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Welcome to Prague

<img src="Prague.jpg" alt="Welcome to Prague" />

Ron and I had just arrived in Prague and needed a room for the night. We parked our car and walked for more than an hour, looking for a vacancy.
Rain pelted the sidewalk and it was getting dark, but my husband and I kept moving. We found ourselves on a street lined with X-rated shows and “available ladies.”
“Want a good time, baby?” someone asked.
“Does that come with a bed?” I wanted to reply.
Hidden among the flashy clubs was the nondescript Hotel Central. As we staggered in, a buxom young woman shimmied by, straightening her dress.
A young man in an elegant gray suit sprang from behind the desk.  “Hello, I’m Erik.  May I place myself at your service?”
“Do you have a room?” asked Ron.
“Yes, we have one left, but….  this hotel may not be right for you.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” I said.
“No, you should stay in a more… um… quiet place.” After many phone calls, Erik found a family-run pension near Hradcany Castle. “The owner’s daughter is an English translator and will be glad to help you,” he said. “But the hotel is difficult to find.” That’s when we mentioned we’d forgotten where we parked our car.
Erik mulled this over. “OK,” he said. “I can get you a taxi for 300 korunas ($13). The driver will help find your auto, then lead you to the pension.”
Soon we heard the roar of an un-muffled engine, accented by clanging and screeching brakes. Outside was an ancient vehicle that looked ready to fall apart.
Erik ran out to the cab and leaned on the window, exposing his suit to the rain. He must have explained the situation, but he failed to get much of a response.
The driver was draped over the steering wheel, dirty and unshaven, with greasy hair held back in a ponytail. His clothes were ragged and ill fitting, and the inside of his car was equally unkempt.
With a flourish, Erik held the door open and waved us in.
“Hello,” I said.

We roared away, careening through streets and parking lots, then dashed down an alley not much wider than the taxi. The narrow street dead-ended, and the cabbie slammed on his brakes, ground into reverse and zoomed backwards.
He sped towards the Charles Bridge. Knowing we hadn’t parked across the river, I yelled “HALT!” The driver turned the cab around and, like a homing pigeon, whisked us back to the Hotel Central.
Erik appeared at the window. “What happened?” he must have asked. The other man shouted and gesticulated wildly. Erik returned the barrage of Czech and pounded on the hood of the taxi.
Ron broke in meekly: “That’s OK, we’ll find our car on foot, then drive to the pension.”
“No!” cried Erik.”You’ll never find the hotel.”
Our friend turned back to the driver, who finally succumbed with a series of resigned grunts.
We barreled away, retracing the same route. When we got to the bridge again, Ron yelled “WAIT!!!” Suddenly I remembered parking near Old Town Square. I found the place on my map and showed it to the cabbie.
“URNGH!” he said, wheeling the car around.
Many streets radiated from the square. “How will we ever find it?” I asked Ron, peering out the dirt-streaked windows. I couldn’t believe my eyes when we passed our Fiat.
“Stop!” I cried.  Ron jumped out of the taxi. His body slumped when he saw a metal “boot” immobilizing our car and a ticket on the windshield. The summons was in Czech. We had no idea what to do.
“Urngh – polizie,” murmured the cab driver, reaching for his cell phone. He made a call and stepped out of the taxi.
Leaning on the hood, he sighed and lit up a cigarette, despite the steadily falling rain.

<img src="Prague.jpg" alt="Welcome to Prague" />

I wondered if we had enough cash for a fine. Facing the driver, I pointed to my wallet and shrugged my shoulders.
The man was indignant. “Urngh!” he exclaimed, writing 300 with his finger on the muddy windshield. “I think he means we’ll owe him the same amount no matter how long he waits,”  Ron said, stunned.
Eventually a policeman appeared, with dark, menacing eyes glowering under his captain’s hat. He lectured us sternly in Czech, then translated a sign hidden by tree branches: “Private parking.” Ron expressed great remorse and gave him the 600 korunas ($26) he demanded. As we waited for him to unlock the boot, I wondered what we would have done without our taxi driver.
We got into the Fiat and followed the cab, racing down streets, skidding around circles and crossing three bridges.  Occasionally we lost sight of the driver but found him waiting for us at the side of the road.
When we reached the Castle neighborhood, the taxi screeched to a halt. A clock chimed midnight as we crawled out of our cars in the darkness. I saw a light in the pension’s lace-covered window.
The three of us stood and looked at each other. I pushed 600 korunas into the cabbie’s grubby hand. He shook his head at the extra money, but we refused to take it back. I touched his shoulder and said, “Thank you.” The man looked down, then raised his eyes to meet mine. He smiled shyly and spoke, “Is super pension.”
The cab sputtered away. I approached the inn’s oversized door and lifted its brass knocker. Before I could let it fall, a dark-haired beauty appeared in the doorway and smiled. “Welcome to our home.”

