Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stonehenge!!

We are currently driving through the English countryside on our way to see Stonehenge! As I explained to Erin and Shilpi last night, I've read about this place in books when I was much much younger and am just so excited to see it in person! It is actually one oft life goals to see Stonehenge, almost like an archaeologists/anthropologists's pilgrimage.

Today is also the first day we got to put our Oyster cards to use. After taking the bus twice last night, £2.30 per ride (ouch), we bought an unlimited week pass to use for all our bus/tube rides. I finally heard the "mind the gap" message this morning on the underground and almost laughed out loud.

Walking around Stonehenge was awe inspiring. I learned a few things about how the stones were put together, I didn't know there were tongue and groove joints between the sarsens and lintels as well as a ball and socket joint between the large sarsen with the hump. Tons of photos were taken and strict attention was paid to the audio guide.

On the ride back to the city center, I made the girls promise me that we could stop for fish and chips. We found an awesome hole in the wall place that made amazing food and milkshakes.

London Calling!

London is awesome. The £75 cab ride from the airport to Shilpi's was difficult to swallow, but we got there safe and sound.

Seeing Shilpi for the first time since Christmas was amazing! I always love getting back together with old friends because it feels like it's only been a matter of hours. Of course, we had a small amount of squealing and jumpy hugging, but then it was back to business as usual.

Shilpi is an amazing hostess and has planned out tour in four parts for our four days. Today was East London, which has a cool young hipster vibe. The graffiti here is amazing, nothing like the boring tags in the US. Granted, the US has some artistic work too, but not as often nor as meaningful. I wonder if the CCTV and the corrupt government inspired the young people more than back at home.

We wandered through a record store and then headed to an outdoor flea market which was interesting. Kind of similar to the DeAnza flea market back home, but trendier and with more clothing than "pre-loved" items. We stopped at one bar for a snack, to meet one of her friends, and have a cider, now we are at another bar having another cider and preparing to go out for pizzas with one of Shilpi's girlfriends.

Sightseeing in London

Today is our big day of sightseeing. We are going to Oxford Circus to see the House of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and we will also be taking high tea.

There is a GIANT protest in Parliament Square, which is equal parts interesting and annoying.

In Parliament Square, Westminster Abbey (coronation place and resting place of royalty) was built first, followed by St. Margaret's, an then Westminster Hall which is attached to Big Ben. A second bell was installed in 1856 after the first bell cracked.

We also visited the replica of the Globe Theater. There were 1000 oak trees that went into the making of the theater. The replica has a thatch roof, banned after the great fire of London. The replica is 2 miles from the original site. replica was begun in 1969 and completed in 1997, almost thirty years and £27 million. Plays were originally held at 2pm when the stage was lit naturally.

After the Globe was high tea and a stop by the ice cream parlor.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Last Day in Prague

We slept in this morning since we had nothing to do with the tour which was awesome. We stayed up late last night half watching a James Bond movie in Czech. It was "The Living Daylights" which is actually filmed in Bratislava and they filmed in the square outside the opera house... where I was standing only 2 or 3 days ago.

I successfully navigated us to The John Lennon memorial wall by the Charles Bridge. It was very very cool to see that. The wall is where people gathered after John Lennon died and created a memorial. Since then, it has be one an ever growing art piece with sentiments of love and peace from locals and visitors alike, it is a beautiful thing to see. I may have indulged my inner hooligan and added something. It will be interesting to see if it is still there if I ever come back to Prague.

Lunch at Konírna:

Játra fricasse podávaný s jemnou omáčkou s citronem a hřebíčkem, dušená šunka, okurky a houskový knedlík (liver fricasse served with mild sauce with lemon and cloves, braised Prague ham, gherkins and bread dumplings) and Tradiční gulášová polévka s mírnou papriky a hovězí stopkou podávaný v teplém chlebu (traditional goulash soup with mild paprika and beef shank served in a warm bread bowl).

Super great goulash, the liver was great too. I've had more liver in the past week than in my entire life.

