04 August 2019

Moments in a small church in Salzburg

We visited the tiny Baroque church near the Augustiner brewery because we have Aussie friends who sang there when on your with the Melbourne Bach Choir. Leafing through the visitors book, looking for any record of their visit, I find this entry in English among all those that begin "Lieber Gott..." and go on with requests in German to look after friends and family:
"Dear God, Please look after my family and my pet rabbit Oreo. Lucy 8".
The church is on the side of the hill and you climb a long flight of stairs from the street to reach the nave. On our way back down we see a door part way that says "Freihof". We find cemeteries interesting so we go through and only as the door closes behind us do we see the "No entry to church" notice on the other side. A nasty moment, as the cemetery is walled and well above street level. There seems to be a narrow track round to the back of the church, which we follow to find more of the cemetery and a large double gateway, but the gates are firmly locked. Here at least there isn't a drop in the other side of the cemetery wall, and we reckon we could scale it at a pinch. However when we continue round to the far side of the church we find an open side gate. No need for heroics - we are very relieved to make a simple exit.

Salzburg Festival concert

This was going to be part of the Salzburg Part 1 post, but Blogger has taken against me and won't let me edit that post any more.

Although we stayed in Salzburg for 5 nights we drove out of the city on two of the days we were there so only had two full and two half days sightseeing on our own, and only three evenings. I did manage to get a single ticket for the Hesperion XXI concert, one of the half dozen concerts in the first days of the Festival with the theme "Lacrimae".  Hesperion XXI are performing John Dowland's "Seaven Teares", in the Kollegienkirche.

I go to the concert on my own as Peter is happy to go back to the apartment to read. The concert is great – Dowland’s lovely music played with great feeling and expertise. Hesperion XXI have been going for 45 years and are no longer young. If you took away their viols they’d look like the old blokes you see in the back bar of the RYCT. They are bald, or grey, or greying, and all wear glasses to read their music. The lute player Rolf Lislevand is a bit younger and enormously tall (Norwegian, Viking build). When they are taking a bow at the end I imagine he is standing on a raised platform in the middle for a while, until I manage to get a full view and find his legs go all the way to the ground. It is difficult to see all of him because there is an equally tall girl sitting directly on front of me. One of the problems of concerts in churches is that the seats aren't raked. If you get a very tall person in front, there is just no way to see the whole group at once. The other downside of churches is seriously uncomfortable seats, in this case very hard wooden chairs tied together with tape, so if you wriggle in your seat, your chair and all those tied to it squeak. No interval and so by the time they've done the full Seaven Teares and 5 encores your pants are firmly stuck to you. €125 is a lot to pay for a hard seat with a partially blocked view, but the music, the playing and the experience are worth it.

