Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Prague, Czech Republic

I ended up spending a week total in Loket. It was just really hard to leave. The hostel was great, and the people running it, Doug and Bianca were awesome. Bianca found train and bus times for every day trip I did, and then gave me advice about what to do when I got there. After Karlovy Vary, the next day I went to Cheb. Cheb, very close to the German border, used to be full of Germans until they were all expelled after World War II. The old center of town is nice, and the walled monistary garden is really beautiful. My last day trip was to Marianske Lazne, another one of the big spa towns. There were fewer water drinkers, and more people enjoying the beautiful central park and gardens. I could only actually find three of the fountains, the others seemed to be in locked buildings or mislabeled on the map. On the way back I took the train to Karlovy Vary, which was beautiful, although I had a hard time staying awake for the first half of the trip. The czech's really love their gardens.

My last adventure in Loket was going to see a play in the castle courtyard. Normally, theater is pretty easy to go to, but there were only eight of us watching and it turned out to be audience participation. It was a sort of modern version of Don Quijote de la Mancha. I understood the bit that was in spanish, but nothing beyond that. They still had me participating though, and they didn't really seem to get that I had no idea what was going on because I didn't speak czech. At the end we were all standing on stage with our shoes off as don quijote was dying and then we did a collective curtain call and got participation prizes. I guess the play was really funny because everyone else laughed almost the entire time.

After Loket I went to the university town of Olomouc in Moravia. The hostel there was also fantastic. In both hostels when you arrive they show you a map and point out lots of places of interest. I managed to get there in time for the last concert of the street theater festival, but was a bit bummed that I missed the rest of it. There are just too many festivals. While in Olomouc I visited the modern art museum (good photography) and the archdiocese museum (lots of jeweled gold cups and old czech people scolding and telling me things I didn't understand). I had chocolate pie, climbed the tallest tower in town that has a double helix staircase (and then a scary metal staircase) and kept walking through the town square. The town reminded me of prague, but smaller and with almost no tourists. In other words, more like a real place.

Tomorrow I take a bus to budapest at 6:30 in the morning :( and then will take a 36 hour train to Istanbul.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

the kindness of strangers

Loket, Czech Republic

Left Ceske Krumlov hoping to get from there to this tiny town of Loket, in the west of czech republic in one day. Took the train back to Prague, changing once, and then headed off in the direction I thought the bus station was. And, because I'm me, I got lost. Started following random people with suitcases, which didn't work at all. Finally I asked a woman on the street, and she walked me to the local bus stop, told me which bus to get on, to go one stop, and then gave me a ticket. At the stop though, I still couldn't find the station, so I wandered around a lot and asked other people. When I made it there, the guy at the desk told me to take a bus to Sokolov and then change and go to Loket. So I got on the bus, and with the help of the woman sitting next to me got off at Sokolov. When I got there it was 9:30 and very dark and I couldn't figure it out. So I asked another woman for help. Then her friend came out of the pub (conveniently located at the bus station) and they found the platform for me. There was one bus at 10:30, so they invited me into the pub. There, I met Misha, Anetko, her two year old daughter, Peter, Anetko's father, some random guys, and found out the woman I had asked for help was named Simona.

They bought me a beer, and then Misha, who spoke fluent english, and was in a wheel chair or on crutches from a major car accident that had her spend two months in the hospital, and had done a lot of traveling when she was younger, decided that I should come spend the night at her appartment since Simona was already spending the night, and we could drink wine and hang out. And because she seemed nice and it was late I said yes. A bit later we left, Peter pushing Misha's wheelchair, Simona pushing Anetko's stroller, and me carrying the crutch. When we got to their appartment, Peter put Anetko to bed, and then opened the wine. They gave me some yogurt (dinner) and then we sat around talking. Simona wanted to show us her my space page that she had put a lot of time into creating, and then wanted me to edit it for her since she had written it in english. She was visiting Misha so that they could take pictures of her and Anetko so that she can show people her taking care of a child when she applies to be an opear in England. Got to bed really late and ended up sleeping on the floor. Then Anetko woke up at 6:00. Managed to sleep untl about 7:30, and then it was up and out. Misha's dad drove her, me, Simona and Anetko to Loket.

