Peru

I’m not sure how many trip reports I’ve started with, “I’ve wanted to go to X place for ages…” It’s just a fact of having a penchant for travel and adventure, a bent for research and planning, and a desk job with access to the internet. I have planned literally hundreds of trips that may or may not ever make it onto these pages. But, I really have been planning a trip to South America since I was 19..almost since I started planning trips!

Here’s a map I drew in my journal planning my route:

South America

But after years of research and planning and saving and stalling, I never made it farther south than Costa Rica. My problem was that I was trying to see it all at once, everything from Cartagena to Tierra del Fuego in on trip – preferably on a motorcycle – taking my time to explore all the small towns. Even on a budget that was going to take months and thousands of dollars. So it got put off year after year and finally, last year, I decided to just bite the bullet and visit one place: Machu Picchu.

Peru

LIMA

Machu Picchu was top of my list for South America and it got us to Peru but I’m just not going to go all that way and only see one thing. So we landed in Lima and got ready to eat – Peruvian cuisine has become world-renowned in recent years (much more than Pisco and ceviche now!) and so we planned to feast at Central, Astrid y Gaston and Maido – the 4th, 14th and 44th best restaurants in the world, according to some.

Maido

We booked the restaurants before we booked our flights and somehow I didn’t go back and check the dates – meaning that I scheduled our meal at Central a week too far in advance. The Horror! But the host found us a spot in the lounge and disaster was averted. It was absolutely incredible and we’ll be keeping an eye out for more opportunities to eat there. Maido was even more amazing, if that’s possible, but Astrid y Gaston was a bit of a disappointment. Very luxurious with some excellent dishes but unfortunately not consistent.

Maido

Because we were staying in Miraflores (an upscale, safe suburb of Lima), and because we had travelled so long to get there (left the house at 5:30 AM and got to out hotel at 2:30 AM the next day) we didn’t go to as many museums as I would have liked but we did visit the Plaza de Armas and went on a monastery tour of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad with its mouldering library of books from antiquity – untouched since WWII, beautiful courtyard and a depiction of the Last Supper with cuy (guinea pig) for dinner and Pizarro as Judas. It was beautiful but the all the stray dogs, some of them dead, were just heartbreaking.

And the traffic was incredible – 30 minutes by cab to get across town – so we spent some time lazing around the hotel and exploring the Barranco district nearby. Bohemian and busy, we were reminded of Madrid; everyone out on a Saturday night, taking wedding photos, strolling with babies, recording music videos, practicing guitar on a bench and of course eating and drinking. We stuffed ourselves with ceviche and Pisco sours and then it was time to hop on the plane.

Peruvian textiles

CUSCO

I was terribly worried that Cusco was going to be a tourist trap and almost regretted how much time we had to spend in the city but on arrival we found it to be a gorgeous city, full of history and culture and warm people. Before we noticed any of that, however, we noticed the altitude. As soon as we came out of the airport we swooned, and I wondered if that was the Hawthorne Effect or a combination of our fatigue and being out of shape. After some coca candy, a nap and some altitude pills we were feeling alright but still trying to remember to breathe deeply, walk slowly, etc.

Cusco

Cusco was the Inca heartland and the stone walls still form the foundations of the city but everything else has been taken over or topped by the Spanish. Qurikancha, the sun temple was the most important site in the Inca empire. Dedicated to the sun god, it was filled with life-sized gold statues but now not much of it is left –  only a few rows of stones topped with the Santo Domingo convent. It’s sort of is a miniature model for Cusco itself, full of beautiful Spanish colonial art and architecture with Andean flavor. Our hotel was a retro-fitted Spanish mansion with meandering hallways, surprise courtyards and fountains and the walls were covered with with religious oil paintings. It felt a lot like Granada.

Cusco

Our first night we wandered around the historic centre, saw the incredible Inca stonework and the famous 12-sided stone as well as the Plaza de Armas, then ended up on the patio at Papacho’s (a burger place owned by Gaston Acurio) on the square. It was a bit chilly but watching all the people and dogs and Andean woman with bundles of weaving and alpaca rugs was just the thing we needed. I had a drink with tumbo (banana passionfruit) that was too tropical for the Andes but really delicious and Matt had his first coca tea – not realizing that although it is much weaker than cocaine it is still definitely in the stimulant category and he was going to have trouble sleeping.

