Johnny Jet's Travel Blog

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

My first impressions of Budapest did not start out well. First, the taxi drivers -- as in most Central European countries -- are crooks. When we stepped off of the train they all seemed so friendly to help with bags, but they were like hungry dogs as they waited for American passengers. They can spot us a mile away. We're in a new place, and are not sure of local currency and customs. Can you believe they wanted $100 for the 10-minute drive to the city? If we didn't have Henrietta to find a legitimate taxi (it even took her some time), we would have had to pony up or lug our oversized bags on public transport (metro, bus, tram, trolley). Those would've been the way to go if we packed light, because each of those modes of transport cost only 125 HUF ($0.55). TIP: To arrange a legitimate taxi, call City Taxi (tel. 36-1-211-1111) when you arrive, or have your hotel do it. They will send a driver. I hired City Taxi to pick up a friend at the airport. They charged only 4,500 HUF ($20) for the 20-30 minute ride. That's at least half what an airport taxi would charge -- and they even held up a sign at arrivals.

With the bad taste of the sleazy taxi drivers fresh in my mouth, I soon learned that was only an appetizer. A few hours later we got scammed badly. This brilliant ripoff was so good, it fooled even seasoned travelers. I feel foolish, because on paper I should've known better, and it could easily have been avoided if I just read the US Embassy's Budapest Advisory page. But looking at the bright side, this scam could've been a whole lot worse, and it taught me a valuable lesson. More importantly, it can be shared to save others. It's a long story, but fortunately my friend Matt wrote about his experience. His account is both accurate and funny. It can be found on this page. (The short version: Don't trust any girls who approach you -- and read the US Embassy Advisories before leaving home. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Vienna Video

Jo napot from Budapest! Hungary is the fourth and final stop of my jaunt through Central Europe. Not only am I touring with my childhood friends Matt and Mike on a very special trip, but Mike is getting married - and I'm the best man! Last week (here's the link to the archives) we left off in Vienna, Austria, where we had only a couple of days to explore. In Hungary we had almost a week, so if you're interested in checking out this beautiful city, hop on board! Our train is leaving, and Mike is waiting at the altar. If you're in a hurry or have ADD, don't worry; there's a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week's story.

Budapest is just a 2 hour and 50 minute train ride from Vienna. Because we traveled to multiple countries we used European East Pass, which we bought before we left the States from (I wrote about that at length a couple off weeks ago). However, purchasing a one-way ticket for this portion of the trip from RailEurope costs only $59.

It was quite emotional when we arrived at the Keleti (Eastern) international railway station. Watching Mike's fianc�e Henrietta run down the platform with tears in her eyes to greet him was almost like a scene from a classic movie. You can't blame Henrietta. She's originally from Hungary, hadn't seen Michael for a couple weeks, and was so excited to share her country with his family and friends. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

No visit to Vienna is complete without visiting a coffeehouse. No, Starbucks doesn't count (I can't believe they have one - how disappointing.) We went to Cafe Diglas, which was recommended in Frommer's Vienna & the Danube Valley Guide Book. It was a great choice. This old-school coffeehouse has incredible decor, fine service, and even better coffee and desserts. Prices for coffee range from 2.30� ($3) to 6.50� ($8). Cafe Diglas, Wollzeile 10; tel.: 01-512-5765. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

To get a better understanding of the city, we hired a tour guide through the Vienna Tourist Board. Gerhard Strassgschwandtner (email: website: charges 120� ($150) for a 2 �-hour tour. We saw a lot more than his usual tours, because we did this one on our rental bikes. Gerhard gave us a brief history of the city. We learned Vienna was where the Habsburgs ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that much their beauty is still visible in the Inner City. The inner city once was fortified by a 3-mile wall, but it came down in 1870. It was replaced by the Ringstrasse, a 3-mile-wide boulevard that encircles the old city. Biking around it, you can see all the buildings built in the 1870's and 1880's. Gerhard was great, pointing out not only the important buildings, but showing and describing each museum and popular sight so we could decide which ones to go back to later time for a more in-depth look. (A good guide book can do the same.)

