Friday, July 18, 2014

Honolulu- Surf and fun at Waikiki Beach !

Sunset in Honolulu go well with sun-downers. 

Uncle Gill put his arms around me and said "Papa , I like Dad's who participate in activities with their children. Many Papa's just send their children for the activities and sit and drink beer. Very good that you went surfing with them. Family that do things together always stay together !"

With our fine instructor 'Uncle Gill'

We had just finished a grueling 90 minute of surfing lesson at Waikiki beach at Honolulu, Hawaii. I was bruised and battered and tired. Uncle Gill had made us work hard. We would go with the surf, try to get up and then fall into the sea. Then we had to drag the surf board all the way into the sea to be lectured by Uncle Gill that we were not listening to him. This carrying and dragging of surf boards was exhausting. Uncle Gill would bawl fresh instructions in his gruff voice and strange accent and we went in again on surfboard with the same results. The sea bed had rough rocks which would hurt the feet while walking. The beach was crowded and one had to be very careful. While the kids Sanya and Kartik managed to do wonders by the end of the session, I kept toppling over.

There were theory classes followed by the actual thing.

Towards the end of the session as I toppled over and got up, a beginner on a surfboard lost her balance and her surfboard smashed into my upper jaw. I saw stars all over. I thought my jaw had broken. Thankfully I survived with just some swelling. That ended my dreams of being a surfer ! At least on this trip !
Surfing is a passion with people in Hawaii just as it is in Australia. The Northern beach of Honolulu boasts of the best surfs and great surfers. The sea is wild there and there are many drownings and accidents there. I was astounded to watch a TV programme showing how many people get crippled a year trying to master the waves. Yet people carry on as if nothing has happened. It is a dangerous sport - no doubts about it.

Surfing is a way of life here.
We had arrived in Honolulu a night earlier. From San Francisco the flight was of more than 5 hours.The United flight was comfortable but you had to buy your own food and drinks and the food was awful.
Luckily it was night when we arrived in the city so we missed out seeing a big town with tall buildings. One had traveled to the middle of Pacific Ocean to be near the nature and not to encounter the freeways, the tall buildings and thousands of cars. It would have been a huge disappointment if we had encountered all this soon after landing. Our hotel Marriott Waikiki beach was well located and we had a decent sea view room. We found a decent Italian restaurant just near the hotel and as it was late at night , Devicka and the kids decided to call it a day. I was a bit more energetic so took a walk down the Kalakaua Avenue. I liked what I saw. There were a lot of colorful boutique shops having Hawaiian identity. They sold stuff not seen normally in shops around the USA. There was a lot of color in the shops and I was tempted to buy a Hawaiin shirt at that very moment.The shops were open till late. There were quite a few restaurants, and even late at night there was a lot of activity on the road. One thing that really strikes you in Honolulu is that you almost feel that you are in Japan ! The place is full of Japanese tourists and as a consequence you see many Japanese restaurants.

Waikiki Beach and Kalakaua Avenue 

The tall concrete hotels border the beach

One associates a beach with serenity, shacks and a beach road having small shops and restaurants. Waikiki beach is covered with tall concrete buildings. The beach is over crowded most of the times but water is crystal clear. There are a lot of water sports and activities happening all the time. It does have a beach road and thankfully it has some lovely shops and some good restaurants.
Each morning we would go swimming in the sea and the water would be cold but refreshing. One had to choose a safe side so that one would not be in the way of surfers. As evening would set in, the people would sit in restaurants and the music and sun downers would flow. Most restaurants had live band playing.

This is a common sight in the evenings

We did try a lot of restaurants and the good one's were Tiki's and Duke's. Waikiki is a tourist dominated area so one has to be prepared to pay a hefty bill if one goes to a reputed restaurant. There were a few very good Italian places as well and one could always pop into the Cheesecake factory located very centrally. There was a food court also but the food was pretty bad there.
It is however the ubiquitous Japanese Restaurants which remained full due to so many Japanese tourists.

