Sunday, August 2, 2015

We visited East Europe - Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia - 03 to 15 May

Stamp collection was a fascinating hobby of mine when we were young. My uncle worked for Deutsche Bank in Mumbai and was a constant source of stamp supply. The most interesting part of the collection was stamps from East European countries such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. The stamps were extremely colorful and large, also issued in triangular and diamond shapes - in comparison Indian stamps were dull and ordinary. Since then these countries have fascinated me and I grew up wanting to visit them at least once.

Having decided to go to Istanbul, the thought of visiting these countries too was irresistible. 

Nair and Kats agreed to join us in our East European adventure.

This leg of our journey took us to Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia.

We decided to stay all through in IBIS budget hotels. They are all located near the city centre and well connected. The hotel offers excellent basic accommodation at very reasonable prices - clean, efficient and value for money.

We considered many options for travel between countries and finally decided to opt for comfortable eight seater vans. There are a number of advantages in choosing a van over bus, train and plane. The cost is comparable with a bus and train – air travel is extremely expensive. The roads are in excellent shape and as a result the transit time between countries was under seven hours. We departed at our convenience – picked up from our door step and dropped at the hotel – enough space for luggage and very comfortable seating. We stopped whenever we wanted for coffee and other requirements. It is also possible to depart from the main route and visit other places of interest on the way and they charge 15 Euros per hour deviation – which I thought was extremely reasonable. The country side is so fascinating; one’s eyes can feast endlessly on the way.  All in all, travelling in a van worked out really well for us.

These countries are extremely well geared for tourism and present a very integrated picture. In addition, the internet is a very big help in finding out tourist information, booking hotels, vehicles, entry tickets and such like – Our entire trip was planned from Bangalore and was executed without a single flaw.

We decided to spend three days in each place and went about it in a very leisurely and relaxed fashion. We had no fixed itinerary but an overall programme. This worked well for us; we were not unduly tired in spite of all the walking one had to do each day. We selected places to visit, spent adequate time in each one, relaxed a bit and then ventured out when we felt like it.

Prague 03 to 05 May 2015

After a comfortable flight we reached Prague around 2PM. We had booked a minivan for our airport pickup and all the other activities in the city.

Figure 1 – City of Prague -Wenceslas Square is one of the main city squares and the centre of the business and cultural communities in the New Town of Prague – from the southern end. Wenceslas Square in Prague is a vibrant area of hotels, apartments,restaurants,bars and nightclubs. There are also banks, local and international shops. It is the entertainment and nightlife centre of Prague, and the main shopping and commercial district begins here.

Praha has become one of the most preferred destinations for tourists especially after the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’, so named because it was non-violent. Popular demonstrations against communism resulted in the collapse of communist rule, and the country embraced parliamentary democracy. The city is extremely old, dating back to 550 BC. In 2004 Czech Republic joined EU. Anti communist feeling is very much alive, especially in their talk and references. It is advisable to convert Euros into the local currency ‘Koruna’ for ease of transaction.

Prague has a very tolerant attitude towards religion. Christianity is the main religion with a very large percentage of people claiming to be tagged as having no religion.45% preferred to stay out of the survey. The effect of communism on their religious outlook may take a very long time to change. A number of immigrants from Ukraine, Slovakia and Vietnam have made Prague their home. There is a sizeable Gypsy population. The population of Prague is around 1.3 million. Germany is the most important trading partner of Czech Republic.

There are both the famous and infamous connected to Prague. Albert Einstein came to Prague in 1911 when he was 31 with his family – the house where he lived was very close to our hotel. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the notorious international criminal, operating under the name of ‘Carlos the Chacal’, stayed at the ‘Inter Continental Hotel’ – Prague – prior to his arrest by the French Secret Service.

We saw an accident site on the highway marked by placing car tyres and flowers on the side of the road.

Cruise down Vltava River – 03 May

We spent a delightful evening, cruising along the Vltava River, watching a beautifully lit water front, amazing bridges and ancient buildings. The weather was a bit cold but tolerable. Inside the cruise boat, it was warm and comfortable. A solo singer with an accordion livened the atmosphere with numbers which included an old Mukesh/Rajkapoor song. The cruise included excellent Czech beer and a lovely spread of meat, salad, cheese and bread. Chilled local beer and sausages were in demand. After an enjoyable four hours we returned to IBIS for a well deserved sleep.

Figure 2 - The ibis Prague Mala Strana is centrally located, close to the historic district of Mala Strana. Most attractions are within walking distance, e.g. Charles Bridge (20 mins away), Prague Castle and Old Town Square. Wenceslas Square is only 3 stops away by public transport, which is only 164 yds (150 m) from the hotel.

Figure 3 – Prague castle from a distance

Figure 4 – Photo op

Figure 5 - The Charles Bridge is a famous historic bridge that crosses the Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic. Its construction started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished at the beginning of the 15th century.

Figure 6 – The famous water front with an overcast sky.

Figure 7 – The water front by night

Hop on Hop off – 04 May

We did the best possible thing we could in an architectural paradise like Prague – took a drive in the ‘Hop on Hop Off’ and acquainted ourselves with the innumerable attractions Prague had to offer. Prague is an extremely picturesque city with an old world charm pouring from every nook and corner. River Vltava winds its way through the city, flowing majestically below numerous bridges, each one of them replete with history and fables associated with them. A popular saying says it all – ‘Prague wears its history on its sleeve’. The city buildings are a treat to any discerning visitor with its unique and different architecture types. The Romanesque period with St. George's Basilica heading the list, the Gothic style with its signature soaring towers, spires and buttresses, the symmetry of the Renaissance,  "less is more “of the  Baroque and the later day Neoclassical – all of these can be seen in all their beauty in this charming city .

