Thursday, June 28, 2012

Krakow, part 3

The following day, the sun made an appearance and we were able to shed our jackets thanks to temps in the low 70s.  We were footloose and fancy free since I hadn't arranged for a tour guide.  After breakfast in the hotel's kinda creepy but really cool renovated cellar - the little one gobbled up her warm crepes with nutella - we decided to hit a few spots not covered in our tour with Anna.

We walked from our hotel through the market square to see the only remaining section of the city's walls.  

We walked beneath St. Florian's tower (center pic above) to see the old barbican, a fortified outpost originally connected to the city walls back when it was built around 1500.  You can't tell it here, but the city walls are about 10 feet thick to keep out those pesky invaders.

Then we walked back to the market square so we could check out St. Mary's basilica with its distinctive twin towers that don't match in either height or design.  It's famous for two things - a massive wooden altarpiece and tower trumpeter.  

Since picture taking wasn't allowed in the basilica, I had to borrow a pic of the amazing altar from the web.  At the designated time, a nun came out to make an announcement and then she used a long pole to open the side panels, revealing all of the beautiful interior carving.  

I also took a pic of the doors on the entryway with their carved heads - interesting detail that caught my attention.

Every hour, at the top of the taller tower, a trumpeter plays a tune that breaks off in mid-song to commemorate the 13th century soldier playing a trumpet to warn of an impending Mongol attack when an arrow shot him in the throat.  A rather gruesome tribute, but sweet that it happens every day like clockwork.

We enjoyed a second meal at Hawelka on the square, entertained by the antics of the Euro Cup football (soccer to us Americans) fans.  There was a group of six drinking quite heavily in the outside dining area where we all had a great view of the square.  After getting really loud and obnoxious, ordering yet another bottle of booze which they proceeded to toss at each other and then breaking some of the restaurant's glassware, they were asked to leave.  I didn't have a good look at these rowdy folks until they all got up to leave and was a bit surprised to discover that they appeared to be in their 30s... surely a bit beyond the frat boy behavior.  They were already sloshed at 1:00 pm, so I hope they slowed down their consumption so they wouldn't be passed out cold by the time the game finally started that evening.

At the outside seating area of the restaurant adjacent to us, we watched the activities of some English football fans.  They proudly displayed their flag on some scaffolding and then broke into song and chants several times.  No flying booze and broken glass, which was good since this group looked to be in their 50s.

After lunch, we did a bit of shopping in the old cloth hall (pictured below with the little one).  I got a small piece of Polish pottery and some postcards as well as the obligatory magnet since I collect them.

We returned to the hotel to drop off our shopping loot and then had the concierge call a taxi to take us to the museum housed in Oskar Schindler's factory.  Below I included a pic of the entrance plaque as well as gate.

You don't get a big dose of the holocaust while touring the museum.  However, you do get a good feel for what life was like for the Jewish as well as non-Jewish residents of the city after the Nazis invaded in September 1939.  My favorite part of the tour was the videos of locals who worked in Schindler's factory - so interesting to hear their first hand accounts of life during the occupation.

For supper we ate at Miod Malina, a Polish and Italian fusion restaurant that was quite good - nice but not so nice that we felt out of place with the girls in tow.  The girls and I enjoyed fabulous salads and shrimp while the husband ordered borscht and golumpki, which are meat stuffed cabbage rolls baked in a tomato sauce.  It's a traditional Polish dish he just had to try.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Krakow, part 2

Our first full day in Krakow, we met Anna in our hotel lobby for a private tour I arranged.  I located her in the Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook and she was a steal at €120 for the entire day.

We kicked it off with a stroll between our hotel and Wawel Hill, passing by the the Hotel Copernicus.  And Copernicus did indeed lodge here whenever he was visiting the city.   

On the same side street, diagonal from the hotel, was one of the residences where Karol Wojtyla (aka Pope John Paul II) lived while in Krakow.  I made the husband stop in front for a quick pic.

We huffed and puffed our way up historic Wawel Hill to see the royal castle, cathedral and view of the river.

The statue above depicts Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a national hero in Poland who ALSO happened to serve as a colonel in the continental army during the American Revolution.  He became a naturalized citizen of the newly formed USA and was even given a land grant as well as military pay.

Anna took us through the buildings and it was really interesting.

Upon exiting the structures, we found ourselves slogging around in rain for the rest of the day.

Above is a pic of the younger daughter in front of the dragon statue.  There is a cave, of sorts, under part of Wawel Hill and the Polish legend is that the dragon lived here along the banks of the Vistula River.  