Shopping at Waikiki

The entire Kalakaua avenue is full of shops . Not only do they have the boutique stores but also big names like Macy's. But a little further away is a huge  open-air shopping center. Ala Moana happens to be the world's largest outdoor shopping center.A pink line shopping shuttle takes you there for a fixed fare of $2 per person. Service is pretty good but while coming back we had to stand in a long queue. The funny part is that someone had told us about this trolley but whenever we would see a trolley there would be a lot of Japanese sitting in them. When we tried to enter them, we were told that trolley was reserved. An American who was watching us smiled and told us to take the pink trolley . Japanese tourists had made sure that they chartered the other trolleys on island with a guide.

The shopping trolly

The Ala Moana was quite well laid out and one could have spent a lot of time there. On an upper floor they had a lot of good restaurants and we decided to go fora Chinese meal on 4th Level called the Royal Garden. The food was really nice here and it was a very comfortable restaurant.

We were welcomed by the call of Aloha in each shop and restaurant we went to. People here were very nice and friendly. People would be very fascinated that we had come all the way from India.This was not surprising as we did not see many Indians in Hawaii. The Indians who do go to Hawaii are the ones settled in USA. In terms of time zone, Honolulu was more than 15 hours behind Delhi. It would have been simpler to go back home from here via China or Japan but our tickets did not permit that. We would have to go back on SFO-NYC-MUNICH- DELHI route spending hours and hours of endless time at the Airports and in the Aircraft's. But I am not complaining ! In any case we were not leaving Hawaii as yet. Our next destination was the island of Maui which was around an hours flight away ...............

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Prague - Goodbye to Communism

The Graffiti Wall known as John Lennon wall.

We actually stumbled upon the John Lennon wall accidently. We had crossed over the Charles Bridge and were exploring the lesser town (Mala Strana) area. We had stopped at Kampa island area when we had taken a round on hop on hop off bus so now tried reaching it through narrow cobbled lanes when we saw this beautifully painted wall. The vibrant colors and the images of John Lennon makes it an immediate attraction where you want to stop and click a few snaps.

Prague had been under Communist rule for several decades so in 80's students found an outlet by using this wall as a graffiti wall inspired by the lyrics of Beatles songs. The wall became symbol of freedom and rebellion. So much so that in 1988 there was a major clash on and around Charles Bridge between the students and Government over the graffiti messages. Not much of the original wall remains as it has been painted over, but the colorful Lennon wall is still quite popular with artists and tourists.

It is a long privately owned wall. The owners don't mind it being used as Graffiti. 

The period from 1948 to 1989 was a very dark and dismal era for Czechoslovakia. Under a totalitarian rule there was no freedom of speech; there were purges; executions were common; there were shortages of essential commodities; religion was considered to be enemy; raids were conducted at homes for illegal literature; and interrogations, spying on citizens and harsh punishments for any kind of rebellion activity was a norm. It is difficult to imagine a lively and colorful city such as Prague being home to lakhs of suffering people in those gloomy days where overnight, the rich  became poor and artists were made to do menial work.
 I asked a friendly taxi driver about that era and he said that he was too young at that time but he said that his family had suffered a lot and they are thankful that the nightmare had come to an end. He suggested that I visit the museum of communism to get a first hand experience of the life and time of those days. For some reason I did not have the courage to go there. Maybe I would do it the next time. 
This was a good taxi driver who was friendly and honest. Unfortunately on the first day itself we had got rooked by a taxi driver and made sure that then onward we fixed the price in advance before we boarded a taxi.

Mala Strana (The Little Quarters)

The Mala Strana area is very lovely. Many tourists who come for a short visit often miss out spending time here as they are concentration on Old Town square.The ancient houses are really nice and most hotels are set in ancient buildings.Many people prefer staying here as it is quieter and more beautiful than other parts of the town. The side roads are cobbled and I was told that a visit at night will make you feel as if you are in ancient Prague as these cobbled lanes are lantern lit. The churches, the cafes, the pubs and the atmosphere make this side of Prague a lovely area to take a stroll and have a meal.