Figure 8 – Old city architecture

Figure 9 - The Church of Mother of God before Týn, often translated as Church of Our Lady before Týn, is a dominant feature of the Old Town of Prague, Czech Republic, and has been the main church in this part of the city since the 14th century.

In the latter half of the day we visited places of interest, had beer and lunch by the road side, did a bit of souvenir shopping and mostly took in a lot of what Prague offered.

Figure 10 – Photo op on Charles Bridge. Statues of Saints - John of Matha, Felix of Valois, and Ivan 

Figure 11 - Statue of St. Cajetan. The bridge is decorated by 30 Statues, most of them in Baroque -style

Figure 12 - The statue of John of Nepomuk. On 20 March 1393, he was thrown into the river Vlatava from the Charles Bridge at the behest of Wenceslaus,King of the Romans and King of Bohemia.

Figure 13 - The Mánes Bridge,the ninth bridge over the Vltava River in Prague is like a picture postcard. It was built at a place of a former ferry to a fishing village.

Figure 14 – The castle from a distance – myriad types of architecture mingling to form a mosaic of beauty.

Figure 15 – St Vitus Cathedral .Prague Castle is the largest castle complex in the world. This stunning architectural achievement, which took centuries to complete, reigns supreme from a hill above the rest of the city. It is also the seat of the city of Prague; the first buildings of the small settlement that grew into the capital of Bohemia were constructed here.

Figure 16 – A view of Prague from the castle

Figure 17 – The outer visage of the castle

Figure 18 – Photo op at the castle square

Figure 19 – Imposing old town square tower

Figure 20 - The Prague astronomical clock, or Prague orloj. The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working. The Prague Astronomical Clock, which for 600 years has been one of the greatest treasures of the city, still amazes people with its procession of Apostles, moving statues and visualization of time like no other instrument in the world.

Figure 21 – The National Museum stands majestically overlooking the main thoroughfare.

Visit to Budweiser Brewery and Cesky Krumlov – 05 May

On our way to Cesky Krumlov, which is a three hour drive from Prague, the van driver George kept us busy with lots of tit bits about Prague, making the journey very interesting. Our first stop was at the Budweiser Brewery in the town of Budweis. George told us that Budweiser was not actually born in America. The original Budweiser was first brewed in the city of ‘Budweis’ belonging to former Kingdom of Bohemia, which is today the Czech Republic. In the mid-1870s, Czech breweries began exporting to the States and in 1876, Anheuser-Busch began using the Budweiser brand for its lager. The combination of the exports and the American copycat led to a huge trademark dispute, which continues even to this date.

Saying ‘to hell with the dispute’, we bought some fresh beer and started our elbow bending earlier in the day.

Figure 22 - Adolphus Busch   “The KING OF BEERS” 1839 – 1913, German-born co-founder of Anheuser - Busch . Busch became wealthy and financially independent due to the success of the Anheuser Brewery. In 1891 he bought from Carl Conard the trademark and name Budweiser. He envisioned a national beer with a universal appeal.

Figure 23 – At the brewery

Figure 24 – At a way side restaurant selling African curios amongst other artifacts.

The drive in the open is a visual treat - vast stretches of deep yellow Canola Oil plants brighten the country side. It is extremely soothing on the eye. The oil is also used in automobiles. Agriculture is totally mechanized and very large tracts are cultivated on a cooperative basis. It is very hard to find any human activity on the fields. The fields are totally covered with green vegetation and there are no mud patches to be seen anywhere.

Figure 25 – Endless stretches of yellow Canola oil plant flowers in bloom

The roads as usual are in excellent shape and George maintained a steady 130 KMPH throughout. There is absolutely no difference between a city, small town or village, when it comes to restaurants, utility shops and other conveniences.

The southwestern castle city of Cesky Krumlov is one of the Czech Republic’s finest mediaeval sites. Its Old Town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, a maze of twisting alleys built around the castle. Situated on the banks of the Vltava river, the town was built around a 13th-century castle. It is an outstanding example of a small central European medieval town whose architectural heritage has remained intact thanks to its peaceful evolution over more than five centuries. The ancient city with its narrow and winding cobblestone streets provides an unforgettable walking experience.

It was a nine hour trip to Cesky Krumlov and back.

Viewing the town from any of the Vlatava River bridges is a ‘once in a life time’ experience. The red roof tops of meticulously maintained ancient houses and the river winding its way through the town is simply captivating. 

One gets a feeling of staring at a lovely picture post card when viewing Cesky Krumlov. No amount of words can truly bring out the inherent beauty of the town.

Figure 26 – Entrance to the magical town of Cesky Krumlov

Figure 27 – KM striking a pose

Figure 28 – With Kats dear

Figure 29 - Castle museum in Cesky Krumlov

Figure 30 – Jai and Sudhi posing

Figure 31 – An enchanting township

Figure 32 – Yet another view of the delightful town and its red rooftops

Figure 33 – Unbelievably exquisite

Figure 34 –As if through a kaleidoscope

Figure 35 – Tower in the background

Figure 36 –A familiar sign