June 29, 2004

A Day in Kraków

Press HERE to see a slideshow from Kraków.

Kraków's Clock Tower in the Market Square
The Wawel Cathederal

So, yesterday Betty and I drove for almost four hours before arriving in Kraków. Summer appears to be road repair and replacement season, just like in Minnesota. After crossing the border, we notice a number of differences. The country side was much the same. There seem to be a lot more cars, and a lot more rather tiny cars on the roads. In the Czech Republic the roads were almost devoid of any advertisements, but here in Poland we felt overwhelmed by the signage. The people also were a bit different with slightly different body shapes and facial features, like darker eyes. The other thing that jumps out at you is how dingy or dirty the cities and town are in comparison to the Czech Republic.
After stopping to search out accommodations, we quickly noted that Poles smiled more and were a bit friendlier. Of course that could be due to the fact that so many of them, here in Kraków, speak good English. We booked into a very nice hotel, the Batory Hotel, for $42 per night in one of their guest rooms, i.e., not a regular hotel room. I think it is the best room so far, the breakfast was by far the best, and we finally got an English station (BBC) on the TV. After checking in we walked to the beautiful Market Square to find, beer, atmosphere, and a restaurant. The food was great, and the beer was very good - although I think the Czech beer was better.

Kraków is one of those cities that is a must see. It has the largest and one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe. Like Prague, it is very relaxed and loaded with historical sites worth seeing. Today, we spent most of the day at just one of them, the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. We only saw part of the complex with visits to the cathedral and to the parts of the castle. We had to skip so much that another trip to the city will be a must for me someday. At three in the afternoon is started to rain. This cold afternoon rain has come down nearly everyday since we began our journey. Because the weather pattern has been imprinted on our minds, we knew that it would clear up in an hour or two. With several hours behind us on Wawel Hill, we walked down Kanonicza Street, where most of the buildings are more than 400 years old. We looked into many of these buildings and their court yards. We found a Ukrainian restaurant in the cellar of one building. We decide to honor our Ukrainian friend Mickie Turk (nee Marislava Wowchek) with a visit to it later in the day. We actually had hoped that Mickie would have joined us on this trip, but alas it was not to be. There are lots of street musicians in the city, from the very young to the very old who play music that ranges from classical to old traditional music. In the square we stopped for a beer in an outdoor café, but it was so cold that we had down our beers and move on. We visited the bazaar at the center of the square and then viewed the inside of St. Mary's Basilica. On the inside, the church was stunningly beautiful. By now it was after six and we were hungry. We made our way back to the Ukrainian restaurant for a lovely meal which included some wonderful borsht. After dinner we saw the Cardinal of Kraków giving an interview in front of Sts. Peter and Paul's Church. It was great to see the way Poles on the street reacted to his walking past. They were clearly excited and several stopped to meet him. After being out all day, we returned to our hotel.

Photo from Kraków

The Vistula River from Wawel Hill
Cathedral Crypt
Young Musicians
Older Musicians
St. Mary's Basilica
Ukrainian Celler Restaurant
Posted by bill at 11:06 PM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2004

Brno and Olomouc, the Second Cities

After our visit to Telč, we drove through Třebič. Then we drove on to Brno. With a population over 400,000 Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic. We arrived after three in the afternoon and found the information center. We got a referral to the Hotel Kozák. The room was OK and the price of $40 per night included breakfast. After settling in we had supper next door and then called it an early evening.

Press HERE to see a slideshow from the Czech Republic.

Old City Hall
View from Clock Tower
Young Ones in the Stone
More of Brno

Thursday was the one of the nicest that we had seen in days. It was warm all day, and the sun shone brightly. We did a self guided tour, based on a tourist map. It got us to many of the most beautiful buildings in the city. We climbed the clock tower in the old town hall, bought strawberries and cherries at a farmers' market, visited churches, parks, a museum, and we ended the Špilberk Castle. After dinner we returned to our hotel.

Except for the row over the laundry Friday went well. We started by visiting the Tugendhat Villa. Although not really very large, it is considered a masterpiece of the Functionalist style. It was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rhoe. Then we went to the center to continue are exploration of the old city. We again walked by churches, parks, and visited a museum, shops and the train station, where we got some English papers. We stopped along the way at an internet café, and a real café for coffee and cake. We ended the afternoon with a matinee, watching Fifty First Dates. After the movie we spent several hours in a nice brew pub, the Pegas, drinking beer and having dinner.

