Thursday, December 10, 2009

Final day in Prague--final day of the trip

- Okay, here are the sad, gory details about how I allowed myself to be victimized by a pickpocket. We went back to the glass sculpture shop we discovered yesterday to buy a piece that Andrew particularly liked. While we were there, we became interested in other pieces by the same artist. It was warm in the shop, so since it appeared we would be there a while, I took off my winter coat and laid it on a chair. After we made our purchases, I retrieved my coat and we left the shop. Just a few minutes later, I reached into the coat pocket for my camera and found it gone. We raced back to the shop and searched all around the chair where I laid my coat, but I was already sure I had been robbed. The store clerk took us to a security office in the back and introduced us to the owner who said we could view the store videos to see what happened. After about an hour of fumbling with the security system, we finally found the right moments on the right camera and watched what happened, frame by excruciating frame. As soon as I took off my coat, while I was still holding it, a man who had just entered the shop walked up behind me and nudged the jacket with his foot, apparently verifying there was something heavy in the pocket. He then followed me over to the chair where I placed it, sat down in the seat beside it, and within 30 seconds reached into my coat, pulled out the camera, and left the store. We were warned when we first arrived in Prague about the pickpockets and we felt we were being very careful. Clearly this was a huge lapse in that effort to be safe, but it is very difficult to be vigilant every minute of every day. One lapse and in 30 seconds my camera was history. Fortunately, I had downloaded all the pictures just two days before, so we lost only the last two days of images.

- After printing pictures of the thief, we walked a couple blocks to the police station to file a report. After the receptionist heard our story, she called in a police officer and had a brief conversation with him in Czech. After he left, we pressed her to tell us what he said. Reluctantly, she quoted him as saying, "These things happen every day in Prague. If you don't want it to happen to you, then you should not come to Prague." As if to validate his attitude, a young couple came in soon after we did, saying the woman's wallet had been stolen out of her purse on the subway. She lost all her money, credit cards, and her ID, which is necessary for them to travel back to Greece in two days. That put our loss into perspective for us. We lost two days of pictures and a nice camera, but our troubles were over once we got a copy of the police report. Their problems were just beginning. And they seemed like such a nice young couple. We felt bad for them.

- After retrieving a copy of the police report (written in Czech and completely unintelligible to us), we went back toward the hotel feeling a bit lost and vulnerable, suspicious of every one who passed by. Being about 4pm, we stopped into a restaurant, which is catering to tourists, for a small bite to eat. There are many of these in the square and we had avoided them up to this point but we were tired and just needed something to tide us over until dinner. So we both ordered soup and salad. My soup was so bad I couldn't eat it, so I had to order another bowl like Andrew's, since his was at least edible. Andrew's "cucumber salad" turned out to be a lot of chopped up cucumber floating in some kind of clear liquid and my "carrot/pineapple salad" was shreded carrot and a few bits of pineapple also floating in a clear liquid. Not exactly our idea of salads, but we were feeling starved for vegetables, so it met the need okay. We decide not to go back to that restaurant later for dinner though. All the restaurants in the Old Town Square all seem to be hawking the tourists. In fact for blocks in every direction around the square, there were nothing but tourist shops and tourist restaurants. It was like spending four days at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, except for the walking tours we took the first two days.

- After a refreshing nap back at the hotel, we decided to venture out to a restaurant. As tired as we felt, we just couldn't imagine negotiating a meal at one of the tourist restaurants, so we walked the extra blocks to go back to NoStressCafe. Unfortunately it was closed for a private party. A second restaurant was unexpectedly full ("reservations only"), being Friday night. Feeling somewhat at wits end about where to eat and still feeling uneasy about our safety, we went in the next restaurant where we saw a few patrons but also empty tables--what appeared to be a nice Italian restaurant. This turned out to be one of the more bizarre restaurant experiences we had. Perhaps it was just our own paranoia from the events of the past few days (being victimized by both a cab driver and a pickpocket), but we began to worry that we had offended the owner of the restaurant by refusing to try the white truffels at $30 per gram. "We shave off as much as you like. You tell us when to stop and then we tell you afterwards how much you owe." That just seemed too risky to us. So we ordered the tasting menu which was so much food we could only eat about half. The owner/waiter seemed very displeased that we didn't finish it all and asked us to sit with the food longer to see if we could eat more. We didn't want to offend him further, so we complied, getting more and more worried about how to escape from the restaurant without further offense. In the end, we left a larger than usual tip, warmly thanked the owner/waiter and hoped he was happy with us as we left. If this doesn't make sense as I tell it, it may be because I have left out some of our observations and questions about what was going on between being enthusiastically welcomed and then feeling quite uneasy about the environment. Needless-to-say, this did not help our feelings of vulnerability in Prague. As beautiful and interesting as the city is, we do not recommend it for tourists until something is done to better protect them. As the policeman said, "If you don't want it to happen to you, then don't go to Prague."

I never caught anyone in the act of stealing from me before. Here are the pictures we took to the police station that were captured from the security videos. This is what you get instead of pictures from our last two days in Prague.

