Saturday, May 29, 2010

An Ending


We awaken to the sound to falling rain - it is pouring outside. I suppose that is a sign that it is time to leave. Zoran is ready for us and takes us to the airport. We see Jen off and then sit and wait for our flight to leave 3 hours later. It has been an interesting adventure, taking us over 1600 miles of road, 3 countries, cold to hot climates, and mountain to sea terrain. We gained an insight into the Slovenian and Croatian cultures and have a much better understanding of the political conflicts and hardships that people in this part of central Europe have lived through. So much of what we see on TV and read in our newspapers and magazines becomes humanized when you see it up close and talk to the local people. At that time, it really touches your heart.

The people of this area are genuine and kind. There is very little crime on tourists and the cities are safe, even in the poorer industrial areas. The forests, rivers and lakes are pristine with so much of the countries uninhabited. People live a more minimalist lifestyle with local fresh food and laundry hanging out their windows each day. Outside of Vienna and Ljubljana, w saw no McDonalds and no Starbucks - I hope they keep it that way. Construction is going on everywhere and tourism is alive and vibrant. We hope that they can maintain their quaintness, character, and charm despite their growth and modernization.

I have taken up to a thousand photos and hope to share them in the coming weeks. This part of the world is a wonderful place to visit; it is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Take plenty of time to soak in the culture of the area - it is a place that shouldn't be seen in a rush, stop and breathe the air, listen to the birds, and feel the warmth of the wind on your face. Most of all, get to know the people for they are very, very special. I am grateful to all of the wonderful hosts of these villages, who went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed our stay and I hope you will be inspired by this blog to take your own journey there.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Local Streets


As we watch from our balcony this beautiful morning, we are surprised to see a cruise ship anchored outside of the harbor. Small boats are ferrying passengers to the dock, over and over again they go. There must be thousands of people! This is definitely not a day to roam the city center, we decide. We make an alternate plan to walk north up the peninsula to the suburbs of Lapad and Boninovo. Part of the road runs above the sea and past a large resort. Then turns inland toward the larger harbor and Yacht Club, where we are surprised to see yet another cruise liner with a parking lot of buses waiting to ferry passengers to the city center. We choose to sit on a bench and watch all this action, and to enjoy the sunshine and scenery of the surrounding hills.

Toward afternoon, we make our way back and are shocked by how the old city has a completely different feel with the masses of tourists and tour groups. The wall looks pretty congested and we are grateful for having had the opportunity to walk it in peace and quiet. We again frequent Oliva for our usual. We sit in the square and watch people. We watch as a young girls's ice cream, dropped on the ground is carried off on the shoes of passing tourists - in less than 5 min., it is totally gone! Wouldn't it be amusing to see how far bits of the strawberry ice cream ends up? One guy is trying to stand on a piece of rock that juts out from the church. It must be in a guidebook, we think, since so many groups stop there and try to stand on it. People walk with their dogs--Europe is certainly dog friendlier than the US. We hear people speaking a myriad of languages - Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese etc. and we try to figure out where they are from before they speak. We escape to our favorite bench on the harbor and watch a group of elderly local gentlemen fishing from the edge with dough balls and bread.

We end the day back at Konoba Komenice and gelato at Dubrovnik Ice Cream. The boys now recognize us as having been there 3 times in the past 2 days. He gives us free cones and asks to have his picture taken with Jen, who he has been eying from the beginning. We leave in a jolly mood and head back up the 384 steps to pack our things, our final evening in Dubrovnik coming to a close.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

City Walls



Dubrovnik is a place for lounging. There is a lazy, slow feeling in the air that deters any rushing around. We spend the day reading on benches by the harbor, sipping coffee, and people watching on the square. We now have our favorite pizzeria, Oliva, where we sit for hours in the alleyway, and our favorite gelato shop, Dubrovnik Ice Cream, where we watch as the boys throw scoops in the air and catch them on cones.

Jen goes for a swim in the warm Adriatic while we watch on the sandy beach. Toward early evening, we head up to the city wall for a walk around the city. This walk is over a mile and takes up to a couple of hours. The high walls, some 3-4 feet tall were fortified in the 15th century to protect the city from the Ottoman empire. During the recent war, local residents hid inside these walls. There are a series of steep steps take you to viewing platforms higher and higher up. The view is stupendous and you can see the city from all angles. One side looks down over the sea. You can see a dense cover of red clay rooftops, 2/3 of which were rebuilt after the war. Looking down, you can see the wide moat, now gardens, and drawbridges that allow tourists into the city. The building are inhabited by families and laundry billows in the breeze to the sound of music and the aroma of cooking food. We are the last to leave giving us a feeling of being the only ones on the wall.

