Monday, September 23, 2013

Motorcycles, Drugs and Beer an Unexpected Journey

The fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic is a place called Plzen and it's not really set up for tourists. This can be seen negatively or positively, depending on how you feel about tourists.
The biggest reason to visit, if you are a tourist, is the Pisner Urquell brewery. I won't go too far into the history of the beer here, if you want you can click this link and let Wikipedia tell you all about it. Suffice it to say that Pilsner Urquell is part of a giant brewing conglomerate, like so many beers, and Gambrinus, which I prefer, is brewed in a different brewery on the same property.
The brewery was really the main reason for the trip and it's really close to the train station, so if that is all you want to see it's easy. I wanted to see some of the city and talking about my big reason for going right out of the gate isn't my style.

Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Plzen Hlavni Nadrazi

So, here is the train station. It's the main station, but I'm pretty sure there isn't another one. It is an interesting looking structure to be sure. Incidentally, round-trip train tickets from Prague cost 180kc; more on train tickets later.

The first place I wanted to check out was the city center. The city isn't that big and the center is a short walk from the train station. While heading there we, once again I have my Australian flatmate in tow, took a slight detour and found a monument to the U.S. Army soldiers who liberated Plzen from Nazi occupation on 6 May 1945.

Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Plzen 16th Army, Plzen liberation monument

It's a very nice monument, it's not gaudy and it gets straight to the point, "Thank you America!" It's not something you hear very often anymore. Evidently, when the government in the Czech Republic was communist, this liberation is something that wasn't talked about very much. As soon as the regime changed this monument was built.

Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Plzen 16th Army, Plzen liberation monument

There is even a convient map in the monument so geographically challanged Americans who make it here can see the route Patton took. The fact that the city was liberated by elements of Patton's Third Army also explains the Patton Museum that is in the town. Sadly, on this trip I didn't make it to that museum, but it's a good reason to go back.

From the army monument it is a short walk to Namesti Republiky or Republic Square. I think every Czech town has a Namesti Republiky. It's a nice town square with a big church in the middle, this one happens to be St. Bartholomew's Cathedral.

Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Plzen Namesti Republiky, St. Bartholomew's Cathedral Plzen

It's really your standard cathedral-in-a-town-center fare. We didn't go inside, but perhaps on the next trip. Besides it's wan't anywhere close to noon and what fun would climbing the bell tower be if I couldn't deafen the Aussie with another cacophonous trip to the top. Also, we were distracted by the more impressive magistrate courthouse facing the church. Aside from the fact that it was beautiful, it was also open -- on a Saturday. It wasn't too long before we figured out why.

Evidently, this is the place to go get married. Sure in the US people get married at the courthouse all the time, but I've never seen a whole wedding party pull up to a courthouse in decorated cars. There were guests, as you can see in the photo, and the whole bit. This was pretty funny considering the church, where you might think a wedding usually takes place, is literally 100 meters away from the courthouse.
The date on the courthouse says 1558 and I have no reason to doubt it. Look at the paintings on it. This photo just can't do them justice, they are striking.
Just a few doors down from the courthouse are some wedding shops and a hairdresser. Talk about your one-stop-shopping. You can roll into Namesti Republiky, get your hair did, pick up a dress and either get hitched in the courthouse or the church then file your wedding license all in the same place. WalMart has nothing on this.

Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Plzen Namesti Republiky

From Namesti Republiky we went to find some food. Fortunately, there are plenty of restaurants nearby. I have a friend who grew up in Plzen and he suggested a few places, fortunately we stumbled past one while looking around. It was good and inexpensive, less than Prague prices anyway. This was where we discovered that Pilsner Urquell tastes much better closer to home. 
There are many brands of beers in the Czech Republic, but really just two types. As far as brands go, I am not a huge fan of Pilsner Urquell. Oh and those two types are light and black (světly and černý in local parlance). Light is not what you think though, it isn't low calorie it's just not dark. Either way, Pilsner doesn't travel well. It's skunky as all get out in the states. It is a lot better in the Czech Republic, but it's a little too hopy for my tastes. Not off-puttingly so but if I have a choice I'll drink something else, Kozel černý mainly.
After lunch we wandered on over to the brewery just in time to miss the 12:45 English tour. Check the website for tour times. I was all good though because a group of motorcycle enthusiasts had ridden to the brewery and parked out front. There were quite a few cafe racers, which I like and also happen to be quite the in thing these days. 

