Sunday, October 8, 2017

Touring the Painted Churches in Fayette County

If you live in Texas, you know about kolaches. But do you know how that doughy, Czech goodness made its way to Central Texas? If you drive along Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio, you've seen the Czech influences there -- that's because several families settled there in the 1800s.

When the Czechs settled in Texas, they also immediately built beautiful churches for their communities. While they weren't huge churches, they were vibrant and unique. The ones that are still standing have been dubbed the Painted Churches of Fayette County.

Downtown Schulenburg
At the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce, visitors can book a group tour or private tour. Or you can just pick up a map and do it on your own! On a Saturday in May, my friend and I decided to book a private tour (it's around $60 bucks + tip). Every tour starts at the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce. Normally you drive your own car and the docent sits with you, but in our case, our docent (Linda) offered to drive her Audi SUV so we were all about that.

We visited four locations and it took about three hours.

First stop: Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina

The church was originally built in 1876, but was destroyed by a 1909 hurricane. It was rebuilt in 1912 and been there ever since. Be prepared for the bluest church you've ever seen.

If I remember correctly, the community and parishoners painted the accents in the church after it was rebuilt in 1912. The colors just bring you in and make the space so enjoyable.

Second stop: St. Mary's Catholic Church in High Hill

This is the most ornate out of the Painted Churches and it's more German. There are still services here and a lot of people have weddings here.

When you first walk in you're welcomed by these beautiful entry way.

As you can see, there's a lot more gilded areas of this church than other churches you'll see. 

The stained glass were windows are masterpieces. They were made at factory in Berlin -- that factory was destroyed during World War II.

Even the ceiling fans are really pretty!

Third Stop: St. John the Baptist in Ammansville

This church has a similar history as Dubina. Built in 1890. Destroyed by a hurricane in 1909 and the rebuilt. However, the church was also destroyed in a fire and then rebuilt again.

If pink is your color, this church will your favorite.

The grounds of the church are really pretty. There's a cemetery right next door and there is a good restroom you can use (important when you're on your third church).

The pink has a dusty-rose hue. Muted but very pretty. The church is simple, has no a/c but they still have service--although not a huge congregation.

This is a shot facing the pulpit.

A look at the inside facing the entry way.

I just thought this small tree with pink flowers was just the perfect touch outside of the church.

Fourth and last stop: Praha St. Mary's Church

This church still has a father that lives on site and they still see a large congregation every week.

Did you know? Per capita, the town of Praha lost the most men to WWII than any other city. Nine men died in the span of 12 months. The town's Veterans Day festivities apparently draw a huge crowd. On the church grounds, there are three small stone shrines dedicated to the Praha Nine.

This was the old school house in town.

When we went in May, the church had just reopened after being closed for a major remodel. There were still minor things they needed to finish, but overall the remodeling was done to perfection.

Can you believe these wood floors were hidden under linoleum? I'm so glad they refinished them because the floors are gorgeous.

The roof is modeled after Noah's ark, if I'm remembering correctly.

The organ area. This church does have air conditioning, which is nice during the heat of the summer!

The new front entry doors that were recently installed.

My favorite church was probably Praha. It wasn't too ornate and had the prettiest touches.

After touring the churches, it was about time for a late lunch. We decided to make a full day in Schulenburg and decided to eat at The Garden Co. The restaurant has a garden store next door and adorable little shops. This place would be crazy business in Austin!

The food was good and it was a great place to chat about all the cool churches we saw.

After lunch, we decided to check out a couple of wineries in the town of Moravia. I came across the fliers at the Chamber of Commerce and they were only a 15 minute drive away so onward we went.

Our first winery was Majek Vineyard and Winery. Pronounced "my-yak" like kayak, the vineyard is owned and operated by a Czech family. All the land for the winery and nearby have been owned by the family since the 1800s. The owner of the vineyard is actually trying to acquire the rest of the parcels from the rest of his family so they can continue growing the vineyards. 

When you pull up, this joint just screams cute. The tasting room is simple yet inviting. The tasting was $5-$10 for 5-6 samples. While their wines are a bit sweeter, my friend and I both got a full glass of their original Black Spanish Lenoir. It had a slightly acidic quality that we both liked.

