A Travellerspoint blog

February 2008

Cesky Krumlov

Touristy or tourist attraction?

Take the 533 highway out of Prague for about two hours heading to the South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic, turn off at Cesky Budejovice for another thirty minutes and you come across the little town of Cesky Krumlov. This historic town, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is divided into three parts by the swirling Vlatva River that does a sort of S-shape around some of the most beautiful, quaint, attractive – you name it – houses and alleyways you can find, constantly dominated by the towering Krumlov Castle.

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The town and castle’s creation started in the late 13th century and was owned by the House of Rosenberg (hence the rose on the town shield). The town went through several owners until becoming part of the Austrian Empire in 1806. During WWII it was annexed by Nazis Germany as part of the Sudentenland then after the war the German-speaking population were expelled and restored back to Czechoslovakia for a short time until the communist control until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. In that period the town, like many in Czechoslovakia, fell into disrepair. The town is still in the process of restoration but it has now regained much of the original architecture, style, character, culture and beauty.

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But some may say it is too quaint, too fairy-tale picturesque, too touristy! Be that as it may, it is not the fault of the town, for that is how it is. Yes it is touristy in that it is one of the main tourist attractions to the Czech Republic and the town derives most of its income from tourists, but so has many similar places around the world and it’s a sign of the times that gothic, medieval, baroque and many other traditional styles have fallen into the guise of Disneyland-ish!

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My advise is to visit these places in the off season to have the room to move freely and the space to take in the true beauty that was once the normal town of yesteryear.

I stayed at the Hotel Rose, a very comfortable hotel across the river from the old town. The view from my upstairs room makes me believe it’s worthwhile not to stay within the old town but just outside so you can wake to a visa that takes your imagination back seven centuries.

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By the way, the hotel is up for sale and if you have a spare 4 million dollars handy???

Posted by DenOS.08 20:43 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (1)

A quick snapshot of Prague

A city that has paid its ransom


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How a city can regain its status as one of the most beautiful and cultural in Europe after being through so much despair, brutality and turmoil in less than a century is a credit to the strength of its inheritance.

Since WWI, Prague has been the punching bag and stepping stone of Communism, then the ravaging inhumanity of the Nazis occupation in WWII only to be thrown back into the depressed state of communist disrepair and cultural insensitivity.

But it has, and in the relatively short period since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the formation of the Czech Republic, the attention to detail that originally created such a wealth of architectural wonder has begun to shine through. There is still much to be done, but the signs of its abuse linger as a reminder, a vast monument of human against humanity, that itself remains its own form of culture.

The following is a small sample of Prague as it is today, a minute picture of life getting back to mundane normality, but in anything but a mundane environment.

Tourism is the predominant industry in the old centre of Town. But some lessons could be learnt in smiling, friendly, service and how to make a decent, drinkable coffee. The food is rich, fatty but rather tasty, roast pork, dumplings (ask for the potato ones rather than bread) and red and white sauerkraut is the local speciality and goes well with the great beers to choose from. Just like Amsterdam, smoking is part of the eating scene and dogs are welcome to sit with their owners while they dine, getting stood on occasionally with a sharp yelp and then dropping their load in the street at any time, which makes wandering the streets looking up at the marvelous buildings and spires a step, possible, in the wrong direction!

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Prague Castle dominates the inner city and is one of the few castles that actually continue to perform official residential duties.

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The broad Vlatava River that winds around the old town is reason for the beautiful bridges, the Charles Bridge being the most recognised, photographed and walked over and a sunny Saturday stroll across is accompanied by bands, performers, cartoonists, craft and souvenir stalls as the parade of imposing statutes perform a guard of honour.

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Walking is the recommended form of transport within the older centre of town. A 2 to 4 hour walking tour will take you past most sights and attractions for you to revisit for a closer look later. There’s an extensive network of Metro, tram and bus services that criss-cross the city but the amount of walking in the Metro between platforms and staggering depth of the escalators just to get to or between trains may make you wonder if in fact you’re saving time or leg-power.

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Terezin is the site of the Nazis prison camp and there ‘Final Solution’ were many Jews were interned under some of the worst brutality and conditions to ultimately vanished. The Smaller Fortress, while distressing, cannot fully reveal the horrors endured there and the irony is that on a cold, frosty morning the place takes on a rather elegant disguise.

