Heaven’s Above, and Below?

Torun, Poland. 29th May 2014.

Torun is a town that has a very famous son. Nicolas Copernicus was born here. If you now say ‘Who?’ then shame on you! He wrote a book called On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in which he propounded new and, at that time, heretical theories about the construction of the universe and also proved that the planets circulated the sun.

Fittingly, I arrived in Torun on a nice sunny day. I’d booked a hostel in the town centre, very convenient for all the sights. What I hadn’t realised was that it was in a pedestrianised area. Not so convenient. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived and there were a few cars and vans in there so I crept in, parked up and unloaded. It was clear I couldn’t leave my bike there but the reception people told me of a couple of nearby car parks where I’d be able to leave Doris safe and sound. I found one, left the bike next to the 24hr manned kiosk and walked back. I’d no idea what it would cost but was hoping not too much. I also covered Doris up. One piece of advice I’d give to anyone contemplating a similar trip to mine is to buy a lightweight cover. It won’t make your bike invisible but it will make it uninteresting, which is almost the same thing.
Back at the hostel I found I was sharing a room with a young guy and two young women. One was Chinese and spoke very little English. Kai is from Yorkshire but lives and works in Docklands and was doing a mini Euro tour. Aggie is Polish, speaks excellent English and was seeing some of her own country for a change. The three of us decided to team up and go to find something to eat. We had a great meal, chatted alot and after we got back to the hostel Kai and Aggie went off to look at a fountain. I got on with blogging.

Next day Kai was off on his travels so Aggie and I decided to team up for the day and look around the town. I love spending time with people I meet in hostels. It’s always good to hear their stories and to tell them yours. Aggie had worked in England for a couple of years, in Tesco’s at Stoke-on-Trent and also in Macclesfield. She’d had a bit of a tough time because she was promoted to supervisor after three months and really had to earn her spurs. She’s now an accountant back in Poland and has to understand lots of different EU legislation in order to do her job.
First place to visit was the house of Copernicus. This is a museum to his life and work and is also an excellent example of a Gothic era merchant’s house. It has a model of the town with and audio visual presentation and some of his original manuscripts. The story of his life was quite well told but I felt there wasn’t quite enough information in English. We did latch onto a group that had an English speaking guide and I learned a bit more.
Copernicus was, above all, part of the establishment. He had a doctorate in Canon Law but was also a physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist who in 1517 set down a quantity theory of money, a principal concept in economics used to the present day. Clever man. And clearly one with an enquiring mind who worked out how the planets and sun related to each other. His book, although not published until just before his death in 1543, had been started thirty years earlier. He developed the theories over many years fitting this work in around his other duties. It is puzzling as to why he waited so long before publishing his book but it is reckoned he was afraid of criticism. Even the Pope was keen to learn about his theories and in fact the religious criticism came from protestant sources. However, the book, when published became one of the cornerstones of the scientific revolution.
Copernicus done and dusted we moved on to have a look around the old Town Hall, a nice Gothic building, and its collection of Polish and Gothic art. We also went up the tower for a nice view of the Old Town area, something I always like to do if I can.

Courtyard and tower of the old town hall.

Courtyard and tower of the old town hall.

View of the town from the tower.

View of the town from the tower.

Time for a coffee and Aggie was telling me something of her back story. Six months previously she’d come out of a six year relationship with an Englishman which had turned very sour. I won’t reveal details, suffice to say that he let her down badly. This holiday was her first go at trying to put the past behind her. We got on very well and were chatting and flirting gently all day long. There was a great moment when she told me that today was the first time since her break up that she’d felt relaxed enough to enjoy herself and that it was my company that was the reason. What a nice thing to be told.
So we wandered around the town, enjoying the sunshine and the sights. Torun has various nice buildings, street cafes and shops and was a nice place to spend a day with a nice young woman.
One sight that didn’t please me was that of a guy handing leaflets to people criticising homosexuality. Of course, it was on a religious basis and I queried his point of view. He spoke good English so we had a good set to. No clear winner of course, neither of our minds were about to be changed, but I just can’t let myself walk past these people and say nothing.
Possibly in honour of Copernicus, Torun has a Planetarium so we visited that and enjoyed the show. It was mostly wasted on me as it was in Polish but Aggie said she learned a lot from it so it was worth doing.

Aggie.

Aggie.

Chaplinesque sculpture.

Chaplinesque sculpture.

Torun was also a base for the Teutonic Knights but the castle they built was torn down in 1454 during an uprising of the towns people and is now just a ruin. One thing we did do was to go and look at a fountain, just outside of the old town. Nothing special about a fountain is there? Well this one is pretty spectacular. It is laid out over a flat area with multiple small water jets. There’s seats all around so we took one. At 21.00 the fountain changes from a chidrens’ play area to a music and light spectacular. The jets of water are illuminated by different coloured LED’s and they rise and fall in perfect time with the music. At one point the water hitting the ground as the jets were turned off acted as a perfect drumbeat to the music. A fantastic sight. I’ve uploaded a short video of it here: http://youtu.be/0AJJoMO4Oi4
As the evening got chillier I was happy to put my arm around Aggie while we enjoyed the show. Walking back to the hostel we decided that it would be nice to meet up again when our respective paths crossed. We’d had a great day and both felt it would be nice to do it again. We were both due to leave Torun next day but I was happy to change my plans so that we could meet up again in Krakow.

And that my friends was that. No further contact except for a text message. No meeting in Krakow. No explanation as to why she’d changed her mind although she was perfectly entitled to of course. Most importantly, nothing to tell me that she HAD changed her mind. So Aggie, if you’re reading this, what happened?

Next day took me to Walbrzych where my ‘agenda’ recommended Ksiez Castle. First I had to get the bike out of the car park. 72 zloty (about £14) for the 36 hours Doris was in there. I paid up, muttering under my breath about the amount, but It was worth it for the peace of mind.
Aggie had helped me book into a hostel, just about the only one in the town, so at least I had a bed for the night. It was clearly the large home of an elderly couple who had converted the downstairs part into accommodation. No English was spoken, the owner tried to explain the wi-fi to me but it didn’t get through. So I did some washing and some writing. Yep, life on the road can be very mundane at times.
I headed off to the castle, stopping at a McDonalds en route for breakfast and free internet. A guy in there helped me to order my meal. You’d think that pointing at a picture and saying what was written under it would do the trick but clearly not always. Having eaten and booked a hostel in Krakow I headed out to the castle.

The town of Walbrzych is in the Silesian mining area of Poland and is very run down. Many of the buildings are in quite poor condition, as is the road, reflecting the economic hard times that had affected the area. But the park the castle is in is very nice and when I got to the castle car park a very helpful attendant got me parked right close up to the building. Thanks mate, I appreciated that.

Front view of Kiatz Castle.

Front view of Kiatz Castle.

One of the 200 fireplaces that still remain.

One of the 200 fireplaces that still remain.

The castle itself has an interesting history. Built in the 13th century by the Piast Prince Bolko the Crude to protect the trade routes between Silesia and Bohemia, it had many owners over the centuries until it came into the Prussian family of Konrad von Hochberg, where it remained until WWII. It had two major reconstructions, the first in the early 18th century in the Baroque style; the second in the early 20th century where extra wings were added. The cost of this actually bankrupted the family. So far so Central European.
But here the story gets more interesting and it’s more to do with the family than the castle. The owner at that time, John Henry XV, married a famous English aristocratic beauty named Duchess maria Teresa Olivia, also known as Daisy. She bore him three sons. The castle is full of photographs of the family and she was indeed a beautiful woman.
They eventually divorced and John Henry married a Spanish Beauty. Before very long the eldest son started an affair with her. John Henry found them out, divorced the woman and insisted that his son marry her. The son died soon afterwards, reasons unstated. I speculated that it may have been a surfeit of sex, but who knows. At least it would be apt.
Where this castle definitely differs is in its WWII history, which I thought was far more fascinating than the earlier years. It was taken over by the Nazis TODT organisation. Concentration camp labour was used to dig 3.2km of tunnels under the castle for reasons not fully understood even now. It is thought they were for weapons factories or chemical weapons laboratories but no-one is sure.
In the meantime the castle itself was taken over and many of the original decorations were removed in preparation, it is thought, for conversion into a local HQ for Hitler. Nazi officers lived here in the meantime and destruction or removal of the original decorations continued. When the Red Army liberated Poland they took over the castle and further destroyed the interior. I had the slightly bizarre experience of walking round a 400 room castle where most of the decorations had gone and all there was to see was photographs of how it used to be. Very strange.
A definite oddity was the display of sculpture whose origin wasn’t stated and whose inspiration wasn’t revealed. It certainly looked odd, but I liked it.

Weird sculpture.

Weird sculpture.

Even weirder sculpture.

Even weirder sculpture.

Really weird sculpture.

Really weird sculpture.

The castle was huge and there were various other buildings in the grounds too, which I didn’t have time to visit.

But back to those tunnels. A local researcher believes that the Nazis were planning to set up a secret document storage centre. There was a small railway running into the tunnels and he is convinced there’s a hidden cache of documents behind a concrete wall somewhere. But he’s never going to be allowed to go knocking walls down any time soon. Why? Because the site is used as a centre for some very important scientific instruments. Firstly there’s some extremely sensitive seismographs, which register activity from right across the world. Secondly there’s a very special instrument that checks the horizontality of the earth. It consists of two tubes of chemically pure water which meet at right angles. The instrument uses the water’s natural propensity to level out as a way of accurately pinpointing the horizontal It seems this helps to keep satellites in the correct position. So some bloke knocking through walls down in underground passages might knock your GPS off course. And we don’t want that do we?

Back on the bike, and using my undisrupted GPS, I headed off to Krakow, reckoned to be one of the jewels of Poland in terms of it’s history and beauty. I’ll let you know when I get there.

The Road to Freedom and a Large Brick House.

Gdansk, Poland. 27th May 2014.

Finding my way out of Berlin was easy enough although it is always difficult to leave friends behind. It was great to see Segun again and I was very grateful to Ralph for his help and hospitality.
But the needs of the journey soon take over and it’s equally good to be on the move again. Once over the Polish border the roads narrowed down to single carriageway. The wind had picked up, with a stiff breeze blowing across the flat countryside. I was heading towards the Baltic coast and the port of Gdansk. As you’ll have gathered the events in communist Europe figured heavily in the news broadcasts of my adult life and events in Gdansk were no exception. More of that later. Meanwhile I was enjoying the ride and the sun had come out to replace the earlier showers. This was just as well for the two Layby Lovelies I spotted, each one standing by a track leading into some woods. They were all done up in a way that no country girl would be on a weekday, hoping for some trade from the passing traffic. Not a great way to earn a living. I rode on.

Gdansk introduced itself slowly but surely as the landscape changed to straggly, slightly rundown towns. I found, and booked into, my hostel, settled in and went out for something to eat. I had the best meal I’d had on the whole trip so far; double celery soup with crispy bacon and peanuts followed by pork tenderloin. Really delicious and quite cheap at £12. “I think I’ll quite like Poland if the food is this good.” I thought.
Next day I followed up on my reason for coming to this large industrial city which, on the face of it, isn’t high on Poland’s list of beautiful places to visit. But it is the home of the Lenin Shipyard, the place where the death knell of communism first sounded. It was a logical step to me, having enjoyed Berlin’s history of its wall, to visit the place where that wall’s foundations were first shaken nine years earlier. It’s beautifully ironic that the death of communism began in a shipyard named after the man who gave it birth.

Outside the Road to Freedom Exhibition.

Outside the Road to Freedom Exhibition.

Poland has a history of protests and uprisings against the communist regime but they usually ended in bloody violence, mass imprisonments and sometimes the deaths of protesters and police. In the fifties, sixties and seventies many such strikes and protests had taken place on the streets with dire consequences. Lech Walesa was an electrician at the Lenin shipyard and was sacked for his trade union activities. He was one of the leaders of a group of workers who wanted to form an independent trade union, something definitely not allowed by the communist system. His colleagues went on strike, demanding his reinstatement and official recognition of their union. Unlike in previous strikes, they didn’t take to the streets, where violence would have been a certain result. Instead they organised a sit in at the shipyard. The leaders locked the gates and relied on the support of of their friends families outside for food and supplies. Walesa joined them inside and organised many of the pro strike activities that took place. Eventually the authorities gave in and Poland’s first trade union was allowed to form. Solidarnosc was born.

