Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Krakow, Poland

About a month ago. we headed back to Poland once again with our Polish connection Lukasz, this time visiting Krakow and the surrounding area. After another death defying drive courtesy of Luksaz, we made it. On our first night there we headed out to the Old Town Square which happens to be the biggest in Europe. It put Prague's Old Town square to shame because it was about 5 times the size.

On Saturday morning Alex and I headed off to sight see and our first stop was Wavel Hill where the castle is. There is a lot to see up there but we only did a tour through the Cathedral where we visited a famous bell that is very old and only rung on very special occasions as well as the royal tombs including King Kazimierz's (I love saying that name). I really liked the area around the castle, there is a lot of flowers and greenery and definitely felt more relaxed than Prague Castle.
We made our way back into the Old Town to meet Lukasz and Magda and enjoy a proper Polish lunch. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the Square. On a whim we walked into St. Mary's church and it turned out to be probably the most beautiful Catholic church I've ever been to....well minus St. Peters.

St. Mary's Church

The night scene in Krakow is pretty good based on what I saw. It's a big University town so that helps but then they also cater to tourists a lot, especially the Brits. I'm not gonna mention what time I saw some drunken people walking around. We wanted to see something more unconventional so after a couple drinks in the square we headed to the Jewish district where there are lots of smaller pubs and bars around. There was definitely a different crowd there and we had a good time just having a few drinks and chatting.

Krakow used to be home to many Jews and has an interesting Jewish district. Again I found myself comparing it to the Jewish District in Prague but they are nothing alike apart from the fact that both have synagogues. The one in Krakow is a lot less polished and some parts literally look like the ghetto. You can almost imagine what life would have looked like on those streets when the tanks rolled in.

Walking around the Jewish Ghetto

Since we had the time, we headed to Wieliczka salt mine (another UNESCO site) situated just outside of Krakow. This place has been around for about 900 years, hard to believe really, has about 200 km of passages, and the worlds biggest museum of mining, underground of course. After a 64 meter climb down winding stairs we got to the oldest part of the salt mine. Literally everything around us was made of salt, we even tested the walls by licking them; I'm ashamed to admit. The most impressive part is the Chapel of Saint Kinga, adorned with beautiful chandeliers, statues and very high ceilings.

On our final day in Poland, we made a trip to Auschwitz. I knew that it would be difficult to see first hand all of the remains of what was once a horrible place of destruction, but I also felt that it was important to go. Needless to say, I felt somber as soon as I walked through that barbed wire fence into Auschwitz 1. I'm not gonna go through the details of everything I saw, but it certainly opened my eyes to a lot that I was completely unaware of before. After seeing Auschwitz 1 which is the sort of administrative center of the whole operation and has the brick buildings, we then headed to Auschwitz 2 or Birkenau. This is the camp that appears in all of the movies about Auschwitz and has the big watch tower with the railway down the center and hundreds of wooden housing. Most of the exterminations happened at Birkenau and you get a real sense of what conditions must have been like as they've tried to keep it in its original form. I learned a lot that day and it was a very humbling experience that I will remember for a while to come.

What all Polish People look like :)

The famous bell inside cathedral on Wavel Hill; I'm very proud of myself for not having a panic attack in all that. Alex and I by the river.

Puff the Magic Dragon.... Just kiddin; Dragon at the bottom of the Castle at Wavel Hill. You can send him a text message and he writes back right before he blows fire. Genius Marketing!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It's been a Year

Today marks one year since I left Canada to come and work abroad. To say the least, it has been the most amazing/challenging/inspiring year of my life and has significantly shaped the person I am today. Had you asked me a year ago, where I would be today I would have probably thought back in Calgary. Having said that, one of the most important lessons I've learned is that life is difficult to plan, despite where you are and how sure of things you might be. So much happens that is out of your control, circumstances change, and as a result you as a person change too.

Being away from everyone and everything that you're comfortable with, really makes you hit a lot of highs and lows but with time you learn to adjust. I went through a phase where I had never felt lonelier in my life, and where I was resentful toward the people and the culture around me, and where it seemed so difficult to get anything done. But then I hit a phase where I developed strong friendships with the people around me, and felt empowered by all of the opportunities in front of me and even loved not being able to understand what was going on around me (still do...keeps me out of a lot of drama I presume). Because of all of this, I know that I have changed and that I have a different outlook on life than I did a year ago.

