Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Prague - A City of Spires and Surprises

A beautiful skyline
Chapel in St. Vitus Church
The Astronomical Clock

St. Nicholas Church in Old Town Square
The Vltava River
One of many statues on Charles Bridge

Milos and the John Lennon Wall
Interesting state at Kafka Museum
The Golden Land

Buddha Bar Restaurant
Cooking at the Alcron Radisson
Dinner with the Matvejs whom we met in 1986
Prague is a magical city but along with the outstanding architecture, artwork, and food there are little side stories that add interesting twists to the sites and make them more memorable.
1. The eyes have it: On the hour tourists gather in front of the 15th century Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square when the clock’s bells ring, the cock crows, and statues perform. One legend surrounding the clock relates that the Old Town councilors were so impressed with the amazing clock that they had the eyes of the master clockmaker burnt out with a hot poker so could never build another.
2. Hands off: Located near Old Town Square, St James Church, built in 1232, is one of the most beautiful Baroque churches in Prague and its great acoustics make it a wonderful venue for concerts of church music. Take note of the Virgin Mary statue on the main altar but don’t take it. It was believed to be miraculous and people donated gifts to the statue. A thief tried to steal the gifts. The statue grasped his hand and wouldn’t let go. He was found there in the morning. Nobody was able to disengage his hand, so it was cut off. Then the statue dropped the hand. The wizened, blackened hand is hanging near the entrance as a warning to would-be thieves.
3. Pet the dog: The 600-year spectacular Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltava River has 30 wonderful statues. The oldest stature is of John of Nepomuk, who was drowned in the Vltava River, at the behest of King Wenceslas because, as the confessor of the queen of Bohemia, he refused to divulge the secrets of the confessional. On the bottom portion of the statue is a bronze plaque of a knight and a dog. Rubbing the dog – the spot is shiny - is suppose to bring good luck and insure one’s return to Prague.
4. Defenestration: There is actually a word to describe throwing someone out of a window, usually reserved to refer to attempts at political assassinations. Several occurred in Hradcany, including the possible assassination of Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister in 1945. Hradcany, whose history stretches back to the 9th century, is often said to be the world’s biggest castle, which is 1870 feet in length, and includes many of Prague’s most impressive buildings and the Golden Way of little shop houses.
5. The Good King: Good King Wenceslas was actually a prince. He was the second Christian ruler of the Czech lands and is the country’s patron saint. Wenceslas was murdered by his brother over a thousand years ago. His statue of him astride a steed is located in front of the National Museum and looks down the long street that has been the scene of many parades and other historic events.
6. Relief: In front of the Kafka Museum, dedicated to Franz Kafka, one of Prague’s best known authors, is a statue that would most likely appeal to Kafka’s surrealist humor. Created by Czech artist and sculptor David Cerny, two bronze sculptures are relieving themselves into a pool of water in the shape of the Czech Republic. The stream of water they create writes a message sent from a mobile phone number.
7. Before numbers: Prague houses were not given numbers until 1770. Before that houses were identifies by emblems placed on the house. Most of the places bearing such symbols are in the older parts of the city. The House of the Black Madonna is today a museum of Cubism. Some, like The Three Fiddles, indicated the occupation of the owners. In many cases the reason for the design has been lost over the years.
8. Lennonism: Not Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet leader but John Lennon, one of the founding members of the Beatles. After Lennon was assassinated in 1980 a wall on a quiet side street near the Charles Bridge was filled with Lennon-inspired graffiti including comments that annoyed the communist regime. When the authorities painted over the wall the graffiti quickly reappeared. The ever-changing wall of drawings and sayings promote love and peace.
9. Mirror Maze: Atop Petrin Hill the Mirror Labyrinth looks like a fantasy castle and is only one of several interesting places to explore in the park above the city, which can be accessed by a funicular. Next to the maze of distorting mirrors is Petrin Tower, an observation tower modeled after the Eiffel Tower, along with a rose garden and the Hunger Wall, which Charles IV ordered to be built to feed the poor during a famine.
10. Metronome: High above the Vltava and visible from most places in the city center is a giant, functional metronome. It stands on the site where the world’s largest statue of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once stood. The 50-foot Stalin’s statue was destroyed in 1962. The 75-foot tall metronome designed by Vratislav Novak was erected in 1991 and offers a scenic view of the city and is a favorite area for skateboarders.

Prague is an entrancing city that can be enjoyed and explored time and time again. Other not-to-miss sites are The Loreto, the Old Jewish Cemetery, St. Agnes Convent, a boat ride on the Vltava, and National Gallery. For more information check www.CzechTourism.com.

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Croatia - The Mediterranean as it Once Was

The walled city of Dubrovnik
The city view while walking the wall at sunset
Street fair on the main street in Dubrovnik

View of the Radisson Blu near Dubrovnik from our room
View of the Radisson Blu near Dubrovnik from the ferry boat
Passing by Korcula on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Split

Le Meridien near Split
Sunset view from our Le Meridien room
Le Meridien cooking lesson - making Swiss Chard Pie

The main square on way to Diocletan Palace
Boat trip on the Cetina River in Omis
Ruins of Solin

Hiking in beautiful Plitvice National Park
The Regent Esplanade Hotel - once a stop on the Orient Express
Show in the city center
I am often asked, "What is your favorite place?" I usually reply, "Wherever I am." Which is true because every place has its special appeal. But, I was totally entranced by Dubrovnik, the walled city in Croatia. There is something magical about entering through Pile Gate remembering that at one time the drawbridge was raised every night, the gate closed, and the key given to the prince. From the gate the view of the city’s pedestrian promenade with the Bell Tower at the end is breathtaking.

