Saturday, August 21, 2010

Prague Chezc Republic

By Larry Berle

Prague may be one of the oldest, primarily intact cities in Europe that did not get wiped out by the World Wars.

We are staying at the Mosaic House a new form of accommodation that is a combined youth hostel and hotel.
It Opened in Spring of 2010, so its brand new.

It has 330 beds 64 of them are secure and contemporary hotel rooms and the rest are dorm rooms of 4,6,and 8 beds.
They have one all girls dorm room. The entire place has AC, is very eco friendly, has free Wi Fi and Internet access with their computers. All rooms have bathrooms in the rooms. The entire hotel is Non-smoking and has 24-hour reception. Hostel beds range from 15 to 25 dollars a night. The hotel rooms range from $45-95 depending on the season. For a family of four booking a 4-bed hostel room, you just can’t beat the price.

Inside our hotel room we found a double bed with oversized pillows, flat screen TV, telephone, desk, iPod docking station, mini-fridge, pin-code safe for valuables, air-conditioning, and a stylish bathroom with low-flow rain head shower. We also have an outdoor deck overlooking the city.

Belusi’s is the lobby bar, where young people from all over the world meet to discuss their travels. They also have wonderful food, including a full menu of gourmet burgers, and tonight we had the spare rib special with salad and fries. It was outstanding and under $15. Its also a sports bar with several big screen TV’s. and several times a month they have live music on their stage. It’s hard to believe it’s a hostel.!!
Mosaic House is also a very environmentally friendly and green bldg. The roof is totally solar panels. One thing I had never seen before was Gray water recycling. Sink and shower water is reclaimed, heat extracted, and reused for flushing of the toilets. The staff, which is very helpful, is from 19 different countries. So the staff is diverse as the guests.

We took a free walking tour of the old town (just tip the guide at the end if you want; most did) visiting most of the important sites of Prague, which has beautiful old bldgs and wonderful windy cobblestone streets. The Spanish synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Europe. And the nearby castle is the largest in Europe. It was the birthplace of the composer Dvorcak and of course Franz Kafka. The Jewish quarter is the oldest in Europe and we were told it stayed in tact because Hitler planed to use it as a museum to an extinct race, after he completed his mission of exterminating every Jew.

This is a fascinating old city, with lots of Jazz clubs lots of history to learn from the old sites and we even went to see the “Image” black light theatre. A silly story tying together dance performance done all in black light with fascinating moving images.
And if you are coming you will love Mosaic House It’s like a 5 star experience for a 1 star price.

If you go

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Ich Bin ein Berliner

These are the famous words uttered by President Kennedy when he was here in 1961 and “ Open this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, and tear down this wall” are famous words uttered by President Regan when he was here in 1987 in front of the Brandenburg gate. In Nov 1989 the wall finally came down. We have talked to several people who were alive then and were kids. It was quite a day of celebration on both sides of the wall. It was a school holiday. Did I mention that the hotel right next to the Brandenburg gate is where Michael Jackson decided to hang his baby off the balcony for the world to see? The story of the Berlin wall is in itself, enough reason to visit Berlin.

We are at the Ritz Carlton in Berlin and just outside our front door, on Pottsdammer Platz, is an exhibit and remnants of the Berlin Wall, which stood here less than 25 years ago. In fact, it actually may have gone down the middle of our hotel lobby. Amazing to comprehend.

75% of Berlin was bombed out during the Second World War. Consequently this city is loaded with brand new contemporary bldgs.
Many leading architects have contributed to this cities landscape in the last 20 years, and Embassy row, where all major countries have embassies, is one architectural gem after another. Potsdammer platz was a no-mans-land in the late 80’s. Today it too is filled with contemporary bldgs. All this mixed with some of the beautiful old buildings that did remain standing, create quite a contrast.
And if that is not enough, of course Berlin was the Nazi Gestapo headquarters during their reign.

Antje’s story
I met a woman today who lived in East Berlin, behind the wall, until the age of 6, when it came down. She now has a very successful job here in Berlin, with and International corp., something that would have been impossible for her had the wall remained.

When she was growing up, No one in East Berlin had phones (a privileged few) but there was no one to call anyway. No one had TV’s. The stores had little or no food. Families grew most of their food in their own backyard. Her family had a car but the floor of the backseat was completely gone and it was impossible to get it repaired, even if they could afford it. She had to ride with her feet propped up on a piece of the chassis.

She does not know her father, nor has she seen him in many years.
To the best of her knowledge he had been arrested and jailed and made a deal with the East Germans to become a spy in exchange for his life. Her grandparents, on her mother’s side, were prominent citizens in East Berlin and she has every reason to believe that he married her Mother in order to get spy information on her grandparents. She has learned that the name of her father as she knew it was not his real name, (he was undercover, after all). The story goes on and on. The most important part is when the wall came down a world of opportunity opened up to her that could not have been there until that day!!!

