Sunday, August 17, 2008 9:43PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Prague, Czech Republic
We woke up this morning and had a delicious breakfast served by our landlord here at the pension. He cooked eggs to order and served us fresh bread, yogurt, and fresh fruits. We were offered coffee, tea, and assorted breakfast meats. We then walked over and met the Turnaus at their place. We walked together to their church, which typically conducts services in Czech with English translation. Today, Ted was preaching in English, so we had a Czech translator providing real-time translation. Ted preached a great sermon, and we enjoyed worshipping with the church here. Caroline provided translations of the Czech praise songs for us.
After church, Ted graciously agreed to serve as our tour guide for the city. We rode the excellent street car system into the old part of the city, and we walked through the palace gardens next to Prague castle. We saw an exhibit of raptors, including a falcon displayed in hunting equipment. We crossed the moat, which presently contains little water and many trees, and then we entered the castle. It was guarded by two ceremonial guards, who seemed strikingly similar to the famous guards at Buckingham palace in London. They do the same bit where they stand perfectly still and don’t react to anything or anyone. I noticed that the rifles were chrome-plated SKS’s—a testimony to Russian influence. Ted seemed convinced that the rifles weren’t loaded.
Inside the castle walls, we took a look at St. Vitus’s Cathedral, which was stunning and featured many gargoyles, but we didn’t go inside due to a long line and limited time. St. Wenceslas, who was prince of Bohemia in the 10th century, is supposedly buried inside. He was canonized and is widely revered here. Yes, he is the same Good King Wenceslas as in the Christmas carol. He was actually murdered by his brother, who was anxious to succeed to power. The church took an amazingly long time to build. The current structure was begun in 1344 and finished in 1929, although there had been a church on the site since the 10th century.
Caroline joined us, and we also visited the Golden Lane, a series of shops and historical displays, and St. George’s church, which is much smaller than St. Vitus’s. We had lunch at a pub on the way down into the old city, and we walked across the famous Charles River Bridge. Much of the bridge was under construction, as both the bridge itself and its statues are receiving a much needed renovation. The bridge is adorned with a series of statues of Catholic saints. These were erected as a symbol of the counter-reformation by the conquering Hapsburgs, after they defeated the Hussite Protestants in 1620. On the way Ted showed us the building for the Anglo-American University, where he teaches.
We hopped on a street car and rode to Vysehrad. This is a massive hilltop overlooking the river, which has been fortified numerous times over the last 1000 years or so. Ruins of an old castle are visibly present. We arrived too late to go inside the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, but we were able to look through the windows. This is a neo-Gothic church built in the early twentieth century, but what distinguishes it is the fact that all the mosaics and other decorations inside are done in the art deco style. The ones we could see were really cool.
We left Vysherad and caught a street car to the Old Town Square. Here we arrived just in time to witness the hourly chiming of the astronomical clock which adorns the side of the old town hall. This is along the same lines as the Glockenspiel in Munich, but I thought it was cooler. Every hour, on the hour, a pair of doors open and statues of the 12 apostles parade by and present themselves to the watching crowd. It was quite crowded, but worth the trip.
We said goodbye to Ted and Caroline and thanked them for their gracious hospitality. We decided to head back to the pension and call it an early night. Tomorrow we will check out of here and drive to Karlovy Vary, the most famous of the Bohemian spa towns. Every Czech we have mentioned it to has responded by jokingly asking us if we speak Russian. They refer to it as “little Moscow.” Apparently it is quite popular with Russian tourists and expats.
Saturday, August 16, 2008 10:56PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Prague, Czech Republic
We awoke this morning to gloomy skies and cooler temperatures in Vienna. We rode the street car around the inner city before leaving to get a final look at the City. We checked out of the Grand Hotel Wien, reclaimed our car from the valet parking guys, and we were off. Sort of. The structure of the freeway ramps had apparently changed a bit since the Garmin was last updated, so we had a little trouble and got stuck in traffic for a while. Eventually, we found ourselves heading out of Vienna on a secondary road bound north for the Czech Republic.
