Budapest At Last

With our arrival into Budapest, the city in which our six-week journey began, came the sad notion that in three days it’d all be over and I’d be heading back to the U.S.

Our train rolled into the station at about 8:20am.  The same station that had been chilly and dusted with snow when last we saw it was now warm and dry, bathed in the morning light of spring.  It’s amazing the difference four weeks can make.

The first order of business was to get to our flat.  Our last Budapest apartment had been on the north end of Pest, near Margit Island, and I was hoping to be near there again to revisit our old stomping grounds.  This new place, while still in Pest, was a little further south.  I was just a tiny bit disappointed by this news until we got there and saw that it was directly on the Danube, across from Gellért Hill.

I could definitely get used to leaving my apartment and looking at the Danube every morning.

Opening the door to this every day? Yes please.

We were shown inside by the Russian landlord, who spoke as little English as we did Russian (or Hungarian, for that matter).  Somehow the language barrier was overcome, he bid us good day, and we were left to settle in to our new, albeit extremely temporary, abode.

Budapest, hayyyyy!!

After a round of showers, we hit the streets.  Jim had to see about a Hungarian SIM card for his phone (since he’d be staying another week or so after I’d leave), so he went to do that and I wandered the little street fair happening nearby.  The little row of stalls was book-ended by kürtőskalács stands that I wisely resisted (for reasons I’ll explain later).

Jim finished up his SIM card business and joined me in my wandering.  We stopped at our beloved Hummus Bar for falafel sandwiches, and ate them on a park bench in the sunshine, and then wandered some more.  Technically I’d now been to Budapest three times, and yet this was the first time I got to experience it in something other than bitter winter cold.  Appropriately enough, I was just beginning to revel in this realization when we wandered straight into the Budapest Spring Festival.

Complete with music!

What made this an even more amazing happenstance discovery was the fact that this was the very square upon which we stumbled back in December 2005, when we were exhausted, famished, and frozen to the bone.  We had walked fruitless miles in search of a Mongolian BBQ place in Buda only to be turned away, and by the time we crossed the river we were in extremely sad shape.  Turned the corner and– surprise!– a Christmas festival was going full-swing.  The air was alive with music and the smell of delicious food being cooked on grills in mass quantities.  It was the most fortuitous, magical thing.  Now, we got to repeat the experience of stumbling unawares onto a seasonal festival, on the very same square, but in lighter spirits and with better weather.  Full circle!

The Spring Festival egg, symbolizing the fertility of the season. Anyone can draw on it!

We heartily partook in some local delicacies…

…and politely declined some others.

At this point in the day, we’d already exhausted our second and third winds, and decided to walk the short distance back to the flat, rest up a bit, and return to the fair for dinner.  Rest we did– we slept on until dark.  Consequently, when we finally awoke neither of us felt like going out, but we also didn’t have any food at home.  If we wanted to eat, we couldn’t avoid leaving the flat.

So we walked back to the fair.  It was a gorgeous evening, only requiring a light jacket, and off in the western sky, the moon’s forecasted dalliance with Jupiter and Venus was taking shape.

The cosmic ballet goes on…

The difference between the daytime festival and the nighttime one was palpable.  The daytime festival had a relaxed feel, with musing tourists casually scoping out peasant shirts and jewelry to the inviting sounds of Hungarian folk music.  The nighttime festival’s vibe was louder and edgier, and the folk music was replaced with something a little more mainstream (think American hits from the ’80s & ’90s but sung in Hungarian).  Ordering food was downright chaotic.  You wait in one of several lines and a cook asks you what you want.  You say all the things– or, you shout them, because there are twenty cooks and they’re all taking orders and everyone is shouting.   Once they get your order, they put it all on a plate and set it next to the cashier, amid the dozens of other plates belonging to the people loosely aligned in front of you.  Because things are moving so quickly, plates get grabbed out of turn all the time.  Add a language barrier to the mix and it’s mayhem.  The guy in front of me was Italian and ordering for himself and the four other members of his family.  He got some of his plates, but some had gotten grabbed by other cashiers and had to be remade.  Then he tried to pay in euro when the stand only accepted forint.  And he didn’t speak Hungarian and they didn’t speak Italian and neither party spoke much English.  Eventually they directed him to an ATM and he left, suitably apologetic, to go fetch the correct currency.  I took my plate and paid without incident, relieved beyond words to be done with the whole experience.

Jim joined me with a couple of Sopranis, which I’d developed a fondness for, and we ate our food and drank our beer and tapped our toes to the Hungarian lyrics of “Tainted Love”.  It was different, but it was fun.

On the way home, we felt a feeling that we hadn’t had since Prague: the feeling of Oh my God, what did we eat and why did we eat so much of it??  It turns out that we had officially crossed the threshold into a land where there is such a thing as too much sausage and potatoes.  Up until this point, I had excused our indulgences with a wave of my hand and a “When in Rome…”, but now it was becoming apparent that we were going to die in Rome if we didn’t knock it off.

*          *          *

The next morning, I woke up and walked around our neighborhood in search of coffee.  I found a cafe on Vací Ut that served Segofredo, but not very well.  Resigned, I took the coffees and reported back to our flat.  Jim had been keeping up a job this entire time and needed to spend a portion of the day dedicated to work.  I decided that I would work, too; I grabbed my ukulele and headed back to Vací to do some busking.

Vací Ut is the posh shopping street, just inland from the Danube on the Pest side.  Toward the southern end, the H&Ms and the New Yorkers fade into cafes and restaurants.  I picked an empty storefront (my usual M.O., since people seem less likely to mind) and set up camp.  As I launched into “Dear Prudence”, I recalled my Polish tour guide friend who reminded me that the Polish were a sad people and wanted sad songs.  I hoped that Hungary was a little less morose.

One thing I love about busking, more than anything, is watching people.  As I was singing one song, two bro-ish dudes were passing by and one feigned kicking my tip jar over.  In my head, I made a mental note of them (“Beware the bro in the blue shirt”), and they walked on and disappeared into the crowd.  An hour or so later, they returned, and I kept my eye on Blue Shirt Bro in case he wanted to kick and not miss this time.  Instead, he threw some money in the jar.  Instant redemption.

Another great moment involved an Indian man and his maybe 5-year-old little boy.  They walked past me slowly, and the little boy stopped directly in front of me and just stared, awestruck.  His father, unaware, kept walking.  After 20 paces or so, dad realized his son had fallen behind and called for him.  The boy turned toward his dad, with exasperation all over his face, and gestured toward me as if to say, “Dad, clearly I am busy watching this.”  This happened three times before the dad had to walk over and take his son by the hand to lead him away.

At one point, a Hungarian couple approached me, because the man was curious to know what I was playing.  His English was on par with my Hungarian, so there was a lot of gesturing involved.  He ultimately ended up calling the ukulele my “kicsi guitar”; “kicsi” being Hungarian for “little”.  I’ve lovingly referred to my uke as such ever since.

As daylight was beginning to fade, I was beginning to fade as well.  Just about the time I was thinking of packing it in, two girls came and sat down to listen.  Well, I thought, I’ve got to keep going now.  So I kept playing, in between talking with them.  One of the girls was from Germany, and she bought a CD.

After another half hour or so, I packed it in.  Dusk was coaxing the streetlights awake, and Jim was at a cafe nearby awaiting my arrival.  I grabbed up my things and made my way to him.  We had a beer to celebrate our productive day, and then went home so I could count my winnings.

Ka-ching!

*          *          *

The next morning, we got up and out of the flat in search of breakfast.  It was my last day in Budapest– my last day in all of Europe– and we wanted to spend it doing some Budapest-y things we’d never done before.  First item of the day was to be breakfast, which we ultimately couldn’t find.  So we wound up back at the Spring Festival, eyeing up the kürtőskalács that I had resisted earlier.  The reason?  Each one was easily a pound of pastry.  After some deliberation, we opted to split one, and in retrospect it’s ridiculous that we even had to think about it.

SERIOUSLY.

We couldn’t finish it so I put it in my bag for later.  The plan after that was to bum around the festival for a couple hours, and then hike up Gellért Hill, see what that was like, and make the hike back down to the Gellért Spa just in time for their prices to go down.

The hike up was lovely.  The woods were giddy with springtime, all chirping birds and buzzing insects, with the sun dancing playfully behind the budding trees.

