Casa’s Blog

A Life Abroad

Oh I’ve got you to thank for this. You can’t say you’ve never had a doubt…

So here I am filling in an hour or so before my train to Munich leaves.  For some reason I booked at 4pm train.  I don´t know why.  It was over 6 weeks ago since I booked all this stuff  (and I can’t remember what I had or didn’t have for breakfast :P) but I assume it was cheaper.  Whatever  the reason I was able to fit in a little extra of Vienna before I left which is definitely a good thing.

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I had a choice of a variety of art museums or to go to the United Nations base in Vienna for a tour.  Knowing me, guess which one I did?  Yep I was off to the UN. After seeing but not being able to fit in a tour of the United Nations in New York it is a good example of things just working on my tour.  Getting in to the United Nations is harder than breaking in to Fort Knox though. Once you step off the Metro you go through an xray machine just like in the airports.  Then you buy your ticket (just4 euros which I thought was a bargain) and then you go through another 2 security checks.  One takes down your passport details as technically you are in an international zone and no longer in Austria and another is just more xrays (in case a crafty terrorist someone managed to skip through the last one undetected).

As I sat around and had an ice cream and waited for the tour to start I had never wanted to be an older person more in my entire life.  Why this wish for sudden ageing?  Well as I looked around the group of about 30 people, they either classified as older people (50 plus) or massive geeks.   Like I am talking “Big Bang Theory” level of geeks.  I was confronted once again with my geekhood, but at least I can take solace in the fact that I was definitely the coolest of those said geeks 😉 haha

Eventually our German and English tour started.  Once again I was impressed with the ability of a tour guide to flawlessly swap between two languages.  Also, it appears it takes 50% longer to say a sentence in German than it does to say the same phrase in English.  The tour took your around most parts of the building – the memorial park, the conference rooms, the artwork donated by various member states as well as other areas.  It was a buzzing building full of people and probably the most truly multicultural workplace one could ever see.  Our guide also gave us a great overview of both the UN as a whole and also the specific role of the Vienna branch (basically Nuclear Energy, International Security and Crime & Drugs).  She also had a few anecdotes to pass on that were quite funny.

With a morning to fill in Vienna it was well worth the trip for anyone who is politically minded.  Especially as I finally got around to reading Obama’s take on the world beyond America’s borders in Audacity of Hope last night where he focuses a fair bit on the UN and Americas need to be an active player in it.

Anyway, Munich awaits!  I think I might just fit in an Austrian beer at the pub before I have to head to the train station…

June 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

She was swinging from her handbag on the King’s Road. Fresh from boarding school and double barreled shame. Now there are worms in her skin….

Firstly a word of advice.  The Vienna card costs about 18 Euros and gives you 72 hours of unlimited public transport use and discounts at various sights and shops.  The discounts are okay BUT something I have discovered is that the Student prices are always cheaper if not the same price and you can get a 72 hour public transport card for 5 euros less.  In short, if a student you dont need the Vienna Card.  If not a student…get it!

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So today it was time for my second palace in Vienna and probably the most visited and well known – The Hofburg Palace.  The palace complex now includes a variety of museums and exhibits while still being used by the President and civil service of the now republic of Austria. For me the things I wanted to see were the Imperial Treasurer (They have ads in the subways that say We may not have emperors but we still have their Jewels which is funny enough for me to go plus there was bound to be an abundance of shiny things) as well as the Sissi Museum, the Imperial Apartments and the Silver Collection.  The Hofburg is right in the centre of town but as a result it is quite a maze (a non-fun maze unlike yesterday) so finding the entrance was a little difficult. Although maybe this was just me.

Eventually I found my way to the entrance to the Silver Collection, Imperial Apartments and Sissi Museum which are one complex accesssed with a singular ticket.  The Silver Collection includes only as mall percentage of all the utensils, crockery, cooking implements and table decorations that the Hapsburgs used and collected during their reign.  It does leave you amazed at the extent of the original catalogue before items were sold after the end of the monarchy because the displays are extensive and probably in the end just a Little too large and repetitive.  It also isn’t something that you should see on an empty or half empty stomach. All the talk of banquets and meals with up to 30 courses starts the stomach craving for some food of its own (or at least mine did).  Particularly as the court confectionery kitchen is discussed in detail. The most interesting point of this section to me was that there is a special imperial way of folding napkins that that has been used for hundreds of years and is still used for state banquets. However, it is so special that it is only passed by word of mouth and currently only two people know the technique.  It is a little like the Colonels 7 secret herbs and spices and part of me wonders if the two people who know the secret are not allowed to travel in the same car, plane or vehicle for fear that one accident could wipe them both out.

The Imperial Apartments are quite similar to the ones seen yesterday in the Schonbrunn Palace.  The layout is similar even if the decoration is a little more modern as they were completely redesigned by Emperor Franz Joseph and Empresses Elisabeth (Sissi) in the mid to late 19th Century.  Red was a dominant theme of the design. Maybe it was because it was a little repetitive from yesterday but I didn’t find this seciton of the tour as enjoyable as yesterday. I think it also was because that without the amazing and beautiful grounds surrounding the rooms and with extra large crowds of people the experience was always going to be slightly less enjoyable.  If I become King of Austria I think Schonbrunn would be enough and the Hofburg can be left as a museum hehe

The Sissi museum was really interesting though. Although the audio guide was hard to use as all the numbers were hidden so you would accidentally skip points and have to backtrack, you were given an insight in to an interesting figure of the Austrian Monarchy.  Basically it seems that Sissi was loved by the Emperor beyond words (as they were monarchs they were cousins so…yeah…a little awkward IMO haha) but is someone who despite strength and beauty struggled with the position of living in the public view and the pressures associated with it. She was totally overwhelmed by the position of Empresses it seems and has become the subject of much mythology after her death.  Part of me wonders about the similarities and differences between her story and that of the most famous Princess of the last 40 years – Princess Di.

