Top Choices in Chinatown

In case you can’t get enough of New Year celebrations or if you just hate New Year’s as a concept altogether, the vastly superior celebration is just around the corner. That’s the Lunar New Year, of course, which is celebrated by the Chinese and many other Asian cultures. Illuminated lanterns. Excellent food. Snappy fireworks. Far fewer hang-ups about what to do on New Year’s Eve. The Lunar New Year is the New Year we should all really get behind.

London's Chinatown gets ready for the Year of the Horse
Festive New Year lanterns in London’s Chinatown

While you may find yourself in or around London’s Chinatown to ring in the Year of the Horse next week, Chinatown’s always a good place to visit for some great food. In fact, unlike other Chinatowns, London’s almost solely features food– nearly every shopfront is a restaurant or some type of food supply emporium. However, the sheer number and variety of choices can overwhelm– particularly if you go with hungry, tired guests from out of town. Don’t give up! Here are three really delicious options that are guaranteed to please picky and adventurous palates alike.

Manchurian Legends is the most exotic of the three, and purportedly, one of the only restaurants in London to specialize in Dongbei cuisine (the type of food common in Northeastern China). Think: amazing handmade dumplings, flavorful grilled meats, hearty stews and some real spice or even weird offal offerings for the adventurous. There’s truly something for everyone. The vegetable dumplings are soft bundles of perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned veggies; little tasty lamb skewers were succulent and savory; the house chicken specialty was a delight with some extra kick in the form of complex layers of real chile heat. (NB: I, like some, like it hot. While Manchurian Legends has many dishes that are not spicy, like the aforementioned dumplings, a man sitting near us was clearly on a first date and began pouring with sweat when he requested something to be “extra spicy.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you if you try and be similarly macho. Sadly, I don’t think our fellow diner had a second date after having to ask for towels from the kitchen to mop himself off with. Lots of towels.) If you’re a culinary adventurer or one of those people who likes to pretend they’re on a reality show, you can also order a few special offal dishes, which is apparently quite the done thing in Manchuria. As for me, I’ll stick with the veggie dumplings, lovingly handmade by chefs in the front window of Manchurian Legends as you walk in.

Yummy scallops at Haozhan
Scallops do the wave at Haozhan

 

Another favorite is Haozhan, right on Chinatown’s main drag, Gerrard Street. Haozhan does a lot of the cross-cultural classics very respectably. Think: crispy duck, sweet and sour chicken and all those Anglicized or Americanized Chinese dishes that we all love because they’re so amazingly good and comforting. However, as you can see from the picture, Haozhan also pushes the Pan-Asian and modern cuisine boundaries on a few dishes, like this one– a tasty creation of seared scallops and asparagus nestled in a dramatic noodle wave. Haozhan’s menu is fairly vast, so this is a good place to visit when you need to please a group of people with disparate dining interests. And unlike a lot of places that do noodle art and vegetable sculpting, dinner here is really affordable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mr. Kong, a Chinatown staple for over two decades. With really friendly service and excellent food, it’s easy to see why Mr. Kong seems to have a lot of regular customers. Mr Kong does a lot of the classics really well, but it’s the specials that really shine. On one visit, my husband and I had a crab hot pot that was really amazing, like a Chinese cioppino. Utterly delicious! Mr. Kong is also fairly quiet for a restaurant in Chinatown, which is nice if you’d like to have a conversation with your dining companion(s).

Taste:
Manchurian Legends, 16 Lisle Street WC2H 7BE

Haozhan, 8 Gerrard Street W1D 5PT

Mr. Kong, 21 Lisle Street WC2H 7BA

So, where did the Wise Men go after?

Happy New Year!

January tends to weigh heavily on the mind, as far as months go. I’m pretty sure that even the Three Wise Men were heading back from Bethlehem thinking, “Now what? Is there anything else to see on the way home?” Or, at least I would have been saying that if I were one of the Magi.

Whether you’re seeking an escape due to the New Year blues or are just cheerily planning your year’s travels, I strongly urge you to consider the world’s Second Cities. My interest isn’t only because I’m originally from the Chicago area– America’s original Second City. While it’s great to throw coins in Rome’s Trevi Fountain or eat sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji, sometimes a country’s capital cities can be too crowded, too noisy, and just too overwhelming to really feel like you experienced the place.