Day two in Prague

In the morning we went back to the square and found our guide from the day before and joined her three and a quarter hour walking tour of "old town" and its surroundings. Here are the pictures from the tour.

After the tour we went to the Municipal House, which we had seen on the tour and were drawn back there to get tickets to the symphony that night and to have a closer look at this beautiful example of Czech Art Nouveau/Art Deco style building. While there we decided to have lunch in the cafe and made reservations to have dinner in the even fancier restaurant after the concert that night in Smetana Hall in that same building.

Here are the pictures (probably more than you want to see) that we took both outside and inside the building.

Now its time to tell you the sad news. At this point I went back to the hotel and downloaded all the pictures to my laptop for the last time. After spending two more days taking pictures, my camera was stolen (see more about that in the entry for Dec. 4) and all those pictures were lost. It happened that Andrew's camera had gotten dropped and was no longer working, so we have no more pictures to show from this point on.

That evening we attended a concert by the Prague Symphony Orchestra in Smetana Hall, which is located inside the Municipal Building. I must have taken a thousand pictures of ever little detail in that building, it was so beautiful!

The dinner in the fine restaurant in the Municipal Building was excellent, in both food and service. The atmosphere was formal and elegant. We ate for two hours, long after everyone else had left the restaurant, so we tipped the waiters and pianist and hat check woman well for staying late for just us. When I mentioned to the waiter that we were taking so long to eat dinner (it was a huge meal and we were savoring every bite), the waiter responded graciously, "We are here for you. Don't worry about it."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Returning home

We got up at 6:30 and headed back to San Francisco.

Andrew had an interesting experience in security. The x-ray machine revealed that he had a pocket knife in his backpack which he didn't know was there. It appears the woman operating the search saw our dismay, as well as the fact that it took a long time and another pass through the x-ray just to locate where the knife was. To our complete surprise, when she finally found the knife deep in an inner pocket, she quietly dropped it back into the pocket, zipped up the pack, and handed it back to Andrew with a slight smile. We thanked her, not too profusely to draw attention, and went on our way, chucking to each other all the way to the gate.

Then when we got to Frankfurt, we discovered the only way to get to our international flight was to pass through security again! Oh no, the knife was still in his carry-on backpack. Andrew debated with himself about what to do and decided to test his luck again I was aghast at the idea so I went through first because we both knew I'd give it away in an instant if he was questioned. So he just blithely let his pack go through the x-ray machine again. This time the attendent just didn't notice the knife in the bag and let him pass through! We went through two security checkpoints??? Unbelievable!

The knife flew home with us in the overhead storage compartment and we had a chance to move it into our checked bag before going through customs and another security checkpoint in Philadelphia.

We finally arrived in San Francisco exactly 24 hours after we had awakened in Prague, tired and very happy to be back home in our own culture tackling problems we know about rather than facing ones we don't know at every turn.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Here are notes I took on the events of the day:

- Wandered through the streets toward Charles Bridge and discovered a glass sculpture shop with beautiful, interesting pieces

- Visited the Torture Museum, which left the impression that life was much more brutal in centuries past. Many devices to extract "confessions" from witches and heretics. If a witch did not break under torture and confess, it was assumed they were using witchcraft to endure the torture so they were put to death anyway.

- Walked across Charles Bridge, which was undergoing construction and filled with more tourist hawks (cheap glass items and jewelry, souvenir pictures, street portrait artists, etc.), which is probably why our tour guide only showed it from a distance and used another bridge to cross the river twice with us.

- Found a small cafe to have an afternoon snack and discovered it was a Cuban cafe. The waiter, named Pedro, had only left Cuba a month earlier, by way of Russia where he obtained a visa to go to Czech Republic. He warmed up to us as we asked about that experience. When we left, we felt as if we had made a new friend. He directed us to a cab stand and said not to pay more than 200 crowns to ride back to Old Town Center.

- Went into a glass shop on the way to the cab stand and bought a beautiful blown-glass egg for just $35

- Went to an evening performance of chamber music in a side salon in the Municipal Building. The performers were excellent, accoustics, excellent, music selection was "Mozart/Dvorak for Tourists" (What? "Eine Kleine Nacht Muzik" again???)

- After the concert, we tried a "French Asian fusion" restaurant named NoStressCafe (which they wrote as "nostresscafe"). The atmosphere was Zen-like, living up to its name completely. Surprisingly, the food was some of the best we had. I would say it was the best except we have had some truly incredible meals. Anyway, after being in this Prague tourist zone for a few days, we relished the quiet, peaceful ambiance and enjoyed the meal. It seemed odd to be in Prague and eat in a Cuban cafe and then an Asian fusion restaurant, neither of which serves Czech food. Our appetite for duck or pig knuckle with two kinds of saurkraut, red and white, has been over-indulged.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Day one in Prague

We had breakfast at the hotel cafe after sleeping very late, being exhausted from our long day of site seeing and travel yesterday. We then found a person in the old town center offering tours so we took her four hour walking tour of Prague's "Lesser Town" and the Prague palace. At the end of the tour we had dinner at the Soul Restaurant. Read the captions on the pictures if you want to know more details about our experiences.