Prague

Life has been a little busy but in February, my mom and I were able to meet up for a week in the gorgeous city of Prague. Touted as one of Europe’s most enchanting cities, Prague’s position as the capital of Bohemia invites the folklore and mystique for which this city is known. From Art Nouveau architecture to a skyline dotted with church spires, it is easy to see why people from all corners of the globe fall in love so quickly.

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Deep blue skies and daily sunshine spoiled us during our week in town.
Prague has no shortage of gorgeous doors
Prague’s Jewish Quarter (also known as Josefov) dates back to the early 20th century when the area was remodeled to resemble Paris. The streets are quiet after lunch as people shutter their shops to head home for a rest.

Prague is a walkable city, with trams running up and down all major avenues. The metro system is fantastic – you can take it end-to-end for under $1. Before Mom arrived, I took a morning wandering the streets, checking out sights such as the kinetic head of Franz Kafta, as seen below (if only he knew).

 

Perhaps the most enchanting (and touristed) part of the city is the Old Town Square. Mom and I spent time over a few days here, admiring the astronomical clock, the amazing friezes on the buildings.

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Old Town Square

The food scene in Prague is fantastic. I would highly encourage visitors to Prague check out Sansho, featured in The Bib Gourmand – a Michelin Guide for the common (wo)man. Though I stumbled upon it by happenstance, I was treated to a meal that I would consider one of the best I’ve ever had. The exceptionally welcoming chef really made the whole experience and I cannot recommend the restaurant more. Do make a reservation!

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The gorgeous blue velvet night sky above Prague.
I also took Mom to Field, a Michelin rated farm-to-table restaurant in the Jewish Quarter. Dry ice poured from below this delicious dessert.

The best way to see Prague is by pounding the pavement. Taking in the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and the Old Town was a thorough full day adventure.

A view of the city from the Charles Bridge.
The John Lennon Wall, a constantly evolving work of street art and graffiti which welcomes anyone to partake.

We capped off our first big day out in the city with an evening boat tour on the Vltava River. The sun slipped down behind Prague Castle as we got underway, making a rainbow as it mixed with the river below. A warm glow arose from the city lit by street lamps which mirrored dancing bits of marigold light onto the water’s surface.

Another must-do in Prague has to be the Mucha Museum. Featuring the work of Renaissance man (in ideals, not decades) Alphonse Mucha, the museum narrates Mucha’s incredible contributions to art history. A friend of Gauguin and Rodin, Mucha created art during the Belle Époque, Europe’s “Golden Age”. Born in what was then the Austrian Empire, Mucha studied art in Vienna and Munich before setting up shop in Paris where he became famous for his posters touting the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Delving into lithography and screen printing, Mucha participated in the 1900 World’s Fair and even screen the first films by the Lumiere Brothers in his Paris studio.

Considered the “Father of the Arc”, Mucha is today known as the most famous painter of the Art Nouveau, however it was his undying patriotism for his country of Czechoslovakia which struck me most. After returning from a tour of America in 1910, Mucha began his Slav Epic. The project, which would grow to amass 20 huge canvases over an 18 year period, would become his love letter to his land. His daughter Jaroslava served as a model with Mucha pioneering the use of photography and artistic direction in capturing the epic scenes. When the country attained freedom in 1918, Mucha designed the stamps and banknotes. Alphonse believed that education was the way to raise the ethical standard of a nation and he championed freedom for education throughout his later years.

Alongside Princess Hyacinth, completed by Alphonse Mucha in 1911.

Mom and I also managed to take a day trip to Český Krumlov, a magical town approximately 3 hours driving from Prague. On the recommendation of my friend Katerina (who played travel agent and local guide for this journey), we booked the RegioJet intercity bus, leaving while the fog was still rising. Our journey took us past fields of poppy seeds and deer farms, across the gorgeous Czech landscape.

Once there, we walked the castle walls, taking in the views of the fairytale town below. Enjoy a good Czech pilsner on a picture-perfect sunny Czech day was a highlight of the whole trip for me and we took a few hours to wander the adorable town together.

