Sunday, 31 May 2015

Czech Republic – Two of the happiest festivals in the world

May 30

Hello everyone!

One of the many great things about living in Prague is the number of events it hosts which you can access fairly easily. It is not like London, where you seem to need to know about events in advance or enter a lottery to gain entry to them; nor is it like Astana, where worthwhile occasions can seem few and far between due to its location and climate. Prague is a happy middle ground, allowing us to have many great experiences.

Prague recently hosted a cheesecake festival, in which many local bakeries and cheesecake companies showcased their finest products. It would have been rude not to go.

I’m surprised that a festival such as this wasn’t packed but it may have been explained by the difficulty we had in finding the place. We eventually found it after walking through a small industrial estate. Worth every wrong turn.

You could pay a small entrance fee or, for a few more crowns, buy a ticket which allowed you a free sample at each of the stalls inside. Sharing the ticket worked out nicely as it would have been a lot of cake to handle on my own!

What I found particularly impressive was the care that had been taken in creating these miniscule samples. Each was hand-crafted and looked magnificent. Needless to say, they all tasted phenomenal. My favourite was the blueberry cheesecake pictured below.

We let ourselves indulge in such large quantities of cheesecake partly because we knew we would burn some of it off the following week by participating in the Prague Colour Run, a five kilometre jaunt around an area slightly to the north of the centre of the Czech Republic’s capital city. In fact, the race started across the road from the site where the cheesecake festival had been seven days before.

Calling it a ‘run’ is slightly facetious exercise due to the fact that it is difficult to…run. It was a very popular event with thousands of people from all ages and backgrounds taking part. It was, however, easy enough to sign up.

The idea of a colour run emanates from the Indian festival of ‘Holi’. I've taken part in festivals such as this before. More details can be found here but essentially you start the day or jog in white and finish awash with all the colours Joseph would have dreamt of on his dreamcoat.

The Prague Colour Run describes itself as the ‘happiest run in the world’ and the atmosphere was certainly more reminiscent of a carnival than a race. Dance music was blaring out from a large stage near the start line as people amassed and prematurely exploded their small bags of coloured powder over one another.

Indian by nature, the throwing of colour on each other whilst walking around the park was made more Czech by an accompanying product not usually partaken in Holi: beer!

As it was a muggy May day, we decided to take our time sauntering and skipping around the course. The downside of this was that painting powder was somewhat scarce when we arrived at each kilometre mark, which housed a different colour each time. We thus had to get creative in order to get colourful.

After a while our multi-coloured tops and tutus (I need to learn how to say ‘no’) were able to jog across the line, earning a much-needed bottle of water and a scarcely deserved medal.

It’s always nice to participate in a large group activity which has such a positive and upbeat atmosphere. Next year I need to take full advantage of what this brilliant city has to offer and attend more of its numerous events. The Prague Colour Run was a lovely way to burn off at least a few of the cheesecake samples from the previous week.

Love you all


Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Czech Republic – Bohemian rhapsody

May 8-10

Hello everyone!

Another week with a national holiday, another opportunity to explore land away from Prague.

Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) is celebrated on May 8th, which happened to land on a Friday for its 70th anniversary.

We used this long weekend to explore the western side of the Czech Republic, specifically the province of Bohemia. Having collected a surprisingly cheap rental car (named after my favourite Czech name: Zdeněk) from the airport, we sped west from the capital city towards the slowly setting sun. Our destination was a small town called Marianske Lazne. 

The place was historically an important and beautiful spa town, visited by the likes of Franz Kafka, Thomas Edison and two European kings: Edward VII and Franz Josef I. A statue of the royals stands shining on one of Marianske Lazne's open walkways leading up the hill towards the main magisterial buildings. 

Thousands would flock to Marianske Lazne for its spa treatments and to drink its water. We tried some of this famed natural liquid. It's fair to say that we didn't share the positive view held by the intellectual elite of former times. Indeed, some of the water tasted like it was from the 1800s. Still, the fact that over a million bottles were exported annually from the town at the start of the last century suggests that enough people believed in its 'healing qualities'. 