Peru

I could have spent days longer in Cusco, climbing up the hills to the Sacsayhuaman ruins and the San Blas neighbourhood (I saw them later) but once we had acclimatized to the altitude, we were off in search of motorbikes.

Dirtbiking

MARAS 

So many people told us that we needed to explore the Sacred Valley but the options we had were all by bus; wake up at 5 AM, see all the sites and get back to Cusco by dark. I am always conflicted by bus tours; you get to see the sites but you pay in advance for a set itinerary and if you want to stay longer you’re hurried on to the bus and if you want to skip something, you can’t. Eventually I found a place that rented dirt bikes for super cheap and we made our own plans.

Maras

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. First we had to explain that we wanted two motorcycles – that I would not be riding on the back of a 250cc dirt bike at altitude – and then we had to go and pick up the second bike – in the back room of the proprietor’s house, up the stairs, on a street dug up for construction. But eventually we were on the road and heading out to explore the Sacred Valley. First stop, Maras, the ancient Inca salt flats that are still being worked today.

Getting out on the bikes was amazing! It was Matt’s first time on a dirt bike and the altitude affected the speed quite a bit but travelling through small towns, walls painted with slogans from various political parties, llamas grazing all over the place, women selling textiles at high altitude markets….and of course the backdrop of the Andes. It was thrilling. When we got to the salt evaporation ponds, we walked down and took a look around, then got back on the bikes and went on to explore more of the valley. We ended the day by signing some house purchasing documents at the hotel and celebrating with a round of pisco sours, our new tradition.

INCA TRAIL

We had brought our backpacks as luggage with us to South America, but as the time arrived for us to set out on foot, we stashed books, shoes, our nice clothes and whatever else we thought we could do without into a bag that we left at the hotel, then filled up our water bladders and got the weight adjusted on our backs. We had wanted to walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu rather than taking the train and once that decision was made it hadn’t occurred to us that we wouldn’t carry our own gear. We found out later that most people opted to carry day packs and have a porter take the rest.

After being on the bus for hours getting to breakfast and the trailhead, the pack weight felt good and we bounded along the rolling “Inca flats,” stopping to learn about the cochineal beetle on the prickly pear cactus from which carmine dye comes, the angel trumpet that is used by shamans in a hallucinogenic tea or to visit with the Andean families (and their dogs) at the rest stops. It was hot but not very strenuous and we were both delighted and annoyed to find our porters setting up the tent for a hot lunch. It seemed unnecessary to be stopping for so long, so soon, but not even a few hours later we were glad of the pace.

Glacier

Our guide was excellent and we learned that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles, as well as an important crossroads for trade and Inca trails criss-cross the Sacred Valley (and the Inca empire, from Santiago to Quito) but the one we were following was meant for royalty. The Inca venerated nature and stone – mountains were objects of worship – so they chose the path that went the highest into the mountains to be close to the sky and one that followed the valley without destroying anything. Lucky for us that meant straight up.

The Urubamba river follows the same path as the milky way and the Inca trail to Machu Picchu starts at 82 km close to Ollantaytambo, passes the Patallaqta ruins, and then climbs up through the high jungle to Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmi Wañusqa) at 13,700ft. Day 2 was spent almost entirely gaining altitude. When we got to the pass after climbing all morning we could still see the campsite where we had started out that day.

Matt

We were exhausted and moving so slowly, dragging ourselves up on our hiking poles, chewing on coca leaves and gasping for air as we got closer to the pass but having only gained a space of about 30ft at the summit, we almost immediately started the trail down. Up 3000ft in one day and then back down another 1000 before making camp.

Inca Trail

Machu Picchu was fairly remote, even in Inca days, but a series of relay runners were set up to deliver a message from Cusco in only 6 hours. On special occasion, fish could be brought fresh from the sea in about 16! Because of the distance and the speed of the runners, the Spanish never found out about Machu Picchu. They only got to about Ollantaytambo (where we started our hike) and from there, bridges were destroyed, the trail was covered and the Inca royalty escaped to the jungle.

Our third day of hiking was the “scenic” day where we stopped at the site of several ruins but at times it seemed only to alleviate the constant descent. My toenails! My ankles! My knees! In many ways it was worse than the ascent but maybe only because I hadn’t accounted for the difficulty. The experience of hiking the trail was so worth doing but Matt and I agreed that without a doubt it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.

