Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sept 29 - Budapest on Our Own

There were no formal tours today that sounded interesting, so we slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and headed out across the chain bridge to walk up to the Castle Hill that we had ridden to on the bus yesterday.
The Chain Bridge is the oldest permanent bridge over the
Danube in Budapest and is an interesting
type of suspension bridge.

There was a funicular to ride up, but we decided the exercise was more important and headed up the stairs and inclined walk. We arrived at an area we had not seen on our first day here, and walked past where we had been and saw the rest of the elevated plaza. We found an alternate way down and came back to that when we were done. At the east end of the plaza, there was a stone entrance gate for cars, and when we climbed to the top of it, we found a promenade that led around the backside of the district, so of course we explored. This was where locals came with their children, and we saw several dads with kids, apparently giving mom a short rest.
Locals enjoying the Castle District Promenade
It was also a lot warmer on this side because the buildings blocked all the wind.We came down off the hill toward the river, going through local neighborhood instead of a touristy area. We walked past an interesting church with a tiled roof we had seen from the boat, and then headed to the boat for lunch.

A bit after a light lunch, we walked to the pedestrian area we had seen yesterday and stopped in at Gerbeaud’s for a sinful (and expensive) snack. It was VERY rich! Although most shops are closed from 1pm Saturday til Monday, most of them in this area were open because of the tourist trade. Lots of people were out, but our guide suggested doing any shopping in Belgrade where the VAT was much less than in Budapest.
This building shows the different window designs on
each level that our guide told us about yesterday.

We wandered through a small market area, and then down along some of the trendy shopping streets, ogling the architecture as we went.
Parliament Building at night as we sailed away.

After dinner, the ship set sail and we headed south on the Danube to our next stop. The view of Budapest as we sailed away in the evening was delightful.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sept 27 - Transfer to Budapest

This was mostly a bus day, from Prague to Budapest, via Bratislavia, where we stopped for lunch and got a short tour thru the old town. There is a very interesting bridge that the Communists built -- has kind of a Calatrava look to it.
Communist-built bridge in Bratislava
 We learned, however, that to anchor the bridge they had to tear down the oldest synagog in Bratislava, and later made a nice granite monument to it.

Polished granite wall with white etching of synagog destroyed
for the bridge
A Slovak, Ludivit Stur, was featured in several places. His claim to fame was that he led the change in laws to eliminate serfdom and that he codified the Slovak language to help give Slovaks more of a sense of self and community. There was a Slovak language before that, but apparently it was quite informal and impacted by all the other conquering groups that rolled through the area.

There were also a number of interesting street sculptures. My favorite was  the guy in the sewer. And LOTS of different international restaurants: Loch Ness Scottish Pub, Hacienda Mexicana, The Dubliner, Thai and Fusion Restaurant, McDonalds with "Americke Legendy" (3 burgers I've never seen there), and El Gaucho.
Bratislava street sculpture

We found more Magnum Bars at our morning pit stop (and of course we bought them), but I refused to look for them in the afternoon. We got to the boat just before 6pm and found that our cabin looked a bit smaller in real life than in the photos. On the plus side, it had more storage than we first thought though and we managed to unpack and have space to move around, wi-fi is free and should be available in the ports, and we get 2 glasses of wine for free with dinner. The other hundred travelers are here too and tomorrow we start our program of exploring Budapest.
Our home away from home for 2 weeks

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sept. 26 -- More Prague

Built between 1907 and 1912, this Art Nouveau building has
amazing architecutural details.
Today we headed out on our own, as most of the group went on an optional trip to Theresien.The best part of the day was getting to sleep in -- to 7:30! and not worry about meeting someone else's schedule and catch a bus.Our first stop was the Municipal House to get tickets for the 4pm (often sold out) tour. Then we walked back to the Charles Bridge (built in the 1400s and was the only way to cross the Moldau (Vltava) river until 1870). Now only for pedestrians, it is a lovely stone bridge overrun with tourists and vendors. It was however, rainy this morning and had only started to clear up as we crossed.

There was a couple flocks of swans swimming just below
us near the Charles Bridge,
From there we headed to the funicular leading to the top of a local hill that has a tower which is a (sort of) replica of the top of the Eiffel Tower. For a small fee, you can walk  up 300 steps. For a larger fee, you can ride an elevator, but I am sure you know what we did.
A great way to get uphill fast and easy.
Petrin Tower, a mere 300 steps to the top

Jim at the halfway point up the tower with Prague Castle
and St. Vitus Cathedral in the background.

If we could walk up 750 steps on the Eiffel Tour in 2002, we were certainly capable of less than half that many today. I am glad, however, that we paid for the funicular to get to the top of the hill, which we walked down later -- do-able, but it would have been slow. Luckily, the sun came out while we were on our tower adventure.

