Tuesday, August 22, 2017


 Belgium Basics

I really enjoy Belgium.  I spent a week there doing a study abroad in 2014 and absolutely loved it.  The class I took was in Brussels, the capital, but we also did an internship near the city of Charleroi.  I then spent the weekend in Bruges, which, despite what Colin Ferrell says in the movie In Bruges, is not a shithole (and yes, you really need to watch that movie if you haven't).  Other parts of the country are beautiful, but I do not have firsthand experience.

Belgium is part of the European Union and Brussels is the de facto capital of the EU. Belgium also hosts the main NATO command center.  As part of the EU, Belgium uses the Euro.  The languages of the country are Dutch (Flemish) and French, with Dutch being most prevalent in the north and French in the south.  Brussels is officially bilingual, but most people speak French.  There is a lot of diversity in Brussels, with many Turks (and good Turkish street food like the kebab and falafels. There are also a lot of Africans, since the Congo was long a Belgian colony.


The most iconic of Belgian foods are the french fries.  The story is that an American (of course!) soldier during WWI did not realize he was not in France, because everyone was speaking French, so he called them french fries.  The other story and the one I think is more believable is that cutting into small sticks is calling frenching, so they were frenched fries.  They invented them and they are simply amazing.  There are fry shops everywhere.  They are usually double fried, so they get really crispy on the outside and served in a paper cone.  They have an assortment of sauces they either serve separately so you can dip your fries in it, or smother it on top, but they give you a tiny plastic fork to eat them with.  There are also other foods available at most fry shops, mostly also fried.  One good option is the Mitraillette, or submachine sandwich.  This is a baguette with a meat of some sort, usually a sausage, and then fries and sauce on top. My favorite is andalouse sauce, which is a semi-spicy combination of mayonnaise, tomato paste, and peppers.  Samurai sauce is a little spicier, and there are others that are much more mild, including just simply ketchup or mayonnaise.  One of the most traditional meals is mussels with fries.  There are various liquids they use to boil them, each imparting their own special flavors, and of course the fries are present.  

Belgium is also famous for their beer.  There is a huge variety, literally hundreds.  Each beer is supposed to be served in its signature glassware.  Of particular note is the Trappist beers, Chimay, Westmalle, and D'Orval are the largest producers, but there are other brands.  Chimay also makes cheeses that are delicious.  The Biertempel just off the Grand Place has a selection of over 250 beers and the glassware to go with them.

Of course, there are waffles.  There are two types of waffles in Belgium, the Brussels waffles, which are more the style you'll find in the United States, and the Liege waffle.  The Liege waffles are awesome, the use pearled sugar that caramelizes on the surface of the waffle, giving it a sweet, hard crust.  I make these at home now and they are delicious.  On top of the waffle, you can get fruit, whipped cream or any number of toppings.  Belgians do not view this as a breakfast food, like in the United States; it is more used as an afternoon snack.  There are plenty of stands or food trucks around selling them.

The last food to make sure you get is chocolate.  Belgium is famous for their chocolate, especially the more bitter dark chocolate.  Godiva and Leonidas are the two most prolific shops, and both will give allow you to select what chocolates you get and charge by the kilo (a half kilo is just over a pound and is usually around 7 Euros) or they have preselected assortments for sale. There are other single shops around as well, and in general, Leonidas is slightly cheaper than Godiva, but both are very good. 



Brussels is a great city.  The best place to start is the main square, the Grand Place.  This is the heart of the city and absolutely beautiful.  The buildings are lit up at night, and they can do various colors.  When I was there, it was during the World Cup, and when the Belgian national team was playing, the square was lit in red, the color of the team (the Red Devils).  Every other year, on even numbered years, in August, they construct a carpet of flowers on the square.  There are also many things to see on the square itself.  The first thing is the Town Hall.  This building is beautiful.  Across from it is the Maison du roi (the King's House, even though a king never lived there).  This building now hosts a museum detailing the history of the city.  This includes a collection of outfits that have been used to dress the famous statue Manneken Pis (the peeing boy).  To the east side of the square is the Hard Rock Cafe, if you're into that sort of thing, as well as a few restaurants.  In the southeast corner is a building where Karl Marx lived while he was exiled from England and wrote the Communist Manifesto.  In the basement, there is a beer museum, which also offers samples with your paid admission.  The guildhalls surrounding the square are beautiful. 

Just south of the Grand Place is Manneken Pis. The statue has become a symbol of Brussels and the irreverent spirit of the city.   They commonly dress the statue is various costumes, and as mentioned above, some of the more famous ones are on display at the city museum.  There are various stories about what inspired the statue, from an infant duke placed in a basket who urinated on the enemy as his soldiers fought, to a merchant who found his lost son urinating in a local garden.  My favorite is the story of Brussels being under siege, but the besieging army was growing desperate so they decided to pack gunpowder against the city wall.  The wall was saved when a young boy urinated on the lit fuse, thus extinguishing it.  The statue is surprisingly small, just 24 inches.  Also around town is a girl peeing (so that there's gender equality), but I was unable to locate it.  I heard there is also a peeing dog statue somewhere, but not sure where. 

