Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Recovering while Discovering Prague

Recovering while Discovering Prague

If you read the previous post (New Year's Nightmare in Prague), you already know that Devon was hospitalized practically upon setting foot in Prague and remained there for almost the entirety for our trip. Bottom line: Devon is going to be just fine AND we still got 2.5 really awesome days in this beautiful city.

The Winter Holidays in Prague: 
One of the best parts about Prague is that it is a city that is exceptionally fun in the winter months. As previously mentioned, prior to the hospital, we attended a beautiful string quartet holiday concert at the beautiful Mirror Chapel and strolled around the Old Town together. There are probably at least half a dozen holiday-themed concerts daily at a very affordable price. Because we arrived the day after Christmas, we were expected all of the festivities to be closing. We were quite wrong!

Holiday markets are everywhere! There were a few around Old Town (Stare Mesto), one in Wenceslas Square, one outside the castle in Mala Strana, and one within the palace courtyard. There are plenty of goods being sold, delicious mulled wine, desserts, and sausage. Everything is lit up in the squares, including a colossal tree!

Because we were unsure of Devon's condition when we re-booked our return flight, we were stuck in Prague through New Year's because all flights were full. But after all the bad, our luck was beginning to turn. On the evening of Devon's release, we spent New Year's Eve watching fireworks across the city from our window in a quiet residential neighborhood.

When we checked into our hotel in Stare Mesto the next day, the concierge let us know that New Year's Day is a big event in Prague and that there would be a fireworks show over the water just minutes from where we were staying. 

Devon was feeling pretty excellent by the time the celebration started, so we made the short walk to Vltava Riverfront and watched some epic fireworks. For all the trauma we both went through, we suddenly felt incredibly immersed and connected to the Czech community.

What to Eat?
After the show, Devon was feeling up for some food. But in a city full of pork, duck, and sausage, we were very wary about what to put into his body. What we both discovered in Prague is that we really are not fans of traditional Czech cuisine...well, maybe Devon would be, if he could have eaten it this time. Goulash and street meat are just not for Lenni. 

But what we did find is that there is quite a bit of Italian food in Prague, and Devon needed some plain pasta, soup, and bread! 

This actually killed two birds with one stone, because many of these Italian restaurants carried gluten-free pasta and dough to meet Lenni's digestive issues, as well!

Find a Go-To Spot:

Every hotel we stayed at offered a complimentary breakfast, which by the bank sounds great! But Czech breakfast culture is a bit heartier than what we are used to. As pictured above, savory meats and cheeses are the primary options, usually followed by bread, an assortment of fruit, and hard-boiled eggs. Devon was content with the bread in his condition, but Lenni is a scrambled egg kinda gal and couldn't get past the brie and prosciutto for more than one morning. 

We ended up finding a little bit of Paris in Prague at Au Gourmand, a french style cafe with delicious caramel lattes, omelets, and pancakes. Devon and I were able to fill up just by splitting a plate. 

We liked this place so much that we went here three times in as many days for breakfast and coffee. We started to feel like we had a little place in Prague that felt like our own! We can imagine returning in many years to this same spot and feeling nostalgic about our experiences in this city.

Free Things to Do:

As previously mentioned, a Free Discover Prague Royal Walk Tour is entirely worth it. It will help acquaint you with the city layout and history. This tour was the only reason Lenni learned how to navigate the city entirely on her own with no wi-fi.

The astronomical clock is one of the most popular sites in the city. Every hour on the hour thousands gather to hear it's toll and watch the statue figures of Apostles and others move about the clock. It isn't really worth braving the intense crowds for this, but at any other time of day, check out this impressive operating medieval clock. It is truly a stunning work of art...and still functional!

On our first trip over the bridge, we headed to the John Lennon Wall, just down the stairs to the left once you get to the Mala Strana side. People come to spray paint colorful words and designs inspired by John Lennon's "Imagine" mentality. The wall changes daily as spray-painters create new art using this as a canvas.