Machu Picchu

MACHU PICCHU

On the last day we got up at 3:30 AM – not to see the sunrise from the Sun Gate, as we had originally believed, nor to be the first at Machu Picchu, but because the train for the porters leaves before 5 AM and they had to run down the mountain to meet it. I cannot believe that with 500 people on the day every day that a better arrangement can’t be made, but maybe the tourists are just too tired when they get home to advocate. We were able to walk to the end of the campsite but couldn’t go further because the checkpoint doesn’t open until 5:30 AM. Standing there in the dark, someone joked that we waiting in line in the dark on Black Friday but otherwise we were pretty quiet, waiting for the last stretch.

Machu Picchu

This was the last, “easiest” day and we were buoyed up by the fact that Machu Picchu was only a few hours away but we were beat and before we got to the Sun Gate we needed to climb on hands and knees up the Inca “staircase” and try to keep from falling into the valley (some 6000ft) below while hikers jostled past. But we made it and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the mist was still magical in spite of all the photographs that exist.

We were awed and wowed by this city in the clouds. Watching the mist cover and reveal the city it seemed as special as it has ever been – to the Incas and to Hiram Bingham when he ‘discovered’ it and every morning with every new batch of visitors. That the Incas build such a monument to stone and sky so beautiful and so remote is incredible, but that it has survived virtually unharmed after more than 500 years is astounding.

The city has about 200 buildings, with a quarry and farming terraces to support it, high above the Urubamba river, although archeologists still say that there would not be enough infrastructure to sustain a completed and populated city there. But in one hundred years there was a quarry built on top of the citadel (to bring the granite slabs down to where they were needed, instead of up), terraces, houses, and several temples. The most special parts of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor and the Room of the Three Windows.

The Inti Watana translates as a place to “tie up the sun” and on a certain day it is a marker for the sun. Similarly, the Sun Gate lines up with the Temple of the Sun with mathematical precision. For our part, it was just neat to look back on it and see how far we’d come only that morning, never mind that week.

Our amazement at the ruined city was tempered by our fatigue, hunger, pain and stench and hopped on the bus that would take us down the hill to our hotel in Aguas Calientes. Cruel joke that Matt had booked us into a room without an elevator and we groaned as we climbed up to our room on the third floor, quads aching.

Cusco

The rest of the trip was spent recovering; thermal baths, reading, wandering around Cusco and drinking pisco sours. My mom asked me today if I would go back and I would without hesitation. I’d love to see some of the other ruins and to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu. I’d even do the hike again, although maybe a different path.

Andean family

See all the photos here.

Also, check out the story I wrote for Steller stories:


Koyasan (Japan)

Koya (10)

The slow train out of Kyoto chugged into the suburbs and then out into a patchwork of rice paddies and bamboo groves. That dappled green blur turned to a darker hue as farms gave way to forest and at the end of the line I traded the train car for a funicular that took me 800 metres up the side of Mount Koya in about 5 minutes. Exciting the cable car, I lurched a bit, whether from the uneven sidewalk or the sudden change in altitude, and found my way onto a bus for the next phase of my journey up a winding mountain road. The mountain, called Kōya-san in Japanese, is a sacred Buddhist site started in 805 by the monk Kobo Daishi. It has been an important pilgrimage destination for many years but now it is also a UNESCO-designated area with 120 temples, a small town, a university, the largest rock garden in Japan and Okunoin – an enormous cemetery that has been growing up around Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. I’m not a Buddhist and I wasn’t in Japan on an Eat, Pray, Love type tour but I was interested in staying in shukubō (temple lodgings) and eating shōjin ryōri (vegetarian food intended for and prepared by monks) after my kaiseki ryōri meal at Yuzuya Ryokan.

The road was so narrow that we had to pull off the road and come to a stop so that the oncoming bus could make it past, and even then the road jack-knifed so severely that one miscalculation would have sent a vehicle right down to the train station, but soon we were at the gates to Kōya-san. A large stone Buddha stood guard in a red robe and a promotional banner advertising the site’s 1200th anniversary next year. 1200 years! For the several minutes I was agog at the sheer age of the place but but also the determination of the early pilgrims. This was decidedly not an easy place to get to even in the modern age so their journeys would have been long and treacherous. I learned later that women were banned from the town’s temples for a significant part of history so in order to pray at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum they had to take an even more dangerous and remote back route through the mountains.

