walls. As you can see from the picture below, it’s kind of hard to believe there’s an entire spa inside. It looks like a museum from the outside! I enjoyed both the indoor and outdoor baths, and since it was a whopping 7 degrees Celsius, there was tons of eerie steam rising from the water. On my way to my massage appointment, I got totally lost in the sea of locker rooms and shower stations, but relaxed as soon as I was on the table and breathing in lavender essential oils. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the sanitarium from A Cure for Wellness as I tried navigating through the maze-like rooms. The changing cabins were like something out of the 19th century, and everything in the bathhouse was a startlingly bright white. But a visit to the thermal baths is something you must try during your time in Budapest, and Széchenyi is one of the highest-rated spas in the city.

After heading back to my AirBnB to unwind and shower, I met up with my two Prague friends, Alex and Dan, to see a live jazz show and go (unintentionally) bar-hopping. I told myself I’d head back after one beer, but three bars later, we were having the time of our lives. They were so kind and walked me home safely after the night was over.

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Outside view of the thermal baths

 

Day 3: WARMCUP Cafe. Vintage shopping on Don Utca. Blitz Koyha Cafe. Dinner at Belvárosi Disznótoros.

Since I was a tad hungover from the night before, my day started later than I expected. I changed out of my pajamas and into jeans, then went right back to bed for another two hours (whoops!) before finally heading out for coffee and a croissant. Vintage shopping is one of my favorite hobbies, and on Dob Utca (which means ‘street’ in Hungarian) there are TONS of cute little stores. My favorites had to be LudovikaPOSTR Store, and JUDAS. But I had a great time exploring Retrock and Szputnyik as well. I found an adorable Levi’s black denim skirt and a pair of paisley-print Vans…they’ll go nicely with the vintage jean jacket I bought back in Vienna.

I took a break from all my shopping to enjoy a latte at Blitz Koyha Cafe and then met my friends at a delicious grab-and-go Hungarian restaurant. I had seasoned pork with baked potato chips and rice. All I could think of while eating the chips was how similar they were to the ones served at Traditions, a restaurant at TCNJ of all places. It’s amazing how the smallest of things can bring you back to a certain time in your life.

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Sculpture on Dob Utca

 

Day 4: Jewish Synagogue. Margaret Island.

The weather during my last two days in Budapest was just perfect, and I used it as an excuse to get outside and visit Margaret Island. The piece of land is in the middle of the Danube Island and easy to access via the city’s buses. I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be during the summer, but I had a nice time strolling around regardless. I didn’t stay for as long as I intended, because there wasn’t much to do, but I did end up finding one of island’s famed ruins (pictured below).

I also got to see the Jewish Synagogue from the comfort of a cafe across the street, where I enjoyed an iced latte. And believe it or not, I loved the place I went to dinner the night before so much that I went back for lunch! I ordered the same meal of course. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? All in all, it was a great finale to my time in Budapest.

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The ruins at Margaret Island

Fast Times in Slovakia

Catch me if you can! I just spent a whirlwind 24 hours in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia (which, yes, is a completely different country from the Czech Republic). The two countries split just two years before I was born, back in 1993, and contain a few similarities and some noticeable differences as well. For starters, the Czech Republic still uses the koruna as its currency, not switching over to the Euro like Slovakia did. And the Czech and Slovak languages are slightly different from each other. Luckily, they are similar enough that I could still read and understand the signs in Bratislava. The architecture in Bratislava resembles that of Prague, but the city is much smaller in comparison. I found that I only needed a day to see all the major sites.

Right before I left for Bratislava, I had finished the Holocaust-era novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It’s the true story of the camp’s tattooer Lale Eisenberg, who is taken from his home city of Bratislava, and forced to register as Jewish in Prague before being taken to Poland. I couldn’t help but feel a connection to this man, and made sure to visit Bratislava’s Holocaust Memorial.

Eastern Europe has a tradition of laying a golden brick in front of residences where Holocaust victims lived, complete with an inscription of their name, date of birth and the day they were taken. I found myself checking every brick and plaque I came across in Bratislava, wondering if I’d see Mr. Eisenberg’s name.

My First Day in Bratislava included:

St. Martin’s Cathedral, Funki Punki Cafe, Dolnozemska Krčma, Pollito Cheesecake

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St. Martin’s Cathedral, one of Bratislava’s main tourist attractions.

Thankfully, the tram system in Bratislava is laid out similarly to the one in Prague, so I had an easy time navigating the city. My first stop was to St. Martin’s Cathedral, a lovely aged church with tons of character. I really liked the murals I found along the way, which can be seen below. (I especially love the one with the cats).