Manneken Pis

St. Michael's Cathedral is a good example of the Gothic style.  When I visited, there was an organ concert going on and that was delightful.  There are a number of beautiful churches in Brussels.  The biggest is the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart.  This is one of the biggest Catholic churches in the world by area.  The church is in the Art Deco style, which I like a lot.  

Royal Palace
Not far from the Cathedral is the Royal Palace and grounds.  The Royal Family doesn't live in the palace, but it is for formal displays.  Immediately across the street are the three museums of Fine Arts, including the Margritte museum dedicated to the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.  These museums are all connected, and you can either purchase a combo pass to all of them, or each individual museum, so if you only like more traditional art and not modern or postmodern art, you can buy a ticket just for the main museum.  This museum houses many pieces, including a Rubens room, as well as art by many of the Flemish masters.  This is the art I particularly like, so this was my favorite part of the museum. Around the corner from the art museums is the Museum of Musical Instruments.  This has a lot of interactive exhibits and was very enjoyable.  

The Museum of Natural History is another good bet, especially with kids.  This is one of the better dinosaur bone collections in Europe.  
Continuing to the east, the Cinquantenaire Park and museums.  The park hosts three museums, all joined in a monumental beautiful arcade.  The history and art museum occupies the south wing of the complex.  There are exhibits on the history of Belgium, dating to Roman times, as well as collections from around the world, including a Moai from Easter Island.  The northern wing is the Royal Belgian Military Museum, which shows all sorts of military equipment, especially from WWI.  In the southeast corner is the Autoworld Museum.  This has many models of cars, mostly European brands, many owned by the royal family.  

Also in the park is the Great Mosque of Belgium.  The mosque was built with Saudi money, but has become fairly controversial in Belgium because of the belief that some of the imams who have come to the country are extremists who are seeking to radicalize young men to commit terrorist acts.  The headquarters of the European Union are close to Cinquartenaire park, but aside from a museum about the foundation of the EU, there is not a lot to really see.

The Atomium is a 300 foot high model of an iron atom built for the 1958 World's Fair.  You can take an elevator to the top and the view is quite good.  There is also a miniature Europe below the structure.  This site is a bit far away from the city center, but reachable by the metro.  Due to the owners trying to sue people who post pictures online, I'm not going to post one. 

Food, Lodging, and Entertainment

As far as entertainment in Brussels and were to stay, the best locations are downtown by the Grand Place, but of course, the prices go up a lot.  I stayed one night at the Sleep Well hostel.  It was right next to the university I attended, which was close to downtown and the main business district.  It was nice and a dorm was fairly cheap.  During my class time, they had us all at the Hotel Marivaux.  I quite liked the hotel, it was a good location and nice.  

There are a number of restaurants to try.  One of the top rated was Chez Leon, along Rue Bouchers.  This is sort of restaurant row and most cater to tourists, so watch for prices.  I had mussels there, they were good.  It was a little more than I would have preferred to spend, but the friends I was with insisted and it was fun anyway.  Any number of the friteries are great, and they are everywhere.  Also waffle places abound.  For more substantial meals, there is always any of the halal vendors, with the kebabs and other things.

I visited numerous bars with my classmates. The ones we really liked were Celtica (an Irish pub with a traditional pub and TV on the first floor and then a dance club upstairs.  We also visited Delirium.  Delirium had the world's record for number of beers on tap, which was like 150.  It was loud and hot, especially for a July night.  I did not particularly enjoy it, but it was worth a stop.  Another we enjoyed was Rooster's, in the same general area as Celtica.  

One money saver for Brussels is the Visit Brussels card.  I purchased a 48 hour card, which includes a metro ticket for the duration as well as entrance to everything I listed above and a few more I didn't mention for 32 Euros.  They also have 24 and 72 hour cards available.  With this card, if you plan your route, you can save a bundle and see everything.  

Bruges (is not a shithole)


After my class, I had a weekend before my flight left from Paris, so I visited Bruges.  I loved Bruges, it's like a fairytale place.  Yes, you really do need to see that movie if you haven't yet.  Ok, to start out, we'll go from the main square.  The Grote Markt, as it's called in Flemish, is the heart of the city.  The square is dominated by the Belfry.  The Belfry has a bell carillon that allows the bells to be played with a keyboard.  The bells can be heard all through the old town, and in the tourist season, they have regular concerts.  You can reach the top of the town by climbing 366 steps.  

Note the two green frites carts.  These are quite possibly the best fries anywhere.  Either cart is great, I don't know which is better, but this is the place to get fries.  Also at the bottom of the Belfry is a Salvador Dali exhibition.  If you like Dali's work, this isn't a bad stop.  The pieces are also available for purchase.  Please don't be an idiot and complain that the pieces don't conform to your artistic tastes like the lady who was doing that when I visited.  If you don't know Dali, don't be upset that it's Dali.

Across the square is the Historium Bruges, which is a newer sort of interactive exhibit tour that seem to be popping up around the world.  It's fun, and the view from the 2nd story balcony is great, but you walk through various rooms and watch videos of actors telling about the history of Bruges as a story.

Through a small alley is the other main square of the city, the Burg square.  This hosts a few sites, but most importantly the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  This building contains an upper and a lower chapel, two different styles.  The upper chapel contains a small vial said to contain the blood of Jesus collected by Joseph of Arimathea and brought back to the city by a crusading knight.  They have a festival every year to celebrate the artifact and parade in period dress though the town.  For a few euros, you can go to the top of the altar and venerate the relic.

