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Ukraine Part 2 - Chernobyl: Into the Heart of Apocalypse

A Day at the Site of the World's Most Catastrophic Nuclear Disaster

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NOTE TO READERS: This is Part 2 of my travel blog on Ukraine. Please read Part 1 first, beginning below this entry. The following entry contains graphic descriptions which may be disturbing to some readers. Please proceed with caution. Thank you.

One of the most fascinating guys I met in Kiev was Gabriel. Gabriel ran the E-commerce division of Reader's Digest before quitting his job to travel the world for a year. He has no idea what he will do at the end of this year, but he said the trip has been worth it and he is confident that another E-commerce job awaits. Gabriel told me that his solo travel was most difficult in Bangladesh, where he really stood out to the extremely curious people, and in West Africa, where the residents proved to be extremely aggressive towards him. He loved traveling solo India, Rajasthan, Morocco, and in the Kashmir region of northern India and Pakistan. Gabriel is going back to India in 2 weeks, and promised to keep in touch. Stay safe, and we will be looking forward to hearing your updates!

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The email confirming my Chernobyl visit came right after I finished talking to Gabriel about it. The trip was on! The last thing the confirmation message specified was that we were to wear no shorts, tank tops, or open-toed shoes or sandals. Hummm. This got me to thinking. What exactly was I getting myself into? Should I wear my baseball cap and line it with aluminum foil? Beware what you wish for, because you might just get it, I told myself. OK. Deep breath. This was it. I was going to the sight of the most toxic nuclear disaster of all time. On purpose. Needless to say, sleep did not come easily that night.

Our group for the tour of Chernobyl boarded the minibus for the trip early the next morning. We had to submit our passport numbers several days beforehand for special Visas issued by the Ukrainian Government to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area set up by governmental authorities after the disaster to cordon off the site permanently. The area is heavily guarded, and our passports were checked several times going through the multiple checkpoints.

The trip took about 90 minutes and on the minibus they played videos outlining the Chernobyl disaster. On April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor number 4, while undergoing a low power test, caught fire and an unstoppable chain reaction began which resulted in the radioactive core melting down. This caused a steam explosion, followed by a second explosion from the ignition of generated hydrogen mixed with air. The second explosion blew the top off of the reactor and its building, exposing the radioactive reactor core to the open air. A huge cloud of lethal radiation spewed forth into the atmosphere and was then blown by the prevailing winds across Europe. According to Wikipedia, "Four hundred times more fallout was released [at Chernobyl] than had been by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima." Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear accident in history, and is the only level 7 instance on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Wikipedia states that, due to the intense radiation released into the surrounding environment during the accident, "farming or any other type of agricultural industry would be dangerous and completely inappropriate for at least 200 years. It will be at least two centuries before there is any chance the situation can change within the 1.5-mile Exclusion Zone. As for the #4 reactor where the meltdown occurred, we estimate it will be 20,000 years before the real estate will be fully safe." How long is 20,000 years? To put it in perspective, the Last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago.

From Wikipedia. "The reactor had many safety measures built-in, but they could easily be shut off or circumvented. The Chernobyl scientists had too much faith in the reactor and wanted to proceed with their experiment at all costs, so they disabled many security features, believing that a major incident would not occur. Among the systems that were disabled were: ECCS (Emergency Core Cooling System), LAR (Local Automatic control system), and AZ (emergency power reduction system). From the start, the experiment's parameters went beyond the normal safe conditions of the reactor. This was further compounded when the chiefs on duty while the experiment was being carried out ordered that the safety systems be further circumvented."

We also saw promotional movies from the 1970's and early 1980's showing life as normal in Pripyat, a town of 45,000 people created 2 km away from the Chernobyl plant for the workers to live in with their families. We saw people shopping, swimming in meets, and spending sunny days on the town square. They even showed families in Pripyat having fun snowball fights in the woods. The films obviously were made to draw new workers from around the Soviet Union to the massive Chernobyl nuclear complex. Pripyat is a ghost town now, however. Everyone was evacuated by bus within 48 hours of the accident, never to return.

Here is a shot or us approaching the first checkpoint at the 30 KM Outer Ring of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The authorities do not allow photos of the actual checkpoints or of certain areas of the site close to the reactor itself for security reasons. Here we are driving under service pipes elevated over the road, added after the accident.

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Inside the 30 KM checkpoint but outside the deadly 10 KM Inner Ring is this building, used as a headquarters for the area. We were led inside the building and were debriefed.

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This is a blast map of the Chernobyl incident. The explosion in reactor 4 took place at 1:23:45 a.m. The wind was blowing towards the west that day, so the areas west of the reactor got the worst contamination. On the second day the wind shifted towards the north, spreading the radioactivity in that direction. If the wind had been blowing to the south or southeast that April 26, all of Kiev with its beautiful golden churches very well could be nothing but a ghost town now.

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We boarded the minivan again after the debriefing and drove through the town of Chernobyl itself. Reactor 4 got its name from the town of Chernobyl, but Chernobyl is much further from the reactor than Pripyat. Some former residents, displaced by the accident, actually petitioned the Ukrainian government to return to their former homes after "decontamination," and this has been allowed in recent years. Only about 200 former residents have been allowed to return to the Exclusion Zone, and their average age is 76 years old. When they pass away, no new settlers will ever be allowed to return. Doctors and deliveries from a grocery store come to them once a week - twice a week during the harsh winter. Many residents have said that they do not feel at home anywhere else, and that they just want to live out the rest of their days in their own homes working their own land. Our guide told us that "they have the same lives as people in other Ukrainian villages; they just don't have as many neighbors."

In addition to these 200 residents, the Exclusion Zone is also home to about 4000 workers responsible for the environment in the area. The workers have staggered 15 days on, 15 days off schedules to lower their overall radiation risk. Their families are not allowed to stay in the zone.

We passed this small church in Chernobyl that is 250 years old. The returned residents still use it to perform their own services and pray. It actually was being used while we were there. We paused and listened as prayerful voices behind the gate lifted their song to God.

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A glimpse of two of the current Chernobyl residents.

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Our next stop was at what is left of the "Liquidated Vehicles," vehicles used during the disaster evacuation and decontamination. These vehicles carried such a high level of radioactivity that they were put out of service and dumped into this graveyard. Something remarkable about the vehicles is that there used to be many more. We were told that most of them now have been sold by the government as scrap metal. We were to keep off the grass here, as the radiation in the vegetation is much higher than that on the asphalt.

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As if we needed to be reminded.

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This is the Graveyard of Ships. During the decontamination process, several ships containing supplies were brought up the Pripyat River. Due to radioactive contamination they were junked here, left to rust away. We saw a decontaminated building nearby that used to be a ship repair facility, but is now used by the commission which handles the Exclusion Zone forests. Grass and forest fires can make the radioactivity mobile again and burning is tightly controlled.

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We then passed agricultural areas where thousands of infected cattle and pigs had to be shot and where their bodies were disposed. I had not thought about farm animals being victims of the radiation too. The Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, which I did not have a chance to visit, displays photos of deformities in animals as well as humans that the radiation caused. Specimens of animals born with deformities after the accident can also be seen, including an eight-legged baby pig.

Many small villages that used to be located around Chernobyl have almost disappeared, reclaimed by nature during the past 23 years. Forests are flourishing in the Zone and many wild animals have returned, including hares, horses, foxes, wild boars, and even rare species such as the lynx and eagle owl. The reproductive and survival rates among these animals is much lower than normal, however, and research is continuing. The Ukrainian government even designated the Zone as a wildlife sanctuary in 2000.

Here is a shot of one of the buildings currently being reclaimed by nature. I was surprised at how quickly nature can wipe out signs of man, and began to realize that the Exclusion Zone is very probably our best indication of what the earth would look like 23 years after a nuclear war.

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"Decontamination" of the area was done by scooping up layers of the radioactive soil and moving it 1-2 kilometers from the city, where it was dumped into one concentrated super toxic area. Some of the contaminated houses and buildings were destroyed and some were decontaminated and left to be reclaimed by nature or are still in use today by those who live and work in the zone. The buildings and homes still standing were decontaminated by spraying fire hoses on them until the measurable radiation on them was reduced to "acceptable levels."

When the accident happened, radiation had to be dealt with and fires had to be put out. Many unimaginably brave people, knowing they faced certain death, entered the reactor to do what had to be done. These people knowingly gave their lives so that others would live. Many others, including pilots called to fly relief into the accident area, were not told of the radiation risk until it was too late. This is a monument to those disaster workers who fell at Chernobyl. It was placed on the 10th anniversary of the accident. The monument was created not by professional sculptors, but by surviving members of the fire department that took part.

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Here are two close-ups of the monument. The terrified yet determined looks in the firefighters' faces tell the story in a way that I cannot.

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We drove closer to get our first glimpse of the reactor itself. 5 Km out we passed a field that formerly was the site of a village. The accident so contaminated the village that every building in it had to be destroyed and turned under in the soil. The Chernobyl complex actually had 4 reactors online the day reactor number 4 melted down. Here I am standing in front of the four reactors with a drainage ditch leading to the cooling pond. From left to right in the picture you can see reactors 4, 3, 2, and 1. Reactor 4 is to the left of the first striped smokestack.

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I was very surprised to learn that after the concrete sarcophagus was put over reactor 4 and the area was decontaminated, reactors 1, 2, and 3 were put back online to produce power. Our guide explained that Ukraine at the time relied on the Chernobyl facility for around 10% of its electrical needs, and simply could not afford to scrap the remaining 3 operational plants. The last operating reactor, number 3, was finally shut down in the year 2000. Reactors 1, 2, and 3 are still in the process of being decommissioned.

Two more reactors were under construction the day number 4 melted down. Here I am in front of reactors 5 and 6. Number 5 was almost ready to come online. They still stand today exactly as they did on April 26, 1986, looking as if the workers have just gone to lunch.

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Normal background radiation in a large city like Kiev runs anywhere from 12 to 20 micro-roentgens on a Geiger counter. The radiation readings at the 30 Km checkpoint read about 18. Inside the 10 Km Inner Ring levels began to go up dramatically. In the above pictures the readings on the asphalt were about 60, and the readings on the grass, just steps away, ran to about 120.

We again boarded the van and drove even closer. I started to get worried. Exactly how close were we going to get? We finally stopped and got out for a few minutes at this point, a mere 200 yards from reactor 4. We had to be careful taking pictures here because we were closely monitored and the guards would not allow pictures of the fence, right below the frame of the photo. The yellow scaffolding is part of reinforcement efforts in recent years to shore up the concrete sarcophagus, put in place to entomb the reactor, but which is now beginning to collapse. It has been estimated that the sarcophagus still contains enough radioactive material to destroy Europe. A new sarcophagus currently is being built and is scheduled to be ready by 2012. Here I am standing 200 yards in front of Chernobyl reactor number 4 and the sarcophagus. What you cannot see is my heart beating wildly while the picture was being taken.

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The Geiger counter reading where I was standing, right in front of the sarcophagus - 256 micros! The reading inside the sarcophagus? 3000 - not micros, but full roentgens!!!! Everyone get back into the van! Quickly!!

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We next drove to the other side of the reactor buildings. Cameras absolutely were not allowed due to security concerns. Intense decontamination of the remaining reactors in the building have brought the readings immediately around the rest of the plant to around 30 - 60. Looters have hit the exclusion zone many times over the years for things like scrap metal, and intense security is needed at the facility itself even today to combat the possibility of terrorists gaining access to the large amount of remaining radioactive material. Here we visited a memorial to 30 firefighters and plant workers who died battling the initial tragedy. Each was named individually with their own plaque in an outdoor garden setting with a sign above all reading, "Life for life."

As we left Kiev that morning, the guide stopped at a store to pick up several large round loaves of brown bread. I had assumed that it was going to provide the driver and himself lunch during the tour. As we walked away from the memorial garden I saw that he was carrying the big loaves in his arms. "Follow me," he said as he led us to a railroad bridge near the reactor building which spanned a section of the Chernobyl nuclear facility cooling pond. We carefully stepped from tie to tie on the bridge until we were out in the middle. Our guide then broke off and handed us each large fistfuls of the bread. "Watch this," he said, and he tossed a piece as big as his hand down into the water. We all watched as the bread splashed and floated about 20 feet below. Suddenly there was a boiling in the water and a huge mouth appeared from below, vacuuming the bread down like a grain of rice. The creature headed back for the bottom and we stared in disbelief as its long, dark body slid past. I could not believe it when the great fish's tail finally smacked the water's surface. "What the hell was that?" I gasped in horror. "Catfish," the guide replied, tossing in more giant chunks. "Catfish live here in the cooling pond. They have done well in the warm water from the plant, and the radiation does not seem to have affected them adversely. In fact, the conditions here actually seem to favor them." My eyes were glued an epic battle below between three of the behemoths for more food. "How big are they?" I asked. "The catfish? Some here are maybe 3 meters. There used to be one here that was really big - huge. They have very large mouths, no?" My mind quickly did the math. 3 meters - what was that, 8 feet? 9 feet! A little OVER 9 feet! And they do have very large mouths, yes. They looked like they could suck down a toilet. "Do they grow that big because of the radiation?" I asked. "No no, they grow to that size normally." I wasn't buying it. My mind flashed to the Simpsons TV show where the fish in Springfield's nuclear cooling pond routinely appear with 3 eyes. I wondered exactly how tough a catfish had to be to become king of the Chernobyl cooling pond? This thought lingered in my mind as the guide threw another chunk up onto the bank of the pond and we watched as one of the monsters leapt out with an audible smack onto the sloped concrete. A full four feet of his slick body was exposed before he grabbed the morsel and rolled back into the toxic pond's dark depths.

We then drove from the reactor to the town of Pripyat, founded in 1970 to house the workers of Chernobyl and their families, 2 KM away. Here I am at the Pripyat sign. I don't think I'll be putting this picture on this year's Christmas cards.

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When the accident happened, there was no siren or warning for the people of Pripyat. A small explosion could be heard, but that was not unusual and no one took any notice of it at the time. Word began to get around town, though, that something was wrong. Radiation is silent, odorless, and colorless, and the people had no idea they were already being dosed. Curious people from town began to walk to this bridge to get a look at the plant smokestacks to the right in the distance. They could see small fires in the plant's smokestacks and stood to watch. They barely noticed the cool breeze blowing in their faces. They did not know that the breeze was blowing the lethal radiation from the plant directly over this bridge and through their bodies. When we drove over this bridge the alarm on the Geiger counter emitted a shrill whine for a few seconds. Our heads jerked around. The meter read 1600. This after extensive decontamination and the passage of 23 years.

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It took 2 days to evacuate everyone in the Zone on buses. Over 120,000 people were removed from the affected area, which now stretched to 3000 square kilometers in the Ukraine and 2000 square kilometers in Belarus and Russia. The Soviet government, then in power, tried at first to cover up the incident. Radiation then began to drift over areas of Western Europe, and the Soviets finally had to come clean. Due to this cover up there are no official numbers as to how many people died from the radiation at the time or years later. We were told that doctors were forbidden by the Soviet government to list "radiation" as a cause of death. Our guide said that unofficial estimates count the dead, either directly or indirectly related to the accident, "in the hundreds of thousands." People are still dying from radiation-related illnesses today, 23 years later, and this trend will undoubtedly continue into the foreseeable future. Pripyat became a ghost town literally overnight. Here is Pripyat's once bustling town square today.

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Storefronts and former restaurants lining the town square off Lenin Street. I thought back to the films of Pripyat we had seen on the bus. Women were grocery shopping right here. This was a very busy place, especially on the days of the evacuation. Imagine having just a few hours to get your family and your most valuable possessions together and onto a waiting bus, never to return to your home again. There were still hot spots on the square reading 500-600.

