Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Five differences between dining in Paris and Prague

With all of their similarities, Paris and Prague go together like café crème with croissants and goulash with beer. Both of these destinations have cobblestone streets perfect for romantic strolls, meandering rivers and excellent public transportation systems. The short flight time between the two cities make them the perfect pairing for a "best of Europe" vacation.

If you're more accustomed to traveling in France, here are some of the differences I've noted between dining in Paris and Prague:

Smoking is still allowed in restaurants. If you would have asked me a decade ago which country I thought would be the last one in Europe to change its smoking laws, I would have answered "France, without a doubt!" But the French, who are the champions of liberty, have restricted smoking to their terraces while it's still permitted inside Czech restaurants. One of the first questions you may be asked upon entering an eating establishment is if you prefer a smoking or non-smoking table. Interestingly enough, some of the pubs obviously cater to smokers by allocating a surprisingly small number of tables for non-smokers. An anti-smoking bill recently advanced in the Lower House of Parliament but it remains to be seen if it will become a law. The Czech Republic is the last EU member to allow unrestricted smoking in restaurants.

Reservations for restaurants and wine bars are highly recommended. "Do you have a reservation?" Even if it's completely empty, this is the very first question that you'll invariably be asked upon entering a restaurant in Prague. If you have a reservation, the host(ess) will smile benevolently before escorting you to your table. A look of consternation will usually pass over their face if you respond in the negative. This is usually because a restaurant will start holding a table for someone hours before the time at which they've actually reserved  it. For example, if you book a table for 9:00pm, the restaurant will place a "reserved" sign on it well before 7:00pm. While the person who reserves knows that they are assured of having a table, this custom has led to some harsh criticism of restaurants on TripAdvisor by tourists who are upset that they aren't given a table in a seemingly empty restaurant. The old adage of "When in Rome" really applies to reservations in Prague. But should you find yourself at a restaurant without reservations, you'll occasionally be given a table after explaining that you won't stay longer than an hour. That way the restaurant is assured that they won't have to be rude by rushing you out the door and that the table will be available at the correct time for the guest who reserved. Because restaurants in Prague don't usually close between lunch and dinner, we've found that it's easier to get a table without reservations during off-peak times.

Bread isn't always free. If you're used to pouncing on the bread basket as soon as it's delivered to your table in Paris, you may want to ask if there's a charge for the bread or other snacks served before your meal in Prague. We've occasionally been surprised by the additional charge, as much as 90CZK ($3.70) per basket in an upscale restaurant.

Tipping in restaurants is customary. Some restaurants include a discretionary tip. If it's not already added to your bill, it's customary to tip 10% in Prague. Rather than leave the tip on the table, which isn't polite in the Czech Republic, ask your waiter to add the tip to your bill when paying by card. If you're paying with cash, tell the waiter the amount that you would like added to the total.

Beer is cheaper than water. It's almost five years later and I'm still reeling from shock at the 12 euros that I paid for my son's beer in the Latin Quarter in Paris. Even though I wasn't much of a beer drinker when we lived in France, the excellent Czech beers have proven to be seductive -- both for their taste and price. Surprised when a French restaurant in Prague charged 39Kč ($1.50) for a pitcher of tap water, I told the waiter that beer really is cheaper than water in the Czech Republic. He agreed. The going rate for a .3L glass of Pilsner Urquell is 29Kč ($1.20). According to French law, a restaurant must provide a carafe d'eau (pitcher of water) free of charge if a customer requests it to accompany his meal.

If you want a truly special non-alcoholic drink, try one of the homemade lemonades. Most restaurants offer some combination of fresh lemon, mint, cucumber, lime and ginger. They're thirst-quenchingly delicious!

One difference that you won't find between Paris and Prague is in the quality of the meals. Stéphane and I have had some truly remarkable dining experiences in Prague, all at a fraction of the cost that we would have paid in Paris. Bon appétit and dobrou chuť!

Edit: Here's another difference that I noted after publishing this article:

Don't be offended when a server in Prague removes someone's empty plate before the other people at the table have finished eating. They're not trying to rush you out the door. They just don't seem to like it when empty plates clutter the table.

