A Travellerspoint blog

September 2015

Leaving today

sunny 80 °F

I'm finally going to Prague! I started planning this trip 7 or 8 years ago. However, life happened and I just kept putting it off. This summer, I decided it was about time.

This will be my longest trip overseas and by myself. I'll be gone a full 2 weeks this time. I keep telling myself - and anyone who will listen to me - that when I retire in a few years I'm going to spend the first year traveling. I need to start learning how to be on my own for longer periods of time if I'm going to go through with this master plan.

For this trip I'm going to the Czech Republic and Poland. I figured if I'm going to lose a day each way with the transatlantic flight, I should make it worth my time and get two new countries in. HA!

I'm hoping to have decent internet access so I can update everyone with what I've seen and to share a few pictures. Mike and I have this theory...the more "advanced" the country, the worse the wi-fi. Neither of us have had issues finding internet access in Nicaragua, Ukraine or Cyprus. However, both of us had the hardest time finding reliable wi-fi in Germany and Mike had issues in Italy this year. So it may sound strange, but I'm hoping both Czech Republic & Poland are behind the times enough to support abundant wi-fi. Stay tuned.

So, sit back and relax. I'll deal with the cramped planes and testy airport security folks so you can read all about it at your leisure. I'll be having the time of my life!

Posted by Jengt 07:49 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Ahhh, Prague!

sunny 62 °F

Wow, it's been a busy few days to start my trip to Czech Republic and Poland. I hit the ground running as soon as I got into Prague on Tuesday. I like to take the first few hours in a city to get my bearings. That's not so simple when the streets are narrow and winding like they are here. I still managed to find the major sites I wanted to see right away - Old Town Square, the Old Town Hall and the Charles Bridge. I climbed the stairs to the top of the Town Hall to get a bird's eye view and to get my bearings. Little did I know that climbing is going to be the watch word of the week. Seems everywhere I go, I have to climb stairs or some crazy hill to see what I want to see?

Old Town Square from the clock tower

Astronomical Clock

Prague Castle at night from Charles Bridge

My first climb was up to Prague Castle. I stopped by St. Nicholas Cathedral on the way. At the top of the hill is (according to Guiness) the largest castle in Europe. I have to say, it is certainly the largest I've ever seen. There's a HUGE cathedral (St. Virus Cathedral) within the castle walls.

Crossing Charles Bridge

St Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

Inside the Old Royal Palace, is a large hall used for coronations. At one time, they held jousts inside! There is a special staircase for the horses to enter. The castle is so large It took me over 1/2 a day to get through everything I wanted to see there.

Great Hall in the Royal Palace

After the castle, I headed over the river to the Jewish Museum and the Jewish Cemetery. I had read about the cemetery but couldn't believe it until I saw it for myself. It's been "closed" to new burials for over 200 years. However, they have brought headstones from other Jewish cemeteries and it seems they've just piled them in. It had just started to lightly rain which added to the palpable sense of mourning there.

Jewish Cemetery

Jewish Cemetery

After leaving the cemetery, I wandered back towards the Old Town Square and my hotel. I grabbed a quick late night bite for dinner and called it an evening.

The next day I was off on a day trip to Kutna Hora which is about 40 miles outside of Prague. In Kutna Hora is one of the strangest things I've ever seen...an Ossuary. Apparently, at one time it was normal to take the bones of the dead and pile them all in a single place. However, that's not the strange part. In Kutna Hora, they decorated the Ossuary with all the bones. There is a bone chandelier and four huge pyramids of bones! It was all very weird. Upstairs is a simple, normal chapel and outside is a normal cemetery. I have to say, it was more than a little creepy!

A chandelier made of bone!

A crest made of bones

Tombstone outside the Ossuary

Also in Kutna Hora are a couple of churches, including St Barbara's Cathedral - another fantastic cathedral with flying buttresses and gargoyles everywhere. Inside are beautiful stained glass windows and frescoes along the walls and ceilings. Along the back is a chapel for the silver miners. At one point, Kutna Hora alone supplied 60 percent of the silver in Europe!

