Saturday, June 19, 2004

Photo--Me at Chojnik Castle

Wrocław, Poland--Jelenia Góra, Poland—Day 140

Today Sarah and I decided to head away from Wrocław and go to Jelenia Góra—a small town about two hours from Wrocław, near the border of the Czech Republic. We woke up and packed up our things, then headed over to the bus station via taxi. We bought our tickets to Jelenia Góra (or so we thought) and waited on the right platform for our bus to pull up. We were really impressed with ourselves for taking on the Polish bus system with such ease and finesse.

The bus ride was going just fine, despite my seat reclining and straightening back into its upright position whenever it felt like it. We thought we were in the clear until a ticket man boarded the bus and asked to see our tickets. So we got out our tickets and waited for him to come and check ours. When he did, he started pointing and talking to us. We didn’t understand of course, so all we could offer him were shakings of the head and blank looks. He kept talking and pointing and we didn’t know what to do. It was obvious that something wasn’t right. He finally gave up on us and kept checking the rest of the tickets.

Finally he came back to us and beckoned us to the front of the bus. Neither he nor the bus driver spoke English. They kept pointing to our tickets and saying something, and we couldn’t do anything. We didn’t know what they were saying. Finally the ticket man asks for my identification (this I could understand) so I get out my American passport. He takes one look at it, hands it back to me, and dismisses us.

Feeling a little shaken, we found new seats and sat down. We then realized that the ticket lady at the bus station had given us the wrong tickets. She had thought that we were going to an entirely different place but on the same route as Jelenia Góra and had given us tickets only halfway. When the ticket man saw that we were foreigners, he just let us go.

Thank goodness because he could have just dropped us then and there off in the middle of god knows where.

We made it into Jelenia Góra and went to get a taxi to the center (“Centrum” as they say here) and the taxi driver pointed to us across the street, telling us that it was just 200 meters away. So we walked with all of our stuff on the cobble stone streets and found the center. I went to look for a hotel while Sarah waited and soon thereafter we were booked in for the night in a cute little hotel with lime green walls and had checked in our bags.

We got lunch and then decided to take a bus to Chojnik Castle, which are ruins of a medieval castle overlooking onto Jelenia Góra below. We wanted to take the bus but had limited time so we took a taxi instead to the bottom of the hill. The taxi driver pointed enthusiastically at the path and we figured out that we had to hike up to the top of the mountain where the Castle was. No sweat, right?

Well, it wasn’t that easy even though we opted for the easier route on the way up. There was a lot of huffing and puffing that went on while we struggled to the top about forty-five minutes later, but once we made it up to the top it was worth it. The castle itself was just amazing, not only for its location and preserved ruins, but because at the base of the castle there was this group of people having this huge sing-a-long to Czech pop music. Very strange, yet very entertaining.

We walked around the castle grounds and up to the top of the tower which had amazing views over Poland and the Czech Republic. It was just awesome and unreal. We spent a while taking pictures and when our legs were ready, made the steep climb back down the mountain. At the bottom we made a well-deserved ice cream break and walked back into town, trying to find a bus stop to take us back to Jelenia Góra. We managed to flag down a taxi heading in the direction that we needed and got the taxi back to the center of Jelenia Góra where we found some dinner and walked back to our hotel. We then were able to make reservations at the train station for our trip to Gdańsk for tomorrow (an 11 hour train ride!) and using our unbeatable phrase book, we reserved two sleeper beds for the ride up. Tired and exhausted, we walked back to our cute little hotel to crash for the night.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Wrocław, Poland—Day 139

Today we went to the Wrocław Zoo. It is located just outside of the center of Wrocław so we took a taxi there from the hotel. We bought our tickets and headed in, straight for the hippos. We found them without a problem and walked up to the enclosure. The only problem was that there was only one, poor, sick looking hippo lying down in mud in the right portion of the divided enclosure. This poor hippo honestly looked so sad and sick that we thought it must be old and dying. There was way around it.

Soon a large truck filled with more hay than I have ever seen in my life pulled up and several Polish zookeepers hopped out and started shoveling the hay onto the ground. That’s when we spotted two more hippos on the left side of the divided enclosure. They had been hiding in the water all along.

We thought this would be the perfect time to ask the keepers what the hippos’ names were and if that one hippo was sick. Armed with our trusty polish phrasebook we attempted. The keepers were confused but we persisted with asking about them and they told us that the hippo on the right was not sick, no, not at all, and we managed to get the names of the three of them.

