Paul's Prague Journal 1997

Continuing Paul's Transfer Journal

Saturday, August 23, 1997 (Continued)

Prague (11751 bytes)Upon arriving in Prague, we checked into the Hotel Inter Continental and met up with Buddy once again. We last saw him Tuesday morning in Bern. Although that had only been the day before yesterday, it seemed like a very long time ago. So much happens on this trip; the days are extremely full.

The rooms at the Inter Continental are, of course, absolutely fabulous. Mine has an incredible view of the river. To a greater degree than any of the other places we've stayed, this resembles an American hotel. The beds have sheets, blankets and spreads, instead of the bottom sheet and comforter to which we have become accustomed. There are RJ-11 phone jacks all over the place, so Alf and I are in computer heaven.

We walked around the main square. There is an old cathedral looming above us that looks dark and threatening from the centuries of accumulated soot. With the coming of evening, the lights in the tower glow eerily. Surely this would be a fine home for an evil prince! px01.jpg (9252 bytes)At one point, as we happened to be standing still, Alf noticed a nearby restaurant. We decided it was dinner time, and we'd give the place a try: the Taverna Toscana. It proved to be a wonderful choice! The individual pizzas were terrific, everything else looked good, too, and our waiter was perfect.

After dinner, we explored a number of the side streets off the square. Several of us took advantage of a cash machine that liked American back cards. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped for some red wine at a sidewalk cafe. The prices here are excellent, by the way! Back at the hotel, we bumped into Buddy, who had apparently been out scouting sites for tourism. We chatted briefly and then all headed for our rooms.

Tomorrow will be my last real morning here, since Monday will be a very early start, so I decided to order room service for breakfast. Unfortunately, there were no cold fish on the room service menu, but I made do with the choices offered.

Sunday, August 24, 1997

I probably should have chosen a different time for room service. At midnight, 8:30 seemed like a good time to have breakfast ... but then I wound up not going to bed until after 1:30, and the rooster alarm at 8:15 was a little earlier than I would have liked. This was especially true since we were expecting to get up very early tomorrow for one balloon trip over Prague before airport (and flight home) time. It would have been good to build up a little bit of a sleep reservoir. Oh well.

Despite its early arrival, breakfast was quite good: scrambled eggs and ham, with coffee and tomato juice. The plate was garnished with a pickle, which I found to be a new concept in breakfasting, but it was quite tasty and practically made up for the absence of fish.

Around 10:30 I went downstairs to meet Ken and Sandra. Buddy had arranged for us to have a walking tour of the city. Alf and Jean had originally planned to join us, but they decided to take a little time off for rest, reading and online noodling around. They've been here before, and they would be staying for several days after we left; this was our only chance!

qx01.jpg (9818 bytes)Our local guide was Zdenska Zakravska. I suspect there's a more American way to spell her name, which might make it a little more pronounceable, but in the interests of authenticity we'll stick with that. In any event, she proved to be extremely knowledgeable about the city and its history. We learned a great deal about the past thousand years, with interesting tales of the Thirty Years' War and the various architectural patterns that held sway in the city over the centuries.

We spent quite a bit of time exploring the Jewish section of the city, which was immediately adjacent to our hotel. Once a thriving community, it was now substantially reduced in population. Its history went way back, though, and the synagogues were replete with ancient artifacts and steeped in tradition. The Jewish cemetery was particularly fascinating: It was extremely old, and because of the limited space, its residents were stacked up about 12 deep. As additional layers of dirt were added, many of the stones were lifted up to the new ground level, where they were joined by the new ones, so the density of the markers was like nothing I'd ever seen.

We left the Jewish quarter and headed to the Old Town Square. As in Bern, there was a wonderful old clock tower, and we were able to climb up inside it. We arrived just before noon, so we were able to experience the most elaborate striking sequence. Doors opened and saints paraded past the open windows. Most impressive were the figures on the outside. My favorite was a grinning skeleton that shook its keys at us with diabolical glee.