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell

What you see above is the front gate to the brewery complex. The built it to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the brew. It's kind of like the Brandenburg Gate of beer I suppose. Below are some of those cafe racers. 

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Cafe Racer

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Cafe Racer

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Cafe Racer

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Cafe Racer

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Cafe Racer

As you can see there were some Suzukis, Ducatis and BMWs. I even saw something called a JAWA, but I didn't take a photo of it because I didn't like the angle and wasn't sure what it was. It's a Czech-made bike and while weird looking, it's not really very inspiring.
The bikes were cool and the gift shop was fairly unimpressive. There is a Pilsner Urquell gift shop in Prague with similar prices, so it wasn't worth buying anything. Besides, I don't really have a need for a beer branded golf bag. There were however some steins that were very cool and I might have to pick one up for my Uncle. The great thing about the gift shop is that there is a beer hall downstairs, shocking I know. As we had time for a few beers before the next tour, we imbibed. 

About five minutes before we missed the 14:15 tour we realized it was time to go. Beer is distracting, especially when it is unpasteurized, super fresh and cheap. We chugged our suds and made for the visitor's center, a whopping 25 meters away. We arrived in plenty of time to plunk down the 200kc each for the tour, and extra 100kc for me because I bought a photo pass. I know, I know I could have just not bought the photo pass and taken pictures anyway, but my camera is rather large and difficult to hide and it sounds like a car with ignition-timing problems that keeps running after you shut it off. I didn't want to get in trouble, so I forked it over. The fee only gets you a tour of one brewery, the Gambrinus tour is another 200kc. Next time, even though I'm pretty sure it's similar.

We met our guide, boarded a bus with about 15 other people and went to the bottling facility.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer

It's a bunch of squeaky-clean beer bottles. I did notice some things right away. I will preface this by saying the only other time I have been in a brewery that produces beer on such a massive scale was in Colorado at the Coors brewery. The Coors facility does things quite a bit differntly and even though it was a while ago I remember the differences. As soon as we walked into the observation area of the bottling facility it was very humid. They wash the bottles and fill them in the same place. Coors is brewed cold, filtered cold and shipped cold -- it's kinda their thing. I'm even fairly certain the refigerated railroad car was invented by Coors so they could ship it farther and still keep it cold.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer

I don't think this guy is named either Laverne or Shirley but he is working the quality-control section of the line before the bottles go into the filling machine. Down at the bottom is a soldier who didn't pass muster presumably heading off for another shower.
As far as I could gather from our guide the beer is "filterized" in this facility too, but we didn't get to see any filters.
The brewing takes place in another building and we took the bus over there. We saw the old brewhouse and the new one. They looked a lot alike. There were also some interesting interactive displays where we were told we could do whatever we wanted. It was basically smelling hops, eating barley and splashing water on your friends. There was some yeast in a test tube though, we didn't get to touch that.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Brewing Kettle, Copper Kettle

These are some copper kettles in the old part of the brewhouse. Not much to say here.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Brewing Kettle, Copper Kettle

The new brewhouse uses stainless kettles now and they are a bit bigger than the copper ones. I think they still use some copper kettles for part of the process. The wort is cooked three times, so they need a lot of crockery. 

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer

We got to watch a movie about the history of the beer. It was a bit of a dog-and-pony show and I felt bad for Brewmaster Vaclav who was featured about every 30 seconds. He didn't look super thrilled to not be brewing beer.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Brewing Kettle, Copper Kettle, Barley

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Brewing Kettle, Copper Kettle, Barley

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer

You can look in these microscope things and see yeast doing its thing, which is eating sugar and pissing alcohol. Really, it's not so appetizing when you consider beer is tarted-up yeast urine. Nope, I'm wrong, it's still appetizing  And check out the hand-model barley action from my Australian partner in crime. I think he is on the wrong career path.