The Town Hall is also on this square.  The inside of the building is richly decorated and with ceiling murals. The facade is also beautiful.  The building next to the Town Hall contains an exquisitely carved mantlepiece called the liberty of Bruges that is worth the stop to view.

Through the alley off this square is the canals of the town.  They do regular boat tours of the canals, and this was probably my favorite thing in Bruges.  Bruges was a seaport for centuries, the center of the Flanders cloth trade, but the old harbor silted up and so it lost it's importance.  Across the bridge is the old fishmarket, which has good tourist items for sale.

Just off the canal is the Church of Our Lady of Bruges.  The church itself was under renovation while I was there in 2014, but the most important thing in the church is a simple statue.  The Madonna of Bruge by Michaelangelo is the only work by the artist to leave Italy during his lifetime.  This is located in a side chapel, and of course there is a small admission fee (just a few Euros).  The St. Salvator Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Bruges.  The tower is one of the largest brick towers in the world and there is some nice art inside.


The art museums of Bruges are also great.  The old Hospital of St. John contains a Pablo Picasso exhibit with pieces from other modern artists.  The hospital was founded in the 11th century and the building is beautiful.

My favorite museum was the Groenigemuseum.  This art museum holds works by Jan van Eych, a native of Bruges, and many others.  I really like Hieronymous Bosch and his last judgement is there.

I really love van Eych's use of aquamarine, the blue color here.  It is still vibrant and was the most rare of pigments from the renaissance.

Other museums in the city are the chocolate and the french fry museum.  These are more fun and less serious than the art museums.  The fry museum details the history of the french fry and the frites culture of Belgium.  In the basement is a friterie.  The chocolate museum has a viewing gallery where you can see chocolatiers dipping chocolates.  There is also a diamond museum in town, which was mildly interesting.

The parks and waterways of the town are beautiful.  The boat tours on the canals really give you the best views and are well worth the trip.

I really enjoyed just walking around town, along the canals.

When I visited, I stayed at the Ibis budget hotel by the train station.  The location was great, the price good, the rooms were tiny, but it didn't really matter because I did not require a lot of space.  Staying in the center of town is much more expensive and some of the streets are foot only, so it sucks if you have to haul a lot of luggage, which is why I chose the hotel I did.  It was a great base to explore from and hauling my luggage was just a short distance to the train.  The Thalys train does do daily runs from Bruges to Paris, for about 45 euros or so, but they do dynamic pricing things, so the price always fluctuates.  Pay attention and sometimes you can snag a first class ticket for the price of 2nd class and that includes a meal.

Lodging, Food, Entertainment

There are plenty of hostels in town, one includes a bowling alley.  I heard good things, but did not experience it.  Food is generally expensive in the old town.  I ate at a friterie and it was about 20 euros for nothing special, which was still half of what the restaurants in the area wanted.  So beware.  There is a Carrefour Express (French version of Walmart with their big superstores and the express stores are more like a small grocery store) by the train station.  The pastry shop at the train station is also pretty decent and cheap which is what I did for breakfast.  There was a small pub near the train station I stopped at that was showing World Cup matches.  The lady who owned the pub liked my cowboy hat so much, she offered to trade me for a Belgium soccer jersey (I collect soccer jerseys) and some other memorabilia which I gladly accepted.  I believe my hat is still in place above the bar. 

Bruges also has a tourist card, the Brugge city card.  This was a great value.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Holocaust memorials

Given the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I am going to post about the Nazis and the memorials to the Holocaust as a way to remember why we need to stand up to fascism and racism.  Throughout Europe, the same words appear over and over again on the memorials.  Never again.  That is why they are important.

The Holocaust happened.  Thankfully in Germany, it's a crime to deny it did.  It's also a crime to display Nazi symbols, outside of places like museums.  The Germans have been very frank in dealing with that portion of their history and it's refreshing.

I have not visited all the concentration camp sites.  I have only visited Dachau, Terezin, and Auschwitz.  All were horrible places, but also places that I feel everyone should visit.  There are also number of Holocaust memorials that I will be talking about.  Each is deeply moving.


Just outside of Munich is the site of Dachau, the first concentration camp.  Much of what became traits of all the concentration camps originated at Dachau.  

The inscription on the gate, Arbeit macht Frei, work makes you free was just one of the many things that spread to other camps.  Dachau became the prototype.  While Dachau was not an extermination camp (those came later as the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question evolved from enslavement of the Jews to extermination of the Jews), over 30,000 people died according to camp records (and many more were not recorded).  Political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, anyone really that the Nazis didn't like. When they got to the camp, they were literally worked to death.

One other prominent feature of Dachau were the medical experiments.  Nazi scientists used prisoners as human guinea pigs to test various things.  Generally these medical experiments were just various types of torture, like submerging someone in freezing water just to see how long they survived.  They built a low pressure chamber to try to determine the highest altitude that an aircrew could safely parachute from an airplane.  Dachau was just one of many camps where these experiments were conducted. 

