Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Every December I return to Chicago to spend the holidays with my family. After all the gifts are exchanged, the ridiculously huge dinners devoured, and only thing remaining in the tins of Christmas cookies are crumbs, I start looking around for new things to do in the Chicagoland area. Several years ago I read an article about Galos Salt Caves, an artificial cave lined with Crimean salt crystals that had opened on the north side of the city. The salt is is produced by allowing water from the Black Sea to flow into special pools, where it is slowly dried in the sun over four to five years. According to the Polish company that builds the caves around the world, the resultant salt crystals are a “delicate pink color like wings of a flamingo or young Cabernet wine. Big salt crystals shimmer like diamonds and have a delicate flowery smell.”

I was intrigued. I had read articles about health benefits derived from being at the seashore, where the crashing of waves on the shore creates a negatively ionized atmosphere thought to have a positive effect against free radicals, increase oxygen intake, elevate mood, and relieve stress. So why not a salt-lined cavern? Each year I vowed to check them out but I just never found the time. And then I was unexpectedly invited to Poznan, Poland. I was flipping through a tourism brochure, trying to decide how to spend in my last two days in Poznan when I spotted an ad for Galos Salt Caves. I’d always assumed the facility was built in Chicago because it is home to the world’s second largest population of Poles. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would travel halfway around the world to visit a salt cave in Poland.

The Galos Salt Caves in Poznan, Poland

The Galos Salt Caves in Poznan, Poland

Unable to resist, I headed there first thing the next morning. The attendant instructed me to remove my shoes and handed me a pair of footie socks to put on before entering the psychedelically lit cave. The attendant first instructed us to walk around on the large salt crystals that covered the floor, as they provided a good foot massage. After a minute or so, I settled into one of the chaise lounges set up in a semi-circle, Read More

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Poland wasn’t even been a blip on my radar when I decided to wander around Eastern Europe this year. I knew I’d be visiting the Czech Republic, after which I intended to continue to Slovenia, Croatia, and points south, but when Prague turned into a giant disappointment I began to rethink my route. About the same time I received an email that invited me to visit Poznan, Poland. With no concrete plans holding me back I thought, “Why not?” Two days later I hopped onto the morning PolskiBus in Prague, changed to a train in Wroclaw, Poland, and rolled into Poznan later that same afternoon.

The following day began my acquaintance with this mid-size city that is the capital of Western Poland. A walking tour led through parks and past myriad memorials dedicated to the various uprisings that eventually led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution, a bloodless coup that resulted in Polish independence, and Citadel Park was a monument to World War II. But my history lesson really began when we stepped onto the small island in the center of the Warta River, which runs through the middle of Poznan. The Kingdom of Poland began on that very spot and the country’s first rulers were buried in Poznan’s 10th century cathedral, whose stately twin spires still rise over the island. Over the ensuing centuries Poznan was sacked by invaders, divided into separate duchies, destroyed by floods and fires, devastated by plague, and endured a series of wars and attendant military occupations that virtually destroyed the city.

Ornate Town Hall dominates Old Market Square in Poznan, Poland

Ornate Town Hall dominates Old Market Square in Poznan, Poland

With that history in mind, my expectations for the Old Town were decidedly low as we headed for the Old Market Square to watch the mechanical goats pop out of Poznan’s Town Hall clock tower at noon. We turned the final corner and my jaw dropped open in Read More

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Kamil Olszowy, the public relations manager for the Town of Poznan and my guide for the day, led me into the Old Market Square just a few minutes before noon. He pointed up to the central tower of the Old Town Hall.

“Don’t expect too much.” he said apologetically. “It’s mostly for children.”

On the appointed hour, a set of small wooden doors in the tower swung open. The crowd murmured a collective “awwwwwww” as two mechanical billy goats slid out, turned to face one another, and butted heads.