We rode our bikes along a canal that led out to the Danube. Before we reached Europe's second longest river, we stopped along the way at a unique apartment house, called Hundertwasserhaus. It was built in 1983 named after its designer, Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It features undulating floors ("an uneven floor is a melody to the feet"), and an earth- and grass-covered roof. Large trees grow from inside the rooms, with limbs extending from windows. The modern masterpiece is a popular tourist attraction, with souvenir shops all around. For more info, check out Source:

We also rode through Prater Park. This used to be an imperial hunting ground, and is now a popular summertime hangout for all Viennese. The park -- 6 miles long and 1 mile wide -- is located on an island formed by the Danube River and the canal. There is just one main road for bike-riding. Nearby is an amusement park with an old giant Ferris wheel, and a merry-go-round that uses live horses (that's pretty cruel).

The city is similar to Paris, as it is composed of 23 districts. Paris has 20 "arrondissements"; here they are called "Bezirke." All have their own names, but they're numbered to make it easier (thank God). The further you go out of the Inner City, the higher the numbers get. The newest districts of Vienna are located on the other side of the Danube. This is also home to the International Center. This part of the city has a totally different feel -- more like South Florida without the nice beaches. But on a hot day the banks of the Danube -- dubbed "Riviera" -- are a nice escape.

It is said that at any time of the day or night in Vienna, someone somewhere is playing the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (This year marks the 250th anniversary of his birth). We found this to be true, in this city filled with theatre, opera, classical music and fine arts. Unbeknown to us, the popular Music Film Festival that began in 1991 was going on. It takes place every night from July 1 to September 3 in Rathausplatz Square (right in front of the neo-Gothic City Hall). Admission is free, and 3,000 seats are available to watch -- on a huge TV at dusk -- opera, concerts and ballets performed by international stars. This year, my boy Mozart was featured. Arrive early to enjoy over two dozen refreshment and food booths from around the world. Mike went to the Austrian booth, Matt visited Croatia, and I felt like some curry so I hit the Indian booth. (Of course I went back to the Austrian booth for dessert). For more info, log on to Music Film Festival.  Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The following morning we were off to see the city. Two blocks into our walk, near City Hall, a self-serve bike rental company caught our attention. After reading a pamphlet about this service (which every city should have), we created a registration. Each renter must have a valid credit card, and fill out a 4-minute electronic user agreement on a small ATM-style machine. The initial registration fee is 1e. The fees are ridiculously cheap -- if you use the service intelligently. The first hour of bike rental is always free of charge. The second hour costs 1e, while the third is 2e. Then it starts to get a bit expensive: If you return the bike between the 4th and the 120th hour you are charged 4e per hour. After that -- or if the bike is lost or stolen � you pay 600e. Obviously, you don't want to rent for a long period of time (or lose it!). Tourists should ride the bike for just under an hour, park at one of 50 bike rack locations around the city, then explore on foot for at least 15 minutes. After that short period your account is reset, and you can log back in (using your credit card and password) to get a bike for the fees listed above. Remember: The first hour is free! This is a perfect, economical and fun way to see the city. Note: Every time you log in to hire a city bike, the system carries out a standard preauthorization of 20e. They are not payments, just pre-authorizations, so don't worry (like I did) when I logged on to my credit card account. For more info, check out Citybike Wien.

Our first stop on the bike was St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom). The bike rack is located behind the Romanesque Gothic-style cathedral, which is probably Vienna's most recognized symbol. It was built in 1147, but enlarged over the centuries and completed in 1511. Fine restoration work has taken place, and the last major repairs came after World War II bombing, but it's almost impossible to see the difference. This cathedral has been the site of many important events, including Mozart's funeral. Inside you will find Gothic sculptures, and 18 altars (including the Baroque-style High Altar). Two towers offer panoramic views of the city, plus an up-close look at the ornate and colorful tiled rooftops. The North Tower (223 feet high) has stairs and an elevator, but we climbed the 445-foot South Tower (3e). It has no elevator, but there were small windows and enough space for someone who is even mildly claustrophobic to not have any problems. There is even a small gift shop at the top. For more info, log on to For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Gr�� Gott from Vienna! Austria is the third stop of my four-country jaunt through Central/Eastern Europe. I'm touring with my childhood friends Matt and Mike on a very special trip. At our final destination (to be revealed next week) Mike is getting married � and I'm the best man! Last week (here's the link to the archives) we were in Bratislava, Slovakia. Most Americans who visit Bratislava also enjoy Vienna, and we wanted to be part of that group. If you're in a hurry or have ADD, don't worry; there's a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week's story.

