Monday, May 31, 2010

Safely in Sofia

Good morning from Sofia, Bulgaria! What a fantastic, comfortable, and easy bus trip that was. There was so much to look at.  It was the first time I was in Moravia, Czech Republic. I loved seeing all of this beautiful wine country.  The bus drove through Brno, and I remarked to my bus companion "wow, so many panalaks (Communist working housing that looks like an American housing project). It's too bad."  "I don't see them that way," she said. "to me, it's normal."

I had always heard that Bratislava was a Communist architecture monstrosity, but it didn't look so bad as we drove through it.  My Slovakian companion showed me the historic castle up on the bluff overlooking the Danube.  The Danube River was large, filled to the brim, and it looked worth singing about. The bridges in Bratislava were beautifully designed and quite striking.

From Bratislava, we drove on toward Budapest. I loved seeing this crazy Hungarian language on all of the road signs.  In both Slovakia and Hungary, it looked like the topsoil had been eroded away (Iowans care deeply about such things - we're topsoil proud).  Hungary had beautiful wildflowers, especially fields of wild red poppies.  I wonder if Frank Baum, the man who wrote "The Wizard of Oz" had been to Hungary.  Remember when Dorothy falls asleep in the field of poppies? I don't think buses go through the pretty parts of a city because I didn't see any historical parts of Budapest, only globalized McDonald's drive-thrus and Aldis. Not so compelling.

A friend of a friend was on the bus and she prepared me that we would have to sit for a long time on the Serbian border because it wasn't a part of the EU. I'm glad she had told me this because it took a good hour.
Most of our journey through Serbia was in the dark.  My only real outside contact with anything Serbian was going into two globalized large convenience store/gas stations that could have been anywhere in the world. That hardly counts!

We arrived a half-hour early.  I chatted up three Bulgarians the whole way and they were so kind and helpful to me when we arrived in Sofia.  They helped me haul all of my luggage to the storage facility and translate with the staff there.  Truly, when I have an interaction like that, it makes me vow to look out for foreigners who need help when I'm also traveling.  These Bulgarian bus drivers were so nice and helpful too.  I was the only American on the bus. Now it's time to connect with my Sofia couchsurfing host.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I've Got a Ticket to Ride

I decided to take a bus to Istanbul because I knew it would be a volcano-proof plan, I wouldn't have to stay awake watching my luggage like on a train, and I simply wanted a sense of the geography and distance I'm traveling.

My daughter asked, "Does it get to count as a country you've visited, if you just ride through it?" I thought yes.  I told her, "well I count Poland and all I did was go through the Warsaw airport."

"That soooo does not count!" she insisted. What's your standard, gentle reader, for saying, "yes, I visited that country?"  I figure if you breathed their air, you visited it.

This morning, I"m boarding a bus at 9 a.m. for a 27-hour bus ride to Sofia, Bulgaria.  It's a little wierd to be looking forward to a 27-hour bus ride, but hey, that's me. The route covered is fascinating.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I'm moving to Istanbul!

Today is a blur.  A sunny, potentially relaxing day in Prague but still a blur. I'm packing up my things because today marks my last day in Prague.  I hope it's "just for now." I realized when I came here this time that my love of the Czech Republic wasn't going to be fulfilled by just coming for a couple months and doing my to-do list of sites. It's not a "if it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium kind of feeling." This is a life-long passion for a country that has only increased, not decreased with my three months here.

My 90 days in the Schengen zone is up, and I need to move somewhere out of the Czech Republic to apply for residency.  I looked at Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, and Russia in addition to Istanbul. Everyone raves about Istanbul.  And I have a friend there.  It made me count up how many times I've moved to a new place without knowing a soul: eight.

I have been truly blessed with incredible friends here in Prague, especially in my church home of St. Clement's Church.  They sent me off with much love!  Well, here, my chaplain tells it well. I'll let him tell it, you can read my plan, and I'll keep packing.  And returning library books.  And dropping off thrift items.  You know what these kind of days are like!  Click on this link to read my plan. 

Food and Views at the Prague Food Festival

On the tram
heading up to Prague Castle
from Malastranská

Last night was the start of the Prague Food Festival, taking place this weekend at Prague Castle. Elsie Pells, a Cape Wine Master from South Africa and Karen Parker, an Australian expat from Adelaide and I went out to enjoy the view and the food.

 Karen and Elsie entering the festival
set up in the Prague Castle Gardens

Karen and Elsie
are both very active members in the
International Women's Association of Prague

Just looking at the beautiful scene
we knew we were in for a wonderful evening.
Beautifully carved watermelons on display.

