Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Czech Republic

My Top 10 from 2016

Last year I did a recap of my favourite travel destinations and memories from the previous year. So with the New Year upon us I wanted to write another post about my top 10 destinations from 2016. It was another great year of travel for me. Looking back over the past 12 months it was a busy year. I worked full-time as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia from January until September when I left to walk the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. I had a whopping 178 days of travel (mind you almost 3 months of this I was technically unemployed!) I visited 15 countries, 9 of them new for me. I saw a lot, I took a lot of pictures, and I lived it up. I hope this doesn’t sound bragadocious, because it’s not meant to (credit to Donald T for inventing this awesome word!) Some of that travel was with friends from Saudi, and I did some travel through Europe with my mom, and then spent about 7 weeks with my Dad while we walked across Northern Spain. Quite a bit of it was on my own- which I’ve become quite a fan. So here’s my top 10 from 2016 (in no particular order).

1. Romania

Romania is hardly mentioned in the top 10 of most people’s bucket lists, and as per my usual form of travel I did very little research about the country prior to going. Usually when I do very little research about a trip (which is most of the time) I am always pleasantly surprised. Romania was exactly that. I spent a week based in Bucharest and did a couple day trips, one to Transylvania and the other into neighbouring Bulgaria. My favourite memories from that trip were visiting Peles Castle and later Bram Castle which is also known as Dracula’s Castle (although in reality it has very little to do with Dracula.) These castles couldn’t have been more different from one another. Peles Castle is from the late 1800s and built in a Gothic Bavarian style, whereas Bram Castle is an old fortress castle that sits atop a cliff. It dates from the 1400’s and has a very eerie feel to it,  and even though it’s only a tale, I loved the stories of Dracula in relation to Romania History. The other standout thing from this trip was that we did a walking tour in Bucharest that took us to old decaying places which was super cool. Bucharest is also full of urban art and graffiti of which I’m a huge fan. It’s pretty inexpensive, had great restaurants, and was a very walkable city. So add Romania to your list of places to visit in 2017!

Peles Castle

Bram Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Italy

I spent 11 lovely days in Italy solo, splitting my time between Rome and Florence. To say I loved it would be an understatement. I look back on my time in Italy and smile because I was brimming with happiness and confidence. The architecture, the food, the Chianti, the museums were fantastic. Between the two, Florence was my favourite, and I’m sure this was because I booked myself a cheapish hotel that had phenomenal views of the cathedral from my private balcony. It felt like I could just reach across and touch it, and I could hear the street artists below playing music which felt like I had my own private show. This trip was a turning point in solo travel for me, and I became very comfortable in my own skin. I no longer have any issues with eating alone, or going to a bar for a drink, or wandering a city. This trip was a huge confidence boost for me, and made me feel so brave and empowered. Two of my favourite memories of that trip involved random encounters with fellow travelers. I met an American girl around my age who she and her parents adopted me during my time in Rome and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! My other favourite memory was meeting a couple from Texas on a day tour of Tuscany.  We met up for dinner in Florence and then for dinner and drinks my last night in Rome. By drinks I mean bottle after bottle of delicious Chianti. This resulted in a very hungover (possibly still drunk) me trying to get to the airport for my early morning flight! Oh the memories we make while traveling…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. The United Arab Emirates

I visited Dubai a few times over the last year and one of the highlights for me (and a silly Bucket List item) was to stay at the Atlantis resort. So for one night on a huge splurge (and because if you are a Saudi resident you qualify for the GCC discount) I stayed here. As you can imagine it was very nice. There’s a ton to do, so no real need to leave the resort if you don’t want to. We had free admission to the water park which was pretty cool, but the outdoor pool area and the aquarium were highlights for me. Oh, and the food was really good as well. I also visited Abu Dhabi and as I recently blogged about got to visit the iconic Sheikh Zayed mosque which has long been a place I wanted to visit. If you’re in Dubai make the trip to Abu Dhabi to see the mosque- it’s a stunning example of Islamic architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. The Czech Republic

There’s so much to see in the Czech Republic and this trip was especially special (is that a thing?) as I reunited with a guy I met several years earlier on my first solo trip to Portugal. It was so great to see him and have him take us around his city, and meet his partner, and check out hot Czech guys and eat good food. This was also the trip where my mom and I visited the town we believe is where my Oma (German for grandmother) grew up prior to her time in Germany where my mother was born. We flew into Germany and then spent a few days in Austria before visiting the Czech towns of Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, Brno and Prague. We found that it was easier to travel around on the bus than the train (comfortable seats and wifi!) We ended the trip with a few days in Prague which is a fantastically walkable city of which I am always a fan. Also Czech is pretty inexpensive as far as Europe goes so you won’t break the bank while traveling there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Poland

One of the other solo trips I took this past year was to Poland. I only had time to visit Warsaw so obviously a return trip is in order as there are many other places I would like to visit. Warsaw, specifically the old town, is rife with history. It is also rife with graffiti and displays of urban art which brings me a great amount of joy! The city felt very open and green, it was easy to navigate, and I felt totally safe wandering around on my own. The best thing I did while there was take a couple walking tours to learn about Poland’s history in WW2. It was fascinating. In hindsight it might’ve been better had I learned some of this history prior to visiting but seeing as I’m not one for planning or researching much before I go (I’ve become super lazy in my travel style and really only care about where I’m staying) this didn’t happen. Maybe one of my New Years resolutions will be a actually properly research a place before I visit. Somehow I doubt I’ll actually get my shit together and follow through on this. Plus it’s so much more fun making decisions on the fly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Jordan

