Holiday Itinerary: Czech Republic and Poland

Of my hobbies I enjoy travelling the most. Over the last few years, being based in the UK, I seized the opportunity to visit various places in Europe without having to empty my bank account completely. I hope to share some of those experiences here, especially since some of my friends have asked me for my various travel itineraries.

This post outlines my trip to the Czech Republic and Poland which lasted for 10 days. There were six of us. I traveled without any checked baggage, so that was definitely possible.

If I recall any more details, I’ll add them in.

Day 1 – Arrival in Prague

We had left Cambridge at some crazily early hour of the morning, and I had not slept more than an hour – it was a busy day. We left at 4am, and at least for Alex and I, that was the last time we saw our former college, Corpus Christi. We took a bus from the airport directly to the main train station, I can’t remember how much it was but it was definitely very affordable. There, we met Tom, who travelled there from his hometown, and was thus no more energetic than we were. In light of our exhaustion, we took the rest of the day pretty easily. We visited the old town (Staré Město), walked along the river (Vltava), and took some photographs at Charles Bridge.

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Delicious meat skewer for two to share. They poured some sauce on it and set it on fire. My favourite beer, Pilsner Urquell, by the side.

We had dinner at a Medieval-style tavern (Stredoveka Krcma). I did not manage to get any photographs of the decor, but I assure you it’s amazing (the TripAdvisor page has some good examples).

We stayed at an Airbnb during our entire time in Prague. It was very slightly more expensive per person than the cheapest hostels, but at rougly 20-25 SGD per person per night, we figured it was more than worth it.

Day 2 – Prague

We set aside the whole day to do all the touristy things in Prague. The castle and cathedral was first on our list. The queue for tickets is normally pretty long, so we resolved to set off early. For some reason, we did not. Our alarms mysteriously turned themselves off or something. Anyway, we left an hour later than expected, taking a tram to the castle area. We somehow ended up at the back of the castle, so we found a ticket office which had no queue (we later saw that the main ticket office was bursting), so we got lucky that way. We had lunch at a very pleasant restaurant tucked away on a small street, I cannot remember its name at the moment.

We then headed off to the Petrin Tower, taking the obligatory funicular up. The view was great, but I’m a little scared of heights, so I had to deal with that. The stairs up and down to the top were concentric helices, so we did not have to fight our way past oncoming pedestrian traffic, which is usually a problem with such viewpoints.

After dinner we went to a pub. Specifically, The Pub. That’s what it was called. It’s normally quite popular, so booking is recommended. How is it different from a regular pub? Well, there are a couple of taps on the table, and you pour your own beer. You then get charged by the volume. It was great. There was a scoreboard projected on the screen which compared how much each table had drunk, as well as how much the entire pub had drunk compared to the other outlets around Europe.

Day 3 – Day trip to Kutna Hora

If my memory serves, Kutna Hora and Prague used to be the two large rival cities in the Czech Republic (or was it Bohemia?) After the silver ran out, Kutna Hora declined in prominence, although I would say perhaps not in beauty. It has an amazing cathedral, the silver mines are now available for visit, and there’s the famous Sedlec Ossuary there as well. Kutna Hora is easily accessible by train from Prague, and all the attractions within walking distance from the train station. It’s a wonderful place to visit since there are all these nice buildings (since it was such a rich city), but it’s also rather sparsely populated and not too touristy, which makes a very pleasant visit.

Kutna Hora 1

We first visited the silver mines. Our guide explained the history of the town and the mines. We had to gear up, since there were lots of protruding rocks in the mines, making it easy to get scratched. They also got us to try going into a fairly enclosed area to make sure that we were not too claustrophobic, which I found very thoughtful. We had to go down quite a lot of stairs to get to the mines, so remember to bring proper shoes (at least not flip-flops or heels). It was pretty exciting, especially when they turned off the torches to show us the meaning of pitch black. I could not even see my hand in front of my face, no matter how hard I tried.

