Monday, October 27, 2014

The Paperback Pregnancy

After birthing 3 children, I thought my pregnancy days were behind me.  My children are now all adults in the 20's and seem to be capable of taking care of themselves.  Then out of the blue one day I realized the urge had returned.  I'm in my 50's now. Was it the right choice to embrace pregnancy with all it's inherent risks?  Hormones are not easily denied, so I plunged ahead full steam.  My husband shuddered. He just wanted peace.

Okay - it wasn't a biological baby this time, it was a book.  I began interviewing and writing about 8-10 years ago and over time had accumulated tons of behind the scenes material that couldn't be used in a magazine article.  I shared these interesting life stories many times and received a great response. What about taking 10 of these interviews and writing mini-bios on each. It meant increasing the size from about 1,000 to just over 5,000, but I always struggled keeping within the magazine's word count. How hard could it be? Turns out it was actually very hard. My initial confidence dissolved into a puddle of self-doubt.  One day while driving, the similarities to pregnancy and birth arose and I couldn't stop laughing. The only difference - this time the gestation period was 18 months.

While there are accidents, for most of us, the road to birthing a baby starts with the joyous decision to have one.  But first you have to know the basics of the birds and the bees. This is lore handed down from parents to children or taught in sex ed classes. There are misunderstandings. As proof, I offer the 20 year old who thought if one condom was good, two would be better. Enough said. It was funny, but not pleasant.

Unless you have a degree in writing the process is self-taught with varying degrees of success. The result is many hours trying to figure out how to start. This isn't a short story, poem or magazine article - this is 50,000 to 100,00 words that have to stay interesting and flow well.  How to begin? Well, like with pregnancy you start by trying.  Then after a few months with no progress you start worrying that it won't happen, that you're not capable. Off you go to the specialist. For a writer that might be an evening class, a writer's group or a mentor. The specialist does tests, gives advice, tells you the odds and offers encouragement.  In the end you head out the door to try again.

No luck? Time for intervention with a capital I.  In pregnancy that would be IVF - a complicated process. For the truly stuck writer, a 2-day writing workshop where the book's focus was laid out, title selected, chapters created in bullet points and back cover written is a great tool. The workshop will plant the seeds of success but the writer still has to make it happen.  Sometimes IVF takes several tries, but if successful, you celebrate the news of a viable embryo. A writer still heads home from that workshop to stare at that computer screen, but with the tools provided at the workshop, the book slowly starts to take shape as one single chapter emerges - an embryo to build on.

Slowly your pregnancy bump grows (the number of chapters blocked out gets larger) and you begin to get outside encouragement from friends/family. Then another snag hits.  In pregnancy it could be gestational diabetes, or bed rest to get through a difficult pregnancy. It's disappointing as you want to be out shopping and glowing (really who glows). In writing it's the dreaded writer's block hitting yet again.

If you're lucky to have a publisher like mine, my "intervention" was a weekly email to set goals and check progress.  But deep down you begin to question your talent.  This is supposed to be what I am good at! Where is the ease of writing? Where is the joy?  I love this quote by Ernest Hemingway. There are days writing is a true joy - but just as many that it is sheer hard work. Just like being pregnant. You rejoice in feeling your baby kick (your book start to take shape), but dread the weekly doctor visit to monitor your sugar levels.

Then comes the day your labour begins.  Sometimes it flows naturally, other times it means last minute intervention - forceps, induced labour, c-section.  For my book which includes 10 mini-biographies, that meant last minute changes from those I interviewed to make the chapters more accurate, difficulty getting the last bit of information I needed to finish, family demands that allowed little time to focus and the list goes on. It often felt like trudging through mud. You're almost across that illusive finish line. Why can't you get there?

Then it happens. The doctor hands you that beautiful new baby - the writer hits send and the manuscript is off to the publisher.  It's time to celebrate. The hard work is done - RIGHT? Much to my surprise as a mother and a writer - this is not true in either case.  As a mother, I had a cold when I delivered my second child, which she of course caught immediately.  She could hardly breath the first few weeks of her life and many anxious moments were spent in emergency. Another had a mild allergy that took several worrisome months to figure out as he didn't thrive. Jaundice, colic - other challenges arise. As a writer, you face the difficult editing process - much needed, but still hard to embrace - as well as feedback from distributors, changes to cover art, developing a marketing campaign, promotion, proofing and more,  Your work has only just begun - and at a time you are truly tired.

