A Travellerspoint blog

Czech Republic

The weird and wonderful Prague

A city in some detail

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Travel is a wonderful thing. It opens one's eyes to other lives, other cultures, other histories, other sights, sounds and smells. But one thing I find going to a new location is that it can be quite awesome, awe-inspiring and if you’re there only for a short time, overpowering. You’re caught up in the race to see as much of the established and noted ‘sights’ as you can, stare in wonderment, record what you see then move on to the next on the list. If you’re on a group tour, this can be educational if you have a good guide, but even then you’re processed to a formula, a timetable that allows very little, if any, freedom to see beyond.

My recent trip to Prague had me gallivanting around just as described above, but I was also there for another reason, to seek out the quirky Czech personality, their sense of humour, their telltale remnants of the past and their artistic foibles.

So, in the hope that I may broaden your curiosity, open your eyes a little wider to see beyond and to learn to look down and not just up, I share with you some of my quirky finds and maybe expose a little of the latent humour that lies just a fraction below the surface of a long-tormented country.

One sight I came across I feel reveals all this and more, clever, witty and quite a political approach to the recovery of a city that over decades was left to decay.

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As if left imbedded into the pavement in front of the Museum as soviet tanks rolled over to forcefully continue their occupation, this cross points to the Memorial to Victims of Communism.

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A shop window gathering more than dust, vodka and bullets are left as a reminder perhaps? As does the soviet designed buildings that stand embarrassingly and obtrusively out of place beside grand buildings such as the Museum.

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Though, some may say that other, more recent designs are also out of place such as the Dancing Building, but then again, curves have been in for some time.

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And while we’re on buildings, this may seem out of place in this story, but hidden inside this building that houses a casino, and is next door to a McDonald’s, is the Museum of Communism!

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Whether the location for the Museum of Communism is a coincidence or was a conscious tongue-in-cheek choice, the work of sculpture, David Černý is definitely deliberately provocative.

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Other artists abound in this city once called the cultural centre of Europe, some not so well know, or indeed not known at all.

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Then there is the monument to an artist, Lennon’s Wall, and the invitation to leave your own creative tribute.

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Even add your “I woz here” to the Elf Hostel beer garden as he himself looks on.

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But of course wall art (sgraffito) has been around for centuries in a rather more classical style.

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Even earlier remnants of old archways are preserved as wall art and patting the dog not only keeps it well polished, but may also bestow some luck.

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And not to be outdone, Mother Nature contributes her own unique creativity to this remarkable canvas.

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Yes, art is everywhere in Prague, in the hundreds of galleries and the fairytale narrow laneways that appear from above to be sucking their towering buildings into a meandering void.

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But not all pieces of art are easily interpreted, such as the Astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall, but then there is always the one around the corner to help you keep your dinner date.

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So night falls and the underworld beckons you to follow the stare down the stairs to life in the dungeons.

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Here, beer is consumed, rich and filling pork and dumplings are left unfinished and the sound of jazz resonates in the perfect acoustic environment, and if too much beer is consumed, relief is not far away.

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And finally, night has its own palette as you stroll through the quiet cobblestone alleys to your abode, refreshed by the detail observed, enriched with unique images that will remind you forever of the personality of the city.

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Posted by DenOS.08 22:18 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (2)

New bells for Tyn Church

An added attraction in the Old Town Square, Prague


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There’s so much to see when planning your travel itinerary, but when you happen across something totally unplanned, a once-in-a-lifetime event, a special moment in history and you’re an on-the-spot witness, this is the birth of an everlasting memory.

Such was the occasion on my recent visit to the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, when on a sunny winter's day I walked through the Old Town Square to be confronted by something so out of place in this historic open space, a space featuring more than its fair share of tourist attractions: the Old Town Hall with its confounding Astronomical Clock, the Jan Hus Monument, the Rococo Kinksy Palace, the decorated Storch House, the Baroque Church of St Nicholas and the most distinctive landmark, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn with its Gothic steeples that I’m sure inspired the Disneyland designers. Here, overpowering the aged palette of the past, I’m confronted by a massive, bright yellow crane, its feet firmly rooted trustingly upon the small cobblestones with its extended tentacle stretching upwards towards the Tyn steeples.