Once we were inside the gates the town lost its aura of remoteness. It both bigger and busier than I expected and we picked up people from bus stops, saw shopkeepers closing up for the evening and dragging in shelves of prettily wrapped products, noted several cars parked behind the buildings…which in fairness were mostly temples. There was a large pagoda-shaped temple looming over the road and demanding attention with its red beams, blue kanji and gold-painted wooden lanterns lining the entrance, but others were small and humble, set back a ways from the road. Most had some kind of gate with paper lanterns to welcome guests and as we drove past I tried to catch a glimpse of the gardens and temples inside. In the driveway of one, I saw a monk sweeping leaves into a circle with s straw broom – a Zen exercise.

Koya (9)

ARRIVAL

At Ekoin, the monastery I had chosen to stay at, I arrived at an ornate wooden gate carved with swirls and accented with copper pieces. Through it I could see a pond in the garden surrounded with stone sculpture, stubby trees and rocky outcrops rising up to the main temple up above as well as a row of potted lotus plants lining the driveway.  A young monk ran out to greet me and took me to my on the first floor. As at Yuzuya Ryokan, I stored my shoes in a cubby and put on borrowed slippers to enter the room which was sparsely decorated with tatami mat flooring, a low table with a tea set, cushions, an alcove with a scroll and sadly, another television. A blue and white cotton yukata (pyjama robe) was hanging in the corner for me to wear to the bath and paper screens opened onto a small patio with a wicker chair and a serene scene; fragrant cedar trees, rocks with scrub trees and mosses, and a fountain bubbling in the pond. I sighed happily. It had felt like quite a journey but I had the satisfaction of one who has reached their destination and was looking forward to dinner and a bath.

Koyasan

DINNER

Shōjin ryōri is vegetarian but the Shingon Buddhism sect also prohibits eating root vegetables – potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, etc. – and dairy is not frequently consumed in Japan so I was intrigued about what my “sumptuous feast” would be like. But not in the least concerned – at this point in my journey I was well aware of the culinary reach that was possible and had eaten all manner of things I never knew existed. At the monastery dinner is served in your room, so at the appointed hour, a trio of young monks arrived at my door carrying lacquer boxes that were unpacked to showcase an incredible meal – three trays each containing smaller containers and beautiful ceramic plates laden with delicacies, as well as the staples; rice, tea, soy sauce and a special fall harvest beer that I had ordered. I didn’t know where to start!

On the main tray in front of me was steamed rice, pickles and clear soup with radish cakes floating in it, and some unidentified assorted vegetables which my menu suggested might consist of: Japanese radish, perilla leaf, wakame seaweed, Chinese yam, sword bean flowers, bayberry, raw konjac and vinegared miso sauce. Having eaten very few of these prior to my trip to Japan (I didn’t even know what konjac was), I was out of luck, but I enjoyed it thoroughly, being a little bit salty and having some tang from the vinegar and miso. The next dish was a simmered dish with snow peas, chestnut, young corn, shiitake mushroom and yuba (dried soy-milk skin) which I devoured, feeling grateful for all of the variety but also for the small portions. The final dish held tofu in sesame oil. This is something I eat fairly often at home but here I really relished the texture of the tofu and the nuttiness of the oil as I marvelled at all of the different types of food and methods of food preparation in front of me.

Koya (1)

I tried to pace myself but I as swapped the main tray with the second tray (allowing myself a few minutes to get out of the kneeling position and hopefully regain some feeling in my feet) I realized that I was already starting to feel full. But quitting wasn’t an option. The tray in front of me now held hassun – a delicious fried dumpling with Chinese yam and candied Japanese plum, assorted tempura with sweet potato, shishitō pepper, laver seaweed, pumpkin and eggplant. Again there was a simmered dish which contained Kōya-dōfu, a local delicacy of freeze-dried and reconstituted tofu with rolled kelp, wheat gluten, and more snow peas. The next day I saw some kōya-dōfu for sale in one of the shops and was tempted to buy some but in the end I realized I had already bought too many treats and still needed some room in my case for presents.