Spring is here!

St. Gellért, for whom the hill is named, is credited with bringing Christianity to Hungary.

The view from the hill.

We made it to the top without too much effort, although the consequences of all that sausage-and-potato livin’ was making itself known.  It felt good to walk up a hill.  Of course, it helps when the top of the hill has this:

The Liberty Monument was erected in 1947 to commemorate the defeat of the Nazis by the Soviets. Originally a Soviet soldier stood at the base of it, but after the fall of Communism, the soldier was removed and taken to Statue Park.

The top of Gellért Hill was populated with kissy-faced teenagers and tourist groups, all lolling about together in the lazy sunshine.  We perused the souvenir shops (I was eyeing up Hungarian folk dresses for my infant niece, which I ultimately decided against) and we contemplated buying admission into the Citadel until we checked the time and decided it was time to head down the hill to the Spa instead.

The view on the way down. The cross is the Cave Church, which we visited with Sarah.

Since gravity was working with us this time, we ended up making it to the bottom of the hill way sooner than expected.  The prices drop at 5pm, and we still had twenty minutes to kill.  The Spa is part of the Gellért Hotel, which also features a cafe, so the logical decision was to grab a coffee and sit on the patio.  For some reason, we couldn’t sit on the patio, so we sat inside a dining room that was decidedly Cupcake-Palace-esque, all pink with gold accents everywhere.  I ordered a cream pastry, which I’d wanted to do ever since Jim ordered one at Ruszwurm.

Eating healthy is for suckers.

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the cafe, besides the pastry, was the piano player.  An older gentleman with graying hair, he was clearly used to the high-tea set who pay little attention to the ambient music, and he was very clearly enjoying himself nonetheless.  I was entertained by his patent amusement, and once he noticed me noticing, he would wink or cock an overly theatrical eyebrow in my direction every so often.  Occasionally I would recognize the tune (“Piano Man” by Billy Joel was one of them) and I’d start singing along in between bites of pastry; this would elicit a head nod or a fleeting smile.  After a few tunes, we had finished our afternoon snack and got up to make our way to the spa.  The piano man nodded to us as we walked past him to exit.  He never said a word.

We headed into the hotel lobby, and went to buy spa tickets.  Jim had practiced what to say in Hungarian, which the lady at the desk answered with more Hungarian, which we answered with blank stares (this was actually a really common problem everywhere we went; in an attempt to speak the local language, we were often mistaken as native speakers.  The actual native speakers would become aware of this after talking for a couple minutes and watching our faces go blank, and they’d have to answer us in English anyway, which was what we set out to avoid in the first place.  Best-laid plans and all that…. but I digress).  After the lady explained in English that the spa would be closing early today, we were handed our entry bracelets, which looked like watches with no faces.  The bracelets allowed you to enter the turnstyle into the locker rooms, and they were also the key to your locker, which I absolutely could not figure out until some kind German girls showed me how to get it to work.

The baths were pleasant.  We stayed mostly in the thermal bath, although occasionally, just for perspective, I’d run into the cool effervescent baths for a quick moment.  It was nice to take it easy on my last day, and nicer still to be able to cross off “Gellért Baths” on our list of Things We’ve Done In Budapest.

After we dried up and headed out, we had an hour or so before our dinner reservation, so we strolled across the river, passing the last of the kürtőskalács between us.  Dinner was going to be interesting.  Remember Fat Thursday?  Well, Budapest was at it again.  In honor of Restaurant Week (seriously, I love the Hungarians), a whole list of restaurants was offering a fixed-price three-course meal for the US equivalent of $15.  Most of the restaurants from Fat Thursday were again represented during Restaurant Week, so we were eager to get a second chance to try one out.  We settled on Kárpátia, based on three criteria:

  1. It was the kind of stuffy, upscale place we would never go to, especially if we had to pay full price.
  2. It promised authentic Hungarian fare, accompanied by live gypsy music.
  3. I really liked the name.

We arrived with our reservation confirmation in hand (because without it, you don’t get the prix-fixe– they’re sneaky like that).  We were sat in what I presume was the Restaurant Week section, where the view to the music was obstructed by the pillars that separated us from the rest of the place.  No matter.  We ordered beers and perused the menu.  I had a little crisis because the main course I wanted (trout caught from Lake Balaton, with vegetable pearls in a cream sauce) came with an appetizer that featured veal.

Now, here’s the deal.  I’d never eaten veal before, and already knew I objected to the eating of baby animals who never had a chance to have a real life.  But I ordered it anyway.  Part of me was like, “You should try everything once before you decide you hate it”, and who knew– maybe I’d realize it was unbelievably delicious and the widespread eating of veal would suddenly make sense to me.  I secretly knew that wouldn’t happen, but whatever.  I ordered it anyway.

When it came out, it was presented with a steaming side of shame.  I tried it, and it was good, but not good like “I-would-kill-all-baby-animals-if-they-were-this-delicious” good.  And the shame kind of ruined it for me.  Growing up in Wisconsin, I’d seen little calves tied up in their dog kennels, forced to do nothing so their muscles remain tender enough to make it in the veal market.  So there you have it, the first and last time I’ll ever eat veal.

Moving on to the trout with vegetable pearls, which was what I was truly after:

Right?  YUM.

While we ate, the gypsies were going from table to table, taking requests.  Someone requested the habanera from Carmen, someone else requested the Blue Danube.  At one point, Jim leaned over and said, “You see what they’re doing, right?”

The gypsies would play the requested song, and then wait at the table for a tip.  This, for whatever reason, made me feel really awkward.  Perhaps it was because I suddenly felt like prey; once they spotted you and came to your table, you were obligated to suggest a song, and then obligated to pay for it.  I just wanted to enjoy my last night in town, with my boyfriend, and no social obligations.  Besides, I couldn’t for the life of me decide what song I would request.  Consequently, we tried to make ourselves as invisible as possible, and it worked.  We finished our meal, paid our bill, and left without incident.

So Kárpátia wasn’t the greatest.  It was good, though, and that was enough.  And, like Gellért Spa, we could now cross it off our list.

We ambled back to our flat, looked at the planetary conjunction, headed inside.  I finished up my packing and we stayed up way too late, because neither of us wanted it to be over.

*          *          *

The next morning, I would have to get up at 5:15am in order to catch the metro that would take me to the bus that would take me to the airport.  Jim would accompany me until check-in, and then he’d stay behind in Budapest for another week, before moving on to Milan.

Leaving is never easy, and leaving your love behind is harder still.  As the plane took off from Ferihegy Airport, I could see the Danube from my window, and the monuments and buildings of central Budapest.  I found Gellért Hill, and thus the approximate location of our flat.  I saw all the places that were so huge in my memory, now just tiny toy replicas below.  Jim’s down there somewhere, I thought, as I settled in for the short ride to London.

I suffered the same harrowing misfortunes coming back through Heathrow as I did the first time around, but this time, because of a baggage issue, I actually had to clear customs in order to re-claim my carry-on (that is a really long story involving a lot of hysterical crying on the part of yours truly, so we’ll skip it for now).  The bright side of that, besides the fact that I made my connection even after having to claim entry into and out of the UK, is that I got an extra stamp in my passport.  Hooray!!

*          *          *

And there you have it.  Six weeks of wandering (and eating and drinking) through central and eastern Europe.  It was an amazing experience, unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of my life-partner-in-crime, my parents, my sister and bro-in-law, all the wonderful people who came to my going-away house concert, and the awesome folks we connected with once we were abroad.  This is your story as much as mine, so thank you.  For everything. 🙂

Until the next adventure, this is Ramble On, signing off-

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Do Widzenia, Kraków

We came back from Oświęcim in surprisingly high spirits.  Jim supposed that to some degree we were incapable of fully experiencing the horrors we had just seen; or perhaps we were subconsciously steeling ourselves against the tremendous sadness.  Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant surprise.  We decided to dine that night at a vegetarian restaurant in Kazimierz called Momo Bar, but they were closed when we arrived, so we walked around the corner to Manzana.

After our delightful experience with “Czech-Mex”, I was excited to try its Polish iteration.  Upon entering Manzana, I was immediately aware of how “Western” the attitude was here.  For one thing, the waitstaff was impeccably attentive, which was actually rather jarring after almost six weeks of the kind-but-distant European table service we’d gotten used to.  For another thing, the silverware was given to us rolled up in our napkins, instead of in a basket.  It’s the little things, I guess.