29 July 2019

Salzburg, Seeboden and Scenery Part 1

It is Scenery with a capital S in this part of Austria. My geography has always been poor until I've actually been somewhere, and only now am I getting a grip on Austria. It's long east-west. I was confused as to whether Salzburg was close to Germany, or midway east-west. The answer is both because the border with Germany runs north-south here, before turning west and running along the north of the western half of Austria.
My other discovery was the sheer quantity of lake and mountain landscape. My German is good enough to know that friend R's hometown Seeboden would be at the bottom end of a lake, and she has often described the view of the mountains across the lake, but I didn't realise that there would be mountains all around, nor that Millstättersee, the lake Seeboden is on, is only one of many similarly surrounded. Now we have been to Königssee (over the border in Germany), Attersee, Mondsee, Hallstättersee, Wörthersee as well as Millstättersee, and I know better. And they are all large - you need elevation to see from one end to the other. Not that elevation is an issue with mountains all around.
Salzburg itself is stunningly scenic. The old city is cradled between the river Salzach and a curve of rock that rises sheer from the streets, with houses built into parts of it. One of the Prince-Archbishops who used to rule Salzburg had a tunnel punched through the rock in the 1760s. Our apartment is on the suburban side of the tunnel so we pass through the rock daily.  The Hohensalzburg fortress is perched on the summit of the rock, about 120m above the town. We take the funicular up to the castle for the view and also walk up
Mönchsberg after a beer in the Augustiner brewery and a visit to the little church across the road. The two are linked by a bridge built by another Prince-Archbishop. It's not clear to me whether it was to enable the monks to come there to pray before brewing, or the faithful to go and have a beer after mass.
Back on ground level, we take our usual walks along the river, where there is a market and across the pedestrian bridge that has hundreds of "love-lock" padlocks attached. There seems to be only one tourist boat cruise on the Salzach, and we decide against it. We visit the Domquartier Museum, where you really get the low-down on the Prince Archbishops who had absolute power, both religious and governing, for about 1100 years, until the Austro-Hungarian Empire got control in 1833. (For a light-hearted look at the Prince-Archbishops, see https://www.salzburg.info/en/magazin/art-culture/salzburg-and-the-prince-archbishops_a_471941).
We find the Salzburg Museum a little disappointing as we go because they have a Schiele exhibition, but most of his works are on loan from the Belvedere in Vienna, where we've already seen them. However the Museum has a wonderful display of ancient instruments with videos of people playing them, that more than makes up for any other deficiencies.
It's the beginning of the Salzburg Festival so there are even more tourists than usual. We decide not to fight our way into Mozart's house, and at Schloss Mirabell we just stroll through the gardens. We do visit the cemetery where Paracelsus and Constanze Mozart are buried, not to mention Wolf-Dietrich, one of the more notable Prince-Archbishops, who has a large mausoleum all to himself in the middle of the cemetery. To our surprise and pleasure, a group of half a dozen young people looking into the Mausoleum broke into very good a capella singing. Later we heard them again - they were part of a group of British schoolkids on tour, whom we heard singing a number of pieces in the Altermarkt later that day. That wasn't the only musical experience - see the separate blog on the Salzburg Festival concert.
One thing that surprised us about Salzburg was how much it closed down on Sundays. No supermarkets open, and many cafes closed, at least at lunchtime. Fortunately the local bakery was open so we had croissants and apfelstrudel for breakfast on our first (Sunday) morning, but we had to settle for pizza for lunch. Pizza seems to have become the universal fast food, there are pizza restaurants everywhere in every city. At least it's preferable to McDonalds. On other days we had an excellent breakfast at Tomaselli's (very stylish) and an enjoyable dinner at Goldene Kugel, very good food and not yet rated highly on TripAdvisor, so not too full of other tourists.

