The Pace Quickens

There is much to discuss this month: among other things, the new Michelin Red Guides are out, Swissair has made all its transatlantic flights nonsmoking and the city of Weimar readies for 1999, its year as Europe's "Cultural City."

Weimar

One of the most delightful aspects of 10-plus years in this business, has been getting to know underpublicized and undervisited great towns and cities. For obvious reasons, cities like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg, Lucerne and Salzburg are immensely popular and heavily visited. As a result, they are often overwhelmed with tourists. For example, Salzburg in season is positively Disneylandesque. There are long lines to visit the major sights and the pedestrian-only Getreidegasse is a sea of humanity. Hotel rooms are expensive and hard to get.

But there is a second tier of wonderful destinations which are often just as interesting and charming as the famous, must-see stops. It's difficult to understand how towns like Bamberg, Regensburg and Graz aren't more popular with tourists. They have it all; great buildings, important history, enchanting old towns and good hotels and restaurants.

Right now, Weimar fits in this second category. I say right now because given the publicity it is about to receive in connection with the 1999 festivities, Weimar could easily become a very hot destination. Though there are no awesome cathedrals or castles, it's now on my list of favorite German cities.

One reason for my enthusiasm is the people. I can't recall when we've been treated so well by everyone: hotel personnel, cab drivers (to and from the rail station), restaurant servers and the tourist office. The small-town, unpretentious warmth seemed so easy and genuine it reminded us of our first trips to Germany in the 70s.

Theory: Besides being able to turn right on a red light there may be one other positive leftover from the old DDR. As bad and repressive as the communist days were, families and personal relationships were paramount. Most East Germans never experienced the cynicism and hardening of the soul inherent to the process of chasing a Deutsche Mark, climbing the corporate ladder and accumulating the trappings of capitalism. The result is self-esteem that was never undermined by a competitive society that defines the value of an individual in material terms. That, in turn, fosters relaxed, pleasing social skills.

(O.k., you're excused for nodding off during that, but now it's time to talk travel again.)

Editors Notes on a Prague Visit

Hotel Savoy

Some say the Savoy, located on the hill in the Hradcany Castle district, is the best in town. The Intercontinental, however, is splashier and more centrally located.

Our room was spacious, well lit and finished with high quality materials. The cherrywood furniture and trim lent a luxurious touch.

Public rooms were of the Marriott/Red Lion genre and not so tasteful as the guestrooms. At check-in, guests are offered a glass of champagne or juice, compliments of the house.

Except for the below-average buffet breakfasts, our meals were eaten elsewhere. We did, however, end each evening with a nightcap in the somewhat cheesy red plush bar and enjoyed the pianist who performed nightly at a white grand piano in the adjoining dining room. One night at 10:30 p.m. we tried to order dessert but were told the kitchen had closed. We reminded our waiter that closing time is 11 p.m. but to no avail.

However, as we recounted last month in our lost luggage saga, the hotel staff gets top marks for friendliness and service. Also appreciated were the spiffy, fairly-priced cabs the bellmen could summon on a moments notice.

Within a short walk, are numerous restaurants tucked here and there in the many impressive buildings that comprise the Castle District. The downtown is quickly accessible via taxi, tram (stop in front of hotel) or on foot in about 25 minutes.

Overall, we liked this hotel very much and would happily return. Book it through the Steigenberger reservation service at 800-223-5652. Current winter special rate is $199 per room.

Hotel Savoy, Keplerova Ul. 6, CZ-11800, tel. 02/2430 2430, fax 02/2430 2128.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20

Places to Eat

U Cisaru

This trying-to-be-fancy-but-not-making-it restaurant in the Castle District is decorated like the dining hall of a medieval castle. In the entry, two young women play ancient music on stringed instruments. At 9:30 p.m. we were the only diners. The cost for a three-course meal and two beers each was 971 Kc ($34). The food was edible but there are many better restaurants in Prague.

U Cisaru, Loretanska 175, Prague 1, tel. 53 96 04.
Rating: Quality 5/20 Value 8/20

Golden Angel

Located on the north side of pedestrian-only Celetna between the Tyn Church and the Powder Tower. Pass through the smoky bar and into the high-ceilinged, dark-wood-trimmed dining room for inexpensive, authentic Czech dishes.