And in a funny aside, the west entrance to the cathedral has some "dragon" bones suspended from chains that have been there for a couple centuries.  The story goes that if the bones fall, then the world will end.  In reality, the bones uncovered in this area are of an ancient mammoth, whale and rhino... not a dragon.  Darn our modern science and carbon dating for ruining a really cool story about the remains of the Wawel dragon.

After lunch at a Luby's-like cafeteria right off the old market square, we headed to the Wieliczka salt mines.  Discovered in the 13th century, it has become a popular tourist attraction. You descend over 1000 ft into the ground to get a glimpse of the life of the miners in addition to the artwork they created in their spare time.

Above you see the chapel carved into the mine (available for weddings) and the rock salt chandeliers, below, providing light to the space. 

We were told that the ride to the surface in this rickety, OSHA nightmare of an elevator would be about a 20 minute wait once the tour ended.  And don't you know that wait stretched into a full hour, especially with some folks who felt it their right to "cut" in front of us.  There was a bit of a verbal altercation between a Polish grandpa with his wife, daughter and young grandkids (who were very antsy) and three rude, line cutting Russians that looked to be about 20-yrs-old.  They were swigging bear and stealthily brushing past folks to make their way closer to the front of the line.  As luck would have it, we got jammed into the 10 person "elevator" with them. I swear that thing was powered by a couple old donkeys on the surface working some sort of simple pulley system.  And as if that wasn't hair raising enough, the Russians broke out their camera phone to create this nauseating strobe effect of flashes as we made the ascent.  Rude eurotrash, no doubt.

That evening, we dined at Pizzeria Cyklop, where the husband enjoyed a pie with three kinds of pork (oink, oink) and pickles atop the melted cheese.  For dessert, we visited a cute little tearoom where the cakes were really more attractive than tasty.  The chocolate cherry and hazelnut chocolate cakes were forgettable, but my coconut cake was really good.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Home again, home again

Sunday evening we returned from four days at Disney Paris.  I would love to post a few pics, but the teen is hogging the newer, speedier computer in the other office.  And since that's where I always download my travel pics, I'm all outta luck.  The reason I don't just shoo her off is because she's *gasp* looking at college websites.  Granted, she has honed in on the University of Hawaii and is gleefully bashing me over the head with it because 1) my husband is in Texas for business and unable to shield me from her latest insanity and 2) I'm ill and not able to fend off her brilliant idea since, according to her, it costs no more than any of the colleges she's considering on mainland USA.  Who can argue with that kinda logic... and the added bonus of year 'round tanning.

It seems I picked up a nasty summer cold from all of those little European germ laden petri dishes cruising around Disney spreading the nose full of snot, sneezing your head off crud that has overtaken me so that my poor noggin feels like it's about to explode with the pressure of an overfilled beer keg full of mucous.  And, of course, the younger child drank after me right about the time I was exposed to this most recent strain of the rugrat bug, though at least her symptoms seem to be less virulent than mine.

I had originally planned to get all of the housework done today after I went grocery shopping, made a post office run to get a package shipped, drove to the tip (Brit speak for town dump) to drop off the broken microwave and bathed the dog since he came home from boarding with the doggy daycare owner.  I'm 50-50 with my list... the dog smells good and we won't have to resort to eating him since I did stock up on enough food to last until the husband returns home Friday.  

I hope to return to blogging soon since I need to document the Krakow trip, in addition to Disney Paris.  Maybe I'll get the teen to switch over to her college information book or possibly even rough drafts of her essay and resume since her excellent ACT score has her all jazzed about life after high school.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Krakow, part 1

Last week we went on a family trip to Krakow, Poland.  When the husband was sharing his travel plans with the Brits at work, they were all jazzed thinking he would be attending some of the Euro Cup football games in the region.  But no - we were clueless about the games, but became quite familiar with the hoopla since Krakow had quite a few fans in town.  It seems the Italians, Dutch and English teams were housed in Krakow, so we saw lots of folks representin'.

Leery of the European peanut fare airlines that have straight shot flights to Krakow, but also make you pay extra for luggage, are located remote distances from our house and have a tendency to cancel flights, I decided to go with Lufthansa.  Therefore, we had to change planes in Frankfurt.  The husband had read that this is reputed to be one of the best international airports.