This summer my short few day break to Jordan was just the relaxation I needed. The resorts that line the Dead Sea on the Jordan side are fancy with infinity pools and pool boys who will clean your sunglasses, and bring you towels and ice which make for a very happy me. While Petra itself is amazing, I’m so glad that we made the effort to visit the site at night. Especially since there was a full moon when we visited which provided for a lot of ambient light and beautiful pictures. It was also nice to get to revisit Bedouin culture as a trip to Petra at night includes traditional Bedouin music and tea. Even though it is pretty touristy I would recommend seeing Petra both by day and night. It’s stunning in the day but at night it has a magical mystical feel to it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Spain

I’ve spend a lot of time in Spain this past year. Early last year I spent a week split between Barcelona and Madrid with a night in Zaragoza to see the Arabic Palace called Aljaferia, because as we’ve already established I have a major crush on Islamic architecture. Then this fall I spent just over 5 weeks in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and an experience that if I’m being honest, I haven’t fully debriefed from (hence my lack of blogging about it yet.) We walked around 700km from the French border to the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was the biggest physical accomplishment of my life, one that I’m quite certain I will walk again (or another route). Everyday the scenery we walked was stunning and it really slowed things down for me and made me think about what I want out of life, and about how much stuff we all have that we don’t need. And how stuff does not equal happiness, but being out in the world interacting with people from all different walks of life does make me extremely happy. So more about the Camino in the upcoming weeks. But in the event you are looking for a cheapish European vacation- Spain is very reasonable, especially once you leave the bigger cities. And the Euro is quite low right now and airfare is pretty cheap to Europe so it’s a good time to take advantage of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Paris France

I spent a month in Paris this fall in a cute but run down apartment in the nieghbourhood of Montmartre. It was really nice to be able to settle into a place and feel like a local. Shopping at the same stores and frequenting the same cafes. My Pops was with me for a short while and then I was lucky enough to have a couple visitors. One of those visitors I suspect I will always associate Paris with. I spent my time exploring, but also doing some writing and reading and generally just hanging out. I caught up with a fellow travel nurse I knew from when I lived in San Francisco. I drank a lot of wine and cappucinos and ate my weight in cheese. (Not really but I do LOVE cheese a lot.) I walked much of the city. Coming to Paris directly after walking the Camino was a bit difficult because I very much missed walking (I still do.) But often I would google distances to whatever I wanted to do and if it was 5km away I’d think “oh that’s just a short walk” and opt to not take the metro. I was in Paris during the month of November which was pretty great because I get a little obsessive about Christmas. I love it so much- the decorations and the lights and colder weather. It was great to wander Paris with the store windows all decorated for the season. Paris is lovely. Tourism there is massively down given the recent terror attacks there and throughout Europe. But since I’m not one to live my life in fear I would say don’t let that deter you one bit! I spend a month there because with many places on AirBnb you get a discount if you book for a month and it ended up being cheaper than if I had booked for only 3 weeks. But a month was plenty long enough for me. 3 weeks would’ve been perfect because Paris is wicked break the bank expensive and I’m terrible with a budget so it was time to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Amsterdam Netherlands

After Paris I took the train to Amsterdam, a city I had long wanted to explore. And boy oh boy did I love it. Loved it as in it’s maybe my favourite European city ever (or at least tied with Copenhagen) at the very least! I spent a week here in a lovely apartment overlooking one of the main canals and had a grand time. Amsterdam is a very walkable city, and so much cheaper than Paris. A friend whom I met walking the Camino came and visited me for a night which was great. Two things really stood out during my time in Amsterdam. The first was doing a nighttime canal tour. It was the beginning of December when I was there and during the holiday season Amsterdam has numerous illuminated art installations around the city. We took a boat tour along the canals which offers a really cool view of the art itself, but also glimpses of life into the stunning historic canal houses. We sipped mulled wine and oohhhed and ahhhed over the interior decorations, wall colours, and the molded ceilings (but mostly I was just trying to imagine what my life would be like if I was living in any one of these houses!) The other thing I would highly recommend doing when in Amsterdam is taking a tour of the red light district. I mean Amsterdam is known for 2 main things (pot and ladies in windows with red lights overhead) so why not actually learn something about it. I’m not telling you to go to Amsterdam and smoke weed. If you do I have no issues but that’s your own choice. Neither am I telling you to pay for sex. Again, your choice. I’m not going to judge how you spend your money. For me I wanted to take a tour to learn how the red light district came to be, and basically how it works. So I did a tour thru the Prostitute Information Center which leads tours by women who have worked as sex workers in the red light district. It was really informative and I learned the following fun facts…..1/3 of Amsterdam’s prostitutes are over the age of 55. They literally come in all sizes, ages and ethnicity. Also the average time men spend with a lady is 6 minutes. Including getting dressed and undressed. 6. Minutes. But the minimum amount of time a customer must pay for is 15 minutes. Also the ladies are licensed and pay taxes so they basically have their own businesses. I learned a variety of other things as well, but since my Pops reads this I’ll try and keep it clean. Needless to say I left my heart in Amsterdam, and I really want to go back and see more of the Netherlands!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Iceland

