Cruising the Danube River on Avalon Illumination

Melk City in Austria is one of Avalon Illumination’s stops on its Blue Danube river cruise. Photos by Tanya Lara
Sailing into Passau, Germany

When I look up, the night sky is filled with stars — something you never see in cities anymore because of all the lights and pollution.

This is when the Danube, a river that crosses 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, feels new to me again. It is the third of our seven nights on the river and the stars are so bright above this little town somewhere in Austria.

I am on a fam tour with top travel executives and media hosted by Baron Travel, the general sales agent of Avalon Waterways in the Philippines, and Turkish Airlines.

Our group is sailing on the Danube, bookended by two of Europe’s most beautiful cities —  Budapest and Prague — on Avalon Illumination, a beautiful river ship that glides on the water with the grace of a queen and the age of a pageboy (Avalon has one of the youngest fleets in the industry; Illumination is only four years old).

In every itinerant’s journey, new details push our sense of awe to the surface once again — that day passing through Spitz in Austria with the houses on the riverbanks taking my breath away; the misty morning coming into Passau in Germany, a mist so thick it covered the autumn colors on the hills and then slowly lifting as though in a striptease; that day in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic looking at the rooftops, something that had been on my bucket list for a long time; and the taste of a cup of hot chocolate between my freezing hands at the stern of the ship while watching the sun rise and enjoying the quietness.

Autumn colors
Yep, we love Turkish Airlines! Joining the fam tour are Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando, I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong, First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia, AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo, Pan Pacific Travel’s Kaye Cervantes, the author Tanya Lara, Baron Travel’s Wally Cervantes, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago, Our Awesome Planets Anton Diaz, and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura.

You’ve often heard the comparison of ocean liners to floating cities, and of river ships to boutique hotels. Both are accurate descriptions, but let me add that Avalon Illumination has the personalized service and intimacy of a bed and breakfast with our cruise director Tony as the host, giving talks in the lounge to what feels like a small, intimate group of travelers but in actuality is about 164 passengers in four decks.

The rooms feature floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, a good-sized bathroom with L’Occitane toiletries (important to women!), a sitting area and cable TV. It becomes a running joke in our group which fireplace channel they’re watching because there are 10. Yes, 10 different wood-burning fireplaces accompanied by classical music.

The 164-passenger Avalon Illumination is like a boutique hotel that floats on Europe’s most beautiful waterways. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways
The staterooms have a sitting area and floor-to-ceiling windows. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Avalon Illumination has three dining options: the main dining room which serves buffet breakfast and lunch, and a la carte dinner (we order off-the-menu too because, well, everyone becomes a foodie on a cruise); the Panorama Bistro for light meals and Avalon’s signature healthy cuisine options; and the Panorama Lounge and Bar for drinks and a happy hour every afternoon.

The quality of food and wines is fantastic. The meals often feature local dishes and wines, depending on where the ship is docked. We had schnitzel in Austria, Nuremberg sausages in Germany; and porcheta, goulash, Riesling and Wachau Valley wines in between. And champagne every single day.

Oh God, the champagne! If you ask for a bellini or mimosa at brunch on a day when there’s no morning excursion onshore, they’re not going to say no —  because what’s a late breakfast without alcohol?

From Anton’s awesome 360-degree camera. Photo by Anton Diaz

The lounge I like best is the one at the stern of Illumination — it’s open round the clock, has coffee and tea-making facilities, cookies and hot chocolate. One night, a couple of the girls and I bring out a bottle of vodka and they tell the scariest ghost stories from all their travels (it’s the night before Halloween); some nights, it’s just me and several people reading their books.

At every stop, Avalon offers a free walking tour and optional tours for a fee of between 49 and 96 euros. If it’s your first time to Europe, it’s a great way to see more.

This is what Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura do as they take the free walking tour in Vienna and the optional tours to Schonbrunn Palace and Bratislava. Then First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia and I join them in the optional tour to Cesky Krumlov while the ship is in Linz.

Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, who befriended practically everyone on board, agrees that a river cruise takes out the hassle of traveling through several countries in one trip. “What I enjoy most is that you only have to check in once and at the end of the cruise you check out. We’re able to visit cities and towns that aren’t normally part of the itinerary, like the towns of Krems, Melk and Passau.”

The jaw-dropping Melk Abbey with its gilded statuary and frescoed library and church. To many of the travel executives I was with, this was a highlight of the river cruise.
Melk Museum starts out as a dimly lit space…till you see what’s inside.
Beer in Melk as the sun goes down.

