A Travellerspoint blog

Tech and 'trucs' v2

Why don't we do this?

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'Trucs' is a French term that refers to stuff. During our trip, we observed several things that are commonplace in Europe but we had never encountered them. This is just a quirky blog entry where we capture some of these new things we observed.

In women's bathrooms, several places provided a sanitary spray that you could use to clean off the seat. In another washroom, they had a waste disposal that you opened with your knee. How brilliantly hygienic!!!

In Czech Republic, I saw a solid block of greenhouses with no spaces between them. This block probably covered the equivalent of one or two city blocks. It's interesting to contemplate what the benefits might be.

We have been impressed with the extensive use of solar panels in Europe. The south-facing exterior walls of the parkade at the Prague airport were covered in solar panels (more than this picture actually shows - I just couldn't get a good shot of it once we got off the bus). I regret that we don't have a picture of the bridge in Cologne that had solar panels all along the south-facing base of the roadway on the bridge.

I mentioned the magnetic wristbands for locking lockers at the spa in our Budapest blog:

Do you notice anything different about this carton of eggs? Lyle commented it was appropriate for a metric environment.

One best practice that we came across in Prague had to do with the labelling of food allergens. We were told that this explicit labelling is required by law in the Czech Republic. Each item on the menu has allergens it contains clearly identified by number with a guide to the numbers included in the menu.

We hope you have enjoyed travelling along with us!

Posted by HosMiniTravels 21:47 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Amsterdam Airport area

Heading home

overcast 19 °C
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May 24-25, 2018

We arrived from Prague mid-afternoon and caught the shuttle van to the hotel. The hotel was out in the country, not far from the airport. There was a bus connection to the city, but it was threatening rain and we were exhausted, so we decided to stay around the hotel. We discovered a lovely bike/walking path through a bird sanctuary that was home to some cows and horses too. The songbirds were numerous but they were very hard to spot.


The path led to a quiet cottage area but we were separated from it by a dike, enjoyed by waterfowl. We certainly have appreciated the Dutch respect for nature. It's given us some lovely, serene images for us to take home.


We were a little concerned about the boisterous group having breakfast at the next table in the airport restaurant, wearing jackets labelling them as Bearded Villains, but when you Google them, they seem like a pretty harmless group.

We made sure to pick up some Dutch goodness (or should I say Goudaness) before boarding the plane:

We had a great flight home and were surprised to find a few tulips blooming in our garden and the leaves still developing on some of the trees. We were blessed with wonderful weather throughout our trip and feel grateful to have enjoyed another great adventure!

Posted by HosMiniTravels 16:59 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)


Reconnecting with a dear friend

sunny 23 °C
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May 19-24, 2018

We caught a double decker Flixbus for Prague, Czech Republic and sat upstairs which gave us marvellous views for the seven hours of travelling through rural countryside with stops in cities every 2 hours. Czech Republic is a beautiful country and that's why we chose to travel by bus rather than fly to Prague. The hills in the countryside are pleasant shades of soft greens, the towns and fields are neat, and there are extensive pine forests. For the ride from Brno to Prague, we seemed to be driving downhill for 1.5 hours!

The bus dropped us at Prague's Main Railway station and from there, we figured out how to use the metro to get to our Homeaway accommodation. Fortunately, I was able to connect with our host by cell phone, and he directed our steps to his apartment which is in Zizkov, an old residential section of Prague. We were accommodated in a large bed sitting room in his apartment. A student traveller from South Korea occupied another bedroom.

Once we got settled, I contacted Pavel, my pen pal from high school days. I had met him in person in 1974, when I stayed for a few days with his family in Czechoslovakia while it was under Soviet occupation. Pavel and his wife, Gita, met us and together, we went to the riverfront of the Moldau, or Vltava River where a Czech wine festival was taking place. We sipped on some nice local wine in Bohemian crystal wine glasses and strolled through the crowds till we arrived at the foot of Vysehrad, a castle located above an old gate to Prague. If you are interested in classical music, you may be familiar with Smetana's symphony "My Country." Probably the most famous movement in it is called "The Moldau"; another of the movements is called "Vysehrad", inspired by this historic castle.

Our five days in Prague were very busy, hopping on and off trams and the subway with Pavel and Gita, exploring places off the tourist track, finding brew pubs in monasteries, attending events in art galleries and cafes, and stumbling upon cozy eateries. Prague is a very popular tourist destination, so we appreciated our exclusive tours with Pavel and Gita.

