RSS

Category Archives: Passions

Winter in Middle Europe (part 3)

Winter in Middle Europe (part 3)

24 December 2016

We woke up early on Christmas Eve, as we had a train to catch to Prague from Kraków. Actually, it was a combination of bus and train, as the first part of the trip, from Kraków to Ostrava (just after the Czech border) was by bus and the rest of the trip to Prague was by train. It was going to be a long day commuting…

I did some research before the time, and as it is, the main Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, as most Czech people stay at home (read most restaurants and shops are closed) and have a traditional Czech Christmas dinner with the family. Apparently, in the days leading up to Christmas, the markets sell live carp everywhere which will be taken home to cook up a storm for Christmas dinner.

I was happy to have stumbled across this little tidbit of information, and decided that when in Rome, do as the Romans, so we had a booking for a traditional Christmas dinner at a restaurant in Prague Nove Mesto (New Town).

We arrived at the Praha-Libeň railway station after 3:00pm in the afternoon and it was immediately clear that the city was empty. A lonesome man at a ticket counter grumpily pointed us in the direction of the automatů to purchase tickets for the tram. Luckily, the tram ride was a short one and we arrived at the Luxury Family Hotel Bílá Labuť soon after with a bit of time to kill before we had to leave for dinner.

Another tram ride brought us to the Nove Mesto, where we had a short walk to the medieval Restaurace u Českých pánů, where we had a booking for dinner. The restaurant is set in Gothic cellars, restored to offer the feel of medieval times, and we booked for a traditional Czech Christmas dinner. The ambiance was pleasant, with live music and an explanation of the food on offer, with little extras to assist in mimicking a traditional Czech Christmas dinner.

We were welcomed with a complimentary drink of Becherovka, a herbal liquer, or a glass of Prosecco. Starters were Old Czech mushroom Cuba, a sort of barley risotto and was very delicious, followed by a creamy fish soup (made from carp, of course). The main course was breaded veal cutlet (don’t let the ‘let’ in cutlet fool you, it was a monster portion…) with homemade potato salad. Apparently, potato salad is also a very traditional addition to the Christmas dinner. Dessert was an apple strudel with ice cream, followed by coffee or tea and Christmas cookies. All this in a medieval cellar setting with Christmas music played by traditional folk musicians.

766d0671-f3b5-4b7a-bb6e-912be1f9d4ec

Apple coring, walnut, and delicious food

All and all, the food was good, and we dutifully followed the instructions for the Czech traditions, including coring an apple. If the inside of the apple is shaped as a star, it means that everyone will get together the next year in happiness and health. A four-pointed cross is a bad omen and means that someone at the table will fall ill or die within a year. In addition, we each had to crack a walnut by hand, and if it breaks clean, with the insides pretty much intact, it is meant to be a positive omen.

 

img_0254

I couldn’t resist a picture with one of the many knights in armour on display…

The only downside and disappointment was that the service was shoddy to say the least. After the starter drink the waiter never once came to ask if we wanted to order anything else… dishes were brought out in rapid succession, but not once did he stop and ask for further drinks orders. Our coffee was ordered from the manager who happened to clear a table next to us. We spent almost half an hour jokingly trying to get the waiters attention to get our bill, imagining there was an invisible wall around our table (with much amusement from fellow diners).

img_0255

Wenceslas Square

When we got outside, the girls joked about checking the newspaper for the year. I am thankful that we were all in good spirits and we didn’t let this poor service spoil our evening and actually good food. The set menu was CK850 pp (almost $35) which was not a cheap meal by any stretch of the imagination, but luckily we saved on wine or prosecco, because…erm…we weren’t offered anything…

Before heading back to our hotel, we walked down to the Wenceslas Square, a traditional setting for demonstrations and surrounded by shops and the business district. It was more a very large boulevard than a square, but the lights were pretty and it was a nice round off to a pleasant evening.

25 December 2016

We woke up on Christmas morning ready to explore the city. After a great breakfast, we set off towards the Old Town or Staré Město where we were to meet our guide for another walking tour. There was light rain forecast and we were not sure what would be open on Christmas day, but that didn’t put us off.

Upon recommendation from my friend Ingrid, we joined the Prague Tip Trip with Jana for a walking tour. The tour started off with a quick overview of one of the most amazing clocks in the whole world, the Prague Astronomical Clock dating back to 1410, the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still operating. Jana showed us how to read the months, the lunar phase and the approximate time. For an accurate time reading, there is a proper clock at the top of the tower…

The Prague Astronomical Tower

The Prague Astronomical Tower

We moved on to the old town square, which was starting to show signs of live as the Christmas market was starting up for the day. The huge Christmas tree on the square also features a small show of lights in the evenings (although we didn’t ever see this). We walked across the square to the statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer who was burnt at the stake for his beliefs.

Large Christmas tree on the Old Town Square

Large Christmas tree on the Old Town Square

Following one of the exits from the square, we walked to the Tyn Courtyard, founded in the 12th century where merchants came to pay customs for their goods. The courtyard features the Granovsky Palace, a Renaissance palace with the walls decorated in sgraffitoes and wall paintings. Unfortunately many of the paintings are faded badly, and in need of restoration. We stopped briefly at St Jacob’s church or the Basilica of St James, where we were able to view the inside of the church through a one way window. Jana shared the story of the mummified arm which, according to legend, belongs to a thief who tried to steal from the bejeweled altar when the statue of the Virgin Mary came alive and grabbed his arm, where he was found in the morning. His arm had to be amputated to rescue him and the arm was put on display in the church as a grim warning. Moments later the grumpy priest slammed open the door of the church and Jana sneered at him. Clearly not a lot of love lost there!

The wall murals

The Renaissance paintings on the walls of the Granovsky Palace

We made our way past the Grevin Praha, or the Madame Tussaud’s of Prague, which was closed for the day, to the House of the Black Madonna, a Cubist building that houses the Cafe Orient, which according to Jana served delicious cakes and sandwiches. We did peek into the building to see the awesome staircase, which is apparently often missed.

