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Krakow, Poland

I knew early on that I needed to get to Poland at some point during my stay here.   For one thing, I wanted to visit every country that borders Germany, and Poland was the last shared border country on that list.  For another thing, my father’s father was born in Warsaw, so I’m partly Polish.

If I was going to visit Poland, I had to choose a city.  My top two choices were Krakow and Warsaw, and everything I had read indicated that Warsaw wasn’t all that different from any other major city.  Off to Krakow I went!

My hotel was only two short blocks from the Main Market Square.  This is the largest medieval European square, covering roughly 40,000 square meters.  Plus, it has a giant head.

Not pictured:  Me, re-enacting that scene from Clash of the Titans.

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In the middle of the Market Square is a building called the Cloth Hall.  The original structure dates back to the 13th century, but it was rebuilt in the 16th century after the previous iteration was destroyed by fire.

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Inside the cloth hall are rows of merchants, mostly selling to tourists.

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The Market Square has a ton of pigeons.  They were creepy as hell.

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One more view of the Cloth Hall, this time from the back and with a nifty fountain in view.

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This is a slightly different view of the same building.  This view shows the Town Hall tower, which you can climb.

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If you should choose to climb it, be aware that the steps in this tower are very tall steps, and the passageway is very narrow.  Good view from the top, though.

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The old town hall’s tower is still standing, even though the rest of the town hall is gone.  There’s a brass sculpture next to the tower showing what the original structure looked like.

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All the extra crap in that last picture is because there was an enormous stage set up in the Square for some big event while I was there.  Lots of live music, some of which was even good.

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…but I digress.  In the main square, there are often a bunch of these walking around in various languages:

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Pick one and follow them.  They cover a lot of interesting topics.  Most of the free tours will lead you down this street, past the McDonald’s and toward St. Florian’s Gate.

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St. Florian’s Gate is part of the city’s defensive walls from the 13th century.  There used to be a moat, but that’s gone now. There were originally 47 observation towers and seven gates, because Krakow was a medieval fortress at the time.

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Near the gate is this excellent statue of Jay Garrick the Roman god Mercury.

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Through the gate is the Barbican, a circular fortification which was originally connected to the main gate.  Barbican is not the name of the building, it’s the name of the type of structure- but I don’t think the locals call it by another name.

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Let’s go back to the Market Square, because I’m not done there.  In one corner is this pretty nifty church, the Church of St. Mary, sometimes referred to as St. Mary’s Basilica.  The church is not parallel to the square, and the towers are not uniform.  The reason for the different towers is that the smaller tower is a bell tower, and the higher tower has always belonged to the city and was used as a watchtower.

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Every hour, on the hour, a small window is opened in the watchtower, and a short trumpet signal called the Hejnał mariacki is played.  The trumpeter then opens a different window and repeats the call.  This is done four times in all, in four directions which roughly correspond to the direction of the four main Krakow city gates.

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The tune breaks off very abruptly.  It is not known with certainty why this is so, but one of the most persistent legends is that it is cut off to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city.  Here’s a short video of the trumpet signal.

In another corner of the Market Square is another amazing (but much, much smaller) church called St. Adalbert’s Church. Legend says this is the location where St. Adalbert used to preach.

Every night, the Royal Chamber Orchestra does an amazing one hour concert in this church.  The baroque dome gives it excellent acoustics, and the show is well worth seeing.   The program alternates, and when I saw it, the song  included such venerable classics as Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and Horner’s “Love Theme from Titanic.”

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Walking south out of the main Market Square, along Grodzka, you eventually come to an intersection with two more interesting churches visible.    I can’t remember the name of this one.

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This one is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan church.

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Across the street from the Franciscan church is the Bishop’s Palace, where Pope John Paul II stayed whenever he was in the city.  They even decked out the window he used to hang out of to permanently commemorate this.

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Between the two churches is another interesting sculpture showing where the Church of All Saints stood in the past.

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At this point in the post, the “walking around the city” narrative sort of breaks down, because the last few pictures aren’t in a straight line.  For example, this is the former Collegium Physicum, the location for the faculties of pharmacology, physiology, physics, chemistry, and geology.  Lots of science was done here.

