A Travellerspoint blog

September 2013

Romania

Transalvania

Day 15
Not knowing where to go next we decided on Transylvania because of all the great reports and it sounded so different from where we had already been. Our train arrived at the Sighisoara Station at noonish. We hailed a cab and made our way across the river to our home for the next three nights, 'The Joker' hotel. A few minutes walk from the centre of the old town for $30 a night it proves to be a great place to wind down for a few days. After a rest we walked around the small town. We instantly fall in love with the new and different architecture and the many colors of the buildings.
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Sighisoara is a Unesco world heritage site. This well preserved medieval town has buildings dating back to the 13th century and quite different from what we have seen so far on this trip. The clock tower and churches are at the top of the hill in the old walled city so we make our way up the cobblestone road to look around. There are not many tourists here and it is all so laid back and relaxed.
Dinner was a hearty vegetable soup and bread. Bread is a staple everywhere in Europe it seems. They have little take out windows here on a couple of storefronts that sell these round bagel/pretzel looking things that people line up all day for. We had to try some of course and were immediately hooked.
The roofs of the buildings are very steep and have the rounded red tiles. Home owners take great pride in their homes and gardens with many flowers in bloom and tomatoes, grapes and corn ready to be picked.

Day 16. A short hike back to the top of the hill to the walled city allows us to explore the many buildings.
This is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, AKA Dracula. The real story is that Vlad's father was given the order of the dragon for bravery and dragon in Romanian is Dracu. There is a very long story about Vlad, but the short version is that he became a very good but brutal fighter against the Turks. He killed and tortured up to 100,000 men women and children burning entire villages. He became very feared by the Turks as when they were advancing upon a town to conquer, they would find people who had been impaled by Vlad lining each side of the road and so the invaders would quite often then retreat.
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Bram Stoker did a story and movie loosely based upon this and in fact he had never even been to Romania before.

The walled city is all hilly and difficult to walk on the narrow roads with uneven cobblestones. I feel drunk. No high heels are worn here.

People are still living inside the walls and there are two schools. The high school is at the top of a covered walkway which has 176 steps. We climbed to the top and found a lovely old church and a very informative and friendly young man who explained about the area for us. Under the church was a crypt. I asked who would have been buried there and he said the rich. That is where the saying 'stinking rich ' comes from. The rich would be put under the church and the congregation would have to endure the smell of rotting bodies during the church service.

A graveyard adjoined the church and dated back many centuries with family plots that still have residents buried there now, condominium style I assume.
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A large Catholic Church rings the bell at 7AM, noon and 7PM daily. It rings and rings and rings, maybe 25 or more times a go. This is a tradition that has carried on from days gone by so that people knew when to stop and have their meals.

Later in the evening we went out for dinner again. There are not many restaurants here as it is a small town. There seem to be a lot of coffee houses where you can get alcohol as well, but other than pastries no food. Everyone seems to smoke and inside the restaurants as well. The non smoking area appears to be outside.

DAY 17. Last night we arranged to have a local guide, Peter,our guide and driver, picked us up at the hotel at 9AM for a day out in the country. Peter is around 35 years of age and the name of his company is Wanderlust, which I thought was appropriate. He had a great deal of information to share with us about Romania. There are a lot of German speakers in Romania and communities of people of German ancestry. For that reason Romania was not bothered too much by the Nazis in the Second World War until 1944, (unless you were a gypsy). The EU so far has not been great for Romania. Farmers are paid an allowance of so much per hectare for farming their land. More if they let it go to grassland than farm it. They want France to provide most of Europe with produce so a lot of farmers and factory workers have been displaced in Romania. It sounds like there really isn't much of an export business here at all any more.

During communist occupation, which similar to Hungary was after the war until 20 years ago, everyone was working but the factories were not profitable so after the occupation many of them closed down.
70% of the produce that the farmers grow are organic. There are monsanto and fertilizer companies but most farmers can't afford to buy it and figured out pretty quickly that the old fashioned way was better anyhow. Most of the farming is done by horse or hand. The miles and miles of corn are all picked by hand. Most farmers around here can't afford tractors and the cost of gas is high. The farms are on hillsides and they find that horses are better to traverse them than tractors anyhow.

Our first stop is an old church in a small village. On the hill we see a fortress. At one time there was a tunnel to the hill from the church so that people could escape from approaching invaders. These churches are both a place to worship but also a place to hide and fight the enemy.
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When an enemy was coming the church bell would ring to warn everyone. There were three kinds of rings. One to warn of enemies attacking, one for a fire and one for church.
The woman, children and large animals would head up the hill to the fortress. The men would go to the church.

At the back of the church, which dates back to 1300, there is a stone circular staircase. It is narrow, dark and difficult to climb. Circular stairs always cork screw the same way. They are designed for defending. The soldier coming down the stairs could fight with a sword in his right hand, however the attacker is unable to use his sword because of the angle of the stairs. I suppose most were right handed back then.

We arrived at the top and were in a room above the church. There are small windows and holes in the floor where the residents would defend their church from. They could pour hot oil, water and drop rocks onto the attackers with ease. They also would shoot arrows and crossbows (and later muskets) though the windows. These men were not soldiers but farmers and town folk. It is amazing that this church still stands, relatively in tact as it was centuries ago.

The next town was down a very long and badly kept road. We pass many shepherds with their flocks of sheep. It would be a very lonely and boring job to be a shepherd I would think.
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Prince Charles has a home in the town we arrive at. A very modest home in a town of only a few hundred. He likes to come here for a couple of weeks in the year to get away from it all and just be a regular person. The towns people leave him alone and he gets to walk the hills, hunt and ride the horse and wagon around. It is a very peaceful place.

We tour another church /fortress which has a museum in it. We are learning about the life of Romanians from early times to present day. Transylvania is a melting pot of religions and cultures. There were never any wars over religion here during the past few centuries. I find the Romanian language sounds a lot like Italian to me. They sing when they speak, it is quite lovely.

