In Heaven There is No Beer, That’s Why We Drink it Here

By Nancy Bestor

Prague is a beautiful, albeit touristy, European city. The architecture is stunning, and incredibly well preserved. There are also, however, an extraordinary number of chintzy souvenir shops and over the top “tourist experiences” in the old town, with tacky trinkets and “my mom went to Prague and all I got was this t-shirt” (I kid you not) items, as well as people in all sorts of character costumes in the main square available to take pictures with tourists—for a fee. But, as Rick Steves says, if you can just look past all this, in this case, by looking up, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of art nouveau facades and romantic and charming sites.

And then, of course, there’s the beer. The Czech Republic is known for its pilsners and lagers, so in our three day visit, we were determined to experience all Prague had to offer, namely, by drinking beer in as many authentic spots as we could find. In this endeavor, Prague did not disappoint. 

Our airbnb was right in the Old Town, which was a great central location for exploring the city on foot. On our first evening, we walked over the famous Charles Bridge, with its great views of the Prague Castle, to a basement bar serving none other than one of our favorite beers, Pilsner Urquell. We appeared to be the only non locals in the place, and there was no English menu, but it wasn’t hard to communicate that we wanted two beers—and then two more—after which our waiter, in broken English, was able to break down the few food offerings on the chalkboard. The goulash with dumplings and sausage with potato salad were great accompaniments to the star of the evening, the beer, which cost about $2 per pint.

The next day we visited the Strahov Monastery & Library, above the Prague Castle, to get a look at its Philosophy Hall and its Theology Hall, with their stunning ceiling frescos and more than 200,000 books on their shelves. You can only peek into the doorways of the halls, but it is well worth the $6ish dollar entrance price.

Across the way from the Library is the Klasterni Pivovar, the Monastery’s brewery. Of course we couldn’t miss the opportunity to sample beer made just like the monks made it back in the day, or that was our excuse anyway. FYI—it was delicious. As was the onion soup, goulash soup and brown bread toast rubbed with raw garlic. Yum.

In the afternoon we took an “off the beaten path” walk through Prague’s suburbs between the Strahov Monastery and the Brevnov Monastery, to try, you guessed it, more monastic beer. Although the walk itself was not super interesting, the Brevnov Monastery was lovely, and the beer once again was delicious and cheap.

On our last night we settled in for more Czech suds at Konvikt bar. When we walked in and sat at a table, a waiter walking by nodded hello. Bob held up two fingers, and before we knew it, there were two pints sitting in front of us. There was no asking “what kind of beer do you want.” We got served the beer that was on offer. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the beer was outstanding, and about $2 per pint.

Lest you think we did nothing but drink beer while in Prague dear readers, we did also eat sausages. But all joking aside, we thoroughly enjoyed several walks from our Rick Steves Prague guidebook, the Old Town walk, a walk to the Prague Castle, and the Wenceslas Square walk, which gave the history of several fantastic art nouveau buildings, including one—the Hotel Evropa—where a movie was being filmed out front. A highlight was a self guided tour of the Municipal House (with the help of Rick again). This building has a stunning rotunda, lobby, restaurant, and bar, with beautiful mosaic floors, stained glass and art nouveau light fixtures and signage. The Municipal House is Prague’s largest concert hall, but if you can’t see a show here, a visit is still highly recommended.

And the beer, whatever you do while visiting Prague, don’t miss out on the beer. 



Time to Get a Second Opinion

by Robert Bestor

It’s always a good idea to get a second opinion. From doctors, contractors, and even the friend who answers “no” when you ask “do these pants make my butt look big?” Well it turns out you should get one from the airlines too. Recently, I phoned Alaska Airlines four separate times, each time getting a different answer to my question. I finally got the answer I was looking for, but it took four phone calls to obtain it.