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…and this is the Collegium Maius, the oldest existing building of the Jagiellonian University.  I didn’t get to see that wonderful clock in motion, but my city map said it runs at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm every day.

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This the real gold roof of the cathedral on Wawel Hill, near the castle.  It’s plated though, and not solid gold, because that would be too heavy.

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I took a brief stop in Wawal Castle to view Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine.  It was smaller than I expected.  The classics almost always are.  Alas, photographs were forbidden.  After I was done looking at the painting, I noticed this fascinating giant balloon from the courtyard.

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This is the Hiflyer.  It’s based a reasonable walk from the city center, and as long as the weather is good, they’re flying.  They recommend calling ahead just to be sure, but a reservation isn’t necessary.  The balloon is more or less stationary, because it’s tethered to a single place on the ground.

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The “basket” for this is actually a very large metal ring, with an open center for the cable that pulls you back down at the end of your flight.

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Going up at dusk affords you some pretty spectacular views of the area.  This direction shows Wawel Hill, including the castle.

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On my last evening in town, I stopped at one of the restaurants in the main market square and I had these fresh pierogies.    I love pierogies, and having a chance to have freshly made ones in Poland is not to be missed.  These were so, so delicious.

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Have you ever been to Krakow?  Have you ever had a pierogi?

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Nordic Adventure, Part 7: Reykjavik

From Copenhagen, it’s a reasonably short flight to the last stop in my trip through the Nordics:  Reykjavik, Iceland!

The geography in Iceland is really likenothing I’ve ever seen.  This is an island that has both volcanoes and earthquakes.  There are fields of volcanic rock, waterfalls, and crystal clear lakes.   Geothermal pools provide hot water for the island, and much of their power comes from the geothermal energy as well.

This is a field of volcanic rock, covered in a type of moss that the four legged folk of the island really like to munch on.

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I was in Iceland in the spring, so things were fairly green.

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One of the major tourist attractions in Iceland is a tour of the Golden Circle.  The first thing that most folks see on a Golden Circle tour is the rift valley in Þingvellir National Park.   Iceland sits on the border between two of the major tectonic plates-  the North American plate and the Eurasian plate.  The space where they meet has formed a valley with a lake in it.  This is the rift valley.

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The edge of the North American plate has some interesting rock formations- you can see these trenches that go in almost straight lines for miles and miles near the lake.

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The second stop on a Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls.”  This enormous waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland.  For a sense of scale, look at the rocky outcropping on the left side and the path leading to it along the left edge of the photograph.  You can see people getting close to the falls.

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There were three different vantage points to see the Falls.  This was the easiest one to get to.  There’s also the outcropping in the previous photo, and a path that goes down the face of the cliff I’m standing on here.  Lots and lots of stairs to get to that one.

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This is the view from the rocky outcropping I mentioned before.

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Across the street from the visitor center near Gullfoss, there was a small group of Icelandic horses hanging out near the fence.  There are places throughout the island where you can rent a horse.  They’re really quite sweet.  You can’t tell from the photo, but this one was using the barbed wire to scratch an itch.

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The third stop in a Golden Circle tour is the Haukadalur geothermal area, a hill containing the Great Geysir, the one for which all other geysers are named, another geyser named Strokkur, and twenty or thirty smaller geysers and thermal pools.

Here’s Little Strokkur, not to be confused with the big one.

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And Little Geysir.

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I didn’t catch a name for this thermal pool but the color was striking.  Also, the mist coming off of this pool had a strong sulphur smell, a little like rotting eggs.  Anyone who grew up with well water in South Florida will probably know the smell.  The hotel room sink in Reykjavik also had this smell-  the locals get used to it, I think.  It wasn’t unpleasant, just strong.

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This is Great Geysir.   Geysir doesn’t erupt much these days, although earthquakes can stimulate eruptions for a little while.

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Strokkur, on the other hand, goes off every five minutes or so.  It’s rather spectacular to see.

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I even managed to catch one of Strokkur’s eruptions on video.

