Poland – Past, Present and Prospering

Krakow Old Town Square with the Cloth Market and ClockTower

Poland just might be one of the most fucked over countries in the world in recent centuries. Being wedged between Germany and Russia has not made for a nice place to be when it comes to nationalism or independence. But that hasn’t stopped the Poles from being one of the more fun and easy going cultures we have come across. On top of that their country, or at least the main cities we went to, has some of the best tourist sights we have seen. Although some of them are a little on the sombre side, given the recent occupations of Russian Communists and German Nazis.

St Mary’s Cathedral on the corners for Krakow Town Square

We started Poland in Krakow, which is one of the “it” cities in terms of European tourism. There is little wonder why when you arrive to the huge Old Town square, lined with great architecture, big churches and clock-towers, with the iconic Cloth Market in the centre. On top of all there is to see in the city area there are also some world-class day excursions to be had to the likes of Auschwitz or Wieliczka Salt Mines, both very different types of tourist experiences but both well worth a look. And if all the sights aren’t enough there is also the nightlife, which Krakow is renowned for, with pubs and clubs hiding down every alleyway and courtyard behind the old building facades.

As the train we caught from Berlin ended up being about 5 hours late due to electrical faults we arrived in the city after midnight. The Old Town was pumping, with as many people out and about as we saw any other time of the day. We were a bit on the tired side after the train so took it easy for this night, but we did make it out later to see some nightlife. On this occasion we decided to check out the Jazz Rock Club. This basement style bar turned out to be more of a metal rock club, with a death metal band, complete with Polish operatic style singing, playing when we first arrived. They were great fun and the small crowd was really getting into it for a Sunday night. After the band finished the DJ continued playing great tunes that kept us happy for too many hours at the bar.

One of the many engravings and sculptures in the salt mines

The first tourist thing we did was check out the Wieliczka Salt Mines, as being the weekend we thought it might be a good idea to get the 15km out of the city. This wasn’t the smartest move with the place absolutely packed with local tourists. Lucky for us they did separate English tours so we were able to jump the 100m long queue to get in on one of these. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect here and when we started our descent down 50 something flights of stairs, to end up over 130m underground, we were wondering what we had let ourselves in for. But the crowds of tourists are testament to how amazing this place is. It is a massive mine area that has been worked for its rock salt for about 500 years. Just the feats that have been accomplished to get this deep in the ground, to bring down horses to work, to eradicate the poisonous gases that build up and to get the salt out of the place is pretty special, but on top of that there are hundreds of sculptures all carved out of the rock salt over the years. There are scenes of favourite Polish legends, statues of kings and famous people, shops, a conference hall and images of those working the mine, but most impressive is a massive cathedral, fully dug out of the rock. The miners had 40 plus chapels in the mines, I guess they needed to pray on a regular basis in such a scary environment. This main cathedral is something else. With chandeliers made from wood and salt crystals, a tiled floor all carved out of rock salt and all the various biblical scenes, from the nativity to the crucifixion, engraved over the walls, this place has to be seen to be believed. Definitely well worth the crowds.

Just some of the shoes of those executed at Auschwitz

The other major tourist site outside of Krakow is Auschwitz-Birkenau. The site of an estimated one and a half million Nazi killings during WW2. These concentration/extermination camps were some of the most prolific and horrific. To visit them is one sombre experience. Auschwitz 1, which was set up as more of a work camp is now a museum to the tragedy and you can see everything from the shoes, suitcases and hair, which was all stockpiled from the camps unlucky inhabitants, through to the sleeping and living conditions and even the execution wall, where those who needed to be made an example of were shot. The Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau) site is more of a memorial, as there are not so many buildings left here. As this was the main execution site it is a very eerie place to walk around knowing that there were these massive extermination chambers here responsible for ending the lives of so many hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities that Hitler didn’t like. One quote from the place really stands out is “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”.