We started with an order of Mexican pierogis, which were deep-fried and served in a very pretty bucket.

Yum-o!

Since everyone seems to love the food pics, here’s the rest of what we had:

This was my vegetarian quesadilla. Ordinarily I try not to order things at restaurants that I can make pretty well at home, but I couldn’t say no to this one.

This is Jim’s goat cheese enchilada with salsa verde.  Note the fork shadow; I literally stopped him mid-bite to get the picture.

The next day in Kraków would be our last; we had tickets back to Budapest on a train that left at 10pm that night.  Originally I had wanted to take a day train because the route from Kraków to Budapest goes through the Carpathian mountains, which I really wanted to see.  However, upon closer review, the trains don’t go through the mountains at all– only the buses do.  A bus trip didn’t sound nearly as nice as a train trip, mountains or no.  Plus, as Jim rightly pointed out, a night train would save us the cost and hassle of trying to find an extra night’s accommodations.  So, night train it was.

We woke up the next morning, finished packing, and headed out of our flat one final time.  Our plan was to catch a tram back to the north side of the river, find a breakfast spot, and get to the train station wherein we would leave our bags while we wandered around for the rest of the day.

Spring had suddenly arrived in Poland, and the heavy down coat I’d been sporting for the last six weeks became completely unnecessary.  The city was alive with people enjoying the turn in the weather, and we decided an outdoor breakfast spot would be ideal.  As soon as we crossed into Kazimierz, we spotted Café Młynek.  It’s a bed-and-breakfast spot, but luckily the breakfast part is open to the public.  We sat our bags down and perused the menu: simple fare, perfect for breakfast al fresco.

Various cheeses, vegetables, bread, scrambled eggs, fresh-squeezed OJ, hot coffee…. the breakfast of champions.

After breakfast, we made it to the train station to deposit our bags in one of their storage lockers.  The plan was to visit an architecture exhibit at the Kraków Bunker of Art (hands-down the best name for a contemporary art museum ever).  Then Jim had to do some work and I decided to busk on the Old Town Square once again.

There’s my busking face again. St. Mary’s is behind me.

I did all right again.  This time, I took into account what the tour guide had said about the Polish being a sad people, and I tried to play as many sad songs as the ukulele could handle.  People leaned out their windows to hear me, and the folks going by in hansom cabs seemed to enjoy it, so that made me feel good.  After an hour or so, I decided to go meet up with Jim at Castor Coffee Club on the Square.  My throat was pretty sore and I had my heart set on ice cream.  Castor Coffee Club did not have ice cream, but they did have a killer mango smoothie, and after counting up the tiny Polish money I had earned, I had just enough to get one.

Tiny Polish money. The waitress was not amused.

From there, we decided we had to eat dinner at a traditional Polish restaurant; we’d avoided it thus far because of our experiences with traditional Czech food, but this would be our last chance.  Jim suggested Chimera, just on the other side of the Square from where we were.  Personally, I found the name horrifying, but the menu seemed all right, so we went.

Chimeras!

The restaurant was down a long set of stairs, in a cool and rustic cavern.  The aesthetic fit the meat-and-potatoes fare we were to be provided.  We started the meal off with a gorgonzola-stuffed pear.

Heaven on a plate.

As for main courses, I opted for grilled meat with grilled vegetables.  Jim went with a platter of various vegetarian dishes, though he did help me finish the meat that I couldn’t finish on my own.

Mine.

Jim’s.

After the meal, which looked pretty but (aside from the pear) was rather mediocre, we checked the time and decided it was time to head to the train station.  As you may recall, the train station is connected to the shopping mall, and the shopping mall houses what quickly became our favorite coffee shop in Kraków, called TriBeCa Coffee.  We still had some time to kill, so we stopped in for one last cup: flat white for me and Americano for Jim.

Very true.

After our coffees, it was officially time to board our train.  This was to be my first experience in a proper sleeping car, and I was beyond excited.  The room was tiny, and the top bunk (which I claimed) was only accessible by ladder, a point that was lost on me until I realized how tricky it would be once the train started moving.  Live and learn, I guess.

Someone is ready for bed.  Or screaming to be let out of confinement.  One of the two.

Although we’d be sleeping while it happened, I was overjoyed to know that the train would be stopping in Prague and Vienna on its way to Budapest.  We rocked off to sleep shortly after the train left Kraków.  The alarm was set for 7:30am, and we’d be pulling into Budapest a little after 8am.  The trip was about to come full circle, a bittersweet realization.  On the one hand, I love Budapest so much and was so happy to go back; on the other, I was so not ready to go home and leave Europe and my love behind.  We still had three full days to spend reveling, though, so for now it was time to drift off to sleep while the train carried us around the mountains and back to Budapest.

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Auschwitz

Back when I busked at Old Town, with my happy ukulele songs and my big smile, a tour guide remarked to me that I ought to play more sad songs, because, “The Polish are a sad people.”  At the time, I didn’t quite know what he meant.

When we moved from our hostel near Old Town and crossed the river, I noticed a distinct change of attitude in our surroundings.  After a search on Wikipedia, I learned that Podgórze, where we were, was the neighborhood where the Jews who had been living in Kazimierz were moved, before being deported to Auschwitz, 42 miles away.  Considering how much Poland has been through in its history, and specifically during the 20th century, suddenly the tour guide’s remarks started to make a little more sense.

Neither Jim nor I were particularly excited about getting up on the day we planned to go to Auschwitz.  Despite the fact that we’d been wandering through former Communist countries, where evidence of the two World Wars and the awful aftermath was still in plain view practically everywhere we went, we’d managed to avoid dealing with much heavy stuff the entire trip; it’d be truer to say that we actively avoided dealing with it (see my comments on the Terror House).  However, we each knew that a trip to Auschwitz was necessary, if only because this could be the only chance we’d ever have to see it.

We boarded the train bound for Oświęcim, the non-Germanized name of the town.  What started in Kraków as a full train dwindled down to just me and Jim about halfway through the journey, which imparted a feeling of sadness and solitude that set the stage for the rest of the day.

When we deboarded the train, I was struck by how normal Oswięcim seemed.  I don’t know what I was expecting.  There were a couple taverns, a filling station, a busy road.  It all seemed so benign.  We began walking to the camp.  Along the way, there were signs affirming that we were heading in the right direction, which had the effect of simultaneously reassuring and troubling me.  Eventually we came to the entrance of the camp.

If the signs created conflict within me, it was nothing compared to what walking into the Auschwitz compound did.  Rows of quiet brick buildings, tree-lined gravel paths– such an idyllic setting, belying such unspeakable cruelty.  We entered the compound under the wrought iron sign promising that “Work will make you free”.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI

I’ve struggled over how to write about the experience of walking through the camp.  Because it was the off-season, we were left to explore on our own, which allowed us to experience the different stations at our own pace, but it also meant that there was no group and no guide to act as a buffer between us and the horrors we were being shown.  The bunkhouses have each been converted to individual exhibits, and inside each were long corridors with rooms branching off on either side.  More than once I stood at a doorway, reluctant to enter on an almost visceral level, like a horse stepping foot on a rickety bridge.

Behind glass walls, the prison clothes of adults and children hang, lifeless.  On one end of a room, an enormous pile of spectacles.  In another room, discarded prosthetic limbs.  In yet another, a mound of makeup compacts.    In every main corridor, the faces of the people who lived and died here, all looking stoically at the camera.  I find myself having trouble meeting their gaze.

In addition to the debris, each room featured glass-topped tables, in which various examples of German paperwork could be seen.  There were Polish translations, and English summaries (“Paperwork documenting the arrest of an Italian Jew for listening to a foreign radio station”, etc).  Correspondence between Nazi higher-ups wherein they discussed the “Jewish Question” and its ghastly “Final Solution”.  Both Jim and I were glad we couldn’t read them in their entirety.

We hadn’t allotted nearly enough time to see most of the camp.  We got through seven blocks, ending at Block 11, the “prison within the prison” where fatal punishments were administered.  I hesitate to go into detail about the ways in which prisoners were tortured and executed here; words fail to convey the depravity of it all.