We had a multi-day pass for the public transportation so we just breezed through access to the subway and trams. On our last day, we saw police checking that people had their passes, but overall, the honour system seemed to work very efficiently. Most local folks have an annual pass so the subway doesn't even bother with turnstiles. There's just a place where you validate your pass the first time you use it, then you're good for the duration of the pass, be it 30 minutes, 90 minutes, 24 hours or 3 days. It was similarly easy in Amsterdam but some of the Amsterdam passes were for 24, 48 or 72 hours, while other passes were just good for a calendar day and expired at midnight. On the Amsterdam buses, you have to swipe your pass to enter and leave the buses, but the drivers were very generous to us, just waving us through even if our pass didn't seem to work.

On Sunday, Pavel thought we would enjoy going to the National Technical Museum. It had a hangar-size area filled with vehicles, mostly produced in the Czech region, over the last 150 years. It had everything from bicycles to satellites, with lots of Czech-made motorcycles and cars. The museum also had a special exhibit on "Man-made Man". We were fortunate to be in Prague for this as it featured an exhibit of Pavel's work on creating and building myoelectric hand prosthetics. This has been his life work as an electronics engineer. After having an accident with high voltage electricity early in his working career, he was left with no left arm and only a stub on his right forearm. He was quite dissatisfied with the first prosthetics he was given, so worked to make something better. His workshop produces about 20 prosthetic hands each month, using 3D printed titanium.

Right next door to the Technical Museum was the Museum of Agriculture which had a little outdoor beer cafe, so we stopped to enjoy the sunny afternoon and quench our thirst.

Pavel and Gita were awesome tour guides. He loves to share his knowledge of history, culture, politics, etc. and Gita made sure that we posed in front of each location for a shot. To get our attention, she would sing 'Cuckoo', just like the clock. The picture in the middle is Prague's famous Charles Bridge, which is lined with historic statues and crowded with pedestrians day and night. The last photo below is a plaque in the Old Town indicating that many more priests, monks and nuns were imprisoned, interned and killed by the Communists than by Hitler and the Nazis.

May 21, 2018
In the morning, we explored around our neighbourhood, seeking out the green areas on our map. A park near our place had a display of significant and ominous events in the country's history, highlighting those that occurred in years ending in the number 8 (Lyle mused that this is also a year ending in 8 and wondered what might arise this year):
1348 - founding of Charles University in Prague
1358 - foundation of vineyards in the lands of the Bohemian Crown
1648 - end of the Thirty Years War between the Protestants and the Catholics
1848 - Franz Joseph became the emperor of Austria and the king of Bohemia
1918 - the establishment of the Czechoslovakian Republic at the end of the Great War
1938 - German occupation of Czech borders
1948 - the Communist coup d'├ętat
1968 - the Soviet occupation
1988 - the beginning of demonstrations that led to the withdrawal of the Soviets
We learned that the park in Zizkov where we found this exhibit had been a significant battleground at different times in history.

We discovered a cemetery from the 1800s that was very crowded and, in places, completely overgrown with vines. It's interesting to realize what can happen when a cemetery is no longer maintained. This neglected-looking cemetery could have been creepy but parents were pushing strollers and women were chatting on benches, enjoying the patch of quiet space in the city. We noticed that many more fathers were pushing baby strollers than mothers. Gita explained that young women aren't really interested in having families; it's the men who are, so they are quite actively involved in parenting.

We stumbled upon Bunker Hill, one of the highest hills in Prague, which used to be a huge nuclear war bunker and now the top of it is a pleasant park. We were trying to find the Memorial to General Zizkov and the tomb of the unknown soldier, but instead found a great outlook over the city. On our way on to find the memorials, we stopped for lunch at a Nepalese-Indian Restaurant. Mmmmm! Comfort food!!!

Once we reached our destination, we called Pavel who said he could meet us in the park near our place in 20 minutes. We explained that we were a long way from there, but there seemed to be some urgency to meet Gita after work, so we raced down the hill and then huffed and puffed our way back up another hill to the residential area.

Pavel and Gita didn't seem to mind our sweaty hiker appearance and took us by tram up the hill past Prague Castle to Brevnov Monastery (www.brevnov.cz/en), a serene place with park-like grounds and historic buildings which are being restored. On Mondays, museums in Prague are closed, so we had to settle for sampling the beer they have brewed for 1100 years. From there, we hopped on another tram and headed to the hill with the Petrinska Tower, passing through Strahovsky Cloister, stopping along the way to enjoy the view and the rose garden at the Observatory, and enjoying lots of laughs at the House of Mirrors.
We took the funicular back down to Lesser Town and strolled around Campa Island where we picked up glasses of beer and wine, and continued strolling through the park till we found a quiet restaurant, stopping for supper around 9:30 pm.