Lunch was waiting for us in another small town at a farm. Everything was from the garden, or in the case of the meat, shot by the sons of the owner. Doug had a plate of beans with Venison and Wild Boar. I had beans, vegetable soup, sour cabbage and macaroni with sheep's cheese. We were offered a fruit liquor, like schnapps , that everyone has a shot of for lunch. When we politely declined we were brought a pitcher of wine. We declined that as well. Drinking for lunch and dinner is the norm. I sit and eat my lunch in a lovely room decorated with antlers, skeletal heads of big horned animals and taxidermy on the walls.

The owner was redoing the roof of the building. The clay roof tiles will last up to 300 years, only the wooden struts need to be replaced and the tiles used over and over again.

A final church was toured, each one different from the last, and then we started our journey back home after a long but interesting six hour tour.

Day 18. The train to Brasov was supposed to leave at 11:30AM but we did not board until 1:30PM. We splurged for first class seats for an extra $10 but find that there is not much difference from second class really. The costs here are very inexpensive. We are living on around $50 each a day, but this will quickly change when we reach Italy I am sure.
Upon arrival at Brasov we arrange a taxi to our hotel. For the second time we are charged four times what it should be.Funny thing is that the driver gave us some great rates for day trips while we are here, but because of the rip off we won't use him now.
Our hotel is in the old part of Brasov and the nicest we have stayed at so far. New and clean we are happy to rest here for a short while before exploring the old town.
A wall surrounds the main area which we followed past a small creek with the white and black towers on top of the hill.

Brasov is another lovely medieval town and we are instantly captivated with the old colorful buildings with the various architectural styles.
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Transylvania was part of Austria in the past so there is a definite Viennese style once again. Many outdoor restaurants are found on the pedestrian walkway but we chose to eat inside as there is an unusual cold front right now. Everyone is in their winter clothes, I definitely did not pack enough warm clothes.

Day 19. Last night I emailed a fellow that was found on the internet and arranged a tour to three outlying castles. He website said 'tour guide' but alas he turned out to be only a driver who talked as we went from place to place. When we arrived at our location we were on our own which was a disappointment. While driving he was a wealth of information and very opinionated about the Romanian Government and politics in general.
A sunny but cold day we started off at Bran Castle, the one used as the castle for 'Dracula' movies.
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Bran is located at the top of a hill and was given as a gift from Romania to the much loved Romanian Queen Mary and King Ferdinand. It is a very modest castle, as castles go, but I loved it.

One of the most interesting things at this castle was a weigh scale that they used in the Middle Ages to see if convicts were followers of satan or not. The prisoner would sit on one side and they would put rocks on the other. They believed that if you weighed less than they thought that you should, you must be a Satan worshipper. You were then tortured until you admitted being a follower of Satan. If, however, the convict weighed what they thought he should, he was then set free.
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Outside the castle was an area of tourist souvenirs and food items for sale. This is a large sheep farming area and you could find slippers, vests and items made from sheep skin. There were a lot of tour groups here today. An older man was selling apples from his farm and I took one and asked how much. He said in gesture "only 1?" No charge. I insisted on paying but he was adamant that I needn't pay for only one apple. I got another for Doug and paid him a small amount. The Romanian's are so kind and gentle.

Our next stop took us through the Carpathian mountains and hills which are covered in deciduous trees of yellows oranges and reds. In a couple of weeks they will be an explosion of color and rival the East Coast of Canada I am sure.

Rasnov Fortress was perched high on a hill overlooking the farms and villages below. A young man asked if we would like to have a guide and we accepted his offer. This was a decision that we did not regret as he was full of interesting historical information about the fort and the area. In 2000 an Italian businessman bought the fort from the Romanian government and changed a number of things in the hopes of turning it into a hotel. He made up stories of historic events that did not happen and had no knowledge of restoring the fort to keep it's historical significance. Eventually the Romanian government realized what was going on and bought the fort back from him before more damage could be done.
Our guide informed us that in medieval times they used poison ivy to cover the meat in the cold area of the castle as this would help to preserve it as well as keep the flys off.
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Peles Castle was the third stop and the Grand Palace of Queen Mary and King Ferdinand. Even the Hermitage in Russia was not quite as over the top as this. It was quite fantastic and rather than see if for the gaudy and opulent place that it was, I looked rather at the amazing work of the artists who contributed to it. There were walls, ceilings and furniture with intricate inlaid wood and marble pictures. Mirrors and glass work that must have been created by very talented craftsmen lined the walls and chandeliers.

We were at the end of a very long but full day and went for dinner before heading back to the hotel. Our guide did not allow us the time to stop for lunch so we were famished.
The food here is very good, but everywhere we have been thus far has a huge Italian influence with most of the menu being Pizza and Pasta dishes.

Day 20. Satisfied from our full breakfast we left our luggage at the front desk and spent the day exploring Brasnov. The city is the size of Victoria but we concentrate ourselves only in the old historic part. The pedestrian walkway is very busy, it is the weekend and there are lots of people from Bucharest and outlying areas that come for a holiday. A weekend market is set up with farmers selling their produce and locally made preserves and baking.

I found a pair of sandals to replace the ones I lost in Vancouver. They are not great but only cost $8 so will do if I can't find anything else on our travels. An art museum was on the agenda. The two floors of Romanian art displayed had virtually no light so the dark paintings, which I am sure were great, were very difficult to see.
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Our last stop was 'The Black Church' which is called that because it was in a huge fire in the 1600s. We tried to visit earlier in the day but there was a wedding taking place. Someone was tuning the organ so we sat in the pews for a while and listened to some beautiful music. The church is very unique and magnificent

Our train left for Bucharest on time and took us through picturesque farmland, craggy mountains and hills ablaze with trees in transition.

The only problems we have had in any country so far with being ripped off has been in train stations by taxis so we arranged to have our hotel send a car for us.

Romanian people are very patient people, until they get behind the wheel of a car. We were originally going to rent a car but saw how they drove and the cost of renting a car and driver was not much more so glad to have made that choice. Lanes are just a suggestion and tailgating a national sport. It is not quite as bad as India but nerve-wracking for sure. Our ride tonight was with a man who had been a champion rally driver and it was very apparent. He was very skilled at weaving in and out of traffic with ease.

Day 21. To travel west by train proved to be quite an ordeal and was going to take 24 hours because you had to go north then south. To save time and money we decided to fly, but need to fly to Istanbul to then fly west. That is where we are now as I write this, killing time on our 7 hour layover in this huge and busy airport.

