Croatia – Split

It was a shorter ferry ride from Hvar to Split but still not a scenic ride as this ferry also had dirty windows and no outside decks. Once in Split I discovered that Split is certainly a much bigger city than I imagined.

Something happened to our group’s booking at the hotel in Split so the hotel split us up into 2 hotels. Some others from our group and I had to stay at a different hotel for the night and the two hotels were not even very close to each other.  Since we were too early to check into the hotel, we left our bags in a room to take to the other hotel after dinner. It was just too hot to keep going back and forth to the hotels and the city centre. Plus we didn’t want to waste time when we had a new city to explore!

At the end of the day, another traveling companion and I went back to the original hotel to get our luggage and transfer to our hotel. We were looking forward to bed after a long day. The original hotel were transporting us to the replacement hotel at their expense and they arranged for the taxi. I asked the receptionist for the name and address of the replacement hotel but he wouldn’t give it to me. He told us not to worry, that he would give clear instructions to the taxi driver.  (Yea, right!) So we got into the cab and got dropped off at the “Art” Hotel. I questioned the driver saying I didn’t think it was correct but he was insistent it was. We thought it was a bit more upscale than expected. Their reception didn’t have our reservation. So I asked them if there is a hotel called “As” as I recall someone mentioning that name. The receptionist said yes, there is a hotel named “As“. She kindly called the original hotel and told them to get the taxi back to take us to the correct hotel – As! At least we had a nice hotel to wait in but it sure extended our day when we were tired and wanted to get to bed.

Once my group split up and went our own ways, I moved to accommodation closer to town. I enjoyed walking through the “green market” on my way to and from my room. The green market not only sold fresh produce but other things such as clothes and souvenirs. The vendors were very helpful. When I bought fruit, the vendor showed me where I could wash my purchase so I could eat it immediately, all without speaking English!

Split is interesting. Split is known for the remains of Diocletian’s Palace. The Palace was built in the 4th C as a retirement palace for Emperor Diocletian. Today Diocletian’s Palace is more like a walled town with the current old town built within it and newer areas built around the walls. Again, in one section of the the newer old town there were plenty of cats waiting to be fed. There seemed to be an ice cream/gelato place on every block – very welcome on those hot days.

Klapa singers (Croatian capella-style singers) are commonly heard in the Vestibule (the old residential entrance) of the Palace, due to its incredible acoustics. They sang at certain times of the day and were nice to listen to.

For a city I had never heard of until I booked this trip, Split had lots to see. I’m glad I stayed a few extra days to explore it.

I checked out the different exhibits in the Split’s main art gallery, Museum of Fine Arts.  The Church of St Martin was a little difficult to find. Originally a guardhouse, it is built into a cavity of the wall. It is the smallest church in Split (and possibly anywhere), so it was interesting and didn’t take long to view.

Church of St Martin, Split

The Ethnographic Museum displays regional furniture, costumes, jewelry, pottery, knitting, embroidery, and other various handmade artifacts.

The City of Split museum is in an old Venetian Family residence. On display are sculptures, furniture, artworks, documents, photographs, maps, and manuscripts that help tell the historical story of Split.

One evening there were wonderful performances of traditional Croatian folk dancing on the Riva Promenade with their beautiful and colourful costumes.

The Riva is a great big boardwalk along the water that is great to stroll along and people watch. Vacant shady spots to rest were difficult to find on the hot, sunny days but the Riva was very relaxing, especially in the evening.

I walked up to the top of Marjan Hill to the viewpoint. It was very hot but there was a water tap partway up so I could refill my water bottle. The views were great and they had benches and places to rest before making the trek back down. The temperatures were in the upper 30s.

One entrance fee allowed me into the Cathedral, the Treasury, the Crypt and the Baptistery. The Cathedral of St Domnius was built by the Emperor Diocletian and is the world’s oldest Catholic cathedral still in use today. It is impressive. I went upstairs to the Treasury, then downstairs to the crypt (which really felt like a basement). The location of the Baptistery of St John (Temple of Jupiter) was a bit confusing as I expected it to be connected to the cathedral but it was a couple of buildings away in the maze of cramped-together buildings. 

One hot day I took a bus tour. They had air conditioning so it was comfortable. We stopped at Salona to see the ancient Roman ruins. There wasn’t much information to read so I had to content myself by just walking around and looking at the remains of the buildings, town walls, towers, sculptures, amphitheatre, and Necropolis of Manastirine (a burial area).

Next stop was the ancient town of Trogir. After a small initiation tour we explored the town on our own. Trogir is on a small island joined to the mainland by one bridge. It was nice to wonder around and check everything out and there was also some relaxing places to enjoy.