To sum it up, in the last year I've:
-Lived on my own for the first time 2 different countries
-Rented my first apartment
-Had 6 roommates from 4 different countries
-Worked in 2 different countries
-Had my first business trip
-Travelled to 11 countries and more cities than I can count
-Stepped onto Asia for the first time
-Learned "basic" Czech and Slovak (very basic unfortunately)
-Tasted many varieties of food and drink
-Drank my first full Pivo...and several after that
-Made friends from around the world

I suppose the list could go on and on because I seem to constantly encounter new things and that's what makes this whole experience so captivating.

Thanks to my family and friends for supporting me even though we're an ocean apart.


PS: I forgot to mention that I've notably contributed to the tourism industry in Prague :)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cesky Raj

I’m trying to catch up on writing about all of the trips from this summer before I forget everything. I guess a big part of why I do this is for my own selfish reasons so that some years down the road I can look back at this blog and not have to struggle to remember. Of course for now it’s all about the people back home and others I’ve met along the journey!

I did a trip to Cesky Raj or Czech Paradise, a region in the north, back in the beginning of August with a huge group of friends from Prague. We were all looking for an excuse to leave the city and for a weekend pretend like we’re nature folk (you all know what I mean… I don’t deny that I’m a city girl). So about 20 of us met at the train station and headed off to Semily, a little town in northern Czech Republic. It took 3 hours and 3 different trains to get there but I was impressed we managed considering our big group. Somehow the wine bottles were open before I even sat down on the first train.

The hotel we stayed at was a completely communist looking building that reminded me a little bit of the dorms in Slovakia, but it was dirt cheap and fairly clean. The people at the hotel were nice enough to find us a restaurant that can seat 20 people at 10 o’clock at night, 20 non-Czech speakers at that. I realized how inflated the prices are in Prague compared to the rest of the country. We had beer at several places for 18czk a pint (that’s less than a dollar Canadian), the average in Prague is 30 at least and I’ve seen places in the Old Town Square that charge 90 even. Such a crime really.

Our first day there we went on a hike to Mala Scala which is this region with rock formations that literally rise out of the ground like trees. Getting going was tough for all of us. Everyone was huffing and puffing and removing items of clothing after less than half an hour of hiking. Once we got our heart rate going though, we were ok. All the trails are really well marked and there were a few great lookout points. But keeping all of us together was a bit of a challenge and we kept having to stop and wait for others to catch up. Patience is not my greatest virtue I’m afraid. The area was different than anywhere I’ve ever been before because there were these huge boulders in the middle of the forest and they would come out of nowhere.

After lunch, we headed off for another hike to get to this little church on the mountain but unfortunately we got lost in the forest and didn’t make it. I started thinking something was off when we had to climb over fallen trees and other debris. Not a huge loss though. Instead we went for a couple more drinks as everyone was so excited about the prices!

That night the plan was to go out and party, but being that it was a small city, the club is only open on Friday nights. Should have figured. Some people went back to the center while I stayed back at the hotel with several of the boys to play Texas hold em poker. It was my first time actually playing through the whole game and to add to that I WON!! Everybody in the rooms below mine knew it too because they heard me jumping around doing my happy dance at 3 in the morning!

Half of us left for Prague Sunday afternoon while the rest of them stayed back and did some more hiking. I was so exhausted when I came home and that when I realized that I had the flat all to myself I decided to take a nap which actually turned into a 3 hour break from reality. It was a great end to a an exceptionally great weekend!

Konopiste Castle

I received several recommendations from Czech people to go and visit Konopiste Castle that when the possibility for a day trip came up, it was a good choice. Matt and Tori were in town for several days so we headed out to see the castle and hoped to fit in a brewery tour as well. Unfortunately this particular brewery only caters to early risers because the tours end by 12pm on a weekend. Who drinks beer before noon anyway?? Never mind that question is answered every time I walk by a pub on my way to work.