To sum it all up Romania was a wonderful surprise. The people, countryside and history was more than we expected. It was a very inexpensive country to visit and we always felt safe and hotels and restaurants were always clean and more than satisfactory. We are very glad that we decided to go.

Now onto find some warmer weather......

Posted by debbep 12:15 Archived in Romania Comments (2)

Hungary

Budapest

Day 11. Budapest welcomed us with sunny skies and a warm 19 degrees. Our hotel was a large palatial home of years gone by. Many, many years gone by. Not much has been done to it in the last century for sure. The location however is perfect. Our train arrived late, around 10PM and the street we were on was dark as was the entrance to our apartment. A young fellow met us, gave us our keys and helped to carry my bag up to the first floor, which was like two floors because the ceilings are so high. The stairwell was very dark, dirty and kind of creepy. Dusting and cleaning had not been done for some time. Our room is in a wing that has a half dozen rooms off a sitting area and is spacious enough. The furnishings are new but the twin beds look a bit dodgy on first glance, but turned out to be okay. Our room was clean and that was more important than the lobby. The location however could not be beat and for $50 a night in this area is just fine.

We are just off one of the many pedestrian malls and we set off in search of breakfast. It is 7AM and the city is waking up, not much open yet but we did find a great buffet. In an hour we are surprised as to how many shops are now open and people milling about. Budapest is awake.

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As usual we seek out a walking tour for our introduction to the city and get our bearings. Another International group joins us as we walk around the city for the next three hours learning about the history and landmarks from our entertaining and knowledgeable guide Zoltan.

The buildings were a combination of Baroque, Romanesque Art Deco, and some Renascence and were some of the nicest we had seen. Our guide would point out the stark lines of the communist buildings in between these works of art and how they just did not fit in.
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Budapest was actually two towns, Buda and Pest. In the 1800s they decided to make this the capital of the country and each city was too small so they joined them to create Budapest. We are staying on the Pest side with a number of large bridges over the Danube connecting the two areas. The Chain bridge is the most popular and we made our way across past the two large lions guarding each end, like the Lions Gate in Vancouver.

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Up the 200 plus steps to the top of Castle Hill to walk the grounds of the Castle, which never had any royalty staying there. The views and architecture are beautiful.
Zoltan tells us that the Hungarian people for the most part all look stone faced and non expressive because of years of living under communist rule has gotten them into the habit of this. When you get them in a social situation however, they are full of fun and life. Very similar to Russia.

The tour was over and we were hungry so joined Zoltan in the government cafeteria. Everything was written in Hungarian and none of the employees spoke english but Zoltan explained the menu to us and we had an authentic Hungarian meal.
We walked around a bit more and then decided to take the funicular down the hill. The car going down pulls up the one going to the top. It was fun to do and offered a great view.

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We walked across the bridge again and back to our apartment for a few hours. Our evening was spent walking on the pedestrian sidewalk/road again after dinner and looking at all the goods for sale. There was an ice bar. We didn't go in but the room was made of ice and you were given parkas to wear and then sit on ice chairs and drink beer from glasses made of ice.

Day 12. Grabbed an americano and headed to the end of the pedestrian walk to an indoor market that we had heard about. It was about four times the size of Granville island with many fruit and vegetable stands, lots of meat and sausages, pastries and what ever you like for your cooking needs. Upstairs on the second level had food stalls and stands selling beautiful leather purses, clothing, jewelry and souvenirs. Even though it is early in the morning the market is packed with tourists and locals doing their daily shopping and looking around. Doug and I each found something to eat and then wandered around but only ending up buying some fruit for our train ride the day after tomorrow.

The train station to our next destination was quite a ways from where we were so we walked to find the metro. Budapest has three train stations and I got it wrong and the one we went to was not the one we needed. We were able to buy our tickets there anyhow but glad to have bought it a day early and not shown up at the wrong station on departure day.

On the walk back we found the National Museum and there was some sort of religious gathering in many tents around the grounds. We did not understand any of it, but walked around to see many denominations represented. Doug went into the museum and later said that he really enjoyed it. The Roman exhibit was better than the ones we saw in Turkey he thought. I just walked back to our place for the afternoon.

A block from our apartment is a vegetarian restaurant which we enjoyed and then walked the pedestrian walk again to people watch and just get out. A small restaurant had a man playing a violin and another a piano so we sat on the patio and enjoyed an amazing hot chocolate. It tasted like melted chocolate. Yum. With not many patrons he came over and played some tunes for us, asking for requests. I said I wanted to hear Hungarian music so he played some wonderful fast Hungarian tunes. He was an extremely accomplished musician.

The Hungarian people are very good looking for the most part. WIth ancestors from Asia, Turkey, Germany and the Slavic countries, they have taken the best traits of each. People are again very stylish and well dressed. The shoes, oh to be able to wear some of these shoes!!!!!

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Day 13. So far Budapest has not been our favourite place. It is nice, but a huge city, with over 2 million population and we are just spoiled from Prague and Krakow being so amazing. If we had come here first it may have been a different story.
But, I wanted to give it a chance so we decided to do the 'Hop on Hop Off Bus'.
The ticket included, whether we wanted it or not, a boat tour on the Danube so we started there. It was nice to see both sides from the water and we were told that the "Elizabeth Park" at the end of the tour was a great place to get off and walk for an hour. It is an island in the middle of the river between the two sides and similar to Stanley Park in that people come here for family outings etc.

There is a jogging track around the island and as it is Sunday it is packed. The middle of the track is recycled rubber so easy on the feet for the runners. Tennis courts, swimming pools, waterslide park, rowing club, playground, gardens and even a small zoo are on the island. A nice escape from the concrete jungle of the city and seems to be well used by the locals.

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A hour spent walking we made it back to get our boat back to the starting point. We now looked for the double decker bus to start our tour of this huge city.

Budapest was under communist rule for 50 years after the war, just like Poland. Not much upkeep was done during that time and then the Hungarian Government didn't have the funds to do the work. Recently they have started to do the repairs and upgrading needed but that means the the city is in pieces. Roads closed, torn up, blocked off and dust and dirt everywhere. Perhaps that is why I didn't enjoy it as much as the other cities.
That is one reason that the bus tour was not the greatest. The stops were not marked because they had to keep changing them and then when we finally did get on the but they never had any information that was good on the head sets and waited 15 minutes at each stop.

