Hello world!

I am strictly a business traveler.   I rarely travel just for the fun of it, unless you count road trips as a kid in the back seat of ’64 Chevy.  There have been few vacations that have not seemed purposeful or obligatory.  The word “Tour” has never had an appealing ring to it, but I am ready to take the plunge.  I have done some studying.  I’ve read a couple of books on the subject cities of our tour.  I should note that this is far less information than is available, and far less than I will need to even remotely resemble a knowledgeable traveler, but, nevertheless, I am ready to sally forth with my preconceived notions and someone else’s biases to add to my own.  In the introduction below I have set down what I expect to find on our trip.  I must warn the reader that my sources were printed in 1988 and 1999 respectively, before the European Union got its start.  Things may be different now.  We will find out.

Pre Trip Warm up

About three months prior to our trip, we had a lovely dinner with a good many of our future traveling companions at the Neethling household ostensibly to hear about how to travel and what we need to bring. Mostly these occasions at the Neethling’s are a good excuse to enjoy a glass of wine and a little conversation.  This, however, is a “working” dinner with about 15 of our tour group.  From our tour director, we learn about the “have to haves” and the “what not to haves.”  We learn what the trip is going to be like and with whom we are going to be investing 10 days of our time.  We talk about money and foreign currency, the intricacies of exchange rates, and the many ways of secreting said currency on your person so as to be safe from the gypsies.

Splendid!

The tour is titled, “Splendors of Eastern Europe.”  I am fully prepared to be splendid so that I can fit right in. I am packing black socks and sandals and extra camera straps.

We will travel by air from San Francisco to Paris and then hop on another plane to Prague where we will be whisked away by bus to our hotel.  We will spend the afternoon in a dazed stupor from having been blown half way around the planet on the jet stream.  Then we will negotiate our first meal in a foreign land, with foreign food and foreign money to pay for it.  East meets west.  It has the potential to not be very pretty.

We are touring Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Oberammergau and Munich.  Fortunately, these cities (Prague, Budapest, and Vienna anyway) are about as western as Eastern Europe gets.  Personally, I like my creature comforts and am perfectly willing to let others surround themselves with their dour culture and socialist ideals irrespective of how glorious their past is reflected in their now public buildings.

However, it is still reasonable, and even serves as a grounding experience, to have an occasional foray from the orderly chaos of Adam Smith’s invisible hand to the orderly deprivation of all things consumer — with its tacit recognition that the “grey” market of barter and bribe is really what makes these socialist societies actually work to the extent they do.  The human animal is by nature a capitalist and will offer any service for a perceived value.  As the old adage goes, “The problem with socialism is socialism.  The problem with capitalism is capitalists.”  That includes all of us, I’m afraid.  It’s a good thing that socialism does let the occasional capitalist sneak into its inner workings to grease the skids, else it would hardly work at all.

I was originally puzzled by the selection of the destination cities.  I had supposed that they were geographically close so that we could visit them all in the brief time we had.  I had heard of them, so I was sure they were significant, but, not being much of a student of European history, I really didn’t know how they might be connected, or why they were selected for this tour.  I did a little research.

Prague, first on our stop, was the home of the Holy Roman Empire for a couple of Emperors (beginning in 1355 with Charles IV – I don’t know exactly how this Roman Emperor stuff works, but I think one could tell he was an Roman Emperor by the Roman numerals after his name).  At Easter in 1389, Prague was home to the first purging of Jews from a European city.  About 3000 Jews perished, nearly the entire population.  This was good practice for the Germans who later tried a much more global purge in the 1930s and 40s.   Prague was also home to the Good King Wenceslas, he of the famous Christmas carol.

It was a very wealthy city and a financial and commercial center for many years.  The golden age for Prague was in the 1500s when the Kingdom of Bohemia was handed over to the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs accumulated much wealth and gathered together a vast empire of their own.  As a survival strategy, they married themselves into the murky genetic strains of most of the rest of Europe. They not only conducted the famous “Thirty Years War,” but also presided over Prague’s steady decline in stature, in prominence, and in wealth.   Through bad genetics, folly, and, abject failure they also guided the steady depletion of the entirety of their holdings.  Despite their inability to wage war and manage empires (with the exception of Franz Joseph and Maria Theresa), the Habsburgs were apparently likable and politically savvy.  They married into royal situations and managed to remain in power for several generations.  Much of the city remains as a splendid reminder of its golden age.

The Crest of the Habsburgs

Budapest and Vienna are also former homes of those endearing royal Habsburgs.  They cobbled together an empire with huge amounts of wealth through negotiation and plunder.  The royal family was quite the talk of Europe and was ostentatious in their spending, liberal in their friendships, and ultimately incessant in their need to squander it all.  They were surrounded by sycophants who accumulated their own wealth by association, vilification and greed, and who built significant estates right next door to all the Habsburgs’ dwellings.  Thus we have cities with not only palaces, but also palaces surrounded by palatial estates.  All of this makes for a very ostentatious display of wealth, which picked at the flesh like a burr under the saddle of the more ordinary of the populace.  Needless to say, that with these cities’ occupations by the many conquerors that have come and gone over the centuries, the wealth that supported them and caused them to be there in the first place has long since dissipated.  Today, all of these dwellings have been returned to the people in the form of museums, parks and public buildings.  Long Live the King!