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Looking something like a promotion display for a construction company and attracting a large curious crowd, the crane began to lift something from a thin alleyway beside the Church. As soon as the object became high enough for the crowd to see, a sigh of wonderment rippled across the square as they recognized the familiar shape of a large, heavy bell. Silence then fell over the onlookers as they became totally consumed by this historic event.

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Originally the Church towers housed six bells until WWII when the Germans seized control of Prague and proceeded to melt the bells for their metal to be converted into military equipment until only one bell was left. The bell, called Marie, manufactured in 1553 and weighing 6,500 kilograms, is the second oldest bell in Prague. In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution, one new bell was installed and on this day, Tuesday 19 February 2008, three more bells are being lifted to their new home, high up in the north tower. From this point placing and tuning the new bells will take until Easter Sunday, when they will chime for the first time during the Easter Mass. A sixth bell will have to wait until sufficient funds are donated as each bell can cost up to 1 million Czech crowns and take almost two years to make as long as there’s no mishaps as the largest bell being installed today was melted down after the first attempt was slightly off-key.

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Lifting each bell was a nail-bitingly slow, precise operation as the crane operator constantly received instructions from the engineers peering out of the steeple window to ensure that no overhanging ancient ornaments were damaged. This meant that the bell could not be lowered directly into the tower but needed to be hooked and pulled from within, a process unseen from the street, but most likely with the aid of some sort of hydraulic mechanism as the weight would have been to much for the number of men the small space could accommodate.

One bell after the other are lifted until the largest weighing 2,500 kilograms is manoeuvred into the north side window as Jan Hus looks on approvingly in the knowledge that once again multiple bells will toll through the Town Square and momentarily scare off the ever-present soiling pigeons.

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To have read about so much oppression and turmoil over the years, which has meant so much rebuilding, and then to witness this single element of the process brings such resurrection into direct, overwhelming perspective.

Posted by DenOS.08 00:54 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged educational Comments (0)

Cesky Budejovice to Budapest by train

Sit back and enjoy the show


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My decision to train it to Budapest from the city of Cesky Budejovice, south of Prague, was made for two reasons. First, to rest my weary legs from walking non-stop around Amsterdam and Prague for two weeks, and second, to savor some of the countryside from ground level as opposed to glimpses between winter clouds.

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I decided to choose the route via Wien (Vienna) that would take me through the Southern Bohemia Region, Austria and into Hungary with a change of trains in Linz, Austria This second leg train is reserved seating. The cost is about 67euro, a bit more expensive than the route through the Czech Republic via Brno and into Hungary. This train originates from Prague and passes through Cesky Budejovice.

The weather is a little un-seasonal as temperatures are around the 16 to 18 degrees for the last month of winter, so the fields are being prepared for the spring crops adding some beautiful patterns to the passing landscapes.

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The one thing that did interest and excite me was the large wind farms spreading across parts of Austria. If they can do it, one may ask? To me they add a sort of elegant and calming beauty knowing they help to address our world devastating past misuse.

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The first leg from Cesky Budejovice to Linz takes two hours and the second leg to Budapest a longer five hours. The trains are smooth and comfortable and maybe it’s the time of the year, but I managed to have a compartment all to myself for most of the way. Station directions are easy to follow and the Linz station is quite large and modern.

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One thing about traveling by train through Europe and crossing three borders in one day, these days there's no borders and it's difficult to know what country you're in most of the time, so I only hope I've captioned these pictures with the correct location.

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Like all visitors stepping off any form of transport in any European or Asian city, you will be greeted enthusiastically by touts offering taxis, accommodation or any other form of traveller comforts and Budapest is no exception, but hesitate before accepting and read up on trusted and metered taxi companies to deal with or you could be parting with to much of your hard earned.

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One last thing about the European stations I have entered or exited, be it Amsterdam, Prague and now Budapest, the scene that greets you is one of a construction site. Let’s hope that what’s finally constructed offers the visitor a friendlier and more attractive welcome.

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Posted by DenOS.08 17:15 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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)

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