The gates of Schindler’s Factory

We also did a tour of the Jewish quarter in Krakow, one of the biggest in Europe pre-WW2, and also the subsequent ghetto where the Jews where penned in before Hitler decided on the “Ultimate Solution” and the exterminations started. More very moving stuff and so hard to imagine such horrors could happen in the world. We had also watched Schindler’s List the night before, so we saw locations where scenes of the movie were filmed. Then the tour culminated at the Schindler Factory, which is at least a good story to come out of such a sad time, and as our guide informed us there were plenty of other stories of Poles saving Jews, which at least shows some positives for humanity. Away from the war side of things, the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, is actually quite a funky bar and restaurant area now and we were a little disappointed we only discovered it on our last day, as it looked to be a far more mellow and less sterile area than the main town square where we had been spending most of our time.

mmmmm…Moa Burger

In saying that there is still plenty to see in the Old Town main square. A big reason for this is that the area pretty much escaped WW2 with its architecture unscathed, so the place is visually stunning. The Cloth Market in the middle of the square is a cool old building, but it also has tunnels underneath where you can see exhibitions showing 100s of years of life that have been going on in this area. There is also Wavel Castle up on the hill to the south of the old town, which we only managed to quickly view from the outside, as there is just so much to do here. We also found a place touting itself as selling “The best NZ style burgers in Poland”. We had to give them a try and they were awesome, maybe the best NZ style burgers outside NZ, and better than some inside too. Plus they had heaps of kitsch Kiwiana decorating the place and played kiwi tunes the entire time. All the girs in the shop were Polish, but someone there must be representing New Zealand hard.

Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town

After spending longer in Krakow than planned we weren’t too sure if we should stop off in Warsaw too, but we were glad we managed to slip in a couple of quick nights there. It has a far more modern big city feel than Krakow. We went out for a drink the first night to a funky little bar area where there were ten or so small bars in a little block of unused shops. We also did a tour of the Old Town and checked out the Polish Uprising Museum. The most interesting thing about the Old Town was that it’s not that old. The place was fully wiped out during WW2, so it has been completely reconstructed as it used to be, using paintings of the city that were commissioned by the various kings over the years. Looking at the place it is hard to know this without being told, so is pretty cool they have been able to reconstruct it so well. The Uprising Museum wasn’t as good as some of the Communism/Terror style museums we have seen, but it did show how unlucky the Poles have been over the years. After only getting their second independence in 1918, after being part of Prussia, Russia and Austria, they were then invaded by Germany and Russia at the start of WW2. Germany then attacked the Russians and took Poland for itself. When the Poles started their Uprising near the end of the war they expected help from the Russians and Allied forces, but they just left them and Hitler put his final efforts into obliterating Poland. This suited Russia as they had already done a deal with the allies that they would control Poland after the war, so they didn’t mind if the best Polish fighters were all wasted. All pretty sad really, and then they were stuck under Soviet communism for the next 45 years until the USSR started to fall apart in 1989.

Krakow at night – always something to do

Overall the Poles seem to have come out of this period pretty well and given their limited times of independence there is a fiercely patriotic spirit about the place. They want to ensure they maintain their nation this time. With the likes of Warsaw advancing as a modern cosmopolitan city and Krakow as one of the tourist cities of the world, there is no reason not to think they will continue to flourish as a proud independent nation.

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You Melt My Heart – Melt Festival, Germany. (festival review)

For our second music festival in two weeks we were off to Melt in Germany. Although the weather wasn’t hot enough to melt anything, the event still lived up to its catchphrase “Melt your heart”. We absolutely loved it and had a brilliant time. The music and the venue made it, but there was generally just such a great vibe that you couldn’t help but have fun. Plus we did have one of our favourite bands on the line up, Bloc Party, so I guess it couldn’t really go wrong.

The festival site as you walk from the camping/parking area

The venue itself was absolutely fantastic. Based at Ferropolis, an old East German mine site about 1 and a half hours out of Berlin, the old machinery that dotted the landscape made for a visual spectacular. Plus the old mine has been filled in to make a large lake, so it was an awesome mix of nature and man-made wonders. One slightly annoying thing was the distance from the camping/parking area to the main site, but once we worked out the shuttle bus set up it wasn’t too bad. We did walk it a couple of times, which was pleasant enough alongside the lake, and it was pretty cool as the big machinery loomed in the distance with the festival marquees in between them. Some of the old mining equipment was set up with huge mirror balls on them and as nightfall came they lit them up in all colours to make it extra special.