Finally the laundry story from Brno: When we first arrived at the Hotel Kozák, I had asked about a laundry. The hotel receptionist claimed that there were really no laundries in the city, at least none that would take less than three days to wash our clothes. Later I was to discover that Brno had one laundromat, which I still find strange for such a large city. In any case the receptionist implied that the hotel would wash my shirt gratis. When I said I had a load to wash, she said the hotel washer would take care of it - but that there would be a charge. The next morning, I gave the clothes to the washer and found out that they would be ready the next morning. Unfortunately, I did not ask about the price. We had already had a load washed a week earlier for $2 and since she had suggested one shirt was free - I just figured it would be cost from $4 to $8. Boy, was I wrong! The next morning I could not believe my ears when Betty told me that she was presented with a bill of $41 - and suddenly a price list had appeared. I just flatly refused to pay it. We could have replace most of the clothes at one of their many used clothing stores for $41. In the end after I complained vociferously and refused to pay, they asked for nothing - but we paid them $10 anyway. Lesson learned: when staying at a hotel, always check the laundry prices before using the services.

The Town Square and Bishopric of Kroměříž
The Bishopric Gardens

Saturday, we pushed off to the east again. We drove through Slavkov u Brna, planning to visit a castle. There was no place to park as the town was filling with visitors looking for a classic car show. Although the car show would have been interesting based on the few cars that we saw driving into the town, we moved on toward Kroměříž. As we drove through the countryside, we stopped to pick cherries from a few of the thousands of fruit trees that line many of the roadways. We had been seeing huge fields of white flowers all day. We knew that they were a field crop, but flowers? We finally figured it out: They were poppies being raised for their seeds - a mainstay in Slavic baking. The main draw of Kroměříž is the bishopric. The grounds were expansive and beautiful - including ponds and a zoo of sorts, not to mention the great garden designs. We bought wine from the bishopric store after wandering about the grounds. Before leaving Kroměříž we had coffee and crepes in a beautiful old restaurant on the town square.
In Olomouc we found a nice Privat to spend the night at. After Betty rested a bit, we walked to the town square, where there was a lull in the two day festival centered at the square. Their town hall is the most beautiful that I have seen in the Czech Republic. We got be beer and food from the vendors. It is hard to spend much money with beers costing 60 cents and a plate of food for $2. Unfortunately we came between the live bands, and Betty was too tired to stay after nine. So we will have to wait until tomorrow for the live music.

We took it easy today, Sunday. We didn't get out of our room until eleven. We walked to the town square, where the local festival was still going strong. From the square we walked to several churches and a museum. This is a beautiful old city, almost as old as Prague, and it has similar charm and style to Prague. While Brno may be the second largest city in the Czech Republic, Olomouc is her spiritual second city. Before long, we were back in the town square, where they were wrapping up the festival with a procession with the Bishop, and town's people.

Olomouc Courthouse
Festival Actor
The Czech Audience
The Town Guard

We will soon be leaving the Czech Republic. Here are some of my observations and thoughts about the country. It is a beautiful and charming country about the size of Iowa but with ten million people. Agriculture dominates the landscape and every mid-sized town has at least one industry. Other than Prague and Brno, most of the towns are small or mid-sized. The second language here is not English, but German. Most people are good and kind, but not overtly friendly. It is very uncommon to see people passing with smiles on their faces.
For the traveler, the cost of being here is much less than the rest of Western Europe. But prices seem to be rising fast. When they joined the EU their VAT went from 5% to 20%. Remember that we travel very frugally. Even so, the average cost of a double with breakfast was about $32. In Prague our room cost $50 per night and it was $40 in Brno. In most of the small towns we paid at least $28 and often $32 per night. Food is a good bargain. Meals for two in nice - but not luxurious - restaurants ranged from $15 to $18, including tips and beer. Travel by train is reasonable at 5 to 8 cents a mile. Buses and trams in cities are 50 cents. Gasoline is expensive like the rest of Europe at about $1.10 per liter or about $4 per gallon.
Most of the towns are like mini museums. Three to five hundred year old buildings are common in almost every town. Every town seems to have its castles and museums. The entry costs for most of them are extremely reasonable.
We have really enjoyed our visit here. The air has always been perfumed with the scent of the lindens that have been blossoming since the day we arrived.

Posted by bill at 10:53 PM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2004

The Czech Countryside

Press HERE to see a slideshow from the Czech Republic.