It's official - we hate the Frankfurt airport.  First off, they've closed down at least half of their gates for renovation.  So that means we landed on the tarmac, in the rain, and had to hustle down the tall steps onto a bus to be crammed in like sardines and shuttled to the terminal.  Then we had to go down some stairs and an elevator to the basement's basement where I believe we had to walk underneath the length of the runway.  Then we had to wait around for another elevator to bring us back up to the surface and continue our hike over to the gate for our Krakow flight.  But then they changed the gate and we had to walk even further.  Thank goodness I chose the longest possible layover - a whopping 90 minutes - or we would have missed the flight.

Our hotel was fabulous - Rick Steves and Trip Advisor definitely steered us in the right direction.  We were on the 3rd floor (4th floor to us Americans) and it gave us a great view of the street below and 16th century church diagonal from us.

I had reserved a separate room for the girls, but they actually ended up in the larger room because it had this black and white geometric patterned carpet that made me feel kinda queasy every time I looked down.  

It was overcast as we made our way the couple blocks to Market Square for a look-see.  Here are the girls and husband standing in front of St. Mary's basilica with its two towers.  Constructed in the 13th century, it is famous for the hourly trumpet signal that commemorates some poor soul trying to warn the city of invading Mongols during medieval times who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm.

Since our flight didn't land until after 5:00, we were ready for supper by the time we had settled into the hotel.  Thanks to another Rick Steves suggestion, we dined at the Hawelka restaurant on the Old Market Square.

Hawelka's entrance is the red glowing sign with the yellow umbrellas to the left of it in the first pic. The second pic shows another part of this very large square, reputedly the biggest in Europe, where there is a thriving cafe culture for lots of lively people watching... when it's not cool and rainy.

Hawelka was old school, traditional Polish food.  We especially enjoyed the pierogi - dumplings filled with tasty things like meat or spinach or cheese, boiled and then fried in butter.  Pork is big in Poland, so we also had sausage and pork cutlets.  And when I say "we", I mean the rest of the family because I don't eat either of them.

Our family voted the coolest food on the menu, ordered by the teen, was this bread bowl, of sorts, filled with mushroom soup.  The potato pancakes were also quite tasty.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Just Pulling My Leg

It's turn around time here at Casa Expat.  We had a great trip to Poland last week and now we're getting ready to head out to Disney Paris so we can meet a childhood friend of mine and her son for an overload of all things cute and sing-songy at the happiest place on the planet (per their PR dept).

While we were in Poland, the teen got my goat with a faux vocabulary funny.  We were discussing the fact that Krakow has the second greatest concentration of Catholic churches, only exceeded by Rome.  Seriously... there were two of them just on our block in the old town center where the hotel was located.  And an outline of the remains of one that was dismantled about 150 yrs ago.

St. Andrew's church above, built in the 12th century, was used as a fortress during Mongol invasions because the walls are a couple meters thick in the lower part of the structure.

The pictures above and below are of Sts. Peter and Paul church, the view out of our hotel window.  I took the above shot our first day when it poured buckets from the sky, with temps in the low 60s, and we slogged around in wet shoes all day.  

The picture below was taken on our last full day when there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was a balmy 85.  This church was built in the early 1600s.  I love the statues of the 12 apostles who adorn the pedestals along the front gate.

And now back to my little story.  We had also seen many nuns and priests on the streets, particularly younger members that appeared to be in their 20s.  The talk turned from priests to monks and the teen said that the monks live in a monkery.  When I started chuckling and said I would have to write that down so I could remember to include her latest little language gaffe in the blog, she told me she knew the correct word was monastery and had flubbed it on purpose.  Getting smart (assed) in her old age, isn't she?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Our Backyard in Bloom

Thanks to the recent rain, all of the plants around here are lush and green.  Honestly, the humidity and rain and soggy ground kinda reminds me of southeast Texas... minus the sweltering heat and mosquitoes the size of your fist.  And fire ants and venomous snakes.  Plus those horrible ground dwelling wasps I had a run in with when I was mowing the lawn several years ago.  No wonder I prefer the summers over here.

There are several rose bushes planted around the back patio and they have been producing some pretty buds.

There is a circular bed right off the patio where you'll find these little plants with purple flowering stalks.

All throughout the neighborhood where we live, you'll find tons of rhododendrons.  Most of them are purple, though I have seen some white, too, when I'm out walking the dog.  It makes me wonder if most of the original owners used the same landscaper.  And they're even planted in the green belts scattered throughout this development that dates back to the 1930s.

There are a few other plants in bloom in the backyard, but they're "one offs" and thus I'm thinking they're courtesy of some bird who helped scatter seed via poop.  I have no idea what they are and am tempted to say weeds of some sort.  But no matter - they do add several bright pops of color to the greenery.