V Zátiší's lamb chops crusted with herbs, roasted root vegetables, kale, smoked tomato relish and cucumber-mint espuma was such a tantalizing blend of flavors that I can't wait to return!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Visiting the Easter Markets in Prague and learning about Czech Easter traditions!

A woman dressed in a traditional Moravian costume at the Easter Market at Wenceslas Square in Prague.
As I learned during my visit to the market, the lacy looking eggs are originally from Slovakia.
Traditional Czech Easter eggs can be seen in the photo below. 

Remember what it felt like to be a child on Easter morning? Perhaps you would wake up bright and early in anticipation of the annual egg hunt, and maybe even peek out of your bedroom window to catch a glimpse of a colorful egg hidden behind a bush in the garden. 

I felt that same sense of excitement while walking to Old Town Square last Thursday morning. As part of my one day takeover of their Instagram account, the official Czech Tourism Agency had provided me with a list of possible subjects to photograph. Just like my childhood Easter egg hunts, some of the things were easy to locate, while others were more elusive. 

Traditional Czech Easter eggs at the Easter Market in Prague

As soon as I spotted a stand with an "Original Czech Easter Eggs" sign, I knew my quest was off to a good start. Thought to be a symbol of new life, fertility and rebirth, the tradition of painting eggs pre-dates Christianity. It was believed that the divine power attributed to eggs increased when they were painted or decorated with ornaments.

In the Czech Republic, some of the most traditional Easter eggs are made by dying the egg a single color before using a sharp object, like a needle, to scratch off some of the color to expose the white shell underneath. During the early days of Christianity, only red dye symbolizing the blood of Jesus Christ was used. More intricate designs are made with the wax-batik method. After a design is drawn on the eggshell with melted beeswax, the egg is successively dipped into red, black or orange dye. As with the colors, many of the motifs on the eggs are symbolic.

Another traditional egg decorating technique is to cut a piece of straw into different shapes and then glue the small pieces onto an egg to form a pattern. The eggs are usually dyed a dark color, such as red, brown, black, blue or green, to contrast with the yellow straw.

The Easter Egg Tree at Old Town Square in Prague

The star attraction of the Easter Market at Old Town Square in Prague is a young birch tree decorated with colorful Easter eggs. Czechs use budding pussy willow or forsythia branches to display their hand-painted eggs at home. Harbingers of longer days and warmer weather, the budding branches are a wonderful way to create a springlike atmosphere inside. You'll also see Easter Trees in hotel lobbies and restaurants in Prague.

These whips are used for one of the oldest Easter traditions in the Czech Republic.

Curious about all of the braided pussy willow branches tied with colorful ribbons at the market, I learned that these branches are used for one of the oldest Easter traditions in the Czech Republic. On Easter Monday, men and boys whip (gently, I hope!) the calves and bottoms of girls and women with the branches to bring them health, happiness and youth during the next year. While they're whipping the women, the men recite special Easter poems. Because this whipping is supposed to be beneficial for women, they reward the men with painted eggs or even a shot of a strong Czech herbal liquor.

In the past, men used to make their own pomlázky by soaking the branches in water before plaiting the pussy willow branches together. Now, they can easily buy the whips at the market, florist or garden center! While I'm not completely sold on this tradition, the whipping seems to be done in the spirit of fun.

Photo of lamb cakes: Isabelle of Wine Travel in France

The only remaining item on my "to find" list was an Easter lamb cake, known locally as beránek. Fortunately, Isabelle of Wine Travel In France / WineChicTravel knew of my quest and forwarded a photo of the cute lamb cakes she found at the market in Pilsen, Czech Republic.

The most popular Easter Markets in Prague are located at Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square and Náměstí Republiky Square. They will be open through April 3, 2016.

In addition to traditional Czech Easter eggs, whips, lace, Easter cards and handcrafted wooden items, you'll find huge hams and sausages roasting over embers, sweet trdelníky, and beer to quench your thirst.

