06 August 2019

Homeward bound

It's time. We've used up all ten trips on our Eurail passes, we've seen more castles, churches and palaces than you can shake a stick at, we've boated/cruised on lakes and rivers. I've handwashed the undies for the last time, the cobbles have caused the sole of one sandal to disentegrate and we both need a haircut. We are looking forward to a proper double bed (not two singles pushed together) and being in a country where you can eat outside without secondary smoke inhalation. Not that there will be much incentive to eat outside in Melbourne at the moment - we are not looking forward to winter weather.

Leaving Vienna is a breeze. We are packed up and out of the apartment before the 10am checkout. We walk our luggage to the Hauptbahnhof, stopping for a final Vienna coffeehouse breakfast at Cafe Goldegg on the way. The train takes us to the airport in 15 minutes and we relax in the lounge until it's time to board. We get a bit of sleep on the first leg to Bangkok, and I try to stay awake for the whole of the Bangkok-Melbourne leg so that I can get back into Melbourne time asap.

Lovely to see the wide brown land stretching away when I peek out the window. May feel less enthused when we get to freezing Melbourne in a couple of hours time.

05 August 2019

Vienna, revisited

Our trip is a circuit, starting and finishing in Vienna. We book into the same apartments, so coming back feels a bit like coming home. Because we now know the shortest route, we walk from the station with our luggage, and walk there again on the day we leave, stopping at the local Cafe Goldegg on the way each time, for an iced coffee when we arrive, and a last breakfast when we are leaving. We enjoy being back in an apartment with a proper kitchen, so we can make our own breakfast, and even cook and eat in on our first night.

Compared with our first week in Vienna, our last week is quite leisurely, with one activity each day rather than cramming in several, and no evening outings. We visit the Leopold Museum, which we missed first time round, and revisit the Secession and the Albertina. The Secession is disappointing. We haven't realised that the only permanent exhibition is the Beethoven frieze by Klimt. It is the only part open when we go in our first week, but when we return there are three exhibitions in progress, all of which leave us very underwhelmed. One is a strange installation of wire sculptures which includes a film of whale watching, which makes me realise how much I’m missing the sea. Seven weeks in landlocked countries. We have another look at the Klimt frieze to get something for our money before we leave.

In contrast the Albertina is well worth our second visit. We see a special exhibition of paintings by Nitsch. It’s a big improvement on the Secession exhibitions but still a bit self indulgent. We also look at a Sean Scully exhibition which we like better. We are hoping to see the Durer drawings which we know are there somewhere, but it turns out that they are in the State Rooms, and these are closed for a wedding. We find out that they are supposed to be opening at 4:30, so we go for a walk, have a hot chocolate instead of our usual icecream because it's raining, then return. There's still time to kill so we decide to have another look at the Batliner collection exhibition which we saw in June. We're pleased we did so because it has been considerably expanded. When we've revisited the old and enjoyed the newly exhibited works we head down to the Prunksaal, but it's still full of wedding. 10 minutes, the man on the door tells us, but it's more like 20 before they wheel the last load of bottles and glasses out and we can go in. They are probably the nicest of the many Prunksaals we've been in, a bit more restrained and tasteful (later period). And the collection of drawings is wonderful even though the ones on display are only facsimiles.

We have one day where we go in different directions. Peter returns to the Technical Museum, while I go for a final walk around the Innere Stadt, trying one more time to get a grip on the geography. For me, Vienna is like the Looking-glass garden, you keep finding yourself at the Ring when you're trying to get to the centre, and at the centre when you're trying to go somewhere else. I spend some time on a church crawl, and luck into an organ concert in one of the churches, but that's our only musical experience for the week.

A highlight of our last week is a trip by U-bahn to Gasometer. Four identical, huge and ornate brick circular structures were left in 1985 when Vienna stopped using town gas. The gasometer innards were all removed, leaving just the outer structures. In 2001, the four buildings were converted into a complex of residential areas, shops, a college and a concert hall, with links to newer buildings. We survey it from outside and in, all fascinating.

