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.)