All posts by outofofficereplyon

It was written in the stars, as they say - I am a Sagittarius, the sign of travellers.

Prague: Practical Info

And now a bit of practical information about Prague!

Getting to Prague from anywhere in Europe is easy. The city is well connected by air with most large European cities and cheap flights are widely available. Once you land at Václav Havel International Airport, the cheapest way to town is bus 119 to the metro stop of Nádraží Veleslavín, from where you can catch Metro A (various stops in the Old Town). 32Kč is the cost of the ticket, a standard 1.5hr public transport ticket. Another option, a bit more pricey (60Kč) and not any faster, is the Airport Express Bus to the main train station (Hlavní nádraží). From here you can catch the Metro or buses to anywhere in the city.

Moving around Prague: I’d recommend exploring on foot. Most tourist attractions are within walking distance and this is always the best way to explore a new place!

Where to stay: I stayed in a hostel 5 minutes away from the Old Town Square. It’s the most touristic area and even though I usually prefer quieter areas, being so central was very convenient. And I loved going for a stroll to the main square in the evening! But there are many more options available, from budget accommodation to luxury hotels. Check out TripAdvisor or Booking.com for some good deals.

Tourist Information Centre: The main one is located in the Old Town Hall and is open 365 days a year. More details available here.

Currency: The Czech Republic is not in the Euro-zone, instead the Czech koruna (Kč) is used. 1 Euro will get you around 25 Kč, you can check current exchange rate here. Many restaurants and hotels may accept Euros but the change will always be in Czech koruna.

Language: If you don’t understand a word of any Slavic language (like me), don’t worry! English is widely spoken/understood in Prague. But learning a couple of words of Czech won’t hurt.

 

Na shledanou!

Prague: How about the food?

I found eating out in Prague very cheap (250-500 Kc per meal, often including dessert and a soft drink) and I really enjoyed trying a few different restaurants with traditional Czech food.

Most Czech dishes are very meat-based and contain also dumplings, with some added cabbage here and there. Probably not the lightest meals but very tasty!
My meat feast over the long weekend started with a delicious venison guláš, served alongside with bread dumplings.

Venison guláš

The following day I tried a “farmer’s plate” with pork meat, grilled sausages (grilované klobásy), bread dumplings, potato dumplings, cabbage and gravy.

All-pork farmer’s plate

It was then time for a basic beef guláš in a cheap cafe’, and on my final day some roast duck with dumplings and cabbage.
All food was really good but I particularly enjoyed the venison guláš and the all-pork dish.

And for dessert? I recommend trying the trdelník, a traditional rolled pastry coated in sugar and sold in street stalls around Prague. But don’t fall for the tourist varieties filled with all sorts of sweet things, from chocolate to ice cream: the classic version, empty inside, is the best one!

Trdelník

Prague: The Castle and Malá Strana

As you walk across the 14th-century Charles Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in Europe and a landmark of Prague, the castle complex and mainly the two towers of St. Vitus Cathedral will catch your attention.

Prague castle: The largest ancient castle in the world, you can easily spend half day exploring this complex, made of several buildings. The Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest and most important church in the country, is stunningly beautiful. I could have stayed in for hours admiring the stained glass windows and the lines of the vaults. I then wandered into the Old Royal Palace, with its multitude of diverse rooms, and the Basilica of St.George, the oldest surviving church building in the castle complex. The Story of Prague Castle permanent exhibition has a very interesting collection of items related to the history of the castle, as well as photographs and informative panels. The last section included in the full tourist ticket for the castle complex (ticket A, 350 ) is Golden Lane, a street originally built in the 16th century and whose houses are now mainly souvenir shops.

The district south of the castle is called Malá Strana (usually translated as Lesser Town) and is characterised by baroque buildings and colourful shops.

One of the most beautiful sights in Malá Strana is St.Nicholas Church, with its distinctive dome. Built between 1704-1755, this church features beautiful stained glasses and frescoes. The main fresco is currently under restoration but the church is definitely worth a visit.

Petřín hill: Covered in parks, it is a nice place to relax. You can reach the top via a funicular railway or, as I did, you can walk up the hill using the various paths and stairs. The Petřín lookout tower at the top of the hill is a 63.5-metre-tall steel-framework tower built in 1891 and resembling the Eiffel tower. Initially used as an observation tower as well as a transmission tower, it is now a tourist attraction. You can easily climb its 299 steps to the top for a 360-degree view over Prague. Next to the tower don’t miss a visit to the Mirror Maze for a bit of entertainment: the mirror images can be quite funny!