Bloc Party absolutely owning the main stage

Music-wise it was the first night we were most excited about as that was when Bloc Party were headlining. And Kele and the boys did not disappoint with a set that included all the classics plus four or five new tracks from their album that is out this month. Although their midnight set was the only time that in rained on the first day (consistently for the entire set), nothing was going to stop us having a good dance. We were up on the seat/steps on the right side of the stage and had plenty of room to jump around to the likes of “This Modern Love”, “The Prayer”, “Hunting for Witches”, “Mercury”, “Flux” and plenty more in the 1.5 hour set.

On that first day there were plenty of other music highlights too with M83, Caribou, The Ravonettes and a few of the DJs on the outer stages all putting in stellar performances to get us primed for the big one, Bloc Party. Nero was on after them and although they played a massive set of all their hits, they did not compare, plus their female MC was even spotted lip-syncing to a couple of their more popular tracks.

View from the beach stage looking back to main festival

After a massive first day we were a bit hazy on the second and spent a bit of time down at the beach stage chilling out. Here we caught a great set from Araab DJ in the late afternoon. It was a real pity that the weather was so cold and wet, as this stage would have been even more spectacular on a hot sunny day with people able to swim or chill on the beach right next to the stage.

Two Door Cinema Club rocking the main stage on Day 2

Musical standouts for us on the second day were Two Door Cinema Club, who was the only band to make it to Melt that we had seen at Rock for People also. This time they had a later set, which they showed they deserved, ripping it up with their poppy rock hits and getting the main stage crowd rocking as much as we saw it for the entire festival. Also of note on day 2 were Chairlift, who played a mellow early evening set with their big hit Amanamanesia finishing it off. And Blood Red Shoes showed that for a band consisting of a drummer and a lead guitarist that they could sure make a big noise and put on a great rock show, as they showed their wares in an early afternoon timeslot on the main stage. The Gossip was the headliner on the main stage of Day 2, but they weren’t really our cup of tea, so we headed back to our car/home for the night.

Our Station Wagon rental – home for 3 days

We didn’t really get a chance to see much of the campsite life as we were staying in the car in the parking lot. We decided that due to the poor weather renting a station wagon was a safe idea. We would have had to buy a tent and organised transport anyway, so this was a similar priced option to ensure we had somewhere dry and safe to stay each night. Apart from being a bit on our own in the carpark, this turned out to be a great option as the 20euro airbed we bought fitted perfectly into the back and provided 3 adequate night’s sleep. We were especially happy on the morning of the second day when it rained for a number of hours and we were able to relax and read our books in the dry of our little station wagon home.

We also stocked up with super market snacks so these were able to keep us going when we were away from the main food area of the festival. But that is not to say we did not try the array of great food that was on offer there. It was all a fair bit more expensive than Rock for People, including the beer, but still not as bad as a festival downunder. Full strength beers were 4euro, while you could get the majority of food options for about 4-6euro. These included some great sticky bbq pork rolls, cheesy filled bread, Indian, Thai plus your standard sausages, burgers and kebabs, all of which was of a very acceptable standard.

Sweet little Lana Del Ray

Although we were planning to get up early the following day to get back to Berlin, we wanted to make the most of our third and final day at Melt, so we tried to get in early afternoon to catch Lana Del Ray. Lots of people had the same idea and there was a huge queue to get into the event, similar to what we experienced on the first day. This was maybe one of our only criticisms with the lines for entry, toilets and food all a bit on the excessive side at times, which, considering it is a regular festival venue, you would think could be managed better.

Whitest Boy Alive finishing the festival for us with a bang

We did manage to catch the last couple of songs of the sultry sensation and she had a crowd whose size showed she is definitely popular the world over. Although the last day did not contain the big headline names of the first two, there were still a couple of great performances. In the late afternoon timeslot on the main stage Australian band The Jezebels put on a great rock show with the little pocket rocket lead singer, Hayley Mary, doing Aussie proud with her great lyrical ability and pure energy. Also our final set of the night was a great way to finish, with Whitest Boy Alive getting the crowd buzzing for one of the last acts to play the main stage, leaving us with a smile from ear to ear as we left the magic venue for the final time. It really was a great festival that left our heart melted and wanting more. Maybe we will get back there one day; we would recommend it for sure.

