out this Polish-ed Perambulation!
On May 18th we entered the EU through Copenhagen, then flew onward to Prague. Buildings on the way from the airport were 3 to 6 stories tall, as most Prague buildings turned out to be, and had flat walls in pastel shades, sometimes gray or brown. They looked like massive solid blocks, very utilitarian. We saw no bungalows and no lawns at first; later we saw grander homes with some lawns, but most people, at least in the city, appear to live in apartment blocks. Pre-communist buildings near the downtown are the same size but the architecture is more ornamented and elegant. We saw car models like Panda, Fabla, Corsa and Skoda on the streets.
Prague was an
adventure and a delight, a city that has finally emerged in the
past twenty years from the shade of Soviet influence and is
restoring its vigor to the days when it rivaled Paris as a
destination. May is a good month to arrive,when the lilac trees
are heavy with blossoms. We spent a week there at first and then
returned for three more days at the end of our trip. We'd
consider staying longer, and traveling about in the countryside
and to other Czech cities.
Our host for our
week in Prague was Damianne, an IT teacher and world traveler
from Ottawa who was born in St. Lucia. She graduated thirteen
years ago but couldn't get a job in Ontario so she's done four
year contracts in Japan, India, Sudan and now Czechia (the new
name for the former Czech Republic). She has built up some
seniority within the International school network, and she
enjoys it. She has no plans to try to break into the Ontario job
apartment has large rooms, with an empty one near the front door
for guests. It has eleven foot ceilings and a steel front door
that belongs on a bank vault or a prison range. It has a grid of
four stout bars that bolt down into holes in the concrete floor.
There are two locks and each key gets turned two or four times,
depending, I suppose, on how insecure you feel at that moment.
(Later in Krakow, Paulina’s door, in a secured newer
building with a doorman, still had a four bolt deadbolt lock on
her own apartment, and in our last BnB there were four doors
with two stage locks between the street and our own room).
The first thing we did at Damianne's, before she’d even arrived home to meet us (she’d left a key for us to get in) was to blow the electrical breaker to her apartment. We tried to plug a power bar into a straight-through plug adaptor, without recalling that the power bar was only rated for 120 volts. We were swiftly reminded with a flash of lightning and a puff of smoke. I hunted for a breaker to reset in the apartment and the hallway outside. Our consternation was put at rest when Damianne arrived, technically competent and island-calm, and located a breaker box on the ground floor that was easy to reset.
Damianne took us to a transit office in the very close Metro (subway) station where we were able to get Czech transit ID cards and a monthly pass for $16 each, which turned out to be a very good deal. The entire month of transit travel was not much more than we'd paid for the cab ride from the airport. We both got a senior’s reduction, a new experience that we now watch for opportunities to exploit. We used that pass over the ten days that we were in Prague, and saved a bundle of money.
We visited a
restaurant that evening with Damianne. It was Asparagus Festival
time (which coincides with Strawberry and Rhubarb seasons), and
of course we focused on Czech menu items and beer, which turned
out to be the best in the world - confirmed by later beer
drinkers in neighbouring Poland and Germany, and even a
bartender from England. I'd had a guest in Toronto who'd told me
so, but I'd been unconvinced until I went there myself and
tasted them. On the window ledge behind Deb stood a
stuffed fox wearing a leather bag like a poacher and carrying a
hunting rifle. This is where they ran our credit card twice,
although they returned the overcharge cheerfully and right away
the next morning when Deb called the credit card company to
check on her suspicion. Good thing we hadn't traveled onward by
The next morning,
after collecting our overcharge from the restaurant, we walked
over the nearby hill through which there was an ancient city
gate, and entered the Royal Gardens by the back way. Still a bit
jet-lagged, we found our way into the Royal Palace complex, and
from there after much gawking and photo-taking we arrived at the
the Malostranska Metro station and rode the rails under the
river to Stare Mesto, the Old Town Square and vicinity. There
was a great deal to see: beautiful architecture and very
entertaining buskers. A surprise
highlight of the day was when, with tired feet, we stumbled upon
a free one hour concert by the Mississippi University State
Choir. We listened to beautiful choral music ringing through the
ancient church, sitting in the cool air and resting our feet
just a few yards from the singers, who with the guidance of a
skilled conductor who never said a word, but made the
high-ceilings ring and echo like a bell with sudden cut-offs of
rich high harmonies. We watched the famous
Astronomical Clock mark 4 p.m., and ate "lupper" at the Golum
Restaurace. I will recommend on TripAdvisor that travelers stay
clear of this clip joint. You can read why in the
"negatives" at the end of this trip report. By the time
we'd finished eating, the Spanish Synagogue was closed, so we
walked across the Charles Bridge and then we rode the #22 tram
across a slice of the city. We shopped at Tesco Express and came
On May 20th, we
downloaded a free audio tour from Rick Steves, plugged in our
headphones and walked the Charles Bridge again, listening to a
fascinating commentary from our tablets as we strolled. On the
other side we dismounted the bridge down some stairs and read a
series of panels about Charles IVth, a.k.a. Karol and also King
Wenceslas, named after the saint who'd preceded him. This
is the 700th anniversary of Charles IVth who is credited with
founding this great city and its university, so there was a lot
of exposition about him and about his time. The Charles
Bridge is a "must-do" experience, especially with an audio guide
or booklet. Use clothing with traveler's inside pockets,
chain your camera to your belt and keep your day pack locked to
foil pick-pockets in the crowds of people.