At the base of Petřín hill is the Memorial to the victims of Communism, a group of seven bronze statues that commemorates the victims of the communist era 1948-1989.
A few minutes away is the so-called John Lennon wall: supposedly a tribute to John Lennon, this wall covered in colourful graffiti and writings mainly from fans has little artistic quality and there are much better graffiti elsewhere in Prague (and in many other cities). Worth checking out if you want to tick the box, but not much else.

You can then return to Staré Město crossing the Legion’s bridge (most Legií) for more views of Charles Bridge and the Castle from the distance.

 

Prague: Exploring the Old Town

If you don’t like crowds, you may want to visit the Old Town in Prague early in the morning. At any other time you may have to wade through the masses and even elbow your way out in the area by the astronomical clock.

But don’t let this put you off!
The Old Town (Staré Město in Czech) is beautiful and you will want to spend some time exploring it.

The Old Town Square, the centre of the Old Town, is surrounded by beautiful and colourful buildings. The towers of the Church of Mother of God before Týn (or Týn Church) dominate from every angle and are probably the most distinctive feature of the square. This Gothic church dating back to the 14th century is open to the public a few days a week but unfortunately I missed my opportunity to visit inside.

The Old Town Hall was established in 1338 as Prague’s oldest town hall.  Throughout the centuries it was extended to include several buildings, only five of which now remain. At present, the Old Town Hall is primarily used for ceremonies and state events held by the City of Prague. A curiosity: the Chapel of the Virgin Mary enables visitors to view the Prague’s astronomical clock’s inner workings.

The astronomical clock: after several months of major repairs, the 608-year old clock returned to its place in the Old Town Square the weekend I visited Prague! Here tourists gather in masses especially on the hour, when the four figures flanking the clock and the ones above the clock are set in motion.

Crowds gather by the clock on the hour

Franz Kafka’s landmarks: Franz Kafka (1883-1924), one of the major figures in the 20th-century literature, was born in Prague’s Old Town and lived there most of his life. So it is not surprising to see reminders of his life and work all around the city! Kafka’s birthplace is at náměstí Franze Kafky 3, just off the Old Town Square. The house has a small exhibition about the writer. The city’s official monument to Kafka is a sculpture located in the Jewish quarter and representing a large, headless man carrying a small man (Kafka) on his shoulders. If you want to track down more of this writer’s landmarks, read this article.

My favourite part was exploring the Old Town cobblestone streets, wandering down narrow alleys to see where they led and what was there. There are many colourful houses, small courtyards, quirky shops, arts stores, interesting sights everywhere.

Just north of the Old Town, across the river, lies Letná park. This large urban park on the hill is a great place for postcard views over Prague, especially at sunset. Come here to relax and enjoy the panorama at the end of your sightseeing day!

Prague, finally!

In my school years, Czechoslovakia was one single country.
Back in those days, the geography of Eastern Europe was quite different from what it is now, and mass tourism was largely unknown.

Fast forward 2-3 decades and the young countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia – born in 1993 from the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia – are now popular destinations for tourists of all ages. With Prague, the Czech capital, one of the most visited capital cities in Europe.

So why was Prague still missing from my travel CV?
“You have travelled so much, and you haven’t been to Prague?!” was the usual surprised comment from my friends.

So it was time to do something about it. As usual, a bit of a late decision, with flight and accommodation booked just over two  weeks before departure and no other planning done…but not much planning was actually required.

Follow me for more posts and photos of my trip to Prague!

Warsaw in two days: Day 2

My second day in Warsaw started with a visit to the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), the highest building in Poland (231m) and centre of several cultural activities. Teenagers on school trips crowded the ground floor while the majority of other tourists seemed to head straight towards the lift to the viewing terrace located on the 30th floor. From there, the view over the city and the growing number of high-rise buildings is an interesting way to witness the changing skyline of the Polish capital.

 Outside the building I stumbled across a stark reminder of the sad history of Warsaw and Poland: boundary lines mark the ground perimeter of what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all Jewish ghettos during World War II.

Boundary markers of the Warsaw Ghetto walls

Sudden memories of me aged 10 and reading a book about kids in the Warsaw Ghetto came back. I wanted to go and see what’s left today.

The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the Germans in 1940 and, split into a “large” and a “small” ghetto, locked 350,000 people identified as Jews behind its walls until May 1943. The harsh life conditions in the Ghetto and the day-to-day activities of its inhabitants were recorded in detail in the Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto by Emanuel Ringelblum.

Nowadays one of the best preserved fragments of the Ghetto wall remains at 55 Sienna Street, not far from PKiN. Other small memorials can be found around the same area.