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An abandoned apartment complex near the square.

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For some reason moss seems to absorb the radiation even more than the other vegetation. The readings on the asphalt here were around 130. The readings on the moss growing through the asphalt, however, were over 1300, more than 10 times higher. Wikipedia says that a robot sent into the reactor itself has returned with samples of black, melanin-rich fungi that are growing on the reactor's walls. We were instructed to stay off the moss, and we did our best to jump over it where we could.

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One of the spookiest areas of Pripyat was the abandoned amusement park. This area is one of the most contaminated in town because the open area of asphalt here was used as a landing area for emergency helicopters flying over the reactor site. Choppers picked up radiation from the air and deposited it here when they landed. There was something about a place of so much innocent family fun and recreation standing vacant at ground zero that made my blood run cold.

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Abandoned bumper cars in the park.

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Blue eyes that have seen it all.

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The remains of the rusting swing ride.

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Pripyat's Flying Boat ride.

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The ghostly Ferris Wheel dangles its empty cars in the wind like extinguished lanterns against an overcast sky.

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Yellow flowers growing through the radioactive asphalt.

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A building fire escape with a ghostly apparition painted on the side.

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Exterior of the Pripyat swimming facility.

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It looks as though looters have gotten here too. Where is this radioactive material being sold, and, more importantly, for what is it being used?

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The building's gymnasium. Notice that the metal basketball goal has been stripped.

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The abandoned swimming pool. We saw films of swim meets taking place here in happier times.

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The swimming pool's high board. The pool is approximately 18 feet deep.

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Graffiti on the swimming pool tiles.

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The abandoned swim timer made me think of a similar one I saw at the pool of my alma mater Emory University in Atlanta.

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We were able to visit an abandoned apartment block, a time capsule of the days of Soviet urban planning.

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An abandoned apartment bedroom.

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An apartment living room, its shelving units stripped bare and floor slowly rotting away.

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In one of the apartments I found a fading calendar on the wall forever stuck on April, 1986. It actually took me a minute to grasp the gravity of this display, and when I did a cold chill ran down my spine. The calendar reminded me of one in my own kitchen at home, only the family living in this apartment was never able to attend the dentist appointments, birthday parties, or school picnics that most families keep track of here.

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Our last stop in Pripyat was a school attended by the children of the city. We walked quickly through the overgrowth and in through the front door.

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In the school's hallways I could almost hear ghostly echoes of laughter from children long ago.

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The gymnasium's floor is now unstable, so we were not allowed to walk inside.

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The sight of a clock without hands on a deserted schoolroom floor was a bit disturbing somehow.

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The last room I entered was the school cafeteria. I volunteer in the lunchroom and in the library of my daughter's school in the Athens, Georgia area, and this part of the Pripyat school affected me the most of all.

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Lowered sinks along one wall of the cafeteria where small children would wash their hands before meals.

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On the floor of the left hand side of the cafeteria was a dark pile of what I initially thought was trash (see large cafeteria shot above). I moved closer to the pile as I walked around the room taking photographs. Backing up for one shot I glanced down to make sure I was not stepping on anything and something about the pile caught my eye. I turned around and seconds later jumped back involuntarily. The pile did not contain trash at all. The pile contained hundreds of small gas masks, apparently adjusted to fit children.

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I can only imagine how frightening it must have been to be a child here on April 26, 1986, herded into a corner of the cafeteria and told to put on one of these masks. I wondered what it must have been like standing there, looking around at all of your friends and teachers wearing masks too, while a slow silence fell upon the room as everyone began to realize the gravity of the situation. The ensuing chaos must have been terrifying.

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I retreated through the hallway, visibly shaken. I turned a corner searching for the school's exit and saw a pair of children's reading books dropped on the floor next to broken windows. The illustrations in particular struck close to home. Besides the language of the stories, these books easily could have been found in my daughter's Lower School library. I have re-shelved books very similar to these many times myself.

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My last look of the school was down this hallway. I left with my hands shaking and my eyes full of tears. The school in Pripyat still stands there today, silently screaming while it gradually reduces to peeling paint, radioactive dust, and a host of disturbing memories which are best never forgotten.

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We were told that the radiation we received during our hours in the Exclusion Zone was the equivalent of two transatlantic flights. Still, as we left the zone each person in our party was scanned for lingering radioactivity. We put our shoes and hands in special receptacles in these machines at the 10 Km checkpoint. If anyone tested too high their clothes would have to be removed and burned, and their bodies subsequently put through the decontamination process. This actually happened to a Dutch photographer some time ago who spent too much time walking around the woods of the Exclusion Zone. It was a heart-stopping minute as our scans took place, but we all passed and were allowed to exit.

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The van returned us to the building inside the 30 Km ring where we were debriefed initially. Safe food brought in from the outside was cooked on site, and we ate lunch while speaking in subdued tones about the day.

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I slipped behind the scenes after lunch and got this picture of the Chernobyl kitchen. The food was actually pretty good.

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We had been told that no new settlers are allowed into the Exclusion Zone, but this statement is not exactly true. When we left the building after lunch we found that all around the grounds lived several families of very friendly cats, many with young babies. At least one was pregnant. They came up to us to play, but we backed away, hesitant to touch them.

Our van pulled away from the parking lot on the return trip to Kiev and I looked back one last time. The youngest residents of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remained behind to enjoy the afternoon in the grass, completely oblivious that their home is in perhaps the most dangerously toxic place Planet Earth has ever known. I said a prayer, closed my eyes and turned around, unable to view more.

The sun and moon shine equally upon us all, I thought.

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Here is a link giving current information on Pripyat, its history, and its survivors. http://pripyat.com/en/

This link will take you to the Wikipedia article on the Chernobyl disaster. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster

Next: Budapest

Posted by sfoshee 06.23.2009 15:00 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking Comments (7)

Ukraine Part 1 - Lviv and Kiev

Immigrant Day, Mummified Monks, and Gold as Far as the Eye Can See

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This is Kane, from Bateman's Bay Australia. I met him in the breakfast room at the hostel in Krakow and he was a really interesting guy. Bateman's Bay is on the south coast of Australia, and Kane surfed the Pro Junior Surf circuit for 5 years! I thought he kind of looked like a surfer. He plans to return home to work for 2 months and then take off again, possibly heading for the Philippines this time! Good luck Kane, and good surf!

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I didn't plan on visiting Ukraine when I left Athens, but it kept coming up while talking to other travelers on the road. I heard Lviv, near the Polish border was a great undiscovered place, and my wanderlust got the better of me. I did not know the language, the alphabet, or even have a Ukraine guidebook. Could I do it? Ukraine it was! Time to go off of the map!

Instead of taking a direct train, I took the advice of the Lviv hostel owner and took a local bus to the border and then walked across. The minivans were absolutely packed with locals carrying everything they could hold, from suitcases to strawberries. In addition they chatted and yelled the entire way in Ukrainian, while many ate paprika flavored Lay's potato chips! There was no English in sight at all, except for the paprika Lay's. Here is an intimidating shot of me walking the mile or so to the border. My rolling duffel wheel was slowly disintegrating, so I dragged it on one wheel most of the way!

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I grabbed another local bus on the other side and rode in the heat. I noticed that each and every time we passed a church, the older Ukrainian lady sitting in the seat beside me quietly crossed herself and bowed her head.

The bus stopped at the train station and I had to take a tram to the hostel. I used my Iphone translator to get a tram ticket and was on my way through Lviv. I immediately noticed that things in Ukraine were grittier, and I had to watch myself. Walking through the streets with my bags I must have really stood out because everyone seemed to take notice of me. I just stayed alert and kept dragging along. The Kosmonaut Hostel was in a very old building, but the staff was very nice and helpful. There were no keys or lockers, which made me nervous at first, but I had no problems. There is some unwritten rule among hostellers, and trust is something I have been able to count on everywhere I have gone.

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The Common Room/Kitchen of the Kosmonaut.

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A great portrait of Lenin in the kitchen!

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A very funny sign above the desk! Or was it?

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In the hallways of the building. "Uh, is this wiring up to code?" "Code? Ukrainian wiring is best in world!" "Uh, OK. Maybe I'll lay off the hair dryer anyway."

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As I said, it was a very old building. The toilets even had signs posted not to flush any paper at all, but instead put it in the garbage cans in the bathroom or the pipes would explode, with disastrous consequences! Here are the building mailboxes, still in use.

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This is the new city square. Impressive for a city of 800,000 that most Americans have never heard of!

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The Opera house. The prices are still very low to keep the culture accessible to the masses.

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People walking in the park. The parks in Europe are always full of folks out socializing. I really miss this when back home. Where are the people in America? Shopping malls? We need more common areas people use like this one!

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A proud Ukrainian man and his daughter near the Opera's fountain.

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People sleeping on a park bench in the evening.

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Fashionistas hanging out in the park.

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There was a commotion in one end of the park and I went over to check it out. I was VERY surprised to find a huge crowd of people around a group of...Native Americans?? They were performing Native American dances and songs to a thrilled crowd in Lviv! Later that evening I saw them again hanging out in the square with a bunch of admiring Ukrainian groupies! I keep running into this interest in Native American cultures all over Eastern Europe. Interesting!

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The next morning I had to address my failing bag. One of the uprights of my rolling duffle had snapped, so I rummaged through my tool kit and a box of parts at the hostel and came up with this solution. I used plastic wall anchors to anchor the screws through pieces of flat metal, and then duct taped the crap out of the whole thing. The Native Americans are being faithful to their native culture, and, with the Southern staple of duct tape, so am I. At least I didn't sing Freebird while I was working.

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The only Ukrainian guidebook I was able to scare up was a Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet is not my favorite, but it was all I had to go on. It turned out to be very wrong on a number of counts, starting with the Lviv city walking tour. It had many wrong turns, and all the streets were listed in English, although the Cyrillic alphabet was the only thing to be seen in Lviv! So I decided to try living a day like an immigrant in the U.S. who does not speak the language and who does even know the alphabet. It was quite disorienting and a big challenge, to say the least. I really have a renewed respect for those people. I think it is something all students should have to try. This is what I was able to learn on my "immigrant day." This small church, St. John the Baptist, is the oldest in Lviv.

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Hopelessly lost, I saw these children in the street playing with their puppy.

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A cool church.

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Skaters in the park. I fantasized about being Tony Hawk and walking up to them in Ukraine. What would they do?

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Gunpowder Tower, now a restaurant, but once a part of the city's defenses.

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The Greek Catholic St. Michael's Church. The sanctuary is baroque. After the Czech Republic, I was surprised at how many people in Ukraine seemed to be involved in the church.

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A great cross in front of the church.

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I believe this is the bell tower of the Dormition Church, which is Ukrainian Orthodox. It would be interesting to see how that differs from other denominations. Again, the varied architecture is astounding.

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I looked and looked, but have absolutely no idea who this man is. He looks very important, tough. Perhaps he is hailing a cab. "A cab! I need a cab! No, I am so important that I need THREE cabs! THREE I tell you! And perhaps an iron."

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This is a cool-looking sign to give you an idea of what I was dealing with all around town.

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The Bernardine Church and Monastery courtyard. It was very quiet and peaceful in here.

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A man doing a very thorough job of sweeping up the courtyard.

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There was a book sale going on right outside. I thought the statue was appropriate.

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A man pondering "Cyrillic for Beginners."

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The Town Hall, on the Old Town Square.

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A large crowd had gathered at the Town Hall, but when I got there, all I saw was this strange metal thing and people staring at it while taking pictures. What in the world was it? A sports trophy? One of the crown jewels? One of the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey? This must be how our Super Bowl trophy looks to about 90% of the world....

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Some boys hanging out on the corner admiring the metal object as well. All were absolutely spellbound!

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The Old Town Square in Lviv, on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Houses could be built around the square with three windows tax free. Houses with four windows only belonged to the extremely wealthy.

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The black domes of Boyim Chapel (1617), the burial chapel of Hungarian merchant Georgi Boyim and his family. It made me think, what could we do today to be remembered 400 years from now? How many millions have lived in this area and have been completely forgotten over time?

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A beautiful girl in the square.

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A window painter on the square looks up at an unexpected visitor.

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Very beautiful lion balcony with flower boxes above. It is the little details like this that I love about Europe. They are real, not just plastered on the sides of McMansions.

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The courtyard of the Armenian Cathedral, built in 1363! Just imagine - this church was here basking in sunny afternoons for 129 years before Columbus ever came to America!

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At the end of a quiet alley in Lviv. I have never seen a ladder quite like this one.

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This is the copper-domed Transfiguration Church, built in the late 1600's. It was the first church in the city to revert to Greek Catholicism after Ukrainian Independence in 1991. It is easy to forget how such an old place as the Ukraine can be such a young one at the same time.

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The incredible interior of Transfiguration Church.

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A man in the window across from the church.

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All over town I saw men in parks playing chess out in the sun. Often crowds gathered around to watch and offer advice. These guys look like they don't need much help, though.

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Back at the Kosmonaut. My bed is center bottom.

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One of the interesting people I met in Lviv was Bill, from Canada. He stayed at the Kosmonaut for a while before finding an apartment in Lviv for the summer. He still comes over to hang out at the hostel sometimes, though. He is due to start school in Berlin in September. Bill was a freelance editor before deciding to come to Europe. He said that he decided on Lviv because it gives him the right combination of history, adventure, and great people. He also knows Cyrillic, and told me that it is a snap to sound out the words if you know the alphabet! Great to meet you Bill, and good luck in Europe!

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A lady hanging laundry in the courtyard of the hostel building. When it started raining later in the day she ran back out and reeled it all back in.

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A visit to Lychakivske Cemetery is a must while in Lviv. Lonely Planet calls it "the Pere Lachaise of Eastern Europe, "with the same sort of overgrown grounds and Gothic aura as the famous Parisian necropolis." It contains numerous graves of Ukrainian heroes, and, because Lviv was at one time in Polish territory, it also contains graves of some 2000 Poles who died fighting Ukrainians and Bolsheviks from 1918 to 1920. It must be a difficult thing being buried on foreign soil. It was fascinating walking around looking at the flowers and pictures left as mementos in the gloom.

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Near the cemetery was the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, an open air museum, much like other places in Europe, displaying a wide variety of historic houses from all over the country. It was very difficult to get to, accessible up an unmarked lane practically going through people's backyards! I had to ask for directions at least a dozen times. I had thought ahead to get the lady at the front desk of the hostel to write the name down for me in the native language. I felt like someone wearing a helmet with a note pinned to his shirt - "If found, please call this telephone number." The kind Ukrainians just looked at my note, glanced knowingly at each other, and pointed up the hill through the woods. I finally found the park and saw this great traditional Ukrainian house with moss growing on the roof.

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Here is the inside of a old-time Ukrainian schoolhouse. Not a laptop to be seen here kids, so stop complaining.

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I also loved this very cool wooden church. Notice the fence has a roof built over it so that it can double as a hay drying rack.

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A traditional living room/kitchen set up. Looks cozy.

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None of the pathways at the museum were marked, and about halfway around the main loop trail various tiny paths led off, seemingly aimlessly, into the woods. Despite my best efforts and asking about 6 different employees, all ways led back to the same point. How frustrating! People complain if a place is "too touristy," but is having a single sign, or even an arrow, being "too touristy?" I retreated, adjusting my helmet, and trying not to drool.

