Tuesday, July 30, 2013

european tour: prague

"Because travel turns you 10, and travel turns you 100.  Everything is brand new on the road, an uncommon occasion to behold the world once again through the eyes of a child.  At the same time, immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture can make manifest the gravity and wisdom that usually only accompany age."
-Lavinia Spalding "Writing Away"

Our first introduction to Prague was twofold.  First, we did not have to go through any sort of customs.  No lines, no officers, no stamps.  Second, the weather was damp and chilly.  A shock to our system which had spent a very warm day in Helsinki.  Walking out of an airport at the end of June, shivering, well that only happens in...SF.

It was a welcome shift and a type of weather that R and I are quite familiar with.  However, our driver assured us that the following days would be much sunnier and warmer.  Our apartment we had rented (Airbnb!) was right in the middle of Old Town, and what we would soon discover the center of it all.  The apartment was minimal and spacious, but equipped with my morning essentials, a tea kettle and mug.

Once settled, R and I immediately set off to enjoy the late sunlight and find dinner.  Minutes later, we were in the middle of the old town square.  In the wide open space, flanked by the gothic Tyn Church and the Old Town Hall and the medieval Astronomical Clock.  The square is also lined street vendors selling kielbasas, smoked ham and trdelnik.  The last being rolled dough on a stick, grilled and coated with sugar and walnuts...absolute deliciousness!  We grabbed a table, enjoying kielbasas and beer while the sun set.

After a street food dinner and a good night's sleep (finally!), R and I spent the next 2 days sightseeing around Prague.  Visiting 3 synagogues in the Jewish Museum, 1 of which (Pinkas) is dedicated completely to the listing the names of those killed during the Holocaust.  Climbing a narrow stone staircase to the upper floor, there is an exhibition of children's drawings from Terezin concentration camp.  It was so powerful and provoking to think about how the children dealt with the horrifying events and depravity.

For lunch, we went off the beaten track a bit to local restaurant, Lokál.  It was a diner with a modern twist.  Art covered wooden panel walls and a menu stocked with smoked meats made in their very own butcher's shop.  Between the variety of sausages, fried cheese, potato dumplings and roast beef, we had a very fulfilling lunch.  Walking off our lunch, we spent the afternoon wandering around Charles BridgePrague Castle, visiting a tiny, basement aquarium and touring the Hall of Arms and Torture (always fascinating).   With a day full of crowds and walking, we took the liberty to enjoy dinner on the river and a evening cocktail on top of Prince Hotel overlooking the square.  A spiked coffee, good company and watching the sunset over a new city was most certainly a highlight of the trip!

Still jetlagged and therefore waking up at 6 am, R and I started our second (and last) day with a run.  It is one of my absolute favorite things to do on a vacation and an amazing way to see the city in a different view.  We started across the Charles Bridge, which empty from the crowds and fog regressing off the hills, looked regal and gave an air of dignity.  Making our way down the river, we ran up to Vysehrad castle and park area.  It is a gorgeous green space overlooking the city and home to the gorgeous Peter and Paul Basilica.

Our next adventure was learning to use Prague's metro system.  Walking non-stop for days eventually started to wear us down, so a quick, easier trip to the castle was exactly what we were looking for.  However, being new to it, we overshot our destination and wandered through the castle gardens before reaching the entrance gate.  My expectation of what a "castle" was turned out to be quite different than reality.  Rather than being 1 single structure, the castle in Prague is a collection of buildings within fortified walls.  The most majestic of these buildings being St. Vitus Cathedral.  The original building was built in the 1300's, later being expanded to the size it is today in the 1800's.  However, the transition is nearly seamless and to be in a presence of a building that continues to stand after this many centuries, is breathtaking.  St. Vitus also houses the national jewel in a room inlaid with gold, amethyst and other semi-precious jewels.

We also toured the state rooms, St. George's Basilica and Golden Lane, before heading out in search of  lunch.  We wandered over to Novy Svet, which is a quiet respite from the crowds of people at the castle.  Many of the houses dates back to the middle ages and it is beautiful and extremely peaceful.  At the end of the street, we stumbled on Romantik Hotel, a tiny garden cafe that was completely secluded and our own little oasis in the middle of the city.