Another interesting fact about the brewery that I forgot to mention is that it houses the largest elevator in the Czech Republic. I took a photo from it, but not of it. It only took us one floor, which was kind of disappointing.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer

The best part of the tour was the tour of the cellars. They were a bit cold and kind of dark and the floor, and walls, were pretty wet but it was very cool.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Beer Barrel, Barrel

They ferment the beer in these giant open barrels. You can see the date the beer was placed in the barrel and the temperature also how many times the barrel has been used. They will use a barrel six times before they either clean it or destroy it, I'm not sure on that. Either the guide didn't say or I forgot.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Beer Barrel, Barrel

After it's fermented and it has that nice white foam on top it is transferred to a closed barrel where it is aged. That pump thing on the floor to the left is what they use to move the beer.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Beer Barrel, Barrel

There is even a nice man who pours you a fresh, unpasteurized and "unfiltrated" beer from these barrels. 

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer, Beer Barrel, Barrel

After the tour was over, it takes about an hour and a half but seems much quicker, it was time to head back to the gift shop/beer hall and have a few more beers. Duh. 
We only had a few beers and were getting hungry again. Unfortunately the restaurant portion of the beer hall had been completely reserved and getting food there wasn't going to happen.

Plzen Czech Republic, Plzen, Pilsen, Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell, Pilsner Beer

This is just a random photo of the old brewery I liked. It serves as a good transition point for the search for food and the trip starting to get a touch surreal.
We left the brewery after those beers and went in to town to find food. We didn't really see anywhere we liked until we came to a McDonalds. Fortunately, there was a Mexican place across the street we went there. I don't remember where it was, but it is across the street from the McDonalds. It is the best Mexican food I've had in this country.
It was not seasoned perfectly, but it was actually spicy and the tomatillo salsa that came with it was actually pretty good. We of course had beers with our burritos. I'm fairly certain that there is an international law prohibiting the consumption of Mexican food without beer.
We walked back across the river to the train station dodging Gypsies and syringes, it's not the best neighborhood near the train station, and made it with plenty of time to catch our train leaving at 19:00. We even figured we had so much time that we would buy a couple more beers for the ride home. I'm not sure you're allowed to drink beer on the train, but I've never been told no and I'm not blatant about it or belligerent so I figure it's okay. We got to the platform, witch was suspiciously devoid of anything looking like a train, and took a seat. I assumed that it was coming from Cheb and would just roll up and move on. It turns out I missed the A4-sized paper changing platform 1 to the back of the terminal, so we missed the train.
I didn't think this was too much of a problem, because as far as I could tell our tickets were valid for 24 hours. I bought them online and printed them out. At the top of the ticket it clearly showed the ticket as being valid for the whole day. I took this to mean any train. I figured it was no big deal, there would be another train in an hour.
We left the platform and went to sit outside the station and wait, and maybe drink a beer. On our way out of the station I noticed there was a butcher truck. You might be thinking to yourself, "it was a roach coach with a deli theme." You would be wrong. This was a full-on butcher truck with slabs of meat and cheese on display. Even after the burrito I was up for a snack so I saw something that looked interesting and ordered 100 grams of it for us to share. It was ham with cheese and some other meat in the middle. The lady working the truck sliced off 100g of the stuff, wrapped it in butcher paper and everything was good to go. We walked over to the bus stop to sit down and eat and drink.