It eventually garnered 10 million members, one quarter of Poland’s population, and they were spread across all trades in the country. But in 1981 the authorities, under pressure from Russia, cracked down on the freedom movement by introducing martial law. Solidarnosc was banned and Walesa arrested, along with many others. This was back to the bad old days and martial law lasted 16 months before the regime ended it, partly due to international pressure. But Solidarnosc was still banned and Walesa, free once more and reinstated as an electrician, worked with others in an underground movement to support trade union activities. They used many of the propaganda methods employed by the communists themselves, including newspapers, leafleting and so on. Eventually the authorities relented, an amnesty for Solidarnosc activists was granted and the freedom movement started to progress once again.

The twenty one demands made by the shipyard workers.

The twenty one demands made by the shipyard workers.

In early 1989, following yet more food price rises and the resulting protests, the government agreed to enter into round table negotiations with the trade union and others. Out of that came Poland’s first semi-free elections where 35% of the Sejm (Parliament) and 100% of the seats in the newly reinstated senate could be freely fought for. Lech Walesa didn’t stand but he was the key figure in the campaign. Every Solidarnosc candidate used election literature with themselves and Walesa photographed together and slogans demanding change. The best the communist candidates could do was use slogans such as ‘Why rush into change, trust the people you know’. Solidarnosc won every seat bar one in the senate and all the available seats in the Sejm.

Following the elections Walesa persuaded leaders of the other parties to form a non-communist coalition government with a non-communist prime Minister at its head. The first such government anywhere in the Soviet bloc. It was in December 1990 that elections were held for the new position of President. This time Lech Walesa did stand and won easily. His presidency had its problems but whatever his failings – and he had many – he set in motion the important market reforms that Poland needed as well as instigating the processes that led to NATO and EU membership.
These were hugely important events for Poland but equally as important for the rest of communist Europe. It took about two years for all the other communist regimes to fall but once Poland had changed, the rest was inevitable, with East Germany being the next to do so.
The place where this history is presented is The Road To Freedom Exhibition and is well worth a visit.It traces the story of the trade union Solidarnosc and all the events that led up to Poland’s independence. Very well worth a visit. I would recommend it because of the historical importance of the story it tells and also the human one too, about people so determined to improve their situation that they’ll risk everything to achieve it. Humbling.

A model portraying the domino effect of Poland's freedom.

A model portraying the domino effect of Poland’s freedom.

Across the road from the exhibition is a huge memorial to Polish protesters in general, and those from the Lenin shipyard of 1970 in particular, who lost their lives while seeking freedom from communist oppression.
I spent the rest of the cold and blustery day walking around the older part of city. There are some nice old buildings to explore although I just looked from the outside this time. I did note that there is a large amount of renewal taking place with old 19th century apartment blocks being torn down and new ones going up. New roads are being built too. My first impressions of Poland as I rode across to Gdansk were of a country still needing investment. As with Czechia, I saw towns with some areas that were old and shabby, like Britain in the Eighties, so it was good to see renewal under way post communism and post 2008 crash.

A reminder to repressive leaders everywhere.

A reminder to repressive leaders everywhere.

Monument to the Polish People who fought against the communist regime.

Monument to the Polish People who fought against the communist regime.

The Brick Built House.
When I stayed in the Ambrosia Hotel in Ypres I discovered that one of the owners is Polish and she kindly gave a list of places she thought worth visiting while I was in the country. This effectively became my Polish agenda and after leaving Gdansk I headed to the first item on it.
But before arriving there, a tale of caution. The motorway out of Gdansk became a toll road. Approaching the barrier I pressed the button for a ticket. Nothing. Pressed several more times – several more nothings. So I gave up and just rode around the barrier. Further on I came to a pay station. Because I didn’t have a ticket showing where I’d joined the toll road the woman demanded the full amount, 25 Zloty instead of 5. I tried to explain to her that I couldn’t get a ticket. No English and no dice. I parked the bike out of the way, stomped around a lot, argued some more and ended up paying. She wasn’t giving in, I had to, or I was going nowhere. In fairness I don’t suppose she had any other option but that didn’t make me feel any better at the time. Next time I came to a toll barrier I still couldn’t get a ticket. It seems either my bike isn’t heavy enough or doesn’t have enough metal mass to trigger the sensor that says there’s a vehicle there. This time I pressed the HELP button and they issued a ticket manually. I wasn’t planning to pay five times the toll a second time!

Malbork (Marienburg) Castle was built by the Teutonic Order of Knights and is reckoned to be the largest brick built castle anywhere.
The Teutonic Knights, or the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, to give them their full title, was a hospital order formed to aid pilgrims to the Holy Land. Later they added a military order and this was the role they took in Europe. They were heavily involved in Crusades into Pagan Prussia and Lithuania from their base in Poland, starting in the 13th century. They set up the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights, based in Poland, and continually added to their conquered lands and their economic power. They were involved in trade, mining, levied tolls and became a naval power in the Baltic Sea. During the 15th century they began to lose battles against their neighbours, lost the support of the Pope and went into gradual decline. They remained active in the catholic areas of Germany until Napoleonic times. Today they act as a charitable organisation in Germany.

Malbork Castle from across the river.

Malbork Castle from across the river.

The castle looks fantastic from across the river and was even better once I’d parked the bike and walked across the bridge to it. A brief history. Started in the 13th century it was added to as time went by and became a hugely important economic and military base. It became the seat of the Great Masters of the order and was the base from which crusades were launched into Lithuania and other places. It was also a centre of renown for its feasts, games and tournaments.These attracted Knights from all over Europe.

An external view of the castle.

An external view of the castle.

Following the crisis of the monastic orders of the time, and the Polish Peasants’ Revolt, it changed hands to the Polish kings in 1457 and then to the Prussian empire in 1772 when they conquered the western part of Poland. It fell into disrepair during this time but was refurbished in the 19th/20th centuries. Unfortunately it was badly damaged during WWII but has been restored since and is a major tourist attraction. As well as the castle itself visitors can also see an amazing collection of objets d’art made from Amber, which was heavily mined in the area.
Amber is a semi-precious stone that was formed over the millenia from tree resin which was them compressed into rock. It was mined for its beauty and medicinal properties. The Teutonic Knights relied on it for a large part of the income they derived from this area.

The castle after WWII.

The castle after WWII.

I spent about three hours walking round the castle with an excellent audio guide to explain everything.There are many interesting features there, especially the huge refectory, and several collections of military, archaeological and general history, as well as the aforementioned amber.
I like a castle, and this one is fabulous, but as well as that I began to learn something of Poland’s early history and started to make links between that and some things I’d learned elsewhere, especially Czechia.

The huge and impressive Refectory where the Knights entertained visiting dignitaries.

The huge and impressive Refectory where the Knights entertained visiting dignitaries.

Wall decorations.

Wall decorations.

Warm air central heating, even in the 14th century.

Warm air central heating, even in the 14th century.

If you thought amber was just a traffic light colour, think again.

If you thought amber was just a traffic light colour, think again.

A fascinating interval on my journey south but a warm hostel beckoned and I needed to move on.

Germany Calling (me back)!

Dresden, Germany.  14th May 2014.

I was now heading towards a part of Germany I had never before visited. Not that I’ve been to Germany often, but I did enjoy a ten day tour there in the early eighties as roadie for my favourite RnR band, The Flying Saucers. At that time Dresden, which used to be in the DDR, was strictly off limits. Not now though, and it was time to see what delights it had to offer.
Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony, so many of us from the UK could feel at home there, depending on much Anglo-Saxon blood we wish to claim. And it’s true to say that I found the city to have a relaxed feel to it, helping me to feel relaxed too. The hospitality at Kangaroo Stop Hostel was certainly good. It has its own yard, which means you don’t have to park on the road, but better than that Liane, the owner, offered me the use of a garage in which to put my bike. Now that really was useful for the peace of mind it gave.

The very hospitable Kangaroo Stop hostel

The very hospitable Kangaroo Stop hostel

Dresden has two main areas, the Altstadt and the Neustadt, the Old City and the New. The Aldstadt is where all the historic buildings are to be found and was the area worst affected by the Allied bombing of WW2. The Neustadt, where kangaroo Stop is located, was nowhere near as bad so is still 19th century original whereas the Aldstadt had to be rebuilt after the war, so isn’t.
The nice thing about this, once you get your head around the confusion, is that the Neustadt has a nice easy going, slightly shabby air to it. It has lots of apartments and smaller houses and is full of little bars, bistros and music clubs. Many of the people tend to have a punk/hippie/new age type approach to their appearance. Mixed in with them are what you might regard as ‘ordinary’ people – young mothers with children and so on. The thing is that everyone lives together and the area reminds me of London before gentrification got hold of it. There’s a lot of stylish graffiti which was, I’m told, a way of reacting to the grey old Soviet style of life when the wall came down. Street drinking is legal in Germany and people sit around chatting and whiling away their time, enjoying a beer in the evening. Whatever the reason, this part of the city looks comfortable and accessible.
The hostel was very welcoming with a great common room which had a tree trunk sitting in the middle of it. It looked funky and I thought it was a great idea. A very nice kitchen and dining area complemented the lounge. There was a guy already in my dorm when I arrived, a young Dutch guy named Joost. He was from Rotterdam and was on a four week tour of Europe. We hit it off and decided to team up for the evening. Wandering around the streets, we came across a Russian restaurant. Time to get some practice in, I thought, so we went in. I enjoyed a dish that translates as ‘Something From Grandmother’s Oven’, which turned out to be a stew and was really nice.

Funky living area at Kangaroo Stop.

Funky living area at Kangaroo Stop.

Blue pies coming out of the ground. Nobody knew what they were for.

Blue pies coming out of the ground. Nobody knew what they were for.

While we were walking from the hostel I noticed these strange blue pipes coming out of the ground, going along the street for a short distance, then disappearing back down again. I asked the guy on reception what they were for and he said they carry water but didn’t really know why they were there. Speculation suggested the ground was unsuitable for the pipes. Maybe unexploded bombs, was the thought.
Joost is well educated and chatty and we enjoyed talking through some of the issues of the day. It’s great to get points of view from a different age group and especially from a different country. He works in the energy supply industry and made some interesting comments regarding how it’s run and some of the issues surrounding alternative energy supply.
Back at the hostel we were relaxing and chatting to some of the other people there. At the same time, over in one corner of the room, was a group of four or five Canadian twenty somethings. They were drinking and chatting, putting the world to rights etc. But the thing that struck me was that they didn’t interact with anyone else in the room at all. They were a self contained group. It struck me as a perfect example of the difference between travelling alone and in a group. How you’re far less likely to meet other people and learn about their lives if you don’t have to.

Funky car centre.

Funky car centre.

Lively suburbs.

Lively suburbs.

Sightseeing beckoned next day so it was off to the Aldstat to see what sort of job they’d made of ‘re-olding’ it after the bombing.
En route to the old city I passed the Golden Reiter (Golden Rider) statue. This is described, by the nicely anarchic tourist map, as an ‘oversized golden statue in Roman garb sitting atop a fat stallion’ Couldn’t have put it better myself. This is a statue of August the Strong, Elector of Saxony. He is facing towards Poland, of which he was also king.
The first thing to find out was why the rulers of Saxony were called Electors. I discovered it’s because they were entitled to help elect the Holy Roman Emperor. He was a kind of regional overseer of Northern Italy and most of the German Princedoms. The first one was Charlemagne, crowned by the Pope in 800. As time went by the position became an elected one, usually but not always with the Pope’s approval. The power of the position very often depended on the quality of the alliances the Emperor made and it’s strength waxed and waned over the centuries. The position was eliminated by Napolean when he marched into the area in the early 19th century. I loved the irony of the ruler of Saxony, home of Martin Luther, being involved in appointing a Catholic representative though.

Golden rider on a fat stallion, as the locals refer to him.

Golden rider on a fat stallion, as the locals refer to him.

First view of the rebuilt Auldstat as I crossed the bridge.

First view of the rebuilt Auldstat as I crossed the bridge.

