DAY 144: REFLECTIONS ON EASTERN EUROPE


A quiet day of reflection in Plovdiv 

After a restful night’s sleep we spent today doing as little as possible and relaxing. We intentionally kept a low profile and gave ourselves a day off as there’s a good chance we won’t be getting much sleep tonight on our overnight bus to Istanbul (our overnight bus leaves at 10:00pm and is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6:00am tomorrow). Today was our last day in Eastern Europe* which we’re actually quite sad about. It’s been a pretty cool few weeks, from our first day in Bratislava (Slovakia), to our time in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. We were a little daunted at the prospect of travelling through parts of this region, but overall it’s been great – so much better than we expected. The whole region is so much more “civilised” than we expected (shows how ignorant we were!), and the language barrier was far less of an issue than we expected (i.e. heaps of people speak English and the local languages are not that hard to comes to grips with). We have experienced so many great moments in Eastern Europe that we wanted to dedicate today’s blog to our favourite highlights….

*We’ve lumped the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the “Eastern Europe” category more as a geographical categorisation than anything: they’re all East of the Europe we were most familiar with. We understand that these nations are, in fact, unique and quite different from each other and we certainly don’t mean to offend or upset anyone by calling them Eastern European countries. We had also psychologically put these 6 countries into one category as they were all equally unknown to us and coming here represented something of an adventure for us.


Reflecting on a great few weeks in Eastern Europe…

 

 

THE CASTLES

This region has its fair share of great castles – from the immense edifices in Krakow, Prague and Budapest; to the ruins of Rasnov Fortress in Romania, Tsarevetsi Fortress in Bulgaria and Brezalauspurc Castle in Slovakia. We love a good castle and Eastern Europe has definitely satisfied our craving for historical fortifications. The castles in this region are far older than those we saw in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, representing the very best in Gothic architecture. With every citadel and palace we explored we also learnt a bit more about the history of the region and gained an even greater appreciation of what makes Eastern Europe so unique. The past few weeks have been fantatsic for a couple of castle lovers like us!

 

THE CHURCHES

Neither of us are religious, but we appreciate how pivotal religion is to many cultures, and therefore how important churches are in many communities. Churches are built to facilitate contemplation, introspection and meditation/prayer, and even for ignostics like us, churches can be incredibly beautiful, serene places. Throughout Eastern Europe we have seen and experienced some wonderful churches: from the steepled wooden churches of the Maramures region in Romania, to the beautiful blue Church of St Elisabeth in Bratislava, Kutna Hora’s macabre Church of Bones and the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Gothic cathedrals abound in Eastern Europe too – with their dark ambience, pointy steeples and gargoyles, Gothic churches have a captivating feeling about them that we just love. Best Gothic churches from Eastern Europe would have to be St Vitus Cathedral and Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest, and Matthias Church in Buda.

 

THE FOOD

We love food – especially good food. For this reason alone, Eastern Europe has a special place in our hearts. The food here has been SPECTACULAR and sooooooo cheap. It’s a miracle we haven’t packed on an extra 10kgs a piece over the past few weeks! Our fondest food memories include:

  • Trdelník in Czechia – think giant, hot, sugary, cinnamon scrolls that you can wear like a delicious bracelet. Mmmmmm….
  • Dumplings in all their various forms – from the small potato-and-flour knodels (they’re a bit like Italian gnocchi or German spätzle), to giant bread dumplings that are more like culinary canon balls than a dumpling! These are an absolute staple here; I think Eastern Europe would grind to a halt should dumplings disappear off the menu!
  • Goulash in Hungary. It’s such a cliché, yes, but Hungarian goulash is awesome! Juicy, tender meat stewed in paprika-rich gravy, served with the obligatory dumplings – does “comfort food” get any better than this?!
  • Papanasi are traditional Romanian sweets. They’re like giant, deep fried doughnuts; gauranteed to bump your blood sugar levels and cholesterol up over night, but absolutely worth it.
  • Dimitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb stew in Bulgaria. The woman is a genius.Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Shashlik (i.e. grilled meat on a sword) from Bulgaria. Salads from Bulgaria. Soft white cheeses in Bulgaria. Thick, creamy, fresh yoghurt in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgarian food in general was a highlight!

 

THE TRANSPORT

Getting around in Eastern Europe is an adventure all by itself. The roads are not that great, especially in rural Hungary and Romania, and most of the time people drive like they’re race car drivers. Some of our scariest moments on Eastern European roads have involved overtaking at 160km/hour with millimetres to spare; dodging donkeys, cows, horses and various other farm animals at break neck speeds; and choosing which side of the road to drive on arbitrarily. In contrast to the endemic speeding on the roads, the trains in this part of the world have been SOOOOOOO SLOW. The only thing slower than a Hungarian train, we decided, was a Romanian horse and cart. We expected to see horses and carts around, but the sheer number of them is amazing – they seriously out-number cars in rural Romania! We’ve seen 4-way intersections “clogged up” with horse and cart traffic, each giving way to their right like “real” cars. Awesome!

 

VILLAGE LIFE

If you like rustic, you’ll love Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Most of Romania is like one giant farm stay waiting to happen. The smells were a bit pungent at times, but the people so friendly and down-to-Earth that it was worth the olefactory assault. If you want to step back in time and experience a rural getaway, definitely look at Eastern Europe.

 

CAFE CULTURE

In contrast to the rustic rural side of life, we also loved the vibrant, funky cafe culture – especially in Budapest, Brasov, Krakow, Plovdiv and Prague. The coffee was good, the people-watching entertaining (who knew tracksuits could be so fashionable?!), and the vibe very cool. Eastern Europe sure knows how to do cafe culture well – much to our caffienated satisfaction.

