Friday, December 31, 2010

Břeclav, Czech Republic

Břeclav is a small border town about 55 km (~34 miles) southeast of Brno. It sits on the Dyje River at the Austrian border and is about 10 km from Kúty, Slovakia. It is an important railroad hub between Prague/Brno, Bratislava, Vienna and Poland.

Since it is so close to Austria, this is where a lot of Czechoslovakian citizens risked their lives trying to escape to the West during the days of communism. The town has a population of around 26,000 people. The other day my friend, Aleš, gave me a tour of his hometown.

In Břeclav, we went to the former Jewish Synagogue that now serves as part of the town museum and is used sometimes for concerts.

The Neo-Romanesque building, with its Neo-Moorish interior, dates back to 1868. There was an exhibition upstairs about the Jewish community in Břeclav from 1414 until WWII.

The St. Rochus Chapel in the center of town was built in 1892 in memory of a cholera epidemic.

St. Mary parish church in Poštorná is a Neo-Gothic church built from 1895-1898 with special bricks from a local factory.

St. Wenceslas parish church is a contemporary church built from 1992-1995. It was built on the spot of a Baroque church that was destroyed during the war.

Here's the town's sugar factory...way back when and today.

Near Břeclav is the Lednice-Valtice cultural-natural complex which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. At the end of the 19th century, the House of Liechtenstein transformed the local area into a landscape park with a chateau in Valtnice and another in Lednice. Between the two are various pavilions, such as the Reistna Colonnade. During the Spring and Summer it is very popular to rent bicycles and ride between the two. I had a nice time seeing what I could but with the limited amount of daylight I could only see enough to know that I have to go back in the Spring. So when the weather warms up I'll make it back to Břeclav, Lednice and Valtice again.

Update: This is my 300th post since starting this blog. Wow!!!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Carp, Duck and Ostrich

I've survived my three days of Christmas dinners. On the 24th I had my first Czech Christmas carp. My friends, Katka and Robert, invited me over for dinner which was very sweet of them. But to be honest I was a little nervous. The traditional Czech dinner on the 24th is fish head soup followed by fried carp and potato salad. Not exactly the ham and turkey I'm used to in the U.S.

Katka laughed when I told her I was nervous about the soup. Fish head soup?!?! I had visions of lifting my spoon from the soup bowl and coming up with an actual fish head. Apparently, the head is only used to flavor the soup while cooking. Who knew? By the way, the soup was really good.

Katka wanted to try something new this year so instead of frying the carp she wrapped it in bacon and baked it. Normally carp tastes like mud to me. But if you soak it in either milk or beer then it's fine. In fact, Katka's bacon carp was quite tasty. And Robert made a potato salad with pickles and red bell peppers. My contribution was a pecan pie.

On the 25th, my American friend Scott came over for dinner and to hang out. I planned to cook a chicken and some side dishes. Well, I thought I had bought a chicken. But it turns out that "Kacsa" is the Hungarian word for duck. Again, who knew? It turned out pretty well, especially considering I've never cooked a duck before.

On the 26th, I went to Sabine's for St. Stephen's Day. That girl can whip up some French food. Five courses and everything was so dang good! Plus, it was the first time I had ever tried ostrich.

So in three days I had my first Christmas carp, my first Christmas duck and now my first Christmas ostrich. I gotta' say that the sandwich I'm having for dinner tonight just seems rather boring in comparison.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Carp

