Prague Castle

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Prague Castle was truly the highlight of our visit to the city. Perched atop a hill overlooking the Vltava River and the center of Prague, it is extremely hard to miss the beauty and grandeur of this symbol of Czech history, culture, and politics.

Prague CastleThe founding of the Castle complex predates any mention of it in records, as they think it was founded sometime in 880. Since then, it has endured a long history of changing regimes, new architectural additions, and at least a few wars. The Castle has been called home by Bohemian kings, Roman emperors, Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, and communist government officials – if the walls could talk! Nowadays, it functions as the residence and office for the President of the Czech Republic and remains a popular attraction for visitors to Prague.

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Prague Castle

Prague Castle

It really is more of a complex than just a castle – it takes the Guinness Book title for largest ancient castle in the world. The complex is it’s own small city – it includes the cathedral and a few other places of worship, what were once living quarters, government buildings, shops, restaurants, gardens – even a torture chamber. The Bohemian crown jewels are also housed (or hidden, really) within the complex. It is rumored that the Bohemian crown jewels are cursed, and that any illegitimate ruler who wears the crown will die within a year. And so the story goes that while Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich was a resident of the Castle, he placed the crown on his head and died less than a year later.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague CastleOne of the highlights in the Castle complex is Golden Lane, a 15th century row of dwellings that once housed goldsmiths and artisans. Within each house are time-period exhibits and artifacts to explore, including medieval armor, a bedroom and workshop space set up as it would have been during that time, a lookout with weapons and crossbows, and a tower that was once used as a dungeon.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague CastleAnother highlight was St. Vitus Cathedral, home to some of my absolute favorite stained glass artwork of any we saw while in Europe – the colors and stories depicted were so bright and intricate. Begun in 1344 but not finished until 1929, the cathedral was built in the Gothic style of architecture like many similar cathedrals throughout Europe – making it extremely large and imposing. But the most impressive aspect to me was not the flying buttresses, but the stained glass. The cathedral is also the eternal resting place of former Roman emperors and Bohemian kings – some of their bodies still on display in glass-faced tombs, bones and all.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague CastleWe took our time wandering the grounds and exploring the buildings, gardens, and taking in the amazing views of the city. The grounds were immaculate and very well taken care of – there is even a vineyard where you can taste wine!

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague CastlePrague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague CastleWhile we were in Prague, we visited the Castle two days in a row – there was so much to see that we really couldn’t fit it all in one day. It was very enlightening to get a glimpse of not only the way people lived, but also how people were ruled over half a world away and hundreds of years ago. It puts into perspective how small our own sliver of time is in relation to human history as a whole and reiterates that things are always changing.

Imagine: The John Lennon Wall

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By December of 1989, the people of Czechoslovakia had endured over 40 years of oppressive communist rule. Prior to that, they were subjected to years of occupation by Nazi Germany – a dark period in which many of the country’s Jews were exterminated. But by 1980, something was brewing among the youth in the Eastern European country.

Nearly ten years prior, in 1971, John Lennon released his second solo album, Imagine, which became one of his most popular and was an anthem to peace and the anti-war movement. Although popular Western music was banned from being played by the communist government, Lennon himself was viewed by many young Czechs as a pacifist hero. After Lennon was murdered in 1980, rebellious young Czechs, in a nod to Lennon and in defiance of communist officials, painted his portrait on a wall in Prague, along with song lyrics and anti-communist messages.

Although the secret police continued to attempt to paint over the original messages, the wall quickly became a tableau representing freedom of speech, peace, and non-violent and peaceful rebellion against the oppressive communist regime. Today, the original messages are buried underneath many coats of paint and subsequent messages of peace and paintings of John Lennon’s face, but people still come to the wall to contribute their own messages of freedom, hope, love and everything John Lennon.

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Lennon WallLennon WallBy 1989, the Velvet Revolution was in full-swing. Through non-violent protest, dissidents and activists of the country had achieved freedom from communist oppression after 41 years, and a democratic government was restored. Shortly thereafter, communism fell in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Hungary.

On our visit, people from all walks of life were at the wall, adding their own messages. There was a young boy with his father, a punk-rock-dressed couple, and a teenage girl in a floral skirt. Quite fittingly, there was a street performer singing the infamous song, Imagine, for tips. Literally and figuratively, the wall and John Lennon’s messages were still bringing people together in 2012 – over three decades after his death.

