Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Republic of Slovenia

In a few days I'm taking my first overnight bus from Brno to Zagreb, Croatia. The plan is to spend a two days in Croatia seeing the capital and going to Plitvice. Then it's just a couple of hours on a train to Slovenia. Slovenia not Slovakia.

The Republic of Slovenia is a bit smaller than New Jersey with a population just over 2 million people. It's in Central/Southeastern Europe. It sounds like the perfect place for nature lovers because it has the Alps and borders the Mediterranean. Plus, more than half of the country is forested.

Slovenia was part of the Holy Roman Empire and then under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, they formed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. During WWII, the Kingdom was invaded and Slovenia was carved up between Germany, Italy, Croatia and Hungary. After the war it became part of Yugoslavia.

Slovenia was the economic power in communist Yugoslavia. It only had 8% of the population but produced around 20% of the GDP and 1/3rd of all exports. As Yugoslavia became dominated by Serbia, Slovenia had had enough and declared its independence on 25 June 1991. After a 10-day war with the Yugoslav army, which left 66 people dead, a truce was signed and Slovenia was free for the first time in its history. It just celebrated its 20th anniversary as an independent country.

It joined the UN in 1992 and in 2004 it joined both NATO and the EU. Slovenia was the first former communist country to join the Eurozone when it replaced the tolar with the euro as the national currency in 2007.

When I go to Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, I just speak Czech, with a few Serbo-Croatian words thrown in, and I get by with very few problems. Several times, people have asked me if I'm Slovene. They speak Slovenian in Slovenia. So I wonder if my Czech will work better or worse there. I'm sure that it will be fun finding out. The plan is to spend a couple of days in the capital Ljubljana with day trips to Bled and Maribor.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Vatican Post

Ever since Vatican City became an independent country in 1929 it has had its own postal service.

All of the Vatican mail is sent directly to Switzerland to be routed worldwide. I'm sure that everything is billed at the international rate. I mean there can't be that much internal mail when the country is only 0.2 square miles.

Not all of the mail is from tourists. Italian mail is notoriously slow. Lots of Romans make weekly trips to the Vatican to send important letters and packages.

Since Vatican City is a separate country you can't use Italian stamps in the yellow Vatican post boxes. And you can't use Vatican stamps in the red Italian post boxes.

More letters are sent each year, per inhabitant, from Vatican City than from anywhere else. Not too bad for the world's smallest country.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The biggest attraction at the Vatican is Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano (St. Peter's Basilica).

Until 1989 it was the largest church in the world. It still has the largest interior of any Christian church and can hold 60,000 people.

St. Peter's is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic sites. This is where St. Peter, who was one of Jesus' twelve apostles and who was the first pope, was crucified and buried. His tomb is directly below the basilica's altar.

The original 4th century basilica was begun by the Roman Emperor Constantine from 319 - 333 AD. Construction of the current basilica began in 1506 and was completed in 1626.

The church is amazing! Vatican City is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We even managed to attend mass, in Italian, in one of the side chapels. There is a strictly enforced dress code - no shorts, bare shoulders or short skirts. Even if you make it past the fashion police at the security check, the attendants at the door will turn away anyone that is showing too much skin.

The apartment that we rented during our Roman holiday was only about a seven minute walk to St. Peter's Square. Anyone who does not get up and go early in the morning is a big fool!! We were there by 7:30 AM and it felt like we had the place all to ourselves. By 10:30 the place is crowded and waves of tour groups begin taking over. We really enjoyed our early morning walks as we watch the sun come up over the square.

Around the corner is the Vatican Museum. Again, if you go early then the crowds aren't bad and you don't have to worry about purchasing tickets in advance.

The Roman Catholic Church has an amazing art collection. I really enjoyed all of the sculptures. Of course the highlight of the museum is the Sistine Chapel. The museum is pretty liberal about letting people take pictures except, of course, when it comes to the chapel. There is a strict no camera policy. Here are a couple of photos I found on the Internet of the chapel. It is much more impressive in person.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vatican City

Vatican City is the world's smallest country whose territory is an enclave within Rome. The Vatican is approximately 44 hectares (~110 acres) and is smaller than the National Mall in DC.