Just around the corner from here is the John Lennon pub. We didn't check it out, but it's pretty neat from the outside.

There are a number of churches you can enter. Stop in to rest your legs and admire the beautiful chandelier at St. Nicholas Church by the Astronomical clock. 

Check out the Thief's Arm at the Baroque style church of St. James the Greater...

Oh, what was that? You didn't know that there is a church in Prague with a mummified human forearm and hand dangling from the ceiling?

The legend goes that a thief broke into the church and was stealing something from one of the statues. The statue came to life and gripped his hand until morning with the priests arrived. They could not release the statues clutch, so they called the butcher...

The human arm hangs as a reminder of what happens when you steal from the house of God.

Peruse the open markets and small shops. You don't need to make a purchase to admire the unique and weird craftsmanship!

Traditional Tourist Activities:
Our favorite thing to do in Prague is stare up at the incredible gothic and baroque architecture blended beautifully together into the skyline of this city. But when Devon was feeling well enough, we did jump on the tourist bandwagon.

We made it to The Jewish Museum for a moving exhibit about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis' incredible work in bringing art classes to children at a concentration camp during her own relocation to Terezin. Over 4,000 hand drawn pieces of art by children survived in a suitcase that was discovered after her own extermination.

The permanent exhibition displays the handwritten names of all of the Jewish Czech victims of the Holocaust across the building walls. 

If you continue around the property, you will walk through the Old Cemetary. This historical monument is the resting place of locals from the Jewish community dating back to the 1400s. Due to religious burial beliefs and property allowance issues, this cemetery expanded from the ground up with as many as 12 graves on top of one another. It is a fascinating sight.

We made our way across the Charles Bridge for a second time in two days. Everyone should cross the bridge once to see the statues, but crowding is an issue and we suggest that those making multiple trips over the water take the other bridge just a few blocks down in Old Town. It actually gives an equally beautiful view of the Charles Bridge.

On our second trip into Mala Strana, we headed for the castle. Get your quads ready for a serious uphill climb. And in the case of rain (or snow, like today!) wear shoes with traction.

When you reach the top of the stairs, TURN AROUND for the most beautiful view of the city. You will be substantially elevated over the buildings that once seemed to tower over the rest of Prague.

As you enter the square at the top of the hill, look to your right. There should be two military guards at their posts just outside the castle gates. This is the point through which you will exit should you choose to visit the castle.

Keep in mind that the "Castle" does not refer to one building; it is more like a fortress of sorts. Once you pass through security, you will enter an archway. On the other side of the archway, you might see an incredibly long line at an information booth. This is a ticket booth. DO NOT GO HERE IF THERE IS A LONG LINE!!!

Walk through a second archway and take a left around the Cathedral. Keep walking until you hit a fork. You will see a ticket sign that points to the left for "Golden Lane." Follow the sign until you reach what will look like a small food shop. BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE!!! There will be maybe half a dozen people in this line :-)

We purchased Circuit B, which gave us access to four of the eight sites on the Palace Grounds. Golden Lane, named for its neighborhood of goldsmiths, is an adorable walk back in time. These tiny houses hold relics of past lives in medieval Prague and are current homes to craft shops and specialty stores. If you are really tall, be prepared for contortion. 

We visited a prison tower as well.  Devon was really excited about this skeleton hanging in the entrance. 

This is one of a kind insight into medieval forms of solitary confinement.

Once finished at the tower, we made a slight descent to another incredible photo op point. Unfortunately, it was snowing and we were too cold to take advantage.

We checked out the Basilica of St. George next. To be honest, this isn't a must see, but it was nice to escape from the cold!

Our final stop was the St. Vitus Cathedral. The line can get long for this one, but we arrived at just the right time. This is the most beautiful of all the sites on the palace grounds and a MUST do. This massive cathedral is home to the resting place of Czech hero, the "good King Wenceslas."

The cathedral shines with a variety of colors reflecting off the massive panels of stained glass. Each window tells a different biblical story. If you want to spend a little extra money, there are guided tours for this and other sites.