Budapest is actually two cities and one river, the Danube.  The Danube may have been blue once in Strauss’ mind’s eye, but since God created people, the Danube has suffered the indignity of man’s industry and is actually a rather ugly and unsanitary brown.  While Vienna also sits adjacent to the Danube, the river does not divide it, nor does it provide inspiration now that Johann Strauss is dead.  To Vienna, the Danube is simply a river, but to Buda and Pest, the Danube is the both a dividing line and the center of trade and commerce.  The seven bridges that span it join the communities into one city that is also known as “Queen of the Danube.”

Today, Budapest is the capital of Hungary and the seat of Hungary’s finance, culture, commerce and industry.  Originally founded by the Celts, it was actually settled by the Romans in the first century.  They lost it nearly a thousand years later to the Bulgarians.  The Bulgarians lost it to the Tartars. The Ottomans showed the Tartars what for in the 1500’s and held it for 140 years.  The Turks spent most of that time constructing bath houses and drinking coffee.  Much of their grime still clings to the bathhouse walls today.  It is a brave Turk who would attempt cleanliness in one of these restored bathhouses.  Nevertheless, they are a cultural heritage of the city.

The Habsburgs made their appearance about the same time as the Turks and occupied the heretofore unoccupied western part of the city (Pest).  The introduction of the Habsburgs to the Turks was like a country gentleman moving in next door, simply gentile and without malice (at least by Turkish standards), so they were for the most part considered good neighbors.

Wars were not kind to Budapest.  Much of the ancient city was ruined by fighting.  In World War II the British and American air raids bombed the city into bricks.  The Soviets, fighting the German and Hungarian armies on the ground, pounded those bricks into rubble.  All seven bridges spanning the Danube were destroyed.  Castles were raided and pillaged.  The cultural crime perpetrated by war was as unspeakable as were the crimes against humanity.  The Nazi Germans attempted to purge the Jews from the city and 40–50 thousand Jews disappeared during the war.

Vienna actually predates Budapest by a few hundred years.  It too was founded by the Celts and relinquished to the Romans early in the first century.  It was overrun by the Mongolians in the 14th century, but the Mongols had no taste for culture and did not last.  The Habsburgs showed up in the mid 1400’s to call Vienna home.  Vienna, like Prague, became the seat of the Holly Roman Empire.

Vienna was home to many empires and dynasties:  The Holy Roman Empire, the Babenberg Dynasty, the Habsburgs, the Austrian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the capital of the First Austrian Republic.  It was the center for the heyday of classical music and host to composers Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss.  Mozart was born just up the road in Salzburg.  Sigmund Freud was a resident as well.

Because it has been the seat of power for so long, there has been ample time to collect wealth and display it immodestly.  There are palaces, and buildings that could be mistaken for palaces that were residences of the lesser hangers-on to the Habsburgs.  Vienna is home to a number of ostentatious theaters all of which still cater to the performing arts, and more museums than one can reasonably count on a couple of sets of fingers and toes.  Vienna is also probably the Ball capital of the world, if such a title actually exists.  There are gala balls held about 200 times a year in Vienna, held in various locales and celebrating various groups – any group apparently.  The Kaffeesiederball is expressly for Café Owners.  I am sure that if we stay long enough we could find a Ball for middle class American tourists from Northern California, or as they say in German, “MiddleclassAmericantouristsfromNorthernCaliforniaball.”

Common themes with all of these cities are that they were all capitals of the Holy Roman Empire at some time in their history, they have all been home to Kings, and the Habsburgs, and they are all currently capital cities.  They all have extremely long histories of general affluence and power.  They have survived the travesties of war and conquest, and are flourishing today.

In California, our oldest cities are only a couple hundred years old at best.  We’ve missed a lot of excitement.

The one city on the tour that has not been knit with these common threads is Oberammergau.  Oberammergau is a small Bavarian village which is altogether quaint, but unremarkable.  It has no glory in its past, no long legacy of monarchies, nor of ridiculous wealth.  In the 1600s it was battered by war, gripped by poverty, and threatened, as was all of Europe, by the plague.  Together, as a village, they made a promise to God to honor Him with a Passion Play every ten years if only He would hold them safe and keep them healthy.  They have been honoring that promise for the last 400 years.

The little village of Oberammergau with a small population of 6500 people suffers a season full of visitors.  The amphitheater that hosts the play seats 4700.  Most of the villagers are too busy putting on the play to actually fill the theater, so they leave that part to us tourists.  The play lasts most of the day with a single intermission for lunch.  Most of these visitors must stay somewhere and the good citizens of Oberammergau open their homes to these often foreign, but pious strangers offering lodging and food and the opportunity to purchase an occasional wood carving.  The Passion Play and wood carvings are Oberammergau’s primary claim to fame with the carvings being their single largest export.  To the cynics who say that this play is far too commercialized to contain its original and holy intent, I would offer that for this little village to actually survive the nine years in between productions The Passion Play damn well better be commercial – and thank God it is.

Almost all of my fellow travelers are church going folk.  We are all eager to see the Passion Play to digest its content, and be renewed in spirit.  There has been some interest expressed in spending some of our splendid bus time in religious contemplation and in raising our voices in song.  I state for the record that I am not looking forward to this aspect of the trip.  I have spent far too many hours in the car, both as a child, and as a parent with children in tow, to know that singing one more round of Kumbaya to while away the time has no appeal.  Even less appealing is the forced imposition of a distraction to the glorious scenery, which I most likely shall not pass again.  I may reconsider if they want us all to sing it in Hungarian.