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Berlin – One of the hottest cities in the world despite its cold past

Germany, well Berlin anyway, was a part of our journey that we had been looking forward to, as it was an opportunity to stay in the one place for a while. Plus we had another music festival to go to, so there were plenty of reasons to be excited. The reason we could stay so long was thanks to the great hospitality of Jared’s friend Victoria, who allowed us to stay at her apartment for the duration of our time in Berlin. This meant we could cook our own meals, do some much needed washing and generally just chill out from the regular routine we had established of moving every few days. And to top off all that, Berlin is one of the coolest cities in the world, so we had the opportunity to check it out at a more leisurely pace.

As we had not gone to the last day of the rock festival in Czech, we were ready to party by the time we arrived in Berlin. This was lucky, as Victoria had a good little shindig lined up for us. It was an album release gig for some band she knew, which turned out to be a very punk rock affair, complete with all the trimmings of that particular scene: leather jackets, mohawks, piercing and colourful hair (and a stern warning not to drink anything not in a bottle, as they had spiked the shots with LSD at the last party). It was a good time but by 2am it was getting pretty late for us, so we managed to make our way back to Victoria’s on our own and left her to party the night away.

Chicken Parmigiana at Victoria’s – good times doing our own cooking

The next few days were more about orientating ourselves with the neighbourhood, which was right on the edge of the popular Kreuzberg suburb. It was not right in the heart of this but there is still plenty of interesting parks and cafes around and Kreuzberg proper is not too far away for the bar and nightlife scene. Being the massive cosmopolitan city that Berlin is it meant there was plenty of entertainment of all types to be had. Food wise we had sushi, pizza, kebabs, Caribbean, Chinese, as well as the local German specialty Currywurst. We also sampled 6 or 7 different beers. All of which were tasty and easily compete with anything else we have tasted in Europe. Price-wise the city is still cheaper than the likes of Australia or NZ for these sorts of things, but it is not far behind and is definitely a step up from what we had been paying in the rest of Eastern Europe.

Checkpoint Charlie – where West used to meet East

From a tourist perspective Berlin is an interesting city, as there is not really an Old City heart to it like there is in so many other old European places we have been. In particular the divide that existed between East and West Berlin has played a big part in this, but also there are just a number of interesting places in various locations well worth checking out. For us we have concentrated a lot on the Holocaust and communism through our travels so far and decided to continue this theme, as Germany was obviously a major factor in both of these.

Holocaust Memorial – great piece of art to commemorate one awful event

From the Holocaust side of things we checked out two of the Memorial/Museum sites that both commemorate the massive loss of life but also outline the horrific nature of the events surrounding it. The Topography of Terror is a massive photo exhibition, part of which runs alongside remnants of the Berlin Wall and part in a large museum, which outlines in minute detail all the aspects of brutality and fear perpetrated by the Nazis. It starts pre-war and goes right through to the finish in 1945, including info on what happened to the biggest criminals, most of whom were able to walk away with little or no punishment. The Holocaust Memorial is an interesting sculpture of rectangular pillars all covering some undulated ground, which has to be seen to understand its dramatic effect. It may not be as sombre as some of the other memorials we have viewed, but it is a great piece of artwork worthy of such an important memorial. Within the memorial’s information centre is an exhibition dedicated specifically to the Jewish people that suffered and in majority lost their lives in this awful period. It is in a way like a mini Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) and does a good job of telling the sad and horrific tale, while providing a memorial to the victims.

One of the classic pieces of art on the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery

The main other topic that you cannot miss in Berlin is the effect that communism had on the city, splitting it in half between East and West and putting in on the frontline of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. There are a few places where you can still see remnants of the Berlin Wall and the one that is the most visually interesting is the East Side Gallery, where there are a number of paintings that cover the entirety of the concrete partition. These had been updated and made a bit nicer since Jared had last been here, which took away from the authenticity a little, but in terms of a memorial and artwork signifying the time it is well worth a look. It is not until you get to the Checkpoint Charlie area, where they have an open air exhibit that you get more of an idea what the wall meant to this great city. With images of American and Russian tanks facing each other down, maps of how West Berlin was in a sense an island in the sea of Communism and stories of those that were shot trying to escape the tyranny of the East, you really do get a feeling why this city still has such a massive hangover from these east v west days, before the wall came down. Locals still talk of the differences between East and West Berliners and the different styles of architecture and even clothing between the two is quite apparent.