St Barbara's Cathedral

Frescoes and stained glass inside St Barbara's

Chapel of the Miners

Speaking of silver, they offer tours of an old medieval silver mine. I had to check it out, since I was there. They start with describing the conditions the miners had to endure and then we all donned a cover and hard hats and descended into the top level. Everything below has flooded. It was very interesting to see how they mined the silver with nothing but a couple of hammers and tiny oil lamps. How they managed to get as much ore out as they say, I'll never understand. They showed a painting of the town and all of the different trades that went into producing the coins made from the mines. The guide drew our attention to the fact they showed forests all around the town. He said at the time it was painted, the area had been pretty much deforested due to the constant use of wood for the mining and smelting process. The trees have since grown back.

Thursday, I decided on another day trip. This time to Karlstejn Castle. Remember my comment earlier about climbing? Another castle, another big hill. Karlstejn started off as a medieval castle which was later morphed into a fortress for the Crown Jewels and treasury for the Holy Roman Empire. Like so many castles in Europe, this one can only be seen with a guide. However our guide was very knowledgable and allowed time for us to ask questions. We weren't hurried along like so many do. The castle is so strong, it held off a siege from the Hussites for nearly a yea. It was eventually taken but the Hussites never made it into the Great Tower. I really enjoyed this trip. I had thought about just staying in Prague for another day. I'm so glad I took the time to check it out!

Another castle on a hill - Karlstejn

The town of Karlstejn below the castle

Back in Prague, I had previously seen what appeared to be the Eiffel Tower. Built for the 1891 Exposition, it has a beautiful view over the city. Back from Karlstejn, I headed over to check it out. Did I mention it's on top of a HUGE, very steep hill? I got there late in the day when the sun had that wonderful golden hue and was shining over the entire city. What a beautiful send-off.

Eiffel Tower replica

The Charles Bridge

Prague from above

I truly enjoyed my time in Prague. I can understand why so many people visit. It grabs you from the moment you get there and stays I your heart.

Up next, my day in Cesky Krumlov.

Posted by Jengt 06:45 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Trippin' out

A day trip to Cesky Krumlov

sunny 83 °F

When researching Prague, I was looking a day trips out of the city. One place stood out - Cesky Krumlov. I had heard some wonderful things about the city. I also heard there wasn't time to do the city justice as just a day trip. It really needed at least a full day in its own - which is difficult since it's 3 hours out of Prague. So, I decided to go there for a day, stay the night and head back to Prague in time to catch my night train to Kraków. I'm really glad I did.

Cesky Krumlov castle

Cesky Krumlov is a quaint little town on a river with a huge castle (once again) at the top of a big hill. Of course. The town itself is divided by the river. The roads are twisty, narrow cobblestoned passageways. I found myself retracing my steps...a lot. I kept telling myself how much Mike would love and hate it there. Love it for the history but hate it because the streets are anything but straight and in a grid.

One of the winding streets

Cesky Krumlov castle

Of course, the main attraction is the castle. As I approached the front gate, I noticed a lot of people looking over the sides of the bridge. There, at the bottom of the moat were brown bears. Apparently, they keep brown bears as "pets" at the castle. I found out later that when the Bears die (of natural causes), the folks there take the bear skins and make rugs to put in the castle. To show how much they loved the bears.

Furure rug

One of the interior courtyards of the castle

Royal sleighs

The castle tour was quite interesting. Of course, like so many tours these days, no photos were allowed. There was one thing I would have loved to photograph but the guide was a stickler about no cameras. She even made us keep our phones put away! There is a golden carriage (gilt, of course) that was only used on one occasion. To take a gift to the Pope and to bring back the return gift from the Pope. It travelled a total of 6 kilometers. That's it! It was beautiful! Of course, you'll have to take my word for it.

