We are in our way. I will fix up this blog when I get home where I have good internet and a keyboard instead of fidgeting with a cell phone. And I'll have my camera photos to post too.
UPDATE: we are in Calgary! And our luggage made it. We had a scare in Zurich. First a passenger sneaked on without a boarding pass; security escorted him off. Then a person checked in, checked his luggage but never showed up on the plane, so they had to go through all of the luggage to find his to get it off and inspect the plane. Then they searched the airport for this person, so we were late, which made us really scramble in Toronto, getting through customs and barely catching our connecting flight. It was already boarding when we reached the gate.
But with all of this excitement, we made it back with the luggage. Yay!
It it is good to be back to polite drivers, smooth sidewalks and not having to pay schlotties, florin or euros to use the bathroom.
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Our last day was another fun-filled packed day. We traveled from our Stekle castle back to Vienna, arriving around noon. Tom and I dropped our bags in our room and immediately headed out to the Belvedere district to visit the Belvedere palace art museum.
We we were not disappointed in our hour walk that it took to get there as the museum held masterpieces from the medieval area to the early 1900s.
Although the the majority were artworks and artists from Austria, we also saw impressionist masters such as Renoir, Manet, and Monet and expressionist Van Gogh. But the real surprise was David's neoclassic masterpiece Napolean Crossing the Alps! It is huge and every bit as majestic as one would imagine This ruler was in real life. See more.
We got a bit off-track on our way back to the hotel and ran into fellow travelers Maddie and Andrew who were equally lost, so we wandered around together when the men actually decided their GPS and map-reading skills needed a bit of help when we ended up at the wrong Hilton. Much to Maddie's and my surprise, they actually asked for help! Our getting temporarily lost did give us the chance to see the hotel we were originally scheduled to stay in. Our substitute was much better!
Then the evening was magical with another palace experience. We had dinner and then an evening of classical music teamed with ballet and operatic performances in the music hall of the Auersperg's former home.
Český Krumlov charmed us with her Bohemian beauty, her medieval castles and cathedrals. Of course, the streets were lined with shops on the main floors of the 15th-century buildings. (Pronounced Chesky Crumloff)
But before we reached the little town nestled by the Moldava River, we stopped at the true Budweiser brewery, which has been around since 1825. Currently, this brewery's owners are in a copyright dispute with the American Budweiser, so it it sells as "Budvar" in the United States. No one in our group had heard of it before.
After the tour, we had another half an hour's drive, and we were in this town of towers. The hamlet was taken over by the Russians, but they didn't do any damage to the buildings, so everything was preserved, including the old castle and all of its contents. We had an eye-popping tour of the castle with its items from the 15-17th century, from the mirrors, to the dining tables to the beds. Amazing.
One of the main items for sale in the jewelry shops was moldovite, a stone created when a meteorite crashed into the earth, a mineral treasured for its healing properties. The Czech Republic (and old Gemany) are the only places where the meteorite formed this mineral, so it is hard to come by anywhere else. To learn about Moldovite, click here. To learn about the supposed healing properties of moldovite, click here. Link to the Moldovite Museum. We enjoyed looking at it in various settings, both cut and rough, but we didn't purchase any. However, one of our fellow travelers with roots in the Czech Republic, Katie, had to get some earrings as a payback to a picture her husband took of her in an unflattering pose.
Unfortunately, for some more than others, we weren't able to stay at the monastery in the townsite of Český Krumlov as originally planned, so we boarded the bus for another 40-minute road trip to another castle town. Most were happy with the switch because the rooms were huge and the views amazing. Some even preferred being in a quite town instead of bucking the crowds of a main tourist attraction. And since we weren't in a town, we couldn't do the "dine around" dinner, where we could pick from different restaurants. We all ate in the hotel from a set menu, but the staff did well at accommodating special diets. Two down sides to this hotel: it was very hot with no air conditioning (the windows wouldn't stay open) and the electrical plug ins wouldn't work, hence, this blog post is late. We had no way to charge our phones or camera batteries.