I was fascinated by these
suckling pigs on a spit

American food writers always say that Americans
are so far removed from the real source of their food.
I took a moment to take in the reality of this rotisserie pig
complete with his juicy eye sockets and seam up his belly.
I can see why meat gets sold in sterile packages.
It is a lot easier to face!

The castle gardens look over
all of Prague.

 I love this picture of Elsie.
She was our wine master
suggesting vintages for the evening.

Elsie is proud to represent a new
South African wine on the Czech scene
called Phant (short for Elephant).

Wouldn't a bottle of Phant
be a perfect hostess gift or
wine to serve during South Africa's
coming-out party - the World Cup?

This was my food selection:
salmon on wasabi potatoes.

The ladies had a beef burger
with fois gras tucked into the burger.
Our selections were from
the Kampa Group booth.

The light became golden as the sunset
slowly spread through the clouds
on part of Prague.
 The sun stopped short of the House of Tyn
But you can see the spires on the Old Town Church
with the Zizkov TV tower in the distance.

A rainbow appeared
over the incredible view of the city.
Pinch me.  I'm in Prague.
I'm at the Castle.
This is one of my last evenings in Prague.
I feel so privileged to get to see this.

We stayed until the festival closed.  It was sparsely attended the first night, probably due to the iffy weather.  We watched the full moon play with the clouds, finally it rose from behind it's cover and as large and as golden as a charger plate, it came out in full glory for our admiration.  What a setting! We slowly walked down the cobblestones stairs of Prague Castle, savoring every moment of aesthetic pleasure, and went home.

Related posts: Who Will Be the Czech "Jamie Oliver"?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" Under the Stars at Letní Scéna

As soon as I read that the Prague Shakespeare Festival was going to put on "Romeo and Juliet" under the stars in the medieval open-air Vyšehrad theatre called Letní Scéna, I knew I had to go! "Romeo and Juliet" is, of course, the most romantic play in the English language and Vyšehrad, overlooking the Vltava River, is one of the most romantic places in a city overflowing with romantic places. It was such an inspired idea. And ladies, you don't always need a man in tow to appreciate the romance of the setting! Romance is a state of mind.

I forgot to take a picture of my date, Black Girl in Prague, who was her usual fabulous self.  I waited to meet her at the Vyšehrad Metro Terrace.  Since I forgot to eat before I came, I slipped into the little Thai restaurant there so I would have some food in my stomach.  Who wants their hunger to interrupt the balcony scene? Not me.  I expected no greatness from any restaurant situated within a metro station.  Indeed, the opposite.  After all, the customers are in a hurry, there is graffiti everywhere outside, what could possibly be aesthetically-pleasing about the experience? I even let the waiter pick my food out because I was too lazy to make a choice myself.  OK, so I was wrong. Greatness can reside in a metro restaurant.

Kaeng pet kai, rice, and green tea
at Yam Yam Thai Restaurant.
The open-air theatre
at Vyšehrad.
Can't you picture
all the people and performances
that have taken place here
over hundreds and hundreds of years?

We were lucky to grab one of the seats with a back rest.
Can you find me in the audience?

Prague theater director
Gordon Trufitt and his wife Eva
sat across the aisle.

I used to see my Prague blogging buddy
everywhere in Prague.
This was my first time meeting
Grant Podelco and his fiancee Daisy
 with young Emma.
It was a pleasure!
Grant gave me great blogging tips during intermission.
He writes two blogs: Gusto and Grant's Prague Bike Blog.

Mercutio was played by Guy Roberts.
Guy is the Founder, President and Artistic Director
and he was sooo good in his role as Mercutio.
David Fisher played the Nurse.
You know when you watch someone act
and you can just tell how much fun their having?
David Fisher almost stole the show
with his hilariously bawdy portrayal
of Juliet's Nurse.
Wow, could he project his voice too!
Romeo and Juliet
were played by
Kendrick Ong and
Lenka Fisherová-Novaková
Juliet had wonderful enthusiasm
and Romeo was appropriately dreamy.
We had great seats for
enjoying the ensemble on stage.

I loved the sword fights!

Letní Scéna (Open Air Theatre) was perfect
for balcony scenes.
Thanks so much to Guy Roberts and his artistic company at the Prague Shakespeare Festival for putting on an enchanting evening of theater.  It can't be easy in this funding environment. I for one, appreciated the opportunity to enjoy your gifts!  Prague Shakespeare Festival will put on the play "As You Like It" May 12-22, 2011 in this same theatre next year.  I'm impressed with the ambition for next year: ten days of performances!

