A Travellerspoint blog

Throwback to Kutna Hora

Here’s a quick throwback from week one: our day trip to Kutna Hora, a small town about an hour East of Prague. Clearly there is so much happening in my semester abroad that blog posts are piling up and some just slip through. I also visited Kutna Hora with my parents while they were in town.

Kutna Hora was originally made famous by their silver mine. Silver shafts were discovered under the town in the 10th century. My dad and I, and later, my peers, dressed up in the traditional white cloaks and helmets, grabbed a lantern, and made our way down the stairs into the earth.

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My dad and I rocking the style

We were able to tour the first two layers of original tunnels but approximately 50 more below us were flooded years ago. We could hear a river rushing below our feet and walked past deep pools of crystal clear water. Originally, wooden posts were placed to ensure the safety of the tunnels. When the mine was active, small wooden ladders were the only way out of the mine. Miners would slide down wooden slides on their backs, the ride lasting about an hour to get to the deeper tunnels. We squeezed through thin and short tunnels, happy to have helmets. Finally we exited the mine across town.

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Inside the mine

My friends and I also wandered inside St Barbara’s cathedral. The gothic church was built in 1388. Its age blows my mind. I can’t fathom how people built this enormous church without electronic machinery, essentially just by hand. The cathedral was beautiful, with age-old paintings and statues.

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St Barbara's Cathedral from a distance

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Christina and I up close at St Barbara's

In the afternoon, we took a short bus ride to the outskirts of town to see the Sedlec Ossuary, a bone church. The church is small and intimate, built around 1400. However, the décor from 1870 was quite shocking. Real human bones from the mass graves of the Plague as well as bones that were dug up to make room for other bones decorated the walls, ceilings, and floors of the church. Bones are piled taller than me in each corner of the room, lit from the inside, with a golden crown placed on top signifying heaven. A chandelier made of every single bone in the human body hangs in the center, beautiful and eerie. It is said that between 40,000-70,000 skeletons are used to decorate the Church.

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Kutna Hora was a picturesque little town, though a little touristy due to the attractions and ease of access from Prague. However, the sheer manpower it took to build these attractions so long ago makes me think the town deserves a little tourism.

Posted by srussell912 03:26 Comments (0)

Hungry for More Hungary

Budapest

I’m still shocked I didn’t spend my weekend in Budapest consuming my body weight in marzipan. While the almond/sugar confection was certainly one highlight of my trip, the day and a half we spent there was so packed with activities and sight seeing that it’s certainly hard to choose the best part.

Christina and I took the night train from Prague to Budapest to meet our group around 8am on Saturday morning. We quickly changed and headed up to the Szechenyi bathhouse at the top of City Park in Buda.

(Note: Buda and Pest are the two halves of Budapest, similar to Minneapolis-Saint Paul)

The bathhouse was beautiful and featured multiple outdoor and indoor mineral baths. It is the largest medicinal bath in Europe, built in 1913. Each bath had a different quality and temperature, along with fountains and jets. There were also steam rooms, hot tubs, massages, and floating chessboards. We tried just about everything that didn’t cost extra money and by that time I was getting antsy to see more of the city.

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Ow ow!

After we changed, we headed to see Heroes’ Square and the striking Millennium Memorial commemorating Hungary’s thousandth year of history. The statues in the back of the square each represent the leader of the seven tribes that founded Hungary.

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Heroes Square

We then headed down Andrassy Avenue through a ‘go green’ festival featuring electric cars, new age bikes, and of course food. After tasting a ton of Hungarian pastries, we made our way to the House of Terror, an intimidating building that houses a museum and memorial to fascist and communist victims. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to tour it, but even the outside was eye-opening.

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House of Terror, looking up

A little ways down the road, we stepped into the State Opera House, built in 1875 and adorned with sculptures of famous Hungarian composers. Inside, giant staircases wrapped around columns reaching up to painted ceilings laced with gold. It was breathtaking.

