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 Führich
- 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.

Prague Part 2 - the Castle

You can't go to Prague and not visit the Castle. As we are staying about 5 minutes from the entrance, we go twice, reasonably early to avoid the crowds.
It's not a single building, but a complete micro-town, with a church and a cathedral, an old convent, a lane of mediaeval shops and workrooms, a wall with towers all round, and four palaces. One of these is the home of the Czech President, so there are guards in uniforms at the gates, and you have to go through airport type security to get into the Castle area. We don't have to queue for the security check and although there is quite a queue at the ticket office, we dodge that by good luck when we discover you can also buy tickets at one of the galleries - no queue at all. The tickets conveniently last for 2 days, so on day 1 we do the old Palace, St George's church, Golden Lane (the old shops) and the Lobkowicz Palace, of which the last is the most interesting. The Lobkowicz family have occupied an important place in Czech history for generations. The 10th Prince fled to USA in 1939 because he was on a Nazi death list (apparently just for being anti-Nazi and extremely wealthy, as they are not Jewish). Their confiscated property was restored to them after WW2, but was then expropriated again by the Communists. In the 1990s, the grandson of the refugee, born in the US, educated at Harvard and a successful property developer, returned to the Czech Republic and fought long legal battles to get all the property back, bit by bit (there are something like 11 castles). You find most of this out from the audioguide for the Palace, which is dictated by said William Lobkowicz. Peter and I are transfixed in one room dedicated to music-related family history. The 7th Prince was a patron of composers, Beethoven in particular who dedicated three symphonies to him. The room contains scores of these symphonies and a copy of the Messiah with the added orchestration by Mozart, written in by him. Plus an interesting collection of instruments that presumably belonged to the Prince's private orchestra, including some very old clarinets and a basset horn.
On our return trip the next day we do the "Story of Prague Castle" museum, which is more interesting than we anticipate, and the Cathedral, a splendid bit of high Gothic architecture, of particular interest because half of it wasn't built until the late 19th, century, not finally finished until the 20th. The architect of the new bit made it match the 15th century bit perfectly. There are some wonderful, original wood carvings in the old part, one a picture of mediaeval Prague, and a couple depicting the building of the cathedral, cranes lifting beams and workmen up ladders. There is also a hideous bit of excessive baroque decoration over St John Nepomuk's grave, courtesy of Maria Theresa. Hard to get past because it seems that every tourist has to take at least one shot of it. Unfortunately it obscures some of the carvings.
Overall we feel we got our money's worth from our 2-day ticket.

15 July 2019

Prague Part 1 - Overview (from the hilltops)

Prague seems bigger than either Vienna or Budapest, although its population is significantly smaller than both. Perhaps this is because our accommodation at the Hotel Loreta is high, above the castle in Hradcany, so we get views across the whole city as we walk about the area. Perhaps it's because the interesting things are not all clumped together, although it would seem that many tourists just go from the main square in the old town through a fairly standard route to Charles Bridge, then across that to the square in Mala Strana. Certainly those areas and streets are awash with the rubber chicken brigade.
We were warned that Prague had too many tourists to be enjoyable, but we manage to avoid the worst of the crowds. We go to less-frequented museums like the Technical Museum, the Museum of Communism, and the Apple Museum, all of which are extremely interesting. Apple we enjoy together, going round saying things like "I had one of those, it cost me $5,000" and "Do you remember that one had 64Kb of memory?" It is one of the few museums that doesn't have seniors discount, but the woman at the ticket office gives us a discount price and tickets that say CHILD. About right.
At the Technical Museum Peter looks at cars, planes and trains while I look at domestic appliances that go back to the very beginning of automation - hand-cranked washing machines and sewing machines. I discover that there were electric hand-held hairdryers in 1910, and that some of the earliest electrified kitchen gadgets were coffee-makers, not mixers. Some people had their priorities right. The other point of interest is the ugliness of the things made during the Communist era. It would seem that any attempt to make objects look other than strictly utilitarian was decadent. Just like the architecture.
At the beginning of the exposition in the Museum of Communism are the words, "Dream ... Reality ... Nightmare" and that about sums it up. Not a cheering experience, especially if you feel that a number of countries today are teetering on the edge of dictatorship, or have already fallen over the line. But very well done.
We do do the touristy things, but try to do them out of synch. We go to the Old Town Hall at midday and have no trouble getting a place on a tour in English with a young girl who is an informative and amusing guide. We return later in the evening to watch the famous clock strike and to go up the tower for the view. As a 30-something traveller I prided myself on climbing everything there was to climb and not using the lift (it was cheaper). Nowadays Peter and I only go up towers that have lifts, as this one does.
We cross Charles Bridge twice, in the late afternoon and evening when you can easily get a bit of parapet to yourself to lean over and watch the cruise boats passing underneath, turning, or heading up into the lock. We go on one of these cruises at lunchtime, but without booking lunch. As it is showery and quite chilly, we have the upper deck to ourselves to watch the manoevring, tying up and untying from close range as we pass through the lock. We are very taken with a device that looks like a double toasting fork, used to drop a line over a cleat or bollard.