We make two out-of-town excursions. We use our last railpass journey to travel by train to Melk, where we go to the Abbey, a very over-the-top baroque building. The tourist information centre says that you need three hours for Abbey and gardens, but we’ve seen a lot of palaces, churches and gardens by now, and manage to see everything there is to see in a couple of hours. From Melk we catch a ferry down the Danube to Krems. We are amongst the first to board and get a pick of the seats on the top deck, in the open but under an awning. Eventually we share our 4-seat table with a couple from Munich who are even older than us, and we manage a conversation in a mixture of German and English. It's a beautiful boat trip with cliffs, castles perched on crags, and miles of terraced vineyards. It gets a bit warm, but there are cool drinks available from a bar, waitress service. I do like the fruit-flavoured soda drinks – not too sweet here. From Krems we catch a local train back to Vienna, arriving at the Franzjosephbahnhof, which is conveniently on our D tram route, so it's easy to get back to our side of town.

We spend our last day in Vienna making a day trip to the mountains which overlook the city. Once again, the D tram takes us to Nussdorf, the jumping off point for the 38A bus which goes up the mountain. The 38A climbs up through posh houses to Grinzing, then through vineyards and woods to Cobenzl, where there is a big carpark and a view. We go on to Kahlenberg, another carpark, souvenir stalls, restaurant and a view. You can certainly see that Vienna is BIG, but the haze and the distance make it hard to pick out landmarks, except for the obvious like the Danube. After a disappointing lunch in an over-priced restaurant, we find our way to the wanderweg that goes to Leopoldsberg. This is a pleasant wooded walk across a saddle between the two hills. Along the way is a public park full of climbing things attached to trees, various ways of getting up, then airwalks and flying foxes between trees. Participants rent the appropriate gear to clip on to things. Each climb has a notice specifying degree of difficulty, length of time and height. The park is full of kids and young parents having a great time. We watch climbers for a while before going on to Leopoldsberg. Here it's cool and quiet, and the view seems better, perhaps it's a bit closer and there seems to be less haze. You can also see upriver towards Krems. After enjoying the view for a while we return on the bus, this time seated with a much better look at the interesting views than we had on the way up.

We have our last meal in Vienna at the local Greek restaurant called Art Corner, as they’ve always been so friendly and the food is good. Because it is our last night we have a beer to start and then red wine. When we tell the owner that it is our last night, he insists on giving us an ouzo each. While we are sipping, we hear someone singing Happy Birthday, with violin accompaniment. It is the waiter’s birthday, wife and family are there with cake. When we wish him a happy birthday we are invited to join in a glass of champagne, really mixing our drinks. But it’s fun to have a bit of celebration on our last night, and it's only a two minute stagger to the apartment. Packing is deferred until morning.

Trains (and boats and cars)

In the seven weeks of our trip we travel on 20 trains, using two 5-journey rail passes each. There shouldn't be quite that many trains, but two of our journeys are significantly disrupted. In fact on only one trip do we arrive at the scheduled time, and that trip was the longest one, about four hours from Villach to Vienna.

Since we are not on a time schedule delays of 5 to 20 minutes don't bother us when they occur on our first trips to and from Budapest (track maintenance). We make idiots of ourselves in Cesky Budejovice looking for platform 10 when there are only four platforms, until we learn to distinguish between the Czech for "Platform" and the Czech for "Delay" (shown in minutes).

Having learnt this, we are very dismayed when we walk into the station at the end of our day in Jindrichuv Hradec and see 90 under the word for Delay. Really? An hour and a half? The lady in Information and I struggle to communicate in German, since she has no English and we have no Czech. She confirms the delay time, and says that something is kaput. That's the best she can do by way of explanation. There is a train in the station and it looks like the right train, and after about 30 minute we are instructed to board it. We are relieved, and Peter's decision to hang around the station rather than go and find food seems vindicated. But after another 10 minutes we are ordered off again. Long announcements in Czech follow, which we don't understand.  A Czech guy with good English realises we are Anglophone, and tells us that we are being advised to take a local train that leaves about an hour after our original departure time, then change at Viseli to the intercity from Prague. We are then joined by another English speaker, a bloke from Manchester who is trying to get to Munich. He seems to know a lot more about what is actually going on. He explains that the overhead electric cable is down between here and further east. Czech trains are all badged Cesky Drahy, but in fact there are a number of private operators running trains in different areas, rather like the current system in the UK. The operator in this area doesn't own any diesel locomotives, so without the overhead power, the train is stuck in Jindrichuv Hradec. The passengers have been taken onward by bus, and the driver has gone with them. He will return by bus with westbound passengers, some time later (however long it all takes). Hence we have our train, the one we have been told to get on and then get off again, but no driver. When we ask him how he knows all this, he explains that he doesn't speak Czech, but that as a railway worker himself, he knows the systems and has been able to work out what has happened. We discover he works for Northern Rail in the UK, and his idea of a holiday is to travel around Europe on trains.

