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Eastern Europe Summer 2009

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Eastern Europe Summer 2009 - Page Text Content

S: Europe Summer 2009

FC: Europe 2009

1: Europe Summer 2009 Prague, Kraków, Budapest, Vienna

2: Prague

3: Day One - We arrived in Prague, Czech Republic after an overnight flight from Atlanta and checked into our charming old world hotel overlooking the Charles Bridge, located in the part of town called Malá Strana (meaning the “lesser quarter”). We were anxious to start exploring so we headed to the Prague Castle complex. The gothic St. Vitus Cathedral with its beautiful stained glass windows, and silver statue of John of Nepomuk – the national saint of the Czech Republic, dominates the landscape making the castle one of the biggest in the world. After touring Cathedral and St. George’s Basilica we walked along Golden Lane, named for the goldsmiths who used to live there; and along the castle ramparts where we could overlook the city and some vineyards down the hill. While we we're in the Royal Palace it started to rain – got some great photos of the rain spewing out of a gargoyles mouth! When the rain eased up we headed out of the main gate through Hradcany square and down the narrow cobbled lanes where court artisans and tradesmen once lived in charming cottages. At Loreta Square we visited another beautiful church where there were lots of statues - all very black with age but each having some kind of decoration in gold. The Loreta is also the home of the Prague Treasury - elaborate church relics and religious items. The most amazing is the Prague Sun made of solid silver and gold and studded with 6222 diamonds. Also in this area of town was a miniature museum where we looked through microscopes to see metal trains on the legs of fleas, an Eiffel Tower on a poppy seed, and a camel train on a hair! We strolled up Petrin hill and climbed the tower that looks like a smaller version of the Eiffel tower where there were spectacular 360 degree views of the city. Rode the funicular back down the hill and walked over to Kampa Island passing the John Lennon wall. On Kampa we had great views of the Charles Bridge. Walking back up towards the castle we took a detour around to the back of the German embassy to see a statue by David Cerny depicting a Trabant automobile on legs. “Quo Vadis” pays tribute to the thousands of East Germans who slipped into West Germany via the German Embassy in Prague, leaving behind their East German cars. Just beyond the embassy up a flight of steps is Nerudova Street – part of the “Royal Way” with lots of quaint baroque and rococo houses with emblems above their doors depicting what the name of the business was, e.g. House of the Three Fiddles, House of the Golden Horseshoe, etc. We saw a wonderful shop of hand carved marionettes before it started to rain again, so we headed back to the hotel to rest and have dinner. After dinner we strolled across the Charles Bridge to the old town - Staré Mesto and to the old town square. On the way back to the hotel we could see the castle and churches all lit up for the evening. Day Two – Started the morning with a visit to Malostranská Square and the stunning Church of St. Nicholas where Mozart once played and the fresco on the ceiling is the largest in Europe. With hundreds of golden cherubs and pink marble walls it is described as the pinnacle of Baroque flamboyancy in Prague. Next, we headed back over to the old town square to the medieval Astronomical Clock. We joined the crowd in front of the tower to observe the procession of the Twelve Apostles - on the hour, every hour, a small trap door opens and Christ marches out ahead of his disciples, | while the skeleton of death tolls the bell to a defiant statue of a Turk. Climbing the tower of the Old Town Hall we could look at the square below where vendors were selling traditional foods - including roast pig and delicious pastries rolled on a wooden dowel and cooked over a flame before being dipped in sugar and nuts. Taking one of the streets that led from the old town square, we found ourselves in Wenceslas Square where a shopping arcade led to another of David Cerny’s famous statues – St. Wenceslas riding an upside down horse. We ate lunch at an outdoor café next to the Municipal House, with its beautiful art nouveau architecture & décor, and the 15th century Powder Gate - the lone remnant of the fortifications that once surrounded the city. The remainder of the afternoon was spent in the Jewish quarter of Prague, known as Josefov. Formerly the Jewish ghetto, the area was preserved by the Nazis in order to provide a site for a planned "exotic museum of an extinct race". This meant that the Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from all over central Europe for display in Josefov and the six remaining synagogues form the best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in the whole of Europe. Most interesting was the Old Jewish Cemetery - Europe's oldest surviving Jewish graveyard used from 1439 to 1787. There are more than 100,000 Jews buried in this small plot, the graves being layered 12 deep in some places and the 12,000 tombstones crowd the limited space. For dinner we opted for traditional Czech fare at a pub style restaurant. Seated at an outdoor picnic table we started the meal with the local Pilsner Urquell and a rack of pretzels. For our main course we each had a massive pork knee baked in beer with mustard and horseradish and served on our own personal rotisserie spit – it was delicious! Day Three – On our last day in the Czech Republic we took a day trip from Prague to a town about an hour train ride away called Kutná Hora. Having heard of a bizarre “bone” church located in the neighboring town of Sedlec we just had to check it out. The Sedlec Ossuary is a small Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints and is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, many of whom have had their bones artistically arranged by monks to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. An enormous chandelier of bones, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vault. Pillars of bones topped by whimsical cherubs, enormous chalices and a coat of arms were all constructed from bones. Equally creepy and fascinating, it was one of the most unusual chapels we have ever seen. In the old silver mining town of Kutná Hora we visited St. Barbara's Cathedral. Dedicated to St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, it is a beautiful gothic church with intricate flying buttresses and interior adornments reflecting mining life. A wander around the charming town and a visit to the somewhat dull Alchemy Museum was all we had time for before heading back to Prague to catch our overnight train to Krakow. We had booked a sleeper car for the 9.5 hour train journey and were quite amazed at the efficient use of space in the small compartment.

