02.11.2007 - 11.11.2007
Travels in Fiji, Austrailia and New Zealand
The Golden City
18.07.2007 - 21.07.2007 -17 °C
Prague, or Praha in Czech, is the capitol and largest city in the Czech republic. The city is chock full of beautiful churches, buildings, gardens and bridges crossing the Vltava river. We arrived in the morning and after a slightly confusing experience with the information desk, had a hotel reservation and a bus ticket into the city center.
A marvelous thing about Prague is the exchange rate. At just under 20:1 it was a glorious experience trading in our Euros and USD. Needless to say, I felt very rich holding my one and two thousand count bills.
Another experience in Prague are the ridiculously fast escalators to and from the underground metro lines. The metro lines in Prague are very far underground and to compensate for the distance, the escalators run nearly twice as fast as they do in the states, which translates in a lot of concentration being required to get on and off (for those of you who doubt my concentration abilities, I did NOT fall off\trip). Our hotel, or pension (one step down from a hotel) was fabulous! We had a kitchen in the room along with a balcony and a chest with china (as though we need such fancy things, but it was a nice gesture) and all for only $17.50 ea a night! Our first day we spent mostly sleeping and recovering from Italy and didn't start out to tour until later in the evening.
How peaceful am I? And no, I am not sucking my thumb here, but as you can see I am fast asleep. I was really tired.
Along with catching up on much needed sleep, our private hotel room in Prague translated into a make-shift laundry mat, which worked out great until in started to rain.
After our naps and an unsuccessful attempt to phone Val, my old roommate and person we were supposed to stay with the following evening, we headed out to explore Prague. Unlike Italy, with very conformed buildings, Prague has a plethora of architectural styles. Gothic, modern, classical and even Mexican style pueblos can be seen all on the same street. This modern art statue for example is directly in front of the huge and old opera and symphony houses.
I found it amusing anyway.
Prague concert hall, doesn't the pig diver fit great in front of this building?
While walking the streets of Prague I found my first Chinese food restaurant of Europe. To say the least I was excited, and was dreaming of all the cheap tofu and rice I was going to consume while in Prague.
One sad thing about Prague are the random buildings built in front of the fabulous churches. It doesn't seem like much planning went into this city and as with this church, half of the church is obscured due to this modern restaurant being built right in front in the Old Towne Square.
Old Towne Square
After exploring Old Towne Square for a while, we decided to cross a random bridge on the Vltava river and walk back across the Charles Bridge at dusk.
View of the Charles Bridge
View of Vltava river and Prague at night.
Along with architecture and great exchange rate, Prague had another
fabulous thing to offer: an open elevator. Rameneal? Maybe, but for the 6 year old trapped inside it translated into free entertainment.
Nicole and I definitely enjoyed ourselves to say the least.
The next morning we set out to see New Towne Square. First up, the dancing building. Apparently a newer modern style is beginning to take place in Prague, I just think the building is weird. But that's just me.
Next, per a guide map tip, we set out to find the apparent botanical gardens. After a few detours from some less than helpful directions, we found the gardens.
Entering into the 'secret' gardens.
While the gardens turned out to be less than ethralling, we were able to get a few good shots.
Not so botanical...
Upon exploring the gardens, we actually got lost and wandered onto some random persons property (which ironically turned out to be more botanical than the actual gardens).
But sitting on their bench we had a nice view of the castle, so all was not lost.
Final one of the gardens.
After exploring the gardens, and finding a random Czech boy that let me use his phone, I was able to get in contact with Dan, Val's husband and set up a time to meet them. After a rather uneventful tram ride we arrived to Val's apartment where we were greeted by Val and her 1.5 year old son Vinson. Val looked great (I don't think either of us have really changed since college, even though she has had a baby) and Vinson is absolutely adorable. A towhead with the brightest blue eyes, I enjoyed just catching up with Val and playing with Vinson for a few hours.
Vinson. Seriously, Val needs to make him a cute Czech outfit and charge tourists to take pictures of him in Old Towne Square, she would make a killing by exploiting his cuteness... wait is that bad?
Once Dan got home from work we all went out to dinner in the city where we got traditional Czech food including goulash, potato and bread dumplings and onion soup.
After dinner, Val and Dan left to put Vinson to bed while we headed up to Prague Castle to view the castle while it was free in the evening. Prague Castle is the largest castle in the world and is quite impressive.
