Follow our adventures as we travel through eastern Central Europe. We’ll share our experiences, reflections, new knowledge… and a few photos too.
I woke up at 8h30, and finished packing to move to Brno, the second-largest city in Czech Republic. However, I felt sad because this was the last day in Podbiel and Slovakia. I started loving Podbiel when I adapted to the quiet and peacefulness of the village. At 9h30, we finished having breakfast and brought our luggage downstairs. Loading my backpack into the bus, I knew I would miss every tasty dinner that Jaro’s family made with all dedication and effort. At 10h30, we headed to Brno. At noon, the bus stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break and lunch. I bought a sandwich to survive the time before we arrived in Brno. This was not so good but I tried to finish it to fill myself up with energy. At 3 pm, we had another break as the bus stopped at a restaurant. I had chances to do some exercise after sitting on the bus for a long time. Interestingly, i was able to look at a few deer eating grass in the garden of the restaurant. At 4h30, we were at Hotel Vista in Brno. I, Kurt and Harry were in the same room again. Although we stay here for only a night, we were happy about the spacious room with kitchen and furniture. At 6pm, we went together to Brno’s ‘old town’ by tram. It took us 15 minutes to get there. As soon we arrived, I searched for a money exchange place, as all I had brought was euro. Finally, I found one store, which offered a much better rate than the hotel did, as many other exchange places closed at 6. Unfortunately, I lost everyone else as they kept walking to other parts of the city. I noticed that there were many Vietnamese selling food in the area. Also, their stores offered various kinds of food, from Czech, Slovak to Vietnamese food. I walked in the mall and ordered a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup and a plate of shrimp fried rice. The taste was exactly what I wanted as I had not had Vietnamese food for about two months. After that, I started wandering around the historic center, which has a wealth of monasteries and churches showing significant Eastern European heritage. Hopefully, I would have chance to visit these the day after to see the differences with the Slovak churches. While walking around here, I felt very safe and calm, as Brno did not have many people at night like Budapest, Krakow or Vienna. The restaurant and pubs here were not packed even thought it was Friday night. If I had not eaten dinner, I could have sat down in a restaurant to watch people walking around. Therefore, I realized that in Brno, visitors could either grab food to wander around or sit quietly in a restaurant to enjoy the city at night. At 10, I took the train back to the hotel. I went to bed at about midnight to prepare to continue discovering Brno and head to Prague the day after.
We stayed in Brno for only one night, therefore this day we moved to Prague. At 9 am, we finished packing and eating breakfast before listening to Martin’s presentation on the euro currency. He explained the advantages and disadvantages of adopting the euro, and also analyzed problems Slovakia could face when adopting the euro too early. Basically, through his lecture, I understood that the euro had increased international trade between European countries, but it could make a financial crisis spread faster like in 2008. Personally, Martin made a very concise and informative presentation.
This day was the last day for Brno and also for our lovely bus driver, Jano. Cam took a picture of us hugging the bus because we loved how it had taken us to many places in the trip. At 9h30, the bus took us to the Capuchin Monastery crypt, which had bodies of people representing all classes in the society in the 17th century. Also, the bodies were maintained in the basement rooms with cool air. Instead of being scared of the dead bodies, I learned how differently people dress due to their classes in the society. Also, noblemen had nicer position in the monastery. At 12, we had an hour of free time to have lunch in Brno for the last time. I went with Kurt to find a souvenir shop and to grab some to-go food. However, I did not know why no souvenir shop was open at this time. Therefore, I just bought a box of fried rice to carry on the bus.
At 5 pm, we arrived at Prague, the largest city in the Czech Republic. Because we had free time for the rest of the day, Kurt and I walked around to discover the main square. I had not seen any square, which was so crowded with thousands of people and many stores. We stood in front of the medieval Astronomical Clock to see what tons of people were waiting for. When the clock turned 6, a skeleton tinkled a bell and two statues came out. I did not totally get what happened because in my opinion, every hour, the clock would tell a different part of a story related to Roman Catholic theology.
Right after, Harry joined us to go up to Tyn Tower to observe and take pictures of Prague. Standing there, I felt the beauty of Prague and became so excited to explore every corner of the city in our 4 days here. At 7 pm, we stood in front of the Charles Bridge, which was one of the symbols of Prague. On the bridge, there were so many gorgeous statues showing the arts and history of Prague. Later, Kurt and I sat down and ate some Czech grilled pork, which was delicious and quite similar to Slovak food. After that, we just wandered around the city and noticed that Prague never slept, as there were activities in every corner. At 11, I went back to the hotel to go to bed and research on what to do on the next day in Prague.
