Friday, March 31, 2006

Petrin Hill and Loreta

It was a quieter day today, with time to sit in the laundromat this afternoon so I have some fresh-smelling clothes again before I hit Florence tomorrow.
What amazes me about this city is that you think you have seen it all, then you take a different road or a different bridge and the perspective changes again. This morning I headed straight down hill to a bridge that crossed on the upstream side of Petrin Hill. As a result, I saw a tragic and moving sculpture, commemorating all those who suffered under Communism. From a distance, the sculpture looked like a series of men marching down some steps down the hill. As I got closer I realised that not all the men were whole, only the front one was. The others had increasingly severe losses to parts of their bodies. The sign acknowledged all those who were executed, imprisoned and who in other ways had their lives diminished under the totalitarian regime of Communism. When you are here, you know that the whole place has been affected by all the years of Soviet dominated rule. But this was the first categorical statement I had seen of the evil of those past years.
I continued on to the beginning of a path to take the funicular to the top of the hill. I really recommend this ride. For the price of a standard 20 Kc metro transfer fare, (about NZ$1.35), you get whisked high on Petrin Hill, looking down on the Castle and getting a great view of the city. Not a ride the tour groups seem to take. Then it is a pleasant walk along and down the hill to get to the Castle etc. I actually walked through the Castle environs again today as I knew there was a Post Office there. Still crowds of tourists - Florence shouldn't be a shock after this!
I visited the shrine of Loreta which I had missed the other day. Another place of Catholic pilgrimage I was ignorant of. The Madonna was surrounded by bright silver. As I didn't really want the weight of a guide book and am running out of Czech currency, I never bought the guide book, so can't fill you in on the significance of this one sorry!
Next time you get a blogging entry it should be from Florence as I fly there tomorrow. Thanks to Helen and Johanna for making comments!! (You brave things you!)

Thursday, March 30, 2006


The highlight for today would have to be the concert I attended late this afternoon. It took place in a chapel at the side of St Giles church. The chapel was interesting in itself as it had modern art at the front- a refreshing change to the diet of Baroque in Prague. (The art, in mosaic, showed a family, with three children plus a baby, all looking towards a clear plastic cross.)
In the concert there was an organ accompanist, a violinist and a cellist. Many of their tunes were popular but some I had not heard before. They blew me away. The tone of the violinist was wonderful and filled the little chapel. The cellist I know I am never likely to hear the likes of again. He played with such passion and control. I just feel so privileged to have heard these two men play. It was the kind of music that made me tingle with ecstasy that I was hearing something so wonderful. ( Hard to explain but you know what I mean maybe!)
This morning I made myself a little list of 'sights' I hadn't yet seen. A very pleasant one was a Franciscan garden attached to the church of Our Lady of the Snows. Both the church and garden are around a few corners and not so visited by tourists. The church even seems to have tour guides giving their spiel on its list of prohibited things. And the silence symbols even seemed to work here, as opposed to in the church of the Infant Jesus of Prague where cameras are clicking in what is for some a very sacred place. (Mind you, the Carmelites are fundraising to bring some order to the tourist side of things, and some quiet into the church itself.) Most churches here seem to shut tourists out completely behind a grill or the glass in a door. Not many places locals could slip in to pray (though the Snows church above was one such place with real quiet - if you can stand baroque ornamentation one more time!)
I was interested to visit some market stalls in the morning as opposed to the afternoon. There was much more fruit on sale and much fewer souvenirs. I bought some mandarins and some strawberries. I was stunned when I arrived in the Old Town Square, to find that what had been a lovely big open square for people watching, was being converted with lots more market stalls. Maybe there is an event this weekend, or maybe it is like this all summer. Not sure, but I preferred the emptier look.
Nice thing about the sunshine, the buskers come out on Charles Bridge. Late this morning I saw a violinist and a trio playing traditional Czech music. Great to wander past.
The other event of note in town today was that the river levels are quite high. The modern metal equivalent of sandbags were being erected in low lying areas, and firemen were pumping away water in places. I don't know whether the water is expected to get much higher, and I guess snow melt is to blame. I hope for the people that serious floods are not coming.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Kutna Hora

It was a "yeah right" day today. "It was lovely and sunny yesterday so I don't need to put my raincoat in my backpack. " Yeah right! I went to Kutna Hora, and it rained from the moment I stepped out of the Ossuary until I left the town!

