Monday, November 30, 2009

Morning in Vienna, evening in Prague

We decided we were tired of European breakfast so we found a cafe that served "American breakfast". It was so good to get fried eggs and ham, rather than a variety of meats and cheese. Three sunny-side eggs served over thin sliced ham with rolls and butter seemed almost like breakfast back home. It's funny how the unusual choices for breakfast went from tasting wonderful to "Oh, please! Just gimme a fried egg" in just a couple of weeks.

Before heading off to Prague, we decided to cram in one more museum visit, so we went to the Freud Museum, located in the apartment where he lived and practiced psychiatry until he fled Austria in June, 1938. We took a taxi to the museum but decided to walk back, which turned out to be a mistake. It was farther than we imagined and we both were quite uncomfortable by the time we got back to the hotel.

Here are the pictures taken in Vienna that morning.

In Budapest we had learned two important things about taxis: 1) Never accept a ride from a driver who approaches you in the terminal, and 2) know the conversion rate for the currency in the country so you know how much you are being charged. There was one more lesson to learn, unfortunately, and when we arrived in Prague we had a problem again. From lesson 1), we went directly to the taxi stand where there were a number of taxis waiting together. The driver showed us a lamenated (more official looking) chart telling his rates to various parts of the city. From lesson 2), we knew that the amount to be charged was about $50. What we didn't know was what was a fair charge from the train station to the hotel. Since we didn't know how far he would have to take us, we agreed to the charge. When the ride was only about 5 minutes, it was clear it was a scam but I had already agreed to the charge up front so I went ahead and paid it. At the hotel the receptionist told us it should not have cost more than $15. So, lesson 3) is "always know in advance what the ride SHOULD cost". Live and learn.

We settled into our new hotel, a lovely boutique inn located right on the old town center called, logically enough, "The Old Town Center Hotel". From there the receptionist directed us to an authentic Czech restaurant where we had a delicious meal. The locals in the restaurant/pub drank a lot and got very loud with back-slapping and table-pounding laughter, literally. The noise was deafening but the food was great. Even though we were stuffed, Andrew order an apple struedel that was incredible, served with a delicious ice cream scoop coated in crumpled hard caramel candy. A cherry sauce topped it all off to perfection.

Here are the shots from our first evening in Prague.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Day five in Vienna

We started the day with breakfast at a pastry shop on Kaertner Strasse. Andrew had Orangen Punsch (yum) and we both had pastries. All that sweet for breakfast didn't work too well for us unfortunately. Nursing our aching bellies, we proceeded with our explorations of this amazing city.

First, we went to the Imperial Crypt, which contains the elaborately decorated caskets of many emperors and empresses of the Hapsburg dynasty which ruled the area for almost seven centuries, which happened to be located right across the street from our hotel. (Pictures were allowed, yay!)

Then we walked through the Imperial Palace, the primary winter palace of the Hapsburgs) and across to Museum Quarter, where we toured several floors of the Leopold Museum. There we saw many works by Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimpt, Koloman Moser, Edvard Munch (special exhibit), and an exhibit of Wiener Werkstaetter furniture.

Next we walked to the Mozart memorial. (Mozart was buried in an unknown mass grave during an epidemic so there is no grave site honoring this genius.)

Finally, after going back to the hotel to dress up a bit, we went to the opera from 4pm to 7pm (Verdi's "The Mascarade Ball"). The incredible Vienna State Opera House is a site itself, but unfortunately we did not get to take pictures there.

After the opera, we had dinner at the Palmenhaus Restaurant located inside the greenhouse (i.e., "palmenhaus") building across the park from the Mozart memorial we saw earlier in the day.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Day four in Vienna

We started the day at the Belvedere Palace museum, where we saw many works by Gustav Klimpt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoshka. This palace was where the last of the Hapsburg dynasty lived, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 prompted the start of the first world war. In addition to providing residence for some of the Hapsburgs, it was also always an art museum.

