While in Prague we heard about the medieval town of Kutna Hora, located about 120 km from Prague, a drive through undulating, Czech Republic farmland. We were informed that Kutna Hora and the neighboring town of Sedlec are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth taking in as a side trip in conjunction with a visit to Prague, so we contacted the Prague tourist agency Premiant City Tour Travel Agency and booked our visit to Kutna Hora. Premiant City Tour offers a number of different tour opportunities in and around Prague, as well as places like Kutna Hora and Dresden, Germany.

We were picked up at our hotel in the morning of our departure for Kutna Hora and began our journey through what turned out to be a little over two hour journey on a comfortable bus through a snow covered landscape. Prague and the Czech Republic had experienced an unexpected, overnight snowfall for this particular, late autumn time of year. Between the commentary about the history of the region given along the way by the tour guide accompanying us and the views of the snow covered fields, forests and towns we passed, the trip to and from the town of Kutna Hora passed quickly.
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We discovered that the area around the town of Kutna Hora was found to be rich in traces of silver in the 10th Century, bringing miners first into the area in the 900s. The medieval town of Kutna Hora was the site of the first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, established there in 1142 AD. The town was, at the time, situated in the Central Region of Bohemia, which is now called the Czech Republic. The town competed with Prague economically from the 13th to the 16th century and was a favorite residence of many Bohemian Kings.
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Our first stop on reaching Kutna Hora was the Sedlec Ossuary, which is a small Roman Catholic chapel next to the Cemetery Church of All Saints. The Ossuary contains the bones from an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 skeletons, which have been artistically arranged to decorate the interior of the chapel. The nearby cemetery became a popular place for burial when the abbot of the Cistercian monastery went to the Holy Land at the request of King Otakar II of Bohemia and returned with a small amount of earth he had removed from the hill in Jerusalem called Golgotha and sprinkled the earth on the abbey cemetery. During the 14th Century with the Black Plague sweeping the country, many thousands were buried in the cemetery. In the 1500s a half-blind monk of the monastery was given the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking the bones in the chapel. Through the years the bones were assembled into artistic decorations and became a great attraction.
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After our stop at the Sedlec Ossuary we traveled over to the magnificent Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist. The Church was built in a Gothic style at the end of the 13th Century. It was destroyed and rebuilt at the beginning of the eighteenth century in the style of the baroque. After the reunification in Germany and the independence of such countries as the Czech Republic the Church went through another restoration in 2001. The architecture both outside and inside is remarkable to behold.
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A walk from the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist into the central part of the town of Kutna Hora took us over a bridge like structure that gave us a view of the hillside on which the town was built, the town, and the building known as the Italian Court. In the center of town, we entered the Italian Court, which was originally the Central Mint of Prague. Because of the silver being mined in the area around Kutna Hora, the town became a natural place to establish minting the coinage used in the Bohemian Kingdom, beginning as far back as the late 13th Century. The original mint became known as the Italian Court because of the Italian experts that were instrumental in the minting reform that took place there. The Italian Court was reconstructed at the end of the 14th Century and became a part-time royal residence. Our tour took us through the rooms in which the coin-makers workshops were housed around the building’s courtyard and up into the museum of coin minting, as well as through the royal chapel and hall of audience, which were once used by Bohemian Kings.

Having gone back in time in this UNESCO World Heritage site and viewed history taking place through a period of almost 900 years covering all aspects of society, we were amazed at the wonderful experience we received from our visit to Kutna Hora and how lucky we were that someone had recommended this tour to us. We also found that instead of hampering our trip to Kutna Hora the snow was like icing on a cake, giving the experience a heightened effect.

Finding picture perfect postcard views on Prague’s Charles Bridge isn’t difficult, but during the peak hours of the tourist season you may need to check yourself and be a little patient.

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“Is it always this crowded?” I asked an arts and crafts vendor on one of the Czech Republic’s iconic and top tourist attractions. It was a little after ten in the morning, and the flow of visitors on the pedestrian only bridge above the meandering Vltava River was in full force.

“Oh, this is not so bad,” she laughed and went on to explain how during the months of June, July, August, and even well into September the Karlov most, as it is known locally, is flooded with wave after wave of tour groups. Good for the many artists and crafts vendors and local economy, bad for the casual strollers.

“Early morning or late in the afternoon are the best times to see the bridge, I think,” she added. She was right both with respect to the crowds as well as the best lighting for photography, digital or otherwise.

Until about 10 a.m. and perhaps a little after five in the afternoon, the bridge offers up some spectacular views of Prague’s hill top Vysehrad castle, the historic river that runs through the heart of the city, and the gothic bridge towers that guard the adjacent old town in fine photographic light.
Just keep in mind that once the many tour groups surge over the centuries old walkway you may find yourself swimming with or against the tourist tide and your only safe bet will be to hug one of the bridge walls until the sauntering deluge subsides.

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However, you can make the most of your wait by taking in the impressive and unique work of local arts and crafts (there’s talent here), the ubiquitous and kitschy souvenir stalls, and one or two talented jazz or Dixieland bands belting out lively tools near the center of the bridge. The pause also provides you with a chance to get your bearings and take in the rich Bohemian flavor that the bridge and the city have to offer.