We went to a
meeting of Couchsurfers, but that was only a so-so
experience. They tend to meet in pubs around tables where
you can't hear anyone who isn't right beside you, which is a
waste of a gathering of interesting fellow travelers.
However, we were welcomed uproariously when we entered and
announced ourselves as Canadians, because the bar patrons were
watching Canada play ice hockey against the U.S. and cheering
for Canada because the U.S. had just knocked their Czech team
out of the running. Thankfully Canada won 4-3, although it
could have gone the other way at one point. We also
attended a "karaoke" evening but it was too loud and for the
most part, "too young" for us, but a point of interest is that
the bartender was from Newcastle, England, and he, like the
Polish and German people we encountered later, confirmed that
Czech beer was simply superior to any in his country as well.
On May 21st we went to the Saturday outdoor market. Don't eat breakfast before you go! Then we walked up Wenceslas Square, which is actually a majestic boulevard with a statue of Charles IVth on a horse at the top of the avenue. It's a favourite meeting spot that everyone knows - they say, "Meet me under the horse's tail". We visited the Music Museum and collected photos of fascinating early instruments, and we walked up the Letna hill to see the famous Prague Metronome, a fitting monument considering the well-known saying, "Scratch a Czech, find a musician". There are street musicians everywhere, some of them Roma, some not: accordion players with fiddlers, guitarists, and others. We had traditional Serbian food in a small restaurant outside the door to Damianne's apartment building, but it wasn't great. It was mostly sausages and bread, and an expensive tiny dish of extra pepper sauce that we got tricked into including with our meal. The waitress brought it to our table already in a dish when we arrived, and we thought she was just treating us to another traditional experience. We didn't realize we could have simply told her we didn't want it - lesson learned. But again, beer is cheaper than water, and pretty good. I prefer the dark beers, which are sweeter than I'd like but tasty and smooth; Kozell Czeny or Staropramen are pretty good, and some establishments brew their own house beers which are just as good.
May 22nd: We took Damianne to brunch
and then she guided us on a walk past the Czerny Babies, the
Hunger Wall, the Lenon Wall and waterwheel, the Hollow Men, the
two pissing men, etc - David Czerny's creative and amusing
statues are all over this city and have made a strong impression
on the tourist crowd. We went up the Funicular Railroad on
Petrin Hill and saw the small version of the Eiffel Tower, and
had a beverage on a patio overlooking the city. In the
evening we booked our train to Krakow and I studied a bit about
Slavic languages; Damianne bought us Pho from the Vietnamese
restaurant across the street from her apartment.
May 23rd: we changed money at Stare Mesto in a particular currency exchange that Damianne recommended, as had other Tripadvisor writers, and which had the best rates in the city. You have to be careful - there are so many exchange kiosks with terrible rates, in comparison. We skipped the zoo even though Prague is very proud of its "must-see" zoo. Most many major cities say the same but the animals are usually the same ones in every zoo, and most from somewhere else, obviously. We went to the TV tower instead. We photographed the Cerny babies climbing it.
We stopped at Nameste Miru station, which has a 2 min 15 second escalator ride, the longest in the EU. The deepest subway tunnel actually runs between our stop at Hradcanska and the next, Malostranska. At Nameste Miru we saw a fine church and other gorgeous 19th century buildings, and then the Dancing House. We walked past the dynamic head of Kafka and into a gorgeous interior mall built by Vlaclav Havel’s grandfather, who was a builder and developer. He built the Czech version of the Hollywood studios. There is still a “Bio”, a functioning “kino”, in the building, but more startling is Cerny’s statue of King Wenceslas astride his dead, upside down horse with its tongue hanging from its mouth - an amusing and bold political statement.
