A Travellerspoint blog

Wrapping Up

Highlights and the fruitless quest for a salad

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So ends my mini-tour of Eastern Europe, I fly home tomorrow. I could not resist one more post.

Highlights

1) Wonderful music - I already mentioned how much I enjoyed the short classical music concerts in churches in Krakow and Prague. In addition, in Prague, I also attended an "opera sampler" in the theatre where, in the 18th century, Mozart presented some of his operas (so cool)! A wind trio stood in for the orchestra, and to my surprise, it totally worked. I could see what everyone was doing and it was much more accessible for a music idiot like me. In Berlin, I have been going to hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs near my hotel. What a treat! Last night the trumpet player in the band, in addition to being easy to look at, knew how to get the best of his instrument.

2) Vodka - In Poland, the vodka was clean and crisp. It did not burn going down, but after a few sips, you had little bonfire in your tummy. The first night, the waiter poured my drink from a bottle frozen into a block of ice! Then there were the flavoured vodkas -- lemon, cherry, yum. The Poles swear they are really sweet, but I think is ridiculous. They were not like liqueurs at all.

3) Shopping -- For clothes, I expected Berlin to be like in New York --edgy and fun. Despite my repeated efforts to try different shopping districts, I did not like the clothes on offer in Berlin. They were on the expensive side, which can be manageable, but I really don't need any shapeless sweaters. It seems only the men get the good clothes. The women of Berlin need to organize a revolt!!! Fortunately, my disappointment was placated by the cool and reasonably-priced clothes I picked up in Krakow and Prague.

4) Green things -- oddly enough, one of the perks of being back in Berlin is that I can find a nice green salad. I don't think the Slavs quite get the concept. In Poland, it was sort of ok, as you could easily find salads comprised of shredded carrots or beets or cabbage in a light vinagrette. At the same time, I went to a salad bar which boasted about its selection of 20 different salads. There was not a green thing to be found - no spinach, lettuce, no broccoli, no green beans. It was worse in Prague. I ordered a salad in a restaurant (it usually was not on the menu). I kid you not. There was one lettuce leaf as garnish and a mix of tomatoes and cucumbers. At one point, I went into Macdonald's to use the bathroom, and stayed because there was a (very expensive) green salad on the menu.

See you soon!

Posted by Caro369 14:19 Archived in Germany Comments (1)

Prague

Lovely, if you can elbow your way through the tourist hordes

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I have heard wonderful things about Prague. People get all dreamy-eyed and describe the city with great fondness. With that kind of build up, some type of disappointment seems inevitable.

The Czech Republic, formerly known as the Kingdom of Bohemia has a super interesting history. Unlike poor Poland which constantly found itself chopped in pieces, Bohemia stayed in tact by submitting to the rule of the Hapsburgs (aka the Holy Roman Empire, the Austo-Hungarian Empire) from the 14th century to World War One. Initially, the source of Bohemia's wealth was mineral deposits -- silver, tin and cobalt. Prosperity came and went with the political winds and for brief periods, Prague even served as the capital of the empire. It's one of the reasons Prague has this crazy mishmash of architectural styles. Say a building was constructed in the Renaissance, decades later, the owner decides to expand his house so he created an extension with a baroque facade, then years after that, another expansion, but with a french roccoco style.

Stare Mesto (Old Town) is very compact. The cobblestone streets are narrow and windy and there are little surprises around every corner -- an arched passageway, the rotunda of a tiny medieval church, a protruding enclosed porch, an elaborately carved baroque facade with chubby angels. Unfortunately, that innate loveliness is eroded by other realities. The main square and all of the connecting passages have been turned into pedestrian-only streets to accomodate the deluge of tourists. For example, the narrow street leading up to the famous Charles bridge is as crowded as Parliament Hill on Canada Day-- all of the time. You will routinely come across tour groups of 5-20 peoplestanding or walking in a narrow street and you suddenly find yourself forced to duck a wall of cameras as people try to capture some iconic image. Sigh. It gets tiresome. In addition, to feed and accomodate the tourist hordes, all of the quaint buildings in the area are occupied by overpriced restaurants and tacky souvenir shops selling knicknacks and cheap crystal jewelry. You are also constantly accosted by touts giving you flyers for restaurants or peddling a classical music concert in one of the ubiquitous churches. I have taken to planning my walking routes to avoid the main square, it gives me an opportunity to appreciate the little details that make the old town special.
View of Prague Castle

View of Prague Castle


Stare Mesto

Stare Mesto


Building detail

Building detail


St Nicolas Cathedral

St Nicolas Cathedral

During the industrial revolution, with its deposits of coal, Bohemia became the industrial heartland of the austo-hungarian empire. This economic wealth fueled a new cultural renaissance in Bohemia in the late 19th century. Anyone heard of Art Nouveau? Prague was a hotbed for this style. Prague's Municipal hall - not a city hall- but an early 20th century convention centre for concerts and meetings was decorated to the hilt by Bohemian artists in Art Nouveau from the the murals to the light fixtures to the curtains. The building is absolutely stunning. Speaking of mishmash, construction on Prague's most famous cathedral St Vitus started in the 14th century, but it was not finished until the 1920s, so its Gothic architecture is complemented by interior decoration in Art Nouveau, including the stained glass.
Imperial Cafe - art nouveau interior