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The nearby Terezin Ghetto shows the signs of progressive disrepair and retains a sense of morbidity that still prevents many from living there, but there are people and a life among the hovering memories.

There is a lot more to learn about Prague and a lot more walking to be done.

Posted by DenOS.08 02:38 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (1)

The canals of Amsterdam

A view from the bottom up


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Taking a one-hour canal cruise in Amsterdam is worth every one of the 11 euros. Starting from the Central Station landings, these cruises are so popular they’re every half-hour to cater for the crowds. So, I suggest you get there at a time when you are one of the first on for if you prefer to face in the direction you’re going as the seating is arranged facing each and late comers tend to be looking where you have been, or just looking at you!

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The boat first heads out into the harbour and sitting low in the water you instantly get a different perspective of this water-based city.

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The commentary is in three languages, Dutch, English and I’m not sure what the third is as my interest immediately focussed on the English directive. The information is clear and gives a warning of what is ahead to see and if it’s on the left or right. Initially it seems you have chosen the wrong side as all the points of interest are on the other side, but after a while things seem to even out. Not that you can’t see anything on your ‘other side’, it’s just that it’s through wavering heads vying for the best angle.

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The first piece of surprising news is that the water in the harbour is not salty but fresh due to the locks, meaning there is no tidal rise or fall, adding great benefit to shipping. The other startling fact is that of all the canals and waterways, there is only one natural watercourse, the Amstel River, which in the eleventh century was dammed giving rise to the name Amsterdam. All the canals are man-made with digging commencing in 1380. The houses are anchored on pylons sunk 20-30 metres through marsh and into the stable sand basin making viewing the city from the water line a must. Most are wooden, with concrete introduced in recent times, and if kept free from contamination and air, will keep on holding up the tall building for many years to come.

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But taking photos from this low vantage point can be a bit of a problem when most points of interest are up there, the houses that line the canals. The roofs of the cruise boats are probably Perspex as they are quite scoured and hinder a clear photograph. The side windows are clearer but you do get reflections from within the boat and depending on the time of day, sun glare.

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But apart from this, the views are an insight into the city below the streets, the structure of the waterways and the beauty the city owes to its canals.

Posted by DenOS.08 01:21 Archived in Netherlands Tagged cruises Comments (1)

Amsterdam

A city of Bikes, Culture, Sex and the Holey Smoke


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If anyone tries to convince you that the Earth is flat they’re probably Dutch.

Amsterdam is so flat that peddle-power is measured in minimum pedal rotations per 10 kilometres, making it the most bike-populated city in the world. So flat that anyone can ride well over retirement age and enjoy the right-of-way that all must give to those on two wheels, for if an ignorant tourist meanders along their dedicated red brick trail there is hell and bells to pay.

Amsterdam is so flat that if you drop a 2-euro coin, it doesn’t roll away, but settles conveniently at your feet. But do hesitate before stooping to pick it up and check dog poo and human spit wads that often spoil the polished cobblestones. Something not expected in this pristine city though in winter on a freezing day, the cold does tend to loosen the sinus into over-production.

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Yes, bikes are everywhere and a great way to get around, but if you don’t care for riding around looking for a parking spot, then hopefully securing your vehicle with a lock and heavy chain and hope that when you return it’s not missing one wheel and the rest is dangling over the canal, then walking is far better and if your feet do get tired, juts hop onto a tram, pay the conductor 1.60 euro for a 2-section trip and enjoy the smoothest ride ever.

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My preference is walking with only a vague idea of where I’m going and a street map tucked away to only consult when absolutely needed. For to wander is to find gems of sites, sounds and people that you could miss if taking the direct route. Amsterdam is easy to do this and easy to get back to the right direction, though with so much to see, every direction is the right way.

Rather than give a detailed, wordy, step-by-step diatribe of my visit to this beautiful city, I’m letting some selected photos tell the story, with the odd comment along the way. This may seem a bit of a cop-out, and well sorry, but it is, for I’m still travelling and getting behind with my blog, so I’m taking the easy way out and giving you a slide show to catch-up. But I promise to add more detail later when I’m not paying for hotel WIFI @ 6 euro an hour!

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The Hoppe Bar on Spui Square is one of the oldest and biggest sellers of beer in the city. Very quaint with sand still spread on the wooden floor and a great range of some of the best beers you will ever taste.