About this time the little local train arrives and we and most of the people waiting board it to get to Viseli. Our helpful trainspotting friend tells us which train we will need to catch in Viseli to get back to Ceske Budejovice, what time it leaves, and even which platform it will leave from. Which is just as well, as the local train stops all stations, getting later all the way, and we have only a couple of minutes to change platforms for the intercity from Prague that will take us onward. It's all part of the adventure, but the serious downside is that by the time we finally get back to Ceske Budejovice, all eateries are closed, and we have to settle for Mexican takeaway, warmed up the microwave in our apartment.

Our other major disruption occurs between Ceske Budejovice and Salzburg. Our Austian OBB train develops a technical problem in Summerau and we are told to absteigen and wait for another train. It is not very long before a very new, very sleek Siemens train arrives and we reboard. We are told this is their spare train, for use in emergencies. but it can only take as to Pregarten. There we have to change again to a slow train to Linz. There is a long wait in Pregarten and we only just have time in Linz to change to the train to Salzburg (this is an expected change), by which time we are starving as none of the earlier trains have food. We are very pleased to find a dining car at last.

We feel we got our money's worth from our First Class passes. I'm sure if you book the cheapest fare for all of the trips you make, you would do it for less, but it works out at €26.6 each per travel day. The advantages of the Eurail passes is that you don't have to book a particular train, so if you miss a train or change your mind it isn't critical, and with First Class we never need to make reservations, there are always plenty of seats. There are only two occasions when things aren't perfectly smooth. I have read the ticket conditions which say that you have to have the ticket authorised before the first use - this involves taking it to an information counter with your ID, and telling them the date you plan to start using it. They duly update the ticket with passport number and date. On both occasions it is easy to do this the day before we first use the passes, so there is no last-minute panic. Our first journey proceeds without incident, the OBB conductor stamping the first of the five little slots on the ticket with the date. Not so our second journey, where the conductor on the Czech train (probably a Hungarian as we were leaving Budapest) tells us that we are up for a €200 fine because we haven't filled in the date for the second journey. We explain that we thought that is his job, with his date stamp, and that there is nothing in the ticket about writing in the date. Fortunately he doesn't read English, so can't point to the bit of fine print that I find much later that does indeed say that you have to fill in the date (in blue or black pen) before boarding, and that failure to do so will attract a large fine. We must sound very sure of ourselves, because he backs off, I fill in the date on both passes (blue pen), he stamps them, and nothing more is said. We are very careful about filling in dates for each of our subsequent journeys.

The other time our Eurail passes don't work smoothly is on the little local train that takes you from Ceske Budejovice to Cesky Krumlov. We have already travelled to Ceske Budejovice to Prague, so we expect to just wave our already-date-stamped tickets at the conductress, a young and energetic girl. But no. She explains that this train is run by a new company and they are not part of the consortium that accepts railpasses. Peter points out that the tickets say all regional trains, she patiently repeats that their company is not included. P decides to give her a short lecture on the fact that this is misleading and bad for tourism, but she is unmoved.

When they both pause for breath, I ask, "How much?"
"Twenty crowns" she replies.
"Each?" as I sort through Czech coins.
"Ten each, as you are seniors."

Twenty Czech crowns is nothing. We are in danger of having an international incident over less than $1.50. We pay up and shut up.

We find that first class carriages are often quite empty, rarely more than half full, and our fellow passengers usually quiet. We make the mistake of sitting in Business Class once, which is even quieter, until a conductor tactfully informs us that Business Class is more expensive than First, but we are welcome to pay the extra and stay where we were. We don't need the quiet and the very comfortable seats that badly, so we move. On one occasion when we find ourselves sharing an old-fashioned six-seater compartment with three other people and a dog, but we don't have to feel cramped for long as two of the travellers (and the dog) have only second-class tickets, and are duly moved on.