New meets old. TV Tower and a Church

A couple of other touristy things we did were going to the history museum and take a river cruise on the Spree. Although quite different as an intellectual stimulation, again both showcased the variety that is Berlin. As you travel down the river, in what was only a one hour boat trip, you see such a wide mixture of buildings, from new glass and steel structures built in recent years, to old Museums and churches that managed to survive the war. At the history museum, like a lot of East Europe, the story revolves around the struggle for and moves towards becoming an independent country, which did not happen to the late 1800s, and the pride and desire to keep it that way that has influenced the leaders to play such a large part in both World Wars.

These days Berlin, and probably Germany as a whole, is a leader in Europe in most regards. Its working conditions, opportunity, entertainment, recreation, diversity, transport networks, public policy and livelihood in general are the envy of many. It is great to see that it has come through the dark times with such energy and vitality and the hope is that it continues to move forward in this way. For us our stay here, and in particular with Victoria was one of relaxation and good times, but in general Berlin is much more complex and interesting a destination to go to for just these simple pleasures.

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A mix of Euro Street Art

This gallery contains 14 photos.

A mix of our holiday snaps from the streets in Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia. Click on an image to open the gallery and enlarge. Please note that some of the images have been tampered with using http://pixlr.com/o-matic/

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Rocking Out in the Czech Republic – Rock For People Gig Review

For the second part of our stay in the Czech Republic we had booked to go to the Rock For People festival, which we had planned before leaving Australia so were extremely looking forward to it. The festival itself was awesome, however, the weather was not. From our first night in Prague and right through the festival there was an extreme combination of sunny periods intermixed with severe thunderstorms. This meant we missed a few of the bands we wanted to see, but when you go to a four day festival these are the risks you take.

The campsite was a bit of a mud bog,so we were pretty happy not to be staying there

On the way to Hradec Kralove, the city near to the festival site, we felt like we were cheating a little, with the throngs of party goers decked out in their camping gears, while we were off to our hotel. However, upon arriving at the train station in a heavy rain shower we were pretty stoked to see our hotel all of 100 metres away while everyone else queued for the bus to the festival site. From our seventh floor hotel window we were able to watch the crowds coming from the station throughout the day, heading off in the rain to set up camp. Yes, at this stage we were super stoked we had a clean dry hotel room.

After heading into town and buying ourselves some gumboots and jackets we headed off to check out the first, introductory day of the festival. Catching the bus was pretty easy, but we did work out that we could go one stop earlier for a couple of minutes walk, which cut down on the queues and ensured a seat. One frustrating thing was the bus stop at the other end was a good 20 minute walk to the festival, although we quickly got used to this.

First beer of many at the festival

The first day was more about orientating ourselves with the site, as there were no big bands on. After getting our wristbands and downing a quick beer we headed in. The queue to get in was all of about 5 minutes, which was all we experienced for the entire time. The beers were 35 -40 Krona, which is less than $2 AUS, and there was a huge selection on offer so were awesome for festival prices, as was the quality, variety and price of food on offer. It did rain a bit on the first night, and we were back home in bed in our hotel room by 11pm, but we had a feeling this was going to be a great festival.

I Killed The Prom Queen, ripping up an early afternoon set

On the first day proper we arrived in time to see some Australians represent on one of the main stages. We hadn’t really heard of these guys before, but I Killed the Prom Queen’s brand of metal/punk was full on energy and proved to be one of the best sets we saw for the entire festival. Next up was The Subways, whose British Indie/Pop/Rock tunes made for a nice afternoon set, without hitting greater heights.

Festival highlight: Two Door Cinema Club

The surprise band for us came next, in the form of Irish lads Two Door Cinema Club. We had heard parts of them before on Australia’s Triple J radio, but live these guys were something else. They played there songs tight, with a great rhythm that had the crowd bouncing along to every song. We even managed to get into our first dance of the day and would recommend to anyone to check them out if you get the chance, as they are just a heap of good fun and great times.

A bit of good fun when Example took to the stage

After such a high the next band of the day was a bit of a letdown, as we had expected much more. Franz Ferdinand have some good hit singles, but live they lacked any charisma or edge to their music to make it interesting, plus they didn’t even play my favourite radio hit, Ulysses. Contrary to Franz Ferdinand, Example was a bit of a surprise. The British MC/producer playing his brand of cheesy radio tunes with a rocking band that delivered on every song. The final track “Changed the Way You Kissed Me” getting me up for a good little boogie.

