Central Europe – Day 8 – Cake & Statues

Second breakfast is sachertorte at the Demel Bakery. We sit outside watching people from all over the world pass by. My iced Turkish coffee is 1000% superior to any of the hotel coffee we’ve had on the trip.

We tour the Sisi Museum in the Hapsburg Palace. It is moderately interesting but somewhat spoiled by visitors clogging the corridors as they stop and listen to electronic audio guides. I again struggle to not crush children and small Japanese men.

The exterior of the palace is far more interesting. Its entrance is surrounded by sculptures that I wish I had for my house. Maybe that can be a weekend project. Sculpting can’t be that hard, right?

We visit the crypt of the imperial family. The air is cool and pleasant, a welcome reprieve from the rapidly warming streets. There are dozens of intricately designed sarcophaguses, the newest are less than a decade old, others go back centuries. Nothing is macabre, only calming.

Capuchin monks maintain the site, and upon learning this I can’t stop thinking about little capuchin monkeys running around in robes, sweeping up and dusting.

We study the dates on each plaque. Many of the deceased were less than a year old. There are many Ferdinands, Leopolds, Rudolphs, and Maximillians.

The Albertina is our favorite stop of the day. Their collection is impressive. They have Picasso, Munch, da Vinci, Monet, and countless others. Docents shuffle quietly through the visitors, gently steering children away from the priceless art.

The paintings are engaging, but I spend far more time wandering through the Lee Miller exhibit. Each of the tiny silver gelatin prints is evocative and slices apart my confidence as a photographer. I have so much to learn about light and shadow, composition and narrative.

We eat lunch in the Albertina’s cafe and watch a group of American tourists get agitated because the waitress hasn’t split their bill. Math is hard.

The U1 Red Line takes us to the banks of the Danube and we walk along the boardwalk until the heat drives us back to the subway station. Everyone along the river seems to have brought their personal hookah kit.

Given the people we have seen in speedos and bathing suits this trip, I will never again worry about looking good at the beach. Although fewer speedoed Viennese  are working in their gardens than the other cities we have visited.

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In the evening, it takes a bit of searching to find a restaurant that is not serving schnitzel. The Hard Rock Cafe is vetoed by everyone, it’s only redeeming quality is that it is cool inside.

The trip is winding down and we are struggling with not wanting it to end. Given the opportunity, I would live in Vienna and/or go on a never-ending tour with the Aussies, singing songs and making friends with the world.

“Here’s to Chris! He’s True Blue! He’s a Piss Pot through and through. He’s a Bastard so they say and he’s not going to heaven, he went the other way! He’s going down! down! down! down! down!…”

We re-pack and prepare for Hungary.

Central Europe – Day 7 – Sweat & Schnitzel

I wake up coughing. My throat has been destroyed by the second-hand smoke from last night.

Breakfast is again lunch meat and hard boiled eggs, but I find the bread and jam hidden behind one of the food baskets. The jam is the friendliest employee at the hotel’s restaurant.

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Several in the group have acquired new luggage that comes close to overwhelming the trailer being pulled behind today’s transport.

“This group has set a new record for most luggage.”

We ride along a winding road through the Czech countryside and across the border into Austria. I buy cough drops at a convenience store when we stop for gas. Turns out, “Vicks” in German is “Wicks”.

The area of Austria we drive through appears to be made entirely of farmland and windmills. If not anchored by the weight of the Alps, Austria might fly away.

Vienna looks rougher than expected, but as we approach the city center, the volume of lame graffiti fades. The U.S. beats Europe on quality of graffiti by a wide margin.

Our hotel is near Schwedenplatz in an area of town called Fleischmarkt, which appears to be related to 18th-century, Greek butchers and not prostitutes. We drop off our luggage and immediately launch into the town for an orientation walk.

Everyone is hungry and this seems to fluster our guide as she has not planned to take a food break until after the walk. We visit a nearby market where I shove lava-hot prawn rolls into my mouth as quickly as possible. Something in my DNA  drives me to never be the person who holds up the group.

Vienna’s town center is packed with tourists, but somehow seems better equipped to handle it than Prague. Our guide points out various landmarks for us to return to later. The juxtaposition of advertising and museums throws me off and I find myself frustrated with the signage and storefronts, but Vienna is otherwise a magnificent city.

It has reached 100 degrees and we take that as a signal to go back to the hotel. There is no air-con in our room, but with both door and windows open, it is bearable. A maid wandering by takes pity on us and brings us a fan.