We crossed the border in what seemed like a fairly remote area. Before leaving Austria, we stopped at a gas station and bought a map and a vignette (toll sticker) for the Czech Republic. I was affected by the sight of the old cold war checkpoints on each side of the border with no man’s land in between. They are both abandoned now, and we drove freely across without even having our passports inspected, as with other EU countries. It seems hard to believe that less than twenty years ago making that border crossing was a life and death matter.
We had lunch at a rest stop just north of the border. It was a combination restaurant and casino, but the casino was closed. We waited almost an hour and a half for our food, but it was actually quite good when it arrived. We couldn’t communicate well with the waiter, who spoke only a little English and a little German, in addition to Czech, so we just sat there politely and waited. Once we ate, we hit the road and made for Prague. We hit a little more traffic as we got close, and we were confronted with a maddening array of road signs. Fortunately our Garmin got us to our hotel without much difficulty. Czech drivers are much less orderly than Germans and Austrians, and driving here is something of a free for all. On the two lane roads in the country, they have an interesting way of passing. When you overtake another car, the driver in front of you moves as far to the right as he can without running off the road, and any oncoming traffic does the same. You, as the passing car, then pass by driving straight down the middle of the road—essentially creating three lanes out of two. The first time we saw it, I thought the guy was just being reckless, but once I tried it, I decided it is actually quite efficient.
We are staying at the Pension Vetrnik, a building that was once a mill and is almost 1000 years old. It is in a quiet residential neighborhood in the suburbs. There are a number of Soviet-era apartment buildings in the neighborhood, which we learned have been given a facelift recently, as EU standards require that they be re-insulated.
We had dinner with the Turnau family. Ted and Caroline together with their kids Roger, Claire, and Ruth, are missionaries here in Prague. Ted teaches at a secular university and Caroline teaches bible at the Christian International School of Prague. We shared a delightful dinner of traditional Czech fare at a pub. This was much easier than it would have been if Rebecca and I had been alone, because they all speech Czech.
I had a roasted pork knuckle and some delicious pilsner beer, called Budweisser—not to be confused with the inferior American creation of the same name. Rebecca had Svickova, a traditional dish of thin beef sirloin fillets cooked in a cream sauce. (That's cranberry and sweetened whipped cream on top.) The food was quite good and the company was even better.
Friday, August 15 2008 8:30PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Vienna, Austria
Last night we had a delightful dinner at Steirereck, a meal we anticipated would be the fanciest of our trip, in line with the haute couture of Vienna. We had no less than seven members of the wait staff attending to us, and they made significant use of specialized carts to bring us food choices (e.g., the bread cart with eight types of homemade bread and a cool cutting surface with slots to catch the crumbs, the cheese cart with more than 60 types of cheese, the cigar and liqueur cart, the cart for after-dinner chocolates and fruit, etc.). We splurged for the five course tasting menu, which included creative items like "venison strudel with pumpkin, gin, and fig," and "steamed whitefish with potato-turron (a sugary nougat, not unlike a candy bar), summer truffle and green almonds." They placed descriptive cards before us at the start of each course, which outlined all the ingredients so you could make a point to pick them out. The restaurant is in the center of a park, and the entire meal lasted nearly four hours, getting us back to the hotel around 2AM.
This morning we slept in and then headed out for a day of sightseeing. Stop #1 was the Habsburgs' Schonbrunn Palace, their summer palace just a few subway stops from the center of the city. (They actually had a private subway stop built for the Emperor, which he used just one time!)
We toured the gardens and climbed the hill to the Gloriette, where Empress Maria Theresa liked to look out over her palace and Vienna. She was the driving force behind a lot of the impressive buildings we saw today.