From approximately 4:00pm to 7:00pm, there are daily performances by folklore groups, children’s choirs, and folk dancers on the stage at Old Town Square.

Did you know that Czechs drink green beer for Easter? Find out why by clicking here.

Aerial view of the Easter Market at Old Town Square in Prague

Monday, March 21, 2016

Why do Czechs drink green beer (zelené pivo) for Easter?

Starobrno's advertisement for their green Easter brew (zelené pivo) includes glasses of beer flying off to Rome,
much like the traditional bells do on Holy Thursday.

Did you know that Czechs drink green beer on Holy "Green" Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday, and not on St. Patrick's Day?

Thanks to the Czech tradition of eating green foods (spinach, nettles and various types of cabbage) on Green Thursday to ensure good health for the rest of the year, one of the breweries decided to adapt this custom to the country's favorite beverage -- BEER! The rich green color is obtained by adding an infusion made from several kinds of herbs, including nettles, during the brewing process.

Our quest for green beer on St. Patrick's Day turned into a wild goose chase when bar after bar told us that we would have to be patient and wait for Starobrno brewery to release its zelené pivo on Green Thursday, the 24th of March.

One of the bartenders further explained that Green Thursday is also the last time that the church bells will ring in the Czech Republic before they fly off to Rome. Having grown used to the novel idea of flying church bells while living in France and Switzerland, I'm pleased to say that I didn't even blink an eye. If people are willing to believe that it's the church bells returning from Rome that bring their chocolate and colored eggs on Easter morning, who am I to tell them that it is, in fact, the Easter bunny!

If you'd like to try a glass of Easter brew, click here to see the list of pubs in the Czech Republic that will be serving Starobrno green beer (zelené pivo) on Green Thursday. But don't wait too long! Green beer is a local favorite, especially since it's only available during Holy Week before Easter.

Our search for traditionally brewed Czech green beer led us to Barfüd, a fun bar for backpackers, especially if they're Packers' football fans. In a strategic move, Primátor brewery released their green beer a week early to coincide with St. Patrick's Day.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

I'm going on an adventure ... to the Easter Markets in Prague!

This hand-painted "Easter from the Heart Egg" was given as a symbol of peace and friendship to the city of Prague, its citizens and its tourists by the county of Koprivnica-Krizevci.

Tomorrow is going to be an exciting day. If all goes well at the immigration office in Prague, Stéphane and I will be official residents of the Czech Republic. Here's hoping that we don't have to impress the officials with any language skills beyond dobrý deň (hello), děkuji (thank you) and na shledanou (goodbye) because those three phrases are all that we've mastered.

The odd thing is that Czech people seem to be convinced that I've got more of their language up my sleeve. I suspect it's because of the way I look. In Paris, French waiters invariably switched to English as soon I said bonjour. In Prague, it's the exact opposite. Last weekend, the waiter turned away from Stéphane, who was ordering in English, and started questioning me in Czech. It was only when a look of panic replaced the smile on my face that he realized that I wasn't any more talented in the native language than Stéphane and switched to English. I'm tempted to wear a t-shirt with the message, "dobrý deň - I promise that's all I've got", at least until I've learned some more Czech.

The other reason that tomorrow is going to be a fun day is because I'm taking the Instagram account of @VisitCZ, the official tourism board for the Czech Republic, to the Easter Markets in Prague. I'll be on a quest for colorful Easter eggs, cakes and sweets, willow whips with colorful ribbons that are used for a somewhat surprising Czech tradition and green beer. Originally, I thought that the green beer had something to do with St. Patrick's day but have recently learned that the beer, which is produced by adding a green herbal liqueur, relates to Maundy Thursday, which is known in Czech as Zelený čtvrtek (Green Thursday).

It's going to be a real adventure!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Traditional or filled with ice cream - what's the best trdelnik in Prague?

The aroma is amazing! Traditional trdelníks roasting over burning embers at Trdelnik in Prague.

When I received messages from Anne in Washington DC and Amy in California about a new taste sensation in Prague, alternately called a "Donut Ice Cream Cone" by Mashable and a "Franken-Cone" by NPR, I knew it was time to do some serious trdelníky tasting.