Modern Marianske Lazne was a pleasant town to walk through, pretty buildings designed in a similar fashion to many around central Europe surrounded by dark, lush green forests. Whilst grand old structures such as the Colonnade are a reminder of Prague and the country's stunning heritage, Marianske Lazne seems to operate at a completely different pace to the capital, meandering rather than rushing from day to day.

The tempo of life visibly quickens as you leave Marianske Lazne and head to its big brother spa town: Karlovy Vary.

Once again, Karlovy Vary (also known as Karlsbad) is a famed spa town which specialises in improving one's health through a wide and wild array of cleansing treatments. Once again the famous water, though hotter than that in Marianske Lazne, is sulphuric in its nature and horrific to drink.

Karlovy Vary is certainly more famous. Much of Casino Royale was filmed here, though we didn’t have time to see the hotel. The sheer volume of tourists, particularly those speaking Russian, made it seem similar to the German spa town of Baden-Baden. It felt more geared towards large tourists groups than Marianske Lazne. 

Both of these towns are famous for producing a Czech sweet treat called Kolonada. It is best described as a gigantic version of two wafer circles which you would get in church, which sandwich a soft vanilla or chocolate filling. My Czech assistant in school was insistent that I try one. I tried two and could have eaten many more, in spite of their slight lack of flavour.

I find it’s always nice to escape the centre of Prague and breathe in the fresh countryside air. Even though this was tempered by the revolting taste of the local water, it was a pleasure to stroll through these two historic, calm towns and enjoy a relatively relaxing weekend.

Love you all


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Germany – Pottering about in Potsdam

May 2nd

Hello everyone!

Berlin is Germany’s progressive, forward-thinking capital which endeavours to remember the past whilst not dwelling upon it, mainly due to the negative connotations associated with it. Slightly further afield, however, is a place which Germans will happily flock to and enjoy its history.

Potsdam is a short S-Bahn train ride to the southwest of Berlin. I was aware of its existence because it was the location where the major decisions were taken in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Second World War which ravaged Berlin to its very core.

Walking up to the Cecilienhof, possibly in the same footprints of the likes of Stalin, Churchill, Attlee and Truman, is a strange experience. It doesn’t possess the grandeur of other locations, such as Versailles, where such meetings had taken place before or have since. Yet this is possibly the point: no one wanted a repeat of that 1919 treaty, after all.

What makes this trip fascinating is that it wasn’t possible 25 years ago because of one of the decisions taken at that 1945 conference. Potsdam, though to the west of Berlin, was actually part of East Germany. Take a second to calibrate the map in your head. Strange, but it does make sense. As a result, Potsdam was inaccessible for Berliners.

The town’s history, however, stretches back much further than 1945. The town itself is over 1000 years old and is adorned with many medieval structures showcasing past grandeur and former glories. After taking the scenic route into town (some would say I lead us all the wrong way), we were able to see the delights of this charming historic town.

The main attraction here, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Sanssouci Park. The complex, with resplendent gardens and fountains, is a lovely area to stroll through. Sitting proudly in yellow atop a strange tiered section of land is the palace, which struck me as being remarkably similar to Schönbrunn in Vienna.

The aforementioned terraced gardens, to give them their proper name, seemed out of place to me. In particular, the fact that almost every ‘box’ was empty gave the impression that the complex either wasn’t being cared for or was far too extravagant in the first place. Further reading about the inhabitant, Frederik William I, and his demands for trellised vines from the Mediterranean region, amongst many other bizarre requests, lead me to think it was the latter.

Personally, I preferred the Neuer Garten situated slightly away from the town centre, where the Ceclienhof is located. It possesses other lovely (if not-as-well maintained) buildings such as the Marble Palace and the Gothic Library: the latter is over 200 years old. Yet its charm is found in its tranquillity and lush greenery. A beautiful, calming place.

I really enjoyed the short time we had in Potsdam. It is possible to see everything in one day at a reasonable pace. Considering its history, it is unsurprising to state that the town is very different to Berlin. Definitely worth a day trip if you ever visit the German capital.

Love you all