 

STREET SIGHTS

The streets of Eastern Europe are unique: the cobbles, the mix of old and new architecture, the ubiquitous graffiti, and the slightly “rough around the edges” finishes. There’s nothing sanitised or pretentious here! On the darker side, the streets are also home to a legion of stray dogs (especially in Romania), stray cats (especially Bulgaria) and beggers. We realise that poverty and beggers are (unfortunately) common in cities around the world, and we generally subscribe to a philosophy of supporting charities that help people help themselves, rather than just giving money to beggers. In Bulgaria, however, this principle was sorely challenged as we saw lots of pensioners on the streets, struggling to survive and trying to supplement their meagre pensions by begging. Only it wasn’t quite begging; too proud to simply ask for money for nothing, these hardy souls find ways to provide a service or goods to sell for a few stotinki (i.e. Bulgarian cents). For example, in Sofia we saw an old lady with a set of bathroom scales beside her and a sign that (presumably) said something like “weigh yourself for 50 stotinki” (about 25 Aussie cents). And in Plovdiv there was the elderly gentlemen who had picked the last few wild flowers of the season and was selling possies for 50 stotinki. The simply dignity inherent in these acts was so incredibly touching.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

Some of our best memories of Eastern Europe will be the “wild” ones – from the unique rock formations of Teplice National Park, to the high mountain scenery around Bansko and the Tatra Mountains, there are some seriously spectacular views to be had in this part of the world. Being here in autumn has made it all the more stunning, as leaves turn yellow, orange and red and whole mountain-sides look like they’re on fire. For pure, unbridled wilderness, however, Romania once again wins the prize. The hills and mountains of Romania were just awesome (full of bears and wolves, mind you, but awesome)!

 

So to all the wonderful people we crossed paths with whilst in this part of the world: THANK YOU! Thank you for your patience as we butchered your beautiful languages; thank you for your glorious food and wonderful hospitality! To all the guides and museum curators we grilled: thank you for sharing so much of your passion for your home countries with us – through your eyes we learned to look at Eastern Europe in a different way. There’s no doubt this part of the world still has its issues, but there is a vitality and an energy here that’s thrilling – and the natural beauty of the place is captivating. It’s been a blast!

DAY 121: ROCKING OUT IN TEPLICE NAD METUJI


Hiking through the Krkonoše National Park

We spent most of our day today hiking through the Czech wilderness. It was awesome! A little chilly, but spectacular.

 

Hiking in the Czech wilderness – highly recommended!

 

 

After a few days in Prague it was good to leave the big city behind this morning and head out into the countryside. Four hours, 3 trains, a tram and a bit of a walk later we arrived at our home for tonight: Teplice nad Metuji. This tiny alpine town is up in the Krkonoše Mountains, way up in North-Eastern Czechia just 5km from the Czech/Polish border. The mountains around here are not huge (the highest peak is only about 1,600m), but they get enough snow that this area is popular with skiers in winter. In spring, summer and autumn the area is full of hikers – like us!

 

Riding the train across the Czech Republic looked a little like this. Actually it looked A LOT like that!

 

The village of Teplice nad Meduji is in the Krkonoše Mountains, just a few kilometres from the Czech/Polish border.

 

We’re staying in this very rustic (but perfectly comfortable) guesthouse tonight.

 

We’re only here for 1 night, on our way through to Poland (tomorrow), and it’s lovely being in a small village – a definite change of pace compared to the chaos and crowds of Prague! This place is tiny (populations around 1,800); so small in fact that there is no post office, supermarket or ATM/Bankomat in town. What we do have on our doorstep instead is a lot of forest and one of the world’s most unique collection of rock formations.

 

The unique rock formations of the Adršpach-Teplice Rocks.

 

With the sun shining and just a light breeze around, it was an awesome hike through the national park.

 

The Adršpach-Teplice Rocks are sandstone formations created over millennia by winds and water. These unique natural sculptures have been attracting visitors to the area since the early 1700s, and continue to do so. They lie within the Krkonoše National Park, just a few kilometres from Teplice nad Metuji. There is a hike you can do through the area that takes you through the forest, past many of the rock columns and through a couple of awesome canyons. That’s how we spent our afternoon. Very cool! 

 

We walked past some amazing rock formations…

 

…and through some wonderful canyons.

 

One of the best vantage points in the area is from the top of one of the larger rock columns, where the ruins of Střemen Castle can be found. Střemen Castle was built high up on the rock pillar around 1250 by the Lords of Skalice who ruled in the area. The castle was damaged and abandoned during the 15th century, leaving just a few chiselled cliff walls and stairs. Attaining the lofty heights where Střemen Castle once stood is not for the faint-hearted or vertiginous; given my dislike for heights it therefore seemed prudent to send Shane up to take the photos whilst I minded the back packs.

 

Views over the national park from the top of the rocky outcropping where the ruins of Střemen Castle can be found.  You can just see the little village of Cesky Krumlov in the distance too.

 

Many of the rock formations have names based on their resemblance to animals, people or things. Not sure what angle you have to look at some of them from to understand the nomenclature, but it was entertaining trying to work it out.    

 

Many of the rock formations had unusual names. This one, for example, is called “The Herring”. Doesn’t look very fishy to me, but maybe I’m not looking at it right?

 

It was just awesome being out in the forest, enjoying the serenity after so many days of sightseeing and history in Vienna, Cesky Krumlov and Prague. Enjoy the photos and we’ll let you know tomorrow evening how our first day in Poland went…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAY 120: KUTNA HORA’S MACABRE CHURCH OF BONES


A day trip from Prague to Kutna Hora

Prague is indubitably an amazing city, but with all the crowds of tourists in town cramping our style a bit, we decided we needed to “go bush” and get out of the city today. So we headed out to the small town of Kutna Hora to see its famous Church of Bones and cathedral (St Barbara’s).

 

Kutna Hora’s famous “Church of Bones”.

 

 

Kutna Hora is about 75km from Prague and easily reachable by train. The town itself is quite small (population about 20,000), and relatively modest by modern Czech standards. Up until the late 1500s, however, this little town was one the Kingdom of Bohemia’s most important centres; because, you see, it was here that all the coins for the Bohemian Kingdom were minted. Minting of coins began in Kutna Hora in the 13th century after silver was found in nearby hills. The wealth and status of the town increased dramatically over the next 300 years under the auspices of this medieval mining boom. Such a wealthy town obviously required a cathedral befitting its status and so St Barbara’s was built.

