Climbing towards the Czech border

Climbing towards the Czech border

Germany (8th), the Czech Republic (9th), Slovakia (10th country on our travels)

There was a heavy frost when we woke on our last morning in Dresden but it was a beautiful sunny day, the first we’d had for ages, so it was worth it.  It was back to the nearest McDonald’s to check on our emails and also monitor our auction on flightfox.com.  This was a website that Dennis had read about in an English newspaper brought in Germany.  The idea is that you put up your destination on this website, pay a small finder’s fee and they use the principles of crowd sourcing to discover the least expensive flights available for the dates you’ve listed.   They have three days to do this.   Ideally, you would want to be in front of your computer all day to dialogue with the flightfox people as they put up their suggestions but we can only log on once or twice a day depending on the availability of cafes with WiFi or McDonald’s.
Driving south we were really enjoying the beautiful countryside.  Small villages that looked so old, where the road narrowed between the houses right on the sides of the road.  Everything looked clean and tidy, the autumn trees sparkling in the morning sun.  It was so beautiful. 

These small villages are so beautiful.

Built in 1497!

Built in 1497!

It wasn’t long and we arrived at the border with the Czech Republic, where we had to present our passports for the first time in Europe, they are not part of the EU and it shows.  No sooner had we crossed the border when everything seemed to change.  We had driven up a fairly steep hill and were soon enclosed in low cloud, then heavy rain and the temperature dropped several degrees to just 8.  As we reached the summit we were so surprised to see a man coming up the road on a pair of in-line roller skates, pushing himself up with ski poles.  It looked so bizarre, I was disappointed not to have captured the scene on my camera, I managed to take a photo of the pillar beside the windscreen instead!   The smell of burning coal was pungent and when we emerged out of the cloud on the Czech side of the hill, the road surfaces were in need of repair, the cars were old and rusty,  the houses looked rundown, litter all over the place, a terrible blue haze hung in the sky and everything looked in need of a bit of money spent on it.  We also came to the realisation pretty quickly that Czech drivers are maniacs!   We passed two car crashes within five minutes and the drivers’ were still rather irate.  They were so impatient and it didn’t matter that we might be coming up to a blind corner, off they went staying on the wrong side of the road for ages.  It wasn’t just because they were keen to pass our slower motorhome, if there was someone in front then that would be enough to make it a necessity to pass that vehicle, no matter the road conditions.   

Some of these mountains looked very much like volcanos

Some of these mountains looked very much like volcanos

Surprisingly, 30% of Czech power is from nuclear generation

Surprisingly, 30% of Czech power is from nuclear generation

Love these buildings

Love these buildings

We were driving towards Prague (a city of 2 million) and I was getting more and more anxious about the Low Emission and Congestion Zones, looking out for these signs in a foreign language adds to the stress levels.  If you get caught driving or parking within the Zone you may be liable for a hefty daily fine.  In London, they are kind and give you plenty of warning signs before the Zone begins but if you cross into the LEZ the cameras take note of your number plate and it’s an automatic fine of $NZ200 per day.   Who knows what it might be in these poorer countries?   They don’t tend to give you any warning either, you’re either in the zone or not.  We have seen more policemen while in the Czech Republic than we have since the beginning of our travels.   So when I saw the first sign, as we drove past it, we immediately turned around and retraced our route until we found another Lidl Supermarket car park and stopped there for the night.  This was the first time that I had felt nervous about sleeping in a car park.  It was just that we had seen obvious poverty today, in comparison to where we had been before, and this supermarket seemed to be out in the country with no houses nearby, just other businesses that had closed up for the night.  Dennis wasn’t worried at all, so I bit my lip and got on with it.  

This is a fresh milk vending machine in Prague.  You purchase an empty bottle from the right side of the cabinet and fill it on the left side.

This is a fresh milk vending machine in Prague. You purchase an empty bottle from the right side of the cabinet and fill it on the left side.

The doors in Prague are magnificant

The doors in Prague are magnificent

The following morning, after an uneventful night, we decided to walk to the nearest train station, with mad drivers on the road there was no way we were going to use our bikes.  It turned out to be quite a walk as the first small train station was on the wrong line for us.  We asked a friendly Yank who was watching his young son play soccer at an International Primary School and followed his instructions to the nearest Metro Station.  When I say quite a walk, I’m talking almost three hours from when we first stepped out of the van, but it was a beautiful day.  Once on the Metro it was a seven minute trip to the centre of Prague.  