In the end your baby becomes your pride and joy, but the road to that moment is much more complicated than I ever imagined. Nothing beats watching a child sit up, roll over, take that first step, laugh for the first time, say that first word. I am beyond the moon proud of who they have become as adults.  I am not there yet as a writer as my book will launch in January 2015, but I know how accomplished I will feel when I finally hold that first print copy of Life Outside the Box in my hands. Would I do it again? Absolutely. There is no denying those hormones that drive us to achieve despite the difficulties.

You can check out my article on what Life Outside the Box is all about HERE.

Join my indiegogo campaign to create an amazing Vancouver launch - launch tix, signed books, lots of other perks and more. Just click HERE.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Project Runway Season 13, Ep. 1 - The Judges Decide

Season 13 of Project Runway has come and gone and I am just now getting the chance to watch the episodes.  Fortunately, I do not know the outcome, so it will still be a journey of discovery. I always hate the personal drama, but love to see what the challenges bring out in terms of creativity. The hits are inspiring - the misses tragic.

This season they started with 18 finalists which they pared down to 15. Again, there is a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. Then one designer was added from a previous season - selected in a fan redemption contest. Returning this season is Amanda from season 11. I think she'll be a great addition as her design work is strong. The successful 16 designers (see full list at the bottom) were moved into the luxurious, new Gotham West Apartments in New York City. Then it was off to the first challenge.

On entering the workroom, they noticed each station had a small chest on the table.  First Tim Gunn enters, welcomes them and then lets them know Amanda is the previous designer who will be returning. He then points out the Aldo Styling Wall and the Brother Sewing Room. Next he has them open the trunks. Each contains 5 fabrics in lengths of 3 yards each. Not all trunks have identical fabric.

The designers are challenged this week to use these fabrics - or fabric you have traded with other designers to get - to create ONE spring look to represent what they would show for Spring/Summer 2015. This challenge is designed to give the judges a chance to see what their collection might look like if they were chosen to show at New York Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in the finale. That's a lot of pressure on just one garment and the designers only have one day to complete it. Mayhem obviously ensued.

The judges for this week include - Heidi Klum, Fashion designer Zac Posen, Marie Clare's Creative Director Nina Garcia and star of hit show Modern Family, Emmy award winner Julie Bowen. Tim can again exercise 1 safe during the course of the show to save a designer that was eliminated. The runway show will also be anonymous. so each designer's work has to stand on it's own.

The prize package this season is worth over $300,000.
1.  $100,000 from Red Robin to launch their business and the opportunity to design a fashionable look for their servers.
2. A shoe and accessory collection from Aldo to help enhance their upcoming runway shows.
3. A premier home entertainment system from Samsung
4. An entire year's worth of beauty products from Mary Kay for their fashion shows and professional make-up artist services for their debut show.
5. A complete sewing and crafting studio from Brother
6. A 2015 Lexus NX F Sport
7. Travel and hotel accommodations to fashion capitals in inspiring locations around the world from Best Western International.
8. The winning designer and model will also receive a fashion spread in Marie Clare magazine

The judging this week was interesting. I actually really love winner Sandya's unique vision, but honestly wouldn't have picked this look as the winner or even in the top 3. Great concept - but not quite developed. That said, I am glad Sandhya is in this competition to bring her unique aesthetic. I'm looking forward to seeing what she has to offer in future challenges.

Char and Amanda (didn't agree with the judges that it was too plain) stood out for me, as did Carrie, Fade and Sean.  I would wear Amanda's look if the top was just slightly longer in front and Sean's if the overall length was just a few inches shorter. I do agree with the designer sent home.

Here are the judges comments.