4: Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral

5: St. George's Basilica | Statue of John of Nepomuk

6: Unique downspouts at the Prague Castle

7: Golden Lane at the Castle

8: The John Lennon Wall | Views of Prague and the Charles Bridge

9: Prague is known for it's stunning architecture - everywhere you turn there is another beautiful building

11: The pinnacle of Baroque flamboyancy in Prague - St. Nicholas Church

12: Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock

13: View from the Old Town Hall - Church of Our Lady Before Tyn

14: Franz Kafka Statue by Jaroslav Rona | St. Wenceslas riding an upside down horse by David Cerny

15: 15th century Powder Gate - the lone remnant of the fortifications that once surrounded the city

17: Traditional Czech Fare

18: Josefov - the Jewish quarter of Prague

19: Europe's oldest surviving Jewish graveyard

20: Bone Church, Kutná Hora

23: St. Barbara's Cathedral, Kutná Hora

25: Overnight train to Kraków

26: Kraków

27: Day Four – After a somewhat restless night on the train we arrived in Kraków, Poland. We stored our bags in the train station and boarded a bus to Auschwitz. The bus dropped us off outside the main entrance to the Auschwitz I-Main Camp. Auschwitz I is where the Nazis opened the first Auschwitz camps for men and women, where they carried out the first experiments at using Zyklon B to put people to death, where they murdered the first mass transports of Jews, where they conducted the first criminal experiments on prisoners, where they carried out most of the executions by shooting, where the central jail for prisoners from all over the camp complex was located in Block No. 11, and where the camp commandant's office and most of the SS offices were located. Our tour guide led us through many of the buildings and areas of the camp and explained the horrific things that took place in each one. We passed rooms filled to the ceiling with personal items taken from the prisoners – shoes, luggage, eyeglasses, medications and everyday household items. We then boarded a shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Birkenau is where the Nazis erected most of the machinery of mass extermination in which they murdered approximately one million European Jews. At the same time, Birkenau was the largest concentration camp, with nearly 300 primitive barracks, most of them wooden. Over a hundred thousand prisoners were here in 1944: Jews, Poles, Roma, and others. The nearly 200 hectares of grounds include the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria and places filled with human ashes. Walking along the railroad line we came upon the unloading platform (ramp) where the SS doctors would divide the recently arrived prisoners from the transport into those who were fit for work and thus became prisoners of the concentration camp and those who would be sent immediately to the gas chambers. You could sense the spirits of those who had been exterminated here and standing in the barracks you can only imagine the conditions one had to endure to survive. Kilometers of barbed wire, electric fences and guard towers remain, though at the end, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of what took place in these camps. A beautiful memorial to the over one and a half million men, women and children murdered during the holocaust now stands over the ashes of those who perished at Auschwitz- Birkenau. It was a difficult and sobering day for us, but nevertheless an important reminder of the human race is capable of if hate is allowed to fester and grow unchecked. Day Five – Waking up in our lovely hotel just minutes from the Town Square in Kraków was the perfect way to start the day, which also happened to be Ria’s birthday. After breakfast we were picked up by our tour guide for a Communism Kraków tour we had arranged through a company called “Crazy Guides.” Our guide Piotr, squeezed us into a funky Eastern bloc Trabant automobile and we sputtered along to view Kraków’s historical burial mounds. These giant mounds (some of which date to pagan times) were built to commemorate some of Poland 's most famous leaders, unfortunately it was a little hazy so the promised panoramas of the city weren’t too good. We did however see the clever way in which they mowed the grass on these mounds! From there, we visited