The EU is doing everything it can to combat anthropogenic climate change while the U.S. government sits on its hands. I refuse to complain about no A/C and acknowledge that I am ordinarily spoiled by what is to the rest of the world, a luxury.

Self-righteousness be damned.

Dinner is at a beer garden in the outer ring of Vienna. A gruff-looking, bear of a woman serves as our waitress. Carafes of white wine and sparkling water are littered onto our table and our order is condensed into combined sets of the two main dishes and two sides that the restaurant serves.

No one touches the sparkling water.

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The schwein schnitzel fills the plate it is served on and is very good. Conversation is lively and my respect for our guide grows as she responds matter-o-factly to someone complaining about Europe not having air conditioning.

“Yes. It is Europe in the summer. Maybe your country should ratify the Kyoto Protocol.”

Burn.

The Australian end of the table has grown loud and our gruff waitress has asked us to quiet down so that the restaurant’s neighbors do not complain. They have out-rowdied the Austrians and I am proud of them.

Take that, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

 

 

Central Europe – Day 6 – Bicycles & Rafts

Breakfast is lunch meat and hard boiled eggs. The waitress is less than enthused that we exist on the same planet as her. She jabs a finger at a table and grunts “Coffee or Tea?” I smile at her and she scowls back.

“Water, please.”

After breakfast, six of us meet for a bike ride. We are ported to a hill several kilometers from town and dropped off with 18-speed bikes and helmets.

“Do not use left shifter. Mostly flat.”

The first kilometer is at a 10 % grade uphill. It is not difficult but I am reminded that I have not ridden a bike in a couple of years.

At the apex of the hill we stop to take pictures on some rotten hay bales. My leg penetrates the hay and surrounding foliage up to my thigh on my first attempt, but I make it to the top. Within a few seconds my entire leg feels as though it is covered in paper cuts. I’m a bit confused as to why (not a normal effect of hay) until our guide mentions that we should be careful not to touch the fuzzy-leafed weeds surrounding the bales as they will cause your skin to burn.

“They are good for you though. The Russians hit each other with them.”

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My leg has stopped burning by the time I climb down from the hay. We peddle on further into the forest.

The rest of the ride is downhill and we pick up a decent amount of speed, but brake cautiously against the menace of cars traveling the narrow road. We are underneath the canopy of the cedar forest until we reach the edge of town.

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I recover from our ride in the hotel room, which is slightly warmer than the previous day but not unpleasant.

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In the afternoon, our group is again carted out of town, but this time deposited with inflatable rafts by the riverside.

Our float trip is far less crowded than what I am used to in the U.S. and there is a riverside bar around almost every bend in the river. Our raft makes slow progress both because of the refreshment breaks and some spectacularly in-effective rowing. We mostly float, and this is OK.

It is 7PM by the time we make it back to town and well dressed locals are filtering   in for a concert taking place on the castle grounds. As a result, the restaurants are mostly full and it takes several stops before we can find one that can accommodate 16 people. It is an outdoor pizza place covered in a haze of cigarette smoke.

The pizza is very good and the waiter works hard at hamming it up for tips.

Swarms of insects gather around the town’s lights as twilight transitions into night. The massive halogen flood lights targeting the castle are surrounded in clouds of gnats thick enough to dim their glow.

The town remains busy well into the early morning and we are woken by a fight taking place somewhere below our room’s window.

I will miss Český Krumlov.

Central Europe – Day 5 – Rabbit & Absinthe

Our guide said “Student Agency Bus” and I immediately envisioned a big yellow school bus with sliced-up seats.

The bus that meets us is instead a two-story land yacht with video screens and drink service. The ride is un-notable with the exception of our arrival in Český Krumlov at which point the stewardess curtly informs everyone to “Get off bus, now.”

Český Krumlov was effectively frozen in time during the 1600s but fell into disrepair during the Communist era. It seems to have recovered.

Today begins the hottest portion of our trip and I was initially concerned that our hotel, built in the 15th century, would be miserable. But our room is pleasantly cool and I remember that old buildings are made of thick, insulating stone and that I am an idiot.

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We have lunch at a vegetarian restaurant by the riverside. It is a much needed break from the traditional Czech food and the first time I have seen a salad since arriving in Europe.

The town is small so our walking tour is appropriately brief. Highlights include a Jesuit monastery which has burned down multiple times due to the priests’ beer making and the castle that dominates half of the town.