Top 3 -

Sandya (Winner) - Char - Amanda
Sandya - 
Julie - I love the silhouette of this dress. I feel like for real life, the ripped off is a little like an amorous moment that was interrupted.
Heidi - I feel like that [the ripped edges] gives it the edginess. It's not something people actually would wear, but it is for a fashion show. I feel like that gives it that extra something special and I haven't seen something like that before. You surprised me.
Zac - And it feels personal - all those little details - and that makes clothing special.
Nina - I think with you, you took something and made it into a fantasy. I think this was very inventive. I like the way you manipulated the fabric, You dip dyed the top. I have full confidence that you have the creativity to make it in this show.

Char - 
Nina - I thought this was so charming.  I love the fact you took this cotton jersey and made it look so special.  You took an ordinary fabric and turned it into and extraordinary top.
Julie Bowen - I love this very much. I love a pocket. As a human who has had children the idea of a crop top makes my mind explode with fear but it works here.
Zac - Did you drape the top in the actual fabric? I think that helped because you worked through the volume of the fabric instead of a muslin first. Elegant and edgy - cool!
Heidi - I can also see more pieces you would create with this in a fashion show, because this is supposed to be one of your many looks.

Amanda - 
Nina - To do something that is interesting and commercial is very hard. And I think this is one of them. The pants look fabulous. The way you styled her looks groovy - she looks cool. I want to be that girl.
Zac - I thought the top was beautifully draped. It looked really professionally made. There was a sophistication.  It wasn't a wow runway piece. It was good.
Julie - I think those pants fit so well. I don't need the pattern because they are so well made need to have a lot of ??? going on.
Heidi - For me it didn't stand out enough. I think you have to bring us more fashion. For me it's almost too normal too wearable. I think if you want to win Project Runway you have to turn the volume up a little bit more.

Bottom 3 -

Angela - Mitchell - Jefferson (Sent Home)

Angela - 
Nina - [Talking about the pants] - Instead of calling those slits, I'm going to call them sluts. Plus if she turns around, when she was walking that was very, very low. IT's walking the line between too sexy and bad taste. 
Zac - I think there's a lot of skin and that fights the simplicity of this outfit.
Heidi - You have this neckline that is very unusual, then the slits in the pants and the tail on the side. You eye just doesn't know where to look because there is so much going on.  
Note - I did like the colour and shape of her shirt here, but the pants were a total disaster.

Mitchell - 
Nina - I had very little to write about this outfit. Why? Because I felt it didn't really say much. It's a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. It's just very basic and elementary.
Heidi - I thought this was actually very spring - a lot of fun. It is very junior, but I happen to like ensembles sometimes. 
Julie - the top feels a little DIY.. It just feels like it's not as polished as it could be.
Zac - You describe your woman as fun. We need to have more adjectives than fun. There has to be more than that.

Jefferson (sent home) - 
Heidi - I thought this was terrible.  The proportions of this - the short top, then you see the skin, then you see the high waisted....This looks super strange.
Nina - WTF! The crop top is so short and so angled it looks like a bib. And the shorts are so high up it looks like she's wearing some big diaper...The shorts are not flattering and the proportion is weird. I worried that you don't see there is a proportion problem.
Zac - These are not everyone's cup of tea.
Julie - This is an example of the way you right now are dressed and look pushes me towards having more faith in you, because you look GOOD! Like I want the whole thing. And it says to me that guy is cool. Maybe there's something cooler here that I'm not getting. I'm still not sure I'm getting it all the way.

Other designs shown on the runway - 
Alexander - Carrie - Emily - Fade

In this grouping - I loved Carrie's garment. The pocket details on the hips was wonderful and it ended up with an edgy Sci-Fi feel.  I also like Fade's. It was sophisticated and moved well and I like the blocking of the print fabric under the sleeves. It was definitely an older look, but the largest buying power right now is women in their 50's.  I could have seen either of them in the top 3.
Hernan - Kini - Korina

None of these really impressed me and Hernan's in particular was way too tight.
Kristine - Samantha - Sean

