Monday, 31 August 2015

Telč: an idyllic day trip from Prague or Brno

Telč, Czech Republic
A two hour drive from both Prague and Brno, Telč makes for an excellent day trip away from the city. 

Parking on the bridge that leads into the centre is free and without time limit, and provides lovely views of the river and townscape. Walking to the main square takes less than five minutes from here. 
The cheerful buildings on the square make for pleasant strolling or sitting with a beverage. It's fun to point out architectural differences and find your favourite building. Mine was the peach coloured gem in the middle of the picture above, while Yannick and Fabienne preferred the black and white detailed facade on the left. It could be argued that this is one of the prettiest squares in the country.
On market days the square comes alive with stalls selling doodads, soaps and food. A public toilet is available just off the square, and was free when we visited, though may not be on non-market days.
The Telč plague column is one of the most fancy I've seen, with a plethora of details and shiny saint halos. There was a plague column in nearly every town in the Czech Republic, and at first we didn't know why. Perhaps it was a way to honour the victims of the plague, or a measure of desperate mayors to ward off the plague from their town. 
It turns out that plague columns were often erected in thanks to God at the conclusion of a plague. 
A lovely green park resides down the street past the church, and we wished we had eaten our picnic lunch here rather than at a roadside rest stop with a pond full of eels for company. If you wish to see the town from above, you can pay a small fee to climb the church tower, but we figured it wouldn't add much to our impressions. 
Already quiet during the day, if you stay in Telč until twilight the few tourists all disappear and you can have a peaceful evening away from hustle and bustle. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Brno: Your Alligator is Rubbish, Mate

Reader discretion is advised due to content that may disturb. This post contains imagery of deceased persons.  
Brno, Czech Republic
The capital of Moravia (the country's only main historical region aside from Bohemia), Brno was a city we wanted to explore mainly for the mummies in the Capuchin Monastery crypt as well as the cathedral and castle. 
Upon trying to find accomodation for Brno, we discovered that a billion people had descended into campgrounds like the MotoGP was on or something. Well, it so happens that the MotoGP was taking place that weekend in the city, and motorcycle race enthusiasts were flocking from every country in Europe. Valentino Rossi was only 8km from us, and fell off his bike while practicing. True story. I looked it up. Luckily the camping still had a bit of space and we set up camp on a little sloped piece of grass. The cars had to be parked separately, and a resident dog liked to lie down where campers were trying to park their cars. As we parked, a Frenchman saw our number plate, rolled down his window and exclaimed "Francais?!" We had to let him down, saying the car was French but the occupants were Néo-Zéalandais. He shouted "Auckland!" and drove off. Later we overheard their group discussing "I am ze boss", "You are ze boss?". Those quirky French. 
Our first stop in the city was the Capuchin Monastery. However, we didn't go into the lovely main entrance - we found the crypt around the back down a shoulder-width alleyway. We had heard that the crypt had perfect conditions for preservation, and the corpses contained within were excellent specimens of mummified remains. 
The first mummy that is presented is Franz Baron von Trenck, a wealthy military commander who wished to be buried without ceremony and only a rock under his head. This head was subject to quite a bit of myth, as his skull was much less well-preserved as the rest of his body. As you can see with his feet above, his skin was still mostly intact and looked like old paper. Conversely, his skull was entirely exposed as if it came from a bare skeleton, and aparently the vertebrae attaching the head to the spine aren't connected. Theories that the head was secreted away by a curiosity hunter and replaced by a random monk's skull were proven to be false when two separate teams of forensic experts matched the DNA of the body to the skull in 1986 and 1998. 
The natural conditions in the crypt were such that not only bodily tissues were preserved through mummification, but so was cloth. You could see the hoods of the habits on some of the monks were complete, as were the rope belts tied around their waists. On the more recently buried monks, the facial tissue was still intact enough that you could feel their personalities, which made it seem like they could suddenly sit up and start talking to you. In this way, it felt like being in a horror film where the mummies would become undead and shuffle towards you in their thirst for living flesh. Yet at the same time, being able to see more than the bone of skull made them feel more like people who you could relate to. Combined with Kutna Hora, I began to feel that the Czech liked to keep around macabre reminders of their dead. 
We passed up seeing the nearby "mechanical Bethlehem", which looked to be some automated nativity scene, and instead walked up to the cathedral, through the main square (where a triumphant Heracles reined in the bad doggie Cerberus) and to the old Town Hall. We were disappointed by a plasticy looking alligator that is referred to as the Brno dragon, and the wheel with a story stood unimpressively on one wall. The story goes that a cartwright made a wager with his friend that he could chop down a tree, craft a wheel from it and roll it all the way to Brno (50 kilometres away) before sundown. He succeeded, but a dangerous rumour started whereby the devil helped him out, and no one wanted to talk to him or purchase goods so he died in penniless and friendless. 
On our way to see the plague column in another square, we were sidetracked by a flock of people in costume parading down the street. We should have suspected something like this, as earlier that morning we had seen a man dressed like a musketeer (complete with large musket over one shoulder) strolling along casually and had wondered if he worked at a heavily themed restaurant. 
The parade had to stop to let a tram through the square, which was a hilarious clash of eras. Had they not planned for this beforehand? It turned out that this was part of celebrations for the 370th Day of Brno - an anniversary commemorating successful defence of the city from the Swedish army during the Thirty Years War. 
The plague column itself was like every other that we had seen, but a nearby band drew our attention for their catchy and jaunty tunes. We listened for a while, and as we walked away they started up with their own version of ACDC's TNT, which was a treat. 
We took in a few more sights that didn't really stand out to me, and we actually forgot to see the castle (we did a drive by later, and concluded it didn't require a visit). 
Opting not to cram ourselves into another camping full of MotoGP fans, we booked a room in what turned out to be a university dormitory that had been vacated due to the holidays. It was cheap, and there were desks and a little kitchen so we were super happy. If there had been wifi, all the boxes would have been ticked. 
The spartan corridor and beer stickers on the doors brought back memories of my university days, which weren't so long ago I suppose, but feel like an age. When hopping around from city to city, country to country, time seems to pass slowly. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Cesky Krumlov: Call off the invasion - there's a bear in the moat!