On the second floor of Block 11, there was a small respite from the horror, in the stories of the camp’s underground resistance movement, and specifically Witold Pilecki.  Pilecki, already a war hero, was a founding member of the Secret Polish Army and the only person to ever volunteer to go to Auschwitz.  At the time, reports about what was going on at Auschwitz were murky and unverifiable; the Nazi camps were thought to be merely labor camps.  Pilecki was given a pseudonym, and inserted himself into a round-up in Warsaw.  He was taken to Auschwitz, where he organized the underground resistance movement which performed a number of invaluable tasks such as distributing extra food and medicine to prisoners, gathering intelligence, and, perhaps most importantly, smuggling that intelligence out of the camps.  Pilecki then successfully escaped the camp and was never recaptured, something only a handful of others were able to accomplish.  His information on the goings-on in the camp, known as Witold’s Report, was so terrible that it was at first thought by the Allies to be rife with exaggerations, a point that is still met with some resentment.  Still, the idea that, even in such desolation and despair, there were people working to give some shred of hope to the condemned prisoners here restored the faith in humanity that, until this point, I had been losing at an alarming rate.

At that moment, we checked the time: we only had a half hour to get out of the camp and back to the train station, or we’d be stuck in Oświęcim.  As we walked briskly to the gate, Jim remarked dryly on how great it was that we were able to leave of our own accord.  We fell silent then, thinking of the millions who had no such luxury.

About halfway to the station, it was becoming clear that we would have to run the rest of the way or we wouldn’t make it.  So we ran the remaining half-mile or so at high speed, during which I was made uncomfortably aware of how out-of-shape I’d become on this trip.  We hopped onboard with literally one minute to spare; as I was huffing and puffing, pacing up and down the aisle so my heart wouldn’t explode, the train lurched forward, and we began the winding journey back to Kraków.

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A Day Trip Worth Its Salt

After our much-needed day of rest, with our time in Kraków drawing to an end, we had two destinations we had to reach.  The first, we decided, would be the Wieliczka Salt Mines, about an hour’s bus ride outside of Kraków.

I had looked up the mines on cracow-life.com (a great resource if you’re ever in the area) and was immediately intrigued.  Underground chapels?  Salt statues?  Subterranean lakes?  Count me in.  More than that, I was drawn in by the comments left by past visitors.  Overall, they were enthusiastic and complimentary; the only ones that deviated from the norm were those left by American visitors (“The lines are too long!” “The ceilings are too low!”).  In fact, the comment directly preceding the one I would eventually leave said, “… it had to be an American who has given this wonderful place a bad review.”

Well, that settled it.  I was determined to go, and to enjoy it, and to show the world that not all Americans complain incessantly about minor inconveniences.

We had a tricky time figuring out where to catch the 304 bus out to Wieliczka; once we found the stop, we had a little time to wander around, and so we meandered over to Old Town.  As we drew nearer, we saw a sign advertising a familiar European pastry.

Well, looky here...

The woman in the window didn’t want to make eye contact, however, and I wasn’t bold enough to knock at first, and so we continued wandering.  As we came back around, and started making our way to the bus stop, we passed by it again.  I still really wanted one, but the lady in the window was making it very clear that she did not want to make any unless she really had to.  Jim told me to confront my fears about speaking Polish and go up and ask for one; after all, she was sitting in the window– she was clearly there to do a job.

Drawing a deep breath, I went up, and she looked at me but didn’t open the window, so I knocked. “Przepraszam, jedno cynamon, proszę.” She looked unenthused and told me it would be 10 minutes.  I said fine.  Ten minutes turned into twenty, and “cinnamon” became “cheese and onion”, which was more expensive and also not what I wanted.  By the end of the transaction, I was extremely annoyed.  Any talk of facing my fears was met with sullen resentment.  Plus, as a consequence of my desire for chimney cake, we missed the bus we were trying to catch, and had to sit and wait for the next one.

Once the bus got going, I promptly fell asleep, and woke up 30 minutes later in much better spirits.  Before too much longer, we arrived at our destination.

The entrance was positively crawling with tourists of all different ethnicities.  At first we couldn’t even determine where to buy tickets, until a friendly man at the door directed us through the throngs and into the building.  There, we found the ticket counter and paid our US $20 apiece.  The waiting room, too, was packed to the gills with tourists and schoolchildren.  We weren’t really sure what we were waiting for; there was an English tour happening shortly, but we were afraid any announcements would get drowned in the din.  Soon, a tiny and adorable Polish woman caught our attention, and ushered us toward a group of a dozen other visitor; together, we made our way to the lift.

The lift is one of the things that the Americans on cracow-life absolutely hated.  It’s a bizarre contraption made up of four compartments, two stacked on top of two more, and each compartment fits nine people snugly.

The red gates are the two lower compartments. You can kind of see a staircase going up behind the gates, to the left; that's how you reach the two upper compartments. The whole thing's hilarious.

It’s definitely not for the claustrophobic, but salt mines probably aren’t ideal for claustrophobes anyhow.

Once we got off the lift, a process that occurs in stages due to the stacked compartments, we were in a cavern that was pleasantly cool and dim.  Our guide extolled the virtues of the mineral-rich air and the constant temperature in the mine, and we began what would ultimately end up being a 426-foot descent into the earth.

These cauliflower-like salt patches are a result of the evaporation methods currently used in the mines.

As it turns out, getting good pictures of a mine is not the easiest thing in the world, but we tried to capture what we could.  Most of the statues were carved by miners.

Salt veins and a bit of a chandelier made of-- you guessed it-- salt.

This is me with Casimir The Great. Also made entirely out of salt.

There is a myth surrounding the origin of the mines, wherein a Hungarian princess, Kinga, was to marry the Prince of Poland.  As a dowry, she asked her father for a salt mine, since Poland had none.  On the way to Poland, she stopped at the mine she was given, and dropped her engagement ring into it.  Upon arrival into Poland, she ordered a well to be dug.  Soon, salt was discovered underground.  The legend goes that, as they were digging and discovering more salt, they soon uncovered a ring– Kinga’s engagement ring.  From then on, Kinga became the symbolic protector of the mine and those working in it.

St. Kinga, as she's known.

Kinga’s importance in the mines is emphasized by the eponymous Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, an underground worship area that still holds Sunday masses.  The Chapel is the grandest of all the chapels in the mine (there are several), and everything, down to the “tiles” in the floor, is carved out of salt.

The Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, as seen from the top of the staircase.

Over a thousand salt crystals make up this chandelier.

Me and Salt Pope John Paul II.

What appears to be a tiled floor is actually just tile shapes etched into a salt plateau.

The tourist path through the mines is so well-trod that it’s easy to forget that, since the 1200s, this was an actual working mine (excavation stopped in 1996, though the mine still employs hundreds of workers).  As tends to be the case with mines, conditions were hazardous.  When toxic gases would build up in the upper reaches of a cavern, the miners had to crawl on their bellies while holding long torches with which to ignite, and thus eliminate, the gas.  This often led to the miners igniting themselves as well, but there wasn’t exactly a choice about it.  Horses, used to power the excavation process as it became more sophisticated, spent their entire lives underground since there was no way to move them.  Fascinating stuff.

My favorite room was probably the Weimar Room, which featured a mini-light show above a brine lake, while Chopin played overhead.  Very soothing.  Unfortunately, it was too dark for pictures.

After a couple solid hours of being ushered purporsefully through the mines– the tours are so regimented, we were told, because they actually only travel through a small section of the mine, and if tourists were allowed to meander at their own pace, they’d likely end up lost underground– we were led to a large cavern with a gift stand, and told that we were near the lift back to the top.  We could either head straight to the lift, or go to the mine museum; our tour guide was setting us free.  Jim and I decided not to visit the museum (it seemed redundant after 2+ hours of walking through the mines) and headed instead for the bar (!!) where we would determine our next move.

On the way to the bar, we passed this.

A salt emblem of the Unesco World Heritage sites admitted around the same time as the mines.

A couple bottles of woda gazowana later, we decided it was time to go home, so we waited in line for the lift, behind a pack of twenty or so loud, possibly Italian high-school aged kids.  They were singing football chants and laughing raucously, which annoyed me instantly because of the ringing acoustics of the mine.  Soon the line opened and we were led, by another guide, to where we would catch the lift.  As we walked, the football chanting continued, but slowly I found it more endearing, because they were genuinely enjoying themselves.  They joked around with the tour guide, despite the language barrier, which I also found endearing.