We rode trams
after that, learning the cheerful features of my three mapping
apps, which followed me via gps, suggesting useful sites as we
passed. One gave the names of Metro (subway) stops, another did
not, but provided useful sightseeing suggestions along our
route. It was new stuff for me, al very cool. Triposo and Here
Maps were useful, plus the more well-known Google maps.
Other people have their own favourite travel apps for tablets
and smart phones, including translators which are getting better
with each passing year. We even tried a Google product
that translates a menu if you take a photograph of it with your
tablet. However, although it might work for some
languages, it definitely wasn't much use in translating our
May 24th - we spent the day at the National Technical Museum. It was fascinating but they wanted $5 to take photos and there are already tons of them on the internet, so I'll refer you there. Many sneaky photographers have videos on YouTube. We had supper with Damianne and a round of Farkle, and turned in early to be ready to catch an early train to Krakow in the morning.
May 25th: The
train ride to Krakow was great, really comfortable on LeoExpress
and quite cheap, $18 apiece. Halfway, at the border, we switched
to a bus on the same ticket, not as comfortable but still pretty
good and with a better (less industrial) view. Train
tracks generally run through the most industrial areas of each
a slender waif with a big grin and very
green eyes, met us at the bus station. She
patiently took us to the currency exchange and a place to buy
seven day transit passes, and took us home on the bus to her
neat apartment. We had an orientation walk in her neighborhood
until it began to rain, and then we went to a grocery store for
supper food and the experience of Polish food names and prices.
After teaching her to play Farkle, we were exhausted and went to
Paulina is a
translator with a very precise fluency in English. She seems to
be on a very even keel emotionally. She is intelligent and
resourceful, and has a head stuffed with entertaining history
and legends to illustrate your experience of her city. She
has a boyfriend named Jacek who leads "laughter workshops",
among other pursuits.
Enter the Raven!
May 26th. After a good breakfast, Paulina marched us to
the prehistoric Krakus mound that might be the earliest feature
in Krakow. It is one of four in the city. The mound is
named for "King Krakus", the earliest known chieftain of Krakow,
almost 800 years ago. His name and the name of the city
derives from the raven, a bird of special significance to the
earliest inhabitants, as it was to some First Nations peoples in
North America. We learned about the three other mounds of
significance, and we could see two of them in the distance.
To get there, we walked around a limestone quarry that contains extant set elements from the movie Schindler's List, based on the Liban Nazi labour camp which existed sixty years earlier in the same quarry. When you experience Krakow today, it is hard to believe that only sixty years have passed since those terrible days. How swift is change.
Deb: "Next we walked to the Jewish quarter at Kazimierz. We ate street food called zapiekanka. We walked through a Jewish cemetery which the Nazis had razed. They built their headquarters on top of the cemetery and used the tombstones to pave roads and for other building projects. After the war, whenever such stones or parts that could be recognized as such were discovered they were returned to the cemetery, but obviously not to the proper location. Many were used as tiles in the walls, as a memorial act of respect and regret.
"Next we went to the old town square. There were many tourists and local folk around as it is the holiday of Corpus Christi. We went into two churches which were were very beautiful. Pauline took us to some small passageways to show us how the renovations were taking place in some buildings, and to the remnant of the old city wall and gate into the old city. We had hot chocolate that was so very thick you could practically chew it. YUM!!!! We also ate some traditional Polish food for dinner, bigos (hunter's stew, with meat, cabbage, plums and wine), and Steve had a Polish beer. We took the tram home on our own as Paulina had gone to visit her grandmother with her parents, since it is also Mother's Day here.”
Steve again: I was intrigued by Paulina’s explanation of the willingness of current Polish residents to restore what they could of the Jewish presence in Krakow, although for now the only Jews who’ve willingly returned in any numbers at all are some religious groups. All children in school make an obligatory trip to Auschwitz. Although there is some tourism profit motive perhaps, there is an equal measure of deep regret - not guilt per se, because they blame the Germans for destroying their once diverse nation; and they’re also not very thrilled with the communists who came after the Germans. We found a willingness in all three countries during our trip to accept collective blame and complicity for the Holocaust, except for a few individuals who are proud to state that they or their parents resisted. Unlike the U.S. which it appears will drag its feet forever over admitting to the horrific abuses of slavery, and their devastation of First Nations communities on this continent. Canada shares that intransigence when it comes to residential schools and tearing young children from their families to try to eradicate the language and culture of "Indians" and prepare them to be useful participants in the Canadian economy.
In the evening Paulina led us through the board game of Kolejka (which means "Queue"), which she says is used to teach children what life was like in a planned economy with goods shortages, grinding inflation and long queues for every delivery, waiting as many as 48 hours in line. It was satirical but representative of a time she herself remembers, and she is only 25 years old. She showed us a photo of toilet paper rolls sold on strings, and remembers her father coming home proudly wearing a “toilet paper necklace“.