Dinner tonight is another guidebook choice, Konoba Kamice, with tables in the small square -mussels pasta, fried squid, and fresh salad are winners. We end the day on the balcony talking to a young newlywed couple from Istanbul, the husband tells us that Turkey is even more beautiful with forests and waterfalls. He invites us to visit.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

War and Rebuilding


Today is set aside for exploring the city of Dubrovnik. 500 years ago, this city was a major maritime power with the third biggest navy in the Mediterranean. Much of the tourist sights are located within the old city walls. To reach this area, we walk 384 steps down from the pension - this walk deters any thought of unnecessary trips back to the room! From 1991-92, after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the city was heavily bombed by the Serbs dominated Yugoslav army, who wanted to move north toward the town of Split. Over 2,000 bombs and missiles fell, destroying much of the monuments and homes. This is documented in photographs at a historical gallery - the images bring tears to my eyes. Today, much of the city has been rebuilt with a walking path on the city wall, the wide cobbled Stradum-pedestrian central artery and myriad of alleys. No cars are permitted inside the city walls.

We visit the aquarium to see marine life in this part of the world, saunter the quiet alleys, stop for coffee and yummy pizza at Oliva, wander to the harbor and sit for hours with our feet in the water, and sample Dubrovnik's gelato. Pretty laid back, I would say and easy to get used to! It is a quiet day in the city with few tourist groups. Everywhere we go, we are mistaken for Japanese - is it the cameras, do you suppose?

Having checked out the reviews on restaurants, we choose Lokanda Peskarija on the harbor. The seafood risotto and pot of mussels are served in heavy iron pots. We also try their baby squids and salted anchovies. We eat heartily and mop up the juices with fresh bread, leaving not a morsel or drop!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dalmation Coast



Split, Croatia's second largest city is a vibrant harbor town on the coast of the Adriatic, about 2/3 the way down the coast. It is a transit place for people taking ferries to the islands of Hvar and Korcula. Unfortunately, most do not spend any time in the Old Town itself, which is a delightful way to spend 2-3 hours. We are quickly learning that every village and city has an Old Town with a square and cathedral which you can see from miles away. It is usually the city center where the tourists gather. Split's Old Town sits adjacent to the harbor and is probably one of the most interesting and less touristy Old Towns we have ever seen. Most Roman ruins stand alone with grass and weed leaving you to use your imagination as to what the buildings looked like, and most Old Towns are a collection of touristy ancient buildings around a town square. But Split has used these ancient Roman walls to create a very interesting city. The ancient Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century built a huge palace to retire in with its front entrance flanking the harbor. Later, after it was abandoned, the locals, fleeing Slavic invaders in the 7th century, moved in and built over the old palace. The ancient palace walls now stand and a combination of ancient to modern architecture forms the city's buildings. You can see ancient columns which support stone walls built throughout the centuries; the 4 main gates surround the palace and the hallways are now lined with shops. People actually live within these buildings and we thought how interesting it must be to live in a palace structure with narrow staircases leading up to your home, and old Roman ruins scattered about in your backyard.

Driving down the Dalmation coast is going to take a good part of the afternoon. The weather is perfect-sunny and warm and the water of the Adriatic is bright blue in the distance and blue green by the shore. The main highway from Split runs inland and we choose to take the coastal road which winds through villages and takes you up and down the mountain. Some sections are high above, the winding road risng on sheer cliffs, which take your breath away. Other sections are down by the shore, running close to villas and resorts. We have a couple of close encounters with impatient Croatian drivers trying to pass and coming directly at us! Fortunately, Jen is nimble and alert. The scenery on the left changes from forested mountains to high rounded hills that are brushy and resemble southern california's desert landscape. We arrive in Dubrovnik in the early evening just as the sun is casting a low glow on the water, and the skies are turning a pale pink. We drive on past the city to Cilipi, 13 miles south where the local airport is located. We return our rental cart to Sixt, whose one desk clerk has the job of "only checking in and out cars", and can't do anything about out Auto Europe overcharge. We call Zoran from the Pension and he comes to pick us up in a Honda Accord. Zoran has lived here all his life and runs the place with his mother and brother. He impressed us with his skill in navigating through the narrow alleys, dodging oncoming traffic and pedestrians on the highway. We carry our luggage up a huge flight of stone steps to be greeted by an incredible view and homemade muffins and jelly roll cake, warm from the oven.