I have mixed feelings on Prague. I wasn't crazy about the city on Friday. We drove in through a very ugly area that was all train yards and communist block housing that was in disrepair. After getting settled, we walked to the nearby shopping mall which I now recognize was a pretty dumb idea. We walked into Tesco right in the middle of rush hour shopping on a Friday, something I wouldn't even do at home. There was no English to be seen or heard, it was very crowded with people yelling (they may have been talking, but it seemed like yelling at the time) in Czech which is a very harsh language that has absolutely nothing in common with the Romantic languages that I can understand at a toddler level. It was a definite culture shock experience, but I am glad it happened. Saturday was much better, but I felt constantly rushed by our tour guide, then we got a little lost on public transportation, but today was wonderful. Today, I was a huge fan of Prague, it was mostly empty and we were free to mosey around and take our time.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sightseeing in Prague

Feeling very well rested after our quiet night in. Our bartender who we met last night over dinner is planning to leave Europe. He says that Europe has some hard times ahead and that the EU was an awful idea. I'm not sure what he means by that, I want to ask him later today.

We are starting our tour at Prague Castle. Slavic settlements were in the Prague area before Prague was established in the eighteenth century. There were four original towns that were separate (gov't, town hall and fortifications).

Prague castle is still in use as the main office of the President.

Prague, while a largely atheist country, has many churches. They have the same double crosses as we're pointed out in Bratislava. Many survived because Prague was not heavily bombed during World Wars.

Schwarzenberdky Palace has the MOST beautiful scraffito that I have seen. There are beautiful sections on other buildings, but the Schwarzenberg palace has geometric patterns all over.

St Nicholas church in "Lesser Town", downhill from the palaces (green dome), was the headquarters during the communist era for the secret police.

Prague Castle was founded in latter half in the nineteenth century. St Vitus Cathedral is behind Prague Castle and has the scariest looking gargoyles I have ever seen as well as some of the most beautiful and intricate stained glass. The church was started in the 14th century and finished in the 20th. The obelisk in the courtyard is a monument to the victims of WWI. The monument was meant to be twice as tall, but it broke during transport to the castle/cathedral.

I was worried about having a negative view of the city since the drive is was, there is no other word for it, ugly. But Prague is absolutely beautiful away from the newer downtown and the communist block housing developments.

The astronomical clock works only during the day and is located in the old town hall.

Walking around Prague is both beautiful and exhausting. The city is huge and the cobblestone streets are hard after a while. We h en't really had meals, but...

Snacks:
Kôlbasa (sausage with rye bread) and trndlkôlbasa (sausage wrapped in pretzel dough)

Dinner:
Svíčkova hovêzí pečenês citronem, brusinkami a šlehačkou (traditional Czech marinated roast beef with a rich sauce made from cranberry jam and lemon), Pilsner Urquelle and jablkovy závin. And yes, the white stuff is exactly what it looks like, whipped cream. I am eating whipped cream with beef and it is delicious.

AND I ORDERED MY DESSERT IN CZECH!! Go figure, as an American, the only thing I can say in Czech is apple pie.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Vienna to Czech, through Bohemia

Very sad to leave Vienna. It is so beautiful here and the people are lovely.

On our way out of Austria, we pass a town called Linz. Adolf Hitler was actually born in Austria (did not realize that) and was a failure in Vienna, so he moved to Germany, joined the army and became very successful. when he came back to Austria, he built up the industrial town of Linz. Before the invention of the steam engine, the only way to get from Linz to Czechoslovakia was by horse-drawn railroad, Ottmar says this was a unique railroad with no other like it in Europe.

Driving through the western parts of Austria, we are passing some of the most impressive evergreen woods I have ever seen, the trees (pine?) must be at least 50-75 feet tall. Ottmar says there was snow on the ground here up until a month ago. Everyone we have met who has learned I am from California jokes that I have brought the sunshine with me, so far it has been strangely warm and sunny wherever we go. I don't mind since we are walking around all day, the statues are brilliant in the sunlight (many have gold leaf on them, I don't think that comes across well in the photos I am taking).

The Fairytale town we are visiting, Čseky Krumlov, is controlled largely by the family Shwarzenberg. One of the family members who actually grew up in Austria (the family associated with the Hofburgs), came back to Prague to become foreign secretary and will run for Czech President next year.