 

The cute little provincial town of Kutna Hora was once a wealthy, thriving medieval city.

 

The old part of town was lovely – all cobbled streets and beautiful buildings.

 

Kutna Hora is about an hour away from Prague by train, but a world away in terms of scenery.

 

 

St Barbara’s Cathedral was built in the 14th century, behind the town of Kutna Hora on a cliff overlooking the Vrchlice River valley and the oldest silver mines in the area. The church was dedicated to St Barbara, the patron saint of miners; and its interior is decorated by frescos depicting daily life in a medieval mining town. All very appropriate given the town’s fortunes were built on argentite mining and metallurgy! It was a stunning church – very striking with its 3 large spires and ornate Gothic exterior.

 

The massive St Barbara’s Cathedral in Kutna Hora.

 

The beautiful stained glass windows of St Barbara’s Cathedral.

 

St Barbara’s Cathedral was built in the 14th century at the height of Kutna Hora’s wealth.

 

 

As well as St Barbara’s Cathedral we also saw the Church of Our Lady is a Gothic church on the outskirts of Kutna Hora. It was first built in the 14th century and then rebuilt in 1708 after it was burnt down during the Hussite Wars. The church itself wasn’t quite as grand as St Barbara’s but is quite unique for a Gothic church in that it has lots of huge windows and is very light (most Gothic churches we’ve seen are so dark and eerie).

 

The Church of our Lady was rebuilt in the 18th century to be bright and airy, a rarity in Gothic architecture,

 

The Church of Our Lady, Kutna Hora.

 

The Church of Our Lady was built in the 14th century but then destroyed during the Hussite Wars.

 

 

The most amazing sight we saw today, however, was definitely the Kostnice v Sedlci (translation = Sedlec Ossuary). Or, as it’s often colloquially referred to: the Church of Bones.

 

The rather macabre Kostnice v Sedlci (translation = Sedlec Ossuary).

  

 

Kutna Hora’s Church of Bones is a tiny church, a little way out of town, built in the 12th century on the grounds of the Sedlec Monastery (which was founded in 1142). The church and its surrounding cemetery were originally just used by the monks, but then, in 1278, the abbot of the Sedlec Monastery went on a diplomatic mission to the Holy Land. He brought back to the monastery a handful of earth from Golgotha (where Jesus was crucified), which he sprinkled over the cemetery. This made being buried in the Sedlec Cemetery very popular and the number of graves soon reached 10,000 or more (which is A LOT given how tiny the cemetery really is). To further worsen the congestion, a further 30,000 plague victims were buried there during the 14th century. 

 

The Sedlec Church & Cemetery.

 

The Sedlec Cemetery is still used today.

 

 

Eventually the crowding in the cemetery got so bad that, in 1511, the monastery’s abbot ordered the graves dug up and an ossuary built below the existing church for all the bones. The story goes that the bones from the 40,000+ abolished graves were then arranged in piles and used to create some truly amazing structures by a half blind, slightly deranged monk. Exactly what his intentions were and why he designed such fantastic arrangements of bones, is not known, though his efforts have most certainly created something unique and fascinating.  

 

The skulls of many of the dead formerly buried in the cemetery are used to decorate the arches in the ossuary.

 

Skulls and femurs artfully used to create fantastical arrangements.

 

Bones were even used to create a copy of the local lords’ herald.

 

 

We expected the Sedlec Ossuary to be quite scary and creepy, and certainly it is a little macabre, but it’s also amazing and beautiful in its own way. The plaque by the door of the ossuary puts in quite well I think: “This church is not a celebration of death. It symbolises the equality of people before the throne of God.”

 

“This church is not a celebration of death. It symbolises the equality of people before the throne of God.”

 

The Earthly remains of more than 40,000 people were used to decorate the ossuary.

 

Using bones to decorate a church is certainly unconventional!

 

 

Overall we had an amazing day visiting Kutna Hora and its churches. The grand Gothic architecture of St Barbara’s, the bright airiness of the Church of Our Lady, and the bone sculptures of the Sedlec Ossuary have all left their impression on us, and certainly made for a memorable day. Tomorrow we leave Prague with our tour group, and head by train up into the mountains to spend the day hiking and getting back to nature. See you then! 

 

A great day in Kutna Hora.

 

DAY 119: PRAGUE – A CITY FIT FOR GOTHIC FARIYTALES


The old town, the new town, a castle, a bridge and just a couple of churches…

Prague is unique. It’s skyline is unlike any city we’ve ever seen – all spires and black, pointy Gothic roofs. And the vibe of the city is actually pretty cool – not at all as dodgy or unsafe as we were expecting; this feels like a city buzzing with creative energy and potential, but also one steeped in history and rich in heritage. Standing on Charles Bridge early this morning (before the hordes of tour groups descended), it was great to be able to linger and soak in the feel of the city. 

 

Loving Prague and it’s cool vibe.

 

We intentionally had an early start to our Friday, keen to set out and explore the city while it was still quiet (the sense of over-crowding is particularly bad in Prague because most of the streets are so old and narrow that it doesn’t take many people for you to feel like you’re penned in). Lucky for us it seems the city awakens quite early too so we easily found a coffee shop open where we could grab our daily dose of caffeine. We then set out across the Staroměstské Náměstí (translation = Old Town Square) and stopped to admire some of the sights we saw yesterday – just with a bit more sun around this time.

 

The Old Town Square this morning. Look – no people!

 

The silhouette of the Church of our Lady before Tyn is amazing, even at 7:00am.

 

Loving Prague in the wee hours of the morning.