Anyway, after stopping to rest my legs in the Heroes Square where Hitler announced the annexation of Austria, I worked my way through the maze that is the Hofburg until I found the Treasury.  You have to pay extra for the audio guide but it is well worth it as non of the descriptions are in English and the amount of detail given to a raft of different objects is impressive.  Overall, this place is ace!  There are shiny amazing objects and stories to be told around every corner (and there are a lot of corners in this vast exhibition).  You see a lot crowns and royal objects from throughout time as well as important objects for the Holy Roman Empire that has dominated my history lessons of the last 2 weeks.  Also there are a lot of relics on show.  Although if you believe that every part of the true cross is from Christs cross or every thorn is from the crown of thorns as is claimed…it appears Jesus Christ was about 1000000000 kilos, 900 metres tall and was crucified on a cross resembling Rockerfella Centre set across the empire state building.  Regardless though the work of the metal smiths and jewellers is exquisite. Christ…COME HERE FOR SHINY HEAVEN LOL

So that was my day.  It was a full on day, much more full on than usual but before I go I have a request.  I keep getting the feeling of a sharp sudden pain on the top of my torso between my neck and the top of my shoulder.  Like I’m being karate chopped.  It first happened when I went for a sip of my cocktail while watching the comedy show in NYC and I looked around for who/what hit me. It happened once more in Prague while leaning over to pick up a book and today while I lent over to pay for my lunch.  I think this is pain associated to my dodgy back and the even dodgier beds I am sleeping on at the moment.  However, if this is a common symptom of a Stroke, Heart Attack or Swine Flu could someone please inform me ASAP. Thanks 😛

June 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

King for a day, princess by dawn! King for a day in a leather thong! King for a day, princess by dawn! Just wait til all the guys get a load of me…

I think Mel Brooks said it best.  It is good to be King!

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Today I went to the Schonbrunn Palace (or Summer Palace) in Vienna which was exquisite.  (By the way Christ, I will use everyone of those suggested words in this one post 😛  Although the Palace was so amazing that trust me…they are all deserved).  I decided to go with the Classic Ticket which includes the grand tour of the palace (40 rooms of the royal living quarters) with audio guide, Strudel cooking demonstration and taste testing, entrance to the Maze and Games area (yes, A MAZE!!!), The Panorama Terrace and the Privy Gardens. Pretty much a full days worth of stuff all for just 16 euros.  Pretty good if you ask me.

The rooms of the apartment were lovely.  Some were as originally designed while others had been updated by later monarchs but every one of them was not over the top in its decoration while still being luxurious.  There was even plenty of shiny gild work to amaze the eye.  By far these ravishing rooms are what Donald Trumps apartment tries to replicate but goes too far.  I would LOVE to live in this kind of place although I think they are a little too formal and lacking a degree of comfort. Add a spa bath, central heating/aircon, some plasmas and a couple of Laz-E-boys and I am moving in 😛

Throughout the tour the audio guide gives you an interesting sneak peak in to the lives of the royals that graced those halls.  Particular Franz Joseph and Maria Theresa were mentioned in a lot of detail.  You got an insight not in to the people and their daily routines but also the politics of the time.  Marriage was an interesting aspect of their lives as generally it was something utilised for political means by the Hapsburg’s.  Especially today when a lot of crazy conservatives spout a lot about the sanctity of marriage it is an interesting phenomenon that it was rarely used as an expression of love.  Only one of Maria Theresa’s daughters married for love for instance.  Sissi  (One of the most famous Hapsburg Empresses) went as far as to describe it as an absurd institution.  Just another example of where the term and use of marriage has been refined over time and anyone supporting the idea that marriage today is reflecting an historical standard lasting thousands  of years is uninformed.

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From the palace I moved on to start exploring the gardens. I initially went in to the Privy Gardens which despite being pretty were somewhat unusually separated from the rest of the gardens which were free to enter and explore and were much more beautiful in my opinion.  After taking a few more photos of all angles of the imposing structure that is the palace I made my way to the Strudel demonstration.  For starters, this is worth it for the free piece of strudel that was divine.  It was also very well presented in both German and English by the young chef and the skills of tossing and rolling the dough are definitely an art form.  It doesn’t last long but it is well worth seeing.

I continued my strolling through the picturesque and relaxing gardens of the palace.  You pass many different corners and areas of the gardens as well as many fountains and statues.  Eventually I found myself taking time to just sit on the chairs and enjoy the surroundings.  By the end of the day I would’ve probably sat on every chair in the expansive palace gardens – it was just too peaceful to leave.  I then walked up the slope to the Panorama Terrace and from the top you get the best scenic views of the palace and surrounding areas.  It is interesting that after yesterday describing Vienna as almost ugly from the rooftop view from the Cathedral that this was close to the best view I have seen first hand.  It was just so beautiful and jaw dropping.  I just lent against the railing and spent a fair while looking at the view provided for me.  I could REALLY live here 😛

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It was then time to go get lost in the maze and get increasingly angry as I saw little kids (who I should be smarter than) run past me and up on to the viewing platform at the end while I was confronted not only with dead end after dead end but also the SAME dead end after dead end!!!  Eventually I was successful and did my little victory dance. Although hungry for some sandwiches I could make when I get back to the Hostel and stop in at the supermarket I just couldn’t leave the palace grounds. I sat on a chair and listened to my ipod as I was bathed in sun and amazing views of the well maintained gardens.  I would then get up to leave, walk past another beautiful landscape and then sit and read my book (Michael J Fox’s memoirs today which after finishing Tucker Maxs I hope they serve beer in hell now means I have read 4.5 books in the last month :O).  This process eventually repeated enough times until I found myself out of the palace grounds and on the train heading back.  All I could do is wish my strongest wish that I was a prince!!

June 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

What’s wrong with me? I think you’re crazy. I want a second opinion. You’re also lazy . Dr. Zaius! Dr. Zaius!