Imperial Cafe - art nouveau interior


St Vitus Cathedral

St Vitus Cathedral


Stain glass by Mucha in St Vitus Cathedral

Stain glass by Mucha in St Vitus Cathedral

To my relief, the outer edges of the old town are more civilized. There are cool clothing and shoe shops and interesting cafes. Some of the building interiors have been restored, and instead of browsing through the fall sweathers, I find myself gawking at the guilded Art Nouveau ceiling and sparkly chandeliers. Walking across the Charles bridge (day or evening) with its wonderful views of the old town on one side, and St Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle on the other is always a treat. And those classical music concerts? A 1-hour performance by incredibly gifted musicians in an ornately decorated chapel or cathedral with fantastic accoustics for less than $20, I forgive the touts, it's a bargain.

Food-- After 3 weeks in Eastern Europe, I find myself tired of pork and sausage, so I have tried duck, venison and even rabbit. The wild meats are tender (not gamey at all), and are often served with gravy and "dumplings" -- white spongy bread without the crust, oddly not unlike the bun part of a Chinese steamed BBQ pork bun. One thing for the dumplings, they soak up the gravy very nicely. For dessert, the Czechs have this neat doughnut-like tube served with cinnamon and sugar called a trdelnik. It smelled amazing and the perfect street snack.
Trdelnik

Trdelnik

I arrived back in Berlin this afternoon. Sadly, my trip is coming to an end.

Posted by Caro369 13:56 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Krakow

Pierogis, cabbage rolls and so much more

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Krakow surprised me. Straddling eastern and western europe, this 1000-year-old city was built on trade. The old town is charming and atmosperic with narrow cobblestone streets that converge on Rynek Glowny, or the impressive old town square. At its centre is the majestic Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), the famous market built during the Renaissance where silk, spices and leather were once traded. The surrounding buildings are a mishmash of styles from Gothic to Baroque and have been converted to museums, atmospheric restaurants and bars, and lots of shops.

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Krakow is fairly inexpensive and has become a weekend package holiday destination for UK tourists. That is not just the retired couples, but also the groups of 10-15 guys in town for a drunk fest party weekend. The European Vegas without the casinos? Who knew?

Despite the hordes of tourists, the large square never seemed over-crowded and always had cheerful feel to it. To soak in the view, one afternoon, I had a latte at one of the sidewalk cafes on the square. Before leaving, I went looking for the bathroom in the "basement". The downstairs, with exposed brick walls and romanesque arches, totally differed from up top looked like medieval cellar! Over hundreds of years, what was once the ground-level gets buried, turning into today's "basement", a very atmospheric addition to any already cool cafe.

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Poland was made wealthy by its geography, but it was also doomed by it -- trading hub, rich and surrounded by superpowers with big armies. At the end of the 18th century, Poland was partitioned by Prussia (present day Germany), Russia and the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Therefore, at the outset of the Second World War, Hitler felt justified about annexing Poland in 1939 because this region had once been part of Germany. Krakow's central location (where all of the rail lines in Central Europe converged) and Poland's large Jewish population of around 3 million are also why Hitler chose to build his biggest death camps in Auschwitz (75km outside of Krakow).

Auschwitz and Birkenau -- 1.5 million of the estimated 6 million Jew murdered by the Nazis died here. Seeing the 2 tonnes of human hair shaved from camp victims to be used in the German textile industry and the entire room of orphaned shoes puts a lump in your throat. Birkenau housed 90,000 prisoners at its peak, but that takes on a new meaning when you are on site and see that buildings and the remains of buildings (foundations and free standing chimneys) that stretch as far as the eye can see. The irony for me is how Hitler used the miracle of the manufacturing process -- division of labour and large scale production - to turn genocide into a faceless bureaucratic process. Yup - one group of Nazis sorted the captives into 2 groups - workers and those destined for the gas chamber. Another group ushered up to 2000 people at a time into the gas chamber. Someone else threw in the gas cannisters, and so on. For once, I was extremely glad a tourist site was choked by tour buses and huge tour groups.

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To lighter matters. Did you know the Canadian Prairies were settled in large part by the Poles and Ukrainians? In my short stay in Poland, I have noticed some odd cultural similarities and I wonder if the old country is to blame. Polish drivers politely stop for pedestrians (like in Alberta). As well, Polish pedestrians (like Albertans) patiently wait for the traffic light to change, even when the street is empty. I felt right at home!