On the way to the lift, we turned a corner and came face-to-face with two archetypal miners, complete with lighted hardhats.  They were standing over a tray of rocks, from which we were each encouraged to take a sample.  In fact, the tray was full of salt crystals in various forms, which I thought was fantastic– we were being given souvenirs of the mine by the miners themselves!  After we each thanked them for their generosity, we continued to the lift.

We got to the waiting area and stood around.  The lift is definitely a slow affair, so we had a bit of time to kill.  The kids continued their singing, and eventually ended up teaching the chant to our guide.  Once he learned it sufficiently, there was enthusiastic applause, and then they asked him if he would teach them a Polish song.  He was hesitant at first, but then taught us “Sto Lat“, the Polish birthday song.

As if on cue, the lift appeared just as we had all finished applauding our halting group rendition of “Sto Lat”, and we began the comical process of packing in, nine at a time, into the tiny lift compartments.

Back above ground, the sun had set and we made our way to the bus stop, satisfied.  We headed back to our neighborhood, stopping at a Delikatesy (or “delika-teezy” as we started calling them) for things to cook for dinner.  Bedtime was going to come early tonight, because tomorrow, another day of travel awaited: we were headed to Oświęcim.

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Kraków, Part II

Our days in Kraków continued in line with the rest of the trip: wandering and eating.  We became familiar with the kebab stands that served falafel sandwiches (which isn’t all of them, surprisingly, and the ones that do use strange ingredients like green olives and corn).  Adding to the whimsy of our wandering were a couple strategically-placed bubble machines around Old Town.

This bubble machine is attached to a locked bike. Why? Why not??

After a day of wandering, we’d return home to our hostel.  This was the first time we’d stayed in a hostel the whole trip (conversely, our last trip to Europe was spent exclusively in hostels), and getting used to the group dynamic was slow going at first.  There was a group of Hungarian girls who checked in a few hours after we did, and they were bound and determined to befriend everyone they encountered on our floor.  Particularly endearing was how they said “Hallo!” for “Goodbye!”; incidentally, I ran into them all over town while we were staying there, and could instantly recognize them by the chorus of “Hallo!” that invariably followed.

Another hostel moment: we stayed in one night, and the guy on the other side of our wall was comparing versions of “Ne Me Quitte Pas“, quite possibly the saddest song in the world.  First came a version done by a female (who sounded at first like Édith Piaf but ended up being someone else), and then the consummate version by Jacques Brel… and then another, live version of Jacques Brel, and so on.  We could tell that our neighbor was exorcising some demons, because by the third version, he began to wail along in a cadence suggesting the involvement of copious amounts of wine.  C’est la vie.

By this time, St. Patrick’s Day weekend was upon us.  Neither Jim nor I are heavy drinkers, but we did want to get out and enjoy the weekend, so we set our sights on music.  On Friday night, we went to a place in Kazimierz called Poligamia to see what the website described as an “Irish duo playing Celtic tunes”, which was a bit misleading; we were expecting “Whiskey In A Jar” and instead got contemporary original songs about bike-riding and such.  But the duo was in fact Irish, and the music wasn’t bad, so it wasn’t a total bust.

On Saturday, Kraków had Irish fever in a bad way.  Everyone was wearing green, and the weather was starting to get nice so every outdoor patio seat in the Square was filled.  Being the beer enthusiasts that we are, on perhaps the beer-drinkingest day of the year, we decided we wanted to check out CK Browar, a brewpub just off the Square.  We descended into the cavern and found some unreserved seats.  I ordered the weiss beer, and Jim had the porter, and to accompany the beers we decided on a basket of fried things.  I found the weiss to be pleasant, if unimpressive, but Jim’s porter was acrid and immature-tasting.  We finished the beers and the fried things and moved on to Cztery Pokoje, a little coffeeshop where there was to be blues music that evening.  It ended up being another duo, this time a girl singing and a guy playing guitar.  Their set was comprised of tried-and-true blues tunes, and they were very talented, but we weren’t feeling particularly engaged so we left.

On Sunday, I decided to hit the streets and do a little busking.

This is my busking face. I wear sunglasses to hide the terror in my eyes.

I did all right for myself.  I sold a CD to an American couple who happened by, and made about $16 in an hour.  Since busking makes me nervous, I was very pleased that it went so well, and went home to tell Jim all about it.  We decided to ride the celebratory wave over to Harris Piano Bar, a place on the Square that promised live jazz.  Upon entering and descending the staircase into the venue, you pass a giant statue of a reclining, tuxedo-clad Louis Armstrong.  A good sign.

The music was great.  As you might guess from reading the blog, I’ve developed a soft spot in my heart for raggy jazz performed by middle-aged, middle European men, and this band delivered exactly that.  Jim and I toasted to our success in selecting the winning venue.  At some point, we befriended some guys from Belfast who were on holiday.  We drank and traded stories, and once the show was over, we took turns singing songs (and continuing to drink).  I don’t exactly remember how we parted ways, but it was tremendous fun.

Less fun was waking up the next morning and realizing that it was Moving Day.  We enjoyed our time at the hostel but missed having a kitchen in which we could cook, so we had made plans to cross the river and stay in the Podgórze neighborhood.  After some confusion, and some water, we packed ourselves up and headed to the flat.

I didn’t realize, until a day or two later, that this was the actual Kraków ghetto, although I’d begun to suspect it based on the melancholy of the surroundings.

The entryway to our flat.

The flat itself was quirky and fun.  It was a studio, with a glass-top stove (the second one we’ve dealt with so far) and some funky photos on the wall.

This one was visible from our bed.

I don't get it but I love it.

Once we arrived, we promptly dropped our things and slept the rest of the day, emerging after dark to hit up a pizza place, Delecta, that Jim spotted on our way in.  The pizza did wonders for our sad bellies; always trust an Italian restaurant that grows its own basil on the windowsill. 🙂

Our time in Kraków was already winding down, and our day of rest meant we had to make steadfast plans to visit the two places we knew we had to see before we left: the Wieliczka Salt Mines, and Auschwitz.

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Kraków!

Kraków is the final city on my tour (save for a few bonus days in Budapest before I leave), and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I was fairly sure it wouldn’t be quite as well-trod as the more touristy areas of Prague, but aside from that, I was going in blind.  And I was kind of excited.

Our train pulled into the station after dark.  The Kraków station is attached to the mall (?), so we hauled our bags in to look for a place to catch a WiFi signal so that we could touch base with our hostess.  The opportunity presented itself as soon as we entered, in the form of Loża Cafe.  We sat our stuff down, and I got to speak my first words of Polish (dwa piwo, proszę) to a very understanding waitress.

Upon achieving Internet access, and mapping out our destination, a cloud was gathering on Jim’s brow. “I think this place is further out than I was expecting.”

As it turns out, it was deep, wayyyy deep in the suburbs.  It took us well over an hour on two different modes of transportation to get to the place; as we passed the time crammed into a tiny light rail car with four dozen other passengers, the stark reality of the situation became apparent.  Neither of us care for the suburbs in our daily lives, but especially when we’re trying to experience new major cities, living on the outskirts of town is horribly inconvenient.

Suffice to say, we got to the place, which was in a sprawling, nondescript apartment complex that could’ve been in any suburb anywhere.  We met our hostess, who was very nice.  We spent the night there, both tacitly aware that we had to get out of this arrangement as soon as possible.

The next day, we bailed on the suburbs and booked a room at the Aston Hostel, which was a seven-minute walk away from the Main Market Square.  Much, much better.

By the time we got settled in our new room, it was approaching the dinner hour, and so we headed out to Mamma Mia Trattoria.  Once we sat down, my eyes instantly fixed upon the smoked-salmon-and-avocado pizza (that also had rocket on it, because rocket is as ubiquitous throughout Europe as Ikea furniture, as it turns out), and try as I did to consider other offerings on the menu, my mind had already been made up.

Yum-o!

The service was great, and once again the waitstaff was exceptionally forgiving of our entry-level Polish skills.  (Thankfully, it’s similar to Czech in a lot of ways, so we at least had that working in our favor.)

