Prague, Czech Republic: Gingerbread, Trdlník and Haunted AirBnBs

I have always loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book A Little Princess.

The novel is set in the late 1800s and features young Sara Crewe, who is sent to attend an exclusive boarding school in London. On one of her father’s adventures, however, he dies. Now an orphan, Sara is suddenly the responsibility of the school’s bitter headmistress, Miss Minchin. The charity case and servant, as far as Miss Minchin is concerned, is consigned to a sparse attic room and is forced to work for her keep.

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Photo taken from the Prague Castle. The middle rooftop with the light on is our attic Airbnb bedroom.

The attic bedroom of our Prague Airbnb brought back memories of the attic bedroom that was described in A Little Princess. Its north-facing window opened up to a world of red rooftops and a lighted view of the famous Prague castle.

“You can see all sorts of things you can’t see downstairs,” Sara said in A Little Princess. “Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky…it all feels as high up—as if it was another world.”

The rental was in a very old building.  It was located on the very top floor of a multi-floor walkup; the bedroom was perched at the top of a narrow set of creaky wooden stairs in what, at one time, had been the attic.

Our Prague flat was nestled just south of the Prague Castle, on the downward slope that led toward the Vltava river. About 90% of the apartment had been updated; the only space in the apartment that didn’t appear touched was its unheated entry mud room space, which consisted of rustic wooden walls and brick floors. A two-stair entryway led to the cozy kitchen. Throughout the entire space, the ceilings were low and slanted, reminding us just how close we were to the rooftop.

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The world outside our temporary home was decorated for Christmas. An artisanal gingerbread cookie store across the street of the building’s entrance begged us to come, see, taste and featured window displays that could only be described as magical. A hike up the hill led us to the gothic Prague Castle. Its construction began in 870 A.D.; it is the largest and oldest castle in the world and sits on 750,000 square feet.

Around the castle complex, vendors in temporary shops sold glühwein, art, Christmas decorations and warm treats. We bought mugs full of spiced wine from a father and a son from France. The mugs featured the father’s artwork.

We continued down the hill, toward the Charles Bridge.

Warm white Christmas lights lit up the streets, Christmas decorations added to the magic and sweet smells wafted out from the coffee shops. My daughter begged us to try Prague’s famous trdlníks. These street desserts featured cone-shaped donut pastries that were filled with ice cream and achoice of toppings. My daughter chose a chocolate cinnamon donut filled with vanilla soft serve and drizzled with chocolate. Chris chose a donut filled whipped cream and strawberries. Neither one could finish their trdlník.

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Beef goulash, bread, potatoes, dumplings: traditional Czech food beckoned us everywhere, promising comfort, heaviness and warmth. On this chilly night, however, we had filled up on sugar, ice cream and chocolate. We walked back to our Prague apartment.

Later that night, I woke up suddenly. Heavy footsteps were ascending the creaky stairs that led up to the attic. I thought it was my daughter; the ice cream dessert had proved too much for her and she went to bed on the couch in the downstairs family room with a bellyache.

“Margaret,” I called. No answer. “Margaret?”

The footsteps continued up the stairs. They entered the bedroom. They walked over to the bed. I pulled the blankets over my head as the footsteps, recognizing how cliché this move was.

I peeked out from under the blankets to an empty room. There was no one there. I moved closer to my husband.

I thought about this old building and about the buildings, and the history, that surrounded us. If a structure was going to be haunted, it would certainly be here.

Later that morning, we got up early: we had a city tour with a guide scheduled. Chris went for a morning run to the to the castle on the top of the hill and took a picture of our lighted flat below.

We set out that morning for a full day in this favorite, historic city. We stopped by a café for a strong cup of coffee. As we ate our breakfast, I thought how many stunning changes this city had seen; it was full of colorful stories and wonderful characters. Prague was wonder, beauty, brutality, death and innovation all rolled up into one.

This city, full of paradoxes and ghosts, will likely be standing long after we are gone.

Geysir: Iceland’s Haukadalur Valley

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I sat in an oversized leather chair, holding a six-dollar Americano in my hands and listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

I was trying desperately to warm up, having been soaked from head to toe by the steady rain. Once again, I noted my appreciation for the Goodwill-bought Cuddl Duds I was wearing underneath my clothing. I had worn them in  Nepal and now in Iceland. The decade in Florida had thinned my blood considerably and the extra warmth was a beautiful thing.

