Sunday, October 4, 2009

10/4: Thoughts on the trip -- and bonus photos

(left: Winnie the Pooh Street in Warsaw. right: hallway in sealed-off old Warsaw Jewish ghetto taken through a poophole)

Here are thoughts on the trip as a whole -- and unrelated photos we took during the trip but didn't know quite how to incorporate into the daily blogs.

(left: Woody Allen boxed set billboard in Warsaw. right: basement of cafe in Krakow old town - you can see stained glass, which means the square must have been built up about 7 feet over the last couple of centuries)

I started the trip thinking we were in Eastern Europe. Sure, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary seem Eastern, right? Austria can come along for the ride too - Vienna is technically further east then Prague. But as the trip had rolled on, it seems that Eastern-ness is a state of mind rather than a physical location. The cities we visited feel as Western as any other in Europe. I entered Eastern Europe, but returned from Central Europe.

(left: Hostel Good Bye Lenin in Krakow. right: minks art installation in Krakow)

Everywhere you go, you hear that the beer in Eastern Europe is extraordinary. The Czech Republic invented Pilsner, the Polish drink beer with sausage for breakfast, etc. Being a fan of dark microbrewed beer, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed only two beers on this trip: the X33 from the U Medvídkù brewery/hotel, which they claim is the strongest beer in the world, and the honey beer in Poland. I could probably survive on just those two though!

(left: Olga dancing to Mentos video/audio ad truck. right: locks on a fence near Lennon wall in Prague)

Funny note: On our first night in Warsaw, I saw somebody drinking a golden-colored Polish beer. I wanted to order some and asked "Is that a Pilsner?" He replied "Hell no, it's Polish!" In that part of the world, Pilsner refers to a city in Czech Republic, and beer made only in that city.

(left: Mario mushroom on bench outside Operett in Budapest. right: trees trimmed flat in garden at Schonbrunn palace)

Some countries you visit have a culture of being ultra-organized and on-time: Germany, for example. Others seem to have their own time zone which is 30 minutes to 2 hours later than the rest of the region: Russia, Italy, France. Everywhere we visited this trip seems to fall into the first category -- perhaps all those centuries of being ruled by the Austro-Hungarian empire was unable to be undone by 40+ years of Soviet influence.

(left and right: diagonally opposite corners on an intersection in Budapest. See the difference some maintenance makes)

We had expected things to be inexpensive - and for the most part they were - but not quite as much as I had expected. Some of our least expensive purchases were: night at a pensione in Eastern Hungary, cigars from a certain Latin-American country, standing room spots at the Opera. Some of the most expensive were city hotel stays, guided tours (walking, bus), dinner at restaurants. Perhaps things are setup to be inexpensive for locals, but certainly not for tourists.

(left: huge waterfall at Gellért Hill in Buda side. Right: photo of tunnel behind waterfall taken through a small crack in a door)
The search for desserts varied from country to country. Poland had wonderful piekarnias (bakeries) with a wide assortment of fresh pastries, cookies, things filled with cream, things filled with jelly, and an assorted of chocolate-covered scrumptiousness. In Prague, we started finding these difficult to locate. In Hungary, we passed a few, but they were always closed. Then in Vienna, we were able to get tasty local desserty goodness everywhere. It all depends on the palette of the locals.

(left: Ancient Roman ruins discovered under Vienna. Right: synchronizing my watch with an old Viennese clock)

The people we met on this trip were over-the-top friendly and helpful -- more than I can remember on any previous trip. Standouts include everyone from Poland and villagers from Eastern Hungary. Please visit these places while you can!

Store window advertisement: Napolean saying "And the stomachache is history"

Friday, October 2, 2009

10/2: Vienna doesn't disappoint, except that we have to leave it

For our last day of sightseeing (and only full day in Vienna), we decided to start off with a 3-hour city bus tour and walkthrough of the Schonbrunn (Hapsburg summer) palace. The palace has been restored to the way it was when Maria Theresa lived there - almost erasing everything from the 200 years since. Having been to a number of royal palaces in the past few years, perhaps the most interesting thing here was the kitschy but fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the servants' quarters and between-the-walls access that was between the end of the tour and the gift shop.

