During our travels through Eastern Europe we were able to visit the Czech Republic, in particular Prague. Prague is a very interesting city. For starters, we were on the bus tour so we didn’t have the vehicle independence or public transportation option really nailed down. We did come back to the area one more time when we go our Eurorail tickets but spent the majority of the time going back to the same spots we liked the first time we visited.
Prague is an old city with stone pathways and amazing architecture, along with being one of the largest cities in all of the European Union. It is the historical capital of Bohemia and is considered one of the political, cultural, and economic centers of central Europe. As the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the main residence of several Holy Roman Emperors, the city contains an enormous amount of cultural and historical significance for all of Europe. While visiting the area we were able to see famous attractions such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square, and the astronomical clock. The historic center of town is a great place to not only be in a visitor friendly area fresh with tons of things to do to occupy your time, but is also still a great place to see the “true” character of a global city. Prague is consistently listed as one of the most visited cities in the world, right up there on the list with London, Paris, Rome, and Istanbul.
The Old Town Square in Prague is a delight to visit. There are many memorials in the square’s center, including religious reformer Jan Hus who was burned at the stake for his beliefs in Constance. Erected in 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of his death, the memorial is only one of many ways the people of Bohemia celebrate Jan Hus. Celebrated as a symbol of dissidence and strength against oppressive regimes, Jan Hus historically opposed control by the Vatican and gave confidence to those in the nineteenth century who would oppose rule under the Hapsburg. In celebration of the end of the Thirty Years War and the end of Hapsburg rule is the Marion Column and in front of the Old Town Hall is a memorial to the martyrs beheaded during the Old Town Square execution by the Hapsburg. So much history spanned over a vast amount of time is astonishing. One could easily spend a few hours just in this main city area.
Another feature in the Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock. Dating back to 1410 with the first recorded mention of the clock in October of that year, the clock was made by Mikulas of Kadan and Jan Sindel. Later the calendar dial was added and clock facade was decorated with Gothic sculptures. The mechanism of the clock has three main components – the astronomical dial (representing the Sun and Moon in the sky), statues of various Catholic saints, an hourly show of Apostle figures for the clock face striking the time, and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. There are plenty of outdoor cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating to sit and have a great lunch and watch the astronomical clock in action. Why not have a sip of absinthe while you are in the area? Clinton and I had the obligatory shot and it is absolutely weird! Licorice tasting and extremely strong, don’t drink too much or it may be hard to navigate your way back to the hotel. The food is just as good as Poland and Hungary, with a bit of flare for global blending since so many different cultures seemed to come together in this one square.
Like most major European cities, bridges are a huge deal. In Prague the bridge to view as Charles Bridge, which is as truly beautiful as they say it is! This historic bridge crosses the Vltava river and its construction was started in 1357 under King Charles IV and finished in the beginning of the 15th century. Since the Charles Bridge was the only means of crossing the river until 1841, it was the most important connection between Prague Castle and Old Town. Speaking of the Prague Castle – it is one of the largest ancient castles in the world at almost 750,000 square feet. It is the official office of the President of the Czech Republic and was the seat of power for kings, emperors, and presidents throughout the long history of the Czech Republic. Don’t forget to cross the bridge and visit this beauty during your trip through central Europe!
One of our favorite places to visit is a National Forest. There are so many wonderful reasons to visit a forest, and for us our top three is because #1 usually there are not a ton of other people around or they leave you alone, unlike a popular national park, #2 camping is plentiful and mostly FREE, and #3 our dogs can explore mostly unleashed (and we are good stewards of the land! #PackinPackout)
When visiting a National Park dogs are required to stay on leash, of course, and remain on the trail. While we absolutely agree with this type of regulation as we agree in preservation, etc etc, but realistically we love to travel with our dogs and this does present a problem when we just want our little ones to stretch their legs and not be bothered by large crowds. We like to travel to beautiful places, which means a lot of time in a vehicle. We have always appreciated the national forests that seem to surround or are usually pretty close to a National Park for us to visit. In areas where signs state no dogs, vegetation restoration in progress, etc makes sure to follow those regulations! There is no reason to take advantage of something that is already a good thing. Most of the #TalleyYourMiles were walking along paths after a short drive into the forest for half a day or more. Easily the #TravelingTalleys visited Kaibab National Forest at least a dozen times during the summer for hiking!
Kaibab National Forest is more than just a lovely place for us to hike. We’ve camped in it extensively, and this is the first place where I camped by myself (well, with the dogs) when Clinton was out of town. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is surrounded by the Kaibab, which is one of our favorite places to visit, and we are able to obtain a permit each year to collect wood in the forest. We even were able to get a christmas tree our first year here (we tried the second year but the Accord couldn’t make it as far back and it snowed earlier than we expected) and had a great experience collecting wood with our neighbors.
Another reason to visit a national forest is the crowds. In places where there are an abundance of national parks, like our area, you will see a larger increase in visitation at the forest for those similar minded individuals who like to recreate as well. We usually see mostly ATVs and ORVs more than any other type of visitor, even backcountry camping. We’ve been pretty lucky in finding areas to explore remotely and with our new truck we can’t wait to explore even further!
While we do like to take our dogs off the leash we always maintain control and follow the appropriate signs when we see them – don’t be disrespectful. Remember that even though the area is remote and less traveled – which could easily mean a peaceful experience without the crowds – this also means that there aren’t people to pick up after you or re-seal the trash can you forgot to close properly. Don’t forget to tell a friend or family member when you decide to go off on an adventure to the middle of nowhere and enjoy the trip!