 

From there it was a short stroll down to Karlův Most (translation = Charles Bridge), where we lingered for a while, enjoying views of the  Vltava River below us, the Staré Město (translation = Old Town) on one side and the Nové Město (translation = New Town)‎ on the other. Dominating the landscape was Pražský Hrad (translation = Prague Castle), high upon its hill behind the New Town. The Charles Bridge was built in 1357 under the auspices of Emperor Charles IV. At the time of its construction the bridge was considered a great feat of engineering, and even today it seems amazing to me that the bridge still stands, despite 650 years of use! It’s a surprisingly large bridge (10m wide and 620m long), lined on either side by statues of saints and religious figures. Without the crowds of tourists, buskers and hawkers that normally crowd the bridge during the middle of the day, it was actually a very peaceful spot from which to admire the unique city that is Prague.

 

Awesome views from Charles Bridge across to the New Town and Prague Castle.

 

The statue of Emperor Charles IV that sits at the beginning of the bridge. Just to remind you who the bridge is named after.

 

Views from Charles Bridge looking down-river. Autumn is amazing in Czechia!

 

 

Once we’d had our fill of Prague we headed up through the Nové Město towards the castle. Prague Castle is the largest castle in the world; it occupies an area of almost 70,000 square metres and is really more of a town within a town. There are numerous palaces, churches, stables and other buildings that all together make up Pražský Hrad. The original castle, built in 870AD consisted of just one fortified building; over the centuries however this was extended and added to until, in 1918, the castle became the seat of government of the Czechoslovak Republic and home to the nation’s president. Today the castle still houses the Czech parliament and the President’s home, as well as numerous museums, hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops, concert halls and conference centres.

 

Crossing over the bridge into the New Town of Prague.

 

Heading up through the New Town towards the castle. The higher up we went, the better the views got.

 

Loving the views from the castle across the city.

 

There are so many things you can see within the castle that just deciding which bits to visit was an effort! We decided to stick to the sights that would give us the best insight into the palace’s history and the life of the ruling family, starting with the Old Royal Palace. This is the oldest part of the castle, dating back to the 9th century. It was here that the Přemyslids first established their seat of power. The Přemyslids were the royal Bohemian (i.e. Czech) family that ruled Bohemia and Moravia (which today make up modern-day Czechia), as well as parts of Hungary, Austria and Silesia (which is today part of modern-day Poland). 

The Přemyslid dynasty has beginnings dating back to the 9th century when they ruled a tiny principality around Prague. Over the next 500 years they gradually conquered much of Central Europe and became one of the most powerful dynasties in the region. The peak of their power came when Charles IV became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The dynasty began to collapse however following after the untimely death of King Wenceslaus II, and the assassination of his only son, Wenceslaus II, which brought about the end to their rule. The House of Haspburg then claimed the Bohemian crown in 1526, adding it to their already extensive empire.

 

This dining room in the Old Royal Palace had heralds from all the regions in Bohemia painted on the ceiling.

 

Vladislav Hall was the scene of coronation festivities and banquets.

 

One of the restored rooms within the Old Royal Palace. This room was used as an office effectively and lined with portraits of the Přemyslids.

 

Just having a break from all the touristing…

 

 

The Bohemian Crown Jewels, also called the Czech Crown Jewels, were made for the coronation of Charles IV in 1347, making them the fourth oldest in Europe.

 

From the Old Royal Palace we travelled down “The Golden Lane”, an area within the castle once inhabited by the castle servants, bakers, butchers, candle makers, goldsmiths and other craftsmen. Today the old houses and workshops are set up like small museums, each a testament to the life and work of the craftsmen and women of the medieval era.

 

The Golden Lane was lined with tiny little houses and workshops once belonging to craftsmen and women.

 

The inside of the candlemaker’s house and workshop.

 

 

At the end of “The Golden Lane” we stumbled across the original castle prison tower and associated torture chamber. It’s horrendous to see what human beings will do to each other. We did not linger long in that cold, dark place.

 

The castle prison tower.

 

They had a display of some of the torture equipment used. Pretty gruesome.



We did however linger within St Vitus Cathedral, the biggest and most important church in Czechia. This is where kings were crowned, royals married and christened, and where the Archdiocese of Prague had its seat. The church is huge and a stunning example of Gothic architecture – it was easily as grand as Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, or the DUomo di Milano. Built in 1344 atop the original 9th century church, the cathedral was named for St Vitus as it houses the arm of the saint. The stained glass windows within St Vitus Cathedral were especially captivating, with the morning light shining through them and painting the church red, yellow and blue.

 

The imposing facade of St Vitus Cathedral.

 

The amazing stained glass windows within the cathedral.

 

The vaulted ceiling of the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral.



Our final stop within the castle compound was St George’s Basilica, the oldest surviving church building within Pražský Hrad. Built in 920, this simple Romanesque church is dedicated to St George* – like many churches around Europe.

*We’ve seen heaps of churches in our travels dedicated to St George; turns out St George is one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic (Western and Eastern Rites), Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and the Oriental Orthodox Christian churches.  George was born in Palestine around 270AD and was a soldier in the Roman army. He was raised Christian and became venerated as a martyr after refusing to convert, even after the Roman Emperor at the time (supposedly) offered him lands and wealth to renounce his religion. George was executed by decapitation on April 23rd 303 and his body was returned to Palestine for burial. And the whole story of St George and the dragon is believed to be a parable where the dragon represents Satan and/or heathens. 

 

St George’s Basilica, named after that dragon-slaying saint from the 4th century.

 

St George’s Basilica was much simpler in style and much older than St Vitus Cathedral.

 

 

From St George’s Basilica we found our way to the Castle Gardens wandered around them for a while until our stomachs told us it was time to find some food. We had some fantastic beef goulash, served with the obligatory kinedliky (translation = canon-ball sized potato and bread dumplings), in a small restaurant in one of Prague’s back streets. Our afternoon was then spent meandering through the streets of Prague, checking out all the cool old buildings, Bohemian crystal* shops and getting ourselves throughly and wonderfully lost. We even stumbled across a local market in one of the squares where we were able to indulge our new-found love of trdelník.