A great headline set from The Prodigy

Last up on the main stage was the first night’s headliners, the perennial “The Prodigy” who we had first seen in the 90s. Ever the showmen they kept the crowd waiting for a good 30 minutes before they hit the stage, but no one minded as they blasted out every hit from their back catalogue plus a number of tracks from the Invaders album. After the likes of Poison, Firestarter, Smack My Bitch Up and Breathe had finished they continued into the night with their brand of dance music still rocking as we left after an extremely fulfilling day out.

We headed out for the second day expecting another huge day like the previous, but it started with a bit of a fizz. After waiting on the main stage for Refused there was an announcement in Czech that we could not understand, however, upon questioning a nearby festival goer we were informed the drummer had missed his flight and the band had been postponed to later that night. All good we thought so we headed off to watch Flogging Molly, who played a fun set of Irish Rock tunes in an American sort of style.

Everyone loving The Kooks set full of radio hits

The big crowd was oblivious to the approaching thunderstorm

Once The Kooks hit the main stage we were getting into it and thinking, here we go, this is going to be another great day. They played all their hits and the crowd was in an awesome mood dancing and enjoying the sun. Until, a foreboding cloud started to approach. Most were oblivious to this until, the Kooks frontman said “We have been told there is a storm coming; this will be our last song”. Considering they had played a full set, no one thought this was too bad. Until half way through the song some guy came running onto the stage and chased them off. He then said something in Czech that again we could not understand, but everyone started to run. This time the interpretation we were given was a little more worrying: “Run for your lives, there is a big storm coming, someone may die here”.

Once the storm started to hit the main stage cleared out pretty quickly

We headed to the Red Bull tent nearby as the sky darkened and the main stage emptied. Under the tent there were plenty of people but as the rain hit, coming at us on a horizontal angle, the tent didn’t do much to keep us dry. Then it started to take off, lifting one side complete from the ground, so again it was time to run for our lives. This time we managed to hide under a bridge for a while, until again we were moved on by security, which was a common thing in the absolute panic and pandemonium that followed. As the area had a lot of trees, mixed in with all the stages and stalls, the security was quite panicked to try and get everyone to areas that were less likely to have projectiles flying through the air. The problem with this was that they really didn’t have much of a plan and we were moved from one place to the next. Eventually we decided to leave, having to pass under trees on our way out during a severe thunder and lightning show. Not too much fun. When we got to the bus area there was more chaos, so we quickly jumped in a taxi with a couple of others and were out of there. Sadly Faith No More and Orbital had to be cancelled and Skrillex was moved to another stage without any notice, so all this left people pretty upset as these were some big names they came to see. But at least no one died or got severely hurt. Although the organisational side of things was definitely lacking

More thunderstorms on the last night

This craziness proved to be the end of our festival, as they predicted thunderstorms the next day so we weren’t too keen for a repeat. And sure enough this proved to be a wise move. As we were holed up in our hotel for the night again the storms came when it was time for the main bands to play. Again there were evacuations and again more bands got cancelled. As there was not the big names scheduled for this night it was not so bad, but for us the one band we did want to see, Irie Revoltes, got cancelled, so we didn’t miss much.

It was a great festival and if we had the chance we would go again. The atmosphere was awesome, beer and food was cheap and tasty, and the venue (although on the small side) was great for such an event. It is a pity the thunderstorms ended up leaving us a little disappointed we missed Faith No More, but these are the risks you take with a festival and we still had a fun time and easily got our money’s worth.

For a few additional photos check out Jared’s facebook album: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151156781268319.500777.701578318&type=1

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Checking out the Czech Republic

Checking out the famous Charles Bridge in Prague

For us the Czech Republic was split between two different parts, so we will include it in two different blog posts. Firstly we had the tourist part, where we met the lovely Hana and her family and also checked out Prague. In the second part we went to a rock festival, but that will come later. The tourist part was so much fun it deserves a post of its own, as both the time we spent with Hana, plus our exploring of the magnificent city of Prague, were some of the highlights of our journey so far.

Hanging out with Hana, her son and some friends before the village party

The trip from Vienna to Prague was another short one so could be done in a day, as was only about 5 hours. This was a good thing, as we didn’t want to be tired, as we had a village party to go to. We were met at the Prague train station by Hana, and her impeccable and delightful hospitality started from there. For someone we had never before met and had only been introduced to through a mutual friend via Facebook, we cannot put into words how great it was to hang out with Hana. Her father met us from the train station to drive us to their hometown, where we stayed at her sister’s apartment for a couple of days.