On our last 2 days in Prague, we were on our own during the day to visit the Prague Castle complex, the Jewish District, and the Legoland Museum where we found Yoda and a variety of Lego landscapes, creatures and structures. All of these locations were well worth visiting. At the Castle, I loved the Noblewomen's Institute in the Rosenburg Palace, with its interesting ceilings and furnishings, and the stained glass windows and interior of St. Vitus Cathedral.
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As we were descending the hill from Prague Castle, we came upon the oldest vineyard in Prague so we HAD to stop to sample their wine and enjoy the view of Prague.

A lot of Prague's Jewish District was destroyed during WWII, but 5 synagogues remain in the central area. They all had very different interiors. One has its interior walls covered with the names of Jews who died in the Holocaust. This picture shows only one wall out of many that were covered with names.

Another building in the Jewish District had an exhibit of artwork and writing that had been done by children in a concentration camp. The adults tried to normalize life for the kids in the camp by continuing their schooling, including art, writing and drama. This exhibit attests to what the children witnessed, and to their resilience, being able to still envisage a world of hope and loving relationships. This exhibit reminded me of the movie Life is Beautiful.

One evening we attended a reading (in Czech) of a new book on Legends of Prague at an artsy pub on Campa Island where dogs and people wandered in and out, including kids coming in to borrow a toy. We loved the natural community atmosphere! Providing additional entertainment that evening was Korinek Vaclav who played a water viola he had made ( www.stardrum.cz ). He played some appropriately spooky sounds on his instrument and then got into an amazing shamanic-like performance putting his voice into an ultra-deep range and making a variety of percussive sounds. We spoke with him afterwards and learned that he has won awards at international music festivals. If you want to hear a sample of his experimental music, go to YouTube and search 'Korinek Vaclav - FlashString and throat voice'.

On our last evening, we took in a fabulous classical guitar concert performed by a Czech couple in a small art gallery. The evening finished with a great meal in a vintage jazz bar.

It was sad to say goodbye to our friends, but so heartfilling to have many new wonderful memories of our time shared together. It was super-easy taking public transportation to the airport for our Easyjet flight back to Amsterdam.

Posted by HosMiniTravels 16:55 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Budapest v2

Four days of getting in touch with Lyle's Hungarian roots

overcast 23 °C

May 15-18, 2018

This morning, our boat completed the journey to Budapest. While we were still cruising between Bratislava and Budapest, Adrian, the cruise director, gave an hour-long presentation on what it was like growing up under Communist rule. He's 50 now, so he remembers it well. All of the employees on the boat come from former Eastern bloc countries: Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, so they share this common background, although a lot are around age 30 so they might not remember much. Adrian spoke about the rations and coupons for buying foods and supplies, the daily line-ups that started early in the morning, and the "7 Paradoxes of Communism":
1. Everyone works.
2. Everyone works, but nothing is produced.
3. Nothing is produced, but production quotas are met by 110%.
4. Production quotas are met by 110%, but the shops have nothing to sell.
5. There is nothing in the shops, but people have everything they need (they trade among themselves).
6. People have everything they need, but everyone steals.
7. Everyone steals, but nothing is ever reported stolen.
Adrian also spoke of the suppression of the church and the loyalty to the state that was nurtured in young people, relating difficult situations he had experienced. We all appreciated this presentation from his heart.

We stayed onboard the night of the 15th, allowing us to do an in-depth bus tour of the city in the afternoon and an evening cruise along the river. We were parked right across the river from the parliament building, an immense, stunningly beautiful building by day and by night.

On the Pest side of the Danube, the bus tour took us to the Heroes' Monument, past the Szechenyi Baths (mineral spas) that we were to visit later, and to a school for blind students where Csaba Kiraly was giving a musical performance of Lizst piano pieces and several organ works. The concert used a performance hall in the school that had perfect acoustics for this music and a world-class organ. The Liszt music was as smooth as silk! Ahh, dreamy!!

On the Buda side of the river, the bus tour took us up to the Fisherman's Bastion, near the Royal Palace and Mattias' Church, perched high above the city. We found a great lookout to take pictures of the Buda hills.

After the tour, a group of Hungarian folk musicians and dancers put on a terrific performance. We discovered that Lyle's style of dancing (when he has had a few!!!) has its roots in his Hungarian heritage. The men did a lot of thigh slapping and kicking their feet - a very energetic performance!! In the second picture, the dancer is balancing a flask of wine on her head.