The staircase of the Cubist

The staircase of the Cubist House of the Black Madonna

Next, we made our way to Municipal House, next to the impressive Powder Gate, one of the original 13 gates of Prague. The Municipal House is a civic building that houses the Smetana Hall, a concert venue, where classic music concerts are held daily. The residents of Prague claim to have first discovered a young Mozart after his opera The Marriage of Figaro was performed there with tremendous success. The next year, Mozart visited himself and apparently he “counted this day as one of the happiest of his life”. His opera Don Giovanni debuted in Prague later that year to very appreciative audiences. Apparently Mozart famously said “Meine Prager verstehen mich” (My Praguers understand me). Jana told us the story of Mozart with some scorn and highlighted the fact that the Viennese today does not know where Mozart is buried as he died very poor and was buried in a mass grave.

The Powder Gate

The Powder Gate

After this we moved to the other side of the Old Town square to the Jewish Quarter or Josefov and the impressive Spanish Synagogue, with the bizarre Franz Kafka statue next to it. The statue is inspired by the short story written by Kafka called “Popis Jednoho Zápasu” (Description of a Match). By now it was raining but we managed to get a peek at the Old New Synagogue, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Maisel Synagogue. Jana also shared the story of the legend of the monster Golem, in the 16th century by the Rabbi Loew, to defend the ghetto from antisemitic attacks. The monster was created from clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought to life through Hebrew incantations. The rabbi deactivated the Golem every Friday night by removing the shem, but legend has it that one Friday he forgot, and some reason the Golem went on a rampage. The rabbi finally caught up with him and removed the shem and he fell to pieces. Legend has it that the body of the Golem was stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue and still lies there today.

The Church of the Holy Ghost, Jewish Quarter

The Church of the Holy Ghost, Jewish Quarter

The statue of Kafka

The statue of Kafka

The Old New Synagogue, Jewish Quarter

The Old New Synagogue, Jewish Quarter

The Maisel Synagogue

The Maisel Synagogue

This concluded our walking tour and we were happy to make our way to a small little restaurant, Paneria, on Jana’s recommendation to warm up and dry out a bit.

After lunch we made our way to the Klementinum, a historical complex of buildings which once housed one of the largest Jesuit colleges in the world. And of course, it houses one of the most impressive libraries in the world, the Baroque library hall, which I was dying to see. We booked a tour and was not disappointed with the library (which we unfortunately was not allowed to photograph), but the building also contained an observatory with wonderful equipment. And finally, the view from the tower was definitely worth the claustrophobic climb to the top.

The chapel of Saint Clement at the Klementinum

The chapel of Saint Clement at the Klementinum

The Barogue library in the Klementinum...no pictures were allowed

The Barogue library in the Klementinum…no pictures were allowed

The staircase to the Observatory of the Klemintinum

The staircase to the Observatory of the Klemintinum

Some of the equipment in the Observatory

Some of the equipment in the Observatory

The view from the Klemintinum tower

The view from the Klemintinum tower

Beautiful Prague from the Klemintinum Observatory Tower

Beautiful Prague from the Klemintinum Observatory Tower

After the visit to the Klementinum, we started making our way back to the hotel as we had a boat cruise on the Vltava river planned for the evening.

View of the city on the walk back to our hotel

View of the city on the walk back to our hotel

I originally wanted to book the Jazz Boat, but by the time I came around to making a booking, the seats were all booked out. So we settled on another boat cruise with a buffet style dinner and live music, through Viator. The cruise was pleasant and the food was reasonable and in the end we had a fun evening. We made turns to brave the cold to go up to the deck for pictures as it was difficult to see anything from insude the boat.

On the dinner cruise with my gorgeous girls

On the dinner cruise with my gorgeous girls

View of Prague Castle from the river at night

View of Prague Castle from the river at night

After dinner, we went back to the hotel to recharge our batteries overnight!

26 December 2016

After a very busy Christmas day, I relented and we had a bit of a sleep in the next morning. We wanted to visit the Castle district and the Charles bridge on our last full day in Prague. We initially thought we would join Jana again on a visit to the Castle district in the afternoon, but I wanted to go and visit the castle itself, so we decided to do it on our own steam.

After a short tram ride, we made it to the other side of the river, and made it in time for the ceremonial changing of the guards at noon. The queues at the castle were horrific. I can only imagine how busy it must be in summer. We had to queue at every entrance and the crowds were crazy. In the end, it made the whole experience of the castle very tiring, but it was still worth it. There are various tickets giving you entrance to certain sections of the castle. We bought tickets that gave us access to St Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica and the Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower which was as much as i thought our tiresome feet could withstand.

St Vitus Catherdral, Prague castle

St Vitus Catherdral, Prague castle

St Vitus Cathedral was very impressive, once we managed to get inside (another half an hour queue). Construction on the Gothic Cathedral started in the 14th century, but construction was halted in 1419 because of the Hussite wars and remained uncompleted for centuries. Only in the late 19th century was construction resumed and repairs to the original section undertaken. The cathedral was completed in Neo-Gothic style and solemnly consecrated only in 1929.

The interior of St Vitus Cathedral

The interior of St Vitus Cathedral

St Vitus Cathedral gilded altar

St Vitus Cathedral gilded altar

St Wenceslas chapel is next to St Vitus chapel and is meant to be a cult center for St Vitus. The value of the decorations of St Wenceslas Chapel is incalculable. The lower parts of the walls are decorated with more than 1300 gems, made in Bohemia. The joints between them are covered with gold.

St. Wenceslas Chapel, Prague castle

St. Wenceslas Chapel, Prague castle

St George’s Basilica was originally meant to be a second church for Prague castle in the 10th century. The current Romanesque appearance of the church dates back to the time of the reconstruction carried out in the 12th century. The interior of the basilica is austere and monumental. There are tombs and skeletons visible, one of whom apparently belongs to Prince Vratislav, father of St. Wenceslas.

