Friday, December 31, 2010

Long awaited raw oysters in Brussels

I had a chance to visit Belgium in early December. It seems so close to Brno on the map, but is so far away in reality. The winter here in Europe has been really severe this year, and the flight schedule was all messed up, but we managed to get there 8hrs after leaving our flat.

One thing that I was looking forward to was, of course, to eat fresh fish, especially shellfish. We found a great restaurant near the hotel we stayed in the area called "the upper town."  The restaurant is called "La Tortue Du Sablon."  It is a cozy restaurant on one of those pedestrian-only type of alleys, but the decor was very nicely done and had a very romantic feel to it.  The restaurant seemed to specialize in lobsters. We were the first diners there, but the place filled up around 8pm or so, and a lot of people were ordering lobsters.  Since it was the first time there for us, we decided to go with a set menu with an additional order of fresh oysters on the shell.

You can't believe how happy I was to taste the raw oysters. Within a month or so after coming back to Brno from Japan, I was again feeling deficiency of fish.  We would try expensive sushi, but it doesn't nearly taste as good as the "real" sushi in Japan. We were getting tired of routine meat dishes.  So my brain was going "fish, fish, fish...." almost everyday till I had the first bite of raw oyster, which melted just nicely in my month.

The entire dinner was just so perfect.  I would definitely go back there if I have another chance to visit Brussels.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Putting up the dual curtain rails

Our landlord is just so nice.  Ever since we moved into the flat, they have been accomodating our needs, such as fixing the shower floor (it wasn't draining well, as the shower was not included in the original plan when they renovated the flat) and putting shelves in the toilet.

Our landlord Tom and Barbora came over one weekend in late November and installed a new set of dual curtain rails, which was another thing that we asked them. It took them about 3 hrs to install both rails, as they had to cut the rails to match the width of the windows, too.  Professional work indeed!  They look just beautiful. Now all we have to do is to go buy a set of curtains that shall hang there.

Busy December

Boy... it has been over a month since I had my last post.  December is typically busy for everyone, and so was it for me.  I had three International trips - one to Belgium in early Dec, one to the US in mid Dec, and the last one to Dubei in late Dec.  Other than Dubai, my consulting work followed me all over the place (yep, ended up working in the hotel rooms, etc). 

Anyway, the December is almost over, and I am really looking forward to the upcoming year, which seems to have lots of interesting changes already.

Happy Holidays to all of you!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Universal bed size?

I thought bed sizes were universal, but I was so wrong. There is no such thing as a "king" bed or "queen" bed here. Most of the bed mattresses are 80cm or 90cm or 140cm in width (and 200cm in length).  And, if you want to go beyond 140cm, you basically put two of the 80/90cm mattresses together and make it into a bigger bed. The previous flat had two of the 80cm mattresses. Coming from a Cal King bed, it was VERY small for us. Eventually gG gave up on sleeping on the bed with us. :-)  The new flat we just moved in has two of the 90cm mattresses, and it's like night and day. All of us (including gG) are happy.  Now he (gG) sleeps right next to me. :-)

Another thing which we can't find here is the flat bed sheet or the comfort cover which is big enough for the US King size comfort. Likewise, there are no pillow cases big enough for our King size pillows. These are the items to buy when I have a chance to travel back to the US for sure.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Indian fast food

I am a big fan of spicy food. But Czech people don't seem to enjoy spicy food too much.  I often ask for chili peppers at Italian restaurants, and I would usually get the facial expression of "what are you talking about?." Basically they don't have it.  So, when I found an Indian restaurant near the central square (Nam. Svobody), I was really happy. The food was good, but I have to say it was overpriced. 

Well, we found a good fast food place now. It is in the food court of TESCO Park, and this one is very moderately priced!  It also tastes good, too.  The restaurant is called "Indická Kuchyně." We tried one meat platter and one vegetarian platter, so that we could taste many different kinds of curries they had :-)  My favorite was the spinach saag and the chicken curry.  The lamb curry was a little bit too salty for me.  Anyway, I would recommend this place if you are up for Indian fast food in Brno.