Ceske Budejovice and other places

If four nights in Cesky Krumlov seems like an odd choice, three in Ceske Budejovice probably seems even odder. It's not a common tourist destination. We choose it partly for that reason, just to get a feel for a quite large regional town, but also because it is in the middle of Czech Republic at the junction of several rail lines, and we plan to use our rail passes to make day trips elsewhere. Our exploration of Ceske Budejovice gives us a feel for a town that starts early and shuts down early, except on Friday when the bars around the square are crowded. We find one very good restaurant, and have a couple of fast food meals because nothing else seems to open late. We are late to eat after both of our trips out of town, first because of a major rail incident (there will be a separate post about train travel), and the second because we get on the wrong bus at the station, go way out of the town centre and have to come back again.
Ceske Budejovice is south of Prague and north of Linz, so we choose towns to visit that are to the east or west: Jindrichuv Hradec about an hour's journey to the north-east and Pilsen about 2 hours to the north west.
Czech Republic is justly famous for castles and beer, and we are on the trail of both. Jindrichuv Hradec boasts #3 on the castle list (by size) and Pilsen gave its name to Pilsener beer. Ceske Budejovice itself is the home of Budweiser.
The Czech castles are, or were, the home of the local Prince. Sometimes the same family ruled the area and owned the castle for 4 or 5 centuries, with others it changed hands as one branch of a family died out. Every now and then someone would decide that the original gothic castle was getting old and out-of-date, but rather than renovate, or even demolish and rebuild, they extended, built on. Sometimes the Renaissance section is built on top of the mediaeval building (as in the castle in Budapest, and part of Prague Castle). If there was room they just added more wings and courtyards. If a brand new bit was built, it would be connected to the old by a gallery on a bridge or colonnade, so you could get from one section to another without having to go downstairs or get your feet wet. After you've added the Renaissance wings and then redecorated in the Baroque style, your castle has everything from a gothic tower to Versailles style mirror halls and formal gardens, all jumbled together and interconnected. That is why the top 3 castles are so big in area. In Jindrichuv Hradec we tour the Renaissance wing, take a peek into a Baroque Rondel built for concerts, and heroically climb dozens of steep flights of stairs in the gothic tower for the view. This is splendid, the better for having no safety railings - nothing but a very thick parapet wall between the viewer and certain death. Peter has an anxiety attack when a mother puts a child on the wall for a photo, but it is a very wide wall and she is hanging on to him.
All old towns have two things in common. They are located on a river, sometimes a confluence of rivers, and they have a main square. Ceske Budejovice has the largest main square in Czech Republic, and it is big, almost too big. It seems a bit impersonal. Squares all have something in the middle. In the UK it would be a simple market cross, in Italy an elegant fountain.  Czech towns have large and complex sculptures, often with haloed saints atop, with or without added fountains. Pilsen has a square nearly as big as Ceske Budejovice, but it seems smaller because it has a sizeable gothic church in the middle. Sculptures are in the corners, including a plague column. (If you pray to your favourite Saint to keep the plague away but it comes anyway, so long as not too many people die, you still put up a column to thank him it wasn't any worse.)
Around the squares are houses with colonnades at ground level, providing protected arcades for pedestrians walking around the square, and places for cafes to put tables. The houses are adjoining and much the same height and style, but not exactly: windows don't line up, heights vary slightly, colours alternate between white, grey, pastel yellow and pink. Ornamentation is picked out in white. Net effect is charming, slightly informal compared to (say) Paris.
We usually manage to take a riverside or canalside walk, some are narrow pathways with cyclists whizzing past, others are flanked by allotments growing vegetables, or by sportsgrounds. In Ceske Budejovice we pass three very large stadiums, soccer, basketball, and one complex we didn't identify except that it included an ice hockey rink. Four of the famous personages listed in the tourist info about Ceske Budejovice are ice hockey players.
Of the three cities I liked Pilsen the best. It is a large manufacturing town (home of Skoda), so it has more of a sense of purpose, less quaintness. It is also laid out in a square - streets run out from the main square as a continuation of the sides, making it much easier to navigate. The old town walls, also more or less square, have been turned into small gardens and green spaces. As we circumnavigate, our favourite spot is a pair of seats in memory of Vaclav Havel. On the little table is his famous statement: "Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred".  Would that it had, or will.

23 July 2019

Cesky Krumlov interlude

Someone who looked at our itinerary before we left Melbourne wondered what we were going to do for four days in Cesky Krumlov. My reply was "nothing". I figured that after three and a half weeks of fairly intensive sightseeing in big cities, we would need a breather in somewhere small. We are also about at the halfway point in our trip, so it's time to regroup.
Cesky Krumlov turns out to work perfectly as a place for some R&R, even better than I expect. For a start, it's a lot bigger than I thought it would be, so it is easy to find places to walk that aren't awash with other tourists. Many of these are here on a day trip, so the evenings and early mornings aren't too congested. Secondly, it is very beautiful, with a castle that is no 2 in size after Prague. It is on an S bend in the Vltava, with the castle, old cloisters and a shopping street in one loop, and the main part of town with town square and a network of streets in the other loop. The loop is so tight that a narrow channel was cut through centuries ago creating a millrace. Channel and mill building are still there, although the latter is now a hotel.
We have a lovely spacious apartment with a great view of river and the tower of the castle. For the first couple of days we just relax in the apartment or walk around town. As usual we gravitate toward the riverside and spend some time watching people rafting down sluices beside each weir (there are two in the city). After a while we gather our strength, climb up to the castle and  walk through the courtyards and gardens. We even get up early to return there for a tour of the Baroque Theatre. It is one of only two in the world in working order, and we went to the other one in Drottningholm, Sweden, about 25 years ago. This one is just as wonderful. Our second early start is to go rafting ourselves on our last morning before we leave. We are driven upriver and shoot five weirs successfully on our way back into town. It's great fun, quite exciting and we have one nasty moment when our raft catches on the side of the sluice at the bottom of the last weir and threatens to tip over, but we manage to get it balanced again and safely into the pool below the weir.
On our way back from rafting to pick up our bags, we even manage to visit a great music shop recommended by a friend and make a couple of purchases. All round, Cesky Krumlov gets a big tick from us.