Heading across the bridge I came to the Aldstat. Most of the historic buildings here were severely damaged by bombing and many of them were left by the communist regime as ‘a memorial to the war’. People I spoke to reckon it was simply because there was no money. Those that were rebuilt have mostly had to be done again since reunification, partly because of the poor quality of the work and partly to allow access for people with disabilities. Excellent work has been done and it is still ongoing.
My first port of call was the Residenzschloss, home of Kings and Electors from 1458 to 1918. Within are a number of museums. I decided to visit the Treasure Chamber, which contains a collection of artefacts collected by August the Strong and a huge collection of jewellery and other precious pieces also collected by him.
The first gallery contained items that he had brought back from his battles with the Ottoman Empire. He was involved in the relief of the Siege of Vienna in 1683 and brought back spoils of war. Most of the collection thouggh were diplomatic gifts brought during the many territorial negotiations between the Ottoman and the Hapsburg Empires. There was quite a fashion at that time, once the Ottomans had been defeated, for Turkish style arms and accoutrements of war and August had an amazing collection of suits of armour, swords, muskets, saddles, tents etc. There was also a display of the history of weaponry from the period. An incredible collection all round.
The next gallery focussed on his collection of precious objects. Boy, did this guy know how to spend money! Although, as before, some of them were diplomatic gifts, most were pieces he commissioned from local gold and silver smiths and other makers of decorative models. There were unbelievably detailed and decorated cups, cabinets and ceramics. There was a model of a 16th century ship in full sail, entirely made from ivory; an amazingly detailed model of an Indian Nabob holding court with very decorative figures arranged in the way they would have been in real life, princes, soldiers, courtiers, servants. All carved in exquisite detail in gold, silver and precious stones. The most amazing piece was a green diamond, about the size of a walnut, in a setting of 141 other diamonds. It gets its green colour from natural radiation and is completely unique. A real jewel among jewels.

No photos allowed, but I sneaked this one of the 147 carat diamond.

No photos allowed, but I sneaked this one of the 147 carat diamond.

Lots going on in this nice painting.

Lots going on in this nice painting.

It’s almost impossible to describe how fantastic this collection is, not only in the range and quality of the pieces but also in the number of them – over 1,000.
Further galleries contained collections of paintings and sculptures dedicated to, for reasons I didn’t quite understand, Dionysus, god of the grape harvest. All of them very good and interesting. Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed but I did manage to sneak a couple, at risk of being thrown off the battlements.

I staggered out of there about three hours later, desperate for cake and coffee, those essential pick-me-ups.
I took a walk along the Bruhloche, the Balcony of Europe. It is alongside the River Elbe and was built on top of the old fortifications two hundred years ago. It passes in front of some of the major museums of the city.
I took a look inside the Frauenkirche, the cities cathedral. Rebuilt and reopened in 2005, it stands as a monument for peace and reconciliation. It has a very modern interior, with seating ranked in tiers against the circular external wall. I went up the tower and got a good look over the city. It’s surprising how much renovation work is still going on along with some archaeological work too. The old city isn’t very large and is surrounded by modern buildings although they don’t overpower it. I think the amount of post war reconstruction has had to be limited. Apart from anything else, the communist regime didn’t take on that task to the extent that the western cities did.
Photos of city
I started to head back but took a swing past the Zwinger. This is the name given to the outer ward of a concentric castle and is in the courtyard of another large museum complex. Good old August had it built in 1709 and it’s a significant example of Baroque architecture. It’s got lovely lawns and manicured gardens and used to be used as a fairground. I was able to walk up onto the terracing and admire the fountains and the collection of decorative statues. I was too late to visit any of the museums, unfortunately.

The gardens of the Zwinger.

The gardens of the Zwinger.

Zwinger fountains and statuary.

Zwinger fountains and statuary.

Back at the hostel I got chatting to a young American woman, Kelsey, who had just arrived. She’s studying mechanical engineering and had just finished a semester in Madrid. She speaks Spanish and is also doing a course in photography. Clever girl. The same cannot be said of her Mother, unfortunately. Kelsey had wanted to visit Prague but her Mother vetoed the idea as it’s too close to Ukraine. Yes, really! How amazing.
Joost came back in with Patrick, another guy we’d met there and I decided to raid the leftovers shelf in the fridge. Every hostel will have a ‘free shelf’ where people can leave food they don’t want to take with them when they go. I found some pasta and various other bits and pieces, enough to knock up a decent meal for all those present. It was appreciated by all.
Later Patrick, Joost and I went to a bar we’d been told about to sample the night life. One of the girls on reception told us of a place where a rock n roll band was due to play, ‘Definitely 50’s RnR’ she assured us. Hmmm. A kind of thrash metal with 50’s guitar riffs was the best they could do but some of the songs were quite amusing and they made a good sound for a three piece. I left them to it after a while and headed back for some sleep.
I enjoyed Dresden very much. It has much to offer the cultured traveller, with its ‘old’ buildings and the plentiful museums of different varieties. But I think its biggest strength lies in its attitude to its post communist freedom. It’s grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and taken a youthful, joyous, devil may care approach to sorting out the mess left behind. There’s definitely something for everyone here whatever your touristic needs might be. I really enjoyed it there.
One final piece of brilliance occurred the morning I left. Liane, the owner of the hostel chatted to me about how she came to start up the hostel and how its name came about. She used to be a civil engineer but got sick of the business side of her work, with its macho posturing, always chasing the latest toy. So, having travelled herself in the past, she decided to open a hostel herself. It was hard going, working all the tough hours and struggling financially but she made it in the end. And the name? Because of its large, flat tail, a kangaroo can’t go backwards and that was the attitude she took towards her project. What a great story. And she gave me a little kangaroo with a baby in its pouch as a good luck mascot. Named Mrs Skippy, she now sits proudly on the front of my bike along with Chris, my CAFC mascot teddy. Thanks Liane, I hope you continue to do well.

Mrs Skippy, next to Chris, my CAFC mascot.

Mrs Skippy, next to Chris, my CAFC mascot.

Berlin was my next destination but on the way there lies a small town called Colditz, which hadn’t escaped my attention. The most famous people connected with this place are the ones who did their best not to stay there very long. Colditz Castle was a used as a prisoner of war camp for ‘incorrigable’ escapees, mostly officers. The history of the castle is straight forward enough, having been built in the 16th century and used as a hunting lodge then an administration centre. It became a POW camp in 1939, reckoned to be escape proof because of its layout and location, up on a hill. In fact it had one of the highest number of successful escapes. Despite British TV’s obsession with it, the greatest number of successful escapees were French, with twelve, against eleven British. French prisoners were moved elsewhere in 1943. But the greater story lies in the attempts. The British made 117 attempts in total, some disguising themselves as soldiers, workers or even a woman in one case. They managed to secrete a radio up in the rafters which they used to listen to coded broadcasts. They were able to make replica uniforms, ID cards and all the things needed to get them from Colditz to Switzerland, which was the most common escape destination. From there it was through Vichy France and Spain.
The most amazing escape plan involved the construction of a glider. The plan was to fly it off the roof of the castle, over the defences and into a field near the river. It was never put into effect as the castle was liberated by the Americans before the chance came. Sadly, the glider was destroyed and only one photo of it remains to confirm its existence. Many years later the officer who designed it was able to redraw the plans and a scaled down version was made and flown successfully. Would the original have worked? We’ll never know but it’s an amazing example of the ingenuity of these prisoners.
The museum was full of letters, photos and examples of the false documents the prisoners made. We were guided round by a German guy with an amusing English accent, who new his stuff and told us all the stories. The most famous escapee was Airey Neave, who was sadly killed in the IRA Brighton bombing.
After the war the castle ended up in the Russian zone.

Colditz Castle, up on the hill.

Colditz Castle, up on the hill.

The layout of the castle.

The layout of the castle.

Entrance to one of the escape tunnels.

Entrance to one of the escape tunnels.

One of the prisoners pretending to be a German worker.

One of the prisoners pretending to be a German worker.

German motorways are smooth and easy so Berlin came up quite quickly after leaving Colditz. I was booked into a hostel called Inn Berlin and the owner had left the key out for me in a secure box as he wasn’t able to be there when I arrived. This hostel was a converted office complex and Ralph is another person who’s left the rat race to, not follow his dream exactly, but to do something different.
I’ve been to Berlin before, in 1983 when it was still a divided city. The one thing I remember about it was the atmosphere. There was a real buzz about the place, with people seemingly living life at ninety miles an hour. I wondered how it would feel second time around.
Inn Berlin has comfortable beds and good facilities. Ralph rides a Harley Davidson when he has time and he dealt with my concerns about parking the bike by inviting me to put it in the underground garage of the office block. Warm, dry and secure, I couldn’t ask for more. Thanks Ralph!
Berlin is a big city and doesn’t have a city centre as such. Rather, it has various areas that reflect different aspects of it. I was planning to spend several days there so was happy to take my time about looking around. Ralph had given me a tourist map of the city and had shown me where all the main areas to visit were. His hostel is within ten minutes or less of the S-Bhan, the U-Bhan and the trams. Buses ran right outside. The great thing with Berlin is the transport system, which is extensive and varied. You can buy a ticket that covers you for a journey or a weeks worth of them and one ticket covers all modes. You can pay a bit extra and get one that includes discounts on museum entry fees too. Very tourist orientated. I bought a seven day ticket for just under EU30 and made good use of it.
One thing I had to satisfy my curiosity about was what the ‘S’ in S-Bhan stands for. Nothing at all it seems. The U-Bhan was there first, the U standing for Untergrundbahn, the German word for underground. The S was adopted simply to match the U, that’s all. Very prosaic.
Continuing my theme of digging into a city’s past, my first visit was to the Brandenburg Gate. Trapped behind the Berlin Wall until 1989, it had been cleaned up and restored to its former 18th century glory. The gate was originally one of several in Berlin’s ‘Custom Wall and a rebuild was commissioned by Friedrich Willhelm II to represent peace. It was undertaken between 1788 and 1791, replacing the earlier simple guard houses each side of the original gate in the Customs Wall. The Gate consists of twelve Doric columns, six to each side, forming five passageways. Citizens originally were allowed to use only the outermost two on each side, with the others reserved for royalty. On top of the gate is the Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses driven by Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory. However, the new gate was originally named the Peace Gate and the goddess could then also be interpreted as Eirene, the goddess of peace.
The gate’s design is based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens and is consistent with Berlin’s history of architectural classicism. The Gate was the first “Athens on the River Spree” by architect Carl Gotthard von Langhans. The capital Quadriga was sculpted by Johann Gottfried Schadow.
That’s a precis of what Wikipedia says about it. All I know is that it’s tall, wide and looks great now it’s been cleaned and repaired, especially compared to how it looked when I used to see it on TV stuck behind the Berlin Wall. It’s a fitting centre piece for the reinstated capital city. The Paritzer Platz, in which the gate sits, has also been refurbished and is a fitting site for this monument.

The very impressive Brandenberger Tor.

The very impressive Brandenberger Tor.

As capital of Prussia, Berlin was renowned for its willingness to adopt enlightenment attitudes during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the Gendarmenmarkt sit two very large churches, almost identical in design and facing each other across the square. They exist because the French protestant Huguenots, under threat of persecution in the 17th century, were invited to Berlin by The Great Elector Freidrich III and assisted by him in building a church. The Huguenots tended to be skilled artisans and craftsmen so were able to enhance trade in the city. Of course, to be fair to his Prussian subjects, Freidrich had to cover the cost of building a new church for them too, so the two buildings, known as the French and German Cathedrals now face each other across the square. It’s rumoured that the German one is a metre taller than the French one, just to maintain the correct relationship.

First of the pair.

First of the pair.

First of the pair.

Second of the pair.

Not far away in the Bebelplatz is the Humboldt University. As well as being a fine building, it was the first university in Europe to combine learning with research amongst its scholars and scientists. It opened in 1810 and has since produced 29 Nobel Prize winners.
In the River Spree there is an Island, the northern half of which is known as Museum Island. Surprisingly, it’s got several museums on it. Well I never! There are five all told, with build dates from 1830 to 1930. The most famous is probably The Pergamon, with a huge collection of classical and archaeological items. I won’t go into further details as I didn’t visit any of them, but anyone who has the time to visit will easily be able to find out what’s where.
The one place I did visit on Museum Island was the Berliner Dom, the Berlin Cathedral. This building replaced earlier ones on the site and had been in the planning stage throughout most of the 19th century, from the time Napoleon left Berlin in 1814. Lack of money meant lack of any progress and it wasn’t until the late 19th century, several architects and their rejected designs and the reign of Kaiser Willhelm II that things got going. It was finally completed in 1905. It was said that the Kaiser fancied himself as having some architectural skill and influenced some of the design. Whether or not this is true this building is gobsmackingly fancy, both inside and out. It ‘enjoys’ a high neo-renaissance style but with baroque and classical elements as well. All of that would mean something if you were standing there looking at it. I can only offer you photos.

'Decorative' barely covers it.

‘Decorative’ barely covers it.

Entrance into an amazing interior.

Entrance into an amazing interior.