The next day started with Irish breakfast.  I’ll just skip the backstory and get right to the picture.

Behold!

After a leisurely meal (because anything quicker than “leisurely” would have certainly resulted in cardiac arrest), we set out for Wawel Castle.  On the way, I got caught up looking at scarves and imported jewelry, and while I was indisposed, Jim went and did this.

It’s called “gorące czekolady”, which Jim had imagined to be hot chocolate, and I guess in a technical sense he was right.  It was hot, and it was definitely chocolate.  A 12-oz cup full of liquid chocolate.  When I found him outside holding it, I burst out laughing, it was that ridiculous.  In the end, what you see is about how much of it we managed to drink before handing it off to a homeless woman.

We walked the rest of the way down the street until we hit the castle.

A turret at Wawel Castle.

Wawel Cathedral.

The compound was beautiful, but I’m going to be totally honest: at this point we were a little castle-and-cathedral’d out.  After a turn through the Wawel Cathedral, we debated that very point, with Jim steadfastly maintaining that he never wanted to set foot in one again, and me appreciating the historical significance of the castles and cathedrals as they pertain to wherever I am at the time, but largely agreeing that the cathedrals in particular are rather a “seen one, seen ’em all” kind of thing (the one exception, in my mind, is the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague, which houses the Infant Jesus, the story of which we found fascinating).

Once we’d come to terms with our opinions on castles and cathedrals, we moved on towards Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of town which sits on the bank of the Vistula  River.

The pedestrian bridge linking Kazimierz and Podgórze over the Vistula River.

I wasn’t yet aware of the history of the area, but I would soon find out that leading up to World War II, the Jews who lived in Kazimierz were forced across the river into Podgórze, where they awaited deportation to the concentration camps.  But all that in time.

Our third full day in Kraków was full of wonderful things.  First, we realized our hostel was a block away from Stary Kleparz, an open-air market packed with produce, clothing, bakery, various odds and ends (for example, we couldn’t find a plug adapter anywhere in Prague for less than US $30, and yet this market had dozens for about $.66)… really great stuff.  I highly recommend a stop here.

Stary Kleparz.

From there, we walked to the Main Market Square.  The street that our hostel is on leads directly to it, and when you enter, you come face-to-face with St. Mary’s Basilica.

St. Mary's Basilica

I think that, out of all the cathedrals and castles we’ve seen on this trip, St. Mary’s might be my favorite (perhaps because we never saw the inside).  I think what I really love about it, besides the stately way in which it presides over the Square, is the asymmetry of the towers; after the mirrored towers of Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Vitus, and Our Lady Before Týn, I found St. Mary’s to be a refreshing change of pace.  Perhaps most interestingly, every hour a trumpet signal (better known as hejnał mariaki, or Cracovian hymn) is played from the taller tower, and cuts short before it finishes.  According to local legend, this is in remembrance of a guard in the 13th century who sounded an alarm to warn of the impending attack on the city by the Tatars; he was allegedly shot in the throat by an arrow before he could finish the tune, which is why to this day the signal stops so abruptly.

If you wander around Old Town for more than five minutes, you’ll notice the plurality of kebab stands surrounding you.  We initially took notice to keep track of which ones serve falafel, but there was something else we started noticing signs for: zapiekanka.

Zapiekanka is a cheap (and, judging by how readily it can be found, very popular) street food item in Kraków.  You begin with a baguette, sliced in half length-wise.  Then you cover it with mushrooms and cheese.  Then you bake it, and once it’s baked, you pour ketchup on top.  Upon learning about it, we decided we had to try it at least once, and today was going to be the day.

This is for real.

I can’t speak for Jim, but as for me, one was enough.  One was more than enough, actually; those things are huge. 🙂

That’s all for now– more Kraków to come!!

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The Bone Church

When we were planning day trips out of Prague, we had decided on Český Krumlov for sure; time permitting, we also wanted to take a trip to Kutná Hora, the town of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, or Bone Church.

The Bone Church is, as the name implies, a church decorated in the bones of an estimated 40,000 people (though some estimates put it closer to 70,000).  The story goes that the abbot of the monastery was called to Palestine in the 13th century, and returned with a bit of earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery.  This made the cemetery a most desirable place to be buried, and especially after the Black Death in the 14th century, the number of bodies to  be buried at the cemetery swelled to thousands.  Eventually a church was built with an ossuary underneath in which to store all the bones of all the people who were either displaced due to construction or moved to make way for new burials.  The bones weren’t arranged in their current configuration until 1870.  Très bizarre.  We had to see it.

We didn’t end up making it out there until Sunday, Sarah’s last day in town, and even then, we didn’t board the train until nearly 2pm (the aforementioned Pod Slavínem blitz having slowed us down considerably).  We did, however, have the foresight to make a thermos of Lord Nelson (our name for a concoction of Earl Grey tea & whiskey) and to bring some tangerines.

We got Lord Nelson, we got tangerines... let's go see some bones.

Kutná Hora is a small town about an hour’s train ride outside of Prague.  The Czech countryside is always idyllic, but especially on a day like this one, where the spring sun was determinedly trying to break through the wall of winter cloud cover.

After about an hour, the train pulled into Kutná Hora and we disembarked into the middle of nowhere.  We had been warned by Conor that the Ossuary is outside of town, and that outside of town feels like there’s nothing there, and he was right.  We began the twenty-minute walk to the church along a stretch of busy road, passing a few shut shops and what struck me as a very out-of-place Philip Morris factory.

Before long, we saw the church.

It was a lot smaller than I’d been expecting, perhaps because “Bone Church” sounds so epic.  We walked into the foyer, paid our 50Kč entrance fee, and descended into the strangest place I’ve ever seen in real life.

As you might expect from the name, there are bones everywhere, ornately arranged into chandeliers, ceiling trim, hanging garland, even a coat of arms.

The coat of arms is that of the Schwarzenberg family, a line of Czech aristocrats first mentioned as far back as the 12th century. They commissioned the current configuration of bones in 1870. Fun fact: the current head of the family, Prince Karel VII, serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Czech Republic. And, until 1918, the family seat was located in Český Krumlov!

In case all this wasn’t macabre enough for you, there’s a case of skulls which display signs of medieval battle, including a couple that show “evidence of healing”, indicating the owners of said skulls survived the battles.

I'm guessing the guy on the left didn't make it.

Near the stairway into and out of the ossuary, there’s also an arrangement of bones with IHS in the center of it, which, according to the placard, stands for “Jesus, Savior of Humanity”; according to the internet, it is also either the first three letters of Jesus’s name, or the pagan trinity of Isis, Horus and Seb which was adopted into Christianity when Rome went Catholic.  For some reason, an homage to Jesus, fashioned from bones of people who most likely died during the horrific bubonic plague, strikes me as the most macabre arrangement in the church.

As it turns out, you only need about 45 minutes in the Bone Church to get the gist of it.  It’s a curious spectacle.  The fact that someone took the time to arrange the bones so ornately is interesting, and the results are beautiful, if bizarre.  But after I overcame the initial awe, I found myself considering the people that these bones used to be.  What did they look like?  What were their lives like?  What problems did they have, and what do those matter now that they’re just bones on display?  And, to that end, how would they feel if they knew they’d been dismantled and made into a chandelier, say, or a coat of arms?  How would I feel if it were me?  I left the Bone Church feeling like my problems, and really everyone’s problems (political, religious, etc) matter not a whit, because eventually all they’ll amount to in the end is a pile of bones.

*                *                *                   *

The next day, Sarah went back to the States, and the day after, Jim and I moved on to Kraków, where we are as I write this.  Our time in Kraków so far has been lovely, and I’m getting the hang of Polish wayyyy better than I ever did with Czech.  But all that in time.  Dzien dobry!

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Killing Me Softly

Back in Prague, we stumbled off the train and headed for the Cupcake Palace and, more importantly, dinner.  It was nearing 9pm at this point, and we weren’t up to the task of sniffing out a new hidden gem, since that generally takes some time and we were hungry now.  So we went to Cartello Alto, the old fail-safe pizza place a block down the street from the Palace.  This was our third time there, and as usual, everything was top-notch.  I got a calzone the size of a small ironing board, Sarah had some cheesy pasta, and Jim opted for mushroom pizza.  And, also as usual, we consumed it all while watching glittery pop music videos on the overhead TV.  Laughed our way home and fell into carb-induced slumbers.

