Author Archives: NamWrites

Up Next: Greece, Israel, Poland

I probably should finish writing about our Thanksgiving trip to Central Europe, because it’s now six months later, and we’re about to embark on another adventure. What can I say? I get lazy sometimes.

This trip is motivated by an occasion — namely, my sister-in-law’s wedding in Israel. The original plan was to fly from D.C. to Athens, spend a couple of days in Athens, hop over to Israel for a couple of days, and then fly home. Then, we were invited on a trip to Krakow to tour the city and visit a new art exhibit. How does one say no to that?

What’s the plan and how did we do it?

D.C. – Athens

There are no direct flights from Washington D.C. to Athens, and I desperately wanted to fly business class. The pickings were slim but after obsessively checking United several times a day, I finally found two seats on Lufthansa from D.C. – Munich – Athens for 70,000 miles each. I scraped together every last Chase point and we were off!

In Athens, we will be staying five nights at the only Hilton in the city for 200,000 points. Thanks to my work travel and credit card sign-ups, this was an easy decision. Hopefully, my diamond status will come in handy.

While I would love to visit Greek islands one day, I’m too old for hopping to a new place each day. I enjoy settling into a hotel and having a base. Hopefully, we’ll take a day trip or two to some of the closer islands, like Hydra.

Athens – Tel Aviv

Since this is a short two-hour flight, we purchased these tickets with cash on El Al for $119 each.

Tel Aviv – Krakow – D.C.

I had originally booked us premium economy on Air France from Tel Aviv – Paris – D.C., but redeposited those miles for a mere 40 euros when the Poland trip came up. We will be in Krakow for three to four days (I leave a day earlier than M), following a packed itinerary of Jewish history, tours of concentration camps, and other important sites.

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Prague Part 6: Review – Intercontinental Prague

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever
Prague Part 2: Prague…My Favorite European City
Prague Part 3: Jewish History in Prague
Prague Part 4: Prague Castle
Prague Part 5: Photography in Prague

I chose the Intercontinental for two reasons 1) I had a free night on the verge of expiration and 2) location.

This hotel was more of a mixed bag, but overall, the location made it the best option for us.

The Positives:

  • Location: One of the most important items on our Prague to-do list was the Jewish sites. Located in the heart of the Jewish quarter and literally a 30 second walk to the historic Alt-Neu Synagogue, the Intercontinental was the ideal place for us.
  • Nice rooms: While on the small side, the rooms felt new and modern, and we even had a view of the Vlata river. Notably, the shower was freaking amazing.
  • Massage: Since I’m not the spring chicken I used to be, hours of walking and standing in museums does a number on my back. I splurged on a deep-tissue massage our last night, and it was exactly what this old lady needed.

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The Negatives:

  • Wifi: The wifi sucked. Period. Wildly schizophrenic, there were times when we simply couldn’t connect at all, and times when we …. Yeah, this was a bummer.
  • No status: IHG has some amazing aspects to its program (free hotel night anywhere in the world) and some not so amazing things, namely, difficulty of attaining meaningful elite status. That meant no lounge access, no free breakfast, no upgrade.
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Prague 5: Photography in Prague

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever
Prague Part 2: Prague…My Favorite European City
Prague Part 3: Jewish History in Prague
Prague Part 4: Prague Castle

If you’re into photography, Prague is the city for you. It is breathtakingly beautiful. And we went to Prague in December…when I nearly lost my fingers to the freezing cold. I can only imagine how wonderful Prague is in the comfort of spring or summer.

I googled “photography and Prague,” and found countless maps and suggestions. Here are some of my favorite spots.

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  1. Old Town Square
  2. St. Charles Bridge tower – Old Town side
  3. St. Charles Bridge – Mala Strana
  4. Santa Maria Boat Wharf
  5. Letensky Profil
  6. Walk down from Strahov Monastery
  7. Lennon Wall

Old Town Square: This is an obvious spot and full of charm. Sadly, the Old Town Tower was under construction when we were there, and I missed out of the aerial views I so desperately wanted. I made it up with bubble pictures.

***IMG_4955**IMG_5018**IMG_4896**IMG_5008St. Charles Bridge tower – Old Town side: There are so many great places to view St. Charles Bridge and they each offer something different. Even on a rainy day, it’s worth a climb up the bridge tower to look down on the bridge and the city from above.

***IMG_5156***IMG_5166***IMG_5169**IMG_5172**IMG_5189St. Charles Bridge – Mala Strana side: Different areas offer different vantage points of Prague’s most famous bridge. If you cross St. Charles Bridge and walk underneath it on the Mala Strana side, you can catch some lovely views.