Prague’s Jewish Cemetery

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Away from the bustle of city streets in Prague lies a secluded, rather woodsy, and nearly hidden plot of land – you can’t see in from the outside and entry is strictly regulated. The high walls hide it from outsiders, but once you enter, what lies ahead is quite a unique sight – Prague’s Jewish cemetery.

Although there are 12,000 visible tombstones, there are thought to be more than 100,000 people buried here in total; the cemetery was in use from 1439 to 1787. As it was explained to us, the Jewish community kept asking for additional land to perform burials, but they were discriminated against and thus were denied. The rabbis were told that plot of land was all that they would get, and since their religion states that they must be buried, they had no other choice but to continue to bury on top of existing plots – creating what is thought to be nearly 12 layers of tombs.

Taking a stroll through the cemetery is eerie, sad, and empathy-inducing all at once. And although one can imagine the kind of discrimination and circumstances that would lead to this, we can’t really know the story and the strife of every individual here, we can only think of the situation collectively by seeing the number of headstones (and the ones we can’t see but know are there) and what they represent.

Maniacally, Prague’s entire Jewish quarter (called Josefov), including its synagogues and this cemetery, were carefully preserved through the Holocaust because Hitler wanted to leave it as a relic of an extinct race, like a twisted museum. I guess in some ways it did become a museum of sorts, although not for that purpose – more for the purpose of exhibiting what Hitler and others tried to do, although they ultimately failed. Now those intentions are wrapped up as part of the history of this place, even though they weren’t meant to be.

Prague Jewish Cemetery

Prague Jewish Cemetery

I had to think about how and why this is has morphed into a tourist attraction as well – is it because it looks different than typical cemeteries? Is it the grim backstory? Fascination with different religious practices after death? I thought about this as I walked the winding path, the sound of crunching gravel the only noise around me, because I was the only one there. It was a crisp autumn day and this part of Prague was uncharacteristically quiet. Once I neared the end of the path, I turned around towards the way I came to see a jagged sea of headstones almost as far as the eye could reach, like each one was vying, desperately, to be remembered.

Backpacking Europe: What Gear Worked and Which Didn’t

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I promised an update once we had returned on what worked and what didn’t while we were traveling. This is the exact list I had posted earlier, with my notes added in italics:

Brian had a rolling suitcase (a very heavy-duty one) and I had a backpack. We only had to deal with the suitcase and backpack if we were changing locations. When you’re in a city and have a room or somewhere to stay, you aren’t moving the large bags at all. With that said, I think it is just a matter of preference. If you have a bad back and are strong enough to hoist a rolling suitcase at certain times, like up stairs, then go for it. For me, a backpack was better as I had two hands free and I didn’t have to worry about lifting a a heavy bag.

Packing cubes came in very handy, as I had three and was able to fit all of my clothes rolled up into all three packing cubes. It eliminated the need to dig around in a cavernous backpack looking for one item of clothing – everything was in the cubes. It also made packing back up a lot faster – throw all clothing items in the cubes, throw cubes in the bags, then go.

Packing Cubes

Clothes

3 t-shirts *Wore only to bed, so essential. Kind of wish I had maybe one or two more.

2 yoga pant/legging (black) *One of these was supposed to be part of outfits I would wear out, which I did for the first two weeks – until I sat in my own gum, which was white colored and would NOT come off. So these were put out of commission for wearing in public, anyway. Would’ve been great in the hotter locales later on like Croatia.

1 running short *I didn’t wear these barely at all. Only the few nights it was warmer for bed.

1 khaki short *These were my only warm weather clothing, unfortunately. I also hate wearing shorts with flats, but I had no choice as these were my only shorts and I didn’t want to wear running shoes all the time. The upside is that khaki goes with almost any top.

1 khaki travel capri pant *Comfortable, but didn’t wear these as much as I thought I would, I think because these made it harder to blend in in cities, and they were capris so they weren’t always warm enough.

2 travel pants (black, brown) *I wore these to DEATH. They were Athleta brand travel pants, which look like normal corduroy jeans, but were way stretchier and the waist was elastic, making them pretty comfortable. It was easy to dress them up or down, and the black hid any stains/dirt. I still wear them here at home.

1 cardigan (black) *Good enough, didn’t wear it a ton since it was cold enough for jackets – could have left out.

1 pullover sweater (grey) *I also wore this tons. It was neutral enough to go with everything and was good for layering. Also comfortable without looking frumpy. Still wear this at home.