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
As a town's popularity increases, so do the number of terrible campgrounds surrounding it. Cesky Krumlov being one of the biggest tourist draws in the Czech Republic, we stayed at one of the riverside campings (the first non-riverside one we tried to find led to a run down apartment complex). The showers were communal, and we resolved to swim in the river in lieu of a shower. In the morning, however, we found it to be rather too chilly except for Yannick who paddled around happily. 
Stinky and sticky, we explored Cesky. 
The town was a spectacle to behold with red roofs and colourful towers. This lookout point was chock full of visitors taking photos, and one particularly annoying giant tour group who made everyone move to the side so they could get just the right picture. Our morning was spent wandering along the cobblestoned streets, going down whichever path took our fancy. 
Lunch comprised of gourmet toasted cheese sandwiches and iced drinks from Deli 99. It was such a nice experience that we considered returning for dinner, but they closed just a tad too early for our dream to come to fruition. 
Just a few steps past the café's door was an old gate bearing the town's coat of arms. 
On our way up to the Renaissance era castle we noticed that a crowd had gathered on the drawbridge and was interested by something in the moat. I assumed they were feeding the ducks, but when we looked down, the moat was dry and there were bears inside! 
The moat seemed to be made into a small zoo enclosure where the bears could roam and eat their vegetarian diet of fruits, vegetables and bread. Even thought I know they are large predatory animals, they looked so cute and fuzzy munching away on their carrots. Several eateries and museums cashed in on the ursine attractions by having bear-themed signage. 
Once we tore ourselves away from the cuddly bears, we climbed the pretty castle tower for yet more amazing views of the town. 
From our lofty vantage point we could see ant-sized people trudging along the road that crosses a bridge and leads all the way to the main square. The square contained several intriguing things including a plague column, a group of buskers playing catchy music (with an accordion, guitar and clarinet), and some middle-aged ladies who found the toe-tapping too restrictive and instead let their hair down and danced. 
Rafting and canoeing the river is evidently a drawcard for Cesky, as you start surrounded by nature and flow down past the fairytale-like seventeenth century buildings. For the influx of tourists are many stands selling funnel cakes (though the cake makers always seem to be clouded by a swarm of wasps eager for something sweet), and bars promoting cheap alcoholic drinks - the thriftiest I saw was selling three shots for one hundred koruna, or around €3.70. 
As we left that evening, we walked under the archways of the castle to find our carpark, serenaded by buskers the whole way. Opting for a real shower, we had checked in to a small hotel in a nearby village. Upon arrival, an oblivious cat wandered out in front of our car. We stopped to let it pass, and a passerby tourist tried to use her walking stick to bring it back onto her side of the road (she had been patting it just before and probably wanted to keep its attention). This had the opposite effect and actually spurred the cat to walk further in the path of our vehicle, but frantic prodding from the stick eventually led to a clear street. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

What's in my bag: Roadtrip Edition

When roadtripping, you need the essentials and don't have much space for extras. After two years of roadtrip experience, I've boiled down exactly what I need when on the road.