Once you are at the Mala Strana square you can walk on the delightful Nerudova Street up which you can walk to reach the castle district, the Church of St. Nicholas, Petrin Hill, and the Wallenstein Gardens.
The residential area is not very far as you walk in this area of Mala Strana. The houses are lovely and one would be much better off coming here to the restaurants for nice meals. The Old town is a tourist trap and though the atmosphere is good, the food is very mediocre at a very hefty price. Here, you would get great food at half the price !

Visiting the Castle 

How can you go to Prague and not visit the castle ? The castle is omnipresent in Prague. It stands out from whatever direction you look. It stands tall on a hill. From Mala Strana square many people climb up on foot. We decided to go by tram. It was very convenient as you can buy a ticket anywhere, validate it on the tram and depending on the price you have paid, you get the number of hours for which you can use any tram in city. The castle is beautiful . It looks stunning at night. 

 We took one of the gates and soon could see the kind of carvings and paintings that had gone into the castle. It had beautiful courtyards, intricately carved buildings and a very pretty chapel inside the St Vitus cathedral. 

We did not take a full castle tour. We have seen too many castles to spend a few hours exploring another one. The kids would have protested had we decided to explore the full castle ! In fact we did not buy any ticket at all. Many people had gathered outside for the change of guard ceremony and the courtyard was full of people. Most people were tourists who travel in groups with a guide. Entry into the chapel was free and fortunately there wasn't a very big line to enter the chapel so it was a good idea to go inside and admire the beautiful work inside the chapel.

At the Chapel inside the St Vitus Cathedral

Birds of Prey

As we walked towards the Royal Gardens we stumbled across the birds of Prey. There were exotic birds of this region and we were told that they were being looked after by an organisation here. The kids loved these birds and this size of owl was unheard of anywhere in India. For the photographs we paid some donation and we ended up spending almost half an hour here being fascinated by these birds.

Have you seen Owl of this size ?

Winceslas Square and the clubs

Wenseslas square with National Museum and if you look carefully, the statue of St Wenselas on a horse.

Wenceslas square is the 2nd most popular square of Prague and I would say it is more of a boulevard rather than square. This vibrant boulevard is a shopping and entertainment area more like other shopping areas of Europe. Once you are in Wenceslas square it is difficult to imagine that communists did not allow free enterprise here as this place is what defines the free enterprise as it has all the big names of retail , cafes, banks and restaurants. For 2 days we kept visiting Wenceslas square by cabs and paying a hefty amount . Then we realised the square was walking distance from our apartment through the Old Town square. This shows how compact the old town actually is. Though the square is next to the Old Town square, the area is referred to as 'New Town.' .
People come to Wenceslas square for the National Museum and and shopping. The Prague Opera house is also located here. The entire day the restaurants and the pubs are busy selling the famous beers of Czech Republic. The Czechs take pride that they make the best beer in the world. I liked the Staropramen Beer the best followed by Krusovice. I didn't much care for the popular Pilsner Urquell. Czechs are indeed crazy about beer. Many would be sitting and having beer when we would be having our breakfast !

Wenceslas square also has a busy nightlife with a few famous strip clubs located here. The most popular being the Red Pepper , Darling Cabaret and The Goldfinger. These are pretty safe places to go with no cover charge. Special deals are given for Bachelor's night for which youngsters from all all the Europe troop in to celebrate their friends' bachelor nights. The package includes stay and good time !

Before I conclude my marathon series on this beautiful city I must say the Old Town has some of the most exquisite Crystal shops. Carry a lot of money if you want to bring back some.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Prague- The Old Town Square is wonderful and Architecture is superb.

