Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mutenice wine festival - Oct 9, 2010

Ever since our friend Jana told us about the wine festival, we were interested in experiencing our first wine festival in the Czech Republic. The weather had been awful up until the day in question, and so we were so glad that the sun finally decided to come out. Just perfect weather for hiking and wine tasting!

The wine festival was a lot bigger than I imagined. The small town (or village) called Mutenice is located south of Brno (about an hour by train ride); close to the border with Austria.

Coming out of the train station, I was flabbergasted. The area was packed with people and stalls selling all kinds of food, wine, and crafts. There were a couple of wine cellars right outside of the station, but we knew that the main cellars were located in the valley (over the hills) which was about a 40-minute hike away. The concept of the festival was to enjoy the hike to the main valley while enjoying the Burcak (young wine) on your way there.

We called Jana to check where in the main valley they were. We grabbed a quick lunch and started our hike with a glass of Burcak. Of course, we got lost on the way there (okay, my bad), but we enjoyed the scenic hike and finally got to the main valley about an hour later. The valley was completely packed with people. It felt as if half the Czech population was there! And, we finally met up with Jana's family including her lovely baby Katerina.

The hike itself was just so soothing and fun, and the main valley was like an another world with music, dancing, and people laying on the ground just enjoying the sun and Burcak. the combination of sun and alcohol definitely have certain effect to people's brain. It releases you from everything :)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hukvaldy, Czech Republic - Janáček's birthplace

On the way to Brno from Krakow, we stopped at a small town called Hukvaldy. I have been interested in Janáček, and I read a couple of books about him, his wife, and his initimate love towards Kamila Stösslová, which I have also mentioned in my past posting.  I have been wanting to visit Hukvaldy, where he was born and where he returned eventually by purchasing a cottage in 1921, 7 years before his death.  He composed many pieces there, and I could tell by reading his book that he loved being there. He also desperately wanted Kamila to visit him there, and he added a second floor to his cottage just for the purpose. Kamila visited him finally with one of his sons, but after a week or so her visit, Janáček got sick there in his cottage and died eventually at a hospital in Ostrava accompanied by Kamila.

Since Hukvaldy was on our way back to Brno from Krakow, I asked my hubby to stop there, and he did! Thanks hon!  It was close to 5pm when we got there, as our car navigation system was completely confused. But, we managed to get into Janáček's birthplace, which is now an information center with a small museum about Janáček, before it was closed. We also learned that his cottage was open to the public until 5:30pm. The lady at the information center said that we should not drive up, so we walked, but the map was confusing and we got lost again. 

I had half given up on the visit to his cottage when we ran into a man with his dog walking towards us. We asked him whether he knew where Janáček's cottage was (I think we were speaking in English, but I don't remember exactly how we communicated).  And he pointed us in the right direction, and we found it!!!  And right around the time we arrived there, a car approached us and stopped beside us.  It was a person who worked for the Janáček Foundation (or something of that sort).  The cottage was already closed; he had apparently come back as he saw us walking by. He kindly opened the cottage for us and showed us around the cottage. It was truly nice of him.

The cottage is in a comfortable size. Some rooms were recently renovated, but the front room and Janáček’s bedroom have been kept as they were. The harmonium he played (and annoyed Stösslová with, by playing it throughout the night) is still there, too, placed under the portrait of the composer on his wedding day.  Something which got my attention was the pictures on his desk. His wife Zdenka's picture was in the middle. Despite all the hardship during their marriage, did Janáček keep his wife's picture in the center?  After reading the books, I somewhat felt that Janáček did have deep empathy to Zdenka, and I felt that the picture proved it. Anyway, I felt like I was living in the life expressed in the books.  It was a thrilling experience.

We bought his picture book and two CDs and left happily for Brno. Hukvaldy was indeed a beautiful small village. I would not mind living there at all, either :)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Krakow (Day 3) - Wawel one last time

Monday was not an ideal day to visit Wawel as most of the exhibits in the Royal Wawel Castle were not open to the public. We decided to go back there again in the morning before taking off for Brno (well, through Hukvaldy, which I will write about after this posting).

