Thursday, June 29, 2017

Peregrinating Prague

So after Brno it was off to Prague for a few days. 1st stop the castle which along with Charles Bridge stirred some dusty memories from my visit over 15 years ago. Perched upon the hill, this sprawling complex began in 870 and now host a series of building from different eras like an architectural pix and mix. It is a collection of churches, palaces, halls and gardens. And of course a cafe for hungry tourists such as myself. I happened to catch the changing of the guards, with only a few tourists trampled out the way. Great views across the Vltava from up here, but of course busy. Strolling back down past the busker playing a sax (or was he strangling a cat?)

Back down at the old town square, and like most places in Prague, there is more fantastic architecture everywhere you look. Great city to just stroll around and see where it takes you. Walking past Cafe Neustadt, I came across a large Franz Kafka statue and nearby was a small film museum.
This has some cool handpainted background art from animations to achieve parallax scrolling. Interesting to have a look around, even had some VR stuff to try out.

Near Wenceslas Square I made the mistake of jumping into a cafe for a beer, not cheap, almost UK prices :) For some reason there was pole vaulting going on at the end of the square. Looks a lot higher in person. The malls here seemed to be used like passage for indoor shopping. A curious sight inside one is a dangling statue of King Wenceslas riding his dead upside horse.

In the Alchemy Museum I made some gold, okay not really, but here was where people did try. Hidden in basements below, with the smoke being funelled out the house chimney. Scientists and dreamers toiled away tried to perfect the art of alchemy. We had a tour of the small dungeon below but my favourite bit was the entrance. The classic 'pull the right book from the bookshelf and it opens a secret door to lead you down a dungeon' trick.

Back out in the sun I headed for the Technical Museum which was like a transport museum. A large 3 storey exhibit halls takes you through the history of bikes, motorbikes and cars. But it turns out that was just one section of the Technical Museum with another 5 storey building highlighting the sciences. By the end of that I needed a drink, luckily it happens to be next door to one of the best located beer gardens in Prague. Letna Beer Garden is perched on a hill across the river from the old town. Grab a Pilsner Urquell and soak in the views!

Monday, June 26, 2017


I was planning on going to Prague from Olomouc, but apparently leaving it to the last minute for Prague weekend accommodation is a really bad idea. So a swift change of plans saw me head to Czechia second city, Brno. I had accomodation a few tram stops outside the city centre.
I had to wait a while to get checked in, in which time it absolutely lashed it down. If I had got checked in straight away I would have been soaked, so worked out okay!
I headed back into town but the rain came down again, so I ducked into the nearest place which turned out to be a trendy cafe Skog

The next day, back in the city centre, I headed up to the viewpoint from the main Cathedral. Beat the crowds, as the narrow viewpoint really only holds one person!
Good views over the city and a decent way to try and get oriented in a new city.
Back on solid ground I visited the Capuchin Crypt. Over the door lies the latin phrase 'Tu fui ego eris'(I was you; you will be me) or more liberally translated means 'you'll end up dead as well'.
Within lies the bodies of over twenty Capuchin monks, who after death were laid in the vaults with a brick pillow. Over the years the bodies have remained there, and in the cold dry air eventually mummified.

Above ground the Cabbage Market Square has more than just cabbages, it's been a market square since the 13th century. However you can also visit the labyrinth underneath, where the traders used to store their goods. Another day and back underground! Over time these cellars became connected by tunnels. Unusually everybody else on the tour was Czech, so I had an audio guide in English.

For food I went to Lokal and had some roast beef & gravy with bread dumplings and of course beer. Straight from the beer tank!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Into Czechia

Czechia being the new name for the Czech Republic.
First stop Olomouc. This small city lays in the east of the country.
After navigating from the bus station to the guesthouse in a very indirect manner. I headed into town for a look about. Much quieter than other places I had been.
The main old town easily navigable on foot. A couple of town squares are to be found with a plethora of statues. The grandest is the Holy Trinity column which UNESCO describe as"one of the most exceptional examples of the apogee of central European Baroque artistic expression". So there you have it!

I popped along to the art gallery for a gander, as interesting addition is the ability to get up to the loft and a single protruding boxroom with views over the city.

Nice gardens line one edge of the old town. Although there is plenty of roadworks being done nearby as the dig up the streets for tramworks. Hmm, sounds familiar.
Back in the park I found a science museum which had some cool exhibits, seemed they were in the middle of setting up a beer garden out front. Czechs really like their beer and starting at 30cz/£1 for a pint it's really cheap. Although later in the day I did have to step over a few people rolling around drunk in the streets!

Another main sight is St. Wenceslas Cathedral, an imposing building built high up and fortified by city walls. I took a wrong turn and had to walk round those walls.