St George's Basilica

St George’s Basilica

The eerie crypt in St George's Cathedral

The eerie crypt in St George’s Cathedral

The origins of Old Royal Palace dates back to the 9th and 10th century. In the 12th century it was replaced with a stone castle, remains of which is still preserved. In the 14th century, the king and emperor Charles IV enlarged the Romanesque building and so a Gothic palace with a vaulted interior for state purposes and a band of arcades on its northern side came to be. After a period of 80 years where the castle was empty, the King Vladislav Jagiello commenced a large scale reconstruction, adding the magnificent Vladislav Hall.

The

The Vladislav Hall, Old Prague Castle

Our last stop of the Prague Castle was the Golden Lane. The modest dwelling, in small scale architecture, were inhabited by defenders of the Castle, servants or for example goldsmiths and the Castle marksmen. The tiny houses were occupied until World War II, but already during the period of the First Republic, care was taken to ensure that the picturesque character of the Lane was not changed in the course of modifications. From 1916 to 1917 house No. 22 was inhabited by the writer Franz Kafka.

Anya assisting Bianca with tying her shoelaces

Anya assisting Bianca with tying her shoelaces

Golden Lane, Prague Castle

Golden Lane, Prague Castle

I found my size house! Golden Lane, Prague Castle

I found my size house! Golden Lane, Prague Castle

Views from the Prague Castle Hill

Views from the Prague Castle Hill

Steps leading down from Castle Hill

Steps leading down from Castle Hill

After the castle visit, we walked down towards the river, sharing a traditional trdelnik covered with chocolate. You can buy trdelnik everywhere in Prague and they resemble the Kürtőskalács or chimney cake we had in Budapest. The cake is rolled around a wooden stick and then grilled and topped with sugar and walnut mix. Decadent and delicious! Something I would love to try at home.

And... time for some Trdl

And… time for some Trdelnik

We strolled back over the magnificent Charles bridge as the sun was setting and despite my feet being so tired, that I could not stand still, I could not get enough of the bridge!

With the girls on Charles Brigde, Prague

With the girls on Charles Brigde, Prague

The girls on Charles bridge, Prague

The girls on Charles bridge, Prague

Views from the other side of Charles Bridge of the Castle district

Views from the other side of Charles Bridge of the Castle district

One final one from Charles Bridge, looking back towards the Castle

One final one from Charles Bridge, looking back towards the Castle

Afterwards, we took a short walk to Restaurace Sedm Konšelů, another one of Jana’s recommendations. where I had the tradiční českou svíčkovou, which is fillet of beef in cream sauce and cranberries, served with traditional bread dumplings. It was good, and I ate the cranberries like Jana directed, a little bit at a time with the sauce.

After this late lunch, early dinner, we returned to the hotel, as we had tickets for the ballet at the National Theatre that evening! Knowing how much Bianca loves the ballet, I thought it would be a real treat to go and see the Nutcracker in the National Theatre, which dates back to the 19th century. Unfortunately I didn’t realise that it was a modern day adaption of the Nutcracker and actually had very little resemblance to the original ballet, other than the music, but it was still a fun evening out! The theatre is magnificent and it was a real treat to see a show there.

The National Theatre, Prague

The National Theatre, Prague

27 December 2016

This was our last morning in Prague, and we decided to go and do some shopping. Bianca’s suitcase broke when we arrived in Prague, and we needed to get something else. We also wanted to get some souvenirs and gifts. After some shopping, including the cutest Bohemian glasses, we returned to the Old Town Square to view the hourly show of the Astronomical clock, which we have missed until then. It was extremely busy, with people shoving and pushing, but it was worth it. Afterwards, we did a final visit to the Old Town Square, a last Trdelnik and a couple of last pictures before we headed back to the hotel.

The making of Trdlenik

The making of Trdelnik

View over the Christmas market, Prague Old Town Square

View over the Christmas market, Prague Old Town Square

I absolutely loved Prague. The crowds were quite something and I really wished I could have had at least one sunny day for some nicer pictures, which will give me an excuse to return again one day in summer!

Finally, at 2:30pm, we boarded the bus for the semi last leg of our trip, to Vienna. I was glad to put my feet up but sad to leave this beautiful city behind.

Au revoir!

 

Advertisements
 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 12, 2017 in Passions, Travel, Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Winter in Middle Europe (part 2)

Winter in Middle Europe (part 2)

December 22, 2016

Our overnight Lux Express bus from Budapest to Kraków, Poland departed at midnight and by the time we got onto the bus we were exhausted, as we got up early the previous day to make it to the Szechenyi baths. The bus was luxurious though and we had a 6 and a half hour drive, so we all dozed off quickly. Unfortunately, I am not a good sleeper at the best of times, so when we arrived half an hour early in Kraków, I knew that it was going to be a long day!

After our disaster with the taxis in Budapest, I tried very hard to figure out the public transport system at the bus station but with little luck, and mainly because everything was in Polish. Eventually we decided to just bite the bullet and take a taxi to our hotel, but this time I did ask how much it would be upfront (there is a good tip for you whenever you travel overseas…) and the quick conversion to South African Rands in my head confirmed that it was quite reasonable (about R100).

We arrived at the hotel around 7:00am and were very relieved when we were informed after breakfast that our room was available for an early check in! A quick shower and power-nap was in order before our 9:30 departure for our tour to Auschwitz.

Kraków is the second largest city in Poland, and for many centuries, was the capital of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. In the second world war, after Germany invaded Poland, Kraków became the headquarters of the Nazi General Government. This is also the city where Oscar Schindler established his enamelware plant, utilising low cost labour from the Jewish ghettos, which eventually ended up becoming one of the largest rescue initiatives for many Jews in the second world war.

And of course Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp in Europe and was the guinea-pig site for gas chamber exterminations by the Nazis in WWII. Auschwitz II-Birkenau went on to become the major site of the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish question. The town of Oświęcim is situated about 50km west of Kraków. Auschwitz was the German name for the town and this is where the German Nazi built first Auschwitz I (initially for Polish prisoners) and later expanded to the much larger and more ‘factory like’ Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

01-img_0146

The entrance to Auschwitz I – the original camp with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (labour will set you free) adds to the eerie feeling of the place

The tour was a chilling experience, but very informative and very thought provoking. I learnt so much, but I think the one thing that really captured me was that most of the Jewish prisoners were executed on arrival, so most of the prisoners were actually Polish people, Romani people (gypsies), with many intellectuals, homosexuals, etc being incarcerated in the camps. Many died within days and weeks of arrival due to disease, torture and hardship. This was also the site of many medical experiments, including sterilization experiments on women. And the infamous experiments on identical twins by Josef Mengele also took place here. There are rooms full of glasses, suitcases, brushes and other personal belongings from Jews that the Russians found there when the camp was liberated.

