Sunday, September 28, 2008

Krakow - The Forgotten Post

Ok, I started this entry and forgot to publish it.

Krakow is the old capital of Poland. That title now obviously goes to Warsaw but Krakow is still a fine city. It has one of the largest squares of any city in Europe, and we were fortunate to be there on a Saturday night. During the evening there were many street performers entertaining the crowds and lots of pavement dining opportunities.

Earlier that day a group of us caught a mini-bus to the nearby Salt Mines. I forget the history but they have operated for over 700 years and were only recently retired and turned into a museum/heritage site. The place is impressive - many kilometres of tunnels through rock salt. Yes, you can eat the rock salt. Yes, you can lick the walls. No, it does not taste great.

The remaining time in Krakow was spent exploring the city (the central city is surrounded by a pleasant green 'belt' - a shady park with plenty of trees and bread vendors). Although we didn't have time to go inside the castle, I think I'm not alone when I say that Krakow Castle is one of the most impressive castles we've seen so far.

In fact, I think I'm going to rate it my favourite castle 'from the outside', and Cesky Krumlov Castle as my favourite castle 'indoors'.

Drivers in Central Europe

They are all mad.

I have never seen anything like it. Pedestrian crossings are an invitation to become roadkill. People drive like insane boy-racers. The road-trip from Prague to Krakow was the longest mini-bus ride of my life. People actually overtake in the face of oncoming traffic in some sort of universal understanding that the oncoming drivers will slow down and yield if it doesn't quite work out as planned...

The mini-bus trip to Krakow also gave us our highest non-aircraft speed for the journey so far, 135kph on the Polish motorway (speed limit is 110).


And in case you're thinking - "well, I'm sure they have heightened awareness and are used to the chaos so it's just as safe as anywhere else" - well, I watched a car skid to a halt in front of a pedestrian crossing on a corner today as people ventured onto the road. This was after watching twenty or so other cars take the same corner with tyres squealing. I also watched a car narrowly avoid being crushed by a mini-bus on the way back from the salt mines. I also watched an intersection get completely blocked up by a car in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad driving is everywhere.

This was in Poland, but it was almost as bad in the Czech Republic and Vienna.

Food in Central Europe

Meat. Lots of it. Incredible amounts of dead animal served on huge plates (and sometimes planks of wood). It seems like that's all anyone eats around here. Vegetables (other than the potato) appear to be undiscovered.

I'm reminded of one particular meal in Cesky Krumlov - we ordered the mixed grill between us (it said it was suited to two people). What turned up was an entire farmyard. We had two HUGE steaks, two giant chunks of turkey, two enormous pork cuts and two massive fried potato cakes. Oh, and a piece of tomato and a leaf of lettuce. Needless to say, we didn't finish it. In fact, we only really made it through the turkey and a bit of the pork. It's depressingly wasteful unfortunately.

Vegetarian meals almost always involve 'fried cheese'... in one instance, a fellow traveller ordered the 'fried camembert' and when an actual full-size camembert turned up, fully coated in crispy batter, he swore never to order cheese again.

But it doesn't stop there - it appears the usual breakfast around these parts is salami, ham and cheese. There's usually cream cheese somewhere in there too.

So the last couple of days P and I have been searching for real vegetarian meals in an effort to bring a little balance back into our lives. We found a great place in Krakov today that had a nice fresh salad bar and no meat anywhere. It made us very happy.


Yesterday we went to Auschwitz, in Poland. We stopped there for the afternoon on the way from Teplice to Krakow.

I'm not going to write a lot because it's very hard to put into words what I saw and felt.

It's a terrible, terrible place. I felt angry and disgusted at what went on there. I think the experience there will stay with me for life and I'm really glad I had the chance to visit.

If you ever get the chance to go - please do.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Teplice is a little Czech town near the Polish border. It's got a few pubs, some houses and shops, and a lot of trees. There's not a lot going on there and it's cold.

But it's also the site of some of the most amazing rock formations I've ever seen. I haven't yet sorted out photos on this blog so I can't post any, but here's a link:

There's also the remains of a castle built 70 metres above the valley below on top of a bunch of rocks. It was destroyed by Hussites many centuries ago but the marks in the rock are still visible.

I really should get these photos sorted out! Who wants to see photos?