Nepal’s air had been dry, crisp and clear; Iceland’s inclement weather regularly spit water at us. We saw the sun once for a few moments. The vast majority of the time, however, a heavy, dense cloud cover hung low in the sky. These were the types of days that sent Floridians indoors and resulted in a marked decrease in productivity. 

Although the rain was a regular occurrence, I refused to buy an umbrella. Umbrella prices averaged around twenty dollars. For this reason, my perpetually damp clothing became the norm.

We had wandered around Geysir hot springs, an active geothermal area located in the Haukadalur valley of southern Iceland. We were here to see the volcanic pools, experience the geysers and take in the volatile yet beautiful landscape. It didn’t disappoint: it was beautiful, amazing and surreal–just like every other natural phenomenon we had visited within this picturesque little country.

P4cGfvBpTg+8HH9SYFJ8ugIMG_4165 Our adventure in Iceland was short: four days. In the weeks leading up to this trip, Chris had researched, planned and mapped the places we needed to see and experience with precision detail. He was determined to not waste a single moment.

Unfortunately, droves of tourist busses also had the same idea: a steady flow of them entered and exited the popular location within the heart of the “Golden Circle.” Wide-eyed tourists armed with cameras filed off their transports.  I realized that this described us, too; however, we marched to the beat of our own drum. We rented a car and relished the freedom that this expense had provided us.jmYBKcblRRm6mQCY0tudgw

Iceland’s volcanic activity had formed this area–as well as this whole island–millions of years ago. Black lava fields and volcanic rocks remained and are strewn everywhere: in countrysides, near the ocean, in towns. The beaches are made from black sand. Even the salt is black.FoEIZoSKQyyInC3JGsQypA

2Pvu0e7pTMG3wCjPjzL1zgIceland straddles two tectonic plates: the Eurasian plate and the North American plate. These plates are slowly moving away from each other at a rate of about just under one inch per year, causing the country-wide geological phenomena that people flock to the Scandinavian country to see.

Iceland is one of the only places on Earth where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible above sea level. About 90 percent of the fissure that circles the planet is located under ocean waters. In Iceland, however, you can see the crack, walk through it and even swim around it at Thingvellier (Þingvellir) National Park.c6zq+HZMRh2vfdW8UJQ+dA

Because of this volcanic activity, the hot water in Iceland is serious business. Not only is it scalding hot right out of the tap, this abundant natural resource is harnessed and is used for sustainable energy. For this reason, Iceland’s heating and energy is fairly inexpensive. The geothermal power plants located across the country produce about 30 percent of the country’s electricity and meet the hot water needs of about 87 percent of Iceland’s 338,000 residents.

We were visiting the Thingvellir tomorrow. Today, however, we were exploring this hot spring area in the rain. Steam rolled up and billowed around us, caused by the underground and surface boiling water pools that bubbled from the ground in varying degrees of intensity. A heavy sulfur smell lingered in the air.

When Chris first told me that we would visit this area, I had a bit of a “been-there-done-that” attitude. I had been to Yellowstone National Park multiple times. Although the landscape was somewhat similar, the United States had bubble-wrapped its volcanic gem  with ramps, gates and fences. Here, there wasn’t much standing between me and the boiling pits of death–merely a thin rope.aGe76%0URjyi07JA4hH2fgVqdIvNUlSP+VE7I%tmNuwg

There was one large warning sign as we approached. The distance to the nearest hospital was in black and white: it was about 38 miles away. For the unfortunate soul who tripped and fell or attempted to “test the temperature” of the water, it would be a long, agonizing ride to help.DrRZLWg9Rn6uwuOJ4Jw

I bent down to touch the ground; it was hot. Steam billowed out from the earth in fumaroles around us. The heat felt good.

We headed toward one of the most predictable geysers in the park, Strokkur. Boiling water explodes from geyser at a rate of about every eight minutes to 10 minutes and reaches as high as 90-plus feet into the air.

We wandered throughout the area, marveling at the volcanic pools around us. They were brilliant blues, yellows and oranges.  Although research had shown that the area had been active for about 10,000 years, the geysers in the valley have varied in their frequency, awakened periodically by earthquakes.

About 30 geysers surrounded us. “Geysir,” which is the largest, can go years between eruptions and is currently in an inactive phase. We had seen Smiður and Litli-Strokkur, as well as had witnessed the power of Strokkur. We had seen boiling mud pots and had looked deep into the earth, thanks to the crystal-clear water of these pools.

As we sat in the visitor’s center, eating pastries and drinking warm drinks, I reflected on the beauty of the land around us. I appreciated this amazing adventure, despite the cold drizzle, the dark skies and the rain.

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