In Melk, we explore the jaw-dropping baroque abbey and its magnificent frescoed library and church, and gold-plated statuary. Our Awesome Planet blog’s Anton Diaz and I are the only ones allowed to take pictures inside because you have to get a permit prior to your visit. Later, walking in the courtyard and still shookt from the opulence of the abbey, we joke about how the Benedictine monks took not having the vow of poverty to the extreme.

Melk is a charming town that seemingly grew because of the abbey, a smattering of souvenir shops and restaurants that glow at twilight with a forested area between the town and the Danube.

This small-town scene would be repeated throughout our stops and the vistas passing through Spitz, which is said to be the prettiest in the Austrian part of the Danube. Stopping at Durnstein with its vineyards and local spirits that we snap up from the shops; at Regensburg with its medieval stone bridge and gothic cathedral that’s the little brother to Cologne Cathedral; and Passau with St. Stephen’s Church’s period history of when the Catholic faithful were turning away from the church and the flood that devastated the city, which was eventually cleaned up with the help of young students who used Facebook to mobilize.

The fairy tale-like Cesky Krumlov. I wouldn’t be surprised if a princess rode through the cobblestone streets on a horse and rescued her prince from the evil witch.
Gaye, Zoe, Pia and I have some Czech beers, sausages, pancakes and goulash.
I wonder if homeowners ever get tired of tourists taking pictures of their homes in Cesky Krumlov.

The optional tour that I take is to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. It is a dreamy place, a fairy tale-like town of towers, gabled roofs and a palace — and the Vltava River that flows from Prague. Unfortunately the tower is closed because of strong winds, so I leave without a photo of the whole town as seen from the tower.

The architecture is a mix of baroque, gothic and renaissance styles — and then there are the riverside houses that somehow look like they’re from the pages of children’s books that tourists can’t take enough pictures of.

I wonder if the homeowners ever get used to this or if, every time they peer out the windows, they let out an expletive.

Regensburg in Germany is at the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers. It’s a charming town with a gothic church that’s considered to be the little brother of Cologne Cathedral.
Gigibeth, Cyndee, Zoe, Pia and I in Regensburg with the spires of the gothic cathedral showing in the background.
Corporate International Travel’s Shan Dioquino David leads the charge to Pandorf Outlet Center, with Cyndee Wong and Gigibeth Santiago and their Uber ride back to Vienna. This is the first of many shopping expeditions.

In Vienna, Avalon Illumination treats us to a night of classical music at City Palace Billrothhaus. I am seated next to history buffs Wally Cervantes, SVP for Baron Travel’s Leisure Division, and his wife Kaye Cervantes of Pan Pacific Travel who are digging the Strauss concerto. Vienna is right up their alley, being the seat of the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the greatest powers in history.

But there’s another wonderful thing about Vienna that Filipino travelers would love — its proximity to the outlet center Pandorf which has over 160 stores. Corporate International Travel’s Shan David, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago and I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong take an Uber to Pandorf.

In the evening they come back on the ship with a fleet of Rimowas (seriously, a fleet!) winter jackets, and a million other finds. Our jaws drop at the amount of shopping they did — accompanied by amazement at their finding things that cost thousands of pesos back home which they got for a couple of hundreds. And this is just the first shopping expedition!

Handcrafted Wieser gin, whiskey and vodka in Durnstein.
Vltava River in Prague. Charles Bridge, which brings you to Mala Strana, is oftentimes very crowded. An alternative is to take the modern bridge, then you actually get a view of Charles Bridge while crossing.

In this part of Europe with four capital cities that are always strung together on a trip, I’ve always thought of Vienna as an old lady in a fur coat, Bratislava as not exciting — but Prague and Budapest are like energetic, trippy kids with old souls to me.

In Budapest, where we begin our trip, which is cut short because of the low river level, I take our group to the city’s most famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert (more on Budapest in another story).

In Prague, where we are taken by coaches after disembarking in Passau, it is AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo that is our de facto tour guide, Prague being a city that he loves, in major part because of his devotion to the Sto. Niño. Walking through Stare Mesto and the medieval streets where Kafka hung out, where the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 took place, where Czech beer is downed like water (the Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world), we cross Charles Bridge with its baroque statues.

Through Mala Strana on the other side of the Vltalva River, Dondi takes us to the John Lennon Wall and finally to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, the shrine to Sto. Niño.