1 longsleeve travel shirt (black) *This shirt was really flattering on, so it was easy to dress up but still comfortable, and was made of a certain material that dries very quickly, so that was handy for hand-washing.

1 3/4 sleeve shirt (striped)

3 long sleeved shirts (white, black, purple) *Staples and what I wore almost everyday.

2 short-sleeved shirts (striped, black) *I wished I had more short-sleeve, casual tops. It got hot through Croatia and I only had these two.

1 blouse *I loved this top – it was flowy and had a flowery pattern, so it was more dressy than a plain cotton top but still super comfortable. It was easy to dress up and was nice to just wear down and was sleeveless for when it got hot but I still wanted to look nice.

2 tank tops *Didn’t wear these a ton, as it was cold much of the time.

1 bathing suit *Good thing I actually brought my suit, but Brian didn’t. Came in handy only in Croatia, but takes up very little room.

2 scarves *I wore these a lot since it was pretty cold a lot of times, plus they kind of dress up a plain outfit, and can have other practical uses.

1 North face jacket *Great for really cold places so I could layer jackets.

1 fleece sweater, Columbia zip-up *This was a last-minute purchase, but it was a Godsend since I ended up wearing it every single day almost. It was more stylish than my bulky North Face jacket, but really warm. In the really cold places, I wore this under my North Face for two jacket layers.

1 beanie *Only wore this going to the Alps, but it took up very little room, so I liked having it.

2 sports bras

4 pairs cotton socks *Could have brought a few more pairs, as they take up no room, and having to wash and air dry the ones I had was a pain.

1 pair thick wool socks

1 running shoe, Asics *These really came in handy towards the end when my feet couldn’t stand one more minute walking in flats. Also needed these for the Alps, any hiking, etc.

1 Patagonia flats *Lots of thoughts on these. I tried really hard to find a walkable black flat to bring because I already felt like a slob wearing the same clothes over and over again, so not wearing ugly clothes and running shoes everyday was important to me when in huge cities like London, Paris, etc., and going out to dinner. I was glad to have these then. The first few weeks wearing these all day, everyday, they tore up my feet. I was really in pain with open blisters trying to walk around. But once I broke them in, they were pretty good – I was able to walk, sightseeing mostly all day and still be a little fashionable. It was another story towards the end of two months, though. By the end, I never wanted to wear these again. They smelled, turned the bottom of my feet black every time I put them on, and my feet were just simply tired of having little support. I switched solely to running shoes towards the end.

1 flip-flops *Thanks for nothing, flip-flops that broke on like our fifth day of the trip. I used these primarily for shower shoes in places where it was a shared shower or it was just gross and I didn’t want my feet touching anything, except the part that holds your foot in broke on one of them, so I was constantly having to temporarily rig it so I could at least stand and then drag one foot – annoying, and made it impossible wear anywhere else, like the couple times we went swimming.

Toiletries/Other

1 pack towel *These are handy. Not as luxurious as a normal bath towel, but it was nice having the option of using our town towels if the ones provided were questionable.

1 sleep sack *I wasn’t sure how often this would be used, but I loved it. I am a weird germy person, so I really liked having a barrier between myself and whatever questionable beds or sheets we were having to sleep on. Didn’t need it every single night, but I was so glad to have it the times I was kind of grossed out. I will take this on any future backpacking trips.

1 money belt *We used this pretty much everyday. Brian had it on his waist, under his clothes and we would put cards, cash and passports in there. It’s really unnoticeable even when you are getting cards or cash out of it, surprisingly. I would imagine it’s nearly impossible to be pick-pocketed with one of these, unless you’re passed out or something.

1 moleskin journal *Didn’t use it, since we had a computer, so any writing I did was done on the laptop.

1 dry hand soap sheets

1 package Colgate wisps *Didn’t use these as much as I thought we would, as even overnight trains had sinks in your cabin, so we were pretty much always able to brush our teeth the normal way.

1 travel-sized first aid kit

1 pack moleskin blister bandages *Thank God for these because my flats tore up my feet for the first few weeks.

2 travel sized packages of baby wipes *Good for loooong travel days to freshen up, but didn’t need all of them.

2 travel packs of Tide sink detergent *We used all of this up and needed more.

1 Brita filtering bottle *We used this at first when we didn’t want to spend a ton on bottled water, but then it got dirty and we kind of got lazy and just surrendered to tap water and stocking up on large bottles of water. Note: water at restaurants in Europe isn’t free.