When the U. S. Army liberated the camp at the end of the war, of the 30,000 prisoners, 10,000 were seriously ill.  Many died soon after liberation. 

In visiting the site, it is an easy trip from Munich.  Public transit does reach that far, but make sure you have the right ticket, because it is not in the same zone as downtown.  When you reach the site, the main camp administration building still stands.  This is where they conducted the medical experiments.  The barracks were removed after the war because of typhus infection, but there are a few rebuilt examples to walk through.  The camp crematorium is still standing, as well as the unused gas chamber.


This site is in the Czech Republic and is really two sites adjacent to each other.  Originally founded as a fortress for the Austrian Army to protect the approaches to Prague from Saxony and Prussia, the Nazis turned it into a concentration camp.  First is the Terezin ghetto.  This was sort of a transshipment point the Nazis used to gather Jews for later shipment to the extermination camps, especially Auschwitz where they would then be murdered.  Many still died in the ghetto, as many as 30,000 people died here.  The Nazis used Terezin for propaganda purposes, trying to portray it as a model Jewish town.  

The small fortress was made into a prison camp.   This also served as a forwarding point to other concentration camps.  Prisoners in the small fortress were treated generally harsher than those in the ghetto.  Since it was more a site to gather prisoners for shipment to the death camps, they didn't do as much of the brutality here.  Of course there was still brutality, but the truly awful things were saved for other camps.  


I have not visited this site, but I feel like I should comment on it because a dear friend of mine's father was one of the soldiers who liberated the camp.  He could never talk about it after.    The horrors he witness first hand, I cannot even imagine.  

US Forces Liberate Buchenwald


While this is not a concentration camp, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin is very unsettling.  Solid blocks of stone, lined up in exacting rows, symbolizing those who were murdered

The site is right near the location of the bunker where Hitler spent his last days, another reminder of what was done.

It's hard to describe what it's like to visit Auschwitz.  The original camp, Auschwitz I, was originally a Polish military post.  The barracks were adapted into a prison. The iconic entrance gate has the same inscription that started at Dachau, Arbeit macht Frei.  The original was stolen a few years ago, but was later recovered.  

 Walking through that gate is surreal.  As you view the various buildings, you see what the Nazis did to the Jews who arrived at the camp.  Their possessions were stolen, the Nazis even had a place where all the luggage was sorted and any valuables taken.  Some of the original luggage is on display.  Heads were shaved, because it was woven into the linings of winter coats for the German army.  There are displays of actual hair from the camp.  Then there is the prison inside the prison.  Torture chambers where prisoners were placed to die in horrible ways, like an air-tight cell where people were suffocated or a standing room only cell where 4 prisoners were jammed in and kept awake until they died. 

The first experiments with poison gas were conducted in a small gas chamber on the site that is still standing.  Absolute silence is demanded when you visit the chamber to honor those murdered there.  Right in front of this gas chamber is the gallows where Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of the camp, was hanged after the war.

The worst building was where Dr. Josef Mengele did his experiments.   Mengele was obsessed with identical twins and would do experiments to try to change genetic traits, trying to create the master race.  I have identical twin boys and I just had to leave, I could not handle that building.  Mengele was the face of evil. 

A little down the road is the larger camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  This was the extermination camp.  Train tracks lead to the long platforms were Jews would arrive and then be sorted, usally by Mengele.  Those deemed fit to work were herded into the camp barracks and assigned to work, usually to death, in industries that helped the German war effort.  Those deemed unfit were herded to the twin gas chambers at the end of the platforms are immediately gassed, then burned in the attached crematorium.  As many as 20,000 people per day were killed here at the height of the slaughter.

At the end of the war as the Soviet army approached, the Nazis attempted to hide their crimes.  The dynamited the two main crematoria.  This is all that is left.

The soil in the area tested positive for human remains.

Between the two destroyed crematoria, is the international monument to the victims, inscribed in numerous languages about how many died there.

My last thoughts are to from Elie Weisel, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz and wrote about it in his novel Night.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Slovakia part 1

As much as I love the Czech Republic, I also love Slovakia.  Slovakia is especially notable for its mountains, especially the high Tatra mountains.  The low Tatra are also insanely beautiful.  Slovakia may possibly be the best destination for outdoor adventure in Europe.

Slovakia was always sort of the junior partner in Czechoslovakia.  For much of Slovak history, what is now Slovakia was part of Hungary.  The Hungarian kings were crowned in Bratislava. The Czechs were part of the German-dominated Holy Roman Empire.  When the Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, the Czechs leaders needed the fellow Slavic Slovaks to help outnumber the Germans in the country.  Slovakia and the Czech lands had not been united for over 1000 years, but this idea made sense for the politics and so it was advanced by men like Tomas Masaryk, who is regarded as the father of Czechoslovakia.  After 75 years of being the junior partner, the Slovaks had enough and demanded independence. So in 1993, they had what became known as the Velvet Divorce.  The country split into the Czech Republic and an independent Slovak Republic.

The first few years of independence were bumpy for the Slovaks, but things have settled out now and the country is doing well.  Slovakia is part of the European Union and has adopted the Euro as their currency.