We ate this thing and it was really good, drank one of our two beers each and watched the man across the parking lot sleeping in a doorway shift his position a few times. It was a while before he moved the first time and we were a bit curious to know if he was actually alive. When it was about 25 minutes before eight we decided to find the right platform and not miss the next train.
As we made our way to the concourse and were trying to see which platform we were supposed to get to I was accosted by some drunk guy with a few of his friends and a 1.5 liter bottle of Gambrinus in tow. He asked me something in Czech and I replied that I didn't understand Czech. Turn out he didn't understand Czech either because he was Slovak. Although he introduced himself as being Kenyan. I spoke with this guy, roughly I'd hardly call it a conversation, for nearly 15 minutes about pretty much nothing. Whatever we were talking about there was cause for him to show me his Slovak national identification card. If I were to guess I think we were talking about how much better Slovaks are than Czechs. He did say that Slovaks were nicer and more generous. This conversation took too long and we were once again in danger of missing a train. At one point the guy's friends became so upset with him that they took his beer from him and threw it away.
As I was trying to extricate myself from the conversation the random Slovak guy finally noticed my taciturn Australian friend. "Where are you from?" The requisite reply of "Australia" was met with a very interesting response.
"Oh, here I have for you," he exclaimed and started digging in his bag. He withdrew a small bag of very potent smelling marijuana. As everyone knows, Aussies are internationally renown notoriously fierce stoners. We tried to decline this offer while he fumbled with his stash, but it was to no avail.
"Is gift. No money. Take it." It's rude to decline a gift so we accepted the weed and headed off in the direction of the wrong platform, again.
Fortunately there was a conductor there who pointed us in the right direction and we made the correct train with two minutes to spare. We even found a compartment with just one person in it straight away. No problem; all we had to do now was dispose the the ganja, because it was so pungent that I could smell it despite the fact that it was in my friend's pocket six feet away, get our tickets checked and relax with our final beers on the easy ride home.
Well, the conductor didn't like the printout of the ticket I bought online. He was having problems scanning it and God forbid he enter the number into his machine by hand. The conductor on the first train didn't have any issues with my similarly poorly printed outward ticket. I was scolded for having a bad print out and told that he would not be so nice to me next time and kick me off the train, or something. Because I'm going to be taking that train again within the time period of the conductors memory. After closer inspection of the ticket, there were seat reservations on it, so it might have been a good thing the ticket wasn't scannable.
After the ticket fiasco our compartment mate introduced himself. This guy is the Czech equivalent of the American you never want to sit next to on an airplane. He wanted to have a chat, but he didn't speak English. He did however speak some German and some Spanish. My German is rudimentary so I did the best I could, but my Aussie friend got the worst of it. He did apologize for the conductor though and explained that he was a Schwanzkopf. 
This guy wanted to know what we thought of the beer, probably because we were drinking. Then he wanted to know what we thought of Czech girls, we didn't have any of those with us. Then, once he found out I was American he wanted to know what I thought about Obama. He really didn't believe that I was American and I had to prove it with my passport. 
Then my Aussie friend left for the bathroom and it was my turn to chat in Spanish. The train ride is about and hour and a half. Thankfully our chopsy cabin mate got off at Smichov leaving us with 15 minutes of peace.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Another Czech Fairy Tale Town

My Australian flatmate had a buddy come in to town from Down Under and was struggling to find something entertaining to do. Not that traipsing around Prague for a few days and drinking beer isn't entertaining, he just figured it would be nice for his mate to see something other than Prague. I suggested going where pretty much every Czech person has told me to go, a little town in the southwestern part of the country called Český Krumlov. It's about 25 kilometers from the Austrian border.
It is a fairly simple thing to get to Český Krumlov from Prague, just buy a train ticket. I'm sure there is a bus that goes there, but I didn't even entertain the option, for a few reasons. The first one is that I'm tall and the idea of spending three hours with my knees compressed into the seat in front of me is not very appealing. The other reason is that if you buy more than one ticket you get a group rate. The group rate clocks in at 300kc per person, that's about 15 U.S. dollars or 11 Euros -- round trip. If you go to the station and buy a train ticket for one person you're looking at 520kc or something close for the same round-trip passage. You will have to change to a regional commuter train in Český Budějovice and carry on to Český Krumlov. 
The train ride from Prague to Český Budějovice is pretty much the same old same old. Granted the Czech countryside is quite pretty in a north east Texas kind of way, but we left pretty early and the sun was coming up and burning a hole in my eyes so I didn't do much gazing out the window. Besides when you are traveling with more than one Australian you don't have to look far for entrainment. 

So we hopped on our train at 07:13 and took a seat in a comfortable cabin. The train rolled out of the station at 07:15. When the conductor can to check our tickets she politely informed us that we were in first class. This was amusing because on a Czech Railways train "first class" looks a lot like "second class" on a Deutche Bahn train. We made a few jokes as we schlepped our sleepy selves toward steerage and were glad we didn't see any dancing Irish people or Leonardo DiCaprio. We settled on a compartment with a young Czech couple and their new-born son and some guy who had hopped on the wrong train. While we merely neglected to look at the two-foot tall number painted on the side of the car that tells you what class it is, this guy had managed to somehow get on a train basically going a completely wrong direction. The conductor made him get off at the next station.