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…another fabulous door…

The old part of town is the most beautiful city we’ve seen yet but the newer section was  surprisingly rundown and quite grotty. There was evidence of real poverty that was so sad.  Many people sleeping rough, entirely wrapped in a blanket (heads and all) and all their possessions tucked in around them, sleeping the day away, and of course many people begging.  We took another free Walking Tour with an Aussie guide called Ashley (he was married to a local).  He was brilliant and earned every Czech crown he was given.  We were due to start the tour at 1.45 p.m and my camera completely died at 1.40 p.m.  Knowing we were about to be walking through the most picturesque city in Europe for the next three hours without  a camera was disappointing to say the least. 

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..and another

What a beautiful place, so full of history and amazing buildings.  We thoroughly enjoyed this tour and made the most of it, asking Ashley all sorts of questions while wandering from one fabulous building to the next.  He apologized on behalf of the majority of Czech people, for their apparent rudeness.  They have a reputation of being surly and they don’t like tourists.  He reminded us that if our country was invaded as many times as this one has been, we might have turned out the same.  They also have ongoing problems coming up to scratch to meet the entry requirements for EU membership plus the world-wide financial collapse had hit them hard. The only downside to this interesting day was that we still needed to get back to our motorhome and we weren’t that sure of how to get there.  On our way into the City we didn’t have a detailed map with us, so I had taken  photos of the street names as we went along, thinking that we could refer to these on the way back.  But then the camera died and we couldn’t view the pictures and the street map we picked up in town only showed the centre City so we had to rely on our memories, which had led to arguments on the way into town in the first place, oh dear!   The first problem was to find a Metro Station in the City, they are so poorly marked that I think we walked right past a few before finally getting on our way.  The next thing was to get someone who could understand English to ask if one of the many buses went near our Lidl Supermarket, as we were not keen to walk for another three hours.  This bit sounds easy but actually took us some time to do.  After unsuccessfully asking a few locals, we went off to a large hotel up the road from the bus depot.  When we walked in through the revolving doors of this swanky place, the concierge took one look at us, up and down, and deliberately turned his back on us and resumed reading his newspaper and left us to it!  I agree that we probably looked quite underdressed for his establishment but who knows, maybe we were millionaires with a shocking sense of fashion?  The receptionist was marvelous though and drew us a wee map and told us the bus number we should take and we were on our way.  It all sounded great while we were sitting in the bus shelter, the only thing was that bus never came.  It was so cold by this time around 10.00pm, the frost had already settled and the temperature was plummeting.  After an hour we decided to just hop on any bus and ask the driver if his route would take us in the general direction.    The bus driver couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English and though he repeatedly spoke to us in Czech we were left none the wiser.  While all this discussion was going on he just carried on doing what he always did and kept driving down his route.  So here we were in a bus going who knows where, it’s dark outside so we can’t really recognise the places we saw briefly this morning and we’re wondering what to do next.  Up pops one of the passengers and explains where and when to get off, in very good English.  When we begin to talk about the bus fares that we haven’t paid yet, she laughs and says casually “Don’t worry about them.”  The driver makes it clear that he doesn’t want to get into another discussion so we take the free ride and say no more.  Once we leave the bus there’s still another hour’s walk but this time we use the farmers’ paddocks to keep away from the maniac Czech drivers on the narrow, unlit, country road.  One thing we did find while walking back, was that the sign signaling the beginning of the LEZ was only for six tonne vehicles (our van is three tonnes) which meant we could have parked at the Metro Station all along!  If I hadn’t been so paranoid about it and slowed down somewhat and read it properly the first time, I could have saved us having to walk an extra four hours today.  Once back in our home on wheels we drove back to the Metro Station and found they had free parking for motor homes there as well.  Talk about adding insult to injury.  

Opera House

The Prague State Opera House

The main railway station in Prague was very run down and looked to be falling to pieces

The main railway station in Prague was very run down and looked to be falling to pieces, this was just a block away from the old section of the city.