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It’s a short walk to the Old Town square and Prague’s famous Astronomical clock, the Tyn Church, Jan Hus memorial, St. Nicholas church, and the many outdoor food and wine stalls, and cafes and wine vendors that line the large square.

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Hang out in front of the Astronomical clock a minute or two before the hour and wait for the 15th century mechanical show or the line of Korean couples taking their wedding photos at the site.  For a more modern touch stop by the John Lennon wall on the north side of the bridge and take in the impromptu art, graffiti, and tribute to the late Beatle. While Lennon never actually visited the site, hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists have since his death, leaving notes or flowers to the songwriter and singer who wrote, sang and championed to, `Give Peace a Chance.’

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Finally, there’s this: when you visit the bridge and the city make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes. Avoid heels or trendy but slippery leather soles. The well worn and winding cobblestone streets that lead to the bridge and the uneven stones on the bridge itself can make for a hazardous walk for the unsuspecting strolling sightseer.

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Avoid a stumble, sprained ankle, or face planting fall as you wonder how the stylish and chic Czech women seem to artfully and effortlessly negotiate the problem in high three inch heels.

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h well, there are some mysteries in life that man is never meant to resolve but only ponder over with a great Czech beer in one of the most scenic cities in the world. That too, you can find at either end of the bridge or anywhere in Prague. Cheers! Or in the local vernacular, na zdravi!

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Normally I don’t get anxious when traveling. I do loads of research on my chosen destination, from finding hotels to preparing itineraries, so that by the time of the trip my anxiety is dispelled, and I can look forward to the adventure knowing that most of the details are hammered out. Usually I am traveling with my kids and my husband whose likes and dislikes I know well. A few tasty restaurants (with McDonald’s and local pizza joints spattered throughout) combined with theme parks, a central plaza or two, and a gothic cathedral thrown in for good measure usually pleases everyone.

This time was different because I was traveling with my mother, something we had not done together for over twenty years. We were headed to Prague during Mother`s Day weekend. My hope was to fulfill her lifelong dream: to visit the city from which her ancestors came. The bonus for me was that my kids weren’t with me. I glanced out the window of the airplane and took a deep breath, watching the undulating green pastures, compressed red-roofed towns and winding country roads unfold below me and hoping that the itinerary I had spent so many hours creating would please her and satisfy her curiosity. I wanted her to leave Prague feeling that she knew the city and possessing the confidence to talk it up with her friends, perhaps come back on her own some day. Everything had to go smoothly.

The colors of the countryside gave way to an approach dressed in worn brown and forlorn grey. What would we have thought if not for the blue sky? A chauffer from the hotel met us at the airport in a new black Grand Cherokee. He didn’t speak much English, so we found ourselves not engaging in too much conversation with him, instead talking quietly together in the back of the car. The road into the city was long, winding and populated by much the same hues of grey and brown as the final approach before the plane landed. Not knowing how far we had to go, the sites of graffiti on dilapidated buildings, trash on the sidewalks, and signs with no English translations did not inspire my confidence in the location. Would the hotel be in an acceptable area? Would it be clean? How far from our planned activities would it be? It all made me wonder whether the beautiful pictures from the Internet that had swayed my choice were dependable.

We passed the roller bladers and the radio tower in Petrin Park. The view in the distance offered our first glimpse of the city. From this distance it looked every bit as charming as all of the photos I had seen. In my travels I have learned that European cities, particularly the older and intact ones not too damaged during WWII, can be deceiving because they are not always as sparkling and clean as U.S. cities, even in the parts where the tourists go. They are comprised more of brick, stone, wood, and stained or beveled glass instead of steel. Sometimes the facades of the buildings are smeared with centuries of grime, or covered with scaffolding and in various degrees of repair and restoration. We wound through the roads as the chauffeur looked for the right turns to deliver us to the Residence Nosticova. I became nervous about what it would be like. I began to second guess my hotel choice, again. Should I have gone with a Marriott or Hilton? Was I right to choose something small and out of the way, but unproven? I know all too well that the wrong hotel can ruin any trip. I have been down that road a few times.
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The Residence Nosticova is on a corner of a back road not far from Karlovy Most and the river in the Mala Strana, or Lesser Town. There are few tourists in this small haven, making for quiet evenings and few traffic noises to keep one up at night. I was sure that the other patrons and the receptionist could hear my sigh of relief as I entered the foyer into the reception area of the hotel. The décor was cozy and warm, a hair away from cramped. In the center of the foyer stood a round table supporting a luxuriant floral arrangement. Off to the right was a lounge and computer cove. Past the foyer to the left was the entrance to the restaurant. But my acceptance of this hotel would not be complete until I saw the room. We pulled our suitcases through the foyer and into the elevator. Our room was a suite at the end of the hall. When we opened the door and stepped in, we knew immediately that we had more than just a room. It was our retreat, our escape, our sanctuary. Dark, warm, welcoming, relaxing, royal, red, wood. The large great room housed a kitchenette with more counter space than I have at home, a dining area with seating for six and a sitting area with a large flat screen TV. Two bedrooms and a full bath completed the amenities.