Iceland is friggin fantastic. It is very, very photogenic and you can pack a lot into a relatively short visit. I spend 5 nights there in December and it did not disappoint. But while it is beautiful it is not cheap. So bring your money, honey cause you’re going to spend it. Once you get over the initial shock of the price of things I’m quite certain you will have a great time. I mean how can’t you with waterfalls, glaciers, tiny horses and Northern Lights aplenty. I met my best mate there and we spent 4 nights in Reykjavik and had one night on a tour to the southern part of the island with Extreme Iceland. It was fantastic, plus our guide was a riot and super entertaining. We visited waterfalls, and petted Icelandic horses who will come to you when you call them just like dogs do! We ended up getting stuck at a gas station while waiting out a wind storm and were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in between sipping gas station beers. We walked on a beach covered in icebergs, walked on a black sand beach with a phallic rock formation in the windiest conditions I’ve ever been in. We wore crampons and went on an ice hike and posed straddling a crevasse and ate fermented shark (not at the same time.) As you can imagine fermented shark is not great. It’s one of those odd things that gets worse the longer you chew it, and the taste strengthens in your mouth long after you’ve already swallowed it. Thankfully, copious amounts of Icelandic beer does eventually get the taste out. Our final morning in Iceland we relaxed at the Blue Lagoon which as you can imagine is full of tourists, but pretty awesome. It is good to know that in the winter there is very, very little useful hours of daylight. In fact there was only about 3.5 hrs a day when we were there and I’m being generous with that time frame, as a lot of it was “light” how it is at dusk or dawn. I would love to go back in the summer to see it light until 11pm. I would also love to go back and rent a car and drive the island and have the flexibility to stop at absolutely every thermal pool I came across. I would also stop at every farm that had Icelandic horses and walk up to the fence and call the horses over like the pack of friendly horse/puppies that they are and pet them till my hearts content. Do you really need anymore reasons to go to Iceland? Didn’t think so….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up my Top 10 from 2016. 2017 is off to a slow and patience trying start. I have decided that I want to return to Saudi Arabia for another year contract, but things are very, very slowly coming together. But fingers crossed they will fall into place in the next week or so. The first time I left Saudi I felt really excited to get an apartment and sign a lease and buy furniture. The current me has none of those deep gut feelings. To be honest I’m clueless as to what country I want to even settle down in, so returning to Saudi feels right and gives me a chance to save  a little more money and see some more things. And you and I both know how much of a fan I am of seeing more things! There are still a couple places in Saudi Arabia I would like to explore. There is a group of islands off the coast of Jeddah called the Farasan Islands that are a protected marine sanctuary that are supposed to be beautiful and I would also love to explore the mountains of Saudi and visit either Abha or Taif. As far as out of Saudi travel I would like to fit in a weekend trip to Oman a place I’ve already seen, and make it over to Africa to visit Ethiopia, Namibia, the Seychelles, or Madagascar. I would also very much like to visit Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and really any of the Stans. Obviously, I’ll have to pick and choose but these are my top interests. So inshallah in the next couple weeks I’ll have a firmer idea about my return, but in the mean time I’m going to relax and try and get some much overdue blogging about the Camino done.

Wishing all my readers a very happy and healthy 2017. And obviously I wish you some kick-ass travel adventures also…….

 

Sacred Places

During my time in Prague we wandered around the Old Jewish Cemetery and it got me thinking about all the sacred places I’ve visited during my travels. Places where the ugliness of humanity once carried out unimaginable horrors or mother nature intervened in tragic ways, and the different ways people pay their respects and mourn for those that died. In the West we commonly lay wreaths. Have moments of silence or hold candle light vigils. We visit grave sights and place flowers. We bow our heads. We say prayers. Wandering this Jewish cemetery many of the tombstones had rocks placed on the top, or coins, or notes. Some of the notes said “Love from Italy.” Or Florida, or France. Many of the notes were folded in a way that the messages were kept secret. Sealed messages of mourning to honour the dead. I was really moved by this tradition of leaving behind something to acknowledge that we have been there, and that the persons memory is carried on by the living.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember one of my first trips abroad and visiting Hiroshima and seeing the Peace Memorial at sunset. In 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped there and some 70 000 people were instantly killed. Today the bombed out remains of one building are all that remain and I remember the building being lit up at night which made the visit very moving and that there was an eerie calmness to the site. In my memories it’s silent except for the sound of the wind thru the nearby trees. I’m sure there were other noises, but all I remember was the light and the setting sun. Since then I have visited Ground Zero in New York City. I’ve walked the beaches of Sri Lanka years after the deadly tsunami that claimed the lives of nearly 37 000 people. When I visited back in 2010 nearly 6 years later parts of the coast looked like a war zone with only the cement frames of houses that were otherwise completely washed away. It was heart wrenching to drive through these small villages and meet people who had lost family members or even their entire family, their houses, and had no choice but to continue living on the coast- in many cases living off the very ocean that took so much from them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember in 2010 when I backpacked thru Syria. Crossing by land from northern Jordan and driving up to Damascus the oldest city in the world. I remember feeling very safe while traveling there- my best friend and I taking public buses to the UNESCO sites of Palmyra in the northeastern part of the country near the Iraqi border and Crac de Chevaliers just outside of Homs. Both sites have been massively damaged in the Syrian conflict not to mention the estimated 250 000 Syrians that have lost their lives. Last year when I was in the Maldives there was a massive earthquake that hit Nepal, a country I had visited the year before. I remember exploring the alleyways of Kathmandu stumbling across tiny temples and statues amongst the hustle and bustle of such a populated city. Much of it was damaged during that earthquake in April 2015.

