Prague

Charles Bridge

After Kiev, Prague felt like a fairy tale. Not a candy-coated Disney one with all the princesses, but more of a dark Brothers Grimm style, with something a bit sinister in it. The book I’m reading cautions about applying too much myth and mysticism to the city but it’s hard to avoid. Walking from the Hradcany castle district, over the Charles Bridge to the old town (a walk that I did every day I was there, for various reasons), there are secrets and mysteries tucked into every corner; in the almost unpronounceable language, behind the ornate house insignia  in the upper old town, and of course in the architecture.

Hradcany

Prague was one of the few cities in Europe that was never bombed or burned and so you can see how the city has grown over time; Gothic, then Baroque, then Renaissance, then Neo-Gothic, then Modern…all crammed up against each other. Like most European towns, there is a castle on the high ground but in Prague, the castle is a relatively modern addition and really more of a palace so what you see towering above is instead St. Vitus Cathedral.

We were staying in Smíchov, a non-touristy neighbourhood about 40 minutes away from the Stare Mesto old town / downtown and while there is a good transit system in place, I like walking so I just walked into town along the Vlatava river every day, and then up to the Hradčany castle district. I didn’t mean to go every day…the first day we were exploring as a group and then the second day I went to spend more time on my own. Later I went to check out the Loreto of Prague, a baroque Catholic church and cloister and Strahov Monastery, with its grand library and Cabinet of Oddities a little farther up the hill but it got so that I enjoyed the slow transition from bustling everyday working Prague, through the dog park and past the art gallery along the river to the Charles Bridge and then into the tight meandering and steep streets up to the castle, and so I just kept walking.

Tyn Church

The main square is a beautiful spot, with Tyn Church (above), the  Astronomical clock (below) and Town Hall, several street food vendors, a Baroque church, a carriage stop and many restaurants.

Astronomical clock

I had seen so many pictures of Charles Bridge before I arrived, and I delighted visiting it at all hours of the day, seeing different types of people coming and going – both across it and along the river.  One magical evening I was rushing to try and catch the golden hour light on the bridge for some photographs. I just missed it but saw that glass-harp player Alexander Zoltan was setting up in between the artist stands and could not help but stay for a bit of his performance. He played ‘Air on the G string’ exceptionally well – on water glasses! and when he was finished, I saw that the lights had just come on on the bridge and a full moon was rising over it, white swans gliding silently by underneath, and lovers leaning into corners. I got an ice cream cone and walked home the long way.

Charles Bridge

Similarly, on one evening we ate dinner on a patio in the square and as the light got dimmer and dimmer, I kept taking “just one more photograph” of the beautiful black powder towers until I had amassed quite a collection.

Strahov Monastery

Another favourite stop was the Strahov Monastery library at the Loreta of Prague. The chapel and cloister were closed so I missed seeing the statue of St. Wilgefortis in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows which made me so sad, but I did get to see the library’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The cabinet of curiosities is the precursor to modern museums with their collections of oddities. I’d never seen one before and I was surprised to see that more than half of the collection was marine-related, including many extinct species. This collection came to the monastery from the estate in 1798 when Prague’s access to the sea would have been very limited, so it makes sense that there would be a fascination with those kinds of objects.

Weddings

FOOD

Czech food is ridiculously heavy and clearly meant to stick to your ribs; goulash (gulášovka) with both bread and potato dumplings (knedlíky), fried cheese (smažený sýr), sausage (klobása), Prague ham, lots of pork and other roasts, fruit dumplings (ovocné knedlíky) and lots of beer. There is occasionally a vegetable, although it’s usually cabbage. It all comes in enormous sizes and quantities and costs virtually nothing so it’s hard not to over-order every single time – especially as it was also almost universally delicious. I had read an article before we left about a regional specialty involving marinated head cheese and Matt was trepidacious but even that turned out to be tasty.

On my last night, I had to order something that I’d seen on all the menus but hadn’t had the stomach space to order yet – a Bohemian pork knuckle braised in beer with apple horseradish, mustard and pickled vegetables. It came to the table on a tray, an absolutely massive thing with a knife simply sticking out of the top of it. I did my best but if we lived in Prague that would have come home with me to be an entire second dinner.

Trdelnik

There is a strange round pastry called trdelnik (above) which is sweet dough wrapped on a roller and dusted with sugar and almonds before being cooked over an open flame. It’s usually sold on the street and there are trdelnik shops all around the old town so we had it a couple of times.