***IMG_6967**IMG_7014**IMG_7043**IMG_5433Santa Maria Boat Wharf: Just under Manes Bridge, you can steal some beautiful views of St. Charles Bridge – especially at night.

***IMG_5475***IMG_5482***IMG_5483Letensky Profil: This is my favorite place in Prague. If you cross over Svatopluk Cech Bridge and hike up to the top of the park, you’ll be in the perfect place to see all of Prague’s bridges. Feast your eyes on this:

***IMG_6418***IMG_6430***IMG_6441***IMG_7155***IMG_7157***IMG_7170Walk down from Strahov Monastery: Strahov Monastery is situated on a hill, and the walk down offer beautiful views of Prague.

***IMG_6812***IMG_6815**IMG_6809**IMG_6832Lennon Wall: This is more of a curiosity than anything else. But it’s a fun curiosity.

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Prague Part 4: Prague Castle

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever
Prague Part 2: Prague…My Favorite European City
Prague Part 3: Jewish History in Prague

Perched high on a hill, Prague Castle is strategically placed and hard to miss. According to the castle’s website, it was likely founded in 880 and has been an important symbol of Czech nationality for over 1,000 years.

There are all sorts of strategies for visiting Prague Castle — Rick Steves provides a couple to avoid getting caught in the tourist throngs. We started early in the morning and walked from our hotel. It is mostly uphill, but you will get some beautiful views as you go.

We started with the famous and impressive St. Vitus Cathedral. Do not harbor any illusions that you will have this stunning gothic structure to yourself.

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Next, we headed to the Old Royal Palace.

**IMG_6596**IMG_6602The palace offers a beautiful view of Prague.

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Finally, we made our way to the Golden Lane, where defenders of the castle, servants, or important people lived. As you wander the multi-colored lane, you can pop into tiny houses (make sure to duck!) and read about the people who used to live here.

**IMG_6636**IMG_6668**IMG_6685*IMG_6637From 1916 to 1917, No. 22 was occupied by Franz Kafka.

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No. 14 is called the “Little House of the Psychic Matylda Prusova.” The plaque on the door tells the sad tale of how she waited for her son to return from the front lines during the First World War. Every day, she set the table and prepared his bed, but he never returned.

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After two and half hours at the castle, we left the castle grounds and continued south to Strahov Monastery. I desperately wanted to photograph the monastery’s elaborate library, but we forgot to check the monastery’s hours. Just our luck, we showed up just as the library closed for lunch.

Apparently, people need to eat.

Instead, I settled for some lovely photos of the outside buildings, and descended to Mala Strava with beautiful views in front of us and behind us.

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Prague Part 3: Jewish History in Prague

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever
Prague Part 2: Prague…My Favorite European City

Unlike many European cities that were bombed to a pulp during World War II, Prague is nearly intact. It’s a walking, living history book. We booked a three hour tour with Aharon Hribek, who came highly recommended by a friend. We had a lot to cover, and three hours was not enough. So consider that your warning…this will be a very long post.

The first stop was the Altneushcul, or the Old New Synagogue. M and I had already visited the synagogue for Saturday services, but today we got an expert’s guidance.

IMG_5574The synagogue was built in stages. The oldest part, the main sanctuary, dates back to 1270. As the synagogue expanded, adding an upper level and a women’s section, a plaque was added to commemorate each new section.

IMG_5551The inside is relatively small, and not at all ostentatious like some of the other synagogues we saw later, but hauntingly beautiful in its own way.

IMG_5595IMG_5607IMG_5623IMG_5640A artist friend of M’s designed many of the ritual coverings in the main sanctuary, like the navy covering on the bimah and the maroon covering on the Torah ark.

IMG_5644IMG_5653IMG_5659IMG_5663This seat bears the name the Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the revered rabbi known as the Maharal, who served as a rabbi in Prague during the 16th century. Our guide informed us that this may be the place where the Maharal sat, but the wood is not old enough to be the original seat.

IMG_5667A replica of the the Jews’ historic flag hangs from the ceiling. In 1357, Charles IV allowed the Jews of Prague to have their own city flag.

IMG_5671IMG_6309Next, we visited the Pinkas Synagogue, a gothic synagogue built in 1535. In 1955, it was turned into a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia. The first floor contains the names of each victim, and the second floor contains a heart-rending exhibit of drawings made by Jewish children kept in the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp.