Down the street from the hostel was a fantastic Ukrainian cafeteria. This place was great because you could see the food and point to what you wanted. I got this huge spread - my only meal of the day - for $4.50 U.S.! It was solid and basic - potatoes, chicken, meat soup, some Cole slaw-type salad and some fruit crepe thingies. As my grandmother used to say, it will stick to your ribs.

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My last night in Lviv I went out with my new friends from the hostel to a place nicknamed the Cavern Club. It was basically a Ukrainian speakeasy, hidden from the street without even a sign! You have to go up to the unmarked door, give the password (something to the effect of "Ukraine Forever!") - in Ukrainian and NOT Russian, and they will let you in. You descend below street level into this underground bunker done up with awesome Cold War propaganda! A band even came around playing violin, accordion, and a drum, while everyone sang songs to glorious Mother Ukraine! Fantastic! Thanks everyone for such a great, confusing, and very memorable time in Lviv!

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OK, I'll fess up. I didn't go Ukraine just for the love of adventure. I had a lead on something. Something big. I heard wind of the possibility of actually being able to take a tour of - could it actually be possible? - Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant, the one that blew up and melted down in 1986, resulting in the world's worst nuclear accident. Wow! What better place to go on vacation! I made the necessary calls, submitted the extensive information, and booked my train to Kiev. Maybe I was going to be able to go, and maybe I wasn't, but I was going to try. I got to the Lviv train station for the night train to Kiev. That is Lviv spelled on the building.

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Here is my nice sleeper. They even brought me hot tea and little cookies! The tablecloth made it feel just like home.

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Sunset from the sleeping car.

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I was hesitant about taking night trains in Eastern Europe, because all reports pointed to them being notorious hot spots and dangerous. I locked everything up and prepared for the worst. I had no reason to worry though. About two hours later Vasily got on, and we quickly became friends. Meet the good man Vasily!

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Vasily has 2 boys, age 23 and 24, and was taking the night train to Kiev to "look around" for the day. Vasily was formerly in the Ukrainian military, but badly injured his left soldier in a vehicle accident and is now on pension. He enjoys fishing in the summer and ice fishing in the winter. He seemed like the kind of guy who would get along with my Father-in-Law, also ex-military who loves to fish. Great to meet you Vasily, and good luck! I hope you will be able to read this!

Well, I got in to the hostel in Kiev at 7:30 in the morning in the cold, pouring rain. It took a while to wake up the attendant from the door outside, but he finally let me in, dripping wet. Even though check-in was not until 1 pm he still let me store my bags and take a much needed shower. I then took off to see Kiev, which turned out to be a little more touristy (read: I could navigate the city without getting hopelessly lost every two seconds), but there was still very little English to go on. Here is the World War II memorial. Kiev suffered terribly during the war, with 80% of its residents homeless when the city was finally retaken by the Red Army in November 1943.

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This is a view over the modern-day city of Kiev, with the Dnipro river running through it.

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Another monument on the city bluffs, with beautiful gold domes in the background. This is where I was heading.

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I ended up at the Lavra, a monastery popular with pilgrims who believe it to be the holiest ground in the entire country. The Lavra holds two sets of caves and several subterranean churches dug into the hills under the monastery, containing numerous glass caskets of mummified monks who died at this reclusive retreat. Their bodies were naturally preserved without embalming by the caves' cool temperature and dry atmosphere. Lonely Planet says that "the mummies survive even today, confirmation for believers that these were true holy men." This is the entrance to the lower caves.

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Gold domes on sale this weekend at Target! Doors open Friday at 8 am! Financing available!

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A holy man making his way up the hill.

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Gold domes overlooking the courtyard.

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The entrance to one of the caves is in the Church of the Raising of the Cross. Cameras were not allowed into the caves. When you go down you buy a candle, light it, and descend narrow, twisting steps down while squeezing past people coming back up. They definitely are not for the claustrophobic. People in a religious frenzy down there go to a glass casket on one side, bow, kiss it, and then go to the other side to did the same. With all the crying and lit candles flying back and forth, I was amazed that no one caught on fire. The Moravian Lovefeast candle guys at church would have had massive heart attacks! Mummified monks wearing their best vestments were on display under glass, some with their black, mummified hands poking out! Wow - talk about creepy! I also went to the Farther Caves, which were even smaller and more claustrophobic if that is possible. Later back outside in the fresh air a group of (this time) live monks ran down the hill chanting, actually carrying one of the glass caskets! Hundreds of pilgrims appeared out of nowhere and crowded around while the monks performed some mystical ceremony far beyond me. Here is a good shot of one of the monks in his black, flowing robe.

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Here is a shot of the glass casket through the crowd.

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The seven-domed Church of the Nativity of the Virgin (1696).

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Walking uphill from the Lower Lavra I really did a double take when this guy passed me. I'll call him Tremendously Tall Man! He must have been at least 7'6". Notice that the lady he is holding hands with is actually on a raised sidewalk! The guy has to be the Ukrainian Yao Ming!

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The entrance to the Upper Lavra through Trinity Gate Church, from the early 12th century.

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The Great Bell Tower, 174 steps to the top. I chose to trust Lonely Planet on this one.

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Trinity Gate Church from behind.

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Dormition Cathedral, actually just rebuilt in 2000 after being destroyed during WW II. Astounding.

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Another fantastic church in the Upper Lavra. It was hard to keep up with them all!

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I exited the Lavra, my head spinning with gold. Wow! And then to top it all off there was an actual funeral letting out of one of the many chapels there. I stood on the sidewalk and watched weeping Ukrainian carry rose stems with the flowers cut off as what appeared to be Boy Scouts carried the casket outside. I could only wonder what this story told. I quietly paid my respects and moved on.

Later walking back to the Metro I saw this interesting tree gate.

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The subways in Kiev were amazingly deep. I think they were built to be nuclear bomb shelters. You go down this really long escalator for like 2 full minutes, get off, and then go down another one for another 3 minutes. It felt like I was going coal mining.

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Walking around a typical street in Kiev.

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Guess who's coming to town? Alice Cooper!! Welcome to my nightmare, Kiev!!

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I asked the hostel owner's Ukrainian wife if she knew of any good places to eat cheaply nearby. She said, "Yes, just down the street you will see a big spoon. They have good local food very cheap." "Really? That's great! What is the name of it?" She looked at me quizzically and replied, "It is called 'Big Spoon,' only in Ukrainian!" So here, ladies and gentlemen, is the famous Big Spoon!

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Inside Kiev Lodging Hostel. Which one is my bed? Hint: always look for the red pillow!

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The living room at the hostel...

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and the nicely appointed kitchen.

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At the hostel I met Taylor from Chicago. He has been at Warsaw University since February and was traveling with friends from school after the term ended until mid-July. Taylor works as a paramedic at an Emergency Room in Chicago. He loves medicine, but says that full-blown medical school might be too much of a commitment. He may become a Physician's Assistant instead. Taylor loves to travel, but is now focused on getting through school. Have fun in Europe this summer Taylor! It was great meeting you and your friends!

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An outdoor cafe in Kiev. You get the feeling that they really try to enjoy the good weather while they can.

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A protest going on in the open right down the street. This is the kind of thing you would never see during Soviet rule just a few years ago.

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Independence Square in downtown Kiev, the heart of the city. This square was ground zero for Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, when the historically passive Ukrainian population successfully protested the disputed election results (and their candidate's mysterious disfiguring dioxin poisoning) in their trademark orange color and learned that they really did have the power to change things in their young country. Go Ukraine!

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A fountain in the square.

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A close-up of the whimsical House of Chimeras, now used as a presidential administration office.

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Frogoyles!

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The looming Weeping Widow House.

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One of the signs I was trying to follow around the streets. "Which way is the...oh never mind."

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A skateboarder in the park. It seemed to be popular here.

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An interesting outdoor amphitheater.

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I unexpectedly found a bridge covered with hundreds of locks and tied ribbons. Mystified, I asked a nearby Dutch TV crew about them. They told me that it is a tradition for a couple in love to come here, fasten a lock to the bridge as a symbol of their undying love, and then throw the keys off the side!

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No, this isn't St. Louis. This is the Friendship of Nations Monument, celebrating the 1654 'unification' of Russia and Ukraine. Word has it that Ukraine accepted the monument grudgingly, at best. It has now been joined by statues of Cossacks and other Ukrainian heroes at its base.

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The Kiev waterfront.

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The National Philharmonic.

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Any idea what movie this billboard is advertising?

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The stunning St. Michael's Monastery. Boy, what I would give to have the gold dome concession in this town.

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Another shot of St. Michael's.

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St. Sophia's Cathedral. At what point exactly does the gold just run out?

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I didn't expect to find Mark Twain singing Ukrainian folk songs at St. Sophia's, but there he was....

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And you thought New York City parking restrictions were tough....

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A lady selling flowers on the street. What have these eyes seen?

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Near the Botanical Gardens stands St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, one of Kiev's most beautiful. It was built to celebrate 900 years of Orthodox Christianity in the city.

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St. Volodymyr's interior. I did not expect Kiev to be such an amazingly beautiful city. There seemed to be a breathtaking sight at nearly every turn.

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Prayer candles.

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One more of St. Volodymyr's Cathedral.

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A lady, apparently bored with all the churches, naps outside.

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Conjoined twins outside Kiev University.

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There were very fancy sports cars being driven all over the city. Porsches, Hummers, and high-end Mustangs to name a few. Mob money? Hummm.... No, that couldn't be it. But where were they coming from? And then I saw this sign. FINALLY!! Bentley Ukraine!!

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The last Lenin statue left in Kiev, a rather subdued affair. It looks like Ukraine is doing just fine without you, thank you very much Sir!

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Chernobyl seemed exciting from a distance, but when the email finally came confirming it for the next day it was actually a bit frightening. What the hell was I doing?

Next: Ukraine Part 2 – A Visit to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Posted by sfoshee 06.21.2009 14:49 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Krakow Part II - Auschwitz-Birkenau

From the Ashes of the Past

sunny 74 °F
View Scott's Eastern Europe 2009 on sfoshee's travel map.

NOTE TO READERS – The Entry “Krakow Part 1 – A Celebration of Life” below is intended to be read before this entry. Thank you.

WARNING - This entry contains graphic descriptions and photographs possibly disturbing to some people. The intent is not to offend, but to explain what took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Please proceed with caution.

The next day in the breakfast room I met Kate, who is from Perth Australia. Kate has been traveling alone since September. She spent 5 months in Switzerland during ski season providing sports massage therapy to sore skiers. She plans to be away from home until next September. Kate’s parents were backpackers too and made a point of taking her and her brother on trips when they were little, including one to Bali. She said that she thinks going away makes you appreciate home that much more. Besides Switzerland on this trip she has been to the United Kingdom, where she enjoyed Cork, Ireland the most. “Dublin is the capital, but Cork is the heart of Ireland.” She has her own business in Perth doing massage therapy and personal training. Her real passion, she said, is netball, an Olympic sport that is very popular in Australia. Kate described netball as being kind of like outdoor basketball, without a backboard or dribbling. She has had two knee surgeries from netball injuries, but is now fully recovered and plays in Perth on a club team. I mentioned that I planned on visiting Auschwitz that day, and she said that she was headed there too. So we took off walking to the bus station.

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Kate had a great sense of direction, and we found the bus to Oswiecim, home to the Auschwitz and Birkenau World War II German concentration camps. The 90 minute bus ride only cost about $3. When we got to the camp and up to the counter to buy tickets for an English language tour, the cashier’s computer went down. They called the Auschwitz computer guy, who came to the rescue! Solidarity to my fellow I.T. computer professional! Imagine having "Auschwitz Computer Guy" on your resume!

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We put on headsets that were wirelessly linked to our guide’s live microphone. I liked this setup because it allowed the guide to talk to our entire group while still keeping her voice down, preserving the reverential hush on the grounds. It worked fairly well, except when we were spread out as a group in the barracks, separated by walls.

The Auschwitz we all know is actually Auschwitz I, a former Polish army camp taken over by the Nazis and turned into a concentration camp during World War II. The grounds were very well kept and the trees added to a sense of peace about the place, much like the quiet park-like atmosphere of many graveyards. We were led up to the front gate of the camp, with the cruel sign at the top saying “Work Sets You Free” in German. The “B” was welded upside down by contentious inmates. You can see it in this shot on the left side of the sign.

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Auschwitz I actually felt a bit smaller than I expected. Still, it held an average of 14,000 inmates at any one time in extremely crowded conditions. Birkenau, which was built as Auschtitz II just a few miles away, housed up to 100,000. The camp was surrounded by two fences of electrical barbed wire run through ceramic insulators on concrete poles.

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The counting of the prisoners occurred every morning, regardless of weather. A camp band played music for the prisoners to march to in order to make the counting easier. This is a very rare photo of the Auschwitz camp band. Auschwitz’s mere existence was a German top secret, so any photos surviving today were taken by arrogant German guards in secret.

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Several prisoner barracks contain visitor exhibits. The first row of barracks displays National Memorials, created by the home countries of the camps' victims. They explain the sufferings of the camp inmates by nationality including the Jews and the Roma, or Gypsies. People were brought to Auschwitz and turned into prisoners because the Nazis did not agree with their religion, politics, or other beliefs. No cameras were allowed inside any of the barracks. This is one of the streets of Auschwitz I.

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Museum exhibitions were in the second row of barracks. They displayed the incredibly crowded living conditions here, as well as the horrific sanitary problems encountered by inmates. Prisoners were brought here from all over Europe by the Nazis. Some inmates were even brought here from as far away as Greece and Norway.

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An extermination exhibit included hundreds of open, empty canisters of Zyklon-B crystals, which were recovered when the camp was liberated. According to Rick Steves, Guards would herd inmates into "shower" rooms at Birkenau, complete with shower heads that were not connected to water. Inmates were told to disrobe, hang their clothes on numbered wall hooks, and to remember their number so that they could retrieve their clothes later. Guards did this to discourage rioting. The shower room was then closed, and a guard would put on a gas mask, open a can of Zyklon-B, and drop it in. When exposed to the air, the crystals produced cyanide gas. In 20 minutes, Nazis could kill 20,000 people in four different gas chambers. An elevator then would raise the bodies to the crematorium where they were picked clean of gold teeth and shaved of hair, which was then sold. Certain inmates were forced to do this duty and were kept isolated from the rest of the population. These inmates often found their own wives, parents, and even children among the dead. Some of the inmates committed suicide by throwing themselves against the electric fences. Most of the others who were able to work were exterminated after about two months. The gas chambers at Birkenau were largely destroyed by the retreating Nazis before liberation, but the one at Auschwitz I remains, as I discovered later.

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There were extremely moving exhibits of prisoners' personal effects. Before being moved from their homes, they were told that they were being "resettled" in the east and that they should bring everything they would need with them. Some even paid for their new homes in advance. When they arrived in Auschwitz the Nazis took their belongings and used them for their own war effort. On display were recovered items from the victims, including thousands of eyeglasses, pairs of shoes, and suitcases with the prisoners' names and dates of birth written on them. One exhibit that especially got to me showed a mountainous pile of shoes from children. Upon arrival, anyone under 15 years of age was immediately executed. Their shoes were then taken and used to produce leather goods for the Nazis.

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If I had to pick one image that I cannot erase from my brain, however, it would be the exhibit of human hair. There were hundreds of pounds of it on display, shaved from the dead bodies and used by Nazis to make fabric for clothes and uniforms. Some of the hair was beginning to turn white, a natural part of the aging process - it has now been 64 years since the camp was liberated. Near the front of the pile something caught my eye, and I moved closer to the glass. In the stack of human hair was a little girl's perfectly braided ponytail, cut off just after she was gassed and before her body was incinerated. I was unable to hold back my welling tears.