All but the first level of the mine was flooded, so we could not explore further. The exit of the mine was at a lower point of the hill, so we did could get out without having to climb flights of grim stairs. We then went to the Cathedral, which was pretty awesome. While looking for lunch, we found a sign which led us off the main path, and reached an amazing place. It was rather idyllic, and the food was amazing. All that at unbelievably good prices. The table next to us ordered sharing meat platters, and it was quite a mountain of assorted meat. I cannot remember what I had, but I remember enjoying it thoroughly. If you would like to find the restaurant (and I strongly recommend it), they’re called V Ruthardce. Also, you have not tried Kafola by this point, this would be a good place to start.

We then walked a bit to the Sedlec Ossuary, and then headed back.

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Day 4 – Prague to Karljstein

We left our bags in the main train station’s lockers and headed to the Prague Botanic Gardens. It was hot. I’m Singaporean and I found it unbearable. A combination of being dry and having a really strong sun for some reason made it very difficult to climb up and down all the slopes. There were vineyards in the gardens, and there was a place which sold the wine which was brewed there, but it was too expensive. Instead, we rested at some less fancy area with less fancy beverages, which was nonetheless still very nice.

Prague 1

We took a bus back to the main train station and headed off to Karlstejn, where we would spend the next two nights.

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The innkeeper was also the chef, which was a good sign. The food was excellent, so we were not disappointed. It was still fairly early (I do not remember exactly how early) but we managed to get there half an hour or so before the kitchen closed, so that’s something to bear in mind.

We briefly explored the area around our accommodation after dinner, to work off the food. It was a lovely place for hiking, and we looked forward to the next day.

Day 5 – Karljstein

We started off by visiting the castle, which we had to book a tour far in advance. There were two tours for two different sections of the castle, we went for the (WHICH BIT). It was well worth it, and our only regret was not booking the second tour as well. We wanted to go hiking in the afternoon, so the available times were not convenient

Karljstein 2

Hiking around the area was good fun, there were many abandoned (and a few still in use) quarries in the area. By the time we reached a small town, we were completely parched, and had to endure the disappoint of a few closed bars before we found a place we could get something to drink.

Karljstein 3

 

Day 6 – Karljstein to Prague, departing Prague for Krakow

We left Karljstein for Prague, leaving our luggage at the main train station’s lockers after we arrived. We then headed to the Prague zoo. It was huge. We spent the whole day there – it probably would not have taken us as long if we did not have to rest every exhibit or two to recover from the exhaustion of being in the sun. Be sure to check out the exhibit on Przewalski’s horse, which if I’m not mistaken, is a rare species of undomesticated horse.

We headed back to the train station for our overnight train to Krakow. Unfortunately, several of the showering facilities were not open for use. By the time we found showering facilities we could use, there was only enough time for one of us to shower. The train ride was not particularly fun, with the 6 of us split evenly in three different cabins, and sleep was difficult to get.

Day 7 – Arrival in Krakow

Acting on the recommendation of our Polish friend (who would join us later that day), we stumbled through Warsaw in search of awesome breakfast, weary and irritable after the overnight train. Upon reaching the place he suggested, the grumpy shopkeeper told us they would only open “at 1”, which we figured was a poorly crafted attempt to get us to go away. We took the hint, and found breakfast elsewhere. The rest of the day was spent exploring Krakow. The Main Square had interesting and affordable souvenirs.

After dinner, we headed to an E. Wedel outlet. They do the most amazing chocolate products. We each had a fancy chocolate drink for significantly cheaper than a Starbucks coffee (and much nicer too).

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Day 8 – Day trip to Auschwitz

No need to book tours from the surrounding cities, just take the bus there and buy tickets on the spot. Remember to bring water. We ran out of water in the middle of the visit; it was incredibly hot and terribly depressing. Despite the discomfort, we did not feel inclined to complain, for we stood where many others had suffered far worse before, and it did not seem appropriate to whine about a little thirst and the resulting light-headedness.

On one of the walls in Auschwitz I was a panel of photographs of (a small subset of) the people who were murdered there. There was a particular photograph of a many which I felt a connection to across time, he had a look of such immense sadness and despair that still haunts me to this day.