Czech visa renewal

It was only 4 months ago that I was granted my first Czech visa, but since I am here on a spouse visa, they could only grant me till my hubby's visa's expiration date which was until Nov 12th. 

The application process can be started four months prior to the expiration, so theoretically speaking, I could have started the process right after getting my first visa, but who wants to worry about it until the last minute :)  The important thing to remember is that you need to apply at least 2 weeks before the expiration date.  I was planning my Japan trip around the timeframe, so we decided to go ahead and submit whatever we can to the foreign police in mid Oct before my trip to Japan.

It required me a lot of work when I applied for the visa the first time (see here and here). The renewal is easier in a sense that you don't have to go to the Czech embassy in a neighboring country and you need less documents. The application can be submitted to the local foreign police, which however is only open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8am to 5pm and Fridays from 8am to noon.

For the renewal, you have to submit the following documents:
- Copy of your passport picture page
- Copy of your visa
- Application form
- Accomodation contract covering the entire duration of visa
   * the signatures of owners authenticated by notary
   * all owners have to be mentioned and signed in the accommodation contract
   * land register statement: the person who signed the contract has to be the same person who is written in the land register statement
   * If the flat association called “Druzstvo” exists, you also have to get the confirmation from Druzsto that the foreigner can live there
- Official translation of marriage certificated with an apostille from California Secretary of State
- Insurance covering the duration of visa

Insurance here works quite differently here. In the US or Japan, you can be on your spouse's insurance. Here, you can't. You have to have your own insurance. And, as a foreigner, you have to have a specific type of insurance, which is not that cheap unfortunately. In my case, we had to pay around CZK 35K (much cheaper compared to the US, but still a big ouch!)  for an annual coverage.

After coming back from Japan, I prepared all the additional documents and went down to the foreign police. Well, I accidentaly went there on Tuesday and only found out it was closed.  So, I went back again on Wednesday, especially because I needed to get a new address stamped in my passport for my driver's license as well. They accepted all the docs and gave me the stamp I wanted after a lengthy explanation. They told me to come back on Friday the 12th to get my visa. 

On Friday, I finished other admin stuff and went down to the police station at 11:20am (40 mins before their closing time).  But, guess what?  It was closed!  How come??  I tired to open the door nobs and tried the bell several times, but nothing! I guess they randomly close earlier some times. :-( So, I reluctantly got on the packed tram (reminded me of the rush hour train in Tokyo in fact...) and went back to my apratment.

Monday morning, I went back, and the process was ultra smooth. The lady who was there could not speak English that much, but she was very friendly (no one ever was friendly there before) and NICE (and no one ever was that nice there before, either).  She pasted the visa sticker in my passport, logged some information into the database, and that was it.  I got my visa!  Now I don't have to deal with this for another year. Whew!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Freshly sliced bread

Czech people eats lots of bread, hams, and cheese. We went to TESCO near our new flat and found a bread slicing machine in the middle of the store for the first time. You can just stick whatever the bread you want to slice and push the button.

Then I was thinking that such a machine would not be sitting around in a store in the US, as kids would play with it (stick something else in it) or could cause a serious accident. Like me... I was thinking that it would be a great machine to slice up daikon for nabe, but of course I didn't stick a piece of daikon in it :) 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Milk machine

Guess what I found in a parking lot at the TESCO park near our house?  Milk machine!!  It sells empty plastic bottles and milk. You can bring your own bottle as well.  I've seen vending machines selling cartoned or bottled milk, but it was the first time seeing the milk pouring machine like this.

Just like the US commercial would say "Got some milk?" Yep! in a parking lot!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Czech Driver's License - finally after many frustrating experiences

Let's just say it is not that easy to get a Czech driver's license if you are a foreigner. Here in Czech, once you get a long-term visa, you are no longer eligible to drive with the Inernational driver's license (according to one source, but according to another source, you are eligible to drive as long as the international driver's license is valid... who knows). And, if you only own an American driver's license, you need to take lessons and tests in order to get a Czech driver's license. Since I have a Japanese driver's license on top of my American driver's license, the process to get a Czech driver's license turned out to be much easier. I can simply "exchange" my Japanese driver's license with Czech driver's license. BUT, the process turned out to be not so straight forward as usual.