In this grouping I thought Sean's stood out. It was just a bit long but had a great graphic quality to it. Kristine was lucky as what she showed Tim during critique was truly horrible. She managed to take his advice and end up with a garment that had her safe this week.
Season 13 designers - 
Alexander Knox, 22 - Hometown: Kankakee, IL; Resides in Chicago, IL
Angela Sum, 32 - Hometown: Toronto, Canada; Resides in Torrance, CA
Carrie Sleutskaya, 24 - Hometown: San Diego, CA; Resides in Los Angeles, CA
Char Glover, 37 - Hometown: Detroit, MI; Resides in Detroit, MI
Emily Payne, 40 - Hometown: Temple, TX; Resides in San Francisco, CA
Emmanuel Tobias, 29 - Hometown: Dallas, TX; Resides in Dallas, TX
fäde zu grau, 45 - Hometown: Coral Gables, FL; Resides in Coral Gables, FL
Hernan Lander, 33 - Hometown: San Francisco De Macoris, Dominican Republic; Resides in New York, NY
Jefferson Musanda, 25 - Hometown: Lynn, MA; Resides in Brooklyn, NY
Kini Zamora, 30 - Hometown: Kapolei, HI; Resides in Honolulu, HI
Korina Emmerich, 28 - Hometown: Eugene, OR; Resides in Brooklyn, NY
Kristine Guico, 26 - Hometown: Naperville, Illinois; Resides in Brooklyn, NY
Mitchell Perry, 25 - Hometown: Jacksonville, FL; Resides in Fort Lauderdale, FL
Nzinga Knight, 33 - Hometown: Brooklyn, NY; Resides in Brooklyn, NY
Samantha Plasencia, 27 - Hometown: Seguin, TX; Resides in San Antonio, TX
Sandhya Garg, 28 - Hometown: New Delhi, India; Resides in Birmingham, AL
Sean Kelly, 25 - Hometown: Wellington, New Zealand; Resides in Brooklyn, NY
Tim Navarro, 32 - Hometown: Rochester, MN; Resides in Minneapolis, MN

Friday, October 24, 2014

Prague - Vienna - Budapest: Day 5: A bike ride to Karlštejn Castle and along the River Berounka

My husband Glen is an avid bicyclist - riding to work every day and recently joining the GranFondo Whistler - a ride from Vancouver or Squamish up hill to Whistler that runs every September.  When we began to plan our holiday through Go Real Europe, one suggestion owner David Manley put forward was 2 bike rides - one in the Prague countryside and one in the Viennese countryside. Glen was over the moon and I was willing, but I needed to get back on a bike after a 20 year absence.

For 10 weeks leading up to our holiday I rode about an hour a day around our city.  It came to be a real pleasure and I surprisingly also lost a lot of weight. The preparation was worth it as the section of the ride to Karlštejn Castle involved a few serious climbs, something I could not practice in the very flat landscape where I live. I was not too proud to get off my bike and walk up hill. Sometimes Glen pushed my bike for me.  But in the end it was truly a wonderful experience which I am glad I embraced. The hard work paid off and although I walked up a few hills, I still had energy to get me through the entire ride.

Our tour guide - remember Go Real Europe books you one-on-one guides - was Peter. He picked us up right in the lobby of the U Suteru and walked us to the bicycle rental shop. From there we rode over cobbled streets and through heavy tourist traffic to the train station where we caught the connection to Beroun.  An adventure that fortunately lasted just a few blocks.  The trains had one compartment set aside just for bicycles with vertical wall racks.

Beautiful countryside we road through on the way to the castle.
As we traveled, we had a chance to view the countryside and get to know our guide. Peter is an uber-experienced cyclist who travels sometimes up to a month on his bike carrying a tent. I can't remember all the places he has been, but it was impressive.  Czech has over 1,000 kilometers of bicycle trails and a large, enthusiastic cycling group.  I quickly realized this was not going to be the ordinary cycling experience. We were going to see some back trails and I was right.

On arrival in Beroun, we bicycled through the town to a local park and began our first climb.  It was a small hill and at the top was a viewing tower where we could see the entire valley. I have mentioned before how much Glen and I love to see the view from above, so it was a great stop. But it was also the first of several climbs we were to do and if it got too steep, that meant dismounting and pushing the bike up the hill.