The Royal Wawel Castle has gone through tough times. It was in the early 16th century that King Sigismund I the Old and his wife renovated the castle into a gorgeous Renaissance palace. But King Sigismund III Vasa moved the capital to Warsaw, and the castle was neglected until it was totally deteriorated at the time of the Swedish invasions in the mid 17th century and early 18th century. Later rebuilding started again but was cut short by the outbreak of World War II, and during the Nazi occupation, the castle became the headquarters of the Nazi General Government and the residence of Governor-General Hans Frank. 

The castle is going through a massive reconstruction even now, and in fact all the rooms in the Royal Private Apartments were all reconstructed recently.

Krakow (Day 2 Part 2) - Treats to our ears and tongues

One of the things my hubby enjoys is to go to organ concerts. Luckily enough, we found the exact one we wanted to listen to at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral that day. The church is the first Baroque Jesuit church in Krakow and is small compared to St. Mary's or Wawel Cathedral of course, but inside it is dazzling with lots of golden decor. It is said that the Jesuits spent so much money on the facade and the sculptures (there are stone statues of the 12 Apostles on the fence) that they ran out of money to finish the rest of the building. True enough, behind the Baroque facade, you see an ordinary brick church.

The organ concert was just great. Maybe it was the combination of the size of organ and church. The sound felt just right to me. The program contained four of Bach's pieces, and four other songs.

Totally satisfied with an hour of beautiful organ concert, we walked through a narrower street which had a row of cute cafes and restaurants. In fact, later that night we decided to stop by after dinner at one of the cafes we had seen to have a coffee and a hot wine, which I really dug!

It was the last night in Krakow, so we decided to go to a fancier restaurant called miód malina, which has been in Michelin Guide since 2008. The restaurant is located pretty close to the main market square. It is rather hard to see from the street, as it is inside a small arcade.

The interior reminded me of a restaurant we went in Provence, France. It was not "fancy" in a modern sense, but it had lots of charm. The walls were painted yellow and rosy red, the wooden tables covered with rosy red tablecloths topped with rosy pillar candles and rosy red flowers. 

We started out with Polish aperitifs; Mandarin Sobieski for my hubby and Cranberry Sobieski for myserf. Sobieski is a Polish voka made from rye, and it was named after Jan III Sobieski, a 17th century Polish king.  It was too strong for me, but I enjoyed a couple of sips in honor of being in Poland.

For appetizers, we ordered toast with ricotta and herring with onions in olive oil.  I was flabbergasted by the serving portion, as they looked like they themselves could be main dishes. We always share everything, and we did the same that night, too. The herring was more like my kind of dish, but it was a bit chewy. Hubby satisfied his daily cheese cravings with toast with ricotta.  For main dishes, we ordered bigos and grilled veal with mushrooms. Bigos is a traditional Polish stew of cabbage and meat. It was a bit too salty for me. Grilled veal with mushrooms turned out to be something completely different from what I imagined. It was more like a thick creamy stew with LOTS of mushrooms and veal meat (I guess the veal meat was grilled first). I am typically not a big fan of creamy stuff, but I enjoyed the mushrooms pretty much.

The night ended with a glass of red hot wine (sweet with citrus flavor with a touch of cinamon), which I loved very much.  I finally had a good night sleep that night :-)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Krakow (Day 2 Part 1) - Wawel Royal Castle

Wawel stands beautifully on the bank of Vistula River (Wisła River). If you drive into Krakow from the south side, you can see a complete view of Wawel from the bridge. Wawel, just like other castles, went through many changes (I will not bore you with the looong history here. Please check wikipedia if you are interested). Wawel, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978, has a lot to see inside which includes Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Wawel Castle.