We went to Klis Fortress on top of a hill. Klis is a medieval fortress built into a rocky ridge and more than 2000 years old. It was once an important defensive stronghold between the Mediterranean and the Balkans. More recently it starred in Game of Thrones. There was less of a building than I expected, a bit undramatic – not much to explore – but interesting with a good view.

Klis Fortress

At the Fortress, I changed tour groups because the company had 2 different group tours there at the same time. So instead of going back to town, I got to go to the Vranjaca Caves. The caves were good and had an added bonus of being quite cool on a hot day. Our guide for the caves was the owner, Mr Punda, and he was a nice character. Mr. Punda, is the grandson of the man who discovered the cave in 1903. He told us he has live music in the caves sometimes. The cave has hosted several concerts and performances. There are several “Halls” and passageways, stalactites and stalagmites, columns and arcades of different shapes. There are natural features that look like owls, wise men, holy family, and old ladies. Mr. Punda entertained us with a tune by drumming on one of the stalagmites. Impressive!

Traveling through the countryside is lovely scenery with villages, hills, vineyards and olive groves.

We were on the Dalmatian coast for quite awhile but it wasn’t until my last day that I saw a Dalmatian dog – and I actually saw two different ones!

If I ever go back to Split, I am sure there is lots more things to see and explore in Split and the surrounding area that I didn’t get to.

An early morning flight from Split took me to Munich and then a flight back to Vancouver. It was a wonderful trip but I saw lots of places in a short period of time so places tended to blend together sometimes. Thank goodness I have my photos to remind me.

 

Croatia – Dubrovnik & Hvar

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik was another lovely city famous for its old walled city.  I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but I understand some of it was filmed in Dubrovnik. You can even take a Game of Thrones tour to see some of the famous filming sites.

The Island of Lorkrum is close to the city. We took a small ferry boat to get there and back. It was very pleasant and relaxing on this Island. One of the thrones from the Game of Thrones sits on the Island. I walked through the gardens, checked out the favourite swimming places, and saw plenty of peacocks and rabbits.

I walked the entire length of the old city walls. Counter clockwise only. It was hot but I had plenty of water. There were places to purchase some refreshments on the wall and also a Red Cross station. So on a hot day, bring plenty of water because if you get off the wall to refill your water bottle and then back on you are charged again for entry.

From the wall, I could see the many red tiled roofs, hidden tennis and basketball courts, and gardens. Walking around the city at ground level I had no idea that all this was hidden within the walls. I certainly got a different perspective on the walled city and surroundings.

I refilled up my water bottle many times in the walled city at the Big Fountain of Onofrio (built 1438-44). The fountain was also our group’s popular meeting place.

We took public buses between the hotel and the old city. We were able to buy a 24 hours bus pass that helped us get around and included several attractions. During the “tourist rush hour” it is very difficult to board a bus because they are so packed. Myself and another from our group got left behind in the city one night as they wouldn’t squeeze us on the packed bus. But we made it back to our hotel anyway on the next crowded bus.

There was plenty to see within the walled city. I went to the Cultural History Museum and the Rector’s Palace. The gardens of the Dominican monastery provided some quiet time, green space and lovely architecture. I went into the Pharmacy Museum in the Franciscan Monastery. This Pharmacy is the 3rd oldest pharmacy in the world. It was small but quite fascinating.

The Marin Drzic House was included in my Dubrovnik pass so I went to see it. Marin Drzic was a famous Croatian writer. This house wasn’t even the house he lived in. It was not interesting but was quick to go through. Good thing I didn’t pay to go into it.

Outside the walls, I climbed up to the top of Fort Lovrijenac,  another Game of Thrones filming site.

Since I had time left on my 24 hour Dubrovnick card bus pass, I took a public bus to Babin Kuk and back to do some sightseeing.

Hvar

Our group took the ferry to Hvar on Hvar Island. This was disappointing as it was not a picturesque ferry trip. There was no outside deck to watch the scenery from. And the windows were dirty so we couldn’t see much out the windows!

I hear Hvar was a favourite party spot for Prince Harry in his single days. There were many large yachts in the marina and plenty of people about but we didn’t recognize any celebrities.

Celebrity or not, Hvar was quite concerned about how you dressed and behaved in the town area in public. Look at the fines – €500-700.

Our group went on a boat to some of the local islands. We swam off the boat several times. Again no sandy beaches but lots of rocks. We went ashore and explored some areas on the small islands. The boat brought us to one island for several hours so we could eat at one of the restaurants. After eating some of us went swimming on a rocky beach. Wherever we swam, the water was beautiful.