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Building 11 was the most feared building in Auschwitz I. No one ever left alive. Prisoner bunks, stacked three high, could be seen here. Three prisoners were assigned to each bed, and they had to lie on their sides so that they all could fit. The cells in the basement were particularly disturbing. There was the Starvation Cell, where prisoners were kept to starve to death, the Dark Cell, holding up to 30, and the Standing Cells, where prisoners were forced to stand together for hours or even days at a time. These cells were also the places where the first tests of the Zyklon-B gas were held. Insidious human experiments by Dr. Mengele took place here as well. The basement of building 11 was one of the most disturbing places I have ever visited and "felt" for myself. My hands were literally shaking, and it took everything I could do to keep from bolting for the stairs.

Trials were held in this building in the German language with no translation provided. The condemned prisoners were then forced to strip and then were taken out into the courtyard and shot standing against this wall. As you can see, the barracks windows facing the courtyard were boarded up so that prisoners inside could hear the screams of the executions without being to see exactly what was happening.

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The memorial at the courtyard wall.

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A hallway in one of the barracks displayed photographs taken of prisoners during processing. I stared into the eyes of those now gone, and was struck by their familiarity. Even though they passed away over 60 years ago, I recognized these people. They were the faces I see every day back home in Athens, Georgia. Here were the eyes of the grocery store clerk at Pubix. This was the wrinkled expression of the lady I walked past on College Avenue. I found myself developing a very close kinship with these familiar strangers, and the thought of their passing in such an unspeakably brutal manner deeply saddened me. This is a close-up of some of the flowers and candles at the wall, left in memory of the victims here.

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Between buildings at Auschwitz I.

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This is the guard's counting hut. The prisoners at Auschwitz were counted every day, rain or shine. The longest count at Auschwitz lasted 18 hours. In the extreme cold weather, the guards with sit in this hut, protected from the elements, while the starving, scantily-clad inmates stood outside freezing for hours. Long counts often happened after an escape. It is a little known fact that 144 people actually escaped from Auschwitz. When one did escape, however, the rest of the camp suffered terribly.

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A close-up of the barbed wire at Auschwitz.

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The fence's cold efficiency.

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Between the wire.

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A guard tower located in the middle of the blocks.

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The Auschwitz I crematorium and chimney.

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The entrance to the Auschwitz I gas chamber.

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People were forced to undress outside before being herded in to this gas chamber. Up to 700 people could be gassed here at one time. Guards would put on gas masks and drop the Zyklon-B through vents in the ceiling. This gas chamber is all original. Hundreds of thousands of people were ruthlessly murdered in this room.

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The next room held the crematorium, which could burn up to 340 bodies a day. This meant that it took two days to burn all of the bodies from one round of executions, and the inefficiency caused the Germans to erect the much larger and more efficient Birkenau camp, which had four huge crematoriums on its grounds.

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We then boarded the shuttle bus for the short ride to Birkenau, just a few minutes away. This is the main gate, featured in the movie Schindler's List.

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Train cars full of prisoners would roll through this opening into the huge 440 acre camp.

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Train tracks into the heart of Birkenau.

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Our guide told us that Birkenau was started in 1941 when the original Auschwitz got to be too small. Birkenau held about 100,000 people, and the Nazis were still adding on to it when it was liberated in 1945. The original plan was for Birkenau to hold upwards of 200,000 prisoners at one time. Buildings stretched as far as the eye could see.

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This is a stove inside one of the barracks at Birkenau. The summers were stifling due to lack of ventilation, and the hard Polish winters were warmed only by these meager stoves. A brick duct linked the stoves at either end of the barracks, and the bricks are worn smooth from inmates sitting on them to warm themselves.

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Each of the Birkenau barracks buildings held from 400 to 1000 prisoners. Rick Steves says that the buildings were actually prefabricated horse stables, which made them cheap and easy to erect. Horse-tying rings can actually be seen on some of the walls.

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Five to seven people slept on each level of the bunks. The bunks are angled so that more prisoners would fit into them at any one time.

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These are the latrines. There was no running water, and the prisoners were responsible for keeping them clean. The horribly unsanitary conditions led to numerous rats and disease. Because of the disease, the German guards were afraid to enter the latrines, which made them a center for the resistance movement and the camp black market.

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Numerous bare chimneys mark the sites of barracks which were destroyed by the retreating Germans, who tried to get rid of the evidence before the Allies came.

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New camp prisoners would step off of their cattle cars onto this dividing platform. After having ridden in unheated train cars from as far away as Greece and Norway, the prisoners would tumble out of the cars and be greeted by a Nazi doctor at this location. The doctor would evaluate each prisoner to see if they were able to work. If he pointed to the right, the prisoner would unknowingly trudge to his or her instant death in the gas chamber. If he pointed to the left, the prisoner would live to work for a few months until he starved to death, died of rampant disease, or was gassed. Rick Steves says it best when he states that "It was here that families from all over Europe were torn apart forever."

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We turned to the right, and walked the path of the condemned.

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A beautiful wreath placed at the end of the line in Birkenau.

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This is the Birkenau Memorial. At the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation in January 2005, several Auschwitz survivors came to the bitterly cold outdoor ceremony here. Our guide said that even though the former prisoners were very old then, many were still in terrific shape, and sat refusing to wear winter hats.

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Our guide left by telling us that if we ever met anyone with the tattoo of a concentration camp number on their arm, to count ourselves as very lucky. Tattoos were only given to inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Very few of them made it out alive, and now, 64 years later, there are fewer alive still. The seeds of their subsequent generations, however, have since taken root in the soil nourished by the ashes of their ancestors. It is a wonderful thing that their chidren and their children's children are now flourishing again in the vibrant, new Poland, as well as all over the rest of the world.

"The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again." - George Santayana

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Posted by sfoshee 06.13.2009 11:08 Archived in Poland Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Krakow Part I - A Celebration of Life

Pole John Paul II, A Dragon Parade, and a the Vibrant People of Poland

sunny 78 °F
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I took the train the next day, bound for Krakow, Poland. Before hopping on the train, I grabbed a hot dog at the Olomouc train station. They cost about 75 cents!

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I had to change trains in Katowice, Poland. After being able to spread out on the first train and work on the blog, the Polish train has us packed in like sardines. I ended up standing the entire way in the little compartment right where the doors are and the train cars join. For some reason the doors where I was standing were padlocked shut on both sides! Just wondering, but is there some sort of fire code on Polish trains?

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Arrival in a new city is always exciting and confusing at the same time. I immediately changed money at the train station in Krakow at the ATM, which only gave me bills in denominations of 100. I finally located the correct tram, and when I tried to buy a ticket from the conductor, he said, "2.50." When I sheepishly handed the 100 Zloty note to him, he said something like, "Wha! Bla? Kra!!" and smacked his head a few times. He then kicked me off the tram!! I hid my face as the tram full of Krakow natives passed me by, staring at me in disbelief. I had to look around to find somewhere to break the giant note (worth about $28). I finally found a Kebab stand and got a sandwich (kind of like a gyro). They were going to cash the 100 for the sandwich, but I felt bad about it and got 3 bottles of water from them as well, adding another 4 Zlotys to the bill.

Back at the tram platform I met Jacek, who was very helpful, assuring me I was in the right place. Jacek works for General Motors in Poland, doing import/export work. He is from a small town in western Poland and has been in Krakow for three years. He says working for GM has definitely been interesting in these hard economic times. He said that he thinks they have been in the equivalent of Chapter 11 in Poland for the past 5 years! Thanks for your help, Jacek, and good luck with GM!

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Despite the fact that the directions were backwards, I finally made it to Nathan's Villa Hostel!

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My room at Nathan's, in a 6 bed dorm. I was on the far bottom right, on the first floor next to the window on the street. I was worried about this at first, but the noise wasn't a problem. Notice the nice big lockers - they even give you a free lock to use at check-in! Total price? $17 U.S. a night!

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Nathan's turned out to be quite the place. They even had a renovated basement with a pool table...

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and a home theater! Notice the couches on risers!

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In the common room of the hostel I began to work on the blog. Soon I met Matthew, who is from Eastern Washington State. He said that people are surprised to find out that that area of Washington State is desert country, with rolling hills, sagebrush and tumbleweeds. Matthew is traveling for three weeks after doing student teaching in Ireland in ceramics. He hopes to return to the U.S. to find a job teaching ceramics in High School or College. Matthew is a photographer too, and soon hopes to set up a web site for his best work. Matthew and I made plans to explore Krakow together the next morning after breakfast.

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I also met Krisztina, who is from Targu-Mures, Romania. She is an English language teacher, with excellent English speaking skills. She was accompanying 20 6th grade students and 20 adults on a trip to Krakow on a school trip. They were all staying in the same hostel as Matthew and me, and were very well behaved. Krisztina speaks 5 languages, which amazed me. She thinks that travel is terrific education for the kids. Krisztina enjoys practicing her English using Yahoo messenger with friends she has made from around the world. I told Krisztina that she would make a great our guide! It was great to meet you and your students, and good luck in school!

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The next morning Matthew and I headed out after the free breakfast at the Hostel (bread, butter, and jam). This was a neat sign right across the street. Can you imagine driving around with it on the top of your car?

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I have always paid attention to interesting graffiti. I even wrote a paper on it on Semester at Sea. I loved this mouse!

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A great older couple jamming on the street!

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We even met some traditional Polish military officers on the main square. Matthew took this picture. I just hope that thing's not loaded....

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I kept seeing these beautiful window boxes all over Krakow. People really seem to take pride in their city.

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Near the city gate, we ran into this character. He was playing accordion with all his heart. I recognized the tune, but it took me a minute to place it. He was singing Jambalaya, by Hank Williams! In Polish! I picked up and began to sing with him in English. We must have made quite a couple that morning, and I know we turned a few heads. "Son of a gun, we're gonna have big fun on the bayou!"

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A beautiful balcony.

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Matthew had to make arrangements for his train out of Krakow later in the day, so we stopped by the main train station.

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The giant Galleria shopping center is right next door. I did not so much as even step inside!

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We both did a double take at this sign. Are we being watched?

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According to Rick Steves, a city wall was built around Krakow after the Tartars destroyed the city in 1241. This round building is the Barbican, a defensive fort standing outside the wall to provide extra fortification to weak sections.

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Behind the Barbican was a Polish music group playing in traditional dress. So colorful.

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This is the Florian Gate, Krakow's main entrance. A drawbridge once connected it to the Barbican, spanning a moat. The moat, no longer needed in the 19th century, was filled in and turned into a beautiful park, called the Planty, surrounding the city.

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Matthew and I walked through the Florian Gate (in a much more peaceful fashion than the Tartars), and strolled along Floranska Street, a center for the city's artists. I saw this very strange creature on the sidewalk trying to interact with children. I can just imagine my mother telling me, "It's OK, you can go up and play with that strange unknown person kneeling under the blanket with a big wooden beak in his hand. And when you are finished, be sure to have fun playing in traffic." Creepy.

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Jazz clubs seem to be everywhere in Eastern Europe. This one is the home to Janusz Muniak, one of the first Polish jazzmen. Muniak plays the saxophone.

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Towering above the main square is the striking St. Mary's Church. The shorter tower belongs to the church, while the taller tower is actually a municipal watchtower. A live bugler plays a song from the tower each hour. My guidebook explained that a Krakow legend says that during the Tartar invasion a town watchman saw the enemy approaching, but halfway through the trumpet call an enemy arrow pierced his throat. Today the trumpet call from the tower still stops halfway through. 12 buglers (who are also firemen) work 24 hour shifts on top of the tower, sounding the hour around the clock. The call is broadcast on Polish National Radio every day at noon.

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One of the reasons why I like the Rick Steves' Guidebooks is that they are so much more detailed in their descriptions than Lonely Planet's!

The interior of St. Mary's Church. Breathtaking.

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The main statue on the square is Adam Mickiewicz, a Romantic poet considered the "Polish Shakespeare." His work "Pan Tadeusz" inspired patriotism in Poland after it had been taken away by various invading empires.

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On one end of the square is the Church of St. Adalbert, the oldest church in Krakow, dating back to the 10th century. It actually predates the square.

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The interior of St. Adalbert.

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This is the Cloth Hall, built around 1555 on the spot where cloth sellers had their market stalls since the Middle Ages. There are still souvenir stalls inside. I saw a picture taken of this building in the 1870's, and it showed people strolling its colonnades just like in this picture. It really made me think of all of the people and of all of the afternoons that the amazing Main Market Square has seen over the centuries.

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I love this shot of a boy chasing the pigeons. Look at his hair fly!

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We were exploring the Main Market Square when this giant blue unicorn began to circle the square. Ummmm...OK. Matthew figured it out first - it is a rolling advertisement for the local newspaper, The Gazeta! It definitely caught our eyes. Maybe the Atlanta Journal and Constitution should try it. It might improve circulation.

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This tower is all that remains of the Town Hall. By the 19th century it was easier to tear down the crumbling Town Hall than to repair it. Matthew and I climbed to the top of the tower, but glass kept us from going outside and getting a good view. While ascending the very irregular steps, Matthew wondered how on earth people centuries ago were expected to run up and down them all the time without breaking their necks! I do know that the twisting passage definitely was not meant for either of us.

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At the foot of the tower was this cool sleepy lion. I don't think I have ever seen one like it!

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I love this picture of two men sitting at a cafe in the square. It is fun to think of what story it might tell....

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This giant, hollow head might be a little bit out of place in the square, but no one seems to mind. It is by Igor Mitoraj, a contemporary artist who studied in Krakow. The head is wrapped in cloth.

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On a stage in the square Polish children did traditional folk dances. What was going on? Did we stumble upon some sort of festival? If we had tried to schedule a visit to it, we never would have made it. The fact is that we were just plain lucky. The dancers were dressed in their traditional best.

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Watching the spectators was almost as fun as watching the dancing. This little girl in a pink hat stood out.
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Then deafening guns went off and sirens sounded. A parade was making its way through the square! Men in traditional Polish military outfits came marching by first. Their fur uniforms and hats were particularly outstanding. Something just caught this one’s eye.
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This one’s feather seemed to reach the sky.
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For some reason I thought this guy looked like a High School wrestling coach.

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Look at the fur on this one!

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Now this guy was amazing. He looks like he is a prince in some epic movie.
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The procession of regal gentlemen was followed by this guy. How would you like this as a summer job? “What did you do last summer?” “Uh, I was a beer, dude.”
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We finally found out that the festival was called the Dragon Parade. According to Rick Steves, a dragon was instrumental to the founding of Krakow. “Once upon a time a Prince named Krak founded a town on Wawel Hill. It was the perfect location, except for the fire-breathing dragon who lived in the caves under the hill and terrorized the town. Prince Krak had to feed the dragon all of the town’s livestock to keep the monster from going after the townspeople. But Krak, with the help of a clever shoemaker, came up with a plan. They stuffed a sheep’s skin with sulfur and left it outside the dragon’s cave. The dragon swallowed it, and before long, developed a terrible case of heartburn. To put the fire out, the dragon started drinking water from the Vistula River. He kept drinking and drinking until he finally exploded. The town was saved, and Krakow thrived.” Look! A dragon has been spotted above the square! We’re all out of sulfur to cause indigestion. Will a Big Mac do?
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Krakovians jammed the streets shoulder to shoulder and cheered as the parade rolled past. I guess this dragon must have been a little nearsighted.
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The children marched in their full Krak the Dragon Slayer garb.
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There was even a pool float dragon!!
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An excellent troop of stilt dancers urged the crown on!
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Watching the scene below from her apartment window, this beautiful lady reflected everyone’s mood that day. Rarely have I seen a city so full of vibrant smiles and life. This is one of my very favorite pictures.
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We cut across town after the parade and returned to the route of our walking tour. I loved this planter we passed along the way.
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We easily found St. Francis’ Basilica, Pope John Paul II’s home church while he was archbishop of Krakow. Its gothic beauty seemed a bit understated to me, perhaps making it feel even more powerful. This is the exterior.
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Inside, the altar area with beautiful stained glass windows by Stanislaw Wyspianski.
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A close-up of Wyspianski’s greatest stained glass masterpiece, God the Father Let it Be. Look closely at the details. I have never seen anything quite like it.
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Walking past the altar I saw a lady doing some vacuuming! I guess even basilicas need tidying up every now and again.