Charles Bridge from a neighboring bridge
From there, we headed back toward the Municipal House, and started to look for a lunch. My interest in the hotel breakfast has been waning -- their scrambled eggs and bacon are yucky, so I normally get a warm hard-boiled egg and make a ham and cheese sandwich. Today I couldn't manage the sandwich so I took it along and chowed it down around 11 when I got hungry again. That meant that when Jim finally got hungry, I wasn't, so we stopped in a small grocery store to see if they had anything. As we walked to the back, Jim spied an ice cream case and wondered aloud if they carried Magnum bars, our favorite ice cream bar since we discovered them in Turkey years ago. Ha Ha, fat chance we agreed. He got chips and a soda, I selected a local chocolate brand to try later along with water and went to the front to check out -- right by the ice cream case and lo and behold: Magnum Bars. So that was our lunch.

We now had about 3 hours to kill before our tour, and we were on a prime shopping street. I wanted to get a European curling iron to have for this and future trips and stumbled onto a store (Tesco) that the hotel concierge had recommended as the best source. It was a struggle to find, but we did, leaving us another 2.5 hours. We shopped till we dropped without buying anything else. By the time the tour started, we were both kind of pooped and both my sandwich and the Magnum bar had lost effectiveness.
Outside entry glass. Photos not allowed inside
without an extra fee.
The Municipal House is an amazing community center for the Czech community -- concerts, meeting rooms, political events, social events, etc. We walked through several of the rooms -- all  beautifully decorated with some marvelous stained glass.

I was, however, even happier to get back to the hotel and off my feet. I track my steps as part of my vigilance to not gain weight and most days I do not make it to 10,000 steps, which is recommended for minimum exercise. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was at 21,000+ steps and kind of beat. At dinner with the group, Chrisian, our guide, asked about our day and I gave him the short version and mentioned I had walked over twice as many steps as I normally do on a GREAT day, and that I had walked so much I could afford to eat another cheesecake slice (our dessert). As we left, he brought me another cheesecake in a to-go box...... Now I am REALLY stuffed!

Sept 25, more Prague + Sychrov Castle

Albino peacock at Wallenstein Castle
We headed back into the center of Prague, but to the opposite side of the river from yesterday. We started out in Wallenstein Castle, which is now the Czech Republic Senate building. Wallenstein was a general under Emperor Ferdinand II who got a bit full of himself after a number of victories and built sort of a mini Versailles. Ferdinand got tired of his airs and had him assassinated. We saw a pair of peacocks tamely wandering the ground, one of which was an albino.

From there we walked to the Infant of Prague Church and I found I am already about churched out. We continued on to side streets and found the Lennon wall -- a spontaneous and continuous grafitti project focusing on some of John Lennon's writing (like Imagine) that sprang up when he was killed. The Communists tried painting it over, but it quickly got redecorated. The artists called themselves "Lennonists" which undoubtedly made old Vladimir Illitch roll over in his grave a few times.

Before walking over the famous Charles Bridge (pedestrians only now), we had crepes for lunch -- mine was chicken and spinach and Jim got ham and cheese and we split a raspberry one for dessert. It was yummy, but lots more food than we anticipated. By the time we got done (speedy service is not an apparent hallmark here), we were short on time to do some planning for Thursday AND get back to the hotel for our afternoon trip to Sychrov Castle. We hustled over the bridge and will go back to REALLY see it tomorrow and raced to the Municipal House, a famous Art Nouveau building to validate when English language tours are available and when the box office opens because tickets are only available the same day and apparently sell out. Then it was back to the hotel for a brief rest before our bus ride.

Late this afternoon, we headed north for over an hour to Sudetenland, an unofficial area of Bohemia that was largely settled by Germans in the last century and was annexed early by Hitler as he began expanding Germany before WWII. Sychrov Castle was owned by French nobility, the Rohans, who fled France after the revolution there, and they lost their castle after WWII because they were strongly suspected of being Nazi collaborators, which justified the property seizure by the state. The fact that the Soviets took over in 1948 probably also encouraged their move to Austria.

The castle looks much more like a large chateau and was beautifully decorated to look like someone had just stepped away. There were wood carvings all over -- the Rohans more than doubled the size of the original building and hired a wood carver who spent full time for 40 years working on balustrades, doors, ceilings, walls, etc.
Elaborate hand-carved ceiling

Wood staircase carved from a single log
They also had a private chapel built and a local organist played a short concert on it - really quite impressive. Then we walked the extensive grounds (140 acres still left: when it was 7 times bigger, it sported 1200 varieties of trees and plants) to get to the onsite restaurant for dinner, which was quite good. In fact all our meals here have been tasty and many were quite creative, better than we had been led to expect. Dinner was followed by the drive back to the hotel and collapse.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sept 24 - Exploring Prague and Bohemia

We started out with a drive to and walk around Prague Castle. On the way, our guide pointed out the TV tower, which is considered an eyesore. Some people noticed little things crawling up the struts -- it was supposed to have been a temporary modern art exhibit several years ago of baby sculptures attached. When they were removed at the end of their scheduled time, there was a great hue and cry, so they were returned and babies crawl up and down the tower.....