We had to take an early ferry to go back to the mainland. This was the morning my phone alarm did not go off on time because my phone switched time zones on me. I was woken by a hotel staff member coming in to check if I’d taken anything from the bar. Was I lucky. In 30 minutes, I managed to dress, finished packing my bag, and dragged my bag down to the reception area with enough time to grab some breakfast.

 

Montenegro

Kotor

We drove to the Dalmatian Coast to Kotor on the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. On the way, we went through several more tunnels. There were more lovely views of the mountains and valleys and then ………………. the Adriatic Sea.

Montenegro is a very young country that gained independence only in 2006. The city of Kotor, built between the 12th and 14th centuries, is filled with medieval architecture and historic monuments.

The old part of Kotor is a walled fortress city. The wall climbs up the mountain and back down again. Apparently, the wall is 1200 metres or about 1350 steps up to the top with no shade – not a great climb on a hot, sunny day. On the way up is the thousand year old Church of St John. At the top, in addition to the walls, are castle ruins. The walls and buildings blend into the rock and shrub of the mountain during the day so they are difficult to spot from below.

The Old Town streets and alleys within the walls are like a maze. They are pedestrian only with many small alleys and passages interspersed with little squares. Lots of nooks and crannies. I figured out that if I walked around the outside edge of the Old Town and maze, it was easier not to get twisted around nor lost in the maze.

The Old Town was quite crowded with tourists but I did notice fewer crowds on the days when there were less cruise ships visiting. The shop owners were much more friendly if they knew that you were staying locally rather than visiting from a cruise ship.

Vendors set up a little market outside the city wall along the main road where it was easy to pick up fresh fruit. The shops inside the walls were also interesting. I fell in love with these lamps.

The Old Town of Kotor is known for its homeless cats. There were cats, cats, cats, cats everywhere, a store for cat souvenirs, and even a Cat Museum! On the hot days, in the early mornings and evenings, you can see the cats lying around everywhere trying to stay cool. Bowls of food and water are strategically placed in various spots, left by shop owners and restaurant staff. The cat population knew where to find the bowls. Most of the cats are willing to accept a pat or scratch and make contact with the tourists. The people in our hotel fed one cat regularly – it knew the routine. If the cat didn’t eat all of its lovely meal, the cat’s leftovers were given to other cats.

As it was very hot when we were there, I chose to go kayaking in the beautiful blue water to stay cool instead of climbing up the wall. Our group kayaked in the Bay of Kotor. We went to a very rocky beach on the bay and played in the water. It was lovely and refreshing, especially on a day of 37 degrees. We played the local and well known game of picigin before kayaking back to Kotor. Picigin is Dalmatia’s indigenous water sport. The aim of the game is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible. It involves lunging through the air in an attempt to keep a tiny ball from getting wet as its being thrown from person to person. (Being amateurs, we used a bigger ball.) It is a cross between volleyball and water polo, played in shallow water near the beach. The problem was we didn’t really have a sandy beach nor was it sandy in the water so it was difficult to put your feet down. But the water was wonderful and cooling anyway.

A sign in the maze of streets in old Kotor.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo

Once we got to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the terrain changed and we had to drive through several tunnels through the mountains. Sarajevo is in a very pretty location – in a valley surrounded by mountains. It is over 50% Muslim, so, if you look closely in this photo, you can see the many minaret towers above their mosques.

Sarajevo is known for several things throughout history and three important things in the 20th Century. It was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 that led to WW1. In 1984 Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. Then, the city was tragically in the news during the Bosnian War while it was under siege by Serbian troops for almost 4 years in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, Sarajevo suffered very badly during the Bosnian War for independence with a long siege of the city (April 1992 to February 1996). The war eventually led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Pockmarked with bullet holes, the scars in the concrete are still very prominent in some places. We heard some tragic stories as a result of this siege. Serbian rooftop snipers fired at anyone walking on the streets. Sarajevo was cut off from the outside world for these 4 years. The only lifeline for supplies was an 800-metre secret tunnel that connected the people with smugglers from outside the city.

The War Tunnel Museum has preserved a section of the secret tunnel. The family in the house risked their lives by allowing the entrance to the tunnel to pop up in their cellar. We experienced the remaining small section of the tunnel by walking through it. It was interesting to hear some of the amazing stories survivors told on our “Tunnel of Life” tour. I found the talk on the war strategies and details very long and boring – it could have been edited down.

We went up the Trebević Mountain where the 1984 winter Olympic bobsled and luge runs were. It had great views. The Bosnian War damaged many of the sporting venues, including the bobsled and luge track. During the Bosnian War, some of the bobsled track was made into a lookout of the city by one warring side and the rest destroyed. The track is now basically abandoned and covered in graffiti. There is good hiking in the area but hiking without a guide is not recommended. There are still landmines in the mountains and the area.