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I would love to perform here

We finally made our way down to the River Danube and across the Chain Bridge to the castle district. We hiked our way up to the 13th century Buda Castle and found a chocolate – that’s right – chocolate festival. Inside the castle gates there were hundreds of stands selling chocolate everything, marzipan, cookies, ice cream, and wine. We scoped out every stand that had free samples and went back for seconds. It was a dream come true. We then walked in Old Town passing the enormous white, gothic Matthias Church and taking in the view at the Fisherman’s Bastille.

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Looking back on Chain Bridge and River Danube

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Fisherman's Bastille

On the way back to the hostel, we stopped for dinner at a small pub covered from floor to ceiling with little notes that people had tacked over the years. There were layers and layers, and of course we added our own after eating some traditional goulash soup and Hungarian beer.

Back at the hostel Molly, Mason and I decided to hang out on the rooftop bar before heading out for the night. There we met a German, two Israeli’s, an Irish couple, an Australian, two Brits and two Swedes. The Swedes had guitars and played popular songs that everyone knew, like ‘Save Tonight’ and ‘Wonderwall’. We all got to know each other over beer and pretzels, singing and chatting about our various abroad experiences. Even though it wasn’t a uniquely Hungarian experience, it was certainly the most fun part of the trip. It was a throwback to camp, where you don’t really know anyone but you all bond over a guitar.

A few hours later we went to Szimpla Kert, the original ruin bar of Budapest. Ruin bars are housed in bombed out or abandoned buildings. A couple wooden frames stand holding up what can only be the entire building. Lights are wrapped around beams or hang from wires criss-crossing the open ceiling. Flags and plants hang in corners. It has a very urban-hippie-chic feel and a ton of young international travelers who just want to sit and meet their peers. It was an absolute blast.

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Bad pic due to the dark and smoke, but you get the jist

The next morning Christina, Molly and I woke up early to go cram in some more sights before our 4pm train. We headed to the Jewish Quarter and I toured the Dohany Street Synagogue, or Great Synagogue. It was built in 1854 and is now the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world. It was beautiful and detailed and had two floors. It felt odd to me though. I’m used to the majority of synagogues I’ve seen being small, intimate, and simple. The size and detail reminded me more of a church. However, as I walked along a hallway next to the cemetery and out to the courtyard, I was put in my place with the multitude of Holocaust memorials. Boxes with names of victims were stuffed with stones and candles. A rabbi’s name is engraved in the ground surrounded by a giant circle of stones. A large silver willow tree stands in the middle, each leaf carrying the name of a victim. It was one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking sights I have ever seen.

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Outside the Great Synagouge

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Holocaust memorial tree

Next, we headed over to Parliament where we wandered the grounds looking at mystery statues described only in Hungarian. The Parliament building is huge and sits on the river and lights up with a glow at night. We went from there to attempt to find the Shoes on the Danube Promenade Holocaust memorial. The memorial is on the bank of the river, with bronze sculptures of men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes. The shoes commemorate the Jews who were ordered to take off their shoes, and then shot into the river.

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Parliament from the Castle District. Only way to fit it in one shot.

After spending about an hour searching, we ended up finding only a local café with chocolate baklava and decided to take a break. It was delicious. Near there, we found a woman who spoke English and pointed us in the right direction. We ran into Hunter and finally found the memorial. Inside each shoe were candles and stones. It was very pretty in an eerie way.

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Shoe Memorial

Running out of time, we grabbed dinner (young rooster, calf’s cheek, goulash soup, and some mystery fish) and headed straight to the train station and boarded, crammed into a tiny compartment without lights, but lucky to get seats. The aisle on the train was packed so full of people and suitcases you could not even go to the bathroom. We made friends with two Slovak women and a Czech man and ended up drinking with them for the duration of the ride back to Prague.

I did everything I set out to do in Budapest, but since I was only there for a day and a half, I would love to go back and really relax and enjoy the city. And of course, I would eat more marzipan!

