Weekending: Prague

While I’m living in Istanbul, I try to take advantage of all the amazing destinations a few hours’ flight away and travel there as often as possible. I like to focus on destinations that are harder to access from the US for just a few days (such as Turkey’s beach town Bodrum) and places best explored while I’m still relatively young and unencumbered (to wit: Beirut). Traveling as an expat takes on a different flavor as well, seeking culture and cuisine not found in my new city.

The place: Prague, Czech Republic

I really had no intention of going to Prague. Not that it doesn’t interest me, I’ve heard it is enchanting and a must-see city, but this particular weekend we were all set to go to Kosovo, one of the world’s youngest countries (by self-declared independence as well as population). A series of minor events caused us to miss our flight by minutes, but as we were already at the airport and ready to travel, we asked to be re-booked on the next international flight somewhere, which turned out to be Prague. We arrived in the Czech Republic with no reservations, research, or plans and through the magic of social media (and the Prague Airport’s free wifi), I was greatly assisted and reassured by the great advice and insight from travel writers and friends Evan Rail, Alexander Basek, and Gadling’s own David Farley. Turns out it’s not an overrated country and I can now say, “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.”


  • Two words: pork and beer. Ask any meat-eating expat in a Muslim country what they miss most about home and they will invariably say pork. While it’s available in Turkey, it’s scarce and pricey. Alcohol is easier to come by, but anything imported will cost you and while Turkey’s national Efes satisfies, it tastes like watered down Bud Light after drinking Czech beer. Arriving in a city thronged with sausage carts and beer halls was like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The beer isn’t just tasty and cheap, it’s available anywhere, pretty much anytime. For tips on the best pubs to drink at, trust anything by Evan Rail – Tony Bourdain did earlier this year. My last night in Prague was spent at the lovely Meduza Cafe, a near-perfect spot to have a coffee or glass of wine, write in your journal, and revel in Bohemia.
  • The city’s beauty is well-known, and one of the greatest pleasures is just strolling the streets and bridges and soaking up the atmosphere. It’s interesting to contrast the romantic castle and ornate Old Town Square architecture with some of the old Soviet buildings, like the modern art Veletzni Palace museum, and the wacky sculptures of David Cerny. Small but worthwhile attractions include the Museum of Communism (if only for the darkly funny posters such as “Like their sisters in the West, they would’ve burnt their bras – if there were any in the shops”) and the Museum of Decorative Arts, featuring a fascinating collection of costumes, design, and knick-knacks – as well as a great view of the always-crowded Jewish Cemetery from the bathrooms (a tip from Evan, thanks!).


  • Even after seeing Paris, London, and New York, Prague is the most touristed city I’ve been to yet. Long after being discovered as a “budget” European destination (it’s still cheap by Europe standards, but not quite the bargain it was in the ’90s), the streets are packed with package tourists from all over the world, backpackers, and worst of all – pub-crawling college students. True story: one night a shirtless American kid walked in a mini-market, talking on his cell phone about how drunk he was and how he tried to hook up with some other girls in his hostel. He hung up and told his friends he was talking to his MOM. By day in the areas around Old Town Square and Prague Castle, you’d be hard pressed to hear anyone speak Czech and it’s difficult to find a spot not mobbed with tourists, which all takes a bit away from the city’s authenticity.
  • Not quite a downgrade but perhaps due to the aforementioned tourists, service at restaurants can be brusque and some less scrupulous taxi drivers have been known to take passengers for a ride. If possible, let your hotel book taxis to ensure you get a fair price and find out what approximate prices are around town. Other than a few waiters having a bad day, I’d hardly condemn the Czech people as being anything other than friendly and helpful. The bigger deterrent is the disrespectful, entitled, and obnoxious tourists.

Getting there

Delta flies direct from New York to Prague Airport, and British and American Airlines fly via London Heathrow. Budget carriers bmiBaby, German Wings, easyJet, and WizzAir service Prague from Europe. It’s an easy and cheap bus and metro ride into the city center from the airport.

Make it a week

Prague is surrounded by beautiful countryside (remember the sunflower fields in Everything is Illuminated? Filmed outside Prague) and the city is well connected to towns and cities around the Czech Republic. Spend a few days in the capital and then get out and explore Bohemia.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 16: Tokyo

Location: it’s Tokyo time! Bourdain finally makes his pilgrimage to every food host’s favorite culinary destination, the capital of Japan and one of the world’s largest cities.

Episode Rating: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five. Bourdain made a concerted effort not to do the traditional “this is Japan” food show. It made for interesting subject matter, but the episode also seemed a bit disjointed as well.