Really the trip was pretty quiet. You would think being stuck in a train compartment with two Aussies would be pretty loud, but they were well behaved and used their nearly-inside voices as they told each other how stupid the other one was. Really, the newborn was quieter, but he was pretty tired. The only time he made any noise was when he woke up for breakfast. Mom politely apologized to us for opening the breast buffet for junior and the kid didn't make a peep for the rest of the trip. We were actually more surprised by mom excusing herself for feeding her child than we were by the act itself, which was no bother at all. I'm guessing she thought we were all American, and there was a time once when some Americans were offended by such things. We're a much more enlightened species now, but it's only been a few years and word travels slow.
We arrived in Český Budějovice with about 15 minutes to make our connection, so we grabbed a few sodas and figured out which platform we were supposed to be on. As it turns out, when you buy your Czech Railways ticket online the ticket tells you that every train leaves from platform 2. It's not very helpful, but if you know how to read a departure board you'll be fine.
We took our seats on the commuter train and I immediately looked to my left and saw what I can only describe as a Korean War reenactment enthusiast, or an Amerifile. This guy was wearing Korean War era dungarees sporting a Second Infantry Division patch and had a vintage backpack as well. The only things that gave him away were the Nike sneakers and American Glory t-shirt. Oh yeah and the Czech he was speaking, anyone could be having a beer at 10:00 in the morning.
The train cut through a beautiful forest. It really was like something out of a film. Tall trees with narrow, barren trunks and lush foliage at the top. The floor of the forest was verdant with abundant ground cover. The light danced through the canopy and broke through in spots giving the whole place a mystical feel. After a while though the forest gave way to some hilly plains and we started passing small villages that the commuter train services. Places like Zlatá Koruna and other tiny places that I'm sure have names, but really just look like a village consisting of a few houses and a beer garden. We stopped once to let some mountain bikers off and I'm pretty sure the rail station doubled as the crossing. 
After our roughly three hour and 40 minute voyage the train stopped at Český Krumlov and we got off, duh. As we were trying to figure out how to get to the town center we walked past a pub in full swing. I suppose if I lived in the rural Czech Republic and didn't have anything else to do on a Saturday morning I'd go have a beer too. Coffee is for sissies. 
Fortunately in most towns and villages that tourists like to visit there are signs pointing you to the center. We followed those. The town center is in a valley where the Vlatava River makes a loop and you have to walk down a hill to get there. Fortunately there is a vista point at the top of the hill and you are greeted with a spectacular view of the place. Although it is just a taste of what you get once you are finally in the center of town.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This is the view that greets you before you walk down the hill and to the town center. It's pretty much impossible not to get to the town center.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Just walk across the bridge on the right there and keep going straight.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This is the back of the gate to town. It's what you see when you're heading back to the train. Fortunately there is a great bar just on the other side of the bridge, where the last photo was taken, where you can get 25kc beers to go for that long walk back up the hill. Make sure you ask nicely though, because even if you do it in Czech the old guy who runs the place still might not know what you mean.

It really was funny. I asked for three beers to go, in plastic cups. He then turned to a guy at the next table and asked him if he spoke English, the man replied in the negative but that didn't stop them from having a two-minute conversation about our to-go beers. The woman with the man at the table spoke some English and asked me if I wanted beer in plastic cups. I said yes, she then told the guy running the place what I had told him and everything was fine. The two-minute conversation was the funniest part. But I digress from this stream of conscience diatribe. 
We made our way to the center by walking basically a straight line down the main drag. While there are many narrow, windy streets it's pretty much impossible to get completely lost in this place because it is so small. We were a bit peckish and well parched from our long journey and knew we needed to find brunch soon.
The first place we came to was situated smack in the middle of main-drag tourist-trap central and one peek at the menu revealed that beers were 60kc each. Here's a tip for travelers, look at the beer prices first, they give you a great idea of what everything else will cost. Or maybe our priorities were a bit out of order. Six of one...
We soldiered on and came to a bridge over the Vlatava and saw Shangri-la on the far bank. It's called Krčma, which means "tavern" or "pub" and we knew it was the place. They had a fantastic-looking beer garden set up right on the bank of the river with a epic view of the castle and town as well as the folks canoeing and rafting the river.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This is the view from the bridge. Pretty awesome.