The inside of the palace was a showcase of Rococco art (no photos allowed), and we saw where the Emperor would receive guests and the imperial apartments. It was designed in 1696, and it has 1400 rooms. That seemed a little excessive until we learned they typically brought about 1000 people with them out to the palace for the summer! One room was where Mozart gave his first concert, at the age of six, and the Grand Gallery was where they would do the Viennese Waltz. (Kennedy and Kruschev also met once in that ballroom.)
We then headed back to center city and arrived at Maria Theresien Platz, where her image continued to be the central theme.
The next stop was the museum of fine art, the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It's a huge museum, and we just spent an hour or so checking out some of the paintings by Rubens, Raphael, Titian, and the large collection of pieces by Pieter Brueghel. Photos were allowed here, so Matt took a photo of Brueghel's famous "Hunters in the Snow."
We also saw this painting of Mary's ascension and figured we should capture it given the holiday today surrounding this story (Maria Himmelfahrt day).
We then walked by the Hofburg, which was the main imperial palace. It really is a whole series of museums, statues, and gardens, which we'd had our fill of already. Plus, there were still some passing showers, as you can see by the sky here.
Our real destination was Demel, a famous pastry shop. Apparently, the Viennese tradition is to have coffee and a pastry at 4:00 each afternoon, and though we were a little behind schedule, we were able to get a piece of their traditional Sachertorte (a chocolate cake) and some espresso.
Our final stop was to the Prater amusement park, which the Emperor set aside as public land in 1766. It features a giant Ferris wheel (Riesenrad) from which you can see the city. Others similar to it have long since perished, but this one has been maintained, even after significant damage in WWII.
Tomorrow we travel to Prague. Stay tuned....
Thursday, August 14 2008 8:04PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Vienna, Austria
Last night we went out to dinner after posting our blog entry. We were frustrated yet again when we hiked across the city in search of a highly rated restaurant, only to find it was closed for vacation. We ended up having dinner at our second choice, which was the Grand Canal restaurant at the Hotel Monaco. We waited a few minutes and got a nice table right beside the Grand Canal itself. I had veal scaloppini in gorgonzola sauce, and Rebecca had spinach and cheese cannelloni. Both were excellent.
After dinner, we walked back to our favorite gelato shop and had dessert. We got up this morning, had breakfast, and caught the vaporetto back to our car. The car was unmolested, even with my suitcase visible in the back seat. We got on the road and headed Northeast to Vienna. We drove for about 6 hours. We saw more the of alps, and this time we spent a lot of time in tunnels.
When we finally made it into Vienna, I found the driving to be quite challenging. It was like driving in any major city, except we didn’t really know where we were going, and we had a hard time with the road signs. With our Garmin and Rebecca’s excellent navigational assistance, we located our hotel—the Grand Hotel Wien. Wien is what German-speakers call Vienna. The hotel is beautiful; it is a converted baroque palace. It is sumptuously appointed, and the elegantly dressed staff have attended to our every need. They also speak excellent English.
Vienna is somewhat refreshing in that the people are very well dressed. I noticed a disturbing fashion trend in Munich and Venice—men wearing Capri pants. I really hope this style doesn’t cross the Atlantic.
I have been very pleased with our Nikon D40 camera so far. I brought a spare battery but haven’t needed it yet. I charged the battery that came with the camera before leaving home, and so far we have taken 541 pictures with it. It shows no signs of needing to be charged.
We are off in a few minutes to a last-minute dinner reservation at Steirereck, a top-rated restaurant by both Fodor’s and Zagat’s. Tomorrow is a public holiday in Germany, Italy, and Austria. They commemorate the day when Mary, the mother of Jesus, was supposedly taken up in bodily form to heaven. This event is not documented in scripture, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from taking it as a holiday. We are a bit concerned that some of the things we’d like to see may be closed.