I am sitting on the balcony of Pension Stankovich, 320 feet and 384 steps above the Old Town with a fabulous view of the Adriatic and the red roofs of the city. Below, the lights of the fortress walls shine bright gray and the yellow lights of the harbor form a bright chain surrounding all the yachts. The almost full moon radiates a bright oval on the dark sea waters.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Plitvice and Sibenik


House Tina sits among grassy fields about 8 km. outside of Plitvice. Our hostess/owner serves us the best scrambled eggs I have ever had - fresh eggs, she tells us, from the neighboring farm. of the interesting aspects of B&B's is meeting people from other parts of the world. We have breakfast with a group of Romanian guests and learn that Romania is even more beautiful than Croatia, except that the roads are undeveloped. These visitors drove 15 hours to get to Croatia. I think what has struck me on this trip is how westernized Central Europe has become and how well the Slovenians and Croatians speak English. Their children learn English from grade 3--as a country they believe that it is unrealistic to expect visitors to be able to converse in their native languages, and thus have adopted English as a universal language. The majority of tourists we have encountered have been from Russia and other central and eastern european countries. The pensions have been immaculate, well furnished, with modern appliances and amenities. It has certainly been an eye opening experience for all of us and I would highly recommend this as a destination spot.

Knowing that tour groups descend on the park in the late morning and afternoon, we hit the park early and are one of the first to be on the trails. We continue our walk from yesterday by working our way up to the upper lake and circling around to the middle area between the lakes. By early afternoon, at the boat dock, we are shocked to see hundreds of schoolchildren and hoards of tourists and feel fortunate to have seen most of the park by then. There are so many people walking on the boardwalks, it is like holiday crowds in a shopping mall. There is no way I would have been able to set up a tripod with people shaking the boardwalks and trying to pass by. We walk up to the highest waterfall and at the top have a view of the 2 lakes and the chain of smaller falls below them. Escaping the crowds, we head on down the coast.

We have dinner in Sibenik, a blue collar town, and find a very local eatery with homestyle cooking. I feel a bit like Frankenstein as we get so many looks when we walk in - have they never seen an Asian before? We head toward Split, our only night of spontaneity since I have not reserved any hotel for this evening. What a mistake that was! Trying to find a hotel in the dark at a reasonable price becomes quite a challenge. There are no chains of hotels in this part of Europe, and unlike the US, there are no hotels by the highway. We go in to several, and decide against them because of the price, finally settling on one in the north part of the city, because we are tired of driving around. It reminds me of the only other time we had no reservations, early in our marriage in DC when we drove 30 min outside of the city.

The Hotel As will suffice and it is a lovely room with a huge whirlpool bathtub, not a cheerful b&b but nice just the same.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Plitvice Jezera




It takes us a good part of the day to drive across the Istrian Peninsula from Rovinj to Plitvice, stopping along the way to take pictures of the valleys and mountains. The highways are new and traffic is very light. We are discovering that Slovenia and Croatia are not heavily inhabited. The area is very similar Tuscany with many hilltop villages dotting the landscape. We arrive at Hotel Tina in mid afternoon and immediately head to Plitvice National Park. I have high expectations of this park and am not disappointed. I can imagine how even more beautiful it is in the fall with the changing colors. There are miles of boardwalk trails that connect 16 terraced lakes, 2 of the largest are referred to as the upper and lower lakes. In between are countless waterfalls and cascades spilling out over limestone canyons and among the trees and greenery. Around every turn is a surprise and a feast for the eyes. Late in the day, the tourist groups begin to leave and fortunately for us, a late afternoon shower chases all the other visitors away. We have the park to ourselves until 8pm and the solitude is wonderful. I am able to set up my tripod wherever I desire, catching the early evening light without worrying about people walking by. I am able to slow down the running water to create an illusion of milky water flowing. It is a photographer's paradise and we are the last car to leave the parking lot!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rovinj


The Vukman family runs the Pension Vega and it is a 28 room B&B with modern facilities - clean and spacious. When we arrived last night, their youngest son was waiting for us; the parents were at a graduation party for their oldest son, who had graduated top of his class and will be going to the university of Zagreb. His dad, who had been a merchant sailor and had traveled the world, is very very proud. He shows us his framed photos of his visits to the US -the White House and New York city. We have the "penthouse apartment", perhaps the only time we will ever stay in a penthouse suite!