While I was taking these pics, I noticed a lone snail scaling the back of the house and thought its shell was quite attractive.

And now on to the NOT so attractive aspects of an English garden... the slugs.  After a rain, it's a veritable slug buffet.  No wonder so many doves, ravens and magpies are always landing in our yard for a looky-loo to see if the slugs have made an appearance.

I have to go tippy toeing across the back patio when I take Ollie out for a potty break because they're everywhere.  

In the above shot, I included a big rose petal for scale.  They can get quite long and stretched as they ooch their way across the grass.  But if you touch them with a stick or the toe of your shoe, they immediately contract.

They kinda remind me of poop, for obvious reasons.  And as gross as they are, I just can't bring myself to break out the salt.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Jonathan Livingston

I kept hearing some raucous squawking coming from the trees in the backyard this afternoon rather than the usual sedate birdsong.  Sure enough, I looked out and up to see a seagull perched on a limb.  I was wondering how on earth it got here and then I recalled we're only about 50 miles from the south coast of England.  

With the crazy winds we've had the past couple days, gusts in excess of 50 mph reported at Heathrow, I can't help but wonder if the bird got blown off course.  I took the dog outside for a potty break, thinking I might get a closer look, but that scared the gull and he took flight.  Maybe he'll hook up with the transplanted Canadian geese residing in a pasture over near the girl's school with the adjacent ski lake for a quick dip.  Or maybe some of the swans on the Thames.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Oops - one more Jubilee pic

I completely forgot that I took this pic of our TV screen.  Brilliant, right?  The BBC coverage the husband recorded that I watched once we returned home from the Thames parade actually included the area where we were standing.  

We are located in the lower left hand corner right about where the +142 mins blue and white timer on the DVR is positioned on the screen.  The little one kept looking at folks on the uppermost balcony of the royal festival hall and asking me why we couldn't just sneak up there for a better view.  I imagine it would have been a sight to behold.

If Lizzy makes it to her 70th year on the throne, then I'm thinking we'll have to return and witness the celebration just for old time's sake.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Queen's Jubilee, part 2

So there we stood, the 11-yr-old and I, cooling our heels for an hour, feeling a tad claustrophobic because we had tall guy towering over us and folks crowding in behind us.  Before the flotilla photo frenzy commenced, I took a few test shots of the area where we were standing.  I love the old lights that line the river, where they had draped bunting for the big celebration.  And you'll notice the light is burning because it was so overcast and dreary.

This little number below was fashioned after the river barges from England's past, when monarchs and other nobleman had fine watercraft fashioned for them to ply the waters.

Next came all the little boats, like tiny water bugs skimming the surface as they made their way past us.

Next in line was the old gal herself, the queen and immediate members of the royal family including Charles, Camilla (she always seems to act like a total idiot), William, Kate and Harry.  The queen was wearing a beautiful white ensemble while Kate was in fire engine red.  I hope Kate chowed down at some big celebratory buffet afterwards because I'm thinking she can't top the scales at any more than 100 lbs, and that would be in her hat, shoes and trendy little purse full of rocks.

Check out the security preceding the royal barge...

along the side of it...

and following it.

The kid got a great view of the queen and fam while I was busy holding the camera up over my head to get these shots.  

We only stayed for a bit longer, once the drama of the royal barge had passed us.  There were some large boats, but none I really recognized.

And being Southern women and all, we couldn't resist snapping pics of the paddlewheeler.  And come to find out, someone the husband knows who works for Chevron was on the paddlewheeler.

One of my other favorite "non-royal" boats was the one with this banner near the back end of it. A little girl of obvious Indian origin was sitting on her daddy's shoulders, standing a couple people behind us.  She sang "God Save the Queen" no less than eight times while we were waiting for the river pageant to begin.  It was pretty darned cute.

As we made our way back upriver in the direction of Westminster bridge towards the London Eye so we could cut across to Waterloo Station, we finally saw one of the big screens they had in place at various points along the river for those folks who arrived even later than us and couldn't see a darned thing.

We shuffled (literally) back over to the station in drizzle and then pouring rain, though we were wearing rain jackets and had a big umbrella so we didn't get soaked.  As we stood around waiting for the next commuter train home, we noticed a cute ad on the humonguous video screen.  They sell Old El Paso Mexican food products over here, though admittedly a tad different tasting than what you get in the US.  

I tried to find a copy of the digital ad, but was only able to locate the print version.  It's supposed to be Elizabeth (because she's famous for wearing her gloves everywhere) holding a burrito.  I thought it was pretty clever.  Viva the queen!