Wheat Fields and Hill Tops

The rest of Sunday in Litomyšl was wet. It rained most of the afternoon and evening. We watched a movie, and then went for a walk about the town square. All the restaurants we full. We ended up eating with two German university administrators. We enjoyed talking with them. They introduced me to slivoice, the traditional plum schnapps of Bohemia. It is an excellent spirit that when store bought is 40 to 50% alcohol, but can be twice that when homemade. After dinner we went to the castle for the opera, only to find out that due to the rain the venue had been changed to a smaller room. So, we had no tickets.

On Monday we drove more or less in a big circle. First we stopped at a nearby airport. I checked out what it would take to fly in the Czech Republic. It would have been no problem to rent a plane for $60 per hour, which is about the same in the USA. I decided not go, because of the different control panel, I might have had problems without a check-out ride. There were no English speaking pilots around to help me out.
We drove to Hradec Králové to view the town square. Then we headed south. We drove by a 14th century Hussite castle near Parduice. Finally we stopped in Ć©ďár where there is an ancient monastery. From here we drove on a wonderful little road that passed through a number of villages including Kadov, Snežné, Borovinice, before arriving in Polička. The old city is walled and the 12th century wall is in near perfect condition. We had a great diner in the Herešova Krčma. It is in the bowels of ancient stone structure. Our waitress, Rutska, was a strong and beautiful looking woman. I am sure that many a young man who sees her photo will be proposing shortly. The only other customers were two Dutch bicyclists - Christof and Tejn - who were biking all the way from Amsterdam.

On Tuesday morning we walked a round the city a bit and took pictures of the city wall and older buildings.
Then we were off to see the Svojanov and Pernštejn castles. Both had cores from the 13th century. They were in remarkable condition. As we drove from place to place we continued to marvel at the beautiful Czech countryside. We especially enjoy the little villages, the dark forests, and the verdant fields that occasionally turn yellow or purple with mustard and lavender flowers.

Rutska of Herešova Krčma
Polička City Wall
Polička Plague Pillar
Svojanov's Castle

Our last leg for the day, the land flattened out some, so there were fewer deep valleys and higher forested area. But we did arrive in a town where the square was one of the most beautiful in the Czech Republic. We came to Telč. We rest a bit and had a nice supper of sour kraut soup, and pork in plumb sauce - or for Betty mushroom sauce. I wish that it had not been raining, as I would have liked to be sitting on the square. It seems that rain comes every afternoon. And it has been cool. We have heard that last year at this time, it was already swelteringly hot.

This morning we rose to visit the square of Telč and the water chateau on the west end of the square. After touring the chateau, we left for Brno about noon.

The Town Square of Telč

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Posted by bill at 09:55 PM | Comments (0)

June 20, 2004

Off with a car

On Friday, we headed back to Prague intending to rent a car from an agency where we had received a reasonable but still high quote. The train ride was delightful. We had the company of two women who spoke excellent English. I sat next to and talked to Marti. She was twenty-two, a petite dishwater-blonde who had been a nanny in England. When the family moved to the states, she lived with them in Erie, PA for six months. So, her English was near perfect. We exchanged information about our families: her father was a train engineer, and mother was a sales clerk in a heating and plumbing outfit. She has two sisters one married and living in Germany, and the other, her twin, was living in Prague. Betty talked mostly with Barbara. She was with her two children, a boy of about six and a beautiful little three-year old girl, Marie. Barbara's husband is a painter, who is working on the restoration and rehabilitation of a small church in České Budějovice. After two hours on the train we arrived in Prague all talked out.

We went to the Royal Rent car rental agency. Their normal prices were competitive for Prague. They were willing to give a discount that made the rental affordable but still high for such a long rental. We ended up paying about $18 a day for 73 days. The only problem was that there would be no car available until Saturday. So, we once again checked into the Bonn Hotel. I love how they like to bounce their rates around in Prague. We insisted on the same rate ($48) as three days earlier, and eventually got it. We did not do much the rest of the day. We wandered about an area a mile south of the Museum, eventually sitting in a great little pub that I knew from my last trip. We worked a crossword puzzle, drank lots of beer and had some local cuisine.

Yesterday I picked up the car, and we took off heading east. We stopped in Kuná Hora for a few hours. We came to see the very old and beautiful church with flying buttresses and all. I spied one structure with a date of 1297. It happened that the town was having a weekend festival of medieval music with dancing, singing, costumes and jousting. Who cannot go to such an event without eating and drinking? We bought cheese and a sausage, and cherry mead to-go, besides eating some candy and nuts and a local sausage. It was fun being there for half the day.

Press HERE to see a slideshow from the Czech Republic.