Palmyra in Syria

Crac de Chevaliers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few years back I visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia where over 1 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. 1 million. In my lifetime. I remember wandering the memorial site and crying. What took place there was horrific and barbaric. Processing it made the air feel thick and my chest feel heavy. It’s unimaginable. And yet it happened. In recent years it has become a tradition to leave a bracelet to remember the dead at the site of one of the mass graves. Rocks in Jewish cemeteries, bracelets in Cambodia. Different acts and yet the same meaning- to bare witness. To mourn for humanities evil. All of these sites have the same things in common. They are sacred. They instill the visitor with a sense of disbelief and an overwhelming feeling of despair. Apart from my reference to Sri Lanka and Nepal all these events are man made. The darkest parts of humanity did this. And it continues to happen today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post wasn’t meant to be depressing but rather to acknowledge the different ways around the world people pay their respects and remember the dead on the actual soil where nature and man has claimed so many lives. I also hope that it motivates you to learn about these dark periods of history and compare them to current events. To bear witness to what is happening around the world today. Lest we not repeat humanities mistakes. That we realize that a life no matter how far away or how different from our own is still a precious life. That it inspires you to get out there and see the world, as the world and climate are always changing and natural events can forever change the face of a place.

Terezin Concentration Camp

First off, I don’t claim to be a historian, nor am I any sort of expert about World War II history, so most of this post is a summary based on tour guide information and bits and pieces of what I have read about the events surrounding Czechoslovakia and the Holocaust. I have always felt a certain tie to this awful period of history since as I’ve recently blogged about- I grew up believing my maternal grandparents were German. While I have now learned that my Oma (Grandmother) was actually born in Czechoslovakia and my Opa (Grandfather) in Poland, they both were forced out of their native countries and made to return to Germany as they were ethnic Germans. They both were children/teenagers during World War II. I actually grew up believing that my Oma didn’t believe the Holocaust had taken place because as I’ve previously mentioned, things of the past just weren’t discussed. It’s really crazy to me that I can’t recall ever asking them about what that time of their lives was like. How afraid they were. Whether they had any Jewish friends or neighbours. I think it’s also worth noting that when one learns about events like the Holocaust or other incidents of ethnic cleansing in school as a child the words don’t really make sense. It’s unfathomable. The numbers are so large, the place so far away, the events so horrific that it’s hard to accept or to understand. In the last year I’ve visited Germany twice- to Munich and Frankfurt, but for very quick visits only. Terezin in the Czech Republic was my first time to visit a concentration camp.

Terezin as it is know in Czech is known as Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in German. It’s located about an hour north of Prague. The site is now a memorial to the Jewish and Christian souls that lost their lives here. It is also possible to tour the actual town of Terezin which is nearby the camp and at one time served as the Jewish ghetto and to fool the outside world into thinking that the Jewish people were being treated well. Today the town is sparsely populated but there are 2 museums there that are worth visiting (and if you do a tour will likely include) the Magdeburg Barracks which has a replicated women’s dormitory as well as exhibits on the arts, music, theatre works and literature that was produced in Terezin. The other museum is the Ghetto Museum which was opened in the Terezin schoolhouse.

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A brief overview of Czechoslovakia leaking up to and after World War II is as follows: In 1918 the country of Czechoslovakia was formed. In 1933 after Nazis came to power they demanded the return of Czech lands and the ethnic German population that was living there. In 1938 leaders from Europe met in Munich and it was agreed that this land would be returned to Germany under the Munich Pact in exchange for a peace commitment from Hitler. As a result the democratic leaders of the country resigned. Later that same year other portions of land were seized by Hungary and Poland. In March 1939 Germany invaded the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Germany occupied Czechoslovakia until it surrendered at the end of the war. Many Jews emigrated in 1939. The Jewish populations in the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia were almost completely wiped out. It is estimated that 263,000 Czech Jews were killed.

During the German occupation it’s believed that 144,000 Jews were sent to Terezin. Although Terezin was not an extermination camp some 33,000 died there due to its deplorable conditions, over crowded living conditions and mass spreading of disease. Nearly 90,000 were sent to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. 17,000 survived. In 1944 the Red Cross visited and the Nazis presented Terezin as an ideal Jewish community and a propaganda film was made at the time showing the Jewish population living freely and taking part in everyday life, which was entirely fictional. Many Jews were transferred to Auschwitz to avoid the appearance of overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit. Terezin was home to many literary and artistic geniuses from the time period including poets, composers, musicians, and painters. It is reported that of the 15,000 children that were housed in the children’s home only 93 survived. 93.