Bratislava and Vienna are only 58 minutes by train from each other, so there's no excuse not to visit both of these beautiful cities. We used our European East Pass, which we bought before we left the States from (I wrote about that at length last week), but a one-way ticket from is only $25 -- and half that if it's purchased at the train station in Bratislava. We arrived at Vienna's Southern Train Station (Wien Suedbahnhof), and went straight to an ATM to withdraw some euros. The current exchange rate is 1� = $1.28 (I use for my currency converter).

My friend Matt took the boat to Vienna and this was his experience.

The official language here is German, but like practically all Viennese the taxi driver spoke perfect English. He dropped us off at the wrong Levante hotel (Levante Laudon) -- which was my fault, because I had quickly written their sister property's address from their website. Fortunately we were not in a hurry so we didn't really care, except that it cost us an extra 6� ($7.50) to take a taxi to the hotel where we actually had a reservation. The good news is, we got to check out a reasonably priced place to stay ($150) for travelers who want to live like locals, because the Levante Laudon rents out 39 fully self-contained apartments in a residential neighborhood.

Vienna was recently called "the new hub of architecture and design" by UK's Wallpaper Magazine. The Levante Parliament hotel is part of that trend. The 74-room hotel opened this past May, in a 1908 Biedermeier building. Natural stone, dark wood, glass and chrome -- with a dab of bright colors � is used for the modern architecture interior. The hotel could also serve as an art gallery. Everywhere you look, there are glass works by Romanian artist Ioan Nemtoi (he also co-designed the hotel's Nemtoi restaurant), or photographs by Viennese photographer Curt Themessl. All of the art is for sale. I wasn't sure at first how I felt about the chic hotel, but it quickly grew on me. First of all, the staff were all very friendly and attentive. The rooms are comfortable, and come with free high-speed internet, a flat screen TV with satellite, a heated floor in the bathroom (a great touch!), an oversized showerhead, a courtyard to lounge in, and an extensive breakfast buffet. Rooms rates begin at $250. The Levante Parliament, Auerspergstrasse 9, 1080 Vienna, Austria; tel.: 43-1-228-28-0. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Monday, August 21, 2006

My favorite street to walk down in the city is Kapitulska. It's cobblestone, hidden from the main path in the historic center, has incredible colorful buildings and surprisingly has very few tourists, or even locals. At the end of the street is the Gothic St. Martin's Cathedral, constructed during the 15th century over the ruins of a Romanesque church but later damaged by war and an earthquake. It was rebuilt in 1849. This historical cathedral has been the site of 19 coronations, including Maria Theresia -- the only ruling empress of the Habsburg dynasty - in 1741. Inside you will find a Baroque altar, and incredible stained glass windows.

Built 280 feet above the Danube River, on top of a hill overlooking the city center, is Bratislava Castle. Its four towers look like an overturned table. The Castle has been rebuilt many times and in many shapes, but it was an important fortified settlement as early as the 9th century. It was burned to the ground in 1811, and not reconstructed until 1968. Its shape is modeled after the 18th century style. Today the castle is a popular tourist attraction, a history museum, and of course an incredible viewing spot. Next door, in a modern building, is the National Council of Slovak. The castle is open Tuesday - Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fee: 80 SKK ($2.70). Bratislava Castle, 810 06 Bratislava 16; tel.: 421-2-5441-1444.

Some popular souvenirs from Bratislava are crystal, ceramic pieces, and dolls made of corn husk.

Although Bratislava is not as architecturally impressive as Praha, I enjoyed my short stay here much more. The restaurants here didn't try to rip you off with the potato or bread scam (see last week's newsletter), and the locals were much friendlier and really wanted us to enjoy their beautiful country. The prices were very reasonable. I can't wait to come back and see the rest of Slovakia beyond this marvelous city. I hear it's even more beautiful -- and the locals are even friendlier. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Mike and I were starving, so Miro recommended the Templars Restaurant as good, casual, inexpensive place. I figured that because I just got finished filming the Da Vinci Code TV show a few weeks earlier, this would be a good choice. Downstairs the dark, good-looking restaurant transported me back to the Medieval period. It would have made for a fine, romantic meal, but I was with Mike, not some Bratislavan hottie. We opted to dine outside, so we could people-watch in the nice weather. The food was a little bland and the rice had a nasty aftertaste, but overall it was good and the price was right. Main dishes cost about $6 apiece! Templars Restaurant, Panska 18, Bratislava I; tel.: 421-0903-434-047.