I was fed up by stop number 6 and we got off and walked the rest of the way. Too bad because in every other city we have done this tour it has been great.
The other weird thing is that there were three companies that called their bus "Hop on hop off", they were just different colors. How does this happen?? We had the 'econo line'. Get what you pay for.....

We found a great place for lunch, one of the best yet, and then walked back to the room. We packed up and went for a Vietnamese dinner at a small place across the street from us. It was wonderful and the young man from Vietnam who owns it was very
charming and friendly. He ordered a cab to pick us up at 10:30PM for our train tonight.
We paid for four nights here but decided to leave at midnight instead of the morning to save time. We were grateful to have the room to hang out in until that time.

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We have an overnight train and I am writing this in our lovely little cabin, nicer than the last one. Needing a change from the big cities we are heading to some small medieval villages for a while.

2:30 AM Doug wakes me to say there is someone knocking on the door. He is on the top bunk so I open it to find a young man in uniform.
"Passports."
Groggily I find them and after scrutinizing for a while he stamps and returns them to me.

3:30AM. Knocking at the door "Passports"
Didn't we just do this? Same routine. I try to get back to sleep but notice that now that we have crossed the border the train feels like it is on a washboard track. Shake rattle and roll I feel like a milkshake.

Day 14, 7:30AM. Pulling up the blinds reveals the countryside with miles and miles of corn for as far as the eye can see. Sheep, cows, gardens. We see 'peasants farmers' picking the corn by hand and loading it into large wooden wagons pulled by horses. It looks lovely and we can't wait to explore this new area.

Posted by debbep 13:21 Archived in Hungary Comments (1)

POLAND

Day 6. We checked out of our room and left our luggage at reception. I remember now why I never do bus tours. We had the worse tour guide ever. Our little bus of 20 people from all over the world agreed, she was terrible. The day was spent driving out to the countryside which was nice to see and the first stop was a church that had been decorated by human bones dug up from the local cemeteries. A picture is worth a thousand words in this case.

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We stopped at a small town and toured around, some pretty shots were taken. After we got back to Prague we had dinner and then went to the train station for our 10:30PM departure. The cabin was very small but had bunk beds, a little sink and a place to hang clothes. It actually could have been made up with three bunks but it would be very tight in there. The door locked so we had no worries about our luggage. It was an eight hour journey on which we slept on and off. At six AM we were woken by our car's conductor and served croissants and coffee to get ready for our departure. There are no border crossing or passport controls in the EU.

A taxi took us to our pre booked B and B, The Tango House. The owner is a tango dancer from Argentina and there are many posters of people dancing the tango and we hear tango music playing. It is a restored 16th century bath house. There are only 5 rooms, ours is at the top of a narrow circular wooden staircase, 4th floor. The room is bright and charming but the best part is that it is literally around the corner from the main square.
As I write this I can hear the bugle player from the top of the tower, which sounds every hour. He does not finish his anthem however as in the 12th century the bugle player was sounding an alarm as the Tartars were coming to attack in the night. He was shot through the throat mid play and the tradition of playing the tune only part way carries on. Now, after 4 nights of hearing the bells and the trumpet four times every hour it is not quite as charming. It is a real person playing, firemen who volunteer and take 24 hour shifts.

It was only 7AM when we arrived so our room was not ready of course. We dropped off our bags and went in search of breakfast. Krakow is just waking up.

Or going to sleep for some as we see a number of young people staggering around still drunk from Saturday night and heading home or places unknown.
We managed to find an open shop and had the best cup of coffee to date. The woman at the hotel said we could probably check in early, at noon, so only four more hours to kill.
The square is massive, 10 acres, and surrounded by huge buildings and churches from the 14th and 16th century. It is the largest square of any medieval town in Europe.

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After walking a while we came to a park and sat to rest. I can barely keep my eyes open. So Tired....I think I will just lay down on this park bench for a bit. Doug was uncomfortable with my decision but I couldn't help it, or care at this point and slept for around 40 minutes. Apparently two people came up at different times to see if I was okay. I guess it is not the norm to see an older woman sleeping on a park bench.

After my cat nap I was good to go for a few more hours. There was a big fundraiser relay today in the main square. Thousands of people were lined up to do the 5 km run around the square and it looked like the Vancouver Sun run or similar.

Finally we could check into our room, she had already taken our suitcases up the four flights for us (bless her heart) and we had a shower and slept for a couple of hours.

Refreshed and renewed and back to the square for a late lunch and wandering. There is a huge building in the middle of the square that dates from the 16th century, the Cloth House is where vendors would come to sell their wares. The tradition still goes on and today the stalls sell souvenirs, leather goods and lots of amber. Amber comes from this region and some of the pieces are enormous. I saw pendants that were around 6 inches x 4 inches. They would be very heavy to wear I imagine. Some have bugs such as mosquitoes and pieces of plants in them which were neat.
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Like Prague the city is very well kept, clean and the buildings are spectacular. A great deal of young people once again. There are lots of street musicians, magicians, dancers
and entertainers of great talent in the square. It is not quite as vibrant as Prague however and certainly not as crowded, except for the special relay run today.

I convinced Doug to take a carriage ride with me. It was a 1/2 hour ride around the centre but I loved it. There was a piano recital at a palace on the square so we bought tickets for the 7PM show. The building had been converted to apartments during the occupation of the communists but a number of years ago a Polish philanthropist bought the building and had it restored. We were in a room overlooking the square that was decorated in the baroque style. The drapes were about 15 feet high and like duvets, they were lined with down comforters to keep the cold out from the windows most likely. It was a very small crowd and an extremely accomplished young man of 24 had us all mesmerized by his playing of Chopin on a baby grand piano. I don't think we have ever heard anyone play so well.

I have just finished reading a few novels on Poland, one of them being Michener's 'Poland' and took myself back to the early 1900s in Poland when I would have been dressed in a gorgeous gown, arrive by carriage to this beautiful palace and sit in the chamber with other nobility and aristocrats listening to such a performance.

