Tuesday, December 6, 2016

5 best Christmas markets in Europe

Main square in Rothenburg

It’s that time of year again. The days get shorter, the evenings darker, and the locals start lighting things up to have some glimmer of hope carry them through these Northern winters. Advent is here, which means all across Europe, Christmas markets have been set up, lights strung, and the Christmas season officially begun. Unlike in the United States, where we have a creeping Advent, one that seems to start the Christmas carols a day earlier each year, Europe is pretty well set in tradition. The fourth Sunday before Christmas heralds the new season, no matter what all the card and toy companies would like to have us believe. But what do these socialists know about holidays anyway? Don’t they know the true Christmas spirit is making a quick buck?

To answer that, yes they do. But they also know the value of keeping something special. This means you can up the price and do less work, because a rare thing is a wanted thing. And there’s nothing rarer than the Christmas souvenir, which unless you’re in Rothenburg, Germany at the year round Christmas shop—which is altogether a creepy place in July—then you have to wait until December to get your favorite candle powered silver spinny-thing or the right Christkindlsmarkt 2016 glass for your homemade mulled wine.

The best Christmas markets are in the Austrian and German sphere of influence. As you go West they get less magical and cozy and more Trump tower—which I suppose is a kind of magical place unto itself. The most common term for the Christmas Market is “Weihnmarkt” or “Advent Market”, and it’s a great place to bring the kids to look at all the beautiful Christmassy goings on while you get good and sloshed on some steaming hot red wine.

The following is a list of what I’ve found to be the top 5 Christmas markets.

1. Prague, Czech Republic
The Prague Old Town Market
Prague is consistently rated as having the number one Christmas market. Despite it being in the Czech Republic, the region has had a deluge of Germanic influences, being a part and partner of German territories for over a thousand years. Though the old town square is indeed dressed up in lights, a giant, orchestra blaring Christmas tree, and wood stalls everywhere, it’s not just the market itself that wins people over. Indeed, the whole city turns into a Christmas market, as stalls, trees, and lights are put up in just about every square in the city, making it entirely possible to traverse the entirety of the urban area with a fresh cup of svařak–the local word for hot wine, pronounced svajak–in hand at all times. It also brings in a lot of green and other colors, which is a much-needed thing, with all the trees barren and the sky always grey and overcast.

2. Nuremberg
Nuremberg market, approaching the old town square
Nuremberg has one of the largest Christkindlmarkts in the Continent (indeed, one of the only). It’s got the special name because a local dressed up as baby Jesus comes out to start it up, and nearly at all times there’s a brass band playing Christmas carols on the packed square. The square has a giant monumental fountain from the 13th century on it, and it looks like a Gothic spire went missing from a local church. Perhaps even from the grand Marienskirche that overlooks the site. Walking around the Marienskirche, there is a children’s market, complete with rides and more hot wine, and the market extends all the way up Marientorgraben to the train station, packed at all times with revelers and shoppers.

Our drink of choice here was the hot spiced apple cider, which for Americans, isn’t the dull powdered stuff you get at Safeway, but rather from actual fermented apples - a proper cider. I’m not even sure why Americans think apples come from paper packets of powder.

Think to reserve a hotel nearly six months out, or book a place in a nearby village. If you want to make a proper tour of Christmas markets and still be situated in a good-sized, not huge town, and still be in Bavaria and Franconia though, Nuremberg is a pretty good starting point, being pretty central to the region. It’s a direct train ride from all the airport cities – Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin – and a direct, 3-hour bus ride from Prague.    

3. Rothenberg, Germany
The look like gingerbread houses in Rothenberg
Rothenberg at any time of year is a trip back in time, and during Christmas, it’s almost like a trip into Santa’s workshop. The place is well-known for being the center of sales and possibly production of souvenir Christmas ornaments, clocks, and spinning things year-round, with a shop right on the main square devoted to it all. During the Christmas season, the town gets decked out with boughs of holly, branches hanging down every window where there were once poinsettias, each house framed with large light bulbs wrapped in pine needles. If only there were some snow in the season any more, and this would be the perfect snow time getaway.