What's in my handbag
Some people take a backpack, but I find that when popping out of the car to explore a city, a handbag is much more realistic for long wanderings in terms of size and weight. While my handbag is very old, it has lasted me well over the years and is the perfect dimensions for me. You may need to downsize/upsize to fit your particular needs. 
- iPad Mini, iPhone, wall charger and cables. As I use both the iPad Mini and iPhone while travelling, I've got a wall charger with two outlets so I can charge both devices via USB at once. 
- Headphones
- A compact folding umbrella. You never know when the weather will turn!
- A reusable shopping bag. This can be rolled up tight and whipped out when you need a few ingredients from the grocery store or to carry surplus items that can't fit in your handbag. 
- A pen or two
- A pouch for storing receipts. I tuck away receipts during the day and record my expenses every night. This is helpful for ensuring I stay on budget. 
- Chapstick. I hate getting dry lips during the day, and with an SPF15 it keeps your lips sun protected as well. 
- Sunscreen. This is top priority on sunny days, but don't forget to apply on cloudy days as well, as you can still burn under cloudcover. If it's thundering down with rain or you're heading out in the evening, feel free to leave this behind in the glove box. 
- Travel tissues. A lifesaver when you've got a runny nose, whether it be from a cold wind or a spicy meal.
- Hair ties
- Hand sanitiser. At some point you'll probably use a public toilet which has run out of soap. It's always good to keep a small bottle of hand sanitiser available. 
- Sugarfree gum. For that dreaded coffee breath, or those mornings when you forget to brush your teeth. 
- Antiseptic cream and plasters. As I've learned well, you can never anticipate just when you'll be in need of a few plasters. Apply antiseptic cream to cuts to avoid infection. 
- Painkillers. I bring a packet of Paracetamol tablets for sudden headaches, and Tiger Balm for insect bite relief. 
- Gorillapod. This versatile little tripod is great for nighttime shots, so I don't carry it around all the time - just when venturing out after the sun has set. 
- Earplugs. These are always kept on hand in case of noisy campsites or hotel rooms. 
- Eye drops. As a contact lens wearer, my eyes get dry on occasion and eye drops are heaven. 
Sunglasses case. While not 100% necessary, if you want to avoid scratches on your glasses I'd recommend bringing a case. 

What's in my money belt
Instead of carrying "all my eggs in one basket", I wear a money belt with important documents and spare cash in case of pickpocketers or bag snatchers. This is worn around around the hips and tucked into my shorts so it is never visible. 
- Passport and driver's license 
- Car registration and insurance papers
- At least €50 cash, in relevant currency depending on country
- My bank card for withdrawals

Is there anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below and remember to always stay safe while travelling. Keep your possessions close and stay constantly vigilant of the situation around you. 

The most haunting day trip from Prague: Kutna Hora

Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
There was only one reason we took the trip from Prague down to Kutna Hora, and that was to see Sedlec Ossuary. Hearing that the place of worship was filled with decorations comprising of the bones of over forty thousand dead, I started to refer to it as (spooky voice) the BOOOOONE CHURCH. 
The bone church! Apparently the showcase of remains are not a celebration of death, but meant to signify that all are equal under god. Signs commanding silence were ignored by the crowds inside, and I feel that a professional shusher should have been employed to put people back into line, Sistine Chapel style. There were alarms on some of the bars that would go off if photo takers got too close, but that didn't stop people throwing wishing coins into the eye sockets of the skulls.
Front and centre in the ossuary was the chandelier, which was created out of at least one of every bone in the human body. 
The story behind this disturbing place started with overcrowding. The Sedlec graveyard became a trendy place to be inhumed after a sprinkling of soil from the Holy Land was brought back by a local monk in 1278. The news spread fast and by the 1400's old bones had to be dug up and stacked in the newly built ossuary to make room for fresh corpses. A wood carver was hired by the Schwarzenbergs in 1870 to make use of them, and in my opinion he went a bit overboard with it. He even signed his name with bones and crafted the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family out of you-know-what. 
Driving south, we were grateful to have functioning air conditioning as the country was experiencing something of a heat wave. It seems that Czech cars may be unequipped for such weather, as several people were zooming along with their doors open. Southern Czech Republic was covered in crop land, and the freshly harvested fields were host to wind funnels that looked like tiny tornadoes kicking up the dusty earth. On the way to take the above photo, Yannick tripped on a banana peel and mistakenly thought he had been transported into a cartoon. 
Though I didn't have the nightmares I anticipated, the bone church at Kutna Hora would haunt my thoughts for weeks to come. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Prague, day four and five: This one time, at the best church ever...


