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 look 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
vigour to the days when it rivalled 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 travelling about in the countryside and to other
Our host for our week in Prague was
Damianne, an IT teacher and world traveller 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 likes it. She has no plans
to try to break into the Ontario job market.
Damianne's 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.
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 then.
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, very entertaining
buskers, and so on. 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, made the high-ceilinged
structure ring and echo like a bell with sudden cut-offs of
gorgeous 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 - although the food
was ok and so were the posted menu prices. 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 home.
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 traveller's inside pockets,
chain your camera to your belt and keep your daypack locked, to
foil pick-pockets in the crowds of people.) We went to a meeting
of couchsurfers, 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
travellers. 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.
May 21st: We went to the Saturday outdoor market - don't eat breakfast before you go! - and then 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 - mostly sausages and bread, and an expensive tiny dish of extra pepper sauce that we got tricked into including with our meal (the lady brought it to our table already in a dish, and we thought she was treating us to another traditional experience; we didn't realize we could have simply told her we didn't want it). 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: 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 (many major cities say the same but the animals are usually the same ones in every zoo, and most from somewhere else, obviously) and went to the TV tower instead. We photographed the Cerny babies climbing it. Stopped at Nameste Miru, which has a 2 min 15 second escalator ride - 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 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 (a.k.a. Karol or Charles IVth, if I learned correctly), 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. New stuff for
me, 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 (we don't know that, mind you) it
definitely wasn't much use in translating our Czech menu.
May 24th - spent the day at the National Technical Museum, fascinating but they wanted $5 to take photos and there are tons of them already on the internet. Lots of sneaky photographers have videos on YouTube. Then 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.
Paulina Wator, 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, 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 zonked out and went
to bed early.
Paulina is a translater with a very
precise fluency in English. She seems to be on a very even keel
emotionally, 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, 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 a holiday - Corpus Christi. We went into 2 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: 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 have an obligatory trip to Auschwitz, and 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.) We found a willingness in all three countries during our trip to accept collective blame and complicity (except for a few individuals who are proud to state that they or their parents resisted) for the Holocaust, unlike the U.S. which it appears will drag its feet forever over admitting to the horrific abuses of slavery and devastation of First Nations communities on this continent.
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 stoney 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, 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 all 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 recipe repertoire.
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, had farewell hugs 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, and 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 5 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.
May 31st. 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. 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 expression in it,
unlike Mirek, who battles through cheerfully, frequently
slapping his forehead in exasperation over when to use "was"
versus "were", etc. 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
June 1st, 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, there were examples - in
fact, the competition winners - in the museum gift shop, and the
shop girl kindly allowed me to take photos as she explained the
tradition. Then 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 - I guess 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 food like a long, large
perogy, but with a potato flour wrapping. It was quite
delicious. Iza gave us 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
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 and 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) and 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 not to be orange from our side, so we were still confused but 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 we turned out not to. (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 or with a commercial
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 traveller'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 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 - and we had, of course; 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, and 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. 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 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 8, finally, and played a game of Farkle.
June 5th. Lukasz dropped us at the Panorama and we saw that 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 - 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, and 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 curiousity and are
naturally very hospitable.
June 8th. 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 cafe 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. 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 some
sneakier photographers than I am. Finally we rested, and
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 also clean, cosy and private, with a
Pirna is a jewel of a small town, also sparkling clean for tourists - 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. Buffet breakfast at the
BnB, then dressed and bussed into town for the wedding.
Deb wrote part of the following description, and I embellished
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 it the atheist culture, the
legacy of Soviet control, or has it always been the Saxon
"By contrast, Julius and his family
are an oasis of warmth and humour in this culture. 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 annoyances, it was the best wedding I
have ever been to. 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 in the 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
"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 tiring a little anyway.
June 15th. 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; and 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, and went to buy a third kitchen
witch, this one for Deb's own kitchen (the other two we bought
were 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's a real conversation piece. After that, somewhat
soporificly, we simply shopped for morning snacks to use up our
remaining korunas, and came home early to pack 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 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, and 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
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, no email or websurfing, 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 are annoying at the time. It seems that there is a steady stream of people you encounter as an older traveller 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 being customers of these guys. 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 and was probably effective on tired older travellers 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...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.
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 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.