I read that “beware the Czechs,” is the clarion call to all who travel to Prague. I read also that the national pastime of most, if not all Czech’s is cheating their fellow man.  They have been laboring under the flags of the Nazi’s, the socialists, and the communists for so long that they have learned to survive regardless of the political system that claims to have control.  Whichever system is exercising its presumed authority may claim control of the society, but not of its people.  They are staunchly nationalistic, but not necessarily devoted to their rulers.  Because of their political uncertainty, they have learned to function as autonomously as their monetary policy allows them to.  Wages are artificially suppressed, so the people work multiple jobs, or more commonly, make the jobs they have produce more income.  It is routine therefore for waiters to charge one more for a meal than one has expected to pay because of padding the bill with “upgrades” to the menu selection, for the incorrect change to be given for goods or services, for plumbers to charge by the tool, not by the job, for bureaucrats to be swayed by “tips” because, of course, bribes are illegal.  The only thing a Czech enjoys more than cheating another Czech out of their hard earned cash is cheating tourists out of theirs – and Hungarian tourists in particular.

As a people, Czechs are supposed to be loud and boisterous and to take delight in arguing and gesticulating wildly as a negotiation technique.  Italians apparently do not have a corner on that market.  We will find out just how accurate this description is as we find our footing in Prague on our first day on foreign soil.

I have read up and studied our itinerary.  I have selected my wardrobe.  I have comfortable shoes.  I have brushed up on my English because no amount of study will help me with any other language I may encounter.  Anne’s and my passports are the new, super duper electronic versions and are begging to be stamped with their first visa.  I am looking forward to being an international man of mystery and seasoned world traveler. My luggage tags are affixed to their cases, and I have my nametag.  My teeth are brushed and my mustache trimmed.  Let’s go.

The Plane Ride

Nothing prepares one for a 10 hour plane ride and all the logistical folderol that has to go on to make that happen.  We were fortunate enough to sit by a foreign woman traveling with her husband.  She spoke no English.  Her husband was happy to take the seat directly behind her.  They shared no conversation the entire fight.  When we boarded the plane this woman was in my assigned seat.  Anne showed her our tickets and we made her move so we could sit together.  She was not happy that I was sitting next to her, and she did her best to ask, through a series of gestures, for Anne and me to trade places.  We did not.  Anne took the window seat as was assigned.

The foreign woman spoke no language that anyone who had any interaction with her understood.  Her husband spoke some English, but never intervened on her behalf, in fact he was quite content to spend the hours in flight making passes at Debbie Mitchell, one of our traveling companions. After so many hours of proximity he felt comfortable enough to fondle her leg and express in broken English how they might have a wonderful life together.  There is no truer expression than that old adage that familiarity breeds contempt.

Meanwhile, his wife was supremely frustrated that the occupant (Deb Finney, another of our traveling companions) in the seat in front of her had reclined her seat.  This woman pushed and pulled the coat hook, pushed the seat tray clasp up and down, and eventually resorted to pushing and shaking the seatback to get it out of the way.  The flight attendants were not very helpful and I’m afraid that Deb did not have a very restful flight.

On these west to east trans-global flights, in an effort to reduce jetlag, the flight attendants have been trained to order us to close the window shades so that all of us 500 passengers can gently close our eyes and sleep the blissful sleep that can only be had in a single airplane that holds 500 strangers.  The sun never set outside the windows and Anne was tempted to raise the shades to peek out occasionally.  She was not the only one to try and sneak a peek. The flight attendants were constantly correcting their windowed passengers not to do this lest it wake their sleeping fellow travelers.

After offending the foreign woman on the plane, no one wants to sit near Deb.

We landed in Paris, spent an hour tromping through the Charles De Gaul Airport, only to barely make our connecting flight to Prague.  After a long day of air travel we met Bogdan, our Polish tour guide, boarded a bus and drove to our hotel.

Prague

The Crown Plaza - Prague

The Crown Plaza Prague is an older soviet office building that has been converted into a fancy hotel.  The elevator capacity of each car is about the size of two portly Soviet bureaucrats.  People traveling with baggage should not apply to be Soviet bureaucrats; they simply wouldn’t fit into the elevators.

The hotel staff was friendly and courteous.  They spoke English passably well – much better than any of us spoke Czech.  It was clear, however, that their suit coats had been left them by the Soviets.  Their sleeves kept getting in the way of their fingers on the keyboard.  Despite the warnings of both my travelogues, and my own suspicions, the clerk proffered the correct change when I purchased our light rail/subway passes.  I continued to be suspicious of everyone and guard my belongings just like I was a tourist.  After a while I got used to the fact that people are people and most of them don’t care about me – they have their own lives to lead.  A quick walk around the Hotel confirmed the notion that most people had more things on their mind than just who was this stranger in their midst.  Strangers don’t have a nationality.  Just like any place with lots of people prudence was warranted, suspicion was not.  With that in mind we proceeded.

The hotel room was nice, clean and small.  It took a call to the front desk to figure out that the room key was required to turn on the lights and air conditioner.  While I was busy calling the front desk, Anne had actually figured it out on her own.  By the way, it should be stated for the record that “air conditioning” is a misnomer in Eastern Europe.  Nothing gets cold except the Baltic winter.  We found this to be true of air as well as drinks and food.  Hot things get heated just fine, but if you are expecting anything to be cold, you will just have to wait ‘til winter comes.

The hotel was located at the terminus of the light rail line.  Hop on and in just a couple of stops, transfer to the subway, which goes directly to Old Town.  It was quite convenient to our hotel.  Of all the things the Soviets might have done poorly during their occupation of Czechoslovakia during the cold war period, they did manage some impressive public works projects.  The Soviets built public transportation systems that were quite extensive.  The subways were deep and would serve as bomb shelters for the population.  The subway was cheap at only about 12 cents a ride.  Most of the locals seem to ignore the simple detail of validating their passes, if they even had them.