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There is a large police presence here, some riding around on segways. In Prague people drank openly in the square, walking down the streets and where ever they wanted with mugs of beer , wine or what have you. A different story in Krakow. Police are constantly going up to people drinking, some from paper bags who are trying to convince the police that the bottle of beer is in fact not beer. There is a hefty fine associated with being caught.

The fashion here is fantastic. The stores all show modern colourful well made clothing of great style. The shoes, both men and woman's, are all fun and interesting as well. Leather purses of different shapes styles and colours hang from store front windows.
The Polish people are very stylish dressers, and for the most part, are very small in frame, even when they get older.

Poland has been invaded and conquered by so many of it's neighbours over the last number of centuries. It is amazing to me that there is a Polish language and culture at all, they had to work hard to preserve it. At one time Krakow was part of Austria and you can see a Viennese influence here. After the Second World War they were 'liberated' by Russia but then under Communist rule until 20 years ago.
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DAY 7 started with a walking tour of old Krakow. Our international group included 15 people from countries such as Argentina, England, New Zealand, Australia as well as a young woman from Peru whom we spent time with. The three hour tour gave us a good overview of the buildings and history of the area.
The Polish Pope was from Krakow and so loved by the people. There are 17 statues of him around the city as well as large pictures. One of our stops was outside his former residence which had a huge picture of him on the window/balcony that he would talk from. The young people would congregate in the park across the street and call for him. He came to the window and said "How can I get any sleep with all this racket going on, do you think that it is easy being a pope?" He was joking and had a great rapport with the people of Poland, talking to the young quite often, being very approachable.

Wawel Castle was at the end of our tour and these well preserved buildings on top of the hill were spectacular. Poland has spent a great deal of time and money renewing this special place. Again for me it was fantastic to see the places that I have been reading about and statues and crypts with names that I recognize.

Later in the afternoon we did a tour to the Jewish area as well as the ghetto from the 2nd world war. Too late to take the walking tour we opted for a golf cart tour instead. Mistake. A canned commentary was played, in English, but the fellow driving would be past what the woman was talking about and we would constantly have to say "what is she talking about?"
He tried to give us information as well, but he spoke so softly that we could barely hear him, and I think he just made some of it up. The guides on the walking tours have very strict rules to be licensed and get a hefty fine if they make anything up and get caught. Not so with the cart drivers. Live and learn. We still got something out of it of course. A stop at Shindler's factory was included but we did not go inside. A small part of the wall still remains around the ghetto and we were shown buildings where resistance fighters would meet and plan escapes. It made it all so real, remembering the movies and books seen on this time in history.
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A typical polish meal was on the menu tonight. Polish dumplings, or perogies, Meat for Doug and cheese and potato for me.

Day 8 was a cold wet and windy day. Blow your umbrella inside out kind of a day. After breakfast we walked back to the castle to tour the inside. The cathedral complex was huge and Doug thought one of the most spectacular that he has seen. Quite a number of the statues were from Italy.

There were only 71 steps up to the bell tower, but they were very narrow, high and the stairwell was dark. At each landing there would be a huge bell. Thankfully they only rung it a few times a year and today wasn't one of them. To get to the next landing you would have to squeeze between large timbers. The view from the top was great and touching the bell was supposed to bring good luck.

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The Cathedral and Castle complex are constructed with a combination of Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. It was built in stages over many centuries and during different rule.

Coffee and a light snack followed at an outdoor cafe on site. Pigeons are quite prevalent in Krakow, and not appreciated by a lot of Poles. There is a fine for harming one which deters putting them on the menu. A couple at the table next to us were having sandwiches and the pigeons flew right to them trying to take the sandwiches out of their hands. It was like the movie 'The Birds'. The woman was kicking and hitting the pigeons but they were very aggressive and tenacious for quite some time before finally leaving.

A tour of old Wawel was next which took us to a very well done exhibit of what the pre 13th century castle was like. The way it was done was exceptional with glass walkways over the original rooms and stonework from hundreds of years ago. Artifacts from the time were also on display in well lit cases.

State Rooms were next on our agenda going through the many rooms where the Rulers, Treasurers and heads of state would rule the land. The paintings and wall hangings were in perfect shape and not covered by glass but left to the elements which surprised us. Carved ceilings and painted frescoes on the walls made the rooms very dramatic in appearance. Many of the paintings and furnishings were from Italy as well as the Orient, Turkey, Holland and other countries.
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Dinner tonight was again in a typical Polish restaurant where Doug ordered perogies with Deer Goulash. I had, once again, an eggplant dish. We met a couple from Australia at the next table whom we spent the evening talking to. Our paths may cross again as we are on a similar journey
A large bag of groceries were purchased on the way home. It was full of fruit, vegetables, yogurt and other items and cost only $8. Poland is certainly an economical country to visit.

Day 9 was a beautiful and warm sunny day. It was also a very emotional but enlightening day. Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Picked up at 9AM in a modern comfortable van we joined 18 others for our one hour drive out of town. On the way we were shown a movie, one I had never seen before, of footage and commentary from a Russian reporter who at the young age of 20 something arrived with the Russian troops to liberate the prisoners of the death camps. Not sure of what he was supposed to do, and quite unprepared for what he found upon arrival at the camps he shared his photos and films with us, the audience. I had to look out the window a number of times to keep from fainting, it was information that I had not heard or seen before. The scenery outside was lovely however, rolling hills, beautiful little towns with modern as well as older homes along the way.

When we arrived at Auschwitz we were told to stick together, given name badges to identify our little group as the place was packed. Over a million visitors from all over the world come to bear witness to this atrocity that happened only 70 years ago.
I could not help to imagine what it must have been like to be one of the many thousands of people arriving by train and being herding into areas and put into groups. For us it was one station to get head phones, another to get the recorder. In the 40s you would have been separated, male from female, and your belongings immediately taken from you. Each person was told they could bring 25 kilos of their most prized possessions. What would you bring? Pictures, jewelry, family treasures? A promise of a work camp is what they were expecting. The suitcases were then taken from them as soon as they got off the train.

