Highlights: Czech Republic

OlomoucPoet's Corner Hostel: Pretty much the cosiest, friendliest, most helpful hostel around. It feels like an apartment and they have info and recommendations for loads of things within about a five country radius. They also directed us to nearly all of the Olomouc highlights listed here.

Svatováclavský Pivovar: A microbrewery offering the best hefeweizen of my (eli) beerdrinking career, as well as the place we (casey) discovered Czech white wine. Also featuring a menu with an incredible deliciousness-to-budget ratio.

Olomouc Muzeum of Art: We went because there was an exhibit by a Polish sculptor, but found ourselves quite please with the rest of the collection as well: chair design from the past 200 or so years and a section on the Czech art nouveau movement including a couple pieces by a new personal favorite, Vojteč Preissig.

Kavarna Cafe Bar Piccolo: Warm raspberries with ice cream are something of a Czech favorite when it comes to dessert and the Piccolo Cafe was, across the board, recommended as the place for it. And rightfully so.

Street art: Hard to explain this, exactly, except to say that there was just really cool street art, much of it quite small, seemingly everywhere around town. Stencils, the tetris sidewalk (see the Olomouc. Olla-moats. post for photo), and even some cool 3D foam-core.

Prague Mamacoffee: A cafe/coffeeshop right in the downtown area that's comfortable and atmospheric enough to sit and read or write or chat, with a staff that's kind enough to allow it and a menu that's tasty enough to encourage it. Also featuring lots of info on what's going on around town, as well as a small selection of totally hip but awesome paper products from...

Papelote: Simple paper products for journals and sketchbooks and whatever else you feel like attaching them to or putting in them. Felt sleeves, cloth pencils rolls, elastic pen clips. Check. Check. Check. Like I said, totally hip, but also really awesome.

Futura Project: An exhibition space and art center on Prague's west side. Unfortunately, we didn't actually get to see anything here, as mentioned in the Prague post, but it's clear from their website that they have their noses in all sorts of good happenings.

Petřín Hill: Also covered in the Prague post!

Malý Buddha: A vegetarian restaurant on between the castle and Petřín Hill with the most refreshing ginger salad this side of...somewhere very far away. Delicious.

De-sign: A little handmade/local craft boutique shop that we found out about from one of the aforementioned pamphlets in Mamacoffee. They largely sell beautifully painted and designed porcelain wares, as that's where their interests lie, but that's just it - the owners actually make all nearly everything in the store, and know and work closely with the people who made the rest.

The public transportation system: Efficient, easy to use, and best of all, on time. Thanks, Prague.

In General Kamenice swimming hole: I'm not even sure exactly where this was, except that it was near the town of Kamenice in eastern Bohemia. Our Workaway hosts shared it with us. What it is is the most perfect quarry swimming hole with pure clean water that's deep enough to jump in anywhere around it but still manages to be warm enough. It also has a cliff wall with about eight or ten different jumping heights so if one meter isn't high enough for you, Mr. or Mrs. Thrillseeker, you can go for something more like ten or twelve meters.

Czech Wine: Already sort of covered but in short, it's delicious and, at least within the country, cheap. We stayed mostly in the white category, as it was pretty hot while we were there, and of those found particular favorites in the Müller-Thurgau and Veltlínské Zelené varieties.

Learning basket weaving and spoon whittling: Part of our after-hours activities while at our Workaway, picked up under the tutelage of and alongside our co-workers. Who knew Tetrapaks had such a second life waiting?

Conversation and idea sharing over ridiculously good meals at Nový Mlýn: Hard to put the value of this into words, though I guess I already tried in the Nový Mlýn post. Nothing beats a brain stimulating conversation shared over an amazing home-cooked dinner.

Location:Budapest, Hungary

(re)Discovering Prague

Expectations are a finicky thing that have a tendency of sticking around. This seems especially so while traveling - every place and person and, even sometimes, ingredient is buzzing with mystery and challenging you to find the familiar to weave it all together with. Some places seem to unravel and organize themselves before you in some kind of divine animation. Others not so much - immediately exposing the reality that you've come someplace with your mind full of notions, personal stories and dreamy ideas, even though you told yourself to try really hard not to do so. It is inevitable, really, since we humans do this with just about everything in that great big cloud of concept called the future. The process of disarming oneself, untangling those expectations from your brain wrinkles and replacing them with actual experiences is delicate, at times invoking some feet dragging stubbornness. But within that process is the search. The sweeping off of the path, the putting it together brick by brick. The creation of what a place is, rather than what you thought it might, could, or should be. This, for us, was Prague.

Neither of us had visited the city before, yet we both have our own small heaps of stories of friend's visits, recommendations, and assurances that it is a place we would love. This was also the first big city we stayed in without couch surfing or having a friend living there. We essentially went in cold, as most people visit most places - hence the heavy reliance on expectations. This is not to say in anyway that Prague is not a gorgeous city or was not enjoyed thoroughly by either of us. It just might be that we would've had an easier time seeing it for what it is if we had visited several years ago. Instead, we worked harder than usual to uncover an identity and were rewarded for our efforts. Under the pile of globally known stores and tourist hacks, beneath the layers of sloppy graffiti tags pretty much anywhere your eye can find, and hiding in random corners were our gems of the city.