After the Ghetto area, it was time to dig deeper into history so I headed to the Warsaw Rising Museum. Opened in 2004 and split over several levels, this largely interactive museum covers the chronology of the events of the 1944 Uprising. This was a resistance operation attempting at liberating Warsaw from the German occupation. But it didn’t end well: after 63 days the city capitulated and the German acts of destruction continued, with large parts of the city flattened to the ground.
Give yourself 2-3 hours to visit the museum and learn about the many aspects of the Uprising.

My last bit of sightseeing in Warsaw involved catching the metro to reach the Eastern side of the city and explore Praga. This working class district is now regarded as up-and-coming and is quite in contrast with the main tourist areas of Western Warsaw. Rundown estate blocks, flashy shopping centres, alternative nightlife, unusual museums, all characterise Praga.
Worth a longer visit next time.

Warsaw in two days: Day 1

 In the morning, I ventured out in the streets of Warsaw wearing multiple layers of clothing. I was determined not to let the freezing cold (temperatures around -7C!) stop my sense of adventure and interest in discovering a new destination.

Krakowskie Przedmieście is one of the most well-known streets of Warsaw, a wide avenue with large pedestrian areas and flanked by elegant palaces, churches and townhouses. As I reached it arriving from the east side of town, I saw the first of many Warsaw landmarks: the Copernicus monument that stands outside the Polish Academy of Sciences. Walking around the square I spotted a curious sign of contemporary times: QR codes labelled “take a selfie with Chopin” on a bench! It seems that there is a whole app on the relevant online app stores….

Next in the line of Krakowskie Przedmiescie’s monumental buildings as I enjoyed my stroll towards the Old Town (with a large cup of hot coffee to warm me up), were the church of Kościół Rzymskokatolicki Wizytek and the Presidential Palace, the largest palace in Warsaw.

Just before entering the old town, I made my way up to the viewing platform next to St. Anne’s church. This is a great spot for a view over the whole Old Town and its cobbled streets and houses in pastel colours.
Built during the 12th-13th centuries, the Old Town (or Stare Miasto) was destroyed by the German Army after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Subsequently rebuilt using most of the original material, it has been awarded UNESCO recognition and is now the most popular destination for tourists visiting the Polish capital.

The Old Town is worth spending a few hours just wandering around. Start from Castle Square and explore the labyrinth of cobbled streets, admire the houses with beautifully coloured and adorned facades, head to Market Square, stop by in one of the many arts and crafts stores to buy some traditional products. Cafes and restaurants abound too, and every now and then you may want to rest your legs (or warm up, if you go in winter!) and sample local food and drinks. I certainly did!

I couldn’t leave the Old Town without visiting the Royal Castle: one of the landmarks of Warsaw, this beautiful building has a long history as it was the residence of the Polish monarchs for several centuries. Almost completely destroyed during World War II, then painstakingly rebuilt, it  now serves as a museum and several rooms can be visited over a couple of hours.

A short walk from the Old Town was Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Not a happy place, quite oppressing at times, but something not to be missed if you want to better understand the sad history of Poland.

The Holocaust section felt claustrophobic compared to the rest of the museum: low ceilings, grey walls, narrow passages – the sense of anguish increases as you walk through. Pictures of Jews in concentration camps plastered the walls. Extracts from the Warsaw Ghetto Diaries featured everywhere.
Then World War II ends and the exhibition lightens up a bit. But the Holocaust can’t be forgotten.

More on this in my next post.

Setting foot on Polish land

When I was (much) younger, Poland to me meant a random combination of Holocaust, Pope John Paul II, Solidarność, and Zbigniew Boniek.
And Polish was that unpronounceable language with strange tails and slashes across letters, and an ‘l’ (technically, ł) sounding like the English ‘w’.

Over the years, it never felt these were good enough reasons to push the country to the top of my travel wishlist.
But things were about to change.

With a sport race scheduled in Warsaw on a winter Saturday evening, it was time to give this country a proper chance. And a long weekend in the Polish capital was added to my diary.

Cheap airline flight booked, bag packed, GBP turned into złoty (even though Poland is a member state of the European Union, it has its own currency) – Poland, you are about to become my country nr. 45!

Modlin airport in Warsaw – one of the two airports in the capital – is well served by public transport (bus and train) as well as taxis. Modlin Bus takes you to the city centre in just under an hour and for 35 złoty. From the stop at the Palace of Culture you can then reach your final destination on foot or by catching the city metro (two lines, M1 and M2) or another bus or a tram (info here).

