This year was the first year I celebrated my birthday outside of the US. There is a park here in Berlin called Görlitzer Park, which at night can be a pretty sketchy drug market if you’re not careful, but it is also home to an indoor “black-light mini golf” house. I’ve wanted to go there since I came to Berlin, but it requires a reservation before hand and I never found the time/group of friends to actually go. For my birthday, Insa booked an appointment and we went there after stopping for sushi for dinner.

Oh, and she also baked me cupcakes!IMG_20150127_164344IMG_20150127_205421IMG_20150127_215249

If you didn’t know where this building was, or what was inside, you might be a little nervous walking into the park at night. It’s through the gates and down a semi-lit path for a bit before arriving at this clearing and the building, that shares some space with next door restaurants. We signed in for our appointment, got our gear, and headed downstairs. Some of the paintings on the wall are 3D, and they charge an extra Euro for glasses, but you can usually find the glasses left downstairs.

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The place was a lot of fun. I’m glad we went in the winter; I hear it’s pretty hot down there in the summer. Some of the courses are really difficult. (Like the last picture of Insa with the glasses on) It’s also not traditional mini-golf all the time. There was a part of the course where the object was to hit the ball up a wall ramp fast and precise enough to hit a cow bell. After 7 swings each, Insa and I called it quits on that one.

My birthday happened to fall during one of the most busy weeks of the year for my job. We were in the middle of a multi-million dollar office move and several other engineers were flown in from out of country to assist me in getting the new building up and running from a tech infrastructure standpoint. I decided to wait until the weekend after my birthday, when the move would be finished, to take a Friday off so Insa and I could go have a three day weekend in Prague. I had never been to the Czech Republic and heard it was a beautiful city. It’s only 4 hours away from Berlin by train, so we booked out tickets and headed out.

The morning of the trip was cold and windy. Berlin had been dusted by snow the few days previous, so when Insa and I left for the train station at 5:30 am, the city was a frozen ghost town.

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We were taking a Czech train this time. You’ll see them every now and then around the railways of Berlin. They’re usually blue. Inside we found a magazine and Insa tried out her Czech language skills. (She bought a little guide book the week before)

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As we snaked our way through the mountains of Saxony something really crazy happened: Suddenly all the signs were in a different language. It might sound obvious, different country, different language, but it’s really striking to see the difference so quickly. It feels really arbitrary, and of course it is. Their is naturally some cultural/linguistic bleed over in the immediate vicinity of this region, it’s just funny to see the boundary so abruptly drawn.

Getting off the train in Prague, we were suddenly both very aware that we were in a country where neither of us spoke the language. Coming to Germany, I at least knew basic German. I knew where one sentence stopped and another began, I knew where the verbs and nouns usually were. I had a limited but working vocabulary. Here I had nothing. Luckily for Insa and I, English was fairly common. German was too as it turns out. Insa told me about a game she and her French friend would play while traveling together. If you overhear other tourists speaking your language, you get a point. Whoever has the most points wins…or loses depending on how you look at it. There were a LOT of German tourists in Prague, so sometimes the signs were in German as well as Czech.

The hotel we were staying at was the U Pava, a little four star hotel off of the famous Charles Bridge, in the heart of downtown Prague. (We were both sick of hostels and Insa had never been in a really nice hotel, so we decided to try it. Everything is very affordable there comparatively, so that helped too)

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Everything about the room was great…except the spike ceiling…

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We were pretty sure this was going to happen to us in the middle of the night:

After dropping out stuff off at the hotel, we decided to venture out into the city in search of lunch. Insa had found this vegetarian restaurant called “Clear Head” in English. It was really highly rated and so we wanted to give it a try. We were both cold and exhausted from the trip, so it was good to sit down and have something hot to drink and eat.

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The food was really delicious and the restaurant really had an “alternative” vibe. There was one thing I spotted on the menu though that I had to chuckle at:

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After being reinvigorated we ventured out into the city to enjoy the sights.

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The first thing Insa and I wanted to check out was the site of the old castle and church at the top of Prague.

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This guy was really creepy…IMG_20150206_161533 IMG_20150206_162206 IMG_20150206_162823On the way back down the hill we found these popular cinnamon bread…barrel…things… They’re delicious and you unwind the barrel to eat them! The wrap the dough around these metal rolling pin things and rotisserie them, hence the barrel shape.IMG_5278

Prague is very beautiful at night too:

I heard on reddit that there was this really good hidden restaurant, Mlejnice, in the heart of old town, with really great beer goulash. We set out to find it, which proved frustrating at first because neither of us had a data connection on our phones, which makes finding a hidden restaurant more difficult. Right as we were about to give up, we turned down a small side street we overlooked and found it.

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I got a big bowl of beer goulash and a half liter of dark Kozel beer (my new favorite) and was happy.