While the places I’ve listed below may not technically qualify as their country’s true Second Cities (I think even Chicago is now third behind L.A.), they’re all amazing representations of the best of what their country and/or region has to offer. And yes, you should definitely visit Chicago!

Torre, Bologna, Italia
Street view & blue skies in Bologna

Bologna, Italy – This is the place where Italians go on foodie holidays, which tells you something about the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes known as “Bologna the Red” for its lovely terracotta-hued buildings and its political past, Bologna plays host to the oldest university in the West, a bevy of wonderful shops, a fantastic archaeology museum, cool cafe culture and great night life.

And did I mention the food? Mortadella, tagliatelle, tortellini– just to name a few. Of course, none of these have anything to do with the bastardized cousins you may be familiar with. Rubbery, bland “bologna” cannot be found in Bologna, thank God. Gloopy, non-distinctive “spaghetti bolognese” (or “spag bol” as the Brits call it) is also mercifully non-existent in this amazing, vibrant city. Rome – watch out!  Have a look at what’s on via the informative official visitors site.

Ghent, Belgium – In the interest of full disclosure, I generally have an aversion to Belgium; it has historically been one of my personal Low Countries. In Bruges, I got bed bugs and was accosted by a duo of louche, dwarf swingers. (NB: This happened well before the film, “In Bruges” forever connected the city and a dwarf as a a plot point.) I have also had numerous unpleasant interactions in Brussels. Essentially, I had almost given up on Belgium until I spent two days in Ghent. Like Bologna, Ghent is a historic university town, a status which keeps the beautifully preserved Medieval city from getting too museum-like. Ghent’s got beautiful canals, vibrant street life both day and night, and is peopled by funny, smart, down-to-earth Ghentians. (I’m not sure that this is the accurate name for those from Ghent, but all local people were careful to highlight that they were from Ghent, not from Belgium. Hmmm. Perhaps I’m not alone on this Belgium thing.) It’s a town full of music, culture and several restaurants featuring all-you-can-eat spareribs. For all that’s happening in one of Europe’s most delightful cities, check out Ghent’s robust visitor info.

Kilkenny, Ireland – Nearly 15 years ago, my husband and I got married in Kilkenny, after meeting in a youth

St. Canice's Cathedral - Kilkenny
St. Canice’s – One of Kilkenny’s very beautiful and very old churches

hostel a few years before that. Though this romantic association is admittedly personal, I can assure you that you will make your own pleasant memories when you visit Kilkenny. The fact that many Irish people choose it for their stag weekends, hen parties and other celebrations is a sign that there is extremely good craic to be had here. In addition to some of Ireland’s finest pubs and a Smithwick’s beer factory, Kilkenny also features amazing medieval architecture, a lovely well-restored castle, fine walks in and around the city, and some of the nicest people in Ireland– which is one of the nicest countries on Earth. While I love Dublin, I’d often fly straight into Kilkenny if I could. Kilkenny has a slew of festivals, including a foodie fest and the world’s first (and only?) comedy and economics festival, Kilkenomics, so definitely have a look at the official info to see what’s happening to plan your visit.

Osaka, Japan –  Tokyo is likely the world’s best-run city. It is beautiful, clean, easy to get around and full of people– the largest

Gorilla sign - Osaka
One of the many reasons to go ape for Osaka

metropolitan area in the world, in fact. Where other countries have chaos when 10,000 of their citizens attend a soccer match, Tokyo hums along with millions coursing into, across and out of the city every day. That being said, Tokyo can, at times, be overwhelming. The time you accidentally get on at rush hour and have to get shoved by the gloved train employee. The night you’re in the Golden Gao and realize that not every establishment welcomes “gaijin.” This is when it’s time to leave Tokyo and head straight for Osaka. The good people of Osaka are extremely friendly and the city features amazing food and nightlife, an awesome aquarium, a pretty impressive castle, and Japan’s best baseball team– the Hanshin Tigers.  Fore info on baseball in Osaka and more, have a look at my post on some Japan highlights.