For our January trip to Europe, we booked separate tickets to get us from Ashland to Seattle to catch our Icelandic Air flight to Amsterdam. With our flight out of Seattle scheduled for 5pm, we chose a late-morning Alaska Air flight that would get us into SeaTac with several hours to spare.9370826_1280x720

However, in the days leading up to our departure, we started to worry. We did not want to miss our Icelandic Air flight. You see, at this time of year, morning fog often keeps flights from landing at Medford Rogue Valley International Airport (that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?). And because they can’t get in, the planes obviously then aren’t there to fly those mid to late morning departures. On the other hand, the first flights of the day are usually okay, as those planes arrived late the previous evening. After discovering that the midmorning Medford – Seattle flight had indeed recently been delayed or canceled several times, we decided it would be prudent to change to the first flight of the day out of Medford.

To add another wrinkle, we’d booked our Alaska tickets on JustFlycom. So a few days before our flight, I called JustFly, only to find that their change fee would be an exorbitant $318 per ticket. To put that into perspective, our Seattle-Amsterdam round trip tickets, with a stopover in Reykjavik, were $460 each. I then decided to call Alaska to see if they could help me.

Alaska’s reservation agents are very friendly, but because we purchased the tickets through JustFly, they told me they couldn’t make the change. So I hung up and figured we’d have to chance it with the late morning flight. But a few minutes later the same Alaska agent called me back and informed me that I would be able to make a “same day” change for $25. This bears repeating. The same Alaska agent called me back. She also said that because we wanted to change to a crack of dawn departure, “same day” would actually mean after 10pm the night before the flight. She also kindly informed me that there were plenty of seats available on the flight we wanted to switch to. Looking good.

Two days later (about 48 hours until departure) I called Alaska again to check availability and confirm the $25 same day change fee. This time I was told I could call back as early 8pm to get it done. If we did get on the earlier flight, we’d have a 4am wake up, so I was happy to hear I’d get to bed two hours earlier.

The evening before our trip I figured that if one agent told me I could make a same day change at 10pm and the other told me 8pm, I might as well try for 6pm. Because I’m guessing that in actuality, an airline can pretty much make a reservation change whenever they want. But when I called at 6pm, and explained that “I know there are plenty of seats available and it would be really helpful to make the change now so I could arrange transportation and get a good night’s sleep,” I was told that both previous agents were dead wrong and “same day means same day” and I’d have to call back at midnight. I didn’t put up a fuss because nobody had told me 6pm would work. I was just trying to get it done early if possible.

But at this point I had three different answers to a seemingly simple question that I am certain Alaska reservation agents deal with every single day.

At 8pm I tried again. This time I told the agent that I had called earlier and been told to call back at 8. And this time it was no problem. Within a few minutes, we were rebooked on the early flight for a total of $50, instead of $636 with JustFly.

So, what’s the moral of this story? Well, first off, be leery of winter morning flights out of Medford. Second, double-check any information you get from an airline reservation agent. If you don’t like the answer, try calling back and speaking to another agent. Heck, it might even be a good idea to record these conversations, just in case. Lastly, go to Iceland! We’ll have a story about it our Spring/Summer newsletter.

That Time I Put Vodka in my Eye

by Nancy Bestor

I’d like to think I’m an organized person. I make lists of what I need to do, and then cross items off when they are completed. I file my bills to be paid in a specific location, and bills that have been paid get filed away as well. And all my travel necessities have special storage locations. Carry-on sized toiletries stay in my toiletries bag, while passports and money belts, foreign currency, and the like, sit in a box waiting for my next trip.

So when I ran out of contact lens solution recently, because of my superior organization skills, I knew that I had more in a 3-ounce Nalgene bottle in my toiletry kit, underneath my bathroom sink. I have two different kinds of contact solution. One is for storing of contacts, and cannot be put directly into your eyes. The other solution is the more traditional kind, that you can rinse contacts with. So, being the organized person that I am (or apparently that I think I am), at some point I marked the top of the Nalgene bottle with the storing solution in red nail polish. This was my “WARNING: DO NOT PUT DIRECTLY INTO YOUR EYES” idea.