I had little mood for taking many photographs, so there is not much to show here. It was not a pleasant experience, but it is precisely for that reason that visiting Auschwitz was important, and I highly recommend visiting.

We had dinner at a rather fancy restaurant that evening, where we all felt we were too under-dressed and shabby for.

Day 9 – Krakow to Warsaw

We bade farewell to Tom and took a train to Warsaw. We stayed in an pre World War 2 apartment, which is a rarity for Warsaw, considering the place was pretty much bombed to the ground. We spent the late afternoon and evening at Łazienki park. It was a pleasant place to relax.

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Day 10 – Warsaw

By this point we were rather exhausted, and I think that’s why my memory is not working very well. We explored the Old Town and went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The latter is a must for those who appreciate history. We had dinner at the Bazyliszek Restauracja (Basilisk Restaurant), which was pretty decent.

Day 11 – Warsaw, departure

We had breakfast at a “milk cafe”, a surviving Soviet era food-place with pretty good and really cheap food (even by Singaporean standards). It was not very touristy, so they did not speak much English – we managed to get by with a Polish-English dictionary and badly mangling every word with pronounced, despite our best efforts. The pierogi was good.

We then headed towards that Stalinist building (Palace of Culture and Science) and took a bus to the airport (which we booked a few days in advance).

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Valerian

I took on the name of ‘Valerian’ just before university started. Many people who already knew me found it greatly amusing. Some have taken to calling me ‘Valerie’; a rather endearing nickname, I might say. Those whom I have got to know since find it difficult to conceive that I used to go by a different name. And yet, one question unites them all:

“Why Valerian?”

Have I played too much Starcraft? Or maybe I have ambitions to own a steel company? Perhaps my presence is rather soporific?

It’s none of those reasons.

The reasons are manifold, and I hope to shed some light on them here. For a long time it puzzled me that although my upbringing was almost entirely in English, my name was in (Mandarin) Chinese. My parents told me that they decided to leave me to choose my own English name. Considering that they only decided on my Chinese name after seeing it on a plaque on a wall in the hospital where I was delivered, just after my birth, I am inclined to believe that their decision to not give me an English name was at least in part due to not having any bright ideas. Which is fine with me.

My command of English has always been much better than that of (Mandarin) Chinese. Consequently, my language of choice is English, and having a name which was entirely in Chinese simply did not feel quite right. In fact, I can quite safely say that my approach to the Chinese culture and the Chinese language is akin to that of a foreign culture and a foreign language. I might appreciate the culture, be able to speak a little of the language, but they are not what I base my identity on. To be fair, I do not identify with any single culture in particular (again, this is a topic for another time), but having a language barrier certainly does not make engaging with the culture of my forebears any easier.

Consequently, I have long endeavoured to find a suitable English name. I once considered choosing ‘Julian’, but it did not feel quite right. The final impetus came after I co-authored my first paper. There were simply too many people called ‘H Chen’. Adding a second initial narrowed it down a little, but there were still too many hits. At this point, it occurred to me: I had to choose a name starting with ‘V’, since there’s no ‘V’ when transliterating Mandarin names to English (not under the current prevalent modern conventions anyway). Short of changing my surname, that was the best way to get far less common initials.

I looked up various lists of English first names. I felt that the more common ‘Vincent’ and ‘Victor’ did not fit my tastes, but ‘Valerian’ appealed to me. I decided to give it a go whilst at university, and have since decided that it was a suitable choice. I have now added it to all my official documents. I did not remove my old Chinese name out of sentimentality, choosing to keep it as my middle name instead. Perhaps it is for the better, for my Chinese name signifies what I was born as and my English name what I chose to be.