The interior is beautiful and has a fantastic altarpiece, the altar itself and the ceiling paintings are all wonderful too. The organ is amazing, with 7269 pipes and is regarded worldwide as the most important intact instrument with pneumatic action from the Romantic period. All in all it’s an amazing building and I particularly like the fact that as well as the usual religious figures, on top of four of the interior columns stand statues of enlightenment and reformist luminaries – Calvin, Zwingli, Luther and Melanchthan. I went for a walk up to the balcony on the exterior of the dome for some great views over Berlin.
Maybe one of the most heartening aspects of this building was its post war reconstruction. The dome was badly damaged by bombing and the East Germans put on a temporary roof. In 1975 a proper reconstruction was started but this was a joint effort between East and West Berlin, with money and craftsmen from both sides of the city, in truth more money from West than east. A cynic would say that the encouragement for the East German authorities was the flow of much needed Marks from the West but even so, it was a major step in the thawing and normalising of relations between the two halves of a divided country and city.

The incredible altar piece.

The incredible altar piece.

The world renowned organ.

The world renowned organ.

My next cultural visit was to the German History Museum. I didn’t get there as early as I would have liked so left myself slightly short of time to see everything. In fact the staff were ushering me out of the door by 17.50 so they could clock off on time at 18.00. Regardless, I saw all I needed to understand the complexities of the German progression from their start in about 100BC to 1994, just after reunification. Do you want to know? OK, here’s the brief run down.
While there were various tribes in the area from pre-Roman times, it is really only late in the first millennium that the region started to gain its modern shape . Charlemagne was appointed the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 and this empire shaped not only Germany but many of the countries around it too. Local rulers were entitled to elect the holder of this position and as Medieval times progressed the independent states started to work more closely in common cause. The Hanseatic League was founded in the 12th century and brought together Guilds and other merchants. Their purpose was to protect trade routes and, more importantly, the trade ports of the North and Baltic Seas. They would negotiate special agreements with monarchs and city state leaders for favourable terms, such as removal of tolls or duties. The league quickly took control of the Baltic Sea, eliminating the threat of Scandinavian pirates and enabled its members, and those with whom they traded, to prosper. The cities of Lubeck and Hamburg, both on the north coast, started it off and eventually even towns and cities in England had joined it.
So Germany slowly changed from a collection of medieval independent states into a more coherent whole, although still with regional rulers, Princes and Electors. Often these rulers would have control over parts of other countries, such as Czechia and Poland.
And then Martin Luther popped up. The Protestant movement set in train events which led to religious wars in various parts of the region over the next one hundred years or more. Wars sap the strength of cities and regions, give rise to new power groupings and slow down or stop trade. The new protestant Swedish empire grew in strength and sounded the death knell for the Hanseatic League by gaining control of the Baltic Sea. German Princes fought on different sides of the religious divide at various times. It took the eventual invasion by Napoleon, and his defeat, to kick start the process which eventually led to a confederation of German states. Lack of democracy and social unrest led to revolution and finally, in 1871, the German Empire was formed as a Constitutional Monarchy. And the rest, as somebody famous once said, is history.
So now you’re up to date with the historical news, what comes next?

Street level view of the Holocaust Memorial.

Street level view of the Holocaust Memorial.

How it looks from down below.

How it looks from down below.

I moved forward to more recent times and go to see the Holocaust Memorial. It consists of 2711 rectangular concrete blocks, all the same shape and smoothly polished, laid out in rows with criss cross walkways in between them. What I didn’t realise at first is that the walkways slowly drop down meaning that I slowly dipped below the level of the top of the blocks as I walked in among them. By going in a straight line I came back out again at the other end although by constantly turning left and right I could have stayed among them as long as I wanted. The sculptor has deliberately made no comment as to what the blocks represent. He wants the individual to interpret them as they see fit. For me, as I walked down among them I saw the light from the sky narrowing and a feeling of oppression grew, as if entering into a place from which I might never escape. Hope started to fade, just as it would if I was being forcibly taken away from the places and people I loved. Impressive!
The only other WW2 related place I visited was when I walked past the former Luftwaffe Headquarters. This building was erected by the Nazis in the 1930’s and followed their love for the Neo-Classic style. The problem was that it lacked any of the decorative flourishes of that style so was really just Neo-Brutal. It’s now the headquarters of the German Inland Revenue – how apt.

Former Lufftwaffe HQ, now the tax office. Dropping a different kind of bombshell.

Former Lufftwaffe HQ, now the tax office. Dropping a different kind of bombshell.

As a city, Berlin has two stories to tell. The first is that of the pre-20th century city, capital of the Prussian Empire then of Germany; city of enlightenment and culture. The second is the one many of us are more familiar with, that of its 45 years as the front line in the cold war.
At the Potsdam Agreement of 1944, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt decided how Germany would be managed post war and which country would control which area. Berlin lay within the Russian area of control but it was decided that the city would also be divided into four zones, the fourth being run by France. When the city fell and the war ended, this agreement was put into effect with co-operation seeming to work reasonably well. People could move around fairly freely from one zone to another. But the Allied agreements gradually broke down with the Soviets beginning to impose collectivism in their region and the British, Americans and French effectively doing the opposite by combining their zones into one and introducing local administration. Berliners’ freedom of movement was curtailed and the situation deteriorated further when, in response to the introduction of the Deutsch Mark in the allied areas of Germany, and West Berlin’s demands to be allowed to use it, the Russians closed all access routes from West Germany into Berlin. Thus the Berlin Blockade began on 14th June 1948. The Allied areas of Berlin already relied on the Russians for much of it’s food, water and energy, so the blockade was potentially devastating and the Russian authorities fully expected the Allies to cave in. They were confident the end result would be a communist Germany. But they’d reckoned without the ‘Candy Bombers’. This was the name given to the deliverers of food and supplies to the stranded West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. By the time the blockade was lifted in May 1949 the airlift was delivering more supplies to Berlin than had previously arrived by rail and road. The combined efforts of the US Airforce, along with the RAF, Sth African, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand Airforces, delivered up to 9,000 tons of supplies daily during over 200,000 flights. Russia gave in.
Why Candy Bombers? As well as delivering supplies, some of the pilots started to drop packets of sweets, attached to handkerchief sized parachutes, to the children watching the planes’ arrival from the end of the runway. American children, and then manufacturers, started contributing sweets to the operation and it became a major propaganda success. No comments from German dentists have been recorded.
The success of the airlift directly led to the formation of two Germany’s, the communist GDR (German Democratic Republic) and the Federal Republic of Germany. Berlin was now a divided city. It demonstrated to any doubters that the West was serious about supporting a democratic Germany and accelerated the formation of a German government. I think it’s true to say that the Soviets learned a lesson about the laws of unintended consequences.
As the differences between communist East Germany and democratic West Germany grew many East Germans migrated to the west via Berlin. East Berlin found itself losing thousands of residents to the west. In fact this was happening all over the GDR and the authorities were very concerned at the loss of labour. Approximately 3.5 million people took the decision to leave, 20% of the East German population. Many of these were well educated so East Germany was suffering a real brain drain. The GDR’s solution? Build a wall.
On the night of 13th August the barbed wire was rolled out across and around the city and the 28 year division of Berlin had begun.
In less than a week the barbed wire was replaced by a solid wall. It lay just inside the East Berlin border and did not encroach into West Berlin anywhere. Streets next to the wall were cleared and made inaccessible. It’s necessary to realise that the wall didn’t just divide the city, it completely surrounded it, a distance of around 160km. West Berlin was now an island of freedom in a sea of repression. Families and friends were divided by this unnatural barrier and the world outside watched and waited to see how things would develop at this new concrete frontier of the cold war stand off.

The rather naff mock-up of Checkpoint Charlie.

The rather naff mock-up of Checkpoint Charlie.

The excellent historical display on a section of wall.

The excellent historical display on a section of wall.

For visitors to the city there is plenty still to see despite the wall having been almost entirely removed since that wonderful day in November 1989 when East Germans were unexpectedly given permission to cross to West Berlin without restriction. On their way across they decided to take the wall with them (figuratively) and it wasn’t long before most of it had been demolished. But the city authorities soon realised the historical significance of what was left and preserved some sections. I visited some of the best known sites and was able to get a deeper understanding of events. Although I was only ten when the wall went up there were plenty of notable events that occurred over the years which I remember seeing in the news as I grew up. The various sites I visited brought many of them back to me. Here’s an overview of what I saw.

East Berliners heading west.

East Berliners heading west.

En Masse!

En Masse!

Checkpoint Charlie. This crossing point became infamous as the place where spies were exchanged between East and West on dark drizzly nights, especially in John Le Carre novels. A nicely alliterative name surely chosen for just such a purpose? Its reality is a bit more mundane. There were three crosiing points in the wall, A,B and C. Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Charlie was the one used by diplomats and approved forces representatives. After the wall was built A and B didn’t get used very much because of the restrictions on travel placed by East Germany but C carried on as normal. But in October 1961 it earned a greater notoriety than anything any novelist could give it.
East Berlin border guards decided to stop approved military vehicles from the West and to check the occupants’ ID. This was against standing agreements and it upset the Americans greatly. The US General in charge ordered that tanks be brought up to the checkpoint to underline their right to cross. The Soviets did the same. Stand off! All tanks had live ammunition and all had orders to fire if fired upon. World war three may have been about to start in an urban street in Berlin rather than a sunny Caribean island! It took phone calls between Presidents Kennedy and Kruschev to reach an agreement which was that the Americans would withdraw their tanks when the Soviets withdrew theirs. The Russian tanks moved back, but only by five metres. So the Americans did the same. After a while, another five metres and so on until all tanks had been withdrawn. It took sixteen hours before sighs of relief could finally be breathed. Who needs a novelist when real life can be so tense?
There is still a checkpoint at the same location but it’s only a mock up for tourists and the soldiers on duty are  actors. But just around the corner is a small museum which has a long line of information panels telling the story of the wall. That’s well worth a visit. Not too far away is a 200 metre section of wall that has been preserved and also has a series of panels telling the story, not only of the wall but also of the rise of Nazism. Behind it the ground had been dug out to show the foundations of the houses that were knocked down to make way for the wall.
Wall Memorial Sites. Within walking distance of my hostel is the railway bridge at Bornholmer Strasse. It’s a road bridge across the railway lines and has some interesting information panels about the escape attempts made across it, including the 1989 photos shown above.
A train ride from there took me too the Berlin Wall memorial at Bernau Strasse. Arriving at Nordbahnhof station is an education it itself. Inside the main concourse is a very informative display about what happened with the Berlin transit system when the wall went up. Some of the lines that served West Berlin ran under the east. The stations on them that were in East Berlin were closed up and all surface signs of them were removed. Local residents pretty much forgot about them.Any shared platforms were walled up and guards were posted on the platforms of the closed stations to prevent East Berliners using them as an escape route. Quite a few managed to do so, some of whom were the guards. So the authorities felt they had to lock the platform guards into their observation posts and monitor them for the duration of their shift. Guarding the guards – you couldn’t make it up!
Berlin Wall memorial. On the surface, on Bernau Strasse, is the main memorial area. It includes sections of wall that have survived and a 1km long display of wall history made up of some archaeological displays of buildings that were torn down, some sections of wall and displays showing were the electric fences ran and such things as the walkways for the guards. There are also markers on the ground to show the lines of escape tunnels that were dug, some successfully, by escapees. There is a display board with photos of the 136 East Germans who died while trying to escape. The border guards had shoot to kill instructions and, sadly, usually followed them. There is one remaining section, which is closed off, that has both inner and outer sections of wall still standing. They are about 40 metres apart, which is a fairly typical distance. A watchtower has been re-erected inside it so the visitor can get a good idea of what it used to look like from the observation platform opposite.
One of the unique features of Bernau Strasse was its key role as an escape route when the wall first went up. It had apartment blocks along it, the front walls of which were part of the wall. People used to escape simply by climbing out of the ground floor windows. As soon as they touched the ground they were in West Berlin. Before long the authorities bricked up all ground floor access points so then people jumped from first or second floor windows. The West Berlin fire brigade would wait outside the buildings every night waiting to catch the escapees. All windows were then bricked up and eventually the blocks were pulled down. Even then, the proximity of the street to the wall encouraged escapees to focus their efforts in the area, especially regarding tunnels.
Continuous Improvement. Right up to the late 1980’s the East German authorities were constantly ‘improving’ the wall by upgrading its features and making it ever more difficult to cross. One of the major steps was to build a second wall inside the first one so that there was a gap of anything up to 40 metres for escapees to cross. Between them would be electric fences, free running guard dogs, guard patrols, vehicle traps and many other devices. For all that, people still tried to escape and far too many died in the attempt.
The Berlin city authorities have installed a double line of large, darker coloured cobblestones into the ground which follow the exact line of the wall. It is there to be followed as a hiking or cycling trail for the really keen.

One of the display panels in Nordbahnhof Station.

One of the display panels in Nordbahnhof Station.

Follow the line of the wall. All 160kms of it.

Follow the line of the wall. All 160kms of it.

A preserved section of wall at Bernauer Strasse.

