The Museum of Kooky Eyes

After yesterday’s Trdlnik, I am glad for our included activity this morning, a nice bike ride through the forest hills of Cesky Krumlov, with Vltava Sport Service.  Two mini vans carry us out to the hills, climbing higher and higher through the winding forest roads before we stop to unload the bikes.  The first three kilometres of the ride consists of hills – a mean trick for those on our tour who haven’t ridden a bike for some time, rewarded with a view of the valley below, that totally made up for it.

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A lot  more of fifteen kilometre ride is downhill, the chill of the air making my eyes water slightly.  The forests are filled with mushrooms, babbling brooks and, as some of our riders found out, stinging nettles.  But all too soon, we were back in the cobble-stoned streets of town and the ride was over.

We all branch out to go our individual ways and I decide it’s time to do a little shopping.  The local stone here is moldovite, which is a kind of meteorite that is featured in all sorts of jewellery here and seeing as I have no room for souvenirs, jewellery is about the only thing I can browse for.  I end up choosing a nice simple ring, which should suffice as a reminder of this lovely village.

After lunch, there’s one thing more I want to try to get in and that’s the Wax Museum.  I don’t usually visit these places, cause I think they are boring, but the wax models in the window of this place have crazy eyes and it draws me in.  I mean, look at this guy:

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And I don’t think Daniel Radcliffe would recognize himself either (well I certainly didn’t and I’d just watched The December Boys on the bus ride to Cesky Krumlov), though he’s minus the kooky eyes.

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So needless to say, I’ve just gotta go in there.  There’s scenes from Czech medieval life, followed by famous people from different periods of time – kings, queens and entertainers.  Here’s some of my favourites, including a special one for my niece Lola:

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Before long it’s time to go rafting.  Again with Vltava Sport Service, we are driven maybe ten kilometres out of town and given our raft, life jackets and oars.  A series of five ‘gates’ awaits us, through which we find ourselves sliding down rapid slipways.

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The sun rapidly disappears and gives way to a light sprinkling of rain, so we are a little wet when we disembark, which is nothing unusual for rafting anyway.

Walking back to Na Louzi, a final treat for me is to find a lane full of street art.

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This town really has been such a delight, especially once the day trippers have left.  And it’s been so nice to have sunshine (and heat) and to get outside and do some more physical sightseeing instead of just walking everywhere.

There’s a Bear in There (but no TV)

After another cross country bus ride, we arrive to this:

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And then this:

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I’m not sure I’ll be able to bear staying here!

We are staying at the very traditional Na Louzi in and it’s extremely charming.  Each room is different but they are decked out very simply.  No bar fridge, no hairdryers, no bathrobes and no TV – magic, though probably not everyone would agree with me.

Downstairs is a little restaurant where a grumpy waiter attends to the customers, minus a smile, but the food is good and other friendlier staff bustle about to make up for it.  It always seems to be full.

First stop after lunch is to try something Matt keyed us up for back in Prague.  You can buy these across the Czech Republic, but we’ve been forced to wait till now for what Matt calls the cream of the crop of Trdlniks.  Originally coming from Pennsylvania, they are basically soft dough, wrapped a stick and then grilled and topped with sugar.  Here in Cesky Krumlov, you can have almonds as well, or hazelnut flavoured chocolate.  They are massive, but despite that, I can’t bear to not finish it, chocolate covering my fingers and most probably my face, by the end of it.

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Our first afternoon is a walking introduction to the town by a local guide.  The streets are cobble-stoned, which is the norm in these parts, but the town, despite its winding streets and hidden alleys, is incredibly small.  The alleys and streets are lined with shops, galleries and restaurants, and the day trippers come in troves.

Magnificent organs and outstanding accoustics await us at St Vitus Church.  An outstanding view of the town is on show at a small garden along the way.  And there are bears at the castle.  Yes.  Bears.  The history of bear-keeping at the Castle goes back to the 16th century, when the Rosenbergs held court.  The family legend goes that the Rosenbergs were related to a noble Italian family, named Orsini.  Orsa means she-bear in Italian and this animal motif was used by the Rosenbergs to demonstrate their relationship with the Orsini’s, as can be seen on the Rosenberg coat of arms.

Living in the moat at present are Katerina and Vok, and their cubs Daxi and Hubert.

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The castle itself dates back to the 13th century and was built by the Witigonen family, let another branch of the tentacled Rosenberg family.  By the 17th century, when the Rosenbergs finally died out, the castle was given to Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg, and you’ll see beer carrying his name all over this town.