As we are only a 10 minute walk to the city center, I get up early and walk the streets to the Old Town and take pictures of the curved alleys and the harbor. Local people are up and about and shops are opening. I seem to attract a lot of curious looks as I take photos of the many old shutters. People probably think it odd that these worn out shutters are getting so much attention. Furthermore, I don't think they see many Asians - must be mostly Japanese tour groups, as we are greeted by "Konichiwa" everywhere we go. Today, we relax and kick back, reading, chatting and just roaming the streets - eating gelato and pretending we are Japanese. Later in the day, we wander in to the local market, bargain for jars of truffles which are found in this area, and sit by the harbor, enjoying the view. Toward evening, we wander down and find ourselves some dinner and gelato.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Touch of Italy


After a walk down to the lake once more, we depart this lovely area and continue our journey south toward the Istrian Peninsula.
We want to make it to Lipica to see the Stud Farm of the Lipizzaner Horses - the tour is at 2pm. It is drizzling on and off. The tour is quite interesting and we learn that the horses here are not the same ones in Vienna. After WWI, the horses were split evenly among Austria and Italy, which is now Slovenia, and the horses here have been bred in this area since then. Did you know that they are born brown and turn white, only 3% stay brown? At age 4-6 the stallions are trained and work until age 25 or 26. The horses are beautiful and apparently the breed is known for its gentle personality. They are for sale and can cost up to $60,000. We were entranced by the performance, though felt the horses at the Spanish Riding School were a bit superior in their execution.

Next stop, Piran, by the shore, where we stop to walk and have dinner. The Italian influence is clear, and this seaside town resembles a small Italian coastal town. We have seafood and watch the sunset over the Adriatic. Moving on down the coast we cross the border into Croatia and finally arrive at Rovinj at night. The GPS is not quite perfect this time in taking us to the hotel, and we stop in front of a house to check our map. A group of young men walking out of their house tries to help us. They are so helpful and kind, laughing and offering to ride with us up the street. We end up following them up the street and they very happily point us to the Pension Vega, where we are to stay. I have to say, I have been impressed by the kindness, friendliness and safety of Slovenia and Croatia. It has exceeded my expectations of comfort and level of westernization.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth



Breakfasts at the Penzion Berc are lovely - a wide assortment of breads, fruit, and cereals in a charming breakfast room. I love bed and breakfasts for this reason; it's a great way to start the day. Today we are driving out to the Julian Alps and will follow Rick Steve's driving tour which will take us west towards the Northwest corner of Slovenia near the Italian and Austrian borders. The mountainsides are so lush, covered in different hues of green from conifers and deciduous trees in various degrees of budding and leafing. Ski resorts dot the landscape and we take a detour past Jesenice and Kranjska Gora at Planica to see the world's highest ski jump. I can't imagine jumping from that height; obviously those people are made up of something different than I! I can see 2 men working at the bottom and they look like ants in contrast to the hundreds of stairs and height of the platform. This region is very close to the Italian border, which Ray is excited to pass through and photograph, just because.

Apparently, it had rained for 14 days before we arrived, but we today is breezy but clear. Our drive takes us into the Triglav National Park and the beginning of 50 hairpin turns, cobbled for traction, 24 up and 26 down. The temperature dips quickly and we are among the snow. High above the green valleys, the granite looms gray and cold. It is windy up here and pretty desolate and I wonder what would happen if this very basic Slovenian rental car were to break down. The road reaches a summit and on the other side, we can see the Soca River Valley below, with the turquoise water meandering through the green fields. Coming down, the river churns in places and flows placidly in others. The small villages have only a few houses. We stop at a small restaurant for lunch and I wonder when the last guest was here and how they can keep food fresh with so few passersby. As our food is served, the lights go out! The road follows the river for miles and miles and the color is so blue and tranquil.

As it is getting late, we decide not to continue the loop, but to take a shorter route back to Lake Bled. Our B&B is in a residential neighborhood just a 5 minute walk through a shortcut path to the lake. There are many houses under construction and from our balcony, we can see homes and gardens. It has been quite a day! We find ourselves back at the pub again, today quite busy with groups of people from England. We eat and call it a day.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gorges and Rivers


Ray spends the day on the Sava Bohinjka with a guide who he says looks like a young Mick Jagger and is a fan of KnIght Rider. He asks if all Americans are like the people on the Jerry Springer show! Ray falls in the water early in the day and the loaner waders act like a sieve, soaking his clothes. But, yes! He has a great time, catching 10 fish that are 12-18 inches in size.