So today it’s possible to tour both the camp and the ghetto. Driving up to the site you see the massive red brick fortress walls of the prison. As you walk into the site you pass the memorial cemeteries for the Jewish people and Christians that died here. Our tour took us thru the warden’s office were prisoners were registered, and into cells where people were literally packed in like cattle. Hundreds living in rooms fit for 20. Poor sanitation, and air flow led to many deaths. The air inside the cells is stifling with little movement. It was a somber experience hearing the inhumane conditions people were forced to live under.  On the concentration camp grounds stood the enormous and lavish Wardens house in stark contrast to the way prisoners were forced to live. It’s hard to accurately describe how one feels wandering a site like this. Horrified. Disgusted. But I think to some degree the word numb feels most accurate. Numb because it’s overwhelming, and it takes time to process this enormous loss of life. To stand where these people previously stood. To bear witness while trying to come to grips with how something like this happened in the first place. To say that 263,000 Czech Jews were killed during the Holocaust is like saying that every person in the town I went to college was murdered. Two and a half times. It’s mind blowing. And numbing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After World War 2 many of the Nazis who worked at Terezin were charged and executed. Some were imprisoned. Some fled and escaped punishment. Today the memory of the events and the people who were killed live on in countless memorials around the world. If you haven’t visited a site like Terezin Concentration Camp and have the opportunity to I would implore you to do so. Education about past events is a precursor for the prevention of history repeating itself. While I strongly believe that history is very much worth reading I think it’s important to experience historical places first hand. To walk thru a archway entrance to a concentration camp and read the German words of irony “Arbeit Macht Frie” which translated to “Work Sets you Free.” To hear the crunch of the gravel under your feet, to hear the clink and scraping of a metal door closing. To enter a cell and look out the window to the outside world. To see bunk beds and try to physically imagine 200 prisoners sleeping in such cramped conditions sharing one toilet. This is how we make events personal. This is how we carry the burden of historical events with us to bear witness to the worst of humanity and to guard against such events happening in the future. Lest we never forget….

 

Prague

Prague is the bomb. It’s seriously such a gorgeous and photogenic city it blew me away. Back in April my mom and I spent 4 nights wandering  the cobblestone streets and taking in the sights of Prague. Instead of going into great detail about what we did I’m going to tell you about the highlights only, and leave you with pictures that I hope will entice you to visit.

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We wandered the Old Town Square which is stunning at sunset as is Charles Bridge which is always packed with tourists. Charles Bridge was completed in the early 15th century and crosses the Vltava River which splits Prague in two. It is lined with statues which makes for great photos especially with the castle on the hilltop in the background.

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We spent the better part of a day visiting the Castle complex. The castle dates from the 9th century and the complex is a mix mash of churches, palaces, gardens and museums. The highlights for me where St Vitus Cathedral which had abstract stained glass windows that reminded me of Gaudi’s work at the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I found the light reflections thru the windows to the floor to be completely mesmerizing, but absolutely frustrating to try and capture their beauty on camera. The Basilica of St George is the oldest surviving church in Prague and has partially preserved frescoes that are worth a look. The other impressive part of the castle complex was Golden Lane which is a series of small cottages that were recreated to feel like they would’ve when they were inhabited. Some of the houses date back to the 16th century.

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Prague also has a Jewish quarter known as Josefov  where the Old Jewish Cemetery and numerous synagogues are located. The Czech Republic has a lot of Jewish history which I will touch on in a later post when I discuss visiting the Terezin concentration camp just outside of Prague. Instead I’ll leave you with a some photos from our afternoon exploring. Most of the synagogues had beautiful stained glass windows and again I was awestruck by the way the light reflected thru them casting light throughout the rooms. Many, many photos were taken trying to capture this, and let me tell you it’s hard to get them to look as artistic as they did with the naked eye.

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So that’s Prague. I’m sure you agree that it’s stunning, and it’s pretty easy to see why people rave about this city. 4 nights was the perfect amount of time to see everything we wanted to and to make a day trip to Terezin to hear about the Czech Republic’s Holocaust history.

Happy Travels……

Brno Czech Republic

I’ve blogged before about how sometimes while traveling you meet someone who touches your heart. Or you give a little piece of your heart to them for safe keeping because you know that somewhere, somehow in the future your paths will cross. It was one of these connections that led my mom and I to city of Brno in the Czech Republic. This connection had formed years earlier in 2010 when I took my first solo trip from Saudi Arabia to Portugal. I was that nervous type of excited when I checked into a hostel in Lisbon. Unsure of how easily I would meet people, and if there would be anyone my age or coolness level staying there. Looking back I laugh at how nervous I was. Because, the me then had no idea what an awesome trip this would become. How I needn’t have worried. How easily I would make a tribe of new friends.

One important member of my nomadic traveler tribe was a lawyer from Czech named Mira. He and I bonded over our inappropriate sense of humor and our love of hot Portuguese men. We also creatively changed the name of the local beer Superbock to Super…… I’m sure you can guess this without me actually typing it out. We were basically creative geniuses. Anyways, this and a couple of wild nights out in Lisbon bonded us. We spent the next several years as pen pals, sending each other letters and postcards from our travels around the world, as I moved from Saudi Arabia, back the US and later up to Canada. I’m affectionately known as his little Octopussie- in reference to some fresh seafood we saw in a window. You can see why we got along so well.