But honestly, there’s nothing I love more than just wandering around a city with no real path in mind. I usually find a cute little cafe along the way and stop there to read and order a drink. And my time in Bratislava was no exception. I ended up at Funki Punki, a hipster-like cafe that proudly stated that it was “IKEA FREE” and decorated its space with only vintage furniture. Luckily, it was too trendy to be pretentious.

Slovakian food is not that different from Czech cuisine, but I tried the local grub anyway and had a dinner of roasted pork shoulder and bread dumplings. Dessert was had at Pollito Cheesecake, which as you can tell by the name, only serves cheesecake. I had their coconut and white chocolate cake, which has to be some of the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted. (Sorry, New York). Then it was time to check out my AirBnB and get a good night’s sleep before my second day in Bratislava began.

 

My second day included:

FIVE Points Cafe, Pamätaj Holocaust Memorial, City Center, Michael’s Gate

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THE SELFIE-CCINO! (featuring me and Jesse)

The Selfie-ccino: the main reason why I chose to go to the FIVE Points Cafe for brunch. Just look at that masterpiece…how could you go to Bratislava and not order one? For just 3 euros, you can purchase a delicious cappuccino with your favorite picture on it, with a warm bacon, egg and cheese bagel on the side. Anyone who knows me is well aware that my cat and bagels are my two favorite things in the world. It’s safe to say I was a happy camper on Saturday morning.

After filling up on a hearty breakfast, I headed to Pamätaj and Michael’s Gate. The Holocaust Memorial appears to be situated randomly but its location was chosen for a very good reason. It’s the spot of the former Rybné Synagogue, which is still cherished by many Bratislavians. The memorial is multi-faceted and includes a sihouette of the former place of worship, a star of David at the top, and zachor (“remember” in Hebrew) and pamätaj (“remember” in Slovak) inscribed onto its base).

I honestly didn’t even realize I was passing under Michael’s Gate until I looked it up on Google Maps to be sure. The tall white structure in between the two yellow buildings is the former entrance to the city of Bratislava, and tourists can climb to the top for a full view of the city.

Hump Day. Slump Season.

I never wanted to be someone who counted down work days until the weekend arrived, but here I am. It’s Wednesday night and I’m patting myself on the back for making it halfway through the week. (And I only worked today and half of Tuesday so far, due to a disgusting stomach bug). The weather doesn’t help…at all. It’s been blustery and cold here in Prague for the past few weeks, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in the near future. On 20 degree days, I can barely find the motivation to pull on a pair of jeans and carry my ass to the metro for work. And it’s depressing the hell out of me. I really thought I’d be used to this weather by now, due to growing up in New Jersey. All we had to be thankful for were snow days and artsy Instagram photos when the weather turned bad.

I keep telling myself that maybe if I moved to a warmer place next, like Spain or Italy, I’ll be happier. My motivation will magically return to me. But again, that’s just the escapist in me trying to run from the problem than face it head on. The truth is that I feel lost. I have no clue what I want to do with my life, and the one thing I used to be so sure of: my writing, I don’t do much of anymore.

It feels like I have nothing to say. I thought moving here would change that. I would stumble upon all of these fascinating people who’d inspire characters for a short story, or discover that perfect setting for my book. But what’s a spark without some imagination? Sure, it’s wonderful to feel inspired by something or someone, and see where it leads you, but you really have to want to pull on that thread. Everything that comes out of me lately seems tangled. I’m not sure if it’s the weather, the gloomy day I’ve had, or just the fact that I’m allowing myself to explore the scarier sides of my truth…but this is where I’m at today.

Hoping it’s all uphill from here.

Poland: Auschwitz & Krakow

For the first time ever, I wasn’t able to be home with my family for Christmas. I’m currently dealing with some restrictions here in Europe that don’t allow me to leave the continent. And though I thought it would all be cleared up in time for the holidays, it didn’t work out in my favor. So instead of wallow in self-pity and spend my time off holed up in my apartment, I decided to do some last-minute traveling. That’s the one of the best things about living in Prague: a handful of countries are only a train ride away! I booked a round-trip ticket to Krakow and a cheap AirBnB, and decided to make the most of a bad situation.

The main reason I decided to go was to visit Auschwitz, a place I’ve always wanted to see. As a World War II buff, I’ve read countless books on the Holocaust and knew I needed to see the concentration camp for myself. You might be thinking, “What a strange way to spend the holidays…” but the experience was enriching in ways I can’t even explain. I strongly believe it’s something everyone needs to see at least once in their life. It was one of the most emotionally and physically exhausting days (the experience was 7 hours in total), but I’m glad I took the plunge and went. I spent the first day of my trip at Auschwitz and the second day exploring the city of Krakow.