After Majek, we drove down the hill to Moravia Vineyard and Winery.  This place is legit Italian and is run by an Italian transplant who actually lives in Katy but comes in every weekend to run the vineyard. 

All the tastings here are free. My friend and I chose a cozy sofa setup and settled in for the tastings. The owners even give you a little small plate of nuts and cheese for your tasting. While we didn't love any of their reds, the blanc du bois was perfectly refreshing and balanced.

After the wineries, we were on our way out of Moravia when we decided to make a pit stop at the general country store down the street where we proceeded to crash a 50th birthday party. 

The general store is what I think of in my head of old honky tonks. There was a dance floor, a bar teaming with locals and country music blasting in the background. It was great. The people who were their for the birthday party pretty much all had Czech ties -- it was really fun chatting with them about their time in the Moravia area. 

It was the perfect night cap to our lovely day in the Schulenburg area!

I highly suggest you visit the Painted Churches and Schulenburg! It's the perfect day trip from Austin, San Antonio or Houston!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Egypt Pt. 3: Snorkeling in Sharm El Sheikh

Our flight from the beach resort town of Sharm El Sheikh from Luxor was at a ridiculously early time and we were all exhausted. What's interesting about all of our internal flights, which we booked via Expedia on Egypt Air, was that all of us were in "Business class." The whole cost of all the internal flights was right at $300, so not bad at all!

Can I just say that the road leading into Luxor Airport is probably one of the most well maintained roads I saw while in Egypt. Kudos to them!

I was not familiar with Sharm El Sheikh or much of the Red Sea resort aspect until recently. Most of you probably know about the Russian airliner that was blown up in the fall of 2015. The plane, carrying mostly Russian tourists, took off from Sharm el-Sheikh when it blew up over the Sinai Peninsula. Ever since that crash, Russia stopped flights to the resort worried that the airport wasn't doing enough in terms of security. Apparently a lot of the tourism into this resort town was from Europe/Eastern Europe and with nary any flights coming in, the tourism industry has plummeted.

Throughout this blog, I'll show you the various locations that were once bustling areas are now desolate. There are still some European countries with direct flights to Sharm, but they are few and far between. While there, we saw some Ukranians and Italians, but not that many.

The Basics
Time there: 2 nights
Where we stayed: Hilton Sharm El Sheikh Fayrouz Resort (we got it for a family discount, which was $50/night)

When we landed at the airport, we got picked up by our new tour group we hired. Since we were able to get a good deal at the Hilton Fayrouz, we stayed there.

The hotel, while older, still has beautiful grounds and is on the beach. You can't beat that. After a whirlwind trip through Egypt, I was ready for some beach time... but we had our first trip planned at 11 a.m. There's no rest for the weary!

Because of the 2015 plane crash, the tour groups insist on hiring a tourism police officer to go with tourists on trips throughout the Sinai Peninsula--regardless of where you're headed. Obviously, their biggest concerns are in the areas closer to the northern part of the peninsula where there ISIS is conducting attacks. I didn't have a problem with the officer, it just made for a tight ride on the minvan!

Day 1

After we checked in, I toured the grounds for a bit before donning my swimsuit for our snorkeling trip at Ras Muhammad National Park. Prior to the park, our guide stopped off a location in town where we rented our snorkel gear.

I really didn't do much research on the snorkeling in the Red Sea but I knew it was supposed to be pretty. I JUST DIDN'T KNOW HOW PRETTY. Within Ras Muhammad Park, we snorkeled in two locations. One in a smaller cove that was pretty shallow and then one in an area where you could easily get swept away or thrown against the rocks if you're not paying attention. Both were equally majestic.

First snorkeling location

At the first location we had it to ourselves. No one else was there... which is crazy. When my friend Sarah came in early 2011, she said all of Sharm and its tourist locations were packed. How quickly things change when a plane falls out of the air. Yikes.

The second location was even MORE amazing than the first. I saw so many beautiful and colorful fish that I couldn't keep count. If you remember, I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef (albeit a very small section of the GBR), which was great, but the Red Sea was 100 times more impressive. I can't say enough good things about everything I saw. The corals were all so vibrant!

Also, they have jellyfish that don't sting. What's that all about?

Mangrove area at Ras Muhammed Park
After snorkeling, we made our way back into town to get some dinner. Everyone told us Fares was the best restaurant for seafood so that's where we went, wet clothes and all.

Since the seafood was so fresh, we all chipped in for this monster of a fish! I don't know the name, but it was a firm white flesh fish.

You know what else was good? This bread. We inhaled probably 6 baskets. No joke. So airy and light. 

I also had to try their seafood soup, which was chockful of seafood. They serve the soup with plenty of limes and it's a great sweet/sour mix.

The chef prepared the big fish three ways and all three ways were delicious. I particularly liked the baked dish with potatoes.

When we made it back to the hotel and got cleaned up, most people went to bed but I wanted to check out the area so I made my way down the walkway that connects the resorts to Naama Bay, which is where most of the nightlife is. I never felt unsafe walking alone.

I stopped in a hookah bar that had bedouin seating and hung out there and chatted with the business owner. I was one of only a handful of customers there on a Thursday night. Granted, March isn't peak season for them, but the owner said before the plane crash, his place would be packed and he would easily make several thousand Egyptian pounds a night.

He also told me most of the resorts have also closed because of the tourism downturn. When the European tourists stopped coming, several resorts/group started offering Egyptians deals to come to Sharm at a deeply discounted rate. I think someone said something along the lines of less than 100USD for a 2-3 night stay with food, etc. While it's great for Egyptians to see the rest of their country, the people who live and work in Sharm says the ones that came on the deal didn't give two-F's about the environment, etc. and would just tear things up when they would go snorkeling, etc.

Naama Bay area
After getting my shisha on, I made it back to the hotel for our second day in the Sinai Peninsula.

Day 2

This day also started off early but thankfully our tour guide brought homemade foul and falafels to get us ready for the long and bumpy off-roading trip to the Colored Canyon and then Dahab for more snorkeling.

Most groups that go out to to Colored Canyon take Jeeps that don't have normal seats but rather bench seats. It was a tight fit for our group, but I still managed to take power naps throughout the ride. I am blessed to be able to sleep almost anywhere.

After about two hours, we got to the Canyon. Now, it's not as big as the Grand Canyon, obviously. But it's still pretty nice to visit. What's so depressing is that we were the only ones there! 

The shops are not in operation anymore and all the bedouins (Arab nomads) who use to setup shop here to make money off greeting guests with tea and snacks all left when tourism dropped. What's left are sad remnants of once was a profitable business.

You start the hike at the peak and make your way down into the canyon where you can look at the old rock formations. The hike we did was a little less than 2 hours (if I remember correctly) but make sure you pack plenty of sun screen and water! I can't imagine hiking this in peak summer. Pass.

 Let me out of here!

We are now all warriors!! Or playing football. One or the other. The natural color is from the red rock mixed with a smidge of water. It's basically mineral make-up!

Huzzah! We made it.

After hiking, we made our way to Dahab to snorkle in the Blue Hole. We picked up snorkeling gear right on the outskirts of time at a gas station/convenience store.

Part of the trip included a short ride on camels along the beach to the Blue Hole snorkeling site.

I finally relented and got on a camel. It was fine. But I don't need to do it every time I go to the Middle East. I'm just saying. Why do I look like a weirdo in the above picture?

Once we got to the Blue Hole site, we put on our snorkeling gear and made our way into the water. The water depth drops quick, so you're constantly going in and out of warm/cold water. What's amazing about the snorkeling in the Red Sea and South Sinai Peninsula, it's literally right off the beach. You just get in the water, swim a few feet and you're among the corals. No need for boats or anything!

A lot of divers dive in the Blue Hole but a lot of people have also died doing that. I'll just stick to snorkeling.

The fish that we came across here were even more plentiful than at Ras Muhammed, but just as beautiful. We even saw a barracuda! 

My videos barely do justice for what you see in real life. It's kind of surreal to swim in the middle of a sea of tropical fish.

The Blue Hole was definitely busier than Ras Muhammed. There were probably a couple of hundred people there that day, but apparently still a lot less busy than it was several years ago.

After snorkeling, our guide set us up with a late lunch at a cafe on the beach where we could change and relax for a bit.

Friday night consisted of dinner and we all kept it low key the rest of the night since half of our group were going to St. Catherine Saturday morning. I opted out of that for a chill last day on the beach.

Day 3

Our flight out of Sharm back to Cairo was around 9 p.m. so I had some time to explore Sharm some more.

I started with a few hours on the beach, but I didn't really get in the water because it was so breezy and cold.

In the evening, I spent some more quality time at my new favorite hookah bar in Sharm, Moonlight Cafe.

The best hookah bar owner, Mahmoud! Hooking me up with the best hookah!

Before we left for the night, we picked up some jewelry from this lovely shop owner! He even threw in some legit turquoise (from the Sinai Peninsula) earrings for us since we each bought several things.

That evening, we all loaded up and made our way to the Sharm Airport to head back to Cairo. Before I get into my ordeal that was Cairo Airport, I would highly recommend Sharm and the southern Sinai Peninsula. It is beautiful. The people were amazing and so unbelievably friendly. I can't say it enough: don't be scared to visit. 

What I Thought Was My Last Day in Egypt

When we all got to Sharm Airport we would find out that our flight to Cairo was running about 1.5 hours late. This really put me in a pickle because I had the earliest flight out of Cairo back home (1:30 a.m.). If our flight would've been on time, we would've landed at Cairo Airport at 10:35 p.m., giving me three hours to get to the other terminal and check my bag for the international flight. However, we didn't land back in Cairo until right before midnight.

I hurriedly grabbed my bag, said bye to my friends and high-tailed it to Terminal 2, where Air France flies out of. I got to the security line at 12:10 a.m. In my mind, I thought "whew, I made it with more than an hour to spare."

As I threw my bag onto the security belt (bag goes through security first, before you go to the check-in counter), the airport security worker said I was already too late for that flight. He said for international flights out of Cairo, you have to be there with your bag 2 hours before departure--regardless of whether you checked in online or not (which I had checked in online).

I pressured him into letting me through and I made my way to the counter, where another Cairo Airport employee said I was too late. He escorted me back out to the security gate where there were six other random people who couldn't get on the same flight as me because of the same reason.

The crazy thing was that there was no Air France rep to talk to. Just Cairo Airport employees who were useless. I could've checked my bag through and made it on the plane in plenty of time (more than 1 hour!). But alas, they're pretty strict about their rules. One Parisian man who travels to Cairo frequently for work was surprised about the changes as well.

The airport folks tried to get us resolution but nothing happened so we were stuck without any recourse. The next Air France flight to Paris was 24 hours later. One Russian girl was almost in tears because she was so ready to get home. Neither one of us had internet on our phones (the WIFI at the airport doesn't work) so I had to use my charm to get an airport employee to call my friend Salma to ask if I could crash at her place overnight as I figure out my next flight situation.

I took the Cairo Shuttle Bus to Salma's house where she woke up in the middle of the night to greet me. She was my angel that night. I immediately got in contact with Micah back home and asked him to call Air France for me and get me on the next flight. They were able to rebook me for $150 fee--I should've fought it after the fact but I was so over it.

I finally fell asleep as 4 a.m. And I slept until noon.

Although I technically had another day in Cairo, I didn't do much. I just hung around Salma's house and helped her make dinner that evening. So thankful for her and her family's hospitality!

That night, Salma and her father drove me to the airport... EARLY. I'm not going through that again. Her father even thought it was weird that they wouldn't let me on the plane the other night. Anyhow, I made it through and was finally on my way back home.

Let's just say that last 24 hours was my least favorite part of my trip. Everything else about Egypt was fantastic.

In parting, these were the only words I was able to learn in Arabic while there:
-Yella (let's go! We used this a lot when it came to Sarah. Ha!)
-Shukran (thank you)
-Bikam (how much?)
-Laa (no)
-Salaam (hi)

That's all I got! I'll learn more the next time I visit. There will be a next time.