02-img_0179

The women were separated from the men and there are electrified fences everywhere

03-img_0183

The extravagant house of the first SS commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höss, less than a hundred meters from the camp. He was executed at the camp after the war

04-img_0190

Double fences ensured nobody was getting our…

06-img_0197

Auschwitz II-Birkenau. the camp that was built when they started running out of space at Auschwitz I. This is the view from the offloading bay where prisoners were sorted to the entrance

05-img_0195

A typical wagon used to transport prisoners to the camps, each transporting about 50 prisoners standing

08-img_0206

The International memorial at Auschwitz II -Birkenau, erected in 1967 between the ruins of Krema II and III (extermination chambers)

09-img_0209

The remnants of one of the gas chambers, destroyed by the Nazis days before the end of the war

10-img_0219

The beds inside one of the barracks for children at Auschwitz-Birkenau

11-img_0218

Drawing on the walls of the children’s barrack at Auschwitz Birkenau made by prisoners

After the tour we returned to Kraków in a somber mode. It was already after 4:00pm when we returned to the hotel and decided on an early night dinner at the popular local restaurant Pod Wawelem, which was just next to our hotel. Anya went for the ‘Huge Schnitzel served with chips’ (very traditional Polish, I know…) and let us just say the portions were huge! And the prices were really cheap too.

img_0134

As serious schnitzel…spot the plate…

Tummies full, we decided to have a well deserved early evening at the hotel.

23 December, 2016

After a filling breakfast at the hotel, we set off towards the Main Square of the Old Town, to meet up with a walking tour departing from St Mary’s Basilica. It was cold outside and we had time to go for a quick coffee before the start of the tour.

We did our walking tour of the Old City Center with Ela from Cracow Free Tours and she was really excellent. Her knowledge of the city, its history and the legends were fantastic. She gave us lots of tips for places to eat, to shop and to visit.

Ready to start our walking tour

Ready to start our walking tour

We started the tour by walking to the green park that encircles the Stare Miasto, Planty Park, where the Medieval city walls used to stand until the early 19th century. Our first stop was the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre on the border of Planty Park, erected in 1893 on the spot of a 14th century church and monastery of the Order of the Holy Ghost.

Juliusz Słowacki Theatre

Juliusz Słowacki Theatre

From there we moved to the Kraków Barbican, a fortified outpost which was once connected to the city walls and walked through the 13th century St Florian’s Gate, which, we were told, follows the footsteps of visitors in the medieval ages into the city. From St Florian’s Gate, we walked down the Florianski street towards St Mary’s Basilica. The street is one of the most prestigious in Poland, evident from the many boutique stores down the street. Apparently apartment rentals in the street ranks the 2nd highest in Poland.

The Kraków Barbican - a fortified outpost once connected to the city walls

The Kraków Barbican – a fortified outpost once connected to the city walls

Remnants of the city walls next to the Florian Gate

Remnants of the city walls next to the Florian Gate

Entering the city through the Florian Gate

Entering the city through the Florian Gate

Our walk down Florianski street coincided with the top of the hour and we witnessed the St Mary’s Trumpet call, a traditional five note Polish anthem that is played every hour by a trumpeter in the tower of St Mary’s four times in succession from the 4 different windows of the tower. Ela shared the legend of the Trumpeter of Kraków, who according to legend warned the city dwellers of the invasion of the Tartars in the 14th century and was killed by an arrow before he could finish the anthem. In honour of the sentry who gave his life to safe the city. legend goes that the anthem is still played until the note where he was killed, which is the reason why the anthem sounds incomplete. Apparently the legend is not true and was immortalised in a children’s book by a professor on a scholar exchange at the Jagiellonian University in 1928.

The view of St Mary's Basilica from Florianski street

The view of St Mary’s Basilica from Florianski street

We moved on to the Main Town Square, which hosted the annual Christmas Fair. The Square, at 4000 m² is the largest medieval square in Europe. Walking through the Cloth Hall, the western side of the square (sans the Christmas market) gave a better feel for the size and importance of the market. Ela was also outspoken about the ‘Eros Bandota’ sculpture on the Main Square, which was gifted to the city by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. The sculpture is a large empty head of a man in bandages on its side.

Main Town Square, Krakow

Main Town Square, Krakow

The Cloth Hall, the central feature of the main market square

The Cloth Hall, the central feature of the main market square

‘Eros Bendato’ is the work of Polish artist Igor Mitoraj, a student of the Kraków School of Art

‘Eros Bendato’ is the work of Polish artist Igor Mitoraj, a student of the Kraków School of Art

From here we moved on to the Collegium Maius, the oldest building of the Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364 by Casimir III the Great, with alumni like Nicholas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. We were really keen to return to the courtyard for the clock show between 11:00am and 3:00pm every day, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there. I did watch it on YouTube afterwards, and it is quite fascinating…

The Collegium Maius is the Jagiellonian University's oldest building

The Collegium Maius is the Jagiellonian University’s oldest building

A walk through the university parks took us to the St Paul II window in Kraków at the Bishop’s Palace, where the Cardinal Karol Wojtyla were a resident for 20 years before he became Pope John Paul II, where he often made evening appearances as Pope when he visited Kraków in later years.

We continued our walk South towards the Wawel Castle past the Franciscan Church, St Peter and Paul’s church and the oldest church in Kraków, built in the 11th century.