After repairing the tire, our journey up began on this road by the yellow building.
Up didn't stop much for the next half hour.

From here we road through the beautiful countryside. It was an amazing break from being in the city walking the streets and during at least one flat stretch I enjoyed riding as hard and fast as I could just to feel the rush of the wind.  Then at the base of the hill we needed to go up, Glen's bike had a flat tire.  Fortunately Peter was well-prepared.  Out came the tools and the patch kit and we were on our way in no time.

Getting up to the castle was going to be a challenge as no matter how you do it - the road heads up. Peter chose to take us around the back way so we could come up through forests and meadows and have some wonderful views of the countryside.  It was beautiful. Along the way we learned interesting facts such a the Czech people love mushrooms and the skill on how to pick the right mushrooms in the forest is handed down through the generations.  Some trails were finished, other moments we were on dirt/gravel tracks. We saw views the average tourist doesn't get to enjoy.

Top left was my Chicken with Basil
Top Right was the Venison Goulash
Bottom was Peter's dish with an amazing sauce and lots of mushrooms - YUM!
Lunch was in the Pod Dračí skálou - a lovely restaurant tucked into the trees where only the 3 of us and 2 local women were eating.  Obviously there was no English menu here, so Peter asked us what meat we wanted and then described the dishes available.  I ended up choosing Kuřecí Steak s Bazalkou which translates as Chicken Steak with Basil. Peter and Glen were supposed to get the special of the day - Špačkův Zvĕřinový Guláš - which roughly translated means Špačkův Venison Goulash. I can't seem to find out what Špačkův means.  Peter thought the dish would be Wild Boar Goulash, but neither Glen or Peter felt the meat was Wild Boar when it arrived. At the last minute our guide changed his order to another dish. While he couldn't remember what he ordered, it actually looked the tastiest. But all 3 were wonderful.

Some of the countryside we road through. Then yes, we had to push our bikes up the last hill.
Even at the castle, there were stairs to go up and down. My legs were very tired by the time we left.
 Peter also mentioned another interesting fact - there is zero tolerance for drinking here whether driving a car or on a bike.  No .08 - just zero. Even on a bicycle you can be stopped and given a breathalyzer test. We also discovered at lunch that Peter was an avid fly fisher.  WOW - so was Glen.  So I relaxed and enjoyed my food and the beautiful scenery while the 2 of them spoke excitedly about fly fishing in the Czech Republic.

This is the tourist way to get up to the castle. We stopped on our way down in this
charming town for an ice cream.
From the restaurant we continued up to the castle, sometimes riding and sometimes walking as there were some steep moments.   Karlštejn Castle was founded in 1348 and is a beautiful castle to visit. However, you cannot go inside and wander. There are 1 hour guided tours available only. As this was our day to enjoy being in the countryside, we chose just to explore the courtyard and walls where we could see the views of the town below.  This left us a lot more time for exploring as we continued our bike ride.

Some of the beautiful buildings we saw in the villages we passed through.
On the left you can see a cat lounging on top of the brick fence post!
From the castle, Peter took us down through the hill through the more tourist side - a village full of shops. We stopped briefly for an ice cream and then it was down-down-down until we reached again the River Berounka. The trail wandered along the water front and through small towns along the way. Here and there Peter stopped to point out a prime fishing spot to Glen.  I think in the end we covered almost 40 kilometers by the time we reached the railway station that would return us to Prague.

On the train back, Glen and Peter both were lamenting the fact this was our last day in Prague as they could have hit a local fly fishing shop and maybe even had a small fishing excursion if we had one more day here. I could have used a free to day to shop and explore areas only I was interested in. Oh well.  We'll have to save that for our next visit to Prague.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Prague - Vienna - Budapest: Day 3 and 4 - Prague Jewish Quarter, St. Agnes Convent and the Fortress of Vyšehrad

Love the old and new mix in Prague. HEre is an
old building that has been turned into a
shopping mall inside. Unfortunately I never
had time to explore it.
Day 3 -

We were again on our own, but that doesn't mean the day yawned empty. The Go Real Europe 120 page itinerary we were given offered suggestions to fill each and every day as well as detailed instructions and/or maps of how to get there, any transit tickets needed and then instructions to get back to our hotel.