The National Theatre is something the Czechs are proud of. 

As you look around from the Charles Bridge, the gleaming Golden roof of a building catches your attention. The roof gleams even more when it is nice and sunny. It looks spectacular at night.


It looks quite near but it took us a good 20 minutes to reach there when we walked down to it. The building is The National Theatre of Prague and I was told that it was constructed in late 19th century with most of the contributions from Public. It was supposed to be a symbol of Czech national revival at that time and today it is the most important cultural symbol of Praha (Prague). There was no show running at the time of our visit but concerts, drama , Opera and Ballet are regularly held here. The story is that just days before the Theater was scheduled to open in 1881, it was completely gutted by fire. But the Czechs collected money in 6 weeks and rebuilt the entire Theater in 2 years and it opened with great fanfare in 1883.

The Astronomical Clock

It was around 11.45 PM when we reached the Old Town Square. We were pretty stunned to see hundreds of people gathered together and looking up at what is known as the Astronomical Clock. We didn't know what was happening so we also stood along with the crowd. 

As the time turned 12, a lot of things started happening above the dial of the clock. The dial also has significance and meaning but I will let that pass. The wooden figures of Apostles appeared from inside and many of the sculptures begin to move at the same time. The golden cockerel crows and the clock chimes the hour. This happens each hour but at 12'O Clock it happens 12 times ! With the show over, the crowd dissipates and involves itself into many activities which are happening at the square. I meet up with Kunaal and we pick up a Beer each and move on to board the Hop On & Hop Off Bus for a city trip. 

Hopped On but did not Hop off

I think we just wasted our money by taking this trip. Prague is not a very large city and most of it is walkable. Secondly, if you do a bit of study, you can manage with their efficient tram system which is quite affordable. You could buy a full day pass for the tram and use it all over the city. There were around 8 stops and as we had boarded the bus quite late, we did not get off at any stop. It is another matter that we got a fair idea of places so in the next few days we walked to those places or rode the tram. As the bus took us to some of the high points of the city, I managed to get a nice picture of the city from the top.
Once this trip was over we trooped back towards the square for a delayed but well deserved lunch.

The Old Town Square

At the Old Town you would think that Tyn Church and Astronomical clock are all that is there to see . Ask the lovers of architecture and they will tell you that they could spend days together admiring and studying the buildings and houses around the square. Houses such as 'At the Blue Goose', 'At the Golden Angel' , 'At the stone table', 'Storch House', Kinsky Palace' etc etc. Buildings of different periods and different eras co-exist here. For us ordinary tourists, they were a visual delight but for the experts - each building was a gem.
A lot is happening all the time at the Square to entertain the tourists. But it is the buildings and architecture which takes your breath away. 
Our kids also participated in all activities at the square

Street food at the square
These foods are very popular

Tyn Church is a Gothic Church.

Was this Church an inspiration for castle in Disney's Sleeping Beauty ? Difficult to say but this church again is a landmark of the city and it is lit up beautifully at night. It is a Gothic Church with Baroque interior. You do get overawed by this superb structure. 

Tyn Church lit up at night.

Each building is classy

Racism Exists 

Mattoni- A restaurant only for fair skinned !

Our plans for lunch at a prominent restaurant at the Old Town Square were hit as we were not allowed to take a seat. A lame excuse was given that the restaurant was only for hotel guests. It was a little later when an African woman realised that she was being discriminated against as everyone else but dark skinned people were being allowed by the restaurant to enter, she became hysterical. When Jyoti confronted the owner and asked him about this discrimination his reply was : "This is my place and I will do what I please !"  
Such incidents leave a bad taste in mouth. But we consider it as an exception as at no other place did we feel discriminated against.

We visited Old Town square almost each day. But other parts of the city like Winceslas Square, Lesser Town and the Castle were not ignored. Will write about them in the concluding part soon..................