Haha, at least we think we are funny...
Keeping with tradition, there were many steps ascending to the castle.
Inside the castle walls we walked through the golden lane, a small road with tiny, abandoned houses. We went at night to avoid paying tourist fees, so maybe during the day their are shops with over priced souveneirs? I will never know.
Sunset over Prague Castle
Prague castle cathedral
The next morning we got off to an early start beginning with a walk around the gardens surrounding the summer palace. I found it amusing that you can see the regular palace from the summer palace, traditionally I thought the two palaces would be at least out of eye sight of each other, but that is just me. The gardens however, were beautiful and well manicured, boasting great views of Prague Castle.
Next we headed to Prague Castle and in particular St. Vitus Cathedral. This is the cathedral within the castle walls and was originally created when Wenceslaus acquired a holy relic — the arm of St. Vitus. Inside the cathedral is very ornate, and Gothic.
The reason for the Cathedral, St. Vitus.
Because I apparently LOVE climbing the steps of old buildings, we next took turns with Vinson and climbed the 287 steps to the top of the Cathedral.
At least this urban trek was free.
View of Prague from the tower.
Next up, another church (by this time I was less than impressed with all the churches). St. Nicholas' Cathedral was a welcome change being much brighter, and less doomsday.
After St. Nicholas' Cathedral we went to Peacock garden to have a picnic. Peacock garden is cool, not only because of the obvious Peacock's everywhere, but the garden is surrounded by a wall designed to look like an old cave, with intentionally hidden animals and faces to find.
Can you find the lion?
Following our lunch, Val went to put Vinson down for a nap while the rest of us went to the Jewish quarter. Previously the Jewish Ghetto, thousands of Jews were killed here in the 1300s and most of the ghetto was destroyed early inthe 19th century.
Luckily a few synagogues, the old cemetery and the Jewish Town hall were not destroyed and because the Nazi's had intended the location to be a Jewish museum after they had annihilated the race, many of the artefact's housed in Prague were placed there by Nazi's during WWII.
The Jewish cemetery is quite large, with many headstones, old and faded from time, pointing every which way.
It is very solemn.
After the Jewish memorial, I went back to visit with Val while Nicole and Brenda went to the opera and Brooke saw a neon light show (which apparently was not that great by the way).
All in all Prague was marvelous and I would definitely go back. One thing I missed was the bone church outside of Prague, definitely a place I will visit if I make it back this way some day.
The remainder of our travels in Italy
15.07.2007 - 17.07.2007 -17 °C
It's not every day that you get to visit a sinking city, but that is exactly what a visit to Venice entails. A short ride up the canals on the barges makes this evident as many of the houses right on the canal are right level with the water level, and high tide would raise the water even more. Apparently, during times of high tide, you can take gondola rides through St. Mark's square, my only question is where would all the pigeons go then?
Our experience in Venice was filled of meandering through the streets, perusing the little shops and just enjoying the atmosphere. After our first day we enjoyed it so much we decided to spend another night at Johnny's and explore the islands surrounding Venice.
Murono, about a 45 min boat ride from Venice, is where the famous glass blowing of Venice occurs. Here you can watch experienced Venetian glass blowers (they saw hammerhead sharks and horses being made). Murono was very quaint and had much less of the hustle and bustle than Venice. If I were to come again, I would definitely get a hotel here as it cheaper and so typical of what you think of Venice, without all the tourists.
The second island visited was Burono (Seriously, they've got a rhyme scheme going). A bit further out, Burono is famous for making the lace often associated with Venice. Watching the lace making was also amazing, but the best part of Burono was definitely the variety of colors on the houses.
It seriously looks like a Crayola add.
Laundry time in Burano.
After a long day or sight seeing, we enjoyed another Italian dinner, full of all the staples, pasta, pizza and over priced water.
After Venice, we headed out on the train to Milan. In Milan we were able to stay with a couch surfer. Nini lived at home with her family (Mom, Dad, Sis, and Grandma) and they were fabulous. Grandma would always try to help us and would explain everything to us in Italian, even though she knew we could not speak any Italian, it was really quite funny. In Milan we started out at Sforzesco Castle.
The castle used to house the ruling family of Milan in the 15th and 16th centuries but now serves as a home for various museums and art galleries.