Clinton and I were able to take a trip when we first meet (and after saving up all our money working on the cruise ship) we were able to work together and plan a trip that combined the historical places I wanted to visit with the beautiful scenery Clinton wanted to see. This is one of the reasons that we make a good travel team! While in Poland I wanted to see a few sights from World War II that I had studied – mainly, the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz. While I won’t go into our journey to Auschwitz (I personally feel that individually that is a personal journey – I went to see the place I had studied in college in my many Holocaust studies classes) and if you aren’t ready to see a concentration death camp (extremely emotional but absolutely worth the trip) consider going to Warsaw and the Warsaw Ghetto.
Auschwitz was difficult to get to but you can with a tour or by following public transportation. We didn’t rent a vehicle and we were part of a two week tour at the beginning of our Europe trip so we actually followed a specific company into the gates and had a tour from a tour guide. We had a similar situation when we went to the Warsaw Ghetto, except that since Warsaw is a major city getting to this particular part is not difficult. While there, we learned a lot from our tour guide. After September 1939 and the German invasion of Poland, more than 400,000 Jewish residence were forced to move into a confined part of the city no more than 1 square mile. By November 1940 the ghetto was sealed off by brick walls and barbed wire, with armed guards patrolling the “border” with orders to shot on sight if any Jewish residents attempted to leave. Disease and starvation soon became an epidemic. In July 1942 the “Final Solution”, or the extermination of all the Jewish population (along with homosexuals, gypsies, and other deemed “undesirables” by the Nazi ruling party) was implemented. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Shutzstaffel (SS) ordered that these undesirables be resettled to extermination camps – in particular the Jewish residents. By September 1942 over 260,000 Jews had been deported to Treblinka extermination camp, with an additional 20,000 sent to forced-labor camps. Many of those were killed during the deportation process. In January 1943 when the Nazis prepared to move the remaining 55,000 Jews living in the Warsaw Ghetto, the population fought back. A small group of underground self-defense units managed to smuggle in a limited supply of weapons. The Jewish Combat Organization, or ZOB, ambushed the Nazis who entered the Ghetto and fought them for several days before the Nazis retreated. Deportations were suspended for some time after this struggle, and the uprising is viewed today as the largest single uprising during World War II.
While in Warsaw we also had the chance to eat at an interesting restaurant recommended by one of the hotel staff when we asked for a “local spot”. The restaurant was amazing – the staff were wearing what looked like old soviet style uniforms but very short for the ladies, with red accents and dark lights throughout. The menu included “Stalin’s favorite dessert” and “Castro’s favorite sandwich”. When visiting a foreign country don’t rely on McDonald’s and the normal food you eat when in the US – get outside the box and have something interesting! When in Poland we usually got perogies and different types of beef stews, and drank lots of different versions of schnapps. Yum!!
Krakow was different than Warsaw in many different ways. For starters, the period of history we learned about was a complete 180 from the solemn and historically significant Warsaw Ghetto uprisings and visiting Auschwitz. The Wawel Royal Castle is a castle residency in central Krakow and is the largest in Poland, representing nearly all European architectural styles including medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods. Today it is the country’s premier art museums, but for centuries it was the residence of the kings of Poland. It is magnificent to visit and truly worth the extra time and money. The kings and queens of western Europe seem to pale in comparison to me when I view the beauty of castles and jewels from eastern Europe but maybe I’m a little biased. 🙂 The Wawel Royal Castle was built at the behest of King Casimir III the Great and is actually a large Italian styled courtyard surrounded by many other structures. My favorite part of the tour was gazing out from the courtyard into the city. What a view!
Part of our time in Poland also included small visits to little cities along our path (we were still part of a two week bus tour at this time, and our Eurorail tickets did NOT include Poland so bus was really the only way we traveled in the country) and a trip to see the Black Madonna. I am not really the biggest fan of art – I’ve studied it, I kinda appreciate some artists, but overall I’m not planning a specific trip to an art museum. I find a historical museum more fascinating. However, art is a huge part of European history no matter which direction you face so I usually soak up the art appreciation during my Europe visits. This was no different. Entering a very dark, very sacred feeling church, dripping with images and artwork, just to visit a painting that residence of the small town were bowing to because they considered it Mother Mary was a bit much for me. I’m more mentioning this so that visitors who travel to these places realize that you need to set aside how uncomfortable you may feel and realize this is the common culture and beliefs of the locals and surrounding population. This is living history. During a stop at Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland to visit the Blessed Virgin Mary icon included a winding walk through the monastery, which was fascinating, in order to get close to the Black Madonna. The Monastery is known as a pilgrimage destination for hundreds of years and the Black Madonna herself has been credited with many miracles, among those saving the Monastery during the Siege of Jasna Gora. In September 1717 Pope Clement XI issued a Canonical Coronation to the painting as a venerated icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The food in Poland is amazing – perogies, stew, sausage…basically hearty, warm food with the possible dash of sour cream. Don’t let being a vegetarian stop you from traveling. I was a vegetarian during this trip and had fried cheese as a substitute for meat. YUM – don’t knock it till you try it! We ate well while visiting the area, and most of our food choices came with the aperitif and digestif option of plum brandy or some type of equivalent. When we stopped in a small city along the way we always stepped out to explore, and didn’t hesitate to try something new if we had time or the stomach! When visiting Poland keep an open mind as well – the weather may not always be super sunny but the history and views can still be incredible. We stopped at least one more time to walk and those stops along the way make the trip even more exciting. Seeing a snapshot of an old, historic town with a modern flare was almost a daily experience no matter which city in Europe we visited. Definitely add Poland to your list of places to visit in Eastern Europe!