*I found out today that Bohemian crystal is actually just fancy glass. This fine, decorative glass has been hand-made in Bohemia (i.e. Czechia) since the 13th century. Artisans in the area had easy access to all the raw materials required for glass making and Bohemian glass became famous around the world because of its clarity and strength. Even today it seems people can’t get enough of the stuff – it’s sold everywhere around here (I’m not convinced it’s all still hand-made here in Czechia though). As much as we would love a set of Bohemian crystal glasses, they wouldn’t fit in our backpacks so we’ve had to pass on the opportunity to splurge.

 

Views of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle from one of the many other bridges across the Vltava River.

 

Walking through Prague this afternoon, admiring the architecture.

 

Wandering the streets of Prague today, every now and then we’d come across hidden pockets of wonder like this.

 

The Old Town bridge gate marks the entry onto Charles Bridge from Staré Město.

 

What a day! We’re back in our cosy little apartment again now, happily reviewing our photos and marvelling at how lucky we are to be here in Prague. With all its old buildings, churches and palaces, this city definitely has something of the fairytale feel to it – but not the bright, saccharine, Disney-type fairytales. The Prague kind of fairytale is a darker, eerier kind of story from much older times. The kind of fairytale that takes place in a dark, Gothic castle and in dark, narrow cobbled streets. And that really is what makes Prague so unique and so charming.


Gothic Prague – the perfect city for dark fairytales.


DAY 118: VITEJTE V PRAGUE!


Losing ourselves in the cobbled streets of Prague’s old town

Welcome to Praha (aka: Prague)! This city has been many things in its 1,200 year history: capital of modern-day Czech Republic, capital of the former Communist state of Czechoslovakia, heart of the ancient kingdom of Bohemia, and seat of the Holy Roman Empire for almost 100 years. Much of the city’s amazing architecture survived the wars of the 20th century, so today the city is also one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s the city’s history that attracted us to Prague – I’ve been wanting to come here ever since I first saw a photo of the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. This immense cathedral looks like something out of a horror movie, with its spires and dark roof. It was one of the first sights we saw when we did our orientation walk around the city with our tour group and it was just as amazing in “real life” as I had remembered the photo being. 

 

The awesome Church of our Lady before Tyn.

 

 

We started our morning bright and early in Český Krumlov as Shane wanted to get some early morning photos around town before we caught the bus out. It was lovely walking the streets of the village at about 6:30am, before most people were awake, watching the sun come up and illuminate the buildings with its warm golden glow. The sight of St Martin’s Cathedral reflected in the waters of the Vltava River in the wee hours of the morning is something we will always remember.

 

Watching the sunrise over Cesky Krumlov this morning.

 

St Martin’s cathedral reflected in the still waters of the Vltava River this morning. 

 

 

After that great to start to the day, we then walked up to the public bus stop with our tour group and caught a local intercity bus to Prague. And let me tell you, this was one fancy coach! We had a hostess serving us drinks, screens in front of every seat so we could watch TV shows or movies (your choice of Czech or English shows), and plush leather seats. Very comfortable and not at all as dodgy as I thought it might be. In general Czechia has been a pleasant surprise – far more modern and “civilised” than we expected. The roads we drove down today to get to prague were pristine – nary a pot hole in sight! The drive itself was fairly uneventful; we passed through forests, farmlands and few small towns, and arrived into Prague safe and sound about 4 hours later. 

 

Our uneventful drive from Cesky Krumlov to Prague looked like this…

 

 

From the bus station we hopped on the metro and caught the train to Staré Město (translation = the Old Town), where we’re staying. Our accommodation for the 3 days we’re here is great: they have us all staying in separate self-contained apartments. This is great as it means we can cook for ourselves for a few days (eating out all the time does get a little tiresome), and we’re literally just 100m or so from the Staroměstské Náměstí (translation = Old Town Square), with all its amazing Gothic and Baroque architecture.  

 

Our neighbourhood here in Prague is lovely – lots of cool old buildings.

 

Our sleeping quarters.

 

Shane re-familiarises himself with kitchen white goods.

 

The entry into our building.

 

 

After giving us some time to settle in and grab some lunch, Eliza, our tour leader, took us on a walking tour around Prague’s Old Town. We just loved walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Staré Město, ogling at all the old buildings and learning about Prague’s long and illustrious history along the way.

 

The Staroměstské Náměstí (translation = Old Town Square), with all its amazing Gothic and Baroque architecture.

 

 

Founded in 885AD, Prague has been a major European political, cultural and economic hub for over a 1,000 years. According to legends, Prague was founded by the Czech duchess and prophetess Libuše and her husband, Přemysl, founder of the Přemyslid dynasty. Libuše is said to have had a dream and, based on this vision, ordered a city built at the crossing of the Vltava River. She foretold that the city would become great and powerful in time, which it certainly is.  In particular, Prague flourished during the 14th-century reign of Charles IV.

 

The Powder Tower is one of the original city gates of Prague built in the 10th century.

 

 

As King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV transformed Prague into an imperial capital and it was at that time the third-largest city in Europe (after Rome and Constantinople). He ordered the building of the New Town across the river from the existing Old Town and had the Charles Bridge built to connect the two parts of his city. During his reign Charles University was also founded, which remains the oldest university in Central Europe. As Prague grew it firmly established itself as an important Central European city. Then, in 1576, a second Czech/Bohemian Holy Roman Emperor was elected – Rudolf II.

 

Saint Henry Tower is a Gothic belfry tower attached to the Church of Saint Henry.

 

 

Emperor Rudolf II was a Haspburg but moved his court and the capital from Vienna to Prague in 1582. He was a devotee of what were then termed “the occult arts” and of science, and surrounded himself with alchemists, astrologers, magicians and other such interesting characters (including the now famous Nostradamus). His court is said to have been rather unusual, shall we say, and it was during this time that Prague acquired a reputation as a city of mystery and dark magics.

 

The Astronomical Clock is probably Prague’s best known sight. Built in 1410 this is the oldest still-functional astrological clock in the world. Mounted on the southern wall of Old Town City Hall in the Old Town Square the clock is not only a device for telling the time, it is also a primitive planetarium that shows the alignment and position of the sun, moon and planets. Every hour figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures, including a figure of Death, come out and strike the time. We didn’t stay to watch the clock “do it’s thing” – maybe tomorrow.