Back in Prague, we took in more of the city sights. It was lovely to stay in one place for so long with no pressure to see everything. We also took an amazing tour of the city which highlighted the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The tour was given by a wonderful local with a passion for history and his 60-year-old Trabant, a car which made its way to Prague in 1989 as its owners fled East Germany. To read more about that moment in history – which is so wild that it can’t possibly have been made up – check out this New York Times article from that time.

Prague such an exceptional city, filled to the brim with art and culture. My mom and I took in concerts, enjoy the local fare, and explore antique stores while wandering along the city’s cobblestone streets. Among the gems, I spotted this gorgeous Art Deco piece from the 1920s, which Mom purchased for me as a reminder of our trip together. Here, it sits upon my windowsill in Moscow, capturing the colors and angles of that beautiful Bohemian city to which I hope to return.

Riga, Latvia

With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, I did what any teacher in their right mind would do… I applied for a personal day! I had been meaning to get over to Riga, Latvia for sometime, hearing tell of Art Nouveau buildings and a quaint Old Town. Leading up to the holiday, many European cities put on some version of a Christmas market. Riga, it turns out, had markets to spare.

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A quick direct flight from Moscow landed me on the outskirts of this city of brown bread and cobblestones. A small port city, Riga boasts both seabirds and strong, gusty winds. Weather vanes here are painted gold and black on opposing sides. Gold signaled fortuitous trade winds, bringing ships into port. A black arrow facing the water meant that it was time to resume life on a budget. Riga’s positioning on the Baltic Sea also brings the threat of city-wide flooding, the most recent of which occurred in 2009.

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With just under 7 hours of daylight as we neared the winter solstice, Riga certainly knows how to light up the night. Moscow, by comparison, gets just 20 mins more versus Burlington, VT which gets just under 9 hours this time of year.

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I caught the bus in from the tiny airport with ease (Bus 22, take a right onto the airport sidewalk and follow around the U-bend, buy a metro card within the bus shelter). After a quick 20-minute ride to the edge of Old Town (hop off at the cinema), I was greeted by the soft-falling snow and a violinist playing Christmas carols. Riga laid that charm on real thick and I was more than happy to dive in.

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Booked at the Hotel Mantess, I made my way through Old Town’s narrow, winding streets with ease. To set the scene – everything about Riga is dripping in warm light. Bird cages are big here; in hotel lobbies and cafes alike. Yarn shops and design stores provide hours of amusement alongside the local architecture museum and a number of art galleries. Many people still speak Russian, but English is plentiful as well.

On my first morning there, I made my way over to St. Peter’s Church to meet the Yellow Suitcase Tour. Led by a local guide carrying – you guessed it – a yellow suitcase, this free walking tour gives a ton of information about the history of the country (occupied by nearly everyone at some point) and Old Town itself. There were nearly 40 of us on the tour and I was the only American.

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After the tour, I was in need of some sustenance so I checked out my first Christmas market. Nestled in a church square, the market featured everything from handicrafts to bao buns (unexpected, to say the least).

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I opted in for the Bailey’s hot cocoa and posted up to enjoy the people watching. I heard English, French, and Korean while sitting around the center hearth. Despite the influx of tourists, the market was cozy with an excited, positive vibe.

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The markets were really fun but I found the local shop even more fun and original.

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Hobbywool was a favorite (yarn + wool crafts).

Jaunais Kolekcionairs was my favorite by far – I sat sipping tea for an hour or more, painting in a window booth, and later raided their collection of crafts made by local artisans. Globuss bookstore had an extensive English selection. With 50+ vendors including delicious local breads, cheese, and more lovely woven handicrafts, the Kalnciema Saturday Market across the river proved 100% worth the tram ride.

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Riga made for the perfect weekend getaway, especially given the markets at holiday time. A friend who taught abroad there before coming to Moscow shared a few dining recommendations which really made my experience:

Istaba – an art space and store with a 12-patron restaurant above, prix fixe + set of the day (3 meat or 3 fish options). I sampled the local cider and cod. Best to go for lunch to avoid crowds.
  • Ala Pagrabs – traditional Latvian food and folk music. Try to get a seat by the stage but bar stools are fine, too.
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Rigensis – a cute little bakery right in Old Town. Delicious local treats like cherry strudel.