Prague’s Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square is the third oldest in the world, first installed in 1410.

Dondi and Cyndee both love Prague in the same way I love Istanbul and Budapest — which is to say we will never get tired of these cities. We will always go back even when we get old and broke!

“Prague is a total package for me,” Dondi tells me. “It’s a time capsule of then and now. I enjoy its heritage buildings shouting at every corner, its food making its own statement, and I always say a little prayer in the church for our dear country. The Sto. Niño reminds me to be like a child — to enjoy and learn every day.”

We explore the city for two days — and outside the city for our champion shoppers. You can get dizzy in the old part of Prague with its hordes of tourists all day and night, in the bars and clubs, palaces, museums and shopping, the Astronomical Clock and Wenceslas Square.

Years ago when I was in Prague, there were puppets being sold that laughed like a witch when you waved your hand in front of their faces. This time near the square, I find a stall selling marionettes, and small wooden frames that reference John Lennon’s Wall with these words: “I’m a dreamer too.”

The John Lennon Wall in Prague has been welcoming graffiti artists since the 1980s.

* * *

In the Philippines, Baron Travel Corporation is the general sales agent (GSA) of Avalon Waterways. For December 2018 and 2019 itineraries and sailing dates, call 817-4926 or log on to

Turkish Airlines flies daily from Manila to over 300 destinations worldwide. Call 894-5416 or log on to

You may also book your flight and Avalon cruise through the following travel agencies: Manila — Airspace Travel & Tours, 522-3287; Binondo — I Love Travel, 232-1366/67; Quezon City — AllPoints Travel, 410-1527, 410-1538; Pasig — Geographica Tours, 994-8284, Corporate International Travel, 631-6541 to 44; Makati — Mondial Tours, 886-6300/47/48; First United Travel, 818-7181, Pan Pacific Travel, 810-8551 to 56.

Passau at twilight, sitting on the banks of the Danube.
At Turkish Airlines’ fabulous lounge, coming home with a layover in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
Melk town gives me the key to come back.
Passau in Germany was another town I had never been to. St. Stephen’s Church may look unassuming with its façade, but inside are spectacular frescoes and gilded arches.
Courtyard of Cesky Krumlov Castle. Unfortunately that day, the tower closed due to strong wind.
Groufies with Gigibeth’s “magic” camera and Wally’s long-arm selfie.



The subversive art & life of David Cerny
In 2013, just days before the Czech Republic’s general elections, Prague woke up to David Cerny’s “Fuck Him,” a 30-foot purple hand floating on the Vtlava River, giving the finger to where Czech President Milos Zeman lives, the Prague Castle. Photos courtesy of David Cerny

(This story was first published by Esquire in 2015.)

I saw my first David Cerny sculpture on a spring day, a cold Labor Day on the first of May in Prague. I had rented an apartment in Staré Mesto, and every time I’d walk to the Old Town Square, I’d pass by this stainless steel sculpture of a giant woman kneeling on the ground with her legs spread…and people were climbing into her vagina.

Called “In Utero” and installed on Dlouhá St. in 2013, it is one of many  installations around Prague by the controversial artist David Cerny. It is also one of his many artworks in which the viewer completes the experience by inserting himself into the piece’s orifice.

Like his “Brown-noser” which, as the name suggests, is a pair of assholes—five-meter-tall sculptures of a person’s ass and legs bending toward a wall. A ladder leads directly into the anus where you stick your head in to  watch a video of two Czech politicians feeding each other to the music of Queen’s We Are the Champions.
The Czech Republic’s controversial enfant terrible David Cerny. “To be honest I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and just pleasant…but I am unable to see things the way other people do,” he says.

During my stay in Prague, I met a French expat and I asked him about the sculptures. “You don’t know who David Cerny is?” Gautier asked. I said no.

“But you must have heard of his work. He painted the Soviet Tank pink when he was an art student.”

He’s that guy?

In the early years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communism neither went quickly nor quietly into the night for many countries in the Eastern Bloc. It was a long process of stripping away the hold of the Soviet Union, often by reluctant governments and an impatient citizenry.

When, in the dead of the night in April 1991, the young Cerny climbed onto the Soviet tank and painted it pink, the most feminine of colors to insult the Kremlin, he was just starting to discover his own sense of irony as an artist.