Jen and I first visit the Bee Museum in Radovlica, a town perched above the Sava River. Beekeeping is part of the cultural heritage of this area and we are totally amazed at the sophistication of these insects. Did you know they have different dances that tell the other bees exactly where they have found nectar? The Slovenians decorated beehive fronts with drawings so their bees would be able to find their hives. We saw one folk tale drawing depicting older women going into a house and coming out as young women! We later discover that Jen's friend in school is from this tiny village.

From there we drive into Bled, pick up fresh bread, meat, and cheese and head up to Vintgar Gorge. The river Radovna has carved a mile long beautiful gorge. The water is so clear, it is light turquoise in color and the churning river creates waterfalls and foaming waves. It is a photographer's paradise and I take way too many photos. Next, we follow our trusty GPS down winding narrow roads to town and over to the castle. Hiking up the steep trail, we are rewarded with a gorgeous view of the calm lake below and its island. We can see marker lanes for the rowing world championship coming up next week. As we are leaving, we see a few guys dressed in medieval costumes - performing perhaps?

Our day ends at the pub where we indulge in delicious vegetable soup and grilled meats. We find Ray back at the hotel, sunburned but happy, with lots of fish stories and wet clothes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lake Bled


I get up early to take morning pictures of the town and walk to the Triple Bridge, Dragon Bridge, down to the Riverside Market and the market colonnade. In the square, a man sitting along the side iss playing the accordion. People aere walking and biking on their way to work. Breakfast at the Hotel Emonec is a bit of a disappointment. Located in the basement level, with white bread, cold cuts and a coffee machine. I choose to spend my calories on fresh bakery delights from the market and walk back to the market colonnade and practically have to tie my hands together to keep from buying too much. There are 5 glass counters, each displaying a different selection of crusty breads, soft breads, sweet cakes, cheese, etc. What I buy is far superior to the hotel offerings!

Our next task of the day is to pick up our rental car at the train station, which really ended up being at the bus station-you would have thought they would have said that in the first place. Auto Europe, we discovered is only a broker and actually works through Sixt Cars in Slovenia. That explains why I got the same operator on the phone when I called Hertz, Avis, Auto Europe and a bunch of other companies from the US. At the Sixt office, the guy proceeds to tell me that the computer shows our drop off charge as being $360, not the $160 on our voucher- some confusion between the 2 companies apparently - and after a half an hour, I am finally able to convince him to let us leave and not charge the higher rate. Our car, a low, low end Opel is pretty basic with lots of dents and scratches, hmm-the radio doesn't even have a display! Car rented-we head onto the open road toward Lake Bled.

The scenery, breathtaking - lush green hills and forests, with snowcapped granite alps framing the background. I can't imagine a more beautiful backdrop. Lake Bled is only 30 min. from Ljubljana, a clear blue lake resort town, with a medieval castle and a fairytale island. It is truly idyllic. This pretty much undiscovered part of the world is pristine and the people so friendly and relaxed. Our bed and breakfast, the Penzion Berc has been in the Berc family for 50 years. The hotel and B&B are run by 2 brothers. Luka, our host is a friendly guy, who we met at the front door, trying to calm his newborn twins who are crying in unison.

After settling in, we take a drive to Lake Bohinj, an alpine lake, and ride the cable car up Vogel Mountain, a ski area with a fantastic view of the Julian Alps. We then continue our adventure to Slap Savica, the waterfall at the end of the lake, reached by a hike up the trail and 553 stairs. Ray gets a chance to examine the river in preparation for his highly anticipated fishing trip with a guide tomorrow. I have high hopes that he would catch record numbers of trout, huge ones, so that he will be as interested in coming back to Slovenia as I am. Back at the hotel, I crash - Ray and Jen gp to the local pub, Gostilna Pri Planincu, for huge portions of food.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Austrian Scenery