St Vitus church from the castle

The rest of my time was spent checking out the city square, the St Vitus church (no photos) and wandering around the expansive castle gardens. It took me a couple of hours just to see the gardens!

Fountain in the castle gardens

Summer house in the gardens

Interior of the summer house

As an afterthought I wish I had left earlier in the day to allow a little more time in Prague. Still, no regrets. Cesky Krumlov was everything I had hoped it would be.

Posted by Jengt 22:54 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Kraków and Auschwitz

Learning from History

sunny 84 °F

I try to research my destinations before I get there. I kinda dropped the ball with Kraków. I knew in general what I wanted to see but I hadn't really timed it out properly. So, when I got to Kraków, I headed to the Old Town Square to get started with my to-do list. As I approached the square, I happened upon a free walking tour of the city. I did this in Edinburgh and really enjoyed it so I decided to give it a try here. The tour lasted 2 1/2 hours. We walked all over the Old Town from the Barbicon (1/2 block from where I'm staying) to the main square, the university - where Copernicus and Pope John Paul II studied and ending at Wawel Castle. Our guide had interesting stories at all the stops and hints on what to come back to see later.

St Mary's Church

The Barbicon - the last remaining city gate

Collegium Malus - the college both Copurnicus and Pope John Pail II attended (neither graduated from here though)

Wawel Cathedral

After the tour I was starting to drag. As much as I appreciated my sleeper cabin on the train from Prague, I just can't sleep well on a train. I did notice a definite difference between the tracks in the Czech Republic and Poland...the Czechs have slightly smoother tracks than the Poles. Both are better by a huge margin than the Georgians though!

Old Town Hall Tower

I wandered around the Old Town a little more then checked out the Rynek Underground Museum. It's a cool museum that shows parts of the medieval city square and artifacts found there. The city's ground level has been raised over 10 feet so you can touch and see the actual foundations of the original buildings.

Tuesday, I planned on checking out the castle and the Jewish Quarter. Many of the castle sites require a timed ticket - you can't enter until a certain time. Once again, no photos are allowed. I did try to sneak a few with my phone but the attendants were eagle-eyed and caught me almost every time. I was amazed that they still have many original paintings and tapestries hanging in the rooms and very few barriers! I could get my nose within 1/2" of them to see closely if I wanted. However, my favorite rooms were those that were "papered" with tooled and painted leather. Beautiful!

One of the bed chambers

One of the castle ceilings

From here, it's a short walk to the old Jewish Quarter. As I stated earlier, I hadn't researched well enough. It appears I got here during Rosh Hashanah and several of the sites were closed. I was still able to walk around and get a feeling of the place in preparation for my trip on Wednesday to Auschwitz.

A door number in the old Jewish Quarter

The Old Synagogue

I'd like to say I was prepared for Auschwitz-Birkenau. I'd be lying. I had visited Dachau - the first Concentration Camp - last year when I was in Munich. That was an eye opener. This was heart-wrenching. When I visited Dachau, I was with a tour group from Munich and I felt we had been rushed and that I had been cheated of being able to really connect with my feelings there. I swore I was going to do this right. I got online to book my visit directly with the Auschwitz Museum. You can enter the site without a guide, but you can't visit Birkenau nor many of the buildings at Auschwitz without one. I needn't have worried about feeling rushed. Our guide walked us through quietly explaining the massiveness of what we were seeing. You could hear the care for the victims in everything he said.

Thousands of eyeglasses left from the victims

Suitcases from those who thought they were just being relocated

I knew there were two different areas, Auschwitz and Birenau. I didn't realize the buildings at Auschwitz were former army barracks and are multi storied brick. Birkenau is what we all think of when we think about Auschwitz. Birkenau is where the Nazis honed their art of mass extermination. The enormity of the camp hits you as you enter the gate. Most of the original buildings are gone, but you can still see the chimneys where the buildings once stood. They seem to go on forever.