Patio

Czechs drink more beer per capita than anyone else in the world and so it’s easy to come by. The beer is as plentiful (and as enormous, and as cheap) as the food and I truly don’t understand why everyone here isn’t obese or at least very stout. Pilsner Urquell and seems to own this town – with their buddies Budvar and Staropramen – and every square has at least one (but usually several) patios filled with umbrellas and signs indicating the particular brewery loyalty. But the real fun is in the beer halls.

Beer

U Fleků beer hall is the oldest in Prague and seats 1200 people. It reminded me a lot of Hofbräuhaus in Munich, although here their only beer is a special 13% dark beer that they’ve been making since they opened in 1499. It’s not heavy or overly flavourful, just nice and strong and the guy with the tray comes by often, handing them out to anyone who makes a move. There was also a choice of honey or herbal “aperitif” that turned out to be a shot, handed out by an adorably pushy waiter and a series of rotating accordion players, including one that looked like Super Mario.  I also spent some time in U Černého Vola (a tavern where the decor is medieval, the beer is good and dark, and the barmen are the appropriate combination of friendly and surly) and U Medvídků.

Ossuary

I took a trip out to the small town of Kutná Hora, east of Prague, to see the Sedlac Ossuary (a.k.a. the bone church). The ossuary has 40,000+ bones stacked in the basement of a church in beautiful formations. They had been dug up from surrounding lands (that were to be used for something else) and brought to the church where they were washed by a half-blind monk and later they were arranged ornately.

Kutná Hora is an old silver mining town that dates back to the 10th century. It had the deepest mine in the middle ages – 500m deep – and the only way in and out was by climbing up and down a ladder single file. A mint was created and all that silver coming through town meant that it was the second richest city in the Czech lands. It competed with Prague for centuries during which time they built a gorgeous Gothic cathedral (that still has Gothic and Renaissance paintings on the wall), a beautifully decorated Gothic home and even a Gothic water cistern. As the town became richer they moved the town hall to the Italian Court with intricately painted walls (especially in the gorgeous – but no photos allowed! – Chapel of St. Wenceslas) and built a promenade reminiscent of the Charles Bridge in Prague.

Cesky Krumlov

On our last day, Matt and I went to Český Krumlov, a small town that is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like all towns, the castle is front and centre but being so close to the Austrian border and at the valley’s entrance leading to Prague, this one is actually quite well fortified. The castle uses the river partly as a moat and sheer walls rise up from the water. There are live bears that are still kept at the gate, but mostly for tourist / historical purposes.  Inside, the walls are painted to look like architectural details, a technique that I liked but Matt found distracting. The town was full of local pubs and we spent the evening exploring several along the river.

Cesky Krumlov

We loved Prague and Czech and can’t wait to go back and explore it some more.

Charles Bridge

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

summer

You know those summer days when you were a kid that stretched on and on? You would ride your bike to the store and then a friend’s house and entire days would pass where nothing happened except being hot. And then just when you thought you could not be more bored, it was time to go back to school and you instantly wanted to take back all the bad things you said about sitting around doing nothing. My summer was not like that at all. This past spring we decided to move to Seattle and got everything ready…and then deferred it until next year. Then I applied for and was accepted to the Master’s program at the Centre for Digital Media and decided not to go. It is too much of what I have already been doing as a career for me to spend the time and money learning. I went to Tofino for an epic spring break surfing and diving, we got a dog and closed our company,  we learned to sail, I started Crossfit, took about twenty classes online, and read a lot of books.

And then there were more adventures:

Summer

Diving Skookumchuck Narrows

Some friends and I went to Powell River and did a couple of dives in Mermaid’s Cove at Saltery Bay before heading to Egmont and doing some wreck, drift and wall diving at Agamemnon Channel, the wreck of the HMCS Chaudiere, and the rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows. A fantastic trip.

Warbonnet

Barnacle

Visiting the International Buddhist Temple 

I took myself to Richmond’s International Buddhist Temple for a mini-adventure. It has the largest gold Buddha in North America and many beautiful murals and gardens. Once inside, I really did feel transported – I would have loved to stay and read my book or meditate by one of the pools. There’s also a restaurant on site where you pay by donation and that was pretty exciting too,  although they brought me way too much food.

Temple

Riding Highway 20

In July we rode our motorcycles Highway 20 through the Cascades to Osoyoos and then home through Manning Park. He wasn’t in it so much for the stunning mineral-rich turquoise lakes, beautiful wastelands of flooded river banks, mountains or valleys but rather for the sexy S-curves and the lack of stoplights. When I stopped to take a photo of the scenery, Matt took one of the road. It was hot but we were both so happy.

