Monday, September 30, 2013

Enchanting Eastern Europe - Prague/Czech Republic

Sadly our holiday will be ending with this last destination. On September 21 morning after enjoying our second breakfast at the Sheraton we returned our door cards to the reception, checked that our baggages had been brought down from outside our room door by the porters and witnessed they are loaded into the storage bay under the coach by our driver. We can never be too careful on such a tour as any loss cannot be easily traced and recovery will take time and likely to be expensive. The routine of packing, locking and carrying the heavy bags out had been set over the past 9 days. We've decided not to buy any souvenirs except some chocolates so our bags were not overloaded. More of converting new and unused clothings into worn clothings to be taken home to wash.

Our trip from Kakrow westward into Prague took us firstly into the city of Olomouc where we stopped for lunch. This beautiful city lies beside the Morava River in central Moravia. With around 100,000 inhabitants, it is the fifth largest city in the Czech Republic and certainly one of the most charming. In 2000, the Holy Trinity Column, which was erected in the early 18th century, was added as a UNESCO World Heritage site. And this is where we visited after lunch at the Hotel Flora. Either my appetite was extra good or the food was really good and I enjoyed every morsel, with a bottle of the famous Czech beer from Pilsner Urquell that we will be paying a visit tomorrow.

















We arrived Prague at 6.45pm and proceeded to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Throughout this tour the travel agency provided a combination of both Chinese and western meals. The Chinese food were surprisingly quite good as very few of the group complained but for the western food the typical complaint was they are too salty. Perhaps we had subconsciously sensitized our taste buds by using less salt in our home cooking but for the westerners salt is used for preservation of the food we ate regularly in their restaurants.

The last hotel we stay on this hotel, the Hilton Prague, certainly outdid the rest. It is the only hotel that provided shower cubicle in the bathroom, bathrobs (which we did not use) and anti-slip mat for the long bath (very thoughtful and must be made mandatory to minimize ang chance of bathroom falls). As expected travel agencies usually plan their tours to peak the values towards the end so that their clients can take home the best possible memories. There was even a digital bathroom scale which I weighed myself and was horrified to find I've added on at least 4kgs over the past 10 days or so. I promised myself that when I get home I must go on some diet and increase my morning walking frequencies.

















The following morning we visited the Urquell brewery and learned how beer is made (you can read more HERE). We were allowed to drink the unfiltered and uncarbonated beer from the vat it was stored. It tasted cold and nice but not as nice as that I drank off the bottle yesterday. Pilsner Urquell is a bottom-fermented beer produced since 1842 in Pilsen, part of today's Czech Republic. Pilsner Urquell was the first pilsner beer in the world. Today it is a prominent brand of the global brewing empire SABMiller, a multinational brewing and beverage company headquartered in London, United Kingdom. It is the world's second-largest brewer measured by revenues (after Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest brewer with nearly 25 percent global market).

















In the afternoon we were given a guided tour of the Prague Castle by Martina, a lanky local guide. This castle is said to be the biggest castle in the world at about 570 meters in length and an average of about 130 meters wide. Its history stretches back to the 9th century. St Vitus Cathedral is located within the castle area. Following that we sightsee the Old Town Square (looks like everywhere we go this is a common area to go). Eastern Europe minus its history is probably an empty shell.






















One highlight of the tour is to visit, perhaps walk on the famous Charles Bridge but it was not to be as some of the tour members were too tired walking the entire afternoon. Here is some interesting history of this old bridge.

The Charles Bridge is arguably the most beautiful gothic bridge in the world. Commissioned by King Charles IV, Holy Roman Emporer and King of Bohemia, the bridge has served as an essential link between Prague’s Old Town and the Lesser Quarter and Prague Castle, for hundreds of years. Every day the Charles Bridge welcomes thousands of visitors, who can experience magnificent views from this ancient landmark. By day, the bridge is a lively attraction, lined with many vendors, traders, artists and musicians. By night, the Charles Bridge has fewer visitors, but the views are arguably more spectacular.