As you enter Wawel from the northern slope from Kanonicza Street, the first thing you would notice is the tall tower of Wawel Cathedral. The exterior of cathedral is rather unique, which looks like a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style. The cathedral is the burial place of Polish kings, rulers, poets, and Krakow bishops. It is also where Pope John Paul II offered his first Mass as a priest on 2 November 1946. The church has a history of over 1000 years, but the current form was being structured in the 14th century.  There is a lot to see inside, so you may want to rent an audio set which will guide you through the cathedral including the tour to top of the northern Sigismund Tower with five bells; one of which is the famous Sigismund Bell.

Sigismund Bell is said to be one of the most important Polish national symbols and was cast in 1520. The huge bell, which weighs over 12 tons, takes 8 to 12 people to ring. However, it only tolls on national and church holidays and at the important historic events, so we didn't get to hear the sound of it. 

The stairs to the top of the tower are rather steep, but if you are in good health, I would strongly recommend going up there and enjoying a gorgeous view of Krakow.

The audio tour will take you down again into the back part of church. What was interesting to me was the gorgeous caskets (or sarcophagi) exhibited all over the church. Unfortunately I was not allowed to take pictures inside the church, but they are all decorated with beautifully sculpted effigies. The oldest ones are from the 14th century. But, they are all symbolic tombs and do not contain actual remains of the kings (thank god!). We spent about good 2 hrs going through the cathedral with our audio guidance. 

The only other exhibit that was available that day on Monday was the one for Crown Treasury and Armoury which was combined with Lost Wavel.  Some of the armouries had interesting pictures carved onto the wooden part. I was wondering how the design was decided, as most of them looked rather cute and fairy tale like and so not like a type of pictures you see weapons.

On the way to the hotel, we stopped at a restaurant called Kawiarnia right off the Wawel to have a quick lunch. The restaurant was located in the underground, which may had been a celler at one point.  It had an arched brick ceiling, and the ambience was just so cozy. And, finally I got to taste Pierogi (ruskie type, filled with potato and cheese) and Żurek! I definitely became fun of the soup!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Krakow (Day 1 Part 2) - Exploring our first Georgian food in Poland :)

It is not that easy to find a good dinner place in Central/Eastern European cities I heard that it was not the custom for the local people to eat out at night.  Therefore, most of the restaurants we find are for tourists. And, that looked to be the case in Krakow as well. But... we really wanted to try the local food if possible. What we found out was that there weren't too many "pure" and "traditional" Polish food restaurants in Krakow. Most of them are fused with neo-"such and such", which sounds good but was rather disappointing to someone like me who doesn't want to see "Thai-style soup" in a Polish restaurant. Lots of restaurants also had Italian dishes like Pizza and Pasta. 

Ignoring the restaurants recommended by a hotel clerk, we just walked around to look for a decent-looking place. A little bit off of the cntral square, we found a couple of Georgian restaurants, which neither my hubby nor I had tried before. So, we decided to give up on the idea of traditional Polish food and go for a Georgian meal :-)

It was raining that night, and the restaurant was half empty when we walked in, but the ambience was good, and we got a table by the window. Georgia is a small country by the Black Sea, on the opposite coast from  Romania. It neighbors Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To be honest, I didn't know too much about Georgia except some of the coups that broke out back in the 90's and the recent sad accident of the luger at the winter Olympics. Just to explore basic Georgian food, we decided to order all four appetizers on the menu along with the Georgian wine; I found out later that the region around Georgia was the historical origin of the grape-based wine!!

For wine, we ordered Mukuzani, which I just loved so much.  It was the first time that I ever tasted Georgian wine, but I have to say it is superb (and cheap, too ^^)!  As for the appetizers, these are what we tried.

1) Georgian dumplings called Khinkali. They looked more like Chinese dumplings than the Polish dumplings calle Pierogi which seem to be flatter. They serve you a whole bunch of them on one plate. It was one of my favorites, but it fills you up quite quickly.

2) Some kind of bean paste.  It had a very healthy taste, but it was not one of my favorites.