Visiting Slovakia

Getting there is probably the hardest part for an American.  Airline service to Slovakia is limited, sort of.  Bratislava has the largest airport, but the main carrier with service to Bratislava is Ryanair.  This is not a problem though.  Bratislava is almost a suburb of Vienna, a short train trip of about an hour from Vienna will get you to Bratislava.  There are also rental cars available in Vienna.

Otherwise, if you're already in Europe, Ryanair is super cheap and of course the train is always a great option.


Usually the easiest place for an American tourist to reach, Bratislava is almost a suburb of Vienna. The Danube flows through the heart of the city.  The Old Town has many building still preserved. The Old Town Hall houses the museum of the city which is pretty cool. The St. Michael's gate remains from the old city's fortifications.  This area has many of the high-end shopping in the city.  In the tower is an armaments museum.  The Cathedral of St. Martin, is important because it served as the coronation church for the kings of Hungary.  This is important as the Hungarian kids were not viewed as legitimate until they had been crowned with the Crown of St. Stephen (I will post more on this when I do Budapest). The tower is particularly beautiful and used to be part of the city walls.  The Cathedral is next to the access ramp for the SNP or New Bridge (Nový Most) which is at least interesting to look at.  At the top is a restaurant, but I have never tried it so I can not comment on the quality.

Bratislava Castle is on a hill overlooking the city, with a great view, particularly at night.  I have not visited since the reconstruction started, so I do not know how that's been going.

Just remember with Bratislava, it is fairly expensive, being so close to Vienna.


This is one of my favorite places in Slovakia.  The castle above the town is particularly beautiful.  The site has been occupied since Roman times.  Roman legionaries actually made an inscription in the rock below the castle you can visit.

The castle is beautiful

Banska Bystrica

This town is the gateway to the Slovak mountains.  The low Tatry, the Fatry, and the Kremnica Mountains are all easily reachable from the town.  If you want to hike and see beautiful natural areas, this is a good place to use as a base.  The square is beautiful, with a Plague tower and also a black obelisk dedicated to the Soviet troops who liberated the city from the Nazis.  There is also a small castle in the city, just off the main square.

There are some nice bed and breakfasts on the square, an it isn't insanely expensive.


The city itself isn't particularly inspiring, but the location is great.  Budatin Castle is located just off the main square, which has some pretty churches.  The region however, is another gateway to mountains.  There are also a lot of cool castles in the area.  My favorite is Čachtice castle.  This ruin was owned by the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  Perhaps the most prolific female serial killer in history.  By legend, she believed that if she bathed in the blood of a virgin, she would remain forever young.  Of course, there is very little reliable history and a whole lot of myth surrounding her.  She was imprisoned in one of the towers, it was bricked up behind her with a small window where she could receive food until she died.  The castle was also the setting for one of the first vampire films, Nosferatu.

The High Tatra Mountains

This area is just simply incredible.  The mountains straddle the border with Poland.  The Tatra are a subrange of the Carpathian Mountains.  They are simply stunning.  The Town of High Tatras (Vysoke Tatry) is really 3 towns that serves as the Slovak center of the area.  Just across the border is Zakopane, which is a great option for visiting the mountains.  Summer activities include hiking and river rafting, and in the winter, it is a major ski area.

Poprad, while not in the mountains proper is not far and a good base.  East of Poprad, is one of the largest castle ruins in Central Europe, Spis Castle.

Definately worth a visit.

So, Slovakia is beautiful.  If you like mountains, this is the place to go.  It's similar to the Alps and Switzerland, but a fraction of the cost.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Visiting the Czech Republic

 A few things about visiting the Czech Republic to help get around.  First, in any of the major cities, violent crime tends to be low, especially in areas where tourists frequent.  However, theft, especially pickpockets are common.  Also common are various frauds.  The Russian mafia owns many of the shops that sell tourist items, especially garnet jewelry.  When they write your certificate of authenticity on a card by hand, that should set off alarm bells.  That said, garnet isn't exactly expensive and it is nice to look at, so as long as the price is right (haggling is allowed and usually encouraged), you can still get nice stuff, just don't pay premium prices for something that isn't real.

The easiest way to tell if, really any gemstone is real or synthetic, is to look at it closely.  In natural gems, especially garnet, there will be flaws.  It is extremely rare to find any gemstone without flaws, and that's why they sell for premium prices.  If you're not at a high-end -place like Tiffany's and you see a flawless gem, you can almost guarantee it's fake.  Look at it closely.  Like ultra close, if you can use a magnifier, do it.  If there's flaws and imperfections in the gem, it's probably real.  If your store is staffed with Russians, make sure you take that close look.  Again, I'm not against buying a fake, I think that they often look better, but you don't want to spend diamond prices on a cubic zirconium.