There are plenty of places to eat, with all kinds of cuisine choices -- not just the typical Slovakian meal of soup and goulash. To pretend you�re a local, eat a light breakfast, have a lunch of soup and a main dish between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., then have a heavy dinner from 5 p.m. on. Many restaurants stay open late, and the prices were generally much cheaper than Praha.

We had dinner at one of the city�s best and most stylish restaurants, Le Monde. Located in the heart of Bratislava's historical pedestrian zone, it offers a mixture of dishes from all over the world. The menu lists prices in both SKK and euros, making it so much easier on my brain (and enabling me to savor even better the tasty food). I started with the red and green pear salad (345 SKK = $12), then had chicken (495 SKK = $17). I added the chocolate fondant (275 SKK = $10) for my emerging Buddha belly. It was a gorgeous night, as we sat on the upper balcony with a beautiful view of the Slovak National Theater (Slovensk� N�rodn� Divadlo) and Hviezdoslav Square. Talk about great people watching! There was lots of action. With airfares so low (especially from England), many loud, t-shirt wearing English guys come for the weekend to enjoy the party atmosphere. The English are actually pretty fun to watch, but the locals don�t like them. Be sure to tell them you�re from America � not England! Le Monde, Ryb�rska br�na 8, 811 01 Bratislava, Slovak Republic; tel.: 421-2-5441 5411. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mike and I stayed at the newly renovated Crowne Plaza Bratislava. It's a category first class deluxe hotel (I would rate it 4 stars), with 224 rooms. The hotel is just a few blocks from the heart of the city, opposite the Presidental Residence. The huge lobby was filled primarily with American and English tourists and business travelers. This hotel is perfect for business travelers, boasting 14 meeting rooms, a business center, a great workout center, indoor pool and high-speed internet ($6 for 1 hour, $16 a day). The rooms are bright and comfortable, with clean bathrooms. A huge American breakfast is included in the daily rate, which begins around $160 a night. Crowne Plaza Bratislava, Hodzovo Namestie 2, Bratislava 81625, Slovakia; tel.: 421-2-593-48111.

For an alternative hotel, Castle Devin and taking a River boat to Vienna check out my friend Matt's story.

The drive from the train station to the hotel had me a bit worried. The city was not looking real nice, and I thought maybe we should have spent just one day here, not two. But that feeling changed the minute Mike and I took a short walk to the Main Square. Much of it is pedestrian-only, so people can stroll past the countless shops, caf�s, wine bars, pubs and restaurants without dodging cars or motor scooters. The pedestrian zone begins at St. Michael's Gate and ends by the Danube River -- a solid 10 square blocks.

This area really impressed us. Not only were the streets and buildings really clean, but they looked so new I almost felt as if I was in one of Las Vegas' beautifully designed European hotels. Unlike Vega$, however, this place is filled with a long history. Walking down the cobblestone streets and admiring the different architectures, especially the neo-Gothic style, was an event in itself. During the day, construction teams work all over, as they continue to better this city. There weren't nearly as many tourists as in Praha, so it seemed we had the town to ourselves. At night, though, the whole area turned lively. The outdoor cafes were packed, and the streets filled with well-dressed beautiful locals. It's so vibrant because this is really the only place open for locals and tourists to go.

Mike made sure we went up St. Michael's Gate. A great place to get a bird's- eye view of the area, it costs only 60 SKK ($2) to walk seven easy staircases to the top. You can take your time, or even stop at each level to see an exhibition of arms and city fortifications from different time periods through the city's history. St. Michael�s Gate, Michalsk� 24; open Tuesday � Sunday, 9:30 a.m. � 4:30 p.m.; tel.: 421-2-5443-3044.
For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dobr� den from Bratislava, Slovakia! Slovak Republic is the country's official name, but most people call it Slovakia. The country's largest city and capital is Bratislava, which is where I am now. This is the second stop of my four-country jaunt through Central/Eastern Europe. I'm touring with my childhood friends Matt and Mike. This is a very special trip because at our final destination -- to be revealed in an upcoming newsletter � Mike is getting married! Last week (here's the link to the archives) we were in Prague, and while I was there I didn't know Jack about Slovakia. I didn't even have a mad desire to visit it. The name "Slovakia" didn't do much for me -- it didn't give me the same warm, fuzzy feeling that "Australia" and "France" do. But that's not the case anymore. As you'll see, this little country has far more to offer than a strange name. If you want to experience what I think will be one of the most "in" destinations in the very near future, then jump on our train -- it's departing! For those in a hurry or with ADD, don't worry; there's a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week's story.