Another person we suspect of not having a first class ticket (or maybe any ticket) stays in our carriage for one stop, during which she tries to sell me perfume. Odd and unexpected, and the only such incident we experience.

Our most enjoyable trip was the journey from Salzburg to Spittal. Renate has told us to sit on the right to get the best view, but as usual we are confused about which way the train is going, so when it starts we have to relocate from facing backwards on the left to facing forward on the right. Fortunately there are still a pair of vacant seats, although I have to wait a moment until the person in the seat behind removes sock-clad feet from my armrests.. And it's worth the move because the views are truly splendid. And much better viewed from a train than from a car, as the train runs right alongside the Salzach. After eating the lunch we brought with us, we decide to take a walk to the dining car for a coffee. Serendipitously we choose to do this just as the side the view is on changes, as the restaurant car seating is on the other side. Then when we finish our coffee and move back to our seats, the view returns to the right hand side.

We are amused in the dining car by three ageing Englishmen swapping notes on their train journeys. It seems that English trainspotters spend their summers travelling around Europe by rail. The first thing we hear is the man behind us talking about his “oppo” who isn’t with him because he “coom down with noo-monia”. He has a really thick Manchester accent (are all Mancunians train spotters?). The conversation goes on about health issues of one sort or another, someone with a oolcer, and one of the others relates what his GP said about his heart, and finally they compare ages. Each also talks about where he’s been and where to next – they clearly aren’t travelling together but have found common interests in train travel and beer (I think the conductor makes them pay extra because they are sitting in the dining car but don’t have first class tickets.) One of them is carrying two substantial paper volumes, one of which has diagrams of train routes. The other appears to be a complete timetable, the modern Bradshaw. They seem unaware or unconcerned that anyone might be listening to them, just as well as Peter and I get the giggles during the organ recital and are at risk of laughing aloud.

Almost all our major journeys are made by train,but we make two short journeys on the Danube: from Szentendre back to Budapest, and one from Melk to Krems, both lovely trips. We catch public ferries in Budapest. We go on tourist cruises: one on the Danube in Budapest, one on the Vltava in Prague and one round Millstättersee in Austria. We row on Königsee, and paddle down the Vltava in an inflatable in Cesky Krumlov. We even take out a pedalo in a park in Budapest. Can't keep a couple of sailors off boats.

We pre-book a taxi from the airport in Vienna, which we later realise is a mistake - the train is faster and easy. In Prague we are planning to taxi to and from the hotel because it is a long way from the train station, and on the other side of the river, but the prices quoted by the taxi drivers at the station push us into signing up for Bolt on the spot, and we use them for both journeys for a fraction of the cost of a taxi.

When we arrive in Cesky Krumlov by train, we find ourselves at a station which is locked up in a rather unappetising street, and no indication of how to get to the old town, or how far it is. Fortunately a taxi turns up and takes us to our apartment for a reasonable price. When we leave we toss up between taking the train, which would require another taxi trip, or walking to the bus station. We decide that's also too far to walk, and when we find a taxi to take us there we ask for a price to go all the way to Ceske Budejovice, our next destination, and it's so reasonable we go the whole way by taxi.

So very little car travel at all, until we get to Salzburg and Seeboden, where Renate and David do a wonderful job of driving us about through spectacular scenery and to places of great interest. We are very pleased that they are driving - we are really feeling that we are too old to tackle driving strange cars on the wrong side of the road, especially in any city or town.