So last night as I was trying to find a way to fall asleep with my head resting on a metal as the pillows are way to thin in this hostel (everything else is great but I have seen fatter runway models), I noticed something about Vienna. Okay it might just be about my hostel, my hostel on this night or even my specific roommates but there seems to be a lot of people travelling Vienna with their parents (i.e. People my age with parents my parents age).  I dont know if I could ever do that though.  Like Vienna really isnt a party town but still a long car journey with the folks can be enough sometimes let alone the 24/7 togetherness, stress and lack of comfort of backpacking with your parents.  I think I can live with each of us having separate adventures and reporting back…

I had changed my plans about what I was going to do today a million times in my head.  In the end I decided on the Sigmund Freud Museum and the House of Music. I will tackle the palaces tomorrow and Sunday.  The Sigmund Freud Museum interested me as I know very little about psychology and psychiatry. The little I do know is based on what I have heard from mates who are a studying it in between my stupid jokes about the fact that I learn a proper science 😛

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The museum is set in his old apartment where he lived and practiced for a lot of years before escaping when the Nazis arrived as he was Jewish.  The first few rooms (once you eventually find someone to take your money and give you an audio guide…you wouldn’t think THAT would be that hard but it was) are set up basically as they wouldve been when he lived there. The same furniture, the same hat and cane, etc.  That is pretty cool as you take  a step back in time.  Unfortunately all the material from his consulting room and office are now in London as he took them there when he fled the Nazis so those rooms have been turned in to a more museumy chronology of his life and work.  When you compare it to the Dickens Museum in London there is less reliance on this is the real stuff and a little bit more on explanation on the man and his work…both ways worked well though.

The audio guide was well put together as well as it made sure to point out the most interesting exhibits and his more interesting quirks.  He was such a tobacco addict that when he was told he couldnt smoke anymore for health reasons he gave up writing his books for instance. However, what I did manage to learn was to get the slightest of insights in to what all this Freudian theory is about.  Okay I will not be able to hold a conversation on the issue, but I will feel less stupid when the topic comes up 😛

Afterwards I worked my way back in to the centre of Vienna (I am quite good at these european transport systems by now) and went off in search of the House of Music.  Vienna is famous for its music.  Mozart, Beethoven, etc all spent a large amount of their lives living and working here and you cant go two steps without someone dressed as Mozart offering you tickets to a performance.  When I set myself the task of investigating this side of Vienna it was hard to find a place that gave a well rounded view. From all reports though the House of Music was what I was looking for.  I did manage to find it in the end, after popping in to a few churches that just sit inconspicuously on the main shopping street, and it was definitely what I wanted.

The House of Music is divided in to a series of floors and each floor is quite distinct.  The first floor is basically the history of the Vienna Philharmonic.  Think old photos, lists of performances, music of old performances and old batons of famous composers.  I may not be selling it well but it was quite an interesting section particularly as it has had to deal with the political changes in Vienna over the past 150 years.  There was even a cool game where you could ínvent your own waltz based on rolling a dice or two with over 1000000 combinations possible…this would be the start of many cool interactive/futuristic parts to the place.

The second floor was BY FAR the coolest floor.  I will start off by saying that this may get a little geeky but trust me it is cool (I have a feeling Steve would’ve loved this as much as I did).  Basically the floor is all about what is sound and how we hear, but it is done in such an interesting way.  You start by ascending the stairs through visual and physical representations of sound (sounds weird but it is true), then there is the womb room which recreates the vibrations sounds and senses that a baby feels in the womb – a freaky room, before we starting breaking down sound and music in to its components.  The whole floor has a neon, plasma screens and black walls kind of feel to it – think of a geeky night club.  One of the coolest of the many cool interactive exhibits was the one where by delaying the sound of your voice coming in to headphones you would find yourself unable to speak.  It was freaky.  The floor ends with a room which is a music/light show of Beethoven Reloaded (futuristic reworkings of his music) which was amazing. Think the Matrix Reloaded if it didn’t suck haha

The next floor takes you through a series of individual rooms dedicated to the great composers of Vienna (Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and colleagues).  There are some personal affects including Schubert’s Glasses and the door of the apartment where Beethoven died as well as many different parts telling you about their work and personal lives.  Unsurprisingly there was a lot of mention of childhood deaths of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters as well as a lot of mistresses mentioned – I think that defines the time period quite well!  As someone who has played a fair few instruments and a bit of classic music in his time it was great to learn a bit more about the people and influences that lead to the music.  I even found myself enjoying the classic music more than I have in a long time…Miss Mac would be proud 😉

The floor ends with you having the ability to conduct a virtual orchestra which is amazingly fun.  The musicians on the screen are so responsive to the slightest tip of the baton and eventually if you screw up too much they crack it and stop playing and yell at you. My musical abilities weren’t too bad though.  I managed to conduct about 3 minutes of beautiful music before the shit hit the proverbial fan.

The final floor before you hit the shop is even weirder than the floors below.  It is dedicated to the Brain Orchestra which is about allowing people who cant hear or play music traditionally experience the sensations ala Mr Hollands Opus.  You play music by wavign you arms and driving a car around a music track and the like.  It is very fun. It also makes the point about the music in everyday life resulting from the noises of the world – a car driving, people talking, a phone ringing, etc.

Overall it is the kind of museum that has left the stuffy old idea of what a museum behind. You learn loads (i learnt more about wavelengths and frequencies than I did in all those years of physics) but in very cool ways. A real highlight of my travels so far!

On the way back home I took advantage of the sun (which wasn’t yet the forecast rain and thunderstorms) and climbed the St Stephens Cathedral tower.  The views were great but it really seems that Vienna is a city of two faces. Yesterday as I walked around at street level it was really beautiful but from above it was rather ugly.  Prague, Bruges and Copenhagen were definitely much better looking cities from this birds eye view.  I wouldn’t have thought there would be such a contrast.