We had been told by another American tourist couple earlier in the day that the actual Old Prague Castle is not impressive or worth seeing. Our patron travel saint, Rick Steves echoed these sentiments in his Prague Pocketbook, so we decided to skip and get some food instead.

As we headed back into the old town from the bridge, we felt that we had done enough of the traditional tourist events over two days- it was quite a bit more than we imagined we could do a few days ago when Devon was still in the hospital. 

After some reflecting over pasta and gluten-free pizza, we decided that the earlier turmoil in our trip had somehow brought us closer to Prague. This is a city we found our way through with absolutely no expectation of a positive outcome. We had withstood a number of tests on our journey that gave us a deep appreciation for the culture, beauty and moment-by-moment nature of this glorious city.

Until next time...Nashledanou!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year's Nightmare in Prague

New Year's Nightmare in Prague

What do you do when you and a loved one are traveling internationally and require serious medical attention? How do you begin to find a hospital with limited wi-fi in the middle of the night? How do you communicate your ailments with a seemingly insurmountable language barrier? Can you contact your airline in time to reschedule your return plans the day of your departure without penalty?

These are all questions that no traveler ever wants to deal with, but as we learned on our trip to Prague, knowing how to handle medical emergencies while out of your home country is incredibly important. Unfortunately, we needed to figure it all out as we went, which was not ideal. But now we can share our knowledge with others. Always remember: what matters at the end of the day is getting home safely!

Our journey begins the day after Christmas. We had been looking forward to visiting Prague since the trip had been booked back in February 2018. Devon is of Czech descent and I (Lenni) had gifted him the 4-day holiday for his birthday.

We booked our package through CheapOair (more on their BRILLIANT customer service later), which I was initially a little skeptical about. But the pricing was too good to pass up (RT airfare for two, plus hotel with breakfast in an ideal location for $1428.96).

Our trip over was on British Airways (this was already our favorite airline, but they were active in creating a convenient alternative to getting us home). Devon was feeling fine on the trip to Heathrow, but as we waited for our connecting flight from London to Prague nausea set in....and continued for the duration of the 90-minute flight to Prague. We initially believed it was motion sickness because this is something that is not uncommon for Devon. The in-cabin crew was EXCEPTIONAL and so kind. They moved a woman in our row so that Devon could lay down, provided him hot water bottles for the acid reflux in his esophagus, and were incredibly tolerant of his wretching and heaving for the entirety of the flight.

But the greatest concern came when we stepped off the plane. A flight attendant had called a wheelchair to a meeting point for us. We waited for the wheelchair to find us, but it never came. I tried to ask around, but with my very very limited Czech conversation skills, I ended up in a puddle at the information desk in the middle of the airport. Immediately, I realized how alone we were. 

Devon spent the evening trying to recover in our awesome soaker tub at  Hotel Donatello, and I found myself wandering the streets looking for the closest burger joint.

The next morning was rocky for Devon, but he had stopped throwing up...or so we thought. He insisted that I go on the Free Discover Prague Royal Walk Tour that we booked while he stayed in and slept. 

Let me say how excellent Tony, the tour guide was at keeping a 2.5 hour tour engaging and fast-paced. He was brutally honest about tourist traps, restaurant service, and the Czech disposition. I would highly recommend a free tour with Discover Prague (yes, the tour is free, but you ABSOLUTELY should tip!). It gave me a perfect understanding of the city on my first day out and I was able to share everything I learned with Devon when he was ready to explore. If you are interested in a Beer Tour or Castle District Tour you can pay for those and receive a 10% discount with a voucher from your free tour!

By the time I came home, Devon was feeling much better and was ready to take a walk. We made it from our hotel in Nove Mesto (New Town) to the Old Town Square (Stare Mesto). As mentioned, my new knowledge of the city put me in the position of tour guide. We had pre-purchased tickets to see a string quartet play holiday songs at Klementinum Mirror Chapel and were, fortunately, able to make the concert! 