I enjoyed hearing the call to prayer several times in the day. I was warned about a call very early in the morning. I did wake up and heard it but it was very pleasant, and not loud. I quickly drifted back to sleep.

I wandered around old Sarajevo and enjoyed the interesting Baščaršija market. 

In Sarajevo and on wards to the south, filling my water bottle was no problem when I was out exploring. There was usually a fountain or a tap somewhere to fill my bottle.

Mostar

We traveled through the mountains to Mostar. The lovely mountains reminded me of British Columbia. Along the way we saw villages in the valleys and along the rivers.

The famous bridge in town (a single arch stone bridge) was a little treacherous to walk across – the stones were smooth and could be slippery in the wrong footwear.

The city and bridge is known for the trained divers jumping off the bridge. The Mostar Diving Club keeps records of those that jump. The Club also train new jumpers. The members take turns doing the dangerous dive off the bridge. It seems that the diver from the Club jumps once 25 Euros are collected. When I was there watching the action, the collection took a long while and in the meantime the divers teased the crowd. After the long wait and lots of teasing, I watched the famous diver jump off the bridge. It was over in seconds.

I toured Muslibegovic House – 300 years old – showing how an Ottoman nobleman and his family lived during that time. I couldn’t explore the whole building as it is used as a hotel. Even though I couldn’t see all of it, it was interesting.

There are quite a few bombed out buildings but still standing in the Bosnian War, many around Spanish Square. Spanish Square was named to honour 21 of the Spanish troops killed during the Bosnian War.

Mostar also has large and vibrant markets on both sides of the river. I enjoyed exploring them but I didn’t see any cute street signs as I did in Sarajevo.

Serbia

Novi Sad

We took 2 trains to get to our next destination of Novi Sad in Serbia. The first train was from Budapest to the border of Hungary/Serbia where the Hungarian border patrol recorded our passports. We then boarded the Serbian train where the Serbian border patrol checked and stamped our passports. We were lucky – the 2 border examinations took only about an hour. I understand it can take longer.

Novi Sad is the second largest city in Serbia and is on the Danube. We were in Novi Sad only one night – just long enough for a tour of the old Petrovaradin Fortress and a quick look around the city. The tour of the mysterious underground Fortress was enjoyable because we had a very humourous and wonderful tour guide. He guided us through the underground labyrinth going several floors below ground through a system of halls. The soldiers lived underground and kept their weapons and ammunition there.

I saw some of the old section of Novi Sad next to the fortress. Most of it was getting a much needed rehabilitation but it looked like an interesting area.

The tourist area has many shops and restaurants on the very wide pedestrian-only street. It was great for people watching. The huge main square was at one end with several buildings that included a church and a government building. The government building looked interesting but we were not allowed to enter it.

The Serbian Orthodox Church was at the other end of the pedestrian street.

I had time to explore some of the area outside of the main tourist area. It wasn’t quite as pretty but it was interesting.

Belgrade

Not only was Belgrade an interesting city but our hotel also had some interesting features. My bathroom was quite colourful. The tiles were beautiful – there just were lots of them. It is not a 5 star hotel bathroom but, except for the bidet, it was functional. I just had to share the photos with you. Everyone had an memorable breakfast as we ate breakfast next door in the connecting nightclub. The hotel and disco are part of the same business, thus the location of our breakfast. I have to admit that the hotel had a certain charm.

In Belgrade, I explored the Kalemegdan Park with its wonderful views. The park is home to the Kalemegdan Fortress.

Look – doggie parking in Belgrade!

One of the highlights in Belgrade was the St Sava temple, known for its huge dome. Construction started in 1935, and interrupted by several wars, it was finally completed in 1989. When I was there, the temple was under repair but the crypt (constructed in 2001) was open to the public. The crypt didn’t seem like it was a basement at all. It was quite beautiful with its paintings and decorative tiled floor.

If visiting, don’t miss the beautiful little church next door which is part of the St Sava temple. Everything was painted inside. Beautiful!

Some of our group joined a walking tour of “Communist Belgrade” showing us the National Assembly and Republic Square. The guide told us some interesting stories about the former Yugoslavia and pointed out some of sites of the 1999 bombings by NATO.

Our guide took us to the Museum of Yugoslavian History on public transit. The museum had a huge display of the youth relay batons given to the Yugoslavian dictator, Tito. A great adventure.

Budapest

Our little orientation tour in Budapest showed us the outside of the beautiful Hungarian Parliament buildings. They were completed in 1902 and are lovely! An inside tour will be on the agenda on a return trip.

We saw the sculptured shoes on the Danube river bank. These shoes are a memorial to honour the Jews who were killed during WWII. 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, were ordered to take off their shoes at the edge of the water. Then they were shot so that their bodies fell into the river and carried away.