 

Ye Olde Pub Crawl

It’s no accident that several of the pubs here have “olde” in their names; the most recent among them was created in 1905. This crawl is a great way to while away an afternoon into the evening– particularly if the weather’s chilly and the pubs with fireplaces have them lit while you’re getting lit. Start off at the Holborn or Chancery Lane Tube stop. Try to do this crawl during the week if possible, as pubs in this part of London can have funny hours or be a bit dead on the weekends. NB: This is not a very long walk, so pace yourself with the pints or you will indeed be crawling.

Barrels in London Pub, Cittie of Yorke
Roll out the barrel at the Cittie of Yorke

Pub 1: The Cittie of Yorke, 22 High Holborn, WC1V 6BN
While the building that houses this pub was rebuilt in the 1920s, the Cittie of Yorke’s interior has been deemed historically signficant for its much older fittings, like the large triangular stove that helps warm the high-ceilinged main bar in the winter. Though the main floor is very spacious, the dark wood interior and huge barrels on the walls make it feel intimate.

Particularly cozy and good for conversation are the Victorian cubicles along the wall, once used by lawyers to consult with clients since the Cittie is situated in the heart of legal London. The lawyers and their clients always must have been thirsty, as a pub has apparently been situated on the location since 1430. The Cittie of Yorke is a Samuel Smith’s pub, so serves only its own brand of beers, wines, and liquors (all very good!) for more reasonable prices than a lot of the other pub groups.

Pub 2: Ye Olde Mitre, 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ
This pub can be tricky to find, but that’s part of the fun. The easiest way to reach Ye Olde Mitre is by walking down a very small, doorway-sized alley just off Hatton Garden. Hatton Garden itself is worth a look; there are all sorts of wholesale jewellers on the street, buying and selling gold, diamonds, and other precious doo-dads.

Such finery would have been perfect for the Bishops of Ely, who used to have a palace where Ye Olde Mitre sits, hence the pub’s name and symbol– a bishop’s mitre. The pub was purportedly constructed for the servants of the Bishops of Ely in 1546 and, because the land was owned by the Bishops of Ely, the pub technically used to be a part of Cambridge. According to lore, Queen Elizabeth I danced around a cherry tree in front of the pub.

More recently and better documented by film, Ye Olde Mitre was featured in the movie, “Snatch.” A Fuller’s pub with a lot of great guest ales, the toasties at Ye Olde Mitre are also excellent, particularly when eaten by the fire in the snug bar at the front. There’s a friendly elderly bar man who will enthusiastically tell you much more about the pub’s cinematic appearances and history if it’s quiet and he happens to be working when you visit.

Pub 3: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet Street on Wine Office Court, EC4A 2B4
Another Sam Smith’s pub, Ye  Old Cheshire Cheese features a lovely, very dark snug bar upstairs with a sweet fireplace and a cavernous basement– literally caverns. The vaulted cellars may go back to the 13th century, when a monastery stood on the site.

A pub has been situated here since the 1600s and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has quite a few historic associations as a result, particularly literary ones. Dr. Johnson’s house is around the corner, prompting much speculation about the frequency of his custom. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was also frequented and well-documented by Charles Dickens, notably mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities.

Stained Glass in London Pub, The Bell Tavern
Find illumination at the Bell Tavern

Pub 4: The Bell Tavern, 95 Fleet Street, EC4Y 1DH
Though the interior of this pub feels more modern, particularly since it’s part of the Nicholson’s empire, The Bell is worth stopping by for a pint. The building was constructed by Sir Christopher Wren (whose most notable accomplishment among notable accomplishments is St. Paul’s Cathedral). One of Wren’s other commissions in the 1600s after the Great Fire of London was to rebuild the nearby St. Bride’s Church. Wren constructed the building that’s now home to the Bell to house stonemasons working on the reconstruction.

Pub 5: The Blackfriar, 174 Queen Victoria Street, EC4V 4EG
When considering both interior and exterior, the Blackfriar is the “newest” pub on this crawl, built back in 1905. The Blackfriar is also a Nicholson’s pub, but the interior here is impossible to modernize. The Blackfriar is one of the most gorgeous pubs in London– a lush, amazingly detailed demonstration of Art Nouveau by an architect and artist who were proponents of the Arts & Crafts movement.

