Chapter 9: Lifting the Iron Curtain (Cold Wind)
Trip Start May 10, 2006
21Trip End Dec 17, 2006
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Czechoslovakia fell under communist rule post-WWII and most any attempts at resistance or freedom were crushed by the Soviets. Demonstrations and protests spread after the fall of the Berlin Wall (early November 1989) and free elections were held in June 1990, with the Communists not getting many votes. The Czech and Slovak Federated Republic didn't last too long and the countries peacefully separated 31 December 1992. Since then the Czech Republic has been moving towards EU membership, so get here quick before the Euro makes prices rise as high as Western Europe.
First stop was Ceske Budejovice. Lonely Planet didn't have any good places listed to stay in and I couldn't find anything online, so I decided to just pass through (I actually decided on this on the train trip there...that's how fixed my plans are). Put my bag into storage then went for a wander. Ceske Budejovice has one of the largest open squares in Europe, Nam Premysla Otakara II.
The architecture of the buildings in the square is cool. I looked around the town some more at churches, along the river and any buildings that looked neat. LP said the Budvar (Budweiser) brewery in town had tours at 2pm so I started heading out that way about 1:40pm. The LP map showed it as being 200m north of where its map ended. I walked and walked...at least a half a mile and still no brewery. Eventually I saw it off in the distance and knew there was no chance of making it for the tour (especially since it was now past 2pm). Freakin' LP and their stupid maps. Had a little bit of time to kill before the train so visited an i-net cafe with a very lovely worker. Oy. SMS (txt) Josh and ask what he'd rather do for when he visits - spend a night in Prague or Olomouc. He said he'd like to see Olomouc, so I decided to continue on north to Prague after seeing Ceske.
Train to Prague. Found a new hostel in town, Miss Sophie's. It's modern and quite nice, but sterile and boring. Leaving the hostel I could see it was going to be a nice sunset, but the old town and bridge were a good walk away and hunger had the upper hand. Had dinner at a place with traditional food...and it was cheap! Ah, so nice to get cheap food again after Austria. When I stepped out of the restaurant, it was raining so I got fairly wet on my walk to Charles Bridge. The rain stopped just about as I got there. Got some nice night pictures and checked out old town (I've been here before in 2004). The pubs were kind of quiet and I wasn't feeling into the cafe scene so just went back to the hostel.
Explored Prague for a day - Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, old town, a market, etc...
Prague really is a beautiful city BUT (and this is a big but) it's soooo full of tourists. I would say it spoils the city. I'd only recommend visiting in the off-season. Worked in a nap and a visit to the train station to book a sleeper for my trip to Krakow in a few days. My feet were dang tired so I couldn't muster up the energy for going out.
In the morning (Sept 1), I met up with Josh at the train station. He had taken an overnight train from Nijmegen in The Netherlands where he's temporarily going to school. We took the metro out to the bus station and wandered around lost a little while trying to actually find it. Caught the bus to Cesky Krumlov. It was packed full with people standing in the aisle. Good thing we got seat reservations. The bus trip was supposed to be 3 hours but took almost 4...and it felt long. Ugh. Checked-in at Hostel 99 where Teeter and I had stayed a couple years prior. The hostel has a nice terrace and friendly atmosphere. It was a fairly nice day and we went off to explore the town (Josh hadn't been here before). The old town of Cesky Krumlov is small with a cool chateau/palace and a river running through it. It's very picturesque and cute.
Walked all over getting pictures and had lunch. Back to the hostel for nap time. We went out to explore more in the evening and had dinner back at the hostel. Josh went to bed early and I met some other travelers in the hostel kitchen and ended up going out with them. A couple people were ok, but most were the ego-centric "trying too hard to be cool" type.
Woke up to a beautiful day. Josh and I went into the town center for breakfast. Stopped by the chateau for a look around and a climb up the tower. In the afternoon, we rented a canoe for a float down the river. It was actually warm so very nice to be out there. The start had us go down a chute where we got soaked and took on a lot of water. We pulled over a little bit later to attempt to drain the water. This turned into an ordeal and we were actually getting more water in the canoe. Eventually we got the water out and started back down the river. I suggested we just float and not paddle much so that's what we did. It was fun to play chicken and see who would paddle first as we headed straight for tree branches or a rock. We were often floating backwards too so couldn't even see what was coming. It was supposed to take 3-4 hours to get to the end (with paddling), but it only took us 2.5 hours. We had to wait around for about an hour to get picked up. Back to town and out to the main square to listen to some live music (some sort of music festival was going on). Had dinner and went to the Horor Bar (they spelled Horror wrong), set with Halloween like decorations.
Up early for hike up to train station. Took the train from Cesky Krumlov to Ceske Budejovice, wait, train to Prague. Bad lunch at station. Train to Olomouc. All in all took 7.5 hours. Long day of travel. Olomouc has been described as what Prague used to be like before being overrun with tourists. Took the local tram out to the hostel. The Aussie lady working there was very friendly and helpful. Josh and I went into the town square to check things out. The buildings are cute, some nice churches and a town hall.
The atmosphere here is good with lots of young people about (i.e., pretty girls). Found a place for dinner then back to the hostel to hang out. We just ended up chatting with some of the other travelers there.
Had the morning to explore Olomouc more so went to St Wenceslas Church (both Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II were here in the 1990s), through the park and saw the town hall clock do its thing at noon. The clock was quite lame really (a remnant of the communist days).