My feet had completely fallen asleep by this point in the meal and I was starting to groan under the weight of all that food but I saw that the third tray held delicate soba noodles with soba sauce in a beautiful ceramic container, a bowl of dark brown hijiki seaweed, and a couple of pieces of fruit and I realized that of course the order of the trays held a perfect pacing. The third tray was cool and cleansing and not that difficult to finish, especially with some tea and the last of my beer, so swapped trays again, ate up and then laid myself on my tatami mat, relieving my aching legs. In Japan, children are taught to sit on their knees from an early age so they are quite used to this treatment but I was only able to do about 5 minutes at a time. I could have easily had a little nap on the floor there but I didn’t have much time to rest – the monks were coming back to pick up the trays and I still wanted to visit the graveyard.

Koya (6)

OKUNOIN

To call Okunoin a graveyard is the most grievous kind of understatement but that’s what I thought I was going to see when I set out in the dark after dinner. I knew that the sun had set and that the moon was still nearly full (I’d been at the full moon ceremony the night before in Kyoto) but I hadn’t really counted on it being so incredibly dark. There were some streetlights and a couple of lights on in the town but as I walked and walked and walked and wondered when I was going to get to the main gates, and then wondered if I had taken a wrong turn out of town, I couldn’t help being a little uneasy. But finally I found the gates and the ubiquitous washing station with its stone fountain and bamboo ladles.

I’d been walking for about half an hour at this point and didn’t have a map with me. I had no idea where the  mausoleum was but I figured I’d walk along the path for a while and see what I could see. Which turned out to be not very much. There was a promenade that seemed to be relatively new as all of the tiles were level and no weeds growing through the cracks. Along the sides were some stone lanterns typical of the but several were burned out and a few inches behind them all I could make out was shaggy undergrowth and the occasional outline of a statue in the moonlight. I kept walking but the farther I got into the cemetery, the more scared I got but I couldn’t figure out why. Because I was in a graveyard? Ridiculous. At night? No. Did I hear drums in the distance? Certainly not. The possibility of dengue fever? Maybe that one…a couple of tourists had gotten it at a temple in Tokyo a few weeks before my trip. But no. The two men who fell in behind me? Ordinarily this would have put me on my guard, especially combined with the cemetery, remote mountain top, darkness and my incredibly poor footwear but come on, this was Japan! One of the safest countries in the world and not only that but a MONASTERY in Japan. I kept walking. Eventually I did give up and turn around because I was an hour away from my bed and hadn’t really seen anything.

Koya (5)

The next day I learned that I had taken the wrong fork in the road and walked almost to the far end of the Okunoin, unknowingly passing hundreds and hundreds of of graves as I pressed on in the dark, and also that while an incredibly holy and serene place, Okunoin is still a little bit creepy in the daytime. I probably wouldn’t have come in the dark if I had seen it first but in the fresh light of morning I could hear woodpeckers hammering away and calling to each other and the smell of cedar and moss was lovely. From the main path I had walked the night before were all kinds of trails and dirt paths leading off into family complexes (marked by mossy Torii gates) and forest. Some of the cedars must have been big when the site was created because they are ancient now. I found one huge statue almost knocked on its side simply because a cedar tree bigger than I could put my arms around had kept growing. Inscription markers were everywhere I found one statue almost knocked on its side because a cedar tree bigger than I could put my arms around had grown into that space.

Koya (8)

The site is sacred because Kobo Daishi is believed to be in eternal meditation in the temple but throughout history people have buried their families and loved ones close by (or set up a monument) so that when he wakes up, he will be able to revive them as well. But the oldest monument in the cemetery was constructed in the year 997 and there are hundreds more that covered in moss and crumbling. This place is OLD and it feels as though the stone has in some way started to return to the earth. In places where new marble has been used its newness feels jarring, like to be polished is an affront somehow.

But in spite of its age, it’s evident that this is a busy place. Some of the newer monuments have been erected by corporations – a sure sign of the times – and pinwheels are stuck in the ground close to monuments for children, turning slightly in the cool air but never getting up enough movement to rid themselves of moss. Small statues of the Jizo Buddha (a protector of children, pregnant women and travelers) are everywhere, dressed in knitted toques and aprons with offerings of coins and flowers. I had seen these Jizo Buddha at Hase-dera temple in Kamakura and a fox variation at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto but there was something unsettling about seeing hundreds of these statues at Okunoin, tucked into the nook of a tree or piled up to cover all the sides of a huge pyramid and all in various stages of decay. Later I read here that “In ancient times it was thought that children who died could not go to Heaven because they had caused great sorrow for their parents. Therefore grieving parents would wrap articles of their children’s clothing around Jizo statues and ask the Jizo to find their children and guide them to Heaven. Over the years this evolved into a tradition of wrapping a red bib around the Jizo when asking for any sort of favor.”