When my mom and I started planning our European trip I knew that if we were going anywhere in Eastern Europe I had to link up with Mira! This is how Brno became a firm part of our itinerary. In fact, I told my mother is was non-negotiable. So we penciled in 2 nights in a fancy 5 star hotel in Bno. The easiest way to get around in Czech Republic is by bus. The train lines are limited and often no faster than taking the bus. We booked with Student Agency Bus and rode them several times. The buses are clean, comfortable, and they have wifi. Sometimes, but not always they speak English. We took the bus to Brno from Ceske Budejovice which took about 3 and a half hours. Mira met us at the bus station hardly looking any different in the nearly 6 years that had passed since we met. He led us back to our hotel pointing out the sights along the way and then later that evening we met up with him and his partner for dinner at a local Czech beerhouse.

Czech beerhouses are a super fun experience. Often they only serve draft beer, so you can order light, dark, or mixed. I would recommend mixed. Meals tend to be meat heavy often pork or beef with dumplings or potatoes. To be honest I enjoyed the food we ate all throughout Czech. I can’t really recall not enjoying a meal, but to be fair as long as someone else is cooking instead of me I’m a pretty agreeable eater. One of the most favourite things we tried was an appetizer that loosely translates to “drowned bodies” which is sausages and cabbage soaked in vinegar and spices in a jar for a couple days. The proper Czech name of the dish is utopenci, and trust me- it pairs perfectly with beer.

We spent our time in Brno split between sightseeing and hanging out with Mira and his partner Viki. We visited the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul which is a striking 14th century Gothic style Cathedral that sits atop of hill so it’s a great view point of the city. The inside though is much less remarkable compared to other grandiose Cathedrals throughout Europe. So we walked up that hill and then back down and over to Spilberk Park and then further uphill to the castle. The castle is from the 13th century and houses some permanent and temporary exhibits so it’s really more like a museum that touring a castle. We just toured the outside. There are many stunning viewpoints to take photos of the city below looking back towards the Cathedral. Mira and Viki then took us on a city walking tour to parts of the city we wouldn’t have stumbled on, on our own. We visited the outside of the Villa Tugendhat a modernist house listed under the UNESCO heritage sites. We visited a children’s theatre and lazily walked the streets of Brno, all the while my mom taking photos of every possible statue along the way. We then visited The Brno Ossuary which is the second largest ossuary in Europe. It is believed to contain the skeletal remains of some 50 thousand people from the 17th and 18th century. It was rediscovered in 2001 and is now open to the public. As one would imagine it is a somber experience to visit. The area is dimly lit with and skulls and other bones arranged in an artistic way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brno is not necessarily a huge tourist city, and yet you could easily spend a couple days exploring what the city has to offer. It also makes a great transit point if you are heading up to Prague. None of that really mattered to me though, because all I really wanted to do was catch up with my old pen pal Mira. Brno could’ve easily had zero tourist sites and yet, I still wouldn’t have missed out on the opportunity to catch up with this dear soul. One other thing I can tell you about Czech is that the people are wonderful. I’ve actually never experienced hospitality like what Mira showed my mom and I over those 2 days. I sure hope that I will be able to return the favour to him at some point in the future!

Next up…….Prague.

Ceske Budejovice

Ceske Budejovice is the largest city in the southern Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. And as I mentioned in my last post, it is where we believe my maternal grandmother was born. This was news to me as I had always grown up believing that she was German. It appears that she was German in ethnicity but likely Czech by birth and then ended up in Germany before emigrating to Canada in 1954. Oddly, things of the past just weren’t discussed in my mother’s family- and so with secrets or forbidden topics comes misinformation. Anyways, the reason Ceske Budejovice ended up on our itinerary was solely for the purpose of my mom visiting the town where her mother was born. We think. She was born in a town that went by the names of Strodenitz or Budweis which is the current day Ceske Budejovice.

As far as I can tell there was always a huge number of ethnic Germans living in this region of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. In fact the Germans and the Czechs/Slovaks lived side by side for hundreds of years. Until the second World War when in 1945 all the Germans were forcibly expelled. Ethnic Germans as well as Hungarians who had been living in this region peacefully prior to World WarII were stripped of their Czech citizenship and property. As has happened the world over in places like Palestine and in Cyprus- people lost everything and were not able to return to their homes once the conflict ended. It is believed that between 1945-1947 some 3 million ethnic Germans and Hungarians were deported from Czechoslovakia. My Oma (German for Grandmother) and her family were amongst those displaced. My Oma was fortunate that her family was financially stable enough that they did not end up homeless. She went on to meet and marry my Opa (German for Grandfather) who I always believed was German but have recently learned that he was actually born in Poland. Again of German ethnicity. After WWII he fled to Germany under similar circumstances as my Oma. My mother was born in Germany in 1954 and shortly after they immigrated to Canada.

I so wish I knew this information years ago. I love history and genealogy. I wish I’d asked more questions. I was never especially close to my Oma and Opa. They lived on the other side of Canada and we only saw them when we made the trek out to visit. My childhood memories of them are mostly about us visiting. About how they never ever called me Kristine but rather Kristina with a thick German accent. I remember amazing German baking from my Oma, and how I loved getting her tin of baked goods around Christmastime. And how saddened I was when in her later years she stopped sending these tins out. I remember sitting in the basement watching slide shows of the places they traveled. My Oma and Opa roamed the world. I’m sure my deep rooted love of travel can be traced back to my DNA, directly from my European ancestors who were displaced from their native homes, and boldly continued this sense of travel throughout their lives. I remember loving going to the laundry room at their house. They had souvenirs stickers from the countries they had visited stuck to an heating duct in that room. Memories from the far away lands they had explored. Sadly, I can’t ask my Opa about this new information I have about him growing up in Poland. He passed away late last year, so all the questions I now have will remain unanswered. I thought about him a lot while visiting Warsaw last month. My Oma is still alive, but for her I think the past is in the past so I’m not sure we’ll get any more information than what we’ve already discovered.