IMG_5676IMG_5685IMG_5693IMG_5696IMG_5699IMG_5719IMG_5740After Pinkas, we walked through the old Jewish cemetery, while out guide pointed out some of the more famous and interesting gravestones. Many of the stones are faded and crooked, victims of nature and time. Cemeteries are supposed to be depressing places, but I took some odd comfort in the preservation of history. Each stone, each name is a story that lives on as thousands of people come from all over the world to hear their tales.

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The most famous gravestone in the yard – it belongs to the Maharal

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The oldest identifiable gravestone in the cemetery belongs to Avigdor Kara who died in 1439. UPDATE: A kind reader has informed me that the gravestone in the cemetery is a replica. The original can be found in the Maisel Synagogue entrance hall.

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Hendl Basevi was the wife of a wealthy businessman and mayor of the Jewish Town.

**IMG_5935**IMG_5899**IMG_5843**IMG_5791**IMG_5814**IMG_5831**IMG_5834By the time we finished at the Jewish cemetery, we were running short on time. We made two quick visits to the Klausen Synagogue and the Chevra Kadisha – the small building next to the cemetery where Jews would prepare their dead for burial. Then, M and I checked out the Maisel Synagogue, the elaborate Spanish Synagogue, and the modern Jewish cemetery on our own.

Built in 1694 in early Baroque style, the Klausen Synagogue is the largest in Prague.

IMG_6096IMG_6103IMG_6108IMG_6134The Maisel Synagogue was originally built in 1592 by Mordecai Maisel, the mayor of Prague’s Jewish town. It was burnt down in 1689 and rebuilt several times. Today, it hosts an exhibit on historical Jewish life in Bohemia.

IMG_6267IMG_6290IMG_6283The Spanish Synagogue is a sight to behold. Built in 1868 for the Reform congregation (notice the organ on the second floor which would never appear in an Orthodox synagogue), it was called the Spanish Synagogue because its design was influence by Moorish architecture.

IMG_7091IMG_7098IMG_7107IMG_7109The modern Jewish cemetery is not a typical stop on the tourist route in Prague. Most tourists stick to the historical sites in the center of Old Town. Founded in 1890, the modern cemetery is in use today and a 20 minute subway ride from the center of town. M connected with a friend of a friend who publishes a Jewish newsletter on site and offered to show us around.

IMG_6193IMG_6210IMG_6212IMG_6224IMG_6236Yes, that is the Franz Kafka.

IMG_6242IMG_6251These plaques memorialize several of the musical and visual artists who were held in the Terezin concentration camp and perished in the Holocaust. Terezin was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool to convince the Red Cross that their camps were humane and a cultural nirvana. They exploited the Jewish artists to churn out Nazi propaganda, but many of them secretly depicted the cruel reality of the camps through their art.

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Prague Part 2: Prague… My Favorite European City

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever

If you have not been to Prague, go now. Do not pass go; do not collect $200; go to Prague.

Prague is officially my favorite European city. No, it’s not one of Europe’s massive metropolises. It’s not Paris or London or Rome. But it is beautiful, and its size and low-cost makes it imminently accessible. I fell in love with Prague instantly – as we walked from the train station to our hotel and cursed ourselves for not realizing cobble stone sidewalks and wheeled suitcase do not mix.

Walking through Prague’s Old Town feels like being transported back in time.

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View of Old Town from the Charles Bridge tower

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A beautiful stone street in Mala Strana

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Bubbles in the Old Town Square

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View of Mala Strana and Prague’s many bridges

Our three and a half days in Prague felt insufficient. I could have easily spent more time there. Even in the freezing cold, I loved wandering through the neighborhoods, exploring random nooks and crannies, soaking up the charm, the colors… oh, I’m getting nostalgic.

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The Lennon Wall in Mala Strava

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The Prague astronomical clock in Old Town

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A trolley zooming past on Svatopluk Čech Bridge

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Bubble in the Old Town Square (I love photographing bubbles)

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More bubbles!

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Leafy view overlooking Mala Strava

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A beautiful reflection in Old Town

Prague is also rich in Jewish history, a stunning feat compared to nearby countries who saw historic Jewish communities laid to waste during World War II. The Altneuschul (the Old New Synagogue), for example, is the oldest active synagogue in Europe! In addition to the Jewish tour we lined up, M and I had the chance to attend services at the Altneuschul on Saturday morning, and M read from the Torah during services. It was a special experience to participate in the same traditions that have linked Jewish generations on the very same spot in the very same building since 1270.