The Church of St. Adalbert is one of the oldest churches in Poland and has been a place of worship for almost 1000 years

The Church of St. Adalbert is one of the oldest churches in Poland and has been a place of worship for almost 1000 years

A short walk down Kanonicza street (the oldest street in Kraków) brought us to the Wawel Royal Castle, the 14th century castle that was the residence of Polish Kings for centuries. The castle was occupied in the Second World war and they built a new administration building on the hill. After a short walk around, with lots of informative stories about the castle (including the one about the Nazi governor Hans Frank’s wife who made ‘ugly’ alterations to make the castle more ‘livable’), we finished the tour. All and all an excellent tour!

Kanonicza street, the oldest street in Krakow, where Pope John Paul II lived for a number of years

Kanonicza street, the oldest street in Krakow, where Pope John Paul II lived for a number of years

The Royal Wawel Castle, Krakow

The Royal Wawel Castle, Krakow

Remnants of old ruins at Wawel Castle, where evidence of settlements dating back 50 000 years ago have been found

Remnants of old ruins at Wawel Castle, where evidence of settlements dating back 50 000 years ago have been found

We made our way back to the hotel (which was across the road from the castle) for a short break and returned back to the Castle in the afternoon. We visited the Wawel Cathedral and some of the rooms in the Wawel Castle, with its splendour and wonderful artifacts, paintings, tapestries and furniture.

The girls in front of the doors of the Wawel Cathedral

The girls in front of the doors of the Wawel Cathedral

In front of the Wawel Castle

In front of the Wawel Castle

Late afternoon, we made our way to the Main Town Square again for a late afternoon lunch at one of the many restaurants around the square, Kawiarna Bankowa, where I had a traditional Polish bigos, or a hunters’ stew with finely chopped meat, sauerkraut and shredded cabbage. And mulled wine, of course! The girls had goulash. The food was delicious and filling after a full day of walking around.

In the early evening, we split up to do some last minute Christmas shopping and I went to see St Mary’s Basilica which was quite spectacular inside. We later met for coffee (and another hot wine) and started making our way back to the hotel.

The Main Town Square at night

The Main Town Square at night

In front of the giant Christmas tree on the Main Square

In front of the giant Christmas tree on the Main Square

One final stop was the monument on the banks of the Vistula River (just below the Wawel Castle), dedicated to the mythical Wawel dragon. Legend goes that the dragon lived on the banks of the river and fed on lambs and young girls. Because King Krakus has a young daughter and was terrified for her safety, he promised her hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the dragon. Endless unsuccessful efforts later a young cobbler takes up the challenge, stuff a lamb with sulpher and lures the dragon to eat it. Later the dragon gets so  thirsty that he drinks so much water from the river that he explodes. And the young cobbler and the King’s daughter lived happily ever after.

Anyway, there is a statue of a dragon on the banks of the river, and he breaths fire every few minutes. Bianca, earlier in the evening, got lost on her way to the hotel and walked by it by accident so Anya and I was on a mission. And it was fabulous! I took a short video on my phone and hope it captures some of the magic!

Smok Wawelski, the dragon of Wawel Castle

Smok Wawelski, the dragon of Wawel Castle

We would have liked to go to Oscar Schindler’s factory in Kraków but we had an early train the next day to Prague so we decided not to turn in too late.

What a beautiful city this was, and definitely worth the detour from Budapest to Prague! I would like to see more of Poland, Slovakia and some of the former Eastern Block countries one day again, as this visit has only wet my appetite!

Next up, Prague!

 

 
4 Comments

Posted by on January 22, 2017 in Passions, Travel

 

Tags: , ,

Coffee with a heart

I love good coffee. And what better way to make a cup of coffee better than to combine it with a good deed.

Meet Vintage Coffee, a new coffee shop that recently opened its doors in Centurion.

The concept is unique, certainly not something I have ever heard about.

The idea was the brain child of Kevin and Rebeca. Kevin is a South African who fell in love with coffee in Brazil and lived in the US for a period of time. They wanted to bring their coffee dream to South Africa, but also wanted to give something back to the community, and who said the two ideas have to be mutually exclusive??

Vintage Coffee counter

Vintage Coffee counter

The idea is a simple and brilliant one. They serve great coffees, enlisting the help of volunteers. With each cup of coffee, patrons are given a token, which they then use to vote for the charity of their choice. At the end of the month, the tokens are tallied up and the one with the most votes get a portion of the profits for the month. Genius!

Coffee and a croissant, served with a token

Coffee and a croissant, served with a token

I read about this new coffee shop which opened literally around the corner from my office. On Saturday morning, I took my mom and youngest daughter to go and give them a try. Tucked away in an office park close to the Old Johannesburg offramp in Centurion, we were pleasantly surprised by the ambiance of Vintage Coffee.

The decor is modern and minimalistic and the smell of coffee greets you as you walk in. The focus is coffee, but they do serve fresh croissants, gluten-free brownies and cupcakes/muffins.  We ordered our coffees and a snack and were given an old 2c piece for each item we bought.

Great ambiance!

Great ambiance!

Gluten-free chocolate brownies..

Gluten-free chocolate brownies..

Initially we stuck with the croissants, but we had to go back for the chocolate brownie, which was absolutely delicious.

And the coffee… Apart from the normal espresso, cappuccino and latte, they also serve an americano, a pour over and cold brew. The last one is made in a cold press that has a proud place on the counter and I found this fascinating. Not for your quick morning coffee, as it takes more than 2 hours to brew a single cup of coffee, but they promise that it is a summer delight. Apparently the coffee has a sweeter and smoother flavour. I will definitely go back and give it a try!

The cold coffee press...

The cold coffee press…

The voting station has more details about the charities of the month, with contact details etc. The 3 charities for September were

  • Re-connect:- A  company with the main aim of caring for abandoned, abused, neglected and orphaned children.
  • Jumping kids:- An organisation that facilitate access to advanced prosthetic solutions to those who need it most, children living with lower limb amputations from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • The Rare disease Society of SA:-  An organisation which aims to assist all rare disease patient to get access to appropriate care and support.
Voting station

Voting station

In the end, we shared our votes across the charities. And even if there are only one ‘winner’ at the end of the month, they have certainly created awareness of these charities via the initiative and I will certainly look out for them in future.

We left with happy hearts, knowing that our little small contribution will make the difference in someone’s life.