Summary: In Anthony Bourdain’s mind, Japan is all about the relentless pursuit of perfection. No matter if it’s food, art or sport, the Japanese are almost religious in their attention to quality and detail. It is through this lens that Bourdain takes us on a tour of Tokyo, one of the most famous but also most confusing places to visit on earth (after visiting earlier this year, I would have to agree). After an earlier No Reservations visit to Osaka, where Tony proclaimed he was not going to “do the traditional” Japan visit to Tokyo, it was interesting to get an entirely different Bourdain perspective on the country, one which was noticeably more subdued than his previous visit.
There’s no better insight into Japanese culinary culture than noodles, and Tony starts his visit by meeting up with famous Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto for some soba. Made mostly from buckwheat, soba noodles are “one of the most fundamental foods” in Japanese cooking. The noodle shop they visit has been perfecting the art of making the perfect noodle since 1789. Each noodle is cut to the exact width of 1.6mm to ensure proper cooking time and consistency. It was clear Tony was loving his noodles, and the camera work here confirms this – we see some serious “noodle porn” with plenty of close-ups and slow-mo effects for good measure.

Not to be outdone by Japanese noodle-making is the Japanese fanaticism for quality cocktails. To better experience the phenomenon, Tony visits Bar IshinoHana, world-famous for its exquisitely-crafted cocktails. According to Tony, the bartender spends an “agonizingly” long time making Tony’s drink – relax man, it’s going to be one-of-a-kind! In the pursuit of his hypothesis that the Japanese are obsessed with perfection, Tony asks the bartender what inspired him to become a bartender. Amusingly enough, the bartender answers his idol is Tom Cruise in Cocktail. How’s that for an odd source of inspiration?

In order to work off his designer-cocktail hangover the next day, Tony visits a sports complex to learn more about Kendo. The sport, involving the ancient martial arts techniques of sword fighting, is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. Participants use their shinai, or bamboo sword, to try and outmaneuver and out-think their opponent, aiming to strike body hits.

Back in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, Tony reunites with chef Morimoto after-hours at his restaurant, XEX. Morimoto prepares Bourdain a surprisingly delicious multi-course dinner using a whole Monkfish. Not a single organ is wasted – Tony gets to sample the liver (tastes like foie gras), fried monkfish with seaweed and bamboo shoots, and a “Nabe” (NAH-bay) made with Monkfish cartilage and skin. All unexpectedly prepared and unexpectedly delicious.

Tony seems to be tired of Tokyo, so he hops on a Shinkansen bullet train to take in some of the other nearby sites. I think Bourdain must be getting up there in years, because the next 5-10 minutes of the show take an unexpected turn into HGTV territory while Tony learns about the art of Ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement. Really? Look, I don’t doubt that it’s a cool art form, but it really did seem out of place in your typical No Reservations episode that centers on gluttony, shooting firearms and killing animals. Perhaps Tony is becoming more mellow as he ages?

All the arts and crafts have made Tony hungry, so he heads to a famous Yakitori joint known for their top-notch chicken skewers. Let me tell you – there is not a single fingernail of that chicken which Tony did not eat in this scene, where he devours rare chicken breast, spleen, chicken sashimi, the chicken tissue connecting the liver and heart, chicken skin, and chicken tataki. I swear, I will not make any “tastes like chicken” jokes here. Tony makes a point of commenting on the raw chicken, which he finds surprisingly delicious. Apparently illness is not an issue, as the chicken is killed immediately before preparation.

Tony ends his adventure outside Tokyo with a visit to a knife-making shop in Sakai City, and with a traditional Kaiseki meal with chef Morimoto, prepared using fresh seasonal, regional ingredients. Tony samples some Cod sperm during his meal, but this kind of weird food indulgence almost seems routine at this point.

Appropriately, Bourdain ends his Tokyo visit with a trip to one of the city’s most famous sushi establishments. The sushi is simply made, amazingly fresh and accompanied by perfectly-made rice. Tony can’t help but hide his glee, proclaiming it the best sushi he’s ever had. Another reminder that when it comes to anything in Japan, the “devil is in the details.” Anthony Bourdain’s Japan is much of the same – an idealized vision of perfectly crafted foods, supreme attention to the little things and an overarching philosophy of minimalism. In modern Japan, that’s perhaps only half the picture – there are plenty of elements of Japanese culture, technology and bizarreness that Tony intentionally leaves out here. But for a show with a singular focus on food and spinning us a pretty narrative, it makes for a nicely packaged hour of television.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 12: Colombia

Location: This week Anthony is in Colombia, a country that finds itself the setting of one of South America’s most remarkable transformations. In the 25 years since the death of Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most notorious drug lords, this once war-torn country has emerged like a phoenix from the scars of the past. Colombia offers Tony a tantalizing mix of cultures, delicious food and beautiful mountain scenery.