“The Pink Tank” (or “Monument to Soviet Tank Crews”) got Cerny briefly arrested for civil disobedience. After the Czech government painted it back green, Prague’s citizens painted it pink again, and a tug-of-war ensued.
“Brown-nosers” at Galeria Futura in Smichov is a pair figures leaning towards a wall. The viewer climbs up the anus to watch a movie of politicians feeding each other slop.

It was Cerny’s first subversive art, and by God, it wouldn’t be his last! Today, Prague is culturally richer for it.

In later works, he would embarrass the Czech government, anger the Council of the European Union, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi among other European leaders, make fun of both Saddam Hussein and Damien Hirst in one piece, pull off one of the best hoaxes in the art world by inventing 26 artists for a group installation—and pretty much endear himself to all modern art lovers.

By the time I finished looking at his sculptures online in Gautier’s kitchen, I said, “I would love to meet and interview him!”

“I know him,” he said casually. Gautier is into Prague’s underground culture and clubs; he once took me to a bar that was guarded by Great Danes the size of ponies and, on another trip, he took me to a march to legalize marijuana in the Czech Republic.

But I was leaving Prague in a few days for Austria and Greece. I was on a two-week vacation that started in the UK and would have ended in Amsterdam except I kept cancelling my flights and rerouting my itinerary.

When I returned to Prague in the summer for a road trip to Poland with him, he had arranged for me to meet David Cerny.
This Cerny sculpture is not in Prague but in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Metamorphosis” is a motorized Kafka head that’s segmented in 40 layers that independently rotate 360 degrees.

* * *

The city of Prague has a very efficient public transport system. Like most European capitals, it has a network of subways, trams and buses, a cheap way to get around the city that relies on passengers’ honesty to buy a ticket, and when you’re caught without one  by random checks you’re slapped with a steep fine.

Most tourists get to know all the train lines leading to the historical center in Prague 1—a concentration of beautiful centuries-old buildings, museums, the Jewish Quarter, churches, monuments, Franz Kafka—and Charles Bridge, one that tourists love but locals loathe to cross because of…well, tourists.

David Cerny purposely located his studio away from all this. He wanted to be away “from cops who knock at your door after 10 p.m. and tell you to shut up.” Most importantly, his studio’s location is not only hard find if you’re not into the underground club subculture, but hard to get to as well for tourists.

Walking the distance from the tram stop to his studio called Meet Factory on a sweltering summer day, the weather makes me feel like I had never left Manila.

Meet Factory is a 5,000-square-meter warehouse beside railway tracks, a hybrid space that has a club, several studios for artists-in-residence, a theater, gallery and a music hall.
“Shark” is Cerny’s parody of Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” in which Hirst put a shark in a glass tank containing 4,360 gallons of formaldehyde. Cerny put Saddam Hussein in the tank instead.

The provocateur is dressed in his usual black sleeveless shirt and black pants when he comes to meet us.

He’s had this warehouse for seven years, he says. It’s perfect for him. They can hold parties or concerts here “without any idiot neighbors complaining about the noise” because there are no neighbors.

It is a place for subversives, rebels and artists. Here, Cerny courts his muses—deadline, music and film. Here, he hid the artists that he invented in his head for what he considers his most challenging project.

In 2009, the Czech Republic assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a rotating position among the EU countries and traditionally marked by an art installation. The year before, France erected a balloon in the French colors for its presidency.

Now, it was time for the Czech Republic to continue this tradition and Cerny was commissioned to head the project.

“Entropa” may be the art world’s funniest and most offensive hoax. Cerny headed the project to mark the EU Council presidency of the Czech Republic. He invented 26 other artists for a “collaborative” work, depicting countries by their stereotype. Bulgaria is a series of toilets, Italy is a football pitch with players masturbating, etc. For a time it was covered with black cloth.

Called “Entropa,” the project entailed a collaborative work by 27 artists from EU countries including himself. Except Cerny invented the 26 other artists, and with his assistants he wrote biographical notes that they released to media before the unveiling. In short, he created all 27 sculptures by himself to represent EU countries in one massive installation.

Still, that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it? No. But we’re talking about David Cerny here, whose every piece is infused with satire, humor and irony, and always a strong political statement.

The exhibit was formally launched on Jan. 21, 2009, a Wednesday, but it opened to the public the following Monday. To the shock of viewers at the unveiling, what they saw were unflattering stereotypes of each of their country. Italy is depicted as a football pitch with players masturbating; Bulgaria as a series of squat toilets; Romania as a Dracula theme park; Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage; Sweden as an Ikea furniture box; France is draped with a banner marked “Gréve” (strike); the UK, which has been criticized for distancing itself from the EU, is represented as a missing piece on the map; and the Czech Republic is a LED display flashing controversial quotes by then President Vaclav Klaus.