Fun times at the village party

The evening started off with a feed of Czech style sausages cooked on the grill at Hana’s parents place. The highlights here were numerous, with a heap of Czech beers, meeting Hana’s awesome son Kristov (excuse the spelling Hana), talking to Hana’s dad about the communist days and generally just hanging out with one super hospitable and friendly Czech family. Once Hana’s friends arrived it was time to head off to the village party, an annual summer event where all the locals from the village of a couple of thousand get together to listen to some music and drink some alcohol. The first we heard of the music was from Hana’s parent’s place, with screeching guitars and loud drum beats signifying this was going to more of a metal gig than the Czech folk music we had envisioned. The evening continued in the same vein with three bands playing their own brand of Czech metal, that as the night got longer and more beers were drunken got better and better. We even managed to make it into the local nightclub for a bit of a dance, which was a bit back to the 90s, but was plenty of fun with Hana and all her friends. Due to this large night the rest of our stay in the village was a bit of a right off, though we did have a good dinner of traditional Goulash at one of the local restaurant/pubs.

The Charles Bridge

From the village we headed into Prague where Hana played tourist guide for our first day and showed us some of the great historical sights. In particular were the grand castle and parliament buildings on top of the hill, which provided some great views over the historical town. We also made a crossing of Charles Bridge, which is a hectic tourist filled icon that links each side of the traditional tourist sights and is a fun place to visit. After we had said our goodbyes to Hana, as it was the night of the Euro football finals we decided we had to watch them. In the old town square they had a large screen and seating set up, but by the time we got there the place was extremely packed. We ended up finding a locals bar, which took a while as most were super full, but we had an enjoyable night supporting the Spaniards. We were pretty glad not to be in the open air square as a massive thunderstorm hit, although we still got a little wet heading home in the tail end of this. It was these thunderstorms that would prove to be an absolute pain in our ass for the rock festival, but more of that in the next post.

The Astronomical Clock is a highlight of Prague

To ensure we had seen all the sights of Prague we headed off on a free walking tour the next day. This worked out well, as it included all the sights on the opposite side of the river to what we had seen with Hana. In the main square there are some awesome churches and the best clock we have seen, an astronomical clock from the 1500s that shows year, star signs, moons and so much more than just the time. Our guide was awesome and gave us a great overview of the history of the city, which, like most of these Eastern European places, culminated in their revolution to move away from communism in the late 80s. To get an even greater dose of this period of Czech history we also checked out the Communism Museum. Each country in this area shares a similar theme in terms of how oppressed the people became under this regime, with the high hopes they had to start with, but each story is unique in the way the people reacted and eventually managed to unite to gain freedom. Everywhere we have seen this it makes us think about the communist states of today, and at this museum they also had a piece on North Korea, which for us is one of the saddest situations in the world at present.

One seriously large piece of meat – Pork Knuckle

That night we had maybe the biggest meat meal we have encountered on our trip so far. We had a piece of pork knuckle braised in dark beer that was over 1kg and left us both absolutely stuffed, but heck it was awesome. Overall the food in Czech was pretty good, again. Prague being a cosmopolitan city, like Vienna, it meant it had to be good to compete. Goulash is always interesting, with what we found in Hungary of it being anything from soup to thick stew still being the case.

This part of our Czech trip was far too short, and we wish we could have spent more time hanging out with Hana and likewise, checking out Prague. The people are friendly, the prices are good, and there is plenty to see and do. But we had a rock festival to get too.

 

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Austria, Slovakia, Vienna and Bratislava – all in 3 days

So many cool buildings in Vienna. Mainly old ones, but some new ones too

Our stay in Austria was a brief one, mainly due to how damned expensive the place is, but also as we were wanting to get to the Czech Republic quickly, as we had a music festival to go to. For this reason we only spent three days in Vienna and didn’t get a chance to check out the rest of the countryside. In saying this though, we were pleased we visited, as Vienna is one Grand city, plus we were able to do a day trip into Slovakia as well, which gave us a chance to check out yet another country.