Thus, when grabbing the extra solution out of my toiletry kit, I chose the bottle that was not marked with red nail polish. So far so good right? I may have even given myself a pat on the back for my amazing organization skills. What I failed to remember, however, was that when returning from a trip to Mexico with my girlfriends, I stored leftover vodka in a TSA approved 3-ounce Nalgene bottle. And when I got home, I forgot all about it, and just left this bottle in my toiletry kit along with the contact solution bottles. And yes, I used that mandarin flavored Absolut vodka to rinse my contact lenses, and then put one lens right on my eyeball.

Needless to say, I do not recommend putting vodka in your eyes. It burned like holy h***. I’m pretty sure I screamed, and then stuck my face under cold running water for a good long minute or two. I couldn’t put my contacts in for two days, and had to go old school with glasses. I know, first world problems, right? 

I’ve learned my lesson. Now, I’ve got 3-ounce Nalgene bottles marked with red nail polish for the storing solution, and 3-ounce Nalgene bottles marked with green nail polish for the contact rinsing solution. So when I travel with my girlfriends again, and bring more Vodka home in plain Nalgene bottles, I’ll know that’s for drinking.


Reconnect Without Your Phone

It’s all there, isn’t it? That amazing little device in your pocket has nearly everything on it. From ancient history to current events, a smart phone has pretty much all the information that the human race has compiled over the millennia—accessible instantly with just a few keystrokes.

Our smartphones are powerful and compelling little devils. Walking down the street, at the dinner table, behind the wheel, and even at the beach, no matter the activity, lots of folks find them pretty darn hard to put down. 

Bad habits are hard to break, but fortunately travelers, help is here. At select properties, the Wyndham hotel chain is now offering to take your phone away for your own good. Their Reconnected” program is actually directed at families in an effort to remove electronic distractions from their vacations.

Participating families will get a lockbox for their phones, an instant camera, instructions for building a blanket fort and “Adventure Backpacks” full of books, stuffed animals, s’mores pops, and ideas for fun activities. Yes, this program is geared towards families with young kids, but we could all easily put our phone in a “lockbox” for a vacation, and just disconnect. We might not get s’mores pops (whatever they may be), but we would get the chance to relax and reconnect with the outdoors and each other. It’s definitely an idea worth considering.

Right in the Middle of a Big Fish Fry

My favorite thing to do in any foreign city is visit a food market. I never seem to tire of aimlessly wandering through spice isles, chilly fish markets, produce stalls, and more, looking at and often eating local delicacies, and, of course, people watching. Food markets are an excellent opportunity to see locals in action, whether they’re buying items for their family’s dinner, or working at the market, selling food and drink.

Our visit last winter to Japan afforded us the chance to see one of the world’s most famous markets, Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. The oldest fish market in the world, Tsukiji (pronounced “skee-jee”, sort of) has been operating for more than 80 years, and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tokyo. This was our second time visiting Tokyo and Tsukiji, and rather than wandering without any explanations or information, this time we booked a private tour, with Shinji Sakamoto, chef, former seafood buyer, and current tour guide. Shinji and his wife, Yukari Sakamoto, operate the website Yukari has written a book about the food and drink of Tokyo, entitled Food Sake Tokyo, and she and Shinji, in addition to operating food tours, are very current with the Tokyo food scene.

Shinji met us early one morning for our two-hour tour. Now a word about “early” and the Tokyo fish market. A set number of tourists, just 120 per day, are allowed in to watch the famous tuna auction, which is held five days a week. However, no tickets are sold in advance. Instead, you must show up and hope you are one of the 120 allowed in. The auction begins just after 5am, and from everything we read ahead of time, one needs to show up several hours in advance to be guaranteed a spot, between 2 and 3 am, then stand in a freezing cold fish warehouse until the auction begins. During high season, people apparently begin queuing as early as 1am. Frankly, we just didn’t think this was worth it. Yes, amazingly large tunas are auctioned off, but come on, I’m too old to wait in line all night for just about anything, especially a tuna auction.