May 27th: We spent
the afternoon at Schindler's Factory, where I learned a great
deal more than I'd known before about the fate of Krakow’s
Jewish community. At Paulina’s I read more history in her
collection of books for guests. In the evening Deb and I went to
a CS international pot luck at a coffee shop/bar, a pretty odd
experience where we tried to join a group of about fifteen
people sitting around some tables joined together, but were met
with stony looks and not much of a welcome at all, not even from
the organizer. Some were from other countries, so I can't
blame the Polish participants. I think some sort of
shyness mixed with inertia was at play. They were not
quick to create a place for my chair at the table, and when I
squeezed in my immediate neighbours ignored me. I felt so
odd about it that I got up and sat alone at another table in the
room. They softened up when Deb began to talk to some
older women in the group and produced some maple fudge to share,
so I went to squeeze in beside her and met a couple of younger
ladies from Holland and France who were in Poland on an Erasmus
student exchange program.
May 28th: In the
morning we walked around Wawel Castle. We encountered the
fire-breathing dragon that lives in a hole beneath the castle,
then rested in the cool basement of Coffee11, where we were able
to use their wifi to let Ewa know where to find us. Ewa guided
us around the town visiting interesting buildings, churches and
restaurants that we hadn't already seen, and we snacked on
various Polish menu items and beer. Paulina invited Ewa to
come back to her house where they trained Deborah to use her new
Polish SIM card and I peeled veggies to put in Paulina’s
Thermomix machine. This is a fine machine which chops,
coarse purees and cooks an entire soup in one go, ready to
serve. We produced a version of Deb's sweet potato soup in
about twenty minutes flat. Paulina’s boyfriend Jacek joined us
and we had a great meal that included Deb's special salad,
Paulina’s new potatoes and her rhubarb pie with strawberries for
dessert. Later Ewa reproduced the soup for her boyfriend
Chris in Dresden, and pronounced it an excellent addition to her
On May 29th we visited the National Museum in the morning, bought a yellow orchid for Paulina who has a fondness for orchids and a gift for keeping them alive and blooming. We hugged farewell and took the bus and the #8 tram to Borek Faleki, where Mirek picked us up and drove us to his home in the nearby countryside. We met Cora the German Shepherd and the cat, Izabel his wife and their daughter Aga (Agnieszka). Iza had a lovely meal for us, and we visited until late in the evening.
May 30th. We rode into Borek Faleki with Mirek and Iza, took the tram into town and toured the underground museum below the main market building. The museum was ok, but the most useful part was a series of five English films near the end that covered the history of Krakow quite well. We stepped out for lunch at Polski Smaki,the second of three visits we made there. No wifi, but the food is cheap and tasty, and we ate traditional dishes. I had Bigos three times, and Deborah had goulash over potato pancakes, and golabki (cabbage rolls).
In the evening we attended Mirek and Izabel's small group dance class, which they do twice a week in the gym at a local school. We were a bit lost, but had fun watching and we tried out a few steps ourselves.
With Mirek’s assistance, we learned which bus to take to
the Salt Mine, which was a fascinating use of our morning. I
used Here Maps and Triposo to track our progress. We could have chosen to visit
Auschwitz, but that's a dark memory that we've seen enough
footage of over the years, and we'd already visited Schindler's
In the evening we taught the family to play Farkle, as Mirek continued to exploit his opportunity to practice his English. He works very hard at it, with the help of his daughter Aga's rapid-fire translation. Iza continued to ply us with food. Iza is an expert in Slavic languages. She understands English but is too much of a perfectionist to attempt to butcher her way to expressing herself in it, unlike Mirek, who battles through cheerfully, frequently slapping his forehead in exasperation over when to use "was" versus "were", etc.
June 1st is
Children's Day in Poland. Mirek sent us to see the Shopka
nativity structures in a small museum off the main square, but
that exhibit only runs from November to February, However,
the competition winners were on display in the museum gift shop,
and the shop girl kindly allowed me to take photos as she
explained the tradition. We toured the gallery of 19th Century
art, with an intermission to cross the square and see the
once-daily unveiling of the 700 year old carved wooden altar,
probably the finest example of this art form anywhere in the
world, in Mariecka church. It was created by Veit Stoss,
which we’d learned about in the films two days earlier, and it
is a National Treasure of Poland. When we enter a museum,
I always ask for permission to leave and return, whether for
lunch or some other purpose, and so far my request has always
been granted, although most museum staff seem to consider it an
odd request. Most people fly through a museum in a mad rush,
compared to me.