 

 

In the 1600s, however, the city was severely damaged by the Thirty Years War and never fully regained its former glory. When the Holy Roman Empire collapsed in 1803, the Kingdom of Bohemia became a vassal state within the Austrian, and later Austro-Hungarian, Empire. It continued to thrive as the region’s capital city but its “hey days” really were in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. 

 

Prague’s Old Town Hall was built in the 10th century.

 

 

After World War I ended Czechoslovakia was created and  Prague was chosen as its capital. Interestingly at this time Prague was a true European capital with highly developed industrial sector and a thriving economy. The 40 years of Communist rule, however, severely affected the city’s (and entire country’s) economic and social advancement. In wasn’t until the Velvet revolution of 1989 that Prague again started to once again become an important European city. Certainly for tourists like us having this city open and available to be explored is a gift – we had a great afternoon exploring the Old Town (Staré Město).

 

The incredible spires of the Church of our Lady before Tyn. 

 

We ended out walking tour of Prague at Wenceslas Square, one of the main city squares in Prague and a traditional setting for demonstrations, celebrations, and other public gatherings. The square is named after Wenceslas I, or St Wenceslas as he is now known (the patron saint of Czechia). Wenceslaus I was the duke of Bohemia from 921 until his assassination in 935. His martyrdom quickly gave rise to a reputation for heroic goodness, resulting in his being elevated to Sainthood, posthumously. He is the subject of Good King Wenceslas, a carol written over 900 years later, in 1853, that remains popular to this day. 

 

The National Museum of Czechia houses almost 14 million items from the area of natural history, history, arts, music and librarianship. The building that houses the museum was purpose built in 1818.

 

The bustling Wenceslas Square, Prague.

 

 

We didn’t actually cross Charles Bridge into the Nové Město (translation = New Town*), and we didn’t venture up the hill towards Prague Castle. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we’re going to do tomorrow. Dobrou noc until then! 

*The term “new” here is relative; the Nové Město dates back to the 14th century. I guess that’s “new” compared to the “old” part of town around Staré Město which dates back to the 9th century. This city is just so OLD!


DAY 117: CASTLES & FORESTS OF CESKY KRUMLOV


Exploring Hrad Krumlov and the Šumava National Park

Evening blog fans! Hope you had a wonder Wednesday; we had another marvellous day here in Český Krumlov, enjoying the gorgeous autumn weather and exploring a bit more of the town and its surrounds. We also learnt today that the town’s name basically means “Czech town built at the bend in the river” (the word “Český” simply means Czech, and “Krumlov is derived from the Czech word for “crooked river”, referring to the bend in the Vltava River that encircles the town on 3 sides).

 

Český Krumlov – little Czech town on the bend of the river. 

 

The day started with a hearty breakfast at the guesthouse we’re staying in (“hearty” meaning “meaty” in this context; I’m starting to think the people of this region are allergic to fruit and vegetables, excluding potatoes of course). From there we had a choice of either going on a bike ride through the nearby Šumava Forest, or having the morning to ourselves. Shane decided he was keen to tackle the woods on 2 wheels and I went in search of a hairdresser that spoke at least some English to get my hair done (nothing fancy – just a trim and a bit of a dye-job to cover up the encroaching grey). 

 

Contemplating our options for the day over our morning coffees.

 

My morning went brilliantly – the ONLY hairdresser in town spoke NO English (and I speak NO Czech), but we managed to use a mixture of sign language and gestures to come to an agreement regarding my haircut and colour. She did a great job, and for just 550CZK (about $30AUD), I got to sit and relax with my book and a cup of tea while she did her thing. Very relaxing. I’ll let you judge the success (or not) of my Czechian hairdo for yourselves…

 

The post-haircut shot. Not bad for $30 I reckon!

 

Shane, on the other hand, had a somewhat more arduous morning than me; he came back from his bike ride all sweaty and stinky, but happy. Half the tour group went on the bike ride; they were dropped off by mini-van with bikes and helmets some 15km out of town in the middle of the Šumava Forest, and then rode back to town. The Šumava Forest is part of the larger Bohemian National Park, and apparently contains wolves, bears, lynxes, deer, wild boar, squirrels and lots of birds. Not that Shane got to see much wildlife – I think a squirrel was the largest animal spotted. 

 

The route they took on their bike ride today (tracked care of Endomondo).

 

The Czechian forest and hills.

 

The Intrepid cyclists.

 

Once Shane had bathed away his acquired stench, we found ourselves a little local restauarnt for lunch and enjoyed more stodgy Czechian food. Think slow-roasted beef stew with a boiled potato dumpling the size of a canon ball, and chicken breast pan-fried in butter served with locally-collacted wild mushrooms, also cooked in butter. Awesomely tasty, but seriously intense for the palate and the stomach. We took a bit longer to recover from lunch than we had originally planned, but, as Shane discovered, a canon-ball sized dumpling to the stomach tends to slow you down. Once we’d recovered enough from lunch to haul ourselves out of our chairs, we decided to spend the rest of our afternoon exploring Hrda Krumlov (translation = Castle Krumlov), the huge edifice up on the hill behind the town.

 

Setting off to explore Hrda Krumlov.

 

This charming town experienced its greatest prosperity during the rule of Lords of Rožmberk (Rosenberg) from 1282 to 1602, who chose Český Krumlov to become the seat of their kingdom (at this time, Krumlov lay on the trade route between Czechia, Austria, Bavaria and Northern Italy). The Rosenbergs built Hrda Krumlov in the 13th century and added to it numerous times during the 300 years of their reign. When the lands passed to the Austrian Eggenberg family in 1602, the castle was further extended and renovated in a Baroque style. Then, when the Eggenbergs died out without successors in 1719, the new dynasty – the princely lineage of the Schwarzenbergs – inherited Krumlov. Duke Joseph Schwarzenberg was a deft and enterprising businessman as well as a passionate art lover, and commissioned significant reconstructions to the castle during the 19th century, including the construction of numerous Renaissance-styled buildings. In 1947, the Schwarzenberg property, including Český Krumlov, became the property of the Czechoslovak State and was turned into a museum.