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June 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The hills are alive, With the sound of music With songs they have sung. For a thousand years…

Sup from Austria! (Oh and by the way, I am aware that the use of the Sound of Music lyrics would work a lot better if I was actually in Salzburg but as I can´t fit that in I have decided Vienna is close enough.  Austria is Austria after all :P)

Okay so I was up early this morning to take the train from Praha Holesovice to Vienna.  I can actually pronounce Holesovice like a proper Czech now so that is what 10 days in Prague will do to you.  My initial pronunciation on my arrival led to Justin laughing hysterically.  It was an easy train journey but it was also a weird one in a few ways. Firstly I was riding the same tracks I had ridden quite a few times as the train to and from Brno and Kutna Hora is the same track…I was just going a little further. Also it was weird that at no point did someone ask to look at my passport.  I understand the whole EU thing but generally they still check and there is a requirement that I input my passport number when booking the ticket.  The final weird part was that südbahnhof (the station I arrived at) is in a really weird position.  You cross the water and enter Vienna. There is a stop just in Vienna but it wasn´t my stop. You then see most of the city fly by and then you start seeing farmland (well farmland and wind turbines but mainly farmland).  Finally the train turns around a bit (like a semi circle) and heads back in to the city.  It is a weird and somewhat nervous trip as you question Should I have got off before? Do they know I am still on here? Especially as we were now an hour over our estimated time of arrival perople got a little worried and everybody did that I am just going to check other people are on the train look out of their harry potter compartment.  To put it in to Melbourne terms it is like the arriving in Melbourne by train, going through the city, arriving in Taralgon and then eventually turning around and stopping in at Huntingdale Station.  Anyway, in the end I arrived and quickly found myself checking in.

My hostel looks pretty cool. It is the Hostel Ruthenburg and it has lovely garden areas. Is on appearance really clean and has pretty much all you could ask for at a hostel.  The 10 euros deposit for the key is a little much though, but it just means I wont waste that money in Vienna.

As the weather was beautiful sunshine, with a few ominous clouds of the alleged thunderstorms, I hit the ground running and found my way (with the use of a WAY TOO complicated map) in to the city centre which is about a 10 minute metro journey.  The metro comes up at St Stephens Cathedral so I took a quick detour from my plan to attack the tourist office to head inside.  It is a big imposing grey stone church. Its exterior is marred by refurbishments (as is everything in Europe) but inside again is a beautiful space. There is a tower and a crypt that I left for another day but I had a good look through the spacious interior (hell it was free to enter so why not eh?).  It is a lot grey-er than most churches I have seen but that may sound bad but I think it was great.  It just relied on other things beside extensive colour to develop its beauty. Much like the rose coloured marble church of yesterday that lacked stained glass windows.

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After raiding the tourist office of all the maps and guides and buying my unlimited public transport ticket I decided that as the weather was still good I would just explore the city on foot. There were the options of trams and buses that do a similar loop but I like the adventure, when I just get in to a city, of just wandering, getting lost and finding those unique things you wouldn’t necessarily find.  A point on the tourist office though I am finding that the new Information Centres in cities are always largely unhelpful. The older ones are full of brouchures and maps that you can grab and carry around with you but the new ones with their sleak design and raft of computer screens generally expect you just to look to the website and the people behind the desk seem to do the job of a trained chimp (knowing nothing themselves and just offering to look it up for you).  It is a sad indictment on the modernisation of things I think.

Okay so what did I see on my walk around?  Well I saw most of the main buildings – Hoffburg Palace, National Museum, Parliament, City Hall, State Opera House, etc, etc.  I also walked through some of the gorgeous parks (okay Christ I am trying to use other words but without a theasarus and under time limitations due to internet cafe use it is hard!).  There were plenty of fountains and statues that you could discover and it really was an awesome walk through the town.

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I was thinking though that Vienna is a beautiful city and so is Prague but there is a big difference. It took me a while to put my finger on it as they are both very european but I eventually think I cracked the case.  Vienna is very coherent in its design and archetecuture.  Prague has a variety of buildings of all different styles and ages and it is definitely proud of this eclectic mix.  Vienna, on the other hand, seems to have (from my limited viewing) a more thematic trend to all the grand buildings. I am pretty sure this relates back to the fact that they were all built during a similar time period by a similar royal dynasty…but I suppose that is something to find out during my next 3 days.

What is certain though is that both Prague and Vienna are amazingly impressive cities visually. Different styles, both done well.
P.S Can anybody tell me why the europeans use the Comma and Full Stop in reverse in numbers eg 9,000.00 in Australia is 9.000,00?  I know the reason we drive on different sides of the road is that Napolean marched on the right (so it doesnt surprise me that we differ) and I would love an equally logical reason for the numbers 😛

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

I don’t want to live in the modern world. I don’t want to live in the modern world. I’m the class of 13. In the era of dissent…

Well it is quite wet in Europe and looking at the forecast it is going to stay that way for the next few days.  Tomorrow I head to Vienna and the forecast is for thunderstorms everyday I am there. Now that doesn’t seem possible to me, but you never know.  Regardless, I will just have to get used to being a little damp me thinks.  To get myself well trained I realised that as the rain fell this morning the only thing I had planned to do today was Charles Bridge which is fully outside.  Not being one to complain I just had to stomach the cold and damp conditions and brave it out.

After a good sleep in, I headed off on the tram to Charles Bridge.  My tram dropped me off in little town and there was St Nicholas’ Church right there and as it dominates that bank of the river I had to pop in for a look.  It is described as a Baroque building (whatever that means :P) but in my opinion it was just an amazing structure.  Unlike the castle yesterday (which was “story/history cool”, it very much was “visually cool” – both inside and out.  The exterior is defined by the massive dome and the interior is lined with meticulous designed and cut marble structures and metalwork.  Somewhat surprisingly in such a good looking church the windows were very plain but if anything it just gave greater focus on to the great marble structures.  Kind of like how the white spaces on art gallery walls help draw the eye.  I must say though that the paintings that lined the upper gallery weren’t that impressive. They were of “church size” but not of the standard I, with my untrained eye, have seen elsewhere.

I did find myself taking a little time to just sit down and explore every corner of the church with my eye.  Some people have raised whether seeing all these amazing churches could sway me in my religious thinking.  Well there is no chance of that.  There is just a little bit too much of a gulf between me and the Church, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy these buildings from a visual or historical or even reflective level.  Regardless of your beliefs you have to be taken back by the respectful nature to religious buildings and the devotion that leads to their construction.  It is an amazing thing that everyone slows down and becomes quieter the minute they step foot in a church due to the nature of the surroundings.

