Thursday, February 21, 2008


Wow! There’s nothing better than visiting a new place and being blow-away by how wonderful it is. Not that we expected Prague to be unworthy of a visit, we had certainly heard a lot of wonderful things about this city, but it exceeded our expectations in every aspect.

Prague is perhaps the most beautiful city we have seen. It was not damaged during WWII, so has architecture from centuries of growth. Every view is colourful and varied. Art nouveau buildings surround a gothic cathedral. Spires and domes fill the skyline. The 14th century Charles Bridge is wonderful. This famous bridge is a highlight for many Prague visitors, but before seeing it, I could only wonder “what’s so great about a bridge?”. Well now I know. It provides great views of the city, especially when the castle district is alight at night. The looming statues of saints, the art vendors, the tourists and locals strolling along the cobblestone…magical.

The history of the Czech Republic is fascinating. We spent a morning with a local guide who gave us a crash course on Czech history. It is the first time we have visited a country with significant Jewish history and a communist past. Hence, we loved the historic sites in the Jewish district and the museum of communism. The bottom line is the Czech Republic is now experiencing a rare independence, and yet despite its past oppression, Prague is a thriving, lively, beautiful, and friendly city.

We always enjoy trying the cuisine of places we visit. As for Czech food, there was little worth mentioning of their hearty meals: sausages, meat, gravy, and strange dumplings. I always thought it would be difficult to be a vegetarian visiting France, but as a vegetarian I would certainly choose France before the Czech Republic! Regardless, for what they lack in food, they make up for in beer! Pivo, as it is called in Czech, is THE drink. Czechs consume more beer than any other country, and I believe this stat. It’s easy when a beer is 0.5 L and costs about 1 euro. Much cheaper and certainly more accessible than water. We tried many of the local brands and found favourites in Kozel (Gilles) and Krusovice (April). We also enjoyed the liquor Becherovka, and brought a bottle home.

If you are considering a visit to the Czech Republic, or any of the other Eastern European countries, go now before they convert to the euro and prices become sadly inflated.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

#1 Paris Activity

There is one activity that is absolutely essential to any stop in Paris. It is not the obvious: a visit to the Louvre, mounting the Eiffel Tower, or a Seine boat cruise. No, my favourite activity is much cheaper and tastes better. It’s a late-night stop at a crepe bar.

These street-side vendors are open reliably late, perfect for a sweet snack after supper. The crepe is a wonderful companion for a leisurely stroll through the city of lights. The best creperies are usually the darkest and dingiest, as is often the case with street vendors.

On a recent stopover in Paris, the promise of a crepe was the only thing that made us feel better about our travel troubles. We decided to forego a visit to our favourite creperie, and try the products from a vendor that is boldly named “Aux Meilleures Crepes de Paris”, which translates to the best crepes in Paris. Tempting. Now, there are many flavourings on offer at the creperies, both sweet and savory fillings. But when in Paris, we never, ever sway from the Nutella and banana crepe. Yum! So before I reveal whether the ‘best crepes in Paris’ are all they are claimed to be, here are the essential qualities of a great crepe: because these are walking crepes, they must hold together well, not allowing the filling to ooze over the sides of the crepe onto ones hands, or worse, shoes. The filling must be plentiful and evenly spread, ensuring that each bite offers just the right amount of gooey filling. In fact, it’s a fine balance. The crepe cannot be too thin (not able to hold in the contents) or too thick (taking away from the flavour of the filling). Definitely a science. So, as you probably guessed, the ‘best crepes in Paris’ were a bit of a disappointment. The crepe was too thick and overshadowed the best part: the filling. It was too filling, leaving us feeling stuffed rather than pleasantly satisfied. Oh well, if not the best, it was still good and soothed our craving and sorrows.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One reason France sucks...

One thing that I will never get used to in France is the seemingly endless strikes. Les grèves. It seems as though every time we are planning a trip, there are circling rumours of strikes. It has ranged from Air France and airport employees (at least four times since we have been here), SNCF (France’s passenger train company), taxi drivers, and public transportation workers. Fortunately, we have always managed to avoid the inconveniences of the strikes, until now…

I will back up the story a bit. The previous blog told of our plans to visit the French Alp town of Chamonix. Unfortunately, Gilles was detained in Gabon for an additional week making our original trip plans impossible. We were quite discouraged, so to give us a positive outlook and a fresh start we decided to plan a new trip for his return. We had heard wonderful things about Prague, so decided to check out this capital city of the Czech Republic. And here come the strikes.

France is notorious for their strikes. We were aware of them prior to moving here, but I will not pretend to understand them. In Canada, striking is usually a last resort. There are clear requests that are disputed between workers and management. After much negotiation, a strike commences and continues until an arrangement has been agreed upon. How often have you been directly inconvenienced by strikes? Last summer’s Vancouver garbage strike would certainly not have been pleasant, but this is a rare event. Given that many ‘essential services’ in Canada are not allowed to strike, one could easily go several years without being directly affected by a strike. But not in France. We have friends with two children that attend school in Pau. The kids miss many days of classes due to strikes. But it is not because all teachers are on strike to negotiate a new contract. The strikes seem random and the reasons rarely disclosed. An individual teacher may choose to strike for a day. Classes for the rest of the unlucky students continues. The striking teacher returns to work the next day well rested.

We commenced our Prague trip last Monday at the Pau airport. Some air traffic controllers at the Paris airports were striking from Monday to Friday. We initially felt lucky as all flights from Pau to Paris’ Orly airport were cancelled; we were flying to the Charles de Gaulle airport. We arrived in Paris on time, and patiently waited for our next flight to Zurich. This flight was delayed by an hour. We knew it would give us little time to catch our Zurich to Prague flight, but we were still optimistic. I passed in my boarding pass first, and as I was walking down the gateway to the plane, Gilles and the Swiss Air employee called me back. All we were told is we were being put on another flight. We had to leave the secure area, collect our luggage, and visit the Swiss Air ticket counter. Turns out that because of the strikes, most flights out of Paris CDG were delayed. Efficient Switzerland did not want to deal with any passengers that may get stuck in their country because of France’s irresponsible strikes, so we were not allowed to fly to Zurich. Swiss Air put us up in a dingy airport hotel, and rescheduled our flights to the next day. We did finally arrive in Prague, almost 24 hours later than our original plans. And despite the ‘free’ hotel, we ended up coughing up plenty of money for a night out in Paris. Vive la France!