Clock tower of Milan, just outside the castle.
After the castle we went to see the Milan Cathedral. The Milan Cathedral is the largest Cathedral in Italy and the second largest gothic cathedral in the world. With 100s of spires, it is an amazing view to say the least. Instead of paying to climb the stairs we opted to enjoy lunch outside the Cathedral.
After lunch, I took a short nap outside the opera house (as I chose not to pay for the tour and instead slept a bit while waiting for everyone else just outside), we went to visit the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This is the church that houses Leonardo da Vinci's famous Last Supper. The original church was built in the 14th century, however during world war II it was bombed and nearly all of the church walls were destroyed. Luckily for all, the wall containing the Last Supper was relatively unharmed during the bombings as it had been sandbagged for protection and has been quite well preserved. The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by the apostles when Jesus said one of them would betray him. Because the painting is very old and has been damaged over time, much time and money has been spent in attempts to restore it. Because of this, to view the painting you have to book tickets months in advance. Since we are no where near that on top of things, we did not have tickets to actually see the painting, but we went to see the building\church anyway. We checked breifly on tickets, but as they were booked until the end of August we had little hope- that is until a guy came up asking if we wanted to buy tickets for the 5:15 showing (one hour later). Being slightly skeptical, we had to go in and check the price and validity of the tickets with the office staff but finding them to be legit, we purchased the tickets and were able to see the mural.
The amount of security surrounding the painting is surreal. Each 15 minutes, 25 people are allowed to go in and view the painting. Before entering the hall, you pass through two different climate controlled rooms that measure for various things that could harm the painting. Of course no cameras are allowed in the room, but once through security you are able to view the painting for 15 minutes. The painting in itself is brilliant. The depth and perspective is fabulous and each of the apostles have distinct expressions on how they reacted to Jesus saying that one of them would betray him. While much speculation surrounds the painting and exactly who each of the apostles are, viewing the painting was brilliant, even if for only 15 minutes. Once you leave the room, you are also placed in a temporary holding room, to stop any outside air from entering into the hall (these guys are serious about this painting, which is a good thing as it is rad).
An interesting point I found was that even though viewing the painting is booked out through August (with 25 people viewing every 15 minutes all day every day at €8 a piece), the restoration of the painting was so expensive that private funding was used to pay for the process.
On a side note, I have gone to the bathroom in the Mona Lisa. Seriously, this is the highest class Port-a-Potty I have ever seen, and I could not leave Italy without making my 'mark'.
Following viewing the Last Supper, we went to explore the gardens behind the Castle. The garden is huge and except for the obscene amounts of mosquitoes are very beautiful. We found a cute amphitheater with chairs cemented in, along with a huge Soccer\Football field, Donovan Frankenreiter was actually preforming the night we were there, but sad for him, I don't think anyone was there as it was very quiet, it kind of sounded like he was singing to himself.
After the depressing concert (we didn't go either, as the last train left in about an hour and the tickets were expensive) we hit up the grocery, where we got food for dinner and an entire bucket of gelato which we devoured in a matter of minutes on the train ride.
Arriving home marked our end to Italy, all in all we had a fabulous time and saw many amazing sights and buildings. We payed to climb three different sets of stairs and ate about a kilo each of gelato. We ate lots of pasta and pizza and met some fabulous people. We learned a bit of Italian, including my personal favorite, 'excuzi' (excuse me), said by the little old women when they are bustling about. We only got one pay phone to work in the entire country (we tried to get many working, which resulted only in our getting frustrated and losing all our change every time). I definitely recommend a visit here, even though it is a bit expensive and I look forward to returning and exploring the southern half of the country as well. Ciao.
For all the Italy photos, CLICK HERE.
14.07.2007 - 14.07.2007 -17 °C
Three major Italian tourist cities in one day is not a task for the slight of heart. We started out in Pisa in the morning, and caught a train to Florence. In Florence, Nicole and Brenda spent the day exploring the Uffizi Museum, while Brooke and I instead opted to, again, pay to climb the steps of the Duomo and shop around the food markets of Florence. As they say, pictures are worth a thousand words, so here are some shots to give a glimpse of Florence.
The real David is actually located in a museum in Florence, but due to time constraints, we opted to pose near the David replica, which in my uneducated opinion of art is just as good, better actually, because it is free.