I was happy to see that as I strolled towards Charles Bridge that the rain had eased.  Charles Bridge, as one of Prague’s main attractions, is  long, old bridge across the river (for a long time it was the only bridge) and it is adorned with statues of various saints and religious figures.  I actually think that it was a good time to see the bridge as the rain had stopped but as a result very few people were on the bridge that is well known for his overcrowding with tourists all day – particularly in good weather.  As a result I could take my time to stroll across her and take a good time to look at all the statues (well the ones that weren’t being restored).  Some of the statues were better than others in my opinion.  The one below was probably my favourite and I am assuming there is some sort of Hell or evil forces edge to it so it doesn’t surprise me that I was drawn to it as those religious topics seem to be of more interest to me.  I did also rub the plaque on the St John of Nepomuk statue which every tourist has to  do. So here is hoping for some good luck coming my way.

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After crossing the bridge I was back in the Old Town area so I thought I would stop in on another church that we had been told about.  I can’t remember its name but it is opposite Fat Boy’s the Australian Bar.  It is well known for the story of a their who tried to steal a necklace from a statue but the statue came to life and grabbed his arm.  Eventually he was caught, repented but they still had to cut his arm off to free him. The arm was then mummified and hung above the door to warn off other thieves.  Now as you know how cool the bone church was in my opinion, so I just HAD to see the mummy arm church.  The church itself was pretty impressive as I had not expected much.  There seems to be plenty of things to steal. Yes you can still see the arm, although part of me thinks that very little of the old tale would be true (the fact the statue grabbed his arm is a slight give away IMO) and I was looking at the arm thinking…I wonder exactly what is in that.  Did they use a real arm or is it just stuffing or is it like some other sort of creature mummified in to the shape of an arm?  Who knows.  I doubt they would let someone x-ray it in case of them losing the tourist interest from people like me who just want to see the  mummy arm.

Anyway that was the end of my day as I needed to go back and pack and prepare to leave for Austria early tomorrow.  There was one last thing I had to do before I left Europe though and I thought I might as well do it before I left Prague…

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Yes, that is beer 😀 😀 😀

June 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Its spitting, Angels die with you.

Some of the more observant readers may have noticed that before today I was yet to do two of the big things that one goes to Prague to do.  Yes I have seen the clock and drunk the beer…but I was yet to do the Prague Castle or Charles Bridge.  Well the Charles Bridge is on the list for tomorrow (my last day in Prague) and today I went and explored the grounds of the old Prague Castle.

Getting there was easy as Justin had already given me the heads up on which tram to take and which stop to get off at.  The weather was far from perfect.  Reading via facebook statuses that it was “hot” and “sunny” in Leeds while I was stuck with cold and light showers in Prague made me as jealous as a kid who sees the rich kid walking out of the Melbourne show with every showbag.  Regardless though I was going to make the most of the day, not let the weather deter me and so I went to the castle, bought my ticket and an audio guide and started at  St Vitus’s Cathedral.

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The Cathedral is the main visual landmark of the castle as it sits imposingly above Prague city.  You can basically see it from whereever you are in the city and it is even more imposing up close.  With the audio guide you got to skip the line and I got a detailed explanation of every aspect of the building and its construction which was quite insightful.  The cathedral in many respects reflects the Czech history in my opinion. It has been attacked numerous times, oppressed for periods, re-built many times (even before it was finished) and has had many influences over the hundreds and hundreds of years it took to complete.  It was also only finished recently and I think there is a connection there as well.   There are many different parts to the cathedral and although it is not as impressive as others you may see it did seem to have more of a story to tell.  The silver tomb of St John Nepomucene was definitely a sight worth seeing.  Unfortunately, in addition to the rather dodgy weather the tower and the crypt were closed which was unfortunate.  In particular the tomb of Charles IV would’ve been cool to see.

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I then followed on the numbers on the audio guide to the Old Royal Palace.  Although not really what one would consider luxurious there is plenty about this palace to interest you in the history and the stories the walls could tell.  The big hall is somewhat of an architectural masterpiece of its time and the defenestration stories never get old (the fact there is a word for “throwing people out of the window” boggles the mind). I am not sure if I was king I would like to live here though, it is definitely a cold and drafty place and lacked the beautiful details that we saw at the Karlstejn Castle.  Maybe they have just not been as well preserved over the years.

It was then time to explore more of the rooms of the palace which have now been dedicated to a museum on “The Story of Prague Castle.”  I was initially hesitant to do this as it cost a little extra to get the “grand tour” ticket but I am so glad I did.  It is obviously a recent addition, all the exhibits are in Czech and English and there are even some interactive displays.  It traces the history of the castle and its grounds over time starting in the pre-historic and ending at the end of the First Republic with detours for particular parts of Castle life such as eating or heating (it was somewhat ironic how cold the room where the heating exhibit was!).  I was amazed many of the artifacts had survived, particularly the accent fabrics and textiles.  Quite a few of the displays leave you with that weird feeling you get when you realise that they seem to be basically the benefits of disturbed graves.  The graves of the kings and queens of old may not have been robbed in the strict sense but they have definitely been disturbed when there are skeletons and burial clothes on display.  It is probably similar to seeing a mummy in a Museum but at least with mummies there is a level of distance as a lot is unknown about the people they were when they were alive.  Reading a play by play description of someone’s life and then seeing the shoes they were buried in is slightly off putting to me…or maybe I think too much.  After all the idea of religious relics (including body parts and remains of Saints) and the moving of people’s remains appears to have been a regular aspect of Czech history.  If not human history.

St George’s Basillica was next on the list and it is hardly a beautiful building.  There is some beauty from the outside but inside it is just large bare undecorated stone and once again it is the history of the place and not the visuals that you come to see. There was a really awesome caved skeleton statue in the crypt though!  The castle consists of many different other parts and things to see including the Golden Lane (which is now just a tourist strip) and many different gardens and courtyards.  I think they would’ve been much nicer on a better day but they were still cool to explore, even if the amount of ‘tourist tackiness’ detracts from them slightly.  The two most interesting other parts of the castle for me though were the Powder Tower and the Hradcanske namesti.  The Hradcanske Namesti (or Hradcanske Square) was cool as it had the best view of the castle as it is the front square just in front of the main gate, but it was also cool as it was the square where Obama gave that speech that my damn lucky brother got to see live.  The Powder Tower was more of a surprise coolness though.  It had a display about the Castle Guard who are basically the Czech equivalent of the dudes with funny hats who march at Buckingham Palace in London.  What made the exhibits so interesting as through the Role and costume of the Castle Guard throughout the 20th Century it basically tells the story of the Czech people and politics over that time.  In the First Republic (between WW1 and WW2) they wore the uniforms model on the French, Italy and Russian Armies who had played a role in them gaining independence.  The role of the Castle guard was suppressed under the Nazi reign and their uniforms adapted to reflect those of Hitler’s army.  Once they were liberated post World War 2 there was a short return the uniforms of old before the Russian Communist influence lead to them being replaced with russian uniforms and largely neutralised.  There was short revival during the Prague Spring of the late 60s, but it wasn’t until Czechoslovak independence in the late 80s/early 90s that they returned to their position of glory and importance.  It really was an interesting distillation of Czech politics.  It was also funny that the costume designer for Amadeus designed their current uniforms I think!