I opted for the bus. Walking 2.5Km with my carry-on suitcase in a freezing -2C didn’t sound too appealing.
A couple of hours later I warmed myself up with my first taste of Polish traditional food: barszcz and pierogi! And I started drafting my itinerary on a map.

More to come on this trip :-)

An Amsterdam-to-London adventure

I hadn’t planned to catch a train from Amsterdam to London. I had my flight booked and an easy 45 minutes or so in the air already planned.
Yet the weather had a different plan…
And this is the story of how travel disruption turned from very stressful into a nice adventure :-)

Monday 11 December 2017. Snow, fog and strong wind cause the cancellation of 95% of flights out of Schiphol airport.

When at 5pm announcements were made that also my flight (initially scheduled for 2pm then delayed to 7pm) was no longer going, panic seeped in! I have to be back in London within 24 hours due to more travels planned, and there are no seats on other flights until Wednesday, I cried to the desk agent – how the heck am I going to make it?!
To add to the misery and mayhem, also all trains from Schiphol were cancelled due to bad weather conditions. The only way out of the airport was to catch a taxi. Welcome to a two-hour queue then :-(.

Based on the EU regulation Nr. 261/2004 on “compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, flight cancellations, or long delays of flights”, I was reassured that my airline would reimburse any additional expenses incurred (within set limits). So I went ahead with taxi and hotel booking in Amsterdam for the night.

And to get to London? Then train will have to be! Intercity from Amsterdam to Brussels then Eurostar from Brussels to London. It would take me most of the following day but at least there were seats. And a chance to get home!

It was sunny with blue skies in Amsterdam the following morning. I took a stroll around Amsterdam Centraal train station to enjoy the snow. But it was soon time to catch the train.

And here I am, on board of the Intercity train to Brussels. Slower but much cheaper than the Thalys, it felt like being back to the days when train journeys across Europe (good old InterRail!) were the norm. Slow travel. Stare out of the window. Enjoy the moment.

The scenery was lovely – snow covered the fields, the streets, the roofs of the houses. White everywhere, shining in the sunlight of a beautiful day with bright blue skies.

The train drove through Den Haag, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Roosendaal, Antwerp, Mechelen. And eventually reached Brussels, 3hrs and 20minutes later.

The Brussels-London stretch wasn’t as interesting. I slept most of the two hours on the Eurostar, it was dark outside and in the tunnel under the Channel. I had finally relaxed, knowing that I would make it home in time to unpack my bag, repack it for the tropics, and fly out again the following morning!

As for my claim for a refund, once I got home I immediately submitted it online, uploading all receipts for transport, accommodation and meals costs incurred as the result of the flight cancellation. (Update Jan 2018: in less than a month I received full reimbursement of all additional expenses!).

If your travel plans are ever disrupted in a similar way and you find yourself stuck, try and see the bright side to it as you can turn it into another adventure :-)

Utrecht: a winter wonderland

My last trip to Utrecht was about 20 years ago. It was summer, a hot summer.
This time I spent a day or so in a winter wonderland!

But it didn’t start as such. As I walked around in the morning, having arrived the previous afternoon, there was just a handful of flakes floating in the  air. While my friends were posting Facebook photos of London covered in snow, I was freezing but there were hardly any signs of an impending storm. Quite disappointing.

Fear not, must have been the thought of the gods of weather!
Two hours later I was in the middle of a snow storm, with the wind howling (think “Frozen”!) and an increasing amount of white on every surface! Soon Utrecht was looking like a town from a fairy tale.

When I felt too cold from the walking around, I entered the cathedral (Domkerk in Dutch) and I spent some time enjoying the Gothic architecture and the beautiful stained glass. Interesting fact is that most of this church collapsed in 1674 due to the force of a tornado and was never rebuilt. What remains today are the choir, the transept and the church tower.

The church tower (Dom Toren) is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. 112.5m, 465 steps. Guided tours from the nearby tourist office take you to the top in around one hour and for Euro 9. The tower is not the easiest thing to stair climb when it’s so cold and the steps are made slippery by snow and ice, and you soon find yourself praying that you won’t fall. Yet the view from the top is worth the effort and the risk!

I spent the rest of the afternoon with an old (and great) friend I hadn’t seen in almost two decades: shopping, sitting at a cafe’ drinking hot chocolate and eating cakes, chatting. Then I tried the traditional “oliebollen”, sort of deep fried dumplings with sultanas and covered in powdered sugar. Yummie!

The darkness in the evening made everything very atmospheric and pictoresque, and the last few photos were taken before I returned to my hostel.