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The famous Old New Synagogue

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The old Jewish cemetery in Prague dating back hundreds of centuries

I will post in-depth posts on each of these places, but wanted to share my love of Prague. Even in the freezing cold and dreary rain could not the dampen my  love for this city. So if you are thinking about going to Prague, go now. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Just go.

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Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever

In America, where high speed rail is more of a pipe dream than anything else, I’m used to people gushing over the European rail system. And up until now, I had no complaints. I’ve enjoyed the train from Paris to Brussels, through Holland, and through Spain. But the train ride from Berlin to Prague was a rude awakening.

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The standard comfortable train car has two rows of two seats each on either side of the train with an aisle down the middle. Comfort level may range from how cushy the seats are to how much legroom you have, but at a minimum, you only have one person next to you. The Berlin-Prague train featured mini compartments with SIX seats jammed together, with three seats facing the other three. Leg room was non-existent.

Oh my God. As soon as I saw our seats, my heart sank. I had high hopes for sleeping/doing work on the four and a half hour ride. Instead, we spent the ride smushed together with four strangers, thinking: Are we there yet? Are we there yet? ARE WE THERE YET?

Pictures from Seat 61

I blame myself for not researching the train ride more, though it never even occurred to me that any long-distance European train would be anything other than the standard two-by-two layout. Had I known what we were dealing with, I would have happily paid extra for first class seats and saved ourselves the four-and-a-half hours in train hell.

The moral of this story: Always check what kind of train you are getting.

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Berlin Part 8: Review – Hilton Berlin

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter
Berlin Part 6: Museum Island
Berlin Part 7: View From Above

I picked the Hilton Berlin for two reasons: 1) Location and 2) my Hilton diamond status.

The Positives:

  • Location: Centrally located in Mitte, we were walking distance to most major sites. Berlin is huge, but our location just south of Unter den Linden meant we could easily get to Potsdammer Platz, Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, the Jewish Quarter, the Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie, etc. all under 30 minutes. There is also a subway stop right at the corner.
  • Pretty Hotel: It’s a pretty hotel with nicely appointed rooms and modern interiors.

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  • The lounge/breakfast: As a Diamond member, we had access to the Lounge which provided breakfast, snacks, drinks, and evening appetizers. We also were able to get breakfast in the main dining room (more tourists, but much bigger spread). Most importantly, I had ongoing access to free diet cokes throughout our stay.

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  • Price: Berlin in general is fairly cheap. I booked five nights for 139,000 points in the off-season. That comes out to approximately 28,000 points a night for hotel in the middle of a major European city!
  • Wifi: Wifi worked well in the room (especially compared to our next hotel).

The Negatives:

  • Upgrade: As a diamond member, I have received some substantial upgrades in the past (I’m still dreaming about the suite in Barcelona). I pointed out that there were plenty of suites available in the hotel, but they argued that someone could still book those rooms over the course of our five night stay. They “upgraded” us to a room with a view of the Dom across the street. The room itself was fine, but the upgrade was disappointing.

As you can see, I was pretty happy with our stay at Hilton Berlin.

 

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Berlin Part 7: View From Above

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter
Berlin Part 6: Museum Island

After Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag is one of the most famous buildings in Berlin. It is also a symbol of Berlin as a city: The modern mixing with the old, one foot in the future and one foot into its tumultuous past.

The Reichstag was badly burned in 1933, and left to die on the ash heap of history during Communist control of East Berlin. With the reunification of Berlin, architect Norman Foster designed a gleaming domed rooftop for the home of the German government.

Tours of the dome are free, but require booking in advance online. We planned for an early morning visit, and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of blue sky that morning.

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Berlin Part 6: Museum Island

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter

While M museum hopped, managing to hit all five museums on Museum Island in two days, I wandered and took photos. I joined M for a trip to the top of Dom Berlin and found a great place to nap in the Bode Museum – but that’s about as much as my patience could stand.  Needless to say, M had a great time on the inside, and I had a great time on the outside.

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The Dom Cathedral reflected in a puddle.

***IMG_3576The Dom Cathedral is certainly impressive.

**IMG_3615**IMG_3623**IMG_3636And the views of Berlin are awesome!

**IMG_3722**IMG_3731**IMG_3763**IMG_3764**IMG_3777**IMG_3833**IMG_3883**IMG_3972*IMG_3818***IMG_3964I stepped inside the Bode to meet up with M. The lobby is very beautiful. And the beanbags in the children’s room is extremely comfortable!

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