But back to our tour. Before it began we started with a bowl of ramen at Inoue Ramen, a legendary ramen street stall known by enthusiasts. Because if you’re going to look at food all morning, you should make sure you’re not hungry. It was fantastic. Then we walked around the fish market for two hours, looking at still alive and freshly dead fish of an amazing array of species, checking out unusual vegetables, and watching market workers do their thing. This included slicing wafer-thin pieces of raw tuna, packing fish into icy coolers, cleaning and gutting fish, sawing frozen tuna in half with a band saw, and more. It was a fascinating look at a huge industry. The market handles more than 450 types of seafood, and about 3.6 million pounds a day.

Tsukiji is scheduled to move to a new location in the fall of 2018, although the move has been delayed several times already. At the new location, tourists will not be allowed to freely walk through the market. Although this is very disappointing for us tourists, I do understand, because when we were walking around Tsukiji, we had to be on the lookout for forklifts, hoses, delivery trucks, ice and water, and more.

Shinji was an excellent guide. He explained Tsukiji’s inner workings and we learned a great deal about Japanese cooking techniques and tools. He even emailed us a recipe for dashi that we were interested in a few days after the tour. Japan’s cultures are so different from ours, and it was great to get an insider’s look at a fascinating industry. I’d highly recommend a food tour of any sort with Shinji and/or his wife Yukari.

Shopping for Local Artisan Goods in Madrid

I’m always delighted when I can find an authentic store in another country with items for sale that I would want in my home. I’m not looking for tchotchkes or t-shirt shops. Rather, I want a souvenir that will remind me of our trip, and one that I will still enjoy looking at a year from now, and ten years from now as well. Who am I kidding here? I want bowls. Bowls, bowls, bowls. My family will tell you that I love bowls. They might even say I am obsessed with them, and I can’t deny it. Wherever I am, I am drawn to bowls, of all shapes and sizes.

Thus, when Rick Steves steered us to the Antigua Casa Talavera ceramics shop in Madrid, and I got one look at what we might take home, I was certain I was in the right place. The shop is not easy to find, nor is it open all day and evening like many stores in the US tend to be. When we first found it, it was closed for the afternoon, but once we saw the tiled front and peeked in the window at the hundreds and hundreds (maybe even thousands and thousands) of pottery pieces—many of them bowls—I knew we had to come back.

Antigua Casa Talavera has been in business, in the same location, since 1904. The proprietor is the great-grandson of the founder, and he alone sells the ceramics of local artists. Jose knows the history of each piece he sells too, and let me tell you, there’s lots of history to learn. He told us that he can’t host too many people in his shop at one time, because he is the only employee, and everywhere you turn there are breakable pieces of pottery. There were two other couples in the small narrow store when we were there, and the six of us made it feel crowded.

Jose was delightful, and even though he speaks just a little English, and we speak even less Spanish, we were able to communicate and purchase three items that are now displayed in our home. From start to finish, Jose’s customer service was outstanding. He wrapped our three items for transit home on the airplane incredibly well, and even tied sturdy string around the package to easily carry it. Part of the pleasure of buying an item is also the whole shopping experience, and this shopping experience was indeed outstanding, as are the pottery pieces we purchased. And to top it all off, I bought another bowl to add to my collection.

Anita Won’t Throw Me a Rose This Fight

I played softball as a young girl. And my coach regularly told me to “stop smelling the flowers out there in the outfield and pay attention to the game.” So it should come as little surprise that one of my favorite childhood books is The Story of Ferdinand. Ferdinand is a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in a bullring. I can totally relate.