In the morning we started with a tour of the Jewish Quarter.  This area of Prague is a huge tourist attraction even in the off-season, so you need to just relax and go with the flow. It's well worth the effort. I recommend having some local currency on you as we hit several places this day that for one reason or another didn't take a credit or debit card. USUALLY there was an ATM nearby, but you couldn't always count on it.

The Jewish Cemetery was our starting point, and I have to admit, it struck a deep chord for me emotionally. On entering, men are offered yarmulkes and everyone is asked not to take pictures. It is a matter of respect. I would also suggest women come dressed respectfully as well - nothing crazy, just a bit subdued. Everyone starts by going through a building where the walls are inscribed with names of those lost in the holocaust along with their year of birth - year of death.  It's one thing to read about this time in history books, It's another to look at name after name after name after name and realize how many were lost in just a 3 years period. From this point you walk through a cemetery filled with headstones that are strewn throughout.  I never did hear exactly what the reason for this disarray, but I am glad they left it as is. The feel of history was overwhelming.

I was not allowed to take photos here - so pulled these are stock images.

From here we proceeded to view the many buildings in the area. Again - most were packed with tourists, so you have to have patience. In general, the older synagogues were simple in decoration which I believe is traditional. Cases lined the walls in several of the buildings that offered examples and explanations on the daily life of those who lived here and their traditions.

My pictures of the Spanish Synagogue were poor so these are stock images.

One building that stood out as truly stunning was the Spanish Synagogue.  It was intricately ornate in decoration - something not seen in the other buildings. I would call the style almost Moorish. The stained glass windows and intricate embellishments make this a must see if you enjoy architecture.

The St. Agnes Convent had the same arched ceilings as our hotel.  Wasn't allowed to take
pics here, so these are stock images.
From here we took David Manley's suggestions to explore a site off the beaten path where the tourists were few and far between.  Tucked in a corner of a back road we found the St. Agnes Convent. There were only about 5-6 of us who made the trek. You have to check all backpacks and cameras are not allowed. Tickets to the exhibit are purchased on the lower floor and then it's up the stairs to the top to begin.  I expected a few religious paintings and statues when I entered, but the convent offers room after room filled with beautiful, medieval religious artwork - statues in wood and ceramic, altar pieces and paintings. In most rooms we wandered around totally alone so could stop and admire a particular piece of artwork without interruption.

Stock images from a Google search as we forgot to take photos.
Lunch this day was at a the VKolkovně Restaurant which had a small amount of outdoor seating. We were going to eat at La Casa Blu, but it was closed and just happened to wander by.  This day I tried the Chicken Schnitzel (no veal for me). It came with a wonderful potato salad. Glen had his second try at Goulash. This ended up being the best Goulash he had during our entire trip - and he tried 3 or 4 different kinds. It came with some potato patties I coveted and those unique sliced dumplings.

Google images - I was too tired to take photos at this moment.

After a bit of down time back at the hotel room - we headed off to wander around New Town for awhile and then headed back to Old Town to see if La Casa Blu was now open. It was!  This is one of the few non-smoking establishments in Prague. After several days of trying Czech food, it was nice to mix it up with a few Mexican inspired dishes accompanied by our standard pint. This day we put in serious miles walking and by this point, was so tired I can't even remember what we ordered. By the time we hit the hotel - my feet and legs were aching from all the walking that day. It wasn't long before I was out cold.

Day 4 -
Love this small ancient church at the Fortress of Vyšehrad. Notice the cool shape of the door
handle and the key hole under it in the centre picture?  To the right is a view from the
the top of the outer wall showing an old fortress wall still in place alongside newer housing.

Today we decided to jump on the Metro and visit the Fortress of Vyšehrad in the morning.  There weren't a lot of buildings to explore here which was fine as we were feeling bit burnt out on architecture. What this trip offered on a beautiful sunny day was a chance to stroll on top of the outer wall all the way around - with short side trips to see a church, an underground cavern, a cemetery with art-nouveau arcade and have a pint and a light lunch at an outside cafe (a delicious bowl of potato soup for me and a small sandwich for Glen). The grounds of the Fortress are also beautiful parkland, so you can just sit and relax if that's your cuppa.

