Prague, Gotham City.

prague1Also known as the city of a hundred spirals, Prague’s architecture, history and energy has awed me since my first visit in 1991, and it certainly didn’t disappoint during my recent visit.

 

In December 1989 Czechoslovakia gained independence from the soviet union. Previously under communist rule since 1948, citizens feared persecution.  They were intimidated, interrogated, and imprisoned at the will of the secret police.  I toured Russia and many Eastern European cities after the dissolution of the USSR,  when a renewed independence seemed to prevail, albeit a slow and desolate one.  My most vivid memory was enjoying local musicians playing the Doors and other American classics along the iconic Charles Bridge. At a nearby cafe a friend and I sipped a cocktail while taking in the surrounding music, statues and spirals.  Not many tourists or tour buses existed then, in fact even though the vibe seemed good, the streets were fairly empty.  I bought a Bohemia T-shirt and cherished my limited visit, vowing to return in the future.p5

p1Our quaint hotel was located near the popular Wenceslas Square, lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. We had a view of the Prague National Museum which unfortunately was closed for a few months of renovation.  We dined at a traditional Czech restaurant and booked a guided bus and walking tour for the following day.

My morning run through the city and along Charles Bridge ranks among the top ten.  The bridge was not crowded at that hour, but strangely Asian brides and grooms posed with professional photographers all around old town, the castle and the bridge.  I wondered what marketing they did in Asia for wedding photos in Prague.  My run became longer than I’d planned when I found myself lost while trying to find our hotel.  I have jogged cities around the world but this was a first, the trapezoid layout seemed a bit off of the normal grid.  Complicating the matter, I had forgotten the name of our hotel.  I had to call my husband and put it into my phone for GPS tracking.  I made it back for a quick shower before our 10:00 tour.

prague3Our excursion took us through town with a fifteen-minute van ride followed by a two-hour walking tour.  Awesome for me, not so much for my husband with an arthritic foot.  We started at the impressive Prague Castle, where many tour groups gathered.  Luckily we were a small group.  The castle complex is quite large, our guide covered the history and architecture while not venturing inside for a more in-depth view.  This was perfect for our first full day in Prague as a good general overview.  After the castle we landed at Charles Bridge, my favorite I cannot get enough of landmark.

 

It was so crowded we lost our tour guide until the other side where we randomly ran into our group again near the famous astronomical clock.  From my past visit, I clearly remembered the medieval clock located in old town square.  On the hour a mechanical parade the twelve apostles sets in motion other events such as a skeleton striking time, a rotating calendar and astronomical dial.  Considering when it was built, it was impressive to watch.  Myth has it that if the clock is neglected the city would suffer.  I hoped the myth was not true since the clock was not working and under renovation during our recent visit.

p8Our tour ended in old town square, a great place to end a tour with open air restaurants great for people watching which we did while dining.  Afterwards, we walked meandering streets full of quaint shops, churches and museums. We visited an interesting sex museum followed by a church visit to admire the architecture, alters and paintings.

The following day we opted for a hop on/off bus to just sit and listen while admiring the view, not getting off until we had the full loop, stopping just shy of our hop on point. My mom texted me the previous night to ask if I visited the infant of Prague.

“No, what’s that?”

“I remember saying prayers to the infant of Prague when I was little.”  She said.  “Your grandma used to tell us about it.”

p6I adored and loved my grandma dearly, so I decided I must visit, although I’m not religious myself.  I also wanted to get a photo for my mother who prayed to the infant.  It happened to be within walking distance to our hop off point.  The church holding the statue wasn’t overrun with tourists, in fact it seemed rather quiet and humble.  Inside, devout Christians prayed, and a small line lead to a passage in front of the statue for a prayer or picture.  Although its origins are unknown, the miniature statue has survived many wars and has become symbol for devotees worldwide.  Many who have prayed to infant Jesus claim miraculous healings and blessings as a result.  His clothes are changed seasonally according to liturgical tradition.

The neighborhood was off the beaten path and we decided to walk around and explore.  My husband, Brad, and I happened upon a pilot bar, and as pilots we had to check it out.  It was a bar designed like a 737, complete with a simulator.  My husband sat in the cockpit with his co-pilot/instructor, as a flight attendant brought me a drink to watch from the front row.  After a briefing, he took off and flew the virtual reality-based simulator.  Through the windows, I watched the control tower and ramps pass by, and then we were in the clouds.  His landing was great and then he did a night flight, and a few more flights in different environments.  The instructor, a captain of a 737, shared stories of flying into difficult countries and complex scenarios.  It was entertaining and educational.

Once outside I recognized where we were and it seemed easier to walk back to our hotel, instead of waiting for the bus.  Later that evening, an Indian restaurant near our hotel was excellent dinner choice.

We realized at the airport that we’d be flying back to New York on the 787 Dreamliner, the newest plane in the Polish Airlines fleet.  In first class we had plenty of room, were well fed, and each seat folded down into a twin bed.  A perfect end to our brief visit to Gotham City.p2

 

Croatia and its fortified cities along the Adriatic.

croatia12We landed in Dubrovnik around noon after an evening stop in Dublin to break up the long flight from Florida.  Dublin was fun as we pub hopped in the afternoon and evening with an early awaking for a three-hour flight to Croatia.  Upon landing I immediately felt the Mediterranean climate, and the dry scrub brush mountains reminded me of California. We rented a car and drove to a sea-side town for a lovely lunch at a gastropub. A small citrus arugula salad and a local beer was the perfect choice after hitting the pubs in Dublin the night prior.

first view of dbrovnikWinding roads along the Adriatic and through the mountains led us to a scenic view above old town Dubrovnik.  We parked on the side of the road as my heart raced seeing the fort from above.  We ran across the busy highway for a better glimpse, the first impression which would become minuscule compared to the following days of amazing panoramas from all angles of hiking, trams and exploring.