It's obvious the Soviets built this building - the Czech Bank

It’s obvious the Soviets built this building – the Czech Bank

Our halfway mark on our walking tour was an excellent coffee from this cafe

Our halfway mark on our walking tour was an excellent coffee from this cafe

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Dating from 1475, Powder Gate is the only one left standing out of 13 gates into the Old Town of Prague

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..after another

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It’s one grand building…

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.. everywhere you look in The Old City

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The Church of Our Lady before Tyn, built in the 14th century

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St Galus Church, circa 1330

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The Prague Astronomical Clock on the Old City Town Hall.  Erected in 1410 it is the oldest working clock of its kind in the world.  It became such a tourist destination back then, that the authorities had the clock maker blinded and had his hands cut off so that he wouldn’t be able to build another one somewhere else.  He had the last laugh however when he threw himself into the mechanism in a suicide dive and jammed it.  It took 100 years before they found someone to fix it!

We were back on the Metro bright and early the following morning and went in search of a new camera.  Having been delighted with the old Canon we purchased the upgraded version and retraced our steps taking photos of the buildings we admired on yesterday’s tour.  We also visited the Pinkas Synagogue, which was built in 1535 and used for worship until 1941.   After WW2 it was converted into a memorial, with wall after wall inscribed with the names, birth dates, and dates of disappearance of the  78,000 Jewish Czech victims of the Nazis.   Wow, this Memorial was so moving.  Upstairs was dedicated to a collection of paintings and drawings by children held in the Terezín Concentration Camp during WW2.   In the Camp were many Jewish intellectuals who used this unusual situation to educate the children there, thinking that they would be the future Jewish population in Czechoslovakia.  One of the teachers taught the children to express their feelings through the means of art.  She saved their drawings between 1942 and 1944 and buried them in a suitcase in Terezin.  There were more than 10,000 children under the age of 15 over that time.  The museum has more than 4000 drawings, half of which are on permanent world-wide tour.  What a moving reminder of their tragic fate.   We walked around in silence and many people were crying as they read the inscriptions and looked at the pieces displayed on the walls, until a couple arrived and talked so loudly in Dutch, complaining that there were too many people in the small rooms!  We actually had a similar experience while in the Museum of Murdered Jews in Berlin, with another Dutch couple behaving inappropriately (I presume they were two different couples).  

Almost 80,000 names covered all the interior walls of the Synagogue

Almost 80,000 names covered all the interior walls of the Synagogue

The Jewish Quarter in Prague had five synagagues????

The Jewish Quarter in Prague had several synagogues.  This one is the oldest active one in Europe, called The Old New Synagogue.

Overlooking Prague stands a giant, working Metronome.  It stands on the plinth where an enormous statue of Stalin had previously stood.  It took 800kg of explosives to destroy it.  The ticking of the Metronome marks the passage of time since the Communists rule.

Overlooking Prague stands this giant kinetic sculpture. It stands on the plinth where an enormous statue of Stalin had previously stood. (It took 800kg of explosives to destroy it.) The ticking of the Metronome marks the passage of time, as it swings backwards symbolising the time lost under Communists rule and forwards measuring time as a free state .

We have been in quite a few public toilets in our travels but the ones in Prague have been the most startling yet.  On the positive side they were the cheapest so far, 30c (NZ).  I must admit that I do object to paying with a passion.   Anyway, we came to a wall with three doors side by side.  The left one for muž (man), nothing written on the middle one and žena (woman) to the right.  Just as well they included little pictures, or we would have been completely stuck.  Dennis and I walked through the appropriate doors and were surprised to see each other on the other side, with a woman sitting on a chair directly behind the middle door between us.  She was having an animated discussion with two male friends, at the same time she held out both hands, waiting for Dennis and me to pay her before proceeding.  She seemed to ignore us but we got the general idea and dropped our coins in her palms and walked into one of the toilet stalls on either side.  A quick glance around and we were both out of those booths looking for paper.  We had to go back to the lady and ask where was the paper, a nod with her head indicated the roll attached to the wall directly in front of her.  From there you had to think carefully about how much paper may be required, too much and she would be cross, too little and you had yourself a problem.  What a great job, sitting effectively in the middle of four toilets, gathering the coins.  Eek!  Her and her companions were having a wee drinking party as they attended to our needs.
When we left Prague the motorway was fabulous, they were still working on the finishing touches.  Being a brand new road the surface was excellent and the sound proofing panels on either side were transparent, it was so good we thought maybe the EU had put money into it.  For the next hour everything was fine, then all of a sudden we came to the old bit of the motorway and then realised why they needed to replace it.   This was a concrete road and each section was dished between the joints creating a distinct bump at each and every join!  It was bump, bump, bump for the next 250 kms at regular intervals of 5 metres apart, that’s three hours over that dreadful road.   We carried on until we got to the outskirts of Brno and stayed the night in a truck stop, thankful to be standing still.  