I mastered the foreign signs at the Railway station and got my train ticket successfully. I ended up in the same train compartment as an Aussie couple. The young woman's mother cycled for four months in Europe, after starting on a very difficult Jordan road. She loved cycling in France. This is the kind of inspirational story I love to hear!

I enjoyed the train trip out into a rural area, passing villages, woods and farms. At one stage there was a lot of police activity near the tracks. The young couple had seen a VIP in town yesterday, complete with a circle of bodyguards. Perhaps he was visiting where we passed today.

When I got to Kutna Hora I opted to visit the Ossuary first, then walk the few kilometres into town to see all the other main sights. I didn't know it was about to hose down with rain did I! The Ossuary is one of a kind. It contains a lot of bones. The cemetery got rather full after plague and wars. In this chapel they have been arranged somewhat imaginatively - a coat of arms, a chandelier etc. Macabre. But I had to see it.

The walk into the main part of town was interesting albeit wet. I should have found out about the bus, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I passed housing blocks and a lot of the buildings had the feel of the Communist era, though there were also new supermarkets etc. The middle of town was quite different and it is really being all done up for the tourist market.

The main place I was aiming for in town was the St Barbara Cathedral which was at the highest, furtherest point. There was a lot of evidence of the former wealth of this silver mining town along the way. The mining museum looked interesting but doesn't open until April!

The St Barbara Cathedral was impressive. (Fortunately I hadn't come yesterday as it is closed Mondays!) St Barbara was the patron saint of miners. There was an altarpiece in 3-D, with a "Last Supper" in it. Some fresoces featured miners. There was a statue of a miner wearing a bulky leather apron that he used to "slide down" into the mine, for his 12 - 14 hour day, six days a week. There were beautiful wooden carvings on the sides of the pews and discretely beautiful Renaissance confessionals.

I was totally drenched and decided I needed to aim for the faster 3pm train home rather than the two hour journey by slow train at 4pm. Trouble was I got lost finding the bus station. Finally the words "This stop, next bus" provided some relief knowing I would soon be out of the rain. I took the metro once back in Prague for a fast trip back to the hostel and a shower and complete change of clothes!
Signing off for now!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Jewish section

Today I visited the Jewish section of Prague. My experience of the day began with this older lady meticulously and carefully entering the date and price details on the ticket.
It was fortunate that I was not doing the sites in order, so I was ahead of the tour groups and had quiet in places that needed quiet. The first synagogue I entered was covered in the names of all those from Prague and Bohemia who had perished in the death camps. Names were listed by area, then alphabetically by name, with family members grouped together. Each person had their birthdate, and the last known contact date with them listed. The names covered the walls of the synagogue. Yet they represent only a fraction of the Jews exterminated overall.
There was another building that covered in detail all the burial customs the Jews practised, obviously of great cultural significance. None of these could take place for those exterminated.
There were many items of Jewish cultural significance displayed. Items used to reverence the Torah scrolls were prominent.
The Spanish synagogue with its rich decoration reminded me of being in Spain. It had many informative cases. Near the end were ones that dealt with the Holocaust, having actual forms and photos. Photos of people getting ready to be transported away were moving. There was a final case of some children's art that had me in tears. It had photos of the children concerned with their birth dates, and in every case their end was in Auchwitz. The art reminded me very much of the farewell pictures some children from school drew for me, that I have in the front of my trip diary. Our New Zealand children are so very fortunate in so many ways.
I needed some quiet sitting time after this last visit and fortunately there were some seats outside in a square and the sun was actually beginning to shine. (It got a lot warmer and I ended up with my jacket, raincoat, hat and gloves, and jersey in my backpack! - I nearly made a metro trip back to the hostel to get rid of them!)
I walked over a bridge and into Mala Strana. In another little square I found some tiny yellow crocuses bursting forth from the earth under some trees. A first sign of spring!!!
I had lunch at Grill U Seminaristy and had very good service there. Very reasonable prices and friendly waiters. When I walked back via the Charles Bridge the sun was shining strongly and there were some buskers out entertaining the crowd.
Discovered the internet cafe where I am writing this about 5 minutes walk from the hostel. Half the price of in town for an hour. Very friendly guy running it. Might be back in a day or two before I leave Prague!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Prague Castle et al