We then had to wait for the hippos to be fed but it was apparent that it wasn’t going to be soon. The keepers had other things on their minds like smoking and eating their own lunch. So we waited outside and that is when Sarah spotted a cat. Now Sarah has this thing for cats and is really unlike anything you’ve ever seen—she has to start talking to any cat that she sees and ask, where is your mother? Don’t ask.

So she sees this cat and I cannot explain to you how funny it was when the cat bolted into the hippos’ enclosure. I mean, it like ran into it and both of us stood there shocked. Sarah was horrified. Wouldn’t’ the hippo eat the cat?? Good god. But the cat had something in its mouth and the hippos took absolutely no notice of it darting past them. They were more interested in the large piles of hay.

We then discovered (as Sarah followed the cat) that there was in fact an inside area for the hippos. That’s when we found Tobi, the hippo that was confined to an indoor enclosure. Saying that it was an enclosure is giving it more credit than it deserves—it was more like a cage. It was awful and poor Tobi had no room to really move around. On top of that, people kept coming up and spitting at poor Tobi and there was no one to stop them from doing so except for us who gave them dirty looks. If only we could have told them off in Polish.

We found out Tobi’s name from the zookeeper and took pictures of him, however it was difficult with him being inside and in such a damp and dark place. We then went back outside and took pictures of Knabbel (the “sick” hippo who suddenly became active) and Sarah impressed herself when I showed her a little hippo trick that I’ve learned. If you clap your hands out in front of you up and down (sort of like a mouth opening and closing) some hippos will open their mouths. Tobi did just that and Sarah was pleased with her amazing hippo training skills.

We then took pictures of Samba and Rumba II (not be confused with Rumba or Rumba I) and one of the Polish zookeepers rode by on his bicycle shouting out at us “Mother! Son!” to us (in Polish) as he whizzed by. It didn’t take long for us to realize what he was saying in English and it helped us fully understand their names.

Afterwards we headed back out of the zoo and walked back into town via the University. We found the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and climbed up the spiral staircase up to the top of the cathedral to see the view over Wrocław. Afterwards we walked around for quite a while getting seriously lost amidst all of the rivers and bridges in Wrocław, finally asking a man how to get to the center. We finally did and after having lunch at a Polish cafeteria for about 50 cents, it began to rain. We dodged the rain by visiting a shopping center and then catching a taxi back to our hotel. We then walked around the old main square near our hotel (the rain had stopped at this point) and we sat outside drinking beer with a shot of raspberry in it (“sok do piwo”) and then having dinner while watching quite the scene going on outside with some street performers and the police. After getting ice cream, we ended the night with a little taste of American cinema by seeing a movie before we made it back to our hotel.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Prague, Czech Republic--Wrocław, Poland—Day 138

Today we woke up and spent the morning in search of a post office. One would think that hey, there would be a post office somewhere near our hotel, or perhaps even where the hotel desk people pointed one out, but noooo. That would be too easy. Instead Sarah and I walked around this part of Prague near our hotel for a good few hours trying to track down the seemingly invisible post office.

We finally, finally, finally found it, which in itself was quite a miracle, especially when everyone is telling you to go in different directions. We got into the post office and had quite a few things to mail back to the States. Sounded easy enough.

Well we walked up to the desk and I asked if the man working spoke English. He did not, but the man standing near him did and he told us that in order for us to get a box to ship our things home, we would have to go into the other room of the post office.

So we did, and couldn’t for the life of us see this shelf that he said there would be boxes. After much confusion, we were finally pointed to a tiny closet like door that we were supposed to push a button. Never mind that huge sign on the door that probably said “BOXES IN HERE.” We pushed the buzzer and were let in to a small room. We had to order our boxes from this woman, which was done purely through hand gestures. She got the point and made four for us and was frustrated when we decided on just getting two. We paid her our money and we wondered how on earth these huge boxes were going to fit through the tiny window.

At our feet there was a small steel door and she told us to open it. There were our boxes.

Phew. We packed in our things and went back to the English speaking man, but he wasn’t there. Instead the first man was. We tried to have him help us but then he got up and left. Okay…Then the English speaking man came back and popped his head out of a little window next to Sarah. What is the problem? He asks us. Umm, there is no problem, we say. But I am here to help you? He says. Yes, um, we know, we say. So what can I do for you? He says. Well, isn’t it obvious? We’re standing there holding our packages with Sarah’s already on the scale and he’s asking us what we want to do here?

Finally he came around to where the first man had been sitting and took over the job. Sarah’s package price added up to be 666, which this man thought was quite funny. Ohhh, the devil’s numbers hahaha, he said and it took us a second to understand what on earth he was talking about. Oh yes, hahaha.