The Duomo is a very famous cathedral in Florence (it is the Cathedral Lucy\Sandra Bullock wanted to visit in While You Were Sleeping) and is huge. The dome is covered in a huge painting depicting the last judgment, and was very gruesome. The dome itself is huge and was built without a wooden sub-structure and is the largest masonry dome in the world.
We definitely had fun posing in the stairway... Cosmo here we come.
After ascending the Duomo, Brooke and I head out to find a grocery store. On a side note, the best people to ask directions in a foreign country turns out to be money changers. First, they speak very good English, and second, they have very little bias in telling us where the best restaurants, shopping areas or supermarkets are. After a bit of a goose hunt, we were able to find the Florence food markets. This was a huge building filled with individual food vendors, selling a myriad of foods. The first level was mainly meats. In Italy you can buy many varieties of meats, some more gruesome than others.
My personal favorite was the entire rooster with feathers, sick, and the pig leg, with hoof still attached.
On the upper level of the market was every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. Brooke and I shopped around getting the best deals and purchasing a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Our final purchase was that of a huge watermelon half. A little Italian woman tried unsuccessfully to sell us a 7 kg watermelon (granted she was going to give us a deal, but seriously, how we would eat it is beyond me) and we eventually conceded to buy a piece nearly as large that was slightly more manageable.
This was my favorite dried fruit stand. So tasty.
After a slight mix-up with train stations and tickets, we got our tickets to Venice and enjoyed a marvelous feast of fruits and vegetables in the train station. Once we had finished our lunch, we left for Venice, because Brooke and I were less interested in the various museums and cultural pleasantries Florence had to offer, we opted to leave early for Venice and get accommodation's figured out before Nicole and Brenda arrived later in the evening. As luck would have it, July 14th was the Feast and Regatta of the Redeemer, which translated into English meant a huge party, chock full of fireworks, tons of tourists and sky high accommodation's. For over an hour Brooke and I unsuccessfully gained information on local hotels, none of which were below €40 each. Eventually we opted to stay just outside of the city in a gem of a one star hotel dubbed 'Johnny's' (personally I think the one star was a bit generous, but hey, it's just me).
Johnny's, the fab villa above a gas station. A bit dodgy, but cheap at only €20 each.
Even with the sky high prices however, Venice is amazing. Picturesque houses line the canals, and it is remarkably quiet, even with the hoards of people for the festival, because there are no cars.
After dropping our bags at Johnny's we headed back into Venice to see the festival fireworks and experience the masses of people. Even with all the people, Venice is fabulous. Built on a number of small islands, transportation is done either by foot or boat in the various canals connecting the city.
Here we are on our first boat/bus ride in Venice. See how I have embraced European fashion trends?
It was wild as there are no cars and instead of buses, they have barges and smaller 'taxi' boats. Because we arrived late in the evening, we enjoyed our boat ride to St. Mark's square, followed by a gondola ride throughout the canals of Venice.
Side note, when bargaining for a gondola ride take note- if your gondolier is angry about the price he will not give you as long a ride, and will be quite grumpy... I may be speaking from experience.
After our gondola ride, we booked it to St. Mark's square to see the fireworks. They were marvelous, and as I love fireworks more than most, enjoyed every bit of the 45 minute display which was choreographed to various music. Particularly interesting were the types of fireworks used. Many I had never seen before, and they were absolutely wonderful. America should get on the band wagon of some of these fireworks as they are great.
After the fireworks were finished, we made our way back to the bus station to catch our bus back to Johnny's. Generally, buses stop running in Venice around midnight, but due to the festival (the fireworks didn't even start until 11:30 pm) a few buses were on extended schedules. In our defense, we had received various opinions on whether the bus we needed to take would run late. After sitting at the stop for nearly 20 minutes, our bus did finally show up, but it read 'limitado' under the number. Dismissing this we got on the bus and started off towards our hotel. After the bus had driven about half way to Johnny's, the bus stopped, and the driver, in Italian was telling us 'finito', 'get off'... apparently 'limitado' meant the bus was only going half way. With few options, we began the trek back to Johnny's. Joined by a Kiwi, we made the rather dangerous walk back to Johnny's (dangerous in that roads in Italy have no shoulder, and as I posted earlier in my Rome experiences, Italian drivers drive wicked fast, at one point, I think my arm would have been ripped off had I stretched it out even a bit).