17 July 2019

Basic requirements: food, drink, clothing, accommodation, coffee and wifi

Maslow's hierarchy of needs includes the first four as base level needs. The other two are also essential IMHO.
We have not been particularly focussed on gastronomic experiences on this trip. Not sure whether that is because the food is not special, we are no longer interested in large meals, or it's just been too hot. Probably a combination. We have sampled most things from the standard "authentic Czech" menu: duck, rabbit, goulash, trout, but not yet tried pork knuckle. In Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava we eat a lot of salads because it is so hot, much too hot for goulash and dumplings. We do have at least one schnitzel in Vienna - typically they are pork, not veal.
Meals/restaurants that stick in the memory are
- lunch at Julius Meinl
- lunch at Cafe Central, Vienna
- dinner at F├╝hrich
- sampling langos (delicious fried bread) in Szentendre
- breakfasts at the Schloss Belvedere cafe and Cafe Goldegg
- interesting light meals at "Why not" and "Up and Down", both Hungarian
- first class Italian food at Toscana, with the best creme brulee I've eaten (one of the few desserts I like)
- dinner at Cafe Louvre
- lunch at the cafe at Smetana Hall
- fish soup lunch at Les Moules (Belgian)
- dinners at Maitrea (see below)
To avoid the sameness of the local menus, we have gone a bit vegetarian. It starts in Bratislava with an interesting lunch at Good Mood Food. In Prague we discover Country Life, where you help yourself from a cafeteria style buffet, and are charged by weight - just right for lunch, and Maitrea, an excellent and very popular dinner destination where we go three times. Here in Cesky Krumlov we are eating at Laibon (the only vegetarian restaurant). The attraction of vegetarian restaurants is that you choose from a mix of styles: pizza, quesadilla, pasta, curry, and local dishes like stuffed cabbage. So you can keep going to the same place and not run out of choices.
For the first couple of weeks we drink local draft beer, or iced tea or lemonade, because we always arrive at restaurants hot and thirsty. In Prague, we drink Czech beer, but also move on to sampling the local wines as the weather is cooler. We are yet to drink more than one glass of anything with our meals, except at Louvre, where we try Becherovka at the end of the meal - a delicious herb flavoured liqueur.
We are travelling fairly light, less than 10kg of luggage each. Our choices of what to bring and not bring have worked pretty well. Peter has had to buy a hat and bathers and thinks his second pair of pajamas is surplus to requirements. My 3 pairs of pants, 10 tops, 2 cardigans and 2 light jackets have allowed good outfit variation, and I've worn every piece at least once. We have managed to look appropriately well-dressed for our nights at the Opera.
Not sure whether it's good luck or good management, but all our accommodation has been great. We had one recommendation, one suggestion (based on seeing rather than actually staying) and three just picked off the web. To date we've had 3 self-catering apartments and 2 B&Bs. We prefer the self-catering option as it means you don't have to get to breakfast, and no one comes to clean your room. We like to move at our own speed in the mornings. All have been spacious and comfortable, all well-situated, and all quiet except Vienna, where it was noisy if you opened the windows and hot if you didn't. Only Budapest had aircon, but we've survived the heat without it elsewhere.
All four countries treat coffee with appropriate respect. The nearest I can get to an Australian long black is a double espresso. Sometimes these are a bit too short for my liking, but the coffee is still really good. The thing I miss most is the automatic provision of water that you get at any cafe in Oz. If you are drinking short black coffees in hot weather you can get very thirsty.
Free and fast in all accommodation. Gone are the days of having to search for libraries and internet cafes. I bought a TravelSim with a fair quantity of data download, but even with constant use for navigation, I'm not going to use it all. And things like FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp make it so easy to keep in touch with home at no cost.
This is just as well because Peter's first wife collapsed a week or so ago, and died in hospital 6 days later. There have been a lot of conversations supporting his kids through a difficult time, and this is on-going because there is now some conflict between them and her second husband over funeral arrangements.