Rothenberg certainly doesn’t have the biggest Christmas market in Germany, especially since there is hardly much room in the tight, pedestrian streets of the old town – the main square even is one of the smallest in Europe. But it’s certainly one of the more romantic ones, especially with its giant, sagging Christmas tree standing before the town hall which seems to fill up half the square, while stalls of souvenirs and sausages cram the tiny alleys that spider-web out from the center.

Characteristic of its time-away-from-time atmosphere, nothing is modern in Rothenberg except for the rare taxi trolling through the crowds, bringing some lazy tourist to their hotel or picking them up. Don’t expect to pay for things with your credit card – except maybe your hotel room – and especially don’t expect anything to be on the Internet. Despite there being probably hundreds of hotels in the town, there are less than ten listed on Booking.com, and those are often booked up to a year in advance. But don’t worry, you can always just stay in a nearby village, which may even offer something much more romantic and much cheaper, and since the sun goes down at 4, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy the Christmas lights in Rothenberg and make it back to your hotel.

The drink of choice here is the Feuerzangenbowle. It’s a hot mulled wine, red and white, that is simply insanely delicious. Perhaps the best hot wine I’ve had in all my Christmas marketeering days–and I drink a lot! Meanwhile, the snack of choice is the Schneeball, which is a kind of cookie wrapped around itself until it comes to the size of the fist. I’m not overly impressed by the taste and it’s a real mess to eat, but you’ve got to try one when you’re in their hometown.

5. Bamberg, Germany
In the Bamberg main square
One of the best surprises of my travels has been the town of Bamberg. You don’t normally read about Bamberg on the main trails, usually the cities mentioned in the parts of Franconia are Rothenberg and Nuremberg. It’s a mistake though to miss out on the Bamberg Christmas market. Bamberg itself is a beautiful medieval town hugging closely the banks of the Regnitz River, pedestrian only bridges – from stone to steel – making an intricate lacework over the rushing waters. The Christmas market here is huge–almost the size of the one in Nuremberg–but the market also winds down the side streets, making it feel as warm and cozy as that of Rothenberg. It’s the best of both worlds really, and since it’s not on the primary tourist track the prices of souvenirs are quite competitive.

Given that this was the last town I visited on my last-year Christmas market tour, I can’t remember what I drank, but I do remember detoxing at some café near a donut shop. I was thinking fondly of donuts, since they’re hard to come by, they taste better than Schneeballen, and my stomach was still sick off eating too many of those doughy things. And then there was more wine, or punch, or something and oh, a guy dressed as Grandfather Frost!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

the best tour of Prague isn't actually a tour

The hordes of Chinese sweep past, followed by the Russians, the Americans, the British. Gobs of single-ethnicity armies positioning themselves for better sights, better shots, each led by some embittered Czech, or expat perhaps, holding an umbrella high in the air, waving it around in circles, marshalling them onward, onward, onward! And they follow, mindlessly, thoughtlessly, carelessly, those lagging behind scoped out by the derelicts and ne’er-do-wells, hiding in the corners and near the beer stands of Vaclav Square. Up Na Prikope, past, around, down Myslbek, or any other nameless alleyway, towering sentinels of Baroque and neo-Romanesque and gargoyles and angels leering down at the masses. In a group one can never be truly in the city, bound by the authorities of the tour leader. You can’t linger long, you can’t skip through what’s interesting, you're bound. 

There, behind the trdelnik stand, lurks a ne'er do well

You're bound by the umbrella. The Segway. The bicycle. There are naturally benefits to any tour, but the real adventurer, those like myself, mock such contrivances. I will not be hedged in. I will not be defeated in my conquering of the city. But I do hours of reading; reading tour guides, history books, Wikipedia, whatever I can do to discover the city in advance, though I still manage to miss a lot.

There is another way though.

A couple of months ago, someone sent me an email from the contact page on my main site. They were working for a new startup.