Afterward we met
Mirek, Iza and Aga for lunch at a restaurant that serves food
from Mirek’s hometown near the Lithuanian border. We ate
something like a long, large perogy, but with a potato flour
wrapping. It was quite delicious. Iza gave us a book, A Short
Course in Learning Polish, as a farewell gift. Mirek had brought
our luggage into town with him in his car, so he dropped us at
the bus station and we said our farewells.
Three hours later we were in Wroclaw, at dusk, experiencing the typical feeling of total disorientation that hits you when you arrive in each new city. It takes a couple of days to overcome. The bus was 30 minutes late and our host Lukasz had gone home. There was no wifi at the bus station, which was a temporary location while the new station is being built. Although there is free city wifi, coverage is spotty. No-one knew where the bus was that he wanted us to take. Fortunately we'd purchased the Polish SIM card for Deb's phone, which takes dual SIMs, so we could text him. Lukasz told us to meet him under the clock in the train station, but he described an orange building which turned out to be a different colour from our side, so we remained confused. We finally found our way by asking university aged Polish people, most of whom have studied English in school, although their parents had had to learn Russian. At Lukasz' house only some of the electrical circuits were working so we made supper together by candlelight in the kitchen.
June 2nd. Lukasz
steered us to the bus we could take back to the Stare Miasto,
where we connected with Iwona, who already had CS guests at her
home but offered to show us around town and help us negotiate
transit tickets, a train to Dresden for next Monday, and a cheap
hotel in case we needed it, which turned out to be
unnecessary. One host accepted our request and another
extended an invitation in response to our public trip posting -
Polish hosts are awesome. Iwona was a sweet and willing
ambassador for her city, a retired building engineer who'd
worked on many of the restorations all around us. She
bravely practiced her English, and we were grateful to have a
local guide who showed us quite a few things we wouldn't have
known about on our own.
After hiking around the city with Iwona, we returned to Lukasz’ house with some groceries. Deborah taught Lukasz to make radish greens soup from the radish tops in his garden, which were producing good tops and not many bulbs. Most people throw out the tops and don't know how nutritious they are to eat. Lukasz’s parents Marian and Maria arrived from Warsaw just in time to share it with us, and in the evening they ordered pizza, produced beer and fruit, and we talked for a while. We played a round of Farkle to teach them the game, a traditional CS and backpack traveler's favourite because it takes up no room at all in your backpack.
June 3rd. We bought our onward tickets to Dresden, then walked more through the old town and then the university area. We had lunch in a cafeteria where you pay for your food by weight, and then crossed the bridge to Cathedral Island. We ran into the University of New Hampshire choir and surreptitiously listened to them rehearse for their evening concert from an adjacent room. We returned to Lukasz‘ house. His father Marion had initially said that morning that we should eat out because he wouldn't be available, so we had, but he'd mixed up Friday with Saturday, and was chafing at his son by the time we got home, wondering where we were because he'd grilled us some fish. Then Lukasz the first drove us to Lukasz the second host. He and Karolina also had food waiting for us, so altogether we had three meals during the second half of the day instead of our usual one. It was too much sugar, and we were stuffed. Polish hospitality includes multiple dishes of foods, generally too delicious to refuse even when you're past the point of being hungry. We had a long chat with our new hosts and went to bed.
June 4th. CS ambassadors Paulina and Marcin met us in front of the Opera house. Paulina had offered us a room in her home but we'd already accepted Lukasz and Karolina's invitation, so they offered to meet us and show us around. They took us up the Frauenkirche Cathedral Tower for a view of the city, and then we walked and talked through the Japanese garden, and had cappuccino in the pavilion and fountain Centennial Hall, behind The Needle. At 3 p.m. we rejoined Lukasz and Karolina, rested and went out for a walk along the river and then to a Georgian restaurant for supper. We arrived home at eight, finally, and played a game of Farkle.
June 5th. Lukasz dropped us at the Panorama, which we saw with an audio guide, followed by two museums, the main one and the Ethnographic one, which were all on the same ticket. We went to the Konspira restaurant for dinner with Lukasz and Karolina. It was a delightful venue that was half-restaurant, half-museum, and we ate in a lovely old dining room on a long dining room table in grand style.
June 6th. In the
morning, Lukasz dropped us at the railway station on his way to
work. We left our suitcases in lockers near the train
platform and went to visit Iwona in her home. We met her
son and her friend Andrejz, who drove us around the
neighborhood, including the park monument to Chopin. We had
lunch at Chary Mary, which means "hocus-pocus", a restaurant
near the train station. We rode the slow commuter train to
Dresden-Neustadt station, found an ATM and withdrew Euros,
bought tram tickets and found our way to Thomas Schmidt’s
bachelor apartment. We experienced the usual disorientation upon
arrival in any new city, but it all quickly worked out and fell
into place. Thomas is a technical guy who is now happily
in a "people" job. He has an interesting past that
includes St. Petersburg, Russia, so he can speak German, Russian
and English, and perhaps other languages. Like Paulina
and, it seems, many CS hosts, his mother was a teacher.