The worst section of road in Europe!

The worst section of road in Europe!

The outskirts of Brno didn't tempt us to go any closer

The outskirts of Brno didn’t tempt us to go any closer

Generally speaking the Czech people were rude, sour and unhelpful but then from time to time we did meet lovely people who were keen to help us as best they were able.   I really noticed how many people were smokers, as in so many countries now they weren’t allowed to smoke indoors so most people on the streets carried a lit cigarette.  The countryside was lovely, rolling hills and then mountains looking very volcanic to our eyes.  Although there was a good portion of tilled land there was a greater percentage of idle, waste land than we had seen thus far in Europe.   There was a persistent haze in the air, when we learnt that 60% of their electricity generation plants use brown coal it began to make sense.  Only 6.5% is made from renewables and the lack of wind turbines is testament to that, actually I never saw any recycling of any kind.   Having just come from the wealthy country of Germany this place looked and felt very tired in comparison.  Definitely a new experience for us. Also, the north of the country had terrible damage from acid rain stunting the forest growth.

It wasn’t until we crossed the border into Slovakia that we were told that we should have been buying driving time on the Czech roads!  When we joined the motorway system we had vaguely thought we would come across a toll gate somewhere but then we never did.  We had mentioned to each other noting how many cameras along the highway there were but never clicked they were for number plate recognition.  We tried paying online retrospectively but that facility wasn’t available so I got in a bit of a panic wondering again how many tickets would be waiting for us at Rob’s place but Dennis thought it was all a bit of laugh as he intended to challenge any penalty we may get.  As he said worse comes to worse they are hardly going to put the bailiffs onto us in NZ.  The Slovaks were just as ‘friendly’ as the Czechs but on the positive side they didn’t use the same road builders on their highways. 

Love those doors

Love those doors

More beautifully carved doors in Bratsilava

More beautifully carved doors in Bratislava

Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and has a population of about 460,000.  The city sits on both banks of the Danube River.   Its location on the borders with Austria and Hungary makes it the only national capital that borders two countries.  The contrast between the old part of the city and the bit that the Communists built was amazing.  Most historical buildings are concentrated in the Old Town.  After the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the city became part of the Eastern Bloc.  As well as the usual drab residential highrise blocks, the Communists also built the fascinating ‘UFO’ bridge and the building that houses the Slovak Radio headquarters. 

The extraordinary Slovak Radio building

The extraordinary Slovak Radio building

The Novy Bridge over the Danube, with the UFO restuarant on top.

The Novy Bridge over the Danube, with the UFO restaurant on top.

The Danube has it's source in Germany and travels through 10 countries before it reaches the Black Sea

The Danube has its source in Germany and travels through 10 countries before it reaches the Black Sea

It was obvious that the city’s infrastructure, outside the few blocks in the Old Town, needed many million korunas spent on it, to upgrade the shabby appearance of what they have now. This city is certainly one of contrasts, with many beautiful old churches and buildings.  Ever mindful of the time it was taking to travel to these new and exciting places heading south, we thought we should be on our way again, heading towards Budapest this time.  The Romans introduced grape growing to this area during the first four centuries AD and began a tradition of winemaking.  (Bratislava was one of the border zones of the Roman Empire during that time.)   Winemaking continues today, with many small patches of vines up the slopes over the hills. 

Bratislava Castle

Bratislava Castle

Beautiful churches in the Old Town

Beautiful churches in the Old Town

An example of a rundown building, with the plaster peeling off to reveal bricks underneath

An example of a rundown building, with the plaster peeling off to reveal bricks underneath

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The back of the Opera House

Old Town views are so lovely

Old Town views are so lovely

Notice the sign

Notice the sign

The Slovakian and EU flags

The Slovakian and EU flags

Probably my favourite sculpture so far

Probably my favourite sculpture so far

Slovakia/Hungary border.  Slovakia is not in the EU so there's customs and police checks to get through

Slovakia/Hungary border.

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