I will definitely be back, and I also confirmed that they sell take away coffees, so the perfect place to pop in for a coffee en route between meetings! Unfortunately, they only open at 8:30, otherwise I might have been tempted to place a standing order for collection in the mornings!

Do try and support this worthwhile cause. You won’t be disappointed. And look them up on Facebook. They do events from time to time like breakfasts and in September they did a coffee and chocolate tasting. I can only just imagine!! And for tea drinkers, they have a fairly decent list of teas that they serve as well.

Make your next cup of coffee count!!

 
2 Comments

Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Passions

 

Tags: , , ,

Dîner en Blanc…Jozi style!

In the summer of 1988, François Pasquier, who had just returned to Paris from a few years abroad, held a dinner party or picnique to reconnect with friends. They decided to convene at Bois de Boulogne, all dressed in white, so as to be easily recognisable to each other. It was a hit and the next year, they did it again, this time each inviting a friend, and so the dinner grew to one of the largest social events in the world.

In 2013, Dîner en Blanc celebrated its 25th anniversary with a mega 11000 guests at the Garden of the Trocadero, with stunning views over the Eiffel Tower. In earlier years, the event was held in forbidden spots around Paris, and you could only attend on invitation from another guest. And the most important thing was that it was an all white party. Dîner en Blanc or the White Dinner.

Over the years, the event has evolved, and has also spread to 40 countries, but still based on the base rule of an all white dinner party. The location is normally a venue that you would not normally be able to have a picnic at, and the organisers arrange transport from meeting points to the secret venue. Participants bring along table decorations, food, drinks and of course, dress fabulously in all white!

I first read about this event in the book Perfection: A memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz. In the book, Julie, who lost her husband as a result of a pulmonary embolism, discovers that her husband was cheating on her with one of her friends in the months following his death. Her husband was writing a book on food and had tickets to attend a secret dinner party in Paris that year, so Julie decided to fly to Europe to attend this White Dinner. It stuck in my head.

And earlier this year when I found out that that the event has been brought to my home town, Johannesburg, I rushed to put my name on the waiting list and hoped I would be able to get an invite.

Invites first go out to attendees from the previous year, then to their guests and only after that would invitations be sent to people on the waiting list. Bookings for the second Dîner en Blanc in Jozi opened on the 21st of August and on the 27th of August I received an invitation in my mailbox for the event on the 20th of September. I was out of my skin. On the 28th of August, at 18:00, I was ready at my computer to book as soon as the phase 3 ticket sales open. 10 minutes later, I had the confirmation for 2 tickets! And, as a bonus, I was able to invite another friend. Four girlfriends, good food, an all white pop-up dinner party. What more could a girl ask for??

Excitement built to a peak last week, as we were emailing and finalising arrangements around who brings what. Only crockery and proper cutlery are allowed. No plastic dining forks and plates. No-siree!

At 16:30 on Saturday afternoon, we met at our chosen meeting point, where there were buses waiting to take us to the secret location for this year’s event. Which ended up being in on the lawns in front of the Great Hall at the University of Witwatersrand. A large imposing building with its Corinthian columns and classic monumental architecture made this a fantastic setting. The whole field was set up with tables and chairs, with a band playing music on the one end of the field in front of the Great Hall and a table laid out with fantastic food and drinks on the other end.

Waiting to board our bus from the Gautrain station

Waiting to board our bus from the Gautrain station

Everybody was allocated their tables and within half an hour the setting was transformed into an elegant dining venue, with the most fabulous white dinner settings, surrounded by elegantly dressed dinner guest, just as the sun was setting over Johannesburg. The excitement was palpable. White balloons and sparkler sets were handed out. Drinks started to flow as the venue filled to capacity. More than 2000 diners in one place.

Setting up our table

Setting up our table

What a magical setting!

What a beautiful setting!

My friend, Alicia, taking a picture

My friend Alicia, taking a picture – looking gorgeous!

Eventually the signal was given and everybody had to waive their white napkins in the air, a signal that the party was officially opened.

We tucked into our starters and poured the champagne. The tables were laid out in long formations, encouraging diners to chat to their neighbours and as the skies turned dark, the magnificence of the venue and the evening was revealed. Coloured lights were set up to highlight the columns of the Great Hall, and at the top of the stairs a band was playing music.

View from the steps leading up to the Great Hall

View from the steps leading up to the Great Hall

Magic!

Magic!

Of course, what I failed to mention is that this is September. In Jozi. A city known for its afternoon thunderstorms in summer. A city with the highest concentration of thunderstorms per capita in the world. And the weatherman was predicting scattered storms over Joburg on Saturday night.

But we were prepared. My friend Alicia managed to find clear ponchos at a shop that day, and we are not afraid of a bit or rain, right?

The rain did not stop the festivities!

The rain did not stop the festivities!

So, when the drizzle started, we all dutifully took out our ponchos, umbrellas, topped up our champagne and carried on. Then the rain started coming down a bit harder. And the next moment, hail started pounding down on us. Initially, I turned my back to the rain and laughed as the hail was beating on my back, but very soon we realised that it was time to find shelter.

Hiding from the rain....

Hiding from the rain….

My friend Nicky and her sister Tarryn climbed under the table, but there was not enough space, so we ran to the closest building (actually, since I was wearing silver wedges through puddles, running is not an apt description). We joined the congregation of diners waiting out the storm, drinking wine and expensive champagne straight from the bottles, while singing Shosaloza and commiserating with each other as one diner looked more drenched than the next. A real festive atmosphere…

After a while, the rain abided long enough for us to make our way back to our table, where we found Nicky and Tarryn still under the table, drinking red wine from silver goblets. Our starters were swimming in our plates, but we still had our main course and desert in our basket. We were contemplating sitting down at the drenched table, but unfortunately the heavens were not quite done yet and after some spectacularly scary thunder and lightning we packed up our goodies, wrung the worst water out of the table cloth and started making our way back to the buses.

A sight for sore eyes! Drenched!!

A sight for sore eyes! Drenched!!