Wednesday, August 13 2008 6:45PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Venice, Italy
Ah, Venice! This was the part of the trip I (Rebecca) was most excited about, so Matt suggested I write today's blog entry (while he tries to recover with a nap). With just one day to see this very historic and romantic city I convinced Matt to let me use the tour book to the extreme. Much to my surprise, he actually agreed to try the pack-it-all-in tour suggested by Rick Steves in his Venice book.
I should really begin last night, however, when we went to find our first Italian cuisine. Having been to other Italian cities, I tried to tell Matt that the food would pretty much be good anywhere. Nevertheless, we successfully hunted down a recommended restaurant (not an easy task as there are three streets with that particular address in Venice, none of which are close to each other). We were greeted by a sign saying they were closed for holiday until August 18. So we tried a Rick Steves pick, but it was also closed. Realizing it was just before their official dinner time of 7:30 we did what any hungry tourist would do: we took a detour for gelato. (The €1 scoop at "the best gelato shop in Venice" per the tour book did not disappoint, though we might try another, just to be sure.)
The recommended place didn't open at 7:30 after all, but we did finally find a place to eat. After enjoying the best lasagna we'd ever had, we headed over to St. Mark's Square, the heart of Venice's tourist district. Here is a nice shot Matt captured of the square at night.
Everyone had always told us that the best part of going to Venice was just spending time walking around, and one nice thing is that all the locals are very relaxed and nothing opens till about 10AM. This morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we headed to the Correr Museum to start our day of sight-seeing. The museum was not very busy--in contrast to the streets teeming with tourists--and we spent about an hour checking out sculptures by local legend Antonio Canova, paintings by the Bellini family, and many portraits and coins honoring the "doges" of the past, the elected princes who ruled for hundreds of years before Napoleon showed up and conquered Venice. Matt's favorite part, of course, was the Armory.
One of the highlights of the day was that we didn't waste time waiting in lines. Despite the large crowds, on two occasions our tourbook successfully told us the way to most efficiently buy tickets and bypass the long lines. One trick had been to buy a combo ticket at the Correr Museum, to be able to simply walk into the Doge's Palace.
This staircase provided the entrance for visitors who came to see the Doge. (He never descended the stairs; you had to come to him.)
Much of the palace was designed to intimidate visitors, some of whom were put on trial there and then conveniently shuttled down to the prison below. The hall of the Grand Council--the sort of electoral college who elected the Doges--houses the largest oil painting in the world. Painted by Tintoretto, it is 570 square feet and includes 501 saints. Those Doges were not afraid to spend some money on art!
We then walked over to Frari Church, by way of the Rialto Bridge, the first bridge built across the Grand Canal.
The Frari Church had a number of beautiful paintings by Titian, and his tomb is also there, along with a tribute to the sculptor Canova. By this time, however, we'd seen an awful lot of "Madonna and Child" paintings, so we cut the audio tour short to find some pizza for lunch. Here is Matt enjoying his pizza covered in proschiutto. When we got our bill, it turned out we were actually at a Chinese restaurant called "The Pearl of the Orient." It was still some pretty terrific pizza though, and it validated my claim that it is hard to go wrong eating in Italy!
After lunch, we took a gondola ride back to the other side of the Grand Canal. This short crossing only costs €0.50 per person, versus the €90 romantic ride for two at night, and we decided this would suffice.
We headed back to St. Mark's Square, initially hoping the line to St. Mark's Basilica would have subsided, but then we read the trick to avoiding this line from our good buddy Rick, by checking your bag down the street and getting a voucher. By now it was mid-afternoon, and Matt was almost at his limit for touring, so we made a quick loop of the inside to see the amazing Byzantine mosaics created in the 1200s.
No photos are allowed inside, but we did get some great final photos from the afternoon from atop the Campanile (bell tower) before calling it a day.