We tried what the English menu called "old Prague onion soup with toast;" chicken bouillon; a salad of grated cabbage and horseradish in a light vinegar dressing (each 30 Kc/$1.05); a pair of short, pink Prague sausages served with thinly sliced onions and pimentos; and "baked toast "which turned out to be half a roll with a kind of "sloppy Joe" sauce and cheese melted over all. The latter was a little spicy and served with chopped red cabbage, corn, white cabbage and pimento with the same vinegar dressing.

I lost the receipt but we couldn't have spent more than $20, including the Radegast beer which was attractively served in large mugs with handles and raised-leaf motif at the base.

Golden Angel, on Celetna near Powder Tower
Rating: Quality 8/20 Value 13/20

U Lorety

Another atmospheric restaurant in the Castle District. We started with an ample slab (70 grams) of excellent smoked salmon for 150 Kc. ($5.25), then chose main courses of roast pork (170 Kc/$6) and roast duck (230 Kc/$8), both of which were served with a bread dumpling and sauerkraut.

These main courses were above average, except the dumplings were a little dry though good for soaking up the juices.

We each had a simple salad (50 Kc/$1.75) which consisted of sliced head lettuce with lots of Roma tomatoes and a tasty dressing.

Our dessert was "Hradcany Flapjacks" (58 Kc/$2.05); small spongy cakes served with blueberries and vanilla ice cream, a hard to beat combination.

The beer was the famous Pilsner Urquel and we finished the evening with slivovice (plum brandy) for 30 Kc ($1.05).

This is another restaurant trying to offer sophisticated "fine dining" and falling short. Paper napkins designed to fool one into thinking they are linen are a dead giveaway. The plain food, however, was very good and our server most friendly. Places like this should forget the candelabra and the pretense and concentrate on what they do best; authentic, stick-to-the-ribs Czech food.

U Lorety, Loretanske nam. 8, CZ-11000 Prague 1, tel. 02/245 101 91
Rating: Quality 10/20, value 14/20

U Maxima

Among the four restaurants reviewed here, the most authentic "old world" feeling as well as the best food was at this below-street-level, club-like bistro near the Intercontinental Hotel in the Jewish quarter.

Tables are covered with white linen, the tiled floor tiled is scattered with oriental runners and the walls display an eclectic collection of old clocks, musical instruments and pictures.

Arriving mid-afternoon for a late lunch, we were relieved of our coats at the door, shown to a table and immediately asked to choose from a cart of aperitifs, followed by another containing cold salads. We declined both, ordered a Budvar and examined the menu.

Kulcejda (29 Kc/$1) was a potato cream soup topped with fluffy sour cream and dill. In it floated a soft-boiled egg. Quite unusual and one of the best soups I've ever had. Not so memorable but still very good was Liz's tomato soup (39 Kc/$1.37) with carrots, broccoli, corn and potatoes.

We also shared a plate of crisp, not too greasy, pommes frites (30 Kc/$1) and a decent celery salad (50 Kc/$1.75). Along with the usual beer and a dessert the bill came to 429 Kc ($15).

We mark this as a place to return for dinner.

U Maxima, Bilkova 4/132
Rating: Quality 13/20, value 16/20

Other Thoughts

* Every restaurant we encountered offered a menu in English. Maybe we didn't get far enough off the beaten track.
* Don't worry about the brand of beer served. It's all great.
* Whenever we ordered Czech wine we were disappointed.
* Ivana Follova, a Prague designer of women's clothing, sells her creations at the Art & Fashion Gallery, Maiselova 21, tel/fax 02/231 9529. Liz bought a top quality all-wool, handmade cape with hood for $200. Also, a small, hand-painted dish for $10.
* For devotees of Art Nouveau/Secessionist architecture there are at least two Prague buildings not to be missed: the Municipal House (Obecni dum), where Celetna and Hybernska meet, and the Grand Hotel Europa, at Vaclavske namesti 25. Don't plan to stay in the hotel, but have lunch, dinner or afternoon tea in the dining room, which, more than any other room I have seen, speaks of Europe at the turn of the century. Editor, Robert Bestor

February 1997