Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Jelena Gora - Wroclaw - Krakow - Witzlicka Salt Mines - Ausztwitz - Birkenau - Zakopane...


I'm actually in Kosice, Slovakia, recovering from a night of partying and no sleep in a famous nightclub in Zavolen with Jana and friends. But this email is about Poland.

My entrance in Poland was rather unexpected. I was trying to decide whether I should go to Wroclaw (Poland) or spend longer in Czech Rep via Ostrava and then straight to Krakow. So I asked the guy next to me at the internet cafe what he thought. He told me that he was actually working in Poland and as the border was 15km away, asked me if I needed a lift there as he was going there in 20 minutes. So I said "sure why not?"

Crossing the border was scary as I hadn't fully researched whether Aussies can go to
Poland without a visa after the joined the EU in May. Even the guards weren't sure but
after a 5-minute wait while they made phone calls they gave me the thumbs up. I was in!

Alec (the guy who picked me up) is a Slovakian linen factory owner (owns 2) in Poland.
Anyway, he basically paid for everything for me that day - he ended up taking me to lunch, then we went swimming in a posh hotel pool in the Sudeden mountains, and then he brought a couple of friends with us for dinner and lots of drinks around the outskirts of Jelena Gora.
I even met the Commander of the Polish forces in the Iraq war (nice guy)!
There I also had my first taste of Polish vodka! And second. And third. And...

Woke up the next day in his spare bedroom in one of his factories, after more vodka and conversation early in the morning. He dropped me off as close as he could to Wroclaw while he went to a meeting. He also offered me some work when I come back to spend proper time in Poland next year.

Wroclaw is a beautiful city, with nice river islands, churches and a pretty Flemish like town square with all manner of buskers and street performers, some amazing, others terribly embarrassing to watch!

Went to Krakow next, which is more beautiful and bigger than Wroclaw, with a huge town square and a wild nightlife which left me sleep deprived constantly (I always got home around 6:30am when the clubs closed).

One night I ended up climbing up a rope left dangling in a nightclub onto the top balcony to the sounds of Polish clapping and cheering. Why I did it I don't know, but apparently I was the first to do it. Possibly the last too.

Polish girls also have a thing for fake solarium suntans which look awful in my opinion!

Seems like 80's music has only just reached eastern Europe by the sounds of it playing everywhere, on the radio, buses, nightclubs, bars etc...

I am getting some good cultural experiences, seeing Polish folk dance performances, one evening was watching an outdoor orchestra, ballet and 5 brilliant tenors singing in the main square in Krakow.

Went to the Wiezlicka salt mines which apparently are a big tourist attraction, attracting 7000 people a day to the underground salt mines where everything (floor, walls, ceiling, sculptures) are all carved out of the solid rock salt, and 131 metres underground there is a beautiful chapel that took 3 miners 63 years to carve out (they could have just hired some more people!!).

Also went to see the concentration camps at Austzwitz and Birkenau, where you can see evidence of the huge extermination factories (gas chambers and crematoriums), and possessions of all the murdered people such as combs, shoes, glasses etc in warehouses. They even had huge bags of female human hair which was used to make fabrics during the war. Human nature at its worst.
It's not surprising to discover Polish people are very bitter against the Germans.

My last night in Poland was also quite unusual, as instead of going to Zakopane, I spent the day looking after an English friend (Paul) who was ill from food poisoning, at the hostel, with his Polish girlfriend (Vicky). Ended up leaving the hostel and staying with her and Paul in one of her friend’s flats (who wasn't there) in the middle of a ghetto in the Jewish quarter of Krakow, sharing a room with two pet pythons and a turtle! Cooking toast by holding bread with forks over a gas stove was an funny experience...

Vicky got me to try some Pierogi (polish dumplings filled with cheese and potatoes). Yum.

Other foods I got to try are Bigos (stew with sauerkraut, different meats and anything else they feel like throwing in), Golacbki (cabbage stuffed with rice and meat), zurek (sour soup), and barszsz (beetroot soup). Yum Yum.

Next day I went to Poprad, Slovakia via Zakopane and the high Tatra mountains, a beautiful huge mountain range of rugged mountain tops, forests, lakes, etc that I wish I had time to explore.

Anyway I’ll write about Slovakia (and Budapest) soon.

James needs sleep now. Sorry if this email is all over the place...

Do widezia!

Monday, August 16, 2004

Czech Republic

Prague - Cesky Krumlov - Cesky Budejovice - Telc - Brno - Moravian Karst - Hradec Kralove - Kutna Hora - Sedlers Ossuary - Trutnov - Adrspach - Teplice

Dobre den,

Forgive me (prominte) if this email is weird, recovering in Wroclaw (Poland) with a hangover from last nights Polish Vodka in a bizarre twist of events that ended up with me crossing the Czech border into Poland sooner than expected and staying in a factory owned by a rich linen factory owner in Jelena Gora. But that's my next email.

Anyway, Czech Republic.

I lost count of how many times I said to myself "What or how on earth did I end up here?" - some spur of the moment planning and coin tossing and I found myself in places where I was the only tourist and having to rely on my bad German to compensate for my worse Czech. Fun though, and well worth it!

I got stung by a huge wasp on my backside upon arrival to Prague! Grrr. Thing about Czech Republic is that there are bugs everywhere, I must have had every kind of insect crawl over me when reading in the many nice parks around the country! I also remember a family playing soccer, with me lying in the middle of the field!

Anyway, Prague is a beautiful mystical untouched city, even Hitler refused to bomb it during the war. There seems to be some mystique about the city, but that could be just the haze that floats around the famous Charles bridge with the statues at early dawn or late at night. Whatever it is, the flood of tourists there never ceases, which makes it harder to appreciate the bohemian green and gold domed city properly without having to hear the whine of an American voice for the 100th time asking stupid questions, complaining about the weather, and stating the obvious!