Black Friar at the Blackfriar London pub
Follow in the footsteps of friars

Friars appear throughout the reliefs and mosiacs, as the pub sits where a friary once stood, hence its and the train station’s name, Blackfriar(s).  In the back sitting area, the walls are adorned with credos that are worth pondering– particularly now that you’ve likely had a few.

Hotel Empress Zoe

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul Turkey
The Hagia Sofia, Near the Hotel Empress Zoe

The word’s out about Zoe. A few weeks ago, a friend and I just tried to book into the Hotel Empress Zoe— one of my favorite hotels anywhere on the planet– and it was already sold out for September. Last time I visited, I made a reservation only a week before I arrived.

Because the scarcity is a sign of the hotel’s excellence and an indicator of Istanbul’s growing popularity as a destination,  it just means you have to plan ahead. Further ahead than you may like at certain times of year, but the Hotel Empress Zoe is definitely worth it: wonderfully friendly and helpful staff, a great central location, and unique touches that always remind you that you’re in enchanting Istanbul. 

Situated in the Sultanhamet, staying at the Empress Zoe puts you within walking distance of the iconic and astounding Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace, among several other essential Istanbul sites. You’ll be well-fuelled for sightseeing with the excellent coffee and delicious breakfast buffet, which you can eat in the hotel’s lovely garden.

Before or after seeing the sights, you can recline on a a comfortable daybed that’s covered in Turkish textiles. (Many of the hotel’s rooms and suites have daybeds and other unique extras, like marble hamam style bathrooms.) The daybed in my room was perfect for reading the works of Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning author who weaves so much of Istanbul and Turkey into his transformative writing.

Sometimes, you’re sad when a great gem of a hotel gets popular. But other times, you think, well, they deserve the success. The folks who own and run the Hotel Empress Zoe definitely deserve every success. So if you’re fixing to go to Turkey, plan ahead so that you can stay at one of the most welcoming and unique places I’ve ever stayed in my travels.

The Hotel Empress Zoe’s Web Site: http://www.emzoe.com/
More About Orhan Pamuk: http://www.orhanpamuk.net/

Do You Corfu?

Fortress, Corfu Town
Stunning Views in Corfu Town

Before we begin, we would like to wish Prince Philip (aka the Queen of England’s hubby), a very happy birthday. Prince Philip was born on Corfu on the date of this entry’s publication a whopping 4 score and a decade ago. If you believe the newspapers, Prince Philip would probably welcome my greeting by saying something inappropriate to me, but you get to do what you want when you’re 90 and were once, according to lore, smuggled from your island home in a fruit basket as a wee tot.

Fortunately, you do not need to get to and from Corfu in such dire modes of transport. While the rusty little ferry that brings you to Corfu from Igoumenitsa is certainly not confidence-inspiring, the ferries aren’t near as cramped as a fruit basket would be. Of course, with all the budget airlines now, you can also fly to Corfu very  easily and avoid the rust bucket ferries, but getting to an iconic Greek isle by boat– even rusty ones with engines that make ominous grinding sounds– is all part of the adventure.

Though many flock to Corfu for relaxing villa holidays on the island’s somewhat less populated shores, staying in cosmopolitan Corfu Town for a few days provides a nice mix of seaside relaxation with the pleasant bustle of an island town. (It’s a particularly good idea to stay in Corfu Town if you visit during the off-season; the rest of the island can get a little too mellow when it’s not the height of tourist time.) 

As befitting a place on UNESCO’s world heritage list, Corfu’s old town has an interesting mix of architecture that comes from being a point of interest for the numerous empires that perpetually harrassed it (the Venetians, the Turks, and the British, to name a few).  To look back even further into the island’s more mythical past, the Archeological Museum of Corfu offers an impressive collection of artifacts from around the island, and is worth the hour or two it takes to visit. (I particularly liked a very nice reconstructed temple frieze of Medusa, the original femme fatale.) NB: Keep in mind that many Greek establishments regularly keep slightly irregular hours; with the troubles in Greece at present, staffing at even large museums has been a problem. As the museum’s not too far from the town center, it  might be a good idea to visit and see when opening times are. (No matter what’s going on, a lot of museums all over Greece seem to shut after 2ish or 3ish).