So that’s the Golden Circle.   You’ll need at least half a day to see all of that.

Back in Reykjavik, you’ll see a number of very distinct structures.  This is Hallgrímskirkja.  This is the tallest church in Iceland, and so naturally, I had to climb it.

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From the observation deck at Hallgrímskirkja, this is what the main part of Reykjavik looks like.  I can actually see my hotel in this picture.  There’s a main street full of bars and restaurants on the right side of this picture, but you can’t really see where the road is clearly from this vantage point.

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Looking in the opposite direction, you can see the sphere of Perlan, or The Pearl, a structure built atop five hot water storage tanks.  There’s a viewing platform at Perlan also, and I’ll come back to that.

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This is the interior of Hallgrímskirkja.

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Now that I’ve shown you the church, I’d like to point out that Reykjavik has a rather massive ::ahem:: Phallological museum.  Translation: Penises!  Penises for everyone!   Regrettably, I didn’t take the time to go to the penis museum, but I’m sure it was just turgid with the learning.

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The problem with writing blog posts too long after the travel dates is that I don’t remember exactly why I took this photo, other than that it looks pretty cool.

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It’s nice to know that my knack for finding friendly kitties extends to Iceland too.

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This is Sólfar, or Sun Voyager, perhaps the most photographed sculpture in Iceland.  The sculpture, by Jón Gunnar Árnason, is made of stainless steel.   Unveiled in 1990, the artist wanted Sun Voyager to represent a ship of dreams, an “ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

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Every major city needs a great concert hall, and Reykjavik has the Harpa Concert Hall, home to the Icelandic Opera and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.  It also functions as a conference center.

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I mentioned the Perlan earlier-  I took the time to go out there and climb the dome.  It gave me a nice perspective of the city from the opposite side, looking back toward the sea.

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The downtown part of Reykjavik was pretty great.  While I was waiting for a tour that I’ll talk about in an upcoming post, I stopped at Icelandic Fish & Chips Organic Bistro to kill some time and get a snack.  I had been craving chocolate cake, and this really hit the spot-  delicious (and gluten free!) chocolate cake, perfectly moist and soft, paired with a nice cup of chamomile tea.

I would go back to Iceland just to have this cake again.  It was that good.

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There were several theme places in Reykjavik, including a Chuck Norris restaurant that I didn’t see until I was about to leave, and a few doors down from my hotel, the Lebowski Bar.  This place is fun and friendly and has really great burgers and shakes.

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There was also a gay bar called the Kiki Queer Bar that I would have checked out, except they only opened Thursday to Sunday nights, and I was in the city from Monday to Thursday.  The inset of the photo is a note that was left in the black panel next to the front door-  I was not the only one who wanted to check out Kiki.

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One of the things that people are curious about in Iceland is the food-  some people are keen to try Hákarl, or rotten shark meat.  I was not.  Hakarl is often described as one of the foulest tasting foods in existence.  Chef Anthony Bourdain described hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.  Some people try whale, horse, or puffin.    I didn’t have any interest in whale meat, and I could go on a rant about the hunting generated by tourism- only about 5% of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat, but tourists do quite often.

While I wasn’t interested in fermented shark or whale, I was interested in trying puffin.  I would have preferred a nice puffin burger, but I could only find a few places that had puffin on the menu.   I chose Laekjarbrekka,  a restaurant on the main street with a really good TripAdvisor rating.   They had an “Icelandic Feast” on the menu that included shark, whale, horse, and puffin, but I didn’t go for that.  I had smoked puffin as an appetizer, and had a nice fresh fish for my main course.  I no longer remember the type of fish, but I can say that it was the best cooked plate of fish I’ve ever had in my life.    The picture below is puffin-  the entire bird has a body roughly the size of a can of Coke, so the amount of meat in a single bird isn’t very much.    The puffin meat tasted fishy, which makes some sense since the birds spend most of their lives on or near the ocean.

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I saw this while walking through the city.  I’m not sure what it’s all about, but I suspect it’s just art.