Apartment Blocks in Old Town Prague

Strikingly noticeable is how many apartment blocks there are.  The population density must be very high.  Throughout Prague there are hundreds and hundreds of apartment buildings.  The ones that survived the wars are old and very ornate with unbelievable facades and carvings around every door and window, and statuary on the roofs.  Some of them have some retail shops on the first floor, but they generally house people.  The ones built during Soviet occupation are cold, faceless, and merely functional, lacking any of the charm that graces the older buildings.

What the Soviets Lacked in grace, they made up for in style.

Virtually all of these buildings are marked with graffiti.  When walking around Prague, I didn’t get a sense of “dirty and derelict” that marks our own buildings as graffiti targets, nor a sense that they were gang markings.  This graffiti was mostly in a language that I didn’t understand, but there were no repeated signs.  There were a few messages in English like “Make Peace” and “No War” that harkened back about 40 years ago in America – the beginnings of a disenfranchised youth, and a product of budding individualism.

Raging capitalism is everywhere.  There are small fruit stands in front of many shops.  There are more souvenir shops and sidewalk cafes that one could reasonably patronize in a lifetime.  The Soviets may have been standing on the neck of the Czechs for decades, but once released, the Czechs have quickly grasp the meaning and power of commerce.   Wenceslas Square is as an upscale pedestrian shopping mall as good and pleasant as any I’ve seen with great public transportation to and from.  It is anchored by the State Museum on one end and Old Town on the other.

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Old Town is named such because it somehow managed to survive the bombings and occupation and travesties of the cold war and has become the center of tourist activity in the old town square.  There is ample space for tourists to gather and watch the chiming of the astronomical clock in the old town hall building with its mechanical disciples making their hourly appearance and its live trumpeter heralding from the top of the tower.  The square is lined with sidewalk cafes and shops of all kinds, and probably a pickpocket or two.

On one side of the square is the old Tyn Church, once home to Martin Luther’s predecessor by 100 years Jan Huz.  Huz was a Czech reformer who was burned at the stake for the same reformations that Luther ultimately nailed to the church doors.  Luther had a couple of things going for him that Huz lacked.  First, Luther was German and politically untouchable because of Germanic strength relative to the Vatican, and secondly, the Gutenberg press was instrumental in spreading Luther’s discontent beyond chapel walls.  For Martin Luther there was international fame in perpetuity.  For Jan Huz, there was a very painful death and bronze plaque.  I’m sure there have been many Czechs who died without a plaque – Huz got a plaque.

From Old Town it is a short walk through Lesser Town, so named because it is not as spacious as Old Town, but is a little more charming and not quite so touristy, then through the original castle gates to the Charles Bridge.

Entrance to the Charles Bridge through the old castle gate

Just over the Charles Bridge is the Prague Castle (Hradkany) and St. Vitus Cathedral.

It was at Hradkany Castle that we began our second day in Prague.  St. Vitus cathedral is located within the walls of the castle.  It is the extraordinary work of generations of artisans.  Soaring ceilings, immodest pipe organ, carved stonework, statuary, paintings, frescoes, graves, gold, silver and more abound in this place.  There are graves of saints and lesser religious fellows beneath the stone floors.  The gated chapel containing the remains of St. Wenceslas has precious and semi-precious stones embedded in the wall coverings.

Saints Crypt at St. Vitus Cathedral

There are catacombs below the church for which one could buy a tour ticket.  There is a tower for which one can also buy a ticket.  Apparently, capitalism respects no religious boundaries.

Charles IV took up residence at his castle in 1355.  He knew how to build a castle.

St. Vitus Cathedral on the Castle Grounds

It is splendid on a grand scale.  Huge meeting halls and clear vistas of his domain were everywhere.  The castle has stood the test of time and weathered many kings.  There is the famous “defenestration window” out of which were thrown some of the noblest men of Czechoslovakia.  To step down from power was always a forced hand in ancient times, and that first step was a killer.

The Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River had its first foundation stone laid in 1357.  By the 1700’s it was festooned with statues each with its own special story of why it is there and what it means.

View across the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge

Now it is a quaint walk across the river where you can sit for local cartoonists to draw your caricature, or buy water colors from local artists, or listen to local musicians, or bump into any of hundreds of tourists who stop for no reason in the middle of the bridge to take pictures of themselves and Prague from the water.

With Steeples as far as the eye can see, Prague is filled with many splendid old churches.  Most of these have long abandoned the business of churching.  Organized religion is not big in Prague.  The Czechs have been under somebody else’s thumb for so long that they are disinclined to any outsider’s attempts at organization.  The churches are used for concert halls.  Again capitalism rears its ugly head.   In Las Vegas, there are people on street corners handing out flyers to strip shows and prostitutes with pictures of naked women.  In Prague these same unseemly types are handing out flyers to concerts of Mozart, Dvorjak, and Strauss at various cathedral venues.

Church of St. Mary the Victorious

On the walk back to Old Town we stopped by the Church of St. Mary the Victorious to see the “Infant of Prague” otherwise known by me as the wax baby Jesus.  This wax figure was created in Spain and brought to Prague in the 1500s and has been lovingly cared for these many years.  There is a museum upstairs which displays the many clothes that this wax infant has worn through the ages.  There have been many miracles attributed to the figure over the years though we didn’t see any while we were there.  There was a long line for the bathroom and the single toilet survived many flushes without incident, but I don’t think that counts.