A preserved section of wall at Bernauer Strasse.

 

‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner’. So said John F Kennedy when he visited West Berlin in June 1963. The full quote is this: “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum – I am a Roman citizen. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
This speech was aimed at both West Berliners and the Soviet Union to show that America was not about to march out of West Germany, as many free Germans feared and the

Those who died at the hands of the East German border guards.

Those who died at the hands of the East German border guards.

Soviets hoped, and regarded Berlin as the front line in the cold war.
East Side Gallery. Down by the river Spree, there is a gallery formed from a 1.3km long section of the original inner wall which, in 1990, was given over to a number of artists from all over the world. There are 105 paintings spread along in based on the theme of Freedom and Peace. They were painted in an atmosphere of celebration and hope. Many of them are in poor condition although some have been refurbished. There is controversy about some of the actions that have been taken over the years but as a visitor I was unaware of any of this. All I saw was a series of incredible works of art, of great imagination and with a message that resonated with the time, the place and with me. The photos show just how amazing some of them are. It was very hard to select ‘the best’ so I’m afraid you’re getting a large selection. Feel free to choose your own.

P1000980

P1000988

P1010004

P1010006

P1010012

P1010014

P1010018

P1010023

While I was in Berlin I was able to catch up with an old friend from the Orange Tree days. Segun had moved to Berlin four or five years ago having worked in a few interesting places, including Greenland, plying his trade as an architect. One of his hobbies had always been photography and he took the opportunity to set himself up as a professional – and I have to say how impressive his portfolio is. He had very kindly agreed to accept a package from home for me which contained some important papers I needed. It was great to catch up after so long and we had a great night out along with his lovely girlfriend Stefanie. She’s very attractive and speaks perfect English. He’s really enjoying life in Berlin and it’s easy to see why. We all enjoyed a great Sushi meal and had a good laugh. Just what I needed. Thanks for acting as post office for me Segun and I hope to get back to Berlin to see you both sometime soon. In the meantime I wish you every success

Segun and his lovely girlfriend Stefanie.

Segun and his lovely girlfriend Stefanie.

Talking of packages, our wonderful, shiny, newly privatised Royal Mail decided that the best route for a package to Germany was via Ireland. It took a week to get there. What a useless bunch.
At the hostel I’d met a very friendly Japanese guy called Tyoshi. He was in Berlin to go to a Peter Gabriel concert. He’s travelled all over Europe, including the UK, just to see him perform. Very keen and he reminds me of someone else I know. She will remain nameless!
There was a good mix of people at the hostel and it’s always great to hear their stories. Some are very widely travelled and I’ve picked up a few contacts too.
I also enjoyed Ralph’s company. We had some interesting conversations about Germany, its economy and the world in general. Never again will I ever feel the need to say ‘I really must get out more’.

Before I leave, the answer to the blue pipe mystery. There were some of them in Berlin too and I learned that they’re used to pump water out of excavation sites where the water table is high enough to cause problems.

Berlin has blue pipes too.

Berlin has blue pipes too.

Making gold from old. One of the funkier sights in Berlin.

Making gold from old. One of the funkier sights in Berlin.

So I leave Berlin this time with a feeling of joy for its people, who seem to have found peace and happiness in their reunification. They look to be enjoying life, are tolerant of visitors and the city itself looks wonderful. I enjoyed my time there enormously and would love to go back. If you like cities, you’ll love Berlin. If you don’t like cities, you’ll still love Berlin. Book a flight or a ferry and go see for yourselves.

What next for me? The Road to Freedom beckons.

…….. And finally Czeching out.

Pilsen, Czech Republic. 11th May 2014.

Imagine that 1970’s scene. A cinder covered oval track. Four bikes at the start tape, waiting for the flag. Four methanol burning, fire breathing, four valve, 500cc single cylinder engines, exhaust noise splitting the night air, the smell of Castrol R wafting across the track. One gear, no brakes, acceleration faster than a Formula One car and riders with balls the size of bricks. And all of those engines would have been made by JAWA Motorcycles.
Remember this? The results sheets from your local scrambles track swiftly changing, as the ‘60’s wore on,, with AJS, BSA, Triumph and Norton being replaced by CZ, that annoying manufacturer of two strokes from Czechoslovakia. It was enough to make a BSA sales manager weep.
I remember the rise of JAWA and CZ in the 60’s and 70’s so there was no way I was going to leave CZ without visiting one of the museums set up to celebrate them. Although starting life as two companies, JAWA/CZ became one in 1948 under communist rule and that was when their racing successes began. Most of their output was two stroke commuter bikes in the case of CZ, or larger workhorse two and four strokes in the case of JAWA. British motorcyclists looked down on them and the riders who appreciated the cheap motorcycling they provided. But there was no denying the changes they wrought on the racing scene. CZ was eventually sidelined by the Japanese manufacturers, who often copied their successful designs, only more cheaply. The manufacture of JAWA speedway engines continued under a separate company when the main factory folded. CZ no longer make motorcycles.
Some internet research led me to decide that Kamen castle was likely to be the best of the three museums to visit, mainly because its website didn’t say ‘No Photos’ and it was easiest to get to.
I’d left Cesky Krumlov that morning in drizzly rain, which suited my mood. I had enjoyed my stay there, one of the reasons being the nice woman who ran Hostel Skippy, where I stayed. She was of Chezch/Cuban origin and had dark complexion and brown eyes to match. She was the kind of person who touches your arm and looks deep into your eyes as she talks to you. She was a jazz singer as well as a hostelier and I could imagine……. Well, I could just imagine, that’s all!
So I pushed on northwards in the blustery drizzle. I met four guys on Harley Davidsons at one point and we rode along together for a while until they decided to blast off into the distance. Thanks for the company guys.
When I got to Kamen Castle I found the museum but had the impression there wasn’t much else to see. To some extent a castle is a castle is a castle and this one was definitely a minor royal in the castle nobility rankings. But filling spare space with motorcycles has always struck me as being a good idea and the JAWA/CZ collection was worth seeing, not only for the technical interest but also the reminiscence value. I refer you to my first paragraphs.Annoyingly this museum also had signs saying ‘No photographs’. But the young female custodian didn’t seem too bothered when I got my camera out so I snapped away happily. The collection seemed to represent most models from across the years, including the racing and speedway bikes, but there was one big old V twin that caught my eye. It’s from 1910 and I thought at first it was some kind of tractor or even a road roller. In fact it was used to help cyclists achieve speed records. The cyclist would ride up against the bar across the back of the bike, which rotated, and the bike and rider would shield him from the headwind, so enabling a higher speed. As far as I know this method is still used today although I suspect a modern cyclist would be able to travel faster than this old bike ever could.

A road racing Jawa.

A road racing Jawa.

Raucous, methanol burning speedway bike.

Raucous, methanol burning speedway bike.

One of those all-conquering scrambles bikes.

One of those all-conquering scrambles bikes.

A rather weird contraption.

A rather weird contraption.

And here's what it did.

And here’s what it did.

Enough looking at them, time to ride mine. Tonight’s destination is to be Plzen, better known as Pilsen, home to Pilsner Lager. To be honest I’m not sure why I ended up going there because I was heading back to Prague next day. I think I had some plans to pop back into Germany but I’d changed my mind by then. But having booked a place in the hostel I stuck with it. One of the main sights to see in Plzen is the brewery but that didn’t appeal to this non drinker and I’d visited breweries before anyway. There are other cultural delights in Plzen but the hostel wasn’t all that close to them and the weather was still a bit damp so I took the rest of the day off.
Some hostels are great, some offer mixed standards and some are a bit naff. This is what I’ve come to learn at this point. The hostel in Plzen was just plain weird. When I got there the receptionist rang up her boss and then put me on the phone to him. I really couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me, mostly because he was outside somewhere and the connection wasn’t all that good. But I think he was trying to get me to stay somewhere else. How odd. He gave up in the end and the receptionist took my money and showed me the room. The place was rather run down, with broken kitchen units, lukewarm water and floors that needed sweeping. I realised that I was on my own there and I think it had possibly been closed ready for work to be done, hence the phone call from the owner. I was left to my own devices and asked to make sure I put the key back through the letterbox when I left in the morning.
I didn’t feel like walking round the town looking for an eatery and as luck would have it there was a place next door that supplied takeaway meals. Rather than being a shop, it was the kitchen that supplied the meals that had been ordered over the phone or the internet. I walked in there and they were happy to supply me with a pizza, big enough to feed me that evening and for breakfast. It’s surprising how things just fall into place sometimes.
Next day’s ride to Prague started out showery but it soon cleared up. I’d booked a hostel on the north west side of the city as there were a couple of sites I wanted to visit nearby. Staying in a hostel in Prague – how nice! How warm!
Pension Sprint turned out to be a modern building and I was able to park my bike on the entranceway. The owner Jakob was there, who spoke excellent English and after we’d chatted for a while he asked me if I was native English. When I said yes he asked me if I’d be able to help him with something. Jakob pilots light aircraft. He is also involved in pilot training. He asked me if I’d be prepared to read out some passages of writing for him to record. In return for this he’d upgrade me from a bed in a dorm to a twin room all to myself. It’s a deal!
All I had to do was to read out, as naturally as possible, some brief stories, all of which related to planes or flying. He uses these to help his pupils learn English well enough to be able to talk to air traffic control. The international flying language is English and he not only expects his pupils to speak it but be able to answer questions on the passages they’d learned to read too. It’s a similar regime to comprehension that I remember doing in English lessons at school. Later that evening we sat down and recorded the passages and Jakob declared himself satisfied. He has had other native English speakers do the same thing for him and what we’ve recorded will be used with an instruction manual he’s writing. He’ll even mention me and my journey, he told me. Fame at last! I offered to help him with proof reading too, if he wanted it.
We chatted generally about flying and I told him I’d always wanted to get a Private Pilot’s Licence. His opinion was not to bother. He said to take up gliding, it’s cheaper but more challenging. Hmm, food for thought!
It was great to have a room to myself and I was able to get some washing done and to have a sort out of my gear. Constant unpacking/repacking always means the occasional tidy up is needed.
My destination for the next day was Lidice, not far from Prague. Lidice was a small village of 503 inhabitants that suffered an unbelievable fate at the hands of the Nazis. After the assassination of Reinherd Heydrich, Deputy Reichs-protektor of Czechoslovakia in May 1942 by London trained Czech resistance soldiers, the Nazi regime was looking for revenge. For reasons still not fully understood they chose Lidice on which to take their revenge. Not only did they decide to murder or remove every inhabitant, they also decided to eliminate every trace of the village itself. 173 male inhabitants were lined up and shot, in groups of ten, by SS troops. All of the women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, were many died, and most of the children were sent to Chelmo camp where they were murdered. The exceptions were those chosen to be sent to families for ‘Germanification’ and babies under one year old.

Part of the tableau that forms the memorial wall.

Part of the tableau that forms the memorial wall.

A memorial sculpture of the Lidice children.

A memorial sculpture of the Lidice children.

The village itself was then razed to the ground, the foundations were dug up and the crops, fields and orchards were ploughed out. The village ceased to exist. Except that it didn’t. The Nazi’s action shocked the world. Other villages chose to change their name to Lidice and female babies were given the name too, and still have it. After the war the Czech authorities decided to build a new Lidice and to set up the old site as a memorial. This was were I went next.

Where the village used to stand. Nothing left!

Where the village used to stand. Nothing left!