Our ascent of the tower was accompished by means of an inclined walkway that circled the inside walls of the tower: No stairs! In the center, there was nothing but air reaching down to the ground 45 meters below. That might not sound like a great height, but if you have any trace of acrophobia, it will do quite well, thank you. At the top of the tower, there was an observation area that circled the perimeter of the structure. We walked around, just above rooftop level, and were treated to expansive views of the entire city. Our guide pointed out the building where Smetana once had his music school. This set the haunting strains of "The Moldau" sweeping deliciously through my brain. In a strange juxtaposition, we also heard the sounds of a street band in the square playing a klezmer version of the Notre Dame Fight Song.

We crossed the Charles Bridge and began exploring the old city on the other side of the river, but we were really running short on time: We had planned to meet Alf and Jean for lunch, and it was already past time for us to be back. We asked out guide to aim us back toward the hotel. By the time we got back, we were very late, and Alf and Jean had already gone out for lunch. We were getting pretty hungry at this point, too, so we left messages for Alf and Jean and headed back to the Old Square and its many restaurants.

We picked one of the restaurants that had a large number of tables outside, in the square. There are so many people strolling around through Prague, it's always a treat to watch the show passing by. We also thought that we might be able to see Alf and Jean wandering around, thus saving ourselves a trip back to the Inter Continental to rendezvous with them.

We ordered some white wine and entrusted out lunch selections to the waiter, who seemed to know what he was doing. Ken and I went with his most enthusiastic recommendation: the "Needle," whatever that was, and Sandra opted for something fishy. When our meals arrived, it turned out the "Needle" was a skewer laden with interesting chunks of meat and onions and peppers. Quite delightful!

On the way back to the hotel, we met up with Alf and Jean, who were headed out for a bit of shopping. Alf's patience with this process didn't hold up for too long, and he headed back to the hotel after a while, but the remaining four of us explored many side streets in search of trinkets and other wondrous discoveries.

Eventually, the surfeit of Bohemian crystal got to be too much for Ken and me, so we headed off in search of a beer. We wandered into a small bar that seemed to be some kind of artists' hangout: Young and artistic-looking people were sitting in corners, leaning against the walls and writing pages and pages into their notebooks. Great novels and plays were no doubt being hatched in our presence!

Upon scanning the bar's bottled offerings, Ken noticed a green bottle on a high shelf: absinthe! We decided we'd each try a shot. Ken thought that absinthe was consumed by slamming down a shot, as with tequila or some such thing; I had no idea. We were about to learn the truth.

The girl behind the bar plainly thought we were nuts in our choice of beverage, but she measured shots for us and poured them each into the bottom of short glasses.
She then gave us each a packet of sugar and a small spoon. We were quite obviously confused as to what we were supposed to do with the spread set out before us, but an amused local fellow seated at the bar next to us explained the process to us through gestures: A small amount of sugar is placed in the spoon and doused with a bit of the absinthe; the remainder of the sugar gets sprinkled into the glass. Then, as with the liquefaction of a hit of smack, a match is wafted under the bowl of the spoon. The absinthe and sugar combination ignites with a gentle blue glow, and the fiery concoction is poured into the glass. A couple swirls of the spoon mix the remaining sugar in with the liquor. At this point, the whole glass is aflame, bathed in a demonic blue glow. A flash of breath extinguishes the blaze, and the absinthe gets tossed back in a swift gulp. Look out stomach, here it comes!

This does pack quite a wallop! There is still some heat riding along with the liquid, and the very high alcohol content of the absinthe results in a volatility that rises up through the sinuses as the green stuff makes its quick trip through the mouth. There is a faint taste of anise mixed with sugar, but mainly there is a strong jolt and a sensation that ... well, you really have to be there. This was truly a new experience.