“It was fun doing it but there was pressure every single day. It was one year of hell,” says Cerny. “There was no money in it and the moment of unveiling was really tough.”
As an art student, Cerny painted the Soviet Tank monument pink on April 28, 1991, the army repainted it green on May 1, and people painted it back pink.

Between Wednesday and Monday, angry EU leaders such as Sarkozy and Berlusconi demanded an apology, and EU leaders were hunting down the 26 other artists.

“The Bulgarians were freaking out because their country is depicted as a toilet. When it was formally launched, that’s when we told people that the artists did not exist.”

Cerny likes to spring surprises like this in his own dramatic fashion.

In 2013, four days before the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections, Prague woke up to a 10-meter purple hand floating on the Vltava River near Charles Bridge with the middle finger pointed at Prague Castle, home to President Milos Zeman.

Having been anti-communism all his life, it was Cerny’s way of saying “fuck you” to the president for supporting the Social Democratic party. You can imagine the flurry of phone calls to take down the sculpture.

“When I exhibited ‘Fuck Him,’ the President asked the city of Prague to remove it but he was told they could not do anything because the barge was privately owned. All the sculptures you see around Prague are mine except for the Peeing Guys in front of the Kafka Museum, which were installed before the museum. The sculptures are not owned by the city. I choose the spaces and most are installed on private properties.”
“In Utero,” located on Dlouhá St. in Prague’s Stare Mesto, is a six-meter stainless-steel sculpture of a kneeling woman. Viewers can climb up inside the statue through her vagina. Photo by Tanya Lara

Cerny’s artworks are either beautiful, bizarre, offensive or all—but whatever the viewer thinks of them, they can never be ignored. They have put Prague, a city that he both loves and hates, on the map of modern art. “It would be nice if my art really did that, but no one cares.”

Not many people these days probably tell Cerny he’s wrong. But he’s wrong to think that no one cares. Every single person who has been to Prague with a little bit of interest in art and contemporary Czech culture cares—they walk away from his work with a smile or an understanding or, better yet, very disturbed.

* * *

Born in Prague to a mother who was an art restorer and a father who was a painter, Cerny failed art school twice before being accepted on his third try as an industrial design student, a course he abandoned after a year to concentrate on art.

His childhood was “nothing exceptional,” and in fact he was very bad at drawing. “I had the lowest grade in drawing in elementary school. If the grading was one to five, and five meant you couldn’t continue, I got a four. ”
“London Booster” was made for the London Olympics in 2012. It’s a double-decker bus doing push-up with humanoid arms and installed outside the Czech House.

He had a lot of problems at school, he says. One of them was for criticizing Lenin when he was six years old and for which his mother was called in. But by his own account, he says it was an ordinary childhood of discovery (he lost his virginity at 15 to his girlfriend, who is now his dentist) and insists he didn’t have groupies even after he became famous.

Various accounts of his painting the Soviet Tank pink when he was 24 put his motivations as wanting to impress a Slovakian girl and a deep resentment towards communism and the Soviet tanks that rolled into the capital to quash the Prague Spring in 1968.

“It was both, of course,” he says now. And in the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, it was one big party. “I don’t think I’ve always been politicized. It’s just the nature of things, of me saying things from time to time that might be unpleasant for somebody else.”
St. Wenceslas sits on an upside-down dead horse in Cerny’s “Dead Horse.” One interpretation of this sculpture is the changing values of Czech society and how people can no longer depend on their heroes and legends of past.

Like Franz Kafka, Cerny is influenced by a city that he can’t leave and yet thinks of as a place that’s been left behind.

“I have that sense of irony that is part of the city. Prague is very provincial, it’s Old Europe. If you look at the trajectory of Berlin, you’d think too that Prague has unfortunately been left behind. It’s unrecognized and nobody cares about this city at all except for tourists. But we have to live with it. To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant, but sometimes I do things that are political commentary. You cannot avoid that. I am unable to see things the way other people do. If I had a choice, I would do beautiful stuff rather than react to things. But, what can I say, I’m a figurative sculptor.”

* * *

When he was on a yacht the year before, Cerny and his friends decided to rip the doors apart and use them for water skiing. He took a bottle of champagne in one hand and clung to the cables attached to the boat with the other.