There is a museum there and various memorials to those who died. The Nazis filmed their actions and it can be seen in the museum. There are also filmed interviews with some of the surviving children, some of whom were too young to remember their parents, others who ‘learned’ to forget Lidice at the hands of their German foster parents. In the end 143 Lidice women survived to return to the new village and 17 of the children were reunited with their mothers.
This story is tragic but largely unconnected to events in Britain although there is a link. The new village houses an art gallery, an important part of the Lidice memorial. A key figure in the ‘Lidice Shall Live’ movement was an English Doctor, and later MP for Stoke on Trent, Sir Barnett Stross.
He was well know in the art world and in 1966 Stross made an appeal to artists all over the world to mark the 25th anniversary of the Lidice tragedy with donations of art pieces in protest against bestial atrocities and violence, wherever they occured. His idea met with a strong response – in 1967-69 almost 350 artefacts by 264 artists from 28 countries were received.This included Berlin, itself suffering at the hands of a despotic regime at the time. All donated items are individual expressions of the free will of the artists, bound by neither theme, kind, material or technique. Hence, the collection is made of artefacts of various themes, forms and orientations. It was interesting to see the exhibits and some of them were very ‘out there’
Other villages suffered a similar fate under the Nazi’s. In 2008 the Oyaji Bikers visited Oradur Sur Glan, a French village where all the inhabitants were killed as an act of revenge for an attack on SS troops by resistance fighters. But that village was left standing and has been left as a memorial by the French government. There are others too but Lidice was the only one were the Nazis attempted to remove all traces of it.
Back at Pension Sprint I chatted with Jakob for a while but I had developed a cold so took the chance to get an early night. Tomorrow’s plan was to visit Terezin and then head for the hills, the ones that take me out of Czechia that is.
Terezin (Theresienstadt) is a garrison town that was built for the Austrian army in the mid 19th century. It was named in honour of Empress Maria Teresa and consisted of a citadel, the Small Fortress, and a walled town, the main Fortress. From the mid 19th century the small fortress was used as a military prison. The town lies in Sudenteland, the area of Czechoslovakia that was sacrificed in order to appease Hitler in 1938. When the Nazi’s took over the rest of Czechoslovakia they decided to take advantage of the ready made security of the town by setting up the Prague Gestapo Police Prison in the small fortress. This became on of the few Gestapo run concentration camps and it housed dissenters from and resisters to the Nazi cause. Most were only held temporarily before being tried and then moved on.But many died there because of the harsh conditions or the cruelty of the guards and any Jews were treated very badly. Some were simply summarily executed. 32,000 prisoners passed through there, of whom 5,000 were women.As time went by more and more of the prisoners were Jews, sent there from other camps, usually for breaching the rules in some way.
When the Nazi’s decided to put into effect their Final Solution they cleared the Czech citizens out of the rest of the town and turned it into a Jewish Ghetto, to where they transported Jews from other parts of Czechia and Europe. Most of these were the more cultured Jews, i.e. Intellectuals, artists, writers etc. Many of them were well known abroad. They were kept there because of their international status and the Nazis’ need to have some showing of consideration for their position in front of the world. Some had even earned decorations from Germany in WW1. They suffered poor food, poor sanitation and, as time went on, severe overcrowding leading to outbreaks of disease. When the overcrowding got too bad they simply sent a few thousand to Auschwitz for extermination.
The ghetto was visited by the Red Cross twice and on both occasions the Nazis tarted up the Ghetto, dressed people up nicely, especially the children, and forced the Jews to put on concerts and plays. Trouble makers were sent to Auschwitz, as were enough Jews to reduce overcrowding during the visits. The ruse worked because the Red Cross always wrote good reports.

A very rare example of the Gestapo using this dreadful phrase.

A very rare example of the Gestapo using this dreadful phrase.

One of the rooms at the fortress which would have housed dozens of captives.

One of the rooms at the fortress which would have housed dozens of captives.

At the end of the war, after the release of the Jewish inmates, the sad story of this camp continued. It’s an unfortunate fact that many German families had settled in Czechia over the previous centuries and some of these welcomed the Nazis, although most didn’t. But it was decided to deport all Germans and Terezin was used as a transit camp. The small fortress was used to house the war criminals among them.
A visit to the Small Fortress and the Ghetto Museum was on my list. They are the two places that explain the wartime history of the town. The fortress and the ghetto were separate entities in their daily running although people moved from one to the other. Sadly, rarely back again. It is simplest to buy a guide for the Small Fortress and use it to walk round the site. Each important building is numbered and then there’s an explanation about it in the guide. This meant I could take my time really understand what went on here. Needless to say, visiting a site such as this has its macabre side but everything is very well explained and the guide is well written. I think it’s very important to understand what went on and, for that reason, I was very pleased to see plenty of school kids there. It’s a moot point as to whether knowing about historical atrocities helps to discourage people from supporting future ones, but it’s right to increase awareness and understanding as much as possible. Start ‘em young!

The memorial to those who died at the Small Fortress.

The memorial to those who died at the Small Fortress.

On of the things I really likes at the Small fortress was a display of art. I saw some interesting sculptures, the kind of thing I’d like to be able to make myself. They look a bit thrown together but I have no doubt they’re not.

Crazy man, crazy!

Crazy man, crazy!

Another sculpture and some of the paintings.

Another sculpture and some of the paintings.

I rode round to the Ghetto Museum, had a chat with an English coach driver as I was parking up and went inside. There are two types of display in here. One is a series of information panels detailing the rise of Nazism and, in particular, that history from the Czech point of view. It’s greatest detail relates to the life of the Jews in the Ghetto. It tells how the Ghetto was run by a Jewish council, which had no choice but to carry out the orders of the Nazis, which were given orally. It also tells of how a facade of cultural life was maintained, both of these situations helping to convince the Red Cross, as previously mentioned.

Nicely sums up what all the suffering was about.

Nicely sums up what all the suffering was about.

The other part of the exhibition was artistic. There was a display of drawings made by the Ghetto children, depicting life as they experienced it. Sadly, most of those children died.
There are letters, diaries and photographs that somehow escaped the censors and they depict the horrors of daily life in the Ghetto – disease, deprivation, how the dead lay among the living for days before being removed. Really dreadful stories. 87,000 people were deported from Terezin to other camps. Only 3,600 survived. 34,000 died in the Ghetto or Small Fortress.

Paintings by the Ghetto children.

Paintings by the Ghetto children.

One of the displays I did enjoy was by an Israeli artist. He drew pictures relating to various events throughout Jewish history and quoted religious verses along side them which he believed related to the events. It helped me to a greater understanding of how Jews use their religious faith to help them understand the events in their history.
So that was Terezin. Well worth the visit as it depicted some specific events and showed a particular facet of the Nazi regime.
It was interesting how art was used at both Lidice and Terezin to try to heal the wounds. I have no idea how common this is but it struck me, at both places, as a good thing to do.
Leaving Terezin, I headed for the German border and my last act was to turn off the motorway to fill up with cheap Czech fuel. I was very amused to find a series of ‘Border Bonanza’ outlet stores, all selling goods which were clearly cheaper in Czechia than in Germany. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well!
And now I really was heading out of Czechia, a country I had really enjoyed spending time in. Its culture and history is rich, if at times tragic, but the people seem to have shaken off the misfortunes of Nazism and, in particular, Communism, and appear to be making great progress as part of the EU family. I started to learn much that was new to me about Central European history, which brought to life all those stone walls and statues. Everybody was welcoming and helpful to me and people show a real desire to make progress. It was an important cultural centre during its past history and it’s easy to see why.
Farewell Jakob and thanks for the nice room at Pension Sprint. I hope your book sells well.
Czechia I salute you!

………….. Czeching Around ………….

Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. 5th May 2014.

One of the things that bike riders never know about in a foreign country is how other road users will treat them. That may sound strange but it’s important to have a feel as to how much trust you can place in the actions of other road users. This isn’t simply about whether or not they obey the road rules, as much as anything else it’s about how bike riders are regarded by the other driver who, to some extent, has the bike rider’s safety in their hands. For instance, in the UK bike riders were clearly regarded as non-persons by many car drivers if the care and attention paid to them was anything to go by. Generally I think that situation has improved in recent years, perhaps due to a change in our image, although two non fault RTA’s in the last two years makes me wonder.

On the continent the situation is usually very different, with car/van/truck drivers leaving room for bike riders to make progress even if they can’t. I’m very pleased to say that Czechia falls into this latter category. As I headed out of Prague onto the motorway going south the traffic snarled up and came to a halt. ‘Time to find out,’ I thought to myself as I filtered down between two lanes of traffic. To my delight other drivers made every effort to move out of my way, enabling me to get to the front where the RTA had taken place and get away from the jam. ‘Well done Czech drivers,’ I thought, ‘I like your country even more now.’

A chilly 120km ride brought me to Hradec Kralove, a town on the confluence of the rivers Elbe and Orlice. I found the tourist information office easily enough and they found me a hotel just down the street. It’s attached to the ice hockey stadium and it was easy to see, by the style of the interior, that it was used for visiting players and student groups. The accommodation was a bit tatty but was OK and I got a twin room with breakfast for Kc650 – just under £20. So I settled in then went for a walk.

Hradrec Kralove is one of the many former garrison towns in Czechia and one of the attractions for visitors is the Fortress Walk, a stroll around the old town wall and fortifications. Armed with a map, I set off to see what I could see and wasn’t actually all that impressed. I suppose that brick walls and earth banks do have their fans bit I wasn’t one of them that day. So I headed back towards the town centre and just couldn’t raise much enthusiasm for what I saw.

But I’d worked up an appetite at least, so I went looking for something to eat. This town wasn’t Prague, where I’d become used to endless cafes, bistros and restaurants all ready to sell you a meal at the drop of a Koruna. Nowhere seemed open for food even though it was late afternoon. Finally I found a Chinese restaurant and managed to get something to my liking. Back at the hotel I caught up on my journal and blog then had an early night.

I think, to be fair, I was just tired after three cold nights in a tent and a lot of walking. So I’m sorry Hradec Kralove, maybe next time I’ll be more willing to scratch the surface a bit and find your delights.

Up and out on a much warmer day. Destination Olomouc but stopping off at Litomysl en route. Only 150km to cover today so plenty of time to enjoy some culture – if I could find it.
Litomysl is a very nice town, usefully bypassed by the main road so the wide, cobbled main street has plenty of parking and not much traffic. It’s fronted by buildings with an age range from the 15th century through to modern times. Many of them had arcade fronts which housed cafes as well as shops. The shops often had their goods displayed in the arcade and the main street had a relaxed and approachable air to it.

I found a cafe to sit and have one of those strong Czech coffees I’ve been getting used to and I enjoyed it so much I had a second. The tourist office supplied me with a brochure showing the town’s delights and, following the map, I rode round to the castle.

The wide, quiet main street in Litmosyl.

The wide, quiet main street in Litmosyl.

One of the oldest buildings in the main street, a Burgher's house.

One of the oldest buildings in the main street, a Burgher’s house.

The town of Litomysl  began as a hill fort in the 9th century, is on an old trade route between Bohemia and Moravia and a monastery was founded there in the 12th century. Soon after it was granted city status, a Bishopric was established, a castle was built and the town’s growth was assured. In the religious wars of the 14th century the castle and cathedral were burnt down and the town went through various ups and downs. In the late 16th century things were settled enough for a new castle and cathedral to be built on the site of the old ones.

I think at this stage it may be wise to give a brief overview of the areas that comprise the current Czech Republic because if you’re going to stick with me on my ride through this lovely country then these names are going to keep cropping up.

Czechia is a combination of Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia, most of the rest of which now lies in Poland. Since the 9th or 10th century there has been a Duke of Bohemia, later on a king. Bohemia was at first centered around Prague and came under the control of Marovia but as time went by the Duke of Bohemia conquered Moravia and Silesia and the area now known as Czechia came about. It was a very strong and powerful Kingdom in the middle ages but lost much of its power during the religious wars of the 15th century. Over time it became part of the Hapsburg empire. Wars with Prussia led to the loss of most of Silesia and with the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 Bohemia was absorbed into the Austrian Empire. There it remained until the end of WW1 when it joined with Slovakia. The rest, I think, you should know!

Litmosyl Cathedral.

Litmosyl Cathedral.

Back up on the hill I took a look inside the cathedral and it was clear that a major refurbishment project was under way. There wasn’t much to see there so I took a walk over to the castle. Built in the popular Renaissance style of chateau, it is set around an inner courtyard which is surrounded by porticoes and sgraffitoed facades. The upper floor has a balcony overlooking the courtyard. Some of the designs of the sgraffiti are based on religious scenes but most of them depict scenes from classic literature. They are stunning to look at and must have been the talk of the region when they were first revealed. The interior of the chateau was refurbished in the 18th century in the Baroque style.

This is what Sgraffito is.

This is what Sgraffito is.

A base layer of plaster then a second one that's carved in bas relief. Nice.

A base layer of plaster then a second one that’s carved in bas relief. Nice.

The only way to see inside the castle was by guided tour and one was due to start not long after I arrived. The only problem was that it would be in Czech, of which I speak not a word, but I was provided with an English translation of the information on each room. So the guide, two elderly women and I wandered around the interior, looking at the various rooms which had all been decorated and furnished in a variety of styles and colours. There was a fair bit of English pottery and furniture in use and it was obvious that the owners had set out to decorate and furnish each room in such a way as to make a statement with it.

The first place we went to was the indoor theatre. This could seat 115 people, with the family up on the balcony, their guests below and the servants ranged along the side on benches. Amongst the servants were chimney sweeps whose job it was to extinguish any fires that the theatre lights caused! Although not full sized, the stage was quite deep and it was clear that the productions would have been quite lavish. Having an indoor theatre was quite popular among the nobility at that time and this is one of the few remaining ones.