We leave our hotel to catch the subway to our 8am train. We had bought rolls the night before but learn quickly that in Europe, one should never buy fresh bread the night before. We really do need to be more spontaneous, don't we? The girl who was working the reception desk is supposed to be up at 7, to prepare breakfast and to give us rolls to go, but is still sleeping in the bedroom. A basket of bread, delivered for today's hotel breakfast sits invitingly outside the main door and so we, feeling quite lucky, take our share of breakfast rolls, which are soft and fresh. Being at the train station is always a bit nervewrecking at first because we are afraid of missing our train, or being on the wrong side of the tracks, or getting into a car that will be taken off and left at another city. Imagine pulling into a station and then realizing the rest of the train has moved on and you are still sitting at this village! Trying to make sense of the foreign signs takes some thought and we learn from the map that cars 418, 419 and 420 go to Ljubljana while the others get left at villages along the way. Public transportation in Europe truly puts the US to shame. The trains are on time and clean, the subways run every 3-5 min. and connect you to any part of the city in less than 15 min. We climb onto the train and get desperately stuck in the aisle with a bunch of high school students trying to go the other direction with their large suitcases. All the cars have compartments for 6 and I am confused as to where our second class seats are. Turns out they are good in any compartment without reserved names on the doors. We share one with 2 young women. The girl sitting across from me has extremely long legs and is obviously happier when I get up to take pictures from the narrow hallway. The scenery along the 6 hour ride is breathtaking. Austria's countryside is green and hilly, which changes to mountainous with lovely valleys and tiny towns. As we get in to Slovenia, we can see snow capped mountains in the distance. The weather is beginning to clear and some blue skies are peeking through.

We arrive in Ljubljana, the capital. The streets are wide, and the many pedestrian only walk ways and squares give it a wonderful feel of a walkable town. It appears to be a city in transformation as some courtyards and buildings are still "post Communist" gray and sterile, but other areas have been redone with fresh paint and new walkways. Along the new promenades, storefronts are all new with shops designed with tourists in mind, though the fashions are not quite up to European levels. Ray thought the main cobblestoned promenade had a Disneyland feel to it, void of cars and people, with empty outdoor cafes lining the sidewalk. It is still early in the year for most tourists and so the town is relatively quiet; the main activity in the Old Town is construction, and cranes are everywhere. We notice a large number of gelato stands, all selling the exact same flavors. We can imagine what the city will look like in 5 years. So to those who imagine a war torn city with land mines and bullet holed buildings, surprise, this city is as modern and vibrant as any other european city! I definitely think it is an up and coming place! Our hotel, the Hotel Emonec, is located just a short walk from the Old Town Square, the Mestni Trg. It is pretty basic, but very clean and quiet.

We take a walk up to the Ljubljana castle and climb the 92 steps to the tower where we are treated to a magnificent view of the entire city and surrounding hills and mountains. The red roofs mingled with new buildings creates an interesting combination. The biggest decision of the day is to choose a place for dinner. With all the pizzerias in town, we elect to try the Italian style wood fired pizza at Trta. There is a wide selection - the man next to me is eating one with a "sunny side up' egg on top! The pizzas are thin, crispy and huge and we felt quite satiated. Walking back to the hotel along the riverfront, we take photos of the reflections in the water at Cobbler's bridge. It has a slight feel of Florence but needs some strolling musicians and colored lights for additional ambience.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Wet, Wet, and More Wet


The rain just keeps falling and falling and the weather seems to be deteriorating. Today is cold, gusty and wet - a good day to sit by the fire and read a book - a bad day for sightseeing and walking around a city. The grayness of the morning is lightened for a moment as we walk by the "pay toilets" in the underground street crossing - the sounds of Mozart float out from the toilets and greet passersby. We get an early start on this sunday as we want to hear the Vienna Boys Choir at mass. The first 60 people in line can get standing room tickets in the back. Funny how people in line become friends - perfect strangers find connections to each other. 2 people in front of us are from Malaysia. They are tour hosts who do "backpacking" trips. Obviously their definition of backpacking is different from mine, as their tour guests include a group of 50-60 year old Malaysian women who do not look like they have any intention of sleeping on the ground in tents, much less carrying backpacks in the wilderness! The tour couple also look pretty dry and perky at 8am, certainly had not camped the night before. Turns out, they stay in hostels and hotels and the only resemblance to backpacking are the small backpacks they carry while sightseeing. The girl behind us was from Palatine Illinois, a college student studying in Vienna for a summer session. We manage to get in, packed like sardines, and craning our necks to see the mass. We find the boys' voices to be truly amazing- so sweet and clear. After mass, they come to the front of the altar to sing one more song -they are quite cute and a lot younger than I had imagined.

From there, we head to the Statsoper, the State Opera House for their 10:30am tour, one of the premier opera houses in the world, quite interesting and well worth the time. The tour guide tells us where the standing room area is, on the second level right in the middle, and tickets cost only 8 euro each. They alternate nights with different operas and as she is speaking, we can see them tearing down last night's set from Carmen. There is a 600 member cast who are employees of the opera house and perform in the shows. It is a beautiful auditorium with excellent acoustics and I wished we could have seen an opera there. The Viennese opera ball is held in the same room, all seats are removed and a raised floor put in for this very special event. For 230 euro, you too can dance in the ball.