The Kobo Daishi Gobyo mausoleum is very serene and obviously very sacred. To get to it, I crossed a little moat to an area where no photos are talking is allowed. Monks in saffron robes are sweeping the ground around the Great Hall and inside several people were sitting in silent meditation. It was so far in that I never would have found it in the dark and I realized the next day that it wouldn’t have been open anyways. So I’m glad I made two trips.

Koya (3)

MORNING SERVICE & FIRE CEREMONY

When I got back to my room at night, the monks had cleared away my trays and set up my futon on the floor with a pillow stuffed with buckwheat. I’d slept on this setup a few times by this point on my trip and it was always very comfortable so I keep wondering why it need to be more complicated than that. I’d been sleeping pretty lightly because of all the strange noises and walls made of paper but I’d forgotten that I was at a working monastery. Soft chimes called the monks to prayer at 4 AM, then again to call everyone else to morning service is 6:30 AM. In case anyone manages to sleep in, Muzak is blared out the speakers all over town at 8.

The morning service was at the temple on the hill behind my room but as I’d arrived too late for afternoon meditation the day before, I hadn’t seen it yet. After exchanging my sandals for slippers at the cubby, I came around to the main hall where we were greeted by two monks in black robes and purple overlay with a pattern of circles with vertical crosses on them. We knelt in front of a shrine with candles and an incense burner and a small statue of Buddha and the monks started chanting. Behind the shrine was a deep hall with many more altars and candles and banners of red silk hanging from the ceiling.  Then the monks added gongs and cymbals to their chanting and a priest in black robes with a gold overlay came out to stand in front of the altar. He gave a short sermon in Japanese that sounded as though it was rattled off rather quickly but the only people still kneeling nodded appreciatively (thus confirming my theory about Westerners sitting on the floor) and we were invited to add a pinch of incense to the burner. When it was time to leave we followed the monks around the hall, bowing to the Buddha and then heading back out into the courtyard where we would attend the fire ceremony.

The Goma fire ritual also happens every morning as part of the monks’ service. In the evening guests are invited to write a prayer on a piece of wood and bring it to the office to be burned in the morning. As we filed into the smaller temple after the morning service one of the monks was seated at the shrine carefully setting up the materials for the fire. He had put on a saffron overlay for this part. While he built the fire in the brazier another monk started steadily drumming. The flames got higher and higher the drumming became faster and faster and then the prayers were added which caused the flames to lick up a bit higher but then piece de resistance was when the monk added a bit of oil to the fire and the flames reached almost to the ceiling. It’s quite close quarters in the fire temple and the drumming, chanting and flames are quite sensational. Here’s a short video clip:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/15271729481

Koya (2)

BREAKFAST

After that breakfast was going to have to try pretty hard but when the monks brought in the trays I found steamed rice, pickles, tea, miso soup (made with wakame seaweed, wheat gluten and Japanese honeywort), crispy dried laver seaweed to wrap around pinches of rice, deep-fried soybean curd with vegetables, marinated vegetables, grated Chinese yam, and wheat gluten boiled in soy sauce. It was perfect.

On my way back to the funicular, I tried to taste as many traditional Kōya-san delicacies as I could find. One specialty was a green paste filled with adzuki bean and wrapped in a banana leaf which was a bit slimy and not overly sweet but my favourite was yakimochi – a rice dumpling filled with black bean paste then fried on a griddle. I had heard that pressed sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves was a specialty of the mountains (because the persimmon leaves help preserve the fish) but I couldn’t find it at any of the shops. Sad, but I little did I know I was going to need to save room for Osaka. I was sad to leave Kōya-san because with all the ancient history, culture, religion and natural beauty that come together here it was one of my favourite places in Japan. Hard not to get a serious case of Stendhal syndrome there.

Prague

Charles Bridge

After Kiev, Prague felt like fairy tale. Not a candy-coated one Disney one with their plethora of princesses, but more of a dark Brothers Grimm one, 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 / down town and while there is a good transit system in place, I like walking and was too busy to get in any runs in Prague, so I just walked to 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 walked.