As we moved from room to room I was fascinated by the very large stone or iron stoves which were sited in the corner of most of them. You’d expect to see a door in the front of them but these were very decorative items and their integrity was retained by the simple method of feeding the stove from the back, via a passage behind the room which the servants used. Very ingenious I thought.

My favorite room was the Battle Room. Each wall contained one or two huge paintings of battle scenes which the occupant of the castle, Prince Eugene, had fought in at the beginning of the 18th century. They were very detailed and included battles against the Turks and the French. Needless to say, they were all battles that he had won. Strange, that. The captions above the paintings were written in French so it was the only part of the tour that I could actually understand.

Afterwards one of the women approached me and we chatted. She had been a teacher of English and had been in the UK many times. I asked her about the coming together of the Czech and Slovak countries. My assumption had always been that they were forced together by the communists. She told me I was wrong and that they had joined together when the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed at the end of the first world war. She was also of the opinion that they shouldn’t have separated after the velvet revolution because they are so small, ten million people in Czechia and only five in Slovakia. The separation was inevitable, she said, and very friendly but not a good idea in her opinion.

Wall mounted sundial.

Wall mounted sundial.

History lesson over, I wandered back down to the bike and set off for Olomouc.

Arriving in Olomouc I headed for Centrum but needed the assistance of the assistant in a chemists to point me towards the tourist info office. So good of her to live up to her title!
Tourist info got me the last bed in a hostel just down the road called Poets Corner. This would be my first hostel since Munich and, in keeping with the generally lower prices in Czechia it was only Kc300 per night – less than a tenner. No breakfast included but that didn’t worry me.
Ludska was expecting me when I arrived and asked me if I wanted to park my bike out the back. ‘Yes please.’was my natural reply especially as the tram lines passed within about 30cm of the kerb, so no parking on the road. I was expecting her to direct me to a gate but she said to ride my bike through the lobby into the enclosed back yard. I managed to squeeze the bike through the front door, then the middle door and finally the back door to leave it in a nice safe place. I was very pleased with this because when I’ve read other travellers’ stories they usually only get to do this in third world countries and here was I still in the EU and ticking one of those little boxes that made me feel like I’d joined the club.
The hostel was part of an apartment block and they had two of them. The problem was that my room was on the fourth floor, ninety four steps and no lift. Ludska took my smaller bag, which helped, but it was still a long way up. I can honestly say that I needed the cup of tea she made me by then.
Ludska is Czech and her partner Ian is Australian. They met out there. Ian is a keen cyclist and became used to using hostels when he was touring round, especially in New Zealand. That’s what gave them the idea of setting one up in Czechia. The name came from a nearby junction where several streets named after poets all came together. Very poetic. The hostel is nice and homely, with a very comfortable common room and, thankfully, wi-fi. Ludska gave me a leaflet which had a town plan on it where she had identified good places to eat and drink, including some micro breweries and some tea houses. She also pointed out a good cafe which specialised in breakfasts. The leaflet also had some Czech phrases on the back to help visitors with trying out the language. A very good idea, I thought. All settled in, I headed out for a walk round and to find something to eat.
Next morning I went out to find Cafe St Angelo, the one recommended for breakfast. I don’t normally bore you with my meal details but the food in this cafe was really good. Porridge came with nuts and fruit in it and the Full English, their piece de resistance, was great although ‘sausage’ is really ‘frankfurter’.
The history of this city reflects that of many others in the region. The area was settled by Slavic tribes in the 6th century. Later a monastery was built, followed by a castle. It became a Bishopric and growth continued. The City was the capital of Moravia until Bohemia absorbed that state but it continued to have an important role over the centuries as a fortified town. The fortifications where very strong but were a mixed blessing. Emperor Franz Joseph II chose the town as a haven when Vienna was threatened in the Austro-Hungarian wars but afterwards they physically restricted the development of the town during a period when many others were setting up industries. The mayor that was elected soon after Franz-Joseph left spent most of his 25 years in office trying to persuade the regional authorities to allow removal of the fortifications. Eventually he won through and the city was able to expand and received a major boost when it became a link on the on the Prague to Vienna train route.

Olomouc town hall.

Olomouc town hall.

In terms of historic buildings there is Wencelas Cathedral, the Old Town Hall, several other churches and some older town buildings. The cathedral was originally built in the 13th century but seems to have suffered he same fate as many others in that it was burnt down and rebuilt a number of times. The present building dates from the 18th/19th century. The town hall originated in the 15th century and has an astronomical clock on the front of it. Like the others, this has been renovated many times and the facade around it is from the 1950’s, representing the socialist ideal of the working classes. St Moritz church has a round tower which is freely accessible from the street. Because it is quite narrow it has a rare double spiral staircase, one going up and one down. You all know how I feel about a spiral staircase but two in one tower? I went up, of course, to get a nice view over the wet town.

EU electioneering, Czech style.

EU electioneering, Czech style.

While I was in the town square an old charabanc pulled up and a brass band got out. Placing themselves under the arcades they started to play and sing some tunes which, it soon became clear, were part of an election rally on behalf of one of the EU election candidates. It was raining by now and there were more campaigners than there were electors but they soldiered on gamely. I videoed some of it and was bemused to have first sausage, then cake offered to me along with their campaign leaflets. I was brought up to be polite so I gratefully accepted what I was offered. The sausage was nice, the cake was delicious and the leaflets went in the bin once I was out of sight.

The Socialist Workers take care of this astronomical clock.

The Socialist Workers take care of this astronomical clock.

Earlier I had visited one of the museums in the city and saw the ‘Fifteen Centuries of a City’ exhibition. I always find such displays interesting as it’s a great way to get a flavour of not only the city but also of the region. There was also a ‘Nature of the Olomouc Region’ exhibition, detailing the natural history of the area. The other museums related to modern art and they didn’t really appeal to me.
I also tried one of the recommended Tea Houses. Set up in a distinctly eastern style, Cajovna Sofia has low seating and tables with decorated coverings draped across the walls. When I went in I spent a pleasant few minutes discussing what tea to have and settled on some spiced Assam. It was made in the form of Chai, that is, it was brewed with the milk in it. It tasted very nice, if a little too sweet for my taste. I’m surprised there aren’t such places in Britain as I’m sure they’d be popular. It was a new and enjoyable experience for me.
When I got back to the hostel three Swedish guys had arrived. There was also a French woman there, all in the same dorm as me. They all spoke very good English and it was nice to be able to sit around and swap experiences with Ian, the owner, that evening.

This pair of Morality Drawings were targets for archery practice.

This pair of Morality Drawings were targets for archery practice.

One of the fountains the town seems to like so much.

One of the fountains the town seems to like so much.

And another.

And another.

Next day was to be history of a different kind. I had learned of an aircraft museum just outside town and a tram ride to the terminus, and a short walk, brought me to what looked like a dilapidated factory unit on a dilapidated industrial estate. After paying the small entrance fee of Kc50 I was entranced by the rather dilapidated display of old aircraft, missiles, engines and military vehicles before me. While dilapidation seemed to be a theme, the exhibits were being restored and looked after with some care. There was a guy busy working on one of the planes and some of the vehicles had been restored to a very high standard. It seemed as if the collection had been acquired from military surplus sales after the communist era. All the aircraft were Russian built with Czech military markings except the police car and ambulance which were of Czech origin. The most interesting items were the three MiG 21 fighters and it was slightly spooky to be close up to the former ‘enemy’ planes. They were given plenty of respect by British and American forces at the time and they looked sleek and powerful even in their current downbeat setting.

Three sleek MiG21's, pride of the Soviet air fleet.

Three sleek MiG21’s, pride of the Soviet air force.

Feel like tuning this little baby up? Thought not.

Feel like tuning this little baby up? Thought not.

A Skoda Octavia, pre VW ownerhip.

A Skoda Octavia, pre VW takeover..

A nicely restored ambulance.

A nicely restored ambulance.

That evening I went out for a meal with the three Swedish guys, Henrik, Johan and Daniel. It was nice to hear their stories. They’re on holiday from work, enjoying the sights of Europe. Johan had suffered a broken arm in a fall. The first time he’s ever broken a bone, he said. I could tell him a thing or two about that! We went to a bar afterwards and joined several of the other people from the hostel for a pleasant evening chatting. There were several nationalities there – English,Swedish, German, French, Brazilian, Australian and Irish. One of the nice things about hostel life. Everyone spoke excellent English showing how international communications now favour the English speaker, luckily for me.
Poets Corner had been a comfortable and easy place to stay but I was worried about getting too comfortable there and needed to move on. Next destination, Cesky Krumlov.
The 300km journey there was enjoyable, across very pleasant countryside, and I had a bike rider’s success and also a disappointment. The success was when I came across resurfacing works a couple of times but could see that no-one was working on them. There were ‘No Through Road’ signs in place but I just kept going and got through easily. Some rough road to traverse but I’m on an off road bike so no problem. The disappointment was when i stopped for a coffee at a roadside stall. There were three other bike riders there but although I said ‘Hello’ I didn’t get any response. So much for the ‘brotherhood of riders’ I thought. Miserable gits!
Cesky Krumlov sits on the Vlatava River, the same river as Prague. At this point the river takes a series of huge bends and the town is almost surrounded by water. There are a number of pretty bridges across it. The main feature of the town is the fairytale castle which sits on the hill overlooking it but the town itself betrays its medieval roots with its narrow, twisting streets, alleyways diving this way and that and gutters that run down the centre of the steep streets. It is a really pretty town, with plenty of restaurants and cafes and a nice central square. Cobblestones abound of course, but that’s pretty much par for the course in most Czech towns.

Beautifully lit to enhance the 'Fairytale' atmosphere of the town.

Beautifully lit to enhance the ‘Fairytale’ atmosphere of the town.

I breakfasted at a rather quaint cafe which had a variety of furniture; tables that used to be sewing machine trestles, chairs, benches – nothing matched anything else which was its charm. There were some nice paintings on the wall too giving it a relaxed an comfortable feel. It seemed to typify the rest of the town. Good food too.
I walked around the town calling in at the main church, the town museum and the castle. The church is generally quite plain but has the very decorative altar backdrop that has become a common theme in Czechia and also a series of paintings depicting the crucifixion event. They were large, colourful and very lifelike.
The museum told the story of the town but concentrated on the 19th century in particular. There was a huge focus on photography here (sorry!), with several people being involved in the development (sorry again!) of colour photography and new colour printing techniques. The rather sad story surrounding WWII was covered in some depth too. This region had a large German speaking population with much of the town’s cultural activity being German based. In fact the German population helped to educate and improve the lot of the Czech population around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Which made the events of WWII all the more upsetting in all their tragedy. Some of the German population welcomed the invasion of Czechia by Hitler and supported the Nazi cause. When the war ended virtually all people of German origin were forced to leave Czechia regardless of whether they’d supported Hitler or not – most hadn’t. Many of them had roots going back many generations. Regardless, they were transported out of the country after the war.
When I got back to the town square I found that a historic vehicle rally was passing through. There was a huge variety of bicycles, motorbikes and cars all rattling over the cobbles, all different ages from the 1900’s up to the 1960’s. Great to watch them bouncing past, very colourful and beautifully restored. Czech, British, French and American cars and motorbikes of all types and sizes. A great display.
Next was the walk up the hill to the castle. The laws of Czech renewal applied here too, with a castle/chateau that had been built in Medieval times and then rebuilt and added to in the renaissance period before being refurbished in the baroque style. It’s the second most important in Czechia, after the one in Prague. I took the guided tour and saw displays that were similar to the castle in Litomysl but with one very good addition. This was a huge ballroom in which the walls had been painted to depict scenes of a typical masked ball from the 18th century. They showed the participants in their various costumes, the musicians up on the gallery and the entertainers and jesters that would have been there too. The colours were very vivid still. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so no pictures to show you.

I had to sneak this picture of the ballroom decorations, hence the poor quality.

I had to sneak this picture of the ballroom decorations, hence the poor quality.

That evening I was determined to have a typical Czech meal and managed to find a restaurant where I could get potato soup and goulash. You wouldn’t think potato soup could be made to be interesting, but it was. Very nice and very cheap too.
More Czech adventures to follow. I haven’t quite ‘Czeched out’ yet but I think we all need a rest for the moment. More to come soon, especially for the lovers of bikes among you. Meanwhile, here’s some old vehicles to go with the old town.

'Cobbles' he said, or something like that.

‘Cobbles’ he said, or something like that.

A very rare beast, in the UK at least.

A very rare beast, in the UK at least.

Beautifully restored.

Beautifully restored.

 

Czeching in …………..

Prague, Czech Republic. 2nd May 2014.