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With my time in the castle complete.  I then went for  a walk through the little town.  It really is a nice part of Prague and again would only be nicer on a better day.  I walked past the Lennon Wall which was a wall for anti-communist rebellion in the 60s and 70s and still persists as as political protest wall to this day although it is much more haphazard than the murals of Belfast or the like.  It was then time for a late lunch in Bar Bar (the restaurant named by someone with a stuttar, recommended by Lonely Planet and with Aboriginal Art on the walls).  The food was good and cheap though so what more could you ask?

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Anyway I better add some photos to this and the last few posts or they really will be walls of text 😛

June 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

When I was 17 I drank some very good beer I drank some very good beer I purchased with a fake I.D. My name was Brian Mcgee. I stayed up listening to Queen. When I was 17…

So what is the Czech Republic well known for and one of my passions? Beer.  That should come as no shock to anyone so in continuation of my love of Brewery Tours today I was off to Plzen for one Czech-style.  This wasn’t just any brewery tour though.  This was the Pilsner Urquell brewery tour.  Pilsner Urquell is THE Pilsner. They invented and it is no coincidence that it has a name similar to the city from which it comes from. To get to the brewery it is a 2 hour train ride which I managed to conquer with no worries.  I am being well trained in Czech train travel and am even able to order a ticket using some Czech words.  I made the most of the two hours though…and slept 😛

Once I left the train station I had a few random brown signs to follow (Who designated Brown as the universal tourist sign colour anyway?) as well as some fuzzy instructions from Justin.  It wasn’t that easy to find the brewery as my sense of direction is a little weak when I am brand new to a city but I was able to guide myself by my senses. The sense of smell in particular as that gorgeous brewery smell of malt and hops draw me to the brewery.  That smell is so good it is almost sexual and I swear if it is released in cologne or air freshener form I would buy a case of it.  I had planned my times well with the help of the internet so I just had a short wait until the 12:45pm english tour, one of three, started.

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Our guide was Michael and he had a pretty good grasp of English.  Justin had said that on his tour it sounded basically like he only knew the script but good ol’ mike seemed to be able to actually converse in English.  Even though his pronounciations were far from perfect, he did a great job.  The tour starts by everybody being driven in a bus to the bottling plant.  The bottling plant is just a few years old and is MASSIVE there are two bottle lines (one for new and one for recycled bottles) and one for cans.  You watch as they bottles fly around and it all happens so quickly that it is a blur and you can’t quite imagine that the bottles are even getting filled, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time.  I took a couple of sneaky photos (you had to pay a charge with your ticket to do this and I wasn’t told when I bought my ticket) because when Justin went the plant wasn’t running.  It is also interesting to note that in one hour they fill about 100,000 cans or bottles – that is about 1 lifetimes worth of drinking for your more than average beer drinker.  Incredible.

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You are then thrown back on the bus and head back to the old brewhouse. Here you go into an entrance hall, which turns out to be the world’s biggest elevator lol and you are taken in to a thearte. Here a video on the basic history of Pilsner Urquell and the brewing method is shown. It is a really well down video.  It is entertaining and even funny in parts.  You are even standing on a platform that rotates around slightly to focus your attention on different parts of the massive curved screen.  A fair bit of money must have been put in to putting together this tour.  From what I can pick up, the unique part of Pilsner Urquell from other beers is that it has a triple brew method.  Everything seems to be done in 1/3rds and repeated 3 times.  After many brewery tours is amazing how these little things affect it so much.

You then have the bits of a brewery tour that are always present.  You get to see how the 3 beer ingredients are grown or gathered (Hops, Malt and Water), taste them (I love the malt even in grain form although hops is quite bitter) and then explore through the old brewhouse.  What makes this tour slightly different is that it is well organised, once again it shows there was some investment in to the different displays and restoration work and also the fact the old brewhouse only stopped working in 2004.  Our guide also stressed (probably a little too much) the process of brewing beer both originally and the slightly changes that have been made for the 21st Century.  It was then time to see the new brewhouse.  It was similar in look to the old brewhouse but it was much bigger.  Almost double the capacity.  Also it was mid-brew so there was a heat and a smell that filled the room.  Just imagining the amount of beery goodness in those massive copper kettles has to make you drool slightly.

You then go through a room with artifacts from the history of the brewery before hitting the cellars.  Underneath the brewery there are 9kms of cellars where beer used to be fermented first in big open topped oak vats for 12 days and then in barrels for 30 days.  As they are a fair depth underground the temperature drops suddenly to about 6 degrees Celcius.  I’m glad I was wearing a jumper.  The freaky thing about the cellars is that they were 1) hand dug and wow that is an effort and 2) were cooled year round with ice but as ice wasn’t able to be artificially made back in the mid 19th century they would collect a HUGE room of ice during winter and that would cool the cellars until the next winter.  Quite a different operation than just turning on the fridge.

It was in the cellars that we got to taste the unfiltered and unpasteurised beer straight from the barrels.  They make small quantities of beer “how they used to” for the tour and it was amazing beer.  The taste lingers in your mouth for a while afterwards and it was just perfectly balanced.  Definitely better than the filtered/pasteurised stuff of today IMO, even if a little gritty.  The one thing I didn’t understand is that for this free tasting there was small and large glasses…who would take the small one when it was free?! haha

Anyway, with that it was the end of the tour.  As the brewery is a slight walk from the rest of Plzen city I ate and had another beer at the brewery restaurant.  My Pork and Dumplings  (a very Czech dish that I have grown to love) were pretty well cooked which in the up and down world of Czech Restaurants was a good result.  It was then time for another 2 hour sleep on the train ride home before catching up with Justin and Matt for dinner at TGIFs and doing some shopping.