To better appreciate the innovative donut cone, it helps to have an understanding of the traditional trdelník. Unable to resist the tantalizing aromas of roasting pastry lightly dusted with sugar and cinnamon, I sampled my first one at the Christmas Market shortly after we arrived in Prague. Crunchy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, the trdelník reminded me of roasting dough wrapped around a stick over a campfire when I was a child. It's comfort food at its best!

According to The Old Bohemian Trdelník Story, an interesting article by Clare Speak in Bridge magazine, "One culinary tour guide, at Eating Prague food tours, told me that trdelníky are definitely not Czech, and actually come from Transylvania. Meanwhile, a restaurant owner told me the snack was probably imported, or just dreamt up, by the owners of Prague's Christmas Markets, as a way to make a quick profit, since the ingredients are so inexpensive".

Regardless of its origin, I set off on a trdelníky tasting spree yesterday afternoon. Starting at Old Town Square, I wandered down one of the narrow cobblestone streets until the glorious scent of cinnamon and hot dough led me to my first stop, Krusta Bakery. Roasted on metal, as opposed to traditional wooden rollers, Krusta's trdelník was mediocre. It was too thin and could have used a much more generous sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar.

A shop selling trdelníky in Prague

My next stop further down Karlova Street had a simple sign reading "Trdelnik" with a menu listing the options: chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and apple and honey. Popping a portion of the steaming hot dough in my mouth, I reveled in the taste sensations. If you're looking for a traditional trdelník, this place is a good choice.

Good Food Bakery in Prague 

Having acclimated my tastebuds to the flavors of original trdelníky, it was time to sample the version that has been creating such a buzz in the United States. The crowd of people gathered in front of Good Food Bakery made my destination easy to spot.

Chimney Cakes (trdelníky) at Good Food Bakery in Prague

While waiting in the long line, I had plenty of time to study the newfangled trdelník, rebranded as a Chimney Cake, at Good Food Bakery. They had cleverly changed the form of the rollers so that the dough is tapered at one end. This innovative adaptation allows the cone to be filled with strudel (a mixture of apples, walnuts, raisins and whipped cream), ice cream or whipped cream and strawberries. Taking the traditional tredelník one step further, Good Food also offers two savory versions. The Twister is stuffed with ham, cheese, tomato and rucola, while the Pizza is covered with cheese, ventricina and olives before it's roasted.

When it was my turn, I hesitated between the Chimney Cake with ice-cream and the one with strawberries and whipped cream. While I would have preferred the latter, I went with the ice-cream because that's the one that has been causing such a sensation on social media. The trdelník, which was roasted over electric coils and not embers, was my favorite among the three I sampled yesterday. The proportion of nuts, sugar and cinnamon to dough was perfect. The soft serve ice-cream, however, was a disappointment. Rather than a pleasing vanilla flavor, it had an artificial taste.

Thanks to some American women who were raving about their strawberries and whipped cream Chimney Cakes, I will return to Good Food Bakery to do some more "research". Plus, I'm curious to try their savory versions.

If you would like to make trdelníky at home, the blog Chocolate, Chocolate and More features a recipe cleverly adapted to ovens.

Good Food Bakery's trdelník, also known as a Chimney Cake and a Franken-Cone, is filled with ice cream.
Prague, Czech Republic

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Making friends in Prague ...

Strolling the cobblestone streets of Prague is even better with a friend, whether it's a human or a dog!

The boxes are mostly unpacked, Stéphane's away on a business trip to Dubai and I'm relishing in the peaceful feeling that comes from being at home after ten days on the road in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The entire week looms before me full of empty hours that I can fill in any way that I want. It's a luxury, but it has also made me realize that I only know a couple of people in Prague, counting the movers!