Another spectacular scene awaited us at the Hotel More overlooking the sea.  We strolled the promenade of sunbathers, restaurants and shops in the village below old town and then had a cocktail in the hotel’s cave bar.

We spent a full day exploring the fortified historic city, entering through the pile gate. We climbed the walls enclosing the fort spending a good hour above, looking into the ocean on one side and the buildings and people below on the other. Clothes hung out to dry as it was still a functioning city with permanent residents among the dominant tourist industry.  The ancient pathway was quite narrow and I could imagine during season, July and August, they’d have to limit the amount of visitors doing the wall walk.

We worked up an appetite for lunch below, settling in the town square at the bottom of a set of stairs.  As it turns out the stairs were famous from the hit series, Game of Thrones.  As many of the scenes from Kings Landing, the fictional city from the TV show, were filmed in Dubrovnik and the stairs were famous for the walk of shame scene.  “Shame, Shame, Shame,” the nuns repeated to Cersei as part of her atonement.  As we enjoyed our lunch I heard people shouting “shame”.  Afterwards, I couldn’t refuse to  walk the stairs myself, and I’m sure I deserved it from something I’d done in my youth.

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We popped into a few museums to gain a deeper understanding of Croatia’s history including a photo history of its most recent wars in the 1990’s.  Strolling down alleys and into churches, I admired the character of old town.  We watched tourists line up for gelato, as dogs and cats strolled by.  We decided to have a local beer prior to climbing the hundred stairs leading back to our car.

In the evenings we stayed close to the hotel, with plenty of good restaurants nearby. The waves, dim lights and ambiance reminded me of Positano, Italy only less busy.

The following day we decided on a different view of the city, one from the mountain above where within minutes the tram hauled people from the old town to the sky.  Initially we skipped the tram ride and drove to the top of the mountain, and it was the most terrifying drive of my life.  To start with it should have been a one way street, it was to narrow for two cars,  but a taxi coming down confirmed it was the only way up.  We attempted three times to ascend, only to be met head on by a car where we had to reverse down the mountain to let them through.  We let a van behind us pass so we had someone to follow, a bully to push through.  We drove on cliffs with no room for mistakes.  My hands sweated and I tried not to look over the edge of death, a real possibility with one miscalculated inch.

Once I saw the view up top I decided the heart palpitating ride was worth it.  We rented an ATV for an hour tour of the mountains where we sped though the dusty hills to arrive at a fort which played an important role holding off the Serbs during the 1990’s war, defending the city from occupation.  Goats, cows and a donkey roamed as we took photos of the bay from above. We then hiked down a rocky path for about an hour to arrive in old town for a late lunch.  My husbands feet were done and we took the tram back up to our car for the equally nail-biting ride back down to our hotel.croatia17

 

The following day we drove to Split.  We parked our car below Hotel More via a car lift which we had no problems until our departure day.  It was rush hour on the lift and about a half hour wait.  I was eager to get on the road, so I felt helpless during this time.  I practiced patience, a trait I’ve been trying to master the past few years.  The drive along the Adriatic simply breathtaking with the mountains on one side and quaint villages on the other.  We stopped at Ston, a small fortified town along our route famous for its shellfish farming.

Along our route we passed through the Bosnia Herzegovina border and enjoyed lunch by the sea.  Although a different county and one with a recent war-torn past, it seemed just as lovely as Croatia. While planning this trip I had considered going to Sarajevo for a night, but time didn’t really allow for it and I chose a few nights in Prague instead.  I  read many books about the war and had a fabulous lunch there, so maybe next trip.  I do love history including conflicts, religion and ever changing borders.  The former Yugoslavia is a classic and recent example of all elements.

IMG_2263Split was bigger than I imagined, but where we stayed among the red tiled roofs with a view of the harbor and within walking distance to the must see Diocletian’s Palace was ideal.  From our fifth floor balcony I watched pedestrian traffic below and ferry’s arriving an departing just beyond to the islands visible  in the distance.  I’d watch the lady hanging her laundry on the adjacent rooftop, and another resident cooking her dinner in an apartment below.  As in all of Croatia, olive trees and herbs in gardens and rooftops seemed abundant.

We toured the palace, the only Roman Emperor to ever retire did so in Split and he built a spectacular fortified residence with three entry gates, the silver, iron and gold surrounded by a moat.  He also had a lions den to use at will. It was expanded upon in medieval times and today houses museums, churches, shops, and restaurants.  We meandered through the narrow streets, ate traditional Croatian cuisine of goulash and spinach pie for this vegetarian.  Evening involved a random concert, dancing and just simply hanging out on the promenade.

After a morning visit to the mediocre archaeology museum, (as an archaeologist I’m picky) we headed to the ferry for our crossing to the island of Hvar, a playground for Europeans and celebrities.  I expected nothing and just wanted to relax by the sea.  Our hotel was again in a prime spot with a cool pool, lounge chairs on the Adriatic, and a promenade close to the town center.

We managed to find a fort and a winery to visit prior to relaxing by the salty sea. It was a pebble beach and quite cool, but a nice change from the Atlantic beaches of Florida and the Bahamas. Our trip to Croatia came to an end but continued to Prague for a few days which is a near future blog.