<img src="Prague.jpg" alt="Welcome to Prague" />

About author:
Jan Burak Schwert is a freelance writer living in Seattle.  Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Express-News, Animal Wellness, Silver Boomers Anthology, and Travelers’ Tales.com, where between 2007 and 2009, she received four Solas Awards for Best Travel Stories. 

Photo Credits: Nikola M. Prague, OC

About days and nights in Toscany

I’ve just arrived in Tuscany when the driver taking me and my friend to our hotel in the countryside interrupts. “See those towers?” he asks, pointing. “That’s San Gimignano; they call it ‘the Manhattan of the Middle Ages.’” I can just make out a dozen or so stone structures jutting in the distance, and they do resemble skyscrapers. Then he says something that really catches my attention: “San Gimignano is also famous for saffron.” That sticks in mind over the next few days. We attend a harvest festival in a camera-ready hilltop hamlet, rise at dawn to spot the famous cinghiale (wild boar), slurp wines in Chianti, but still I can’t stop thinking about saffron. One night I start Googling and learn that San Gimignano’s towers and its saffron are not isolated characteristics. The skyscrapers—at one time there were 72—were built using wealth generated from the saffron trade, which peaked in the 13th century. San Gimignano’s saffron was regarded as some of the best in the world and was at one point even used in the town as currency. Saffron production died out in the area in the 14th century, and it has only revived in the past decade or so.

I’m ecstatic: Now I have to see this stuff in person. So the next day my friend and I borrow someone’s rental car and make the 30-minute drive toward the turrets in the distance. As one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy, with a walled, pedestrian-only center, San Gimignano is teeming with the tour bus set—they all must have come to score some saffron, I think. Not exactly. At La Pecora Nera, which specializes in pecorino rounds and finocchiona sausage, I venture, “Inglese?” and the friendly shopkeep says she knows a little. “I’m looking for lo zafferano,” I announce, trotting out the Italian term I’ve just learned. She tells me she has some, in a one-gram jar that costs 35 euros. Did I mention saffron happens to be the world’s most expensive spice? Perhaps reading the look on my face, she says I can find a smaller package up the street.

Food shops are popular on this touristed stretch, and I stop at each to inquire, in English or my terrible podcast-gleaned Italian, whether they carry lo zafferano. Every place has the stuff sequestered somewhere behind the counter, yet nowhere is there a sign proclaiming “San Gimignano’s Famous Saffron.” I start to wonder why not. One store clerk provides part of the answer. Seeing me examine a package, with the red script and DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin) symbol I’ve seen consistently even if the name of the farm is different, he offers: “Production is very little.” He explains, “The crocus, whose dried stigmas become the reddish strands we know, only blooms once a year in the fall.” Each flower has three stigmas, and these must be harvested by hand. So, San Gimignano may not be ready to tout its famous saffron until production increases further.

At the fifth shop, I hand over 5.50 euros for a few saffron strands, which I’m told will be “enough for four people.” There are recipes on the package for risotto and budino, but what I really want now is to taste this famous saffron in a dish prepared by an Italian cook. Despite everyone’s claim that “tutti li ristoranti” offer the specialty, I can’t seem to find a single place that mentions it on the menu. By now it’s late afternoon and many of the regular eateries have closed for a few hours while crowds gather at cafe-bars for an aperitif. Disappointed, I conclude that I won’t taste Tuscan saffron today after all. As we give up and head to the car, I decide to ask the girl at Pecora Nera one more time, and it happens that she knows the perfect place. She writes down a restaurant name, L’Officina del cacio, explaining they make a homemade pasta in saffron sauce. By now we’re running too late for dinner to stop, and I despair I won’t have time to return later. But we make a wrong turn leaving the city, and there’s the restaurant right in front of us. Imploring my friend to halt the car, I run inside and make a very American request: Can they do takeout? L’Officina del cacio hasn’t even opened for the night, and they’re a strictly eat-in establishment. But the owner must sense my urgency, because she agrees she can make it happen. Which is how I come to be eating the dish in the car ten minutes later.

The folded oversize packets of pasta look like envelopes for small formal greeting cards. They’re stuffed with a soft cheese and swimming in a marigold-colored cream sauce perfumed with the spice’s lightly curried, slightly bitter notes. It’s delicious. Then when we hit a bump and the whole plate goes flying, hurling my precious pasta to the rental car floor, where it lands in a goopy mess. But it’s okay. Like many before me, I’ve followed the spice route toward the towers to seek the famous saffron of San Gimignano, and I found it. Plus there’s still that stash in my purse.

Story: Jenny Miller
Photo credits:  Steve Montgomery

Meandering the Streets of Corleone, Sicily

Photo: Nikola M. Corleone, Sicily, OC