How not to hostel

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Part of our 8-bed hostel room in Prague.

Let’s file this one under bad hostel etiquette: yelling at the other people in the room to stop making any noise at 8 am. On the one hand, it is 8 am and anyone who was out partying last night wants to sleep in longer. On the other hand, we had to hear you come in late last night and we’ve got places to be.

We’ll call this person “Dude” and in an effort to acknowledge that dickery such as his occurs every population, leave his nationality out. We’ve known since Dude checked in that he has a problem with morning noise, since Stoytcho and I have been up early every morning to explore Prague and found him groaning and growling at any hint of noise. Even when we talk in whispers and pack up quietly, we hear him tossing in his bunk huffing and muttering angrily.

This morning we’re checking out to head to Linz, Austria, and we’re not the only ones up – more than half of the room is awake and preparing to leave, from pulling on clothes to packing away food and water for the day. This proves too much for Dude, whose chorus of groans escalates into a crescendo before he jerks his bed’s curtain open. “This is a hostel! How can you make so much noise? We are supposed to be a community and people are trying to sleep here!” he hisses furiously.

Having traveled through more than a dozen countries and countless terrible sleeping situations, I’ll have none of his accusations. “We’re all on different schedules and some of us get up early. We try not to make noise, but we’re not going to change our plans for you.” He shot back with another retort, and I pointed out that more than half the people in the room were already up. “Look, I can give you earplugs if you want them, but otherwise deal with it. I countered. Rebuked, Dude let out a hiss and yanked his curtain shut again, muttering profanity under his breath.

I would’ve liked to have defused the situation a little less bluntly, but dealing with discomforts like this one are a part of hostel life and you have to adapt. If you get cold easily, you carry an extra blanket or you ask the hostel for one. If you must have tea in the morning, you carry tea. If you can’t sleep with noises, you bring earplugs. And if you can’t adapt, you probably shouldn’t stay in hostels.

There are definitely best practices when hosteling, such as not carrying on conversations late at night or early in the morning, throwing things, fighting over the temperature or whether the window should be closed or open. You should work to make it a liveable space for everyone, sharing outlets to charge phones or computers and trying to keep it clean, because you are a community. Sometimes there will be disagreements or someone will do something that bothers you. In that case, it’s okay to politely ask if they’ll stop doing it. But getting upset and yelling about it is pointless and seriously not cool, Dude.

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After all that unpleasantness, here’s a bumblebee.

Truffle Hunting Lessons in Prague

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The not-so-humble truffle, in cross-section.

If you couldn’t already tell from the mushroom foraging adventure in Australia and the hundreds of mushroom photos on this blog, I love fungi. They’re an underappreciated group, which is unfair because some of them taste delicious. But you could spend all day trying to convince people to eat shaggy manes and wine caps from their backyards and get nowhere*.

Not so with the truffle, the beloved subterranean nugget prized for its rich, heavenly flavor that now appears in everything from fries to honey in our most upscale restaurants. We shave tiny flakes of it into pastas, buy real and imitation extracts, and ogle tiny chunks of the fresh stuff protected in temperature- and humidity-controlled glass cases in only the finest of gourmet grocers. If there is royalty in the mushroom culinary world, the truffle is king.

And now we’re getting a lesson in hunting them here in Prague! This is all thanks my amazing friend and mentor Zoë, who gifted Stoytcho and I a truffle-hunting lesson with the man who supplies 80% of Prague’s restaurants with the delicacy, Petr Synek.

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The park where we’ll have our lesson.

Petr meets us and another guest on a warm morning at the park, a large gray hunting dog tugging him along. “This is Nela,” Petr tells us as he kneels down to let her off the leash. Nela immediately bolts off and runs circles in the fields, “She has a lot of energy, which is good for hunting truffles,” Petr laughs as he calls her back in Czech. Nela bounds back to him, and he begins the lesson.

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Petr introduces Nela and covers Truffle Hunter Training 101.