01 August 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 are not 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 sample most things from the standard "authentic Czech" menu: duck, rabbit, goulash, trout, but not 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 go 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. In Cesky Krumlov we eat 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 rarely 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 work pretty well. Peter has 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 allow good outfit variation, and I've worn every piece at least once. We manage 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 is great. We had one recommendation, one suggestion (based on seeing rather than actually staying) and the rest were just picked off the web. All are spacious and comfortable, all well-situated, and all quiet except Vienna, where it is noisy if you open the windows and hot if you don't. (That only applies to our first week, in the second stay it is cooler). Only Budapest has aircon, but we survive the heat without it elsewhere. Overall we stay in 4 self-catering apartments and 4 B and 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.
View from our room, Budapest
Loreta Hotel, and the Loreta spire, Prague

Shower in the Loreta Hotel room

View from our apartment, Cesky Krumlov

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 buy a TravelSim with a fair quantity of data download, but even with constant use for navigation, I cannot not use it all in a month. 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 while we were away, and died in hospital 6 days later. This requires lots of family consultation first about her status, then about funeral arrangements.)

29 July 2019

Salzburg, Seeboden and Scenery Part 2

Our friends David and Renate provide us with an opportunity to see places in the vicinity of Salzburg that aren't readily accessible by train. They drive from Salzburg to Seeboden and stay two nights, taking us out for day trips each day.

On our first day we drive to Oberndorf, on the Salzach, which is where the local schoolmaster and church organist wrote Heilige Nacht (Silent Night). A tiny chapel stands where the church once stood. At least two churches have collapsed on the spot, right beside the river and subject to flooding, including the one in which the organ broke down, causing the carol to be written and played on a guitar. There are a number of points of interest here. First – there is a facsimile of the original music and it is in 6/8, tempo Moderato, so originally it went with more of a swing than the modern rendition which is usually a more solemn and boring 3/4 Andante.
Second, the church was built for the bargees who brought salt down the Salzach from Salzburg to the Danube. There is a sharp bend in the river there making a promontory. With rapids  and a rock on the bend, they would come ashore on the upstream side, carry the salt across the promontory to larger barges on the downstream side. From there they went on to the Danube, and then further east.

Third, there is a water tower there. They used the power of the stream to drive a mill wheel that pumped the water up into the tower. From there it was piped across the river to provide water for the town on the other side.

Fourth, the area was captured by the French in the Napoleonic wars, just after they’d got rid of the Prince-Archbishops in 1803. After Napoleon was defeated, in the treaty of 1816 the area around Salzburg was swapped for the Palatinate, and the Salzach became the new border between Austria and Germany, splitting the town of Laufen-Oberndorf between the countries, and making life generally difficult for the inhabitants at the time.

From Oberndorf we cross the Salzach into Germany and drive to Königsee, the first of many lakes we visit. It's a hot sunny day and we enjoy a row on the lake.

Our second excursion from Salzburg takes in more lakes: Mondsee, Attersee and Hallstättersee. Our end goal is Hallstatt, on the last of these lakes. Unfortunately it is a UNESCO world heritage site, so as we approach we see signs saying all the car parks are full, and all the unofficial roadside spaces are also taken. We drive through the town twice before Renate spots a park on the other side of the road, does a courageous 3-point turn and slots the little Captur in. We walk into and through the town, mostly pedestrianised (only residents and commercial vehicles), looking at the houses clinging to the steep sides of the mountain rising up from the lake.

We spend the afternoon in the salt mine. This involves going up the mountain on a cable car, then walking up a pathway to the mine entrance, donning an unflattering overall and then spending 90 minutes inside the mine on a really interesting tour. At two points you descend to a lower level the way the miners used to do it, down a wooden slide, which is great fun. It is also cool to cold in the mine, a welcome change from the 33 degree heat outside. The tour ends with a fast trip through low tunnels on a tiny train with carriages that you sit astride, one behind the other.

David and Renate drive back to Seeboden, and we travel there from Salzburg by train, because it is a particularly scenic trip along the bank of the Salzach river. Seeboden is on Millstättersee, a lake we view from above at Glanz, from the water on a cruise that goes from one end to the other and back, and in Helen's case, in the water when she goes for a welcome swim on a hot evening.

We have four nights in Seeboden, staying at Haus Golker, an old-fashioned guest house near the lake, about 10 minutes from Renate's flat. On our first night we have a room without en suite, but exclusive use of bathroom and loo across the hall. We are amused as there is much evidence of religious belief about, crucifixes in the hall, stained glass angels hanging in the staircase window, the chalk marks from the blessing of the house on Epiphany. But in the loo is a framed pinup from a Pirelli calendar, appropriate as Miss June is certainly pneumatic.