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I am very glad I had my guidebook with me or I would have missed one very important detail in the church. On the second pew from the last on your right as you are leaving is a small silver plate labeled “Jan Pawel II.” This was Pope John Paul II’s favorite place to pray when he lived in the Archbishop’s Palace across the street! Here is the pew.
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I did not sit in the seat itself out of respect, although everyone is allowed to. I did sit directly behind however, and thought John Paul’s view of the Basilica from this vantage point was very interesting.
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John Paul II often returned to Krakow after becoming Pope, and stayed in his old lodgings across the street. He would often stand in the open window above the arch and talk with the regular people gathered below. He would talk to them about religion, but also about things like current events, sports, and whatever other topics they were interested in. I was very impressed by this. In case you can’t find the exact window, just look for the handy Pope poster.
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Matthew had the sharp eyes on this one. Walking through Krakow, Poland we saw – parked on the sidewalk, no less, this Maserati sports car – with an Illinois license plate! Man, that’s one long drive!!
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Today Krakow has 142 churches and monasteries within the city limits, more per square mile than anywhere outside Rome. This is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. There are statues of 11 apostles (Judas is missing) plus Mary Magdalene.
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This is the Hotel Copernicus, which has hosted (you guessed it) Copernicus himself, as well as George W. Bush.
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This house is where John Paul II lived for 10 years following World War II.
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We next climbed Wawel Hill (the Ws are pronounced like Vs, making the pronunciation VAH-vel ). The guidebook told us that Wawel Hill is “a symbol of Polish royalty and independence,” and is sacred territory to every Polish person. “A castle has stood here since the beginning of recorded history.” This is Wawel Hill.
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The statue out front of the castle Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who is actually a Polish hero of the American Revolution and helped design West Point! I had no idea I had to come to Wawel Hill to learn American history!
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Just look at the amazing variety of textures on the cathedral. Wawel Cathedral was gradually surrounded with 20 chapels over the years, giving its hodgepodge of styles. The Cathedral contains the Polish Royal tombs.

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The river, where Krack finally vanquished the dragon!

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The Castle courtyard.

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Another in my ongoing series, "Horses With Hats."

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The colonnade of the Cloth Hall.

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I thought it might be interesting to photograph the photographer.

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This lady advertised herself as a fortune teller. She sure looks like the real thing!

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About this time Matthew had to leave to make his train at the station. We said our goodbyes and Matthew drifted off into the crowded square. Thanks for a great day Matthew, and good luck with your ceramics!

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Ice cream being sold just off the square. My blueberry scoop was small, but terrific!

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Inside the Cloth Hall.

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"Excuse me Sir, but do you carry any Chess sets?"

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This guy's look is priceless!

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I wondered if this might be the latest shoe style. They certainly caught my attention!

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These guys are getting in on the "Horses With Hats" fashion trend too!

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The things that make a city beautiful are its details. I looked up and saw this impressive balcony.

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Hey Buddy! What are you looking at?

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Dinner that night at Dorothy's Kitchen - fried pork chops with butter and cheese: $4. Massive heart attack: priceless.

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If I were a Pekingese I certainly wouldn't put up with this.

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"Man, we can't do ANYTHING on this bus! OK guys, put up your trumpets!"

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Back at he hostel I met Brenda, who hosts a BBQ on Nathan's deck nearly every night. She buys food with her own money and then grills it up for hungry backpackers who pay 10 Zloty each for Polish sausages, wings, salad, bread, and mashed potatoes. I thought it was a really smart way for her to make extra money. Brenda will go back to Syracuse University in New York at the end of the summer and then is off to Sydney Australia to stay for awhile to stay with some of the Australian friends she has met on her travels. At school she is studying International Relations with a concentration in media. Brenda wants to move to New York City eventually and find a job with a company doing business in Europe so that she can travel back frequently. Good luck Brenda, and thanks for the finely marinated wings!

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I saw ts guy in the lobby and just couldn't let the opportunity pass....

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The next day I was off for a day trip to Wieliczka to see the unbelievable salt mine there. I walked to the bus station. The first challenge of the day was deciphering the Arrivals/Departures board in Polish. Well, at least they use the same alphabet....

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Outside the bus station the Coke Zero Police were on patrol! "ATTENTION! DRINK COKE CERO! COKE CERO IS NUMBER ONE!" Uh, no thanks. I'm a Diet Coke man myself. Now put those silly handcuffs away.

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Any ideas as to what this creepy veggie-face billboard is advertising?

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I was so used to things not being marked that when I got off the minibus in Wieliczka I automatically asked a local lady where the salt mine was. She just laughed and pointed to this sign directly behind me!

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The exterior of the salt mine.

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The guides had to wear these hard hats, but it made me wonder why there were none for us, the visitors!

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To get down to the first level of the mine (there are 7 levels) we had to walk round and around, down over 800 steps. After a while I got dizzy! I was just concentrating on not falling on my head again.

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The Wieliczka salt mine is a very special place. It produced sat for over 800 years, only just ending in 1996. In contrast to very short coal seams, the seams in a salt mine are often over 100 feet high. Over the years the miners in the mine began to carve things out of salt, eventually ending up with a number of statues and even chapels. This huge underground church absolutely took my breath away. Everything is carved from salt crystals, right down to the chandeliers!

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Me in front of the altar.

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A close-up of the incredible chandelier crystals.

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There was even a statue of Pope John II here, also carved out of salt. Salt in its natural state here has a darker color, due to impurities. John Paul (who was definitely turning out to be quite the man in Poland) actually visited the salt mine 3 different times.

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There was also an underground events center. "Come to our next business conference - 150 meters below the earth!" People actually get married here.

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The afternoon was so nice when I got back that I took a walk through Krakow's Old Town, which constantly seems to be changing. On this day I found a group of nuns chatting on a street corner.

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There was a guy doing a marionette show in front of a wildly appreciative crowd. Elvis really is everywhere.

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A whole group of nuns passed right in front of me, on their way to St. Mary's Church. I never see nuns wearing habits in the States.

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These guys were chatting animatedly in front of the door of the Church of St. Adalbert.

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A pair of carriage drivers rattled slowly down a cobblestone street.

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An earring seller taking advantage of a break to catch up on her reading.

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I finally stopped for dinner at a traditional Milk Bar, a throwback to the old Communist days. It was a cheap cafe where locals eat good, sturdy Polish food. I had potato and sausage soup with meat dumplings. $3.50 total. While eating I pretended to be a cold, Polish factory worker taking his meal on a snowy winter night. It was warm, delicious, and filling.

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One of the famous Polish vodkas is Bison Brand, flavored with a long blade of grass from the fields of the Polish Bison reserves. It is supposed to taste like Apple Pie. I wonder if the Bison have anything to do with that....

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I also walked past these two girls lying on a bench with their heads on each other's shoulders. Have you ever had a friend like this?

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The vibrant people of today's Poland, literally risen up from the ashes, truly warmed my heart. I saved an important part of their past, however, for my last day in Krakow. I was privileged to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. In respect, I will give it its own section.

Next entry: Krakow Part 2 - Auschwitz-Birkenau

Posted by sfoshee 06.08.2009 13:10 Archived in Poland Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Olomouc - Deep into the Heart of Moravia

The Poet's Corner, Marketa Irglova, and Mucha Mucha more!

semi-overcast 64 °F
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I packed up and left Hostel 99 in Cesky Krumlov, not really wanting to go. The staff was wonderful. I said goodbye to Alvaro at the front desk and was off. Thanks Alvaro for all of your help!

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I am not a coffee drinker, so at the bus stop I was looking for a Red Bull to wake up. The next best thing was this energy drink - Blue Pig! I have to say that it did taste better than Red Bull.

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Waiting for the bus back to Prague I met Jen, an accountant from Melbourne Australia. She is traveling from March to the end of June in Europe alone. Her favorite stop so far was Turkey. In Australia she got fed up and resigned her job to travel, which surprised her friends because she is a self-described control freak. She is going to London in June to stay with friends and then has to be back in Australia for a wedding in November. Other than that, she has no plans. Instead of rushing around everywhere, she prefers to take longer in each city to get a better feel for the place. Good luck Jen!

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I also met Campbell from Melbourne. He said that he had his laptop stolen on the night train from Serbia to Budapest right from under his head while he was sleeping! The thief even zipped the bag back up after he took it! I ran into Campbell again later in Krakow.

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On the bus I sat next to Caroline, who is from France and has worked at the French embassy in Prague for the past 2 1/2 years. She promotes French Universities to prospective Czech students through the Erasmus program, which helps students from all over Europe to study in another European country for a year. The program is funded by the European Union, and many students take advantage of it. The Erasmus program has been around for the past 20 years, and is very popular in Europe. Caroline was in a high school exchange program where a group of families in France hosted 10 U.S. students for 10 days, and then the French students visited their U.S. friends in the Dallas Texas area for 10 days, going to school with them. She stayed with an African American family there and found it very strange that students drove their own cars to school. When her Dallas friend visited France she had a very difficult time with Caroline's mother's French cooking. The girl preferred to eat chocolate bars she brought with her on the trip!

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The bus to Prague deserves special mention. It was run by the Student's Agency, and is the cheapest and best. The yellow bus actually showed a movie (Fractured, with Czech subtitles) and offered free headsets. They also served free refreshments. I enjoyed two excellent hot chocolates on the ride! They also passed out newspapers and magazines to read. It was better service than on most U.S. airlines!

In Prague I took the subway across town and hopped on the train, bound for Olomouc, in the heart of the Moravia region of the Czech Republic. Moravia is named after the Morava River, a Germanic name which means 'marsh water.'

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On the train I shared a compartment with Luke, a university student going home from a 2 day music festival in the rain in Prague. He loved it, but was now very tired! Between stints at the university in Olomouc, Luke works at a mental health facility. He said that the movie director Milos Forman, who directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, about a mental health facility, is from the Czech Republic as well. Luke was scheduled to work at the facility later that night, and tried to get some sleep on the train! Great to meet you Luke!

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This is me on the train.

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A shot of the beautiful rolling Moravian countryside.

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The first thing I did in Olomouc (pronounced 'Ollo-Moats' was go to the grocery store. I love grocery stores in foreign countries because you never know what you are going to find. Here is the store, Billa.

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Here is Granko! I have absolutely no idea what it is. Any ideas?

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Chappi! I think this is some type of dog food.

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Upright and chest freezers together - pretty cool.

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Vlnky crinkle fries!

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Mleko, boxed milk.

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Sweet balloon, packaged cotton candy!

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And of course, the old staple, kecup.

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Judging from this bulletin board, there is no shortage of things to do in Olomouc!

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The cool trams run all through the city, and are very cheap, about $1.

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Street signs it took me a while to decipher.

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Olomouc city street.

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Olomouc was the former capital of Moravia, and today is a vibrant college town with very few tourists. It is kind of like a more compact Prague, without the throngs of people. This is the Holy Trinity Column and Town Hall in the beautiful upper square of town. The column, built between 1716 and 1754, is on UNESCO's World Heritage list and actually has a small chapel in the base. The Town Hall was originally built in 1378!

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The column. So beautiful!

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The Town Hall with its famous Astronomical Clock. When it goes off once a day (at noon) the performance lasts a full 6 minutes!

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According to Lonely Planet, the clock was remodeled by the Communist government years ago "so that each hour is announced by ideologically pure workers instead of pious saints." Notice the mechanic and the scientist on the bottom left and right.

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Close up of the clock figures.

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One of the square's statues. It looks as if the figure is beating down serpents at his feet.

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Sunset on the square.

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One of the city's 6 baroque fountains, this one with turtles and a dolphin.

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A golden stag above a doorway.

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An Olomouc street corner.

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Another fountain, in the lower square.

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The moon over the historic facades of the lower square.

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The Marian Plague Column.

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Time for dinner. The Hanacka Hospoda came highly recommended.

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This was my meal, Granddad Matej's Peasant Delicacy. It contains a baked neck of pork, smoked chop, home-made sausage, red and white cabbage, and potato dumplings. I also got delicious garlic soup filled with huge croutons. With a drink the check came to $9 total. Hearty Moravian food at its finest!

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The Holy Trinity Column and Town Hall in the upper square at night. It was a breathtaking sight. There was almost no one else there.

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The Poet's Corner Hostel. Up four flights of stairs, but worth every step!

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Check your shoes at the door. With my huge sneakers it looks like Bigfoot is in the house! :)

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Francie runs the Poet's Corner with her husband Greg. They are transplanted Australian backpackers who love sharing Olomouc with their guests.

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Staying at the Poet's corner feels like you are staying in someone's home. It has a terrific vibe! The cost? About $16.50 a night! Jess, who works at the hostel, is sitting on the couch.

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Here is a link to the Poet's Corner website. http://www.hostelolomouc.com/

The next day was sunny, and I tried to take full advantage.

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A scale model of the old city, right on the upper square.

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Green seems to be the color of the day....

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Cafe 87 for breakfast. I sat in the window and enjoyed people-watching.

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An interesting window display at the cafe.

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Cafe 87 is renowned for its chocolate pie. For breakfast I had a ham omelet (eggs! Yay!) and the absolutely delicious pie. Chocolate pie for breakfast? It's good to be a grown-up!

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A man reading in the doorway of a book store.

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Two men on ladders hanging a sign on the street.

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Shoes on an overhead wire.

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Beautiful window boxes filled with flowers. I saw these all over town.

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A boy eating ice cream.

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A boy playing near one of the fountains in the square.

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A beautiful little girl chasing pigeons!

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A close up of the top of the Holy Trinity Column in the sun.

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An interesting pink facade on the square.

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A close up of the Astronomical Clock. Notice the zodiac signs on the clock face.

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Motorhead is coming to nearby Brno! I thought this poster was an interesting contrast.

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St. Michael Church.

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Interior of St. Michael.

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One of the things St. Michael is known for is its extremely rare painting of the pregnant Virgin Mary. I have never thought of it before, but I guess it makes sense!

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More shots of the interior of St. Michael.

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Ever wonder how they keep all of those cobblestones clean? Never fear - the Glutton will take care of it!

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The beautiful and overwhelmingly gothic St. Moritz cathedral.

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The organ at St. Moritz is said to be Moravia's mightiest. Every September St. Moritz hosts the International Organ Festival.

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I was lucky enough to wander in during organ practice. I made my way up to the organ loft to see the pipes up close. The organ positively thundered.

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I like this shot of the organist with her reflection in the mirror.

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Back outside, a beautiful girl in pink with her blue purse.

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Giggling girls on a fountain in the square. I love the looks on their faces!

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The beautifully simple Church of the Annunciation of St. Mary.

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The interior of the church, built in 1661. It always amazes me how long some buildings were around before the United States was even a country!

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The ice cream seemed to be popular that day.

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I ended up taking a quiet stroll through the botanical gardens in the afternoon.