The unique feature of Č.Krumlov is the colored fortress tower in the center of the city. Everything here is in the medieval style, built into the surrounding rocks. The fortress tower is built into a sharp jagged rock base that we can see easily from the pot h we are lunching on.

Lunch is a quick bite at Restaurace Parkân Pension Terasa.

Lunch: Zapečené penne se smetanovo - syrovou omáčkou a kurecím masem (baked penne with cream-cheese sauce and chicken).

The waiter says the cheese is Balkan. It tastes just like Gouda, perhaps a little less salty.

Shopping here is so fun! Read: inexpensive. 3 pairs of Swavorski crystal earrings (which are mined and cut in the Czech Republic) for $20? Please and thank you, or...

Prague for dinner

We went to walk around our hotel earlier and I found it a bit shocking. The shopping mall torrent me into shock for a good ten minutes or so. I've felt very comfortable and like I fit in when we were in Pest, Vienna, Austria and Bratislava. In the last three, German or Germanic language were extremely common and I could at least get the gist of what was written. Czech seems to be an entirely different beast, like Hungarian, but so many people spoke English in Hungary.

We wanted a nice quiet night in, so we are grabbing dinner at our hotel, Hotel Angelo at their Jazz Bar. It has very cool decor, black and white prints of old jazz records on the walls. Nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks that looks good, I actually do miss my office a little bit.

Dinner: (deer ragout with roasted pear and cranberries served with bacon dumplings) and a Staropren 12* (brewed in Prague!). Dessert was a delicious, and huge, chocolate lava cake.

I am just now coming to the realization that the poor deer I just ate for dinner was probably a friend of the white-tailed deer we have been seeing from our bus...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Back in Vienna

Back in Vienna for lunch at Fürich.

Lunch: (strudel stuffed with spinach and sheep cheese served with lettuce salad and garlic sauce)

After lunch, we walked to St Stephens cathedral. After gawking at the spire, we picked up some city bikes that are available for rent and biked around the ring. We made stops at Rathaus (city hall), Parliament and Hofburg Castle.

While at Rathaus, we met a photographer Who introduced himself after snapping a few photos of us gaping at the building with our bikes. After we laughed at the initial German/English interchange, he took a few more photos and some with Erin's camera as well. Very cool guy.

Dinner was at, I am a little ashamed to admit, an Italian restaurant called Danieli's off the ring street.

Dinner: Antipasto di frutti di mare alla veneziana (a salad of octopus and prawns with green beans, Venetian style, sardines in soar and baccalá mantecato [stockfish mousse] with grilled polenta and served and served with fried vegetables) and garlic bread.

Dessert: Zambaione all'arancia con gelato di vaniglia (warm orange Zambaione with vanilla ice cream and berries ragout) and a decaf espresso.

Even though it wasn't authentic, that dessert was like eating orangey-rummy air!!

After dessert, we biked home, got lost, hit the Danube, got an amazing night photo and turned around and got home safely. It took us a few hours to get a hang of the bike lanes, but of course we got out bearings just as soon as the hotel came into view.

Touring Bratislava

Getting ready to head out of Austria for a few hours to tour Bratislava, Slovakia. On the drive, Ottmar tells us that Slovakia is a center for auto manufacturing. After the Slovaks built up their economy, they were garnered entrance into the EU. I wonder if this has anything to do with Germany, Volkswagen is one of the plants Ottmar mentioned is in Slovakia.

There is a large Hungarian population in Slovakia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Austria were once part of Hungary. These territories were lost in WWI. There is also a large gypsy, Roma, population in Eastern Slovakia. They live, as Ottmar puts it, in ghettos where electricity is a rarity.

Franz Liszt, famous for composing for leftys, was the best friend of left-hand pianist, , who live down the street There is one of Napoleon's cannonballs stuck in the wall of the old town hall.