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The town and castle are significantly less crowded than Prague so that we have time and space to explore the details.

More traditional food for dinner, I pick the roasted rabbit, which is surprisingly good and not stringy or tough as expected. We are told it is too early to visit the cocktail bar (it is 9 PM) so we migrate to a another restaurant with a river terrace.

Our guide suggests that I try slivovice, a Slavic plum brandy.

“It is not good, but you should try it.”

It smells like plum saké and I cannot imagine that it will be unpleasant.

“Sip or slam?”

“Slam, definitely slam.”

Our guide looks on expectantly as I throw back the shot. It is very good and I should have sipped it – almost exactly like plum saké.

The waitstaff has not offered to re-fill our drinks and we take this as a hint that it is late enough for the cocktail bar.

It is a Thursday night but the bar is completely empty. Random Euro-Pop blares throughout the labyrinthine building. Surprisingly, the bartender knows what an Old Fashioned is or at least a cartoonish version of it with giant slices of orange.

Our group finds a comfortable nook and settles in. One of the Australian girls dances by herself while everyone else talks – our group bonding continues.

I flip through the cocktail menu.

Turns out, this is absinthe country.

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Central Europe – Day 4 – Laundry

We arrive at Prague Castle before opening time and take pictures from the courtyard. A man in anachronistic chainmail poses for the group, checking his phone between photos.

The skyline of Prague is diminished by an ill-placed Starbucks.

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We are among the first waves of tourists to enter the castle grounds for the day. I do my best not to step on any small children or Asian people as we shuffle through St. Vitus Cathedral. I am mostly successful.

The castle tour guide’s English appears to have been learnt from television – her phrasing and syllable emphasis call to mind a through-the-looking-glass version of BBC standard newscaster.

The church is an odd mix of styles – art nouveau, baroque, gothic, renaissance, gothic-renaissance. Literal tons of cast silver make of statues, coffers, and crypts. The Czech crown jewels are here as well, although sequestered away in a room protected by six locks.

The castle itself is still in use by the Czech government so only a limited portion is available to tour – a grand ballroom and the Defenestration Wing which is important to Bohemian history. Apparently the people of Prague really liked throwing one another out of windows.

By now the castle grounds have filled almost wall to wall with tourists so we make our way down the hill and back into town. On the way we encounter a selectively polished statue outside of a children’s toy museum.

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We find lunch at a French open-air market underneath the Charles Bridge – sausage, fries, garlic bread, and a pizza-like flatbread with cheese and onions that I did not realize was covered in onions until too late.

Across the Charles Bridge, we walk to the Jewish Quarter where we are met by a block-length wall of tourists. I am interested in visiting the cemetery and some of the other historic buildings in the area, but the horde of tourists, signage, and barkers put me off. These are the types of sites I visit to let history wash over me and to learn, which seems impossible in the context of a Disneyland of dead Jews.

We redirect to the north and people-watch from the benches in front of the Charles College School of Law. My right shoe is full of blood again. We spend almost an hour just sitting and watching.

Our tour guide told us that Prague would be a good place to do laundry, so we migrate back to the hotel and I search online for a nearby laundromat. Andy’s Prague Laundry fits the bill and is just a $4 Uber ride away.

I sit and read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as our clothes spin in the washer. The other customers are mostly American tourists. None of them seem to know how to operate a washer and dryer. I am impressed as Andy patiently explains and re-explains the operation to them.

“Put token in. Then detergent in. Then clothes in. Then press start.”

A fiftyish, overly-tan man wearing Ralph Loren shorts and a Porsche Design polo looks completely overwhelmed. He asks another customer to help him. Later on I overhear him say that normally his maid does his laundry.

Andy’s guestbook is filled with curious entries. There are intricate sketches, personal confessions, and poetry. Only a few of the notes are the idiotic scribblings one would expect. The inside of the back cover informs the reader that asking Andy for extra detergent is the secret code to initiate a drug deal.

Back at the hotel we re-pack our bags and watch German TV. One of the shows appears to be a mash up of  The Bachelor, Real World, and Survivor except everyone is nude. The commercial breaks are filled with indecipherable Czech-language commercials and bizarre ads for equally bizarre junk food that still haunt my dreams.

Central Europe – Day 3 – Rust & Spires

The train from Munich to Prague is not as nice as the other trains we’ve been on. It is decorated in early 90’s pastels and many of the knobs and gewgaws appear to be broken.