I was getting some laundry done when I looked out and spotted a guy walking a tightrope across the river, he wasn't very good he fell off, luckily he had a safety rope!

Saturday, June 17, 2017


From Krakow it was a bus to Katowice.
I had a hotel booked and the bus whizzed past it, so had to hike back, turned out to be about 20 mins from the bus station. Still it was cheap! Beside the university and not too far from town, although first impression of some of the side streets looked like they might be condemned. The city centre was much better with a large pedestrianised area with pubs and restaurants, busy for a Monday. A couple of new shopping malls, one encasing the rail station. I had a quiet first day just nosing about and relaxing, museums were closed. I purchased a train ticket that night when I eventually worked out where I could buy the ticket.

Early the next day I boarded a train, an hour later I was at Oswiecim, 20 minutes walk later I was at the gates of Auschwitz.

1.1 million people died here.

Now converted into a memorial museum, each block houses exhibits on the camp.
Detailed records, photographs of the victims, their internment & death dates.

Other rooms simply show the scale of the camp, with a large room just filled with shoes.
40,000 pairs of shoes fill the room. Collected in just 4 days.

After a few hours, it was time to visit the other section of the camp, Birkenau, This has been left as is, and you can walk around it. Occasional information, such as this is the woods where people were queued up when the chambers were full.

A taxi got my back to the train station and the next day it was off to a new country.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kracking Krakow

Arriving in Krakow I eventually found my place, don't always trust GPS. Had to use an address, old school.
Turned out to be a rather large apartment on the top corner of a busy road & tram intersection, just round from the local metal bar.
Nice quiet spot then.
As it was nearby I headed to the National Museum, this monstrous museum had three man sections: armoury, decorative art and paintings.
Also on temporary exhibit of Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine - a pure stoater.
The top floor art exhibits was the most interesting going from traditional painting to modern art with some weird stuff in between.

Krakow picturesque old town is surrounded by a thin stretch of green, the local gardens.
I entered past the university and headed for the main square. This huge square serves as a focal point for pubs & restaurants.
Plenty of people milling around, drinking beer. A strange mixture of tourists, Cracovians and even the occasional Franciscan Monk (not just in Dan Brown novels).
A bride was taking photos in the square, then noticed by a group of Argentinian tourists started singing and chanting, which only drew out the drunken Brits into a singsong. I had a wander around town, going out to Kazimierz and back along the banks of the Vistula.

At night I decided to be cultural and attend a Royal Chamber Orchestra concert in St. Adalbert's Church in the main square. The acoustics were excellent, just a small space, all seats taken. Played a mix of classical and film scores.

The next day it was on the train to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine. A lengthy queue proceeded a lengthy tour.  A lot of descending of stairs, but was well lit and I didn't feel claustrophobic.
We headed down one level, and saw some equipment, apparently they only stopped using horses 15 years ago. However the real star, was the vast chambers and the intricate carvings down throughout the lifetime of just 3 miners. So a man-made wonder, rather than a natural one. Salt chandeliers, salt tiles, even had the Last Supper carved out in amazing detail.
Busy tour though, just me and 10,000 other people, which meant that the tour groups would shuffle from room to room. The guide said goodbye and we had to get back to the surface ourselves. Through the underground gift shop & restaurant of course. After a bit of a hike, joined the queue for the lift back to the top, you don't want to be at the back of this queue. "Well be out by tomorrow", somebody quipped. I got squeezed into a lift with about 8 other people, this was definitely claustrophobic but short as the lift whizzed back to the surface. Glad to be back in fresh air after 3 hours underground, however rain was threatening, so legged it down the train station and back to Krakow.

At night I had a stupendously giant 'Polish Plate' It contains potato pancakes with goulash, dumplings, pork chop, cabbage roll, krupniok, polish bigos, white sausage and roasted potato.
Didn't get close to finishing it.

Another day, and it was off to the Castle. This must be one of the most confusing tourist attraction in Europe. You had to buy separate tickets for each attraction. There are at least eight, so you can do any combination of them. This results in an extremely slow moving queue, with lots of confused tourists. Luckily the entrance ticket office is running at full capacity today with a staff of one.
Later I found out that it would have been much easier and quicker to walk beyond that ticket office and purchase it inside.
Anyway I opted for the State Rooms, Lost Wawel & Dragon's Den. The state rooms were a series of formal rooms with artworks and decorations, but nothing to rival Warsaw Royal Palace.
The Lost Wawel turned out to be more like an archaeological exhibit of the old chapel on the which the castle has been built upon. Lots of rocks.
The main gardens were the best bit alongside the Cathedral (and ticket free!). Finally the Dragon's Den was the exit path down through the caves and out to the Vistula River, it was pretty cool, probably due to the dampness.