The highlight of Prague was an evening meal at the Terrace Hotel and Café on the Old Town square.  The café sits on the rooftop of the Terrace Hotel.  From its two decks one can see all of Prague and the town square below.  As the sun set, the colors changed on the buildings around us and the lights came up on the Old Town Hall and the Tyn Church.  It was beautiful.

Dinner at the Terrace Cafe with the old Tyn Church behind us

The food was good and even reasonably priced given the location.  After a long day of foot travel through the city, I was not particularly interested in food, but I was interested in something cold and satisfying.  We had just enjoyed a beer in the plaza below so I was interested in something different.  Looking through the menu I was captivated by a picture of a frosty Strawberry Milkshake.  That’s what I wanted, and that is exactly what I got – without the frosty part.  The milkshake was just that, creamy milk and strawberries whipped together, served at room temperature.  While the taste was there, the satisfaction was nowhere to be found.  Anne ordered a Mojito that came with real ice and real mint that looked really refreshing.  Sunset dining at the Terrace Café, for all its beauty, was bittersweet.

The next morning we loaded the bus for Budapest.

This was to be a long travel day.  It was an hour before we finally cleared the traffic out of Prague.  Another couple of hours driving by stunted cornfields, wheat, and miles of poppy fields.  Most of the land was unfenced, gently rolling hills, green and growing. We were told that these were mostly cooperative farms.  There would be a group of four or five houses surrounded by their fields.   One could spot the occasional castle off in the distance.

We arrived in Bratislava, once the capital of Hungary, just in time for lunch.

Old Town Bratislava

The old castle sits high on a hill overlooking the city.  Most of Bratislava was decimated by wars and Soviet occupation; however, the old town section remains unscathed.  It consists of a large plaza, good for street vendors and makeshift shops surrounded by centuries old apartment blocks, which are now apartment blocks of old apartments, and first floor retail.

Bratislava is what I would consider in my limited view a typical eastern bloc city.  It is characterized by “modern” Soviet style, fashionless, faceless high rise, high density, well worn apartment blocks, interspersed with an older building or two that survived the wanton destruction of war.  The Soviets also built freeways and roads that did little to respect the history of the place.

We wandered around the square for a while, glanced inside St. Martin’s Cathedral

St. Martin's pipe organ. 19 Hungarian kings were crowned in this very building.

where some 19 Hungarian Kings were crowned and headed back to the bus for the afternoon drive on into Budapest. Bratislava is merely a footnote to the history books.

On the afternoon bus ride, Bogdan waxed philosophic at the microphone about a number a topics, not always interesting.

Bogdan waxing philosophic

He did tell us of his son, Philip, who is now in his final year of college.  When Poland was under the communists, all education was free, but now that Poland is free, education costs money.  Bogdan said that it was a pretty good trade off.  Now he has to pay for his son’s education, but he doesn’t mind.  He said that 20 years ago he had to stand in long lines overnight just to have the opportunity to buy bread for his family.  Now he can work, he can move about in many countries, he can buy food and pay for college educations.  He lamented that his son didn’t understand how hard life was and what it was like.  And yet, that was a good thing.

The border checkpoints are unused at this time.  Weeds are growing in the traffic lanes.  There is one lane open for larger vehicles to pay tolls and road taxes.  It is a harsh reminder of times past.

As we drove out of Slovakia on the way to Budapest, we noticed that there were hundreds of trucks lined up on the shoulder of the freeway coming into the country.  We were told that it was illegal for non-essential trucks to drive in Slovakia on the weekends, so there they sat.  That is not exactly efficient, but it makes the roads much nicer for car traffic.

Budapest

We arrived at our hotel about 7:00pm.  Our first instruction was to not go outside because of the hotel’s proximity to the train station and the many undesirables on the street.  My first impression of the city from the drive in was that the city was covered in graffiti, and that the city has weathered the centuries less well than Prague and even Bratislava.  There is less money for renovation and upkeep.  Building maintenance is not high on their list of priorities.

After a buffet dinner, we settled into our rooms for little conversation and wine with the Bowers, the Mitchells. and JB.  It is safe to say that the Hungarians do not yet know how to make wine.  The good news is that it doesn’t cost much, but it’s worth every forint you pay for it…and not a forint more.

After breakfast the next day (which consisted of mostly leftovers from the night before plus fresh fruit and yogurt) we loaded up the bus for a city tour with a local hired guide.  Helga was a native and spoke English passably well.

The oldest of the Hungarian Heroes, St. Steven

Our first stop was Hero’s Square where she spoke proudly of Hungarian history, noting that after 500 years of oppression, the Hungarians finally have their freedom.

What's a Hungarian Hero without his horse?

She dismissed the willing alliance with Germany for the first two world wars.  And, she warned us about letting the gypsies get too close.  “Shoo them away.”

Next stop was the Esztergom Basilica,

St. Steven's Basilica

eternal home of St. Steven, and then on to Castle Hill with the enormous Royal Palace and the Matthias Church.  The Royal Palace was thoroughly looted by the Second World War and now sits soulless and empty. Next door to it there were excavations going on of some foundational ruins, but in a gesture of capitalistic freedom, some Hungarian entrepreneur had opened a wine tasting room embedded in the ruins themselves.

Just as you’ve immersed yourself with the deep history of a thousand years of Hungarian heritage on Castle Hill, there is the ultra modern Hyatt Hotel built around a monastery ruin — its golden tinted glass gleaming like the gaudy abomination it really is in this place. But the toilets work just fine, and, they were free.