The Holy See dates back to early Christianity and is the "central government" of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican City was established in 1929, by the Lateran Treaty, between the Holy See and the Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini.

Around 500 people actually have Vatican citizenship. Citizenship is given to those appointed to work on behalf of the Vatican in certain capacities. Most citizens don't even live at the Vatican but are assigned to posts overseas. When the postings are over then citizenship and the Vatican passport is revoked.

Swiss guards have protected every Pope here since 1506.

As a sovereign country it has its own postal service and has its own currency (but good luck actually finding a Vatican Euro coin in circulation). Vatican City is the only independent state that is not a member of the UN, but it does have permanent observer status.

Vatican City is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The two most well-known sites here are St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum which is home to the Sistine Chapel.

I really wanted to send my grandmother a post card from the Vatican. I'm sure that she would have loved that. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it there before she passed away this year. Though I'm sure that she knows I finally made it.

Update 2022:  Here's a short video I found on YouTube about how the Vatican is a separate country within Italy.

©History Matters

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rome, Italy

Janelle came back to Europe to attend a wedding in Slovakia. So we decided to take a trip to Rome with Liz and Eiko (the Bratsville chicas). What a great idea!! I figured that I would like Rome. That's an understatement. Rome was awesome!! You've got to love a city where every time you turn around you see something that's +2,000 years old.

Rome is Italy's largest city with 2.7 million people, as well as, home to Vatican City. Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire and the city's history covers 2.5 thousand years. Again, every where you look you will find something historic. There are lots of monuments, museums and the center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Colosseum is incredible!!
It's in the city center and by far the city's biggest attraction.

It was the largest amphitheater ever built in the Roman Empire. Built between 72 - 80 AD, the Colosseum was where gladiators battled to the death and where up to 70,000 people could watch.

The place was designed so that there really wasn't a bad seat in the house.

Between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum is the Arch of Constantine. Dedicated in 315 AD, it is the newest of the triumphal arches in Rome. It was built to commemorate Constantine I's victory over Maxentius in 312 AD. You know the stuff is old when you need to write "AD" as part of the date.

Il Foro Romano (the Roman Forum) was the center of commerce, politics and social life in the Roman Empire. Here are ruins and archeological excavations that go back over 2,000 years.

The 17th century Spanish Steps are at Piazza di Spagna and lead up to a beautiful 16th century church, Trinità dei Monti, that has a great view of the city. The Spanish Steps are the widest staircase in Europe.

The Pantheon was a temple for worshiping all of the Roman gods. The building was designed to support the weight of the biggest brick dome in the history of architecture. A hole in the dome's center is the only light source. Today there are a few famous people entombed there including the artist Raphael.

La Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth) is a marble carving that is believed to be either part of a 1st century fountain or a manhole cover. Many think that the image represents the ancient god of the Tiber River. From the Middle Ages, people thought that if one told a lie while one's hand was in the sculpture's mouth then it would be bitten off. Perhaps the world's first lie detector?

One of my favorite things about Roma was the Trevi Fountain. It is simply gorgeous. I just don't know if it is prettier during the day or at night. The Neptune statute was added in 1762. It is the largest Baroque fountain in the city (and Rome has plenty of them). The legend goes that if you throw a coin in to the fountain then you are fated to return to Rome. You can be sure that we all tossed in our coins.