The Vltava is a gentle river in Prague, very different from the Danube. No big cruise boats, only the local day trippers. There are a lot of small leisure craft - cruise boats toot to warn off pedalos, dragon boats, even stand-up paddle boards.

We considered the pedalo option, but decided the river was better looked at from above, either from Castle Hill, Petrin Hill or Vysehrad, all of which we visited. The last of these has an interesting cemetery where we paid our respects to Dvorak and Smetana.
One of the best things about our time in Prague is that after the first day, when we hide from 36 degree heat in a museum, it is cool, low 20s. In Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava it is so hot that we fear our raincoats and warmer clothes are just a waste of space in our luggage, but they all get worn in Prague.

Bratislava Interlude

Between Budapest and Prague we stop over in Bratislava because my great-niece Emily is singing in concerts there as a member of her school's Chamber Choir. The choir and the school's wind ensemble are participating in a Youth Music Competition.
Bratislava has a historic centre that is almost completely pedestrianised - a maze of twisty cobbled streets that is easy to get lost in. But we find our way to Hviedoslav Square in time to hear the wind ensemble play, and to St Matthias church for a concert involving lots of groups and choirs, with our lot singing the final number.
Being a choir groupie enables us to enjoy another free concert in the Mirror Room of the Primate's Palace the next day. We lunch with the other members of the family and it's nice to catch up and exchange news and views. In between we manage our usual tram rides as a way of seeing parts of the city other than the historic centre and the castle. The latter is a bit of a disappointment - it looks impressive from a distance but is actually a ruin that was restored in the 1950s, so it's very new and clean in white and gold on the inside. It's used for conferences and exhibitions, and the collection of old furniture that was on display kept us interested for an hour or so. There is also a great view, not only of an impressive modern bridge over the Danube, but also of hundreds of windfarms, stretching as far as the eye can see.

Our worst disappointment was walking a fair distance along the riverside to find restaurants recommended by the owner of the very spacious apartment we stayed in. There are a row of them with terraces on the river bank - the perfect place to eat on a hot night, except for the smokers. We really can't handle people smoking around us when we're eating, and there are so many smokers you can't get away from them. We finish up at the only restaurant that has an inside area, which has a rather mundane menu. Just as we are thinking it might be safe to at least finish our drinks outside, people at the table next to the one we have our eye on light up a hookah!
We buy Peter his second hat of this trip, as he leaves the nice straw number we bought in Vienna in the luggage rack of the train from Budapest, and it goes on to Prague and Hamburg without him. The new one is camouflage material, and he hates it, but at least he's avoiding sunstroke. It's as hot in Bratislava as it was in Budapest. After two nights we board the train for Prague hoping for cooler weather.