Bratislava is my favorite so far! It is everything I pictured about Europe and the people are lovely. Our tour guide Elena is so funny and extremely animated. She pointed out a crystal shop full of Swavorsky crystals cut in Bratislava, a joking Czech Republic and Slovakian effort) where Hilary Clinton has shopped... I may have picked something up.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Very Vienna Evening

We are resting for a bit at the hotel before venturing out for dinner. I am itchy to get back outside in the sunshine and fresh air and am passing the time with The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (personal note: ask Grampa why on earth Congress wanted BenF in government after the Hutchinson/Oliver letter debacle that lost him his postmaster position).

Having learned our lesson last night, we will travel only on foot at night and not stray more than a few minutes from our hotel. We are located across the street from a Metro station, Pilgramgasse, a name that I have no problem remembering.

We walked one metro stop over to the open market where I bought some chile stuffed olives, cheese stuffed paprika, cheese stuffed salted meat and some cheese stuffed olives... and some chocolate bars. Then we found a cafe for dinner, Gräfin vom Naschmarkt.

Dinner:
Original wiener schnitzel vom krauß un't petersilkartoffen und preiselbeeren (wiener schnitzel from veal with boiled potatoes and cranberries) and a Ottakringer vom Fass.

Touring the Viennese "Ring Street"

Gertrude is our guide today as we tour "Ring Street" which is full of museums and public monuments. It was made inside the old city walls. The government sold plots to the rich to finance the construction of the new public buildings.

All the buildings are newer, but models in the old style.

In the end of the 19th century, Vienna created an artificial bed for the Danube. Before, the river was one mile wide and created much damage when it would flood.

There were four Von Strauss musicians. Johan did not want his sons to be musicians and insisted they pursue real careers. The sons became musicians because of their mother's actions.

The baroque St. Charles Church was erected to pay homage for plague survival.

Austria was annexed in the 1930s by the Nazis and then annexed by the four allied powers. The allies did not trust each other and patrolled with one soldier from each country in one jeep.

Touring the Schönbrunn (beautiful fountain) palace is nothing short of inspiring. Empress Maria Theresa saved the palace, her father hated it and never finished remodeling, and emerged as the first great Austrian leader. None of the other politicos of the surrounding countries respected her, despite accepting bribes to, and the fray seven years of her reign were spent defending the countries borders. After securing the borders, having lost very little territory, she set her country in order and created many of the social systems in place today.

Empress Maria Theresia was given a country and was thrust into the ruling role when her husband showed no interest in politics. In addition to being one of Austria's great rulers, she had 16 surviving children. The Hofburg princesses were known to be fertile and were often married off to produce heirs. Marie Antoinette proved to be the exception and lost her head.

Elizabeth, Sisi, was forced to marry the Emporer of Austria, Franz, after he met her at a party while being introduced to his arranged fiancé, Sisi's older sister. She became sick and was sent to Madeira. After 2 years in Madeira, she came back with a stronger personality. She was very eccentric; always on crazy diets, traveled and preferred modern transport, worked out, had weird beauty regimens, was an accomplished equestrian (beating male jockeys), stopped any train she was on to run up surrounding hills she also suffered bouts of depression and insomnia. She was stabbed at the age of 61 in Geneva by an anarchist. She hated her public life and after Madeira, she lived life her own way.

After touring Shönbrunn, we head to our hotel, the Hotel Ananas (Pineapple)!

Traveling to Austria

We leave Budapest at 8am. Very sad to go. I fell in love with this city and I will definitely be back! I would feel better about leaving if I could take about 20 bags of paprika chips with me!!

Just coming into Vienna, where our guide Ottmar is from. As we go through the old "iron curtain", we hear a little about the more recent history of the area Lots more beautiful peaked red roofs. The signs look mostly German to me.

Driving into Vienna, we pass through the forrested countryside. If these woods are anything like those in Germany, I have a new appreciation for Grimm's Fairytales. These woods are totally creepy!! The trees are dead and lack foliage (winter), but they're so thick, I can barely see through them. The branches would definitely grab at you when you walked by.

Now that we know what kind of souvenirs we are looking for... We're are able to shop so quickly! We are at Café Open Wein for lunch and the people watching is wonderful. Where else would you see a man in a yellow suit?

Lunch:
Tafelspitz (prime boiled beef with Chives sauce, apple horseradish and fried grated potatoes) and a latte.