My mother and I spent one night in Ceske Budejovice. We booked a hotel right in the main square which was lovely to have the views of the square below from our hotel room. Since it was Sunday when we arrived most things were closed. The afternoon was grey with a light drizzle of rain as we explored the main square and strolled down to the river. We visited a church, we had some delicious food, and we drank some wine. Nothing of any real significance, and yet the time I was there has stuck with me. Mostly the many unanswered questions. The regret of not taking more of an interest in where my mother’s side of the family came from. The disappointment in knowing that many of these question will never get answered. That both my Grandparents were displaced from their native homes as teenagers and I never had the chance to ask them about what that experience was like for them. The sadness of knowing that in the last few months I have visited both of their native countries with no real insight into were they came from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since my trip to Czech it’s made me think a lot about a podcast I listened to last year on a train while traveling in Morocco. The podcast was about the organization StoryCorps whose mission is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” Essentially they are making a library of oral interviews. They are extremely thought provoking and moving to listen to. Interviews are conducted between 2 individuals who are involved in each others lives. They are archived at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. How I wish I had thought to do something like this with either my maternal or paternal Grandparents. To have an oral recording of the history of their lives. This fall I’ll be walking the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. For 40 days. And I have so many questions about his life. His history. His experiences. I’m going to take advantage of this time we’ll have together. I don’t want to have unanswered questions. StoryCorps even has an app you can download so you can record your own interviews. “Testing, testing, 1,2,3.”

Cesky Krumlov

This super cute medieval town was the next stop on my mother-daughter trip way back in April. Cesky Krumlov is about a 3hr car ride from Salzburg. It’s not super easy to get to by bus or train so we booked a fairly inexpensive shuttle and had a lovely Czech guy drive us there. This small village is known for being uber romantic and is often referred to as the Fairy Tale village mostly because it looks like it’s straight out of a fairy tale. I actually feel a little jipped that my prince in shining armor didn’t come and sweep me off my feet while we were there.

We booked to stay at a hotel called the Ruze Hotel- which is super touristy. Like Asian tour bus kinda touristy. The building is from the 16th century and still carries that medieval theme, hence why the tour buses come. Our room was cute, but honestly I was creeped out for the one night we stayed there. I have way too over active of an imagination, and had I been staying there solo I doubt I would’ve gotten any sleep. There were a couple weird manikins dressed in medieval outfits that I swear were watching us every time we left our room. See. Over active imagination. Although I’m sure a normal person who has a normal imagination wouldn’t have any issues getting a good nights rest.

The old part of the town does have a magical feel to it. We checked in and immediately headed out to explore. When we stepped onto the main street there was a medieval parade procession coming down the street towards us. Of course we couldn’t believe that the locals had gone thru all that effort to welcome us and valiantly waved as around 100 medieval costumed people paraded by. Oh wait. It wasn’t actually for us. Duh. It was to mark the first day of the upcoming tourist season. Whatever. My mom and I know secretly know it was to welcome us to the Czech Republic. After our parade passed we set off to explore the town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vlatava river winds it’s way thru the center of the old town and it really does look like a fairy tale village. The cobble stoned streets and the layered red tiled rooftops with the large and imposing castle and bell tower on the hill on the opposite bank of the river make almost every view point picture perfect. The streets are lined with touristy souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes and multiple amber jewelry stores for which the region is known for. You could easily take hundreds of photos here- just ask my mom as she filled all the storage on her phone in an afternoon.

There’s not a ton to do in Cesky Krumlov other than wander the quaint cobblestone streets and visit the castle. The Cesky Krumlov castle dates back to the mid 13th century but has changed hands over the years before being given to the Czechoslovakia state in the mid 1900’s. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site. Visits to the inside parts of the castle are by tour group only, and no photos are allowed. Seriously none, unless you’re very very sneaky. Once you walk through the castle complex you can walk up a rather steep hill into the castle gardens. It was still early in the season so not everything was in bloom, but I can imagine it is colourful and gorgeous in the summer months. Some other travelerss told us about there being a bear in the moat of the castle and truthfully I thought they were trying to pull our leg. Turns out it’s true. There is a brown bear in the moat of the castle as I saw him getting fed the morning that we left. Apparently bears have been kept in the moat since the earlier 1700s. Who knew?!

 

 

 

 

 

 

So one night in Cesky Krumlov was enough for us to take in the medieval village and tour the castle. We then took a local bus to the nearby town of Cesky Budijovice which we believe is the town my Oma (my mother’s mother in German) was born. More to come…

Salzburg Austria

Back in April I met my mom in Munich for a whirlwind tour of Austria and the Czech Republic. We had only 11 days to pack in Salzburg Austria and then making our way up thru Czech to get back to Munich so we could both fly out. Originally, we had planned to include Slovakia in our itinerary but we decided to cut Bratislava out as if was too much to pack in. The more I travel and the older I get the more I know that I get extremely cranky if I have to move hotels every night and if a portion of everyday is spend on a bus or train. I have become very fond of slow travel. The kind of travel where I get to see the sites but also where I can sit in cafes and sip cappuccinos or have a glass of wine while reading a book or people watching. I’m also not a huge fan of only seeing bits and pieces of a city. If I go some where I want to see all the things I want to see. That way if I love it I can always come back, but more likely than not I’ll be inclined to go somewhere new. I don’t like having unfinished business with a city.