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On the culturual side of things, nothing beats the offering of art museums. Both the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum are totally absorbing in their depth of exhibits. Both cost 10 euro to get in.

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Begijnhof
Secluded from the street life of the busy Spui Square is the enclosed ‘hofjes’ (little courtyard) Begijnhof. Free entry but you are asked to remain quiet and respect the residents who live there. Originally a convent, this hofjes dates back to the early 14th century.

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Within Begijnhof is the Engelse Kerk (English Church) with its heavy wooden door, ornate organ pipes and simple but peaceful interior. Opposite is the Begijnhof Kapel where the Beguines would secretly worship after the loss of their Gothic church.

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Red Light district
Wander down the Red Light district canal at sunset and watch the activity grow both within the red-it rooms and the gathering crowd of onlookers and ingoers. Visit the Erotic Museum for 5 euro for 4 floors of some fascinating and some rather tardy exhibits. The higher you go the raunchier it gets, but by Dutch standards, all good clean fun.

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Along with the ladies crooking their finger invitingly at you, there are heavier dens of activity with live sex of all sorts and if you’re up to it, audience participation. These places start at about 30 euro. Then there's the peep shows with private booths from 2 euro a minute. It’s advised that you don’t photograph the ladies in their windows as some heavy hand from behind could make this very clear (hence my shaken pic that was rushed so as not to be noticed).

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Smoking
A statue of a street brat stands in Spui Square called the Lieverdje (Little Darling). Given to the city by a cigarette company, it became a meeting place for the Provo’s in the mid 60’s.

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This little statue seems to represent the ongoing worship of the weed, both tobacco and marijuana. Everywhere you go people are smoking. In bars it's common to see the bar staff smoking more than the clients and serve you your beer with a fag hanging out of their mouth adding to the dense cloud overhead. Smoking dope is condoned but be careful as customs will be strict if you try to take any away with you. You can drop into the Hash & Marijuana Museum and sample some and breathe a little sweet smell into the street.

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Posted by DenOS.08 01:40 Archived in Netherlands Comments (1)

Tiptoe into the tulips

Falling in love again


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A train ride to your destination is far more interesting than a twenty-five hour flight in darkness most of the way or an overnight ferry trip where the only interesting thing to see out of the porthole is imagined ghostly figures floating in the slightly illuminated wake.

So a train ride from Hook of Holland to Rotterdam Central is a refreshing, restful and enlightening change. But the best passing scenery was to come after changing to number nine platform and boarding the train to Amsterdam, making sure I get to the top deck for a better view. Now, not the best scenery by far I know, in this amazingly flat landscape but a refreshing change from the industrial and regimental houses between Heathrow and Harwich International.

The first sight of a windmill makes you wonder if it really works or is it placed there as a prop just to give visitors that oohh aahh factor. Whatever, it works, as the train glides respectively past and the land stretched into the far distance unhindered by neither mountain nor mound. And just as effective a sight is the deliberately placed water channels, the agricultural version of the canals I’m longing to see.

After and hour from Rotterdam, the train slides silently into Amsterdam Central Station giving a sense that this city is serious about public transport. Even though I’m entering the realm of lugging luggage through a station again, this time I’m so eager to feast my eyes on this city, I’ve forgotten past ordeals. But my feast for the eyes was marred by the extensive construction work stretching far from the station. But this is Amsterdam, the city I most loved when in Europe in the 60’s and no construction sight is going to spoil my welcome back.

It was too early to check into my hotel so a coffee would give me a chance to prop and refer to my map on how to navigate the streets. The little café Le Pot au Feu on Damrak not far from the station looked inviting and on entering, more than welcoming, so a second continental breakfast seemed appropriate for 5.95 euro.

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The hotel was a bit of a walk but I was not in the mood to cram onto a tram but rather stroll and take in the evolving architecture as I headed deeper into the southern canal district. Luggage on wheels is great, but luggage on wheels on cobblestones is both bumpy and loud so when I finally arrived at my hotel it was probably as much relief to others on the street as it was for me.

The Hotel Dikker & Thijs Fenice at 444 Prinsengracht blends with the other buildings edging the canal, but this was my home for three days and that’s three days without dragging my bags around, and on finally resting them in my allotted room in the attic suite, it was my little heaven.

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Posted by DenOS.08 11:50 Archived in Netherlands Tagged lodging Comments (1)

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