First, Petr describes the three ways people hunt for truffles: alone, with pigs, and with dogs. “Some people are able to detect small clouds of flies right near the truffles and know where to dig, but you miss most of the best specimens if you rely on this, so most people have pigs or train dogs,” Petr says. Historically, pigs were used because they were naturally attracted to the truffle scent, but they also love to eat truffles and hunters risk losing the truffle (and a few fingers) in the battle to get it back. “You see many old truffle hunters with four, three fingers, or parts of fingers missing, because they have to put their hand in the mouth of the pig to try and get a truffle.”

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Nela gets a treat.

Nowadays, most truffle hunters train dogs to find the prize. Petr describes how the Italians traditionally rub truffle oil on the nipples of breastfeeding dogs to train them, though doing so means that the dog will later show the same risk of trying to eat the truffle.  And Nela? “She’s trained in the Czech way, because we have a history of training dogs here during the Communist era,” Peter winks. He says another command in Czech and Nela bounds up. She knows it is time for training and treat-getting to begin.

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Nela searches for the scent of hidden truffle oil-soaked towels.

Petr walks us through Nela’s training, from the simple conditioning of associating a click noise with treats to finding a location that a truffle-oil soaked towel is hidden. Along the way, he points out the main pitfalls in training truffle-hunting dogs. First is the dog’s gender – you want a female dog, because sometimes a male dog will chase the scent of a female dog instead of a truffle, and you won’t know it for miles. Second is always training the dog with the same tools or in the same location, because she learns to associate treats with a location and not necessarily the truffle scent. And third is using only one source of truffle scent – the oil is cheaper to use in training than real truffles, but it doesn’t exactly replicate the scent of a true truffle. While Petr explains this, he trains Nela, hiding the oil-soaked towel in different places and rewarding her with treats as she finds it.

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A moment where she stands still (finally).

After training practice, our group walks further into the park where the trees shade us and the ground foliage is denser. Petr pulls a napkin-lined box out of his bag and opens it to reveal the real deal. They look like a black bark-covered nugget, but the scent gives it away as a truffle. “This is a black truffle. I only hunt black, summer, and some winter truffles,” he explains, “because white truffles are the most expensive and people are very territorial of their hunting grounds and will shoot rivals’ dogs.” Petr passes a truffle out to each of us and instructs us to hide it. We dash off while he distracts Nela with games.

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We hide truffles for Nela to hunt.

The three of us choose different locations, all about 100 feet away from each other. One of us hides a truffle in the roots of a tree; another hides it among the rocky outcrops off the trail. One of us puts it in a small hole under a rock. We return to Petr, who says a magic word and Nela is off, hunting for the scent of truffles. It’s easy for her to smell them in the warm morning air, and she finds all three in only a few minutes.

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Nela’s on a mission to find the last missing truffle.

After the lesson, the four of us return to Prague for a visit to a restaurant that buys Petr’s truffles. He arranges lunch as a part of the lesson, and the three of us get heaping plates of fresh pasta, chicken, and shaved truffle. He also gives us each a parting gift – half of a truffle each to take home and use. “Put it into the food at the end of cooking so it retains the most flavor, and use it in eggs, with pasta, or in a sauce. Enjoy!”

Want to have your own truffle hunting lesson in Prague? You can book it here.

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Chicken and truffle pasta, mmm…

*okay, so this is only partly ick factor – U.S. culture also largely lacks the mushroom-identifying experience that many European cultures have built over thousands of years.

Food of Prague

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Walking the streets of Prague at night is a lovely experience. It’s dark with lights floating the air, illuminating the street from two meters up, or reflecting down from the lit up buildings. As pedestrians (mostly tourists in the old town) wander between restaurants and bars and shops, you will likely see someone carrying a strangely large ice cream cone.

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This is the filled variant of the Trdelník. The “ter del nik”, with the accent on the last syllable, is a cinnamon-roll like dough wrapped around a thick wooden rod and slowly turned over a fire until it’s crispy and brown on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Oh, and it’s lightly coated in sugar just as it comes off the fire giving it a sweet glaze.

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It’s not particularly a Czech thing, except in that Prague had the most Trdelnik shops in any of the cities we visited. The bread baked on a stick concept is as old as the greeks and a version of this is available in many European countries. For tourists though, Prague is the current center of the roll.