The Czech Republic is part of the EU, but has not adopted the Euro.  They still use the Czech crown(CZK), or in Czech, koruna. Check the exchange rate, and keep it in mind when you go there.  Of course this varies, but it's usually around 25 crowns to a dollar.  In fact, the word dollar has a Czech origin, from the silver coin from Joachimsthal, an ancient silver mining town, called the Joachimsthaler, shortened to Thaler, which became dollar.  Anyway, with exchanges, you will see many exchange booths, all with different rates.  Most places that do exchanges will have two rates for each currency, a buy rate and a sell rate. The sell rate is the rate at which they sell foreign currency in exchange for local currency. For example, if you were heading to Canada, you would exchange your currency for Canadian dollars at the sell rate.  For most tourists, this is NOT the rate you will get.  You will get the buy rate.  The buy rate is this is the rate at which they buy foreign currency back from travellers to exchange into local currency. For example, if you were returning from America, we would exchange your dollars back into euros at the buy rate.  The buy rate is usually significantly cheaper than the sell rate, which is where the booths make their money.  The other thing to notice is a lot of the booths have big differences in rates.  A lot of the ones with the seemingly best rates have big surcharges, which makes their rates not as attractive.  Of course, do the math, if you're exchanging a large amount, the better rate with the surcharge may be better than a lower rate without.  Ask up front about fees.  In Czech, the word is připlatek, the phrase is máte připlatku (ma tah pri plaht koo)?

Speaking just some basic words of any language can pay huge dividends.  People will treat you a lot better if you at least attempt their language.  Sometimes you run into someone who doesn't speak English very well, so being able to even struggle through a few basic words is a great help.  To tell a story, I was with my mother in Slovakia.  We had eaten lunch and I had ordered mine in Slovak.  The waitress generally spoke English, but talked with us for a minute because I did speak Slovak.  When we were finished, we needed to use the restroom.  The directions were more complicated than our waitress could give in English, but she remembered I spoke Slovak and just explained where it was to me, which worked well.
I covered in an earlier post places to go, so I won't do that here, but I will talk about how to get there.  The Czech rail system is pretty good and continues to be modernized.  There is now high speed rail service to major cities, especially between Prague and Ostrava (a big industrial city on the Polish border in the East).   Prague has one major train station with international service, the main station, Wilson Station or Hlavní Nádraží (abbreviated hl. n.) which is in the center of town and with a major metro station.

If you fly into Prague, the airport, as most airports, is on the outskirts of town.  There is bus service between the airport and the main train station, either with the city bus, requiring a transfer to the metro, or by the airport express bus.  The express bus runs every 30 minutes and runs between the airport and the main train station for about 60 CZK.  Taxis in the Czech Republic are notoriously expensive and known as a rip off.  It is usually best to avoid them when possible. Public transit is very good though.  The regular city bus is route 119, which then drops you at the Dejvicka metro stop, and from there it's easy to get downtown.  

The Prague metro system has 3 main lines, Line A (green), Line B (yellow), and Line C (red).  There are three transfer stations in the center of town.  You purchase a ticket at one of the machines (hit the button for English) or any number of other places like newstands, and then validate your ticket at the machine when you either get on a bus or tram or as you cross into the fare required area in a metro station.  You must stamp your ticket for it to be valid.  The metro system has officers who conduct spot checks, but there are not gates or turnstiles.  The officers will show you a badge and you must then show them a valid ticket.  If not, you will receive a fine, which they often demand in cash.  They have been known to rip off tourists by demanding more than the legal limit, which is 800 CZK, or if you pay immediately in cash, can be reduced to 400 CZK.  They really like to hang out at in the tunnels between lines at the transfer stations.  Best to avoid this by having a valid ticket.  A typical ticket is good for 90 minutes, but you can purchase a 24 hour and a 72 hour ticket.  Also, if you take luggage, beyond a backpack, purse, or similar bag, you have to purchase a luggage ticket in addition to your regular ticket.  You can be fined if you are caught without one of these tickets when transporting luggage. 

This sort of proof of payment system is typical of metro systems in other cities in the country.  Make sure you by a ticket and validate it.

Taking trains around the country is fairly easy.  Now there are ticket machines all over the train stations, as well as pre-purchase options (that can save you big money, so check them out before you go).  Some trains require a reservation, and most high speed trains have an upcharge.  Fares are distance-based, so the farther you go, the more it costs.  There are also ticket windows where you can purchase your ticket.  On regular trains, you can also purchase a ticket on the train from the conductor, but they are allowed to charge extra.  Usually it's easier to just buy your ticket before you board.  Trains are easy to use, and usually the cheapest way to get around the country.  Buses are also available.  In Prague, the main bus station is at Florenc, which is a metro transfer station.  You can purchase tickets either on the bus itself from the driver or reserve a seat and purchase your ticket from the window in the bus station.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Prague part 2-Day Trips

The Czech Republic as a whole is pretty cool.  As much as I like Prague, it's also a great place to use as a base for day trips.  There are some really great places to visit on day trips or even overnights.

Kutna Hora
This is an old mining town, at one point home to some of the richest silver mines in Europe.  The cathedral is particularly great.  Also designed by Peter Parler, the architect of St. Vitus in Prague, the cathedral at Kutna Hora is perhaps the best example of his vision.  Also near Kutna Hora is the Sedlec Ossuary.  This is a funeral church that was decorated with human bone.  It's a bit macabre, but pretty awesome.  

A pilgrim brought back dirt from Golgotha in Jerusalem and so the cemetery became one of the most desirable places to be buried in the Middle Ages.  It really is a pretty cool town to visit.