Loket's midevil festival was going on, so they wanted to stay there for the day and hang out at the festival. It was a bit difficult though, because the castle where the festival was occuring was built on a hill in the 12th century and not designed for wheel chairs, so Misha had to spend the entire day on her crutches. It took a couple hours of being in town and multiple rings of the door bell and then a phone call before I could get into the hostel. They had all been out at a concert the night before and were completely out of it. After dropping off my stuff I rejoined Misha, Simona and Anetko at the festival.

The festival was great! There was food (very good, since I had eaten almost nothing for 24 hours), music, people in costumes, stuff to buy, a castle to visit (complete with dungeon and torture chamber). I think one of my favorite things was the festival food. Over the two days I had this pizza like thing - fried bread with ketchup and cheese, a sausage rolled in a tortilla like thing with garlic, a potato pancake with ham and raw onions, a potato pancake topped with sourkraut, a bread bracelet thing with almonds, vanilla and cinamon, and a ginger bread cookie. Grease filled and fantastic. Also saw sword fighting, traditional dancing, the firing of an old musket, and a music group with very quiet bagpipes. There was also a parade, where everyone that was dressed up went through town.

Loket is a very small place. The river curves so much that it's almost on an island, but not quite. Because of that it hasn't really been able to grow at all, and so the town is still the same as it was hundreds of years ago. It also isn't completely full of tourists. Once the festival was over, I was suprised at how quiet the town was.

Today I hiked (and got lost and once again had very nice people helping me) to Karlovy Vary, a spa town that was big a couple hundred years ago. There are about 15 different springs that produce waters of different temperatures. The water had been diverted to fountains around town, and people, often elderly walk around drinking the water out of special china cups that have a sort of straw like thing. The waters are supposed to be healing, and especially good for the digestive system. So I had some, although I was drinking it out of my water bottle. The town is strung out along the river, and the buildings are beautiful. It was built so people could go to spas, drink the water, look at beautiful buildings, breathe the fresh air, and get better. The water is free, but you have to pay for the toilets.

mmm beer

Ceske Krumlov, Czech Republic

I left prague on tuesday morning for the town of ceske krumlov in southern bohemia. I took the train to the town there the original budwiser is made, and then changed to a very small local train. We went through every little village, and I saw some amazing gardens, as well as some deer and a lot of chopped wood. It seems that people in rural czech republic heat with wood. Ceske Krumlov is a really cute town with an amazing castle and a tower that reminded me a bit of a pastel wedding cake. My first night there I ran into a woman who was born in Tashkent when it was part of the USSR, then moved to the US when jews were given refugee status, and is now working in paris. I had no idea that she spoke russian, and then all of a sudden she started speaking russian to a woman in a shop. The shopkeeper had picked up everything, left the ukraine and opened a shop in the czech republic. She recommended a restaurant to us and had some fish and then fried cheese on salad. Somehow, the lettuce and the fried cheese are supposed to cancel each other out I guess.

The next day I decided to do the hike I had heard some other people talking about, so I searched town for someone who could give me a hiking map, got some bagel sandwiches and headed off, It was a beautiful trip. I started by taking the train three stops, then got off and walked 6 kilometers to the highest hill in the area named klet mountain. It's only 1084 meters tall, so not really a mountain. But someone built a tower at the top and there is a fantastic view of the surrounding country side and lots of small towns. The way back down was about 8 kilometers, and there was some walking at the beginning of the hike, so all in all I think I hiked 14 kilometers. When I got back to the hostel I was going to take a shower and relax, and then discovered there was a keg of good local beer at the hostel and it was free. So I drank lots of beer and talked to a bunch of Australians and some french canadians. Had a veggi burrito for supper and it wasn't bad. I guess its been a comfort food day, bagel sandwiches and burrito.

The next day I went rafting down the vlatava river, the same river that flows through prague. It wasn't very serious rafting, more like floating down the river and occasionally tying up the boat and drinking beer. But it was a lot of fun and I bonded with the people in my raft. I also learned how to play euker (spelling), which is a bit like bridge, but using only half the deck. It seems to work better with four people than six though.

Monday, August 13, 2007

decorating with bones?

Prague, Czech Republic

Not much to write about really. Prague has been good. It's rained every day since I last wrote, I think. And it's been nice and cool. Some days I've been prepaired. Today I got really wet. The nice thing about the rain is that the streets, especially in the tourist areas become less crowded.