Tuesday, August 12 2008 5:46PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Venice, Italy
We got up this morning and checked out of the Munich Marriott. We topped off with gas, and then let the Garmin GPS guide us to Venice. We retraced our steps from yesterday to Innsbruck, and continued on up through the Brenner pass into Italy. The alps are beautiful and reminded us both of Colorado. We both agreed that the mountains here are less vast and a bit more “craggy” than the Rockies. It took about five and a half hours to reach Venice by car. We spent a good bit of that time driving through the Italian part of the alps. We stopped at a rest station and had lunch at a cafeteria. The food was quite good, if a bit overpriced.
I was apprehensive about this part of the trip because the logistics of driving to Venice, parking the car, then taking a boat into the City and finding our hotel seemed complicated. Our insurance policy requires that we keep the car keys with us, so we needed to use a park and lock type parking area, rather than one where you give your keys to the attendant. We parked in an enormous structure called the Tranchetto, which costs €20 per day. We decided to leave our large 26” suitcases in the car. We each packed just enough clothes and sundries for a two night stay into our respective carry-on bags. We walked to a nearby shop and purchased tickets for the Vaporetto, a sort of public transit boat service that serves Venice. We paid €6.50 each for the trip in.
I was really worried about being able to find our hotel once we got here, because we couldn’t locate it in our GPS. We steeled ourselves to disembark and spend hours roaming the City with a map. We felt quite relieved when we stepped off the boat at the San Marco stop and saw the hotel right in front of us. The hotel Paganelli is a very nice European style hotel that is not only convenient to the Vaporetto, but also just around the corner from Saint Mark’s Place, which is the center of the tourist area in Venice. The rooms are small but very nicely appointed. They are all air conditioned and have private bathrooms, neither of which is guaranteed in a European hotel. Thanks to our friends David and Barbara Compton for recommending it.
This is a photo of the busy, tourist-filled street in front of our hotel. Tourists outnumber locals by a lot in Venice.
The Garmin has proved invaluable. We would have had a tough time navigating Munich without it, and once we crossed into Italy, we both found the road signs incomprehensible. It worked well, but the voice feature does a terrible job pronouncing foreign street names, and while the German ones were OK, the Italian names come out as gibberish.
We plan to have a nice dinner, then spend tomorrow touring Venice.
Monday, August 11 2008 7:25PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Munich, Germany
Today we got up and took the subway to the BMW delivery center. This facility is styled “The BMW Welt” (Welt means world in German). It is a truly beautiful structure—some of the most unique modern architecture I’ve seen in recent years. Upon arrival we were directed up a glass elevator to special lounge area set aside for customers picking up cars. We signed the registration and insurance documents, and were then invited to relax and enjoy some breakfast foods and beverages while we waited for our delivery in an hour or so. Rebecca and I both took advantage of the free Internet access to check email. Our hotel charges €6.95 per hour for access!
We were met by a very knowledgeable lady named Vanessa who took us through some of the features on our car and a driving simulation. They told us that they do this briefing before actually giving you the car, because otherwise nobody listens to it. When she was explaining how to use a button on the dash to disable the traction control system, she said something along the lines of “You know, if you want to take it to the track and drift it.” It seems highly unlikely to me that an American dealer would have described the feature like that. We then went down an elevator to meet our new 335i Sedan. You approach from the elevator around a curved staircase and first see your car on a rotating platform, spinning around with spotlights on it. Very cool.
Vanessa took us through the features of our car. She showed how to program the daytime running lights to my satisfaction. Rebecca and I then got into the car and drove it down a curved ramp out of the building. The three series cars are actually built right across the street, and then stored in an underground garage beneath the delivery center. A large glass elevator brings them up one at a time to the delivery area, where we received ours. After we exited the building, we handed the car back over to a valet, and went back inside for a tour of the facility. About 20 minutes into this 1.5 hour tour and we had had enough. We had a final “free” drink in the delivery lounge, and reclaimed our car.
Our first stop was a Shell gas station where we paid about €1.30 per liter for 95 octane gas. The car requires a minimum of 91 because of the high compression. I think that comes out to about $8.64 per gallon! Ouch.