Old Town Square in Prague. Don't buy beer in a café here, but in the street.
Just in the same way a museum has an audioguide, they were working on developing audioguides for cities. What are cities but great big outdoor museums anyway?

And wouldn’t I like to write and record an audio tour for Prague?

Why not? 

One that let's people follow along at their own pace, stopping when they want to stop, lingering when they want to linger? And even they can stop and wander off midway through and pick it up the next day?

One of the best views in Prague, 360 degrees around.
The route I chose wasn’t anything edgy. Just the route that I would want, first coming in to Prague. The King’s Road. The old coronation trail that the Bohemian Kings followed down, from one end of old town, through the old main road, across the medieval bridge, and up to the Castle. And the Castle is not necessarily something easy to find. So, I spent some time researching the more notable things and then set to work.

The process initially took a long time. I had to first mark the places on a map to coordinate the GPS triggers, and then write about each place. Their editor would then add a few notes, or question for clarity. Then back to me and then finally, after another approval, it would be ready for my sweet and sultry voice to vibe it out on the ribbon of the mic.

And there you have it, the final product.

Charles' Bridge
Now you too can have a super cheap audio tour from yours truly, guiding you through the Prague old town, telling you where not to get beers, where you can buy the best trdelnik, and find one of the best views of the city. And it’s like I’m right here with you.

It’s a brilliant concept really, and after trying it myself, I’d have to admit that my tour is awesome and highly recommended by the most trustworthy of judges of my work. And you'll lose 30 pounds and get a million dollars in a month. I promise.

Now, when I have guests, instead of giving them a personal tour for the thirtieth time (for me, not them), I can just have them download this excellent piece of bohemian Bohemian guiding.

And it’s all available just below. Along with some other off-the-beaten track routes in Prague, and other tours in cities across the globe. Bonus points are that you don’t even have to be there to do the tour. Instead you can just listen to the whole thing from the comfort of your home like a true armchair adventurer. There's no shame in that.

Here it is:
And welcome to Prague. Or not. Maybe even welcome to your armchair. But either way, you should grab a beer and send a "na zdraviye" my way. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

A time to weep and a time for Birds!

http://www.blrtheatre.com/

There’s a man sleeping on the couch. A woman at the table writing, reading her narrative so the audience can understand what she’s thinking. She’s a bit mad, but then anyone in her situation would be--what, with the birds and all. The man sleeping suddenly wakes up, runs across the room and attempts to open the door.

But there are the sounds of birds outside. The sounds themselves aren’t menacing, but the reactions of the people make them terrifying. For the rest of the two hours, every caw and tweet becomes a cause to shiver.

“The Birds” was put on by Blood, Love, and Rhetoric last weekend at the underground Divadlo D21 in Vinohrady. As per usual, they haven’t failed to entertain. In their usual style of off-center tragedies, it’s one part melodrama and one part serious and the night we were there, Friday, it was properly pulled off.

The play centers around the same source material as the much more famous horror, “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock, which is a short story by Daphne du Maurier, set in a post-Blitz countryside. The birds have decided the Brits haven’t had enough of hell from the skies and have replaced the Luftwaffe as the cleansing chambermaids of the Isles.

Playwright Conor McPherson seems to have set the story somewhat after the one in Hitchcock’s movie. The time of raging violence has passed. Now people are held hostages in whatever shelter they can find. The birds come in at high tide and disappear at low tide, leaving some time to scavenge around and loot neighboring houses before their return. It seems a bit like life during war time.

Three strangers end up in an abandoned house, which gives it a bit of an Agatha Christie feel to it. A writer, Diane, is played by Angela Jane Kemp, who really fills the role with her almost natural creepiness. She’s able to pull off a weird Oedipus vibe that’s part motherly and part sexual, dominating over the ever-so-slightly mentally off Nat, played by Logan Hillier. Logan masterfully plays the alcoholic recovering from a nervous breakdown. The most surprising act though was the role of Julia, played by Victoria Hogan. Her weird and peppy, Bible-obsessed possibly-nymphomaniac—what Bible obsessed girls aren’t?—character makes her the perfectly insane balance to the much darker Diane, and the two have a bizarre tug-of-war over Logan’s character.

