Tag: castles

Krakow: the Most Medieval Place of All

rough streets of Krakow

From Zdiar I took a little bus to Zakopane, another ski town in the Tatras, this time on the Polish side. I was en route to Krakow, Poland’s cultural center, a place I never expected to visit.

Everyone told me they liked Krakow; it was some people’s favorite city. It wasn’t big. With no data or otherwise plan for Poland I decided to walk around until I found a hostel again.

Krakow wasn’t small. Soon I was mooching free WiFi in a café and back on hostelworld, a site I’d avoided for so long, until I found a place in the Old Town. But, I hated it after a night and while wandering stumbled into another hostel; I had a good feeling about its bright blue and yellow paint and walked inside right then to book the rest of my nights. It was much better, but had no more than ten guests; fewer people were backpacking now that it was October. Krakow was packed for that one weekend, but only because all of France seemed to fly out for a getaway, as England had done to Bratislava.

Banska Stiav-err… Bratislava!

St. Martin's Church

I was on my way to the beautiful town of Banska Stiavonica in Slovakia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (AKA really beautiful), when the train out of Bled was late. Trains in Eastern Europe were late half the time, but when they involved Slovenia they were late every time.

Ulrica, a German woman who’d gone hiking around here while her boyfriend was stuck at work, was my unplanned travel buddy. Together we arrived at the Plan B Café outside the train station in the Austrian town of Villach and explored it for the hour we had. Villach seemed to exist entirely around its train station. The view from the river was nice, but other than that it was several streets of restaurants and shops, a church, and nothing else. Where I expected to see houses on the outskirts were bare mountains. Where was the woman with a briefcase going so quickly? The only reason I can see anyone visiting Villach is to wait for another train.

Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled

My itinerary was blank again, when someone in Budapest recommended Lake Bled in Slovenia. The first thing I saw off the Bled station was the Julian Alps, a smaller mountain range in northern Slovenia. Bled itself is a tiny, very popular tourist town built around a small but beautiful glacial lake of the same name, for which it is famous.

Lake Bled is an almost unbelievable shade of turquoise, so jewel bright I thought they must be throwing chemicals into it. But no, it’s the result of a high algae concentration. In the middle sits a little island, lush with trees and just big enough to stably hold an old church. People swim there or row across on canoes or pletnas, romantic little rentable boats lining the lake’s shore. Along the lake’s almost perfect perimeter is a cliff on one side, atop of which sits Bled Castle. This view – the castle, the island and its church, is a postcard, and likely one you’ve already seen.

Budapest: My Favorite Capital City

Budapest offers many great places to read, like outside the Parliament building

When I arrived in the crazy night-time traffic of Budapest, all the buildings looked like massive stone slabs. When I woke up the next morning and set out to explore, I met the most incredible architecture I’d seen. Every building weighs a million pounds in stone and is crested with impossibly intricate carvings. Budapest is like a stone forest, but it’s spacious and not oppressive. You never feel cloistered, or that people are looking at you. In fact, nobody seems to care what you’re doing. Budapest has an immediately noticeable laid back attitude stemming from the fact that life is less regulated. How so, you ask? For one, unlike meticulous Switzerland there aren’t lines painted all over the streets to tell you how far your pedestrian feet can venture into the road before you’re in the cars’ way. Walk where you want; move when a car comes.

A Daytrip to Helfstyn Castle

Iron wrought Helfstyn sign

There are a lot of good daytrips from Olomouc: a couple of castles, the zoo, caves, and long hikes. I couldn’t not take one while I was there, so I chose the Helfštýn Castle ruins. The train stopped at Lipník nad Becvou, a very old, medieval town one tenth the size of Olomouc. You know a place is good when the first thing you see is a train station tunnel covered in painted scenes of fairy tales. There were fighting knights, princesses, celestial demons, and a puss in boots standing in the gate of a castle holding a flagon of beer.