From Kuná Hora

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We then moved on to Litomyšl, a town recognized for its town square of the Middle Ages. This town is having a 10 day festival honoring their native son, composer Smetana not Santana, who was born in the castle brewery. We went to a concert last night, Saturday. We might go to another today, an opera, and will spend another night. Our accommodations are in the price range that I like - $20 for both of us. We had breakfast included for another $2 each. We went to a very high-brow concert last night. The concert tickets were high, 19 bucks each, but it was a full orchestra and three vocalists, a tenor and two sopranos. The concert was in an amphitheatre on the castle grounds. Thank goodness, it was covered with canvas - because it was raining.
Opera always brings back deep seated memories of my childhood. My mom was an avid opera fan. She loved to sing and she studied opera. I even got to see her sing in the chorus for one when I was about twelve-years old. Maybe everyone in Minnesota remembers the opera broadcasts on WCCO in the 50's. Nearly every Saturday, as we did our weekly house chores - the opera played in the background. I kind of feel sorry for the subsequent generations that missed this piece of culture. What really got to me was one piece that my mom worked on for years to perfect. It was lots of fun for both of us.
I will post some pictures of Litomyšl in my next journal entry.

We are going to some smaller towns in the Czech Republic. Many of these towns are UNESCO world heritage sites, meaning the towns have special preservation rules. They get extra recognition and free advertising for tourism. Litomyšl is one of these towns.

Posted by bill at 11:50 AM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2004

České Budějovice and České Krumlov

On Tuesday, Betty and I caught the 12:17 train to České Budějovice. Unlike Germany, the trains in the Czech Republic are still very inexpensive; the fare was only $10 for the two of to travel about 100 miles. The country side is much like Germany with many low-rolling hills, a mix of forest and farm land, which is mostly in hay or pastures. The train stopped frequently, so it was about three in the afternoon when we arrived. I walked into the information office, expecting that she would call the inn where I wanted to stay. She did not, and I let it pass with just getting bus information on how to get to U Havrana. I had stay there the year before. For me it was perfect, meaning clean and cheap. Alas, as luck would have it the inn was full. So, Betty settled down while I went out looking for new accommodations. I located a place about a mile away; a place where it was difficult to catch a bus to. So, we had to lug our gear more than half a mile. Now that may not sound far, but 30 to 40 pounds for folks as old as we are is no mean task. We got a room at the Privat Maja, really just a room that a family lets out. Still the cost was less than half of what we were paying Prague.
České Budějovice is a beautiful small college town with a population a little over 100,000 souls. There is a very relaxed atmosphere about the place. Two rivers run through it One is the same river that flows through Prague, the Vltava River, only here, it is quite small. The German name for this town is Budweiss, and the beer that they brew here is called Budweiser Budvar, much to the consternation of the St. Louis company of the same name. This Budweiser is far superior to the American brew; and I like it almost as much as I like the other Bohemian beer, Pilsner Urquell. By the way, the east half of the Czech Republic is Bohemia and the west half is Moravia. Betty did a bit of window shopping and commented how inexpensive the western goods were here. This I would not have noticed so much, but I do love getting a wonderful dinner for two that includes beer for less than $16.

Press HERE to see a slideshow from the Czech Republic.

Buildings of České Budějovice

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Castle Tower in České Krumlov

Besides wanting Betty to see this place, another reason for coming was to contact Peter Kliment. I met him last year, and he said that he would help me buy a cheap car. This plan turned out to be a complete bust. There are serious problems in all of the EU to buy an older used car. Unlike most places in the world, you cannot simply buy and register the car. They require a permanent EU address, which is very different from North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Had I known about the difficulties, I would have flown to Germany or Denmark - where I have friends that could establish my 'permanent' EU address. Worse yet, I expect laws about such things to be rational, and for the life of me, I cannot understand these laws. Perhaps, they are leftovers from a time when they tried (maybe they still do) to control number of cars in a country. Now, it makes no sense, as anyone in the EU can buy a car anywhere else in the EU - no promblema. Poor Peter, I think that he was almost as surprised as we were to discover these facts.
Before meeting with him yesterday afternoon, we spent a good deal of time trying to look in the many used car lots in the city. We even thought that we had worked out a good deal with a fairly reputable car dealer. Bringing the info we had gathered, Peter agreed to do some more research, including checking with a policeman friend. So, when he gave us the information this morning - we were fairly disappointed. Peter then tried to call several rental agencies in town - they all wanted way too much. So, we decided to return to Prague where we were offer a car for still a lot considering this is nearly a three month rental. Then finally, we did find a reasonable offer on the phone, but could not get him to show us the car. I may try one more time in the morning to get a showing, but it looks like Prague will be our destination tomorrow.

