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No. of Recommendations: 8
We used United miles for one ticket to Prague and purchased the other. Shortly before leaving, we shelled out another $400 to upgrade to Economy Plus on the long segments, ORD to PRA and back. It was a very good investment -- even though we're not terribly tall (almost 5'11" and 5'9"), as you know the seats back in steerage barely afford room for the knees. For shorter hops, like PDX to ORD, it's not a big deal.

We got the best-ever aerial views of the WA mountains after takeoff. See link to photos below. At ORD we noted a restaurant by chef Rick Bayless. He had a TV series Mexico: One Plate at a Time which is still rerunning and which we record and watch. While we knew his main restaurant is in Chicago, we were surprised to see a branch at the airport.

We arrived in Prague with the first three nights reserved as well as the last night of the trip. We still weren't sure where we wanted to go after Prague and thus kept our itinerary open.

Prague is everything it's cracked up to be, a beautiful city. It helps that it suffered little or no destruction in WW2. Besides wandering around aimlessly and soaking up the sights of random lovely old buildings, we also included the tourist highlights. With the not-too-bad but still significant crowding we experienced in mid-September, I don't even want to think about what it's like in July and August -- the Charles Bridge must be impassable. The guide book (Lonely Planet) said that the hourly show put on by the popular astronomical clock in the old main square is overrated, so we took advantage of that information by buying our tickets to go up to the top of the clock tower as the hour was approaching and the thousand or two other visitors were aiming their cameras, phones and gazes clockward. There were only three people in the six-person elevator. When we came back down, there must have been 50 people waiting at the bottom to go up six at a time. Very nice views from up there.

Prague Castle does not fit my notion of what a castle should look like. Without turrets, towers or crenelated battlements, it more resembles a large and elegant office complex, which I guess the latest iteration pretty much was in addition to living quarters for some big-time VIPs. The cathedral inside it is magnificent and the entire complex looms above the city on the opposite side of the Vltava River from the main square. One's feet can get pretty sore walking on cobblestones for six hours, even in sensible shoes. If you want a more detailed description of the city and its history, you'll have to wait for Jeff Ormont to visit. I like to leave something to the reader's imagination.;)

We ended up staying a fourth night to do the town justice and to be completely free of jet lag before hitting the road, all at the Marriott Executive Suites, within easy walking distance of the old center. We paid $136 per night tax included for the first three nights, the nonrefundable advance rate, for a one-bedroom suite. Not exactly executive but very comfortable, close to stuff and with laundry facilities on every floor. The fourth night cost us $189.

Restaurant prices in the Czech Republic are also quite reasonable and I really liked the food at first. For a low-carber like me, it's easy to fill up on meat, duck, chicken and more meat with delicious potato pancakes if I felt like a little starch. And convenience stores carry at least a half-dozen types of pre-cooked sausages to put the fridge of your kitchenette for breakfast. Probably the most enjoyable meal I had in the country was a large flat potato pancake folded over a stack of roast meat and cabbage -- a big Czech soft taco. Mmmmm, good. After a bunch of meals like that, however, we began to tire of it and even resorted to an ethnic restaurant toward the end of the trip. More on that later.

When Prague time was done, we taxied to the airport and picked up a rental car, a Mercedes A160. While not a luxury car (it's the same rental price as a VW Golf), it features crisp handling, gets good mileage and is small enough to park in eurosized spaces. Here's a photo:

First stop was Cesky Krumlov, a few hours south of Prague and not far off the main road to Austria. Beautiful little town, also living up to its reputation. Unfortunately, like so many popular destinations, it has been visually blighted by tourism. While I certainly don't begrudge the locals making a living off the invaders, it would be nice if they could do it a little more tastefully. I suggest we start by revoking the passport of anyone who comes home with a t-shirt that has "Czech Republic Drinking Team" printed across the front.<g> And there's a wax museum. Really. But get out of the main street in the old part and there are plenty of walking opportunities that give you excellent untainted views of the most pleasing architecture, with outdoor dining establishments along the river (also the Vltava) over which castles and spires loom as you eat. Veddy nice.

With no reservations, we stopped at an information office to ask the location of some apartments recommended by Lonely Planet and it turned out the information place was also the rental office for those apartments, located right nearby. Like the majority of places we stayed, it was on the third floor with no elevator. But the views and not having footsteps overhead made the climbs worth it. Two nights there at $150 each, including tax, a separate bedroom, our own rooftop terrace and breakfast and we were ready to head south to Austria.

The Czech language is, of course, Slavic, but the accent isn't nearly as heavy as Russian. From what I could tell, it's got only three sounds that don't exist in American English. One is that they roll their r's like in Spanish. Another is that they have the ch sound as in the Scottish "loch." And the third is the letter r, the sound of which may not exist in any other language. Here's a two-minute video that explains how to pronounce it:

But it's the grammar that's the killer. They have seven -- count 'em -- noun declensions. That is, nouns change seven different ways, depending on what part of speech they are. English has a vestigial declension system that applies to personal pronouns -- I-me, he-him, who-whom, etc. It sounds bad when someone says "I gave the book to she." Czech gives you a zillion opportunities to sound bad. For example, the word for "store" is "obchod" when the store is on the corner. But if you go to the store, it's "obchodu." And if you go in the store, it's "obchode." You get the picture. And even the names of places change like that. And feminine and neuter nouns change differently than masculine ones. Fuggeddaboudit.

The few Czech phrases and words I learned beforehand came in handy. In the touristy places people in the tourism business speak English. In the small towns, not so much if any, and folks are more likely to speak a little German than English. My one year of high-school German (1963-64) came in handy a couple of times out in the hinterland.

The reason we go for apartments is that DW snores like you wouldn't believe. In fact, she's won the Golden Chainsaw several times and recordings of her sleeping have been used in the soundtrack of the TV show Ax Men. And she thrashes around a lot. And even wakes herself up with these thoughtless practices. She can mostly contain the cacophony with the use of a mouth guard and nose ring (they really work) but not all the snorts are stifled. And there's still the thrashing. So it often makes for a more restful night if I have a place to escape to when the commotion commences.

Link to photos. Be sure to view in full-screen mode.

Coming soon: Part II

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