Music is EVERYWHERE in Prague. Take the opportunity to sit and listen. You will always be able to find an affordable concert in a unique setting in Old Town, but there are even more to choose from around the holiday season which runs past the New Year. This particular concert featured string musicians from the Dvorak Symphony Orchestra and Soprano, Anna Dolejsi. Everything about this was picturesque and soothing for someone who isn't feeling 100%.

That evening disaster struck on the walk back to our hotel. After 10-hours with no indigestion, Devon's vomiting started again and was so intense that there was blood. I insisted we go to the hospital, not really understanding what this adventure really meant. One of the two amazing desk attendants left his post to personally drive us to the closest hospital, which was only 4-minutes away. 

The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. Devon was transferred between three branches of the same hospital (General University). We felt so humbled that each doctor we met with spoke English (seriously, America...we need to get on top of the importance of being multi-lingual).

Hospitals in Prague are deceiving. The exteriors have a post-communist era look and at a glance, I was terrified of what the competence on the inside of these buildings would be like. But Devon's healthcare was very good!

A few tips here:

HAND BAGGAGE ONLY FOR SHORT TRIPS: After losing our bags on our return trip from Greece, we only brought hand baggage. BA will insist you check carry-on sized suitcases on smaller connecting flights with less storage space. For that reason, we each packed a backpack plus one medium Vera Bradley bag and a gym bag-sized duffle. The only positive side of getting out of the airport with a puking partner was that we had only brought hand baggage, so we avoided an extra stop to baggage claim. Once the wheelchair came, we were straight through customs and into a cab. Also, it avoided any potential baggage mishaps...and you don't want to lose your bags in this type of situation!

PURCHASE TRAVEL INSURANCE: The one BIG mistake I made was purchasing what I thought was Travel Insurance. I had actually purchased Travel Protection, (which was incredibly important for refunding our ticket purchase this as well!!) but these two things are not the same. Travel Insurance can be purchased independently of any vacation package or booking and you should ALWAYS purchase it. That extra $20/per day could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars on emergency medical help while traveling.

I had called the American Embassy in Prague prior to Devon's release to find out if we were eligible for any services. While they do not handle short-term illness of American Tourists, they were able to answer many questions and concerns I had. I learned that I would need to pay Devon's medical bill in cash, but that fortunately, the healthcare system in the Czech Republic is very affordable. 3-nights in a hospital with round the clock care, IV, pain and nausea fluids, ultra-sound, X-ray, EKG and blood tests came to about $600. Please keep in mind that about 6 years ago, when Devon was uninsured and hospitalized for pancreatitis in Boston his medical bill came to $32, to go Prague and General Public Healthcare!
While the doctor was most kind in letting me stay in the second bed in Devon's room on the first night, I knew I could not continue to take up a patient space and would have to return to our hotel and potentially book a new hotel if we could not make our return flight. 

In an over-tired state, I made a huge mistake of not getting the full address of Devon's room before I left. I knew the name of the hospital, but there were over six locations across Prague. 

We have never seen the need for one because of FB chat and wi-fi, but after this experience, I will be purchasing one for my month stay in Greece this summer. Unfortunately, Devon had limited access to wi-fi at the hospital so I was unable to get in touch with him to find the address. This lead to a near nervous breakdown.

There was an ANGEL at the Hotel Donatello front desk who immediately took on finding Devon's hospital for me (I can not speak more highly of the staff at Hotel Donatello, I have never met more compassionate people!). With a short description of landmarks I described from my ride back from the hospital, she was able to make a few calls in Czech and put me in direct touch with Devon's doctor. She actually saved me from hopping in an Uber and going from location to location all night.

Upon the doctor's reassurance that Devon was fine and would be sleeping through the night, I stayed at the hotel. The young lady from the front desk offered to take me out after her shift so that I wouldn't be worrying alone. We hit it off and had a lovely walk to get coffee and to see some of her favorite spots in the city. She truly was a guardian angel that night and I feel a forever bond with her now.