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Some great statues in the gardens.

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The botanical garden's playground wiener dog!

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The stunning St. Wenceslas Cathedral, first consecrated in 1131! I really had to go the restroom at this point, and when I asked one of the workers where it was, he said, "I have to go too!" He took me through a "Staff Only" door and let me use the restroom right there. Afterwards he introduced me to his wife, who ended up giving me an impromptu tour behind the scenes of the Cathedral!

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Awesome gargoyles on the exterior of the cathedral! Where do I get one of these for my house?

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Interior of the cathedral.

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A beautiful stained glass window with candles on the bottom left. I love this shot.

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I next walked down to the Morava River. It doesn't look like marsh water at all!

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The river was busy that afternoon, with dozens of people sculling about.

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Walking back to the hostel, I saw this man cleaning out the switches on the tram tracks.

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In my room at the hostel. Jess did my laundry and hung everything up to dry. Clean clothes! Way to go Jess!

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The next morning I talked to Walt. Walt is 72 years old and retired, having published the Corpus Christi Texas Visitor's Guide for 33 years. He said that he is in Europe for 3 months, finally getting around to taking the trips that his children took. He says that if older people have the energy, hostels are a very friendly and inexpensive way to go. He told me that he thinks that traveling with kids transforms them. "It makes them be considerate in the world." He delivered a boat to Corpus Christi in 1966, settled down there, and never regretted it. When he was 16 years old Walt came to the United States for the first time from Brazil, where his father and grandfather were missionaries. He collects stamps from Brazil and the United States, but said that it is a dying art with the increased use of technology for communications today. He told me that the Ford museum in Dearborn Michigan is one of his very favorite museums, because they have the original Wright Brothers' bicycle shop and Thomas Edison's laboratory, transported there brick by brick! Good luck Walt, and have fun on your trip!

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I also talked to Tim, who attends Valdosta State University in Georgia. He followed his girlfriend to Olomouc, who is in a 3 week exchange student program here. He will be entering his 3rd year of college, and plans to study engineering. He lives in Dunwoody, GA, and said he will probably transfer to Georgia Tech next year. Tim likes to build balsa wood model planes and add servos and motors to them so he can fly them by remote control. Interesting!

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Then it was up and out to the Modern Art museum that morning. I passed this ultra cool convertible Smart car! I think my Mini may be too big!

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The Modern Art Museum. Cafe 87 is right on the corner!

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The view over Olomouc from the rooftop viewpoint of the museum.

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I liked this sculpture, called "A Child Watching an Ordinary Day" by Anton Hanak.

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The museum had 2 special collections on display. The first was by Czech artist Eduard Ovcacek. Ovcacek is a practitioner of "Letterism," which stresses communication via the letter and the picture, creating a synthesis of speech, poetry, and music to recover the relation between poetry and painting. He brings out the picture letter relation one encounters every day without noticing. I found this explanation of particular interest to me, because while traveling in a foreign culture with another language, I often rely on a combination of pictures and a few letters to try and identify something. Here are some shots of his work.

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The other special exhibit was by Karel Teige. Teige's exhibit was called "Asymmetrical Harmony," and I found it fascinating. The artist used painted lines on the wall to show how various exhibits are interconnected, often featuring books mounted right on the wall. This was an alphabet book on the wall, with a video playing below of the artist turning all the pages of the book, one by one.

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There was also an entire room filled with other interconnected books and pamphlets. I think they may have been informational documents published by the former Communist regime.

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Leaving the museum I was walking down the stairs and tripped and fell down a flight of stairs, smacking my head on the hard stone floor! Ouch! I was bleeding until a German tourist helped me clean it up. I sat down for a few minutes to make sure I did not have a concussion. When I got back to the hostel, Jess thought I had been in a fight!

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Across the street from the museum was a man selling magazines.

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Another of the town fountains, this one featuring what appear to be a pair of chained baby dragons.

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I walked from there all the way to the Archdiocese Museum across town. My head must have begun to bleed again during the walk, because when I walked in the door the wonderful lady behind the desk immediately jumped up and got out the First Aid kit! She sprayed me with some super-strong Czech antiseptic (YEEEEOWW!) and bandaged my head for me! This is my angel of mercy at the Archdiocese Museum, Jindriska Bernatikova! Thank you! You were wonderful!

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The wooden floors of the Archdiocese Museum had beautiful wooden floors, and it required its guests to wear one-size-fits-all slippers over their shoes to protect them. "One size," however, did not exactly fit my "all."

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A beautiful golden carriage at the museum.

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The priceless Monstrance of the Gold Sun of Moravia, encrusted with 1,400 diamonds and emeralds, the most valuable piece in the museum's incredible collection.

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The Sternberk Madonna, dated 1390. The red robe, an unusual feature, symbolizes Christ's future suffering. The white veil identifies her with the church, and Jesus holding the apple symbolizes both original sin and that the Virgin is a second Eve, whose son will redeem mankind. It was featured in an exhibition of medieval gothic art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of the International Gothic style from the Czech lands.

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The Archdiocese Museum also featured a number of illuminated manuscripts from the 11th to the 16th century. One of the hand-drawn pictures showed the procession on Palm Sunday in front of St. Wenceslas Cathedral in Olomouc from the 1500's. I was particularly struck by a painting of a procession in the Olomouc town square in the 1700's showing the Town Hall, Astronomical Clock, and Holy Trinity Column. They appear nearly exactly the same today! It made me think of all of the people who have been to the square to see them over hundreds of years, doing exactly what I was doing. It really helped put the town history in perspective.

On the way back I took a walk through the beautiful Czech Gardens. These great swings are all over European playgrounds.

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Back at the hostel, I finally got a chance to sit down and talk to Jess, who is from Perth, Australia, on the isolated west coast. She has been gone from home for 2 years. She came to the Poet's Corner as a traveler, and ended up getting a job there and stayed for 9 months. She then left to work at another hostel in a village of 600 people on Loch Ness in Scotland. She had been back at the Poet's Corner for 2 weeks. Jess loves to crochet, and is making hacky sacks to sell for extra money this summer. she says that the money is really in the slippers and the beanies, though. She said that her job is more for the love than for the money, and she really enjoys it. In September she is headed back to Scotland, maybe Edinboro or the Scottish highlands. Her mother and father are coming in September to see her for the first time in 2 years, and plan to stay at the hostel. She enjoys taking long walks and riding her bike to the lake for a swim in the warm weather. Good luck Jess! It was terrific getting to know you!

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Later that evening a group of us ended up at the Tibet Jazz Club, one of Olomouc's best music venues.

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There was no live music that night, but Ella Fitzgerald music was playing in the background and the atmosphere was warm and laid back. Other patrons were having fun making paper airplanes and flying them off the balcony into the crowd below, so we decided to give it a go. I made my favorite round paper airplane, and everyone seemed to like the way it glided towards the stage. We ended up making other paper specialties, pictured in my photo. Ariella, in the group, said that it was now officially Origami Night at the Jazz Club!

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Ariella and Walt enjoying Ella Fitzgerald.

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The next morning I got up early to catch the train to Moravsy Krumlov, a tiny village housing internationally famous painter Alphonse Mucha's masterwork, The Slavic Epic. As I was walking out the door, I took a shot of the Poetry Corner Breakfast Club! Hi guys!

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I changed trains in Brno, but sadly, missed Motorhead. I did see this great model train layout, though. Put in 5 Crowns and watch the trains run!

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The lady in the train station in Moravsky Krumlov helped me with the times for the return trip. Notice the old school dot matrix printer with the feed hole paper! Kick ass!

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The train station in Moravsky Krumlov.

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The town was about 3 kilometers from the station, so I decided to walk. I first saw this neat train crossing sign.

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Many of the town's homes had picture-perfect gardens in the back.

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Strolling through farm fields on the way to town.

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Moravsky Krumlov is a very small town, and there were practically no signs at all to the Mucha exhibit. As I walked through town I had to stop and ask several people for directions. This nice couple running a building supply store pointed me in the right direction. The town is not used to many visitors, and everyone I met went out of their way to help. Sometimes you don't even need to speak the same language to make new friends.

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A typical house on the way to town.

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The people of Moravsky Krumlov really seem to take pride in their yards.

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The Rat Pack - still cool even in the Czech Republic!

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Finally - the Mucha exhibition!

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Alphonse Mucha was a world-renowned Czech painter, most famous for his theater posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha's lifelong dream, however, was to paint the Slavic Epic, a series of 20 giant paintings depicting the trials and triumphs of the Slavic people throughout history. After many years, he finally obtained funding and finished the series shortly before his death in 1939. Mucha was born in a small town near Moravsky Krumlov, but the paintings are housed in a building here because it is the only one with enough space to display the canvases properly. A permanent exhibit hall in Prague has been in the works for many years, but it has been slow to come. As you can see, the scale is massive, and the stories the paintings tell are quite moving. It was definitely worth a day trip.

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Here is a link to the Mucha Museum in Prague for more information on the great artist's work. http://www.mucha.cz/index.phtml?S=home&Lang=EN

The dispatcher back at the train station watches a freight train rumble past.

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A man in Brno.

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An interesting figure outside the Olomouc train station.

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The night before, Ariella had told me that Marketa Irglova, a Czech musician featured in the movie Once, was in town and she was going to try and get tickets to see her perform at the Jazz Club. Ariella graciously let me tag along, and her ingenious plan to get tickets at the last minute to the otherwise sold-out show worked beautifully! We ended up sitting on pillows on the floor directly in front of the stage! It was an amazing show!

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After the show we stayed around and got to meet Marketa, who was wonderful and very personable. She is Czech, and won an Academy Award in 2006 for best original song for the movie 'Once,' with Glen Hansard. I never thought I would meet an Academy Award winner in Olomouc!

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Here is a link to Marketa's IMDB page. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2461627/

I could have easily spent the rest of my trip in Olomouc with the friends I made in the hostel, and I was afraid that if I stayed one more night I might never leave. So the next day I made myself get up and go to the station to catch a train to Poland. Walking to the tram, I stopped one last time for a good bye taste of Olomouc. I bought and enjoyed a wonderful trdelniky for breakfast while waiting at the tram stop. Goodbye Olomouc! May we meet again very soon!

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Next: Krakow, Poland!

Posted by sfoshee 06.06.2009 13:15 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged backpacking Comments (6)

Cesky Krumlov - a Rose From a Thorn

Genovia lives, and the band is playing bluegrass!

overcast 48 °F
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My Daughter Anna Kate loves the movie The Princess Diaries. In the film, an American teenager finds out that she is, in fact, royalty, and moves to the tiny fictional European kingdom of Genovia to assume her role in the idyllic life of the castle with her Grandmother, played by Julie Andrews. We have enjoyed this movie more times than I can count, but I have told her to remember that places such as fairy tale kingdoms only exist in books, movies, and (maybe) at Disney World. After spending three days in Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic, however, I may owe her an apology.

I woke up early and showered, quietly getting ready while all of my friends at Hostel Elf slept late after the big hostel party the night before. While having breakfast on the terrace, I got a chance to chat with Matt from New Jersey. Matt is first generation U.S., and has relatives in Poland he visits as often as he can. His Grandmother lives in Warsaw and stocks milk when he comes, because she knows Matt loves the cheese and dairy products of Eastern Europe much better than those in the United States. He says they are less processed. He agrees that hostels are the best places to meet new people while traveling due to the great energy of their residents.

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I then walked to the bus stop and bought a ticket to Cesky Krumlov, three and a half hours away. While waiting for the bus I met Peter, Tina and Frank!

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Peter is from South Korea, and Tina and Frank are from Shanghai. Frank currently works for Intel in Ireland. Tina worked for a Chinese law firm in Shanghai, but left to go to Ireland with Frank. They are taking the opportunity to do some traveling while in Europe. Good luck guys and have fun!

The bus was packed, and after I threw my bags underneath and climbed on, I ended up standing most of the way next to Irena, originally from Tabor, Czech Republic. She was going back to see her family there for the weekend. Irena is an architect currently living in Hamburg, Germany.

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Irena's first big project as an architect was helping redesign an historical indoor swimming facility from the 1950's. The challenge, she said, is to preserve the old while still modernizing it. She looks forward to the facility being finished in the Fall of 2009 so she can go for a swim in a project she actually helped to create! Irena spent a year as an exchange student at Kansas State University, and especially enjoyed her travels while there to Chicago and to Death Valley, California. She said that she wants to return to the U.S. to visit South Dakota, due to her interest in the culture of the Native American tribes there. She enjoys dancing and music festivals, and her favorite band is the Dave Matthews band, although she is disappointed that they do not tour in Europe more often. We stood on the bus chatting together for 2 hours, and we said goodbye when she finally got off when the bus stopped at Tabor. Good luck Irena, and I hope you make it to South Dakota one day!

When I finally arrived In Cesky Krumlov the bus driver dropped me off at the wrong stop across town, so I had to walk in the pouring rain and cold wind along the road to find my lodgings for the next two nights, Hostel 99.

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Hostel 99 has loads of character. It is in a very old house with huge exposed beams going through the walls and floors. Here is the staircase to the second floor.

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Here is the main room where my bed was located. I slept up the second ladder in the loft under the eaves of the house!

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My bed below is the one on the right. This is the last time I saw my roommate's bed unoccupied. When I came back from looking around the house he was in bed asleep, never to rise again. I spent 3 days there, and every single time I went back to the loft, be it 8 am, 2pm, or 2am, my roommate was in his bed, snoring away. At one point I wondered if he was still alive at all and started looking around for a stick to poke him with, but he then turned over and pulled the covers back up over his head. I began to wonder if the Czech Republic had been infested by a swarm of Slavic tsetse flies!

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Hostel 99 was a co-ed hostel like Hostel Elf and most others in Europe, meaning that they put guys and girls wherever there is a bed available (although smaller private rooms are available for individual groups like families). I have yet to see an abuse of this arrangement in Europe. No one blinks an eye, and it works fine. The thinking is that if you give young people greater responsibility they will take greater responsibility. This is another good shot of the big room under my loft.

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This hostel did surprise me in one aspect, however. The next morning when I was looking for a shower, I discovered that the bathrooms and showers are co-ed too! The showers are like the ones at the YMCA, where you have a little door to close to dress/undress before you get in the shower, so there is no nothing to worry about, but I have to admit that it was a bit intimidating at first. After toweling off and getting dressed carefully in the small room so as not to knock the door open with my otherwise exposed butt, I ended up brushing my teeth in my t-shirt and blue penguin boxers while sharing a sink with a strange lady who was laughing loudly and talking - in very animated Italian, toothbrush flying - to her female travel partner who was lathering up in the steamy shower directly to her right! I dodged her flying toothpaste, kept my head down, and just kept brushing....

The first thing I did was take a night walking tour of the city. Cesky Krumlov roughly means Czech bend in the river. It was originally settled due to its fine defensive position, with the river nearly completely surrounding it, forming a natural moat. In 1992 the town was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. This map shows you the town's layout.

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The town gate near the hostel.

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An interesting manhole cover.

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The fairy tale tower of Krumlov Castle, covered with fancy astrological signs. You can see the tower from all over town.

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According to Rick Steves, one of the original ruling families of Cesky Krumlov, the Rozmberks, added bears to their coat of arms in the 16th century to demonstrate their (fake) blood relation to the distinguished Italian family of Orsini, which means "bear-like." To further demonstrate this alleged connection, the Rozmberks began to keep bears in a pit beneath the drawbridge, a tradition which continues to this day. Meet Mama Bear and Papa Bear Rozmberk.