My efforts to open the window fail until an hour into the trip when another passenger recommends pulling down on only one side of the window. This does the trick and the breeze makes our ride much more enjoyable. Everyone in our cabin slides in and out of light sleep as the train climbs into the Czech hills.

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The Czech countryside reminds me of West Virginia – hilly and forested, towns in various states of decay and rust. It is not unpleasant.

As we grow closer to Prague there is a marked increase in graffiti.

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Coach drivers meet us at the train station. There are 16 of us and they have seating for 12. This does not appear to concern the drivers as they wave us towards the vehicles.

“Is OK. Is OK. Yes, 16.”

Panic and frustration etch themselves in our tour guide’s face, but everyone in the group smiles and assures her that it is, in fact, OK. This is one of many reasons I like most Australians I meet – they tend to lack the righteous indignation at slight inconvenience or discomfort that seems to hide just below the surface of American skin.

“In we go. Good on ya!”

The group bonds on the short ride to the hotel.

We have a few minutes rest at the hotel and then are out into the streets for a quick orientation walk and food.

“Praha Hotdog! Praha Hotdog! Bread or bun! Red or white hotdog!”

Praha hotdog is actually pretty good. And Praha itself is a kaleidoscope of people and architecture.

As we walk towards Charles Bridge, we go through an alleyway framed by massage parlors and Prague’s Sex Toy Museum. It is only later that I realize Predator was holding the Thai Massage sign.

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Tourists and shoppers clog the streets, but not overwhelmingly so. The myriad of non-English speech is pleasant to soak in – a calming white noise, the same that one would enjoy in a busy pub.

We split from the group and spend the afternoon wandering through Prague city center and down the Vltava river to Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, which likely leaks when it rains, like every other Gehry building.

Dinner is at a dive restaurant near the hotel. We are introduced to pig lard as a butter alternative and Budweiser Budvar of which America’s Budweiser is a pale, borderline-disgusting shade. Cream steak (svíčková na smetaně) and bread dumplings (knedlíky) – heavy but delicious. It’s all stereotypically Bohemian – Czech greasy spoon – but not cartoonish.

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Back at the hotel I discover the inside of my right shoe is stained with blood and my heel is rubbed raw. My phone shows that we walked over 10 miles today. I briefly consider that I should have worn socks as I fall to sleep.

Central Europe – Day 2 – Trains & Castles & Cigarettes

The train rocks gently south toward Füssen. Solar panels seem to cover the roof of every building and a quarter of the fields we pass by. So far the S-Bahn is my favorite thing about Germany – I wish the US had a functioning mass-transit system.

It’s a short bus ride from Füssen to Hohenschwangau at the foot of the Alps. Schloss Neuschwanstein and cigarette smoke greet us at the bus terminal. The cigarette smoke seems to follow us for the rest of the trip.

Chinese tourists yell into their cell phones as we weave through the crowd to the reserved ticket desk.

It is cloudy today and drizzling intermittently – an improvement over the previous day’s heat. We climb the hill to the castle.

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The interior of the castle is unfinished. Only a third of it – the royal wing – is complete. The frescos are over-the-top: Jesus, dragons, lightning bolts.

“No photography, please. Please wear your backpacks on your chest.”

Ludwig the Second was deposed before he could complete his tribute to Wagner – charged with insanity and later found dead in a nearby lake. He only spent a few months in his castle, mostly alone.  The tour guide is rather cheerful as he relays these facts.

We eat a terrible lunch in the tourist village, a twice abstracted idea of what Bavarian food should taste like. The waiter teases me when I ask him “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”

“Yes, and Mongolian, and Chinese, and Spanish, and…”

On the train ride back to Munich a man wearing un-ironic overalls sits across from us and talks to himself, then his cell phone, then himself again. I’m glad that he has friends.

We arrive back at the hotel just a few minutes before we are scheduled to meet with our tour group – time to clean-up and then head downstairs.

Everyone sits in the hotel’s breakfast room and stares into the middle distance awkwardly – all jet lagged strangers to each other. Ten Aussies, four Americans, and one Singaporean. I am grateful for the split – an all American group would have been insufferable.

A slender Croatian woman with abruptly cut bangs and purple stockings bounces into the room and begins to give us the details of our tour. Her name is Tajna (pronounced Ti Na) and I immediately want to be her friend.

This will be a good trip.