There have been several interesting experiences regarding my name. The one I remember most vividly occurred during the early weeks of Cambridge, in my first materials science supervision. My supervisor asked for my name, and I said ‘Valerian’. Seeing that it was not part of my official name (the initials of which were used as part of my Cambridge email address), he pressed for my ‘actual’ name. I was not particularly pleased, but I got his meaning, and obliged. He told me that I should not pick another name simply because foreigners find it difficult to grasp my original name, and that he would learn my name as I would learn his. I was too awkward to explain my choice; besides, I was keener to get down to learning what he had to teach. And so, over the course of the year, I saw him struggle to remember my Chinese name. He never learnt how to pronounce it quite correctly, but I saw this valiant effort sustained across many supervisions, from the start to the end, and I was very moved by his noble motives. Similarly, I made some effort to remember his name; to this day I can still remember the entirety of his name – all seven words – although I sometimes get the order of the second and third last words mixed up. I don’t think I managed the pronunciation either.

Not more than a year later, a friend whom I met for the second time greeted me with my Chinese name (with fairly accurate pronunciation too, as it goes). I was surprised, since I introduced myself as ‘Valerian’ at university (and since), with few exceptions. When I asked him about it, he said that we should not use different names because ‘Westerners cannot pronounce [remember?] them”. I was greatly amused. As a Singaporean I’d consider my Slovenian friend to be ‘Western’, but I guess it is all relative. At that point I fully appreciated how my earlier notion of ‘European’ as a largely monolithic entity was no less naive than the what Edward Said decried in Orientalism.

As much as I appreciate the goodwill, I hope this post has helped to alleviate the misconception that ‘Hongjie’ is my ‘real’ name. When one of my IMRE supervisors who knew me from the pre-Valerian era switched to using my current name without me requesting that he do so, I felt a deep joy stir within me. Maybe he understood, but even if he did not, he respected my decision. He used the name I identified with, and that means a lot to me. A Vietnamese friend of mine once mentioned how happy she was when she returned home, where people used her Vietnamese name instead of her English one. Fascinatingly, the exact opposite is true of me.

Needless to say, I have grown very fond of my English name, and I now largely respond only to it, for it is dearer to me than the name I used to go by. It was unintentional, but it is just as well that I chose an uncommon name. It will always be at least a little out of place, no matter where. Like me.

The Next Chapter

It has been approximately half a decade since I closed my old blog to the public. I was about to be conscripted, and so I sought to dissemble my thought, to conceal the more controversial aspects of my personality, to be completely unremarkable. For a time, I even stuck Fyodor Tyutchev’s Silentium to my bedroom wall. After all the gruesome stories I heard about National Service, how could I not be thus cautious?

Perhaps my efforts were in part successful. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that my avoidance of the worst excesses of conscription cannot be attributed to anything but sheer good fortune. The story of those dark years is a story for another time.

When university finally started, I was very eager to resume my intellectual training. The mental starvation of the preceding two years whetted my appetite for learning. Against the advice of those who suggested I go for easy marks, I took computer science as one of my first year subjects. Looking back, that was the most challenging course I have ever taken, at least at the point of writing this post. The comparative easiness of first year physics enabled me to spend more time on computer science, building my understanding from scratch.

In subsequent years, the course materials got harder, my time more stretched out. No single subject was too difficult, but the requirements of them all brought me to the brink of collapse. During my third year, my interest in physics had waned to the point of not wanting to even touch general relativity, a topic I had always wanted to learn.

My old ways had failed me. I had to change my study techniques drastically, balancing my commitments as the co-chair of CU Physics Society on top of that. I barely managed to pull through and get a first class honours. At the end of it all, I sat in my room in the dark; I bitterly rued how low I had fallen. I who once strove to be the best in my cohort was reduced to merely trying to scrape a first. It was a stormy time, and I am grateful to those who came to my aid. Nonetheless, in the end, I emerged far mightier than I was before. It was what I sought from my undergraduate education, and I am glad to have achieved it, at least.

There is so much to write about. This is but an introductory post, and so I shall not go into detail here. In the intervening years I have grown less certain of my path; whether I have cast aside my blinkers or whether my vision is dimmed is anyone’s guess. In either case, it would do for me to be more introspective. Even though I updated my private blog from time to time, it is not quite the same when next to no one reads it. I need conversation, new ideas. It is for this reason that I shall once again write a blog.