Luckily, John and I had decided to spend a couple days within the city walls. Our home, Roka Apartment A3 was perfect with a small kitchen, private bath and a pretty rooftop patio. My husband and I set out to become reacquainted with Dubrovnik, which we had visited in the 80s when it was part of Yugoslavia. During the War of the Homeland in the 1990s the city took over a hundred direct hits but other than a map showing where the destruction occurred there is little evidence of the war. We were glad that we had decided to visit in October when the weather along the Croatian Riviera is glorious – blue skies and just the right amount of tourists.

I would awaken to the muted sounds of the city coming alive. First were the flocks of birds taking flight for the day, followed by clickety-clack of the hand-pulled delivery wagons, and then people chatting on their way to work. That was the signal that I needed to get out on the streets. I loved walking the streets in the early morning before the tourists arrived. I wandered through the morning market in the large square near Pucic Palace where the scent of lavender filled the air, had coffee at a café, bought freshly-made stuffed peppers from the deli for our dinner, and people-watched from the steps of St. Blaise Church, which was built in 1715 to replace an earlier one destroyed in an earthquake. Dubrovnik is a living museum – a city where people live, work, and play and have since the seventh century - that is what makes it so special.

Our leisurely three-hour stroll atop the impressive city walls that were built between the 13th and 16th century afforded us spectacular views. One day we took the shuttle boat from Dubrovnik to Lokrum Island and wandered through the botanical garden. There are plenty of things to do in Dubrovnik both within and outside the walls including visiting museums, attending concerts, taking boat trips to various islands, and plethora of sport activities from swimming to kayaking. On our last night I enjoyed a candlelit string quartet concert in the 16th century St. Saviour Church.

We also spend several nights outside the walls in the nearby newly opened Radisson Blu Resort. The full-service resort has three swimming pools, a marina, a beautiful spa, and offers shuttle service to the walled city. It was the perfect spot for John and I for some R&R, which is a necessity on long trips. The view from the balcony of our room of the Adriatic Sea and islands was mesermizing.

I told a local resident that, "I’d love to spend a month in Dubrovnik." He warned, "Watch out. My family came here on vacation in the 1970s and we are still here." Lucky them!

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Montenegro in September

View of Ulcinj from our room
The beach at Ulcinj
View from our room in Becici

Awesome pool at Queen of Montenegro
The inside of same pool
Learning to cook at the Queen

Dinner on the beach while watching the sunset
The historic part of Budva
Listening to the singers in Budva - they were making a commercial for Budva
In June 2007 the people of Montenegro voted to be independent from Serbia. It was considered a bold move. They are hoping tourism will lead to prosperity. Once Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia that has since divided into several countries.

From Albania John and I took a bus across the border to Ulcinj, a pretty town on the Adriatic Sea. It was one of easiest border crossings we have ever made. All they did was to make sure we were the same people pictured in our passport. The mountains of Montenegro become hills that end at the shore so there were a lot of steps from our hotel, Hotel Mediterran, to the beach and up to the walled city, but it also meant the views from our balcony were wonderful. The walled city is high on a cliff surrounded on three sides by water. We wandered the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, which was founded in the 5th and 4th century BC. Along the coast are a lot of little coves so the area was a favorite hideaway for pirates. At one time there were as many as 400 pirates in Ulcinj. From the 14th century to the 18th century pirates would attack ships on the Adriatic Sea, steal their cargo, and then sail off to their hideaways. It is hard to believe that this peaceful, pretty bay and walled city was once filled with dangerous pirates. A city has grown beyond the walls and today people enjoy the beach and strolling through the quiet walled city. While strolling along the beachside promenade a blue Bentley bearing a New York State license plate drove by. Interesting!

Another bus took us to Becici, also on the coast, where spent a couple days at the Queen of Montenegro Hotel enjoying the infinity pool with great views of the Adriatic. The food in this part of the world is excellent with plenty of fresh fish and vegetables. Chef Jovo Medin offered to show us how to cook some traditional recipes – muckalica and Njeguski steak. Our favorite dish was the muckalica, which is a delicious stew of meat and vegetables. A shuttle bus took us to Sveti Stefan, another walled city connected to the mainland by a causeway. It is the iconic image of Montenegro but someone has purchased the entire place and is turning it into a luxury resort so it was closed off. We continued on the shuttle to Budva, where there is another walled city. It was featured in the James Bond movie, Casino Royale. Budva was founded by Phoenicians about 6th century BC. The current walls were built in the 14th century. While we were walking down the narrow streets we heard singing. We followed the sound to a garden restaurant where we listened to a group of women in costumes singing traditional Montenegro songs. From our hotel we could walk down to the beach where we enjoyed strolling along the beachside walkway, dining at a waterside restaurant, and watching the sun set.

There are many lovely beaches along the Montenegro coast so the area is popular with tourists. Someone told us, "In the middle of the summer you can’t see the sand on the beach – just tanned bodies sunbathing." Many of the signs are written in the local language, English and Russian. Montenegro is a favorite vacation spot for Russians with many building luxurious summer homes along the coast.

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