For a nice, easy walk from the town center, head out to Villa Mon Repos. The Villa is Prince Philip’s birthplace and is encircled by lovely parkland open to the public. Level footpaths take you around a good assortment of moss-covered ruins that are nestled in a pleasantly shady forest. And the shade is prized; even in the winter months, Corfu can be very hot.

Corfu Town Harbor
Lovely Harbor, Corfu Town

Back in town after our rambles in nature and along the Ionian sea, my husband and I really enjoyed staying at the Hotel Cavalieri. The hotel has a great location right in the town center, next to a slew of cafes and bars that stay open well into dawn. The hotel’s roof bar offers stunning views, making the roof deck popular with locals when it’s open in season. Our neat, clean room also had a lovely view of the sea.  

In addition to lovely vistas, Corfu Town also offers a more meat-tastic highlight– the perfect gyro. In an admittedly obsessive quest to taste the best gyro in Greece, my husband and I found one of the strongest contenders in Corfu Town. We ate the gyro of our dreams (enrobed in some kind of delicious, tangy brown sauce) at the “O Ninoe” taverna at least once a day. The other homestyle Greek food served there was also compelling and drew a fairly large local following, but our hearts were stuck on the gyro.

Of course, there’s lots of seafood to choose from in Corfu as well, which can be enjoyed at numerous seaside restaurants. However, our taste for calamari quickly tapered off after seeing numerous locals catching octopi on our walks. Was it the severed chicken foot used as bait? Was it the sick wet thwacking sound as the fisherman brained the octopus on seaside rocks? One never knows with such sudden culinary aversions. Suffice it to say that this spectacle focused our minds even more on the meaty delights of O Ninoe and all the pleasures that can be found away from the seaside in Corfu’s lovely, well-preserved old town.

Coordinates —

Beer Culture, Prague Style

After arriving in Prague and having the rather dreadful experience of getting ripped off by a prick taxi driver and needing to be saved by the kindly porter at our elegant hotel, my husband and I were naturally wary of what Prague held in store for us. Also rather naturally, we were quite thirsty after the small misadventure and our train trip.

Castle District, Prague
The Sights of Prague (Pre-Pivo)

Though Prague can occasionally frustrate visitors looking for an experience that doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re merely visiting a new section of Epcot’s international village or a run-down suburb of Milwaukee, pretty much anything in Prague involving good Czech beer never lets you down.

And the one place to go in Prague for good Czech beer is the Golden Tiger, or U ZLATEHO TYGRA. (I believe this is truly translated as “At the Golden Tiger” but that’s a bit unwieldy for a bar name, particularly after several steins.) In fact, I’d put my money on the Golden Tiger’s being one of the best beer bars in the world. In terms of the convivial beer hallish variety of beer bars, the Golden Tiger is, thus far, the best I have ever visited and is an epicenter of “Beer Culture.” (More on that later.)

When you go into the Golden Tiger, even if you’re there right when the place opens at 3 p.m., there will already be old guys well into their first stein, shooting the breeze at their regular table. Indeed, some of these old guys may be poets and philosophers, which means that, now, after the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, they may also be politicians. (The extraordinary Vaclav Havel has been known to frequent the Golden Tiger, among other Czech notables.)

As you enter, don’t be alarmed by the very focused man behind the counter who is wielding a knife and smacking it on the tops of the steins. He’s merely knocking the extra head off the top of the beer for your sipping pleasure. Sadly, as an experienced American beer drinker, I’m more accustomed to the popping of can flip-tops than the cheerful slaps of a cool beer head knife.

Some seats will be reserved, and the time the seats are reserved for will be marked on the reserved sign. You can sit in the place if it’s reserved until the time shown. If you get there at 3 p.m., however, you should be able to score a free, unreserved seat. The tables are long and large and meant for all to share, which means that, after a few steins, when the place gets even busier, you’ll get to meet some really cool Czech people, like we did.

A man will come with steins of beer, marvelous beer. And he’ll keep coming until you loudly and forcefully indicate that he should stop bringing you beer. None of this whispered, “Ahem, excuse me…” business.  If you act dainty in your request for no more beer, the beer man will just keep bringing you steins until you are happily boisterous enough to feign passing out while laughing very loudly. (I believe that the beer man does this ritual largely for his own amusement and I relished playing the role of very happy inebriated person so accurately.)    