– submitted by Alex Phung
Our group has been staying in the laid back village of Podbiel where naps and potatoes are in abundance. Its been nice staying in a small Slovakian village to get a better understanding for this different pace of life as well as having some downtime to reflect on the experiences we’ve been having. So far we have been travelling to our destinations by planes, trains, buses, bicycles, and today by raft! For three hours we paddled down the relaxing river surrounded by beautiful trees, rolling hills, and blue skies. In groups of seven we made our way down the Orava River in three rafts to the Orava Castle. As we rounded the river bend the imposing appearance of the Orava Castle towering above merged with a cliff to reach a height of 520 meters. The castle was first built in the thirteenth century and has endured various ownership, fires, and neglect. It truly was an epic journey to the top but unfortunately we lost one strong intrepid warrior at the gates of the castle. The cobble stone walkway proved to be a mighty opposition, and Jeanne went down with a broken ankle. With love in our hearts and adventure ahead, we picked up our wounded warrior and hobbled her to a nearby restaurant before proceeding to the top of the castle. The view of the Slovakian landscape was extraordinary!
In the 1920’s the Orava Castle was used in the filming of the German film Nosferatu, a variation of Dracula. That night we gathered in our Podbiel guesthouse to eat chips and watch Nosferatu. The Orava Castle with its Romanesque and Gothic style proved to be a perfect setting for a horror film. It was really fun seeing the sites we were at earlier that day in the film.
— submitted by Alora Wallace
Today we started the day with a visit to the Podbiel cemetery. I woke up at 8h50, which was quite late for breakfast. When I went downstairs, everyone had almost finished his or her breakfast. Similar to the day before, I had bread, cheese, salami and salad for my breakfast. Especially, on this day, I picked a lot of tomatoes and cucumbers, as these are very fresh and delicious. We had some scrambled eggs, which was new compared to the day before, I felt that these eggs were more tasty than the boiled eggs I often made by myself in Vancouver. After breakfast, I was so full that I felt like I just ate my lunch.
We met up in the yard at 11 am to go to the cemetery,
which was a 10 minutes walk from our guesthouse. Jeanne told her family history as we visited her great-grandparents graves. In addition, I observed that the graves here were organized randomly, not by year of burial or family. Fortunately, we found Jeanne’s family’s graves near each other. She told us many remarkable stories about her grandparents. Also, she said she really wanted to discover more about her great-grandparents but it would be very difficult as they lived about 100 years ago and there were few records. In the cemetery, I believed that there were only Christian graves with crosses. Also, by reading names on the gravestones, I noticed that in Slovak tradition, the women generally added the ‘-ova’ to their last names.
Later, at about 12h30 pm, I walked back to the hotel, and met Michael and Milos to go to have lunch with them. Sadly, there was only one restaurant in town, so we went to the same place as the day before. Again, I got myself a pizza with salami and cheese and a dish of salads. At 1 pm, we gathered at the garden to listen to Cam’s lecture on conservatism before heading out to visit a traditional salash, or sheep cheese production place. We had to wait for Jaro to arrive for about 40 minutes, but there was no problem as we sat and talked about politics during that time.
At about 3 pm, we were at the sheep cheese place.
We all tasted the fresh sheep cheese and saw how the cheese was made. Despite of the bad smell, the cheese was very delicious and fresh. Some of us decided to buy some as a present to our families. Personally, I was so scared of a dog because he was so aggressive to me as he thought I would attack the sheep.
At about 4h30, we arrived at Orava Village Museum to discover about Slovak agriculture. We learned, through Milos’ presentation, that the Soviet Union had a important role on encouraging citizens to focus on agriculture to increase production during the communist era. Besides, through Jaro, we learned that potatoes were their top priority in agriculture. At about 7, we went to a restaurant to have some traditional Slovak food. Personally, I got myself chicken steak, rice and two bowls of soup. I felt quite full and everyone thought I was a superhero because I ate so much. The food was delicious and very healthy. After that, we decided to head to Tesco to get some food for the day after. I bought some bread and also drinks for the camp fire at night. At 9h30, we were back to the guesthouse and started the campfire, which was pretty cool. We sat together about 2 hours, talking about everything, especially scary ghost stories. We had a fun time before I went back to my room at about 11h30. What a wonderful day with so many unforgettable activities. I can’t wait till I do some rafting the tomorrow!