Strangely, the perhaps most normal character of the bunch is the lonely, drug-peddling farmer who lives next door, Tierney, played by Curt Matthew to the utter delight of the audience. When things have generally settled between the trio, Tierney comes in to add a bit of game-theory dementia to the plot. He promises Diane all the drugs, booze, and food she can handle if she’d just come and keep him company and riddles her with doubts of the other two.

The only problem I had with the presentation of the material I had was the set. Whereas at first, with the white walls and windows surrounding the audience, it seemed to draw you into the room with the actors like a black box might, the presence of too many bird decorations inside the rooms however detracted from the horror of the avian blood mongers. I feel as though it would have been better with no birds at all, rather than too many, allowing the sound to play the false antagonist of the plot. This is a small gripe to an otherwise good job.

Blood, Love, and Rhetoric ever manages a good show. They always choose a quirky play and have a good deal of silliness with a great deal of solemnity in their execution, nearly every time leaving you with a “huh?” factor, a feeling I always cherish. “The Birds”, directed by John Malafronte, was no exception. Check out their weekly Thursday night improv show at the Trick Bar in Malostranska Beseda, or check back at their website or facebook to see what they have next.

Monday, October 17, 2016

signal, a festival of light

St. Ludmila's
There are many ways to waste electricity. You can keep the lights on all night, you can keep the television on while you cook, you can run the heaters all day and night long. Or you can spray billions of watts into the air to make a cathedral pulse and glimmer or a Baroque building shatter as a snake comes bursting out. In Europe, it's clear there's no lack of the the enigmatic electron. In some countries around the Continent, they’re running so well on alternative energies that some months, they might even pay you to use energy. So the extra watt or thousand really isn't a big worry anymore. Maybe it was from this notion, this celebration of man's pioneering galvanism, that the Signal Festival was created, a truly modern blend of art and technology, on display to everyone.

The Signal Festival is one of Prague’s biggest festivals—and for a city of a thousand festivals, that says a lot. It goes on for four nights every October, sending blinding beams of light across buildings and up into the air. The first year we went, I remember there being a huge mat across a riverside park, and everywhere you’d step, it would light up in different patterns, and another one where you’d walk in front of a projector and, using some sort of quantum formula, it’d scatter your particles across the white screen beyond. These such exhibits are displayed all across the city, with each neighborhood seemingly at a contest to outdo the other.

Signal Festival began three years ago and has been such a success, with the streets literally overflowing with crowds all through the night, that I imagine it will be a mainstay in the festivities programming for centuries to come.

The hanging man of shooter's island
The usual hotspot of the festival is at Namesti Miru, where they do a complete video mapping of the 18th century, neo-Gothic St. Liudmila’s Church. The projection is played to some pulsing, heart-shaking, deep bass-blasting electronic music, and makes it appear that the church is at once breaking into pieces, spinning into some vortex, or launching off into outer-space. There’s usually a similar projection at the Old Town Square.

The projection though that really stole the show this year was Tigre’s mapping of a building near Kampa Park. 3D glasses were for purchase for a couple of euro, and the show included science fiction/fantasy creatures that literally jumped out of the windows and broke down the walls. It was a pretty awesome work of art and something that would be truly hard to find an imitation of anywhere. 


windmill
In other squares and neighborhoods, there were smaller species of displays, many seemingly without aim or purpose. But then, that's art for you, ars gratis artis. One was something like a reverse white tesseract, with random letters from random alphabets floating upwards. Another few were large balloon man. One had his neck snapped, as though he were hanging from a gallows, and the other was lying on the ground, possibly after the deceased were removed from the said gallows. Another was a tattered old windmill with patterns spinning to a deep electronic soundtrack. The musical theme was definitely something glitch with a touch of horror.

So if you’re planning on a trip to Prague, I’d recommend overlapping it with the Signal Festival. It’s an event that really takes this historic city into the next century.