There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Bratislava, but the very international Vienna airport is only 31 miles away. Most Americans who travel to Bratislava come by train from either Budapest, Vienna, or Prague (Praha). We came in from the latter. We left our hotel, and took a 500 CSK ($22) taxi 10 minutes to the Praha -Holesovice Railway Station. Although it was early on a Saturday morning, the station was jam- packed with travelers. We were unsure where to get our rail pass stamped, because none of the signs were in English. I found a ticket window where the agent had an English flag (meaning he spoke English), and he pointed me to the right place.

Because this was the first leg using our European East Pass, an agent had to validate it. No other trip would not require waiting in line � all we have to do is fill in the date before getting on the train. (TIP: Be sure to write in the date before the conductor comes around; otherwise you could get a steep fine or risk having your ticket confiscated). The European East Pass covers 5 days of rail travel in 4 countries. We got our $244 first class pass (second class costs $172) from before we left the States (they're unavailable after leaving the U.S.). If you are traveling like we are -- visiting multiple countries, and you know which trains you will take -- it's a good idea to book one of these passes before you leave home. That's especially true in the summer, when some trains can be sold out. If you are traveling to one or two countries only, it's not worth it � just buy point-to-point tickets at the station (but arrive extra early to avoid long lines).

The 4-hour and 7-minute train ride was pleasant (we made only five stops) -- until we arrived at the Czech/Slovakian border, and customs agents from both countries came around checking passports. (If you're a passport-stamp collector, ask them to stamp yours � they stamped mine, but not Mike's). The mood changed when Matt got that "uh oh" look on his face. I whispered, "Please tell me you didn't leave your passport back in the hotel safe?" From his pale face, I knew he wasn't joking. We had no idea how the not-so-friendly-looking agents would react. Would they throw his dumb arse in jail? Make him go back to Praha? Fortunately, Matt had a photocopy of his passport; he was traveling with two other Americans who had their passports, and the agents didn't want to do all that paperwork. They mumbled a bit to each other and split. We all breathed huge sighs of relief -- but none was bigger than Matt's. He ended up spending hours on the phone and looking for a Western Union facility so he could get his passport DHL-ed to him. TIP: Always carry a photo copy of your passport -- separate from the original -- and keep a scanned copy of it online, in a web-based email account.

When we arrived at Bratislava's main train station, called Hlavna Stanica, we were met by Miro, a young, friendly and smart tour guide whom we arranged through the tourist board. Fortunately, we didn't have to deal with the crooked taxi drivers. Miro arranged a 150 SKK ($5) taxi ride to our hotel, which was only 1.2 miles (5 minutes) away. Matt was staying at a different hotel, not far away, and another taxi driver quoted him three times the price. That is the only negative thing I found about this city and region: The cabbies take advantage of tourists. Of course, that happens nearly everywhere�even in NYC. TIP: Have your hotel or restaurant call a reputable service, or make sure to negotiate the price in advance. FYI: The current exchange rate is 1 USD = 30 SKK (Slovakia Koruny).

Miro told us so much incredible information and history that we were delighted we'd hired him for a tour. I can't give you the same history lesson he gave us, but if you're interested, check out this insightful website. I can, however, give you a brief background on Bratislava and Slovakia. The official language is Slovak, but practically everyone in Bratislava speaks English. The city used to be called Pressburg, but it was changed to Bratislava in 1919, a year after Slovakia became part of Czechoslovakia. Slovakia regained its independence on January 1, 1993. It became the Slovak Republic, while its neighbor became the Czech Republic. Both joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. They don't use the euro yet, although they hope to by 2009 or 2010.