I opted for another Polish meal, this time in a cafe, one of the strange things about the menu was that all food is listed by weight. So I had the Zurek soup (250g) followed by the Pork Chop with tatties & cabbage (350g). The pork chop was really a schnitzel, flattened out, breaded and fried.
Another giant meal which I was unable to finish! Shouldn't have order the soup, that had a boiled egg and sausage in it, so not exactly a light starter.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Winging it in Warsaw

A last minute flight booking saw me scrabbling around trying to get organise on Monday and setting my alarm for 04:45...
After getting underway I was promptly soaked as soon as I stepped out the front door by some early morning storms. I'd decided to book a bus ticket into town, as this being RyanAir dumps you in the middle of nowhere, Poland. Somewhat optimistically I opted for the 12:00 bus after a 11:35 arrival. Still we actually landed 20 minutes early and got through passport control smoothly enough. In fact I even caught the bus before, as there was a seat or two still empty they let me on.

I had rented an apartment in Warsaw for 3 days. But first I has to pick up the keys. After arriving it wasn't too far away, just has to find the right spot. GPS to the rescue, not sure how I found anything before travelling with a phone. Got the keys and jumped in a taxi, turns out the driver is a huge Newcastle fan and has visited there to see them play a few times.
Got into the apartment, inside a gated community of 4 tower blocks. I was on the ground floor,
the pipes from floor to ceiling in the middle of the room were an unexpected addition.

I headed out for a look around, the nearest sight being the Chopin Museum. Spotting a sign for lunch I jumped into the attached restaurant and very swish Tamka 43 as they were offering a 3 course lunch for around £7. Seem to be classified as modern Polish cuisine, nice soup with egg for starter, turkey main and big dunch of brownie. Then onto the Chopin museum. All very nicely presented, the museum showcases the life and times of Poland most famous pianist & composer Frederic Chopin. It has a a listening room where you can put on headphones and hear some of the various pieces, split up by genre. Etudes, ballades, nocturnes etc.

After my big late lunch I opted for a light dinner, Belgian fries caught my eyes and then a zapiekanka. That is an open toasted sandwich a bit like a pizza with various topping and sauces.

The next day I tried to go the the Copernicus museum but it was 'full' as it had a sign up saying no more visit as it had reached it's daily limit. Hmmm, okay, anyway onto the old town and the market square. The old town isn't really so old as has been rebuilt after world war II. A highlight was the spectacular Royal Palace. The rebuilding completed in 1984, was funded by a worldwide donation drive. Inside rooms are gilded, marbled or intricately decorated, adorned with paintings. An impressive sight!

Later that night I returned to the old town to take in a Chopin piano recital. In a small room the pianist started with Ballade no 1 in G minor, ending with Polonaise in E flat minor, opus 26.

Next day it was to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, with an audio guide I went round there, along with giant tour groups of hyperactive schoolchildren. Still at least I had headphones in. Inside was a B24 bomber, many rooms about the uprising and some original film footage. Up on the roof there was a viewing platform, limited to 10 people, so maybe that was why nobody else was there.

Later it was time for a spot of lunch, so I popped into a local lunch spot, seemed to be a mix of cuisine, not just Polish. I opted for the duck and a big coke, but actually I got a big duck and a coke. Which would explain why it cost more than I thought. A bit of a duck up.

Then I had a look at the tallest building in the country, the Palace of Culture and Science, which was a Russian gift to the people of Poland. There is a viewing platform if you wish to go up it, but I just headed inside and found a small museum with an exhibition about evolution, mostly dinosaurs.

Back having a look around the old town I found 'Horror House' and decided to venture inside.
Knock & wait, get told to wait outside for 15 minutes. A couple of guys come out looking a mixture of terrifed and relieved. Soon I go in then a nice woman gets you to sign one of those unsueable forms, abdicating them of your heart attack. "Do you wanna play a game?"
You enter a dark room, no not dark, pitch black, can't see anything. There are rubber strands draped down for doorways you go through them. Eventually ended up crawling in the complete darkness on all fours as the space gets tighter. Then you get a torch! But it's crap.

Next you have to solve some puzzles and unlock the doors, i.e. find the combination or the key for the lock. Meanwhile an occasional ghost will scream in your face, or grab you. After a few more rooms and scares, I got chased out by a chap with a chainsaw. Now I was like those earlier guys terrifed and relieved.

For dinner some traditional Polish food, dumplings with cheese, potatoes & onions (pierogi ruskie) with a cup of beetroot soup and some steamed veg. Ending up being loads of food and had to give up near the end.