A couple days ago I went to visit the former silver mining town of Kutna Hora. In the 1300s or so, silver was discovered and the resulting city was larger than the london of the time. It was second in importance only to prague. Later, all the silver had been mined and the city shrunk. But not before the miners had paid for an amazing gothic cathedral. Not to be outdone by prague, St. Barabra's cathedral is the biggest or one of the biggest in central europe. I thought the coolest part was the mining guild symbols that were painted on the ceiling.

Kutna Hora is a very picturesque town built around a valley. They also have a nice plague column (giving thanks that the plague of the 1700s was over) and the italian court, a palace that was turned into the mint while Kutna Hora prospered. They day I was there they were having an outdoor concert in the valley, and the group I heard seemed to be an american bluegrass band. It felt out of place.

The main station to Kutna Hora is actually located in Sedlec, an industrial town. I chose to walk from the main station to the historic town. On the way I visited the ossuary in Sedlec. Back in the day dirt was brought back from the holy land and sprinkled there, and after that, all the rich and important people wanted to be burried there. I think they ran out of room, but anyways, they now have 40,000 sets of bones. I guess they were just mounded in the chapel, but in 1870 someone got creative and hired a designer to decorate the inside with bones. It's a very grusome place. One of the main decorations is a chandeler made out of all the bones in the human body. The rest of the bones are piled in six pyramids at the edges of the chapel.

I've also done a lot of walking around Prague. I revisited Charles Bridge, and have been in and out of the old town square more times than I can count. Today I visited a church dedicated to this doll of the baby jesus that's supposed to have amazing healing powers. I also walked along wenceslas square, really more of a very wide street than a square, and around one of the islands in the Vlata river that divides Prague in half. The main way I get around here is by tram. The trams seem to go everywhere. There's also buses, and three metro lines.

Last night I went with Jan's stepdad to the local resturant in their neighborhood. It used to be a place where people exercised and played futbool, built as an effort to increase national identity by sports played together. Now it's a nice outside pub. You can tell it's a local place because .5L of beer is only one dollar. And it's some of the best beer in the world. I had goulash in a bread bowl. Although goulash was originally a hungarian dish, the czechs have also adopted it as one of their national foods. Although it's pretty heavy stuff, I like most czech food that I've had. Especially the dumplings!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

the rain in spain falls mainly in...prague

Prague, Czech Republic

I did it. I am now in the north where the weather is in the low 30s C, and where the euro is not used. It was a crazy journey, involving one night in a bed and three on various forms of transportation. And now it's raining. I hadn't seen rain for 6 or 7 weeks until last night.

I took the night bus from Madrid to Barcelona, put my stuff in the left luggage at the bus/train station and went off to explore. I remember being in Barcelona in 2000, but not many details besides Gaudi buildings. This time I walked up and down the main pedestrian street many times. I also got lost in one neighborhood, looking for the center for contemporary culture of barcelona. They had this really amazing exhibit called borders or frontiers. It was about borders - the EU and non-EU, miami and havana, cashmere, USA and mexico, illegal immigration, refugees, former yugoslavia. There were descriptions, maps, photos, and videos in an attempt to explore borders.

That night, took the boat from Barcelona to Genoa. The trip was about 20 hours. On board I met a spanish guy named Ruben. He as wearing nike sort of shoes and had a bag with english on it, so I asked him if he was from the US. I guess my americandar has been kind of off lately. I slept on the floor that night, and the next morning saw a dolphin swim by the boat. I might have seen a sea turtle too, but it could have also been trash. The dolphin I'm sure about, because I watched it jump.

I spent the night in the only youth hostel in Genoa, after the boat arrived about 5 in the evening. Genoa is one of those very vertical cities. The hostel was basically straight up from the port, but had an amazing view. I was in Genoa with my family in 1998, and I remember it was hot, and we found nothing redeeming, so we drove up into the mountains. On a second visit, old town Genoa is a nice place. There are lots of windy streets, although everyone was on holiday, so the town was a bit dead. The gelato stand per capita also seemed a bit on the low side. Had some very excellent pasta with pesto for dinner, and sat with two austrailians and an italian.

The next morning I took a train to milan, and another to Venice. In Venice I had a couple of hours, so I got some tiramisu gelato (!!!!) and then wandered. I rediscovered that I really love venice, even though it's way more crowded in August than it had been in March. Also, the price of everything seems to double or triple in the summer. I ended up walking all the way to san marco, asked some french couple (I'm really bad at finding the english speakers) if I could look at their map, and realized I had walked all the way accross the city. Hurried back, and got on my last train, Venice to Prague.