After we crossed the bridge we saw the tavern was on the first street to the the left. We headed that way and had a brief moment of panic when we saw a sign for a vegan restaurant. While the tavern had some vegetarian cuisine the menu was primarily meat.
We settled in and got some beers and then ordered a colossal meal two servings of pheasant and one of rabbit served family style and for dessert ice cream with fruit and some sort of amazingly-good high-test egg liquor. All this for the equivalent of $15 each, beers included, with this view:

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Yeah, I know it's not too much different than the view from the bridge and my lens wasn't wide enough to get the river without cutting the buildings off at the top so this is what you get. The place was great. I will say though that this was my first time eating domestic pheasant and I prefer the wild ones. The domesticated birds just taste too mild, it was a preparation issue at all and was tasty, but not what I'm used to.

After brunch we just spent an hour or two just wandering around the town. We didn't stop in anywhere. We were just taking everything in a checking out all the cool, narrow, winding streets.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I found these awesome reflections on the wall of this abandoned building and decided they were photo worthy. Just before this we went past a channel around a weir for the boaters to go though and I snagged my tourism board photo.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, rafting, Church of St. Vitus.

This really does look like a lot of fun and I think I'll have to make a trip back just to do it. We saw signs advertising boat rentals for something like 200kc per hour. It is possible to start outside of town and float all the way to Zlatá Koruna. I'm told it is also possible to take week-long trips on the river in this part of the country and that they are great trips where you camp on the banks. The church in the back is the Church of St. Vitus.

I also took a photo of the church without boaters in it. I even thought of sticking my finger in the water, but it smelled of effluent outflow so I decided better. 

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, Church of St. Vitus

We crossed the river again after this and made our way to the castle. To get there we had to pass under this elegant viaduct-looking thing.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I was constantly voicing my amazement with how the walls of the castle were built right around rock outcroppings and this bridge is an impressive, surely due to necessity, to link the parts of the castle.

Up the hill we hiked and then took a stroll through the castle. It is a beautiful sight, but there is one problem we all agreed on. I think the castle is made mostly of brick and has been plastered over. So, a decision was made to paint stone bricks on the plaster. It looks a bit hokey when you're close up to it. If you compare the fake stone at this castle to the fake wooden stones Mt. Vernon is made from there really is no comparison. From an artistic perspective it is impressive. 
The view from the back part of the castle gives a great idea of the size of the town and how the river goes around it.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

As we walked from one courtyard to the next we crossed the moat. It's your basic moat -- a giant trench. There is one thing about this moat that is a little different and it isn't the fact that there isn't any water in it.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, moat bears, bear

These badboys have been in this moat since about 1700. Not these specific bears, obviously. If you have bears in your moat, you're pretty cool in my book. Granted they weren't really for protection and now they are totally for show. The three of them seem quite content.

After we checked out the moat we threw down the 130kc to look at the inside of some of the castle and climb the Little Tower. The Little Tower is the round one on the left in the photos above. Really, get the combo ticket. It's 100kc just for the castle visit and 50kc to climb the tower so might as well do both for less.
The view from the tower is unreal and I took a few panoramic photos. It didn't stitch together all that well, but it is still nice.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Just ignore the unconnected cable on the right there. If you look to the left of the bridge to where the umbrellas are on the river bank you will see the tavern where we had lunch.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

The Church of St. Vitus really dominates the scenery. From the tower I spotted a classic Ford Mustang. We decided we'd wander around a bit more and try and find them.

There was a Mustang club car show of some sort at the Eggenberg brewery in town and I hate to say it really wasn't anything special. Most of the cars were modern. One person did have Old Glory flying from the antenna of his 2010 Mustang though. Really the VW parked by the stone wall outside the Mustang show was more interesting to me.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, VW Beetle, Volkswagen Beetle, Beetle, VW

It was getting late after we saw the Mustangs and so we decided to start and make our way back toward the train station. The last train out of town leaves at 19:00 and we didn't want to miss it, because it's the last train. Also, the two Aussies I was with wanted to check out a military surplus store they saw in town.