The thing about Prague is that it almost seems as if history designed it for tourists. The transportation system is easy and cheap. There are trams, buses and trolley buses. The essential sights are all contained within one relatively small area. The cafes and restaurants are plentiful. Food and drink is both good and cheap.
I know the former kings of Bohemia did not have 21st century visitors in mind as they developed the city over the centuries but I know I was grateful for nearness of everything.
I got off the tram by the Old City, looked at my tourist map and decided to walk up the hill towards the castle. As it was a bit late I didn’t go to the castle itself, deciding to save that for the next day. Instead I walked up to the Loreta Chapel that was near to it. On the way up I dropped into a rather nondescript church which, when I got inside, turned out to be very ornate indeed, with an amazing alter piece and other shrines around the side. The exterior completely belied the beauty of the interior decoration.

Some of the general architecture.

Typical of the general architecture.

The beautiful interior of an otherwise non-descript church.

The beautiful interior of an otherwise non-descript church.

On the walk up I was fascinated by the quality of the general architecture of the normal buildings in the street, mostly late 19th century Art Nouveau, all painted in pretty colours with decorative window and door surrounds. As I approached the top of the hill the facade of the Loreta seminary and monastery buildings came into view, very imposing as they looked down upon me.

The first view of the seminary as you walk up the hill.

The first view of the seminary as you walk up the hill.

The front view of the Loreta.

The front view of the Loreta.

The Loreta Chapel was built in the 17th century and is mostly Italian Renaissance with a later Baroque front added to it. It’s famous for its peal of 30 bells which chime every hour. It is also a pilgrimage site of some note. I had a look inside the church and was, once again, amazed by the quality of the decoration. Not only the alter pieces but also the ceiling paintings which were incredibly detailed and beautifully coloured. A brilliant example of the painter’s art. The building also houses the Loreta Treasure, an apparently world renowned collection of ecclesiastical treasure. A nice introduction to some of the history that Prague holds in store.
Another thing that Prague holds in store for the visitor is cobblestones. By the time I left the city I still hadn’t decided whether walking up them or down them was worse. Big ones on the road, small ones on the pavement, I don’t envy wearers of high heels. By the time I’d got down the hill again it was time to eat and I’d almost decided that going down the cobbles was worse. But final judgement was reserved.
A good meal at a nice restaurant for a decent price was all I needed to recover and a fine example of Czeh cooking it was. If some one offered you cabbage soup you’d probably say ‘Where do you think we are, in the workhouse?’  In fact, it was delicious. Cabbage tasting, of course , but with all sorts of other vegetables in it too. Followed by half a duck. After that I needed the walk I took around the area at the bottom of the hill, admiring the buildings, such as the opera house, before catching a tram back to the campsite and a not very warm tent.
On the way into Prague I had seen a shopping area that looked very modern so I stopped off there on my way into the city next day. CZ is the first former communist country I’ve ever visited and I’m curious to know what has happened since the Velvet Revolution. I had noticed on my way into Prague that some towns had a generally shabby air around the edges, with industrial buildings in particular sometimes looking a bit run down or unused. I figured that the state of a nation’s shopping could also give a useful clue to progress. This area, called Andel, had no shortage of modern shops and supermarkets. There was also a very modern three storey shopping centre, with international brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Nike along with some British brands like Next, M&S and a huge Tesco. There were many shops with local names too, including one that sold tight fitting men’s and women’s underwear called Immodesti. I’l leave it to your imagination as the what the display was like!
On the third floor was a cinema and loads of restaurants, many of them fast food but some a little slower. Out on the street was a KFC and a McDonalds. This area seemed to be a ‘go to’ destination for Prague-ites as it was busy with shoppers.
Onwards to the old city, destination Prague castle, which sits on top of a very steep hill, the same one I struggled up yesterday. At the bottom is the entrance to the terraced gardens which sit on the south side of the hill below the castle. These were designed and built in the 17th and 18th centuries to an Italianate design and had many different areas in them. There were Orangeries, Loggias, baroque frescoes, a sundial and fountains, among other features. They were for the use of the nobles who lived in the adjoining palaces. The walk up through them was very interesting and pleasant and although there were plenty of steps, there was not a cobblestone to be seen.

The Italianate terraced gardens on the southern slope.

The Italianate terraced gardens on the southern slope.

A fine example of Baroque architecture.

A fine example of Baroque architecture.

Arriving from the gardens up to the palace square, the ‘wow’ factor is  huge. The Baroque frontage of the Palace/Cathedral is something to behold. The picture tells it better than I can. I paid my fee to climb up the 285 steps to the top of the tower and was glad I did as the view over the city is fantastic. I could see for miles and one thing that struck me straight away is how there are no modern buildings in the historic part of the city. Not a skyscraper or tower block to be seen. The newest buildings are late 19th century and all of those are low rise. Boris, please take note!

View over Prague from the top of the cathedral.

View over Prague from the top of the cathedral.

She could have rubbed all day but nothing was going to happen. More likely to fall off than anything else!

She could have rubbed all day but nothing was going to happen. More likely to fall off than anything else!

The history of the city matches that of the castle. There has been a castle of some kind on the hill since the 8th century and the city has grown around it, first on one side of the river, then the other. The current castle dates from the 14th century but most of the buildings are from the 18th , especially the additional ones. Dedicated to St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert, it’s the cathedral part of it that is particularly striking and this building was were the kings of Bohemia were crowned. The other palace buildings were home to kings, princes and presidents.

A walk back down the hill to the Lesser Town Square, with a coffee break at the bottom.
This square contains some fine buildings, including St Nicholas Church, an 18th century building in a distinctive style known as Prague Baroque. I didn’t go inside that one, I think I was a bit ‘churched out’ by then.
Then time to cross Kulov Most, the King Charles IV bridge. Built in the 14th century, this bridge is one of the last remaining examples of a medieval bridge in Europe. There are three towers protecting it, one of which is reckoned to be the most astonishing civic Gothic building in the world. Two are on the left (or west) bank, the other on the right. It has sixteen arches and thirty statues along its edges, all religious figures of some sort. There are a couple made of brass, which everyone rubs as they go past. One or two of them are quite graphic in their portrayal of their subject matter too. They from a kind of avenue of statuary for the tourists to walk past. It’s no wonder it is one of Prague’s UNESCO world heritage sites. In fact almost every time I read about one of Prague’s building I spotted that acronym somewhere in the write up.

Charles IV medieval bridge, busy with tourists.

Charles IV medieval bridge, busy with tourists.

Tourists. Thousands of them. From all over the world as far as I could tell. All on the bridge where I’m trying to take photos. I’m sure they were saying the same about me too. But it was astonishing how many people there were in the city. To entertain the tourists there were a couple of busker outfits on the bridge. One was a quartet of young violinists playing pop songs, and doing it very well I thought. The other was a Trad Jazz Band, playing some tunes, also very well. Both had CD’s for sale, standard price of EU10. I wasn’t tempted to buy but was happy to put some change in the collection of the Jazz combo.

Street entertainment, Prague style.

Street entertainment, Prague style.

There's some unhappy people in there.

There’s some unhappy people in there.

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Another place to rub for good luck.

The route from the bridge to the town square twists and winds along some narrow streets. A cafe/bar on almost every street corner, a gift shop of some sort right next to it. This truly is a place for tourists.
Onwards into the square of the Old Town. This is where several of Prague’s most interesting buildings lie. The Old Town Hall looks fabulous and has, as it’s main attraction, an astronomical clock, dating from 1410, known as the Orloj, The world’s third oldest but the oldest working example. It is designed to tell the time, the date, the phases of the moon and all sorts of other useful information. It even shows the time of the sunset throughout the year. The slight flaw with it is that some of this information is only completely accurate when the 1st January falls on a Monday. But, like me, I bet you wouldn’t notice the error however long you stood and stared at it. It’s been renovated and repaired many times in its life, the latest in 2005 and looks simply amazing.

The fabulous astronomical clock.

The fabulous astronomical clock.

It’s possible to go up the clock tower. Me, I can’t resist a spiral staircase so up I went to get a great view over the town. I think buildings often look better from above because you can see the whole of their facade and get a more three dimensional view of them. They fit better into their surroundings and make a bit more sense than when seen from the ground. On the way back down I enjoyed reading about the history of the clock, depicted on a series of information panels alongside the staircase.
I also discovered the story of the First Defenestration of Prague. I’d heard this word before and new it involved windows and was fascinated to learn more about it.
A ‘defenestration’ is when something is thrown from a window. In this case it was the Judge, the Burgomaster and thirteen town Councillors who flew forth, none of whom survived. It happened at the hands of an angry mob who wanted a supporter of Jan Hus, a church reformer, released. A stone was thrown at their leader from a town hall window so the mob stormed the building and took their revenge. The ensuing Hussite wars led to twenty years of trouble for Bohemia and Prague.
On the other side of the square is the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. Completed in 1510, it’s another fine example of Baroque architecture with rich interior decoration spanning several centuries.
One of the great things about restaurants in Prague is that they’ll often have fixed price, three course menus. Having pushed the boat out last night by having roast duck, and spending all of £12 on a three course meal, I thought I’d save a bit of cash and only spend £6 tonight. So that’s what I did and still ate very well indeed.
Tonight felt even colder than the previous one and when I checked the thermometer on the office wall it showed 4oc. No wonder I needed my woolly thermals. I kept warm by cursing all the tourists who where occupying those nice warm hostel beds.
The morning started out with a bit of bike maintenance – tyre pressures and so on. While doing so I saw that a couple of my tools had got damp and rusted, in particular my feeler gauges. Not vital right now but a job to put on the list for base camp back in the UK to sort out some replacements for me.
Back onto the tram on a sunnier day than of late, but still with a bitter wind. I stopped off at the shopping centre at Andel again and went up to the food court to try one of the food outlets. I settled on a place that seemed to sell a combination of Chinese and Mexican food, judging by the pictures of it anyway. It’s so easy to just point at a picture and mumble at these places. You’ll always end up with something edible – some kind of pork noodles and veg in this case.

Good King Wenceslas.

Good King Wenceslas.

One of the key sights  yet to be visited was the statue of King Wenceslas, in Wenceslas Square. He was the Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century and not long after he was assassinated he was declared a martyr and made Patron Saint of the country. He was also posthumously awarded a kingship. A cult grew up around him in both Bohemia and England. How ‘good’ he actually was is a matter for speculation but he was reckoned to be a decent and educated man, for his time. The legend is that he would get out of bed most nights and go to the church and give out alms to the poor. The statue was erected in the 19th century, at a time of Czech nationalism, and placed in the square, which was named after him. It’s a magnificent piece of sculptural work and has been the focal point for many of CZ’s celebratory moments, not least during the Velvet Revolution.
I spent the rest of the day walking around visiting various sights, including the 13th century synagogue. I revisited the Town Square and Charles Bridge, still fascinated by the amount of tourists and how much they were enjoying themselves. Prague clearly has a wide appeal.

13th century synagogue, the oldest in Europe.

13th century synagogue, the oldest in Europe.

View of the castle from the New Town.

View of the castle from the New Town.

While walking around the previous evening I had seen stalls selling some kind of Czech sausage, clearly a local delicacy. So I went looking for one. You know what I’m going to say – none to be seen. So I hopped a tram back to Andel, where all the shops are, thinking there might be one there. No luck. The end result was that I had KFC for my evening meal, and I felt very ashamed. It tasted no different to what I’ve had before at home. What a cop out!
Something I’ve discovered about tourist offices is that they’ll always have a decent map of their area, usually including some information on the worthwhile places to visit. Prague is no different and the very useful thing about the map I bought from them is that it also gives information about places to visit in the rest of the country. This very useful feature enabled me to plan the rest of my stay in CZ, having arrived in the country with no plans other than getting to Prague.
So back to the campsite, determined to get up and away in good time the next day. Destination Hradec Kralov!

A pretty Prague tram.

A pretty Prague tram.

What did I think of Prague?
A very lovely and historical city, dating back to the 9th century. It had been, at times, the seat of power of central Europe. It all began with a castle on the hill around which a town grew. The castle was replaced with a cathedral/castle, the seat of the kings. One of the most important of these was Charles IV who built the bridge and developed the new town on the other side. Prague is described as ‘the city of 100 spires’ and it’s easy to see why. There are churches in abundance, as well as the cathedral, and even the important town buildings all seem to have a spire or two. The architecture is a wonderful mixture of Baroque, Italianate Renaissance and art nouveau. The city has been one of central Europe’s important centres of science, art and religion over the centuries and there is a rich legacy of all three of them to enjoy. When you add in the tourist orientated infrastructure, the excellent transport system and the great exchange rate, Prague becomes a ‘must visit’ destination. I really enjoyed my time there, despite the weather. Go. Now.