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The next morning we got up and walked around a park by the river to enjoy the view and the morning:

Presumably a warning about lonely bikers looking for love:

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Insa titles this “Finde den Arsch auf dem Foto” (Find the ass in the photo)IMG_5305 IMG_20150207_105408

He asked, she said no.IMG_20150207_105754 IMG_20150207_111147

The big trip for this day was an excursion an hour outside of Prague to The Sedlec Ossuary, a bone church decorated with the remains of 40,000 people. To do this, we took a bus to Kutná Hora, a small medieval mining town that used to be larger than Prague and the financial center of central Europe, until the black death came and ruined everything.

All of the bones in the following pictures are real. At one point, each of them belonged to a living, breathing, human being with a name, a family, and a life. They may have all been alive at varying times, were perhaps even friends, enemies, or lovers, peasant farmers or rich merchants, but they’re all together in death.

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This mound is 1 of 4…IMG_20150207_135111 IMG_20150207_135131 IMG_20150207_135214 IMG_20150207_135306 IMG_20150207_135502 IMG_20150207_135517 IMG_20150207_135605 IMG_5347 IMG_5352 IMG_5348 For some reason people threw the bones coinsIMG_20150207_140042 It won’t help them now…IMG_20150207_140119

After the bone church, our guide took our small group to the church of St. Barbara, a Gothic church with medieval frescoes.

The tour group we went on consisted of 7 people, a large Turkish man, an Argentinian couple, a Belgian couple, and myself and Insa. When the tour guide was going around asking us where we were from, I said “Canada”, just for a laugh. I didn’t have anything to hide, but I thought it would be funny. Well the guide, who wasn’t the best at English, didn’t get that I was joking, and so Insa and I were sucked into this Canadian lie for the rest of the trip. The guide kept comparing things in Kutná Hora to our “home countries.” Whenever he brought up Canada, Insa and I just looked at each other and laughed quietly. He then started asking me about life in Canada. For the purpose of this trip, I pretended we were from Toronto, because it’s the most American of the Canadian cities, I figured it would be the easiest to fake. I realized halfway though that I was forgetting to say “eh” a lot. I’m a shitty Canadian.

After spending the whole day touring churches and learning of the medieval history of the region, Insa and I got back on our little bus and headed towards Prague.

We stopped at Maitrea, the sister restaurant to “Clear Head” for dinner. It also had a very alternative feel to it. I noticed a strange type of beer on the menu and had to try it:

IMG_20150207_182020It was beer made from the hemp plant. No THC in it, just alcohol. It tasted a bit like aloe vera or something. Was so so.

We walked around the city a bit at night, but were exhausted from all the walking earlier in the day, so we got some more Czech beers and retired to our hotel for the night.

We had pulled the curtains shut in our room. The place was like a big cloth box, soft and warm. When we opened them again in the morning, we discovered that a snow storm had blown into Prague.

I was super excited to go out in the snow. Insa was less than thrilled. She’s grown up with snow and knows how shitty it can be in blustering cold winds and flurries where you can only see a few meters in front of your face. Luckily by the time we had gotten dressed and ate breakfast, the worst of the storm had passed.

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The below pic is of a memorial to those who starved under communism. You can see the statues cracking and breaking away into nothingIMG_20150208_110623

It was our last day in Prague and we planned on climbing Petřínská rozhledna, a 378 meter tall tower that looks like a mini Eiffel tower, on the hillside above the city.

To get up there we took this stair train thing:

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We entered the base of the tower and the whole building smelled like a swimming pool for some reason. We got our tickets and started the long climb. The stairs wrap around the outside of the tower, so you’re open to the elements as you climb.

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But once you get up, the view is amazing…

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Coming down in the strong wind and snow was fun… (warning, a little loud)

After wandering around town for a little bit more, Insa and I had to catch out train back to Germany. We took the underground again and managed to get back to the station where we had to wait to find out what platform our train would be on.

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I had to snap a picture of this. I have no idea what it is, but it looks like a course in IT management that you can take on your iPad through Unicorn College.IMG_20150208_154455

Just so you can get a taste of what Insa and I had to stand around listening to for 30 minutes waiting for our train platform to be announced:

The way back took 4 hours through the night. I got to eat in a dinning car, which was cool. Traveling by train is much more comfortable than by plane. The cabins are big enough to stand up and move around in, you can always go walk around (though be sure to have your ticket on you, as I was stopped during a patrol and had to go sit back down for a bit until they checked) and you can go have a coffee in the dinning car. Traveling at night is pretty neat. I think I mentioned this in the first post on riding a train, but it’s almost like being underground. It’s nothing but black outside the windows, unless you fly past a station or a town. There was a little bit of light from the train as we were going though the countryside. I cupped my hands to peer out into the wilderness; it was nothing but a frozen, snowy void. I could only imagine what it would be like if I fell off the train and was stranded out there, in the middle of nowhere in the cold, without any sign of life for miles.

As the train pulled out of Prague, I was really glad we took the time to take the trip. It was a lot of fun in a beautiful and old city.