On the 16th, we left the boat and took a taxi to our airbnb apartment. On the way, the taxi was involved in a minor accident (rear-ended at a low speed). It held us up a bit while the driver looked after exchanging information with the other driver. When we arrived at the apt building, the entrance way looked very sketchy, but in an old European urban bohemian way. Dingy walls, dark alleyways, and stairs and hallways that have definitely seen better days ... somewhat off-putting for Lyle. I've stayed in European pensiones before, so knew not to judge a book by its cover. The hallway outside our apt. was in better shape.

We had a bit of trouble contacting the host who lived in one of the 3 adjoining apt buildings. I didn't realize until reaching Prague that I could use my cellphone without turning on the cellular data. Duhhhh! Anyway, as it turned out, Regina, a graphic designer in her mid 30s, was a super hostess; the apt was completely renovated with an IKEA style kitchen, fabulous bathroom and comfy beds. One bohemian touch was in the red carpet; we saw one like it in the museum (in much better condition) that said it came from Transylvania in the 17th century. The norm in our airbnb accommodations seems to be 2 single beds rather than a double or queen. Each bed has a fitted bottom sheet and a separate duvet for each person. The balcony was just big enough for one chair and a tiny table.

The price of the apt was right, though, and the location was fabulously convenient to the sites we wanted to visit. Lyle found that for his morning walks, he could walk across the various bridges, explore the woodsy pathways below the castle on the Buda side of the river, and wander around the historical areas, including some Roman ruins on the top of the hill. He loved being there when there were very few tourists present.

The apt building was located at the gateway into the former Jewish ghetto, which is starting to be renovated. A lot of clubs, pubs and restaurants have opened up in this 'Ruins District' with open air seating and cheap prices, so it's very popular with young people. We saw lots of tour groups heading into the area to explore 'the Ruins', learn about the history of the Jewish district, or just see an alternative side of the city. Just around the corner from our apartment, we stumbled upon a very unusual two-part statue that commemorates Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz's courageous activities during WWII to help about 65,000 Jewish people escape from Hungary. There is more information about him at www.greatsynagogue.hu/blog/?page_id=253

We took a tour of the Dohany Synagogue which is the second largest in the world (after one in New York). It looks like a basilica inside - complete with a pipe organ! Very different from traditional synagogues! Apparently synagogues that are part of the 'reform' movement try to adapt to the society in which they find themselves; in Budapest, they were influenced by the many churches and basilicas around them. We were told that the organist is not Jewish as Jewish people are not allowed to play an instrument on the sabbath. In the gardens outside the synagogue, there were memorials to Jewish people from Budapest (and particularly, the nearby 'ghetto') who died during the Second World War. We also toured the Jewish Museum which contained a historical collection of religious items.

Just outside our apartment building, there were several Hungarian restaurants where we enjoyed chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage rolls (just like Lyle's mom used to make), and goulash soup. Also, just a few steps away was an amazing 'gluten-free, lactose-free' health food store!!! How lucky for me!!

The first night, our airbnb hostess invited us to join her for an 'eat with' meal she was hosting. Eatwith.com invites travellers to have a cultural experience in places they are visiting, by eating in the kitchen of a local family. Our hostess, Regina, prepared chicken paprikash with spetzle, along with an appetizer of Hungarian sausages and pickles, and a traditional dessert; this is what her family normally eats for Sunday dinner. The other guests for the dinner were 2 women, one from the USA, and one from Israel. After the meal, four of Regina's friends came over for some lively conversation and to practise speaking English. Two were Hungarian; the others were students from Iran and Mongolia.

We spent our four days in Budapest looking up to enjoy the architectural beauty of the buildings. From a viewpoint atop St. Stephen's Basilica, we could see that many multi-unit residential buildings are built around courtyards which allow for more light and better air flow through the apartments. Others have interesting airy rooftops.

While in Budapest, we spent a half day at the Hungarian National History Museum which covered the history and development of the Hungarian nation and many aspects of the culture. We also spent half a day at the Szechenyi Baths which have 11 different mineral pools at different temperatures, each with unique healing properties. Most of the pools were indoors and much smaller than the one in the picture.

In Hungary, it's common for a doctor to prescribe a number of sessions in a specific bath. One very cool feature was the system for locking your locker. Each person is issued a rubber wristband with a magnetic spot on it. The lockers have a toggle. When you touch the spot on the wristband to the lock mechanism, the toggle operates and you can lock the locker. It stays locked until the magnet that locked it is applied again, allowing you to open the locker.