I love Telc.  A dear friend used to own a bed and breakfast (called U cerneho orla) on the town square and it was a great place to stay.  The town square is relatively unchanged since the 16th century, with the arcades still intact in most of the buildings.  The castle is also beautiful.  I have enjoyed walking the park around the castle.  It is a good two hours or so from Prague, so be prepared.  If you make the drive, a good stop on the way is Jihlava.  Portions of the old city walls still stand and the square is almost as big as Wenceslas Square in Prague.  The main church is also beautiful.  The Jezek brewery restaurant is a great place for dinner and relatively cheap.  

The only thing here is the castle, but you can reach it by train relatively easily and quickly (like 45 min-1 hour).  The train leaves from Smichov train station.  Also in the Smichov neighborhood is the Staropramen brewery, which is another of the good brewery restaurants and an interesting tour.  

The castle was built by Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV to house the crown jewels (the St. Wenceslas Crown) and important state documents and is well-preserved.  

Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice
The town has remained relatively intact for centuries.    The Vltava River flows through town, and river rafting tours are available.  It's a pleasant place to even spend a night with a lot of hotels and similar things.  

 Ceske Budejovice, or Budweis in German is home to the Budweiser brewery.  This is one of the most popular beer brands in Europe and the company has been involved in a legal dispute with Anheuser Busch for decades over who gets to use the name Budweiser, with varying results worldwide.  In the US, you can find it labeled as either Czechvar or Budvar (the common name in Czech).  Just outside of town is the beautiful castle of Hluboka nad Vlatavou.  

The city of Plzen (Pilsen in German) is famous for their beer (of course).  The Pilsner brewery is a cool thing to visit.  They still have the old ice caves under the city with the giant oak barrels.  Of course it's also a modern brewery, where they invented the pilsner style of beer (bright amber color, clear, lightly hopped).  Pilsen was liberated by the US 3rd Army under General Patton at the end of WWII (they were ordered to stop on the outskirts of Prague, or else they would have liberated that city as well).  

Karlovy Vary 
This is a famous spa town in the mountains by the German border.  The spas were frequented by the rich and famous of Europe during their heyday, around the end of the 19th Century.  The city also hosts a film festival every year.  The spas are still in use and believed to help treat disorders of the stomach.  The city is in a beautiful setting in the mountains and well worth a day trip.  Try the waters.  The popular mineral water Mattoni, one of the more common brands you'll see around the country is bottled here.  

The capital of Moravia.  Brno has historically been the second city, sort of like Chicago to New York.  Major sites include the main square, where there is a building that the shot-up facade from WWII has been preserved as a testament to the fighting.  The Cathedral in the city is beautiful and on a prominent hill over the city center.  The Capuchin monastery has some preserved mummies in the basement because of the conditions of the crypt that dried out the bodies and preserved them.  Spilberk Castle long served as not only a defensive castle to protect the city, but also as a prison, in many ways like the Tower of London.  

Not far from Brno is Pernstejn castle.  Pernstejn is because and has been used as a backdrop in many movies.  Also not far is the castles of Mikulov, which is also a famous wine growing region.  Go during the annual wine festival in September, where there is wine tasting and other activities around the castle grounds.  

By Mikulov is the castles of Vranov nad Dyji, Bitov, and the ruins of castle Cornstejn.  This castle was featured in the film Triple X with Vin Diesel, which also used many locations around Prague.  

Vranov nad Dyji courtesy Wikipedia

Long the ecclesiastical capital of Moravia, the cathedral is particularly beautiful.    Also of interest is the square with the large Holy Trinity Column.  This column was dedicated to the Holy Trinity after the town survived a plague.  

Near Olomouc is the castle of Bouzov, built by the Teutonic Knights.  

Courtesy Wikipedia

 The caves of the Moravian Karst are also in the region.  I have never visited, but I have heard that they are beautiful.  

In my next post, I will return to Prague and give some tips on getting around, eating and where to stay.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Favorite places-Prague part 1

Prague, Czech Republic is one of my favorite places to visit.  I lived in the Czech Republic for 2 years and it still has a very dear place in my heart.  Prague is beautiful.

Just look at the city!

This is a big reason I love the city.

 Don't Miss
Prague Castle
My favorite place in Prague.  Seat of the Czech government since 800 AD, it is the largest castle in the world.  The president of the Czech Republic still lives at the castle.  Inside is the Cathedral of St. Vitus.  Yes, there is a full-sized gothic cathedral inside the castle, that's how big it is.  The cathedral is one of the best examples of the Czech Gothic.  The architect, Peter Parler, created special vaulting on the ceiling that looks like spider webs.  The tomb of St. John of Nepomuk is a beautiful work of silver.  John was a priest and confessor to the queen.  The king believed shew as unfaithful and demanded that he break the seal of the confessional, which John refused.  The king had him wrapped in chains and thrown from Charles Bridge.  

The chapel of St. Wenceslas is important as well.  The remains of St. Wenceslas, the good king of the Christmas carol fame is inside the chapel.  Wenceslas was believed to be the founder of Prague Castle and ruling duke of Bohemia.  Wenceslas was a Christian, and was murdered by his brother.  Inside the chapel, there is a door to an upper room locked with 7 locks (keys held by
President of the Czech Republic, Chair of the Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament, Chair of the Senate of the Parliament, the Prime Minister, Mayor of Prague, Archbishop of Prague and the Dean of Metropolitan Capitule in Prague) that is where the kings of Bohemia used to be crowned.  The crown itself is also in this room, locked in a chest with 7 locks.  The crown is publicly displayed about every 5 years on special occasions.  There is a replica of the crown in the exhibit area in Vladislav Hall in the castle.  