June 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

If you think that I’m not the same. Then I guess you’ve changed. Blackened by the temperature. Made to spare my name…

Every been to a museum at night?  Well in good Ben Stiller fashion I now have.  Last night was the Prague Museum night where most of the museums in the city  (and there are a lot of them) were free and open from 7pm until 2am.  Who goes to a museum at such times? Well it turns out loads of people do –  it was like Boxing Day Sales at Chaddie packed.  Justin and I went along to the National Museum where is an amazing, imposing building just a short walk from Justin’s apartment.  We had both checked out the building from the outside loads of times but even he hadn’t gone in.  It has a reputation of being an amazing building with uberlame exhibits so it is not quite worth the price of admission. However, when it is for free what do you have to lose?

We went along not expecting anything, but for starters the look down Wencelas Square at night was ace!  The totally stereotypical postcard shot.  When we went inside the building the interior of the building was even more amazing.  The detail and quality of the interior is marvelous.  It was at this point, after watching a crazy performance art piece that we assume was political as it was using quotes of the President but as it was all in Czech and it was crazy we aren’t sure, that we turned around, walked the 5 minutes back to the apartment and grabbed our cameras.  We weren’t going to miss out of the amazing photo opportunities.

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Once we had caught up with all the photos we had wanted to take and also navigated through the main stairwell which was blocked off for another performance (okay if there is just one stairwell…don’t hold  a performance on it when the building is packed of people wanting to move from A to B!  Logic is so scarce these days!), we started to explore some of the exhibits.  Most were as had been described to us.  Lame.  The Hall of Rocks was just that, poorly designed to keep your interest and most of the descriptions were purely in Czech so what could we get out of them.  The really interesting and brilliant exhibit was the temporary one about the “First Republic” about Czechoslovakia between World War 1 and World War 2.  It was quite a prosperous time for the Czech people and they managed to do some wonderful things for what is one of the limited times where they weren’t being oppressed.  Justin seemed to be interested in the history as it was connected to the place he know lives. I loved it as it was modern history.  The discussion about how the republic ended with the invasion of Hitler, Munich Agreement, etc was SOOO interesting for me especially as I have grown up on the “Allies” view of history.  Hearing about the Czechs not being invited to Munich where the discussion was about Hitler’s claims to the Sudetenland and even how Hitler could phrase such a ‘right’ was just well worth the trip on its own.  The rest of the exhibit gave information about all aspects of the First Republic and there pretty much was something for everyone.  Too bad it is just a temporary exhibit.

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As we left the Museum at midnight…it was time for bed.

Sunday called for another day of tourist activities in Prague with Justin.  It was just the two of us and Mum would be so proud about the amount of brotherly love going on.  Fights have been at a bare minimum and the few minor ones have been as a result of Justin baiting me 😛  The day consisted of a few things that Justin had done before and somethings he hadn’t.  Of course it was all new to me so it was really interesting.  Firstly we were off to the Petrin look out tower.  It supposedly has one of the best views of Prague, according to the guidebooks, and it is a smaller scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. Justin, who has been to Paris (which awaits me in about a month) says it is a pretty good replica.  The tower is on the top of one of Prague’s many hills and instead of taking the trolley which is how Justin has been up there before we walked up the steep slow.  Never let it be said my presence is not a good influence…although the only reason we walked up is although I don’t like climbing up hills, I hate waiting in lines even more.  The park grounds you walk through are quite nice though so the walk wasn’t too bad.

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Once we got to the tower and rehydrated it was time to enjoy the view from up the top of the 299 steps.  Prague is a really interesting city.  From one side of the tower all you see is industrial, ugly buildings and a couple of soccer stadiums.   Every other angle has beautiful views.  You can see for quite a distance.  The main parts of the city are generally a sea of orange as roof after roof have those european tiles, but there are many “point bits” (as I described them) such as churches and bigger buildings that dot throughout the panorama and lead to it being a city view you could enjoy for a while.  One thing I would’ve loved to see is to have seen some of the copper tops of the buildings back before they oxidised.  It is also really interesting when you notice th ring of brightly coloured communist apartment blocks that ring the city almost as if besieging the town.  The tower does shake a bit. It shakes enough that you feel it and I don’t think I could spend all day up ther swaying back and forth so we moved on.

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Just around the corner is the Strahov Monastery.  You still have ace views of Prague, but there are a few impressive buildings in the Monastery complex.  The library is the main draw card but that was closed for lunch so we had to settle to wait until after we had a small lunch of our own until we saw that, but first we did check out the main church. It was one of those incredibly detailed churches.  It is a shame you can only really look at it from the entrance as every corner was filled with amazingly intricate paintings and decorations. The frescoes on the roof were stunning and what caught my eyes the golden, delicately decorated “thing” at the end of the aisle.  If I was more of a church going man I could probably tell you what the thing was.  The library was equally beautifully decorated.  The paintings on the ceiling represent the old and new testament and I am getting pretty good at picking the ‘main characters’ from likeness alone.  It was the books that interest me most though.  Old paper things are amazing, they shouldn’t last yet they do.  The library is lined with thousands upon thousands of books that are hundreds and hundreds of years old.  That is jawdropping for me.  There were also a few world globes lying around that were pre European discovery of Australia.   You only get the chance to gawk as tourists do, but I think it would be amazing to be able to read some of the books on those shelves.  I was able to pick out a few copies of law books as well from my extremely limited latin knowledge.

