25 January 2017

My Czech Family Vacation, Part I: Plzen and Poland

Great grandfather's house in Karizek
When my brothers picked me up at the Prague airport, there was no time for dilly-dallying. We were already an hour late due to my flight delay in Amsterdam. Nobody was blaming me, but there were plans and schedules to keep. So we made a quick stop at our hotel. I dropped off my luggage. (I was too early to actually check in.) Then the rest of the family loaded into the van and we were off. (If you need some background about the people on this trip, read my Prologue post, click here.)

Our immediate destination was a little town called Karizek, located about 22 miles west of Plzen. That was the town where my great grandfather Josef Krikava lived until the 1870s when he emigrated to the USA. The house where he lived - No. 2 Karizek - is still there. In fact it's still inhabited by members of the family that bought it from Josef. My Mom and Dad had found it many years ago while doing genealogical research. I had never seen it, but I think all of my siblings had seen it on some of their previous trips to the Czech Republic. In fact, they all had been there on this trip before I arrived. But Mom wanted a photo of all of us in front of the house. So that was our mission, and "Mission Accomplished!"

By the time we got done with the photo, it was time to find a place to have lunch. Not far from Karizek (population 45) is the town of Kariz (population 648). My brother Jim told me that Karizek means "little Kariz." A suburb I guess.

We found a cafe called Restaurace U KroftuWhen our family entered the restaurant, we were welcomed by a staff member who was pleased to have an opportunity to practice his English. It was good. But my brother Jim speaks fluent Czech and my Dad's Czech is pretty good. So we got along just fine. Soon I had a mug of cold Czech beer in front of me and a plate of some kind of Czech comfort food. I think it was a beef patty in the middle of a plate of gravy, topped with some sour cream and with a row of hearty bread dumplings along side. This wasn't the best meal I had during my week in the Czech Republic. But it was good and it certainly was very typical of the Czech cuisine that's served in little bars and cafes outside of the major cities.
My 'welcome to Czech' lunch in Kariz

After lunch, we made one more stop, in the town of Beroun. It had a very pretty town square and though it was getting late in the afternoon, there was a market in the square and some of the vendors were still selling. We shopped for a little while and then drove back to our hotel.

In previous blog posts, I've emphasized that when my wife and I travel, we usually prefer to stay in the central city. But for this trip, my family chose a hotel in a Prague suburb of Nebusice. It's the suburb where my brother lives, and we used it as a base for our day trips into the countryside. 

The hotel is Dolce VillaIt is convenient to the Prague airport. I found it to be comfortable and the price was very reasonable. Many of the other guests were English speakers, and Jim told me that the Nebusice suburb has a lot of expats living there. So the hotel gets business from visiting friends and relatives. Consequently, the staff at the hotel, including the restaurant, is used to English guests and I had no trouble being understood. The breakfast each morning was very good with a nice variety of choices on the buffet.

For dinner that night, we ate at a nearby restaurant called Restaurace JeneralkaThe food was good. The d├ęcor was fairly plain. But the staff was friendly, and it was nice place to relax after a day of travel. I had goulash with potato pancakes. I would have rated it higher. But over the next week, I ate at several authentic Czech restaurants, and I came to realize that while my meal at Jeneralka was good, it wasn't really any better than the meals I got at many of the other cafes I ate at during my trip.
Shopping for Polish pottery

Our itinerary for the next day was pretty ambitious. The plan was to drive north across the border into Poland, to a town called Boleslawiec, which is known for its many shops selling painted pottery. Getting there, however, turned out to be quite an adventure. It's supposed to be about 2.5 hours from Prague. But along the way, we discovered that a major bridge was closed and we took a very circuitous detour that actually took us into Germany before crossing the border into Poland at the town of Gorlitz. It ended up taking us about 3.5 hours to get there. 

Fortunately, our GPS system was accurate. But along the way, we drove on some pretty rustic roads and through some very tiny, but quaint, towns. I'm just glad we didn't have any car trouble. 

Shopping in Boleslawiec was fun. We visited several shops and all of us bought beautiful pottery to bring home and use. After a long drive and serious shopping, we all were ready for some lunch. A friendly shopkeeper pointed us toward Piramida, a short distance away. What a great recommendation!

As we entered, we were greeted warmly and seated at a nice table. The host spoke good English, which was fortunate since none of us speak any Polish. The menu offers much variety and lots of tempting choices (and a few odd ball choices, like crocodile steak?!?) To start, Joan and I split a plate of herring with sour cream and onions. These were not wimpy little herring cutlets, like you see in America. No, these were whole fillets, and so delicious. 

As my Mom perused the extensive menu, she was disappointed to note that they didn't have pierogi. "Ah, but madame," our server said with a smile. "It's not on the menu, but we will prepare some for American guests shopping in our town." What a line! My brother and I split a plate of pierogi. They were served with a side plate of salads - carrots, shredded cabbage, cucumbers. It was an excellent meal. I would recommend Piramida to anyone who ventures to Boleslawiec.
Joan and I shared a plate of herring in Poland

For the drive back to Prague, since we knew about the closed bridge, we were able to choose a better route. It still took a long time to get back. At one point, we were driving through a mountain pass and it started to snow. 

When we got back, we all were exhausted. We had dinner that night in the hotel. I had a light meal of fried goat cheese on a salad of lentils and couscous with greens and tomatoes. It was very good. 

My Czech Family Vacation, Prologue

As I trudged out of the Prague airport terminal with my luggage, on a bright sunny morning last November, I spotted two of my brothers waiting in a van to pick me up. I was the straggler, arriving a week late to join my siblings and parents on our first ever whole family vacation.