12 July 2019

We hate tobacco companies

Australia might have been slow to accept same-sex marriage, and embarrassingly retarded about energy policy and decent broadband, but we are ahead of the game on getting rid of smoking.
Most drugs are illegal; why one of the most addictive and health-harming ones is not defies rational explanation. It has to be down to the power of the merchants of death, the tobacco companies.
Smoking is much more prevalent in all the places we've been than it is in Oz. Peter reckons the mean space between unpleasant secondary smoking experiences is about 5 metres as you walk the streets. Smoking is banned inside cafes, but the bans are not always enforced. Outside there are ashtrays on every table. In the heat in Vienna and Budapest it was often a toss-up between sweltering inside or suffering smoke from the next table outside.  Being inside the cafe wasn't always safe either - if it was hot and the windows were open, smoke blew in. It was depressing to find you couldn't pick who was likely to light up, young or old, male or female, tourists or locals, all likely to pull out a pack of cigarettes just when you thought you were ok. Or a hookah - we've seen a number of these used, particularly in Bratislava.
We share our observations with my niece and nephew-in-law, whose travel path crosses ours in Bratislava. They tell us that they are surprised to find it is just as bad in Berlin. They confirm that smoking is no longer considered cool for Australian high school kids (they have two) so we are leading the world on something.

Budapest Part 3 - other amusements including market and music

Another plus for our accommodation is that it is across the road from the market, which we visit twice.
It's a huge undercover market on three levels (Aldi in the basement). At ground level the stalls are grouped by type, veg here, sausage there, etc. Most of the area is full height to a glass roof, but there are galleries all round with four crossing the hall. Here there is one area of cheap takeaway food, and the rest is non-perishables, mostly of the souvenir variety. One wonders if there are enough people on the planet to buy all the "I love Budapest" t-shirts and embroidered tablecloths, not to mention vests, shirts and skirts. Then there are the matryoshka dolls, jigsaws and Rubik's cubes (he was a Hungarian).  What they don't have is men's bathers, which we need because Peter failed to pack same and they are needed for the baths. Eventually we find a cheap pair ($15) in a souvenir shop in the Vaci (pedestrian street nearby), after P has refused to pay about $75 for a Tommy Hilfiger pair, or half that for a pair in an Adidas sale.
We return to the market next morning to buy me cheap sunglasses to replace a broken pair and to take in one of the free concerts that are on at odd times and odd places in the summer in Budapest. In the market we listen to a terrific gypsy band - two violins, double bass and cimbalom. First violin and cimbalom player were both virtuoso standard. Note that even gypsy bands no longer wear embroidered vests - these guys were in shirts and slacks, turning off their mobiles before starting to play.

The second concert was in the open air in the afternoon on Margaret Island - the extremely unusual combination of soprano sax and string quartet. String quartet was good, all female. Sax player does the arranging of classical pieces for the combo and again was virtuoso standard, the arrangements are showpieces for him.

Third concert was on the steps of St Stephen's Basilica - three percussion players playing assorted chimes/xylophone type instruments, plus a solo flute. Virtuoso playing again by all four, with the percussionists looking like they were having fun as well.
In all the cities there are concerts everywhere that are classical pot pourri (or is that pop pourri?). In Vienna it's all Strauss and Mozart. In Budapest and Prague it's some or all of Pachelbel's Canon, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Brahm's Hungarian Dances, Ave Maria (either Gounod or Schubert) - you get the idea. We avoid them in Vienna, but relent in Budapest because the program has only one Vivaldi season and an Ave Maria, and the other bits and pieces are less hackneyed, and because it's in St Stephen's which is a very grand church. The small string group play beautifully, but the soprano who sings a couple of numbers struggles with the acoustic, which has a serious echo. Before the concert we go into the church to find a mass in progress in English with African music. Who would have thought it?

11 July 2019

Budapest Part 2 - other amusements, starting with museums

So, what did we do when not on or in water?
We climbed Castle Hill - no, that's a lie - it was so hot that we went by bus both times. The church was closed (too late once, mass once) and the fake mediaeval structures like the Fishermen's Bastion and Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park are a bit too Disney for us to do more than admire from a distance. Instead we spend time in the History Museum and Museum of Music History. The latter has a great collection of musical instruments and other music-related artefacts like a six-sided music stand.

