Monday, September 15, 2014

Summer vacation part 8, 3 days in Prague, Czech Republic

The final stop in my family's Summer trip was Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.  Prague holds a very special place in my heart since I spent 4 months living here right after graduating from college back in 1993.  For a young and impressionable traveler back then, Prague was just magical.  The iron curtain had recently fallen during the Velvet revolution of 1989 and the city was exciting and growing into the capitalistic ways of the West while retaining it's Bohemian charm.  It simply was the trendy "place to be" in Europe during that time period. I worked part-time as an English teacher while living here and I got to really know the city's soul beyond the touristic old town.  Tourism was already hitting Prague fairly hard even back in the early 90s, however little would I be prepared for the dramatic change that has taken place recently.  Turn the clock ahead to 2014 and the city now has been completely over run with tourists and fancy shops lining most streets near the old town.  Prague is known for it's beautiful architecture and the famous Gothic buildings are in their original state since the city was not bombed, and therefore spared damage after World War II. The center piece of Prague and main attraction is the Charles Bridge which is nearly 1,000 years old and is one of the most famous walking bridges in the world. As I strolled around the city, I was still in awe of it's charm and the architecture, though I became increasingly annoyed at the high end shopping and massive amounts of tourists marching like cattle through the cobblestone streets.

Since this was the very end of a long and busy vacation throughout eastern Europe, my family didn't have the energy for doing all that much. Most of our days were spent casually walking around the old town and seeing some of the nearby sites. We covered most of the famous old town and lesser town, and later my daughter and I hiked up the hill to the Prague castle. My daughter and I also explored a bit off the beaten path which included a 300 step walk to the top of the mighty St. Vitus cathedral. We also took in the gorgeous view from the mini Eiffel tower at Petrin hill. On our last full day in Prague, my daughter and I peddle boated around in the Charles river, taking in the views from the water. I had absolutely no regrets visiting Prague again 21 years later, though I was a bit saddened that my magical city had gone through such dramatic changes. I guess a romanticist/idealist always wants to dream about a city in a certain fashion, while a realist understands the changes and influences that occur when a city rapidly goes through a metamorphosis. The strong Western influence over Prague is not necessarily a bad thing for the locals as the city is thriving.  I still recommend a visit to Prague, however I do think an off season trip here is optimum. Also, do try to explore a bit outside of the city's touristic center so you can experience some little gems that lie outside the beaten path.  Prague is still fairly cheap by Western standards and there are budget accommodations/food to be had.  Last but not least, try to enjoy a few pints of Prague's famous beer which should only set you back about $1.25 per pint.  :)

Charles Bridge

View from Petrin Hill
Prague's Astronomical clock

Church of our lady Tyn

St. Vitus Cathedral
Dancing house

Magical Prague from high on Petrin hill

Monday, September 1, 2014

Summer vacation part 7, Three days in Krakow, Poland

After our stay in Vienna and a very short visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, we took an overnight train to Krakow, Poland.  Poland is another country that neither my wife nor I had ever visited.  I had heard many great things about Krakow and had wanted to visit the city for a long time. Krakow was very interesting in many ways and has the largest medieval square in all of Europe.  It is a city for walking around and people watching throughout the enormous square.  My family was quite surprised how reasonably priced everything was in Krakow. The city had a very Western feel to it and the service and quality were top notch at just about every place we visited.  We had some very nice and gourmet meals for fractions of what they would cost in Helsinki, Finland.  We had three full days in Krakow and made it a very cultural visit.  

The first day we ventured all around the city and in the afternoon saw the famous factory that was formerly owned by Oskar Schindler.  Schindler, who was immortalized in the Spielberg film, "Schindler's list" was famous for employing Jews during the Holocaust in his factory in order to save them from extermination by the Nazis.  The entire factory has now become a memorial and history museum about the German invasion and occupation of Krakow during World War II.  Krakow was fully invaded and Poles just like Jews were persecuted and even put to death in the extermination camps.  The second day in Krakow was a somber day because we took a tour of the infamous Nazi extermination camp that is in Auschwitz.  The extermination camps Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) are known as the world's largest graveyard as up to 1.5 people million perished there. It was a very heavy and depressing subject and tour, however also a very important and educational experience that I feel should be experienced at least once by everyone in their lifetime because we should never forget and never repeat history again.  The last day was spent in a more uplifting and fun fashion as we visited the Wieliczka salt mines.  This incredibly deep and humongous salt mine was an amazing experience for the entire family.  First, you must walk for at least 10 minutes just to get down the flight of stairs to the very bottom of the mine and then you walked around countless tunnels and rooms in order to see all the different passages and art that is in the mines. The tour only covers about 1% of this cavernous and interesting place. There was an underground church carved out of Salt as well as theaters, gift shops, exhibitions and even a restaurant well underground.  At the end of the tour we were luckily able to take an elevator that raced up to the top of the mine back to solid ground again. Overall, I really loved Krakow, Poland and it's surrounding areas. In fact, we found Krakow to be one of the highlights of our entire Summer tour of Eastern Europe.  I would even recommend it over my former favorite Eastern European city of Prague, Czech Republic which has suffered a bit from over tourism during the last 25 years.  More on that to come in part 8, which will be the final chapter in our summer tour of 2014.

Krakow's grand square

Pope John Paul II, Church in Wielickza salt mines