We didn’t stick around for long because wanderlust knocked at the door. We changed clothes and left the hotel, heading toward the Karlovv Most, or Charles Bridge. I didn’t worry too much about looking like a tourist, with my map repeatedly folding and unfolding to check our location. We headed over the bridge to the Old Town while twilight was seeping in. The number of other tourists on the bridge gave the time away even if the failing light did not. It is no wonder the tour books label this as the worst time to be on this particular bridge. But it is irresistible not to be there, in the incandescence of the reflecting light off the river’s surface, the lovers walking hand in hand, the artists selling their wares, the distant rush of the water over the break in the middle of the river. We battled the crowds as we moved over the bridge, dodging and twisting, stopping at a few vendors that lined the edges of the bridge. Many fine artists, but in the back of my mind was the possibility of fraud and charlatans. The prices were cheap and in hindsight, we should have invested in some trinket or piece of art. Our excuse was the other tourists that kept sweeping us along our way. We marveled at the statues along the bridge, even those that had not been cleaned. Some were covered up with cloth or screening. Some were in the midst of a cleaning in their half black and half white status.
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Our first stop was a souvenir shop right on the other side of the bridge. We were drawn in by its huge selection of beer steins. We could have been easily lured into buying one of them then and there, but my policy is always to wait and see what is lying around the next corner, especially in tourist towns like this. You can always get a better price somewhere else. We politely bade goodbye to the nice young man who was desperately trying to make a sale. We must have given off that “fresh off the boat tourist“ scent. Or maybe it was a look.

Heading through a tunnel that looked unsavory and felt just as unsafe except for all the other tourists like us traveling it at this hour, we turned right into an eating haven right along the river. We walked toward the back of the pier to a bar with an outside pavilion paralleling the river and overlooking the Karlovy Most. The seating was a bit difficult as every table was filled, and most of them by already drunk and raucous 30 or 40-something guys. Large groups of them, 10 and more. I refused to sit right on the water because that would have placed us right in front of a large group of attractive men. If I had been with a bunch of girlfriends, I might have chosen differently. We sat a row back, and still ended up in front of a group of drunk and rowdy Brits and Scotsmen. They were all part of some tournament or competition taking place during the weekend. There was a perfect sunset in store for us. We followed up our cocktails with some traditional Czech food against a backdrop of a view of the river and the dimming summer light. The city lights emerged shyly through the darkening twilight as we paid our bill, probably leaving too much (or too little?) tip judging from the look on the waitress’s face, and headed back over the bridge to our hotel.
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The following day we headed to Hradcany Castle. First, we breakfasted at Seggafredo at the intersection of the tram lines and within view of Karlovy Most. We sat outside, ate omelettes and drank cappuccinos, and watched the life of the city move past us. Trams, cabs, tourists and locals. Afterwards, we waited for Tram 22 with no tickets in hand. We simply didn’t want to walk. A light spitting drizzle and a gusty wind began as we waited. Tram 22 pulled to a stop after about ten minutes waiting. There were quite a few people on board already, but we got lucky when we squeezed ourselves into the spaces left by the few who had gotten off. The tram became more packed as it made its way up the hill. We counted the stopsthree or four is what the girl at the reception desk had said. We were glad to get off where we did at the lower gardens of the castle, not quite ready to go any deeper into this new experience, even if by accident.

Momentary disorientation gave way to a rambling walk through the gardens that had seen centuries of historical characters doing the same thing for different reasons. As we approached the castle, we followed the crowds that thickened the closer we came to the entrance. I braced myself for the part of being a tourist that I hate the most. We first went to St. Vitus’s Cathedral. I was glad for the rented headphones so that we could glean a little bit of history from this place. I have seen many churches throughout Europe, but this was the most ornately decorated, had the most shrines and sanctuaries (except for Westminster Abbey), and was the only one to have a room completely bedecked in jewelsSt. Wenceslas`s Chapel. It was hard to get a good look at it, with all the other people crowding around us to do the same thing. But with some aggressive action and by standing our ground, we were rewarded with the illustrious sight after just a few moments. It was definitely the highlight of this Cathedral.
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We exited into a pouring rain behind other tourists that had come more prepared, or at least had seen the weather report that morning. Bravely parading through the courtyard I assured my mother that I wasn`t cold. If she had stopped, looked and listened closely she would have seen evidence to the contrary in my goose-pimply skin and chattering teeth. We hastened to the nearest building, which turned out to be the Old Royal Palace. We entered into the great hall where many a banquet and party must have occurred. It was not warm by any means, but at least it was dry. The seats were a little hard, though. Man, was I cold! Walking around helped. What didn’t help was seeing all those well-prepared tourists milling around with their long pants and sneakers, sweaters, umbrellas, and rain ponchos. I was delighted when I saw the occasional tourist in shorts and t-shirt, unprepared, like myself and pretending that she didn’t mind. It made me feel not so alone in my shortsightedness.