The entrance gates read ' Work shall set you free'
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A doctor would be sitting down as you lined up in front of him. After not much more than a glance he would decide your fate. If he pointed to the left you would go immediately to the gas chamber. More than 70 percent of people who arrived on the trains did not survive more than a couple of hours. All children under 16, the old, sick or handicapped were sent to the left. Mothers with young children, even though healthy, would all go left so as not to create any hysteria separating moms and children.
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If you went right you were sent to work-camps. Factories, local farms and work in the camp itself. Others were used in experiments. The first few years of operation every prisoner would have their picture taken with name, age, date of arrival and date of death. Most only lasted a few months and died of hunger and exhaustion. The prisoners who went left never had their photos taken. There were immaculate records kept of the ones who stayed and the entire operation was so efficient and throughly planned out.
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Photos of every prisoner proved to be too expensive and the last couple of years is when they decided to just tattoo numbers on forearms and the paper records would reflect the information about each prisoner.

Having read many books, articles and seeing countless movies about the death camps did not prepare us for the magnitude of this.

During the war there were prisoners working in the storage warehouses where they would sort the items taken from the people arriving. They called these warehouses Canada because they imagined that Canada was the land of plenty, like these warehouses were.
Auschwitz used to be Polish barracks so the buildings were well made of brick and had indoor plumbing. It was much better to be sent here than Birkenau.
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Our tour guide, Michael, a Pole was easy to understand and gave us a lot of information but did not have any emotion in his voice. I can not imagine giving this tour multiple times a day, day after day. It was a very sombre day for everyone.

Why didn't more people try to escape? The camps were surrounded by electric fences and guards with machine guns and dogs, however if you did succeed they would then capture your entire family (if they were not already there) and either incarcerate them at Auschwitz or just kill them all. They would also punish and sometimes kill the others in your barrack. A deterrent for most.

Birkenau was built because they wanted more efficiency. The goal was to exterminate
11million people in the end and Auschwitz was just not doing the job fast enough. Birkenau was five times the size and could exterminate and cremate three times more per day. The buildings however were built to be temporary so they were mostly made of wood with latrine houses behind them. In some buildings the snow would come inside and the temperature would drop to minus 30 so you can imagine the conditions.
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We just discussed our visit with two young men from England who were there as well. They agreed that it left you with quite a different impression from what they had already thought it would be like. We also agreed that we were amazed at how organized and efficient the entire operation was.

That is all I will say about it, but I feel that hard as it is, everyone should go. I had been to Dachau concentration camp in Germany many years ago, but a death camp is quite a bit different.
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Our last night in Poland was spent at an underground museum. It was very well done but unfortunately we did not understand much of what we saw. It would have been a great place for either headsets or a guide, neither of which was offered however.

Day 10. 8AM train to Budapest involved a 2 1/2 hour layover where we changed trains and then arrive tonight at 830PM. I am spending the time working on this blog and enjoying the beautiful pastoral scenery. Our compartment has six seats and they are all full. Four young people from Budapest returning home from somewhere on business have joined us. The Polish trains are very modern, quiet and comfortable. The second train was not as nice as the first, but still much better than I was led to believe.

I don't think I want to spend an entire day on a train again however. I think time is better spent doing night trains and saving the day for sightseeing. So little time and so much to see. We are contemplating where to go after this????

But for now, on to Hungary...........

Posted by debbep 14:07 Archived in Poland Comments (2)

Prague is amazing

So much history.

Our arrival in Prague was not without a bit of drama, that being a luggage mishap in Vancouver. We walked on the Departure Bay ferry and then had coffee with Doug's sister Sydney at Starbucks downtown Vancouver. Our flight was not for a few more hours so we had time to catch up with her. On the walk to the skytrain my beautiful little carry on bag fell apart. The pull up handle fell off. There was no way to fix it, perhaps in a luggage shop but the chance of one being in downtown Vancouver was pretty slim.

As we were standing outside the 'Bay' I dragged Syd and Doug to the luggage department to find another bag. I was overtired, it was past my daily nap time and when I am tired I make bad decisions and panic. Both of these happened, and on a grand scale. I was darting from bag to bag with the help of Doug and Syd as well as this poor employee who kept bringing me bags to try. My clothes and items were all over the floor of the store as I would try to fit everything into another 20 inch carry on. It seems the one I had was very generous in size.
In the end I left with a 24 inch very expensive, boring black suitcase. Somehow my dress sandles got left behind I discovered later. They are probably inside one of the suitcases that got put back on the shelf.

The flight on Briish Airways to London was very pleasant, we had a five hour lay over in London and then continued on to Prague.

It is always such a relief to me when I see my baggage arrive at my destination, and ours were the first ones on the carousel and in one piece as well. We were then thrilled to see a fellow standing with a sign that had my name on it, our transfer to the city. It was now 10PM local time and although we did sleep a bit on the flight we were tired.

We were taken to our home for the next 6 days, a one bedroom apartment in the centre, walking distance to pretty much everything we want to see. It is large, has great curved lines in the ceilings and we are very pleased with it. After unpacking our bags we crashed into bed and slept until 7 the next morning which was great.
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DAY 1. Prague is amazing! I think it is my new favourite place that we have been to. There does not seem to be much damage to the buildings from the wars as there are many Baroque buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries most in pastel shades. The narrow, winding roads and sidewalks are all various types of cobblestones. Very few cars are in the old part of Prague which is a good thing as there are many, many tourists and locals walking on the streets as well as the very narrow sidewalks. The cobble stones are easy to walk on, quite even in height.

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A five minute walk takes us to the main square which is where everyone ends up. It is PACKED with tourists. I can only imagine how busy it must be in the summer months. I had found a walking tour on Trip Advisor that we wanted to take so we signed up for the 11AM tour. As we had not had our coffee yet we found a small cafe on the square to wait the 1/2 hour out. Two small cups of 1/2 full coffee arrived for 160 koruna, or $8. Yikes!
Prague is expensive, but the cafes on the square are outrageous. It was good coffee however.

The square is packed with tourists, to the point where you can barley move. Hundreds of different coloured umbrellas are pointing in the air
with guides leading their flock to the next statue or building where they all hang on every word of the leader. French, Italian, German, Czech are all heard speaking about the same monument at the same time. Crazy.