I was sharing my sleeping cabin! with two canadians, Becky and Kim. They were both very nice. We ended up all sitting on the middle bunks, spanning the aisle. Next door was a cabin full of germans playing very loud music. I love sleeping cars on trains. They even gave us breakfast in the morning. I also love the youth discounts on transportation in europe. For the first time since I entered spain, I had to show my passport - to exit austria and enter the czech republic.

Wandered around Prague for a few hours before being met by a very bearded Jan, who took me to the car where Maria and Lenka were waiting. Somehow we fit me and my stuff into their already very crowded car, and went to Lenka's appartment. It's really exciting that I'm not going to be going anywhere for a few nights.

Since then I've been hanging out in Prague. Met some of Jan's friends, his step dad, got some dumplings, and found a great book store. Time to go walk in the rain.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tinto de Verano

Madrid, Spain

I went to Granada. The days were amazing. The nights sucked. I spent two out of three nights trying to sleep on the floor because the bed was too hot. After a month in morocco, I woke up my last morning and decided I was done with the heat, and it was time to go north and east, away from the euro, and hopefully away from the heat. Tonight I take the night bus to Barcelona, and then I plan to camp on the ferry to Genoa, and then take a train to venice and another train to slovenia or the czech republic or somewhere.

Granada was amazing. Standing at the bus stop Gran Via 3 I met Liesje, from Brussels. She had also just arrived and neither of us had a hostel. We decided to join forces and went to visit the hostel I had heard about. They had no space and sent us to this place way up the hill near the enterance to the Alhambra. The redeeming aspect of the place was that it had a freezing cold swimming pool on the roof. That night we walked down the hill and I had my first tapas in spain, and also tinto de verano. For someone who likes cute food and to taste lots of things tapas are amazing. And in Granada, every time you order a drink, they bring you tapas. I hear they don't do that everywhere in spain. Tinto de verano is red wine mixed with fizzy lemonade. It sounds weird, I know, but it's really really good. Although we ordered food the first night, we realized that if we ordered enough drinks we could just have a meal with the tapas.

The next day we got a room in the hostel we tried the day before - Oasis. The hostel is in a building that is centered around a courtyard. It's a nice place, although not as fantastic as I had heard. We explored around the cathedral, and then in the afternoon walked up the hill that faces the alhambra. The neighborhood there is really nice, little windy streets and whitewashed buildings. They also have some really nice grafiti. There are lots of hidden squares with cafes and lots of churches, but in Granada all the churches always seem to be closed. We ended up at this viewpoint that had a fantastic view of the alhambra.

A girl at the hostel told us that everyone goes to the alhambra at 8 in the morning to try to get in, but it's much better to go in the afternoon because there's no line and we would almost certainly get in. She said that many people who go in the morning get turned away. This is after we had tried to find tickets at all the websites and banks suggested. What a mess. But when we got there at 3 we only had to wait 10 minutes. The ticket has three parts - the generalife gardens, the nasrid palaces, and the alcazabah (the kasbah). The gardens are amazing! There are lots of fountains, hedge walls with arched doorways, courtyards with pools of water, and roses. My favorite thing though was a staircase that had really cold water running down the hand rails. The drinking fountains in spain are nice, because unlike morocco, you can actually drink out of them.

The nasrid palaces are amazing, but I think they are more amazing for other people. It's the same style of decoration that is used all over moroco - the mosaic, carved plaster and wood ceilings. This was the most elaborate example I had seen, but it was also the most crowded, which took away from the beauty. On the ticket, they alot everyone a 30 minute time slot in which they have to enter the palaces, or they will loose their chance. They were also doing a lot of restoration work, making the most famous courtyard hard to see in its full glory.

The alcazabah is the fort part of the alhambra. It has the walls that are seen from the outside, and the towers. Inside the walls there are what look to be foundations of old buildings, but not much standing. They didn't give us a map, and we didn't have a guide book, so we may have missed some things. But overall, I think we got the idea. It's such a huge place that it's hard to take in everything in a day.

That night Liesje and I went out for tapas again. I think I could get used to the schedule in spain, and I'm trying to use my spanish. I can at least order food and get a bus ticket and ask for directions. The words are slowly coming back. But being in southern spain in August is crazy! So I'm skipping Sevilla, Cordoba and Porugal, all things I wanted to see, and hopefully someday in the future I will return in the spring or fall.