Our group had fun playing in the interactive fountain in Freedom Square (Szabadság tér). The fountain’s sensors weaken the water flow and stops as a visitor nears them. Our group tried to stop all the water at once – needed lots of people. We were almost successful but could have used one extra person, I think, to get 100% of the water to stop at once.

We rode Line 1 – the little subway line that opened in 1896. It is very quaint and sweet, looks very Victorian and got us to where we wanted to go. I don’t think my photos do it justice.

Another tour mate and I made a bad decision by taking the Hop-On Hop-Off bus in Budapest. It was not too enjoyable as there was so much traffic in the city. It took ages for the bus to get anywhere. After that I just walked everywhere and explored many quiet roads off the main ones.

Budapest is known for its thermal baths. So at the end of our bus tour, we enjoyed the famous Széchenyi Baths. It was all a bit of a mystery of how the changing rooms and lockers worked but we worked it out. It was so much fun as there was a whirlpool that swept us around in a circle along with everyone else. We attempted to go into the length pool but were told that we couldn’t swim in this pool without a swimming cap no matter how short our hair was. I found out after our trip that these baths had 18 pools and we experienced only the 3 outdoor pools. There are 15 indoor pools. Apparently you need a map of the baths to navigate them.

I took a trip up the funicular to Buda Castle on top of Castle Hill. The view from the top was great. I walked around outside, checked out the statues and the buildings and the ruins behind the castle.

St Stephen’s Basilica was very beautiful inside. In the front outside it had an interesting tiled plaza.

The main market was big and very crowded. I thought I would pick up something to eat there for lunch but I couldn’t even get near the counter to order any food as there were so many people.

An old woman begging near the market in the middle section of the road. I don’t think her knees would let her kneel all day in the common and humble begging position.

It was my lucky day at the Hungarian National Museum. I don’t know why but the nice guard let me in for free – maybe it was because I told him I was from Canada. The museum had quite a few interesting displays and I think I would have enjoyed more of the displays if I had a better knowledge of Hungarian history.

Vienna

To get to Vienna, we had another nice drive through the countryside.

In Vienna, one of the first things I did was enjoy the famous and largest market, the Naschmarkt, which had a large variety of foods and other things.

As an intro to Vienna, we had a walking tour of some of the city, highlighting the outside of the Hofburg Palace, its courtyards, and the surrounding area. This palace was the residence of the Habsburgs for over 600 years. The stables are still home to the Spanish Riding School and the Lipizzaner horses.

Here’s an interesting modern building among some of the older ones in Vienna.

There was so much to see in Vienna that I didn’t know where to start or what were my priorities. So I joined a fellow tour mate on the hop-on hop-off bus. We toured through the newer city area and then to our main destination of Schönbrunn Palace. This was the Habsburgs summer palace and another tourist attraction where we couldn’t take photos. We toured through this beautiful and huge palace using the helpful and informative audio guides. Then we walked outside in the beautiful massive grounds and gardens.

On our return to the centre of the city, we treated ourselves to tea and Vienna’s famous chocolate cake, the Sacher Torte. It is described as a dense chocolate cake with a thin layer of apricot jam on top, and coated in dark chocolate icing on the top and sides. It was good but I am sure there are other cakes just as good out there.

Vienna is a large city and has a wonderful and extensive subway that I made good use of to get around. The inside of the famous St Stephen’s church and the outside are impressive. Outside, it’s known for its interesting tiled roof.

One evening some of our group attended a concert of classical music. The concert was in a smaller venue than I expected. It was in a small ballroom of a small palace with only about 80 people in the audience. We couldn’t take photos or video during the concert but I took photos of the lovely room before the concert started. The band kept the performance interesting and entertaining so I managed to stay awake. If I fell asleep, it would have been because of the stuffy room. Each break, they opened the doors and windows to get some fresh air.

I noticed that begging is different in E. Europe than it is in North America, particularly Vancouver. The beggars seem very modest, even humble. They keep their heads down, just sit there, and hope for some money. This woman brought a little stool to sit on for the day.

I wasn’t impressed with the hotel we stayed in as I had to repair our toilet to use it. As soon as we got into our room, I noticed that the toilet wasn’t flushing. Because it was a Friday evening and the hotel’s person to fix it wouldn’t be back until Monday, we’d have to wait until Monday (the day we left) to have it fixed. That meant we had to use the toilet down the hall. Maybe they could give us another room on the Saturday or Sunday as they were all filled up the Friday night. There was no initiative to get an emergency plumber in. I got fed up and started fiddling with the toilet. It was a different system than I was used to and they had the tank lid locked on. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was able to slide the lid a small amount, enough to move something inside the tank. To our surprise, whatever I did was enough so that it worked well enough. Yea, a working toilet, more or less, for the rest of our stay! Other than the toilet, the hotel was very nice. It had a lovely little courtyard in the middle that we took advantage of.