The castle itself is pretty dull except for the St. Vitus Cathedral on the grounds. Started in the1300s, work was stopped about halfway through and not completed until 1929. The design is in the grand gothic style, and it is really pretty tough to tell the new from the old, though more modern materials were used. There is also a great view of the city from the site.
Interior of St. Vitus Cathedral
Most interesting to me was a building done in graphito style -- two layers of stucco are used. Dark underneath and light on top. Before the light coat dries, designs are carved in it. In this case, the designs created a strong impression of large rectangular stones in construction that were like little pyramids sticking out from the surface. It wasn't til we got next to it that we could see it was totally flat and an optical illusion.
Graphito Building.

Graphito closeup

Next we headed into the 'old' town (the 'new' town is ridiculously old too) and walked around the (former) Jewish Quarter, which included the Old New Synagogue. First known as the New Synagogue, it became the Old New Synagogue when another New Synagogue was built. You would think they could be more creative!

We also found the main town square and split up to find lunch. Jim and I went to a very nice restaurant, where for $36 with tip, we got goulash and roast beef with gravy, cranberries, and assorted seasonal vegetables AND a glass of house wine that measured up to most of the named wines we drink. All terrific. We used the excellent metro to return to the hotel.

After a very short break at the hotel, we loaded onto the bus to drive out into the country over an hour away to Nosalov, a tiny old community with many timbered and stone old-style homes.
Nosalov  homes
We got a tour of the village, and then had a typical Czech dinner.  A polka dancing demonstration by four local dancers (including one  teenage boy and his mom who looked more like a contemporary of his).
Dancers -- mom wearing scarf, son to left
We got into the act too with polka dancing lessons. I felt much more successful at the polka than I did at tango last January in Argentina! Must be the Wisconsin girl in me... Our host and a local kindergarten school administrator demonstrated their musical talents and totally could have made a living doing that. Driving through the countryside looked a lot like driving through the farming areas of Wisconsin too. Like Wisconsin, the bus had to dodge several deer on the road in the dark on the way home.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sept 23 -- Prague!

There were no glitches with our flights and one very surprising plus -- passport control. Our flight from home landed in Frankfurt, Germany and we changed planes to get to Prague. Seriously, we walked more than a mile between gates! On our way out of Terminal Z to Terminal A, we encountered a small booth with 2 German police types who checked our passports quickly and let us thru. No line, no paperwork, nothing. When we got to Prague, I assumed we would encounter serious passport control and customs. But NO!! there was just a sign saying to check with customs if you were bringing in more than 10,000 Euros, and only one agent, who was actively engaged reviewing someone else's bags. WOW!!

Our pre-arranged airport shuttle to the hotel was great -- the driver was a former Canadian who came to Prague 25 years ago and decided to stay, got married, has a couple kids, and gave us advice on using public transportation. Our hotel is pleasant and is on the major metro line, but it is not a tourist hotel and nothing is very close -- except for the Jewish Cemetary outside our window (Franz Kafka is buried there) and the Chinese Restaurant across the street from the hotel.

We met the 40 other people on this part of the trip, and many seem like they are still active like we are. This part of the trip is with Grand Circle, the parent company of OAT who we usually book with. Their literature all seems to suggest that they are aimed at a more sedentary crowd and certainly the groups are MUCH bigger -- 40+ vs. 16 max. But so far, so good.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Here We Go Again

Today (Sunday), we are heading off on our next adventure: a river cruise down the Danube and picking up our new BMW 435i and driving it around for a couple weeks before turning it in to have it shipped home.
This trip will have us visiting more countries than usual on our adventures, in somewhat more comfort that some of our trips (although the gers of Mongolia weren't that bad when they didn't leak...)
We start in Prague for several days, then head to Budapest to get on the boat. On our way to the Black Sea, we will stop in Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The Romania portion will include 3 days in Transylvania. Then we fly to Vienna (because the car is ready a week later than we are) and finally get to Munich on October 15 to collect our car the next day. Our tentative plan is to drive to Dresden, then the west coast of Denmark and visit the areas my Danish relatives came from, followed by a jaunt down the coast to Amsterdam or possibly Belgium before heading back to Germany and Munich.
We'll get back home just in time to get trained for the November election and to prep for our next trip, Chicago for Thanksgiving.