It is time to warm up and we stop for coffee, apfel struedel and the famous sacher torte at the very elegant Cafe Sacher, which makes us feel like we are high society. Our very critical review is that Sacher Torte is better at Cafe Sacher but apple struedel is the best at Demel. Back out into the wet weather we walk to Belvedere Palace, one of the most splendid pieces of Baroque architecture,which houses the Austrian Gallery of art, and features the work of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka.

By then, Ray and I have had enough of this wet windy weather and elect to go back to the hotel. Jen braves the cold and walks to the art museum. Tonight, our last night in Vienna, a concert at Musikverein.

The Wiener Streich Quartet, a group of older gentlemen are simply superb, performing chamber music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. The audience is primarily older local residents, and everyone thoroughly enjoys the music. This is our last night in Vienna and we have high hopes that clear skies will follow.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Queuing for Wienerschnitzel


The day starts early as I venture out before 7 to photograph the streets before the city awakens. The quietness of the parks and alleys is wonderful at this time of day and it is only after taking the photography workshops at Yosemite that I have learned the best part of the day for taking photos is before 8am. Ray and I walk for miles toward the museum quarter and I spend a lot of time gazing at wrought iron balconies as they are so picturesque. On the way back, we happen to find ourselves in the middle of the Nascharkt along Wienzeile Street, the old open air market filled with food stalls, bakeries, and fruit and vegetable stands - just starting to open for a busy Saturday. The fresh fruit and vegetables are so brightly colored and so fresh, rolls at the bakery are soft and crusty. I see sauerkraut in wooden barrels and so many kinds of pickles. This is my favorite part of exploring a city and we buy fresh rolls to eat with our hotel breakfast. Later in the morning, we go back to gather a picnic lunch of bread, meat and cheese for our Shonbrunne Palace outing.

Our day is spent at Schonbrunn, the summer palace of the Habsburg family, a smaller scale Versailles and said to be one of the finest palaces in Europe with 1,441 rooms. Riding the subway out, we had a chance to see where local residents live. This is always one of my favorite part of traveling-venturing out to the nontourist neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the hotel receptionist was incorrect in telling us we did not need a reservation to visit and our tickets indicate a 3 hour wait until we can enter. After wandering through the gardens and having our picnic lunch on one of the park benches, we hike up to the Gloriette, a monument celebrating an Austrian military victory, high on the hill that overlooks Vienna, the palace and gardens. With more time to kill, we sit in the great hall and watch groups pass, trying to guess their nationality. Finally, at 3pm, we are permitted to enter. The palace, as expected was opulent and the audioguides provide a nice quick lesson in Austrian history. We learn that the interior was decorated by Maria Theresa, who had 11 children, and only one daughter, the her favorite was permitted to marry for love, the others all were married off to insure greater power for the Habsburg family.

Good Wienerschnitzel(breaded veal cutlet) is worth the wait and standing in line develops comaraderie among fellow travelers. For the second night in a row, we stand in line outside Figlmuller on Wollzeile St., a highly rated and very reasonably priced restaurant specializing in Wienerschnitzel. Last night, we stood in line for over an hour only to find that the line had hardly moved at all and even people with reservations were waiting for tables. "Come back before 6", the waiter had advised and so we did, only to find another long line. Jen decides to go to their second location around the corner and her strategy is for us to be in line in both places. We meet 2 girls from Toronto in line and they tell us the wienerschnitzel is so good it is addictive-this was their 4th time there! A phone call from Jen makes us all realize that it is much faster getting a table over there. Our success in getting a table set off a chain of activity. Others join forces and begin working in groups to stand at both locations, pairing up with other strangers to maximize their chances of getting in. How funny is that! As we are seated at our table, we watch the remaining people in line come in and see their joy in being seated. Oh, was it worth the wait! The waiter brings out wafer thin pieces of lightly browned veal, larger than the plates they sit on, a full kilo per person, and hammered thin to be so tender. It is a dinner to remember! Our advice to others - go to the second location on Backerstrasse, you will get in less than half the amount of time.