We then went to the MAK museum of applied arts, where we saw the evolution of bent chair design and the collection of Wiener Werkstaette objects. The Wiener Werkstaette was a group of architects, artists, and designers who worked together to develop a style of art deco unique to Vienna. The group existed from 1903 to 1932 and their products and buildings are widely appreciated today. (No pictures were allowed in the museum, but I managed to sneak a couple of the interior of the building, but not of the actual collection.)

After a late lunch at a small, very crowded cafe (wienerschnitzel again, yum!), we then went to see St. Stephen's Cathedral and wandered around the shopping district taking pictures of their spectacular Christmas lights.

After a hot wine on the street, we then went into a casino where I played poker for an hour and a half, just long enough to lose up to my limit. I guess my poker skills need some honing before playing in grand European casinos again.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Day three in Vienna

On our third day in Vienna, we took a bus tour of the city that also included a trip to the summer palace of the Hapsburg rulers named Schönbrunn Palace. In the evening we had dinner at a fine Italian restaurant that our hotel recommended.

There are not so many pictures today as it was hard to get good pictures from the bus and pictures were not allowed inside the palace.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Day two in Vienna

As soon as we finished breakfast, we visited the Sessionist Building Museum, which houses a friez painted by Gustav Klimpt in 1902 to honor Beethoven. Unfortunately, photos of the friez are not allowed, so here is a picture of it I found on the web, though it is on its side. (Be sure to force your browser to display it full size or else it will look like a thin ribbon on the left edge of your browser.) This painting expands around three walls of the room it was painted in and therefore no reproduction can do it justice.

The building itself is an example of Viennese Art Deco architecture. Here are the pictures we took of the outside of the building:

Afterwards we had lunch with Leila at Cafe Schwarzenberg again. Then we bought pastries at a small shop near hotel and went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. That evening we attended Leila's second Vienna concert, again with enthusiastic audience appreciation. Afterwards we had dinner in the basement of the Konzerthaus with the conductor, Maestro Kitajenko, and his wife.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Day one in Vienna

In the morning of our first day in Vienna, we attended Leila's practice session at the Konzerthaus. Then we all went to lunch with Leila at Cafe Schwarzberg. Instead of having dessert there, we visited a multi-storied pastry shop that Leila told us about. Outside the shop, we stopped to take some pictures of the winter palace in the city center. After an afternoon nap, we attended Leila's concert, where she once again received enthusiastic ovations, complete with her performing an encore. She introduced us to parents of a friend of hers and the five of us then went to dinner at Plachutta Wollzeile, which specializes in many types of boiled meat which we loved. Finally, we walked by St. Stephen's Cathedral on the way back to hotel at midnight.

Here are pictures, except of course for the performance where pictures were not allowed:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leaving Budapest

In the morning before leaving Budapest we went to a museum devoted to the doctor who first advocating the washing of hands as a sanitary process, Dr. Ignac Semmelweis.

Then we proceeded to the train station and rode to Vienna, where we met Leila again and had dinner with her in our hotel restaurant.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day two in Budapest

Our second day in Budapest, we went outside the city to an historical park. During Communist rule, many massive monuments were erected inside the city. Rather than simply destroying them, as many other cities did, many of these monument were removed from view in the city and erected in this park for historical preservation. This is not a tribute to Communism, but rather a warning to never forget what it was like to be under totalitarian rule.

Afterwards, we had soup at a small cafe and then went to the Budapest Opera House for a ballet "gala," a three hour three-part presentation of 1) folk dancing, 2) classical and modern ballet, and 3) ballroom and competition dancing. The Opera House was considered one of the finest in Europe after its completion in the late 19th century. Much of it was destroyed during the war but it has been restored to almost its full former glory. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside.