Shelly wanted to split with the tour group and make her way back on her own.  She cornered Helga and asked her if she would be safe traveling alone in Budapest.  Helga was a little dismissive at first, but Shelly was persistent with her questioning, wanting to make sure that Helga had understood.  Helga reassured her by saying that, “We don’t have crime in Budapest.  We don’t have any Blacks or Asians here so you would be safe.”

Despite Helga’s overt and culturally inherent racism, I thought that it probably pretty accurately reflected the attitude of the average Hungarian. Earlier we had driven by the “House of Terrors,” a tribute to the Jewish experience in World War II.  The “House of Terrors” was a place where Jews were brought to be tortured and killed by their neighborly Hungarians under the watchful eye of the Nazis.  For most Jews, World War II was not a good time, nor Hungary a good place to be Jewish.

On this quick tour Helga also introduced us to a new term for a bathroom break, the “technical stop.”   She said it without inflection of any kind, but rather a lengthy pause afterword, so I think it was intended to be a funny and clever turn of phrase in her second language, English.  It was notable enough to record here.

Stores were mostly closed on Sundays, so the shopping district was filled with tourists lingering at Gypsy craft stalls.  Big deal.

The highlight of our stay in Budapest was a cruise on the Danube.  We relaxed with a glass of wine and listened to an audio tour as we spent an hour and a half looking at Budapest from the river.

View from the Danube

The parliament buildings loomed large and spectacular and the Castle Hill was imposing.

The Parliament building from the Danube

The seven bridges that link Buda with Pest were all unique and interesting.  And for the umpteenth time we were reminded that Strauss’ blue Danube is only blue if you are drunk or in love.  It was funny the first time.  Now you have been reminded too.

Dinner awaited us at the hotel.  There was a church service put on by the tour leaders for those who cared to participate.  Martin, Wayne and I opted to find our piety on a mission trip — to find more cheap Hungarian wine and a specific Hungarian liqueur (Palinka) that Wayne was looking for.  Wayne found it in a small booze, smokes and pretzel shop in the subway.  As an added bonus, we also found out where the homeless stay while they’re visiting Budapest.  We found our wine at a local grocery store and headed back to the hotel for cards and conversation.

Vienna

“The weather comes from Russia.” This is what the Austrians say when there is bad weather.

Driving into Vienna, we drove past the Monument of the Unknown Soldier.

The Monument to the "Unknown Father"

This monument was erected to commemorate the courageous stance of the Soviet Army in protecting Vienna from the advance of the Nazis in 1945.  Bogdan told us that it is locally referred to as the Monument of the Unknown Father because the Russians allegedly raped any and every Austrian woman they could find on their way out of town after the war.

Because he was Polish, one might expect a little bias from Bogdan in mentioning this little bit of local color, but we heard similar sorts of stories about the Russians from more than one tour guide.  It would appear that the Russians have not made many friends of their former “protectorates.”  The Austrians have enhanced the monument with a beautiful fountain that nearly hides it completely.

Vienna is beautiful from the very first glance.  The capital of Austria, it was the cradle of classical music, the home to Habsburgs at their very height, and a hub of commerce for this part of the world for 500 years.  It is further east than Prague, but further west in attitude than any eastern bloc city.  There are many more things to see than two days will let us.

We started at the pedestrian shopping plaza Stephensplatz.  It is upscale, open, and bustling.  It is bounded on one end by St. Stephen’s Gothic cathedral with its enormous, soaring spire and colorful ceramic roof tiles.

St. Stephen's Cathedral Spire

Inside, it is just another over the top, ornate, unbelievably decorated, carved, painted, statued, gold leafed, pipe organ’d cathedral, dripping with the humility of Christian charity.  The kind we saw everyday here.  Really, it was just another ordinary, spectacular cathedral.

Inside St. Stephen's

The Hofburg Palace, home to the Lipizzaner stallions, bound the plaza on another side.  We didn’t get to see any horses.  They were on vacation, but the palace is, well, just another ordinary, spectacular palace.

At the other end of the plaza is the State Opera House.  They never do the same opera on consecutive nights.  The opera house is spectacular as well, for all the same reasons that the palaces and churches are.  It operates in the red everyday of the year except for the night of the Opera Ball.  The Opera Ball turns the corner for the Opera House.  It is the one evening of the year where everything is over the top.  It has an entry fee, exclusive of food or drinks, of 240€.  A box will cost the patron of the arts a mere 17,000€, also exclusive of food and drinks.  It is sold out every year months in advance.  Unfortunately, our schedule will not permit us to attend this year.

Vienna Opera House

In between these three anchors, is the finest shopping, the best chocolate, the finest strudel, the most exquisite cakes, the most serious of all coffee houses, and more ways to part with our money than even Disneyland.  The biggest names in fashion own storefronts on the plaza.  There are thousands of people, some are tourists to be sure, but most looked like they had some sort of business to conduct.

Not far away is the city park with statues of various composers.  Anne and I waltzed for the camera under Strauss’ gold leafed eye and had a pleasant walk back through the park.

There couldn't be a better place to waltz than under the watchful eye of Johann Strauss

There is a permanent open air market at which we purchased our evening meal; some unusual Austrian Cheeses, a couple of kinds of olives, falafel, humus and bread to go with our leftover Hungarian wine.  While living in Vienna may be expensive, there are lots of opportunities for fantastic cheap dates.  These Austrians know how to live.