En route, we stopped at the Faculty of Architecture, where several diners were camped out, enjoying their picnics. We soaked up the atmosphere, finished the red wine and then decided that we were going to find our bus and decide where we will continue our party! The night was still young…

Drinking in the atmosphere...and some wine!

Drinking in the atmosphere…and some wine!

On the bus, it was clear that no storm was going to get this Jozi crowd down, and people were sharing leftover food, wine and champagne, whilst singing loudly on the way back to our meeting point. We went to a pub afterwards in our white dresses and ended up retelling the story of our own ice bucket challenge over and over again. Not quite the evening we planned, but definitely one of the most memorable evenings in a long time! And a story that will be told many times more.

Joie de Vivre!

Joie de Vivre!

All smiles!!

All smiles!!

What a magical event! I cannot wait for next year, and I will definitely be there, come rain or shine!!

 
12 Comments

Posted by on September 23, 2014 in Passions

 

Tags: , , , ,

Keep it real, stupid!

Runnaway brideI just finished watching a movie. It is a simple romantic movie, but somehow I ended up bawling my eyes out (in honesty, this is not a rare occurrence…but be that is not what this post is about…).

The one topic of conversation that has come up time and again over the last few months; between me and my girls, me and my girlfriends, and me and myself; has been authenticity.  Keeping it real. Being myself. Knowing myself. And this movie just wrapped it all together. The movie was ‘The Runaway Bride‘. I watched Maggie Carpenter trying to find herself, trying to mould herself to what everyone wanted her to be, trying to find out how she preferred her eggs, and I realised that was me.

Okay, I never ran from a wedding. I only got married once, and I actually went through with it. I had my doubts, but don’t everyone? We loved each other, and surely that was enough? I am a strong believer in perseverance. I don’t believe in giving up. And when the cracks started to show, I set out all my effort to fix them. Unfortunately, I had no idea what I really wanted. In fact, I didn’t even really know myself. I spent most of my teenager and young adult life trying to fit into what I believed other people liked and wanted from me. Trying to second guess what way other people liked their eggs, so I could make the popular choice. Be in with the crowd.

I think it is only when my eldest daughter was born that I started finding my feet. I was 27 years old and for the first time in my life I had a purpose. I had real meaning in my life. I wanted a better childhood for my daughter. But I didn’t quite know what that was. As I still needed to find me. But it was a start.

Honesty is a strange thing, and somehow the person that it is most difficult to be completely honest with, is yourself. Because once you are honest with yourself and admit that something is not working (be it a relationship, a career of a something like alcoholism); once you admitted to yourself what the true state of affairs is, you have to do something about it, or live with it. At the age of 36, I finally admitted to myself that my marriage was not working. It was one of the most difficult things I had to do in my life. Nobody gets married to one day get divorced. And when you come from a broken family, you are (or I was, certainly), even more adamant to make it work. But admitting it to myself and letting it go, was the right thing to do.

But all of the sudden I was all by myself. All of a sudden I had to rediscover myself, make new friends, learn how to be by myself.

It has been a difficult process. I have made some stupid mistakes along the way. I got into a relationship where I started losing myself again. I allowed myself to be manipulated mentally, and even once did an ‘online application’ to the man I thought then was the love of my life. And this is the second reason why I bawled my eyes out tonight. Because in my Curriculum Vitae, in the section listing my prior work experience I listed the following:

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY
Marriage from November 1993 – August 2007
Wife/partner/spouse

  • Actually, on second thought, I consider myself totally inexperienced for the specific position, which scares the shit out of me…(ever the lady…). But, nonetheless, I decided to apply anyway.
  • I have never felt this way about any man before…you make me happy, you make me smile through my tears sometimes, and I think I am the luckiest girl in the world to have met such a great match…
  • Yes, I am scared, but that is not going to change, and I cannot think of anyone with whom I would rather ‘ride it (out) together…ah aah’.
  • So… in the words of Maggie Carpenter: “I guarantee there’ll be tough times. I guarantee that at some point, one or both of us is going to want to get out. But I also guarantee… that if I don’t ask you to be mine, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. Because I know in my heart… you’re the only one for me.”

You see? There is Maggie Carpenter again. Even way back then, I realised there was a connection. I realised that we had something in common. Unfortunately, I saw the world through coloured shades and did not realise that I was being lied to and was living in a lie, but that was part of the learning process.

Authentic-480x245Today, I cannot say in all honesty that I know myself 100%, but I pretty damn well have a much better idea of the real person I am. One of the best compliments I received in recent years have been from a (male) friend, who said that I have the ability to make other people let their hair down and be themselves. I don’t know if that is true, but it is certainly something to strive towards.

And it is certainly a value I am trying to instil in my kids. I want them to be themselves. I want them to be authentic and real. I want them not to waste half their youth on trying to find themselves. I also realise that this is part of the process of growing up, but maybe if they have a sense of what it is they are looking for, it may be easier. It certainly made me smile when I received my 12 year old’s progress report last week, stating that she is a ‘free spirit’. Her teacher said ”I love that she is different, and proud of it!”

I have my fingers crossed. And most of all I am trying to show them what it means to be real. And for me it means admitting that you are not perfect. It means admitting that I have flaws and that not everyone will like me. But that it is okay. I have gained more friends by being myself than I ever imagined in my whole life. And these people like me just the way I am, quirky, weird, flaws and all.

And that is fine with me.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on March 29, 2014 in Passions

 

Tags: , , ,

2014…Friendship year!

This year I purposefully avoided making any New Year’s resolutions.

I have lots of plans, yes. And of course I have goals, like eating healthier, getting fit, losing weight, but really those are not NEW year’s resolutions, they are OLD year’s resolutions and constant goals. I have resolved to the fact that these will have to be something that I will have to strive for on an ongoing basis, sometimes with more success than other.

I would really like to do at least one overseas trip this year, preferably with my girls, but starting a new job soon, annual leave will be a scarce commodity, so I will have to see how things pan out.