Kazimierz, Kraków's Jewish quarter. After being liquidated by the Nazis during the Second World War, this area is being revitalized and is now a popular night spot. We walked around the district and had some coffee in an old bohemian café before heading to the | Podgórze district and Zgody Square, with its metal chairs memorializing the victims of the Kraków ghetto. The square features 33 large illuminated chairs and 37 smaller chairs standing on the edge of the square and at the tram stops. The chairs represent the furniture and other remnants that were discarded on that very spot by the ghetto's Jews as they were herded into the trains that would often take them to their deaths in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. We stopped at Oskar Schindler’s Enamel factory, featured in the film “Schindler’s List,” but unfortunately it was closed for the day. Our journey back in time continued as we explored the Nowa Huta district, Kraków 's famous communist enclave. Originally a gift from Stalin, this working-class quarter boasts some typical communist architecture that was complemented by our guides firsthand account of what it was like to grow up and live under the Iron Curtain. After push starting our Trabant, we ate lunch in an authentic Commie milk bar – the equivalent of a Polish fast food restaurant! Our peirogies and cabbage were delicious. Piotr then took us to a genuine Communist era apartment – unchanged so we could see what everyday life was like in Poland during the 1970s. We watched communist propaganda films and toasted the “good ol’ days” with Vodka and pickles. Later that day we explored the area by our hotel on our own, walking through the lively Rynek Glówny - the largest medieval town square in Europe. In the middle of the square are the Town Hall tower and the Renaissance Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), where traveling merchants met to discuss business and to barter. Restaurants and café’s are situated along the perimeter of the square, so we choose one for dinner where we could sit outside and watch the horses and carriages pass by. Day Six – In the morning we went to Wawel Castle where we toured the State rooms with their massive tapestries, and the Royal Private Apartments with coffered ceilings adorned by golden rosettes and carved heads. The Cathedral’s bell tower offered views of the city and the river which we could reach by passing through the Dragons den. Smok Wawelski, a famous fire-breathing dragon in Polish folklore, is said to be laired in a cave under Wawel Hill on the banks of the Vistula river. From the river we headed up the royal route, through the main square to the Florian Gate which was built around 1300. A quick tour of the nearby Czartoryski Museum allowed us to see Leonardo da Vinci's Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine) and also a Rembrandt - Landscape with a Good Samaritan. In the afternoon we took a bus to the outskirts of town where we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We began our tour from the historical 17th century Danilowicza Shaft where we walked down stairs to a level of about 64 meters (209 feet), then continued our way deeper underground eventually reaching the third level at a depth of 135 meters (442 feet). Along the way we could see examples of excavation chambers with preserved traces of mining works, salt sculptures and bas-reliefs, brine lakes and the stunning Chapel of St. Kinga - carved entirely from salt. The huge chandeliers are also made from salt crystals. There was even a restaurant down there. Leaving the cool temperatures of the mine, we were packed like sardines into a shaft elevator (the size of our powder room at home) with seven Italians. The nine of us, literally cheek to cheek, rose back to the surface and out of the mine. Another overnight train trip – this one a little cooler, took us to our next destination, Budapest.

29: Auschwitz and Birkenau Death Camps

32: Remains of the barracks where thousands of Jews lived in the camps

33: In the selection process. the SS doctor divided the Jews who had recently arrived in transport into those who were fit for work and became prisoners of the concentration camp and those who were intended for immediate death in the gas chambers

36: There's got to be Polish joke in here somewhere.....