It was a quiet and cloudy day with a bit of drizzle. I only saw a few people around. There was no man selling ice cream cones on the way into town as there had been in Karlstejn; I entered town without preamble and walked for fifteen minutes past colorful little houses and a single gas station until I reached a small, quiet town center. It was a scaled down version of Olomouc’s main square, which was a scaled down version of Prague’s main square. I felt like I was in a nesting doll of settlements. The statues here were smaller, the rows of equally quaint buildings closer together, only here they formed an L rather than an actual square. Under repainted white archways stood a vinarna (winery), whose windows blocked out light with heavy wooden doors fitted with iron.

Historic Prague

A slice of Prague

Ever since some family friends took a spontaneous trip to Prague five years ago and returned singing its praises, it shot to the top of my list of places to see, and on this trip, Prague was the city I was looking forward to more than any other, a lone bright star in an otherwise dark and obscure Eastern European sky. Visions of a dark, gothic paradise beckoned; if I was going to wander around narrow streets and stumble into a dim underground bar invited in by a single lamp swinging from its door and be transported to another time, it was going to be in Prague.

Unrealistic expectations aside, like most people who visit in the height of summer, I was let down. Prague wasn’t dark; it was Disney dark. Its buildings were painted in pleasant shades of peach, pink, cream, and powder blue, it was filled with colorful overpriced kitsch shops by the Charles Bridge, and every old, crumbling, looming church topped with threatening black spires was swarmed by loud tourists who wouldn’t let each other take a single photo. To say Prague was touristy is a gross understatement; every hour of every day people rubbed elbows in the historic districts, fighting each other to see the astronomical clock. The atmosphere in this pretty area was strictly commercial, which I found very unappealing.

Castles vs Castle Ruins

Killkenny Castle

Kilkenny was where I discovered the difference between castles and castle ruins. Yes, there is a vast difference. My first encounter with castle ruins was, as I’ve written, pure magic. So I was quite looking forward to seeing Kilkenny Castle… to in the end be quite disappointed by it.

Don’t get me wrong – from the outside the castle is really impressive. You stand next to towering.. towers and look up in awe. The grounds around the castle are nice, too. For the history lovers the castle is a buffet, and perhaps the tour would be, too. But I was looking for something different. I was looking at it from an architectural standpoint, and for the chance to explore. Thus, it wasn’t the castle itself that put me off; it was that the experience of going to a castle is very different from going to a castle ruin. They are different as can be.

The Magic of Dolbadarn Castle

Dolbadarn Castle in the distance

Finding Dolbadarn Castle brought moments of palpable magic to me. But then, one of my favorite things to do is explore old buildings – climbing up narrow staircases, slowly entering creepy empty rooms, the whole bit. So when I walked through this magical forest and came out to a castle ruin, the very reason I went to Europe in particular, with no guard, no door, no line or roped off segment – just a piece of history open to the public to explore to their heart’s content – it was probably the happiest moment of my life up until that point. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of those moments, very rare, when I was exactly in my place. Everything sort of lines up and there are no white noise-type backthoughts you don’t really hear but which are always there of what others are doing, what else is out there, what you’re doing and how it fits into the world and your life plan. It’s a messy cloud of interpretation, analysis, and doubt that sounds like a hectic crowd with the volume turned down.

Llanberis, Wales

Llanberis in the morning

Llanberis, Wales, was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to and one of the most memorable parts of my trip, even though, or especially because, it was a little out-of-the-way mountain town nestled in a valley with so much to do in a comfortable setting. Had I not had a ferry to Ireland to catch the next day, I would have stayed there longer.

As I said, on the way I passed by Porthmadog, which looked like a posh ski and lake resort town from the bus window. It was fairly large and had a nice everything, with a nice amount of the nice everything. Llanberis, on the other hand, was a tiny town with one Main Street located on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, but this Main Street had everything you need: an Indian restaurant, an ATM, a pub, and the Snowdonia Bakery, which I learned the hard way was only a sign with no functioning bakery. At least it added to the quaint ambience. I will always almost taste those mountainside pastries that could have been….