Our guide was a very charming and witty young Australian man, who lives in Prague with his Czech wife. Our 2 hour tour was busy but very informative about the buildings, history and people of Prague and the Czech Republic. There were 21 in our little group from places such as England, Italy, Brazil, Israel and Australia.

The weather was perfect, overcast but comfortable. At the end of the two hours we felt a couple of drops of rain. We were back at the main square and although I knew that the prices would be crazy I was too tired to hunt for a place for lunch so we ate at a covered sidewalk cafe. The food was good and five minutes after we sat down the skies opened. We timed that well.

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Raincoats and umbrellas were in our packs which we put on and made our way back to the apartment. We both slept for a couple of hours and woke at 6PM. During our tour we passed a Spanish Synagogue that was advertising a concert at 7PM tonight so we decided to go and dashed out to find it again. The rain had stopped and it was a pleasant walk. Prague must be an easy city to get around as we have not gotten lost yet. There are so many tiny little streets going right and left but for some reason easy enough to remember.

We joined about 25 other concert goers in the large, very ornate and beautiful synagogue. A few minutes after we sat down a string quintet walked onto the pulpit area and played a few old classics which included Motzart . The acoustics were amazing and we were all spell bound. A few times during the hour long recital a woman would come out and sing opera. Evita, songs from Bolero and some more modern musicals were chosen. Her voice was flawless and overall the concert did not disapoint.

Our guide had told us of a resteraunt/bar close by that had the best beer in the world I think he claimed. Prague is known for it's great beer and as you know Doug and I don't drink but felt we had to try this. The bar was called 'Locale' and the beer, made on site, can not be older than 3 days as they do not use any perservatives. We heard that the beer consumption in Prague is the largest in the world as well, so the three day rule is probably not an issue. We stood at the front for a while, the place was packed, and finally a fellow said to us
"go find a seat"
We walked through this massive long narrow room with tables on both sides, filled mostly with young people. There was a soccar match on the big screen in each section, Czech versus someone else, and there would be bouts of cheering now and then. We finally found a small table and sat down to oder a small beer each as well as a bit of food. I had pickeled camanbert cheese as it was the only thing on the menu I could eat. Doug had a plate of sausages.

The beer was great. Mild, no after taste and very refreshing. I don't really like beer but this was very good. Afterwards we slowly walked back to our apartment past the many shops selling amazing brightly colored Italian leather purses, Bohemian crystal, Swarovski crystal jewelry and Czech crystal jewelrey. There may have to be some shopping time I am thinking.

DAY 2. I woke at 7AM and was hoping to get to the Charles bridge at sunrise, but slept in. We threw on our clothes and made our way to the famous bridge before the throngs of tourists arrived. A foot passenger bridge only now, the bridge is from the 15th century and lined with statues on both sides. We slowly walked to the other side of the Vitava river along with a few dozen other early risers. Joggers, locals going to work and a few tourists like us snapping photos in the morning light.
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We were now in search of breakfast but because it was early few places, other than McDonalds and Starbucks, were open. We finally found this charming little cafe and sat down to have a delicious meal and extremely small but strong coffee.

Grocery stores seem non existant. Vegetables do not seem too prevalent on the menus, nor do fruit. On the walk back towards the bridge we came across a 7-11 type store and they did have a few bananas and oranges. I went to pay with my VIsa and on the second try the woman says
"you have not any money here"
Well I knew I did, especially $5, so when I got back to our apartment I called home on Skype and sure enough there was a message from VISA to call them. Someone, in Canada, had tried to put though a charge for $750 for sunglasses to a BC company the day prior. Good on Visa to figure out this was not my pattern. I only buy drugstore sunglasses for under $20.

Well this means that my card is cancelled now.....great! I have an extra which is good, but I wonder how that happened?

Slowly making our way back across the bridge we see that the vendors have arrived and setting up their kiosks selling paintings, jewelry and crafts. The tour groups with Mary Poppins in the lead are coming towards us.

It was noon when we arrived back at our home and we both went back to sleep until 3PM and then set out once again, this time to a museum of decoration. There were fashion pieces including jewelry, clothing and shoes from as far back as the 1800s as well as clocks watches and dishes from as early as the 15th century. It was a small but interesting hour and 1/2.

As we wander the streets it is hard not to notice how many young people there are, lots of couples pushing very expensive baby buggies, all very good looking and fit. I am not sure how though, there is a pastry shop at every turn. Gorgeous buns, breads and sugary goods tempting you with the amazing smell as you walk by. And hand made Gelato and Ice cream every few blocks. I did indulge in gelato tonight. The cones are only around 2 tablespoons of gelato however, so not toooo many calories.

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Dinner tonight was at a typical Czech restaurant. I had the eggplant with tomatoes and goat cheese which was nice and Doug ordered the Farmers platter which was every kind of meat you can imagine, pig, beef all surrounding an entire small duck in the centre of the plate. Vegetables as I say are non existent unless you specifically order some but there are not many on the menu. A couple from California sat beside us and we had an enjoyable conversation. They are starting a Rick Steeves tour tomorrow going to many of the places we are going to. The man ordered a Czech specality , Pigs Knee. It arrives with nothing but the huge piece of pork, the size of a small child covering his plate. The vegetarian in me is looking for my 'happy place' as I am seeing and smelling this meat all around me. I concentrate on my plate of eggplant and keep myself from gagging.

We pass through the market on the way home and it is just as busy at night with the many buskers performing everything from bagpipes to strings to medieval instruments as well as dancers and other performers. I wanted to get some pictures of the bridge at night but without a tripod they did not turn out. Again it was a madhouse of people. Don't these people ever stay home?

Most people who live in Prague seem fairly affluent. The cars are all newer BMWs, VWs, and Mercedes. We have seen perhaps a dozen or so people begging, all men. They go to the edge of the sidewalk, or road, and kneel down with their arms outstreched with a cup or hat, and head down. Almost the downward dog yoga position. They stay like that for hours. If you put a coin in the cup it is like they are awoken from a trance and don't look up but say
"Dekuji" (thank you)

I am like a crow sometimes, I see something shiny and I must go investigate. The walk home was spent darting in and out of shops selling stunning amber in the regular orange color but blue and greens as well. I found an gorgeous pair of square blue ones that she said because I was from Canada she would give me the best price....:} I will sleep on it.
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DAY 3. Lazy morning. Hung out in the apartment until 10:45 and after having our breakfast of instant oatmeal, bananas and tea went out in search of coffee. A few blocks away is another museum which we venture to. This one is an old Baroque stately home in need of repair. The rooms are all empty but there are descriptions of what would have been in the rooms. It must have been very grand indeed.