Auschwitz I

Most people don’t realize that there are actually two camps at Auschwitz. The first, Auschwitz I, was where it all started but is much smaller than the second. When my tour group and I arrived at the site, sheets of freezing rain were falling on our heads as we stood outside waiting to go through security. The outside of the facility looks like just another tourist site, until you pass through the gates and into the actual camp. You walk through a little building, get checked by security, and are given your headset for the tour. And then there you are, right in the middle of all the photos you’ve seen and stories you’ve heard. Despite the chilly weather, I knew that my goosebumps were due to something far greater than the cold.

What struck me most about the site was how much it resembled a college campus. Strange, I know, but our tour guide pointed out that it was probably not what we were expecting to see. There were trees lining long pathways, with beautiful brick buildings on each side. The site of Auschwitz I was built way before World War II began and served other army-specific purposes before it was used as a prison camp.

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The grounds of Auschwitz I, enclosed with barbed wire fencing.

We were taken inside certain blocks of the camp, where our tour guide explained the “extermination” selection process and how the Nazis tried to convince everyone that the prisoners knew they were heading to death camps. But after seeing what these people brought with them, how could you believe that? They brought face cream and table brushes and carrot peelers. Why would you bring all that with you if you knew it would just be taken away?

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Piles of cups, plates, bowls and the other household items people brought with them. Preservation staff recently discovered a mug with a fake bottom, where a prisoner had hidden a cross necklace and golden ring. 

My group and I were shown two tons of hair taken from prisoners that was sold to companies who would use it to make rugs. The companies pretended they didn’t know where it came from, but the bags they received had “KLA” (Konzentrations-Lager-Auschwitz) written on them. The rows of inmate head shots, piles of eyeglasses and shoes, and the preserved urn of ashes help put into perspective just how many people lost their lives.

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Memorial for those who died at Auschwitz. The urn is full of ashes from prisoners who were cremated. 

In one of Auschwitz I’s blocks, we were shown standing cells, which were only about 10 feet in length. 4 to 5 prisoners were forced to stand in them all night, and then go to work the next day. This punishment lasted upwards of three days, usually even longer. And we also visited the aptly-name “suffocation cell,” which could up to 40 prisoners and had one airhole the size of three bricks. The Nazis were not only trying to eradicate an entire race of people, they had come up with horrible ways to do so. Worst of all was the gas chamber, which we toured last. The Nazis told the prisoners to hang up their clothes on numbered racks and to memorize their number, because they’d be coming back for them after showering.

As we now know, this never happened. Cyclone B (cyanide-based poison) was released from holes in the ceiling and in 20 minutes, every prisoner in the chamber was dead and taken to the crematorium. This chamber is the only one of its kind left at Auschwitz, and walking through was the most sobering experience of my life.

Auschwitz II: Birkenau

The second part of Auschwitz is 30 times the size of the first, which was hard for me to wrap my brain around. This is where 90% of the murders occurred, and in both camps, over 1.3 million people were unlawfully killed. Birkenau could hold about 90,000 people in its barracks. As the fog began to clear in the fields, rows and rows of buildings came into views. Sometimes, all that was left were brick chimneys and foundations, because the Nazis torched almost all of the wooden huts before they abandoned the site. But the proof is there. We were able to tour one of the barracks in a sea of hundreds, but almost all of them are closed to the public. Unlike Auschwitz I, Birkenau wasn’t built to last and many of the buildings are caving in due to their two-ton rooftops and flimsy walls.

Our tour guide took us into one specific barracks of the two that are open: because this one had preserved walls with paintings on them. It was the children’s barracks. Fellow prisoners were commissioned to paint murals of kids going to school and parading around with drums and flutes. Most likely not to comfort them, but as part of Nazi propaganda…to show the kids what life could be like if they had been the “chosen ones.” How sick is that? As I walked around, I took in the rows of three-tiered bunk beds that the kids were forced to sleep on. What did they dream about at night? Did they comfort one another? The bottom tier was simply the dirt floor, and most people who slept there died from the cold because heat rises. There was simply no peace for these children, and the thought is almost too much to bear.

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Three-tiered beds in the children’s barracks.

Our tour guide took us all around the camp, and we walked the same path that prisoners would take from the train platform to the gas chambers on the left and right. These two, and the others in the woods, were demolished before Allied forces came to free the camp. There is a large monument constructed for the victims, with dark blocks in the shape of overlapping tombstones–to represent the ones the prisoners never received when they died. The monument has 23 plaques that all show the same quote, but it is written in the different languages the victims spoke.