There's something about having a mother who is a teacher that
results in children who are comfortable learning other
languages, have a natural curiosity and are naturally very
June 8th. We went downtown to Altmarkt Gallery to find a T-Mobile and solve the mystery of Deb's SIM card being unable to receive texts, then spent the afternoon in the Stadtmuseum learning the history of Dresden. It's a mediocre museum with almost no English translation and no audio guide to fill the gap. The tourist industry here seems far behind Poland and Czechia. But we got some insight and perspective, including the almost total destruction of the city 70 years ago. In the evening we shopped and made Deb's sweet potato soup for Thomas, who made an enormous and delicious salad, and also served us some of his homemade plum drink: vodka, plums and sugar sealed for a few weeks, shaken periodically - like a Rumtopf which works on the same principle.
June 9th. We spent
most of the morning in a café making travel diary notes, doing
email, buying our onward ticket to Prague, etc. Then we went to
Albertplatz, and walked down the promenade to the golden
equestrian statue of Augustus the Strong, who was the Elector of
Saxony and King of Poland. We walked across the bridge to Neumarkt, which is
actually not in Neustadt. We took tons of photos, visited
churches and the cathedral, and the Zwinger garden, where we
listened to the carillon clock play three o'clock. On the way
home, we went to the “most beautiful milk and cheese shop in the
world “, the Molkerei Pfund. Again, we weren't allowed to
take photos (maybe it disrupts the business of selling cheeses)
but there are dozens of great images on Google Images already,
probably courtesy of photographers who are sneakier than I
am. Finally we rested. We finished the day with a
spicy burger, kebab, beer, peanuts and an apple. For two
of our four nights at Thomas' home, he left us alone in his
apartment, which was lovely, like having our own place.
June 10th. Thomas
arrived to have breakfast with us, and we said farewell. We took
the tram to the new train station near his house and rode the S1
to Pirna. Matthias graciously allowed us to arrive early and
leave our luggage in the room, then we went to town to
sight-see. We have an entire out-building to ourselves, with a
steep spiral staircase, intrusive beams and sloping ceilings
that you can bump your head on, but it is clean, cozy and
private, with a comfortable bathroom.
Pirna is a jewel of a small town, and sparkling clean, partly as a result of restoration after devastating floods in 2002. There were floods again in 2013 that also affected Prague. They had to close the Charles Bridge and evacuate animals from the famous Prague Zoo. We tramped all over town of Pirna in most directions, including up the hill to the former sanatorium at Sonnenstein Castle, which has also been a prison, a barracks, and a palace with defensive fortifications before that, and very sadly, an extermination site for disabled people and for inmates from nearby concentration camps. It is an imposing building that overlooks the town. We walked around the church where Silken would marry Julius the next day, and photographed buildings in the old town square.
June 11th. We had
a buffet breakfast at the BnB, then dressed and bussed into town
for the wedding. Deb wrote part of the following
description, and I embellished it:
June 13th: "It was
a lovely occasion, with some quirky moments. The couple drove
away in a the cute vintage Wartburg car to which an officious
and rigidly rule-bound parking cop had added a ticket on the
windshield to go with the obvious wedding bunting - par for the
course, some of our hosts tut-tutted, in a country with brusque
servers and bureaucratic clerks, and unsmiling, stone-faced
people who stare suspiciously at any stranger in their
neighbourhood. We encountered those servers and clerks
ourselves, including a mean, by-the-book bus driver who treated
us the same way over a day pass ticket we'd unknowingly bought
for the next zone over - a common enough tourist mistake, no
doubt. It cost us $13 to correct our mistake, while I've seen
Toronto bus drivers commonly waive the fare for tourists who are
unfamiliar with our transit system or don't have exact change
for their fare when they arrive in our own city. Is this stern
culture a legacy of Soviet control, or has it always been their
Julius and his family are an oasis of warmth and humour.
The church was almost five hundred years old and quite
majestic. It rained on the reception, which was set
outdoors. The helium-filled balloons with postcards attached
which were supposed to be let go to hopefully be found
kilometres away and mailed back to the happy couple, were too
heavy to fly. But apart from those small aggravations, it was
the best wedding I have attended. There was a puppet show put on
by the father of the groom, Hagen, and his daughter Anna.