Completely mellowed out from the baths, we wandered around the gorgeous park which used to be the estate of Count Szechenyi, and strolled around the castle grounds. The castle now houses the National Museum of Agriculture and is also a lovely wedding venue.

We spent our evenings enjoying the local culture: attending an organ concert at St. Stephen's Basilica, enjoying supper at the Spinoza jazz piano bar in the 'Ruins District', and dining at the classy Muzeum Restaurant where I had a traditional dish: goose leg. The waiter assured me that it would be very tender (and it was). It came with warmed, spiced pears. Divine!!!! Lyle enjoyed a very tender lamb shank and another authentic Hungarian apple strudel. We discussed the restaurant's high ceiling with the manager who said the interior was typical of buildings built in the late 1800's when most men smoked. The 12-foot high ceilings allowed space for the smoke to rise so it wouldn't bother the patrons.

On our last day in Budapest, we used the metro system to locate the Nepliget bus station where we would catch our bus to Prague. We tried to ask people in the food kiosks at the station what time they opened in the morning but they indicated that they spoke no English. Eventually, a woman at the bus information desk wrote out our question in Hungarian so we got our answer when we took the paper back to the vendors and found out that they opened around 6 a.m. When we arrived the next morning, we discovered that they didn't open till 6:30 but we were still able to spend our remaining Forints (Hungarian money) and grab something to eat before boarding our bus to Prague.

We had to get up very early on Saturday morning to hop on a city bus to get to the bus station for our bus to Prague at 7 am. Unfortunately, the remnants of Friday night were still visible on the streets at 5:30 am: drunks falling down on the street and others weaving their way home.

Lyle and I came away with very different opinions of Budapest. It struck me as a gritty, glum city with many social problems (e.g. homeless people wrapped in blankets sleeping on the floors of the subway stations and on the streets, and prostitution apparent in many forms). Lyle felt these were no different from what you would find in a city like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, but I noticed a huge contrast between super-clean Vienna that does not allow homelessness and Budapest. On our last night there, we walked through a more upscale part of the downtown area where the tourist hotels were. That was certainly a more pleasant environment than where we had chosen to stay.

Lyle, however, had a very different impression of Budapest. As he walked miles and miles each day on the streets and in the parks, he felt increasingly proud and connected to his Hungarian roots (his mother's parents immigrated from Hungary in the 1890s). The more goulash, paprika and strudel he ate, the more his Hungarian blood awakened in him and he saw the beauty in the city and and its rich history. He's the first member of his family to return to the home country, and he is very glad to know more about where his mom's family came from.

Posted by HosMiniTravels 15:04 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)


Capital of Slovakia

overcast 19 °C

May14, 2018

For our second day in Vienna, we chose to take an excursion to Bratislava, the capital of the relatively new country, Slovakia, which was formed after the 'Velvet Revolution' and division of the former Czechoslovakia. Slovakia has apparently prospered since its creation. Our bus company, Blaguss, is a Slovakian company which won the contract in all of the EU for providing tour bus services for Scenic and its related companies. At 350,000 euros per bus, this is big business. We have been very happy with their services for the last week.

The first thing we noticed when travelling the approx. 70 km to Bratislava were the rows and rows of hundreds of wind turbines in farmers' fields as far as the eye could see. Lyle thought it formed an interesting line of defence for Austria.

Our tour of Bratislava focused on the old town which has been beautifully restored. Some of the houses have plaques indicating that a famous musician, e.g. Mozart and Liszt stayed in that building. Other plaques commemorate Jewish people who lived there but did not return after WWII. Here is the only old gate that has been preserved:

Apparently during the Communist years, the cobblestone streets were paved with asphalt but people found that it wasn't good as the water pooled at the base of the buildings and had nowhere to go, so when the Soviets left, the new government removed the asphalt and put cobblestones back on the roads to allow for more effective drainage. I'm sure glad I have my sturdy walking boots and that we've had dry weather. Cobblestones are a real exercise for the ankles, and wet ones are very slippery!

We slept on the bus while it returned to Vienna and unfortunately missed taking pictures of Gasometer, several huge old oil storage tanks that have been ingeniously converted into apartment buildings. The round exterior has been bricked and windows have been installed. Apparently it's a trendy, affordable place to live. If you Google 'Gasometer Vienna', you may find a picture of it and an explanation - if you understand German!

While we were enjoying dinner, we noticed city lights passing by and ran up on deck to catch a view of Bratislava's stunningly illuminated bridges.

Posted by HosMiniTravels 14:05 Archived in Slovakia Comments (0)

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