Our evening activity was dinner and the opera. We ate at the hotel restaurant, The Alchymist. It has been my experience that hotel restaurants are not something to rave about, but this was different. From the baroque and bejeweled décor, complete with mirrors, metallic, and ambient lighting to the service and the food, the experience proved to be unique and memorable. We had martinis and a bottle of wine with dinner. The room was ours with the exception of the gentleman that entered toward the end of our meal who spent time smoking and talking on his cell phone while waiting for the rest of his party. He looked like he could be the patriarch of a large family, presiding over a special occasion or family reunion. I wondered about how much of our conversation he was listening to, or if he even understood it.
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When we arrived at the theater it was as if we were in another city, cosmopolitan and sleek in an Old World way. The production we attended was Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the National Theater. It was my first time at the opera, and I hoped that there would be some type of translation, knowing that most operas are in Italian but worried about whether it would be translated into English as well as Czech. My worries ended when the production started and I noticed the marquis at the top of the stage translating into both languages. It was a full house. I wished I had gotten a box on the side of the theater. Leaving was a bit troublesome as there were not a multitude of taxis waiting to pick patrons up. In fact, there were none to be found. It was by luck and the grace of God alone that as we were walking confusedly up the street, pondering calling the hotel or going back to the theater to call a cab, that a cab was dropping off an older man, his grown daughter and groggy grandson. They warily avoided my approach, as if I was a roving beggar. I felt somehow rude and intrusive on the scene as they emerged from the cab with the sleeping baby, but I think my apologies, even if only partially understood, helped smooth the rough edges of the manner of my request. I was a bit worried about communicating exactly where we were going until I realized that I had the hotel’s business card in my purse. With a quick look at his map before we departed, the cabbie had us back at the hotel in about ten minutes and for less than the hotel taxi.

The next day we ventured over Karlovy Most once again and spent the day in Stare Mesto, the Old Town, consumed by shopping, eating and people-watching. We navigated the labyrinthine cobblestone streets and found Old Town Square, stopping to watch the towering Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall chime twelve noon. We walked across the square and visited the Tyn Church. In the traditional eastern European fashion, similar to orthodox churches of the Greeks and Russians, it was ornate. We had lunch at a restaurant where we selected our meals from a glossy magazine and pointed to them when our waiter arrived to take our order. We watched the throngs of people milling around. There was a marathon going on this day. Many of those we saw walking by were the runners finishing their race – breathing heavily, sweating, and consuming large amounts of fruit and water. Most were flanked by well wishers and family members. One was lucky enough to have two women massaging his thighs and calves and seemed in no hurry to get up from that.

At the end of the day, while stopped for a beer and a tea at a café called Reykjavik, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some colorful local wildlife embodied in a group of four young men that represent what our waiter called anarchistas. They were lanky, pale, tattoed, and dressed in black with mohawk and liberty spike hairstyles. They set up shop right in front of us. One lad took out his guitar and started playing a weak repetitive melody, while the other more lascivious-looking character (he had a hooked nose and small black eyes) moved into the crowd with a paper cup and started begging. He was rather pushy, even continuing to confront people as they were walking away and telling him no. I started videotaping them to show my teenage kids what happens to kids who don’t study in school, but stopped when I became worried that they had seen me and would possibly follow us when we left.

On a whim, we purchased tickets for a musical recital across the street at the Klementinum National Library. We had to wait a bit before its start, so we walked back over to Old Town Square and found the end of an open air market. I kept looking around for our anarchistas friends, and luckily didn’t see them. Back at the Klementinum Library, we listened to a musical trio comprised of an organist, a violinist and an opera singer perform the works of Vivaldi, Mozart, and Schubert in the beautiful Mirror Chapel of the Library. The combination of the sounds and the beautifully painted ceilings and mirrored walls around us made for a truly memorable evening. We had a laughing fit that evening before the performance; I have forgotten about what. But I remember that we could not stop and were glad that there were not too many people around us to frown at our uncouth and rude American behavior.

The next day, our last day, we lunched on pork and dumplings over a bottle of local red wine at U Vladare, a traditional Czech restaurant in the Mala Strana, right down the road from our hotel. The service was friendly and fast, and the food tasted just like how Grandpa used to make it. We left too little tip but we blamed it on the currency conversions.

The ride to the airport was filled with memories of our past two days and aspirations of returning someday. Despite all of my planning, our trip was filled with many spontaneous events. This made it different from most trips I have taken with my family. It combined inspiration, exhilaration, suspense, comedy, and exploration in a way that could never be completely choreographed. In this sense this trip left me with a sense of freedom in travel that I have never experienced before. It showed me that no matter how much you plan for something that it is sometimes the spontaneous choices that you make in a location that highlight a place’s character most accurately. No matter what you read or hear about a location, each person and traveler is going to experience a different side of that city, and that side will reflect their own experiences, hopes and expectations. Using this as a measure of success, I am confident that the trip I took with my mother to the country of her ancestors was as special and unique as it could ever be.

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The Islands of the Caribbean are usually only a place that one can dream about, or perhaps make plans to go to sometime far in the future. Or by chance, you can get there almost by mistake, when, for example, someone calls you on Saturday evening and wants you to decide immediately to join his journey there in several days time in order to bring a yacht across the ocean to Europe. The second case was our own experience.