 

Castle Krumlov has been home to 3 royal families: the Rosenbergs, the Eggenbergs and the Schwarzenbergs.

 

There castle compound is spread over 18 acres and contains over 40 buildings, but only a few of them are open to the public. In the time we had we got to see the castle gardens, the Baroque Theatre, the Castle Tower, the former castle brewery and the Schwarzenberg apartments. The Castle Tower is a rounded 6-storey tower is situated on a narrow rocky promontory towering above the old town of Český Krumlov and the Vltava River. Originally built as a defensive structure in the 13th century the tower was renovated and decorated with mural paintings in 1594. Today it gives tourists like us a great view of the town and its surrounds.

 

The great view from the Castle Tower.

 

The theatre was especially lovely; it was constructed in 1684 by Johann Christian von Eggenberg and has been beautifully restored. The theatre is one of the best preserved, and still functioning, Baroque theatres in Europe – it retains many of its original functional features, such as the stage, scenery, costumes and lighting.

 

The Baroque theatre of Castle Krumlov.

 

The Schwarzenberg apartments are basically a few renovated rooms that used to be inhabited by the Schwarzenbergs, the castles last private owners. There were some interesting old photos from the early 20th century up around the place and a few interesting personal affects, but mostly it was like looking through your old great-aunt’s house. 

 

The Schwarzenberg’s dining room.

 

The main hall in the Schwarzenberg’s apartments.

 

The building itself was the coolest part of the Schwarzenberg’s apartments.

 

The creepiest bit of the Schwarzenberg apartments was the chapel, were some of the family’s religious relics were on display. As mentioned in previous blogs, I find the thought of keeping some saint’s femur in a gold box a little creepy, but today’s exhibit totally takes the cake. They had the dessicated, mummified body (ENTIRE body) of St Reparat (a Christian martyr from the 4th century) on display. Really, really creepy.

 

St Reparat’s remains. Seriously creepy.

  

Far less creepy was the former castle brewery, which was built in 1560 and is still today a functional brewery that brews a locally-sold beer called Eggenberg. At this point Shane has requested I point out that sampling beer in Czechia is actually responsible tourism as beer and brewing in general has been an important part of Czech culture for centuries. The famous pilsener style beer originated in the Bohemian town of České Budějovice, known as Budweis in German. The town lent its name to its beer, eventually known as Budweiser – you may have heard of it. Apparently the beer here is really good (I can’t say but luckily Shane has been practicing lots of “responsible beer tourism”), and REALLY cheap (less than $4AUD for 500mL). Interestingly all of this cheap beer means that the Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world.

 

Eggenberg, the local brew.

 

 

As there was still much sightseeing to be done we left the brewery without sampling any of their brews (Note: a “sample” was 300mL!), and headed towards the Castle Gardens. On the way there we crossed the castle moat and saw the castle bears. That’s right: bears! The castle moat has BEARS in it, not water. The story goes that bears were kept in the Bear Moat at Český Krumlov Castle as living proof of a presumed relation between the Lords of Rosenberg and Italian family of Orsini (“orso” in Italian means “bear”). There have been bears kept in the moat area continuously since the 1300s. The bears seemed healthy enough, though personally I find caged animals a bit sad. Especially as they serve no purpose today except to pose for tourist photos. Centuries ago though I’m sure a moat full of bears would have been a good deterent for anyone wanting to attack the castle. 

 

These days the bears of Cesky Krumlov are kept in the moat for tourists to take photos of.

 

 

Our final stop for the day were the Castle Gardens. Created in the early 16th century, these once contained orchards, a vegetable garden and a herb garden. Now they’re purely decorative, though very pretty.

 

The Cesky Krumlov castle garden – very pretty in autumn.

 

Loving this whole “changing seasons” thing!

 

For our evening meal tonight went out with the group to a vegetarian restaurant (there are 3 vegetarians in the group and to be fair we thought they should eat at least one decent meal this fortight so we chose a vegetarian place for tonight; probably good for the rest of us to eat some veggies too really). The food was great and the company convivial, and as we left the restaurant, the sight of Český Krumlov all lit up at night was magical. It’s been a great couple of days and we’re a but sad to leaving tomorrow, but Prague beckons…  

 

Cesky Krumlov by night.

 

Views up to the castle from town.

 
The central square in town. 

DAY 116: CHARMING CESKY KRUMLOV


Vítejte v České!

That is: welcome to Czechia (i.e. the Czech Republic)! Another day, another country… and what a wonderful country it is so far!

 

Vítejte v České!

 

The origins of modern-day Czechia can be traced back to the 9th century, when the Kingdom of Bohemia, a small kingdom centred around Prague, liberated itself from the powerful Moravian Empire and began to acquire further territories. Under the rule of the Přemyslid Dynasty the Bohemian Kingdom continued to grow in size and influence, and was formally recognised as part of the Holy Roman Empire in 1002. It was part of the Holy Roman Empire from 1002 until 1806, and reached its peak in the 14th century when the Czech king, Charles IV, became Holy Roman Emperor. The years of his reign as Emperor in the mid-1300s is considered the “Golden Age” of Czech history (which is why everything in Prague is named “Charles This” and Charles That” – more on that when we get to Prague later this week though). From the early 1500s however, the Kingdom of Bohemia came increasingly under Habsburg control and after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia became part of the Austrian Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Czechia (aka: Bohemia) never regained the power or wealth it had during the 14th and 15th centuries, and after WWI, was forced into a union with nearby Slovakia. After WWII Czechoslovakia then became a Communist state; this period in the nation’s history is marked by economic and social stagnation that the nation has been working to shake off since becoming The Czech Republic 20 years ago (the Czechoslovakian union lasted until 1993 when Czechia and Slovakia went their seperate ways in a very peaceful dissolution dubbed “The Velvet Divorce” due to its peaceful nature). Today Czechia is Eastern Europe’s most prosperous state and one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. We, like the 6 million other visitors that flock here every year from around the world, are pretty excited about seeing some of the regions natural wonders and historical sights. We’re also pretty excited about tasting some traditional Czech cuisine – though we have been warned it’s mainly potatoes, dumplings, cabbage, meat and beer. Sounds very filling!