Prague, Czech Republic
Our fourth day in Prague was mostly taken up by a trip to the famous castle (see my post on it here), but after that was when things started to get really interesting. While we normally never pay to enter churches, on a whim - and a Lonely Planet recommendation - we spent 70 korunas each (around €2.60) to visit the church of Saint Nicolas. 
As soon as we stepped inside, I knew that we had found something special. Everything was gold and marble, gleaming in the early afternoon light. Each surface and statue screamed 'baroque'. 
The ceiling was touted as one of the main attractions in the church, as it is the largest fresco in Europe. While I did find the fresco beautiful and masterfully painted, it didn't stand out to me from other church frescoes. 
I actually preferred the ceiling fresco inside the dome. When you stood and looked up at it, the view could have been a piece of art in itself, with the statues looking around and light shining inside. 
Of the statues (and there were plenty!), one of my favourites was a larger-than-life saintly man with a great beard who was smiting down a semi-aquatic looking creature - probably a demon or other sinner. Another stand-out was a lady patting what looked like a hybrid of an alpaca and a lion, and a guy holding onto a pair of manacles threateningly. I sat and contemplated the church for a little while, finally deciding that it was my all time favourite church ever, and I would have paid much more than the prescribed entrance fee to see it. Mozart may have enjoyed it too, as he had a go on the organ here in 1787. 
Reluctantly, I left the church to nourish myself with luncheon. The difficult to pronounce Cukrkávalimonáda was packed full of others with the same idea, but the waitress found us a table by sitting us next to a couple of Californians. They recommended the sandwiches and the 'cocktails', which they explained were non-alcoholic and more like freshly squeezed juices. We shared our travel plans, and as we ordered they shot off to Latvia. Following their advice, I asked for the mediterannean open faced sandwich and citrus cocktail. While we ate our delicious lunch, we talked about how odd it was for such a modern café to be set in a building with original Renaissance ceiling beams. 
Wanting to retire to the campsite early for a bit of relaxation, we took in one more sight: the Valdstejnsky Palace gardens. One side was contained by a vertical wall of concrete that was shaped to look like the interior of a cave. If you looked closely enough, you could see animals and evil faces in the rock of this 'grotto'. The strange part done with, the rest of the gardens were pleasant to stroll through. Many bronze statues were dotted throughout (replacements, as the originals had been carted off by mischievous Swedes) among fountains and hedges. 
The pond was home to gigantic carp (probably nearly a meter in length), and little birds that looked very similar to New Zealand native pukekos. 
The tram back to the campsite terminated early and we were stuck in an unfamiliar area of Prague with no idea how to finish our route. Luckily our wide-eyed disbelief garnered the attention of a nice lady who had a strong Glaswegian accent, but who had lived in Prague for seven years. She directed us to the nearest team stop where our time-based ticket could be used on the next passing tram. Our dinner, which was intended to be stress-free, was descended on by a swarm of wasps (a literal swarm literally) and we were forced to quickly cover everything in foil and retreat to the safety of the car. While waiting them out, a drunk Scottish couple stopped for a chat and told Fabienne she sounded like the Queen. 

Our fifth and final day in the capital also held transportation issues, as the campsite had run out of tram tickets for purchase. We had to walk down to the nearest metro station in order to buy tickets from the machine there. It was a tad sweltering, but the trek across a bridge provided good views of the Vltava river. 
The Church of Saint James looked like a normal church, but upon closer inspection a grisly artefact of its past could be seen: a shrivelled human hand hung up on a wall, which had a bogus story about how the statue of the Virgin Mary pincered it off a thief, but in reality was likely due to the church's connection to the butchers' guild. 
The last church was visited not for guilded baroquery or human remains, but for a moving and terrible story. A group of assassin paratroopers fatally wounded the leader of the gestapo, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942. The explosion hadn't gone as planned, but Heydrich died from sepsis due to shrapnel wounds days later. The paratroopers went into hiding, staying with members of the resistance and eventually in the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Under pressure from his mother, the traitor Karel Curda came forward with their whereabouts. A shootout occurred when the gestapo stormed the crypt, and all seven paratroopers inside were killed, either from inflicted wounds or from suicide. Anyone and everyone thought to be in cahoots with them was sentenced to death, including whole families and the church's priests. The frenzied Nazis also entirely wiped out two whole villages to set an example. 
It was on a sombre note that we left the city, both from the deeply tragic fate of the Czech resistance and because we were leaving a place we had grown very fond of. I can't say that it's my favourite city, but it's certainly in my top five. The rich historical tapestry coupled with the stunning cityscape makes Prague unmissable, and I'm sure I'll be back one day. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Visiting the legendary Prague Castle