Following this blog

If you are following this blog by waiting for it to appear on my 'super-feed' then I'm going to recommend you switch to following this blog's RSS feed directly. This is because it takes up to an hour for my new posts to appear in my Google Reader, at which point I can then add them manually to my super-feed - if I'm still logged in. This means you might not get any notification of a new post for several days...

Actually, after spending 20 seconds thinking about it, I've decided that this will be the last post I will mark in my 'super-feed' - please subscribe to this blog's feed to continue reading :)

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Prague, or Praha as it's also known, is a fascinating place. It's the capital city of the Czech Republic. It's hard to believe that only 20 or so years ago the main square (well, one of them) was the scene of violent anti-communism riots. I've walked up streets that had Russian tanks rolling down them 40 years ago. The Museum has obvious repairs from where the Soviet tanks fired at it, thinking it was the Parliament building! The role of Czech/Slovakia within the context of the Cold War is fascinating - check it out on Wikipedia or somesuch if you're interested.

I like Praha. It's got a real character to it. The people are modern. The city has some truly beautiful spots. The language, although almost completely impossible for me to understand, sounds clear and intelligent. The food is honest and satisfying. The beer is FANTASTIC.

We had one great day of weather, and a couple of rather lousy ones. However I'm starting to appreciate grey skies and light rain - it keeps the hordes of (other) tourists at bay, and makes photographs easier to compose (no bright sunshine to ruin the balance).

Today we visited the Bone Church in Kutná Hora - a fascinating place, filled with the bones of many thousands of (quite dead) people. Check it out here:

I'll post some photos at some stage. We're heading into the mountains tomorrow, as well as a visit to Aushwitz Death Camp - that will be sobering. Then on to Krakow in Poland.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Central Europe Week 1 - Vienna to Cesky Krumlov

Today marks approximately one week since we departed for Central Europe. So far, it's been a very interesting experience - not entirely without worry although so far all problems have been resolved. Except our flight on Alitalia in two weeks which might not happen if the airline ceases to exist before then...

After four aircraft flights from Wellington to Vienna, Austria, we finally arrived on Monday evening. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for P's luggage. After waiting around for 30 minutes just in case, we filed a missing luggage report with the airline and hit the bus into Vienna.

We stayed for two nights at a very simple but pleasant 'pension' (apartment-style accomodation) in the west of the city. Situated right near a major U-bahn (underground) station and trams, getting around was no problem at all.

P's luggage turned up on the third day - you can imagine our relief. The airline customer support was pretty bad - the phone number to call would put you through then disconnect you because they were 'busy' - no holding! Also, making collect calls is unheard of here for some reason. We couldn't even get an international operator.

Then we joined our Intrepid tour and stayed in another pension in the north-west. This place was pretty terrible actually - the sink wouldn't drain, the fridge didn't work, the shower head was broken, the lightswitches were hanging out of the wall. But it was fun and we didn't die.

In the interests of making this interesting, here are the highlights:

  • Schoenbrunn Palace - ridiculously huge Baroque-style castle/mansion with ridiculously huge gardens.
  • Upper Belvedere art gallery - we saw Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss", which was actually quite entrancing. P stayed longer and I went to:
  • Vienna Natural History Museum. Wow. I spent an hour just looking at rocks. Interesting and beautiful rocks though. But a lot of them. 1500 or so? 700 meteorites, an entire floor of stuffed animals (birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, the works). The highlight was the Venus of Willendorf - the first known example of human art, dated around 25,000 years ago.
  • The catacombs beneath the cathedral - lots of bones. LOTS of bones. Creepy.
  • A lot of other stuff. There's so much to do in Vienna it's crazy.
We also spent half a day in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. That was an interesting journey but I have to say it's not an interesting city at all.

Yesterday we arrived in Cesky Krumlov, a picturesque little town between Salzburg and Prague. It's a really charming place. We had a tour from a resident who explained the significance of sights around the town, as well as her experiences during communism. Then we had a tour of the castle which is full of remarkable frescos, some more than 400 years old.

It's only been a week but we're having a total blast. Our Intrepid leader is excellent, the group gets along well, and the locals are usually friendly (although not so much in Vienna, unfortunately).

Tomorrow we head to Prague for a few days, then on to Poland!