It's the 24th, so it is Christmas Day in the Czech Republic (but the 24th is Christmas Eve in the USA). That means it is time for Christmas carp. Or as I call it...bathtub fish. I explained last year that about a week before Christmas the vendors start selling fish in barrels. Traditionally people pick out the carp they want and then take it home and let it swim around in the bathtub until the 24th. This still freaks me the hell out. However, I understand it a bit more this year. I've been told that, back in the days of communism, there were shortages and you never knew if you would be able to buy what you needed. Sometimes all of the carp would be sold out days before Christmas so you had to buy it when you could. But you for sure did not want to keep it in the refrigerator for too long or it would go bad. So the smart thing to do was to let the fish live in the tub for a few days. this does start to make a little more sense. What I don't understand is how do people take a bath everyday with a carp swimming around in the tub. Some people have told me that you put the fish in a bucket while you bathe and put the fish back in the tub as soon as you are done. This is just so not my cup of tea. I would have to scrub out the bathtub before I got in it. When you select your carp at the fish vendor you have the option of taking it home alive or they will cut it for you on the spot. It seems that nowadays more and more people only take a live fish home if they have young children. My friend Aleš lives in Břeclav and his mom took a live carp home. His parents are fortunate enough to have a second bathtub downstairs so they didn't have to share the tub with the fish. He was nice enough to send me a couple of photos of what will eventually be Christmas dinner.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


It's Christmas time in the ČR which means that there are lots of Czech fairy tales on TV. One of the favorite stories shown during Christmas is the 1973 film Tří Oříšky pro Popelku, Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella. Popelka is the Czech Cinderella.

I never knew that there were different versions of the Cinderella classic. In this version by Božena Němcová, there is no fairy godmother and there is only one wicked step-sister. Popelka finds some magic hazelnuts and receives three wishes. This Cinderella is a little more independent and does not simply fall in to the the prince's arms. Here, he has to actively pursue her.

The interesting thing about this film is that it was made as a joint venture between Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Czech and German actors spoke in their own language and the content was dubbed into either all Czech or all German for distribution.

The story is cute and I found a copy on DVD for 50 Kč (~$2.50) that has both English and Czech subtitles so I can use it to practice my Czech. Here is a clip of the film that I found on YouTube.

Update:  In East Germany the movie is called Drei Hasselnüsse für Aschenbrödel.  So in the east, Cinderella is "Aschenbrödel" but in the west she is called "Aschenputtel."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sabine's Birthday

Yesterday was Sabine's birthday so a few of us went out to dinner to celebrate. With it being Christmas week a lot of people were already out of town but we had a nice time.

We started off in a wine bar for a drink and then went next door for a great dinner at Koishi, by far the best sushi place in Brno.

One thing that I don't understand over here is going out for someone's birthday. In the ČR, (Slovakia and Germany too), the tradition is that when you invite people out for your birthday, you (the birthday boy/girl) pays for everyone.

This is the exact opposite of how we do it in the USA. I'm used to all of the guests paying a little extra so that the birthday person does not have to pay for anything. After all, it's that person's birthday. Why the hell should you have to pay for everyone on your own birthday? Natalie said that they do it the US way in New Zealand too.

Sabine tried to pay since she invited us out for dinner. But we weren't having any of that. Fortunately, Natalie, Mariya and I were able to convince her into letting us buy dinner.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is about 20 minutes outside of Kraków. It is one of the world's oldest operating salt mines. The story goes that this is the world's 14th-oldest company still in operation. Table salt has been produced here continuously from the 13th century. In 1996, commercial mining was discontinued due to flooding in the mines and because salt prices were too low to make it profitable.

In 1978 the mine was placed on the original list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Over one million people visit the mine each year.

The mine reaches a depth of 327 meters (~1,073 feet) and it is more than 300 km (+186 miles). The guided tour covers 3.5 km which is less than 1% of the mine's passages.

The statues in the mines were carved out of rock salt by the miners. The detail in the statues is impressive. Even the chandelier crystals are made of salt.

Inside the mine are a couple of chapels and a lake. There is even a large cathedral inside the mine that was completed by three men. It is incredible!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Poland was home to the world's largest Jewish community for centuries. Before WWII there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland. Between the German invasion in 1939 and the end of the war over 90% perished.

About 50 km (~32 miles) from Kraków is the town of Oświęcim, which the Germans renamed Auschwitz. In 1940 a camp was built to hold Polish political prisoners, followed by Soviet POWs and then prisoners from other countries as well. Within two years it was the most notorious of the six extermination camps in Poland (Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka).