Out and about near the Bermuda Triangle

We were able to get to Vienna from Hungary on a day train, so were nowhere near as wiped out as we had been on our previous couple of journeys on the overnight trips. For this reason we were ready to go out and check out the bar scene, in an area called the Bermudadreieck (Bermuda Triangle), because supposedly once you have had a drink at every bar here you struggle to find your way out. We didn’t find the area nearly as busy or full on as the fish market area in Istanbul, but for a Tuesday night it was still plenty of fun. On the way home we stopped off at a bar near our hostel and ended up having a few drinks with a couple of local lads who worked nearby. Their English was pretty good and we had some interesting conversations. Of particular note was the fact when we said we lived in Australia, they confused it with Austria (which is a problem we have heard Austrians often have when travelling) and also that we were not seeing the “real” Austria by just being in Vienna, which was something we kinda knew anyway.

Statues, fountains and sculptures are everywhere in Vienna

The following day was our big tourist time, as this was our only day to check out the city. We did a couple of walks that were suggested by the Lonely Planet, which pretty much took in the majority of tourist sights in the city centre. And there are a lot of them. Vienna is by far the grandest city we have been to so far, with massive and intricate statues everywhere and some of the most ornate buildings we have ever seen. There are so many churches, museums, and general historic buildings that it became a bit overwhelming by the end of it. We thought Budapest was a grand city, but it is cute by comparison to Vienna.

Part of the Danube with a Wakeboard circuit

We also wanted to take in the Danube while we were here so we jumped on the Metro (which is a great public transport system) and headed to the nearest stop that was on the river. Here we were able to walk across to where there is an area of the Danube that splits in two creating a large island, Donauinsel, which pretty much stretches the length of Vienna. It is only a skinny island, with the river on either side, but goes for miles and has plenty of tracks that the locals utilise for all manners of exercise and recreation. We even saw a snake here that was about 5 foot long, so we have now seen more snakes on our travels in Europe than we did the entire time we lived in Australia. Also there is a part of the river that must have locks/dams at each end as it is much cleaner and does not flow as quickly as the other side, which makes it ideal for swimming. This is something you would not consider doing on other parts of the Danube we have seen. They have even created a wakeboard circuit here where you can get pulled around on a wire course, which would be well cool for the locals who have no access to any nearby sea.

Old town area of Bratislava is mighty quaint

The following day we were back to the Danube to do a cruise to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. It is only about 60km on the river from Vienna, but takes about 1.5 hours, as you have to wait about half an hour to go through the lock system where the river level changes by about 4 metres. Bratislava is a city that does not compare with Vienna in regards to grandness, but it does have a pretty nice old town area that was well worth checking out. There was a great little Jewish Museum that showed a good range of the people and the religion, as well as the sad state of affairs during WW2. Another huge plus was the prices here were far cheaper than the expensive Austria, with our lunch for two including a couple of beers costing about 8euro, where the equivalent in Vienna would be about 20euro (at least).

One massive plate of Schnitzel – the photo doesn’t do justice to the enormous size of this thing

Food in Austria was pretty good though, as we have noticed the more cosmopolitan the city is the better the food. The competition must make even the locals lift their game, with so many different culinary options to choose from you have to be good to compete, even when making the local fare. Here we had a great felafel pita, to rival those in Israel, plus some great salad and ham rolls, sausages and other fried delights. But the standout meal was the schnitzel. On the first night we tried Cordon Bleu style, which was good but not spectacular, but on the second night we went to the recommended Schnitzelwirt. This place is famous for its crumbed pork delights and it was easy to see why. Jared just ordered the standard Wiener schnitzel, while Tess went for the Don Carlos option. Jared’s came out first and it was two pieces of schnitzel each the size of a dinner plate. Tess’s was next and it had three large pieces of schnitzel on a serving of rice with a ham, capsicum and tomato mix on top. We ended up just eating Jared’s meal and took the rest home in a doggy bag. The schnitzel was some great crumbed pork goodness and you can see why this city lends its name to the dish (Wien=Vienna).

Although we were a little disappointed time and money didn’t allow us to go out and explore more of Austria, we were definitely glad for the few days we got here, as originally we were going it miss it due to price. The grandiosity of the buildings in Vienna alone is well worth a look and the feeling in the place is one of a relaxed nonchalance that is befitting of such a great city that easily holds its place as one of the best in Europe

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