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This is all Marzipan. I wanted to eat everything.

Posted by srussell912 00:29 Comments (1)

L'Shana Tovah from Prague

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is one of the holiest days in Judaism next to Yom Kippur, which is next week. Two friends and I went to evening services in the Jewish Community Center synagogue in the center of the Jewish Quarter. It was a small service in English and Hebrew led by the Rabbi who teaches Judaism classes at my program. There were students as well as adults in attendance. The room was small but ornate, with a high ceiling and gold decorated archways leading down to a beautiful, delicate ark.

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JCC Synagogue

The service was exactly like home. Wherever you go in the world, you can count on Jewish services to be similar, if not the same. While the tunes of prayers may be slightly altered, every word is Hebrew and recognizable to someone who has been High Holiday services before. It was the first time I wasn’t slightly confused about the language or where I was, or if I was acting in accordance with the culture around me. It was home.

One part of the service, Tashlikh, was quite different from home. At this part, each member goes to a flowing body of water and throws bread crumbs into the water. This represents “casting away your sins to the depths of the sea”. We threw our bread into the Vltava, the river running through Prague. It was, in the simplest of terms, epic.

Before the program, my parents and I did a tour of the Jewish Quarter. There are many synagogues, most of which have been turned into different museums depicting eras of Jewish life in Prague. The most astounding and jaw dropping was the Pinkas Synagogue. Every wall is covered by tiny writing which looks like some form of modern art. However, when you look closely, you see thousands of names belonging to Czech Holocaust victims. The names of extinct towns are scattered throughout the names. I was in awe walking through the hallways.

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Names in black, last names and towns in red

The most beautiful is the Spanish synagogue. It was incredibly ornate and detailed with gold and multi colored walls, columns, and windows. The lamp was even in the shape of a Star of David. It was beautiful, but compared to the simplicity of most synagogues in the world, it seemed somewhat out of place.

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Spanish Synagoge

The oldest synagogue is the Old-New Synagogue, from 1270. Services are still held during Shabbat and holidays. It is said that the body of the legendary Golem of Prague is in the attic of this synagogue. The Golem was supposedly created by Rabbi Loeb in the late 16th century. It is said the Rabbi used Kabbalah to create a creature out of clay that would protect the Prague Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. However, as the creature grew, he turned violent and killed at will. Rabbi Loeb destroyed the Golem, but spared its body if it was needed again.

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Old-New Synagogue

I may not be that religious, but I certainly love being Jewish. I can find a Jewish home almost anywhere in the world and feel comfortable and welcome.

Posted by srussell912 14:06 Comments (0)

Hiking through the Bohemian Paradise

And Stumbling Upon a Wine Festival

Český ráj, literally translated to Bohemian Paradise, is a protected area about 2 hours north of Prague by train. A group of Americans, Czechs, and one Slovak hiked around 7 miles into the woods, across fields, and through tiny towns to reach the ruins of the Frýdštejn Castle.

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Standing on the edge of a cliff

The hike was beautiful. We were in the foothills of the mountains that border the Czech Republic, a rocky terrain with farmland splotched between forests and cliffs. To get to the start of the trail, we hiked up a steep road which seemed endless. However, my energy was renewed when about halfway up, we saw a local farmer on the road. I will always regret not taking a picture with him. Why was this Czech farmer so special?

HE WAS WEARING A WASHINGTON CAPITALS OVECHKIN SHIRSEY!!!

I did a triple-take before yelling ‘go Ovechkin’ and having a wonderful hockey moment with him.

Back to the hike. While most of the trail was in the forest, we took a couple detours to step out on the edge of the rock cliffs to look at the view. In the distance on another hill, there looked to be two smokestacks. It was in fact, the ruins of another giant castle. We took the opportunity to free climb up what can only be referred to as the Czech Pride Rock. We wandered past an archway and stone obelisk that could have come from the set of Pan’s Labrynth. We also made it to what is thought to be the site of the first Czech settlement. Carved in the rock is the name Jan Hus, one of the most famous Czech historical figures.