“Would you be interested in flying with me to the eastern Caribbean and sailing back on a yacht?” said a man on the telephone. “There would be three of us on board an unknown boat as well as a captain. Unfortunately I don’t know more, but it would be great, wouldn’t it? We’d fly in nine days, so you have only until 11 P.M. to decide…” I received a similar phone call later from a girl who I met just five times in my life – the first time being only two months ago. By ten o’clock I called him back to tell him that I agree to join.

The forty-foot yacht named “Baccarat” belongs to a French man, Mr. Roulet, whose wife hates sea faring and flying. I don’t understand then why they own a yacht, but I presume that Jacques thinks that after moving the boat to Europe Michelle will be satisfied. Millionaires sometimes have strange ideas and strange ways of going about things. They could not find anybody for the moving the yacht via the unfavorable eastern route, so they tried to contact some Polish captains- owners of charter companies- who promised to find somebody to sail the boat. As a result there are three members of the crew: Wojtek, a captain who already spent a few years working aboard ships; Marika, a girl working as a minister with only a week of experience in the Baltic, and me, who has never been on the sea. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a joke or a dream, but why wake up when life can often be so boring J. There is no need to change it right now.

 

 

Prague – Paris – Fort de France

At ten A.M. a car with a Polish sign on the window came to pick me up at McDonald’s in a suburb of Prague. Wojtek is probably an experienced man, but as a seeming gesture of his national character he switched the rear tires to the front to be more sure about our ability to get to Paris. At the Orly Airport he noticed that his luggage weighed much more than was allowed: a half an hour later an officer finds a three-pound rusty pipe wrench in Marika’s vanity bag. Wojtek’s notebook computer, where he has all the maps and navigating programs, has just been installed.

At last we took our seat inside the aircraft and I tried to imagine weeks ahead. We flew somewhere over the Ocean, across which we’d be sailing back to Europe for two months. The airport hall in the metropolis of Martinique was quite cool where we arrived in the evening. We tried to imagine the moment when we would breath the air outside first time. But none of us expected a green house with temperatures of 40°C at nine in the evening.

We had to get to the marina to find a boat that we didn’t know, nor even had a photo of. But it was not as difficult as we expected. There was perhaps one man here before us, but he gave up his attempts to repair the boat and moved away in shortly after. I think sometimes about his possible reasons. We step now onto a white, non-skid board that will be our home for the next three months.

For the following few days we learn various things about the yacht. The Baccarat is a fiberglass regatta, which looks quite quick and well maintained. But by and by we come to understand why such boats are used mainly close to the shore and only rarely out in the wide ocean. A boat which sells for about $300.000 looks reliable only from the outside. Wojtek remarks that really good yachts cost three times more. As we learn more and more, we understand more as to why they didn’t manage to get other people for the journey. Especially as it’s just a few weeks before the start of the hurricane season…

 

 

First time on the sea

Martinique is wonderful. Marika and I often go to the beaches and cliffs at sunrise before making repairs on the yacht, and fortunately there is also some time left for swimming in the lagoons in the evenings. We expected rather a part of the world where people live more simply, but the reality is a bit different. The French territories are advanced, touristy, and for us (of course) expensive. But it does not take anything away from their beauty.
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Now at last comes the first day of our trial sailings. Wojtek explains to us the basic principles of adjusting the sails and of controlling the yacht. It’s quite a funny matter, evoking remembrances from my past studies at the Technical University in Prague. We have to find out how the boat is working on the waves and what we shall expect later: from the boat, and from ourselves as well. We decide to sail for some weeks around the Lesser Antilles, to learn and to test the boat. There will be no space for that on the wide open seaJ.

Our Volvo engine starts well and its sound chills me out. Maybe it’s just a psychological certainty, but I’m thankful for it. I catch myself napping fitfully because I have no idea what will happen in the coming days. An unimpeded view comes at the moment when we pull up the sails for the first time. It’s a really strange feeling when the engine quiets and the wind leans into the large, arched white curves. In the sudden silence we head somewhere towards a line connecting the sky with the sea.

 

 

In the Eastern Caribbean

After several shorter test cruises within sight of Martinique we start longer trips to the neighboring islands: first to Dominica to the north that we already heard about before. It is said that the island is a real tropical paradise. Now I know it’s true.
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We learn about continual driving in shifts of four hours at the stern. It is important that everybody is able to control the boat completely alone. I am a little bit afraid whether Marika and I can manage it, but it goes well. On the second day we see on the horizon a green island that looks like it’s from a postcard. Unfortunately we don’t have enough time for a longer visit, but we can’t miss this chance to go there. However, to go there means to swim there because our sculler is broken, so we end up having to pull a bucket in a rescue wheel with our money, cameras and dry clothes.
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The stories we had heard were real, the island is really wonderful. There were tropical flowers with hummingbirds, lianas, nice people, and above all, in contrast with the noise of Martinique, quiet. And the people speak English, which for us is a big help. Mainly, the inhabitants of Dominica gave us an impression that there are still some places where you can live well without hurry and conflict. They are simply marvelous. We can imagine very easily staying here and not continuing on to anywhere else. But the tornado season is coming soon and time is pushing us: we have to learn everything and finish the preparations for our long journey. Wojtek decides to sail more northward and to also visit another French island, Guadeloupe. We don’t have anything against this idea, and in fact look forward to it.