Interesting note: The city of Prague is apparently laid out the same way as Jerusalem - the Temple of Solomon however is replaced with a park, but the street layout is the same!

Went to the castle, which was nice but a little overrated (or maybe I’ve seen too many castles before). Somehow snuck in for free when the (American) crowds went home at 6pm.

I've been drinking too much beer in Czech Republic - it's all good, and it's the same cost to buy a 0.5L beer* as 0.2L coke, so even if you don't want to drink beer, it seems more economical to do so!
* A 0.5L beer is 20CK, or 0.80 euros!

The nightlife in Prague was disappointing. In fact in Czech Republic most places seem to close early and the streets are usually empty at night. Or you go to a discotheque.

Went for a swim in a lake somewhere in Prague. Was lucky to find it. Also discovered a swimming pool in the middle of nowhere, in a field surrounded by trees and rocky hills/cliffs and frequented only by locals.

Went to Cesky Krumlov next, which is a pretty little village town (also full of tourists) with a castle and a very loopy river that almost works as a moat around the town. A nice place to relax, spent most of my time reading and sleeping in the park and watching people rafting, swimming or floating on tyres down the river and rapids.. Also had some nice traditional goulash with the best bread dumplings ever!

Had a Budweiser in Cesky Budejovice, which is where they make the famous Czech Budweiser beers. The old large renaissance town square is pretty, with the town hall featuring evil looking dragon heads and statues...

Somehow ended up in Telc, which I’m glad because it is very picturesque and I’m a sucker for old small towns (population 6000) surrounded by bodies of water (which is why Annecy is my favourite town). The gothic turned renaissance town is incomplete, some buildings are missing its baroque decorations because the person designing it died before it was finished and they left the town as is.

Brno was next, the capital of the area known as Moravia (Prague is capital of Bohemia). A nice city, with heaps of sculptures of angels lining doorways or holding up fountains. The churches in Czech Rep are filled with beautiful marble and gold sculptures of cherubs etc that come out of the walls so much you think you freeze-framed them flying around the church altarpieces and paintings!

Saw the Olympic opening ceremony with people at the hostel in a bar, and we played drinking games when the athletes walked in (take a drink for every country starting with "C", wearing green, has a union jack, or an athlete using a video camera. I can't believe so many countries started with the letter "C"!). Inebriated afterwards, we went to a discotheque, hot, crowded, and full of pretty Czech girls who can't speak English. Lots of fun though.

Went to the Moravian Karst, an area north of Brno filled with limestone caves, mountains and gorges. Went into Katarinska caves and the famous Punkenski caves which contained beautiful stalagmite filled caverns and a boat cruise in the underground river which was fun! They also had a thing for playing classical music in some of the caverns to show off the acoustics...

Left Brno for a random destination which turned out to be Hradec Kralove, which looked like an ugly town from all the high rise concrete buildings around it but entering the small town centre you can see some stunning colourful gothic-turned-baroque buildings (as seems the case with many small towns in Czech Rep).

Kutna Hora was next, a pleasant little silver mining town where you can go into the mines themselves in hand chiselled corridors so small you think dwarves mined there!

Also saw the infamous Sedlers Ossuary, the bone church decorated with the bones of 40,000 people - they even made a spectacular chandelier and coat of arms out of them! Morbid and has moral implications but amazing nevertheless...

Went to Trutnov, a nice gothic turned renaissance town, to stay the night before heading up into the Adrspach - Teplice rocks, which is a series of natural rock pillars, caves and mountains amongst lush forests reminiscent of scenery from "Lord of the rings". It is a spectacular place, and hiking 12km through narrow rock crevices and caves, climbing up rocks, walking across broken bridges with missing planks and trails barely distinguishable amongst the dense forest is the most fun hiking trail I’ve been on!

Then I (unexpectedly) went into Poland..

Czech Republic in a Nutshell

Trying to keep this short now (as a lot of it is written above anyway)..

Ah, the Czech Republic, a place where the cheap best quality beer flows aplenty, the grass is green and the girls are pretty!

Czech Republic is a beautiful country filled with gothic turned baroque/baroque towns with green domed buildings and cathedrals in flat grassy plains, with the occasional outcrop of rocks and trees containing beautiful scenery and rock formations/caves.

The people are quite laid back with a silly sense of humour and quite friendly, but English speaking is rare outside of Prague. I had to rely on my German a lot.

The Czech language as you know is very difficult to learn, so if you ever go, just learn to say this:

"Pivo, prosim" (Beer please)

and then;

"Dekuji" (Thanks)

Lost count of the number of curious stares, smiles and giggles I got from people when I walked past them. An Australian-Asian with a big green backpack walking through the centre of a predominantly Czech population has that sort of effect I guess.

One last thing to note: It doesn't matter which town you are in the world, it seems there is ALWAYS a Chinese restaurant there somewhere!

Best city/town: Prague, Telc, Cesky Crumlov

Worst city/town: Trutnov (cause I need to choose one)

Overrated Attractions: Prague Castle

Hidden Gems: Adrspach-Teplice Rocks, Moravian Karst

Food and drink: Goulash, bread/potato dumplings, Pilsner Urquell, Budweiser and many local beers...

Cool people met:
Josephine, Falkor, Alec, Robert (Germans - Prague hostel)
Trevor (Canadian - Prague hostel)
Eric (American - looks like a viking - Prague hostel)
Kylie, Tyrone (Australians - Cesky Crumlov hostel)
Two Finnish guys whose names I can't pronounce or spell (Brno hostel)

Best thing about Czech Republic: The beer!

Worst thing about Czech Republic: The wasps and bugs!

Na shledano!