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Lastly, this is a picture taken out of the window of my hotel room at 1:15 AM.  Reykjavik is one of the furthest north places I’ve ever been, and it was amazing to see that even after sundown, it was still kind of light.  It looked like this when I went to sleep, and the sun came back up just a few hours later.

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Have you ever been to Reykjavik?  Have you ever tried Hakarl?

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Scheveningen, The Hague

When we went to Keukenhof for the tulip festival and flower parade, we stayed in Scheveningen, a district of the Hague which borders the North Sea.  It contains a nice seaside resort area.

Before we went, I was convinced that the name of the place sounded a little bit like a lawnmower starting up.  I was wrong, though.  Click play on the sound bar below to hear what it really sounds like.

 

The three of us stayed at a nice hotel called the Boulevard Hotel.  We wanted to stay near the ocean, and it was one of the few places in our price range that had a room with three beds.    My bed actually folded up into a console when not occupied.    Jenny said I looked a little bit like Harry Potter under the stairs when I was on this.

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As soon as we dropped our stuff off in the hotel room, we walked back out to check out the beach and boardwalk, and to find some dinner.  It was windy, but amazing.

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We stopped at ‘t Pannekoekenhuisje, a pancake house, for dinner.   When we were walking in, this adorable little moppet was playing in an alligator and I couldn’t resist taking pictures.  Cute, eh?

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Anyway, back to the pancake house.   In the Netherlands, pancake houses aren’t much like iHop or anything that most Americans are used to.  For one thing, the pancakes are served as one ENORMOUS pancake that tends to be larger than the plate it’s served on.  For another thing, not all pancakes are sweet; some are savory.  Mine had mushrooms, garlic, and bacon.

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After dinner, there was more walking around the boardwalk-  this far north, the sun doesn’t set until pretty late, so we had plenty of daylight.  I was tickled by some of the touristy stuff going on here.

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I also think it’s kind of brilliant that spaced along the beach at intervals were poles with cartoon animals, the better to help children remember where their family is set up.   The beach wasn’t very crowded when we were there, but I can imagine that on a warmer day it would be utterly slammed with people.

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There’s a seaside trampoline park here!  I was tempted to go for a bounce.

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Not far from our hotel is a pretty amazing sculpture garden.  We missed it on our first trip down the beach because it’s up on the sidewalk and we were down on the beach.   On the way back to the hotel, however, it was impossible to miss.  The first two visible statues are enormously tall.

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This was one of my favorites:  the traditional boy with his finger in a dike.

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Most of these were based in fairy tales.  In fact, the entire sculpture garden is called SprookjesBeelden aan Zee (Fairytale Sculptures by the Sea) and it contains 23 sculptures by American sculptor Tom Otterness.

The sculpture garden is part of the Museum Beelden aan Zee, which is dedicated to sculpture and contains roughly one thousand different sculptures.  This one is called Crying Giant.

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Some of them are tiny by comparison.  This one was just a few inches tall.

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The fable of the Lion and the Mouse.  The lion had previously allowed the mouse to go free, and the mouse returned the favor later, after the lion had been captured by hunters.

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The Herring Eater, a twelve meter tall statue.

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I think we all know what this one is.

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I’m not sure which fairy tale this represents.

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These two are looking up at the Herring Eater.  I love the tiny ones hanging out with the midsized ones.

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Hansel and Gretel, trapped in a cage.  The one in the background that I did not capture fully is also Hansel and Gretel, after they’ve been fattened up.

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I really enjoyed these whimsical statues.

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This one was my favorite.

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Gulliver. I didn’t even notice the Lilliputian by his feet until Jenny pointed it out to me later.

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I kept walking for a while after I finished looking at the sculpture garden.  I thought this was quite colorful.

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Further down the beach is a traditional lighthouse and a memorial statue.  I haven’t been able to learn exactly what this is for, but the text on it says November 1813.

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I’ll leave you with one last look out at the North Sea before I close up this post.

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Have you ever been to Scheveningen?

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Brussels, Belgium

My trip to Belgium included a bunch of time spent in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union.  It’s a fascinating city.  I arrived via high speed train to the city around 5:30 in the afternoon.   Walking to my hotel from the station, I found something interesting in less than ten minutes-  this building’s angel/demon stone-work was just fascinating to me.