It was then time to take the tram and the metro off to Vysehrad.  It is known as Prague’s second castle and sits on a Plateau on the opposite side of the city to Prague castle.  It was originally a castle built for defensive reasons and it is a shame very little of the structures remain to this day. From the model in the little museum thing it was quite a castle.  However, once again due to its position on the hills that surround the city you get some dramatic views of Prague city and the river.  Our day had been lovely for most of the day (although not perfect) and I could see this parkland being a beautiful place to just sit back and relax on a bright sunny day.  There is a graveyard for Prague’s famous there and although we couldn’t recognise most of the names we have played enough music in our time to recognise Antonin Dvorak.  We don’t really have our mother’s love of graveyards though so we didn’t spend hours there.   The Chapel of SS Peter and Paul is also on the site and although damaged during World War 2 (one of the few Prague buildings to be bombed) it has been wonderfully restored.  The guidebook describes its interior as a “swirling acid trip of colourful Art Nouveau frescoes” which I think pretty much describes it better than I could.  I would just say it was awesome and well worth seeing.  One thing that did catch my eye is that the weather had turned recently, dark storm clouds overhead, but the stained glass windows were still freakishly bright.

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After navigating our way back to the Metro through the rain, we were back at Justin’s apartment resting up before dinner.  We did make a good team getting through the rain relatively un-soaked though as Justin called the perfect time for us to pause and take shelter under the gate and I made the call to “go for it” just as we had  a few minutes of light rain.  Dinner was a group affair again and this time it was at Justin’s favourite place in Prague.  Cantina is a Mexican place and I am not usually the biggest fan of Mexican food as I think you get really overcharged in Australia and the food is generally just not good.  However, my burrito and Dacquri made it one of the best meals I have had in a long time.  Justin has certainly picked up knowledge of a lot of good places in Prague.  The night ended with a few scarily sweet and non-alcoholic tasting cocktails and I should probably stop typing as this is starting to get too long.  Even by my standards lol

June 22, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

We can insist on having robots. Bugs and insects. Useless, Leave me for dead. How can you love?

First off, I need to get this over and done with.  Mum, here you go!

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Okay, now the family commitments are done with what have I been up 2?  Well last night we went out to dinner at another one of the places “I had to eat at” according to Justin and had a very good roasted duck breast.  The knife provided couldn’t cut butter, so it made it slightly a challenge but the meat was delicious.  However, when I ordered a cocktail (Blue Hawaii for the record as I like anything that tastes “blue”) I got some weird looks from around the table.  Supposedly there was this place just around the corner that is the best cocktail bar in Prague.  Justin, Angus and all of them think so and it is even backed up by Justin’s recently purchased Prague Lonely Planet guidebook.  So you can probably guess where this is going. I went back to “Pivo” for the rest of the night and after dinner we were off to Hupa.  Turns out they were right.  I ordered another drink from the “blue family” called a Swimming Pool and it was amazing.  One of the best cocktails I have had in a while and it used real fruit juice.  I am learning to trust Justin’s knowledge of Prague and its bars/eateries.

As today was a Saturday, Justin didn’t have work and he lead the touristing for today.  Matt, Justin and I were off to Karlstejn. Justin had been there twice before and supposedly it had a good castle.  I certainly have a fair few churches and castles left in my European travels.  It is like with Pringles, once you pop you cannot stop!  The train ride was short, easy and cheap as you could just use the same ticket that you use for the Metro or tram, albeit with a few extra zones covered. Still 44 Kc each way is pretty good value.  Once we got there though we realised a flaw in the daytrip’s planning on our behalf.  We were three guys wearing t-shirts, without jackets and it started to rain the second we stepped off the train and it was a 30 min up hill walk to the castle.  Well, regardless we thought we would power on until we hit the bridge and it was pelting down.  Not only a lot of rain but those uber-big rain drops that feel like hail when they hit you.  A quick group decision was made to run back to the pub we had just passed and grab beer and some early lunch.  As the rain fell down from the skies like Matthew Lloyd diving for a free kick, we sat down and enjoyed our “Pivo” and both Justin and I ate fried cheese (Okay…our family’s love of cheese is once again proven).  As if planned perfectly by the time we finished the meal and paid (paid what had to be tourist prices I must add, although Justin has been awesomely generous and paid for most of my meals and drinks.  Thanks again Juz!!!), the sun was out.  It was as if we were experiencing Melbourne’s bipolar weather in the Czech Republic.

We walked up the hill, passed all the shops and stalls and up to the castle.  It was a pretty impressive castle from the outside, but nowhere near as good as the inside in my opinion.  There are two tours you can do.  We were on tour 2 which is limited to 15 people at a time, visits the special Chapel of the Holy Cross (more on that later) and generally better.  You have to book a bit in advance to get on this tour so again this was an example of Justin being an accountant and able to preplan.  Our guide for the day was a Czech woman with pretty good english skills although a few of her pronunciations weren’t right and were quite funny (although we managed to be polite and not laugh…catastrophes is one word I never realised is pronounced so differently to it’s spelling).   Tour 2 takes you through a variety of different rooms, hallways and beautifully decorated stairwells as the guide proceeds to close and lock each door as you go.  There were original wall paintings from the 16thish century which were amazingly preserved, even if a bit macabre as they were about people who ended up being murdered.   This was Charles the IV’s castle and we were able to explore a variety of different rooms including his personal private prayer room.  It was interesting to see how religion was almost the defining element of this king who is so popular in Czech history.  The castles and the stories are all really interesting.

The main part of the tour is the Chapel of the Holy Cross.  It is a golden chapel on top of the Great Tower and you can tell its importance purely from the size of the original 16th century key and lock needed to open the door.  It was a good chapel as once again it was different.  There were over 130 portraits of saints and prophets adorning the walls as well as all manner of golden decorations.  It is disappointing that you aren’t allowed to take photos on the tour as I will fail in any attempt to properl describe this castle and chapel.  For instance as a result of water damage from over use as a tourist spot the chapel was closed for 21 years and is limited to a few groups of 15 people day…it is a special place.

After that we went down what looks like a forgotten path and found a well recommended restaurant for lunch.  After our early lunch we ended up sharing a lunch.  Justin had an entree, Matt a main and I had a banana split.  It is funny how things turn out that way. It was also interesting as we got an insight in to the many different traditions there are in a Czech wedding. We continued to drink, explore the city and just chat.

Eventually we got back to Prague, got some pizza that was inexplicably sponsored by George Clooney (or at least he was on the box) and that was our day.

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Oh and here are a few more for you Mum…

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June 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 10 Comments