A Travellerspoint blog

October 2015

Holiday in Prague

overcast 12 °C

It is October 28th and the Czechs are enjoying a National Holiday commemorating the nation’s creation on this day in 1918. What a day to be in Prague! Rejoicing throngs crowd Wenceslas square. The band is playing; flags waving; people dancing for joy…
Whoa – Hold your horses. There’s something wrong with this picture.
Today is actually the anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia – a country that fell apart more than 22 years ago when the Czechs had a bust up with their neighbours the Slavs. These people aren’t celebrating unity: it’s just another student protest rally. Never mind; most Czechs are just enjoying a day off and doing the town. Sightseers pack the 14th century Charles Bridge as buskers and portraitists use the occasion to make a koruna or two…
This guy played beautiful classical music on his crystal wine glasses…
And these musicians beat out some traditional Dixieland jazz…
Behind them the enormous Prague castle complex sprawls over the hilltop. The castle, a city within the city, grew for more than a thousand years as palaces, churches and military buildings were added by subsequent kings and archbishops. This is St. Vitus cathedral built in the 1400s.
However most of the elaborate stained glass windows are actually art deco dating from the 1920s…
The cathedral is the resting place of most of the kings and bishops of Bohemia. This is the elaborately decorated tomb of Good King Wenceslas from the early 1500s…
An interesting castle oddity is this row of Lilliputian houses that were built into the walls by soldiers in the 15th century…
For good reason Prague is the 6th most visited city in Europe. This city has everything; history, architecture, music, culture, shopping, eating and beer – gallons of beer. The place is awash in beer and at about three dollars a litre the Czechs have reason to make merry on their non-existent National Day.
While it may seem somewhat bizarre to celebrate belonging to a country that no longer exists we are reminded that us Canadians still celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria on May 24th – and she fell off her throne more than a hundred years ago. Hey – a day off is a day off whatever the reason.

Posted by Hawkson 08:20 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (4)

Prague’s Split Personality

overcast 12 °C

Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is at a crossroads twixt Europe and Asia and in the middle ages it was a major trading post where the products of both continents were exchanged. Many of Prague’s elegant buildings date from this period when it was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire…
The city comes alive at night when thousands flock into its historic squares…
Our restaurant this evening was built in 1392 and the original murals still decorate the walls – the Bohemian goulash was delicious…
The river Vitava splits the capital in two with the old city and castle on one bank and the newer, medieval city, on the other. The two halves are joined by a series of bridges, none more famous than the 14th century Charles Bridge…
This bridge has withstood nearly 700 years of wars and floods and looks strong enough to survive another 700.

Prague was the seat of King Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia from 907–935 AD. The Christmas carol about him giving alms to a poor peasant was written in 1853 by an Englishman and set to the melody of a 13th-century Finnish carol (Isn’t it amazing what you can discover on the internet?). This is the King’s statue in Wenceslas Square…
However the square, famous for uprisings and victory speeches, was just a horse market in the 13th century. The statue and king’s name only appeared in 1848 and the enormous square became the focus for many lavish buildings including the national museum. Today it is the venue for Starbucks, Marks & Spencer’s, H&M, McDonalds and numerous other western companies that have flocked here since the communists’ downfall in 1989…
At 12 o’clock each day the 15th century astrological clock (circa 1420) in the old city centre chimes the hour as the small figures of 12 apostles appear in windows above the clock face. Hundreds of tourists cram into the square to watch this event every day and most leave completely underwhelmed by the experience….
As we stroll the cobblestone streets today it is difficult to believe that Prague has recently been the loser in a tug-o’-war between its neighbours. The Germans seized the country in the lead-up to WW2 and in August 1968 the Russians invaded to put down a student uprising that threatened the communist leadership. Today, Prague is as capitalist as any other European city, but the architecture has a distinctly Russian feel.

There are other reminders of Soviet years here too: the bureaucracy when checking into a hotel; the seeming indifference of tourist information officers, and the Matryoshka dolls. However, in Prague these traditional Russian dolls, (where successively smaller wooden dolls fit inside each other), are more likely to portray foreign sportsmen rather than plump Soviet maidens…
Prague is a very popular city for European youngsters seeking a good time in the clubs, pubs and bars where the beer is cheap and almost everyone speaks English. The food is inexpensive as well – less than half the cost of Paris. And there are some eastern treats like Trdelnik…
The spirals of pastry cooked over an open flame are delicious…especially when slathered in chocolate sauce or strawberry jam.

Posted by Hawkson 01:02 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (3)

Les Marchés de Paris

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History, culture and necessity coalesce in the more than ninety markets dotted throughout the city of Paris. Some marketplaces can be traced back a thousand years or more while others inhabit historically significant sites like the one on the Blvd. Richard Lenoir at Bastille where these songsters perform with an ancient barrel organ…
The wide tree-lined boulevard leading to the place where the Bastille prison stood (until it was stormed on July 14th 1789) is transformed every Sunday morning into a bustling outdoor bazaar bursting with produce from all over France. The arrangements of fruits and vegetables are particularly appealing…
And what about these incredible mushrooms?
The extravagant Queen Marie Antoinette would have known these streets well from the comfort and privacy of her gilded carriages. She was guillotined just a few blocks away in 1793. Perhaps she would be pleased to see that there is no shortage of bread here today…
Bread, the most staple of staples in France, may currently be vilified as the cause of corpulence in many countries, but it doesn’t seem to have done Parisians’ waistlines any harm. Ditto for cheese and wine…
While many Canadians are still grappling with the seemingly perilous notion of letting people buy alcohol in supermarkets – (Mon Dieu - quelle horreur!) – the French happily flog plonk at every opportunity (often cheaper than Evian or Perrier). Here in Le Marché Richard Lenoir you can buy your Sunday lunch of bread, cheese and a bottle of wine for the price of a grande Starbucks cappucino.