I can hardly believe it is only a week since I left home. Lasting memories of Singapore will be the mobile phones attached to so many ears, the food halls everywhere, the 'human' design around the apartment buildings and the good service provided especially when you ask someone's help to go somewhere.
And now I am on the other side of the world in Europe. Still a bit jetlagged if this doesn't all make sense - the exhausted at 8pm and wide awake at 1am feeling.
Flight from Singapore on Lufthansa was smooth but the service was a shock after Singapore Airlines. Maybe it was our crew, but there were a lot of raucous tones and authoritarian commands. (The travel agent did ask whether I wanted to go for service or price!) A pleasant surprise to get a lovely hostess on the flight to Prague.
Czech customs was efficient but some orders were barked. Our non-EU line got stuck behind a Vietnamese woman with her paperwork not quite in order. Someone had the temerity to see if they could be served at the EU line, long since empty. They got a very rude "EU only" for their trouble!
Feeling jetlagged, I decided to spend the first day wandering in a 'random' manner. (A child from last year's class used 'random' to give me the highest praise: I am sure he would have approved. It was a sunny but cold afternoon. I enjoyed following my nose and taking a look at whatever tower or building embellishment drew my eye next. So much to see. I soon bought a map though to make sure I never got irretrievably lost! It was quite nice to be exploring in places without many tourists for a start. I found my way to the famous Astronomical Clock just before 4pm (quite by accident) so watched it with the throngs. I can't imagine how crowded this place must get in summer because it sure is crowded now!
Hostel (Advantage - IYHF) is pleasant and I am in a roomy dorm with really white sheets. Not much privacy in the shower though. Quite an international crowd, with a few from South America.
Yesterday I did the Castle thing. Has to be done and everyone does it! I took a wandering route in the back way, up a hill some locals were using to walk their dogs and cycle. Got some wonderful views back down over the river and the city, looking through the bare branches of trees that have just endured a cold winter. Passed the royal gardens but they are closed for another week. The crowds in the Castle complex were something to behold. It was a lot less crowded after 2pm though once all the tour groups had passed on through.
St Vitus Cathedral is the main drawcard in the whole complex. Variety of stained glass and many interesting side chapels. Signs at the entrance ask for silence but with the hordes of tour groups that is unlikely to happen.
I loved the simplicity of St George's the best: always love the simple curves of a Romanesque Church.
Came home via the area at the bottom of the hill that suffered so badly in the flooding a few years ago. All restored now it seems, though one wall is still unpainted and shows where the water level reached. Finally got to walk over the famous Charles Bridge. Lots of people and stalls. Some Czech children doing folk dance and some music passed over the bridge - a huge procession of them.
Had sore feet after all the day's walking!
This morning it is raining more than drizzling. Was going to go and visit the Jewish sector but am hiding inside from the rain. Might head there tomorrow when it is supposed to be sunny and "hot". I went to Mass at a church I had passed the other day. Not many churches around that seem to be used as churches and they are mostly closed during the day. This one turned out to have very Baroque embellishment. Even though the congregation was quite small (about 25) there was still a pipe organ and cantor. No heating though!
OK enough for now! Heading out into the rain again in the name of world exploration!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Queue

We never got to see Clarke Quay as Dean had a job to do. We met at 6.30pm after he had finished work, and he wanted to go to look at buying a new mobile to replace his very old one. He had a voucher from his provider who were running specials and thought he could get one for nothing. He could.. but after we had an experience of a Singapore queue. He took a number and we sat at Starbucks just across the way. Starbucks must have done a good trade that night with waitees. An hour and a half later he had a new phone in his hot little hands with all the modcons.
We then ate delicious roti at a nearby foodcourt before heading home, arriving at around 10.30pm. The streets were still really busy with people: late nights seem to be quite normal in Singapore. Dean knows where all the best foodcourts are too. I am writing this not far away from one I know we went to, and am overdue for lunch, but I can't find it!
Today I went to the Botanical Gardens which I highly recommend. Free entry. Lush tropical foliage of all kinds. The ginger family section was interesting. And I loved going down by the lily pond near where a stage is. Very peaceful, just looking in at the water lilies and seeing fish and turtles every so often. Almost meditative. In fact there were people in the area doing Tai Chi. There was an Evolution Garden that had hardly anyone in it. It was set out very well to show the development of land plants over time. Some tall Club Mosses, very odd things. I thought they were real at first but realised they are extinct and were reconstructed. No wonder they looked plastic!
Spent some of the afternoon in the Asian Civilisations Museum. Interesting to see displays from the various traditions of the area side by side. Exhibition of 'power dressing' : Chinese fabrics collected by one man, including many robes of the powerful.
Gotta go and find that food court! More later.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Singapore Zoo