From there, hungry and suffering from chocolate deprivation, we headed straight for Demel, the trying-harder "Avis" of Viennese cafes to Sacher's "Hertz". Sampled their version of the sacher torte, viennese sauage, vanilla custard torte, melange coffee, and house coffee w/ unsweetened whipped cream - delightful! Definitely a must for any foodie passing through Vienna. When back in the States, it's always such a chore to order fried breaded escalope of veal and mini sausages all the time. If I had to pick one thing I love about Vienna, it's that you can walk into any cafe and just order "schnitzel" and "sausage" and they know what you mean. Now that's convenience!

Passed through the Kaisergruft (Capuchin Crypt) of the Hapsburg monarchy. I have to say I was disappointed - having seen the actual decomposing bodies at the Capuchin Crypt in Palermo Italy, this was just a viewing of ornate caskets. It was nice to walk by Maria Theresa's final resting place, but I really wanted to see her rotting corpse. Oh well!

After strolling through the numerous pedestrian-friendly streets, and sampling the Austrian tourist specialty "Mozart Balls", we headed on to pick up standing-only tickets at the Opera. Although they stated that standing tickets go on sale 20 minutes before curtain, we arrived 35 mins before curtain and could barely find a place to stand as it was completely packed like a very crowded bus. As the hours rolled by, the spaced opened up reasonably quickly. There's nothing quite like seeing the Vienna State Opera in action with Seiji Ozawa conducting!! If his name sounds familiar, you might have lived in Boston sometime between 1973-2002.

Stopped by Sacher Cafe to see if they live up to their reputation for serious business -- and they do! The waiter was as rude (by American standards) as I had been told to expect -- how quaint! Just to throw him off, we bucked the trend and ordered soup and wine rather than cake and coffee.

Please see Olga's take on our final day of Eurotripping:

10/1: Bratislava means well

After a brief overnight stay in Budapest, we headed to the rail station with dreams of arriving in Bratislava for a Slovakian lunch before visiting our final vacation destination of Vienna in the afternoon. All of this came to an abrupt halt (literally) when the train glided over a dog. They didn't collide - but the train passed over the dog and his tail got pinched in some machinery.
After a two hour wait for veterinarians to carefully free the tail -- plus the train was almost an hour late leaving Budapest to begin with -- we arrived in time for an early dinner. Olga was looking for anything reminiscent of a popular Soviet-era Slovakian tv show "Spadle z Oblakov" (She fell from the Sky). Sadly, the only aliens we found were ourselves.

To me, Bratislava is reminiscent of what Prague could have been - or still could be - but its grandiosity was stopped short and the buildings have since been crumbling during the past few regimes. Some squares -- Hlavne Namestie (Main Square) and Hviezdoslavovo Namestie (the other square?) -- have been painstakingly restored to their former glory, but otherwise you see what it looks like when the Hapsburg Austrian empire is left to battle with the relentless armed forces of time.

In the past 15 years, with dreams of luring suburban families back into Bratislava -- and tourists too -- the city has created a series of cute statues throughout the Old Town. There is Schoner Naci (the friendly guy with the top hat who likes to hit on Slovakian women), Cumil (the peeper who keeps an eye on things from a manhole), Napoleon (recreated shoeless and with a hat several sizes too large), and the paparazzi (who is just dying to photograph me reading a book).

Hats off to Rick Steves for pointing out the most precious gem in Bratislava: the chocolate shop Cokolada on Michalska in the Old Town. After a hot cokolada/kava (mocha) drink and Moly (ice cream beverage) -- and a doggy bag with 4 chocolates to try on the road -- we were ready to head on to Vienna for the night.

If there's anybody out there who (besides me as of yesterday) has even been to Germany but not Austria, note that Austria has the same exact public transit system: U-Bahn, S-Bahn, Strasse-Bahn, and ultra-efficient long-distance rail system. We rode 3 of these yesterday on the way to the hotel, and hopefully will explore more in our final day as tourists in Central Europe.

We are staying in Dr Geissler's Pension, which is an apartment building with several of the apartments converted into rooms for rent, some with toilet, some with shower, some with both, some with neither. It is bare bones, but absolutely clean, have everything a traveler needs (breakfast with fresh breads/meets/cheese, elevator, convenient subway access), but nothing luxurious (wifi, chocolate on the pillow, possibly maid service?). Sort of 3-star quality/cleanliness/efficiency with 1-star amenities. Works our perfectly for ending of our trip in the most expensive city we have visited so far.