The latest census (2001) lists the total population of Slovakia at 5,379,450, with Bratislava at 452,288. Slovakia borders Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. The closest major city to Bratislava is Vienna � it's only 40 miles away (you can see the Austrian border from the Castle). Budapest is just 127 miles away, and Prague 217 miles. Vienna and Budapest are connected to Bratislava by the Danube River, and boat cruises are available from both cities (see links in the resource section). The country is made up of Slovaks (85%), Hungarians (11%), Italians (1.8%), Czechs (1.2%). Sixty percent of the people are Roman Catholic, 6.2% Evangelic, 3.4% Greek Orthodox, 10% non-denominational, while the remaining 21% did not have any data. Slovakia is located in a moderate climate zone, with all four seasons. The average daily winter temperature is 28� F; the average winter temperature is 70� F. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Video of my London Experience

Click the link to see the 1 minute video

Saturday, August 12, 2006

As you can tell from the picture below I was stuck right in the middle of the mayhem at London's Gatwick Airport on Thursday. I arrivred at 6:15 am for my 8am flight and no one had any idea what was going on. Fortunately, my flight was one of the last to depart (at 1pm). I stood in line for 4.5 hours without moving a foot. It was crazy but everyone was well behaved, especially the agents. More to come... Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

We had no idea where to eat. There are plenty of restaurants, pubs and caf�s, but none of us had any recommendations from friends living there. Our hotel recommended only expensive places, so we followed the Frommer's guidebook suggestions. We tried three places, and all turned out to be excellent. My favorite one, Strelecky Ostrov, is located right on the Vtlava River. It has great service and atmosphere, and serves good Czech and international cuisine. My beef soup, goulash and bottled water cost 600K ($26). Strelecky Ostrov 336, Praha 1, tel.: 420-224-934-026.

One restaurant, U Vladare, was not listed in the guidebook. We stumbled upon it because we were starving, and wanted to watch the World Cup on their big screen TV. The food was good. I had bottled water, soup and chicken Malta. It came with veggies and potatoes, and cost $20. The waiter had a little attitude, and he charged us 85 CSK ($4) for bread, but he taught me a valuable lesson: Just say no to bread in Praha! U Vladare, Maltezske Namestri 10, Praha 1; tel.: 420-257-534-121. NOTE: Almost every restaurant has menus in English so don't worry about translating.

My impression of Praha is that it is indeed a beautiful, romantic city. But I didn't find the people to be overly friendly and the whole thing with the bread really bothers me. The city is not the bargain it used to be. In fact, it is quite expensive-- probably because it's so crowded with tourists. TIP: The only way to combat the tourist crowds is to get up really early-- or go to the outdoor attractions when it's raining and the museums when it's sunny. Still, I am so glad I got to see the city. It's definitely a must to visit for a couple days. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

We scored a corner table at Kovarna caf� directly in front of Old Town Hall's famous Astronomical Clock (Orloj). Interestingly this clock, dating back to 1410, does not tell time. Instead it shows the days, seasons, phases of the moon, equinoxes and Christian holidays. To find the time, look at the very top of the 230-foot tower. If you go all the way up there, you'll also find great views of the city. What's special about the clock is that a 30-second, politically incorrect medieval morality play begins there every hour, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Crowds start to gather 20 minutes early to see the two doors slide open, and the statues of the 12 apostles glide by. Meanwhile, the 15th-century conception of the evils of life -- a "Death" skeleton, a preening "Vanity," a corrupt Turk and an acquisitive Jew -- shake and dance below. At the end of World War II the horns and beard were removed from the moneybag-holding Jew, who is now politely referred to as "Greed." According to legend, after the timepiece was remodeled at the end of the 15th century, clock artist Master Hanus was blinded by the Municipal Council to prevent him from repeating his fine work elsewhere. In response, Hanus threw himself into the clock mechanism and promptly died. The clock remained out of kilter for almost a century. (Source: Frommer's Prague & the Best of the Czech Republic).