16 July 2019

Prague Part 3 - culture and final comments

Did we manage to spend a bit more than a week in a city without experiencing art or music? Of course not.
We only visit one bit of the National Gallery of Prague, which has about five separate locations. We go to the one on the Main Square on Wednesday when it is open late (often a quieter time to visit a popular gallery). They are showing a collection of French Impressionists on loan from the Danish Ordrupgaard gallery. We always find it soothing to go and look at some Monet, Manet, Sisley, Pissarro. All that nice French landscape.
On the music front we enjoy another opportunity to visit a grand concert hall for free, going to the Smetana Hall to hear the final concert in which my great-niece is singing. Her choir have sung in Vienna since we heard them in Bratislava, and we think they are getting better all the time. We also hear a very good performance by an orchestra from Penrhos College in Perth, so the Aussie flag is flying high. Before the concert we lunch in the lovely art deco cafe that is part of the Hall - very good salads.
Prague is famous for jazz, and in my new role as organiser of the U3A Port Phillip Jazz group, I just have to go. We book a table at Agharta, a very traditional and old club in one of the cellars that have been created as the street level has risen over the centuries (once upon a time they were at ground level). We hear a quartet of piano, bass guitar, drums and sax. The sax player is the leader and plays both tenor and soprano sax. Since my U3A group also has piano, bass guitar and drums, with a sax and a clarinet there are some similarities and it gives me ideas. The local quartet are all great players so it's very enjoyable and we stay until they quit for the night. Peter has fears that the public transport might stop at midnight, and we'll be walking home, but although it's after 12 when we leave there are still trams running to take us up the hill to Hotel Loreta.
So why is Prague such an attractive city? Visually it is lovely from the many vantage points, up the hills, on the river, from the bridges, the town hall tower or just walking through the cobbled streets of the old town, the Jewish quarter, or Mala Strana. So many of the buildings have spires with wonderful twiddly bits. When you look down on it there is a jumble of red-tiled roofs, aligned to the twisting streets and interrupted by the quirky spires. There are high rise buildings visible on the horizon, but in the main parts of the city on both sides of the river the only things sticking up above the 4-5 storey buildings are church spires and bell towers and the towers of the old city gates. In addition to the attractive streets, there are old passageways that take you from one street to another, usually turned into arcades with shops and restaurants. The green spaces aren't as relaxing as those in Vienna or Budapest, as they tend to involve walking up and down steep paths or stairs (the Petrin Hill funicular wasn't operating), but the views compensate.
We did one of our tram trips to the end of the line and back (partly a product of having guessed wrongly which direction our no 22 took out of Malostranska Square), and so saw a bit of the outer burbs, but not out as far as the high rise.
We think we might start making a point of visiting Post Offices. We go into the main PO in Bratislava (to post those postcards that you send to special friends and rels and which arrive in Australia 3 days after you get home) and it is an elegant 19th century building with a beautiful skylight. In Prague I have to print, sign and post some documents and send them to Spain; we go to the main PO there because all local ones are shut for a national holiday (St Cyril and St Methodius, since you ask). Once we've safely dispatched the documents by express post, we spend some time looking at the charming murals on the walls. They are classical-looking figures, but all relating to post and telegraph activities. So there are putti opening parcels, delivering letters, even holding up the insulators on a telephone wire. We are quite captivated.
So that's Prague. We've left few stones un-turned, but I'd like to return some time, perhaps at a different time of year.