3) Khachapuri with lots of cheese, which was my hubby's favorite.

4) Kharcho, traditional Georgian soup. It is a bouillon-based soup with sun-dried plum purée and grated walnuts. It has meat, rice, and finely chopped vegetables in it.  I loved it!

After happily stuffing ourselves with Georgian wine and food, we passed through the central square.  It was late, but the square was still full of people enjoying the live band despite the rain.  This town might never fall asleep!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Krakow (Day 1 Part 1) - Once the capital of Poland

Finally we have arrived in Krakow, the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596 and our original destination for this trip :)  The weather wasn't great, and it was grey and cold, but somehow it matched the image that I had about Poland.  It was just a perfectly wonderful autumn that I felt once I stepped out of our car.

It took us much longer to get to Krakow from Kobior than Google maps said. It was past 3pm when we checked into our hotel. So, we decided to just walk towards the center of the Old Town, which was only 5 mins away from our hotel, to see what might be cooking.

The Old Town was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978.  It is just full of distinctive characters and charms. The main square called Rynek Główny (Main Market Square) is the icon of Krakow. It is said to be the largest medieval market square in Europe (roughly 40,000 m² or 430,000 ft²)  and dates back to the 13th century. 

The Cloth Hall, which stands right in the middle of this vast square, had characteristics of Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East all mixed together. The first floor of the building was filled with small shops, probably for the tourists. The second floor and up is the National Museum, and there was a long line when we were there. The square was also filled with lots of people, and there was a live concert which we enjoyed listening to while we had a glass of beer and a small snack in one of the cafes along the square. 

Alongside the square, you see St. Mary's Basilica (Mariacki Church) with two towers with different hights. It was originally a stone Romanesque temple that was constructed in the 13th century, and was turned into a Gothic triple-aisle basilica in the 15th century. The two towers have a sad legend associated with them. It says that each tower was being built by two brothers, but the one who finished the higher tower first killed the other brother as he was afraid that he would build a better tower. Thus the lower tower was never finished and was simply covered with a steeple. But even worse, the one who killed his brother also killed himself at the end out of remorse.

I have to say this church was just breathtaking. I probably gasped and then said "oh my..." when I stepped into the church. Everything inside is just overwhelming. Lots of gold, lots of colors, and lots of decorative patterns and objects on all the walls and ceilings. The stained-glass windows extend high to the ceiling. The ambience and some of the decorative wall designs had an essence of the East. It reminded me of temples from Southeast Asia.

Being fully rejuvenated by St. Mary's Basilica, we headed towards the edge of the Old Town to see Barbican and St. Florian's Gate. St. Florian's Gate is the only surviving one out of the eight original gates, and is said to be have been built in the early 14th century. There were some street artists selling their paintings along the wall of St. Florian's Gate. Once you go through the gate, you see a green park and the Barbican (btw, I really liked the fact that the Old Town was surrounded by the parks and not too many cars were inside the Old Town. Very well protected). The Barbican which was originally built in the late 15th century is the defensive architecture that is the largest and best preserved in Europe.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Oświęcim (Auschwitz) - Dreadfully Inexplicable

I have known about, read about, and seen pictures of Auschwitz, but I never thought I would have a chance to visit there until I moved to the Czech Republic. Auschwitz became so near to us all of a sudden. And, this trip was a perfect chance for us to visit. We planned the visit so that we would have to worry about gG staying alone in the car, but the idea of making it a quick half-day visit was wrong.

I never thought that I could actually walk through the camp area and go into each individual building including one of the gas chambers.  I thought somehow there would be a museum exhibiting the evidence of horrible disaster and that the actual camp would be only to be seen from outside.  So, if you ever plan to go there, plan a whole day visit.  And, you are not allowed to walk by yourselves without a guide, so you may want to also check the tour schedule in advance as well.  We managed to take a tour of Auschwitz I, but I had to give up on the tour for Auschwitz II-Birkenau unfortunately.