Haus Golker is comfortable, but after we move to a room with a en suite we are next door to people who chain smoke on their balcony. This makes our balcony unusable, and forces us to close our french windows. We put up with the room being hot and airless as long as we can, then open the windows until we can’t stand the secondary smoke any more. Once he’s had his last late night fag-before-bed we can open up until his smoker’s cough heralds the early morning first fag.

During the day, Renate and David take us on excursions to see the local sights. Gmund is an old town that now has a focus on art and culture, with a theatre in an old monastery. Peter liked a sculpture there of a horse, all made from horseshoes:

Peter pats a horse
Malta Hochalmstrasse is a huge dam and hydro scheme, with the most spectacular views:

We visit old and very interesting Roman ruins which include an early Christian church with an interesting mosaic floor, and visit a more modern chapel known as the divided church. An argument between the faithful and the farmers over the location of the church relative to a track the farmers used resulted in a compromise: the church is built in two halves. The congregation sit on one side of the road, the altar is on the other side, both high above the road (to stop the farmers' animals wandering in to mass?)

The congregation's view of the altar

Helen has her birthday in Seeboden, and it is the first and only day of our entire trip where it rains quite heavily all day (we have had rain, but only occasional showers, not a steady downpour). We drive through the rain to Ossiach and Klagenfurt, and visit the hut where Mahler composed, on the Wörthersee. At last the rain stops in the evening when we return to Seeboden, and we have a splendid farewell and birthday dinner at a lakeside restaurant.

28 July 2019

Minimising luggage

We travelled with about 10kg of luggage each. This included clothes fancy enough to go to the Opera in Vienna, and to suit any other occasion where we wanted to dress up a bit.
Here's my solution, a sort of collar worn over a black singlet.

Celebrating my birthday in Seeboden

Cost $15 at South Melbourne market.
Can be rolled up neatly to fit in a press-seal sandwich bag, so occupies practically no space and weighs only a few grams.
And if it got lost or destroyed, it wouldn't matter.
Definitely a winner.

22 July 2019

Salzburg Festival concert

I manage to get a single ticket for the Hesperion XXI concert, one of the half dozen concerts in the first days of the Salzburg 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 for me to see all of him because there is an equally tall girl sitting directly in 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 my pants are firmly stuck to me. €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.

It is still warm when I leave the church, and so when I just miss a bus, I enjoy the walk back to our apartment.

Moments in a small church in Salzburg

We visit the tiny Baroque church near the Augustiner brewery because we have Aussie friends who sang there when on tour 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. 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.

20 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.
Millstättersee, mountains hiding in the rainclouds
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.
Rainbow in Salzburg

The Augustiner Brewery, interior.
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, click here).

We find the Salzburg Museum a little disappointing. 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 break into very good a capella singing. Later we hear them again - they are part of a group of British schoolkids on tour, whom we hear singing a number of pieces in the Altermarkt later that day. That isn't the only musical experience - see the separate blog on the Salzburg Festival concert.

One thing that surprises us about Salzburg is how much it closes down on Sundays. No supermarkets open, and many cafes closed, at least at lunchtime. Fortunately the local bakery is open so we have croissants and apfelstrudel for breakfast on our first (Sunday) morning, but we have 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 have 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.

19 July 2019

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.
In Ceske Budejovice, even the public artwork is sporty (the figures are sculptures)
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.

17 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.

13 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.

Smetana Hall, from the outside

Greatniece Emily, second from left in front row, hands clasped.

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.

On our last night in Prague we go to the opera in the Estates Theatre. This is where Don Giovanni premiered in 1787, and there are regular performances of the opera in the theatre. It is a smaller and more intimate theatre than the Staatsoper in Vienna, and orchestra and soloists are young, much less polished than the singers in Vienna. But it is a most enjoyable production, with a particularly comic Leporello.

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 two more 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.

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 manoeuvring, 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.
Toasting fork in action - need to zoom in.

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.
Penguins guard the entrance to the Vltava lock

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.

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.

Our line D tram on the Ringstrasse

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.

No2 tram in Budapest, the route we used most

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.

Our no 22, in Mala Strana square

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.

04 July 2019

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 wind farms, 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.

02 July 2019

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?