What a magical day, despite being a day of on the bus. Our stop in Dresden amazed us with the fabulous reconstruction of the old town. The entire town was reconstructed from the bottom up after it was basically flattened in WWII. However, even though the exteriors seemed identical to the originals, we found many interiors undone or plainly adorned compared to the earlier splendor of medieval frescoes and mosaics. After a day of enjoying our Dresden stop, we were charmed: that's how we felt about our evening in Prague.
Once we we crossed the border from Germany into the Czech Republic, the hills appeared, lush with green and dotted with quaint villages and bright yellow canola fields.
When end we arrived at the hotel, which is part of a castle, we headed up to the top of the complex to get a view when we happened upon a medieval festival and Battle of the World. Canada had just lost to the Russians, but the Canadians posed with me for a picture, all decked out in armor. I got to hold their battle axe. Wow. They said the United States team still had a chance but they doubted anyone could beat the very tough Russians.
In in the evening, a hilarious local guide took us on a walking tour of the city, finishing with a river cruise to see the buildings lit up at night. He told a funny story, not too politically correct, about a gypsy. "A gypsy went into the police station to report a stolen purse. The police asked the usual question, such as What is your name and address, but then he asked a final question: "What was in your purse?" the officer asked. "Fifteen wallets," she replied. Indeed, we did find the pickpockets thick in Prague.
But again, the day--and night-- were magical.
Cathedrals, palaces, towers and crowds--we had another great day of sites that started off with a tour of the downtown of Prague with our hilarious local tour guide George again. He told us how the Czech people get back at the Russians by pointing them in the wrong direction when they ask. The Czechs also tell the Russians to rub the privates of a certain statue of a boy to make sure they have a son, which they do; and the statue is very shiny in this part.
On a more devout note, we visited the church of the infant Jesus, called the Infant of Prague, that is credited with many hearings. The wall by the statue has plaques attesting to these miracles and giving thanks.
We we also climbed two towers, one church bell tower and the other s mini Eiffel Tower, designed by the same engineer of the French one. From here, we could see the fights and jousting a of the medieval festival below as they await the winner of the Battle of the Worlds.
We had lunch at a small French cafe but got worried when the ATM didn't work as we had been warned about the many money exchange scams in Prague. The city is also full of pickpockets and begging gypsies.
But the worst part was the crowds. The morning was fine; but by noon, the hoards made it hard to move around and cross the bridges. Even in this spring shoulder season, the mob scene is bad. I would hate to see it in summer.
Note: Click on a picture to enlarge it.
Our day was so full. It started with a general tour of parts of the city. We learned that since Berlin was divided into four sections--British, U.S., French and Soviet--it never had one main center, so it is hard to see it all from one area. Due to this division, we couldn't see much in our short time there, although what we saw was overwhelming.
We started off seeing the embassies, museum district, holocaust memorial and museum, the Russian memorial, the bridges over the Spree river, churches, the East German Tower (taller than anything in Europe at the time including the Eiffel Tower). And this tower is called the Pope's revenge because when the sun shines on it, it creates a cross, just the opposite of what Hitler and his Nazi's would have wanted.
In the afternoon, we saw checkpoint Charlie, visited the museum that showed all of the historic escapes and attempts including artifacts, such as the cars, kayaks, and suitcases used to hide, and the wall. We saw the two most famous paintings on the wall: The Kiss (Brezhnev and Honecker), subtitled My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, and a painting of a car bursting through the wall.
After the tour and our own wanderings, Tom and I had had enough of the war so we went to an art museum featuring Salvador Dali's work, which was fabulous. (No pictures allowed)
We we were exhausted by six p.m. after a short walk in the Teirgarten park. One regret: we weren't able to climb the spiral inside the parliament building. I guess you need tickets way in advance.
Click on a picture to enlarge and read caption.
I don't have too much time to write. We had a long coach ride, but then Tom and I ran all over the downtown of Berlin, seeing several churches and strolling down Unter den Linden (under the linden trees street).
We visited the Catholic cathedral St. Hedwig. It was a beautiful dome with two altars, one downstairs and one up with open space to see both; however, it didn't hold a candle to the Protestant Berlin cathedral. Read more. This church is quite fabulous, with king's and queens and kaisers' tombs in the basement (even infant graves) and a walkway inside and outside the dome. And yes, we climbed the stairway to check it out. Fabulous 360• views! We had a yummy Turkish dinner eaten al fresco, visited by sparrows waiting for our leftovers, and we are tired.
Click on picture to enlarge and read caption.
Destroyed by the Austrians, destroyed again by the Germans and then totally taken over by the Soviets, it is surprising that Warsaw survived; and it almost didn't. However, instead of moving the capital city, the Soviets decided to rebuild. In fact, everything in the old town is rebuilt exactly as it was, at least on the outside.
Only a few buildings survived: interestingly, a Catholic church in the Jewish ghetto, another Catholic church in the town square and a synagogue along with a handful of other buildings.
The rest of the town was rebuilt in the spare "communistic" or Soviet style except for lavish Stalin's Palace, which is now a cultural center. It is such a huge, imposing building, it fits Stalin's image perfectly. After the end of the Soviet occupation, some wanted to destroy this temple to communism, but it is quite an architectural marvel and the tallest building in Poland so it stands today. It is a cultural hall, with several museums, several theaters, concert halls, and a swimming pool. Read more.
We then visited a very tiny museum that housed a replica of a soviet-area apartment that would have housed a family of four. At just 450 square feet, it was a very small efficiency apartment with tiny appliances along one wall, a bathroom, small bedroom for the children, while the parents slept in the small living area on a pull-out couch or Murphy bed.
As we walked the streets, our guide warned us to watch for bicycles as they have the right of way on sidewalks and streets. As she said, "They are like cows in India; they can do no wrong and are protected."
For food, we were now sick of pierogies, so we ate Italian at a small al fresco cafe, run by a family. The young man who served us, around 15, was so cute and barely spoke English but he had a shy smile and was quite attentive. Tom tipped him 20% and the look on his face was priceless. The food: Fantastic!
Tomorrow we leave Poland for Berlin, Germany.
Click on a picture to enlarge.
We left Kraków grudgingly as we would have loved to explore this old town some more, but three great adventures awaited us along with six hours of travel time.
First it was a trip to the salt mines. We only saw one percent of the mine, yet we walked three miles and with over 400 stairs. The part of the mine we walked was 350 feet deep, which started with an elevator ride that was quite claustrophobic with a lift out of the early 1900s, more like a freight elevator with no lights inside. We just kind of held onto each other and hoped for the best.
The mine is no longer used for salt, just tours and to carve more attractions. Statues of famous people such as Goethe line the rooms and hallways. One room held an entire church made from salt. They even hold Sunday mass there, free of charge (I didn't pay the three Euros to take photos). A bit of the tour was hokey when the guides tried to recreate what it was like for the miners, complete with flashing lights and loud explosion sounds. Today, the miners work to keep the tunnels safe for tourists and create more art. Another strange part was all of the gift shops: four lined the tour route right in the mine and a final one at the end.
After our salty tour, we headed to Częstochowa (pronounced "chest ah hovah")
This is place was the highlight of the day but my knees are still sore. We visited a museum dedicated to now saint and former pope John Paul II. It had many of his personal items and clothing as well as vestments, books and portraits. Then we went into a basilica with blue and rose marble with white marble statues and embellishments all in gold. Another museum had knight armor and robes encrusted with jewels from the Middle Ages (no photos allowed).
Another museum held artifacts from Hitler's final solution, items the prisoners had made from their meager rations, including rosaries made from bread crumbs and small dolls.
Then for the main attraction: a side chapel off the basilica held the Black Madonna. A priest was saying mass, but still pilgrims lined up to walk a circle around the church to see the famous painting, supposedly crafted by St. Luke from a piece of the holy family's dining table. During the last part of the walk that circles behind the altar right in front of the icon, people drop to their knees and kneel upright or crawl the last part the way. It was easy at first, but then our knees really started to ache. They still do at the end of the day.
After these two big events, we traveled on to Warsaw, where we learned how to make pierogies, Polish ravioli or stuffed dumplings. We had pierogies for dinner and then--with a chef guiding us-- made our own dessert "plum" pierogies that didn't look too appetizing, nor were they very good. They were boiled instead of fried in butter and most of us got the dough too thick.
We didn't finish the day until 10 pm. A side note: we stopped at a McCafe at snack break and saw lots of signs for KFC, apparently a favorite of Eastern Europeans; and Warsaw appears to be Poland's tech center with skyscrapers marked with Dell, Samsung and Microsoft signs and logos.
After a nice breakfast ( but you wouldn't want to eat the eggs), we headed out for a city tour of Old Town Krackow with our guide. We learned about the royal circle around the town, the circular park that used to be a moat, the Wawel (pronounced Vovle) castle that was last occupied by a Nazi general, and about Polish pride, despite being over run by the Austrians, the Germans, and then the Russians.
And just like we lucked out on the May-Day celebrations in Budapest, we happened upon a holiday in Poland: May 3 is Constitution Day, similar to July 4th, our Independence Day. We saw a parade, military marches and bands, as well as a former prime minister introduced.
Many shops were closed for the festivities but we found a wonderful restaurant to have pierogies.
Then we we were off on our own for two hours, so we visited some churches, which all had masses and the Black Madinna on the walls, and then headed to the Jewish quarter where Oskar Schindler had his factory and the movie Shindler's List was filmed. We learned that the following were from there too: Max Factor, Helen Rubenstein, Billie Wilder.
But the highlight, AND also the shock, of the day was our visit to Auschwitz. I really cannot describe how powerfully horrible this place is from the two tons of human hair, to the human ashes, to the children's clothing, to the shoes, to the cooking utensils to the barbed wire, to the barracks, to Mengele's hospital where experiments were done on children and twins, to the women's sterilization house to the final horror of stepping into the one remaining gas chamber and crematorium. Finally to the faces on the wall with the date of entry and date of death meticulously catalogued.
When we got back, we sat in our room and had coffee, trying to perk ourselves up, trying to process such atrocities, knowing that such horrors are still going on around the world.
Luckily, we met up with Cathy K's cousin Antoni for dinner, distracting our minds. He was so much fun to talk to, and we learned more about the country, what life is like, his family, and the political climate of Poland, such a nice way to end the day, visiting a new friend.
After a wonderful ride through the countryside across Humgary and Slovakia, we skirted the Tattra mountains and entered Poland. The countryside was dotted with quaint villages with people still working the land by hand in the fields and plowing with horses. We saw some unusual hairy pigs too.
After we arrived in Kraków, we wandered the main square before going to a traditional dinner with local entertainment of polka and folk dances that included audience participation. After a little vodka, beer and Polish wine, our dancing improved. Or maybe not.
I might get drunk off the dessert, but that's later. We actually happened upon a local restaurant that served a vegetarian paprikesh goulash. But don't get too excited about the veggies in a meat-loving country because all it had was potatoes.
However, it was served with a mushroom cappuccino soup, a home-made cream of mushroom with a dollop of milk foam on top. It also came with some fresh sauerkraut, mixed with pickles, not the best but not the worst meal we have had.
The dessert, on the other hand, was delish. It was Hungarian sponge cake, soaked in the local specialty brandy, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
We learned some traditions too: clink wine glasses but not beer: the Russians clinked beer glasses, so Hungarians never do. You will get a big frown and "unkind" words, according to our guide. Attila is a poplar name (our bus driver included) but Hungarians mostly consider themselves descendants of the Finns, not the Huns.
And in Hungary, our guide Erica told us that there are no pedestrians, just survivors, as you take your life in your hands when you cross the street.
A little interesting fact for the gals out there: Hungarian women get three years maternity leave. The first year is at full pay and the next two at three quarter's pay.
I can't tell you how charmed we were with Budapest. You must go.
May day and motheR's day celebrations
Budapest is really two towns, and the 'pest' part is pronounced 'Pescht' in Hungarian. And today we had a treat: May Day and Mother's Day fell at the same time this year for Hungarians, so crowds were fierce, bridges closed, flower vendors getting rich, while we got to enjoy local customs. Shopkeepers were selling their famous "chimney cakes," from which our funnel cakes derive. People lined the Danube River to watch an aerobatic show, including their famous pilot fly under the Széchenyi "Chain" bridge. We had to take public transportation, since the streets were closed to cars and tour buses so we got a taste of city life. However, I think it was very stressful for the tour guides to take us on buses and trams and keep us all together.
We also toured the Fisherman's quarter and their most famous church: St. Mary, but renamed Matthias; however, the church is full of Marys. We also toured the magnificent parliament building.
Another tidbit of note is that Ronald Reagan is a national hero, so an important town square hosts his statue. He was instrumental in taking down the iron curtain, so they honor him for that.
We arrived in Budapest and found out we have a view room over looking the Danube! Then we walked around, hiked up to the royal castle that is now an art museum (you could take a funicular to the top instead), walked across the famous Széchenyi "Chain" bridge, but we didn't place a lock on it.
Then it was on to a dinner evening cruise of the Danube River with all of the flavor of paprikesh sauces. We even went off our vegetarian diet to sample small bites of the local dishes. But we didn't take small bites of the yummy chocolate creme dessert.
We had a wonderful tour of Schönbrunn palace, the summer residence of the Habsburgs, especially known for Maria Teresia and her reign. Read more
Two baroque churches and an al fresco cafe lunch, and we are off to Budapest. Side note: Asparagus was the flavor of Vienna, so we had a cup of yummy soup and it was in the salad too. Everywhere we went, the restaurants were featuring this tasty spring veggie.
We did not leave any daylight on the table: 9 miles of walking and awesome sightseeing.
First, it was off to see a training session of the Lipizzaner stallions. The trainers, all of whom were men except one, pranced the horses around a ring, sometimes in figure eights.
They trotted, cantered, high stepped and side stepped, but they didn't rear up or do any jumps or stunts. It was a bit disappointing and it isn't worth the money. We left after one hour of a two-hour ticket. But I can cross it off my bucket list.
Then it was off to the Votive Church, which was under renovation and was being set up for a comedy and light show later that evening. We thought it a bit sacrilegious along with the big ads on the sides of the building, but maybe that's what pays for the renovations.
Then we had the three jewels of the day: the history museum, which had many Greek and Roman statues and artifacts, even one of the seven wonders of the world --temple of Artemis; it also contained musical instruments thoughout history, including ones played by Mozart, Strauss and Schubert.
The next museum held the Kaisers' riches and jewels, which had crowns, robes, church items, reliquaries, armor, table decorations and more, all in gold and encrusted with huge gems. There was even a box carved out of solid emerald; and finally the art museum that had entire rooms filled with Dutch masters, Venetian artists, such as Titian and Tintoretto; one full of Dürers, and even Rubens. We didn't see a quarter of the masterpieces it held. It is one to put on the list to go back to if we ever get the chance.
Then we met with our guided tour and had dinner, quite a full day.
We scored the last two opera tickets left to see Dudamel conduct Turindot for tonight's opening, not the best seats but only 17 euros each! WE had fun visiting with some very loyal opera fans, who travel all over to see various opera houses and performances. They new all of the singer-actors as well as the conductors. They were not happy with Dudamel at all, but I was happy I could see him, barely. However, I was surprised that he had cut his wild curly hair. Another scroe was that we were able to get tickets for the Lipizzaner stallion training for tomorrow morning. Usually, you have to apply in advance. So happy.
For lunch, we ducked down a side street to a local cafe and had savory vegetable strudel with garlic sour cream. Yum But a bit on the heavy side, which we find is true of most of the food here..
Then we walked around, admiring the beauty, but also the bulk, of the buildings. Everything is on such a grand scale.
The flowers are really blooming: tulips, lilacs, fields of mustard. But it is a very blustery, cold day. The famous föhn winds supposedly cause many headaches, even migraines. Even though they didn't feel warm, they were warm enough to melt snow, so they earn their name.