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The narrow cobblestone streets of the town. I kept expecting to see Julie Andrews ride by in a carriage, or at least Goofy and Donald Duck walking up the street waving to tourists!

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Right then a wedding let out of the church and the wedding party began to walk down the street. Notice the bride's non-traditional short white dress.

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The groom hamming it up for the camera!

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The Rozmberk family ran Cesky Krumlov from 1302 to 1602, and their family symbol, the five-petaled rose, can still be seen all over town. It struck me as particularly fitting that a beautiful rose would symbolize this picture-postcard town, risen up from the particularly thorny history the Czechs have endured.

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This is me at one of the town's overlooks. Castle Krumlov is on the hill in the background.

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Sunset over Cesky Krumlov.

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A graveyard was moved from near the church to make way for a town park many years ago. My guide told me that the deeply superstitious Czech people still avoid the park due to the "bad feelings" there. Some of the headstones were incorporated into the walls of the church and the nearby rectory.

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Frescoes adorn many of the houses in town. It is quite romantic and inspiring.

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Krumlov Castle tower at night reflected in the water.

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The castle living quarters at night.

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A walkway built to connect the castle to the Baroque theater and Castle gardens beyond.

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Castle Krumlov and tower at night.

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I woke up the next morning, looked out of the window and couldn't believe it. After days of cold wind and rain, it was...*gasp*...THE SUN!!! Never waste a sunny day in Eastern Europe. I showered and got out as quickly as I could, grabbing a chocolate muffin at the 99 Cafe for breakfast. This is an arch on the walk into the town square.

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A beautiful green tower, visible from most parts of town.

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The town from across the river.

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This is probably my favorite picture of the castle, taken from the wooden Barber's Bridge.

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Visit the Horor Bar and have a Czech beer with the undead!

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A creepy character opening the door. Definitely not Mickey.

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The baroque plague column was erected by the town to thank God for sparing (about half) of the population from the plague, which swept through Europe at that time. There is also a fountain at the base of the column.

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Another view of the castle tower.

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A sunny view over the city.

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Knights with the five-petalled rose crest, defending the honor of Cesky Krumlov!

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The church of St. Vitus, built in the 15th century. A legend about the church says that one afternoon the priest fell asleep inside. When he awoke later that night, he was shocked to see communion being given - by the ghosts from the displaced graveyard next door!

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The interior of St. Vitus Church. I slipped in the back of a mass being given that morning, and afterwards enjoyed the beautiful organ fill this inspiring place. The music slowly faded away at the end, leaving behind an awed, silent reverence.

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This is the Cesky Krumlov Old Town Square, lined with the baroque and renaissance homes of burghers, built on 12th century foundations. Three different times McDonald's tried to get a spot here for a restaurant, and were refused each time!

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The history this square has seen is amazing. According to Rick Steves, in the 1620's Catholic Europe was threatened by the rising tide of Lutheran Protestantism. Since Cesky Krumlov was a seat of Jesuit Power and learning, intellectuals of the Catholic church burned books on the square. Later, when there was a bad harvest, residents blamed witches and burned them here too. In 1938 Hitler himself stood here in the square with giant Nazi banners to celebrate the the annexation of the Sudetenland. Finally, in 1968, Russian tanks rolled through the square to intimidate the Czechs during their uprising!

This was a cool Art Cafe I found in town.

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Walking back across Barber's Bridge, I noticed our old friend St. John of Nepomuk. He was last seen on the Charles Bridge in Prague. Why is he hanging out on all of these bridges? Has he been depressed lately? Is he planning on trying out for the Olympic diving team? It turns out that one of his responsibilities is to be a protector from floods. Makes sense, but he must have been overwhelmed by the horrible August 2002 floods here which completely submerged the bridge. The bridge was saved, however, thanks to the removable handrails, which minimized the damage.

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The Vltava river around the town (the same one that later flows through Prague) is a big draw for kayakers and rafters. They were even out paddling in the 48 degree F weather!

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Another view of the city streets. You'd swear that if you went around the corner and over the bridge, you'd end up in Adventureland.

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Two dogs, one fire hydrant. I'm just waiting for the sparks to fly.

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June 1st here is celebrated as Children's Day. Since June 1 this year fell on a Monday, and everything is closed on Monday, they decided to hold it the day before, on Sunday. It was held on the grounds of the Eggenberg Brewery, which has been making beer here for something like 400 years. I heard the music from across town and decided to investigate. There were lots of games for the kids, and everybody was having fun. It looks like something just got this little girl's attention to her left.

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This little boy with the blue Spider Man cap was precious.

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How do you say "Moo" in Czech?

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Toadstools or umbrellas? You decide.

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Czech Vikings? How did I end up back in Sweden?

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The goal of this game was to knock the heads off of the ghosts with a big hockey stick. "OK ghosts, you won't be serving communion in this town again anytime soon!"

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One of the teen volunteers. Purple hair is very rare among native Czechs.

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A policeman and his police dog, at children's day to show the kids that they have nothing to fear from the authorities. This guy practically looks like he should have his own children's T.V. show....

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Look at this little girl's smile!

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Oh no, the Czech witches have returned! Get the torches!

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Spider Man was back, this time galloping around on one of the witches' brooms.

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The kielbasa man had the grill going. When I first smelled them, I instinctively turned around looking for John Madden.

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The best $1.50 I ever spent!

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The music I had heard from across town that attracted me to the celebration was Johnny's Cash's Folsom Prison Blues. I listened for awhile, singing along as I walked the city streets, until I noticed something a little different. The band playing it was doing it in a country bluegrass style (very well, I might add), and they were singing it...in Czech?? Yes, Folsom Prison Blues in Czech! The band at the celebration turned out to be called Patrola (website http://www.patrola.cz). Check them out! Patrola in action!

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During their break I went up and talked to Marcel and Vladimir from the band. I explained to them that I had once lived in West Virginia, and that their bluegrass playing was great! Marcel told me that American bluegrass and country music is quite popular in the Czech Republic, and that they travel all around the area playing it for crowds. The night before, in fact, they had a gig where they played from 10am until 3am!! That's a lot of work for anyone!

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They then got up after talking with me during the break and played "Country Roads," dedicating it to me! I couldn't believe it! Patrola were terrific guys who very obviously loved what they did. Thanks, Patrola, and good luck with your music!!

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I had to leave early for a 1pm tour of Krumlov Castle and the Baroque Theater there. On the way up to the castle, I checked in on the Bear family again. It looked like Mr. Bear had had a big night out with Patrola and was still sleeping it off....

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Rick Steves writes that there were once many Baroque theatres across Europe, but due to the fact that they used candles for lighting and fireworks for special effects, all but two have burned down. One is in Stockholm and one is at Krumlov Castle in Cesky Krumlov. Photos were not allowed inside, but here is a photo of the main theater door....

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and this is the huge lock on the front!

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We got to go in and sit on the wooden benches while we learned about Baroque theater. We then were allowed to go under the stage to see the original stage machinery which was used to raise and lower things to and from the stage, and even produce sound effects! We saw (and heard) a thunder machine, rain machine, and wind machine! It was really quite interesting. Because the theater is so fragile, only five English language tours are allowed each day, and they are limited to 25 people each. Only one performance is given each year in the theater currently, and attendance is limited to Baroque theater enthusiasts.

The castle tour was next, and once again no cameras were allowed. The castle was where the Royal families of Cesky Krumlov lived until as recently as 1947, when it was nationalized by the government. I hope they paid the owners for it! The inside is compact and picture-perfect, from the entry through the castle chapel through to the ballroom, where concerts were occasionally given. The walkway to the theater leads from the ballroom directly to the theater, and then out to the gardens, where fireworks were sometimes set off as the ending to the evening! What would you give for just one evening like that?

Two castle windows.

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A view of the town and the river from the castle.

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One of the castle's many courtyards.

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Shots I took of the castle gardens. No, this is not the hedge maze from The Shining....

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Beautiful manicured lawns.

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The garden fountain.

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The garden fountain from the rear. For some reason I found this interesting.

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The menu at the garden cafe!

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A figure in the garden that caught my eye.

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The castle walkway to the garden.

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A cool sundial on the castle wall.

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A diet of gas station sandwiches was beginning to catch up with me, so I decided to treat myself to a decent meal at the Tavern of Two Marys. And what a meal it was! I got the Chicken Feast - medieval Bohemian dining at its finest, right by the river, no less! The meal, garlic soup, and a beverage altogether was $11 - my largest meal expense so far, but very much worth it! The chicken came with potatoes, potato dumplings, millet, ham, and cabbage.

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While eating alone, I had an unexpected dinner companion! I looked down and he seemed hungry, so I threw him a bite of ham.

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As I was leaving I looked up the bank of the river and saw that my companion was not homeless at all, but was merely bored with his owners and was working the restaurant tables! I had been had!!

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I was up early the next morning and packed up my things for the trip back up to Prague and then to Olomouc, in the eastern region of the Czech Republic called Moravia. I made my way down my loft ladder for the last time and bid farewell to my roommate, who was - you guessed it - still asleep! Goodbye Sleepy, and tell Snow White I said "Hello!"

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Coming next: Olomouc, Czech Republic

Posted by sfoshee 05.31.2009 13:52 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Prague - Seeds of a New Future

The Search for Kafka

rain 55 °F
View Scott's Eastern Europe 2009 on sfoshee's travel map.

Right before I left home some of our friends gave me an unexpected Bon Voyage party at Ferrando's, and it was a wonderful send off! I would like to thank the Brickmans - Joey, Amy, Will, Zach, Aaron and Ethan; the Smiths - Don, Margaret and Fleming; the Cokers - Keith, Grace and Mary Beth; the Dillards - Pam, Doug, Mary Glenn, and Hannah, and of course Emily and Anna Kate! Your hospitality was wonderful! Thank you!!

I got packed and repacked for the trip over the period of several days, nervously eliminating all kinds of odds and ends. The few days before I was a nervous wreck - it is a bit scary traveling alone in Eastern Europe for a month! When I was ready to leave, I got Will, my expert chess partner, to take a picture of me packed for a month, complete with money belt pouch around my neck. Anna Kate said I looked like I was wearing some kind of bulletproof vest!
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Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. It's the busiest airport in the world, and also happens to be my home airport. When I checked in at the Delta gate, the attendant made an announcement asking for volunteers to get bumped for a later flight for a flight voucher. I have been in this situation before, and have always kicked myself for not taking the deal. I am traveling alone and my plans are flexible this time so my hand shot up! Instead of flying me directly to Frankfurt they routed me 2 hours later to Amsterdam and then on to Frankfurt, arriving at 11am instead of 7am. Plus, I got a free meal voucher and a travel credit worth $600! Ka-ching! What a great way to start a trip!

I am always amazed at how people traveling together bond so quickly. On the plane I was sitting next to Sonny and Kim. None of us knew each other before the flight, but we had great fun talking.
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Sonny, who lives in Kennesaw GA is a manufacturing consultant. He spends two weeks in Atlanta and then flies to Europe for two weeks. He has been keeping up this grueling schedule every two weeks since 2004! Sonny meets with companies to show them how to make their manufacturing processes more efficient (painting, software, auto panels, etc.) His father is Nigerian and he speaks five African dialects in addition to English and German! Kim is a 17 year old student just finishing up a year as an exchange student in the U.S. in the Springfield, MO area. She loved her time traveling around America between school terms, especially going to California, Las Vegas, and New York City. She is studying travel and wants to become a flight attendant. Her biggest complaint about the U.S. was that she couldn't drive a car there! She was really looking forward to going home to the Amsterdam area and her family's annual vacation to an island off the coast of France. It was great meeting you both!

I had a smile on my face as I fell asleep listening to Miles Davis' album Kind of Blue, with nothing but empty sky and adventure before me.

Switching planes in Amsterdam I met another traveler, Matthias. Matthias had been bumped like me, and while we were talking we began to wonder if our bags would make it to Frankfurt at all. Matthias, who is from Germany, has a PhD. in Chemistry and lives with his family in Atlanta. He returns to visit his relatives in the Frankfurt area 3-4 times a year.
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He invited me to stick with him, and when we got to the Frankfurt airport he whisked us from terminal to the baggage office and back to the train station, speaking his perfect German, in record time! Without him I might still be looking for my luggage! He put me on the right train to Prague at the station, and waved as his train drew away in the opposite direction. Goodbye, and thanks again Matthias!

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When I got on the train in Frankfurt bound for Dresden I really had to go to the bathroom. Being nervous about the trip combined with fast food on the go definitely was not agreeing with me. So I put my bags above my seat and went to the restroom. I was sitting there a few minutes later when I hear a 'bang' 'bang' 'bang' on the door. "Tickets! Tickets!" "OK! Hold on!!" I shouted back, thinking he would go away. But I far underestimated the German conductor's persistence. 'bang''bang''bang' "Tickets!! Tickets!!!" "OK, HOLD ON!!" I shouted back, but to no avail. I started to hear the rattle of keys, and before I know it, he slams the bathroom door! The German conductor stepped through the door looking like a walrus, looked on the counter at my charging phone, and then looked down at me, still sitting on the toilet. His expression never changed. He took a deep breath, thrust out his hand and bellowed "TICKETS!!!" I hurriedly fumbled in my shorts pockets for my German Rail Pass (which had been properly validated and stamped, by the way). I finally found it and held it up to him, sheepishly. "Ticket?" I asked. He took it, inspected it closely, and handed it back. "OK," he said matter-of-factly, stepped back, and closed the door. Still sitting there on the toilet with my shorts around my ankles I stared dumbly at the rail pass in my hand. Had that actually just happened, or was I currently live on German National TV's answer to Candid Camera?

I transferred trains in Dresden and took this cool shot of the train station.
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At the train station I went into Burger King (no, I am not proud of this fact) and got a "Long Chicken," Germany's answer to BK's original chicken sandwich. To make up for the travesty of eating at Burger King while in Europe I ordered my fries with extra mayonnaise. I hoped the Travel Gods would somehow be appeased.

On the train from Dresden to Prague I met Troy, who had just graduated from the engineering program at Oklahoma State University. He said he plans on staying in Oklahoma because of the low cost of living, but he thinks he may have a hard time finding a job right now with the poor economy. Troy thinks he might join the Air Force if his work plans fall through so that he can pay off his student loans.

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Troy was traveling for a month on his own too, as a graduation gift from his father. Troy was going to Prague without reservations, and had had luck everywhere else on his trip just showing up at hostels. I invited him to come with me to the Hostel Elf, where I had reservations for 4 days. We talked most of the way into Prague, and stuck together once getting off the train. We found the Metro station from there, took it to the Florenc station, and got the 133 bus from there. We were at the Hostel Elf in no time!

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The hostel was a really cool funky place where I seemed to fit right in. It had a great terrace where everyone gathered on warm nights...

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and a cozy common room where we gathered on cold nights.

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One of my favorite front desk clerks at the Hostel Elf was Boris. Everybody say hello to Boris!

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Boris worked the night shift, from 8pm until 8am, and enjoyed sitting up late talking about his girlfriend problems. I'm sure Boris and his girlfriend will work it out eventually!

Youth hostels are not at all limited to youth. Most of the people at the Hostel Elf probably ranged from 18 to 25 years old, but all ages are welcome. All you need is an open attitude and an appreciation for the energy of your fellow backpackers. I paid $16.60 a night for 4 nights at the Elf, and absolutely loved it. The bathrooms/shower rooms are down the hall...

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and I slept on the top bunk in a 6 person dorm room (that's my bed on the top left).

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Everyone I met there was very quiet in the sleeping rooms, considerate of your things, and fun to talk to. I met more people staying there than at all of the regular hotels I stayed in last year! Plus, you can't beat the price. It even came with breakfast!