The next couple days in Prague would be our last, with Sarah heading back to the States on Monday and Jim and I leaving for Poland on Tuesday, so we resolved to spend our last few days eating and drinking as much as we possibly could (a dangerous pact to uphold in the Czech Republic).  Jim had to spend a little time working at first, which meant Sarah and I got to wander around and visit the Prague Beer Museum!

That's a lot of beers.

Since the Prague Beer Museum is really just a bar with a lot of taps, we decided to go with a sample tray and I, the dutiful girlfriend, took copious notes for Jim (the homebrewer)’s perusal.  I’ll spare you the mundane details, but the Merlin was delish, the Sweetheart tastes like candied sugar, and the IPA, which I was so excited for, lacked any floral hop character in favor of dry bitterness.  Serves me right for expecting a Northwest-style IPA in Europe, I suppose.

We made short work of that...

The next day was particularly indulgent, which is really saying something in this town.  The three of us walked across the Vltava at an unfamiliar point, stopping at what we would soon deem a deeply disappointing breakfast spot (which shall remain nameless on the chance that they were just having an off day).  Its food and service were so glumly administered with such unsatisfying results that we ate, paid, and left to find another spot to fill what Jim called “the potato-shaped hole” in his heart.  We found a suitable spot in short order, and filled other holes in our hearts that were in the shape of beer and onion rings as well.

From there we continued north until we started recognizing landmarks, like the Church of the Infant of Prague.  We knew the Charles Bridge was near, so we headed towards it.  Apparently someone still had a potato hole in their heart because suddenly we were passing around a paper cone full of freshly-fried potato chips as we crossed the bridge.

Not content to stop there, we wandered into the Square and hit up the trdelník stand once more.

Mmmmm... trdelník....

Jim got a cup of hot punch, which did not pass the test, so we ditched it and went for the sure bet of hot wine.  Feeling tremendously hedonistic, we then headed for home and nap-time.

That night, we wanted to eat at a restaurant we found while coming down from Vysehrad: a Mexican restaurant called El Paisa.  The idea of Czech Mexican food (or “Czech-Mex” as we started to call it) was curiously irresistible and so we hiked back up the hill, found the restaurant, and sat down.

The server (host? owner?) greeted us immediately and asked if we spoke Czech, English, or Spanish.  Spanish!  I haven’t had a chance to speak Spanish since we were in Argentina four years ago, so I leapt at the opportunity, as did Jim (mind you, I hardly speak it, but I’m proficient enough in a restaurant setting).

The menu is not overly expansive, tacos being the main feature, but I did see one item that I had to order, for my mother’s sake.

That, my friends, is a heaping plate of nachos el pastor. And, because it's the Czech Republic, there's also bacon.

Incidentally, we also ordered the cilantro cream soup (partially visible behind the giant nacho plate) and it was simply out-of-this-world amazing.  On the chance that you find yourselves in this part of Prague, go to this restaurant and order it.  Assuming you’re the type who likes cilantro, it will change your life.

That night, we went back to MegaSportBar with Conor & Co., for more Street Basketball and pinball.  Our mojo wasn’t working so well this time around, and many of my rounds with Sarah devolved into hysterical giggle fits.  Oh well.

The next morning, we wanted to plan to get out to Kutná Hora to see the Bone Church, but we got a pretty late start.  Jim had some work to do, and I had some schoolwork to finish, so we had to find a breakfast spot that was close, fast, and with a reliable internet connection.  The quickest answer: Pod Slavínem.

I’ve mentioned “Pod Slav” in passing, but its epic Czech offerings really do deserve a more thorough description.  The first time we went there, I ordered a bacon omelette that was the size of a large pizza, with thick pieces of ham and a pile of cheese on top, and a generous bathing of olive oil throughout.  I couldn’t finish it, not even close.  Second time there, I went with ham and sauerkraut on a pile of homemade dumplings, maybe the size of a breadbox.  Couldn’t finish it.  This time, I learned my lesson.  Jim and I decided to split a potato pancake.  In case that doesn’t sound like much, this is what a Pod Slav potato pancake looks like.

That's at least 11 inches across.

We also decided to split a piece of apple strudel, but of course, because it’s this place, it was no mere piece of strudel.

There's strudel under there somewhere...

And for her part, Sarah went with svíčková (svitch-kova), which is braised beef served in some kind of orange sauce, topped with (what else?) whipped cream.

This is the half-portion.

It was after this meal that we decided we could no longer eat like the Czechs.  Our bodies were starting to reject even the idea of more meat/ cabbage/ potatoes/ pastries.  After a day trip to the Bone Church (more on that later), we celebrated Sarah’s last night in town at Maitrea, a vegetarian restaurant with incense burning and Enya playing in the background, lots of bamboo accents, trickling water features, and a general lightness in ambience that was very welcome after the ton of gastronomical bricks we’d been hit by over the last few days.

Up next: the Bone Church.

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Český Krumlov (or, My Rick Steves Dream Came True)

A couple weeks before I left the U.S., I was watching a PBS program that wrapped up ten minutes before the hour, and in the interim between shows, I happened to catch a Rick Steves travel segment.  It began with something along the lines of “My favorite place in the Czech Republic…” and I immediately perked up to see what place he could be talking about.  It wasn’t Prague.  It was a little hamlet of red-roofed buildings set on tiny cobblestone streets, nestled around a serpentine stretch of the Vltava River: Český Krumlov.

I was so excited that something about the Czech Republic happened to be on TV so soon before I’d be there myself, so I hopped on the Internet to see where Český Krumlov was and how likely it might be to swing a side trip.  Alas, it’s in the southern end of the country, almost on the Austrian border, and probably a 5-hour drive from Prague.  The chances of us getting that far out of town seemed unlikely, so I just enjoyed the coincidence and put it out of my head after that.

Fast forward to our first night in Prague, at the Hanging Coffee.  Conor asked us if we had any plans to get outside of the city, and Jim mentioned Karlsbad as a possibility. “Oh man,” Conor replied, “if I were you, I’d go to Český Krumlov over Karlsbad.  It’s one of my favorite cities in all of Europe.”

My eyes got wide and I grabbed Jim’s arm.  There it was again!  Clearly the universe was directing us to Český Krumlov, and so on Jim’s birthday we bought train tickets, and two days later, we boarded the train.

Five hours and several transfers later, we arrived.

Český Krumlov, with the castle in the center

We began the long walk into town from the train station, immediately struck by the quaint beauty of our surroundings.

Standing over the Vltava River, with Český Krumlov Castle behind me.

The train station was almost directly on the opposite side of town to the place we would be staying, which meant that we got to walk through the town and familiarize ourselves with landmarks and possible places to visit once we got settled in.

Eventually we made it to the other side, to our home for the night.

The Dilettante's Hangout and Artist Retreat

The Dilettante’s Hangout & Artist Retreat is two private rooms in the house of Maty Dio, an “eccentric transgender performance artist” whose paintings cover all the walls of both rooms.  Immediately upon entering, we were greeted by the commingling aromas of incense and tea.  Maty wasn’t in at the moment but would be returning soon, we were assured, and so we picked our rooms– Jim and I opted for the Nirvana Boudoir and Sarah took the Buddha Suite– and got settled.

The Buddha Suite

One corner of the Nirvana Boudoir. You can *just* see one of the corner posts of our canopy bed.

Once we got settled, Maty arrived.  He spoke marvelous English with an accent that both Sarah and I agreed we could listen to for days, and went about explaining the places to go (Deli 99 for coffee) and the places to avoid (vegetarian restaurants), using a copy of a hand-drawn map that I’m assuming he made himself (there’s a stack of them in the foyer for guests).  Once we had been given a sufficient run-down, Maty left us to ourselves and we descended into the little town.  Behold the quaintness.

There's that castle again.

Using Maty’s map, we found our way to Šatlava (note: the angry “s” makes a “sh” sound), a medieval restaurant on the site of the old jailhouse where your meat is cooked on an open fire.  We walked in and took a seat in the dark and cavernous space, near the fire so we could see the action.

The kitchen.

I was very enamored of the salt and pepper dishes, as opposed to shakers. May have to borrow the idea.