Coffee is a very European experience.  It is very expensive to have served to you.  You will only be served 4 oz. at a time and you will pay every time you want some more.  It’s this way because you are suppose to savor every drop and relish every sip in between deep intellectual conversations.  After all, all the great intellectual minds of the last 2 centuries sat at Viennese coffee houses and supped coffee from their dainty little cups.  Our bill for two coffees and two strudel: 18€.  No wonder the intellectual class felt disenfranchised and poor.

Our hotel was located across the Danube and next door to the UN Complex.  On the way was the Prater, a permanent amusement park.  There is a hundred year old Ferris wheel and a number of gut twisting rides.

The Ferris Wheel at the Prater

We stopped there on our way back one night and pretended to be Viennese. Viennese like to have fun too.

In the morning we went to Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of Maria Theresa.  This again spectacular palace was home to Maria Theresa for a whole six to eight weeks a summer.

Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of Maria Theresa

Her daddy didn’t like the place much, but that did stop him from going all out for his little girl.  She got the best of the best. Modeled on Versailles, This palace has a mere 1441 rooms (most of which have been converted to apartments and are off limits to tourists), three unbelievable “backyard” gardens, and countless works of art, above and beyond the artistry of the building design.

Gerhard, our local guide, was very good at bringing to life the period of the Queen, Maria Theresa.  She is now revered, but way back when she must have been feared beyond the pale.  She ruled for forty years at a time when women were generally scorned for most purposes except childbearing.  She commanded generals and fought wars.  She managed to oppress the inhabitants of 17 different countries and cultures to a level that never rose above simple malcontent.  She was political enough to both bear children and marry them into royalty or to Emperors while consolidating power and wealth and letting the chips then fall where they may.  In the case of her daughter, Marie Antoinette, her head nearly rolled to Maria’s feet.  It was good to be queen…not so good to be anybody else.

What would a visit to Vienna be without a concert of Strauss and Mozart?  Incomplete, exactly!  That evening we ate as a group under the eaves of some fancy building, which now served as an outdoor café.  We were served traditional Vienna Wiener Schnitzel.  It was fine, but not special.  From there we proceeded to the Ausberg Palace (a big building to be sure, but nothing to capture the imagination of the Habsburgs) for a concert of Mozart’s and Strauss’ greatest hits by members of the Vienna Residence Orchestra.  This eleven member group did a fine job.  There was also a baritone, a Mezzo Soprano, and a couple of ballet dancers to top it off.  After a brief champagne intermission, we sat for the second half.  There was no encore. Apparently, they ran over time because as we were being swept out of the hall, a second set of concert goers was coming up the stairs.  Clearly, this was a touristy kind of event with not a single Viennese in the audience, but it was just what we wanted and just what we got.

Oberammergau

A pleasant but lengthy bus ride through the Bavarian hills and valleys, dotted with quaint villages and the occasional castle brought us to the little village of Oberammergau, again, quaint.  It is nestled in a flat little valley beneath soaring peaks and verdant hillsides.  Green is the byword.

Wayne and Mark preparing for the Passion Play

We stayed with Wayne and Debbie Mitchell at the Haus Diane, a private bed and breakfast run by Albert and Diane Muller.  They are a 30ish couple with three children Felix, the oldest, Sophie, 3, and a baby who was staying with her grandparents at the time.  Albert’s English was quite good and he and Diane spent an hour with us acquainting us with our accommodations and the Passion Play.  We bought books with pictures because the language is too much of a hurdle.

A short walk down into the village revealed more quaintness.  Obviously, it is a small resort town that lives off of tourism – and the Passion Play. It has a number of small hotels, souvenir shops, and wood carving studios.

Oberammergau - The quaintness never stops

Our dinners and lunches were provided by a small, but marvelous restaurant just up the hill at the base of a small ski area.  We had a marvelously commanding view of the surrounding Alps and an overview of Oberammergau.  German Spaetzel, local fish, goulash, pork, and of course, the ubiquitous Pizza rounded out the menu.  All was delicious and the location provided us the opportunity to burn a few calories as we hiked up from the village twice or more a day.

Albert was a crowd leader in the Passion Play.  After we sat through Thursday’s performance we came back to his house to for beer and conversation.  Diane struggled with her English, but communicated well nonetheless.  Albert was very interested in our critique.  He was very passionate about the Passion Play.

The theater is large.  It seats 4700 in a covered auditorium.  The stage is open air.  The architect who designed the seating in the theater must have worked for the airlines because the seats were at least as close together as those we sat in on the way here.

The Theater at Oberammergau...a passion for seating

Thank God I was on the aisle.  There was no margin between me and the seat in front of me.  Maybe all Europeans are short.  Maybe the passion play is supposed to be a penitent experience.  I don’t know, but it was a tough experience.  The play itself was a grand production.  The acting was top notch.  The music was very tuneful and well played.  The costuming was great, and there were no modern reminders like watches, or soled shoes on stage.  There were 500 people presenting on stage, another 500 running the house, and another 1000 running all the supporting functions like shuttles and restaurants.  For a village of only 6500 inhabitants it is quite remarkable.

Not being a natural German speaker, I couldn’t tell you if the acting was good or great, but it was not bad, and certainly not cartoonish.  The play goes for two and a half hours for part I.  We take a break for dinner and shopping, and then part II goes for another two and a half hours.  It is a grueling effort for spectator and actor alike.