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It doesn’t really matter where it came from or what name it goes by, the Trdelnik is delicious. There are some shops that make it better than others so it’s worth trying a few. Of the ones we tried, most of them were just the right mix of crispy and chewy. They’re big enough to share, but ours disappeared pretty quickly – they’re best eaten hot after all.

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Outside of delicious eat-as-you-walk dessert, we got extremely lucky with the other traditional dishes we ate. The restaurant that was recommended to us (U Magistra Kelly) featured a plethora of great food and highly drinkable, cheap, beer.

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There’s one dish I really want to have again, that I haven’t had anywhere else. It’s the pork filled dumplings. In European tradition, a dumpling is a boiled ball of dough. It comes out dense and chewy, a lot like polenta. They don’t have this in Bulgaria though, and we only had one brief encounter with the dumpling in Poland. In Prague we had these beauties – fantastic dough filled with delicious pork.

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To go with the dumplings is the beef goulash, also a traditional north/eastern European dish. It’s thick, savory, and salty. Hard to get wrong and amazing when done right.

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The architecture in Prague is breathtaking, the people are friendly, and the food is delicious. The maze-like streets hold tiny restaurants and shops in every nook and cranny. Asking is the best way to find where to eat, and the dishes you can find are more than worth the trouble. We (our stomachs!) look forward to coming back.

European Capital Hop: Prague is magic

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Prague in the late afternoon, as seen from the Petřín Lookout Tower

Before I visited Europe, I remember hearing from friends and family about the magical beauty of European cities. “They’re gorgeous!” people swooned, “The cobblestone streets and rows of old buildings are photo-tastic. It’s magical!” So far, we haven’t really gotten that. Sure, the old town of whatever city we happen to be in is nice, but it hasn’t been anything to write home about.

But Prague stands out because it does feel magical. Part of it is the architecture: rows of pastel-colored buildings, each covered with neat cinnabar-colored tiles; the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys; the lights of the city shimmering on the Vltava River at night. It really is gorgeous, and Prague’s title as the “Heart of Europe” is well-earned.

Part of the magic is also in the pricing. We’re coming from the sticker shock of Vienna, but that aside vacationing here is downright affordable, thanks in no small part to the fact that the Czech Republic, like Hungary, is still recovering economically from the collapse of the Soviet Union. We found two beds in a hostel in Malá Strana for $24 a night. We ate lunch and dinner and dessert out for $36 a day for two people, less than $10 per person per meal. And while we weren’t eating at the fanciest restaurants, we got REALLY good food. This bar right around the corner from our hostel called U Magistra Kelly was our regular go-to, with hearty entrée portions, sweet fizzy lemonade, fresh beer, and a killer baked brie.

In short, Prague is the magic city of Europe everyone has been telling you about. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

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The waterfront along the Vltava.
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The Prague Astronomical Clock, representing the movements of the sun and moon while keeping time.
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An ivy-covered storage courtyard.
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A statue over one of the doors.
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Giant mushrooms sprout from astroturf in this man-made display.
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Wedding photoshoots are common. The couple pose alongside a fence covered in ‘love locks’.
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An ornate lock on a door in the city.
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A bronze relief on the Charles Bridge, effaced by thousands of hands over time.
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Workers repainting a buildling.
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A katydid, lost in the city.
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That baked brie I mentioned earlier, from U Magistra Kelly.
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Streetcars and pedestrians share the narrow streets.
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Street art in the northern part of the city.
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St Vitus Cathedral (I think), bathed in golden floodlight at dusk.
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Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge at dusk.
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The lights of Pragues bridges reflecting on the Vltava.
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Bear-shaped cookies posed in a window at the local bakery.
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Men weld trolley tracks in the north part of Prague.
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Picnickers gather apples in the same park that hosts the Petřín Lookout Tower. The orchard is free to pick from, with a limit on how much you can take home.

 

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More views of Prague from the tower.

 

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Sunset from the tower.

 

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A shot of the moon from the tower.
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Prague at night.