Notice the number of family members buried in the one small grave site.
It was very common here to put these covered candles (right image) near the headstones.
They keep the wind from blowing out the flame.

On the way in I made one of my few stops to shop at a small fortress shop offering unique items with all sales going to programs integrating special needs individuals into daily life. A worthwhile goal and one I was pleased to support. Our walk was a great change from exploring the architecture and heritage of Prague and we had a chance to view new areas of the city away from the tourist sites.

A view of the Strahov Monastery on the left. On the right is Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral

One thing Glen and I try to do in every city we visit is get high enough to have a good view of the city, so in the afternoon we decided to return to Petrin Hill park and take the Funicular all the way up to the Petrin Observation Tower.  When we only went half way up the hill last time, our view was limited by the trees.  You CAN walk up the hill - and you CAN climb all 299 steps up to the top of the tower - but I would recommend you take the Funicular up the hill and then the elevator up the tower. Your energy can then be spent wandering the grounds before or after, or even walking down the hill when you are one. The tower offered a beautiful view of the city which was well worth returning for.  After we descended the elevator, we bought a tasty ice cream cone at the cafe and then wandered the grounds.  There are landscaped gardens, a hall of mirrors, a church and more if you want to explore.

On the left you can see the Danube River wandering between the 2 sides of the city and the many bridges.
On the right is a closeup of Charles Bridge. Look at how packed it is with tourists even
during the off-season!

The tram we needed picked us up right at the bottom of the Funicular and we headed back to the hotel for a bit of quiet time. On the way back we decided we had to stop and try a Trdlo. This is an heritage treat that is becoming popular again.  Raw dough is spiraled around a stick and then roasted over coals until fully baked. 4 inches pieces are cut off - rolled in a combination of sugar and cinnamon - and handed you on a napkin. It's a bit like a crusty cinnamon bun.

For whatever reason, we just weren't hungry this evening. We decided to pick up more of those local open face sandwiches (as you can see the selection was much larger this time) and also a few of the pastries our guide had recommended. This time I looked at the label for the name - they were called Kolacek.  We picked up 2 pastries in each flavour they offered: custard, pear and poppy seed. A few were consumed that night. The rest were set aside for a munch the next day.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Prague - Vienna - Budapest: Day 2 - Exploring Prague

With our guide Maria at Prague Castle
Following free breakfast at the Hotel U Suteru - something fairly standard when travelling in Europe - we were ready to begin. For our first day in each city we asked David Manley at Go Real Europe to book a guide to give us the lay-out and history of the city. I assumed we would be in a group, so imagine my surprise to realize everything we booked with him was one-on-one. This meant the guide can cater to our interests as the tour progresses. We were absolutely thrilled with Maria (hope I have the name right) who met us in Prague.

For 3 hours this extremely knowledgeable guide walked us along the Royal Coronation Route through first Old Town, then across the Charles Bridge to the Lesser Town (also called Little Quarter), and finally ending up at the very old Prague Castle featuring the stunning St. Vitus Cathedral. Everything was covered - saints, religion, myths, the significance of certain architecture, why John Lennon has a memorial wall here and the fact the Cathedral was built over 1000 years.  She also showed us how to use our first transit tickets. The only downside was I had to snap pics quickly as we were walking as neither Maria or Glen slowed down for me, so many were not beautifully framed - several listing to the right it appears.

Left is a Czech building in cubist style only seen here.
Right is just one of the cobbled streets and sidewalks we walked.
I loved the fact she took us into a small market right at the start and showed us 2 very standard Czech foods - intricately decorated open face sandwiches and a round pastry with several different fillings. Then it was on to the tour.  Here is your first tip for wandering Prague - WEAR GOOD WALKING SHOES. They should tie on or Velcro tight. Many of the sidewalks and streets in old town were cobblestone with large spaces between, uneven and with occasionally missing pieces, so wearing a heel or loose sandal would be sure to earn you a twisted ankle.