Brother Johann was an amusing and light-hearted tour guide for
our bus ride through the Saxische Schweiz on our way to the
reception. Anikatrine baked hors d’oeuvres and other dishes, and
Stefani created a delicious carrot cake wedding cake. Several
relatives dressed in black clothing in front of a black backdrop
did a black light show as neon blue flamingos, like the Famous
People Players here in Toronto, singing and dancing to familiar
tunes. The food included wild boar and deer shot by the groom's
family. The beverages were delicious and all the food was
excellent. There were, as you can imagine, lots of heartfelt
speeches, and of course, dancing.
"On Sunday we were included in the family gathering and so we had more time to schmooze with them and get to know many that we hadn't seen for a very long time and didn't know well. We came away with great affection and appreciation for all who were assembled there."
June 14th. We
arrived back in Prague by bus on the 13th. We changed our
remaining euros and Polish zloty to Czech korunas, then headed
to Vysehrad, an older fort and very pretty park and cemetery,
before joining Nada for lunch nearby. Nada is a former CS guest
of ours in Toronto. She sent us up a 303 metre pedestrian tunnel
through a hill, which we then climbed to view the third largest
horse and rider bronze statue in Europe, a national hero named
Jan Zizka. I looked forward to seeing the military history
museum behind him, but my climb was in vain; the museum isn't
open on Mondays or Tuesdays.
We stopped at our room for a quick nap, then met Damianne at a nearby mall food court. She introduced us to Sophia, a lady from Chicago who teaches at an international school in Mauritania, the western most country in Africa. Sophia’s 4 year old daughter Anna was irrepressible and entertaining, full of imaginative statements that baffled her mother, who asked "Where does she get this stuff?" Deb and I went to the JammClub near Damianne's afterward, but it was a poor effort - good guitar but too loud, soft keys, vocals volume too low, and the whole affair not well organized. I would have played and sung a few tunes for them, but instead I drank my beer quickly and we came home. After a month of travel, we're beginning to tire.
June 15th. We
reserved our seats for the flight home, ate leftover snacks,
then had a nice cappuccino and carrot cake at, of all places,
McDonalds, on our way to the Lobkovicz Palace and art
collection. The content of the museum was spotty in terms of
interest for me; much of it wouldn't be my first choice of
must-see items, but it was good for a rainy day. In spite of the
content, it was actually the best managed museum experience that
we've seen here, with an excellent audio guide. I learned about
an important Czech royal family and a bit more history that I
hadn't known anything about before.
When we came out
we walked around the small cobbled streets of Malo Strana
district, had large plates of traditional Czech food and beer at
a restaurant Deb had zeroed in on the day before. We went
to the market to buy a third kitchen witch, this one for Deb's
own kitchen. We'd previously bought two for friends who
take care of our garden, mail and outdoor cat while we're
traveling. You'll see the witch dance and sweep the bad luck and
evil spirits from our house when you visit us. It a
conversation piece that triggers chuckles. After that,
feeling somewhat soporific, we simply shopped for morning snacks
to use up our remaining korunas, and came home early to pack up
and use the wifi.
We can say, after
a month of experience, that Prague is the most interesting city
we saw, with Krakow second and Wroclaw the third; that Polish
people were the friendliest and most hospitable, with the
notable exception of our Dresden BnB host and some of Silken’s
new in-laws in Pirna. Michael Moore's new movie Where to
Invade Next describes Slovenia in terms that make me eager
to visit that country. My niece Andrea has just come back
from Croatia, which seems like a good neighbouring country to
visit. Mirek is keen to have us visit the Tatra Mountains
in Slovakia with him, where he loves to tent and hike. When I
visited Europe as a younger man, the Berlin Wall was still
standing and many of these countries were closed to me, or
simply inhospitable to N. Americans, but I have been happily
awakened to the delights of the people, cultures and scenery of
Eastern Europe. I'll go again.
The trip home on Air Canada Rouge was interesting - there are always new things happening in the world. There was no in-flight entertainment unless you had your own tablet or laptop with your own headphones and plug-ins (you could rent an iPad for $10 extra). We'd had no warning ahead of time about this, so if we hadn't bought tablets within the past year already and taken them with us for the trip, we'd have been out of luck - nothing to do for a nine hour flight but read and sleep. With your tablet, which you could recharge from an electrical outlet low down in the dark, on the support of the seat in front of you (no crew member mentioned that, I just happened to spot the outlet) you could download the Air Canada app from the wifi which was broadcast throughout the plane. You couldn't get anything more than the Air Canada entertainment selection; you couldn't answer email or access the internet, but I enjoyed several movies on my own tablet screen, at a more comfortable angle than the screens I've used on previous planes on the back of the seats in front of me.