And some videos:










Friday, September 30, 2016

pineapples, umbrellas, and all

Prague a cappella festival

Life could be an empty hollow mess if the word “yes” were never uttered. The other night I was thinking that to myself as though it were a mantra, when my wife told me about an a capella festival that was going on here in Prague. I’ve loved music since my birth, but I’ll be honest here and say that I’ve always been a bit tense when it comes to white folk scatting and doing the jazz hands. That’s the image that is somehow burnt into my mind after one traumatic incident of watching Cats when I was a child. Though to think of it, every time I’ve seen Cats, it’s been a traumatic incident. I could never watch Thundercats again after Cats ruined Cat People for me. I could never put that fire out with gasoline, I'll tell you what.

But I knew this would be a little different. I’m in Europe now, where cultures are allowed to mix and borrow from each other. America’s got so sensitive that we’ve even changed the language, now appreciation and imitation have new words—we call them “cultural appropriation”. But if we don’t appreciate each other’s cultures, if we don’t take the little bits of sweetness that we like—and here it doesn’t even matter if you like the whole culture, but just that part—then we’ll never get on the train of understanding each other and making it to that final destination. If you stop mixing cultures, then you get a lot of the same old thing, as most of what is new and innovative is just an interesting concoction of things done before. Straight shots are for some, but others would prefer their fru fru drinks, pineapples, umbrellas, and all.

Hardly church time

A capella literally means “in the manner of the chapel”, and was a reference to the vocal style of church music before the introduction of electric guitars, jumbo trons, and evangelical rock concerts for the Lord. It brings us to a simpler time before electricity, when armies of monks would chant across foggy creeks and four guys would sit at the barber shop and doo-wop it out in epic battles of intrinsic laryngeal control.

A long time has gone since those days, but hipsters of late have been trying to revive the barber shop and their quartets. Indeed, the first group we saw, the local group Hlasoplet, was a definite nod to this, and a reminder to me that a capella is perhaps some of the most complex music there is.

Hlasoplet

As Hlasoplet was playing, I gathered from the way the audience kept laughing that they seemed to blend a lot of humor into their act. In all, they caught the attitude pretty well and it was a nice warm up to the genre. They had a great presence on the stage as well, all with suits, well barbered facial hair, active facial expressions and no jazz hands.

Check out this video from Hlasoplet:



Sextensially quintessent

The group we came to see though—and apparently, as the announcer described, the headliner—was the Georgian group the Quintessence. I was a bit surprised when I saw six people on the stage, since the name would have made you think it was a quintuple and not a sextuple, but the shining white suits and dresses, and their shy youthful smiles made me quickly forget about this mathematical debacle. The name is likely a Quincy Jones shout out, but that's the best of my guess. They opened with a slightly jazzed up version of a Georgian folk song which was quite terrific. If there’s any people that have an edge on a capella music because of their folk styles, it’s certainly the Georgians.

There’s one thing I often complained about when I was living in Georgia regarding their music. Many Georgians seem to have a hard core belief in the purity of form. That either something is folk or its rock, and there is very little if not any fusion in the styles. It really leads to a disappointing modern live music culture, since it’s basically just the repetition of European and American styles, if not just straight up cover bands of Oasis and Pink Floyd. It’s the fusion that makes things interesting, and it’s what modern Georgian musical culture has really lacked, and it’s a pity since they have such a deep well of amazing musical tradition.


The Quintessence
The Quintessence—and indeed, whoever their instructor is—are certainly on the borders in an attempt to fix this. The way they handled the Georgian folk songs, the jazz standards, and the outright fusion of the two was phenomenal, and I truly had never seen anything like it. It was no wonder that the entire audience roared with applause after every song like it was the last, and then a true standing barrage of bravos when it actually was their last song. It seemed true that nobody in the audience had ever seen such a fusion either, and the effect was something quite lasting and memorable.

This is unfortunately the best video I could find on YouTube. But still, a good example of how they arranged the jazz standard, Senor Blues, with a touch of the Caucasus:


Just for that, I was glad I tempted fate and the jazz hands to make it to the a capella festival.