We both arrived in Munich within a few hours of one another. Mom late morning, and me early afternoon. We had decided to bypass Munich all together as there was a festival going on the weekend we arrived and hotel prices were like $400 a night, and also I had been in Munich in the fall for Oktoberfest so I was happy to head for Austria. Conveniently, Postbus has a bus that leaves from Munich airport terminal 2 and goes directly to Salzburg airport. It takes just under 3 hours and they serve wine and beer on the bus so I’d say it’s a pretty great score! The only thing is once you arrive at Salzburg airport you’ll have to grab a taxi or take a local bus to get to the city center.

We had 2 nights in Salzburg, but really only one full day since we arrived late in the afternoon. We decided to get tickets for the Hop on Hop off bus since that was the best use of our limited time. Be forewarned. Salzburg is beautiful. We really could’ve used another day there. I would have loved to explore the surrounding countryside, but alas, we didn’t have time. The hotel we stayed at which wasn’t that impressive so it shall remain unnamed was located very close to Mozart Square- which is a very walkable area, and coincidentally it’s also a stop on the Hop on Hop off bus. So we boarded the bus. Initially we had some difficulties with the headsets given to us. Neither mom or I could figure it out until a kind passenger showed us that what we were attempting to plug the headsets into was actually a screw hole, and not in fact the socket for the headsets. You can’t be smart all the time.

First stop on our quick as lightening visit to Salzburg was Leopoldskron Palace. It’s nicknamed the “Sound of Music Palace” as some of the movies outdoor scenes were filmed here. Am I an awful person if I admit I don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie? Like seriously. Don’t hate me. I always hear girls say how this is their favourite movie. Maybe after being there this will give me a reason to watch it. Regardless, the Palace is striking from the outside. The only thing is that it is not a public building, it’s actually a private hotel. We just waltzed up (not literally although it would’ve been fitting) and the gate was open so we made our own little tour. Only to realize upon leaving that there are signs outside saying no entrance unless you are a hotel guest. Whoopsie. So if you go, maybe pretend you didn’t see the sign like we did and hope that the gate is open!

Next stop was the Hellbrunn Palace, which if you do nothing else this is what you should see. This Palace was built in the early 1600’s and was intended as the day residence for the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg from that time. In fact there was no bedroom built at the Palace to prevent overnight sleepovers. We wandered thru the well manicured gardens and past the large decorative pool which cast beautiful reflections in the mid-morning light from the statues alongside the pools edge. We also passed by the glass Sound of Music Gazebo. If you are a fan this may thrill you, I was quite honestly underwhelmed. The main thing that the Palace is known for though are its trick fountains. Makes you curious right….like what the heck is a trick fountain? Honestly we had no idea, but we happened to arrive when an English tour was leaving so we joined it. As it turns out the Palace’s original owner was quite the trickster back in the day, and he installed many water features throughout the area behind the Palace to entertain, and often surprise his unsuspecting guests. As was common for Palaces of that time there are lovely fountains, but the Archbishop installed hidden jets and streams of water that would shoot out in every direction and soak his visitors. He even had an outside wine bar type area where guests would be soaked as jets of water would shoot up from the base of their stools. Everything is original and water powered. One of the separate grotto type rooms was the “Bird Room” where when you walking in the water moving within the walls gives off the sounds of multiple birds singing and clucking. There were several miniature scenes where the pieces moved- again all powered by water. I found it really fascinating but watch your electronics if you go. Put them away if you don’t want them to get wet. Because, trust me, you’re going to end up wet!

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here we hopped back on the bus and got off at Mirabell Gardens- a very well maintained and colourful garden with the Fortress in the backdrop. We then made our way back towards the hotel and took the funicular up to Hohenzsalzburg Fortress. This fortress is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe and is a great vantage point from which to be wowed by the stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Construction of the fortress began in the late 11th century. The fortress resembles a small city with different levels and courtyards. There are some interesting exhibits within the walls, but really the whole point is to take in the views. We had a late lunch at the restaurant there that surprisingly had good food and wasn’t super expensive given how touristy it was- we only ate there so we could gaze out the windows as the clouds rolled in and changed the lighting on the nearby hillsides while we stuffed our faces.

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The rest of our limited time in Salzburg was spent wandering the many churches and visiting St Peters cemetery which is back up the hill towards the Fortress. In this cemetery are catacombs and you can climb up to see the caves of this church that is built into the rock. Mom was not super keen on it, but she rallied and was quite the trooper. She didn’t cry once and actually made it to the top! I was very impressed! We also walked along the Salzach river which cuts through the city. From the opposite bank of the river the nighttime views of the Fortress are spectacular. And that pretty much wrapped up our time in Austria. The following morning we took a shuttle into the Czech Republic where we spent the rest of our trip. More on that soon……..

 

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