I took a look in the store and was not very impressed, but evidently there were a lot of items which are quite illegal in Oz so they were thrilled. They told me the legal items like clothing were a fraction of the price they would have been in Oz too. I got bored pretty quickly and wandered outside to watch people. Evidently this guy had the same people-watching plan I did.

I was not quite so bored as this guy.

Once the Aussies emerged from the military store we decided we had enough time to grab another beer and make the train. So we did. We made it back in to Prague around 22:40. We should have been in at 22:30 but there was a delay leaving Český Budějovice. Kudos to our engineer making up 25 minutes without derailing.
Český Krumlov is very pretty and deserves at least another trip. I will go back for sure. The place really does look like it is out of a fairy tale. Also, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whatever that means.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Vary Cool

After my trip to Dresden I turned right around and went to another great place.
On the western edge of Bohemia there is a spa town called Karloy Vary. At one time it was a destination for Germans, which makes perfect sense since it is really close to the border. That has changed and now the spa town is a destination for Russians. Lots and lots of Russians. So many in fact that most of the signs for stores and restaurants are written in azbuka. In the States we call it cyrillic but no one hear calls it that. 
I had been to this town before, but it was on a lark with some friends who were running a half marathon. The town was quite crowded with runners and many of the streets and shops were closed for the race so it wasn't a good representation of what the place is really like. Since I was not running in the race I wandered around a bit and decided that I would have to return when the place was a bit more "real."Plus, I had a Czech friend who had never been and she had some free time, so we went. 
It turns out many Czechs put a lot of stock in the healing qualities of various spas throughout the country. At the heart of it, the town appears to have been built around some hot springs. 
I can't really think of anywhere I've been in the States that is quite the same. Sure, I've been to some hot springs but never anywhere where a town is built around them.
These springs have even been certified by some government agency and I'm told doctors will prescribe a trip to a certain spa town to help with a particular ailment. Karlovy Vary is for digestive problems and a few other things I can't remember.
While there are dozens of springs around the town, there are 14 main ones and the deal is you buy a special vessel and walk from spring to spring drinking the iron-rich and sometimes naturally-carbonated water. The vessel is a ceramic mug with the handle doubling as a straw. 
The central spring is a geyser enclosed in a colonnade -- or at least what was once a colonnade. It's not really a column structure now. The original building may have been, but it was destroyed a few times and what stands there now is still called a colonnade. 
So, there is a geyser enclosed in this building and the thing spurts steaming, 70+ degree water skyward to heights around 12 meters at times. That's 70 degrees Celsius which is somewhere around hot Fahrenheit ejaculating 35 feet into the air. Why anyone would construct a building around such a thing is confusing to me, but whatever.

Karlovy Vary, geyser, main colonnade, Czech Republic
As you can see from this better-than-what-I've-done-before HDR image it's a geyser -- in a building. It doesn't always blast water to 35 feet, but there's a domed roof to accommodate it. 
Those crazy-looking devices in the back of the photo are there to blow off carbon dioxide before the water reaches some other springs in the colonnade. While I've seen people doing it, I don't think trying to fill your drinking vessel from this thing is a wise idea. Add this to the list of things that would never fly in the US. Allowing Americans to get anywhere near something launching water the temperature of scaling-hot coffee 35 feet in the air would just be begging for a series of tort actions. There would be law offices outside with ambulance-chasing attorneys salivating on themselves. 
Karlovy Vary, geyser, main colonnade, Czech Republic

So, here is a detail of the CO2 orby capturey thingies. I know, it's technical talk, but I don't know what else to call them. They also serve to heat the room quite well. 
So, as I discovered on a very-interesting tour of the bowels of the colonnade, the hot water from this main spring is pumped all over town to commercial spas and resorts, like the famous Hotel Thermal.

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, Hotel Thermal

The Hotel Thermal is the completely out-of-place building on the right of this strangely-stitched together panoramic photo. It's famous, but probably not the most famous one in town. If you've seen the Bond film Casino Royale then you've seen the Pupp Hotel in Karlovy Vary. I didn't photograph it, do a Google search. Incidentally, a small beer at the Pupp will cost you 100kc, ouch.
Anyway, as you can see the architecture is pretty interesting and the way buildings are set among the hills surrounding the town is impressive. 