The required documents are:
1) Application form, passport
2) Valid Japanese driver's license with official translation (or you may get a certificate issued by Japanese embassy - you need to go there and show your passport and valid Japanese license in order to get this)
3) Czech visa
4) 1 photo

I decided to get a certificate through Japanese embassy in Prague instead of hassling around finding an official translator to translate my driver's license.  It was an easy process. I walked into the Japanese embassy (btw, unlike other embassies in Prague, Japanese embassy is located in the middle of very crowded area, and it is very small), handed in my application form, passport, and my valid Japanese driver's license. I waited about 25 mins, and the certificate was issued. The total fee was only 410 CZK (approx. $21).

I prepared other documents and went to the driver's license place. Someone from mu hubby's company kindly accompanied me, as we knew not too many people there speak English. We went in and submitted all the documents, but of course it didn't go smoothly (it never goes smoothly in the administrative offices in the Czech Republic).  They told me that the certificate from the Japanese embassy was not sufficient enough, as the category of vehicle described on the certificate did not match their standardized categories. Poor person who accompanied me... since I didn't give up (I never do, do I?), she had to keep translating what I was saying to the officials (by then there were at least 3 officials gathered around our booth). 

Finally after about 30 mins or so of debating, they decided to accept my application, but then they encountered another problem. They couldn't find me in the database of foreign police. Apparently the foreign police department forgot to register me in the database despite the fact that I wen there right after getting my visa 4 months ago and got my address stamped in my passport.  So, after our long attempt, we had to give up. The person kindly called the foreign police and the problem was fixed within a couple of days.  So, we went back again.  The same issue with the category, etc. It took us probably 20 mins this time, but they accepted my application. Whew!

Before getting your driver's license, you have to wait about a week. By then, I had to leave for Japan, so I decided to exchange my driver's license after coming back from Japan. I went in right after coming back from Japan, but somehow I knew that it will not go smoothly this time either. And, I was right. It didn't.  I submited my passport and Japanese driver's license, and this time the lady told me that my address in the database is different from the one stamped in my passport.  Of course!!  It is because we were in the process of moving, and we submitted a new address (to be) when we applied for our visa renewal before I went to Japan. I debated for about 20 mins again. More officials came again, but I was defeated. They told me that I needed to get a new address stamp at the foreign police first.  Sigh...

So, I went to the foreing police (btw, the police is only open on M, W, and F, and on Friday it is only open till noon). I needed to go there anyway to submit additional documents required by them to renew my visa. Some of the foreign police officers speak English, but this one didn't. I kept asking him to give me a new stamp in my passport, but he did not understand me.  I kept repeating like a broken record for at least 10 times, and he and his colleague thought I was crazy and started to laugh at me (I thought it was rude. I really think they should assign someone who can speak English!).  Anyway, finally he understood, and finally I got what I wanted - a stamp with my new address... sigh....but yay!

Now I had my correct address stamped, I went to the driver's license place again. It was crowded and had to wait for about 15 mins, but the lady this time was very professional and spoke good English.  I showed my passport and my Japanese license, and I explained that I got my new address stamped in the passport (so that it is different from the one on the application, etc), but the lady told me explicitly that it didn't matter. And within 2 mins, she gave me my Czech driver's license.  Well, why did they ask me to get a new address stamp to begin with then???  Anyway, I got it finally!  Next day, I went down to Hertz to rent a car to go pick up my hubby at the airport :-) 

My 25th move with a bunch of banana boxes

Our old flat
After relocating myself 10 months ago to Brno, Czech Republic, I was hoping the next move will be back to the US or to Japan, but we decided to move within Brno. It was unfortunate, as the flat was very contemporary and nice (heard that it was designed by a famous architect) and was very close to the center of Brno. But, we could not bear the noise problems. We believe there was some structural problems as we could hear the trams going by as if we were sleeping outside, and there was a massive construction going on right off of our balcony.