Mechanical billy goats emerge from Old Town Hall tower at noon each day in Poznan, Poland

Mechanical billy goats emerge from Old Town Hall tower at noon each day in Poznan, Poland

The legend behind the animated display says that many years ago a cook who was preparing a banquet for dignitaries burned the roast deer he was to serve. Panicked, he looked for an alternative and found two goats in a nearby meadow. He dragged them to the kitchen but the goats escaped and ran up a flight of stairs, emerging in the tower. When they began butting heads they attracted the attention of townsfolk, who gathered below and began to laugh. Because of the entertainment the cook was pardoned and two mechanical goats were incorporated into the new clock being made for the building. Read More

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More than 15 years ago, one of my co-workers vacationed in Prague. The Czech Republic was only a few years out of communism at the time, and she described an Old Town Square with exquisite architecture and locals overflowing with gratitude for tourists. That image hung in my head like a ripe plum waiting to be picked, growing juicier and more delicious with every passing year, so when I finally arranged to visit Eastern Europe this summer Prague was my obvious first stop.

Crowds choke Old Town Square in Prague, making it hard to enjoy the exquisite architecture

Crowds choke Old Town Square in Prague, making it hard to enjoy the exquisite architecture

I wish I could say that it met my expectations. The architecture of Old Town Square was stunning, including the magnificent Disneyesque Our Lady before Tyn Church, whose twin spires peek over the square like a Gothic castle, and the equally beautiful baroque St. Nicholas Church. Off to one side of the square, the famous Astronomical Clock is mounted on the southern wall of Old Town City Hall. Installed in 1410, it is the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still functioning. Each hour, animated figures representing the twelve apostles, greed, vanity, pleasure and death emerge from doorways in the face of the clock while the skeleton (death) strikes the hour. Read More

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The view from my vacation rental apartment in Prague would have been perfect but for an ugly, sterile tower poking up behind lovely old buildings that gleamed golden in the late afternoon sunshine. The more I looked at it, the more I wondered what it was and why it was there.

Ugly Zizkov Television tower pokes up behind pretty buildings in Prague Czech Republic

Ugly Zizkov Television tower pokes up behind Prague’s pretty buildings

My map identified it as the Zizkov Television Tower and Google provided the rest of the details. Construction on this unattractive three-pronged mega-tower began in 1985, when Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) was still one of the Soviet Bloc countries. From the beginning, residents resented and were highly suspicious of the true function of the tower. Rumors circulated that it was intended to jam incoming western radio and television transmissions. Official criticism was banned, however privately people referred to it by a variety of offensive nicknames that referenced its rocket-like design. Read More

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After a month of too-fast travel around England, a whirlwind tour of Morocco, and three brief days in Paris, I arrived in Prague. I was so far behind on my writing that my stress level was pegging the red zone and I was tired. Very, very tired. Fortunately, my friends at GowithOh had arranged for me to stay in one of their holiday rental apartments for a week. I was looking forward to settling in one place for a while and, with the availability of good wifi, cranking out some great travel stories about the places I’d lately visited.

The accommodation was advertised as a cozy apartment near the center of Prague, with living room, dining area and kitchenette and good access to public transportation. The pictures looked gorgeous and the description sounded great, but as a seasoned traveler I know that photos can lie and flowery copy can be deceiving, so I held my breath as I unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Parquet wood floors led down a short hall to a bright living room, where I dropped my luggage and perused my home away from home for the next week. Live plants complemented the tasteful tangerine and pale green decor, which included sofa, two Danish recliners, coffee table, and a flat-screen TV.

Living room in my GowithOh holiday rental apartment in Prague

Living room in my GowithOh holiday rental apartment in Prague

The small kitchen was well-equipped for cooking, though I doubted I would use much more than the microwave for tea, since the owners of the apartment also owned the restaurant downstairs and offered a free breakfast each morning and a 10% discount on dinners during my stay. However it was nice to know that I could save on food costs if I chose by cooking my own meals. Read More