Buildings at Auschwitz

The 'women's' camp at Birkenau. Men and women were in separate camps.

One of the actual cattle cars the Jews were transported in

At the end of the tour, our guide answered the question many of us had asked him during the tour...Why is he a tour guide there? He explained that his great-grandfather was a political prisoner at Auschwitz for 9 months. He was transferred out to a camp in Austria for another year before being released. His Grandmother has been a guide there for over 30 years and he felt drawn there to tell the story so people will remember.

Plaque at the site of the gas chambers which were blown up by the Germans as they left.

I noticed, as we rode back to Kraków how different everyone was. On the ride there, everyone was talking and a couple girls were even singing along with their phone. The bus ride back to Kraków was silent. Everyone was quietly taking it all in and dealing with what they had seen and heard.

I know this day will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Posted by Jengt 23:06 Archived in Poland Comments (0)


A Phoenix rising from the ashes.

sunny 83 °F

As I landed in Warsaw, I wondered what type of city I'd find. I knew it had been heavily bombed during WWII and was pretty much leveled. However, they still have an Old Town. How? They rebuilt!

Castle Square

After seeing Krakow's old town - which had been spared from the bombings, I wasn't sure what I'd find in Warsaw. They've done an amazing job of building back using historical records and photographs to recreate as much as they could. Wandering around, you can barely tell it's not all original. Of course, there's much of Warsaw that couldn't be rebuilt exactly. However, they have not lost their roots.

Field Cathedral of the Polish Army

I had a long list of places to see in Warsaw so I hit the ground running as soon as I checked into my hotel in the Old Town. There were old squares, churches and city walls to see! The Old Town and New Town are divided by the old city walls - some of it still standing. However, that's the only way you can tell the difference. They both date to approximately the same time period.

Barbican and the old city walls

Nuns of the Holy Sacrament Church in New Town

The next day I put my Fitbit to the test. I was unable to decipher the public transit map so I put my feet to work. There were several museums, monuments and churches I wanted to see as well as remnants of the former Jewish Ghetto.

Monument to the Warsaw Uprising

Segment of original building with shrapnel and bullet scars

Palace of Culture and Science - a nice viewing terrace in the tower

One of the few remaining sections of the Ghetto wall

I definitely learned more about Warsaw before, during and after WWII. At the Warsaw Uprising Museum there were some very interesting displays. One of the most touching was a short film showing a simulated 3D "fly over" of Warsaw after the war. How the residents of that city had the heart to start over again is amazing. There were so few buildings left standing. It's not like a block here and there was destroyed...the entire city was decimated.

I did intersperse some beauty during my day of museums and monuments. Not far from the Old Town is Saxon Park. There once was a palace here but it was destroyed. The remaining gardens are a peaceful respite in the middle of a busy city.

Saxon Garden

Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers - in Saxon Park

For my last day in Warsaw, and for this trip, I decided to take it a little easier. I only had a short list of places to see and several were in the same place - Lazienki Park. On the southern edge of Warsaw, it's a sprawling park with palaces and beautiful landscapes. I could have spent a full day here just wandering and recharging. It was the perfect antidote to all of the sorrow I had seen in the previous days.

The Orangery in Lazienki Park

Palace on the Island

Ballroom in Palace on the Island - the summer palace

It may seem odd, but I had kept the site closest to my hotel for last. The Royal Castle was, quite literally, 15 feet from the front door of my hotel. The castle had been destroyed during the war. However, most of the furnishings had been hidden away just as the war started. They have faithfully rebuilt the castle as it was in the 17th century. It was truly a beautiful site to see.

Throne room in the Royal Castle

Ballroom in the Royal Castle

So here I am, on my way home. It's been a whirlwind two weeks. I came here to 'see the sites'. What I've seen is beauty, pain and hope. I think I'll treasure hope the most.

Rainbow on Castle Square

Posted by Jengt 17:24 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

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