On our walk back to the hotel, we visited the Our Lady of Loreto, a Marian pilgrimage destination and a collection of paintings of the saints and sacred art treasures.  A perfect conclusion to our sightseeing whirlwind and leaving on an early morning train the next morning.

Monday, July 29, 2013

european tour: helsinki

"If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest-- in all of its ardour and paradoxes--than our travels."
-Alain de Botton "The Art of Travel"

I cannot believe that we have now been back for 3 weeks.  It was, in a sense, a whirlwind trip (15 days, 11 hotels!) but at the same time an amazing opportunity to slow down and spend time exploring new places, visiting new sites and learning new things about each other.  I have been asked multiple times for pictures/details of the trip, so I am dedicating this week to cover our 2 week voyage through 4 countries and 250 miles of bicycling.

Our first stop was an 8 6 hour layover in Helsinki, Finland.  When we were booking flights, R and I debated on the merit of taking an extended travel time, but the allure to spend 8 hours in a city that was well off the beaten track proved to be too much for us.  
Even though I had went nearly 24 hours without sleeping and it was much, much warmer than I had expected, Helsinki did not disappoint.  Our flight out of New York was delayed, but even with 6 hours, we had enough time to store our luggage, take a bus to the city center and visit the gorgeous historic centre and waterfront.  

For such a short layover, we went straight to the tourist information desk in the airport to figure out the best/fastest way to get into the city.  The airport offers 2 different bus options that will get you to the downtown train station in around 40 minutes for 4-6 euros (cab will run your 30-40 euros).  

Our first stop was the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, designed by Steven Holl (architect who did the Nelson Atkins--for all of you Kansans).  Being married to an architect, you get introduced to things like this.  Next was Esplanade Park.  We just walked through, but on the warm, sunny afternoon it was full of people enjoying picnics or one of the outdoor cafes.  It was beautifully green and manicured situated in the middle of food, shopping and entertainment.  

Where the local residents may have been lounging in Esplanade Park, we made our way towards Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square, which was buzzing with tourists, buses and guides.  The cathedral is an example of Neoclassical architecture and exudes a dominating presence on top of the square.  A few blocks away, on the waterfront, we visited the Upenski Cathedral, with a gorgeous red brick facade that represents classic Slavic traditions.  This cathedral as well sits on top of a small hill and is really a stark contrast from its bright white neighbor.   

After wandering through the Market Square (a harbourfront market selling food, handicrafts and souvenirs), R and I were on the hunt for food and a place in the shade.  Since we were in the tourist center of the city, it was difficult to find a place that was not super crowded and really expensive.  Cafe Köket, a tiny cafe with a salad bar and cold drinks finally drew us in.  With its red gingham table cloths, outdoor seats in the shade and super friendly staff, it was a perfect retreat was the endless crowds. 

With a sufficient break, R and I took to wandering along the harbor, enjoying the classical architecture and finding a small island/park to sit and have a quick beer before heading back to the airport and onto our next leg of the trip.  I will say that despite our quick view of the city, Helsinki has piqued our curiosity enough to have both R and I longing to go back and explore further!

Monday, July 22, 2013

tea party

One of the first thing that R remembers about me when we met is that I brought a teacup as an object to describe myself during our introductions of our study tour.  I am sure he found it particularly odd for a college student, but hey, it made me stand out.  I absolutely love having my own private tea party in the mornings while journaling.  Most are from antique shop or flea markets (Kansas, LA and SF) and a lot have been gifted to me.  After over 10 years, I have amassed quite a collection as you can imagine.  

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned to me that she was hosting a English tea party bridal shower.  I loved the idea of being able to provide a full tea collection as well as help style a party!  The guests all showed up with dresses and hats, and even though it was nearly 80 degrees in the garden, everyone drank tea and ate cucumber sandwiches (along with MANY other delish foods)!

Even though I did not know the bride or many of the guests, it was still an lovely chance to see my full set in use!  Tea time anyone?
Middle 2 photos curtesy of guest, Jen!

 p.s. Photos from our trip coming soon!

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