There were three primary sections to the concentration camp. Auschwitz was the first and held between 12,000 and 20,000 prisoners. In 1941, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was established 3 km away. Birkenau was the largest section and in 1944 there were over 90,000 prisoners. In 1942, Auschwitz III-Monowitz was established. Today only Auschwitz and Birkenau remain.

By early 1943 there were four crematoria working around the clock at Birkenau. Over 20,000 people were gassed and cremated every day. The exact number of people killed at Auschwitz and Birkenau will never be known but estimates put the number between 1.1 – 1.5 million people from across Europe. There is still one gas chamber at Auschwitz but the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis in 1944 in an attempt to cover up the mass killings.

The Nazis said that Jews would be resettled in the east. Many people actually had to purchase tickets for the trains that took them to their deaths. Auschwitz was the only concentration camp where inmates were tattooed on their arms. However, the vast majority of people were never tattooed because they went directly from arrival to the gas chamber.

I think that it is better to visit the camp in the winter. First of all it is far less crowded. And secondly, because it is a bit easier to appreciate just how bad the conditions must have been. I was thoroughly bundled up from head to toe and after 20 minutes outside I was freezing. I don't know how prisoners were able to stand out in the cold for hours, often without shoes.

Visiting the camp can be very emotional. Approximately 46,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz from Bohemia and Moravia. I happened to notice that one of the suitcases on display belonged to a victim from Brno.

I think that everyone needs to visit Auschwitz so that nothing like the horrors that occurred here will ever happen again. The camp is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is an interesting Rick Steves video I found on YouTube about Auschwitz.

©Rick Steves

Monday, December 20, 2010

Milk Bar

Bar mleczny, a "milk bar" is a good, cheap place to eat. During communism, the Polish government subsidized these working class cafeterias. No more communism but the prices are still low which is fine by me. The prices are low and the food is tasty and filling. Everything is in Polish but with enough sign language you can order a good lunch. The only thing that would make it better is if you could order some Żubrówka. I grabbed some borscht (beetroot soup), cabbage and carrot salad, and some pierogi. Way cheap! Pierogi are dumplings that are boiled, baked or fried. There are all different kinds. Some are stuffed with potato, meat, cabbage, spinach, or fruit. I love me some pierogi! I wish they had something similar in the Czech Republic.

Kraków, Poland

Kraków is Poland’s second largest city but it is the country’s cultural capital. The city dates back to the 7th century. It is really beautiful and there are nice churches everywhere.

Kraków came out of WWII realativley undamaged. Which is incredible when you think of everything that happened here. The movie Schindler’s List was shot, and took place, in Kraków which gave me a lot to think about as I was walking through town.

Kazimierz has historically been the Jewish quarter of town since the 14th century. The Temple Synagogue was built in 1860-1862. It was ruined during the war when the Nazis used it as an ammunition storage area.

Rynek Główny is the main market square in Old Town and it dates back to the 13th century. At about 40,000 m² (430,000 ft²) it is Europe’s largest medieval town square. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978. In the center of the square is the Sukiennice, the Cloth Hall. It was used to sell cloth, leather, silk, etc. It was rebuilt in 1555 and today is filled souvenir vendors. Being December, you know that there was a Christmas market going on.
Kościół Mariacki is the Gothic St. Mary’s Basilica that is adjacent to the square. It was built in the 13th century and rebuilt in the 14th. It is famous for its wooden altarpiece. Prior to the start of the war, the altar was taken apart and stored in crates across the country but wound up in Germany. It was put back in the church in 1957.

Kosciól swietego Piotra i Pawla, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, was the first Baroque church in Kraków. It was built by the Jesuits and is best known for statues of the 12 disciples in front.

Karol Wojtyła grew up in Kraków’s and became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. His image is everywhere in the city so you know for sure he was a local boy.

Wawel Hill is home to the Royal Castle and Cathedral. The cathedral is Poland’s national church and mausoleum. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time on this visit so I’ll check it out next time, maybe in spring or summer.
My first priorities were to visit Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. I really enjoyed my quick trip to Kraków.