The more steins are consumed, the louder things get. This is, of course, because everyone starts talking and laughing with everyone else, which is the true meaning of “Beer Culture.” Beer Culture as a concept was explained to us by two really nice Czech chicks. (We were lucky enough to sit with them at a shared table.) 

Here are a few of the Beer Culture commandments. (I think I learned many more, but there is an inverse relationship between quantity of beer consumed and quality of memories retained).   

  1. Beer should have some head on it; beer without a head is unacceptable, flat piss. This is the reason for the knife-wielding barman: to get the head perfect.
  2. Beer should be drunk only from quality glass steins, never from plastic.
  3. Beer should be fairly cold so as to be refreshing, never warm, and definitely not near freezing.
  4. Beer should be enjoyed only with other people present, preferably in places with shared tables like the Golden Tiger.
  5. Drinking beer in public establishments means you will get beer on tap, the best way to enjoy beer (versus beer in cans or bottles which can never truly have a proper head, see rule #1).
  6. Beer should be brought to you continually until you cannot stop laughing. The beer should be brought by an expert beer server who can professionally assess your level of drunkenness.
  7. Beer is best consumed with a plate of cold or hot sausages.

This is where my recollection of the commandments drops off a bit. Around this point in the evening, I do recall that some very muscular Czech men who were sitting next to us generously shared slices of smoked meat from an enormous platter. From what I can remember, the meat and sausage platter was very tasty, and indeed, a fine accompaniment to our great Czech beer, per the rules of Beer Culture.

Though the meat and the beer were excellent, they didn’t hold a candle to the good people of Prague, who were so generous to share one of their local drinking institutions with us. Chalk one up for Beer Culture.

Coordinates:
At the Golden Tiger/U ZLATEHO TYGRA is easy to find and is right in the town center. Just look for a line of old men gathering outside a pub-like shop front around 3 p.m. when the place opens.

Husova 228/17
110 00 Prague
1 STARE MISTO

Web: Though this site is in Czech, they have a nice map showing you where this temple to Beer Culture is located. http://www.uzlatehotygra.cz/uzlatehotygra.cz/Pivnice.html

Mitteleuropa Trains & Taxis

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
The End of the Tracks – Berlin

For the European leg of our round-the-world trip, I wanted to take my husband to see some of the great sights in Central and Eastern Europe. We were committed to doing as much as we could by train. Our trusty Eurail flexipass was a great purchase, and we definitely got our money’s worth.

Starting out in Budapest, we took the train to Vienna on an Austrian express train. The Austrians, like their German cousins, know trains. Fast, clean, and efficient. Other than a few industrial wasteland blips, this is a beautiful train trip, passing through some nice countryside.

From Vienna, we took the train to Krakow. Poland is where everything starts to fall apart on train trips in this part of the world. In its post-Communist boom, Poland has unfortunately invested in building shiny new airports rather than improving their antiquated train systems. This makes train journeys requiring any changes really confusing and nearly all trips really damn long. A nice Polish girl from Gdansk who worked in Krakow confessed that she didn’t see her family in Gdansk that often since the train trip took up to 16 hours if things didn’t work according to plan. She astutely pointed out that things involving Polish rail never work according to plan.  

I concur. Just plan on being stuck in the unpleasant, dark, coal-stained train station in Katowice for a while if you’re trying to train around this lovely, must-see region of Poland. At the Katowice station, you will be in good company as the Poles seem equally confused by the inaccurate departure boards and equally outraged when the random announcements requiring you to sprint across the station also turn out to be incorrect. I’ve done this trip twice, and this exact experience has happened to me twice. (Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.)

Furhermore, each time I have taken the trip to Krakow (once from Berlin, this last time from Vienna), I have traversed much of the countryside at night. Curiously, each time, I have seen hundreds of large unattended fires burning in the fields around the train tracks. I mean hundreds of fires. So many fires, in fact, that on the night train from Berlin, my normally calm college buddy became mildly alarmed. It looked like we were taking the train right into the set of some old spooky 1930’s black and white horror movie where the villagers burn monsters and witches.