(Source: http://www.private-prague-guide.com/article/charles-bridge/)

The Charles Bridge is a famous historic bridge that crosses the Vltava river in Prague, Czech Republic. Its construction started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished in the beginning of the 15th century. The bridge is 621 m long and nearly 10 m wide, resting on 16 arches shielded by ice guards. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Charles Bridge saw a steep rise of heavy traffic. The last day of the horse line on the bridge was 15 May 1905, when it was replaced with an electric tram and later, in 1908, with buses. At the end of World War II, a barricade was built in the Old Town bridge tower gateway. A capital repair of the bridge took place between 1965 and 1978, based on a collaboration among various scientific and cultural institutes. The stability of the pillars was reassured, all broken stone blocks were replaced, and the asphalt top was removed. All vehicular traffic has been excluded from the Charles Bridge since then, making it accessible by pedestrians only.

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_bridge)










Photo Credit: http://www.private-prague-guide.com/article/charles-bridge/

















Photo Credit: http://www.all-free-photos.com/show/showphoto.php?idph=PI2798

Our holiday officially ended on September 23 when we checked out of the hotel at noon and were driven to the Prague International Airport to catch our flights back to Kuala Lumpur via Dubai. In spite of the rain and the expected fatigue and body aches we did thoroughly enjoyed this fantastic holiday. It wasn't perfect but then again, what is perfect in life? Eastern Europe will always hold a place in our hearts.

Enchanting Eastern Europe - Krakow/Poland

We have already crossed the halfway mark of our holiday - visited 4 countries and stayed in 4 hotels. Today, September 19, is just a traveling day and we spent about 6 hours on the road from Budapest to Kakrow in Poland travesing northward through Slovakia and stopping in Banska Bystrica for lunch and toilet break. We arrived the Kakrow at 6pm and proceeded for dinner before we checked in to the 5-star Sheraton Kakrow to stay for 2 nights. These 5-star hotels provide only free wifi in the lobby areas but not inside the rooms and even then the speed is slow. Those of us in the group numbering about 15 who wants to stay in touch with families and friends on the internet are often frustrated by slow speeds and at times inability of their devices to detect free wifi services especially in public areas away from the hotels, like in the city or rest area. I was very proud of my HTC One smartphone which quickly picked up wifi broadcasts, open and secured. Picking the open channel with the strongest signal I usually succeeded in connecting to the Internet and update my Facebook status and my family. The other great feature of the HTC One is the responsiveness of its camera. Within 10 seconds of fishing it out of my pocket I could be taking photos. And if necessary take panoramic ones as well. Several pictures I shared on these holidays are taken from the HTC One.

The next day we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine which is one of the world's oldest working salt mines. The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a depth of 327 metres (1,073 ft) and is over 287 kilometres (178 mi) long. The rock salt is naturally gray in various shades, resembling unpolished granite rather than the white or crystalline look that many visitors may expect. A wooden staircase with 378 steps provides access to the mine's 64-meter (210-foot) level. A 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) tour features corridors, chapels, statues, and underground lake, 135 metres (443 ft) underground. An elevator returns visitors to the surface; the elevator holds 36 persons (nine per car) and takes some 30 seconds to make the trip.

Each visitor was provided a wireless receiver tuned to a common channel to track the narration by our local guide Joanna who warned those who feel claustrophobic to either stay out or be mentally prepared. Thankfully no one in our group felt any quiziness as the vastness of the mine, like the Postojna Cave in Slovenia, quickly make anyone feel comfortable. I paid 2.50 Euros for a sticker to authorize me to take pictures and videos while in the mine.

















In the afternoon we visited the Wawel Hill on the left bank of the Vistula River. The hill consisted of a complex of many buildings and fortifications; the largest and best known of these are Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral which is the Basilica of St Stanisław and St Wacław. The Wawel Cathedral was not only a place of coronation for the Kings of Poland, but also their mausoleum. Later, it became a national pantheon. The Wawel Royal Castle served as a royal residence and the site where the country's rulers governed Poland for five centuries (1038-1596). It is a symbol of the independent Polish state and today contains a priceless collection of 16th-century Flemish tapestries, considered to be one of the largest in the world.

















Below are scences from the Old Town Square when we hung out before dinner.

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