Making friends can be one of the most difficult aspects of any relocation, especially if it's an international one. First of all, there may be language or cultural barriers that make it tricky to mingle with the locals. Expats are the next logical choice. But career expats are somewhat of a funny lot. Because we're either moving in or moving on, we're often at different stages of cultural adjustment, or culture shock. This means that people who are preparing to leave often don't have much interest in meeting a newbie who's fresh off the boat. That's certainly how I felt the last couple of years in Paris. Whenever I was introduced to someone who had just arrived, I would wish them well and make a beeline to another part of the room. They were in their honeymoon phase with France while I had already adapted to the marvels of croissants, long vacations and excellent wine. And, in all honesty, I didn't have room in my rapidly fading Paris life for another friend ... someone to whom I would have to say goodbye within a couple of months or a year.

Now the shoe is on the other foot and I have to make new friends. Fortunately, I did some pre-move research on the internet and have a couple of ideas:

Social media - As I met all of my close friends in Paris via my blog or Twitter, social media outlets seemed like a logical starting point in Prague. While I mainly use Twitter to gather information about Prague and the Czech Republic, my interactions with other expats on Instagram have already led to a couple of invitations for coffee. If you have social media accounts, use a hashtag along with your location, in my case #Prague, to search for people who are posting about your city. Read their bios and a couple of their posts to get an idea of their online personality and start interacting with the ones who interest you. Not only have I met people in my own city, but last year I had the great pleasure of meeting an Australian Instagrammer face-to-face when we realized that we were both in Montreux, Switzerland at the same time.

Mr. Jonathan Wootliff speaking to the International Women's Association of Prague

International Women's Association of Prague (IWAP) - When I was a much younger, gainfully employed expat, I used to view women's social organizations as somewhat outdated. Now that I'm in my 50s, I've discovered that the women are actually my soul mates. They're quite often career expats or locals who have spent much of their lives in other countries. IWAP's general meeting this month featured a special program in honor of International Women's Day with interesting talks by the H.E. Ambassador of Peru, Liliana de Olarte de Torres-Muga and Mr. Jonathan Wootliff, former Director of Greenpeace International and present Chairman of the Board of experts of the Czech Business Council for Sustainable Development. My Paris and Prague worlds merged when Mr. Wootliff offered high praise for French diplomacy during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last December. His talk was titled “Climate change: the issue of the 21st Century”. And, best of all, I met some very interesting women at the meeting.

American Center and French Institute Prague - If you're lucky enough to live in a city with cultural centers, be sure to take a look at their websites. As an American who used to live in Paris, I'm interested in the American Center and the French Institute primarily because I'll be able to communicate with the other guests who attend the wide-offering of exhibitions, movies and lectures. Plus, I've heard that the French Institute has the best croissants in Prague!

In Paris, I always regretted not speaking Italian because not only is the Istituto Italiano di Cultura located in a beautiful mansion in the swanky 7th arrondissement, but they have a very active social calendar featuring cooking classes with famous Italian chefs, concerts and lectures.

International Ladies Choir Viva Voca - While I wouldn't dream of inflicting my singing voice on anyone outside my family, I knew several women who had made lifetime friends after joining the Choeur International de Femmes de Paris. The choir in Prague looks like a wonderful option for those who can sing.

Meetup - Whether you're looking for fellow entrepreneurs, people who like to explore the city or drink beer, there's a good chance that you'll find like-minded people at Meetup. I enjoyed the Meetups that I've attended in Switzerland and Paris.

Yoga, sports or other hobbies - Whether you like yoga, tennis, knitting or geocaching, do a quick Google search to see what's available in Prague. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of yoga classes I found when I typed "yoga, English, Prague" into the search field on my laptop.

According to the interesting article, UCLA Study On Friendship Among Women: An alternative to fight or flight, sent to me by Boston friend Carolyn Vandam, "the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life".

Even though friends are extremely important, don't be afraid to do things on your own. Tired of spending my evenings at home, I booked one of the last available tickets for the world premiere of Czech composer's Milos Bok's Apocalypse in Kamenická Stran performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra last night. Seated to my right was a very pleasant woman, also on her own!

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra performed Milos Bok's world premiere of Apocalypse in Kamenická Stran at the Rudolfinum in Prague on March 9, 2016. The concert was conducted by Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.