Related Posts:

Prague Playwriting Contest Shows Off Three Finalists

Wonderful English Language Theater in Prague

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Couchsurfing Hike to Český ráj

 Striking rock formations
dominate the forest
Who can resist an invitation to Český ráj (Czech paradise)? Not me. Just the name alone says "visit!" Last Sunday, the Bohemian hiking group on got out town for a day in paradise.
Jan Hus was a Protestant reformer
who lived 100 years before Martin Luther.
He was burned at the stake.
Memorials to him appear everywhere
in the Czech Republic.
Even deep in the forest.
Liability lawyers have not yet
discovered the Czech Republic.
Sssh...keep the secret.
Enrico from Ecuador
enjoys the climb.

A beautiful young woman from Nepal.

Chillin' at the top
of some beautiful rocks. 
Czech Paradise indeed.
The view from the forest.

Cameron, our hike organizer and leader
He's an Eagle Scout: "always prepared."

 Look who else was on the trail:
a German knight.

Coming out of the forest, we crossed this gorgeous field.
I felt like I was in the Wizard of Oz' poppy fields.
It was that magical.
The bright yellow crop is rapeseed.
It gets processed and renamed: canola oil.

Me, amidst the rapeseed.

Ana from Mexico playing.

I think I did a great job
on this photo of Natalia.
She took the majority of these photos,
except for this one.

Our goal - 14th century castle ruins

One view from the top of the tower

Half our group:
we had 22 people from all over the world.

Waiting for the bus to take us to the train
to take us back to Prague 2.5 hours away.
Our round trip tickets costs $7.50 each.
Add in a hearty Czech dinner and beer .
An entire day of hiking for $12.50.
Yep, Paradise!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Celebrating 90 Years of Artist Zenděk Sýkora

On a tip from a sophisticated, handsome young Czech at the opening of the Pod Ball: Malí Urvi II exhibit now showing at DOX Contemporary Art Museum in Prague, I went to visit an art show at the Municipal Library Gallery in Prague to discover an artist new to me.

My friend said, "Zenděk Sýkora is probably the most important Czech painter alive right now, go see his show!" So off I went. Mr. Sýkora is 90 years old and the works assembled represented a retrospective of his life's work. When someone is 90 years old and this productive and vital, it gets my respect automatically, even before I saw his work. Then I also imagined what it's like being an artist during regimes when being an artist was suspect.

Mr. Sýkora was deeply inspired by nature as an artist.  One of the most intriguing first paintings in the exhibition is a very geometric gray work of art that is his representation of still, shimmering water.  It made me think about my own visual image of still, shimmering water.  I loved the idea of someone focusing that deeply on beauty we all know and producing something that challenges one§s own images.

His work from the 1960s and 1970s seems emblematic of those decades.  I can't put my finger on why, but it does.  It's very structured and geometric.  Throughout his career, Mr. Sýkora used mathematics and geometry to express the systems and randomness of nature. If you are at all drawn to those two things, I know you'd love his work.

From those structured works, he moved onto lineal paintings. He was among the first in the world to use a computer to help him develop the random numbers necessary for much of his work. The program notes (printed in English, thank you) said, "he was captured by the expressional power of a line rising on a boundary of the connection of two original elements." I didn't relate to the mathematical components of his work, yet I still found that all of his work uplifted my spirit.

Then I came across work of his that I already know and love.  My friend Pavel had introduced me to the beauty of these murals at the Cafe Emporio (now called the Cafe Elite) last year.  I love this tile mosaic!  Apparently, it was installed in a metro station at this spot on Jindřišská Street.  Now it is a cafe.  Why there is no longer a metro station there, I don't know. But the gorgeous tile mosaics remain.  Sýkora's art looks sublime on such a large scale!  In the show there was also two other pieces I would love to see in place: a linear installation at the air traffic control facility in Prague and geometric structured pieces covering Letná ventilation shafts.

The exhibit space is magnificent, and as a librarian, I envy the Municipal Library's space.  It's fantastic and world class.  Libraries in America usually don't have that amount of square footage available to mount shows of this scope.  It not only says something about the Library, it says something about the Czech people of the 1920s for their willing investment in their own art and culture.  One small suggestion I have for future shows is to include English subtitles on the video where the artist discusses his work.  Then the whole world can discover him! For beautiful photographs of the rooms filled with art, click on my title.

So... after looking at that gorgeous art do you need a little refreshment?  If so, then come with me! I'm heading over to the Grand Orient Cafe housed in the famous House of the Black Madonna designed by the master of Czech cubist architecture.  I want to enjoy the outdoor balcony.  Spring is bursting out of every windowbox.

My friend Pavel, a former demi-soloist for the National Ballet introduced me to this cafe too.

Fresh mint tea and the wonderful, totally-worth-the-calories Czech pastry věneček.  Ooh-la-la! Did you know you could make mint tea with just the leaves of fresh mint? I didn't know it was that simple.  Now I know.  My waiter is so divine it's like a joint celebration of the city, the view, the cuppa, and the pastry. It also helps that we are united in the knowledge that on this exact day we are both in the momentary center of the known universe: Prague, where the President of the United States of America and the President of Russia are meeting. My waiter most definitely could serve the King of England, cause that's what waiters, at least fictional waiters, do in the Czech Republic.