The second interesting and new thing we experienced was that when we landed at Pearson we did not have to report to a customs and immigration agent right away. We scanned our own passports and entry declaration at one machine, which accepted our data with no red flags, then proceeded to an agent to explain my declaration of peanuts (a simple travel snack). The agent was a very friendly and cheerful person who joked with us and passed us through with no third degree...ya gotta love Canadian immigration officers, compared to most other countries, especially the one just south of ours.
Postscript: a few negatives, some of them as amusing in retrospect as they were annoying at the time. It seems that there is a steady stream of people you encounter as an older traveler who want to take advantage by scamming and/or overcharging, just about everywhere you go in the world. We are chickens to be plucked. These people are not the majority, but it's worth taking note of some examples, especially for a return trip or for friends and family members who might consider going. All of these happened to us within the first three days:
Our AAA taxi driver scammed us right away on our drive into Prague from the airport. He extorted a 20% tip by balking at making change for our 500 Koruna bill which we'd brought from Canada for that purpose. If we'd only known, we could have taken a public bus into town, for less money and no possibility of disagreement over the price. The meter said 418 and his dispatcher told me the fare should be not more than 450, which would have included a tip that is fair by Czech standards. Czechs rarely tip more than a simple rounding up to a single digit percentage. I could see from the expression on his face, and the "more or less" that he kept repeating in English that it was a calculated ploy that he'd used before. It was probably effective on tired older travelers just off the plane, more often than not.
Beware: at a restaurant, don't touch a small bag of appetizer peanuts sitting on your table, or accept a tiny bowl of pepper sauce that your restaurant hostess assures you should go with your dish; you will see extortionate extra charges for these on your bill. 30 grams of peanuts at the Golum Restaurace in Prague was priced the same on our bill as a half-kilogram package from Tesco, and the proprietor shamelessly called them "almonds". The same guy charged Deb more for a small bottle of water than for my beer which was double the volume, and then had the audacity to tack on a 15% automatic tip to the meal, including the above charges, which is not normal at all in Prague and some residents have even suggested may be illegal. It is a way to gouge the tourists. Although water from the tap is quite safe to drink, if you ask for a glass of water in a restaurant it will always come in a bottle and will cost more than a mug of beer which is double in volume. So you can order the beer, drink what you need and leave the rest behind, which seems anathema to me but I could get used to the concept in this circumstance.
If your credit card gets run twice because it “didn't work“ the first time, check that with your card company immediately, before any onward travel, so that you can return to the same restaurant and have the second charge reversed or returned to you in cash.
We also got overcharged for breakfast by an Airbnb operator
in Pirna who gave us Welcome sheets in both English and
German that listed the breakfast price of 7 euros, but when
we went to settle the bill and were in a bit of a hurry to
catch the bus to the train station, he charged us 9 euros
for each breakfast we'd had. We showed him his own
Welcome sheets but he insisted he had the right to charge
more because he'd listed breakfast as 9 euros somewhere on
"the internet" - but his Airbnb listing still showed the
price as 7 euros a week later. And I'd made my booking
through Airbnb, of course. It is reassuring to note,
however, that when I opened a "dispute resolution" with
Airbnb over this - I wanted to see how much control they
have over their "hosts" - they settled that small amount
with me. I don't know whether the host was penalized for
fiddling with his "bait and switch" pricing.
You'll find taxi drivers who will leave the meter running
while they carry on a conversation with someone outside the
cab, while you aren't getting any closer to your
destination. Then they'll expect a tip from a N.
American client, although they wouldn't from a local.
Don't tip those guys, they've already weaseled their own tip
out of you.
Everywhere you go, check and confirm the price before accepting a meal or any other service. Unlike N. America and most other countries we've visited, it is a minefield of attempted trickery - although admittedly, taxi drivers on every continent must be observed with x-ray vision.
[Notes about my photos: When I began these trip diaries 28 years ago, the internet was not filled with photos of the same places we were visiting. Google wasn't even founded until five years later. There were other search engines, but not as useful, and there was a dearth of content on the web, compared to today. The internet has grown up, and Google has become a behemoth that swallowed up my favourite slideshow-with-captions software, Picasa, and collapsed it. Flickr and Photobucket are equally poor at providing service equal to what Picasa used to provide. I edited, captioned and sequenced almost 600 photos on my own machine before uploading them into eight smaller slideshows, but in 2021 I had to transfer all those photos to albums on Google Photos, and repair the links in this text to those. Captions below photo were lost, except for some that I had typed directly onto the photos. Google photos does have a slideshow function, though.]
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