We walk through the castle out to the gardens to the solace of a small lily-pad covered pond, where some of us sit for a while.  Whilst this morning was quite cool and we were not sure we would avoid rain, this afternoon is bathed in brilliant sunshine.

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We walk back to the centre of town through quiet side streets, while somewhere a church bell rings out.

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This town is gorgeous.

To the Streets Below

Aimed with an early start, this morning we walked the streets of Prague, over the near empty Charles Bridge, and up to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Prague Castle.  An early start gives us a reprieve from the tourists, and more importantly, a chance to take in and appreciate the beautifully cobble-stoned streets.

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Spanning the Vlatava River, Charles Bridge was completed in the 15th century.  The bridge is lined by some 30 baroque style statues.

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In the streets below Charles Bridge on the Castle side, a quick detour will bring you to Lennon’s Wall.  Now more graffiti, than tribute, Lennon’s Wall was conceived in the 1980’s, and was filled with Lennon-inspired lyrics and quotations.  In 1988, the wall became a source of irritation for the Communist Government, as students began to voice their grievances on it, which led to a clash between students and police on Charles Bridge.  These students were following the ironically named Lennonism movement, whose members the Czech Government identified as being alcoholics and mentally deranged.

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The streets leading to Prague Castle are a photographer’s dream and the castle grounds afford the best view of the city around.  When we arrive there is a traditional folk band playing, a couple of tourists twirling around to the music. Guards clad in pale blue uniforms guard the Castle entrance.  The Castle was founded around 880 by Prince Borijov and is the largest castle complex in the world.  There are all sorts of buildings within the complex, and although I didn’t see them, the gardens are reportedly stunning.  Due to our beautiful meandering walk up to the Castle, I don’t really spend much time here, because I need to find my way back down to the main square for a tour I want to join.

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Alleyways leading to the Castle

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View of Prague from the Castle Grounds
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St Vitus’ Cathedral

I was glad for the chance to see a quieter side of Prague, especially now on the way down, as the tourists have awoken, and are already filling the streets and alleys.  Prague is a very busy city during the day, tour guides leading their sheep from sight to sight, umbrellas in hand to show the way, meandering slowly, blocking pathways.  I am glad for our small group.

Back in the main square, the atmosphere is inviting.  A rockin ethnic folk band is playing to the crowds, the smoky smell of Old Prague ham roasting on spits hangs in the air and the sun is out.  There’s a different vibe here today, more of a relaxed, festival feel (until you leave the square and into the busy alleys.

There is so much to do in Prague, that it’s hard to decide to do in such a limited time frame.  But one thing that caught my eye was a Communism and Bunker tour.  I meet guide Tereza outside the Cartier store to the side of the main square.  There’s only two of us on the tour today, which is awesome.  Tereza is so knowledgeable and has an excellent command of the English language, though she is Prague born and bred.  She takes us through the history of the Communist party, inserting humour and jokes for good measure.

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Rude Pravo, official newspaper of the Communist Party, was so great if you held it above your held it could protect you from 1kg of nuclear fallout!

We transfer from the main square to the quieter alleys that tourists don’t touch and, moving intermittently from location to location, she continues, onto the topic of the Velvet Revolution, which effectively ended 41 years of Communism in Prague.  Students crowded into Wenceslas Square to peacefully demonstrate the end of their oppression under the regime.

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Memorial to the Velvet Revolution

We stop at a traditional canteen, located downstairs of a small mall, where we grab a snack.  18 crowns for a glass of beer – that’s like $1 in Australia kids!  It’s décor is stuck in the 70’s and it’s all self service, but this is where workers can grab a cheap meal that ‘tastes ok’ in Tereza’s words.

The last stop of the tour is Jalta Hotel.  This hotel was built for communist party officials back in the day, but most passersby would probably never assume what awaits in the basement of this building.

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Yep, a bunker.  Set up to recreate how it would have looked in the past, this was certainly an eye opener for someone from Australia.  The rooms were full of assorted memorabilia including communications equipment, even a morse code machine.  Did you know the basic tone you hear when you get a message on your mobile (you know, sounds something like – da, da, da, daaa da, da da da), is the morse code for SMS?

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My feet are killing me and my head is on overload, but there’s one last stop I want to make – the Museum of Torture.  Unfortunately there is no photo taking allowed here, but the museum holds three floors of medieval torture devices with self-explanatory names such as the Kneeler, the Rack and a particularly nasty piece called the Breast Torner (ouch!).   If that wasn’t enough to deter you, then perhaps the Mask of Shame would do the trick.