Warren Buffet once said, “I am a member of the lucky sperm club and am lucky to have been born and raised in the U.S.” Had I been raised anywhere else in the world, I may have been just as smart, may have been just as financially savvy, but I could have never accomplished what I have accomplished and I certainly would not be standing before you today as the wealthiest man in the world.

Apply that thought to this woman or all the people who were liberated from that wall on that beautiful Nov day of 1989. This may be history, but its hardly ancient history. This is less than 25 years ago. You and I were alive and this story could just as easily be you or me.
I would guess that for every “getting over the wall” success story there are hundreds that do not have this happy ending.
This could bring new meaning to the words “Wall Street”

Ritz Carlton Berlin at Potsdammer Platz where kids are kings and queens.When a family with kids under 12 years old checks in to the Ritz Carlton- Berlin, someone comes from behind the desk to welcome this kid personally to the hotel. He/she is given a treasure hunt map with four tasks and 4 stamps to collect on his map. If he collects all 4 stamps he brings it back and gets a prize. When he and his folks have breakfast in the morning (a breakfast buffet like I can’t even begin to describe) the kid is invited into the boulengeree with the chef and can learn from him how to make his own waffles or crepes. He leaves with his own little apron. He is given a drink voucher and goes to the bar, just like Mom and Dad, to order his non-alcoholic drink. If he is the right size, they bring out a Mercedes car (pedal car) that he can ride around in the lobby or on the front sidewalk. Oh yeah!! Mom and Dad pay rack rate of approx 295 euros per night and the kids adjoining room is 99 euros and his food and beverage are ½ price. I wanna be that kid!!! And when Mom goes to the Spa. Ritz Carlton supplies a nanny.
High tea is served everyday at 4:00. What do you do with your kid? They have a game table at high tea with hot chocolate and cakes.

This Ritz Carlton has a charity, Sonnenhof” of the Bjoern Schulz Foundation. This is a hospice for kids with cancer. This hotel supports this foundation not only with money but also with many services of the staff. At Christmas time kids can post wishes on the lobby tree and guests can contribute to make these wishes come true.

Oh yeah, it’s great for adults too. The staff is international and provides un-matched service. “Ladies and Gentlemen, serving Ladies and Gentlemen” is one of the staff mottos. The lead concierge was named concierge of the year for all of Europe last year. And if you have ever stayed at a Ritz Carlton than I don’t even have to tell you about the 5 star luxuries you will experience. U.S. Presidents even stay here.

But this city is great for kids too I can’t list everything but here are a few examples
2 zoos
Kids science museum
Kids arts museum
There are many lakes and Parks in Berlin so there are all the activities you would associate with that. In fact I learned today that Berlin has more water and bridges than Venice and Amsterdam. What a surprise!!
And of course they will experience a part of history that we lived through “the story of the Berlin Wall”

This is a great city, perhaps the most contemporary in all of Europe. Fantastic gastronomy, the number one Symphony in the world and more cultural activity than you can possibly take in. Even better it is one of the lesser expensive cities to visit in Western Europe.

If you go:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cruising the Mediterranean

Cruising the Mediterranean

Costa Cruises promotes itself as the largest cruise line in Europe. It is an Italian company and seeks the bulk of its customers from the European continent, with as little as 10 percent patronage from the United States on any given ship.

The boat we were on, the Costa Serena, was built in 2007 and has a passenger capacity of 3800 plus 1100 crew. That may sound quite large, but the largest ship in the world holds over 6000. The itinerary we chose included the following ports; Venice and Bari, Italy, Olympia, Greece, Izmir and Istanbul, Turkey, and Dubrovnik, Croatia. One may board the ship at several different locations, so the composite profile of passengers is in a constant flux, with the majority being Italian, with German and Spanish patrons in a close tie for second place. Less than 10% of the guests were from the U.S.

On board this ship you will never tire for lack of activity, including gambling in the casino, bingo games, dance lessons, spa and gymnasium services, cooking lessons, dance lessons, arts and crafts projects, and much more. It’s a buffet of options for any adult.
The nightlife can be found in one of many on-board bars with live music and various themed programs. There are singing contests, and costume nights to add to the pleasure. But the largest area for entertainment is found in the 1200 seat theater, where you will find specialty performances on a nightly basis. It is not uncommon to be entertained by skillful acrobats, multi-talented musicians, spell-binding magicians, or even the Costa Crew itself.

For children, the Costa Serena is paradise. A giant, two-story slide plunges into a refreshing pool on the top deck for starters. And if that doesn’t give you a scream, then the Formula One simulated race-car will certainly excite them. There are video games, table tournaments, play parlour, deck-side contests, and pizza parties at all hours. So, if you want your children to have a multicultural interaction with other cruisers, than this is the spot! Our cruise was host to over 700 children. Parents who share their cabin with the children can do so at no additional cost, and there are plenty of activities with competent staff to supervise.