The Czech Republic

Prague

Prague is an interesting and a very busy city with lots of tourists. It is also very much a party town as there were many groups from other nearby countries having parties, stags, etc. Apparently, the booze is cheap. We saw quite a few beer bikes but I hear they might be on the way out. The drinkers cause too many traffic problems. The slow-moving beer bikes block traffic, especially by the drinkers getting off and on the bike, and the drinking tourists create unwelcome noise and garbage.

I walked across the tourist crowded Charles Bridge several times. Construction started in 1357 & finished in the beginning of the 15th C. Now it is pedestrian only. If you are looking for Czech artists, musicians and souvenir vendors, they are here with stands that line both sides of the bridge. The first time I walked across the bridge, I was with my tour group doing a small initiation tour of the city. Unfortunately, my tour group lost me on the bridge because it was so crowded. So I continued on without them.

I climbed the hill to Prague Castle.  The line to get into the Castle looked quite long so, with my time, I decided to see other things instead. (Later I heard the line wasn’t that bad.) I’ll have to visit the Castle the next time I’m in Prague.

While in the Castle area I went into the Strakov Monastery and saw their 2 libraries. Even though the libraries were roped off and we couldn’t go into the libraries, we had a good view from the doorway – impressive. It was extra to be allowed to take photos so I decided to save that cost and download some photos instead. In the hall there was also a varied display of historical objects that was interesting.

I left the castle area and walked down the hill to the Church of St Nicholas. It was ornately decorated in the baroque style.

I passed by the famous astronomical clock in the old town square several times. First installed in 1410, this astronomical clock is the oldest still operating. Our group agreed that it was beautiful but a bit disappointing because you can’t see the changing 12 apostle figures very well. They don’t pop out but pass by inside the 2 top windows so they aren’t very visible.

One evening a fellow traveler and I went for drinks at the top of the famous “Dancing House”.  The building is a hotel but the rooftop is a bar/cafe. There is a restaurant on the 7th floor called the Ginger and Fred Restaurant. You can only go on the roof if you purchase something or pay a fee. While enjoying our drinks, we studied and discussed the dome sculpture on the roof, talked to some interesting fellow tourists, and admired the great view.

Wenceslas Square is a broad boulevard, not square, but it is interesting and busy. It is flanked by a gallery of fast-food outlets and expensive shops. You have to look for it but there is a small memorial to the two anticommunist rebels who lost their lives in 1989. That’s a statue of St Wenceslas on a horse at one end of the square.

I joined another free walking tour in the old Jewish Quarter but found the tour guide was a bit too full of facts and lengthy history to keep my interest.

I only saw a few of the many statues in Prague, including the ones on the Charles Bridge. The most interesting was the shiny rotating bust of Franz Kafka. Kafka was a beloved Bohemian German-language writer. Each panel in the statue rotates independently of one another. I think it would be interesting to go on a statue tour in Prague. Next visit perhaps?

Our stay in Prague was short but it leaves me lots more to see if I ever go back.

Český Kumlov

We traveled by private van to Český Kumlov in the very south of the Czech Republic.  Part of the way, we got to go along back roads and through villages. It was a nice drive through the lovely countryside. Český is a very photogenic and small historical town; nice and relaxed but still had lots of tourists. Very few vehicles are permitted in the town and only at certain hours. So we had to walk into town pulling our luggage on the rough cobblestones. At least it was down hill. Thank goodness we left at a time when our vehicles could come and pick us up fairly close to our accommodation so we didn’t have to pull our luggage up hill.

I dashed around to see as much as possible in the short time we were in Český. In addition to seeing what I could of the Castle and views, I climbed up the 162 steps to the top of the colourful Castle tower. A wonderful view here, too.

Poland and Krakow

Poland and Krakow

Our group traveled by private van to Kraków in the south of Poland. On the way, we made a quick stop at a town to see one of the many old Polish palaces. I think it was called Zwiedzanie or Ballestrem Palace. We couldn’t go inside the palace so all we could do here was walk around the grounds, admire and take photos of the palace and that section of town.

We were in Kraków for 2 days. The first day the rain lightly drizzled most of the day. The following day, it rain lots.

Our group went on tours of Auschwitz and the neighbouring Brakenau. We had to prebook a group tour with an educator as you can’t just show up for a tour of the camps. Auschwitz was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres. Over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives here. On display were huge piles of items like shoes, suitcases, prostheses, and eyeglasses – possessions of the victims (political prisoners, Jews, Romas, prisoners of war, people with disabilities, and other groups and people the Nazis wanted to exterminate). At Brakenau we saw the remaining chimneys from the many gas chambers and toured some prisoner barracks. It was a sobering day.