The fouth floor houses a temporary modern art exibit. Lumps of wet grey cement were dropped onto a board and then pieces of film and pencils were stuck into it. Boring and bland in my opinion but I am sure some must find it inspiring. Not me, I lasted five minutes. I don't think that the female guard liked it either as she gave me a knowing smile as I went out to wait for Doug.

Doug continued walking around while I went back for my afternoon sleep. FIrst I put on a wash. We have a tiny little washing machine in our apartment so I filled it full of our dirty clothes, and went to sleep.
A few hours later it was still going, and going and going. We had to leave for the concert so I just turned it off and decided to deal with it later.

We had purchesed tickets to a concert at the palace tonight and hoped to get there early to see some of the grounds and rooms first. The palace is overlooking the city and has a wonderful view of the tiled red roofed city below.
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The cathedral was massive and very impressive. The crowds were manageable at this time of day and quite pleasant. Our concert was in the old convent, St. George's Basillica. A stone church dating from the 10th century it had beautiul frescoes still visible on the walls and ceilings. Doug and I took our seats in the front row and the string quintet played Mozart, Vivaldi, Pachelbel as well as others. As the night before a female opera singer would come out periodically to sing. The accoustics were extraordinary and the hour long concert passed far too quickly.
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The rain started again as we walked down the many steps to the city below. Crossing the bridge got us back into old town where we were in search of a vegetarian Indian restaurant that we had heard of, Beas. Through some back alleys, tunnels and side streets we finally find it to discover that they were closing in 15 minutes. It was a self serve buffet style and most items were already finiished. We were so hungry that we just filled our plates with the rice and dal and few vegetables that were left and enjoyed our meal. A balance out to last night's carnivorous feast.

We came across a travel agency in one of the alleyways on our journey back to the room. After some conversation with her we decided to book an afternoon tour to a small medieval town a few hours from Prague on the day we leave for Krakow. We need to check out of our room at 10AM but our train is not until 10PM so this will work out well.

Back at the apartment I turned the washing machine back on and did some reading. A hour later it is still rinsing. There is a manual for everything in this apartment right down to the toaster, but not the washing machine. I googled the manual and still couldn't figure it out. We called the guy from reception who came up right away. He was about 20 years old and he couldn't figure it out so he called someone and they talked in Czech for a while
and 'voila' the machine drained out the water and stopped.

I took out the clothes and they are dripping wet. We had to wring them all out and hang them around the apartment to dry, which will take around a week in this weather.

Day 4. The clothes are still wet. Tuned the fan on them to hopefully speed things up. After breakfast at home we are in search of coffee again. There is no such thing as a 'coffee pot' here, it is all americanos. I need to get used to the small cups , half full. I suppose that they are doing me a favour however as it is very strong coffee.

Tomorrow we leave by the train so decided to do a dry run today and walk across Prague to check out the station and make sure our tickets were good. . The main train station is massive, it looks like Metrotown Mall inside with the many stores and cafes inside. We checked with the fellow at the station that our internet paper confirmations were acceptable for tickets tomorrow, I did not want a repeat of Russia.
Yes ,they are good.
Doug wanted to go for lunch and I wanted to go shopping so we split up. I braved the metro, changing once and then transferring to the tram and made it back to our place. It was at that point that I saw some shiny things in a window and needed to investigate. I ended up buying a Swarovski crystal necklace and earrings that were made here in the Czech Republic.
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On the way home I came across an outdoor market with many stalls selling trinkets and fruiit. For $12 I bought two bananas and a small basket of berries. Now I know why I don't see too much fruit.

After a rest we headed to another vegetarian restaurant down a dark alley that was recommended by our guide. The atmosphere and food were fantastic, although we were clearly the oldest in the place. It was packed with young 20 somethings and many languages heard around us. Feeling wonderfully full on great fresh food we walked for a couple of hours exploring more of the old town. I would still be out there wandering if it were not for Doug. He had a much better sense of direction than I did today.

Tomorrow we will take a half day trip to a small town and then leave Prague for an overnight train to Krakow Poland. We really enjoyed our stay here and highly recommend to anyone who is thinking about Eastern Europe.

Until Poland..........

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Posted by debbep 13:51 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (1)

Where in the world are the Pattersons?

First stop: Prague

We are so fortunate to once again be off on another wonderful adventure.

Our itinerary is as follows:
Sept 8th we fly from Vancouver to Prague in the Czech Republic
After 6 days we will take an overnight train to Krakow Poland where we will stay for at least 5 nights.
The next month is unknown. Hungary, Croatia, Albania. It is exciting to think about all the places we may see along the way.
On October 14 we need to have made our way to Italy for a 15 day pre-booked stay and then fly to Barcelona for three nights.

November 1 to 17 we are on a transatlantic cruise from Barcelona to New Orleans with a couple of stops along the way. We will stay three nights in New Orleans to get our land legs back and then fly home on November 20th.

We are taking trains and buses most of the time so we are traveling light. My little carry on bag has 21 different combinations of outfits believe it or not, as well as the necessities of life. My day pack is taken up mostly by my camera but leaving it behind is not an option.

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I will try to keep the blog up to date on a weekly basis. This will hopefully be accomplished by my newest purchase, a new little IPAD mini if I can figure out how to use it.

To use this blog, the most recent post is always the page that comes up. If you have missed one look a the index on the side and click on a title.
You can subscribe to our blog if you like as well. The link is also under Navigation on the side of the page.

We would love to hear from you as well, to keep up to date with any local news so please either email or post on our blog.

Until Prague......
Previous trips are located here
http://debbestravels.travellerspoint.com/1/
http://debbestrips.travellerspoint.com/1/

Posted by debbep 03:48 Comments (5)

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