We went out to round up Sandra: She wouldn't want to miss this! I ran into her outside. She took one look at my pinprick pupils and flushed face and knew that something was up. Ken and I beckoned her in, so that she too could sup from the forbidden chalice of green. Ken and I were now pros at this, and with a flair of experience, we showed her the preparation techniques associated with the Ritual of Absinthe. Upon reaching the crucial moment and crossing the threshold of flames, her socks were pretty well knocked off, too.

By now, it was time to get back to the hotel. The new group of balloonists for the Prague portion of the trip was arriving, and there was to be a welcoming dinner at the top of the Inter Continental at 7:30. We zipped on back and retreated to our respective rooms for showers and the like.

We met on the terrace atop the hotel for cocktails. Alf suggested that we try Kir Royales, and so we did. It was an absolutely beautiful evening, and the panoramic views of Prague from the terrace were spectacular. We decided to follow up the Kirs with some cassis-less champagne, and we mingled with some of the new Bombard arrivals as we waited for the dinner bell.

Once again, as so many days ago back in Bern, Buddy hosted a welcoming dinner for the ballooning group. The five of us were old-timers now, joined by two more balloonsfull of new adventurers. As in Bern, about half of the people had been with Buddy before; the rest were first-time adventurers.

The dinner, the last of the trip for Ken, Sandra and me, was excellent as always. We had a small appetizer of thinly sliced turkey, followed by proscuitto and melon. There was then a choice of veal or fish or chicken. We have become so spoiled by now that it simply tastes the way we've come to expect all food to taste.

There were plans for an early balloon call tomorrow morning, so we all trickled down to our rooms by 10:00 or so. Ken and Sandra and I had to pack: In the morning we would balloon then head straight for the airport, for our 11:25 flight. It would be a very long day for us, but there would be no time to linger around the hotel between flights! I packed my bags, laid out my clothes for the morning flight, and went to bed in Prague for the last time.

Monday, August 25, 1997

A little after 5:00 I was awakened by a ring. I picked up the phone and said "Hello" several times to the dial tone before I realized that the ring must have come from the door. Room service! Buddy had taken "coffee or tea" breakfast orders the night before, and it appeared that he had followed through. For me, the choice was coffee.

We had been looking forward to the opportunity to take off from the Old Town Square in Prague. How spectacular that would be! If we did it, we needed to get started early: The Square was a busy place, and it would be crowded before 7:30. As of last night, it was unclear whether we'd be able to launch from that location, though: The winds looked like they'd be very light. Unlike most times, when too-strong winds can be a problem, taking off from the center of the city requires that there be a certain amount of wind. If there isn't, we wouldn't travel far enough to get out of the city we wouldn't be able to reach a good landing site.

When Buddy called at 5:30, though, his news was a bit different. While there might be enough wind, it was aiming in the wrong direction: Straight toward the airport. While this would have worked well for Ken and Sandra and me, since we could touch down right next to our plane, the civil aviation authorities had some peculiar notions about keeping their airspace free of balloons. I suppose getting sucked into a Pratt & Whitney wouldn't be all that much fun, actually.

So instead of the Town Square, we headed out to the country, toward some very flat lands outside Prague. Now we had THREE balloons: Corkscrew Balloon I plus two of Buddy's Tulip and Butterfly numbers. Three trucks, three baskets, three Previas. It was good to see the various members of the crew again, along with a few extras.

The test balloon went absolutely straight up, and I wondered how we could fly with no wind at all. Up in the air, then back down to our takeoff site? That would surely make for an easy day for the chase crew. The balloon inflation process seemed to start more slowly than usual. Was this a stall, while we waited for some hint of wind? We passed the time talking and leaning against the vehicles. Now, at the beginning of the Prague series of flights, with the entire batch of Swiss sorties behind us, we felt like veterans.