Last night I met Dean after work and we went for a visit to see Raffles. All very sumptuous. We explored the gardens and outside of the shops and if I am rich enough on my return I might go there for high tea. We had dinner at a food hall by a suburban bus interchange, and the whole place was very busy. Why cook when you can get a great meal for $3?
Saw some workers going home on the back of a truck. Seemed very third world for Singapore. Dean told me they would probably be Bangladeshis and would have very poor living conditions but would save enough to go home with a TV, DVD player etc. This morning as we left to have breakfast in the local food hall, a smiling young woman greeted us. Dean says she is a maid in an apartment nearby. She works long hours seven days a week. He has seen her lugging two heavy buckets of water downstairs very early to clean the car. He says she is Filipino and will go home with enough to set herself up with a small business, but the maids have 3-4 hard years before that. As we passed another apartment block he pointed out where another maid fell to her death recently while cleaning windows. It is a problem that maids are sometimes asked to do very dangerous jobs.
Anyhow Singapore Zoo was my destination of choice today. I had memories of the open style of zoo from my younger days. I caught the MRT to Choa Chu Kang as Dean suggested (not the usual route for tourists, mostly coming from more central places.) I then had to check the bus number at passenger services and the young woman seemed excited to have guessed I wanted the Zoo and had the bus number ready for me! (927). The bus journey passed through by lot of very green tropical foliage. All those pictures we tend to see of Singapore full of high rises don't really tell the story of how much greenery there actually is here.
The Zoo was great. Lots of different primates. Some small some large. Huge number of baboons with fascinating social behaviour. It started to rain about 11.15 as I was heading to a show about working elephants. It meant it never got nearly as hot as yesterday: periodic drizzle seemed to cool the place down. Good time to visit. Quite a few school kids in groups but not crowded at all. Interesting to contrast the crocodile lines of mostly Chinese primary aged children in uniform, just with their normal teachers it seemed. Contrasted with the Singapore American School children who seemed to be there in small groups of about three children to an adult.
I spent much longer exploring the Zoo than I had expected then headed into town. Couldn't work out how to get to the interchange of the bus from the Zoo and was helped by three lovely young women from Bali who are training here. People here always seem very happy to help.
Now, need to stop here and am heading off to meet Dean to go to Clarke Quay for dinner. Love all these food halls!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Little India and Chinatown

Decided to explore Little India and Chinatown today. Little India is quite fascinating: how it ever escaped the modernising demolition/ reconstruction in Singapore I am not sure, but it is full of little shops that seem very authentic. Lots selling fabric, gold, and garlands and other temple offerings. You could get an image painted for the temple or buy an art work of a Hindu deity. Food stalls had real Indian food for real Indian people. At one stage I realised I had walked into a more Muslim section of the area. I came across a beautifully painted mosque, but as a single woman I was not welcomed in. Not far away was a Hindu temple. There were several images of goddesses (I presume) all clothed in saffron robes. A man in white seated up the front was having an animated discussion with a woman who seemed to have brought a question to him, or a request for prayer. The Muslim/Hindu mix appeared to an outsider to just blend alongside each other. I am not sure if that is really the case or not though if you live there everyday.
Next I caught the MRT to Chinatown - ah blessed airconditioning! It was culture shock all over again as I entered a section of town that really was very Chinese. More tourists here and even more markets. Dean tells me Singaporeans love to shop and they are certainly well catered for. Highlight of my exploits in Chinatown -apart from getting lost - surprise, surprise, I am the world's worst at orientating myself!) -was getting a foot massage in Chinatown. I once got a genuine Thai foot massage in Bangkok and this was an opportunity to try the Chinese variety. It was tough at times! (I am sure everyone working at home has the utmost sympathy for my plight!) I paid $15 for 30 minutes, and by the end my feet/legs were feeling so terrific that I decided to pay the extra $5 for a neck + shoulder massage. It started on the neck and was quite brutal at first and I was wondering what I had blithely got myself into! However, it was great when it was over. Lovely young Chinese woman did it. I took a photo of their bilingual sign at the end which surprised them a bit but we tourists are funny like that! The bit of Chinatown they were in was full of places that did authentic Chinese massage. Then the next section was full of jewellery shops. I was by now looking for some food but food shops were not nearby!
I next walked down all the stalls in Pagoda St. Then had a quick look at Sri Mariammam Temple. Had to be quick as you had to take your shoes off and the tiles were very warm under the sun! I had seen the outside before, but on the inside were some even more spectacular sculptures that included sacred cows with deities. Next I found Smith St Cafe and had some genuine Chinese vegetables in garlic with rice. An elderly group of Chinese men was in there, and an elderly group of Chinese women. You know you are getting authentic food when the locals are in there.
By this time I was feeling quite hot and jaded and I got a bit lost which made me feel even hotter! Eventually found my way back after coming across another temple. I am now hiding in airconditioned comfort in an internet cafe writing this to give myself a break from the heat. Funnily enough, the Singaporeans don't look like they have built up any kind of sweat today!
Meeting Dean at 5pm at Orchard Rd MRT to do a little more exploring. I am enjoying climbing on and off the underground trains: reminds me of Paris and the metro and thus like a 'real' traveller again!
OK that's it for now folks!