Pottering around Prague

It’s a 7.15am start this morning to get on the road for our bus trip to Prague.

This is not my first time round the traps with Intrepid. The first time I ever decided to leave the comfort of home, as far away from home as I could get at the time – China, Intrepid were there.  Not by choice, because I’d tacked onto someone else’s trip.

Then again in 2008, I joined a couple of girlfriends who were doing an Intrepid tour through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. I like the ethics of Intrepid, the fact that they try to spread their cash around town, encourage ethical travel, frequently at those places that the other tour groups don’t and through the use of their amazing local guides – the best chicken curry I have EVER had in my life, was at the home of a local guide in Cambodia – I would never begin to be able to replicate it because it would ruin the memory, but that meal will stay with me forever. Of course, the personal stories of these guides, is a part of what makes the trip so special as well. In China, we learnt some of what it feels to be a ‘black baby’ (a second child, and a girl at that, born into China’s one child policy), the corruption and the powerlessness felt by those that live with it every day, and those whose friends and family have survived the unimaginable.

As a tour company, I find there is a really good mix of tour time and solo time, though in your solo time if there are several people who may want to go off and do the same thing, that can be arranged, usually through the guide. And there’s no end to the types of travel you will use – cyclos, boats, minivans, bicycles, walking, buses, trains – it’s a more grassroots kind of experience and I like it.

So when it came time to think about Central Europe, and on my own this time – there wasn’t really any other choice in my mind. Though of course, it does come with some challenges for the mega planner – apart from your beginning and finishing hotels, you don’t know where you’ll be staying, and of course, sometimes (usually either due to an unforeseen event – ah, like the train tracks washing away in China), or with the consent of the whole group, your itinerary can change – maybe for the better – we got to see an amazingly beautiful waterway town because of a delay causing our train tracks to wash away.

So of course, it means I can’t plan everything to the nines, like I usually would, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing and I did promise I wanted to do more of that this time.

There are 10 people in my tour group – four single travellers and three couples, all hosted by our guide Matt.  We spent our last night in Munich at a welcome dinner at Augustiner Brauhaus (a different Augustiner hall than the one I had lunch at the other day).  ‘Who would like beer?’ goes the call.  Yes, the majority wants beer.  ‘Who wants a big beer?’  Several of us put our hands up (I don’t really drink beer, but when in Munich….).  This is what happens when you ask for a big beer:

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The food was hearty – half chooks and ducks, and schnitzels and knuckles – perfect to help wash down a beer of that size.

So today we start the tour, by leaving town, and travelling to Prague by bus, which takes approximately five hours.  Last time I took a bus trip with Intrepid, the toilet was way too high off the ground and a large window overlooked the roadside, with a window curtain that covered not much – so you had to balance yourself cause your feet couldn’t touch the ground, while trying to hold the curtain across the window so the locals couldn’t see you!  So I’m a little, um, intrepid, about this ride!

It’s all good though, cause unlike my last two trips, this one is a Comfort level trip.  The bus is comfy, although the wifi doesn’t work.  the countryside keeps you interested enough that you don’t really notice the travel time.  We pass small village towns, villas painted in cream and orange, and fields of solar panels, and more of fields.

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And so we arrive in Prague.  I’m not sure what my first impressions are – IKEA and other assorted warehouse type buildings are the first in sight, followed by what seems to be the derelict end of town.  Then further and further in, the architecture changes and becomes more charming.  The bus station looks almost as if its abandoned and its not until we disembark from the bus and head to the lower levels, a more modern façade appears.  It’s raining in Prague, which explains why everyone else’s photos of Prague always seem so gloomy.  But on the bright side, we get a hotel transfer instead of batting the drops.

Our hotel is Hotel Clement, and its nice.  Really nice.  I’m looking forward to staying here for our two nights in Prague.  Especially cause there’s a bath.

We freshen up and then head out into the city to wander the streets.  Matt takes us through to the old town, pointing out the various monuments, especially highlighting the landmarks that will help us remember how to get back to the hotel.   Every tour guide in this town seems to rely on an umbrella to help their followers locate them.  Matt has decided on a different approach, which kinda does draw a few looks from passers by:

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The cobble-stoned streets of the old town of Prague are just magical.  Lined with baroque architecture, the streets are a pleasure to walk, and its easy to loose track of where you are, not only because the beautiful buildings steel your attention, but because there are twisting and turning alleys everywhere.

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After walking to the Charles Bridge, our afternoon of walking is over.  Time for a nice glass of wine before heading back for a bit of a hot bath before dinner.  And what a view to take in…

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