Tyn Church

From there I would walk down through the maze of paths and streets back over the bridge to the Old Town Square. This 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. It’s also a fine time to mention the tourists.

Weddings

I know it seems like after Kiev, I may have been pining for a tour bus but not only do I don’t care for swarms of tourists, but I generally don’t like a lot of tourist attractions either. I hate eating non-local food when I’m travelling (unless it’s somehow relevant and culturally important), I don’t get the point of 90% of souvenirs and tourist escapades and reenactments that take advantage of / bar you from seeing historical buildings and sites fill me with rage. Prague has a reputation for being a bit of a tourist trap so I was a bit worried about it, but it turned out to be just fine. That’s not to say that I didn’t see the potential and preparedness for the tourist hoards – in the multitude of tiny museums, menus with pictures and 6 language sections and wide open spaces in restaurant back rooms and in front of ticket kiosks – so I know they must come, but during a rainy week in September it was really quite manageable.

Astronomical clock

I crossed the bridge several times a day, at all hours, and was never stuck in a bottleneck of tourists, I had no issues with scams (other than being given a heaving plate of Prague ham sold by weight when I had asked for one order – but it was delicious), and I criss-crossed town square almost every day without tripping over anyone. Yes, there were bagpipes and some offensive thing being done to Mozart on an organ and plenty of tourists taking horse-drawn carriage rides but they were easy enough to avoid and so worth dodging for the sake of looking at this beautiful church. On one evening we ate on a patio in the square and as the light got dimmer and dimmer, I kept taking “just one more photograph” until I had a collection but the beautiful black powder towers with their sky-reaching spires are straight out of that fairy tale I mentioned, especially when golden hour hits.

Charles Bridge

I had the same relationship with Charles bridge. Our first sighting of it was midday with the whole group of Matt’s coworkers so we only saw a small part of it at it’s most crowded but I came back to it several times over the next few days. One magical evening when I was rushing home after a day of wandering and shopping (Matt was sick at the hotel) I saw that it was golden hour and tried to catch the 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 he was funny too. So I stayed and listened then continued on my way back to the Smíchov neighbourhood, only to see that the lights had just come on on the bridge and a full moon was rising over it, white swans gliding silently by underneath. It made for some gorgeous imagery but between the swans and the music and the lovers leaning into corners and the just-right temperature of the air, it was almost too much so I got an ice cream and walked home the long way, stopping to listen to more street musicians with a dopey smile on my face. I will never forget it.

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 1798 when Prague’s access to the see would have been very limited, so it makes sense that there would be a fascination with those kinds of objects.

Trdelnik

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 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 comes 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.

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 enormous, and 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 owns this town with 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.

Beer

But the real fun is in the beer halls. U Fleků beer hall is the oldest in Prague and seats 1200 so I couldn’t help but be reminded 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 went to 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.

Smoking inside is strangely permitted for such a modern European country but after picking up an ashtray in Andorra last year and looking at it from all angles before deciding it was some kind of weird vase, we were at least a little more prepared for the possibility here.

Ossuary

One of the days found me in the  small town of Kutná Hora, east of Prague, where I went to see the Sedlac Ossuary, a.k.a. the bone church. The ossuary has 40,000+ bones stacked in the basement of a church. 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 made into artful piles and decorations. It looks cool but there wasn’t much of a story there so I was surprised to find myself more interested in the rest of the tour.

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 not 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 live bears at the gate) with sheer walls rising up from the water. Inside the walls are painted to look like architectural details, a technique that I liked but Matt found distracting. The bus trip took a couple of hours which didn’t leave us much time to look around, but it’s a small town and by the time we walked up the tower and through the grounds and down to the town we were pretty much done. It would have been nice to spend an evening checking out the pubs and restaurants but we hopped back on the bus to Prague instead.

Cesky Krumlov

We loved Prague and the Czech countryside and can’t wait to go back and explore it  some more. The people are generally pretty awesome, but they are not universally nice (which is okay because between the $2 beer and fairy tale towers there are enough tourists). People smile and say good morning to you, and there is a genuine warmth. They were out enjoying the September days, drinking beer on patios or walking dogs in parks…it was just wonderful.

Charles Bridge

Here are the rest of my photos from the trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635563944293/