Mixed grill, cabbage salad, klobása with horseradish, potato pancakes... yum.

After the marvelous meal, eaten to the soothing sounds of medieval flute music, we were tempted to stay for another beer (pivo) but decided we needed to see what else the town had to offer, so we paid the bill and went on our way.

The Gypsy Pub is another joint in town that comes highly recommended by practically everyone.  I can definitely see where it would be a hot spot during the high tourist season, but on a Wednesday night in March, it was pretty quiet: besides the three of us, it was the owner, the owner’s friend, and the owner’s friend’s dog.  The owner was kind and the beer was good; I hope I’m able to return sometime when it’s a little more active, because the word is that you can catch some good live Gypsy music if you go on the right night.

After the Gypsy, we went to a place that we’d passed on the way to the Dilettante’s Hangout, that I knew I wanted to stop at before I knew anything about it: The Gorila Rock Pub.

The sign on the door says: "No guns. No Communists. No drugs. No ties."

We went inside and sat down.  This was more like it.  Young kids populated the place, some with dogs.  There was music and raucous laughter.  The table next to us was a group of guys who spent their time rolling spliffs and smoking them at the table.  [Side note: This is something I’ve noticed in the Czech Republic– marijuana is smoked pretty openly, and while it’s still technically illegal, proprietors turn a blind eye to its use.  In return, people smoke it responsibly and subtly.  I find this attitude fascinating, because where I come from, it is a no-tolerance Schedule I narcotic alongside the likes of heroin and MDMA, use or possession of which can land someone in jail for a long time.  I marvel at how peaceful and self-regulatory the situation can be when neither side deigns to make a big deal about it.]

After a few beers and a few rounds of “Win, Lose, or Banana“, we decided to head back up the giant hill to the Hangout, talking the whole time about the Czech Republic and how it’s fared against our expectations so far (conclusion: it’s exceeded them all).  Upon arriving, we parted ways into our respective rooms, and I fell asleep in a canopy bed for the very first time.

The next morning, I took a hot bath with some epsom salts I’d purchased the day before (cannabis-scented– for 79 crowns I couldn’t resist).  With a steaming cup of coffee and my Michael Palin travel book, it was a scandalously lovely way to start the day.

We went that morning to Deli 99 for what Maty said was the best coffee in town, and it didn’t disappoint (Jim’s waffle, however, was another story).  Afterwards, we only had a few hours to check out the town before our train departed back to Prague, so we decided to walk up to the castle.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the castle is that it has a bear moat.  That’s right.  A moat full of bears.

This is the sign warning you not to feed the bears in the bear moat.

Unfortunately for us, there were no actual bears in the moat that day, but the fact that they exist, and that there are signs advising tourists not to feed them, was good enough for me.

We continued on into the castle compound, and I immediately recalled Rick Steves’ description of the castle tower’s “fanciful paint job”.  As it turns out, much of the decorative architecture of the compound is painted on.

Those aren't real bricks.

From atop the castle’s bridge, you can see the the whole town.

I can't get enough of it. It's too picturesque.

Once we’d had our fill of the castle, we agreed that it was probably time to head back to the train station for the long journey home.  We made it up the hill with an hour to spare, and there are a few thoughtfully-placed pubs surrounding the train station, so we made our way into one and played a game of pool while we drank a beer and waited for the time to come.  Eventually, sadly, it came.  We paid the tab and ran to the station, found a roomette that was empty, and had a ukulele sing-along the whole way back to Prague.

Pretty much, yeah. 🙂

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Jim’s Birthday

Jim had his 29th birthday in Prague.

I am simultaneously envious of his having a birthday in Prague, and immensely grateful that I could be here to share in the enjoyment.  The day began with another ascent up the shoulders of Vyšehrad, to Caffé Fresco, a hip little spot that served eggs and coffee and everything else we were after.  Since it was a special day, the general consensus was that we needed to find and eat a lot of cake, which didn’t seem like it would be all that difficult, considering how much cake we’ve come across on a normal day without even trying.  Eventually, with cake on the brain, we began quoting Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or Death” bit at length as we made our way.

Walking from Vyšehrad into the city, we spotted a sign for Café Amandine, which had come up in previous internet searches for breakfast spots.  We decided to check out their cake selection, and were immediately excited at the prospects as soon as we entered.

Look at all that cake!

It’s a very fashionable spot, with fashionable cakes to match.  In fact, the aesthetic was reminiscent of our very own Cupcake Palace.

Sarah ordered French onion soup, and Jim and I went with desserts: French apple pie with caramel ice cream and cinnamon whipped cream for me, and a chocolate ganache cake served with carmelized plums for Jim.

Someone's got his cake-face on.

From there we walked to the train station, because we decided that a day trip to Český Krumlov was in order (more about that later).  Jim had a cheat-sheet filled with what to say in order to purchase the tickets, which he relied on heavily; once the transaction was complete, the woman at the counter said something in Czech that sounded like “information” and threw down three silver coins.  Vaguely confused, Jim collected the coins and the ticket, and we wandered haplessly toward the information booth.  It turns out that the coins, which were the no-cash-value amusement park type, were for the soda machine directly in front of us, from which you could choose either water or Pepsi.  Sarah laughed at our confusion, because apparently the woman had said “Free drinks” in English, and Sarah was the only one who heard it.  So we got our free drinks (we all chose water) and continued on our way.

We were going to meet up with Conor at 9pm, and still had some time to kill, so we went to Hidden Bar, a place that is probably 25m from our front door, and has pinball, foosball, and beer.  A few half-liters and a game of dominoes later, it was time to leave to meet Conor, who announced upon arrival that we were going to a place where beer and games were in abundance.

The place, called MegaSportBar, lies at the end of an unremarkable, graffiti-lined alleyway.  Upon opening the doors, you descend down five or six stairs into a huge, smoky ballroom filled with billiards and snooker tables– something about it gave me the feeling of going to a speak-easy, or some other underground establishment upon which the authorities would certainly frown. When you enter, you get a ticket that you must keep on you at all times because anything you purchase (beer, billiards, or any other game that isn’t coin-operated) gets tallied on and you pay for everything at the end.  We bypassed the tables, fetched some beers at the bar, and headed to the back room where the pinball and foosball games resided.  Most of the people in our group jumped right into pinball, but Sarah and I found what would soon become the all-consuming game of the night: Street Basketball.

Street Basketball is the jam.

We occupied that game for the better part of the night.  At one point we did take a break from basketball to play an hour’s worth of bowling.  The bowling was ridiculous; the pins were hung on strings, the lane listed pretty heavily to the left, and none of the balls was lighter than 12 lbs.  But it was spectacular fun.

Janky bowling.

After bowling, it was back to Street Basketball for the rest of the night as members of our group took turns trying to best each other’s high scores.  Soon it was after 1am and time to move on.  We went next to Chapeau Rouge for drinking and dancing.  Interestingly, in our normal lives neither Jim nor I dance, but it was a special occasion and so dance we did, and quite ridiculously at that.

After another hour or so, it was very much time to head home.  Conor made sure we knew the way to go, which we did (albeit in a very general sense), and then we all parted ways.  Sarah, Jim and I walked home in high spirits at the conclusion of what we all agreed was an excellent day, and then we turned a corner and ended up in Old Town Square.  At 3am, under a bright moon and a handful of visible stars, and no one else around.

It’s hard to convey the feeling of seeing what we’d previously only seen in daylight, surrounded by the cacophony of a half million people all striving to see the same thing, suddenly shrouded in pale moonlight and silence.  The view of the Týn Church’s towers beneath a smattering of stars was indescribable (and, unfortunately, not able to be captured by our cameras).  It was as though we had the whole place to ourselves, which imparted a feeling of peace not likely to be experienced here again.

Look at how many people there aren't!

Most amazingly, we got to have a moment with the Astronomical Clock on our way out of the square.  Looking at the clock mechanism, up to the tower, and then to the stars beyond, was a moment of sheer poetry.

After that, it was a long but lovely walk back to the Cupcake Palace.  We didn’t hit the beds until nearly 5am, which meant the next morning didn’t begin until the afternoon, at which point we stumbled across the street to Pod Slavínem for mountains of Czech comfort food.  The next day, we’ll head out for Český Krumlov, and we cannot wait.

Happy birthday Jim!

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