A steady figure gliding on unsteady water. I watched this video many times before I met him and wondered how he didn’t get flung in the water or get into an accident.  “Oh, it was just for fun and we were so fucking drunk,” he says.

What else does he do for fun? “You mean besides sex? Yachting, flying, diving, sometimes skiing and snow boarding, listening to music, reading, watching movies.”

But it’s sailing and flying that are his two his biggest passions outside of art. He got his ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot License) in four months of intensive studying (which normally takes two years in a technical school) and for which he refrained from drinking his favorite Czech beer Matuska.
“To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant…But I am unable to see things the way other people do.”

What was the appeal of flying for him? “Maybe it could be a new job,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I will get tired of art. Flying is a pleasure for me.”

But there is a more serious side to his flying. He is in a relationship with a doctor and he thinks he can be very useful as a medical pilot, to fly doctors where they are needed. “There are organizations that have flying doctors and they have a Cesna which they fly as an ambulance, so that’s one idea.”

In the summer of 2014, the one thing that Cerny loves and the thing he hates the most collided. Malaysian Airline’s Flight17 was shot down over Ukraine by the Russians, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew members.

He saw the news at 2 in the morning when he turned on his laptop and he seethed with fury. “That Russian asshole Putin should be executed,” he tells me.

It’s a tragic incident that no artwork could alter.

But you can bet David Cerny’s not going to shut up about Putin or the world we live in. After all, this is the artist that painted the Soviet tank pink and flipped his own government purple.

And really,  no one—not even the Czech government or any president—can do anything about it.
“Piss,” located in front of the Kafka Museum in Prague, came before the museum and is not connected with Kafka. Cerny did a piece for inside the museum though — a small model of a torture machine that’s featured in Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony.” The kinetic men “write” sentences with their piss on a basin in the shape of the Czech Republic’s map. Photo by TANYA LARA

Where I’ve been wandering
Some wanderings in 2014 and 2013: (upper photos) Rome, Provence, Barcelona; (middle) Vienna, Amsterdam; (bottom) Marseilles, Paris, Paros, Prague. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and  forget all about it?

The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)

While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to  take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost  thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.

He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.

So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!

Chasing Kafka in Prague

The Franz Kafka Museum on the Vltava River in Prague, the Czech Republic.  Photos by Tanya Lara
“Piss” by David Cerny in front of the Kafka Museum

I am standing in front of two men literally having a pissing contest and I cannot look away.

By “men,” I mean two sculptures by the Czech Republic’s most famous artist David Cerny. By “pissing contest,” I mean their dicks are spouting water on the ground that is shaped like the map of the Czech Republic. It’s an interactive piece of art.

The statues are moving — or at least their lower bodies are — and they are actually writing with their piss on the fountain.They are writing lines from Franz Kafka’s work or stuff people text to a mobile number…while pissing on the Czech Republic.

It is May 2014, a cold spring day in this old city. It seems the perfect place to hide from new hurts.

On this holiday, I have given myself five days in Prague, which would stretch several more days but I don’t know this yet standing in front of the Franz Kafka Museum.

Kafka Cafe in Prague’s Old Town

For the time I have been here, I’ve been chasing Kafka throughout the city. There is a Kafka Café; there is a hotel whose name sounds like “Metamorphosis” and I text an American friend who is reading him in the original text to ask if guests might feel the urge to feed on garbage when they wake up in the morning; then there is the Kafka statue in the Jewish Quarter by Jaroslav Rona.

It is a strange sculpture. But then Kafka was a strange man — or at least his stories are. The statue is of a headless man dressed in a suit and a smaller figure of Kafka sitting on his shoulders. I suppose this could be interpreted in many ways: Kafka literally sitting on the shoulders of a giant is just another surreal tribute to him; or Kafka looking beyond his own perspective, his Jewishness, for the broad horizon.

Or it could be just how Kafka wrote it.

In an interview with Pavla Horakova in 2004, the sculptor Jaroslav Rona referenced the short story “Description of a Struggle,” where Kafka writes, “And now — with a flourish, as though it were not the first time — I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot. But since he stumped forward rather reluctantly and sometimes even stopped, I kicked him in the belly several times with my boots, to make him more lively. It worked and we came fast enough into the interior of a vast  but as yet unfinished landscape.”

The author Tanya Lara at Jaroslav Rona’s sculpture of Franz Kafka on Dusni Street in the Jewish Quarter.