Toiletries bag w/mini shampoo and conditioners, dry shampoo, face wash, toothbrush, lotion, some make up, etc. *Ran out of shampoo and conditioner and body wash very quickly – just used Brian’s shampoo and didn’t buy more of my own so we could carry one bottle instead of two, and went without conditioner. Just bought more body wash at a drugstore.

Ziplocs, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, Emergen-C packets *The Emergen-C packets were so amazing. Wish we had more. Ditto on the hand sanitizer, which we used multiple times daily coming off public transportation where you are constantly touching everything.

Technology

2 unlocked iPhones *I pretty much wiped my entire phone so I could unlock it with the intention of us buying SIM cards wherever we were, which never happened. We didn’t stay put long enough for it to make sense, and we had access to internet in our accommodations, where we could message/email/call people on Skype or Viber. We did use the phones for impromptu photos, or times when the big camera was put away but we wanted a quick picture of something. We also used a TripAdvisor app that came in really handy and worked without internet. The only issue was not having a means of communication whenever we weren’t in our room, basically. And not having an interactive map while we were out wandering or driving.

1 Sony A57 *We really love this camera, and it took amazing photos throughout the trip – it is also light and doesn’t take up very much room.

1 Vado HD mini video cam *This is good for video, but it has some glitch now that is common with these so I’ve read, and I can’t get a lot of video we took off of the camera and onto my computer. The Sony takes HD 1080p video as well, so not totally necessary.

1 Canon PowerShot *Never used the small, handheld camera. I guess it didn’t make sense to take photos with this when we had the Sony.

1 laptop *We decided to only bring my laptop, but we sort of wished we each had our own sometimes.

What we wished we would have had but didn’t:

Cold medicine, a sundress/maxi dress, better flip-flops, swim trunks (Brian), a second small netbook or possibly an iPad, a pack of cards, a good book, Dramamine.

I may add to or edit this as I think of more advice/reviews!

Glorious Prague

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I had heard scattered mentions of Prague and how gorgeous this medieval city was, and almost as you do when reading a book, I drew up Prague in my mind. As the plane circled, I studied it from above and thought that it looked much smaller than I had pictured. We flew over a little neighborhood on the outskirts of the city – it must be Prague’s version of the suburbs, I thought. We debarked the plane and merged into the surprisingly immaculate terminal, which was reassuring since it was a former Soviet bloc country and not as widely discussed and part of common knowledge as major cities throughout Western Europe are – we didn’t know what to expect, and with every debarkation, whether it be from a plane, train, or something else, comes new nervousness and fears and doubts, no matter where you are.

Prague

We had hired a private transport to our place since it was so cheap, relative to where we had just been in Switzerland and Milan. We could finally afford a little luxury, and peace of mind that we weren’t the ones responsible for navigating to this place. Except my mind went into overly-cautious territory and I started imagining things since the driver resembled every bad guy from a James Bond or Mission Impossible film – where was he taking us? Is this the right way? What if he just drops us off somewhere different and we have no idea and it’s a set up and we get robbed? So much for peace of mind.

Prague

Well, all of this worrying was in vain because, as we quickly learned, Prague was amazingly wonderful and we had nothing to worry about. Yes, it was a little less “polished” than London or Paris, but that was part of the charm. Yes, we were staying well outside of the main tourist area where there was graffiti and empty garbage-strewn lots, and store fronts with oddly-clothed mannequins. But it was alright because we settled into our little routine for Prague. We walked down the street each morning to the bus stop, bought a bus ticket from the Tabak, hopped on the bus, and got a peek into the daily lives of the Czech people who live in this magnificent, rising city.

Prague

Prague

Prague

I quickly found myself enamored and drawn to the Old Town. It seemed as if every time we ventured out, there was something new to see. I suspect that even if one knew every turn and corner of the old streets, it would still be like new with the changing of the seasons. I said many times that we should come back during Christmas at least once, when the magic of magical places is magnified. If I have reserved the term “magical” for one place on our entire trip, Prague takes the title. Okay, and maybe Paris at night. Rough around the edges but still beautiful and mysterious, imposing while still reserved.

We learned the 1,200 year old history of Prague, but mostly of the long history of oppression – first by Nazi Germany, and then no sooner than four days after the Nazis had been expelled did the Red Army march into Prague, which continued the oppression under Soviet rule that would last until the 1980s, until the peaceful protest and collapse of Communism now known as the Velvet Revolution. And we learned the sad story of the Jewish Quarter, a neighborhood that was and is no longer inhabited by barely any Jews, like many neighborhoods in many European cities.