— submitted by Alex Phung
I’m delighted to be on blog duty today and have a chance to share my thoughts about our visit to this picturesque village. Podbiel was the home of my paternal grandparents, and though they left this village behind over 80 years ago, our family always maintained a sliver of connection to the community. Cam and some of the students tease me that I would have been one of the middle-aged women dancing and singing on the stage of the folk festival today – if my grandparents had never migrated to Canada. Not so, because I’m not very good at carrying a tune. But then again, I could probably master that yelping cry that they occasionally belt out during the performance.
This is my 4th visit to Podbiel. I spent 2 weeks here in the 1980s, accompanied by my Aunt Adela from Vancouver, who left Czechoslovakia when she was 3 years old. Adela was an important link between the ‘Old Country’ and Canada, as she spoke Slovak and made sure to keep in touch with her cousins. At that time, it was inconceivable that in three years the Soviet regime would crumble. The communist grip was strong; loudspeakers throughout the village directed people to their daily task in the agricultural collective and poured out political messages and patriotic music. People took care about what they said, and who they spoke to. Consumer goods were scarce, and anything from the West assumed great value (like jeans and Pink Floyd records.)
I didn’t return to the village until 2007, when I was able to witness the dramatic changes post-communism. One of the most visible differences was colour: like in Bratislava, the drab gray of Pobiel’s built landscape was being transformed by fresh paint. New houses had been built in the side streets of the village, with money earned in the fledgling capitalist economy. By 2011, my 3rd visit, funding from the European Union contributed to developing the local road infrastructure, and to update (ie insulate) decrepit Soviet-era buildings.
Today, things haven’t changed much since I was last here. There’s still really only one place in town to grab a snack or lunch — a comfortable place with indoor and outdoor seating that offers traditional meals, pizza, beer and ice cream (something for everyone!) The two brothers who are master wood-carvers still pepper the village with amazing folk art. The single church at the centre of Podbiel continues to be packed on Sundays, and its bells peel out every morning at 6:00. We were fortunate to arrive in town on the national holiday weekend commemorating the Slovak patron saints of Cyril and Methodius, which was being celebrated with a day-long folk festival. Clearly the old ways still echo here, with families enjoying the chance to watch cultural performances and indulge at various stalls of food & drink. The live music reminded me of the records my grandparents used to play and the fun ‘Slovak picnics’ I attended when I was a kid, in farmers’ fields in Pitt Meadows or Surrey. I was happy to climb up Chervena Scala (the ‘Red Rock’) with a few of the students to take in the incredible view it offers of the village. Festival music wafted up to us from below, as one of the ancient two-car trains wound its way along the river bends.
It was a bittersweet moment, filled with strong emotions for me. My beloved Aunt Adela passed away just before this trip, and her spirit is close by me throughout this segment of our journey. This may very well be the last time I visit Podbiel, as almost everyone she connected me with so long ago is either dead now, or moved away. But if I never return, I couldn’t ask for a better send off, sharing my personal connection with this place with our great group of students.
submitted by Jeanne Mikita
Today we left Levoca to head for Podbiel. We’ve had some problems with our bus so everyone was nervous to travel the couple of hours it takes to reach Podbiel. Enroute, we stopped at the Demänovská Cave of Liberty. It is a karst cave in the Low Tatras mountains. Discovered in 1921 and opened to … Continue reading
Yesterday evening’s hot-pool relaxation enabled us to have the best night sleep since our fieldtrip begun. Unsurprisingly, none of us were too eager to wake up or abandon our comfortable lodging at ‘U Leva’ before 11 in the morning. Luckily our already twice broken-down bus was repaired by then.
Today’s visit to the Spis Castle, hardly 30 minutes away from Levoca, was a spectacular one. It is one of the oldest medieval structures in Slovakia. Its enormous size of 41,426m2 and its historical and architectural uniqueness have put it into the UNESCO World Heritage Site registry.
The castle’s imposing size is nested on the top of a limestone formation 634 metres above sea level. The castle’s very location predicated it to play out its own geopolitical role throughout its nearly eight hundred years long existence. Spis Castle’s historical start-up is difficult to ascertain, however, its first contours did already stand in the mid-12th Century. The next 300 years witnessed its steady growth by a series of successive ownerships from Zapolya to Forgac, Revayi and Hunadyi, Thurso to Csaky and of other noble families in between, nearly all of Hungarian origin. By the end of the 17th Century the castle’s enormous size becgan to resemble its current architectural reality.
Each of the owners rebuilt the old castle or added new fortification walls, some up to 17m high and nearly 5m in thickness, and added new watchtowers or residential quarters, making the lives for its occupants more comfortable and secure. Such frequent modifications reflected a succession of various European architectural styles and cultural moods. The last of the many castle’s residents was the Csaky family, remaining in their hands, although inhabitable since an 1780’s accidental fire, until 1945. After the World War II the rejuvenated state of Czechoslovakia took it under its legal ownership.