The buildings are stuck right along the river, which must make things complicated if there is a flood. There are also grand colonnades, actual ones, with springs in them as well as gazebos with springs as well.
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

It's a spring in a colonnade. You can't really wax to poetic about it. As my Spanish-speaking friends will tell you "es o si que es" it is what it is. I will say it is pretty impressive to walk though this massive structure that really has no other purpose than to contain these springs. 
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

The gazebo style spring is much more my style. There's a nice place to sit and enjoy your health-restoring water. 

Or you can just relax right by the spring if you want. The literature you get at the tourist info place suggests you don't sit down though, but rather you drink the water while you walk from one spring to the next. It also tells you not to dump the water you don't drink upon the local fauna. I messed that one up. Each spring tastes different and some of them are pretty gross.
And it's pretty common to sit and relax while you're drinking the stuff. Like these Russian ladies outside the grand colonnade.

I have to admit, I thought people like this only existed in American movies. This really shocked me. I had to try hard not to stare. Clearly my amazement didn't stop me from taking a photo. This was even more amazing than the first time I saw a hairy-chested Italian man wearing a half-zipped track suit and gold chains driving a Camaro. Cпасибо ladies.

This is the wooden colonnade. I liked it better than the big concrete job, but there is only one spring in it and other than the ridiculously-good wood work there isn't much to say about it. Hey, it's time for another panoramic photo.

There are some paths up on the hills around town and it's a great place to walk and take in the great view of the place. I never found a vantage point for a truly epic pano of the place. I did discover that the town puts a lot of stock in facades though. As I was walking back down off the hill I walked passed a building that was pretty beat up with bars on the windows. Upon walking around to the front of the building, which is across the street from the library, I saw that it was painted and looked fairly descent. From the back it looked like an old abandoned city jail. The front showed signs that is had been some sort of government building, but I have no idea what. I have a friend from Karlovy Vary and she knows the building, but not what it used to be.

Also, once you get away from the main drag you will see more of the Kentucky-style satellite dish placement. I really wonder if pigeons screw with signal reception.

 This is just a random fun photo I took outside the central geyser building. No reason for it I just liked the composition.
Under the central geyser building there are some control pipes valves for all the springs in town. Evidently they drilled some wells and can somehow control how much pressure forces the water up from the ground. There is also a facility where they do something called stone casting.
What they do is make a form out of paper or some other material and place it under flowing water from the spring. After about a week the minerals in the water solidify and create a stone version of your form. Like with these Becherovka bottles.

Still want to drink the stuff? Me either, it gets better. Evidently they have been stone casting for something like 600 years and the rose is the most famous thing they make.

This is where they do the stone casting and control the pressure. It's really a kind of museum showing the stuff. Notice the mineral deposits. There are stalagmites in here that are quite large, but didn't take the requisite million years to form. More like 60 years or so. Reason two not to drink the stuff.
Then you have this:

This is an iron pipe that used to carry the water to the various commercial spas. Once again, we're not talking about a hundred years or so of gunk but perhaps a few decades. Don't get me wrong, I drank the water and it didn't kill me. It didn't make me feel any better either. All I really got out of drinking the water is a snazzy mug that I'll probably send to my niece as a gift. 
So, Karlovy Vary really is a beautiful town know for it's spas, hotels, colonnades, Russians, stone casting and health-giving water. There are a few other famous things about this town like the fact the Mozart's son is buried there and of course Becherovka.
Becherovka, the ch is pronounced huh, is a spirit that tastes like Christmas. It's a bit cinnamon schnapps, but thinner and herbier. The other famous thing about this place, and probably the best is the oplatka or spa wafer. If you go, don't be a sucker and buy wafers from some stand outside the main colonnade. Turns out the only place to get real-deal oplatky is in the main building. They use water from that central spring in the recipe and all the other ones are not made with this water. Also, a stand will charge you something like 35kc for one oplatka that is a fake while the bonafide article is only 9kc.   
It's a great place. I'm glad I went back. And it's only two hours from Prague.