But as we were leaving, there was a filler group singing on the smaller stage in the bar room. As they finished their own fusion of genres—a song mixed from “All about the bass” and “Don’t worry be happy”, they did the jazz hands. It was a good time for us to leave, as the Jellicle cats were coming out that night.

The Prague A Cappella festival wraps up tonight, Friday the 30th, at La Fabrika in Holesovice.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

we are cocktail legion

An anonymous drink
Anonymous is many things. He’s a writer. He's possibly Shakespeare. He’s an artist. He’s that public masturbator that lives down the street. He’s an internet activist group. He is that guy who got arrested for revealing the identities of a ring of rapists.

Anonymous is also a coffee shop in Prague.

And a bar.

The coffee shop, near IP Pavlova, is one of the more uncomfortable places to sit with a computer, since all the seats are made of wood pallets and are about as comfortable as an introvert doing an unprepared stand-up comedy routine. Thus kind of defeating the theme of borrowing from an internet hacktivist group when you can't comfortably sit around on the computer. They do serve some pretty great brew though. The bar and the coffee shop are owned by the same people, and it shows in the standards and service of the staff.

But I’m not writing about the coffee shop. I’m writing about the bar.

We decided randomly with a friend to go for cocktails. I’ve been having trouble lately finding “classy” places to hang out that are still somewhat edgy, since mostly I just choose dive bar locations with questionable toilets. Toilets that either aren’t there, or that when the door opens, there’s not much else but for the entire bar to cheer you on. When I was prompted last year by a friend to go to a lounge, because he was there with his girlfriend, I couldn’t think of an appropriate place. “Nope, this one smells of beer, this one of vomit, this one of vinegar.” It’s a hard knock life, my friends.

Anonymous Bar at Michalska 12 then made the list of possible places to take out-of-towners who aren’t in for a rough night of drinking cheap beer. Cheap beer in Prague, mind you, is still better than expensive beer in 99% of the countries of the world. And ironically, that expensive beer is usually cheap Czech beer. Anonymous fit the higher class standard of being a cocktail bar and my standard of being a slight bit unusual.

The place is certainly classy, and weirdly extreme on good customer service. I almost felt offended, as I’ve been living in Prague for so long that I’ve come to see bad customer service as polite. All of these “hellos” and “good evenings” while passing the service staff almost seemed excessive, as though they were mocking us. But fine. They are legion. What am I to do?

Hideout of the Legion
The interior is a bit of a cross between what I imagine Kanye West’s house to look like and the set of the Nine Inch Nail’s Perfect Drug video. In fact, I think this was their primary motivation in design. The furniture were huge red lush old fashion arm chairs and couches, the ambiance dark with some soft electronic music going and on the wall a large sort of graffiti art interpretation of the Guy Fawkes mask. The music was nothing aggressive, just on the background, drifting along so you don’t have to raise your voice for conversation. The menu was full of weirdly named cocktails, the fun stuff of any cocktail bar. I got the 100% leather, which was a basic Manhattan with a shot of absinthe. My wife got a drink served in a syringe, and people at other tables had drinks served with toy guns, kaleidoscopes, and any assortment of novelties.    

The staff, as I said, is exceedingly friendly and quite knowledgeable on cocktails. My friend was bent on trying to stump the waiter, shooting out names like Witches Left Tit and the Vespa from the James Bond book, not the movie one, and the waiter was on top of the game. The drinks were expertly crafted and presented, with the waiter donning a Guy Fawkes mask as he serves the drink to carry on the namesake of the bar.


Getting our drinks
The place isn’t cheap by Prague standards though. The cheapest legit drink on the list is 175 crowns, or roughly 7 USD. Which, in the US that’s really cheap for an amazingly mixed drink. In Prague, well, that’s about 7 great beers. It’s a sacrifice to heavy drinkers like myself, but a worthy sacrifice. Now if only I could convince them to host an accordionist singer-songwriter like myself and pay him in free cocktails...   