I say to myself that to leave the Czech Republic at the end of winter is really not bad, but I find one thing unpleasant: I am sea-sick. Two months of rocking and swaying on the waves are waiting for us and I really don’t know what to think about it. Maybe rather nothing.

Our visit to Guadeloupe and return over two days have shown the shortcomings of both us and the boat. Confirmation comes with a trip to another of the islands, Santa Lucia. Our sails have twice the surface size that Wojtek usually works with, and a fifty year-old guy learns these things anew only with difficulty. We “pay” for this with two broken genoas, for which I try to guess whether we can manage to milk some money from the owner for the repairs, or pay for it ourselves and hope that he will reimburse us later. Our money is already running lower than we expected and it starts to be unpleasant. It seems that the Frenchman is not going to pay us anything more than he has to.

Our bilingual communication proves quite good. Wojtek understands Czech well and the at the same time we start to use our Polish. We leave English behind and from this moment we astonish the locals who cannot understand how people can talk to each other in two- from first sight- different languages. But this is minor: Our languages don’t make us different, we are both, after all, imagining driving the yacht. His authority as captain, however, doesn’t sit well with me, as I learned at University before that ‘aircrafts are made reliable and are repaired equally.’ On a boat, where one trouble comes per every half a day, I don’t really feel confident for a cruise across a quarter of the globe.

 

 

Czechs before putting out

The date that the captain said is the latest possible for the start of our journey across the ocean is coming soon. We cannot wait any longer. But Tomasz does not send the money he promised and this is really disquieting. There is no money to buy dumps, or even to continue with the necessary repairs. I don’t understand what he’s doing. We decide for an ultimatum. Wojtek will call him to say that we are leaving the yacht un-repaired in the marina and flying home. Then a miracle happened: more than a thousand Euros was deposited into our account.
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We fixed the fundamental things, but the ship is far from perfect condition. Unfortunately, we can’t make it any better, so we pray that no unexpected complications will come. If it looks like a symbolic expression, it’s not. Marika is a minister.

Next we do the biggest shopping of our lives. We knew that we would need a lot of food, but that it is more than 200 pounds without water is hardly imaginable. Even buying drinking water becomes a big problem. One of the two tanks doesn’t look reliable, so we don’t rely on it and buy instead many five-liter plastic bottles. We chose right, as we see later. Our draught increases rapidly, when as a last preparation we clean the hull of weeds and mollusks to get the highest speed.

A few days before putting out we hear people speaking Czech in one of harbor pubs. At first I think it’s a mistake, but at a nearby table four men drinking beer are really talking about Prague. We all are pleasantly surprised. We talk briefly about our plans; they can’t understand how just the three of us almost without experience are going to sail across the ocean. I, on the other hand, wonder why one of them speaks about his two runs on a lake back in the Czech Republic. I think I should get into everything and be not surprised by anything.

I start to be afraid by my tangles with Wojtek. I tell myself not to go against what he’s doing, because he’s much more experienced and he’s our captain, so he must be right. But somehow this leaves me slowly in the final hours before putting out. We fix the date at the 28th of April in the evening. I have to say that when my slip sole took off the mole and I knew that wouldn’t touch land for a month, I was afraid. If anything went wrong, rescue boats were perhaps there, but it is hardly certifiable. The batteries were old and their capacity was at about a tenth of the original level. Wojtek was also not really sure about everything, but he tried to hide it. Marika continued singing. I don’t know if she is untroubled, or if she fights off the fear. Somehow I can’t find the courage to ask her. I unfasten the rope from the mole, and we put off.

 

 

On the sea

A strong wind blows slightly against us. The waves reach seven meters and are not very long, so the yacht strikes with its nose into nothing. This is the worst way for the boat to sail, and for me too. After a short time I feed the fish behind us. I try to imagine the next month. According to Wojtek and the forecast the wind should calm down, but at the moment it does not look as if it will be soon. We have to change the setting of the sails. When we do that, suddenly there sounds a noise that we already know: genoa has broken again. We are still within eyeshot of the coast, so there is nothing to solve. We head back, our yacht turns and it’s immediately quite. The Baccarat now glides on big waves, no longer against them, and everything looks quite different. We arrive back in the harbor after several hours and Marika and I decide that we won’t go back out to sea with Wojtek again. My patience had gone, even though I tried to persuade myself that a broken sail is not always the fault of the one who had earlier raised it. But then this is the third one.
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The repair of the sail takes two days and within that time we consider all the pros and cons of this expedition. I am a little bit afraid that we imagined something that was out of the range of our possibilities. But whoever our stand-by should be, it simply is not him. I wonder whether it is my fault or Wojtek’s. We get a good forecast for the following days and what is more, we managed to establish a good radio connection with an American who promises to send us the forecast for the whole time of our journey. He does not know us at all and is doing that just from his own willingness. For some reason we somehow cool down and move slowly towards agreeing to try it once again. The evening before I had talked with Wojtek frankly and I told him about our doubts. He seemed to me not to be so surprised, but he tried to hide it. In the moments when I talk about my fear, I find it slowly disappearing. It is decided then: The following day in the morning we head out a second time towards the Azores, 2200 nautical miles away.