Episode Rating: Four bloody meat cleavers (out of five) in keeping with last week’s rating system.

Summary: Cocaine. Violence. Political instability. These are the unfortunate but typical words that are associated with Colombia, South America’s northern-most state. For many years the country suffered under the weight of rival drug cartels, fueled by an insatiable demand for their chief “pulse-raising” product in the United States and beyond. It is these very depictions that Tony comes armed to confront upon arriving in Colombia. Within the episode’s first five minutes Bourdain has already pronounced his visit to Colombia as an unexpected delight. Colombia is literally a country-transformed and with killer food to boot.
Tony wastes little time diving into the country’s cuisine. He meets up with restaurant owner Jorge in Cartagena, a city on the country’s Caribbean coast. After sampling some delicious ceviche at Jorge’s restaurant, the pair take a trip to Cartagena’s central market to shop for some fish. Mr. Bourdain looks like a kid in a candy store as he conducts taste tests on all manner of exotic produce – five types of mangoes, strange orange-lime hybrids, pretty much anything fruity and delicious is available and there for the tasting.

To top it off, Tony enjoys a hearty local dish consisting of seafood rice, chicken, fish and turtle eggs, the local delicacy. Ashamed that you’re eating an endangered species Tony? Although our host gives the ethics of turtle egg-eating momentary pause, the egg is already well on its way down his digestive tract before the issue comes up. All of you just promise you won’t try any turtle eggs if you decide to visit Colombia, cool?

Soon we are transported to Bocagrande, one of Cartagena’s flashiest neighborhoods, where Tony boards a small water taxi for a trip to a small fishing island just across the bay. The rustic island stands in stark contrast to the flashy mainland high rises, and Bourdain takes the opportunity to enjoy a laid-back lunch with a local free-diver, who catches him a Caribbean lobster for lunch. Throw the words fresh, lobster and rustic island together and you don’t need to add much else – the story basically tells itself. It was almost tortuous to watch him eat it all and not get a taste.

The next and final stop on Tony’s Colombian odyssey is Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia and one of its most notorious. The crew visits Queareparaenamorarte (try pronouncing that one), a restaurant that serves traditional Colombian cooking from across the country. Tony gorges himself on a mouth-watering array of foods – a plate of chorizo, rice soup with meat, avocado and plantains, flank steak and tamales de tilapia prepared with coconut, plantains and passion fruit sauce. All the while he’s downing shots of aguardiente, the local Colombian rum, with his hosts. C’mon did you really think we could have an episode of No Reservations without Tony getting drunk?

And we’re just getting started. In a show renowned for its gluttony, Tony’s Medellín visit turns into one of the most gluttonous we’ve probably ever witnessed. Bourdain has breakfast at the “How Yummy” restaurant at the Plaza Minorista market in Medellín. After an appetizer of empanadas, he dines on Calentao, a typical breakfast plate of leftover rice, beans, fried eggs, fried plantains, an arepa covered in cheese AND meat. In what has to be the line of the episode, Tony decides that Calentao “makes the Grand Slam at Denny’s look like a carrot stick.” Heart attack anyone?

Clearly not yet full from his gigantic breakfast, Tony has an even bigger lunch, consisting of a plate with beans, salad, rice, fried eggs, pulled pork, an arepa, chorizo and chicharron. Good god man, please make it stop. It’s almost painful to watch a human being eat this much food. But then again, it is a cooking and eating show – who am I to judge?

Tony wraps up the episode with a visit to the some of Medellín’s rougher barrios for a traditional Sancocho lunch and a little local culture. His hosts are the neighborhood’s residents – people who have experienced a dramatic rise in their standard of living in recent years. What was once the training ground for the Colombian drug cartels and their armies of mercenaries is now home to young adults who have started their own hip-hop crew, a filmmaker and a talented young chef. Thankfully Tony spares us the “kumbaya” moment at the campfire and gets back to what he does best – eating some tasty food and hanging out with his guests.

Bourdain’s examination of Colombia offers the country high marks and an optimistic road to the nation’s future success. It’s the type of country that only Anthony Bourdain does best – a place cluttered with misconceptions waiting to be corrected. And although a “human interest” angle was definitely woven into the episode, No Reservations: Colombia was really all about the food. Tony’s focus on the country’s diverse and delicious cuisine definitely made this a surprising and very enjoyable episode to watch. But more than that, I found myself wanting to go visit Colombia – for any travel show, this is the pinnacle of a successful episode.