Prague, Czech Republic
The castle in Prague is one of the country's biggest tourist attractions. I could understand that simply for the breathtaking views it provides of the city (see above). But that being said, it's not really a castle. Let me explain.
When you see the castle from a distance, it looks to be a long row of buildings with a spiky cathedral poking out the top, and that is indeed what it is. I am more accustomed to castles being big stone structures built almost solely for defence, with decoration coming later down the list of priorities. That may be why I initially thought the castle was the cathedral: it's big and stone and more castley than the castle that surrounds it. Yet the castle is not so much a castle in my opinion as an area of buildings used for governing purposes, like a kinda fortified town. Now that's cleared up, and I've used the word "castle" far more than I'd have liked, let's take a look at that cathedral. 
Named after Saint Vitus, the cathedral towers above the surrounding castle and by extension, the city.
Inside, the warm morning light shone through and illuminated floating dust particles. We woke up early in an effort to beat the rush of visitors, and in that regard we succeeded - purchasing tickets was painless and we never had to queue to enter any of the sites. 
Titanic panels of stained glass popped with colour, and even though they were not steeped in centuries of history (designed by prominent artists of the twentieth century), they were striking to behold. She's like a raaaaaaainbow. 
This statue got me siding with the Protestants over the Catholics even more than I already had been in Prague's history lessons. It depicted a man in ridiculously splendiferous robes, kneeling on a tasseled cushion, with his beringed hands clapped before him in prayer. If I was a religious person, I'd say that all you needed is faith. Instead, I say all you need is love. (Dem 60's pop icons be my god, yo.) 
One of the most magnificent sights was that of John of Nepomuk's tomb. He was a saint of Bohemia that was drowned in the Vltava river - somehow they thought it was a good idea to make him patron saint of protection from floods and drowning, which seems contradictory to me. As well as having rich velvet curtains, the tomb and decorations are crafted out of two tonnes of silver. A crowd of photo takers had gathered (among them a couple of touring French priests), but we managed to squeeze past them to see the chapel of Good Guy Václav (aka Wenceslas I), and the chapel of Saint Mary Magdalen. 
On our way to the Old Royal Palace, several soldiers passed us keeping a close eye on the hordes of visitors. It's odd to think that guns and knives may be necessary in such a peaceful place, but when you think of Prague's turbulent history I suppose you never know when things may go awry. 
Once at the palace, we were able to meander through grand rooms. One of my favourites had dozens of coats of arms painted onto the ceiling and walls. The one shown above is Vladislav Hall, where inaugurations are held. 
Along a narrow alleyway are the sixteenth century houses that make up Golden Lane. Originally they were built for members of the castle guard, but over time they came to be largely goldsmiths' homes and shops. In the twentieth century they were frequented by artists and writers, most notably Franz Kafka who stayed with his sister at number twenty-two. Now, several of the buildings are on show to demonstrate what they looked like when lived in once upon a time. This was the house of Matylda Průšová, a fortune teller who set the dinner table each day for her son who was lost on the battlefield of WWII and who herself was killed by the gestapo. 
Pleasantly surprised to find that Daliborka Tower was included for free as part of our tickets, we stared in horror at gruesome torture devices such as the Spanish Boot (so many spikes!). The dead ivy clinging to the windows was pretty spooky too. 
Needing a break from standing up and looking at awesome things, we drank lemonades on a café terrace overlooking the city. I found the composition of the antlers on the wall to be quite attractive. 
We chose to visit the Muzeum Miniatur - a collection of teeny tiny works by Anatoly Konenko, who used to produce tools for microsurgery, but found a more interesting way to use his miniature tools. It was a small museum but entirely worth the 100 Czech korunas (around €3.70). Microscopes were needed to be able to see the detail of each piece. 
The ones I found most amazing were the line of camels in the eye of a needle, the horseshoes on a flea and the Lord's Prayer written along a human hair. 
This bicycle was slightly larger than many other of his crafts, and visible to the naked eye if you squinted. The thick grey line it's attached to is a needle, to give you some sense of scale. An entirely bizarre experience, but one I would choose to have again. 
From the sky scraping spires of Saint Vitus cathedral to the shrunken cyclist's seat, our castle day in the capital was truly Capital, what what ho ho.