Thus, when Bob suggested we tour Sevilla’s Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, Spain’s oldest bullring, you know why I was hesitant. I didn’t want to imagine bulls like my sweet Ferdinand being stabbed, or worse, see the gory photos. But in the interest of a happy marriage, I went along and found that I quite enjoyed our tour (sorry Ferdinand). Bull fights take place in Sevilla during the spring, and thankfully we visited in the fall, so we couldn’t go to a fight. Instead we enjoyed a 45-minute guided tour of the beautiful and historic Plaza de toros, which was built over a 100-year period and finished in the late 1800s.

Our tour included a look in the museum, where intricate costumes of famous matadors are on display, along with the heads of several bulls, and quite a few paintings by Spanish artists depicting noble matadors, majestic bulls and frenzied fight scenes. We also stopped in the chapel, where to this day matadors go before each match to pray for the bull. (More likely, they are praying for their own safety, but a Ferdinand fan can dream.) Finally, we stepped into the middle of the 12,000 seat arena, on the dirt bullring floor, to admire the view that matadors and bulls have when they enter. Other than the dirt floor, there’s not much to a bullring. I’m guessing that’s because this sport is all about the matador and the bull. There are several burladeros (wooden half walls) on the outskirts of the ring that one can step behind to avoid a charging bull, which I would totally do. I’d fly a white flag over the burladero to surrender before having to kill the bull too, which is why I am not a matador. The arena really is beautiful though, and it is a fascinating look at a sport incredibly popular in Spain.

Sevilla offers many delights in addition to the Plaza de toros bullring. We spent two entertaining days there, strolling the atmospheric old quarter, visiting the Catedral de Sevilla—Europe’s third largest church, and paying our respects to the Weeping Virgin at the Basílica de la Macarena. Of course, we found time to eat some delectable tapas at a few hidden tapas bars as well. With Rick Steves as our go-pilot (or Rick Steves Snapshot Sevilla anyway), our self-guided tour of Sevilla went off without a hitch. Here are our highlights.

We took Rick’s advice, and saved our walking tour of the Barrio Santa Cruz, also known as the Old Quarter, for the cool, late afternoon. The many tiny alleys and walkways—so tiny that people in buildings on either side of the lanes could reach across from their windows and shake hands—have hidden delights around just about every corner. Whether it’s a secret garden behind an ornate gate, a classical guitarist playing outside a bar, or even a rooftop view of the Catedral de Sevilla lit up at night from a free museum, the Old Quarter is made for wandering. We walked the neighborhood three different times and discovered new things on each occasion.

Another not-to-be-missed sight is the Catedral de Sevilla. Thanks to excellent advice from our man Rick, we bought tickets for the Catedral at another church, and were able to bypass the Catedral’s long ticket line and walk right in to the grand church. The church is impressive and features a high altar, an organ made of more than 7,000 pipes, the tomb of Christopher Columbus, and the 330-foot Giralda Bell Tower, which you can climb to the top of via a series of 35 ramps and 17 steps at the very end.

Perhaps my favorite sight was the Basílica de la Macarenajust under two miles from Sevilla’s city centerhome of the Weeping Virgin of Macarena. During Holy Week, which is the week leading up to Easter, Spaniards flock to Sevilla to see more than 100 religious floats parade through the city. The most popular float is that Virgin Macarena. She is also known as the Weeping Virgin because of the crystal teardrops cascading down her cheeks, and Spaniards see her as a symbol of hope. You can visit her at the Basílica, and also view two of the massive and stunning Holy Week floats on display as well. And in case you’re wondering, the Macarena neighborhood is indeed where the song “La Macarena” comes from. But we won’t hold that against them.

Delicious tapas bars abound in Sevilla. Some spots we discovered by walking down alleys and simply stopping anywhere the locals were crowded in, drinking and eating. Others we found based on recommendations from Rick Steves. All shared the same features, cheap and delicious tapas, along with good beer. We tried hard to fit in with the locals, and if drinking beer with lunch was one way to do so, we blended right in.