The next day was a turning point for Devon. He had still vomited a bit in the morning, but after a long nap, he was seriously starting to do a bit better. Unfortunately, I knew that we would miss our flight that evening and needed to start figuring out what to do.

I started with emailing our places of work to let them know what was going on and that we would likely be away for a few days after the New Year. The assistant head-of-school where I teach took a huge load off my back by taking all of my travel booking info and getting in direct contact with CheapOair. At that point, I did need to book a new hotel as Hotel Donatello was full. I took a few hours to transport myself from visiting Devon, settled into the beautiful Hotel Cerny Slon (The Black Elephant), and forced myself to get something to eat in the Castle Area of Mala Strana.

When  I returned, my hotel room phone rang and it was my assistant head-of-school conferencing me into a phone call with CheapOair in which they had already resolved a plan for my return. Keep in mind that I could not call this 800 number from my room phone or cell phone without a charge, so this was ideal!

BUY TRAVEL PROTECTION: I mentioned my faux-pas with the Travel Insurance debacle, BUT even though I thought travel protection was travel insurance, I sure am glad that I purchased it anyway! This was the ONLY reason that we were able to have our package agent (CheapOair) negotiate a ticket exchange for a new date for a return for free. The flights around the New Year were OBSCENELY $2,000/person one-way at best. My agent at CheapOair (via my head-of-school who dealt with all of the initial logistics) went above and beyond. He held us a discounted flight for 24-hours at $800/person leaving Jan 4th before facilitating a 3-way call between himself, British Airways, and myself. He advocated for my situation and confirmed a ticket exchange just hours before the original flight was supposed to depart. The customer service at British Airways was equally impressive. While still on the phone with both of them, I was able to email photos of Devon's medical papers directly from my phone for medical emergency confirmation. I was approved for flight exchange within 5-minutes and could rebook my return flight at no additional cost as long as I could provide a doctor signed "Fit to Fly" statement.

Once off the phone with British Airways, my CheapOair agent remained on the line. He explained that if I can confirm Devon is fit to fly within the next 24 hours, I should immediately contact him and cancel the flight he had held, as I would be charged within 24 hours of his hold on the seats.

Needless to say, Devon was released early the next morning and I was able to follow up as he suggested before the 24 hour time period was up! I can not tell you how grateful I was for this type of service, as well as the helpful work friend who got the ball rolling on my behalf. If I have learned anything through this, it is that people can be really helpful and attentive in situations where they just as easily could not look into every possible option.

The next task at hand was figuring out how the heck to find an affordable room for the next night- New Year's Eve. Everything was booked or $400-$600. I spent about 2-hours searching on and ran into EVERY possible issue. I lost rooms as I was typing my reservation information, suspected fraud caused my card to be denied (I forget to extend my Travel Alert with my bank in all of this), and faulty links made this an agonizing process. My mother came to the rescue and told me to book whatever we needed- on her! Ultimately, I figured it was safest to stay out of the city of NYE and closer to Devon's hospital in case anything happened on his first night away. For a decent price for the date, we stayed Hotel Praga 1885, a beautiful 4-star converted palace in a residential area. The room was enormous and we ended up being able to see fireworks from our window. Thanks, mom!

After a few walks around the neighborhood and a relaxing New Year's Eve together, we decided to spend our remaining two days in the Old Town (Stare Mesto) so that Devon could hopefully catch glimpses of this beautiful city as he regained strength while we waited for our flight home on Jan 3.

We used to book our last two nights (everyone should use this- after all of these hotel additions we are VERY close to a free night). Prices dropped for New Year's Day and we were able to stay in a basic but comfortable hotel for 2-nights in Old Town right near the beautiful Jewish Quarter

We learned A LOT during this unfortunate adventure, but it could have been worse. We will be updating on the non-sick fun-stuff that we experienced while in Prague in a second post soon, but figured this would be a useful forewarning to any frequent travelers out there. You think it will never happen...but it does!

Happy New Year to all and here's to better & healthier travels in 2019!

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