After the dance performance, we decided to go back to the same cafe because the soup was so good. We had another delicious Hungarian meal. I keep commenting on the meals, and sometimes photographing them, because the food has been so incredibly good. We keep saying this cuisine needs its own "Julia Child" to popularize it the way she did for French cooking.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Touring Budapest

We slept late and then took a three hour bus tour of Budapest. Afterward we ate dinner at the "Bohemian Cafe" in Liszt Plaza.

After dinner we went back to the hotel and spent some time relaxing in the modern spa there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Traveling to Budapest and surprises on our arrival

We took a train from Salzburg all the way across Austria through Vienna and on to the middle of Hungary to Budapest. Here are some pictures taken from the train along the way for anyone interested in seeing how the architecture and landscapes change across Austria from West to East.

Train ride across Austria

When we arrived in Budapest we had a very unfortunate experience immediately followed by an incredibly fortunate one. First, the bad news...

As we descended from the train, I violated a cardinal rule of travel. Because there were many taxi drivers in the train station offering rides to people who just arrived, I thought this must be the way to get a taxi in this city. So I accepted a ride from a driver who then took us to his taxi parked beside the station. [NOTE TO SELF AND TO ALL TRAVELERS: Never under any circumstances should you accept a ride offered to you in an airport or a train station!] When we got in the taxi, the driver pointed to the taxi meter and said he did not accept Euros, but only Hungarian florints. Neither Andrew nor I knew what the exchange rate for florints was and of course we didn't have any florints on us, only euros at that time. The driver offered to take us first to an ATM to get florints and then to the hotel. We were both very suspicious by this time and as we drove through back streets in the dim, foggy evening, we both became quite anxious that we might be in trouble. We were relieved when we finally arrived across the street, a wide boulevard, from the hotel and found that we were not being kidnapped or mugged. (Whew!) Then the driver showed us that we owed 9750 florints on the meter. We had no idea how much that was, so I told him he had to take our bags to the actual front door, not leave us with them on the wrong side of the boulevard. He agreed to take them, but only after we paid for the ride. We waited until he put our bags on the sidewalk and then I told him under no circumstances was I going to pay for the ride without checking with someone else whether this was a fair charge for the ride. He reluctantly, with much grumbling, dragged our bags across the street to the doormen at the hotel. As soon as I asked the doorman what a fair price for the ride would be, the driver reduced his fair to 2900 florints! We now know that 3000 florints is $17 (U.S. dollars) and is a fair price. The price he was going to charge us was $54, about three times the fair price. We were relieved just to be safe at the hotel and in the end we paid a fair price for the ride. The hotel personnel told us not to take any taxis in the city but rather book all rides through them to avoid problems in the future.

Now the good news...

When we walked into the hotel, the New York Palace, we were amazed how beautiful it was. The magnificent Victorian outside facade had been restored, like many of these old buildings destroyed in the second world war, but the inside was completely rebuilt from 2001 to 2005. It was a sparkling, modern hotel. As surprised as we were, it got even better... MUCH better. As we checked in, the receptionist told us we had been given a free upgrade to a "presidential suite." I knew I had booked a really nice room, paying about the amount one would pay for a decent room in a New York hotel. Not cheap, but still reasonable. We were then personally escorted to the suite by the head receptionist. When we got there, I wish there had been a camera to record our reaction. We did not know suites like this existed in hotels anywhere. It took a room key to get into a large foyer just to get to the doors of two presidential suites. Then using the key again in one of the doors, we entered the most lavish, huge living room you can imagine. Marble floors, beautiful carpets, furniture, artwork, a huge flat screen TV, a glass topped table with six chairs in one corner, and even silk, yes SILK, wall coverings. Off the side of the room he showed us a half bath for use "by our guests," and then led us into the bedroom, another HUGE room with a bigger than king sized bed, another huge flat screen TV, another giant chandelier, etc. From there we proceeded into the most incredible bathroom we have ever seen. On one side was exercise equipment (an electronically controlled exercise bike and a universal gym), on the other side was a huge marble sink and mirror, and at the far end, a shower large enough for a football team and a sculpted, tiled bathtub that was almost a small swimming pool. Off the bathroom were three other rooms, one with a toilet, bidet, and yet another sink, and the other two were large walk-in closets! When the hotel receptionist left, we just sat down and laughed. We didn't know whether to continue feeling anxious from our scare in the taxi or ecstatic from the hotel suite we found ourselves in.