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After I dropped my stuff off at the hotel, I went back out with my camera to see a bit of the city.  I also had a specific goal in mind, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  On the walk into the city, I found this Pop-Up Restaurant.  It was set up temporarily in front of the Le Monnaie De Munt, a rather nifty looking theater.  The Pop-Up Restaurant was set up so they could film a television show, according to the signage.  I briefly considered trying to get a table before moving on.

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Walking further toward the Grand Place, I spotted this rather amusingly named restaurant.  It had pretty typical food on the menu and I almost had dinner there one evening, but changed my mind at the last minute.  Also, I thought the eggs were regular decoration, but they were just there because it was Easter weekend.

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I wandered from there into the Grand Place.  It’s pretty hard to miss this enormous square.  The Town Hall has an enormous pointy bit.  I did not climb the pointy bit, as you had to make a reservation in advance to do so.

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I mentioned above that I had a specific goal in mind for my walk through the city on the first evening.  Most everyone has heard of Manneken Pis, the famous statue of the little boy peeing.  That statue is widely associated with Brussels, and is one of the symbols of the city.   There are two more peeing statues, though:  Jeanneke Pis, a little girl peeing, was put up in 1987, and Zinneke Pis, a dog peeing, was put up in 1998.  I decided when I left the hotel that I wanted to find all three before sundown.

Zinneke Pis was the first one I found.    The tile Space Invaders art drew my attention to the corner before I spotted the dog on the corner.

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Someone asked me if it was a male or female dog.  I can say with authority that it is most decidedly a male dog.  You just can’t see it in this camera angle.

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Next up is the Manneken Pis.  This one is marked on sightseeing signs and tourist maps, because it’s the most famous of the three.  This fountain was erected in 1619, and they dress it up in various costumes several times per week.  There was no costume while I was there, which surprised me because it was Easter weekend.

This is not the only Manneken Pis; there are others in various cities in Belgium, and one in Tokushima, Japan which was a gift from the Belgian embassy.

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I saw so many replicas while I was in the city, including one made all of chocolate, and this one dressed up for the World Cup later this year.

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Moving on from the Manneken Pis, I found my way next to Jeanneke Pis, erected in 1987 very close to the Rue des Bouchers, which is a narrow street full of restaurants.   Jeanneke Pis is not far from the Grand Place, and it is regrettably behind locked iron bars which makes getting a good picture of her somewhat difficult.

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Jeanneke Pis is basically across the street from the Delirium Tremens Beer Bar and Cafe,  which made this a perfect time to stop for a nice Belgian beer before dinner.

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I tried the Delirium Nocturnum, a strong delicious dark beer with an 8.50% alcohol by volume.  Did I mention it was delicious?

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After leaving Delirium, I decided to look for some dinner before retiring for the night.  Passing by it, I saw the Beurs, the Brussels Stock Exchange, which is the location of the Art of the Brick Lego art exhibit.  I’ll come back to this in another post, because I checked out this exhibit right before I left Brussels two days later.

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The next day, it was time for my actual tour of Brussels, led by a professional tour guide.  It started in the Grand Place, so here’s another view of that large plaza.

While I was waiting for the tour to start, I had a Belgian waffle covered in powdered sugar.  The powdered sugar made me cough, which caused me to be completely enveloped in a cloud of white powder.

Delicious high comedy.

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Moving on, we walked past the Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule (Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula,)  which was completed in 1519.

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This is a monument to King Leopold I, the first king of the Belgians.  He ruled from 1831 to 1865.

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This is at the base of a very tall monument, but none of my other pictures came out very well.  The structure is the Colonne des Congrés (the Congress Column.)  The four corners are statues representing the four freedoms of Belgium- Freedom of the press, of religion, of education, and of association.

The flame is atop a Belgian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,  from World War I.

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Moving on, we visited the Parliamentarium’s visitor’s center, which is all about the European Union’s Parliament and how it governs.  It was pretty neat, actually.  This first section represents the main structures in the three governing cities of the EU-  Brussels, Luxembourg, and Strasbourg.