 

Looking forward to lots of history, culture and tasty Czech food!

 

We arrived in Czechia around lunchtime today with our tour group after a 4 hour bus journey that took us through the Czech countryside on narrow country roads, past farms, villages and golden autumnal forests. We drove from Slovakia back through Austria, across the Bohemian Mountains* and into Southern Bohemia, one of the Czech Republic’s 14 electorate regions. 

*The Bohemian Mountains are a fairly low mountain range here in Central Europe, densely forested and still relatively untamed compared to the forests on the German and Austrian side of the border. Geographically the mountains create a natural border between the Czech Republic, and Germany and Austria.

 

The forests and fields of the Bohemian Mountains.

 

We’re staying for a couple of days in the tiny medieval town of Český Krumlov, one of Southern Bohemia’s star attractions. This tiny town of just 14,000 people has one of the oldest and best preserved old towns in Czechia. The town itself was built in the 13th century along the banks of the Vltava River, which was an important in trade river at the time. Cesky Krumlov Castle was then built in 1302 by the rulling Rosenburg family. The Rosenberg family is said to have been the most significant and influential Bohemian noble families at the time, second only to the ruling Přemyslid Dynasty; they played an important role in Czech medieval history and held posts at the Prague royal (and later imperial) court and were called “the real lords of the kingdom”. Their emblem, the 5 petalled rose, is everywhere here in Český Krumlov. So far we are loving this little town – it is just to cute!  

 

Loving Cesky Krumlov so far!

 

When the Kingdom of Bohemia came under Haspburg rule, the Rosenbergs fell from somewhat grace and Cesky Krumlov and its surrounds were given first to the House of Eggenberg (1621 to 1718), and then to the House of Schwarzenberg (1719 to 1945) – both Austrian noble families. So this town was under Germanic rule for over 300 years, which gives it and interesting dichotomous feel; for example, many of the really old shops (like the old Royal Apothecary) have their names engraved over the shop front in both German and Czech. The old town itself is tiny – just a few hundred metres is diameter. It is also VERY cute – all cobbled streets and narrow laneways. The town was not bombed during WWII at all and most of the buildings date from the 14th century. The core of the old town is within a horseshoe bend of the Vltava River, with the castle perched high on a hill on the other side of the river. 

 

The Main Street in town.

 

The main square in town – where all the action is (ahem – not much action here really).

 

With autumn here the trees everywhere are turning. It’s sooo cool!

 

Down by the river they had these huge chairs set up. Shane thought it was funny that I had to jump to get up into them, hence the photo.

We had a local guide take us on a walk through the old town, showing us historical landmarks and pointing out key sites for us to visit on our free day tomorrow. The orientation walk she took us on was great and the guide herself was hilarious – she had a great sense of humour and a rather quirky personality and a very “Bohemian*” sense of style.

*The term “Bohemian” is used to refer to people who practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds. Seeing as we’re in Bohemia I wanted to see what this had to do with Bohemia. Apparently the term emerged in France in the early 19th century when impoverished artists, writers, journalists, musicians and actors began to concentrate in the low rent, lower class, “gypsy” neighbourhoods of Paris. And since “bohémien” was a common term for the Romani people of France who had reached Western Europe via Bohemia, the term was then used in reference to all the non-traditionalist, non-conformists. Nothing to do with Bohemia really! 

 

Setting off on our walking tour of the town.

 

Strolling the streets of Cesky Krumlov learning some history along the way.

 

The hills around town are forested and still quite untamed. Apparently there are deer, boar and bears in the forests.

 

Behind us you can see the spire from St Vitus Church, the main church in town.

 

 

The walking tour Ollie*, our guide, took us on ended at Český Krumlov Castle. The castle provides a marvelous vantage point from which to enjoy views of the old town, the river and the surrounding woods. Český Krumlov Castle is unusually large for a town of this size; it consists of 40 separate buildings with numerous courtyards and gardens, and sprawls over 18 acres of land. In fact, Český Krumlov Castle is second in size only to the Hradčany Castle complex of Prague! By the time we finished our walking tour at 5:00pm the castle was closing up for the day so we’ve put that on our list of things to explore tomorrow.

*Not her real name – that’s the Anglicised version for non-Czech speaking plebs like us! 

 

Cesky Krumlov Castle – to be explored further tomorrow.

 

The main castle courtyard, which includes the usual obligatory fountain.

 

Looking down through the the parapets at the town below.

 

Back down in town, hunting for tasty snacks…

 

 

After the walking tour we took ourselves around the old town again, poking our noses (and camera lenses) into a few previously unexplored corners. One of the best discoveries we made on our own was a trdelník stand. Trdelníks are like Czech doughnuts, only MUCH tastier than regular doughnuts. They’re made from rolled dough that is wrapped around a thick  metal rod, then grilled and topped with sugar, cinnamon and walnuts. Seriously good. Especially for 50CZK* (about $2.50AUD)! 

*CZK = Czeck Koruna ($1AUD = 18CZK)


Our best Czech discovery yet: trdelníks.

 


On a final note, I just have to share with you a few photos of our accommodation here in Český Krumlov. It’s a small, 10-room, family run guesthouse right in the heart of the old town. The building itself is from the 15th century and the rooms are lovely; again, pretty basic but functional (i.e. warm and comfy bed, clean private bathroom, and there’s lots of hot water). Like the rest of this town though, the guesthouse IS JUST SO CUTE!  A good start to the Czech leg of our adventure for sure…


Our room is like something out of the 15th century, well except for the comfy bed, windows, hot water and bathroom facilities!

 

Out the front of our guesthouse building with the tour group waiting to check in.

 

We love our accommodation!

 

A great start to the Czech leg of our adventure…