After dinner, I headed back out to make the night market rounds. Everything looks better under twinkle lights and freshly fallen snow!

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Not to be missed is Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture north of the Esplanade. With strong vibes of Embassy Row in DC, Alberta Iela features enchanting building facades with ornate entrances adorned with griffins, goblins, peacocks, among other fantastical beasts.

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This street was a 700th birthday gift to the city of Riga from Latvian architect Mikhail Eisenstein.

 

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Overall, Riga was the idyllic winter getaway. For anyone touring European Christmas markets, this is an easy and welcoming spot to stop. Bright, charming, and artsy, I couldn’t have asked for a better refresher prior to the final week before school break. Certainly put me in the Christmas mood. Happy New Year, everyone!

A night at the Metropol

One of the best parts of living in Europe is being surrounded by the centuries-old architecture. Moscow, for its part, is particularly fond of Art Nouveau, a style that peaked in the late 19th Century. Full of swirls and stained glass, Art Nouveau can be summed up by its calling card, the Tiffany lamp.

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Following Peter the Great‘s push towards French aristocratic ways in the 18th Century, Russia came to embrace European style, sending artisans and architects alike to study at schools such as Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

It is at this point in art history where we find the Hotel Metropol, nestled in the heart of downtown Moscow. Dignified and imposing, the hotel sits directly outside the walls of Red Square.

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The hotel has certainly lived its fair share of history. Since it opening in 1905, the Metropol has housed writers and revolutionaries, from Bernard Shaw to Lenin. Today it stands as a monument to a time just prior to the Russian Revolution, an era of extravagance and artistic strides.

Conceived by Savva Mamontov, patron of the arts – a William Merritt Chase, if you will – the hotel was originally planned as an opera house, a palace to showcase the talents of Moscow and host those from abroad. Though Savva did not manage to hold onto the hotel itself, he is considered the father of this dream. And what a dream it was.

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For my part, I had only observed this beautiful building from outside. On an Art Nouveau Tour of Moscow this past spring, I was bitten by the idea to steal away a night at the Metropol. The iron gates beckoned and I couldn’t resist.

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This past weekend, my plan came to be. I felt like Eloise at the Plaza as I walked into the gorgeous foyer of the hotel, all gold-encrusted and marble-floored.

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As I approached the stunning elevator bank, I had to stop and marvel at the stained glass above and behind, decorating the huge bay windows encircling the Grand Ballroom.

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I’ve heard the Metropol described as a living museum, a Russian treasure. To do it justice, I had to spend a few hours wandering the halls, marveling at each new landing. From the stained glass to the rich carpets, the hotel did not disappoint.

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From my room I could see both the Bolshoi Theatre and the spires of the Kremlin. I wandered over to GUM Department Store, the former rubber and textile factory turned high-end shopping mall (think Gucci and Prada).

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I watched fireworks above Red Square from my window and marveled at the beautiful touches of Art Nouveau dotting my room – from the chandelier to the window latches. I also bathed in the basement pool, enjoying its privacy and quaint atmosphere.

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On Sunday morning, my friend Kelsey met me for brunch in the Grand Ballroom. We were both stunned as the hostess drew back the curtain, ushering us into a room which I can categorize as fit for the Titanic only (and built within 7 years of each other, no less).

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We feasted on an amazing buffet and tried to take in the real delight – the exquisite glass ceiling above. A harp played in the corner and the scene could not have been more elegant.

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Full to the brim and feeling a tad like Harriet the Spy, we explored new wings of the hotel, seeking treasures which appeared at every turn.

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At the top of a seemingly abandoned staircase, we turned a corner and nearly jumped out of our socks – a stuffed bear blocked our entrance to a room fit for a duomo.

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Bathed in shimmering red wallpaper, with an oculus adorned by a crystal chandelier, we had stumbled upon a room fit for the Tudors.

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The whole experience was overwhelming to the senses and I’m still digesting. I’d very much like to return and continue studying as the place surely has more stories to tell. For now, I would highly recommend the Metropol as a stop on anyone’s tour to Moscow – for brunch at the least. Moscow has many more gems to share, no doubt, but I’m left in true awe after 24 hours in this one.

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To read more about the extraordinary 110-year history of the Hotel Metropol, click here.