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How far is it to your home city? Vienna’s only 917 kilometers away…

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The exhibit had a detailed model of the European Parliament’s seating arrangement.  Interestingly, the seating is not by nation, it’s by political affiliation.

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I missed all but the last three minutes of this film about how the Parliament makes decisions because I was fascinated by shiny objects on the other side of the hall.  It looked interesting, though.

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On the way back from the Parliamentarium, we passed the Triumphal Arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire, but alas, we didn’t actually go into the Jubilee Park, so this is the best photograph I took of the Arch.

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This… this is just an enormously large flower pot that amused me.

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I ate at two different restaurant chains that I quite enjoyed while I was in Brussels.  The first was called Quick.  The face of the restaurant was emblazoned with a giant lit up sign that said “Quality Burger Restaurant,” and the sign made me skeptical enough to try it.  (“Challenge accepted!“) It turns out that it’s got all the soul that McDonald’s has given up over the years,  and the burgers were delicious beyond all reason.  The other restaurant that I tried was a healthy chain called Exki.  This place was utterly delicious-  it was a little like the Pret a Manger and Eat chains that are all over London, but with more hot prepared foods and a few other interesting choices like the Ubuntu cola in the picture below.  (It was decent, but Coke is still better.)  They name their sandwiches with people names, so my lunch as pictured below was John.  The chocolate brownie in the background was so delicious.

I am excited beyond reason that they’re opening an Exki in New York City.  You have no idea.

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My next-door neighbor Lori sent me a link before I left for Brussels with a list of the top ten places to get a great view of Brussels.  One of those places was a parking garage called Park 58.    Entrance is free (because it’s a parking garage, not a tourist attraction,) and the elevator will take you right to the tenth floor.  From there, you have a fantastic view in almost all directions.  This is the view looking back toward the Grand Place.

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On the other side, you can see clearly all the way to the Atomium.  The Atomium is really cool, and I’ll talk about my visit there in another post.

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This statue is near Grasmarkt.  I didn’t remember to catch the plaque that explains it, but I quite dig the man’s mustache and his friendly dog.

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza?  Yup!  I’m not sure why it’s in Brussels, but it’s in Place D’Espagne, and it’s a replica of the original statue in Madrid.

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Last, but certainly not least, Brussels is another city full of art.  I kept noticing that the exposed sides of buildings were painted all over the city.  I only snapped pictures of these four, and there was one more of a swashbuckler that I wanted to go back for, but I didn’t have time.   I love that the buildings have this much character.  These four are in different places all over the city:

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Have you ever been to Brussels?  What was your favorite thing about the city?

What on earth is a pizza-burger?

While I was traveling the weekend before last, I saw a commercial for a food called a Dr. Oetker PizzaBurger. It was part pizza and part burger and it was entirely fascinating.

My friends, my happy friends, I have tried the PizzaBurger so you don’t have to.  I have thoughts.

Is it a pizza or is it a burger?  Which phylum of junk food does this fall into?   The box says “2 burgers,” but I think it has more pizza-like qualities than burger-like qualities.  Here, let me show you.  This is the box:

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Inside the box, there are two sleeves, each containing one “burger.”  The burger is both the top and bottom half, which you put in the oven, like so.

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After about twelve minutes at 220 Celcius, this is how it looked.  To me, this looks like two small pizzas.    There’s nothing burgerlike about them except the shape-  no meat patty, no wilted lettuce, no burgeriffic condiments.

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However, the next step is to put the two parts together with their gooey cheese bits touching.  It was roughly burger-shaped, but it was pizza-flavored.  It turns out that the bun is the one thing that’s burgerlike-  even after being baked in the oven, it’s soft and fluffy like a good hamburger bun should be.  Alas, a burger is not made by fluffy buns alone.

My opinion:  I think it’s just an interesting new form factor for pizza, and not a burger at all!

Sure was tasty, though.

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Have you ever tried a PizzaBurger?  What do you think- is it a pizza or is it a burger?