The History Museum provides an insight into Hungarian history. We began in the cool lower stories which are the oldest parts. It seems that when you want to upgrade your palace you just build a new bit on top of the old, especially if you are on a hill. So as you go up through the floors you go from Romanesque to Baroque - the top layer is one of Maria Theresa's many palace-building projects.
This trip is providing an education into the history of the area, which was pretty much a blank page for me. I knew that it was all part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it fell apart, but that was about it. In Budapest you realise that Hungary has repeatedly drawn history's short straw. Of course, a settlement situated at a point where you can cross a very large river is bound to be a place where battles are fought, and where invaders settle. Hungary has been invaded or colonised by the Romans, the Huns, the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks. The final driving back of the Ottoman Empire puts Hungary under the Hapsburgs until 1918, during which time the Hungarians manage at least one failed rebellion. They are on the wrong side in both World Wars, and then suffer forty years as a Soviet satellite. It's no wonder they have a cynical turn of mind, especially about politics.
And if you really want to look at the black side of history, you look at what happened to the Jews. Vienna, Budapest and Prague all had large Jewish communities before WW1 (70,000+). By the end of the war most had died in concentration camps, the lucky survivors were almost all refugees, scattered across the world. We get a feeling for this in Budapest, walking through the Jewish quarter, visiting the Synagogue and very well-presented Jewish museum.
Our final history lesson comes from a visit to the Parlament (not a typo, that's how they spell it). This magnificent building is as interesting on the inside as it is spectacular on the outside. You can only go through on a tour - our guide is good and amusingly disrespectful of  politicians. Hungary no longer has a bicameral system, which means that what was the upper house chamber is now a spare, available for tour groups to look at, and when maintenance work is needed on the other chamber. Notable feature was electronic voting apparatus on every seat in the chamber - none of the old-fashioned nos-to-the-left-ayes-to-the-right shuffling for a division.
Another highlight was the moment when someone ignored the instruction about no photos of the crown jewels (there's always at least one person who thinks the rule doesn't apply). As he clicked, there was a swishing sound of metal on metal as the two hitherto motionless guards drew their swords and waved then threateningly. No one else tried to take a picture...

One other museum visit was to a Retro Museum in Szentendre - all 70s stuff, with a whole yard full of old cars for Peter. Since this was the Communist era, it was all Trabants, Skodas, Nivas, no style.

After all the art in Vienna we didn't go in search of galleries in Budapest, but we did go to three during our day in Szentendre, each dedicated to an artist who lived there, of which the most interesting was the one holding a large collection of work by the ceramicist Margit Kovacs.

10 July 2019

We love trams

Trams are part of our home life in Melbourne as we live within 7 minutes walk of 3 different lines. But I am losing count of tram journeys we are making in our travels, in addition to rides on Metros, buses and trolley buses. In Bratislava we are about 8 minutes from 2 tram lines, in Vienna and Prague 3 minutes from a tram stop, in Budapest 2 minutes from 2 tram stops and a Metro station.
Public transport in all these cities is good and cheap. In Vienna we buy 7 day passes, and because it is our first stop we don't think to look for seniors discount. We do the same in Budapest, and only later discover that oldies with EU passports travel free, in time for Peter to get one day's free travel, as he has a British passport that says EU. (For now, at least, until the Poms sort out the Brexit mess.) In Bratislava Peter buys 5 day tickets, even though we are only there for 3 days, because they are very cheap and he feels the Slovakian economy could do with a boost. In Czech Republic we find that Public Transport is free for all over-65s, regardless of origin, and we are making the most of it.
Things we like, that we wish were copied at home:
In all the cities there are heaps of intersecting and overlapping routes and the trams in particular are frequent. Stops are usually quite a long way apart and the trams hurtle between them at light rail speed, even though they are often on busy streets originally designed for horse-drawn vehicles. Buses and trolley buses stop more often.
Seating configurations are much better than on our trams - either single seats on both sides or two and one configurations that leave plenty of space between for people to move to and from doorways. People don't prop in the doorway like they do in Melbourne.
Tickets are bits of paper. There are validation machines which validate (stamp) single journey tickets, but if you buy a multi-day ticket it has an end-date and time and you don't need to validate. If travel is free or discounted for seniors, you just need ID with proof of age with you. Have yet to see a ticket inspector in any country - people seem to be trusted to do the right thing.
Trams are quiet, even when going round tight bends. Our current regular tram, the 22, goes round a hairpin bend on its way up Castle Hill in Prague, and only slows down a bit for the bend.
Young people stand up for you. Automatically and immediately - as soon as they see geriatrics heaving themselves aboard. Don't even seem to expect to be thanked.
As a warning device trams have a clanging bell like the ones police cars in the UK had before they had sirens. So much more effective than the rather pathetic single ding of our trams. They need good warnings - in Prague they have right of way over everything, including pedestrians on crossings, which can be a scary discovery for the unwary tourist.