The Jewish Quarter, just a short walk from Old Town Hall, contains the remains of Praha's former Jewish ghetto. There are many synagogue and attractions here. It's a beautiful area, but depressing when you hear all the tragedy -- especially Hitler's Nazi camps. The most popular building is the Old-New Synagogue. Built around 1270, it is one of Prague's earliest Gothic buildings, and the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe. The Old Jewish Cemetery -- built in 1478, and Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery -- is another major attraction. Because there was so little space, people were buried on top of each other � 12 times over. There are 12,000 gravestones, for the 100,000 people buried there. The last person buried was in 1787. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Monday, August 07, 2006

Matt and Mike arrived a day before I did, so they already had the city mapped out. When I met them at my hotel I asked how they liked Praha. Both excitedly said it might be their new favorite city. I asked why, and they said the architecture -- comprising Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings � is amazing. I was surprised by their decisive statements, because both have traveled extensively. Needless to say, I was excited to explore. Obviously I can�t list every place to visit, so I highly recommend a good guidebook. I used Frommer�s, but there are plenty to choose from.

My favorite attraction was the famous Charles Bridge. Built in 1357 and originally called the Stone Bridge, it was renamed in 1870 to honor King Charles IV. The 1700-foot bridge spans the Vlatava River, and links Prague Castle with Old Town. The 100-foot wide, pedestrian-only cobblestone walkway is filled with tourists checking out the 30 mostly Baroque-style statues, erected around 1700. This amazing structure is my new favorite bridge in the world. TIP: The best time to walk on the bridge is at sunrise, when no one else is around. If you watch the JohnnyJet video below you�ll see I got up very early to experience what it must have been like in medieval times.

A short walk from the Charles Bridge (and even shorter from the Alchymist hotel) is the monster complex of Prague Castle, built around 880. It sits high on the hill. If you�re not up for the moderately steep walk, take tram number 22 or 23 and get off at either the Kr�lovsk� letohr�dek, Pra�sk� hrad or Pohorelec stops. There is no fee to walk around the complex, but you are charged to enter any of the top sights (St. Vitus Cathedral, the Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, the Powder Tower and Golden Lane). There are individual ticket options; purchase a combination costs adults 350 CSK ($15). Children under 6 are free. The attractions close at 5 p.m., but you can walk around the area at night, dine and see the incredible views. For more information, log on to the Prague Castle Information Center or

I had been told that no trip to Praha is complete without a river cruise. There are many options, including lunch and dinner cruises. However, all we wanted was a basic cruise. We didn�t go with the company that aggressively approaches customers on the Charles Bridge, and was three times as expensive as the little one we found on the other side, down below on the Charles Bridge. We paid 150 CSK ($7) for a 50-minute boat tour. The old adage "You get what you pay for" is definitely true. This tour is only for people wanting the bare minimum river cruise (with a nonstop 4-language recording that is very annoying).

Old Town was one of my favorite areas. This is where many historical events took place -- both good and bad. During our visit, there was a lot going on. Besides the beautiful pastel-colored buildings, and all the shops, restaurants, cafes and street vendors, we stumbled upon a military demonstration, a shop shaped like a soccer ball (to promote the World Cup), and the Long Beach, CA high school choir performing at famous St Nicholas Church. (That beautiful building, constructed in 1735, features a glorious high ceiling.)  Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 04, 2006

I checked in at the Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa. This 47-room luxury boutique property is beautifully designed in Renaissance and Baroque style. The Italian owner has given the interiors a Mediterranean feel � except for the Asian Spa downstairs, which features Indonesian d�cor, a sushi bar and seven Balinese masseuses. Besides a variety of massages, a pool and workout room are available at no extra charge. The rest of the hotel is staffed by locals. I found the service similar to shops and restaurants I visited all around Praha. The Czechs seem a bit cold or distant at first, but they warm up if you smile and don't behave like an obnoxious tourist. I loved my room at the Alchymist. It included free high-speed internet, a flat screen TV, DVD player, air conditioning, and a plush marble bathroom with a tub, firm shower, bidet and fluffy towels. Breakfast was very good, and was included in the daily rate which begins at 180 euros ($230) a night. Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa, Tr�i�te 19, 11800 Praha 1; tel.: 420-257-286-011.

The hotel was conveniently located across the street from the American Embassy. On the other hand, all cars driving past get searched for bombs, so I'm not sure how convenient it actually is -- unless there's been an international incident, or you have a passport problem. I needed more pages added to mine, so one rainy morning I decided to take advantage of the proximity. After going through airport-like security and leaving behind all electronic devices at the front desk, I found the line for U.S. citizens (it was much shorter than the other line). The "more pages for passport" form took only two minutes to complete. I discovered that adding pages to a passport at an embassy is much easier, quicker and cheaper than mailing it in. The entire process took only 25 minutes, and I did not have to part with my passport for the normal two weeks. The U.S. Embassy, Trziste 15, Praha 1 (tel.: 257-530-663), is open Monday to Friday, 8 to 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 4 p.m. Helpful link: U.S. Department of State: How to Add Extra Pages to Your U.S. Passport.