Coming to Poland, I was also excited about the food. Growing up in Alberta, pierogis, cabbage rolls and kielbasa have always just been part of the landscape. It was not until I moved away, and could not find these foods, that I realized this cultural hiccup about the west. Krakow has not let me down as I have found delicate pierogis popping with meat, cabbage or even spinach, crispy potato pancakes with a dollop of sour cream and steamy beet soup made even more flavourful with beef broth. Yum! Oddly enough, I have slowly come to the realization that the foods I love and consider quintessentially Polish are the equivalent of street food (i.e., the cachet of french fries and hot dogs). Every time I see a nice looking restaurant, I look at the menu and am inevitably disappointed. What is this roasted game and fish? After some grumbling, I have learned to accept that I can only get cabbage rolls at the cafeteria, and my bitterness completely melted away once I tried the duck with roasted apples and the pork ribs braised with plum vodka and stewed dried fruit.

I arrived in Prague yesterday. Jennifer was right. The beer is good, but not as good as the vodka in Poland!

Posted by Caro369 15:05 Archived in Poland Comments (4)

Berlin

So much for German frumpy!

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Berlin was not quite what I expected. Given its communist influence, I pictured a city a bit run down and drab, but with a rough, cutting edge chic. Nope. The place is clean, stylish and modern with gorgeous shops and cute restaurants. Parts of the city, such as the famous west Berlin shopping mecca, the Ku'damm feel a lot like Disneyland as many of the buildings retain a 18th and 19th century character, yet they all look brand new! Post-WWII, bombed out buildings were reconstructed as they used to be and since the fall of the wall in 1990, east Berlin has been renovated to the hilt using this same approach. In addition, the demolition of the wall opened up prime real estate in the downtown core which has been filled with shiny office tours with central courtyards filled with sidewalk cafes. Sorry ladies, the men are the fashion stars in Berlin. Nothing flashy or in your face, just well tailored clothes and snappy shoes. I do suppose the large gay population might be skewing the average, but even the straight guys seem to know how to style a scarf. So much for German frumpy! As to the myth of the gruff Berliner, I have seen the odd manifestation, but for the most part, people have been surprisingly patient and kind.

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Berlin has always had a reputation for being the German hotbed of decadence and moral decay. In the 1920s the cabaret and burlesque shows were the rage. Today, Berlin is still party-central with tons of night clubs each with some nuttygimmick. For example, one bar is split in two by a labyrinth/obstacle course which you have to crawl through in the dark after a few drinks. Another club requires you to pass through a kebob shop, and then make a call at a payphone. Then and only then does a special door in the pay phone open up to let you in. The place is also steeped in more traditional culture. The picture gallery had a selection of Italian masters such as Botticelli and Titian and as well as featuring 17th century Dutch masters like Vermeer. Wow!

This sense of liberalism has perhaps helped Berliners to be open about its checkered past. The Nazi era is viewed with a mix of shame and resignation. There a various memorials around town for the "murdered" jews (the Germans chose these loaded words) from a large maze of black stone stele to small brass plaques embedded in the cobblestones with the name of the Jews known to have lived in that building before being rounded up by the Nazis. Most of the wall that surrounded west Berlin 1961-1990 is long gone, but a double line of brick embedded in the pavement continues to mark its route and graffiti art commissioned on a section of the wall to celebrate reunification (the Eastside gallery) is also being preserved. A few decades of reunification appears to have bred a weird nostalgia. East Berliners seem to long for the simplier lifestyle under communism like crappy Trabant cars and the ampelman (crossing light man), while West Berliners lament that their city is no longer "special" and has become like any other European city.
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A couple of highlights:
1) Circling up the big glass dome on top of the Reichstag (German Parliament building) at sunset with the city sweeping out below you.
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2) Enjoying a silly currywurst (white spongy sausage with curry-ketchup sauce) at the crazy beer garden at Alexanderplatz.
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Food: I have been pleasantly surprised by German food. It is simple, but full of flavour. I tried pork knuckle. Sounds vile, but it was fantastic. Basically they slow roast a pork hock until the skin is crispy and the meat falls off the bone. It was served with creamy sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. I was not wild about wiener schnitzel which was very dry, but the meal was saved by the sides -- the dressing on the warm potato salad was mustard creamy with a hint of lemon and the vinaigrette on my side salad was rich and full of flavour. If I wanted something different, Berlin was cosmopolitan enough that I can go for Thai or Indian

I have fallen in love with the neighbourhood cafe -- coffee, booze and the most wonderful cakes and tortes. Yes, there is apple strudel, but there is also sour cherry torte with custard cream. My favourite thus far is the sansouci cake (named after a famous german castle at Potsdam)- layers of chocolate and vanilla cake separated by hazelnut cream, topped with a thin layer of marzipan and slathered with a creamy chocolate icing. Delish!!

Part 2 begins. I arrived in Krakow, Poland yesterday evening!

Posted by Caro369 10:08 Archived in Germany Comments (2)

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