The architecture varied widely from very old (our hotel in "new town" was built in the 1400's) to more modern offerings such as a building built during the era of Cubism that was created in a style only seen in the Czech Republic.  As we moved through Old Town, the streets became narrower and more winding. Small churches were tucked in back corners and you really felt you stepped back in time. Lots of small shops, hotels and restaurants were scattered throughout. The most tourist laden place in Old town was Old Town Square - a large open area surrounded by a hotels, restaurants and the Old Town City Hall where you can see the medieval Astronomical Clock. Once an hour it has a little show which I always just missed. Everyone stops to see it, but most admit it wasn't that big a deal. I have no idea, but it certainly was the scene of drinking and partying every night.

From there we walked across the Charles Bridge, stopping here and there to talk about statues and their significance.  Saint John of Nepomuk was thrown off this bridge and has a statue with 2 plaques honouring his memory. Legend has it that to touch one of the plaques will bring good luck, so it was a huge tourist draw with everyone getting crazy and snapping images. BUT our guide told usit was only lucky if if you touched the small figure of him being thrown off he bridge. Everywhere people touched was polished, so it was obvious from the picture below many didn't know where to touch the plaque. However, you could see the well-informed tourist here and there that knew the score.

As we stepped off into Lesser Town (or Little Quarter), I was struck by something I had seen on the bridge.  There were vendors all along, and many featured artwork depicting or lyrics by John Lennon. Then in this new area there was both a John Lennon Cafe and a memorial wall where people left notes and graffiti in tribute. Why?  According to Maria, John Lennon never visited Prague, but his music and life inspired many of the youth. His untimely death had a huge effect here on the young people and many secretly began to post notes in tribute on this wall - something illegal at the time. His death became a symbol of freedom that continues to this day. Another interesting note was the flood marks on the wall of the John Lennon Cafe. If you look closely they are marked by date.  I would guess this cafe is about 1 meter or so above the river level. Notice it was under almost 3 meters of water in 2002.

Flood level dates from bottom to top are
1940 - 1890 - 1845 - 1784 - 2002 (Aug. 12)
From here we rode a bus up to the castle/cathedral area. You can walk it, but I would save your energy for walking other areas.  Prague Castle is not a castle in the traditional sense. It is very spread out and open. The Cathedral - which we toured after our guide left - was well worth a look if you enjoy architecture and it was fun trying to guess when different parts were built.  I would suggest a search online for more in depth history.  The picture on the right below I included as it's an interesting detail of the church. It is a mural created from very small tile that was removed and sent out of the country to be restored and then reassembled and put back up. The sheer difficulty of marking where each specific tile went had to be enormous.

This is a long post, so I'm going to wrap up the rest of the day quickly. It was now time to head off on our own and using the suggestion given us by Go Real Europe, we managed to walk the winding streets from the castle first to the Strahov Monastery. Loved the walk through winding streets with occasional glimpses of cafes with great views.  At the monastery we viewed 2 beautiful library rooms with gorgeous painted ceilings. Oh to have walked in and just sat for awhile, but alas we had to gaze at the interiors from the doorway. In the hallway we were allowed in there were many wonderful pieces of furniture decorated with in-laid wood.

Stock images
From there we continued toward the park where Petrin Tower is located and grabbed a table overlooking the city at a restaurant near the mid-stop of the Funicular. I forgot to write down the name unfortunately, but we shared a couple pints and some meal-size salads. We chose not to go up the Petrin Tower, a decision we later came to regret. So we had to return here another day.

Down the funicular, onto a bus and back to our hotel for a snooze. Then we decided that night to again wander around Wenceslas Square and enjoy the camaraderie and music.  The strangest thing we saw was a group of Peruvian musicians performing in North American First Nation's costumes. On the way back to our hotel, we picked up a few of those interesting open faced sandwiches recommended by our guide earlier and headed back to the hotel to relax and look at the suggestions for day 3. The sandwich selection was very limited as after 8 at night, they are half price - but we found several that hit the spot.