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Archway

We finally made it to Frýdštejn castle, constructed sometime in the 14th century atop a giant rock. Not much is known about the castle, but it is preserved quite well. We were able to explore the different levels of rooms, and climb to the top of the tower to look across the valley. Afterwards, we went to a small town and had the best of local Czech food and drink, stuffing ourselves with extra fruit dumplings of course. It was wonderful to get out of the city for a day and see a completely different part of the country.

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Frýdštejn Castle

Backing up a little, here’s a blurb about a wine festival we ran into earlier this week!

For about a month at the end of summer, vineyards around the Czech Republic produce ‘young wine’, a type of wine that has not fermented yet. It tastes just like juice and has about as much alcohol as beer. It comes in sketchy green plastic two liter bottles and you have to drink it all on the spot because it can go bad in a matter of hours. It was absolutely delicious.

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Young Wine Festival

Posted by srussell912 13:49 Comments (0)

Fruit and Fashion

  • **A quick note about current events - Recently there have been a number of deaths and hospitalizations due to poison in home made or re-sold hard alcohol. Everyone I know is totally fine. The Czech Republic is on prohibition right now for any alcohol over 20%, which is basically everything that isn't wine or beer. No one is allowed to buy hard alcohol in stores, bars, clubs, anywhere. However, I don't think the prohibition is bothering the locals. If it was beer though, there would be a full uprising.

Last Thursday I took a break from the hectic world of Intensive Czech and went to one of the Czech buddies apartments to learn how to make a traditional Czech dish – Fruit Dumplings. I didn’t eat for the rest of the day.

Dumplings are probably the most popular traditional Czech food. One kind just looks like sliced white bread but is doughy and delicious. The other kind are balls of dough stuffed with anything: potatoes, meat, or fruit. You would think the fruit dumplings would be considered a dessert, but these are in fact a main meal. And rightly so, because even three small dumplings are enough to fill a stomach for hours.

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Making Fruit Dumplings

We made ours with strawberries and plums. The dough is made from butter, flour, an egg, and soft curd (the solid part of cottage cheese). The dough is molded around the fruit and boiled for ten minutes. As a final touch, chocolate powder, sour cream, and a mix of shredded hard curd and powdered sugar is sprinkled on top. These dumplings are to die for.

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Finished Product

Friday I went with our program to tour Prague Castle and see the changing of the guard.

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Molly and I just outside the castle walls

In the square before the entrance to the castle, a giant white tent was set up with red carpets and nice Mercedes lined up in front. It turns out the tent is a runway – Prague Fashion Weekend had started that day.

In any other city I wouldn’t dream of even being able to sit second row at a major fashion show, let alone walk right in and immediately be able to afford a ticket. For a measly $12, three friends and I watched as Czecho-Slovak models swaggered down the runway in clothes that could pay for my college tuition. The atmosphere was incredible, everyone in the audience was dressed their best and photographers snapped pictures constantly. I’m not enthralled by fashion at all, but this was definitely one of the cooler things I’ve witnessed.

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We're models too!

On the way home, we stopped into the Wallenstein Gardens, in the back of the Wallenstein Palace which houses the Czech Senate. There happened to be a concert going on, complete with free food. The gardens are beautifully manicured and lush, with ponds, fountains, and sculptures in between the rows of trees and gardens. Peacocks roam free, harassed by tourists. There is a camouflaged cage in the back of the garden that houses several snoozing great owls. Further back, there is a grey wall that looks like the inside of a cave. However, if you look closely you can see human faces and animals sculpted into the wall. It is stark against the green of the garden, but makes the atmosphere uniquely Czech. A perfect end to a wonderful day.

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The gardens and the Senate palace

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Part of the wall

Posted by srussell912 13:32 Comments (0)

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