Prague

We spent our time wandering the winding cobblestone streets of Old Town, eager to leave no hidden attraction undiscovered. We strolled the famous Charles Bridge, enjoying the street performers, the vendors, and the views. We ate very well (for cheap) and drank many pints of Pilsner Urquell. We spent two whole days at the Prague Castle, exploring the seat of past Kings of Bohemia, Roman Emperors, and now the President of the Czech Republic.

Prague

Prague

Prague

Prague

Prague

Prague

Even though we were there for a short time, Prague almost started to feel like home and we didn’t want to leave. I am still convinced there is more to see, eat, and explore in Prague and the Czech Republic. This dynamic and multi-faceted city leaves nothing to be desired – except more cold beer!

Journey to the Top of Europe – Part Two

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If you haven’t seen Part One yet, read it here.

After the beyond-amazing scenery on the way up to Jungfraujoch, the top of the Swiss Alps, we weren’t sure if the views up there would live up to everything we had just seen. We reached the last train station and were still inside of the Eiger, so there was nothing to see until we walked through the building and out onto the observation deck.

Out stretched in front of us was the Aletsch Glacier, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We had a 360 degree view, and the weather was perfect, allowing for great visibility of the mountains and the valleys where we had just been not too long before. The Aletsch Glacier is the largest remaining glacier in the Alps, and sadly, it has been receding at an alarming rate.

Jungfraujoch

Jungfraujoch

One unexpected surprise we found at Jungfraujoch was the ice cave. It is a little touristy and silly, but it is included in the price of your ticket up there, so we decided to do a quick walk-through. It is a man-made series of tunnels constructed of ice. There are also some pretty intricate ice sculptures to look at as well. It was really easy to loose your footing in there since the floor is made of ice, and a few people definitely slipped and fell! It was neat to reach out in every direction around you and be surrounded by ice. I especially loved the acorn-obsessed squirrel character, Scrat, from the Ice Age movies they had stuck in the walls!

Jungfraujoch

Jungfraujoch

Once we emerged from the ice caves, we headed over to the observation area that was actually part of the mountain covered with snow (the observation deck is a man-made platform). There was nothing but some sticks and a rope separating us from the edge of the cliff, and the glacier down on the other side. Once again, we had amazing views above the clouds, and of the gigantic glacier. We could see we weren’t at the very top, as the mountain peaks were even higher on either side of us. It was amazing being that high up and that close to the Eiger, a famous mountain that we had previously seen several TV specials on.

Jungfraujoch

Jungfraujoch

Jungfraujoch

As we were looking out to the other side, over the cliff, we saw two people near the edge messing with some bags. No one else was all the way out there, as it is at your own risk, and probably really easy to slip and fall right off! We watched them for a while, as their bags unfolded and parachutes came into view – they were going to jump off!

Jungfraujoch

Jungfraujoch

JungfraujochWe watched him take off and then soar right out of sight – I wonder how long it takes him to get down…

Jungfraujoch

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DSC04810We headed over to the other side to check out the other activities that were available. In front of the glacier, there was an outdoor bar, a tubing run, and ziplining – all of which looked really fun. We were very tempted, but after seeing the prices we decided we would just do it next time we come back and we would have more time and money to enjoy it that way. There was also a long trail in the snow where people were hiking up away from the main area, but we weren’t sure where that went.

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

We did not want to leave at ALL, but we had to catch a series of trains down and then the bus back to Lucerne. We wanted to stay and even talked about changing our plans and heading back up there for a week, but getting there is pricey, along with last-minute accommodations. We will be back in the near future, we know that for sure. The one positive about the train back down was that we were actually taking a different route and heading back down to Grindelwald, which is on the other side of the valley. We would get the chance for all-new views and see the village that we hadn’t seen on the way up.

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

I wished the train would go slower. Again, I was envious of the hikers. And the people who get to live in the little cottages and cabins and have these views every single day. Last but definitely not least, the quick glimpse we had of Grindelwald did not disappoint – another picturesque village.

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

Jungfraujoch Swiss Alps

Grindelwald Swiss Alps

Grindelwald

Grindelwald

Before it had even ended, we knew that this day would be extremely hard to beat – Eastern Europe and all of the places we had yet to see had a very tough act to follow. We reluctantly got back onto the bus and drowsily watched Grindelwald pass us as we headed back to Lucerne. The Swiss Alps had worked its magic on us and we still say that this was one of our favorite days of our entire trip. We can’t wait to get back.