I have made a decision though…

With my special friends Alicia and Annie

With my special friends Alicia and Annie

I am a really lucky girl. I have some fabulous friends. Old friends, new friends, friends that I can call at 12 at night and friends that I can always call on to join me for the theatre of live music concert. I have friends that will go hiking with me and friends that I can share a bottle of champagne with. I have friends that will quite willingly sit and listen to me complain about my life, my job and all the things that gets me down and there are friends that I can drag onto the dance floor with me at a party. I have friends that will try out a new restaurant with me and friends that will be willing to try out my kitchen experiments.

My 40th birthday party was a strange affair. I realised that every one of my friends have some connection with me, but put them all in a room together, and they’re an odd bunch. The only real connection that they all have is me.

With friends at my 40th

With friends at my 40th

And sometimes I find it difficult to get to all these friends. They are all so special to me, but it takes some effort to keep in touch with everyone. I am not a BIG group person. I prefer smaller groups of friends and treasure one on ones. There is nothing like sharing a glass on wine with a friend late into the night and having deep conversations. (Thinking about which, there is something I think I have done with most of my friends.)

And that is what I have decided this year. I am going to make sure that I do that more. That I arrange those special evenings and make sure I spend time with my friends. So, come hell or high water, this is going to be my friendship year. Rekindling old friendships, forging new friendship and sharing special moments and memories.

With Milady Retha

With Milady Retha

I believe that true friends are the essential to your overall happiness. My friends allow me to be myself, they will share many laughs with me and won’t complain if I cry on their shoulder.

So far, I ain’t doing too shabby. I have been to breakfast with an old friend (like a second mom), coffee with a friend who lives overseas, a birthday party and baby shower, dinner with a friend, Bruce Springsteen live concert with another, drinks with a friend and I have loads more lined up!

This year my only resolution is to stop saying let’s get together and then run off in a huff and forget about it, but to stop and set a time, a date, make a plan.

To many wonderful memories with friends!

Presentation1

 
6 Comments

Posted by on February 6, 2014 in About me, Passions

 

Tags: ,

On passions, decisions and new beginnings

Towards the end of last year, I had to make a few big decisions. And when I make decisions, I drive everyone up the walls. I like to do proper analyses, pros and cons, compare costs and benefits, reason things out (with myself).

Of course it is not always the case, and I have been known to make impulsive decisions. But sometimes those impulsive decisions have secretly been mulled over in my head for months!

AnalysisI once bought a car on holiday. We drove down to Knysna and somewhere in the Karoo, my car started making a noise. The car was (of course) just out of warranty and had previously made a noise like that, which cost a little fortune to fix. We took the car to a VW dealership in George to have it checked out, but being December, they told me to come back the next week.  Which is round about the same time I wandered through the showroom back to my car.  And lo and behold, there was the car I have been oogling looking at a couple of months previously, in Joburg, on the shop floor.  The sales assistant in Joburg told me that it would only be available in South Africa in February, and there we were, in December, and it is standing on their showroom floor. Like fate?

I (sort of) casually asked the attending salesman what he thinks they will give me as a trade in on my vehicle (hypothetically speaking). And believe it or not, the figure he mentioned was significantly higher than what the salesman back in Joburg alluded to.

It was a done deal. There and then. I ended up trading in my car 1 400 kms away from home, organise finance and insurance, and drove my new car back to Joburg.

What nobody knew was that I have been making sums and checking out the car for months. That part of the story is a lot more boring, so I will spare you the details.

But back to the big decisions I had to make recently…

My eldest daughter has been doing ballet since she was 3 years old. She is turning 16 this year. Ballet it is her passion and love in life. You will often find her late in the evening practising on pointe in her room. In grade 9 they have to choose subjects to take from grade 10 onwards, and to ‘assist’ them in this daunting process, her school arranged some visits from universities. But when faced with this extensive choice of study directions and career choices, the only question she kept asking was if the university offer dance studies…

Which is when I decided that maybe, if this is really what she wants to do, it won’t do harm to do some enquiries into dance schools. When I mentioned it to her, she became super excited, but I was very concerned that she would not be accepted into one of these schools and that her dream would be crushed. (But maybe that would be a sign too…)

Luckily (and this is where the decision making process kicked in), she was accepted after an audition. It was a difficult decision. Of course I want my daughter to pursue her passion. But the reality is that dancing as a career in South Africa is not all glamour and applause. Most dancers end up going overseas, or teaching or running into a dead end.

Bee

My little ballerina over the years

Secondly, she would have to move from a private school to a public school, and the public school system in South Africa does not have the best reputation. Fortunately, the school she was looking at have a fairly good track record and is partially funded by the parent governing body. Fees are, of course, a lot lower, but there would be extra fees for extra lessons in Jazz and Spanish dancing, which she has not done previously. And believe me, the outfits are very expensive.

And it would mean a commute. The school is almost 40km away, and in the opposite direction from where I work. She would need to go to boarding school or take the Gautrain to school.

In the end, we decided to go ahead and today was her first day at school. And she loved it. It is still early days, but I have not seen her so excited about following her passion in a long time.

And then, in October, I was contacted by a head hunter for a new position. At the time, I was starting to admit to myself that I was really not happy in my current role and that it may be time to start looking for something else. And I decided this could just be the ‘something else’ I was thinking about.

The pros were that the company is (a lot) closer to home. I currently do almost a 100kms by car per day to work and back. Of course there would be a salary increase, but that was less important to me. And lastly the company is a well known, and highly regarded company with lots of opportunities for bigger exposure. This would be an excellent stepping stone in my career.

The biggest problem was that I have been with my current company for 9 years. And I spent another 8 years prior to that on the audit side. So, I have been involved with them since I started my articles in 1995. That is a very long time. I am in my comfort spot. The devil you know and all that. I know my way around.

In the end, I decided to go with the process. Several interviews, assessments and more interviews later (and more than 2 months later), they made me an offer in December. And I accepted it.

And on the 3rd of March, I am starting a new job. I have been going through a whirlpool of emotions. So many goodbyes, and I wish I could have taken my current team with me. But I am looking forward to the opportunity.

So, 2014 will be a big year. And I am ready.

Having said that, this is enough for now. Time to settle in. Time to find my feet and help my daughter find her feet.

And I can’t wait.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on January 15, 2014 in Family, Passions

 

Tags: , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: