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Menhirs, marionettes, and museums

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The light in the hall outside our room stopped working some time yesterday, meaning that we had to use a flashlight to get down the stairs to breakfast, but nobody seemed to notice. For this and other reasons, we thought we might be alone in the hotel but there were two middle-aged British ladies at breakfast, and they said a friend of theirs had tried to book and been told it was full. (?) Certainly there were many more rooms and tables than we saw people. Maybe they only staff up to a certain level out of season?

Bread rolls here are long and narrow (I keep thinking they’re bananas), rather hard, and tightly curled inside, like croissants though not so rich. If you get a hot dog from a street cart, they spit one of these rolls lengthwise on a 1″ diameter spike and then put the sausage in the hole. I broke a roll open at breakfast and suddenly felt the physicality of the old expression “to break bread with someone” for the first time…

“Letni” (summer), seen often on signs, seemed vaguely familiar and I couldn’t figure out why… until I realized it’s Intel spelled backwards.

For our first stop this morning, we visited a stone circle near the town of Holasovice. I thought it was fascinating until we discovered that it was built by hippy-dippy neo-pagan “psychotronic technicians” in 2008. Nuclear reactor cooling towers on the horizon provided an interesting contrast. Next we visited Holasovice itself, with its “Farmer’s Baroque” village green. This is what a typical village square would have looked like in the mid-1800s, with its fish pond, frogs, scale for carts, tiny church, and enormous maypole. (Okay, that last would only have been there in certain months of the early 1800s.)

Next we went to Prachatice, with its fancy-pants medieval town square (they had a lot of money and power back in the day — salt traders from Salzburg were required to stop here, by royal decree) and National Museum of Czech Puppets and Circus. There we saw a great collection of puppets both old and new (including a family puppet theatre with its own painted orchestra pit, a king and queen very reminiscent of the ones from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and many many devils) and quite a bit of historical circus and magicians’ equipment (including a life-sized wax mermaid who breathed).

We considered stopping for lunch in Prahatice, but pressed on to Pisek, where Monika inquired of a local as to what might be open on a Sunday and we were directed to U Reineru (The Reiners’). Their English menu had a sense of humor, including sections labeled “All Breaded Up and Fried in Oil” and “From a Bull or a Cow, or maybe from a Hog” (I’m pretty sure these were deliberate, not errors). I ordered the “Reiner Cutlet” because I figured that if they put the family name on it, it’s probably good. Also ordered spinach, because, hey look, a vegetable! Took forever to arrive, but it was good when it did: breaded fried pork cutlet with ham and cheese inside and more cheese on top. Num.

I realize that everything I’ve been eating in Europe is delicious because I’ve been allowing myself to order dishes prepared with copious quantities of The Miracle Ingredient. (“Fat! It makes everything taste better!”) God knows how much weight I’ll have gained by the time we get home (4-7 miles of walking every day will help, of course) but I’m confident I’ll be able to get back on the eating-right horse and get in shape fairly quickly. Well, after Wiscon, anyway.

Pisek has an excellent museum with an eclectic collection of regional history and prehistory, a Gothic hall with the original black tile floor, a lapidarium of local stones, and — for some unknown reason — an extensive collection of coffeemakers. It’s a good thing we had Monika because the text was all in Czech; also, she was able to give us some essential background info. We gave the museum a “quick canter,” as suggested by the Rough Guide, and it was well worth it.

Drove to Prague, said goodbye to Monika and Peter, and checked into Hotel Petr (room quite small, otherwise nice). Walked a couple blocks to the nearest Metro stop, where we bought transit passes and looked in a bookstore for a good restaurant guide, since we’d found no Prague restaurant app and Yelp doesn’t know about this place. (TripAdvisor has some info but the app is not very well designed.) The Time Out book we bought agreed with other info we’d seen that Bar Bar, an artsy bar and restaurant, was good, so we took the tram two stops to that. Cool artsy decor, nonsmoking area, menu with many vegetarian options, and in the men’s room I used a urinal identical to Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain,” the like of which I have never before seen in the wild. Kate had tagliatelle with zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, and capers; I had ratatouille with grilled polenta. Vegetables, yum.

After dinner we returned to the room to plan out our time in Prague. Tomorrow, I think, we will do laundry. Oh, the adventure.

Cesky Krumlov

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A few stray notes from yesterday… As we walked around the town, we saw many, many young people (many with large bottles) flowing toward the music festival. It’s very clear that we made the right decision to switch hotels. Also, although the hotel desk clerk told us she didn’t know this was happening, it’s just today, maybe it will end this afternoon, we got a copy of the program: the festival has been going on for three days already and runs until 1:30 AM every night. So… nice try, lady. I’d like to think that even without Monika we might have managed a solution, but Monika certainly made everything better and easier. Well worth the fairly large amount of money we’re paying for her services and Peter’s.

I also ought to note that wherever we have traveled in the Czech Republic we’ve found clean toilets, good toilet paper, plenty of hot water and water pressure, and free wi-fi. (The only hotel we’ve stayed at so far in this trip that lacked free wi-fi was in Bologna.) This definitely does not feel like a third-world or second-world country.

Breakfast was what we are coming to realize is a fairly standard Czech breakfast (rather similar to the Dutch, actually): corn flakes, yogurt, bread and rolls, an assortment of meats and cheeses, good coffee. The breakfast room was well hidden at the back of the restaurant, and our waitress was the same blonde from last night. Still no decaf.

After breakfast, drove to Cesky Krumlov, an amazingly picturesque medieval castle town, thoroughly infested with tourists. Every few steps revealed another beautiful vista, often with a castle or church tower perfectly framed at the end of a narrow alley. Perched on steep slopes at a tight bend of the river, you’re always rounding a curve or looking down on some other part of the town. It’s a popular place for weddings, and while we were there we saw many bridesmaids, and a bride arrived in a fabulous antique car. Also, there are bears (named Franz Josef and Maria Theresa) living in the moat.

For lunch: “wild goulash” with bread dumplings at the Hotel Barbora. Very tasty, but… wild WHAT, exactly? Fruit dumplings for dessert, with crumbled cheese.

After lunch, wandered around the town on our own, then met Monika for a tour of the Baroque castle theatre. This theatre is a real treasure, unique in the world — built and equipped in the late 1700s, used once, and then apparently never used again, it’s the best-preserved theatre of its vintage anywhere. Many of the original sets, costumes, props, and other equipment are here as well. The light in the theatre simulated candlelight and was astonishingly dim. Given that these operas were 4-6 hours long, it must have induced a rather dreamlike state. Also, I realized that opera glasses not only magnify, but like a telescope they also gather more light, thus giving the viewer more of a chance to see the performers’ expressions (this is, admittedly, just a guess on my part).

Our tour (in English, with an excellent guide) included the under-stage area, with the mechanisms that could affect a complete scene change in 6-10 seconds. Because candles were used for illumination, blackouts were not possible — instead they used fireworks to blind the audience briefly, and when their eyes cleared the new scenery would be in place. It must have been spectacular. It also explains why so many other theaters of the period burned down…

When we came out of the theatre it was beginning to rain, so we bid a fond farewell to lovely Cesky Krumlov and drove to Hluboka castle, the second-biggest castle in the Czech Republic. Hluboka is the seat of the Schwarzenbergs, whose arms include a severed Turk’s head with a raven plucking its eyes out, a gruesome symbol of a famous victory over the Turks which appears on many Schwarzenberg properties. A Schwarzenberg is today the Czech Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Hluboka is a national treasure, very popular with Czech and foreign tourists (and, apparently, another popular site for weddings, though we didn’t see any during our visit). The exterior is remarkably white and clean and well-preserved, festooned with deer heads (stone heads with real antlers, each with a label indicating who shot it and where). The inside is a dark and overwhelming gnarl of densely carved wood, paintings of nobles, Murano glass chandeliers, tapestries, suits of armor, and all that other castle-y stuff. It was very impressive and, again, showed more taste than San Simeon (at least it was consistent), but dark and oppressive — I’d much rather live at Schoenbrunn.

It was raining pretty hard now, so we declined a walk around the castle grounds and drove back to our hotel. After a short nap, I looked on TripAdvisor and found a nearby restaurant called “Life Is Dream” (in English) with exactly one review, but that review said “one of my favorite restaurants in not just The Czech Republic but in all of Europe.” The restaurant’s online menu seemed a little strange, maybe even over-the-top, but it promised vegetables so I talked Kate into it. After some difficulty getting ourselves into the non-smoking section (most restaurants in Ceske Budejovice are smoking, so this was a plus) we managed to order… we’ll, I’ll just quote from the English-language menu. Appetizer: “Rocket spring rolls: Rocket leaves with parmesan, peanut butter, rolled in Parma ham and sprinkled with pine nuts.” My main dish: “Leni’s dream: For all those conscious of a healthy diet, we take the opportunity to offer you a protein bomb. Fat free turkey meat prepared in a spicy yogurt crust served on a bed of red lentils with lots of excellent but often forgotten vegetables — beetroot, celery, white radish, soybeans and buckwheat.” Kate ordered a lamb pilaf and corn on the cob.

I must say that I have never eaten anything quite like that dinner. A very unusual combination of flavors, but tasty.

The check arrived in a tiny leather treasure chest surrounded by hard candies and cough drops.

Crisis averted in Ceske Budejovice

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Woke up 6:00 or so. Down to breakfast a bit before the official opening hour but they accomodated us anyway. Packed up, met Monika, dragged the bags out to the car while she took care of the bill, drove away.

Passed fields of bright yellow canola and gleaming solar panels, both due to EU renewable-energy regulations.

Stopped in Pehlrimov, “town of records,” to visit the House of Records and “Czech Golden Hands” museum. This museum displays many of the world’s biggest, smallest, most, etc. objects (well, maybe only the Czech Republic’s biggest etc.) as well as a collection of unusual items made by Czechs, such as dozens of objects made entirely of matches (including a playable guitar!), a working steam engine made of glass, and many Muppet-like crocheted dolls of figures from Czech history (including the Golem of Prague)! The photos below show me standing in front of the largest macaroni mosaic, and Kate adding a few stitches to the longest scarf (138 kilometers and still growing!).

Next, a brief stop at an incredibly cute little red castle, on an island in a manmade lake, called Cervena Lhota. This is the Pond District of Bohemia, where the land was too swampy to farm, so hundreds of years ago the water was diverted into many manmade ponds, thus creating a large carp-farming culture and a great deal of usable dry land. Carp are ever-present here, both on the menu and in the art. In Nativity scenes here, one of the shepherds is typically bringing the baby Jesus a carp (!?).

Traveling with Monika and Peter, our guide and driver, is like having a mom and dad who will take you to Gator Land, stop for ice cream whenever you want, and never make you kiss your stinky old aunt. They deal with navigation, parking, hotels, admissions, etc. for us and we do the fun stuff. One could get used to this…

In Trebon, we ate at a very nice restaurant, one of a pair called “Supina & Supinka” (Fish Scales & Little Fish Scales), where they claimed something identified on the English menu as “carp chips” was the speciality of the house. Somewhat dubiously, I ordered it. It was amazing! You could put this fabulous seasoned breading on a rock and it would be delicious.

You know how you finally figure out where everything is in the con hotel right around the time the con is over? That’s how it is on this trip with the streets, the transit system, the language, etc. in each new city.

Also, I’ve really been feeling the truth of the adage “No matter where you go, there you are.” Here we are in this very strange place and yet I am very conscious that I’m still me, with all my neuroses and attitudes, breathing air in the same way and otherwise interacting with my environment in the same way. Also, the birds are still birds, the trees are still trees, and the people are fundamentally still people. Not a unique insight, but it’s what I have to offer today.

After lunch we touristed in the little town of Trebon: visited the castle (mostly archives inside, not open to the public), climbed the bell tower, walked around the town, strolled around the pond and across the dam. Then drove on to Ceske Budejovice (aka Budweis, home of the original Budweiser beer) — at 100,000 people, the largest town we’ve visited in the Czech Republic. Its town square was large and bright — exactly what the town squares in all those small towns we’d visited (nice though they were) want to be when they grow up.

Our hotel, Solne Brany, was lovely, centrally located… and right across the river from a major music festival which, we discovered (and despite the desk clerk’s professions of ignorance) goes until 1:30 AM both days we’re here. Even with the windows shut and with the (probably sedate by comparison with later) afternoon music it was too loud to think straight. After considering the efficacy of earplugs, we called Monika and asked her to deal with it, then went for a walk. 45 minutes later, just as we were about to check out a restaurant for dinner, Monika called: they found someplace else. We decided to check the restaurant before heading back to hotel #1, and were intercepted by someone (a local? another tourist?) who said two other places nearby were much better.

Back at hotel #1, we found that Monika and Peter had already snagged our bags… except for the CPAP bag. Fortunately (“Ave Maria!” cried the desk clerk) it was eventually found. Hotel #2, Hotel Zatkuv Dum, was just a few blocks away as the crow flies or the pedestrian walks, but a half-hour drive due to one-way and pedestrian streets. We inspected the room before committing, it passed muster, and we were out the door heading for dinner while Monika and Peter were still doing paperwork at the front desk. They get a BIG tip.

At dinner I proposed a toast to Kate: “here’s to surviving a crisis.” “It was a problem, not a crisis,” she replied. “We have Staff, we sic’d ’em on it, and they dealt with it.” One could, as I say, get used to this. Of course, maintaining staff like this on a daily basis (and in the US, as opposed to Eastern Europe which, though it’s not as cheap as it used to be, is still pretty darn cheap) is more than even we could afford.

For dinner we wound up at “U 3 Sedlaku,” a pub that’s been on this spot since 1897. With Pilsner Urquell on tap and a menu in German featuring lots of schwein und wurst, I would describe it as a typical Bavarian beer hall, but I do get the impression it is actually a very typical Czech beer hall. I had poppy-and-sesame-crusted pork medallions with grilled vegetables, which was fab, and — though I don’t usually drink beer — a Pilsner Urquell, because how could one not.

After dinner, wandered the streets for a bit in search of our bearings and dessert. Wound up at the very pleasant terrace restaurant of our own hotel (#2) where we noted one of the dessert options was “zakvicky”, which all of our sources translated as “coffins.” Naturally, we had to order it. It turned out to be two small, indeed coffin-shaped, pastries made of a stiff light batter having a lot in common with meringue, topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. Alas, there was no decaf.

If that was the worst problem we face this trip, we’re doing great.

A day in Jindrichuv Hradec

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Got two short story acceptances in yesterday’s email, but I think I need to admit I’m not going to get any more writing done on this trip. Just too much mental energy is consumed by traveling.

Awake a bit before 7. Breakfast in hotel: corn flakes, muesli, and yogurt laid out on bar; plate of ham, sausage, and cheeses and basket of breads brought by waitress. Something smelled really good, probably roasting pork for tonight’s dinner. (The frying fish later in the day was not nearly so appetizing.)

After breakfast we walked to a nearby bakery to pick up some local treats, and saw the Prettiest Sandwiches Ever in the display case. I’m very glad we have German, it’s far more common than English here. I think I know the Czech word for “thank you” now, let’s see if I can add “good day” without losing it…

Met Monika outside the hotel at 9:00. Walked around the town, saw the outside of the castle (3rd largest in the country) and the pond (a manmade lake from the 10th century, where carp are raised), and visited the town’s brand-new museum of tapestry. They repair ancient tapestries here as well as making new ones, as they have done for centuries. Similar techniques of cleaning, spinning, and weaving to what we saw yesterday, but even more old-fashioned and hand-made. All information was presented in Czech by the guide but Monika translated the important bits.

For lunch, after considering several options we went back to the bakery next to our hotel for a couple of those pretty little baguettes, plus a cappuccino and a strawberry milk, then had a brief lie-down before we met up with Monika at the castle for the 1:00 tour. The interior of the castle is all Renaissance and Baroque, with many portraits of the former residents (it was owned by a total of 3 families in its history, but was grabbed by the state along with all the other nobles’ property in 1945), electrical fixtures dating from the 1880s, an impressive decorative grille covering the well, and an amazing circular concert hall. In this case the Czech guide was supplemented by a handout in English as well as Monika’s translation. After that we needed another nap.

We met Monika again at the city museum at 3:30. We started off with their famous mechanical Nativity, the crown of their collection of Nativity scenes, the holder of the record for world’s largest mechanical Nativity. It dates from 1935, I believe, and is almost fifty feet wide all told, four or five feet high, and populated by hundreds of figures three or four inches high, most of them moving. It was like those Christmas shop-window displays with the moving elves, only raised to the third or fourth power. Tacky, yes, but actually quite charming.

The rest of the museum was also rather charming, an idiosyncratic collection including artworks by local artists, information on local famous people including artist Holub Ludens and opera singer Ema Desinnova, two rooms showing typical homes of the bourgeoisie and farmers in the mid-1800s, a collection of guild signs, a couple dozen stone saints, an entire 19th-century pharmacy interior, a room full of smashed airplane bits from a WWII air battle that took place near here, and an extensive collection of Lada sewing machines. We never even saw the collection of painted marksmen’s targets. In this museum we had an English-speaking guide, but most of the artifacts were fairly self-explanatory… and for those we did not understand, the guide generally responded “we don’t know what that is either!” We’re always the ones to ask the difficult questions…

After the museum, we had an early dinner at an Indian restaurant, very good Indian for a small town in the Czech Republic. Yes, we should be partaking of the local cuisine, but we’ve been in Europe for two weeks, we’ll be in the Czech Republic for another week, and we wanted VEGETABLES.

Spent the evening blogging and lazing about. Tomorrow we hit the road again, to Ceske Budejovice (aka Budweis)!

Slavonice, Telc, Strmilov, Jindrichuv Hradec

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Awake 7:00. Very nice breakfast provided by hotel, table service with choice of Continental, British, American, French, and “Fitness” (muesli, yogurt, corn flakes, fruit). “Butter is ‘maslo’ and cream is ‘smetana’. What’s yogurt, ‘nietzsche’?” “Yogurt is ‘yogurt’ in every language. It’s a loan-food.” Huge disparity in size between teaspoons and tablespoons (all over Europe, but really noticeable here).

The overall flavor of Czech is not that dissimilar to German. I keep feeling at some level that if I just listened harder it would start to make sense.

Met Monika at 9:00; she presented us with a couple of prune kolachky (Danish), which were delicious. Drove off through pretty country on another gorgeous sunny day; stopped briefly for pix of a gorgeous castle over a river valley. Passed many lovely small villages and a line of bunkers built in the 1930s to defend against the Germans and/or Austrians — they were state-of-the-art and might have held, but the area was ceded to Hitler without a shot being fired.

Stopped in Slavonice, a Renaissance town with Baroque facades on all the buildings (a local noble had his castle re-done by an Italian architect and everyone with money in the region decided to copy him). The facades tend to be quite flat, with black-and-white graphics depicting either the facade of a much fancier building or biblical/mythological scenes (in one case, Genesis verses linked to the New Testament). Inside the tourist info office you can see some of the original wall frescoes. Passed Dacice, with not just one but three statues honoring the sugar cube, which was invented here (this is beet country, though due to EU regulations there is today no sugar production here). Saw maypoles in each town square we passed, each looking like a Christmas tree on a stick.

Came next to Telc, another Renaissance town, this one with porticoes like Bologna, and visited the castle there. It had an interesting little rococo sepulchral chapel, and many fairy-tale movies have been filmed here. Did a little shopping in downtown Telc; Kate bought an amber bracelet and earrings. We also looked at garnets (“Granat” in Czech) — Czech garnets are small, that and their color explains the name, which is clearly related to “pomegranate.”

For lunch, according to Google Translate, we had pizza with ketchup, floodplain, and ermine. No idea what the last two were in reality, but the tomato sauce was indeed very much like ketchup… pretty good though. (Later: niva (floodplain) and hermelin (ermine) are both cheeses.) I keep seeing the word “potreby” (necessities, gear, supplies) on signs and being reminded of “Potrzebie” (non-word from Mad Magazine). It turns out the words are, in fact, related (see Wikipedia for details).

Drove to Strmilov, an otherwise-unremarkable town which is the home of the only remaining weaving mill in the Czech Republic. Kate learned of its existence from someone’s blog and asked Monika to set up a tour. It’s a family-run mill with only 4 employees and equipment from the 1930s. We got a tour from Dad (5th generation) and son Philip (6th generation), all in Czech with Monika translating. Many of the Czech spinning and weaving terms were unfamiliar to her, but from context we could tell her the English terms. It was very similar to Pendleton and other mills we have visited, but smaller and a lot more old-fashioned. Also they roast their own coffee. We bought a lovely blanket for 980 CKR ($50).

As we drove to Jindrichuv Hradec, the largest town we’ve seen since Vienna, a light drizzle began to fall. Our hotel, “Penzion Na 15. poledniku” (“Pension at 15 degrees,” named for the latitude line a few dozen meters away) is a smallish guest house, our room tucked under the eaves on the 2nd (US 3rd) floor, with a great view of the church. We spotted a stork in a nest atop a chimney nearby.

TripAdvisor and other websites were very little help in locating food nearby, and there was not a lot of foot traffic downtown. One hotel restaurant looked good but was full with a Chinese tour group. We didn’t want pizza or Chinese. We finally found the White Lady hotel restaurant, which looked good. As seems to be fairly typical in these tourist towns, the waiter had a smattering of German and English (mostly German) and the menu was multilingual (Czech, German, English). Appetizer: potato pancakes with smoked meat inside, nummy. Main course: I ordered the “Devil’s Bite,” which was described as pork with spicy peppers wrapped in a potato pancake and served with shredded cabbage. What arrived was pork and mushrooms in a (curry?) cream sauce with caraway seeds, no potato, no vegetable. Perhaps I would have been better off if I had not tried to order in Czech? Weirdly, when we looked at the menu again (thinking it might be the thing next to what I’d pointed to) we could not identify anything on the menu that might have been what I got. It was tasty though, I’m satisfied, and dinner for two cost only 350 crowns ($17). Hey, what would be the point of travel if it didn’t include a few surprises? The whole production did take quite a while, we didn’t get back to the room until 9:00.

Welcome to the Czech Republic!

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Awake 7:00. Yogurt for breakfast, finished packing, cleaned up apartment, whipped out a quick blog post (no time for photos though), locked up, downstairs right at 9:00 just as our Czech guide Monika (and Peter the driver) showed up.

Some adventures getting out of town through May Day parades and associated traffic. Passed Hundertwasser’s incinerator on the way out of town. Many windmills (of the modern, power-generating variety) and cute little dorfs in the Austrian countryside. Tchaikovsky and Strauss on the CD player, later pop (but NOT American pop for a change, unless you count a heavily-accented “Girl from Ipanema”). Czech border had a structure but no staff, we drove right through.

This is Lichtenstein country; the same wealthy family that now owns the country of that name originated and made their fortune here, largely by sucking up to the Habsburgs (and by being cunning financiers). First stop was a Lichtenstein colonnade with a view of the countryside below. This whole area was known as The Garden of Europe, lovingly managed by Lichtenstein gardeners since the 1300s and a major horticultural school. It was a Lichtenstein hunting range between the summer and winter palaces.

We then visited both palaces, one in the town of Valtice, the other in Lednice (on its own extensive grounds). At the former I entered the bathroom and was asked by the lady in the booth for 5 crowns (25c). The smallest thing I had was a 100-crown bill ($5) and she could not deal with it. Fortunately Monika (on the other side of the same booth!) could cover for me.

Our visit to the summer palace in Lednice began with the Baroque (!) stables, which were not kept up well by the Communists (who seized all the nobles’ property in 1945), then proceeded to the main house, in “English Gothic” style (looking rather like my college campus except that it was uniformly stuccoed in an unfortunate golden/peach color). We also saw the extensive gardens, greenhouse, decorative Oriental outbuilding, 19th-century faux Roman aqueduct, and faux Moorish minaret, and happened on a couple of very large birds (one a golden eagle) and a mob of about 20 very large dogs (Irish wolfhounds).

Lunch at “My Restaurant” (associated with “My Hotel” which seems to be a chain). With the help of an English menu, managed to order salad with grilled goat cheese, lamb with spinach, veal with peas and carrots; a little heavy (this will be par for the course, I think) but good. Standard operating procedure here seems to be that after you order you receive a plate with your napkins, forks, and knives. We had no idea how to tip until Monika appeared and told us it’s 5-7%.

After lunch we proceeded to Mikulov, a delightful old town with medieval and Renaissance elements, where we visited the castle and the old Jewish quarter and stopped for ice cream. All so very picturesque! I took over 200 photos and couldn’t bear to cut them down to less than 20 (below). It was a very sunny and warm day, but with a nice breeze that kept it from getting too hot. These little hill towns are reminiscent of our time in rural France.

In Znojmo (pronounced “znoymo”) we took an underground tour of the extensive crypts that were carved out under the town beginning in the middle ages, used for food storage and retreat from invaders. Today they are basically completely empty, so the tour has dressed up some rooms with skeletons, giant papier-mache bats, etc. Interesting combination of genuine historical interest with cheap tacky tourist trap.

After returning to the surface, we walked through mostly empty streets (due to the May Day holiday) up to St. Catherine’s Rotunda, a fortress and chapel dating from the 900s, with a fabulous view of the town (including unique town hall tower and two picturesque churches) and the river valley below. Then to our hotel, Althansky Palace, which shows every sign of having been an actual palace in the last century — a lovely hotel, with wifi and everything. Monika checked us in and then said goodbye until 9:00 tomorrow. I think we have enough Czech to get us through until then. Monika and Peter keep carrying our bags for us… I feel kind of weird about that.

Had a bit of a lie-down, then looked into dinner. TripAdvisor and others recommended Na Vecnosti, a vegetarian(!) restaurant nearby (the “(!)” is because Znojmo is not a large town by any means). We found it and it was open (despite the holiday — which, come to think of it, explains the shortage of staff we’ve been seeing). English menu, German-speaking waiter, our minimal Czech, it all worked out… though it took a while to figure out that the “special menu” card was not a set menu of five courses but the daily specials for the five weekdays. Anyway, we had an “Arab salad,” halubky (Czech gnocchi) with cheese and fried onions, and a couscous dish with tofu, stewed plums, and cashews. All quite tasty, though even at a vegetarian restaurant the side dishes on offer were all potatoes, bread, and rice with not a green vegetable in sight. Also, for future reference, one cider for the two of us would have sufficed.

Vienna: photos from the last two days

We have wifi at today’s Czech hotel, so I’m posting these photos from our last two days in Vienna while I can. No telling what kind of connectivity we’ll have going forward.

I haz a snake. Also a skull.

I think it’s a hair dryer, but I wouldn’t put my head in it.

Goofus and Gallant, 15th-century style.

Kate contemplates the world from a Vienna cafe.

Corridor at the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste. The shadow on the stairs at the end makes it seem much longer than it is.

Austrian Parliament.

Everyone wants their picture taken with the Goddess of Justice.

St. Stephan’s Church, known as “Steffie,” ensnared in a web of tram wires.

Bathroom at Kunst Haus Wien, AKA the Hunderdtwasser museum.



Rolling courtyard in front of Hundertwasserhaus. (What’s that British phone box doing here?)

Box seats at The Sound of Music. (I think our seats, in the orchestra, were better.)

Curtain call at The Sound of Music.

Two days in Vienna

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Haven’t had a spare hour to blog lately, but we depart this morning (in about half an hour!) for the Czech Republic and I don’t expect to have a lot of wifi there, so here’s a quick dump of my notes from the last two days.

Sunday 4/29

Awake 8:00. Worst Toilet Design Ever has a little shelf (not just flat but slightly dished) where the poo piles up and then theoretically the flush pushes it off; apparently this is standard in Germany and some other countries. Both Kate and I had the Nespresso coffee pod handle come off during brewing — you really have to twist it in there — fortunately there was no injury and not much mess. Today being Sunday, most stores are closed and we only have yogurt for one more morning so we considered going out for breakfast, but most places nearby don’t open until 10 so we ate the last yogurt (Fage with strawberries and honey-soaked walnuts, yum) and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Wrote a couple postcards while Kate stared at maps & guidebooks planning out the next 2 days… I’d be lost without her.

Made our way to the city museum, but as we arrived we realized it was nearly noon and it would be stupid to go in without lunch. First couple of places we tried were closed but “Wein Isst” app found us Curry Up! (Gusshausstrasse 16), a Sri Lankan/Indian place where I had a thali with turkey curry, dal, carrot salad, some kind of eggplant thing, something delicious with coconut and cabbage(?), rice, curled-up cone of papadam, 6.50 euros. Yum!

The museum itself was fascinating combination of historical artifacts, recent artifacts, articles of fashion, new artworks, and snarky commentary about Vienna and its history right up to the present day. Even the staircase had a label (it was, after all, an artifact from 1958) and there was a dress on display in the original elevator. Three huge models of the city at different times (2 of them made at the time they depicted) helped me understand the way the city grew; even in the late 1800s the inner city was surrounded by a substantial wall and a wide swath of parkland for defensive purposes, with suburbs outside that. There is still a lot of open space in that ring….

After that, we decamped to Cafe Schwartzenberger for coffee and pastries in a very civilized environment. We went in thinking that would probably be it for the day, but after finishing our pastries we thought we had enough energy for one more museum, the one with Bosch’s Last Judgement, even if there wasn’t time or energy for the whole thing. And, although we had some difficulty finding the place, we were able to see just about the whole thing including a good chunk of time with the Bosch. So many of those images are familiar, though the whole thing isn’t. Fom there we made our way back to our own neighborhood and a restaurant called Spatzennest, a homey neighborhood kind of place right next to St. Ulrich’s church, where I had Styrisches Wurzelfleisch: stewed pork with root vegetables (well, carrots), potatoes, and a huge mound of fresh grated horseradish, in the Styrian style (Styria is a state of Austria). Kate had a grilled turkey salad which was, frankly, tastier than my dinner though not as typisch. After dinner we went back to the room and had a romantic evening, hence no blogging nor writing.

Monday 4/30

Breakfast in nearby Cafe Kreuzberg (ham, cheese, and bread for me; ham with a fried egg on it for Kate). We’ve been hearing American pop music in nearly every restaurant, bar, and shop; exceptions: opera in one restaurant in Bologna, German rap booming from a car on the street in Vienna, reggae in a cafe (which still read as American pop to me but Kate pointed out it was not American).

We decided to go our separate ways today. Kate determined that her distance glasses were not in her bag, probably left at Schwartzenberger Cafe yesterday so that was her first stop (they were there, all right — whew!). Our 72-hour transit passes had expired, but Kate texted me to warn me about it and I bought a new one at a nearby tobacconists.

I’ve noted this before, but the German word Not (pronounced “note” and meaning “emergency”) leads to such amusing signs as NOTHAMMER on a hammer. In France, the triangular “!” sign is pronounced “Dude!”; here I think it’s “Achtung!”

Made my way to the Kunst Haus Wein, AKA the Hundertwasser museum. Very glad to be wearing the Keen sandals on the uneven floors… my feet can feel the variations. The place reminds me of the Ghibli Museum as much as anything. Hundertwasser was a genius (artist, architect, built his own boat, world traveler, designer of stamps and flags) but was probably rather difficult to live with (argumentative, opinionated; 2 wives for a couple years each; also, most of his buildings, flags, license plates, etc. were never produced). Had lunch at very pleasant museum cafe: Tagesmenu (daily menu) of Spargelcremesuppe (asparagus cream soup, it’s in season), Gebratene Huhnerbrust (roast chicken breast) mit Letscho (sauteed tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers) und Reis (rice).

Walked from the museum to Hundertwasserhaus itself. Only visible from outside, of course, and mobbed with tourists. What you can see is more of a compromise than the museum, I think; very glad to have seen the museum first. Looking at the outside really does not convey what H. was trying to do.

Another hot sunny day with surprisingly cold air streaming from doorways as I pass; not air conditioning, I think, but thick stone and masonry walls. Our apartment, too, is very cool even on a hot day.

Remembered on the tram heading away from Hundertwasserhaus that I’d forgotten to look for the penny-smashing machine there. Hopped off, caught the same tram back, found machine, it was working. Yay!

At Dr.-Karl-Renner-Ring exchange point, did not get on next bus, instead used Google Maps to find nearest bank (just behind Parliament) to change some money for the next leg of the trip. Teller explained that to change dollars to crowns she’d have to go through euros and I’d have to pay the exchange few twice, so I just got 250 euros out of the ATM and changed 200 of those to crowns. Might or might not have been cheaper this way, who knows, but at least we have some Czech cash now. The whole transaction was conducted in German, feeling rather smug about that.

Dinner at Wirr, the same cafe near our apartment where we’d waited for our hot to show up. I had “orientales Gröstl mit Rindfaschiertem” = a dry curry of potatoes & ground beef, actually quite nummy. Then off to the Volksoper (not the Stadtoper, not the Volkstheatre) for the opening night of The Sound of Music!

There were quite a few dirndls in the audience. It was a very nice performance, though there were… differences. The performance was in German with English supertitles, though only about half the lines and lyrics were supertitled. Sometimes the supertitles were the familiar lyrics, other times just the gist. “The hills are alive” lyric was sung in English, none of the rest. The song “Do, Re, Mi” was the weirdest: instead of do, re, mi it was C, D, E, F, G, A, H (D as in D-train, E as in elephant, F as in fluttering flag, etc.) For the climactic performance our theatre in Vienna was transformed into a theatre in Salzburg, with us as the audience and Nazi soldiers in the aisles and boxes — quite effective. The curtain call was very European, with rhythmic clapping (until the kids came out, when the audience dissolved into enthusiastic kvelling) and after the first set of bows the curtain closed and the performers slipped out from behind the curtain for additional bows (a true curtain call).

Tram home, packed, fell over. Photos soon, I hope.

Today, the Czech Republic!

Vienna: Churches, the Albertina, and the Giant Wheel

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After the same breakfast as yesterday, we went out into the local neighborhood in search of a few practical things: shampoo, a better map, pens, expectorant (“schleimloesend” = “slime solvent” in German). We wandered into some interesting little shops, including book shops, and found most of what we needed and a few other things. Made and ate sandwiches in the apartment while we marked up our new map with the places we would like to visit.

We headed out to the Minoritenkirche to see the full-size mosaic replica of Michelangelo’s Last Supper. On the way, we stumbled across the Theseus Temple, which was built to house the sculpture of Theseus and the Centaur which is now on the main stairway of the Art History Museum (we saw it day before yesterday) and which currently contains a plaster cast of a 2000-year-old olive tree. Then we wandered through a district of monumental buildings which were once part of the administrative and cultural center of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. We crossed the street called Dr.-Karl-Renner-Ring, which I insisted on calling “Carl Reiner Ring” and of which I said “didn’t the police break up a Karl Renner Ring just the other week?” Kate said “why don’t you ever inflict these puns on your blog?” so here it is.

Eventually we found the Minoritenkirche and the mosaic, which from ground level is so fine you almost can’t tell it’s a mosaic. Apparently Napoleon intended to capture the original and commissioned this mosaic as a placeholder, but he never got around to finishing the job so the placeholder remains here We then wandered through incredibly crowded shopping streets, where shops formerly By Appointment to the Emperor now serve anyone with more money than sense, to the incredibly baroque St. Peter’s Church, with a tromp l’oeil dome and a massive sculpture of the martyrdom of St. John of Nepomuk, showing him being thrown off a bridge in Prague.

Next we visited the very large and impressive St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which was also extremely crowded. Did not climb the 450-foot tower, but instead paused for coffee and pastry in one of Vienna’s many fine cafes. We’d intended to visit the Imperial Crypt next but, realizing we’d seen it on our last visit, decided to give it a pass this time. Then we visited the Albertina, an art museum famous for its Durers, though sadly only a small portion of the permanent collection is on display at any time and currently none of the Durers were to be seen. However, they did have an excellent collection of Impressionists from Monet to Picasso and a large display of Klimt’s sketches, so it was well worth the visit.

By then it was time for dinner, so we went to Le Bol (Neuer Markt 14), a casual French restaurant, and ordered a couple of very nice salads (“Salade Provenciale: Knuspriger Parmaschinken, gebratenes Gemuese, Tomaten, Gurken, Radieschen auf Vogerlsalat” and “Salade Oscar: Gerauecherte Entenbrust auf Ruccola, Honig, Orangen, Nuesse, Aepfel und Croutons”). Reading a menu that described French dishes containing Italian ingredients in German rather broke our brains; I think we may have ordered in Japanese. On departing I said “merci, vielen dank” and the waitress replied “thank you.”

Having eaten a fairly light dinner containing actual vegetables, were were sufficiently energized to tackle the Riesenrad, or Giant Ferris Wheel. The Prater amusement park in which the wheel is located reminded me greatly of the Fun Forest of sainted memory in Seattle. There were two smashed-penny machines nearby, but they were both, unfortunately, completely jammed. We had about a 30-minute wait for a 20-minute ride on the wheel, together with about a dozen other people in a car about eight feet by twelve. Many of the interesting things to be seen from the wheel were other amusement park rides, including the rare experience of looking down on a normal-sized Ferris wheel. In the gift shop after our ride, we found another penny machine, this one working, and another working machine at a souvenir stand on our way out of the park. We considered stopping at a cafe for coffee and dessert on our way home, but it proved to be too smoky.

Nice to have a fairly relaxed day like that every once in a while.

By the way, many people have commented on my photos. Thank you! I think the most important lesson is that to get good photos you have to take a lot of photos and throw the not-so-good ones away. I took almost 200 photos today of which these are the very best.

Schoenbrunn Palace

Word count: 78 Step count: 14,334

One of the good things about having an apartment instead of a hotel is that you can have whatever you want for breakfast. One of the bad things is that you have to buy and prepare it, and clean up after yourself. It took longer than we expected this morning to walk to the store and buy a few basics, also we were embarrassed when we did not know (or forgot) to weigh the bananas before checking out. And what did I say as the cashier handed me my change? “Gratza” (half way between “grazie” and “danke”), oy. Despite this tic, my German is much better than my Italian and I can communicate quite well. I notice that some (not all) of the people we pass in the street have distinct Austrian accents (imagine someone sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s non-body-builder cousin). I could fake such an accent in English but I’m not sure I could do so in German.

After breakfast (Greek yogurt with banana, chopped walnuts, and honey), we used the amazing “qando” app (really, if you are coming to Vienna you must have it) to plot out our transit route to Schoenbrunn Palace. It worked like a charm. The palace itself is overwhelming, the grounds incredibly vast… allees wide as a football field… sculptures that would be the highlight of some small museums just acting as side pieces on larger works… a 45-minute walk to the Glorietta, a small (by comparison) building high above the rest of the grounds, with a great view of the palace and the city.

We had coffee and lunch at the Glorietta cafe (whose decor features a frieze of cow skulls): Schinkenfleckerl (“pasta with ham Austrian style”) and Gulaschsuppe. A bit on the expensive side, but really very good for a cafe inside a tourist trap, and the waiters were not college kids but older men, very professional. We wandered through the palace’s two (!) hedge mazes before touring the palace itself. Wow.

Only 40 of the palace’s 1440 rooms are on the tour. San Simeon shows what you can do with effectively unlimited money, but this shows what you can do with taste and effectively unlimited money. The only downside of the tour was that the rooms were decorated as they had been in a variety of times, leaving me with a completely muddled idea of who was emperor when.

Our ticket also included the Crown Prince’s Garden, but by the time we finished the palace tour Kate was all out of spoons (her knee is doing better but it still takes more energy than usual for her to walk) so I shepherded her home for a nap. While she napped I ran a load of laundry, updated my notes, checked finances and phone usage, etc.

I wanted schnitzel for dinner. We looked online, found nearby Schnitzel Sisters that sounded fab, but after much wandering in its supposed vicinity we determined to our satisfaction that it had been replaced by a sleazy-looking Asian restaurant. Alas. Another online search found “Zu den 2 Lieserln” (Burggasse 63), which was also recommended by our host at the apartment. It looked closed, but a small sign led around to the side where we found an airy courtyard under two trees. We had Almdudler (an “herbal soda” that reminded me somewhat of Irn Bru though not so orange), Wiener Schnitzel, goulash, potato salad, sauerkraut… OMG YUM. We really shouldn’t have eaten all of that, but just couldn’t stop!

Too pooped to tourist any more, we went back to the apartment by way of an ATM (they don’t seem to give receipts here). The apartment is equipped with a DVD and VHS player, so we looked at the video collection and found Go Trabi Go, a 1980s East German film we saw at the Portland International Film Festival and would love to see again, but it’s unavailable on video in the US. This was a non-subtitled VHS tape so we didn’t get much of the dialogue, but it’s a pretty broad comedy so it was still enjoyable. We watched about half of it before heading for bed.