 

 

Ten-meters ocean

The captain says in this season with this type of boat it’s possible that the journey will take just three weeks. It’s not really definite, but it means rather not less than three weeks. We slowly get used to the fact that for at least the first third of the cruise to the Azores we’ll be heading against the wind and tack. For me this is a prediction of a week of sea-sickness, which troubles me to imagine. But how could we expect our imagination would take on a real face already on the first day? I hope for a wind from anywhere except the head. The GPS is showing a number slightly over two thousand miles to the nearest edge of the Azores, but we have to go by a northern arc because of the winds and ocean currents…allowing that no tornado comes J.

The radio works well and gives a certain feeling of confidence. However, when we call for the first time to America, we feel like we’re in a ghastly castle because our weak batteries cannot supply such a huge charge, even when the engine is on and all the lights and compass are going down. Wojtek is enthusiastic about how everything works “perfectly,” while Marika and I look on as if at a comic-book. But we get a kick out of it and neither of us really minds it. In the evening I start my shift heading into nowhere, four thousand kilometers by a speed of about four to five knots. The fear has mostly gone, there is no other choice anyway. The water is fizzing monotonously along the sides of the Baccarat and we commit ourselves to the ocean ahead.
After the first days of our journey the sun shines unceasingly. We arrange everything in a way that we can hide from it during our four-hour shifts at the helm. To go inside is impossible, it is too hot and we are soon sick. So instead we all lay on board and bake into cocoa colour. After a short quiet time a stronger wind kicks up causing the waves to reach ten meters. They are long, like mountains everywhere around and we slide up and down them like on a toboggan. We then encounter our first problems with the roller of the genoa and again we lose a sail. Broke it – Wojtek! We have three more, so we’re not too disturbed, but the roller is really important …

We decide then that I have to climb up the mast: Wojtek will pull me on a rope by the capstan. My stomach changes into something that does not help, especially to climb up fourteen meters. The sway at the top end of the mast can be four meters at times, so I really don’t want to go there. But the captain is much heavier and stronger than me, so we cannot change places. So I end up climbing the mast with a knife between my teeth with which to cut the old rope holding the rest of the sail. The whole time I ask myself, “why I am doing such things?” In any case, it turned out well, the roller is twisting again.

More cool waters are ahead. The sun is still shining, but the sea has already changed its color, and perhaps also its mind. The wind blows more from the side now and this is much better for us. After almost three days without any food I eat my first bowl of soup. Another two days goes by and for the first time since our training in the marina we set a spinnaker. We hope that the ship will shoot ahead towards our destination, but instead the newly flown sail broke a fixture of the main sail, undoing in an instant two hours of hard work. We begin to get used to the fact that every day brings another accident or something unexpected, but it’s a grudging acceptance. Then, unexpectedly, a day came that in the diary the only thing written was…’Nothing happened!’ It was really the only day during the entire journey. But we take it as a trifle, withal Wojtek says that this is usual. We just laugh.

 

 

The storm

On the 14th of May in the evening, just as we pass the half-point of the trip, we receive bad news: A storm is coming which we cannot avoid. The best we can do is to pass on its periphery. As we get together and prepare for the storm’s onset, the sky starts to change color. And so I go to sleep unsure what to expectation when I wake up. My sleep is very short and I’m awoken by the captain’s grumbling and changing of the sails. All of us have to go above board, take rescue belts and tie ourselves to the boat. In the rain- though still a mild wind- we try to roll the sail to a third. It doesn’t go well. Training in a marina is very different from the reality in the dark, the rain, and with wind and waves washing over the board. Fortunately, the sail finally does look as we had wanted. We (Marika and I) go to sleep wet with rescue belts on.

Later on, the waves still wash over the board, and now us as well. This is not so uncommon, but also not permanent. Now, however, one thing is different: We have several millimeters of salty mush on our eyebrows as the water dries on our faces. I think about how our condition could easily change with a good rain, because it could help to wash us. But as I soon see, there will really be no time later for such pettiness.
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Marika always has her shifts in the mornings, so she is taking over right when the storm the most strength. I commiserate with her and wonder whether I should change with her or do something else, but there is probably no way to help. I try to fall asleep, but I still wonder whether she is strapped well. I admire her.

It is important now for me to sleep and build up my energy for my own struggle at the helm. When Wojtek wakes me up, the rain is already dying down, but the wind is still very strong. Marika looks like a salty penguin in plastic and sits stiffly behind the wheel. We cuddle and together fix the snap hooks to the ties of the autopilot.