It was a great send off from Palmie Airport. Thanks to all those people I work with who bravely got out of bed early on a Sunday morning to come and see me off! Glad you could get a cup of the 'best coffee in Palmie' J! - and thanks for transporting me to the airport.
Got a great view of the criss-crossed runways at Ohakea as we flew over. Also the Rangitikei River meandering through the dry countryside.
At Auckland Airport there was an aviation security lady who was incredibly severe looking. I thought she could be employed as a 'timeout' supervisor at school: that way y0ur customer supply would dry up really quickly I reckon! I left from the far gate where they have done renovations at Auckland airport. The toilet 'spoke' to you about locking the door etc. I got the giggles: it was like something out of Candid Camera.
Had a good flight. Really appreciated the in-flight little screen on the seat back. Eight hours had passed without me really realising it. I watched two episodes of CSI, one of House ( my first ever) and saw an excellent documentary about Vesuvius and Pompeii and Naples. Plus I used all my skills from ICT PD to work out how to make my own 'playlist' from the 225 CDs available! We had a genuinely nice airhostess right down the back of the plane too. ( Singapore Airlines flight.)
Dean met me at the airport and had a transit stored value card already for me. Groovy little things. You don't even need to take them out of your wallet, and just put them by the sensors when you got on and off buses and the underground. Very new underground train from the airport. Everything so safe and clean. We headed to his apartment which is near the Chinese Gardens stop, surrounded by apartment blocks. His apartment is lovely and surprisingly big. Two storeys with the bedrooms upstairs. My bedroom overlooks a really beautiful looking swimming pool and wouldn't you know it I brought no togs along! Also quite a big area of trees nearby.
I woke sometime after 4am, jet lag and all, but felt like I had had a few good solid hours of sleep. 5am I got up and wrote in my diary. Gradually got to see more of the view. The canal is lit all night and as dawn was breaking I could see people making their way along it, and exercising on it. By 7am children in pristine white uniforms were walking along it. Also huge amounts of birdsong.
Just before 7.30am a loud speaker crackled into action and I realised there was a high school nearby and the bell soon rang for assembly to start. The assembly was broadcast loudly enough for the whole neighbourhood to hear(!) and all the children were assembled outside the front. It seemed to start off with the national anthem. When it had finished fifteen minutes later, all these high schoolers in their immaculate white uniforms walked sensibly off in lines to their classes. Wow! I think I would like to teach these kids! The motto that was largely written on the outside of the high school was "Strive for excellence".
There was lots of other activity to watch along the canal. People were doing tai chi, socialising, running....
I left the apartment with Dean and walked through to the bus stop. Everyone is in apartments but it is not at all dingy and sorrowful. There are green patches all over the place, and little stores and little places where people can congregate. It all had a friendly feel to it. There was a pre-school nearby.
I came in on the express bus with Dean when he went to work and he told me which bus stop to get off for the MRT to "Little India". I successfully worked out which line to take and have been wandering through the streets of Little India. Very good place for people watching. Changed my last 35 NZ dollars at a money changer basically for dollar for dollar. ( BNZ at the airport would have taken $10 commission!) Lots of marigold strands, fruit, fabrics. Very Indian but no hassles. Time to get back out into it and out of this air-conditioned haven of the internet cafe!!!
Catch you again soon.