And here are some more photos of the hotel:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Our second day in Salzburg

On our second full day in Salzburg we decided to start with a two-hour bus tour and then go to the Mozart Wohnhaus, which is an apartment where Mozart lived for a number of years that has been converted into a museum. When we left there, we walked over the bridge to Old Town, passed the house where Mozart was born, and found our way through the narrow streets and tunnels to the start of the funicular railway up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress.

[Remember: if you want to see the pictures in a larger format, just click once to start the slideshow on this page and then click on the album again to take you to PicasaWeb where they can be played full-screen on your computer.]

Touring Salzburg

When we got back to the hotel, we found out we could get tickets to a ballet next door and we had just enough time to eat dinner (another fabulous meal of German delights) and run to the ballet. It was a modern dance homage to Marilyn Monroe called simply "Marilyn." It told the story of her life, complete with film clips and newsreel footage, songs she sang, dresses she made famous, and the dance incorporated many of her mannerisms and famous poses. There were many familiar characters, including her psychiatrist, Arthur Miller, Joe Dimaggio, Bert Stern, Clark Gable, Bobby Kennedy, and several others. One ballerina played Norma Jean and another played Marilyn with several others also playing Marilyn in various film roles. The overall message seemed to be about the tragedy created by superficial American values of glamour and sexuality imposed on this vulnerable celebrity who used drugs to survive until they killed her. It was a phenomenal work of art, beautifully and powerfully performed, which was choreographed by Peter Breuer.

Finally we went back to the hotel and spent a couple of hours packing before collapsing in bed after one of the longest, most exhausting days we can remember spending in a long time.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beginning our tour of central Europe

Andrew and I started our tour of central Europe on Nov. 13, when we left San Francisco to fly to Munich. We arrived on the morning of the 14th. I have already posted a few albums of the first few days. Here they are...

[Note: To see the larger pictures on PicasaWeb, just click twice on the albums below.]


After two nights in Munich, we rented a car and drove south to Schwangau, where two castles of King Ludwig II are located.

This castle was one of six that Ludwig built before his mysterious death, probably at the hand of conspirators. It is rumored to be the inspiration for the Disney World castle.

This castle was built by Ludwig's father and it was where Ludwig was raised until he became king himself at the age of 18.

After two nights in Schwangau, we returned the rental car in Munich and took a train to Salzburg. There we met up with our friend Leila Josefowicz, whom we met on our Baltic Sea cruise a year and a half ago. We all went to a "Mozart dinner concert" held in the "oldest restaurant in Europe," which dates from the year 806.

The next morning, Andrew and I attended Leila's rehearsal and then we went to the Sacher Hotel cafe for lunch. After a nap in the afternoon, I went out in the early evening and took these pictures.

An evening in Salzburg

After the walk around Salzburg's old town, we attended the performance by Leila at the Mozarteum. She performed a violin concerto by the contemporary composer John Adams that must have been one of the most difficult pieces ever written by my estimation. I could never say enough about how incredible it was, so let me speak of the audience's reaction. The ovation went on and on calling Leila back again and again to take more bows. Finally she performed a solo encore which of course led to more applause. After the end of the concert, we waited for her to change her clothes and then she introduced us to the conductor, Christoph König, and the four of us left to go to a restaurant probably an hour later. As we entered the restaurant about a block away, a table of people recognized Leila and Chris and began to applaud as we all went by. Then the next table picked up the applause and then several tables more continued in that manner. We then had a wonderful time visiting with Leila and Christoph over dinner and finally said good-night and returned to the hotel.