37: "Crazy Guide" Communist Kraków Tour in a East German Trabant

38: Kazimierz, Kraków's Jewish Quarter

40: Zgody Square and the empty metal chairs memorializing the victims of the Kraków ghetto

41: Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory

42: Nowa Huta - Kraków's famous communist enclave | The steelworks where comrades labored

43: A genuine Communist era apartment from the 1970's

44: The Barbican, Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) and Rynek Glowny

45: Wawel Castle and Bell Tower

46: The Florian Gate | Bagels are thought to have originated in Kraków

47: DaVinci's Cecelia Gallerani, Czartoryski Museum | Rembrandt's Landscape with a Good Samaritan, Czartoryski Museum

48: Wieliczka Salt Mine

49: 135 meters (442 feet) underground - everything is carved from salt

51: An elevator out of the mine.... | ...and other night train onto Budapest

52: Budapest

53: Day Seven – Arriving at the train station in Budapest after a 10 hour overnight trip we headed to our hotel to check-in and freshen up. We had lunch at a café and decided that the best way to get around the city was to use one of the several “Hop-on Hop-off” tour bus companies that were available. The city is divided into two parts – the “Buda” side which is the hilly side to the west of the Danube river, and the “Pest” side which is the flat part to the east of the river and considered the city center. Our first stop in “Pest” was the Hungarian State Opera House. Statues of some of the world’s greatest composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi adorn the main facade. Seated statues of Franz Liszt and Ferenc Erkel, the first director of the Opera House stand on the sides of the main entrance. Because we did not have tickets for a performance we could not go inside the actual theater, but could imagine what beauty the interior possessed based on the lobby. The magnificent foyer has a double grand staircase and grey marble columns supporting the arches which are beautifully painted. Although in size and capacity it is not among the greatest; in terms of beauty and the quality of acoustics however, the Budapest Opera House is considered to be amongst the best opera houses in the world. A few blocks beyond the Opera House is the Terror Háza (Terror House), a state of the art museum dedicated to the victims of terror during the two bloodiest regimes in Hungarian history. The windows of the building are closed, and a huge cornice hangs over the pavements and screams “TERROR” in man-sized letters. This museum records the period from pre-World War II when the Hungarian National Socialist movement's Arrow Cross Party rented space in the building from 1937 and during the war it was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis, who used the cellar for torturing and killing hundreds of people. In 1945 Hungary ended up under Soviet occupation and the building became the home of the Department for Political Police. The displays chronicle the many traumas of totalitarian rule: fascism, Soviet occupation, the gulag, and persecution of the peasantry and the churches in graphic detail, using photos, newspaper articles, actual uniforms, and video recordings of actual warfare. Back on the bus we drove through the city streets looking at great examples of art nouveau architecture and ended up at the Great Synagogue – the second largest in the world. Two onion-shaped domes sit on the twin towers and a rose stained-glass window sits over the main entrance. The interior is richly decorated and in the rear courtyard is a park with a Holocaust memorial of a metal weeping willow tree. It was erected in 1989 above the mass graves, in the honor and memory of Hungarian Jewish martyrs. On each leaf of the tree you can read a name of a martyr. There is also a piece of brick from the original ghetto wall in the garden. Leaving the synagogue we headed across the river to the “Buda” side of the city. We rode up Gellert Hill where we took in the stunning views of “Pest” and stopped for a look at the Liberation Monument - a palm-bearing statue of a female that pays homage to the Soviet soldiers that freed the city from the Nazis during World War II. Continuing on this side of the river we came to the castle district where we walked along the | cobbled streets to the Mátyás Church and the Fisherman's Bastion, a cluster of stone towers overlooking the Danube and the impressive Parliament building across the river. We took a small funicular back down the hill and made our way back to our hotel for the evening. Day Eight – Having seen the Parliament building from the other side of the river the previous evening we were anxious to see it up close. Unfortunately that meant waiting over an hour in the heat and full sun to get tickets, but we spent the time talking to a nice British lady who lives in Croatia. When we finally got to the window to buy the tickets they didn’t have any upcoming tours in English so we bought the next available tour in Italian just so we could get inside. It turns out that in addition to English and Croatian, our new friend also spoke a fair amount of Italian and she became our personal translator on the tour! The Parliament is really quite magnificent with massive staircases leading to the hexadecagonal (sixteen-sided) central hall under the dome. The gold Holy Crown of Hungary is also located here. The unique interior design includes huge halls, over 12.5 miles of corridors, a 96-meter high stained glass dome, and 691 rooms. One interesting detail to note - near the session hall there is a special place for cigars. In the past, politicians came out for smoking but were often called back to the session, for example, to vote. They could put the lighted cigars in the number resting spots. However, if the session was intensive and the important decisions were taken, the cigar would burn in their absence. Now there is a proverb: “it is worthwhile of Havana” (meaning that time, and now Havana cigars are very expensive). After touring the Parliament we went to St. Stephen’s Basilica which is named in honor of the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038), whose mummified fist is housed in an ornate glass box in the church. For a fee the box will light up so the decrepit fist is visible! In the late afternoon we went to the Széchenyi Baths - the largest medicinal bathing complex in Europe and located in the city park. The neo-baroque baths were built in 1913. There are 15 indoor and pools, supplied by two mineral rich thermal springs. There are also several sauna facilities, with some heated to 60-70 degrees Celsius (150 – 170 degrees Fahrenheit) – so hot we couldn’t breathe inside! We enjoyed moving from pool to pool. Some have strong currents in the water that spin you in a particular direction. Others have fountains and in one we saw some locals sitting around a chess table in the steaming water playing and chatting. After a good soaking we headed over to Vajdahunyad Castle, also in the city park. The Castle began its life as a structure made of wood and cardboard. It was originally built for the city’s millennium exhibition in 1896, but it became so popular that it was rebuilt from stone and brick. It is a combination of Gothic, Renaissance/Baroque, and Romanesque, built that way, according to some, to show the world all the architectural styles that can be found in Budapest. We headed back to the hotel to change and then boarded a boat for an evening scenic cruise down the Danube. We were enchanted by the illuminated sights as a new city came out in the twilight.