Finally the post office fiasco was over. Three hours later. We did have some slight deterrents—going to a park and to a nearby shopping center, but basically we spent most of the time in search of the silly post office which actually turned out to be quite close to the park that we originally ate our breakfast in. Of course.

We just had enough time to get something to eat, or so we thought. We sat down at a pizza place and then realized that our time was more limited. So we decided to leave and walked back to the hotel. We got our things and a taxi and were dropped off at the second train station in town. We boarded our train to Wrocław, Poland (pronounced “Vrots-wahv” of course) and sat down in a train compartment. At first there weren’t many people in our compartment but then two older men showed up and were squeezed four people on one side and three on another, which was pretty full. The train ride itself was fine, but very long. It took us about 7 hours to get to Wrocław and the ride was terribly hot. Luckily the other people got off sooner that we did so we eventually had our own train compartment to ourselves. However we were a little nervous when it seemed like we had the entire TRAIN to ourselves. We got to the Polish border and there were lots of Polish men in uniforms, but no one else around.

Ummm, ok. Where did all of the people go? I walked around the train and found two other girls like us sitting in another compartment, so hopefully we weren’t in the wrong place. A scary yet important looking man in uniform came into our compartment and took our passports. We felt so small next to him and he started writing things down from our passports. Sarah’s passport hasn’t been to quite as many places as mine, so it was easy for him to stamp it and hand it back to her. Mine, on the other hand, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack at this point—there is hardly any room to stamp anything. There was no way I was going to be able to withstand an interrogation as to my reasons for being in Poland, especially with a man who only spoke Polish. I mean, how do you say, “I photograph hippos” in Polish? I hadn’t gotten there yet.

Luckily he wrote some things down from our passports and handed them back. Phew. We were I the clear. That wasn’t the case for some other person who was escorted off of the train. Luckily we were on our way to Wrocław and finally pulled in late at night. We got a taxi to our hotel and found that a rock concert was going on in the main lobby area. No joke. It was 11 o’clock at night, we were starving and more than disheveled and we walked straight into a black-tie, rock concert.

We checked in and collapsed when we got to the room. We couldn’t believe what a day we had and were excited to get a good night’s sleep for the zoo tomorrow.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Photo--Karlsteijn Castle, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic—Day 137

Today we decided to go on a day trip to Karlstejn Castle, which was built by Charles IV in the 14th C and was the storehouse for the crown jewels and holy relics for the Holy Roman Empire. We took a train from the Prague train station and got off, along with all of the other tourists, and had to walk quite a ways to get from the train station to the town. But first we had to ask for the help of a couple who were also visiting the castle with their young daughter. We needed a pen knife because I, being ever so clever, managed to not only lock Sarah’s backpack together, but managed to change the combination in process, so her bag containing my camera and wallet, was locked together. Perfect for keeping others out, but not for letting me in.

So luckily they had one and we were able to cut the ties to the backpack and open it up again. Wouldn’t that just be my luck?

We walked up this cute little (touristy) street up to the castle. It was quite the walk and was warming up. Sarah stopped to get her photo taken holding an owl while I laughed at snapped away on her camera. We made it up to the top to the castle entrance and had to wait while the employees had their lunch break. Only in the Czech Republic.

At 12:50pm, the ticket booth opened and we bought our tickets for our English tour. We waited with a large group of people, including some very annoying Canadian girls, and finally were let in. The tour was very informative and interesting. The castle itself is very stunning and set upon a beautiful hill overlooking a valley, surrounded by a forest. Not a bad place to rule over the empire, eh?

After the tour we walked down a little mountain trail near the castle into the forest, not really knowing where we were going. We got down to the bottom and were stopped by a group of school children some of which were dressed in medieval costumes. We had to pass by them to get across this bridge and several of them stopped in our way and said some things to us in Czech, probably pretending to actually be the guards of the bridge. Whatever they said, the others laughed and we just kept walking. Sarah’s keen sense of direction led us the wrong way but we ended up finding a cute pub for lunch.

Luckily my sense of direction took us back in the direction that we needed and after lunch we walked back to the town where we perused the shops for a bit and then walked back to the train station to get a train back to Prague.

It was quite a fuss determining which platform to stand on to go back to Prague. Not for us, but for all of the other tourists around us, including those dang Canadian girls. We knew that we were in the rights spot but for the sake of it, Sarah went to go check. But we were right and soon thereafter a train pulled up to take us back to Prague.