You see, I'm the oldest of 5 kids. I'm 65 years old, and I'm 17 years older than my youngest brother, Richard. Some of us have traveled together in the past. We even had family vacations before Richard was born. But I left home for college shortly after Richard was born, and we never had a family trip with the 5 siblings and our parents.
At the Prague airport returning home, minus Jim who left earlier

The Czech Republic, really more specifically the region of Bohemia, is our ancestral homeland. All of us have been there in the past; just not all together. Our parents, who are now 88 and 85, traveled there twice a year for 20 years after they retired. One of my brothers, Jim, has an apartment there and lives there much of the time. Jim and another brother, Michael, were in Prague in November 1989 when the Velvet Revolution occurred.

My wife and I have been to the Czech Republic twice, both times before I started writing this blog. The first visit was during hers and my first ever European vacation in 1999. On that trip, we stayed one night with Jim. But since he lives in a suburb (Nebusice) and we prefer to stay in the center city, we moved to a pension after that first night. On our second trip in 2005, we went with my parents. We saw Jim again on that trip, but didn't stay with him. We also took a day trip to Plzen. After I got this blog started, some friends asked about recommendations for Prague. So I wrote a post about those two trips. Click here to read it.

As my parents got older, they eventually quit traveling overseas. So it occurred to Michael and my sister, Joan that they might appreciate taking a trip where they didn't have to worry about the nitty-gritty details. Joan and Mike started to plan the trip and picked a time when Jim would be in Prague. As the plans developed, Richard said he'd like to go too. So now everyone was going to be on the trip except me. 

Unfortunately, on the dates they picked, I already had a trip planned with my wife, and I could not cancel out of it. (That was the trip to California that I wrote about in December. Click here and here to read about that trip.)

And so it was that I flew home from California on the last Sunday of October and the next day left for Prague. Obviously, it's taken me quite a while to figure out how to write about this trip. I think this is the first time in 42 years that I've taken a vacation without my wife. We always plan our trips together. But for this trip, Joan and Michael (and my Mom) did most of the planning. I finally decided to divide the trip into three posts. The first post covers our day trips from Prague. The second post covers an overnight trip we took to Moravia at the far eastern end of the Czech Republic. The third post covers the final day of the trip, the only day I went into Prague.

If you don't want to bother reading the other posts, you can look at a Facebook album I posted after the trip. It's got some commentary along with the photos. Click here.

22 January 2017

Icehouse, Mpls: Inventive music complements inventive menu, drinks

Here's a venue that really has it all.

Located on 'Eat Street' in South Minneapolis, Icehouse is a surefire winner whatever your mood. For my wife and me, the Saturday night dinner show is our usual attraction. The music starts at 6:30 p.m. There's no cover charge. It's usually a duo, occasionally a soloist. The music is restrained enough to accommodate dinner conversation. But the line-up of locally renowned artists assures that you're going to hear some good music as well. When we came last Saturday, the performers were Patrick Harison and James Buckley. Harison plays the button accordion and Buckley plays acoustic bass. They performed a wide variety tunes, mostly jazz, some with Middle Eastern harmonics.

As a music venue, Icehouse is intelligently designed. The stage is in the middle of a big, two-level dining room. We've only ever been seated on the ground floor where there isn't really a bad table for hearing and watching the performers. There may be some tables upstairs where the sight lines are not ideal. But the sound fills the room nicely, so no worries about hearing. There is a back room where we've never been seated. For sure you wouldn't be able to see the band from that room. I don't know how well you'd hear the music from there either.

But Icehouse is more than just a nice music venue. They have a creative drink menu. On our most recent visit, I had a cocktail called Smoke on the Water. It was a scotch-based drink with cynar and other ingredients. I tried looking up the recipe online. But it turns out that "Smoke on the Water" is a fairly common name for a cocktail, and there's quite a wide variation on how it's made. Most of the recipes I saw didn't even include scotch. My wife's cocktail was from the "Rocks" portion of the drinks menu. These are called "sipping shots" and cost only $5. Yes, it was smaller than my cocktail (which cost $13). But it still was an ample drink. Her drink was called "Satan Laughs & Spreads His Wings." She had it on a previous visit and really enjoyed it. That time, for a coaster, the drink was served on one of those little evangelistic religious pamphlets. But last Saturday, it was served on a regular paper napkin.
Duck Platter with a nice Barbera

After we sipped our drinks for a while, we ordered dinner. Honestly, the food menu at Icehouse is equally as varied and creative as the drink menu. We ordered a plate of roasted squash, which we sort of intended to be a starter. But it was was served as a side dish with our meals. The squash was sweetened with maple syrup and sprinkled with smoked nuts which added some nice texture to the dish. For my entree, I ordered a duck platter from the 'Main' section of the menu. It featured 3 different preparations - duck confit, roasted duck breast, and a duck liver foie gras style. These were served on a bed of spaetzle. I thought all 3 preparations were very well done, though when my wife tasted the confit, she felt it was too fatty and she didn't like the foie gras. She picked her meal from the "Sides & Snacks" part of the menu. She had BBQ brisket "burnt ends." It was a smaller portion, but adequate for her, especially since we also had the squash starter. Her only complaint was that the menu indicated that there would be "brussels" which we assumed would be Brussels sprouts. At most, there were only a few leaves from a sprout.

I did have a glass of wine with my duck. Icehouse has a nice selection of wine by the glass as well as by the bottle. I chose an Italian Barbera. It was very good. We've had Barbera in the past that has pronounced tannins. This one didn't and it went very well with the duck.

We found the service at Icehouse to be very accommodating. Our server was attentive, and when we asked for some time to sip our drinks and listen to the music, she left us alone. When we did get around to ordering food, she was very helpful and enthusiastic about the items on the menu.

We left around 9, when the dinner show ended. After dinner, Icehouse transforms into a music bar. Food is still available. But the entertainment tends to be more high energy and not so suited to conversation.