For our dinner we hiked up the hill to our assigned restaurant.  Along the way we spotted Albert’s Uncle.  This man is 78 and we saw him everywhere.  He was always behind His and Albert’s houses (they live next door to each other) mowing the grass down with a scythe.  He would mow one day and put up the hay the next.  We saw him almost every time we were out.  When we were at the play, he was backstage raising and lowering the curtain.  We didn’t see him there, but Albert told us that that’s where he was.

A couple of houses down from Albert’s, lived his friend and fellow crowd leader Robert Eder, a wood carver.  We had looked at a few carvings down in the village, but they looked too well machined to be hand carved.  We stopped into the Eder’s studio and found an ornament and a small carving that we liked.  Paul, Robert’s father, approached Anne as she was perusing the carvings and asked if she had seen any of the carvings in the village.  Anne said, “Yes, but we didn’t buy any.”  Paul said, “Made in China.”

Paul spent some time telling me how he became a wood carver.  Four years under a master carver, three years apprenticing, and then school.  He went to school for anatomy.  He said that the education was just like a doctor except he had to learn all the animals too.  He said, “If you don’t understand the anatomy (pointing at a carving of a wild boar) you just get a funny looking dog.”  He’s been carving for 60 years.

Albert told us not to miss their church.  He was very proud of their church.  Often passed over for souvenir shops and other more commercial things to do, it is not a tourist destination per se.

Interior of the Church at Oberammergau. All the statuary is carved wood

It is incredibly ornate with carvings and wooden statuary that is faux painted to look like marble.  There are frescoes on the ceilings that are quite extraordinary.  The interior of this building was a treat just by itself.  We got there in time to catch the tail end of some sort of concert or service.  A group of young robed singers stood randomly about the church with a soloist up front. Her voice was clear, tuneful, and simple – perhaps angelic would be an apt description.  When she got to a chorus the rest of the choir would move silently to anybody nearby and lay their hand on them while they sang.  When the chorus ended the choristers would remove their hand and move away.  It was very effective.

We were in Oberammergau while Germany was playing Spain in the world cup semi-finals.  That night we walked into the village to see crowds of locals sitting outside the restaurants watching the world cup on TV’s.  It was disappointing when Germany lost, but it was a little bit of local color that was fun to observe.

Munich

Munich is just another big city.  It is a big city like any big city except here they only speak German.  There will be no concessions to the English-as-a-primary-language crowd. The signs are all in German.  The advertisements are all in German.  The language we hear out on the street is all in German.  Their dogs are all shepards.  Fortunately, they deal in Euros and we’re already familiar with the currency.

We arrived too early to check into the hotel so we stopped briefly at a subway station for a bathroom break (or “technical stop” as we learned to say in the tourist trade) and to pick up our local guide for a city tour.  I must say that the bathrooms were exceptional – exceptional, not in a good way.  The men’s room easily topped my worst bathroom experience to date which was at Candlestick Park for a SF Giants, Cincinnati Reds game back in 1978; the sixth inning of the second game of a double header to be more precise, but that’s another story.  The women were also unanimous in their reaction to the restrooms.

Back on the bus with our guide we drove around in circles while he was prattling on about this building and that statue, and where things used to be. Because we were in city traffic on main streets, or Strasses as we say when in Germany, the ride was not smooth and the picture taking opportunities were only realized after the fact.   I’m sure it would have been interesting had I been more attentive, or perhaps more German.

When we finally got the hotel, we dropped our bags and Anne and I headed out to the train station/mall to shop for European chocolate.   They know how to build train stations in Europe.  They are relatively clean and busy, and designed well enough to handle lots of people going lots of different places.  Martin Bowers and I visited one in Prague and found the same attributes.  Those Europeans know how to make chocolate too.

After dinner at the hotel, most of us headed out for a truly German experience at a German Bier Garden.  This was one of the most delightful experiences of the trip.  The beer garden is a social experience enjoyed by the locals in Germany.   The venue was a park about a city block square.  It was filled with small picnic tables, wooden folding chairs, and people.  Literally, there were probably more than 2000 people there that night.  The concessionaires were tapping beer into liter mugs as fast as they could and putting them out on the counter.  No one appeared to be ordering anything, they just stepped up to the counter and grabbed. It was orderly enough, but clearly they all knew what they were doing. There were signs behind the counters that were presumably menus, but since they were all in German it made no difference.  Wayne Mitchell and I braved the cultural divide and returned to the table with liter mugs for ourselves and smaller half liter glasses for Anne and Debbie.

Beer

Wayne and I with our manly liter mugs discovered that what we thought was German beer tasted more like beer and Sprite.  It was sweet and watery.  Sharing our disappointment with the table, we discovered that whatever was in Anne and Debbie’s glasses tasted like real beer.    Nobody else had any complaint.  We passed around our mugs and JB and Susan recognized it immediately as Shandy, indeed a combination of beer and lemonade that apparently has never achieved popularity in the United States.  It turns out that in Germany it is called “Radler” which is a 50/50 mixture of beer and German style soda pop.  It was invented in Munich by Franz Xaver Kugler in 1922. While, my disappointment turned out to be a source of local color, it didn’t make it taste any better, but hey, it was all part of the experience.

After 2 hours at the beer garden, there had been not one fight.  There had not been one drunken brawl, not one stabbing, or shooting.  People were still as jovial and social as they could be.  People were polite and for the most part still in control of themselves.  Clearly, this was not an American experience.  Had we not known it was a beer garden, it could just as well have been a giant bridge tournament.

The next morning came early enough when the wake up came at 3:30am.  It was just time enough to get ready and board the bus to the airport for the trip home.  A mere 17 hours later, we were half a world away and home.

“A glass of ice water, please.”

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