Budapest Part 1 - all about water

Budapest is dominated by the Danube (unlike Vienna). Our room in the Butterfly Home B&B is on the corner of a building looking out on the river and the Liberty Bridge - a splendid view.

We spend almost all of our stay on or alongside the river. We catch the trams that run on each side of the river to the end of their routes and back again. We go on an after dark-cruise to see the bridges and magnificent buildings along the river all floodlit. We catch a public transport ferry - as with the trams we go to both ends of the route before finally alighting on Margaret Island, the large island at the upstream end of the city. We return from a day trip to Szentendre (historic town made home by many artists) by boat. We cross the river on foot via the Liberty Bridge several times, stopping to watch the huge amount of traffic - vast cruise boats that go the length of the Danube, medium boats that take Budapest tourists on short cruises, ferries, private motorboats, working barges. Peter is fascinated by the way they avoid collisions and by the docking manoevres in the strong current - always facing upstream regardless of direction of travel, so requiring a 180 degree turn at every ferry stop when going down river.
It is hot in Budapest, even hotter than it was in Vienna, with two days when the temperature gets to around 36 degrees. We get into the habit of returning to our air conditioned room for a rest toward the end of the day, then heading out to eat in the evening, when it is cooler but still too warm to need anything other than a shirt/top. On the really hot days we head to the baths, spending a whole day at the Gellért and visiting the Szechenyi as part of a day-long visit to the enormous City Park. Although the Szechenyi is the more famous, we much prefer the Gellért. For a start it is in walking distance of the place we are staying. It has a bigger indoor pool than the Szechenyi, and the water is cool to cold, whereas in Szechenyi the indoor pools are small and heated. The big outdoor pool at Szechenyi is unshaded, so on a really hot day it isn't so pleasant. And it is much more crowded and doesn't feel as clean as Gellért. One feature of the indoor pool at Gellért I like is that there are no lanes - instead there is a swimming direction - you swim round the pool on an oblong course. You don't run into people swimming in the other direction, and if you get behind someone slower you just pull out and overtake. So easy. Another nifty feature at both baths was a small spin dryer in the changing area, just big enough for one pair of togs, which made them almost dry in about a minute - very nice when you're carrying them home in your backpack.
Our other water-related excursions include taking a pedalo round the ornamental lake in front of Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park (relaxing when we were in shade, otherwise rather hot) and going into the Lajta Naval Ship Museum (travelling with Peter involves a lot of ship museum visits). This is the oldest remaining river warship, which fought in various battles on the Danube in late 19th and early 20th century. These ships were based on an American design called a monitor ship, and sit very low in the water so that they are a small target. They initially had a single gun in a rotating turret, more firepower was added over the years. Even though it is hot and cramped below decks, we stay for some time as the museum is very well set up with interesting and informative documentation. It includes the life histories of the three commanders of the vessel, which make one very aware of how Hungary has so often been on the wrong side of history. All of them were clearly brave and good captains, one was executed for participating in a rebellion and two died in exile, discredited because they fought on the losing side in a war.

More on Hungary and its history to come in Budapest Part 2, what we did when not in, on, or above water.

09 July 2019

Mustard is the new black

Fashion tip for next summer: mustard yellow is THE in colour. Wear it in large blocks (a jacket, skirt or entire dress) teamed with black, or black and white stripes.
It really is everywhere - Peter and I have taken to muttering "mustard" to one another as each fashionista passes. As well as clothes there are mustard shoes and handbags in all the shops.
You heard it here - prepare for summer.