In our quest for Wienerschnitzel, we missed getting standing room tickets for the opera Carmen but spend some time viewing it on an outdoor screen through a live feed. A group of die hard fans stand under umbrellas watching the opera on this cold, windy and wet night. Jen decides to join them later in the evening and meets a Korean student hitchhiking across Europe. Funny how the music that floats out of the halls at night creates the ambience that in our minds we imagine is Vienna!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vienna





Our first day in Vienna starts gray and drizzly with a walk through the old town, city center. Us Californians are such puppies when it comes to weather and the rainy weather makes us feel a bit soggy. But there is something quite peaceful and beautiful in this musical city. It is definitely a city for walking and most of the historic sites are in close proximity to each other. In 1857, Emperor Franz Josef demolished the ancient wall surrounding the city to create a more cosmopolitan Ringstrasse, which encircles the heart of Vienna.Walking through the Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the Habsburg ruling family until 1918, we follow others through a large gate and in to the back door of a room, and surprisingly find ourselves at the riding ring of the Spanish Riding School. The elegant Lipizzaners are in the midst of their morning workout to Baroque music in a chandeliered riding hall, and how graceful they are with their high stepping trots, dancing sideways and forwards almost like they are skipping. How in the world does one train a horse to prance like that, we wonder? We also wonder if the men on the horses are fulfilling a lifetime dream of riding them. Do they have women riders also? We skip the Imperial Apartments and go next door to the Treasury where we view diamond studded crowns, sceptors, robes, and other jewels owned by the Holy Roman Emperor. We then walk through the Baroque style Hofbibliotheque, the National Library, which holds one of the largest ancient collections of books.

What does Austria remind you of? Why pastries, of course. First on the agenda is to find Demel, at Kohlmarkt 14, the famous pastry shop offering a dazzling array of choices- apfel strudel,the paper thin layer of pastry wrapped around a high stack of filing of multiple layers of equally paper thin slices of apples and a light touch of sugar and spices, Sacher torte, a light chocolate cake topped with a thin layer of jam and chocolate frosting, and many other thinly layered cakes we can't identify and can't pronounce. Pastry shops sell only pastry so we then had to follow this up with coffee at Cafe Mozart at Albertinaplatz 2-another array of a dozen or more choices of expressos and other coffees. I could easily spend an entire afternoon, or many afternoons in this indulgence. After another little bit of walking to exercise off some calories, we stop for German bratwursts from a roadside stand and eat them sitting on the steps and watching people. Now thoroughly satiated, we continue on with our sightseeing.

For the remainder of the afternoon, we walk and walk and walk, through alleys, squares, stores and promenades. Schoenlaterngasse, "Street of the Beautiful Lanterns" was shorter than expected though cute with a wrought iron lantern. I must say that bed was a welcome sight.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mother Nature and Ash in the Sky

I've been washing the skies for several weeks now, with an eye on the Icelandic volcano whose name we can't pronounce but which holds such power over all of us travelers. Even up to today, it's impending eruption has the potential to change the course of our vacation. I figure though, that there is no point in stressing about it as how can I argue with mother nature. I suppose that what will be will be and that it is completely out of my control. Fortunately today, the ash cloud has blown north and we are free to leave. The weather we leave behind is clear, dry, warm, and beautiful. The weather in Vienna that we are going to is wet, cold, and gray.

As we board the flight on Lufthansa, I am surprised at the changes to their seating since we flew with them a few years ago. My memories are of extra wide seats with thick navy blue cushions - these seats are extra narrow, with minimal armrests and no space to bend down and pick up anything on the ground. I can only imagine how someone bigger than I would feel like they have been put in a metal box overnight! My hand luggage, which was considered small a few years ago when I bought it, barely fits in the overhead compartment. I guess the airlines expect us to downsize both in body size and in belongings!

The flight is uneventful, which is good and we land in the early evening to rainy skies. Feeling adventurous and cheap, we opt to take public transportation to the hotel, which is the CAT subway with a transfer to a local bus. We follow the masses of people to the underground passageway and learn by copying, how to purchase and validate our tickets. Up and down stairs and through many halls- it is not very accessible, is it? It is no wonder that Europeans are so slim. Coming out of the station, we know it is a short walk to the Hotel Shermin, but in the dark are not quite sure which street to take, and I approach a group of teenage girls to ask directions. They mock my attempt to pronounce the street, shout and laugh in my face and send us in wrong direction, makes me realize how it feels to be bullied -how unkind young kids are! Finally, a decent young man directs us to the main road and we arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Pension Shermin well situated on Rilkeplatz just down the road from Karlsplatz and find Jen already in bed. The room is spacious for being so close to the city center. It is so nice to see her! She has spent the day walking the city and has gotten the lay of the land and what is what, has already had a wienerschnitzel dinner and is settled for the night. We look forward to what awaits us tomorrow and fall dead asleep very quickly.