Kraków is so interesting. There is so much history here.

The huge market square dates back to the 13th century and is one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. I probably would have had a better look around the town square to see what the vendors had if it hadn’t been raining so much.

I visited the Church of Sts Peter and Paul. The statues outside in the front of the church are saints.

Then the very beautiful Church of St Mary (built in the 14th century). This church with 2 spires shows in an above photo of the market square.

The Dragon of Wawel Hill is a dragon in Polish folklore. His lair was in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill on the bank of the Vistula River and connected to the Castle by tunnel. I was able to see him breathing fire. What excitement!

I went to the castle (The Wawel) on Wawel Hill.

I thought touring the Castle was a bit of a complicated system, particularly with a language barrier. The amount I paid was according to the number of sections of the Wawel Castle I wanted to see. I paid for the Crown Treasury and Amory, the “Lost Wawel” exhibit, the State rooms, and the Royal Apartments. The cashier managed to convey to me the order I was to visit them in but didn’t explain why. So, as directed, I went into the Crown Treasury and Amoury first.  There wasn’t much of the treasury there but there was plenty of armoury stuff so that was disappointing. As the armoury items didn’t interest me, I could have skipped that. The State Rooms were ok and quite typical of others I’ve seen. 

Renovations were going on outside in the inner square of the Castle so there was quite a bit of scaffolding. Because of this, I found it difficult to find the entrances of the various exhibits.

Photos are not permitted inside the Castle. I managed to take one photo of an object in the Treasury before the “no photos” signs appeared. I’m disappointed I don’t have any photos as a souvenir of my tour of the Castle. I couldn’t even find any decent online photos to show you. Sorry!

The “Lost Wawel” was interesting, had good presentations, and was the most interesting of the sections. The exhibition is organized around an archaeological and architectural site. The stone edifice was built directly on rock, perhaps even before 1000 AD; its remnants discovered in 1917. I saw objects and specimens of architecture from various periods of development of Wawel Hill. There was a display of beautiful stove tiles, stone sculptures, and architectural elements found during archaeological digs on Wawel Hill for over a century. For me, the “Lost Wawel” was worth going in to see.

A security guard stopped me at the entrance to the Royal Apartments. He said I was too early and that I had to come back at a certain time. Apparently, there were assigned times on my ticket that I didn’t understand and the cashier didn’t explain that to me. However, it didn’t seem to matter with the other 3 sections I went to. Because I planned on a scheduled walking tour, I couldn’t come back to see the State Rooms exhibit at the assigned time so I went back to the cashier to complain and perhaps get some money back.  With the help of someone who spoke English at the reception desk, I got my point across but I didn’t get any money back. Well, it’s all an experience.

The tour I wanted to get to was a free guided walking tour of the Jewish Sector, the “Kazimierz district”. Unfortunately, it was raining all day – and not just the drizzle of the previous day that we had at Auschwitz and Berkenau – but rain. So I didn’t enjoy the walking tour as much as I hoped to. I am sure it would have been a great tour without the rain. The rain made it difficult to look up and see things. Eventually, I just wanted to get back to my dry room. The Vistula River was overflowing its banks this day. When I got back to my room, I was soaked to the skin. So much for my waterproof rain jacket! Unfortunately, I did come down with a cold for a few days. (No photos of this tour again but due to the weather this time!)

In hindsight, I would have been better off waiting around for my time to see the State Rooms. At least they would have been inside and not out in the rain! But who knew it was going to rain so much.

Vistula River, Kraków

To add to our fun, our group took 3 modes of transport to our next destination. After taking taxis to the bus depot, we all took a public bus to Buhumin, just into the Czech Republic. From Bohumin we took a train to get to Prague.

Berlin

I flew to Berlin to start my Eastern Europe and Balkans adventures. I opted to spend a few extra days in Berlin before meeting my G Adventures tour group. I am glad I did as there was so much to see.

At the airport in Berlin, I purchased a Berlin Welcome Card which allowed me to use public transport freely and also gave discounts at some attractions, restaurants, etc. I pat myself on the back for purchasing this card as it was a good investment. It allowed me to just hop on a bus, subway, tram or bus without having to worry about paying. And, yes, I did take them all in the 4 days I was in Berlin.  The more I was in Berlin and got used to their wonderful and extensive public transit, the more I liked Berlin.