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Prague the fairy tale City - Charles Bridge & around

Our first View of Prague from the Charles Bridge. 
To start enjoying holiday after a grueling travel schedule one requires a good night’s sleep and this we got at an apartment we had rented from ‘Old Town Square Apartments.’ Apparently they have hired a few apartments around the historic old square and rent them out to tourists. So they don’t have one fixed place. It helped that they had arranged the cab that brought us to the apartment in the evening. The apartment was small but cute with 2 rooms and a small kitchen. It was right in the middle of action and as soon as you went down the lift and came out in the open- you were swarmed by the milling tourists. Yet, the apartment itself was quiet though it did not offer any views.

The Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge
By 10 AM we were ready to explore the city and on coming out of the apartment we turned left and in 5 minutes we found ourselves near the tower from where the famous Charles Bridge started spanning. For almost 650 years this bridge has been only for pedestrians and historically it has a great significance. The first sculpture, St. John of Nepomuk, was placed upon the bridge in 1683. It was such a hit that the church commissioned another 21 statues, which were created between 1698 and 1713. Since then the number has increased to 30. Each statue has a meaning and significance and tourists with guidebooks in hand spend hours on the bridge going from statue to statue. The bridge had been built by King Charles IV and it is the most prominent landmark of Prague. Spanning 510 meters, it made sure that one round resulted in a kilometer of walk for us !
One of the 30 statues at Charles Bridge
As we got onto the Charles Bridge, the stunning view of the Red and White buildings beyond the river captivated us. It is a kind of image which instantly makes you say ‘Wow!’ The entire landscape looked fresh and it sparkled under the mid morning sun. Behind it we could see the castle. It was a fairy tale view and cameras were out in a jiffy lest the view would disappear somewhere. The view remained where it was and over the next few days we would enjoy several more views from different vantage points and at different times of day and night.

A Fairy tale image !

Perfect background for a good picture
There was a lot happening on Charles Bridge. The photographers, the tourists, the painters and Musicians lent the atmosphere a great deal of festivity. So much so that even after more than a month when I think of Charles Bridge, the music starts streaming in my ears. I think this streaming will continue whenever I will think of Charles Bridge in a long time to come.

You relate Charles Bridge with the music that is played by these talented musicians.
Newly wed couples, photographers and even acrobats found place on Charles Bridge

It is said that touching this image gives you luck !
Portraits or paintings - everything was done by artists here.
We could have gone beyond the Charles Bridge into unknown territory but it was time to feed ourselves some breakfast so we turned back to the start of the Bridge and noticed many people sitting out in the open at a restaurant. We also decided to do the same. We had thus discovered Klub Lavka.

Klub Lavka


Klub Lavka may be a very popular nightclub of Old Town,but it became popular with my family as we loved sitting here next to the river and the Charles Bridge for some of our breakfasts and for lunch on one of the days. On the first full day itself after a stroll on the Charles Bridge we walked to Klub Lavka and sat outside for a scrambled egg and sausage breakfast. I took a stroll inside and it was a huge place. On the other side also they had a sit out area. I am told that the place is choc a bloc at nights when the music would be loud and revelers in full action. This was also a great place to sit in the afternoon sun and enjoy one of the famous beers of Czech Republic. The day temperature was around 21deg C and there always was a mild cool breeze making it our favorite sit out place. It had terrific views  and it was relaxing sitting here. It is another matter that on one day due to language problem we were served their special lunch instead of special breakfast !

View from Klub Lavka

Family time 

Get under the Charles Bridge for a river cruise !

Now that we had a fair idea about Charles Bridge and its surrounding areas, it was time to walk to the famous Old Town Square where we were meeting my cousin Kunaal, his wife Jyoti and their friends Ashu and Shikha. The first day itself turned out to be a long day as after the Charles Bridge we not only spent time at the Old Town square but also took a city trip on hop on & hop off bus. And when you are with Kunaal, the night belongs to the nightclubs !!

More of all this to follow ...................................