Konopiste is located about an hour away from Prague in Benesov. The castle is famous because it was the residence of Franz Ferdinand (no not the band). I read up on it a bit before going there and learned that Franz was quite the avid hunter and by avid I mean the man shot anything with a heartbeat and 4 legs, not to mention all of the birds. The castle is situated in a really nice forest complete with a pond and lots of walking trails around.

We were all eager to do the tour so we could see a small portion of the 300,000 plus animals he killed neatly hung around the castle for decoration. Unfortunately there was not a single tour being given in English, so we joined a Czech one because that is the only way to get into the castle. I was quite surprised (and a bit ticked off) by that considering that it’s a weekend and there are tones of English speaking tourists in Prague which is in pretty close proximity. So the language part took a bit away from the tour because she would stop in certain rooms and the tour guide would talk about this and that. The interesting part was all of the antlers hung on the wall in the main hallway, and the huge armory collection in several rooms. I’ve never seen so many guns in one space in my life. Beside each set of antlers or other stuffed creature was an inscription of when and where the animal was killed. This is how he kept the long log going as well.

Overall it was definitely worth the trip. I’d like to go back and walk around some of the trails because the landscape around there is beautiful.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Next stop in Italy was Milan, aka the fashion capital of the world. We had a lot of reasons for wanting to go here: shopping, shopping and shopping! Also some valid ones like that it was close enough to Rome to go by train, and more importantly that my friend Christina who I met only once in Brno, now lived in Milan. Even though we only met face to face once, we kept in touch through emails and chat and promised to meet again and really get a chance to hang out!

The first thing I noticed when I got off of the train in Milan was the pollution. It was really hot (I think I might have mentioned that once or twice in my previous posts) and it felt like this thick air just hits you. Christina was nice enough to meet us at the train station and take us to her apartment. I was really surprised by how old the trams are in Milan, even Prague has nicer ones. After a couple of hours of chit chat, and my sister realizing how Christina and I became friends, we headed out for dinner. I’m not gonna mention what we ate because its embarrassing to admit but I’m sure you can guess.

Here’s the next thing I noticed in Milan; MOSQUITOES. Hundreds, thousands of those sneaky little buggers ate me alive while I was there. I seriously had whole colonies of bites forming on my back. Everyone in Milan carries bug spray in their purse because it was so bad this year. Apparently one of the canals dried out and the heat only added fuel to the fire. Somehow though, bug spray was no match for them.

We ended up going for drinks in this district along the canal. There was tones of restaurants lined up next to one another and packed to the brim with people. I really liked the relaxed atmosphere of just sitting around having some drinks and people watching!
The next day Anela and I had our first proper sleep in for our whole vacation although I’m not sure that it counts because I woke up about a million times during the night because of the heat. Our only goal for the day was to go shopping, I didn’t even look at what there is to see in Milan other than the Duomo which is the big Gothic Cathedral. Pretty impressive I might add. We didn’t get to go in because we forgot to wear shirts that cover our shoulders. If I had it my way that day, I would walk around with nothing on. The other touristy thing we came across was in the mall in the main square. There is a bull on the tiles along the floor and you are supposed to spin 3 times on your heel on the bulls balls! Now all that is left is a big hole from all the spinning.

The last thing I noticed about Milan was how expensive it is! I think we had a cappuccino and a croissant for breakfast each and it came to about 15 euros. Certain parts of the city scream expensive too; the cars, the clothes, the fancy restaurants, its definitely a lifestyle for those who can afford it.

We didn’t have as much luck with shopping as we thought we would. Yes there are the big Gucci, Prada and Versace stores but those are a little out of my price range these days. Anela looked at a tiny card holder from Prada which was 125 euros. Ridiculous! We managed to find a couple good buys before heading home. Later on we realized that we had missed one street that looked like it had a lot of good stuff.

It didn’t help that we were both coming down with the flu so our energy level wasn’t very high. I barely got myself through the rest of the evening as we went for drink at this outdoor bar behind the castle. And that night I actually had the chills and covered myself with a blanket even though it was still 30* outside. Not a good way to end my vacation.

I think I would need to spend more time in Milan to get a proper view of it. My initial reactions weren’t good but the more we walked around and hung out, the more it grew on me. Christina says that it’s a great city to live in other than the expensive part. I’m interested to see where our next meeting place will be!