We got back to Prague and took a subway train back to the Old Town center where we had just about an hour to walk through the Old Jewish Quarter and see the stunning Jewish Cemetery and synagogues. It was amazing. Afterwards we walked around a bit more and had dinner at a great place called Klub Architeck which was in an old, 12th C underground wine cellar.

Dinner was great and afterwards we thought we would continue the festivities of our last night in Prague by going out on the town. We ended up at this local bar with a very sketchy man sitting next to us and waaaaay too much beer for us to handle, or to drink quickly and then leave. Lesson learned: when the bartender asks if you want a “big” beer or a “small” beer, you should always, always go for the small. The big ones that we ordered turned out to be one full liter of beer, which is quite a bit when you are trying to make a quick exit.

We finally made our escape (we drew the line when sketchy man reached over and literally POKED me) and made it back to our hotel, safe and sound. Oh Prague.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Photo--Wallenstein Garden, Prague

Photo--Charles Bridge, Prague

Photo---Astronomical Clock, Prague

Prague, Czech Republic--Day 136

Today we woke up and got a taxi over to the Prague Zoo (or Zoo Praha as they say here). We got a map to where the hippos were and headed over. Well, once we arrived we found that the hippos were not where they were supposed to be. There was this really huge elevated viewing area which overlooked the elephant and hippo enclosures, which I found to be quite impressive. What wasn't impressive was that there were no hippos to be found.


So we decided to head into what the map said was a mammal house, and see what we could find. So we walked over to the big concrete building and up a few stairs which we saw to overlook the hippo enclosure from another angle. Peering over the edge didn't produce the hippos. Great. Where on earth could they be? We looked inside and saw what we thought could be a hippo enclosure on the inside--a big concrete room with hay and grass laid out. So we decided that we were going to try and get into that room. What we found instead was this little room with reptiles and snakes, but not hippos! Where on earth could they stash them?

Walking back outside past the elephants, we were just about to find a keeper when we looked inside the building next to us and spotted the hippos! YAY! Now the question was, how were we going to get into THAT room? Luckily we found some steps and walked down into them and lo and behold, we found them.

Two of them, in fact, and they were swimming in circles and being quite feisty considering the teeny tiny area that they were in. Obviously something was up--perhaps feeding time? Why were they inside? Do they come in at night or something? But at this point it was 10 am, so why were the hippos still inside?

Luckily to our benefit a keeper showed up and opened up a door and released the hippos. Not out to us, of course, but into a back hallway that led somewhere. But where? The hippos were gone and we had to find them. They didn't go next door to the big concrete room with the hay (which we found out later was for the elephants) but must have gone outside. So we literally ran to where they should have been all along and finally, they were there.

The two of them were quite a sight because they were eating their food for the longest time. I snapped away on my camera and a man walked up to us with this huge book and showed us his own pictures of the two, (the book contained practically every animal in the zoo it seemed) and pointed out the names of the two--Maruska and Slavek. He seemed equally excited about seeing them as we did, and boy was I thankful for his help. I still hadn't figured out how to ask what a hippo's name was in Czech...

Feeling obliged to sort of talk with this man, he wanted to show me the elephants next door and tell me their names. So I wandered off to the other side of the viewing area to see this elephant (I'll be honest here, I didn't really care to see them) and for that few seconds I was gone the hippos did the most amazing thing.

And I missed it.

apparently while I turned my back not only did the hippos DIVE into the water but they started to RUN and jump in the water and CHASE each other around the pen. Honestly. It was like a hippo marathon or something, or a great game of tag. Sarah started shrieking with shock and I raced over to catch a glimpse of the action, but by the time I raced back they had settled down again and were munching on their hay. The elephant man watched to see if I would return to him, but when I didn't he wandered off to see the elephants on his own.

Dang. That was something that would have been great video footage if I had a video camera. Running hippos? Hadn't seen that before, and I guess I will have to wait to see it myself in the future.

After perusing the gift shop and parts of the zoo (which by the way was completely flooded two summers ago and all of the animals had to be evacuated--well, except for Slavek who apparently had quite a fun time swimming over to the elephants and playing in the mud). You really could not tell how much damage had been done to the zoo because now the only reminders of the flood are picture boards showing the damage.

After this we walked next door to Troja, which is an old mansion that again is now and art gallery. It was funny because we had to wear these HUGE funny slippers so that we didn't scratch the floors with our shoes. But it seemed like our slippers had no elastic to hold them on to our feet (it seemed like everyone else's had it except for of course, our two pairs) and so walking around the museum was more like a shuffle.