This “landscape” is Prague, Kafka’s hometown — this city on a piece of land wedged between so many other republics that used to be part of one country. And in the Jewish Quarter, on Dusni Street, Kafka spent most of his time wandering about and presumably getting inspired and writing his stories, too.

He hung out in coffee shops along with other intellectuals. If the walls of Cafe Louvre on Narodni Street had feelings, they’d probably have collapsed during Kafka’s day from the weight of the existential angst being dissected by Prague’s writers and intellectuals.

Most tourists come to the Kafka Museum to see David Cerny’s “Piss” sculpture and spend time walking around the courtyard but don’t go inside the museum. It’s like going to the Louvre and walking around I.M. Pei’s Pyramids without going in to look at the Monalisa or Nike’s Winged Victory.

Okay, maybe not — because inside are mostly just pictures and his journals, not very attractive to people who like taking selfies against a stunning background. Plus, taking pictures inside is not allowed.

The museum is dark, the walls are black, the lighting is subdued. It is full of symbolism, things that Kafka rebelled against in his writing, like bureaucracy. One part of the museum wall is covered with filing cabinets, some of which you can open and take a peek at his writing or quotes from his work. The room feels claustrophobic, like someone is chasing you with a million forms to fill out so you can prove you have the right to live.

Prague06_kafkagrave_by_Hynek Moravec
Kafka’s grave at the New Jewish Cemetery (photo by Hynek Moravec); Franz Kafka in 1922. He died in a sanitarium in Vienna at 40; and the Old Jewish Cemetery (photo by @iamtanyalara).
Letters, journals and photographs of Franz Kafka at the Kafka Museum in Prague. (Photo from

Kafka died in 1923, in a sanitarium in Vienna at 40, a full 15 years before Kristallnacht or “The Night of the Broken Glass,” when violence against the Jewish people broke out across the Reich, and in just two days 250 synagogues were burned and thousands of Jewish businesses were looted.

So much shattered glass from the store windows owned by Jews — that’s how those two days in Poland and Germany got to be called. Broken. Glass. The rage from both sides. The satisfaction on one side, the anger and helplessness on the other side. It’s not related to the museum, but I am thinking of this moment in history while I am here and I am overcome with sadness. Because Kafka is Prague, and Prague is Kafka, and the thing that shaped his writing strongly was being a Jew — a Jew in Prague.

What if Kafka had lived through that period in his own world, walking through the Jewish Quarter as he did every day? How would his stories, his characters, his real-life nightmares have played out? One of his nightmares, according to the museum, was about “a sinister machinery which subjected his body to interminable torment.” What if he had lived through the gassing of the Jews?

Perhaps what we’d be reading today in his book would be an entirely different kind of metamorphosis. From an entirely different Franz Kafka.

On the other side of Charles Bridge.

Two GPS and still lost in Poland

Krakow’s Old Town or Stare Miasto has a number of monuments and sculptures, including “Eros Bound” by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
The Garmin finally gets it right after seven hours of taking us in circles. Just one more kilometer to Krakow’s Old Town.
The Market Square of Krakow, the city that was formerly Poland’s capital.

My friend Gautier is on the phone with Andrej, whose flat in Krakow we are renting for the night. He’s telling him how desperately lost we’ve been all day.

The plan was to drive from Prague (my nth time in just a couple of months) to Wroclaw for lunch, buy shitloads of Polish vodka as we cross the border, and then on to Krakow.

And the next day, drive to the Tatras, the mountain range that sits on both sides of Poland and Slovakia, and just slum it there, and then return to Prague on Saturday. Well, that was the plan. And we all know what happens to the best-laid plans — they’re like the good intentions that pave the way to hell.

We pick up the car in Prague’s Central Train Station — a white Hyundai; don’t laugh, it is actually a fast compact car  — and things are looking good. The Garmin GPS gets us out of the confusing parking lot near the National Museum, and out of the city even with the many blocked roads due to construction. The highway signs are clear: to Wroclaw, to Warsaw.

Less than an hour later, the stupid GPS begins acting up, taking us off the highway and onto country roads. “In 500 meters take the exit.” So we do. We are using only one GPS at this time, I haven’t activated my phone’s GoogleMaps yet.

So we drive. For hours. On roads with nothing to see except roundabouts and farmlands growing what would eventually end up on the rocks in some bar in Warsaw or Hong Kong or Kansas.