Walterses

We stopped for lunch in Winthrop, a delightful gold-towny surprise and then stayed in Osoyoos, which was less exciting than I remembered – especially with not being able to do any wine-tasting or fruit-hauling.  But we were just there for the road so next time we’ll stay in Winthrop and ride it all the way back too.

Keremeos

Visiting Quadra Island

We had tried and failed to go camping a couple of times so Matt finally found us a cabin on Quadra Island for the August long weekend. Quadra Island is pretty far away but in exchange for a bit of a car ride (which Riley would give half her breakfast for anyways), we got an enormous house with an enormous patio, a hot tub and a bbq! We were delighted and wished we could have stayed a lot longer.  I could see urchins 60 ft down from the deck (which had me regretting not bringing my dive gear), and porpoises playing in the channel a little ways out. We went canoeing and beachcombing and hiking to explore the bluffs. Riley was so happy to be able to run around outside by herself and explore under the deck. She did go in the canoe and in the water with a little coaxing, but we weren’t there long enough to get the ‘city’ out of her – she still peed in the driveway every morning.

Walterses

Sea

Quadra Island

Nick Bantock Art Workshop

The next weekend found me on another ferry, this time to Sidney-by-the-Sea by the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. I went for an art workshop with Nick Bantock that was even more awesome than I could have imagined. It was less technique heavy than the workshops I’m used to with Jeanne Krabbendam but provided enough ideas and energy to get me started on several projects – which I will probably have to revisit come winter.

art

Diving Browning Pass on the Mamro

I lasted about seven months after the last trip to Browning Pass before I had to book it again, this time on a liveaboard. I wanted to go back with a camera but now I think I may just have to go back every year. I’ve been diving in some amazing warm water places but this has got to be one of my favourite places in the world, mist and mountains (and more orcas!) topside and a world of colour down below – corals and sponges covered in fish and invertebrates – stretching as far as the eye can see.

Browning Pass

Undersea

There were only 6 of us on the boat which was nice and cozy. We had an opportunity to stop at Telegraph Cove  – an old whaling station – on the way up to Port Hardy and have a look through the museum. The whole town is on boardwalks around the cove and the museum has whale skeletons of all varieties. You think you understand how big whales are but it really hits home when you can stand inside a jaw with other people or use a vertebra as a stool.

Whale vertebrae

Sail Away, Salty Dog!

Sailing

I have wanted to learn how to sail for a really long time. I have always had such a powerful love of the sea that I knew I was going to learn how to sail at some point. Having this time off work and no real direction seemed like the perfect time to start checking things off my life list so we signed up for the Crew course at Cooper Boating on Granville Island.

Matt & Degan

This is us about to go out, pretty sure we’re going to like it.

Sailing

And we did like it, in spite of the grey days and having to be rescued on the way back in because the engine had run out of oil. Of course, sailing through the Bahamas didn’t do anything to dissuade us either so we rode our bikes down and prepared to learn the ropes.

Vancouver

Most of what we learned in the crew classroom sessions was what was required for the PCoC (Pleasure Craft Operator’s Card) exam but we also learned some of the language of sailing. There is a different name for every single thing on a sailboat and many parts of that language have made it into this (current, daily use) one. I find the crossover words delightful and love knowing the history of them. Some are obviously nautical  (knowing the ropes, loose cannon), but many are more obscure; slush fund, bitter end, taken aback, hand over fist, high and dry, by and large, hard and fast, make my way home, etc… I don’t think I’ve ever used between the devil and the deep blue sea but I love it so I’m going to have to rig a conversation where I can work it in.

We also learned how to sail, in spite of being out in 21-knot winds (a storm warning) on our first day and almost ramming another boat. We got through it though and brought our bruises and rope burns to Day 2 where our instructor filled in all the knowledge gaps and we got to know our points of sail, how to recover an object (man overboard) from the water, and how to tack and how to dock.

Bowline

Then I took the Skipper class – to learn to make the decisions and call out to the crew to get things done. This involves knowing your points of sail, knowing your plan, knowing your boat and keeping a close watch on the sail, sheets, lines and tell-tales to make sure everything is ship-shape. I have no trouble giving orders but I discovered quickly (with the help of the instructor yelling at me) that I am tiller challenged. Tillers work in the opposite way that steering wheels do and being tiller challenged means that I invariably move the tiller in the opposite way that I want to go. On a tight turn with the sails hardened, this can be pretty dramatic and by the end of the day, I was exhausted and embarrassed. But a day sailing has got to be better than a day at home on the couch, so I practiced my bowlines and studied up on my theory, and now I have my Day Skipper certification too.