54: The State Opera House

56: Terror Háza - Museum dedicated to the victims of terror during the two bloodiest regimes in Hungarian history

57: The Great Synagogue

58: Gellert Hill and views over the Danube

60: The Castle District

62: The Fisherman's Bastion

63: St. Stephen's Cathedral

64: Parliament

65: Cigar holders for dignitaries and politicians

66: Széchenyi Baths

67: Thermal pools and saunas that got as hot as 70 degrees Celsius (170 degrees Fahrenheit)

68: Vajdahunyad Castle

70: Beautiful Budapest at Night

74: Vienna

75: Day Nine – This morning we woke early to travel by train to Vienna which was a 3 hour ride away. Once in Vienna we checked into a wonderful family-run bed & breakfast before heading out to explore. We walked around the city sights including the Hofburg Imperial Palace which has housed some of the most powerful people in Austrian history, including the Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After a visit to St. Stephen's Cathedral, we strolled among the elegant shops nearby, stopping to partake in wonderful breads, pastries and chocolates along the way. Day Ten – We returned to the Hofburg Palace, which is also the home to the Spanish Riding School, the only institution in the world where the classic equestrian skills (haute école) has been retained from the Renaissance and is still practiced in its original form. Many years of training fuse horse and rider into an inseparable unit and during performances the audience is treated to an unforgettable experience by the precision of movement of the Lipizzan horses in perfect harmony with the music. Although the | the world famous Lipizzan stallions were enjoying their summer break, we were able to see the show “Piber Meets Vienna.” In this performance, six Lipizzaner mares together with their foals from the Federal Stud Piber showed the more natural side of these famous horses. They enjoyed running around the arena and rolling onto their backs. In addition to the youngsters and their dams, fully trained Lipizzaners from the Federal Stud Piber were shown in single harness, in pairs, in tandem and in a four-in-hand together with riders in historical uniforms from the Winter Riding School. In the late afternoon we took a tram to a place called Grinzing, located on the hilly outskirts of Vienna. This charming town was filled with a lot of Heuriger (wine-taverns), where local wine-growers serve the most recent year's wine made in the owner's vineyard. We ordered wine and beer then chose our food – fresh bread, cheeses and a variety of cold pork meats and joined the other patrons outside at wooden tables set up under spreading trees in a garden. We spent the evening listening to festive tunes played on an accordion accompanied by a violin - a perfect way to spend a warm summer's evening and our last night in Europe

76: Hofburg Imperial Palace

78: The Rathaus - City Hall

79: Pulpit in St. Stephen's Cathedral

80: The Spanish Riding School and Lipizzan horses

82: Grinzing Wine Taverns

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Ria Waugh
  • By: Ria W.
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About This Mixbook

  • Title: Eastern Europe Summer 2009
  • Ria & Gavin's summer vacation to Prague, Kraków, Budapest and Vienna
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  • Published: about 9 years ago