“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.”

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Cattle car, in which prisoners were taken to Birkenau. It was donated by a Jewish survivor, who now lives in Australia. 
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End of the tracks at Auschwitz: Birkenau. This was often the last site prisoners saw before being taken to the gas chambers on either side of the platform.

 

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Remains of one of Birkenau’s gas chambers.

 

Krakow

The second day of my trip was spent exploring Krakow, a city full of history and beautiful architecture. I always like to give myself a day to just wander around a new place and see what I find along the way. My first stop was Krakow’s Old Town Square, which reminded me a lot of Prague’s due to the Christmas markets. The buildings also follow the same Victorian style, except for one right in the middle of the square.

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Stare Miasto or “Old Town” 

At first, I thought it was an enormous church or synagogue, but as you get closer to the entrance, you realize it’s a huge bazaar. Funny enough, it reminded me of the indoor one in Charleston, South Carolina of all places. The bazaar was fittingly decorated for Christmas, and sold everything from painted porcelain mugs to wool-lined slippers.

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Bazaar in Old Town Square.

Krakow is full of gorgeous nooks and crannies. It’s not hard to stumble across lovely little sites like these below.

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24 Hours in Pilsen

After four months in the Czech Republic, I’ve learned that you can’t live here and not at least try their “pivo” (beer). I actually had Pilsner Urquell for the first time at my going-away party back in New Jersey, and have loved it ever since. So when my friends mentioned wanting to visit Pilsen and tour their famous brewery, I couldn’t say no. My friend Helen and I caught the bus after work on Friday night and by the time we arrived, it had started to snow. In Prague, there’s been a sprinkling of snow here and there but nothing that really stuck. Winter in the Czech Republic really is as magical as they say. Here’s what my friends and I saw during our stay in this cozy Western city:

The Great Synagogue of Pilsen, which when dusted with snow looks just like a gingerbread house. And it’s actually the second largest synagogue in all of Europe! The next day, we got to ride the second largest elevator in the Czech Republic at the brewery. But hey, both are #1 in my heart.

Helen and I went up to meet with our two other friends, Helen and Alex, at this cute little restaurant called Delish. And it was. After saying I wasn’t hungry, I had six chicken wings, a beer (you have to in Pilsen), and pistachio cheesecake. We walked through the snow to our AirBnB, which had great dubbed-over versions of “Married with Children” and “Sex and the City” on its TV.

the great synagogue

The next morning, we had just enough time to check out the Pilsen Christmas markets in city center, which bookend the grand St. Bartholomew Cathedral. I love how festive this country is during Christmastime, and the care each city takes in setting up their markets. They’re just about everywhere in Prague, but I have to say that I was most impressed by the one in Pilsen. It had a carousel and a large bell for children to ring, and plenty of hot mulled wine and coffee.

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And now for the main event: the Pilsner Urquell Brewery and Historical Underground Tours. I’d never been on a brewery tour before yesterday, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Except for the fact that we’d be getting a pretty sweet prize at the end. After exploring the underground tunnels of Pilsner (where the water for the beer was extracted for more than 100 years), we got to see where the real magic happens. The Pilsner Urquell brewery is enormous, and the company itself manufactures about six different types of beer.

At the beginning of the tour, we learned a bit about the company’s history and its intriguing origin story. Originally, the beer in Pilsen was actually kind of terrible, thanks to inconsistent recipes and poor quality ingredients. Many townspeople had “rights” to brew, so they could make their own beer at home. This led to the wide range of beers brewed in Pilsen, until Josef Brol decided to band all the brewers together and create one master recipe. “One pivo to rule them all, one pivo to find them…” They brewed the first Pilsner of its kind on October 5th, 1842. Now, more than 70% of beers produced in the world follow Brol’s distillation techniques and recipe.

It was great to get to try the malt and regional Czech hops that go into Pilsner pivo, but even better to try the beer itself. I’ve had Pilsner Urquell plenty of times, but never the unfiltered and unpasteurized version. And let me tell you, it was even better than I imagined. You can only try it at the brewery, and so they keep a certain number of barrels stored in the old cellars for visitors to try. We sipped our exclusive beer while standing in front of oak barrels the size of SmartCars and talked to a man from Indiana. He is a “basement brewer” as he described himself, and was so excited to be in an actual brewery that he was shaking. I thought about how he and my dad would’ve gotten along really well.

After our tour, we grabbed dinner at Na Spilce, a restaurant built in part of the brewery’s former cellar. Then it was time to hop on the bus back to Prague, and spend the rest of the weekend reading and relaxing at home.