The Romanesque convent of St. George is interesting, but a little more spartan in furnishing from the cathedral.  Vladislav Hall has served many purposes, it was the throne room, banquet hall, and even had a ramp to bring in horses for jousting.  

Further down, there is the golden lane.  It's called that because it used to house goldsmiths.  At one time, the author Franz Kafka lived here.  There is a toy museum here, I didn't visit it, but it's there.  

The view from the castle is also amazing. 

 Old Town Square
source wikipedia

I love the facade of the Old Tyne Church (the one with the spires in the picture.  Also the statue of Jan Hus, a Czech national hero and religious reformer who was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, kicking off what became known as the Hussite Wars that consumed the Czech lands for the next 100 years or so.  Also the Old Town Hall with the Astronomical Clock.  
Source Wikipedia
 The clock chimes every hour, and it's kind of fun to watch.  Just watch your wallet, pickpockets go through the crowd looking for distracted tourists.  Old Town Square is a great place for people watching.  Some of the shops also have some of the best prices for tourist items in the city.  

Charles Bridge

The oldest bridge in Prague.  It's usually crowded with tourists, but one of my favorite things in Prague is to walk the bridge as the sun is coming up.  I absolutely love it.  The view of the Castle from the bridge is also great.

How can you go wrong with this? At the end of the bridge, about a block down is the Klementium, the oldest building that was part of Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in continental Europe north of the Alps.  The library is beautiful as well as the hall of mirrors.  They often do concerts in the evenings.

The Jewish Quarter

This is always an interesting visit.  Not far from the Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter has some beautiful buildings and memorials to the Czech Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  The Jewish Cemetery is interesting too.  The story of the Golem of Prague is one that's fun to tell while in the Old New Synagogue, where it's supposed to have been kept.  The golem was a monster made of clay that the rabbi (believed to have been the famous Judah ben Lowe, a famous Torah scholar).  Also in the Jewish Quarter is the King Solomon restaurant, one of the oldest restaurants in Prague and about the only Kosher restaurant

Wenceslas Square

source Wikipedia

The biggest square in the Czech Republic.  The Vaclavak, as it's called locally, is the heart of New Town.  In 1989, during the Velvet Revolution, it was the scene of the giant protests that brought an end to communist rule.  The square has all the international chain restaurants like McDonald's and Duncan Doughnuts.  Crowning the square is the monumental equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas and the National Museum.  Some of the best street food vendors are on the square.  I really like the smazeny syr, a breaded and deep fried cheese patty (usually eidam) usually served on a bun with their version of tartar sauce (much creamier and way less tart that what is in the US) or any of the sausages.  A favorite is a parek v rohilku, which is a hotdog served inside a rohlik, which is a sort of breadstick that they hollow out and toast inside, then served with their awesome mustard.  I love the mustard so much, I bring back a jar every time I go.  

 Other Cool Sights

Mala Strana
Located below Prague Castle on the opposite bank of the Vltava, this is a beautiful part of town.  There are a lot of palaces here,  the church of St. Nicholas is beautiful, in the baroque style.  The American embassy is also here, if you need to visit it.   

The monastery here has one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.  Also, the giant Strahov stadium, which is one of the biggest stadiums in the world, but now days not used for much.  Dating to before communism, and used during, the stadium was built for giant group gymnastics displays that are no longer held.  

Narodni Trida
National Street.  This is sort of the more modern part of Prague.  This is one of the main commercial streets, where average Czechs shop.  Tesco, formerly K-Mart, has has not only a department store, but also a large grocery store.  This store also has a lot of American products, like peanut butter and brown sugar.  Narodni Trida also has a lot of affordable restaurants.  The Modra Zahrada has really good wood-fire pizza.  My favorite restaurant in the city is not far from here, across the street from the National Theater (beautiful building well worth the stop).  The restaurant is the Cafe Slavia.  The best thing on the menu is the svickova na smetana, a sirloin cutlet served with knedliky (dumplings that are like sponges to sop up the sauce) on a cream sauce that is just to die for.  They also have a version of the Czech national dish, veproknedlozeli, pork roast, with gravy, knedliky, and zeli (a type of sauerkraut, but sweeter than what most Americans are used to).  Prices are reasonable, since it's less geared to the tourist trade.  

The nicest thing with Prague, everything is pretty close, so easily walkable.  These sites are easy to fit into one day.  The metro is also very good, and relatively cheap, especially if you buy a day pass.  Just make sure you stamp your ticket to validate it before you get into the gated area.  While there isn't a turnstile or other ticket control, they do have inspectors who will show you their badge and you are supposed to show them your ticket.  If you don't have a valid ticket, you will be fined.  They like to hang out especially at the transfer stations in the corridors between the lines.  They love to get tourists and sometimes will demand immediate payment.  

 I will continue with another post about things to do, and a little more on where to eat, and more.  


  Belgium Basics I really enjoy Belgium.  I spent a week there doing a study abroad in 2014 and absolutely loved it.  The class I took was...