There are daily excursions, which, if led by Costa, may be purchased for an addition fee (no less than 50 euros per tour). But you are welcome to enter each port individually and self-explore.
My wife and I chose to explore the port in Bari on our own with great success. We could walk directly into the old city where we visited two historic churches, complete with weddings in progress. It was beautiful to see the wedding parties lavished in flowers and rice. And on a Monday as well! One of these was the Basilica of St. Nicholas. It holds the tomb of this patron saint and the locals say that here lies the tomb of Santa Claus (although I believe the Russians may take issue with that).

Excursion to Ephesus
Ephesus is one of the most visited, ancient excavations in the world, getting approximately 10,000 visitors per day. The day we visited, it was crowded. This ancient city survived thousands of years, invading armies, geological disasters, and tyrannical rulers. The population at its onset rose to 250,000 inhabitants and you will also find an amphitheatre that seats over 4,000 people. It was a costal port, at one time, but, over the decades, the land has risen to a point that the sea is now five miles away. Once the sea became too far away, the city was abandoned.
The excavations are extensive, possibly the largest in the world.
The city was famed for the Temple of Artemis (completed around 550 BC), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The temple was destroyed in 401 AD.

Kitchen Tour
We took a tour of the Main onboard kitchen with the Executive Chef. This is one awesome operation. There are 4 kitchens on board and they serve 15,000 meals per day all served by a kitchen staff of 180 people working 7 days a week 11 hours a day. 1,000 of them are crew meals which are prepared and served in a separate location.

Just to give you an example of the lengths they go to for everyone on board, the 1,000 ships staff come from all over the world ( over 85 countries on this trip) and they do their best to cater to each of their tastes. They carry 2 kinds of rice, they see that Muslims do not even get offered pork. The Chinese, Philipinos, Indians and other countries have far different eating habits and they do their best to cater to them all.
We learned that when an American asks for Espresso café, he has one expectation. When an Italian asks for Espresso he has another and French a third. So they know the nation of origin of every passenger and staff and what their preferences are. The same goes for the consistency of the cooking of Pasta, Italians expect Al Dente and other nationalities may expect it to be cooked to a different consistency. All the bread and rolls are baked fresh daily by a staff of 8 bakers. They serve 3800 guest dinners per night ordered from a limited menu and with two seatings they can predict what percentage of people will order what and at the end of the night may waste 5-20 meals. Amazing!!! Did I mention that they wash 150,000 dishes a day not to mention silverware and glasses

Hello Istanbul
Where West meets East
From my visit 40 years ago I used to tell people “Istanbul is where West clashes with East” Now I would say that “Istanbul is where West meets East.” This city is over 6 million people and it is the only city in the world to sit on two continents, Asia and Europe. It has had several names over the years including Byzantium, New Rome and Constantinople. Turkey is 98% Muslin but it is by far, the most westernized of the Arabic countries. Most women dress western style but there are some that still cover up completely in burka’s. We even saw some who were middle ground; head and arms completely covered but with blue jeans and tennis shoes.

Turkey’s relations with the US are extremely strong and unlike other Arabic countries, are not based on Oil production. They have equal pay and equal rights for women and a democratic society.

Islam requires that everyone give 2 1/2% of their earnings to the poor. So Turkey has its share of poor people but little or no poverty or homeless.
The Blue Mosque with its 6 minarets is one of the most beautiful and popular Islamic religious centers of the world. St.Sophia Basilica is an extraordinary architecture example dressed in marble and precious stones decorating its walls and galleries.

I remember the Grand Bazaar from 40 years ago and it was a fascinating place to visit and haggle with the vendors throughout its small alleys and stalls. It has changed now and haggling is still the main stay of negotiating prices but its much more commercial now.

The museum at Topkapi Palace is by far the most interesting, built for and by ancient sultans it is a beautiful place with exquisite jewels and treasures on display.

Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik was certainly the most pleasant surprise of this cruise. What a beautiful and wonderful city. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia and when communism fell, so did Yugoslavia which divided into 5 countries. It survived a nasty war with Bosnia in the early 1990’s and some evidence of the damage still exists today.
It is set in front of a picturesque hillside on the Dalmatian coast across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. The old city is lined with cobbled streets, fountains, and churches and surrounded by a 700-year-old city wall, which is mostly still intact. We walked on top of most of the wall and the perspective it gives you of Dubrovnik is wonderful. They have rebuilt the cable car that goes up the mountain which has some beautiful panoramic views of the city, coast and surrounding islands.

Dinner, on most of the nights closes with fun and bravura from the staff. One night, as the lights went out, desert was presented to a recording of O’ sole Mia as the staff appeared around the periphery of the restaurant with desert in one hand and sparklers in the other…. Patrons lifted their napkins and swirled them like homer hankies at a baseball game.

The staff appears to be very happy, jovial and full of life as they take care of your every need. They are a pleasure to be with.

If you go