We find a town and stop by a big supermarket for Gautier to buy Czech beers for Andrej, and I ask directions from two ladies in the parking lot. They don’t seem to understand my question, “What is this town, where are we?” It seems incomprehensible to them that someone is asking where she is. Finally they point to a sign. Apparently we are still in the Czech Republic.

More country roads. More roundabouts and the f*cking GPS is getting on our nerves (obviously its software hasn’t been updated). We are literally going around, driving by the same place over and over again, and trying different roundabout exits to see if they’d lead us to the highway.  I am this close to throwing this piece of shit out the window, but if there is anything I have learned from Gautier, it’s “That’s life.”

Seriously, Gautier was right. Soplica Hazelnut vodka IS the best flavored vodka in the world. It’s available in Alcohole stores in Krakow, which are open 24/7 and sell nothing but alcohol.
Rain and cold greet our arrival in Krakow.

I finally turn on GoogleMaps on my phone. Now we have two GPS (or GPSes I guess). And they are disagreeing like a divorcing couple — the Garmin tells us to turn right, GoogleMaps tells us to turn left. Garmin says we are 50 kilometers from taking an exit, GoogleMaps says we are 90 kilometers away. A difference of 40 kilometers — who can tell which one is right?

Gautier and I have a serious discussion on which one to follow. He is noncommittal, he says he’d leave the decision to me since I am behind the wheel.

Then he tells me the story of a tourist who fell off a cliff driving because he followed his GPS, which turned out to be horrendously wrong. I say I don’t believe him, he says google it.  (Days later, when we are stuck in traffic going back to Prague, I tell him about the traffic jam in China that lasted a week. He says he doesn’t believe me, I say google it. It turns out to be 10 days.)

Anyway, after several hours of driving and multiple stops to load on coffee, we cross the border. We buy the aforementioned shitloads of Polish vodka as planned. Gautier tells me that the Czech Republic — possibly Poland too though it is unlikely — has zero tolerance on drunk driving as he opens a bottle in the passenger seat. But we have crossed the border now, and anyway I don’t need to be reminded twice — I just want to get to our destination.

“Do you know how many people die from road accidents every year?” he asks me when someone cuts me off on the highway and I brake suddenly.

Well, no. I hadn’t exactly googled that in my spare time, but now that you’ve mentioned it, tell me, s’il te plait.

A lot.

* * *

We reach Krakow just before it gets dark, excited to finally be in the right city. We are fewer than five kilometers from our destination. At this time, the two GPS are agreeing on which exit to take to get us to the city center.

Gautier and I cheer — really, we yay!!! — and then they announce we are merely two kilometers from Andrej’s flat. More yay! Gautier takes another swig from the bottle of Soplica vodka (he’s not driving, don’t be alarmed). I can smell the hazelnut from the driver’s side and I can’t wait to park this car and see just how accurate his description of “this is the best f*cking vodka in the world” is.

The former Cloth Hall is now filled with stalls selling souvenirs, including pictures and figures of Pope John Paul II, who grew up in Krakow.
The brick gothic Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven a.k.a. St. Mary’s Church.

Then we are only one kilometer away at an intersection. Garmin says go straight, GoogleMaps says turn right. I follow my phone.

Six hundred meters, and the Garmin is adjusting its route.

Four hundred meters. They are starting to agree again.

Three hundred meters. My heart is pounding and my mind is pleading: Please don’t fight. Two hundred meters. They both tell us to turn right.

And this brings us to when Gautier and Andrej are talking on the phone. “We have two GPS,” Gautier is saying, “and they have been telling us to go in opposite directions all day  but now they are actually agreeing.”

“It’s like having two boyfriends,” I say, but no one is listening to me.

In total, we have driven seven hours and missed Wroclaw. But the situation is  finally starting to be funny to me. Like it’s not my fault that the stupid Garmin’s software is not updated. Like I haven’t been crap on this road trip. Like I’m not tired and sleepy. Like I am myself again — just happy to be in a new place.

So, we finally wind up near Krakow’s historic Old Town. It is raining as it has been intermittently going through the highways between the two countries.

He spots the street number and sees Andrej waiting in the rain with an umbrella, dressed in white linen trousers. He looks a bit like a modern-day hippie and speaks with a British accent which, he says later, he got from watching John Cleese. (What if he had watched Billy Connolly when he was growing up instead? Feckers!)

Gautier jumps out of the car and I parallel park, a task I am normally very bad at. But in one go, I fit the white Hyundai on a lovely, rainy street in Krakow on what, for the rest of Europe, is a blistering summer evening in July.