Troja was impressive (and also affected by the floods but you again wouldn't be able to tell now) and afterwards we hopped on a bus (keeping our fingers crossed that we got the correct tickets) and despite getting off one stop too early, made it to the subway station where we took a train to the center of Prague.

We then spent the afternoon getting lunch and walking around a lot of Prague. We saw both the Old and New Towns, as well as the Prague Castle which was very impressive, even though we had quite a hike to the top of the hill to see it. We toured the castle and its grounds, saw where Kafka lived, and then walked back down into town, across the famous Charles Bridge, and back into Old Town where we found this crazy park called the Wallenstein Garden which has the most bizarre wall I have ever seen. Those who have been to Prague know what I am talking about!!

Afterwards we walked and found dinner at a recommended restaurant from a friend from Arizona, and then made it back to our hotel. What a day! We walked basically all around Prague and managed to make it back to our hotel in one piece. Tomorrow we're off to a nearby castle and then onwards to Wroclaw, Poland.

Photo--Sarah R. and the Porcelain Cow, Prague

Monday, June 14, 2004

Vienna, Austria-->Prague, Czech Republic--Day 135

Today Sarah and I headed to Prague. While Kathryn was at class, Sarah and I packed up our things and got ready to leave. Kathryn came back bearing treats for breakfast and we sat in her cute kitchen having our last breakfast in Vienna (sniff sniff). Afterwards we all walked to the grocery store and then on to the post office to mail a few things back to the USA. We then walked over to a park close to Kathryn's apartment to pass the time. In the park were these HUGE concrete towers that were built in WWII for keeping watch over the skies and now cannot be destroyed because the amount of explosives needed to knock them down would destroy the surrounding neighborhoods! We then walked to Kathryn's apartment and got our things together, then went over to the train station via the subway. Good thing I had these girls to help me with my stuff!

Kathryn showed us the ropes of European train travel and we were quite excited about it. She pointed out how for us NOT to get lost on the trains, or get left behind, and how to tell which car to sit in. Phew! Pretty soon we were off to Prague, saying goodbye to Kathryn in the meantime. Right after we got our tickets checked (for the first of the upteenth time) we realized that we were in fact sitting in the wrong car and had to move up to the front, along with several other confused travelers. We moved five cars up and it was quite a funny fiasco because not only was it hard to pull our bags through the train but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to open the doors to the next train cars. I kept pulling, when really I needed to pry them apart. This meant that the door between the cars kept opening and closing on me and I was stuck between the cars multiple times. It was funny, but also a bit of a panic. Finally I realized that I needed to PRY them apart and we were set. We found a good place to sit and 4 hours later we were pulling into Prague.

We got a taxi and checked into the hotel. The rest of the night was spent walking around a bit of Prague and getting dinner at a local restaurant. We were impressed with ourselves not only for our amazing sense of direction, but ability to get dinner despite our complete lack of language. Little did we know that this was just the beginning of what would be a long struggle of trying to communicate based on gestures...

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Photo--Vienna Skyline

Photo--Karlskirche (St. Charles Church), Vienna

Photo--Schonbrunn in Vienna

Photo--Kathryn, Me and Sarah on Austrian Hippos...

Photo--Photographing Ali the hippo at Tiergarten Schoenbrunn (Vienna Zoo)

Vienna, Austria--Day 134

Today we woke up and headed over to the Belvedere, which is a museum (it used to be an old 18th C mansion) and spent a few hours here wandering around the surrounding botanical gardens and looking at the Klimt paintings ("The Kiss" is housed here) and the other paintings in the gallery. One interesting note was that someone had painted a picture of Vienna's skyline from the view of the Belvedere and now, according to Austrian law, Vienna's skyline cannot be altered from the painting! This means no skyscrapers within the city limits. Its just amazing because Vienna has been preserved from modern alterations.

Afterwards we walked back into the heart of Vienna and spent the afternoon wandering around and seeing the sights, including the Stephansdom, (the St. Stephan's Cathedral) which we climbed up to the very stop (343 stairs!) to see the amazing view over Vienna (or at least the part that wasn't covered by the scaffolding). After this and eating lunch, we walked around more of Vienna to the Hofburg (where the Hapsburgs' lived) and the national library and gates to Vienna. After taking a break sitting in a park soaking up the wonderful weather, we got some cake and wandered back to Kathryn's apartment where we spent the evening making knodel (potato dumplings that you boil and stuff with basically whatever you want--we made them with cheese and spinach) and called it a night.