Construction outside of our old flat
We started to look for a new apartment at the end of September. Another reason for that was our visa renewal. Here in the Czech Republic, you need to have a rental contract to cover the duration of visa. So, we needed to find an apartment by mid Oct when we needed to start our visa renewal process. Anyway, we looked at 4 or 5 flats, and finally we decided on a wondefully renovated apartment; a bit further from the center but only 2 tram station away. Mostly we liked the owner, so we decided right away. The signing of the contract took a while, as the realtor needed to send the Czech contract to the translator for us to be able to understand the content in English. Plus for the visa purpose, we had to ask for a list of all the owners in the building (not only the flat but for every single flat in the building), the owner's land register statement proving that he is the person who owns the flat, and his notarized signature. Yes, the renter had to do a lot more to rent the apartment to the foreigners like us. So, we really appreciated everything he did for us while he himself was busy with his new job and move.

Contract was successfully signed by mid Oct, when we submitted our application for visa renewal with whatever the documents we had then (you don't have to submit all the docs all at once). And I was off to Japan knowing that I had to jump right into the move preparation after my trip.

The move took place on Nov 6th and 7th. Amazingly we collected lots of items in a year in Brno. Mainly because the flat didn't have nothing but the bed, and we had to buy a sofa, a cabinet (to store dishes), desks, etc. The mover (the company called Stehovak) decided to spend the fisrt day to pack and the second day to move. Prior to that, we also wanted to pack the immediately needed items into our suitcases, and we managed to do so after another quick trip to Prague on Friday the 5th. On Saturday, four movers came around 9am (the great thing is that the Czech movers are on time!) with a whole bunch of banana boxes!! The first time I learned that they will be packing our clothes directly into the banana boxes, I panicked (sorry I am Japanese ^^). I immediately got some plastic bags and started to pack all our clothes into them before they got to them :-) Another thing was they packed almost everything that day, so the plan to just relax our last night there completely failed. Our living room was filled with the banana boxes. I have to say, though, the movers were really efficient and professional. I was completely satisfied with them. And the good thing was that they had one person who spoke English, which helped us so much.

hubby working on the floor
before the move
Next morning they came back around 10am and loaded all the boxes to their truck. They were done in a couple of hours. Very efficient! The original plan was that I would stay at the old flat to clean and my hubby would go with the movers to the new place, but I decided to go with them after looking at the number of boxes. They were done unloading all the boxes and furniture by 3pm, and this time the new flat was filled with a whole bunch of banana boxes again. I started to unload them one by one, and it seemed like an infinite work ahead.

My hubby had to leave for his business trip early next morning, so he had to return the rental car that evening. He went off, and I kept working till he came back. I was exhausted by then, so we stopped for that night, took a walk to a nearby restaurant for a quick bite (I have to say we finally found the good and moderately priced restaurant in Brno!), and went to bed. Of course gG was still being uneasy, and he woke us up early, which was good, as my hubby had to leave the house by 7am.

After my hubby took off, I kept putting things away one by one again. It continued all day on Monday and Tuesday, except that I had to go to a foreign police, etc. On Tuesday, the movers came back again and took all the emptied boxes. I was wondering whose living room will be filled with them next :-)

The busiest 3 weeks

My life all of a sudden became unbelievably chaotic. For the last 3 weeks, I had to worry about my visa renewal, my Czech driver's license, my passport renewal, a trip to Japan, 2 very quick trips to Prague (to the Japanese embassy), and finally the move (again!). And, not to mention that I caught a nasty cold right before going to Japan, and gG got very sick and hospitalized while I was in Japan.

Japan was great except that I was still recovering from my sickness, and every occasion that I laughed I was stormed with my coughs. Anyway, I met with 12 of my high school friends in my home town. It had been more than 20 years since I met some of them, but strangely enough, none of us felt we had changed much :-)  Since we had such a great time that I even forgot to take a single picture :-(  I also had great time with my family including my one year old great nephew (I wonder it is the right way to call him - he is my sister's daughter's son).

And the worst thing ever happened to me in Japan was to find out that gG got sick.  He had to be hospitalized as he was so weak (apprently he stopped eating and drinking right after I left).  I felt very helpless and devastated being so far away from him and not being able to do anything for him. The luckiest thing wast that the vet my hubby found was super nice, and she kept informing me about his condition via email every single day, and I felt better afterwards (the vet couldn't figure out anything serious except that gG needed to have a vigorous teeth cleaning).  gG only weighted 1.5kg when he was brought into the hospital...  Anyway, he got better.  I came back on Oct 28th, which was a Czech holiday, so the hospital was closed, but we picked him up the next day after us taking a quick trip to Prague to renew my passport at the Japanese embassy (this was needed for my visa application).  gG was still very skinny and rather disoriented, but he gained his strength little by little, and by Monday the following week, he was back to normal. By then my jetlag was also being cured as well.

And, another week of chaos began with the preparation for the move and gathering of more documents for my visa renewal.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brno underground passage

One day we were walking down the street, and my brilliant hubby who can now read most of Czech signs noticed a poster talking about the tour of a newly renovated underground passage around Old Town Hall and Zelny Trh.  It seems that they spent more than EUR 3M to make it happen. It was finally opened for public. Being curious ourselves, we went to Old Town Hall and made a reservation for a tour on Oct 10th.

The tour started by going down the spiral staircase at the eastern edge of Zelny Trh. Unfortunately we couldn't understand most of what the guide was saying (I wish they prepared a brochure or something for non-Czech speakers), but it seems that some of the rooms will have some kind of exhibitions in the future. At the time we went, it was basically empty.
The tour took about an hour and we all came out from the other edge of Zelny Trh. Sorry not too much information about this somewhat interesting pathway, but I will try finding more information about it. In the meantime, I wanted to share the pictures with you :)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Janáček (ヤナーチェック) Opera - Jenůfa

Finally! I had a chance to go see a Janáček opera on Oct 9th. Unfortunately, it was right after us coming back from the wine festival, and we were exhausted from all the hiking and drinking under the sun. But I could not miss this opera. So, we went!
It was back in September that I found out about the International Festival Janáček Brno 2010. There are a series of Janáček's pieces being played in different theaters in Brno. The one on Oct 9th was called Jenůfa and was to play in the theater called Janáček Theatre, one partof the National Theatre in Brno, located fairly close to our flat.

Jenůfa is said to be the first opera piece Janáček composed, and was first performed in Brno in January of 1904. The story contains immoralities in many senses including the killing of an infant, a love affair among Jenůfa, a man Jenůfa made a baby with, and his stepbrother, etc.  How shocking it might had been 100 years ago. If you are interested in reading the brief story, check out the wiki here.

Jenůfa was also special for Janáček and his wife Zdenka. Olga, their daughter was suffering from an unknown desease at the time Janáček started to compose the piece. He depicted her daughter's suffering as Jenůfa's suffering, and he himself cast his love towards his daughter to the other character in the opera Kostelnička (a stepmother of Jenůfa).  Olga unfortunately died in 1903 without seeing her father's opera. Janáček dedicated Jenůfa to her memory. For Zdenka, it was a bitter piece. Janáček started to have an affair with Gabriela Horvátová, who played Kostelnička in the Prague premiere of Jenůfa. The incident led his wife Zdenka to an attempted suicide and their informal divorce.

The International Festival Janáček Brno 2010 is still going. I am hoping to go to see another piece before it ends.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Grilled goat cheese. Yummy!

Ever since we tried the grilled goat cheese at the wine festival, we became a fan of it. The concept of grilling the cheese directly on the grill was interesting enough, but the shape was also cute. Yep, it has a barrel shape :)   The problem is that we can't find the kind of cheese in the grocery stores around my house. 

There was some kind of festival around Nam Svobody (central square) in mid Oct. Guess what? We found the cheese!

We made our version of the grilled goat cheese on a piece of bread.  I admit that I am not a big cheese eater, but this one became one of my favorites.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Funny sign on the train window

We took a train to the Mutenice wine festival. We ended up sitting very close to a bunch of drunk college students who were chugging wine straight from the bottle and being obnoxiously loud. Then we noticed this sign on the window. At first, I didn't realize what it meant, but my hubby guessed that it was the warning for those drunken passengers not to throw away the bottles out of the window. Certainly they looked too drunk to care about anybody or anything else. I wonder if this is a Czech specific sign.

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.