We arrived at the site a little bit before 10 o'clock. The place was full of tourists from all over the world including young students. The earliest English tour was starting at 10:30, so we got ourselves a set of headsets and waited.  The guide showed up. There were about 40 or so people waiting for the English tour.  We got divided into two groups, and we went along with a female guide.  The headsets were very useful.  You can select the channel so that you only hear your guide's voice.  She doesn't have to speak loudly and bother other tour groups either.

The weather was rainy and very gloomy, which made everything in Auschwitz look as grey, sad, and cold as it is.  However, I was looking foward to the tour to learn and see the reality with my eyes.  We passed through the iron gate with a sign of Arbeit macht frei ("work makes you free") with the "B" looking upside down, which some says it was a hidden protest by one of the prisoners who was making the sign.

There are rows of squarish and plain brick buildings neatly aligned in the camp; almost infinitely. I was surprised by the size of the camp.  It looked too big to me until I learned that more than 1 million people were said to be killed there and in the neaby camps.  We went into several buildings with the guide. Each building had a theme for its exhibition, and by the time I was out of the third building, I noticed myself sighing a lot. My feet were heavy. I was no longer looking forward to learning more. I felt something heavy around my throat which was dry but I couldn't even swallow my own saliva.

Execution wall
  But the tour continued. And, I needed to see and learn despite the heaviness that I felt in myself. I saw hundreds of pictures of prisoners (males on the right hand side and females on the left) filling both sides of the corridor walls. Almost all the women had their heads shaved. Everyone on the wall had such a helpless look on their faces. It was just plain painful to walk along the pictures...

Gas chamber
The tour ended with a visit to one of the gas chambers. I went in and out very quickly, as I felt rather saffocated inside. Some were directly sent to this chamber after arriving to the camp. They thought they were just taking a shower. What went through the mind of soldiers who were pouring the poison gas through the ceiling holes?  Is it the war or fear of bloody insane authority that even made men capable of such acts?  I know Japanese soldiers did a lot of terribly wrong and equally unbelievable brutal things in the neighboring Asian countries, too. What went through the soldier's mind? Just so wrong, and... utterly inconceivable.

We could not stop remembering and talking about our experience in Auschwitz throughout our trip. At the end of the day, my question still remained the same..."WHY??"

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chateau Myšliwski Promnice - Kobiór, Poland

Instead of going all the way to Krakow on the first day, we decided to stay at a cheateau hotel in a town called Kobiór, Poland, called Hotel Noma Residence Zameczek Myśliwski Promnice.  We chose the place for two reasons. It was near Auschwitz (35 mins away), and we thought we could leave gG at the hotel in the morning and visit Auschwitz (well, this turned out to be rather too hectic).  Also, it was a nice looking chateau by the lake.

The challenge was to find it :( The hotel didn't have a street address, and our car navigation system was totally stupid to even figure out where we were. We called the hotel but still couldn't figure out (basically lost in a translation). It was my hubby's smart phone which found our way to the hotel finally. Whew.

The hotel was in the middle of the forest near the lake called Paprocański Lake. The narrow road that led to the hotel made me feel the full autumn.  It was just quiet and pretty. I heard the chateau was originally built in 1868 and was once the property of the Pszczyna Princes. The noble family stayed there while they enjoyed the hunting game. And, in fact, there were lots of head of dead animals on the wall... which I have to say were too many.  But, the tall and gorgeous wooden ceilings as well as the beautiful wall papers were just breathtaking.

The chateau was renovated to be a hotel in 1995. We were situated in a hunting cottage which was about 100 meters away from the main building, as the wedding party was going on in there. The cottage was huge and nice as well, so I would not complain about it. And, the good thing was we did not hear any blusting music from the main building. Plus all the dead animals in the main building probably would have scared gG (and me), so we were totally cool with the hunting cottage.

There was a wonderful restaurant in the main building as well. So, you don't have to drive out of the property to go eat dinner. The food was just great, although it was a bit salty to my taste.