Eventually we got launched, and to my surprise we headed off at a pretty good clip. I guess I still haven't mastered how to read the test balloons. We drifted over a freeway and across the flat Czech countryside. It was a beautiful last flight, although without the spectacular aspects of many Swiss trips. Still, there was a splended quiet about it all, and we passed over quite a bit of wildlife. We saw several swans in a lake, a couple of deer, a large family of partridges, and even a couple of fish that jumped out of the water to get a better look at us. We dropped down and passed about an inch over the lake, and we saw our balloon's reflection in the water just below us. Later, as we flew low over a back yard, a couple of cats went nuts from the sound of the burners, and they ran back and forth excitedly. This will be something for them to tell their grandkittens about!

Eventually, it was time for our last landing. We made this one a little difficult for the crew. The wind WAS a bit stronger than I'd suspected, and when we came down just beyond a road, we kept drifting deeper into the chosen landing field. Our chase crew was there to reel us in, but Michael wanted them to pull us back, in the air, so that we'd land closer to the road where the truck and trailer waited. Pulling the balloon against the wind is not an easy chore, and they struggled hard to get us to the right place. As always, though, they succeeded brilliantly.

Sandra, Ken and I had to catch our flight, so we hopped in the Previa and scooted back to the Inter Continental. There, our bags were loaded into taxis and we were on our way. The cabs were charged to Buddy's room, so we didn't have to worry about having enough Czech currency left to pay for them. Again, as through our entire trip, everything was painlessly attended to.

At the airport we got our boarding passes, and I learned for the first time that we'd be going to Denmark! I had known that Flight 71 had a stop between Prague and New York, but I had never checked to see where that stop would be. Copenhagen! How delightful. Of course, we would only be there for about an hour, but still .... The first leg of our flight was actually quite empty, but the attendants told us that it would get crowded in Denmark.

When we arrived in Copenhagen, everyone had to leave the plane and remove all carry-on luggage. Drat! After our hard-earned homesteading of precious overhead space, we'd have to do it all again, with a full planeload of travelers.

We headed for a little airport bar and ordered a couple of hefty Carlsbergs and a cappucino. Having no Danish kroner, I tried to pay with Czech currency. No go. But I now had in my pockets some good old American dollars, and they were happily accepted in great quantity. A few quick gulps and it was time to reboard.

On this flight I was in seat 40B, just as on the 767 ER that I rode on the way over. It was a good seat, on the aisle with just one seat between me and the window. Coming over, I sat next to a young woman from Lausanne who had been visiting Cleveland on business. Now, heading back, I chatted with Rikke, a Danish nurse who was going to spend a few weeks in the United States visiting some friends in Colorado and Wisconsin. Ken and Sandra were across the plane and forward, in 32F and 32G.

The flight was uneventful. I slept through parts of "Father's Day," and I mindlessly absorbed too much of "Gone Fishin'." I watched "The Airplane Channel" and tracked our progress across the North Atlantic. Because it was daylight and the movies were being shown, the window shades were pulled down most of the time. At one point, though, I caught a beautiful glimpse of Greenland. We had expected to follow a course that would keep us south of the huge island, so this was a pleasant surprise.

In New York, we drifted in over Queens, within a few blocks of the building where I had lived until my move to Washington a couple of years ago. It was, in fact, the first time I'd been back in the city since I left. I realized once again how little I missed it! After landing, we went through a perfunctory customs process and reloaded our luggage for our respective flights to our respective homes. I bid farewell to Ken and Sandra, and I headed for my gate alone.

My flight was on a battered old 757. I felt pretty tired and worn out by the time I boarded, and I decided it was time to remove the contact lenses. The movie was "Liar, Liar," which was probably better than the ones I'd already suffered through, but I slept through the entire thing. It was a long flight, coming at the end of a very long day.

We landed just before 9:00 pm at Sea-Tac. 5:00 am in Prague ... exactly 24 hours after I'd gotten up a very long day ago, and it was morning again in the Czech Republic. In fact, as it turned out, just at that moment back in Prague, Alf was getting a wake-up call from Buddy. I wish I could still be over there.

Enjoy Prague and Salzburg, Corkscrew Ballooners!

Next: Alf's Impromptu Prague Journal picks up coverage beginning August 25.

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