This afternoon, we went to the picturesque little town of České Krumlov. It is about 30 miles south of České Budějovice. This town never experienced the Hessian Wars or the Thirty-Years War. It always passed hands peaceably, and because of that, it is a perfectly preserved 400-year old city with the marvelous Rosenberg castle. Here the Vltava River is clean and clear. It moves rapidly with an occasional set of rapids. A couple can rent a canoe for as little as $15 for a 2 to 3 hours ride down stream. The place is so lovely that only our pictures can give you a sense of it.
I could take a whole lot more of the easy life that I see here, but tomorrow we must return to Prague. Not that Prague is a hectic place, just a bit larger.
We hope that are photos makeup for the lack of description and that you enjoy them.

České Krumlov


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From the Castle Court Yard


Posted by bill at 12:00 PM | Comments (1)

June 13, 2004


Press HERE to see a slideshow from Prague.

Prague's Old Town Square
A Cow of Coins

Betty and I arrived in Prague late on Thursday the 10th of June after an arduous but uneventful series of flights. We left Minneapolis for Toronto mid-day on the 9th. After a four hour wait we departed for Heathrow, arriving about 6:30 the next morning. From here we took a bus to Gatwick. Ground transportation in England appears to be insanely expensive at £17 each or about $57 for the both of us. We flew BMI Baby from Gatwick. Funny the fare to Prague was only £7 each plus airport taxes. I figure that the bus company made more for the bus load to Gatwick in one hour than the airline made for the flight to Prague in two hours - go figure.

The low end for accommodations in Prague seems to be about $45 for a double, but they are hard to find, and you won't find one on the internet. Luckily I knew about one, the one that I stayed in last year - the Hotel Bonn. It is nothing special, but it certainly will do. We met an English couple that told us about their pension, which cost about the same but is closer to the center. Most of the average hotels run from $80 to 120 a night.

Betty was exhausted from the flight. It was Sunday before she had shaken off the haze created by the time change.
So on Friday, we did not get out until late in the day. I showed her a bit of the old town: Charles Bridge, old town square, and many back alleys. There is a street art exhibit going on here that I am sure that I have seen someplace else. A large number of fiberglass cows in different reposes where built and offered to schools and local artists for decoration. Most of them have been painted in whimsical form, and others were cover with the likes of small mirrored tiles, or 1 haleren coins (1/100 of the Czech crown). We ate dinner at a restaurant on the Old Town Square, called the Staromĕstská restaurace. The food is excellent, and the price reasonable when you eat inside. If you eat at their tables on the square, they triple the price of a beer from 70 cents to $2.50. At this point in our journey, the higher price did not bother us at all.

On Saturday, we also got a late start, but we managed to go to the decorative arts museum and later on a pub tour. I had been to the museum last year and liked it a lot. They have a great collection of glass, porcelain, graphic arts, metal works, and textiles going back more than a thousand years for a few of its pieces. I think the textile collection is best that I have seen with cloth and lace pieces from the last five centuries.
The pub tour was OK, but I guess I expected more. We saw three pubs, only one seemed extremely old. The food at the third pub was acceptable - but nothing special. The tour leader was a fun young man whose company we enjoyed. The other couple that toured with us was very nice. They came from England and we really enjoyed talking with them a lot.

The Bath House and Vltava River
from the Vyšehrad Fortress

Today, Sunday, we again got a very late start. It was my fault. I just could not get to sleep; and once I did, at about four in the morning, I just did not want to get up before noon. Betty was good enough to bring me some of the hotel breakfast. Oh yes, the hotels and inns usually provide breakfast here. And breakfast on Friday and Saturday was a bit crazy, as the hotel was full of people. I could hardly find anything to bring Betty when she slept in Saturday, because I arrived late. I had brought her the last piece of bread and a little meat. The hotel seemed to empty out today, so she had no problems bringing me a big plate when I had to sleep in.
We visited the Vyšehrad fortress that once guarded the south entrance to the city. It stands on one of the many bluffs that adorn the Vltava River. It was about a half-hour walk to the fortress that is now a park. We made our way around the outer wall with its breath-taking cityscape of Prague. Eventually we found our way to the Capitular Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The twin 15th century towers of the cathedral dominate the bluff on this section of the river. Alongside the church is a Slavin cemetery where many the famous Prague citizens have been interned, including Smetana and Anton Dvořák. On our way back to the hotel we had a simple meal of salad, pasta and wine.

Posted by bill at 11:44 PM | Comments (1)