In winter, it's highly advised to book seats. Call at +420 608 069. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

the museums of Orlik and Zvikov

Orlik Castle
It’s surprisingly cold in the newly re-branded country of Czechia. The climate has been on course for the change, though to something slightly more comfortable than all the warming mumbo jumbo. Last year, I remember sitting up in my attic apartment at night, soaking in sweat, unable to do much but drink water and breathe heavily. This year, I’m quite happily relaxed in blue jeans on my balcony, sipping coffee while I watch all the plebeians pass me by down below. But summer isn’t over yet, as there are still some things to be done and castles to be seen, and truly some borderline summer spirit to take you there.

The current cool cloudy clime is still the perfect time for a visit to Zvikov and Orlik. This would be my third time there and indeed, my second time to write about it (the first time was covered here). I won’t cover much information that I covered there on this blog, but rather something we managed to do that I’d never done before: the tours.

Orlik


Our first stop was Orlik, or the “little eagle” in English, beginning with our customary langose. I’m not overly sure what a langose is, but it’s flat, fried, and topped with copious amounts of cheese and garlic. Frankly, I’m not even sure if it’s any good, but I keep ordering the stuff so it must have some merit. 

We then went on our merry way to the castle grounds. My first instinct is always to go down the stairs at Orlik and follow the moat to a small peninsula, where you pass by a door where there’s always a hundred or so people streaming out. What was that door? A secret entrance? I couldn’t tell, since as I said, there were a hundred or so people streaming out an egress that could barely fit a kitchen stool.



Back up the moat and to the tour. The tour costs 120 czk for the straight Czech and 200 total for that with a booklet that will let you decipher the tour guide’s speeches. The castle is well worth the tour and is now on my top three list of castle tours. 


Orlik castle was the main manor of the noble Schwarzenberg family, who still wields power in the Czech government today. The house tour shows you the living period of the most famous of the Schwarzenbergs, Karl Philipp, who led the victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. However, the man also served as the Austrian Ambassador to the French Empire and had been an acquaintance of the Corsican Fiend, even receiving the best gift you could receive from a friend: their own bust. The bust of the Little Corporal is on display in the gigantic lounge room, which is situated next to the dining room, by far the chambre sans pareil of the chateau. The room is paneled entirely of hand-carved wood, taking the master craftsman from the locality over four years to complete. The ceiling, the walls, everything. It’s truly a masterpiece of woodcarving and shouldn’t be missed by any fan of the trade, and it certainly makes the entire tour worth the price.

The next most interesting thing are the Halls of Terror (name is mine). In one hall are rows and rows of hunting guns, and in another, an unparalleled assemblage of animal heads. It seems that the Schwarzenberg family tradition was to provide a fresh gun for each guest and store the gun for later use by that guest, and they’d go out hunting in the immediate lands. The guns were all notched with their score and on the plate of each beast’s head was served the name of the hunter and date of the conquest. 


Orlik from the front
From Orlik, we went on the ferry down the Vltava. The schedule is on this site and costs 240 czk for a round trip. On board you can find beers by the can, so no need to come prepared, and there’s also a beer garden on the Orlik side.

Zvikov



Zvikov I’ve already written about as well. It’s a mystical little place with the ruins of an old fortress. The boat lands in the back, but it’s best to hurry on and walk through the place and pretend to walk in from the front, which is certainly the best way to enter, where you walk over a bridge that’s easy to imagine having once been a drawbridge. There are ruined towers galore here and a museum that’s well worth a visit—again, before I’d never taken the visit, but this time decided on it, as it was just 70 czk. 


Zvikov from the front
The first floor of the museum has a couple of art galleries and for the castle and history buff is a bit of a disappointment. It’s the second floor that makes the place shine, with the old wooden rooms and the stairs up to the top of the tower. Moreover, I learned about why the castle stopped being occupied. It once served as the storage facility of the crown jewels of the Bohemian King, an honor that was later transferred to Karlstejn. Part of the palace had crumbled down off the cliff, and this part included the royal bedroom of the King. Figuring that this wasn’t a good precedent—especially for his crown jewels—the King abandoned it and it declined in its usefulness.


The walls near the dock