My accommodation was in what used to be East Berlin.  The difference between East and West is probably not as obvious as it used to be but I certainly noticed the difference in some of the older buildings. In my area of apartment buildings, it was obvious that many of the balconies were added on sometime after the building was completed.

As a reminder – the Berlin Wall started falling  9 November 1989, 3 October 1990 was the day Germany was officially reunified and East and West Berlin formally reunited.  After having been there, I’ve enjoyed doing some research on their history.

I wanted to take the 7 hour walking tour of Berlin but I was the only willing English speaking tourist. So I joined 2 others for a shorter walking tour. The 3 of us still did not make up the complement the tour company needed so we paid extra to make the tour viable. It was a good tour and even better since our group was so small. We saw the government buildings, the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, the location of Hitler’s Bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, the Jewish memorial, some of the remaining Berlin Wall, and the Topography of Terror, along with some interesting tales and discussion. I returned to the Topography of Terror when I had time to read the information boards outside along the wall and view the exhibits properly in the museum.

It was good to see that Berlin doesn’t hide its dark history but puts it on display so we can all learn from it.

My accommodation was near centrally located Alexanderplatz. Alexanderplatz is a huge public square of several blocks and a huge transport hub. It is one of Berlin’s major commercial areas, with a hotel, various shopping malls, department stores and other large stores.  It is a modern area in several sections, with statues here and there, and serves as a meeting place for many people.  It is also a common place for protests and demonstrations. There are outdoor concerts and various forms of entertainment at various times.  It is home to the World Clock and the TV Tower.

After buying a ticket to go up to the top of the TV Tower for a birds’ eye view of Berlin, I had to wait only 80 minutes for my turn in the elevator.  I made good use of the time by exploring more of Alexanderplatz. By the time I went to the top, the wait for the elevator was 2.5 hours. The viewing area was not very high but there are no tall buildings around. The view was great but I did silently curse the kids and other inconsiderate people who sat or lay on the displays boards. By the time I returned to the ground, the wait was even longer. The earlier in the day, the better.

Back on the ground, I walked to nearby Nikolai Quarter, Berlin’s oldest residential quarter, although most of its mediaeval-looking streets and quaint houses were built after the war.  It was cute and definitely had a different feel and atmosphere than the rest of Berlin. I walked past the Rathaus Town Hall (know as Red City Hall because of its red bricks).

Further along was the Berliner Dom (Cathedral). It offered guided tours only so I didn’t go in. I’d like to take the tour on a return visit.

I walked around and looked at the rest of the buildings on Museum Island, then walked along the famous Unter den Linden boulevard to Brandenburg Gate. I found an interesting area along one of the rail lines as it was out of the main tourist area and had stores, restaurants, etc. underneath the rail lines. They made good use of the space.

The Berlin Story Museum was good but I found that there were so many photos with no explanations. The portable audio was very long and I couldn’t find a way to fast forward through parts but the museum was still interesting. The DDR Museum (an interactive museum about East German life during the cold War) was good and very busy.  I would have liked to go into the Reichstag and walk up the dome but I had to prebook a ticket – I had other things to see and do.

The “American guards” at Check Point Charlie are hired – actors, etc. Rumour has it that these guards are also strippers. However, they kept their clothes on whenever I was there so I couldn’t confirm the rumour.

When I was at the East Side Gallery (a section of the Berlin Wall), there was thunder and lightning in the area. I was able to quickly view it all before the rain started. The Gallery consists of a series of murals painted directly on a 1,316 m (4,318 ft) long remnant of the Berlin Wall. Quite impressive.

For a change, I got away from the centre of Berlin via train and bus to the Charlottenburg area. Charlottenburg has Berlin’s largest palace. This Palace was reconstructed after being damaged in the war but it is still very nice and opulent. I strolled around the huge gardens and park.  The Belvedere Tea House, built in 1788, had a view of the river Spree, and a lovely large display of old porcelain.

The longer I stayed in Berlin and mastered the transit system, the more I liked it. I would definitely love to go back and see the many things I missed and didn’t have time for in my 4 days there. A return trip could be in store in the future to see more buildings, the Berliner Dom, and museums.

A popular symbolic icon of the former East Berlin is the Ampelmänn (“little traffic light men”).  It is one of the few features of communist East Germany to have survived the end of the Iron Curtain with his popularity unscathed.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ampelmännchen acquired cult status and is a popular souvenir. I can see why. There are a couple of tourist shops in Berlin selling Ampelmann souvenirs but there was nothing I particular had to have!

Towards the end of my stay in Berlin, I joined my G Adventures group. There were 14 of us plus the CEO (Chief Experience Officer!) We had a nice mixture of 4 Canadians, a Kiwi, some Aussies, and 2 Costa Ricans.

More adventures from Eastern Europe and the Balkans to come.

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