When I inquired about what agricultural practice this may have been related to, my Polish interlocutors shrugged. Either the fires are not related to agricultural practices or their rationale is known only to those dwelling in the fields near the train tracks. (If anyone has a clue, please let me know.)  

Though all these cautionary tales may scare you off taking the train around Poland, you definitely want to get to Krakow somehow. If you do take the train, on arrival, you find yourself in a busy station in the midst of one of Europe’s busiest shopping malls. It’s supremely confusing. (Note: Somewhat counter-intuitively, even though you aren’t underground when you arrive, you go up to catch a taxi.) However, the nice folks at the tourist office in the train station are really helpful, offering you guidance on how to find taxis, how to get to your hotel, and where to eat their favorite kielbasa and pierogi.

After a few wonderful days in Krakow, we left for Prague very early in the morning. Because it was daylight and because there weren’t hundreds of unattended fires burning spookily beside the tracks, this was a more pleasant train trip than our journey to Krakow. Some Communist-era blight is definitely visible, but its an interesting juxtaposition with the lovely countryside.

On arrival in Prague, the station made sense, and we easily navigated the station’s signs pointing us to the taxi rank. These taxi signs are official. They are made of plastic, mounted in an illuminated box, with very substantial screws anchoring them to the train station ceiling. They look like any other official taxi sign you see in any other city in the world.

Except this is a taxi rank like no other. It is actually a queue of criminals in cars looking for their next mark. Which is you.

We entered the taxi, telling the thick-necked, mustachioed driver the name of our hotel while also showing him the address. The driver proffered a dirty map of Prague over his faux-leather jacketed shoulder, grunting “20 Euros.” As it had been a long time since I had traveled to Prague by train, I assumed I had arrived at the station on the outskirts of town and agreed to the fare.

Precisely two minutes later, after leaving the circular station exit, we arrived at our hotel, which was across the street from the Central Station. The driver cheerily demanded his 20 Euro fare for taking us approximately 50 feet.

My husband, quite understandably, went berserk. As I attempted to place myself between my raging Jesus-lookalike life partner and the shouting thuggish brute of a taxi driver, the kindly (and blessedly strapping) porter of our very nice hotel approached.

After a few words of fairly pointed delivery in Czech from the porter, the mustachioed taxi driver looked sheepishly at his feet, still growling slightly, but clearly broken. Though the man had tried to bilk us out of $30 in a failure that was both professional (taxi drivers should be experts at showing you their towns) and personal (any human should give honest directions to any other human), I felt bad for him as he had clearly been shamed by the porter’s words.

In spite of this minor tinge of pity, I was still fairly angry myself, so threw 5 Euros on the ground in front of the dejected taxi driver. (It probably sounds strange that I paid any money at all, but I like to remove ammo from any cheat’s complaint arsenal about Americans who don’t pay their way, etc.) My husband and I grabbed our suitcases and entered our hotel, leaving the driver to pick up his “hard-earned” cash and wheel briskly away.

On asking the porter what had transpired, he shook his head, shamefaced. In a confessional tone, the porter advised us that the majority of Prague’s taxi drivers are not reputable. He advised us that we should only take a taxi when it had been arranged by the hotel or by the establishment we were trying to leave. When I asked whether this was true of the official cabs, he accurately pointed out that it was an official cab that had just tried to cheat us.

Then, I asked him what he said to the taxi driver to get results so quickly. Apparently, the porter pointed out that, were the taxi driver ever lucky enough to visit America, the porter doubted that anyone in America would shame the nation by cheating its guests.  

Though I informed the porter that this might be an over-estimation of American hospitality and honesty, I had to admit that it was hard to envision such egregious abuse of tourists back in the States. I’ve had American cabs try to take me the long way to add a buck or two to the fare, but I’ve never had any other cab in the world try to charge me 20 Euros for 50 feet.

Though this incident constituted my husband’s first hour in Prague and was thus not a great first impression for him, we had a lovely time in the city and met some amazing Czech people in one of the world’s best beer bars, the illustrious Golden Tiger. On departure, we drove toward the station on the outskirts of Prague where a shiny German train would take us across some lovely countryside to Berlin. We left our hotel in a town car arranged by the kindly porter, of course.