I was traveling with two childhood friends, Matt and Mike. Mike and I have traveled a bunch of times to Europe together, but this would be the most special trip of all because at our final destination -- to be revealed in a later newsletter -- he's getting married. That's going out in style! The only problem traveling with three adults is that most European hotel rooms are small, and/or have laws requiring no more than two adults per room. So squeezing Matt in was not an option. He was fine with that, because he had decided to come with us at the last minute, and actually prefers not staying in swanky hotels. If you're looking for a 3-star hotel for under $100 a night, Matt recommends Hotel Koruna. He wrote a brief description of his experience, which can be found here. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Thursday, August 03, 2006

This was my first trip to Praha � in fact, to this entire region of Europe � so I was a bit nervous. I wasn't familiar with this territory that opened up to Westerners in 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. I was nervous about the horror stories I'd heard and read: for example, neo-Nazis looking for trouble, visitors robbed by scammers dressing up as police, and taxi drivers ripping people off. I thought I would find them untrue, but I wasn't 100 percent sure. Fortunately, I found most of what I worried about to be completely false. During my entire time in Praha I felt safe � day and night. Of course, no matter where I am I make sure to guard my valuables (wallet, passport, etc.), especially in crowded areas and on public transportation. The only negative truth I found was that taxi drivers do rip you off. This happened to a friend, who got taken for some extra dollars. It's not a big deal, and it happens in almost every city in the world, but my friend hadn't gotten the local tip before he left. NOTE: The best way to prevent Czech taxi drivers from ripping you off is to find out the going rate from a local citizen or the internet, then negotiate the fare in advance with the driver. Be sure to have him write it down!

Other than the taxi drivers, only one other thing upset me about Praha; When you sit down at a restaurant, you'll find potato chips in a basket. You'd think those stale potato chips -- and the unrequested bread they later bring to the table -- are on the house. But no! Whether you eat the chips and bread or not, they still charge you. It's just a few dollars, but you still feel like you've been taken. TIP: Ask the server to remove the potato chips before you sit down, and say "no thank you" to the bread. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Nazdar from the Czech Republic! Nazdar (pronounced "NAH-zda") means hello. (For more basic Czech words and phrases, see the translation links in our resource section.) We left off last week (here's the link to the archives) on an SAS flight from Newark to Praha (Prague, in English) with a connection in Copenhagen. I could have flown nonstop on Czech Airlines, but my last-minute ticket was much cheaper on SAS. When I landed in the Czech Republic a medley of emotions raced through my head. Fear of a new place -- including its communist history -- was one. But excitement quickly took over as I explored the first nation on a four-country jaunt. If you're up for something new, hop on � we're on my maiden Central/Eastern Europe tour! If you're in a hurry or have ADD, don't worry; there's a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week's story.

Not many people get upset when their airport layover is too short. I'm an exception, because that's how I felt when I had to run from one flight to the next. It wasn't that I wanted to wander around Copenhagen's sleek airport, shop duty free or check out the beautiful Scandinavian women. The reason was because the last time I was in this airport was with my mom, back in 1999. It was our last trip together, and one of the best times of my life. Although I did not get to sit down and reflect, the little bit that I saw brought back many pleasant memories � and that made the 387-mile (1 hour and 10 minute) flight to Praha even more enjoyable.

I quickly cleared customs, bypassed baggage claim and went straight to the lost baggage counter. Because my connection was so tight I was sure there was no way my bag would make it on time. Unfortunately, I was right. The good news: I was first in line to fill out the form, and my bag was delivered to my hotel five hours later. Before leaving the airport I hit the ATM machine. TIP: It's always a good idea to do that -- but find out before you board the plane what your exchange rate will be (I use as my currency converter). Right now, $1 USD equals 22 CZK. CZK is an acronym for Czech Republic koruny, but most people call the Czech money "crowns." It always freaks me out when I'm in a foreign country and am about to press a button to withdraw thousands of whatever the local currency is. My brain can't comprehend that it's only a couple of hundred dollars. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa