A Travellerspoint blog

May 2014

Episode 19: Zagreb to Prague

sunny 21 °C

Episode 19: Zagreb to Prague
16 - 20 October 2012

Family history, nostalgia and grand castles

Train 172, wagon 256, seat 51 second class saw me taking a very comfortable 6 -ish hour train trip from Vienna to Prague. My sister and cousin met me at the train station and I confess it was nice having someone meet me and guide me rather than my trying to figure out where I was supposed to go and by what means while juggling backpack, day pack and my hand drawn directions.

My first visit to Prague was in 1966 and at that time my mother, brother and I stayed in an apartment where some friends of my grandmother lived. It was on the top floor of a building located on the upper part of Wenceslas Square and despite battling jetlag, I remember being most impressed by the man carrying two huge jugs of beer across the square at 7 o’clock in the morning. Given that I grew up in the land of the prohibition, this was unheard of and unseen in Seattle let alone to a 16 year old. I was also very impressed with all the red roofs of the buildings surrounding the apartment block as all the roofs in Seattle are a dull grey. Unfortunately, the original house was torn down and a rather atrocious ugly green building with a round window was constructed (and is still there). And further, that end of Wenceslas Square has been changed from a pedestrian plaza to a two-way road. In 1966, Prague was a depressing city where there were few cars and smiling people, no feeling of cheer and no stores: everything was handed to you over a counter by a dour saleslady.

Fast forward to 2012. My sister, cousin and I stayed just outside of Prague the first night. We wandered into the Old Town (Stareměstské namesti) in the evening and met up with Lubos, a friend of mine from Mongolia. We were invited to a secret squirrel place where you had to go up the alley way, knock on a door, go down the stairs and you found yourself in a renovated, crowded and noisy cellar. Wine, sausage and cheese were on order and the owner showed us his wine cellar which, for a total wine novice, looked very impressive. The streets of the Old Town were crowed with predominately Japanese tourists that seemed to thrive on the crystal shops that all sold the same style of crystal and I heart Prague magnets.

Autumn colours

Autumn colours

The next day we went to the cottage my grandmother lived in during her latter years. The cottage sits on the outskirts of Senohraby, a village about 30 km to the southeast of Prague which has been around since the 15th century, and very near the railway line and Sázava River. Although located in an open, grassed area, the cottage is surrounded by forest and the log cabin my father hand built in the mid-1930s when he was about 15 years old still stands on the small hill next to the cottage. The Sázava River is within walking distance of the cottage and was a very popular swimming park (Senohrabske Plovarne) when my parents were growing up. It is still very popular and if you look at early pictures not a lot has changed over the last 60 years.

My father's log cabin and storage cellar

My father's log cabin and storage cellar


What has changed is Hrad (castle) Zlenice, commonly called the “Watchtower” after the name of the original village attached to the castle, which is undergoing a rather nice restoration. The castle is about a 5 minute walk into the forest from the swimming park. Built in about 1351 by Jan of Zlenice, it sits on a small promontory overlooking the river. Jan seems to have been part of a gentry family and really didn’t seem to fare too well: in the same year he named the castle after himself, he had to forfeit the castle as part of a loan to his brothers. Later on, the castle was used as a popular background for several Czech artists, Josef Lada being the one most familiar to me.


I remember walking by the ruins with my sister back in 1966 and there was a small gang of young boys hanging around who just stood there and stared as we walked by. I confess, in retrospect, that I may have been a wee bit of a sight to stare at given that I was wearing my plaid yellow Bermuda shorts which came to my knees. They were the ‘in’ garment at that time in Seattle. Unfortunately, they were only ‘in’ in Seattle. They were a point of conversation wherever I went in Czechoslovakia and I’m sure that the Bermuda style never made the fashion pages in Czechoslovakia. The girls were into wearing what we called “hot pants” at that time which was considered a bit riské in Seattle. This was also my first introduction to speedos on the male body and at 16 I had no idea where I was supposed to look as American boys generally wore very austere cut-offs which came to their knees. I was never sure, but I suspect that the boys were squatters but my sister and I just glared back at the boys as we walked by, no words were exchnaged and all passed by peacefully.

Forest around Hrad Zlenice

Forest around Hrad Zlenice

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Prague or Senohraby as we wanted to spend a few days castle hopping and in a nutshell, the weather was fine, the autumn colours stunning and the palaces we visited were all grand despite the fact that the only way we could see the insides was to go on organised tours.

Hrad Karlstejn, a late Gothic castle located about 20 kilometres southwest of Prague in the village of Karlŝtejn was the first castle we visited. It was built by the Czech king and Roman Emperor Charles IV in the mid-1300s as a place for safekeeping his little stash of royal treasures and jewels. There is lots of history and fables and myths associated with the castle, but the most entertaining to me is the story about Katerina Bechynova, a wife of a burgrave who lived in the castle. Katerina had a bad bustle day and murdered fourteen maidservants and topped the cake by obviously having a thing about cats as she hid them alive in various places around the castle. Betcha they would have smelled like prawns in a hubcap after a few days.

Hrad Karlstejn

Hrad Karlstejn


Hrad Krivoklat founded in the 12th century was the second castle we visited. The castle is about 40 km west of Prague and sits on a promontory of rolling hills overlooking a mainly deciduous forest which was flush with autumn colours. It was said to be the favourite castle of King Wenceslas IV as he quite enjoyed the hunting and sporting he could do in the surrounding woods. Some movie company was shooting a period film on the day we were there. Most of the action was inside the castle, but it was good fun looking at the actors in their costumes, many standing around smoking very modern cigarettes. The most outstanding and impressive feature of this castle to me was the huge library with over 52,000 volumes of books. The dungeons and torture chamber were not visited as listening to the monotone drone of the unsmiling tour guide was torture enough.


Hrad Loket, located about 140km to the west of Prague, was the third castle we visited and was my favourite, mainly because it was the smallest we visited and seemed the most unpretentious. We stopped in Karlovy Vary on the way to the castle which is a spa city located about 130 km to the west of Prague. The city has had a rough history having been incorporated by Czechoslovakia and Germany at various times and then was under Communist rule until the fall of the Soviet Union. Karlovy Vary is famous for its hot springs and is supposedly very popular with jet setters and celebrities. A part of the 2006 film Casino Royale with Daniel Craig was filmed there and if the cars that parked in front of the Grandhotel Pupp were any indication, there were certainly lots of people with lots of money there. It was also evident by all the signage that there was a significant number of Russians in the city.

Karlovy Vary

Karlovy Vary


People have attributed lots of healing powers to the mineral spring waters of Karlovy Vary. These waters purportedly can treat diabetes, liver disease, neurological disorders, obesity and gout. The practice of balneology (sitting and drinking spa waters) is still very much in effect. People fill their made in china traditional sipping cups, “made in a shape especially designed to preserve the temperature and CO2 content”, with the warm mineral water and sip the water while strolling around the streets and colonnades.

Karlovy Vary is also the home of Becherovka, a 76% proof liqueur made from a secret squirrel recipe of herbs and spices. My parents always swore that Becherovka, taken in the evening, was of great medicinal value for ones stomach. I just remember it causing a group of us to happily, animatedly and un-abashedly sing YMCA.

Hrad Loket is one of the oldest stone castles in the Czech Republic and is surrounded on three sides by the Ohre River. It’s been called the “Impregnable Castle of Bohemia” due to its thick walls. It burned down in 1725 but was rebuilt by 1822. The village of Loket surrounds the castle unlike the other castles we visited where the village was at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk up the hill to the castle. I was quite entertained by the brochure that advertised wedding ceremonies you could have in the castle: the standard ceremony of 20 minutes will put you about $4,700 out of pocket while the Ceremony with Program III, lasting one hour with a performance of fencers and musicians, will cost you about $15,000.

Hrad Loket

Hrad Loket

When I started planning my trip, I was pretty determined that I was not going to leave terra firma or terra marine at any time. I investigated taking a freighter across the Atlantic and after spending an inordinate time on the computer, I decided I needed to be pragmatic. There is an entire community out there that are freighter travellers so there was no shortage of information or advice. However, the two obstacles I faced were scheduling and cost. Most of the freighter trips starting from Europe or the UK took at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, and many times there would be a suggestion of a departure date and arrival date, but no guarantee. A ship could be stuck in port for any period of time and without warning if there were any sort of hiccups. I did investigate the Queen Mary as I thought that as we had immigrated to the United Stated on the Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s, it would be rather good fun to travel again on her sister ship. However, I needed to get to New York on a certain date as I was meeting my mother and the Queen Mary schedule just didn’t work out. Also, although freighter travel may have been the paupers’ way to travel at one time, the costs associated with the freighters these days are more for the king and would have covered another three trips around the world for me.

So, after our short castle hopping trip, I bade my sister and cousin farewell and I jumped on a plane to get to New York.

Next stop: New York

Posted by IvaS 04:30 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Episode 18: Makarska to Zagreb

overcast 15 °C

Episode 18: Makarska to Zagreb

Another gem; stopped clocks; pancakes and singers on the street

Zagreb was never on my radar. I didn’t even know it existed. However, as the non-beach, rainy and grey weather caught up with me while I was in Makarska, and as I had a few days up my sleeve before I had to arrive in Prague, I decided to do a pit stop in Zagreb.

I had no preconceived ideas, images or, in fact, any knowledge about this city. My mind was a blank page. And as it turned out, despite the rather dodgy weather, particularly on the first day, Zagreb turned out to be another unexpected gem. I totally enjoyed exploring the city, eating yummy pancakes, listening to street buskers, and learning its history.

I took Bus 1 (seat 9) from Makarska to Zagreb departing at 0930 with a pit stop in Split for about 30 minutes. It’s 459 km from Makarska to Zagreb, 419 km being a non-descript four lane motorway which we plowed through in pouring rain and no visibility. From Split, I sat next to a young Croatian lass who lived in New York but had been visiting her family in Băska Voda and was on her way to visit a friend in Zagreb. We had an interesting conversation about Croatians and what she saw was the stubbornness and intransigence of her family, and her opinion that Croatians have no sense of entrepreneurship, risk or imagination. She maintained that they liked to play it safe and as a result, there are 100s of pizza shops lined up next to each other as no one is willing to break the mold and do something different. She was not far wrong. The lack of diversity was something I did notice in Makarska – there was little variety in the types of restaurants and shops: pizza dives and jewellery shops were definitely the go along with a multitude of seafood restaurants all with basically the same menu. How so many of the same type of shop manage to stay afloat (although for how long) had me beat.

I stayed in the Palmers Lodge Zagreb which, although almost directly across from the railroad station, took some effort to walk to as you had to walk about 500m in one direction to cross the tracks and then backtrack to your starting point. The lodge was functional but dark given that my room was in the basement and all I saw through the small window near the ceiling were feet walking through puddles. The room had two bunk beds and a bathroom ensuite, which, admittedly, was convenient. However, the rather amorous couple from Slovenia were more than happy to share one of the single bunks until I decided that I was most uncomfortable being forced to be a voyeur. A question asking if their parents knew where they were saw them leave for the nightclubs in a rather sprightly manner – and, as I discovered, this is what young Slovenians do. The nightlife in Ljubljana seems to cater more to the geriatric set (i.e. anyone over 25), so the youngies come to Zagreb over a weekend for a bit of excitement and a tickle as the trip one way takes under two hours by train.

Zagreb is very hilly and is divided into 17 districts with the most interesting being the Upper Town and the Lower Town, although I am not really sure where the demarcation line lies (on the flats and up on the hill, perhaps). The Lower Town has the grand neo-renaissance buildings, the museums, national library, stock market, the main railway station, the botanical gardens and theatres. Zrinjevac Park, with its Meteorological Post constructed in 1884 where you can check the temperature and pressure, and co-ordinate your watch to a 24 hour clock, is located in this area as well as King Tomislav Square with its monument dedicated to Tomislav, Croatia’s first king. Ilica Street, once the longest street in Zagreb, is lined by shops, theatres, government buildings and markets and there are some ripper pastry and coffee shops along the street. The Zagreb orange or tangerine fair was being held in Ban Jelačič, the main square, so the square was crowded and there were people in costume dancing and singing and free bags of tangerines were being given out (there were so many in the bag, they lasted me until Prague).


I liked the Upper Town (Gornji grad) better with its small lanes taking you into cobblestone streets and the past and this is where I spent most of my time. The easiest way to get to the Upper Town is taking the little funicular, but as it wasn’t working I walked up the hill via a cobblestoned street that passed through Kamenita vrata which is the only surviving gate to the Upper Town. The story is that in 1647, Zagreb was gripped by the plague and all the gates were closed except this one and it was guarded by the most respectable of citizens, who, I assume, could tell if someone was afflicted with the plague.

Strolling up and down the maze of streets was a joy and I was particularly taken by the Lotrŝčak Tower which gives a fantastic view over the Lower Town. For whatever reason, the tower and streets were empty but there was a busker playing a guitar on the street below which was really very bohemian and soothing to listen to while enjoying the view. I also got particularly fond of the jam pancakes they make for you from little stalls on the street.


There is no shortage of churches in the Upper Town: the very gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary with its defensive walls, St Stephan’s Chapel, the Franciscan Church and, the highlight, the 13th century Church of St Marks with roof decorated in tiles showing coat of arms from the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia which dominates St Mark’s Square.


As a point of trivia and general interest, there are 217 gas street lamps in Gornji grad which are lit every night by two gas lighters. And every morning just before sunrise, two lamplighters douse the lamps. Supposedly it takes two hours to light the lamps and another two hours to douse them. Also, there was a major earthquake of magnitude 6.3 in Zagreb in 1880 which not only caused severe damage to the Cathedral and about 500 other buildings but also stopped many of the clocks in the city from working. The Cathedral clock stopped at 7 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds which is the time it still shows. I find this rather interesting as, supposedly, the earthquake hit at 7:33.



To me, Vienna is the grand dame, the fat lady who sings the last song of the opera, the sound of music. It is majestic, statued, cultured and shrouded in geraniums. I have visited Vienna a number of times and have always enjoyed touring the city and surrounding countryside. This time, my trip was just an overnight stop and it was the pits because it was cold, blustery and rainy and I was once again happy the next morning when I was back on the train.

Train K220 departing Zagreb at 0725 saw me arrive in Vienna about 7 hours later. The countryside, between cloudbursts, was stunning and green as one expects of Austria. I stayed at the Pension Vienna Happymit on Liebenfrostgasse and although the pension was not far from the bus station, it took me ages to find the building as signposts seemed to be a rare commodity in this part of the city. I scored a room that would have fitted into a shoebox and I had to step over my backpack to the bed due to lack of space. But it was only overnight and it was within walking distance to the Innere Stadt (central district) where I bought a Mozart music motif scarf (as one does) and visited Julius Meinl am Graben, the yummy and excessively expensive deli to stock up on a favourite comfort food, Mozart marzipan chocolates.

Next stop: Prague

Posted by IvaS 04:51 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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