Our next stop was at ADAC, the German automobile club. They have a reciprocal arrangement with AAA, and they gave us free maps. We also purchased a toll sticker allowing us to drive on the Austrian autobahns for the next ten days, and a pair of day-glo safety vests. These look just like the ones worn by highway workers, and in Germany you are required to carry one for each passenger—just like life jackets in a boat. Our business concluded, Rebecca programmed our Garmin GPS for the city of Innsbruck, Austria. Innsbruck is the historical capital of the Tyrol region, which encompasses parts of modern day Austria and Southern Germany. It was the Hapsburg capital and seat of a number of Holy Roman Emperors. Innsbruck also hosted the Winter Olympics twice, in 1964 and 1976.
On the way there we got our first taste of the German autobahn. The basic rule that there are no speed limits is true. However, in urban areas and construction zones, there are limits imposed, usually either 100 or 120 kilometers per hour. 100 kmh is about 60MPH. We went through several unlimited stretches. Lane discipline prevailed, and slow traffic kept right, as did all trucks. At one point we were cruising at 110MPH in the center of three travel lanes, and there were cars passing us on the left like we were standing still. These were mostly BMWs, Mercedes, and Audi sedans. The fastest we got up to was 120MPH. We will have to look for ideal conditions and lighter traffic later in the trip if we want to test the 150MPH speed limiter.
We made it to Innsbruck, and had a later lunch. We took in some sights before heading back. It is a surprisingly busy place and featured lots of shopping and dining opportunities—including, of course a McDonalds. The ride back to Munich took about two hours. We plan to eat tonight in the hotel and call it an early night. First thing in the morning we will pack up and head down to Venice, Italy.
Sunday, August 10 2008 9:43PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Munich, Germany
Yesterday we drove from Fluvanna up to Washington Dulles. The airport was a zoo, and check in at United was very crowded. We arrived two hours early, and we had only a few minutes to spare before boarding our flight. The plane left on time, and we had an uneventful flight. We both dozed a bit, but I never manage to get good sleep on a plane. We arrived in Munich a few minutes early, and we were met by Rolf Raffelsieper, a retired BMW employee who works part time driving folks from the airport. Rolf picked us up in a borrowed BMW X6, and we sped to our hotel, the Munich Marriott.
The hotel didn’t have our room ready, so we left our bags with the bellman, and headed off to see the sights. We bought a subway pass good for unlimited rides for up to five people for 24 hours for €9. The crazy thing is that they don’t check it. It was just sort of honor system. There are no turnstiles, you just carry the pass with you and get on the train. We rode a few stops into the center of Munich and went first to Marienplatz, the main town square. The platz is dominated by the neues rathaus (new townhall), which was built between 1867 and 1908. It is an imposing neo-gothic structure adorned with gargoyles and statutes of saints. Its most interesting feature is an elaborate display of near life-sized figures in medieval garb which several times a day, on the stroke of the hour, come to life to perform a mechanical drama, known as the glockenspiel (clock play). We spent some time in the square and got some good photos with the 300mm lens for our Nikon. We dutifully observed the glockenspiel, then headed off to the palace or residenz.
The residenz was the home of the Bavarian ruling family for almost a thousand years, until they were deposed in 1918. It is now a museum, and numerous medieval treasures formerly owned by the ruling family are on display. We paid admission and walked through the place. We were really tired by this point. A quick cell phone call to the hotel revealed that our room was ready, so we headed back for a nap. After sleeping for a few hours, we went back downtown and had dinner at the Hofbrauhaus. This is probably the most famous spot in Munich. It is the largest of the numerous beer gardens. It doesn’t really have the ambience of a bar; lots of people were there with kids and one guy brought his dog, who dutifully slept under the table. (We noted our dog would never be able to do that in such a lively environment.)
A band played traditional Bavarian music, and we dined on weisswurst and spätzle, both of which were delicious. I enjoyed a liter of tasty HB lager, and then we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow morning at 9:10, we pick up our new car.
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