Train back to Prague in the afternoon. Put our bags into a locker then went to see the National Museum. It's full of stuffed animals, rocks, archaelogical stuff. Some of it's interesting, but one can only take looking at so many rocks or fossils. Went to the old town so I could get a magnet and Josh could get some pictures. Also went to Charles Bridge and along the river. Had dinner at the same traditional place I went to my first night there. Again to the train station. Josh had an overnighter back to The Netherlands and I was on an overnight train to Krakow. Said goodbye - I will see him in a couple months in Sydney so he's not rid of me for too long.
Poland has been under constant threat during most of its existence. Germany, Russia, Sweden, Austria and other countries have invaded and seized land throughout the centuries. Following WWI, Poland was given much of its land back and became a real country again. The Nazis invaded in September 1939 triggering the start of WWII. During the war 20% of the Polish population was killed. Following WWII Poland was occupied by Soviet communists. The Polish openly protested time and again, and nearly every time the Soviets stopped the protests forcefully. During the 1980s there were even more protests and strikes. Pope John Paul II, being from Poland, supported the people in their attempts to free themselves of communist rule. In 1989 the communist party met with the Polish Solidarity group and the Church which led to free elections in June. Solidarity won with the communists not getting a single seat. This is one of the events that triggered the downfall of communism and the Soviet Union's collapse. Poland is now a part of the EU, for better or worse. Some Poles are moving away to wealthier nations like the UK in search of jobs.
I have been hearing lots of good things about Krakow for a while so just had to go check it out for myself. The overnight train from Prague wasn't so bad as I had a cabin to myself. I'd heard lots of bad stories about theft on this particular train route, but the cabin had two locks plus a chain and I could hide my bags under my bed so I felt safe. It was a little hard to sleep and immigration came through about 2:30am. Arrived in Krakow at 5:45am and walked through the old town to my hostel. I couldn't have a bed yet so looked around town before all the crowds came out. Market Square is the main square with a market in the middle, a tower, St Mary's Church and many cafes and restaurants around the perimeter. It's big and open and nice.
Back to the hostel for morning breakfast. Went to the train station and caught the bus out to Auschwitz. It was sunny out but quite chilly with a cold wind blowing. Definately felt like Autumn. I did a tour of the concentration camp. It's actually made up of three parts - Auschwitz was the original with mostly prisons and facilities, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) which was the extermination camp and Auschwitz III (Monowitz) which was a labor factory. We first toured around the original facility, though the group was so big and the tour leader was soft-spoken it was hard to hear and see everything. Mostly Poles were taken here and early prisoners of war. Torture, experiments and tests were carried out here. Some of the shocking things are to see all the women's hair they collected and the sheer volume of shoes. Shuttle bus out to Birkenau and it's just huge. It was pretty much designed as a place to house and exterminate people. The train tracks were even extended to make the process more efficient. We were told 90% of people arriving were killed right away. You can't even grasp at just how many people that was and what a horrible ordeal those people went through. Thankfully, I escaped Auschwitz (by bus) and went back to Krakow. Hung out at the hostel for a little while then out for dinner. The hostel had a bulletin board where they'd list what's going on each evening so I checked out a couple of their recommendations. The first club was alright - not too many people. There was a bald guy hitting on just about every girl there, and being rejected each time. That was funny to watch. I ran into some people from the hostel at the second club so hung out with them. There were a few fun people in that bunch. It wasn't too happening there so we went to another place that had dancing. I stayed 'til the music got bad then went back to the hostel for bedtime. I was pretty proud of myself staying up so late after being awake at 5:30am and no naptime.
Pope John Paul II was from Krakow and they're very proud of that. There are two statues of him in the city. I saw pictures of when he came to say mass in Market Square and it was absolutely packed with people (I'd saw at least a million people turned out for that). And the city is loaded with churches. My second day in town I probably went in almost ten. I think St Anne's probably had the nicest interior. All were quite lavish and well decorated. Also went up to Wawel Castle and just had to check out the "Dragon's Den". It turned out to just be a lame little cave. The weather started turning cloudy and looking ominous as I walked along the river a ways looking for Kosciuszko Mound, but never found it (apparently it's surrounded by brick buildings). Had lunch and a nap. Went out exploring more. My stomach was feeling a bit dodgy, whether from dinner or lunch I don't know, so didn't go out that night.
I was enjoying these casual days of waking up whenever and just looking around the city at a slow pace. At breakfast I met a couple new people at the hostel. They were off to Auschwitz for the day so I helped with info on transportation. Sunny and warm outside! (That's sort of 3 days in a row of sun! A miracle! Haven't seen that since...Albania?) I wandered around the Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz. I read that 65,000 Jews from Krakow were killed in the concentration camps and today there are only about 100 in this area. Looked around, but didn't take too many photos as synagogues generally aren't too exciting to look at from the outside. Went to more churches in town, by the castle, into St Mary's and up the tower in Market Square (there are bars and windows so you can't actually go out for good pics). Went out with some of the people I met at breakfast (plus others) for dinner. Had goulash plus a drink for just over €3! We went for a couple drinks afterwards then I had to get to the train station for my overnighter to Slovenia. I really liked Krakow - thought it was a cool city and a good place to just hang out for a few days. Places are much better when the sun is out...
"In the middle of the summer
I'm not sleeping
cold wind blowing"
--- "cold wind", The Arcade Fire
Where I stayed