Hope you enjoyed the break.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hiking the Sázava River in Central Bohemia

I had used several times as I started my empty nest vagabonding adventure for accommodations, but it was while I was back in America, I discovered I wasn't utilizing all of the wonderful parts of the site. So  I joined several groups related to where I was living and took part in the events that people organized. What a wonderful way to meet fabulous people immediately in a new location. Each person had an adventure tale to share!

Now back in the Czech Republic, I joined the group on Couchsurfing dedicated to hiking Bohemia and signed up for a hiking adventure organized by a lovely young Muscovite studying for her Ph.D. in the Czech Republic. Natalie, or Tashka to use her Russian diminutive, had gone kayaking along the Sázava River in Central Bohemia the week before and wanted to hike the Posázavská stezka (trail along the Sázava River) this week.

We took a train about an hour south from Prague (24 km) to Kamenný Přívoz; Tashka knew all the tricks for booking at the lowest cost such as group discounts and buying the ticket from the last station out of Prague rather than from the center (a Prague metro pass covers everything in the city).  For our tickets, we spent 51 kc each (about $2.50 for a round trip) and the price would have gone down to 30 kc if were five.  Amazing value! Regular readers of the my blog know how in love I am with Czech trains.

The train followed the Vltava and the tributary we were heading to, the Sázava River, the whole way allowing us to enjoy the gorgeous, sparkling view from the window.  The one cultural difference I discovered on the train is that Czech dads don't make silly fake-scary sounds whenever the train went through dark tunnels thereby fake-embarrassing their families.  Pity.

my hiking companion

Just off the train in Kamenný Přívoz at the start of our hike
Our first view of the river is below.

We started our hike the way Czechs start their hikes:
with beer.  This Czech brew was new to me: Svijany.

We laughed: This house sign translates as
"Such a normal family" 

A relaxing view of the river rafters
from one of the many beautiful little cottages

One of the railway bridges our train used
to drop us off at Kamenný Přívoz

It was highly entertaining to watch the rafters and kayakers
decide what was the best way down the river

One of the many beautiful cottages along the river.
I love the humbleness of these cottages.
It's all about relaxing, not impressing the neighbors.

Most of these cottages had their own privy.

This cabin was under construction so you could
see their future river view through the back window.

Magificent, isn't it?
And the sound of the river was so refreshing.

This area was known for the cherished Czech tradition
known as "tramping." During Communist times, people would
come out to the forest for the weekend.  They could do and say
what they wished.  They built makeshift camps or slept on the ground.

Is your stress lessening just a little?
Any I had, melted away.

The view looking away from the river.
Peaceful, towering forest on the mountain of Melnik.

This cottage owner created his greeting for the rafters.
"Ahoj" is Czech for hello!

A sleeping platform or treehouse close to the water.

The trampers were in love with Wild West themes from America.
Often the camps were "cowboy" or "Indian."
We saw cabins with names like Oregon and Ogden.

Tramping is dying out with each ensuing year of capitalism.
I don't think the land is owned by the State anymore either.

A Czech cottage owner
getting his place ready for the season.

The sign says something like:
"Be patient hikers, in 280 steps you will find a restaurant."
 I liked Taska's subtitle for this photo best:
"It's impossible to die in the Czech forest."

Don't look now but we have an unexpected guest.
She maybe here for an old Czech tradition.
I don't know. I hope she's here just to delight us.

The wind catches her skirt.
Can't get enough of her, can you?
Ok, one more picture.
Look, she's drinking and flying.

How would you like to carry your groceries
up these steps?

"Drinkable water" was available at this spring
along the trail.

War memorials are everywhere in the Czech Republic.
On our 10 km hike we saw about eight different ones.
Notice that the little village we finished our hike in, Pikovice,
had lost what looks like three members of the same family
in the first World War.

This is the map Tashka used to plan our trip.
It shows all of the hiking and biking trails within that
white square of territory in the Czech Republic.

All of the trails are marked by volunteers
so you never have to worry about getting lost.

A last look at the Sázava River
as we cross over to the Pikovice train station.
This is where many of the kayakers
and rafters end their journey too.

Our train was perfect for this route.
Older and not the fanciest carriage in the fleet,
it welcomed wet kayakers, rafters, dogs,
tired and aching hikers, and bicyclists
who were in that back compartment
beyond the seats with their bikes.

On the trip back to Prague, we watched people
rollerblading along the river stoking ideas
of new adventures to be had.
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