Take the image above, for example. We heard from a fellow volunteer at Nový Mlýn about the orchards on Petřín Hill. Nowhere are these mentioned in any of the maps or articles we had scoured, and the walk up and over Petřín is a steep and winding path that takes you right through a small theme park like space at the top, complete with a mini Eiffel tower viewing platform. Once we rested for a minute and let our sweaty brows dry - amidst the throng of people spending money to see a view of the city that you can see if you walk up the hill and don't take the tram - we walked on towards the castle side. There lie fields and fields of fruit trees (apple, pear, apricot and probably others) which were planted for the people of the city to use freely. Much of the low hanging fruit had been picked clean (it is rumored that at the right time you can witness many old Czech women with baskets full) but we managed to snag, and thoroughly spit clean and shine, two crisp and tasty apples. Eli was just finishing his while taking in the view from the tabletop, which is a pretty idyllic way to view a cityscape.

On our brief walk through the castle grounds, we saw three guards marching through the square and scurried along behind them (while many folks paused and clicked a photo of the march but kept moving on) all the way to the gate where their Candyland-like watches are. There we witnessed a strict, but slick and silent, changing of the guard with a group of senior citizens cooling off in the shade:

On other days we hung out at a really good, local cafe for a bit and went on a treasure hunt of connecting the dots between seeming cool, small, design-focused shops that are scattered around Prague. Given that we just missed a pretty awesome festival that took place mid-summer, it was more difficult to find continuity of art/design here at first. However, once we found one place, we dug through pamphlets and posters and events calendars to scope out the rest. A small publication called Hunting Off Track fed us with a handful of shops where we ogled all of the goods and made some notes. After speaking at length with one of the owners, we found out that it was a new zine and she was glad to hear that it was working...the community for places like hers was just starting to form.

We were happy to stumble upon the Artbanka Museum of Young Art, housed right at the base of the Charles Bridge. We had just fought our way across the landmark, which would likely be beautiful at sunrise or late-night when less people, tchotchke hawkers and caricature artists are lined up on either side. The venue is the only of it's kind in the Czech Republic, a nonprofit that supports young artists by purchasing work, exhibiting it, and renting it to institutions, companies and individuals. It also happens to be housed in an absolutely huge old palace and is so worth the time:

Thus, the gleaming little nuggets that we dug out of our pockets at the end of our four and a half day stay are still resonating with us. There is more fantastic Czech rosé to be sipped at Bokovka, paddleboat rides down the Vltava river and a monestary brewery awaiting our next visit, whenever that is; observations we will add to some of the good advice we heeded and the things we may have missed.

Location:Budapest, Hungary

Nový Mlýn

4km walking in, 4km walking out. The bookends of our two week workstay at the most excellent Nový Mlýn (new mill), 70 miles south of Prague next to the little Czech village of Černovice. Here is where we honed our proper scything technique, planted some broccoli and built a fence to keep the goat named Dijon off the roof. Here is where we cooked for (on a rotating schedule) and ate with a group totaling 11 - everyone upping the ante at every meal using herbs and vegetables straight from the spiral garden. And here is where we had conversation after conversation with those 11 on everything ranging from food ethics to superhero films, global politics to pocket knife sharpening.

Nový Mlýn, as the farm-in-progress is known, is just that: a farm property with a bunch of outbuildings ranging in age from old to really old. It's in the middle of nowhere, give or take, right on the border between the south Moravian and Bohemian regions of the Czech Republic, surrounded by rolling farm hills and beautiful tall pine forests that harbor a ridiculous number and variety of mushrooms. Most of the walks taken with the dog, Bunbury, were accompanied by a basket and a knife to harvest these, all of which were then put through a rigorous system of checks and balances (ie. unanimous vote of safety plus mushroom identifying book) before eating. This kind of teamwork, cheesy as that may sound, sort of seems to fit our time here well. The 11 of us got on from the start better than I would've guessed possible; everyone seeming not only capable but also willing to jump in on whatever needed to be done, be it building window boxes, digging holes, looking after the incubator...the list goes on and on. I'd like to think that we contributed as much as we gained, but I left feeling so much more motivated and inspired than when we arrived that it's a little hard to imagine. We have Mike, Nic, Rosie, Tom, Clare, James, Trevor, Maggie and Matt to thank for this.

On the more straightforward logistical side, Nový Mlýn is a pretty inspiring place. It is wood heated by a furnace that can take regular wood or the compressed pellets (for a more regulated heat, generally used in the winter). This process is human dependent, of course - the gathering of wood, starting of fire and maintenance of the furnace takes places when hot water is needed. The ash is then used to layer over the dry toilet which is collected in compostable bags and buried, fertilizing more of the land. As I mentioned, we took loads of produce from the garden for all of our meals, had wild mushrooms and greens, and a small (but growing!) supply of eggs from the hens. I'm not educated enough to describe the perfect system for this sort of thing, but it certainly seems that this is headed in the right direction.

Not to be too serious about it all, though: in between the daily work tasks there were some haircuts, some crafternoons (see our Learning Things post below), some high jumps into deep swimming holes, a night out in Tabor featuring a jazz musician who went to Berklee and honey mead at a medieval times pub, and a constant war effort against the strike-first wasp colony. I even got to indulge in a bit of guitar playing and (gasp!) design work, helping to put together labels for the upcoming line of Nový Mlýn Pickled Beetroot And Fennel, and other tasty things - something of a creative treat after being away for four months. We left on Monday the 29th after two incredibly short weeks, shouting a long goodbye as we began our 4km walk back to Černovice the same way we'd come in.

Location:Prague, Czech Republic