On my first morning I grabbed a cheese and pepperoni sandwich from the breakfast table (hey, I said it was free), and headed out on foot with my trusty Rick Steves' Eastern Europe travel guide to see Prague. I walked past several music posters - it was interesting to see who was still popular in the Czech Republic....

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It was also interesting to see casinos in this former Communist bastion.

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I walked down to the Old Town Square, photographing interesting sights along the way. A building in Wenceslas square.

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These cool electric trams run all over town.

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B.B. King is coming in July! I love B.B.!!

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The Czech and Slovak surfing championships! In France!!

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Powder Tower, the Gothic gate of the town hall, built to house gunpowder.

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The Municipal House, built as a ceremonial palace "to reinforce the self-awareness of the Czech Nation." It features Prague's largest concert hall.

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A cool Communist-era gas mask!

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I finally reached the Old Town Square, and it was an absolute gem.

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In the center of the square is the huge Jan Hus Memorial. The Memorial was erected in 1915 on the 500th anniversary of Hus' martyrdom by fire, and is a symbol of the long struggle for Czech freedom.

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Hus stands between the victorious Hussite patriots and Protestants defeated by the Hapsburgs in 1620. One of the patriots holds a chalice. According to Rick Steves, in the medieval church, only the priests could drink the wine at Communion. "Since the Hussites fought for their right to take both the wine and the bread, the cup is their symbol."

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Hus looks at beautiful Tyn church, which became the headquarters and leading church of his followers. "A golden chalice once filled the now-empty niche under the gold bas-relief of the Virgin Mary on the church's facade. After the Hapsburg (and, therefore, Catholic) victory over the Czechs in 1620, the Hussite chalice was melted down and made into the image of Mary that shines from that spot high over the square today."

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The Astronomical Clock and Clock Tower, where hundreds gather to watch the striking of the hour.

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Here I am in front of Jan Hus and the Tyn Church.

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A strange meridian line embedded in the cobblestones of the square reminded me of something fom the Da Vinci Code!

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The Twenty Seven Crosses, marking the spot where 27 Protestant nobles, merchants, and intellectuals were beheaded in 1621 after rebelling against the Catholic Hapsburgs. I am always amazed at the amount of violence attributable to religion.

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I then spent time inside Tyn Church, where no cameras are allowed. It was originally very simple and plain inside, until the Catholics took it over and added the ornamentation. It was a very moving sight, and I exited with tears in my eyes.

Behind Tyn Church is Ungelt Courtyard, where merchants would store their goods and pay taxes before setting up stalls on the Old Town Square. Pictures while strolling through the square. Some waitresses chatting outside a cafe.

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Pinocchio sitting outside his namesake shop!

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The marionette theater.

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Some cool punk rockers in front of the Hus Memorial!

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A cool building facade.

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The Franz Kafka bookshop. Kafka was a famous resident of Prague.

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A classic Czech car for hire.

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The Hard Rock Cafe - Prague. Notice the fork in the window!

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The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments! Awesome!

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Approaching the Charles Bridge. This is the Klementium, the Czech Republic's huge National Library.

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Inside another marionette store.

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The world famous Charles Bridge. "According to medieval record, the founding stone was laid in 1357, on the 9th of July at 5:31 (it's a palindrome: 135797531)." This precise moment coincides with a favorable positioning of the Earth and Saturn. It was also discovered that the end of the bridge on the Old Town side aligns perfectly with the tomb of St. Vitus in the cathedral across the river, and the setting sun at summer solstice. Fascinating!

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I climbed to the top of the Charles Bridge tower to get this shot of the Castle Quarter over the Vltava river. Note Prague Castle in the upper right.

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The rooftops of Old Town, Prague.

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Crossing the bridge on foot, I ran into the Bridge Band, playing Dixieland Jazz music! American jazz is very popular here. Notice the washboard player using egg beaters!

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A cool statue on the Charles Bridge.

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Approaching the Little Quarter gate.

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A steak restaurant on Mosteka Street, the Little Quarter.

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Petrin Tower, high above Prague.

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The changing of the guards at Prague Castle.
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Inside Prague Castle, this is a shot of the exterior of St. Vitus Cathedral. According to my travel guide, it is a Roman Catholic Cathedral symbolizing the Czech spirit, and contains the tombs and relics of the most important local saints and kings, including the first three Hapsburg Kings. It is hard to do it justice in a photograph. Simply unbelievable.

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Interior of St. Vitus Cathedral, one of the finest sights in all of Europe.

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The stained glass in the cathedral is simply amazing.

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A close up of one of the intricate stained glass panels.

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More of the cathedral interior.

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The tomb of St. John of Nepomuk in the cathedral, rumored to contain more than a ton of silver. "John of Nepomuk was was a 14th-century priest to whom the queen confessed all her sins. According to a 17th-century legend, the king wanted to now his wife's secrets, but Father John dutifully refused to tell." He was tortured and eventually killed by being thrown off the Charles Bridge! St. John of Nepomuk is a saint of the Czech people.

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Wenceslas Chapel in the cathedral, containing the tomb of St. Wenceslas surrounded by precious 14th century murals showing scenes of his life. This is the "Good King Wenceslas" of Christmas carol fame.

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Another exterior of St. Vitus Cathedral.

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14th century mosaic on the outside of the cathedral of the Last Judgment. "The Czech king and queen kneel directly below Jesus and the 6 patron saints. On coronation day, they would walk under this arch, which would remind them and their subjects that even those holding great power are not above God's judgment."

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The Old Royal Palace was the seat of Bohemian princes starting in the 12th century. The Large Hall was built to be a multipurpose hall for the old nobility. It was big enough for jousts - even the staircase was designed to let a mounted soldier gallop in!

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Scott on the balcony of the chapel overlooking Prague!

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Rick Steves says that the Basilica and Convent of St. George is Prague's best preserved Romanesque church. St. Wenceslas's grandmother, St. Ludmilla, who had established this first Bohemian convent, was reburied here in 973!

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The Basilica interior. Note its beautiful simplicity.

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The gallery inside the church has double windows, and the walls are made from limestone, the stone underlying most of Prague.

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Walking out of the castle and back down the hill I took the Golden Lane, a street of old buildings originally housing goldsmiths. This house, Number 22, is where Franz Kafka once lived. It is now a gift shop!

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A really interesting statue at the base of the castle, but I don't think I would want one in my living room....

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Na Valech Garden, at the base of the castle. I sat down on benches here for a while to rest my throbbing feet.

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The Prague Metro is extremely easy and dirt cheap. After being in the city for literally 24 hours I was switching trains and transferring buses with ease. No trip that I made, including transfers, cost me more than 18 Crowns, or 1 dollar! Another feature of the Metro stations was that they were extremely deep underground. I noticed this in Moscow too. They must be designed as bomb shelters. The escalators were the fastest I have ever ridden on. Step on one and hold on for your life!

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Watching television in the Prague subway.

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The next stop was Prague's Museum of Communism. The cool thing about it was that it was located right next to a casino and a McDonald's! I can hear Lenin spinning in his grave!

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There were several fascinating exhibits in the Museum of Communism. One was a reconstructed interrogation room, and another had a piece of the Berlin Wall on display.

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Also featured were huge statues of all of the Communist All-Stars. Here is Comrade Lenin.

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Back in the Old Town Square I saw these horses. I guess their grandmothers didn't want their ears to get cold....

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Looking for something to eat for dinner I found the Franz Kafka statue. I love it!!

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Mission accomplished. I finally found dinner at a convenience store. $4 for two sandwiches! These are chicken. I think.

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After enjoying my dinner on a park bench with the pigeons I went to see a performance of the Image Black Light Theater. Black Light Theaters, popular in Prague, are kind of like Cirque du Soleil with black lights. It featured pantomime and dancing with glowing objects seemingly flying on their own all over the stage. It was fun and interesting to try and figure out.

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Walking back to the Metro after the Black Light Theater, I took this picture of the Jan Hus Memorial with Tyn Church in the background at night. This one is my favorite.

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Back at the hostel I met Dori and Jessi from the Denver area. They are going to be traveling together for 5 weeks, and had just arrived in Prague from a week in London. Dori graduated this year, and she and Jessi, who have known each other since they were 4 years old, made a pact in the 3rd grade to backpack the Czech Republic together! Jessi was a journalism major, but is worried about her future in the print media. They are now planning on doing Eastern Europe together, but the cold weather may force them south to Croatia. Good luck guys, and have fun!
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This is a photo of me taken by Dori, who said that she was a yearbook editor in high school!

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The next morning eating breakfast on the terrace. I love all of the cool signs left at the hostel by travelers.

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The goal for the day was the Jewish Quarter, thought by Rick Steves to be the most interesting collection of Jewish sights in Europe. Seven different sights make up the Jewish Museum, and I visited them all. First was Pinkas Synagogue, a site of Jewish worship for 400 years. The walls are covered with the hand-painted names of 77,297 Czech Jews who were sent from Prague to the Nazi death camps. While reading the names you can see that many families perished together. There is also a recording of a reading of the names playing, with a cantor singing the Psalms in between. When the Communists moved into the area they erased all of the names, but when the Czech Republic regained its freedom in 1989, all of the names were rewritten.

On the top floor of the Pinkas Synagogue was the Terezin Children's Art Exhibit. I left this room literally in tears. It featured various artworks done by Jewish children imprisoned at the Terezin Concentration Camp during WWII. Many later died. Works included "The Train" by Lea Lenka Pollakova (d. 5/18/44), "A Terezin Shower" by Ruth Klaubaufova (d. 10/19/44), "A Children's Playground With Notice 'Entrance Forbidden'" by Hana Turnovska, and my personal favorite, "Deserted Table," showing a table surrounded by empty chairs and one small, lone figure sitting alone. It was drawn by Blanka Metzlova (d. 5/18/44).

Outside the synagogue was the Old Jewish Cemetery, one of the most unique places I have ever seen. From 1439 until 1787 this was the only burial ground allowed the Jews of Prague. Because of the Jewish belief that the body should not be moved once buried, and because of the limited space available, the bodies were literally piled on top of one another in several layers. The crowded tombstones are askew from the settling, providing an eerie, powerful landscape. I will never forget it.

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Many of the stones had handwritten prayers placed on them.

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The next stop was the Ceremonial Hall, which described Jewish Death, burial traditions, and medicine.
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I also visited the Klaus Synagogue, the Old-New Synagogue (the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe, built in 1270), and the Maisel Synagogue (which served as a warehouse for the stolen treasures of the Jewish community that Hitler planned to exhibit in his "Museum of the extinct Jewish Race." I also saw the beautiful Spanish Synagogue. The Jewish Quarter is one of the most moving and well-done exhibitions I have ever seen, and I very highly recommend it for everyone.

I next set out for the Museum of Medieval Art, and I took these two pictures along the way. Two boys playing.

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A Peruvian Restaurant - in Prague!!

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The Museum of Medieval Art is at the St. Agnes Convent and has been called one of the best in the world, and I believe it. The first photo is the herma used to serve as a casket for the skull of St. Ludmila, again the grandmother of St. Wenceslas, the Czech parton saint. It was wrought of silver and guiled in fire. It is dated 1360.

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A series of paintings depicting the 12 Disciples plus Jesus and the Mary.

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An exquisite silver piece.

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AQs I walked back across town the cold rain came and driving wind began to blow. It was cold! I just kept marching, though. I happened to be right there at the very moment this lady's umbrella blew inside out!

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Once again I had forgotten to eat, so I grabbed another sandwich. As I was walking down the street in the cold, driving rain, I caught a view of myself in a shop window. I was soaking wet, eating a sandwich while walking down the middle of the street, with a huge smile on my face! I thought it was so funny that I got the sales clerk at a shoe store I was passing to take my picture right then! She shook her head sadly. Crazy American!

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My last morning in Prague I went to Wenceslas Square to see some very important things before I left. First off was the square itself, the gathering spot for 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks in 1989 who were protesting for their freedom. This was also the spot where the Soviets put down the 1968 Prague rebellion. The creation of the Czechoslovak state was also celebrated here in 1918.

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These are the pillars of the National Museum. The light spots are from the plaster intentionally mismatched by Czech repairmen patching the bullet holes left over from Soviet troops putting down the 1968 Prague Spring Rebellions. The masons didn't want people to forget what happened. They haven't.

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This Communist-era building now houses Radio Free Europe, rented out to the for 1 Crown per year. It now broadcasts deep into Islamic countries.

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A memorial commemorating the victims of Communism, such as Jan Palach, who set himself on fire on the National Museum steps in 1969 for the cause of Czech independence. He died a few days later.

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The National Museum and the St. Wenceslas statue at the top of the square. Wenceslas was credited with "Christianizing the nation and lifting up the culture."

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Just off the main square is this statue, Wenceslas Riding and Upside-Down Horse, by David Cerny.
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The beautiful rose bushes in the Franciscan Garden just off the square.
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Vendors at a hot dog stand on the square!
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I then walked back to the Little Quarter (again in the cold, driving rain). This is a nice view of the city across the river.

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The Monument to Victims of Communism Who Survived is a compelling statue showing people who are gradually atrophied by the totalitarian regime.

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I then took the funicular railway to the top of the hill in the Little Quarter to climb the 400 steps of Petrin Hill to get one last view of this amazingly beautiful city, full of the power of youth planting the seeds of a new future.

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Posted by sfoshee 05.29.2009 13:16 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Scott's Road to Eastern Europe, 2009

Come With Me to Far Away Places....

Email me at sfoshee@yahoo.com
Twitter username: Sfoshee1
Skype me at sfoshee

Hello to everyone, and welcome to the blog of my adventures in Eastern Europe during the Summer of 2009! If you followed my adventures in Iceland and Scandinavia during the Summer of 2008, welcome back! I welcome all of my new readers this year as well!

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Also, a very special hello to all of the great friends I met in Europe last year! Please let me hear from you!

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If you would like to read about my adventures last year in Iceland and Scandinavia, click here:
http://sfoshee.travellerspoint.com/

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I have also posted my favorite photos from my 2007 African Safari. View them by clicking here:
http://scottafrica2007.travellerspoint.com/

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The plan for this year is to fly from Atlanta, Georgia, USA to Frankfurt Germany and to go on to Prague from there. I plan to visit Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna and Saltzburg. Depending on the time and money available at that point, I may spend some time in Munich and Bavaria before heading back to Frankfurt and the flight home a month later. If you have any favorites in these cities, or know of any other places I might enjoy visiting, please let me know!

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I am travelling solo again this year, which is a wonderful testament to my family, which is helping make this all possible. Thanks guys!

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I am on a tight budget this year, so I am attempting to do the trip on $75 a day or less, including accomodation. I did buy a Germany rail pass and an Eastern Europe rail pass before I left, so most of the train segments should be paid for. I plan to eat mostly from supermarkets and convenience stores along the way. I chose Eastern Europe this year because it is supposed to be inexpensive. I guess we'll see!

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I will post updates from the road right here in this year's blog. I have also put my Twitter feed on this page, so you can see my last three posts from the road to keep up with the trip between blog postings. I hope to put pictures on the Twitter feed as well as GPS postings coordinated with Google Maps showing exactly where I am during the day. You can follow my last three Twitter posts here, or you can sign up for free on Twitter, follow me here http://twitter.com/sfoshee1, and get all of my posts. If you send me your email, I will put you on my list to email you when I have updated the blog.

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Thank you very much for reading and following my adventures in Eastern Europe this year! I really hope to hear from you!

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Posted by sfoshee 12:37 Archived in USA Tagged backpacking Comments (5)

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