The indisputably fascinating views for us were not only when approaching the enormity of the castle’s high and long fortification walls and its numerous watchtowers but also when looking out from its elevated courtyards or when staring out from the top of the nearly 15m tall central tower. The panoramic view from its summit is extraordinary. When climbing up to its top one could easily imagine the difficulty the soldiers must have felt when rushing up through its very narrow staircase to replace the guard for the next shift.
The museum within the castle displayed a medieval kitchen, restroom, Gothic chapel, and a torture room. Its display provided me with a better understanding of what a typical day may have been in those days. I had visited Spis Castle at the age of about 10, but that visit left me with no clear memory nor appreciation of what I have seen. My current second visit corrected what I have missed out the first time around.
— submitted by Martin Pauer
High adventure day! Six of the group took on the challenge of rock climbing the highest point of Lomnicky while the rest of us did a milder, low elevation hike called Stary Smokovec.
The adventure truly began the day before when Cam and Jeanne realized that someone would have to make a one hour trek to insure we would have tickets for the various trams and lifts up to the starting points. In what we are discovering as Slovak style, the online reservations were no longer valid. Lucky for us, Jeanne’s cousin Jaromir had driven to meet us as our translator for the Presov University lecture and he and Cam were able to speed off on their own to figure out the tickets. Suffice to say that after an hour of finagling (and some expletives best not recorded here), Jaro and Cam had our tickets and some fairly straight forward instructions on how to get all of us up and down this magnificent mountain. Magnificent is definitely the best way to describe this range as they jut up amid the soft rolling flatlands surrounding them; the jagged peaks do not suggest a stroll in the park.
Before we hopped on the bus at 8:15 this morning, Cam did a final check with the rock climbing crew confirming they recognized the significant risks involved in the climb and that although they would be guided and roped to a top notch mountaineer it was important that they each agreed and understood the risk. As we drove towards the peaks in the distance, I started to regret that I had not said “yes” to the rock climbing portion…I like to hike, I like a challenge, right? Darn, was I going to miss out? This is a chronic issue with me in my life….FOMO (fear of missing out). Oh well, too late now, I’ll be sure to get the most out of the hike I had said yes to!
We dropped the climbers at the chairlift where they would proceed to the top of a chairlift to begin their ascent. Our driver Jano took the rest of us to what we hoped was our starting point for a 2.5 hour hike. It is important to note that timing was important as the gondola up to the peak had to be booked and paid for in advance and if you miss your time slot…well, no peak for you! Thankfully, Martin, our main man for everything Slovak, was able to determine that we would need to take a mountain bus up to the start of our hike in order to make our gondola time. By the time we made it to our starting point we were a little behind schedule, however, in true, outdoorsy, Canadian fashion, we booked it on that trail! Oh and it was so good to be in the woods with the familiar scent of pine and the sound of a creek running after all our city walking.
We completed the section of the hike in less than 2 hours and I was awed to see the variety of ages and levels of ability that were also hitting the trail. Slovaks are hard core hikers! Small children, elders and even a wheel chair were among the people we came across. Hiking seems to be a regular part of family life.
Finally we hop on our gondola and make our way towards that gorgeous apex that had been peeking in and out of the clouds as we traversed the trail. And the top…spectacular vistas all around, breathtaking and lovely. Equally lovely were the tender alpine flowers, grasses and mosses tucked into crevices. As Cam and Jeanne pointed out the route the climbers would be taking my earlier regret was replaced with relief; I think I would’ve been too scared to tackle those craggy edges. We only had 50 minutes at the top and I was thrilled to see those climbers poke their orange and white helmeted heads over the last bit of their hike and to greet them with cheers.
We made our way back to Levoca, cleaned up, ate and once again jumped onto our “trusty” little bus to the hot springs near Vrbov. The thermal baths were divine after a day of hiking, not quite as swish as the baths in Budapest, more of a family rec centre style, but warm and soothing just the same. The same cannot be said for the aforementioned “trusty” little bus. “Not so trusty”, as the transmission labored on even small hills and by the time we arrived at the bath house, little trusty was blowing blue out the back. My heart really goes out to Jano, the driver, who is the one who has to bear the responsibility of getting us out of each troublesome mess as well as take the brunt of our combined disappointment, concern and gasps of alarm with each unexplained knock and noise. However, we only had to wait 15 minutes or so after the baths for a replacement and we were back tucked into the familiar hotel U Leva in Levoca
submitted by Marie Weeks