Church attendance in France may have hit an all time low, but the tradition of shopping for food in the market on Sunday morning is as strong as ever. However, there is much more on offer than the poultry, fish and fruits. Numerous artisans of Paris proudly display their creations in the Marché Edgar Quinet. This is Régis d’Audeville with his botanical works of art…
And this is Sylvie, a delightful Parisian artist who has turned her creative talents to making millinery objets d’art…
We only managed three of the ninety markets before we were spent, but we felt quite justified in rewarding ourselves with some of these fabulous custard tarts at the Marché Alesia on our way home…
Marie Antoinette was right – it is better to eat cake.

Posted by Hawkson 09:54 Archived in France Comments (5)

The Streets of Paris

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We’ve been doing the sights of Paris for the past few days - the Eiffel Tower, Notre- Dame, the Arc de Triomphe etc. and even Disneyland with the grandchildren– but decided not to bore you with images of such well documented tourist attractions
Instead we thought we should focus on the more prosaic side of Paris – the everyday street scenes like the modern automatic toilettes that replaced the iconic, (though always smelly) pissoirs…
Then there are the newspaper kiosks that seem to do a roaring trade despite the internet…
And the fleuristes whose season-defying flowers overflow onto the sidewalks…
Not long ago the banks of the Seine were lined with many hundreds of booths selling rare and secondhand books. Few remain today and those that do primarily sell tourist trinkets and cheap prints...
Almost every corner of major intersections is home to a brasserie where snippy waiters make you pay through the nose for sitting on a squeaky rattan chair while inhaling the fumes of a thousand cars…
But being in Paris, (for some) is all about being seen in Paris. The City of Lights still has allure for the rich and trendy and there is no shortage of establishments catering to the well-heeled of the world. We, on the other hand, are quite content NOT staying on the Champs Elysees or shopping in the chic establishments of the Avenue Montaigne. The boulangerie at the end of the street has everything we want…
Just as Bruges is a haven of chocalatiers, Paris is home to a thousand boulangers, (bakers) and patissiers. Their breads and pastries tempt us every few metres. The most iconic name – now franchised worldwide – is that of Paul…
Food is a primary pre-occupation of the French. It is not cheap, (and not always good), but it is certainly plentiful. Restaurants of every type and nationality abound in Paris and the quality and variety of fresh food available in stores is staggering. This is a fish stall in Montparnasse…
….while this is just a local greengrocers…
In a move that should be copied worldwide it has been illegal in France for supermarkets to throw away unsold food since May of this year. All products that have expired must be given to charity or used as animal feed.

Paris is a truly multicultural city and the shops and supermarkets reflect this diversity with products from around the world. In an inexplicable moment of madness we skipped past the local boulangerie to slip into Marks & Spencer's for a packet of their delicious English crumpets – now if only we could find a Tim Hortons coffee shop.

Posted by Hawkson 08:50 Archived in France Comments (4)

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae's Poem Illustrated

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In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The guns of the First World War still drown out the songs of larks after a hundred years. Bombs, mortars and shells are ploughed up every day by farmers and construction workers. Some explode; killing and maiming. Millions of unexploded munitions, a third containing lethal poison gas, lie beneath these seemingly peaceful fields in Flanders…
Piles of recovered munitions are left by the roadsides for collection by bomb disposal teams, (and unofficial relic hunters) and it is estimated that it will take another hundred years before the all clear is finally given.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

More than a hundred war cemeteries dot the landscape around the small city of Ypres, but many of the dead were never found; their bodies blown to smithereens or swallowed into the thick mud churned up by millions of shells. The Menin gate in Ypres bears the names of fifty five thousand Commonwealth soldiers who were never found, but it is just one of many such memorials...
In a moving daily ceremony since the 1920s, the Last Post has been sounded here more than 30,000 times by the Ypres firemen to honour the men of Britain, Canada and the Commonwealth, who fought for the freedom of Belgium.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote his epic wartime poem “In Flanders Fields” in this dressing station following the burial of a good friend precisely 100 years ago …
On the 22nd April 1915, the Canadian 1st Division was stationed near the village of Saint Julien, at a place now named Vancouver Corner, when the German Army unleashed the war’s first poison gas attack. The 1st Division was decimated. This statue known as ‘The Brooding Soldier’ was erected in memorium on land which has been given to Canada in perpetuity…
The medieval city of Ypres was totally destroyed during the 4 years of trench warfare, but its iconic buildings were faithfully restored after the war using the original 15th century plans. This is the magnificent Wool Hall…
The war to end all wars, in which some 50 million people died, was simply the starting point of an endless series of wars, and as Remembrance Day approaches we know that there are all too many in the world who are willing to repeat the dreadful mistakes of the past. Perhaps those warmongers and haters would learn a lesson here in Flanders Fields – but perhaps they would not.

Posted by Hawkson 09:05 Archived in Belgium Comments (4)

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