It appears that the storm leaves overhead, but this change is not to be seen in the waves, or at least not in their height. There are some other waves coming from different directions causing a real complication for driving. Fortunately, it mostly happens with the end of a storm. In such waves you cannot avoid the falls of the nose of the boat into an emptiness. This worries me, because every such a stroke may mean a serious danger. Suddenly my worries are confirmed: The front water tank breaks, and below deck fills up with “sweet” water, which is the last thing we need right now. This means that a third of our drinking water has gone. A half an hour later a radar reflector from the top of the mast falls down and a second wave washes its scraps away to the ocean. We are now invisible. We cannot shine lights because of weak batteries and other radars cannot see us as well. But the ocean is now exceedingly beautiful and the wild waves are higher than our fifteen meter-high mast. The sun is coming back. Despite my apprehension, I take the movie camera and try to catch these fleeting moments. In the end the yacht endured, and we did too.

 

 

Horizon with the Azores

Every morning our GPS brings us better and better numbers. The number of miles left to the first point of the Azores decreases every day by almost a hundred, and so we talk about the land. I also talk about food, which I understand differently than the others. The wind is blowing now from favorable directions, mainly from the sides, which means the fastest way of sailing. Evening comes, and we hope to wake up with a view of Flores, the most western cape of Europe and also the Azores.
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I wake up at half past seven, a half an hour earlier than I should, and I go up on deck. Marika doesn’t say anything, just with a smile on her face shows me somewhere ahead a hardly distinguishable line connecting the sky and sea level. We are all unbelievably happy and check to see if we can somehow increase the speed at least a bit. Late in the afternoon we pull the sails down, start the engine, and with the roaring of the surf head with the prow of the boat towards the small fishing harbour of Lajes das Flores.

The waves finally cease, the yacht rests on a giant tyre on the mole and our feet after three weeks touch the firm land. Nothing can stop us from lurching to the nearest pub, where there are common chairs, table, food and rest. We lived to see it, we crossed the Atlantic, and now we have to pass all the archipelago islands. The last phase will be a week to Portugal, that should be extremely easy, as everybody says.

The Azores were until recently a relatively less known part of the world, or at least for a majority of us. But without doubt everybody would like it there; there are magnificent sea cliffs with stormy surfs below, white stone houses with blue windows, old whale factories, and here and there old wooden boats on the shore. There are beautiful green hills, forests and waterfalls, meandering roads on steeps over the sea and above all, very friendly people. Every one from the nine islands is a little bit different, but every one beautiful in its own way. If I had my own yacht, I would go there again for sure, regardless of the troubles with my stomach that didn’t stop the whole time.

We then arrange a plan about how long we’ll spend here and when we have to be back in Europe. We have a lot of time thanks to our quick run across the Atlantic, so we exaggerate what we’ll do here – whales live in the waters here, so there is also something interesting to see on the sea. But there is another side of the coin: we almost can’t use the lights and we don’t have radar. If we meet a ship or a whale … All through my night shift I try to listen very carefully, trying to catch a snuffle of some big inhabitant of the deep, but fortunately no one came.

Days follow days and we move from one island to another. The Lesser Azores are followed by the Greater Azores and become more eventful. We almost feel like we’re in Europe, but surely here it is much more quiet. We liked most the small islands of Flores and Santa Maria, which as it happens were the first and the last we met. I occasionally wonder whether I could live here and even now I don’t really know. But it is all the same anyway, because our minds are full of new plans on what to do and see after our arrival. I have to say that it is a really strange experience when one comes back to our civilization after a long stay just at sea.

 

 

Home stretch

We want to leave the Azores. Back to the sea, however, we begin to look forward to Europe. The way to the Portuguese harbor of Villamoura should just take a week, so we wait for a day with a good weather forecast. Finally, we take leave of the local hospitable people and this beautiful archipelago and the boat is prepared for the last phase of the cruise. The water tank is no longer inside – both broke during the storms – and also the stream in the batteries cannot be used normally. It is said that this part of the journey is for children, so I think there is little reason to worry. At last a good omen came – a mild side wind – and in the evening of May 30th we head on engine right to the east: towards continental Europe.
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The Azores look very different from the first lap. The wind blows only gently and never against us, which mainly I appreciate. I can eat normally now, after three weeks of yearning for just this. Sometimes we use just the engine. It is relatively cold so we usually use a feather anorak in the nights. We expect a dark line on the horizon. Every day the satellite transmits the same number of miles left on the display. I begin thinking that I’m going to fail in university if I don’t try to catch up on all the missed exams. I haven’t been there for more than two and half months and the summer is coming. I imagine the smell of blooming trees, but I realize that they already faded. I also realized that I am simply a landlubber and I should not be on the open sea. Maybe other people are different, but I found this out with an unswerving sureness.

One morning Wojtek points towards the horizon and I see land. It is the Portuguese coast and our journey is coming to an end. Actually, only mine and Marika’s; the captain will continue with another crew to Croatia. I am trying to consider what the experience of the cruise gave to me, what were its mistakes and faults, and what went well. I think that at times I had low tolerance, and at other times also an ability to admire. For example, the captain’s character. He is perhaps a fair man. Or sometimes I forgot the beauty of sailing due to systematic technical troubles on the yacht. But in any case, it was a nice phase of my life, and when I step on the mole in Villamoura, I will be glad and thankful for everything we could see.