This is a great city. We spent 3.5 days here, did things from early morning until late in the evening, and we only scratched the surface what the city has to offer. I could go back for two weeks and still probably not get to see and experience everything. Those coins in the fountain had better work. If not, then at least I've got a few photos to remember Roma by. Well...between the four of us there are over 2,300 photos and videos out on Flickr.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Pharmacies and drug stores are not the same thing over here. In the USA, every drug store has a pharmacy inside it. As do lots of grocery stores. Not so over here. Here there are pharmacies where you buy medicine. And there are drug stores where you can purchase toiletries.
If you want cold medicine, aspirin or even baking soda then you have to visit an actual pharmacy. Just look for the big green cross outside the building. When you go to the lékárna you find that everything is behind the counter. Even the over-the-counter (no prescription required) stuff is behind the counter. You tell the pharmacist what medicine you want, or what symptoms you want to treat, and he or she will get it for you. It was such a joy when I first moved here and had to purchase aspirin. Fortunately, many of the pharmacists speak either a little English or German.
When you have an actual prescription then things get a little fuzzy with the math. There is a mandatory 30 Kč (~$1.75) fee per medicine. So two different medications cost 60 Kč, etc. Then your health insurance picks up part of the cost and you pay the difference.
I went to the doctor's office this morning and it turns out that I have tonsillitis. The doctor wanted to excuse me from work for a few days. Oh hell no!! I'm catching a plane to Rome tomorrow night. Honestly, how in the heck do I get tonsillitis before I'm supposed to go on holiday?!?!
The doctor prescribed Aulin. I've never heard of it before. It's an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, kind of like Aleve...I guess. The receipt was very confusing. It looks like the Aulin cost around 90 Kč. I had to pay 49 Kč (~$2.80) but that included my mandatory 30 Kč fee.
Most pharmacies are only open Monday to Friday from 8 AM until 6 or 7 PM and some have limited hours on Saturday morning. Big cities will have a few 24-hour pharmacies and I know where there are two near me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dušan Jurkovič House

Dušan Jurkovič (1868 - 1947) was a Slovak who was one of the best 19th century architects in Central Europe. In 1906 he built his own house in Brno. His style combined folk construction with a typical English country home.
The house was sold in 1919 and in 2006 it was purchased by the Czech government and acquired by the Moravian Gallery.

With a grant from Norway, the house was remodeled in 2009 - 2010 and opened to the public in 2011. I'm not quite sure why Norway kicked in the money but OK.

On Sunday, I headed over with the Kiwi contingent for a tour. The tour guide was excellent.

There was plenty of material available in Czech, English and German. The guide was very patient and explained things in English even though we had not booked an English language tour. It was nice to not feel rushed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Vinobraní is the traditional grape harvest that takes place in September. It's also a celebration that kick starts the harvest season in the vineyards. Throughout Moravia, people get together to celebrate with a parade, traditional costumes, folk art, lots of food and plenty of burčák.
Natalie's parents, Roger and Robyn, came from New Zealand for a European holiday. And of course, to visit their daughter. On Saturday, Audrey and I joined in and we all headed to the vinobraní at Uherské Hradiště, about 80 km east of Brno.
Robyn's cousin, Linda, lives in Prague so she met us at the festival. The festival was lots of fun and we sure enjoyed the burčák.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Personal Physician

Under Czech law, employees have to have a general physical to prove that they are healthy enough to work.

People who have physically strenuous jobs or who work split shifts need a yearly physical. Since I have an office job and only work day shifts then I just need a physical every two years.

In the ČR, everyone has a personal physician. Since the doctors at the clinic all speak English then it was a no-brainer to select the clinic as my personal doctor. In order to do this all I had to do was fill out a short form. The fee for visiting a doctor is 30 Kč (~$1.50). Significantly cheaper than the $10 - $20 co-pays in the U.S.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Irina's Black & White Party

Last night was Irina's Black & White party. It was officially an "end of summer" party and unofficially her belated birthday party.

The festivities started with dinner on the rooftop of Empire Terrace in the city center. As each person arrived he or she drew a card with the name of a real person or a fictional character. The game was to act in character for the entire evening.

I ended up with James Bond so it was very easy to get in to character. All I had to do was drink martinis. However, in Europe, martinis are not like martinis back home.

In the U.S., a martini is either vodka or gin, with a dash of vermouth, served straight up or on the rocks. My personal favorite is a "dirty" vodka martini which just means that there is some olive juice with the vodka.

Here, when you order a martini, you are served either dry or sweet Martini & Rossi vermouth. The closest I can get to a real martini here is just to order vodka with an olive. Oh well, what can you do?

Afterwards we ended up dancing at a local club. It was a great time hanging out with friends.