Monday, December 22, 2008

They gave us a fish instead of teaching us to fish

Our next blog will extoll the virtues of Prague. This blog is about practicing what you preach (and what happens when you ignore your own advice).

Usually David and I are independent travelers. We like making our own arrangements and plan our own adventures. However, with freedom comes personal responsibility. The responsibility to assure you, your family and your luggage will get from point A to point B and back to point A. Also, it means finding a place to eat and determining each days itinerary. A guided tour is a complete 180. You get yourself on a plane and from then on responsible and logical thought is not necessary. This is my long winded way of explaining the complete and utter panic I was feeling as the Gate 1 tour bus hurtled down the Autobahn from Regensburg to Prague. Normally David and I spend up to 6 months prior to a trip doing research. Travel guides, travel websites, other travel blogs and forums. We check them all and make albums of material for our trip. This trip we bought the 60 page 'Top 10 Prague' and barely cracked the spine. David's docorate program and our employers had kept us really hopping.

Immediately upon arriving in Austria we realized one of our mistakes, the language. David and I both have remedial Spanish backgrounds. Our combined 10 years of high school and college Spanish give us the necessary background for many Romance languages. In addition to Spanish we can also stumble around in Italian . And while we can't speak French, we can usually read enough to get around. It turns out my German language exposure was limited to Hogan's Hero re- runs and the Cabaret sound track (somewhere my Muehlhoff grandparents are spinning in their graves). And, unlike Greece where most folks under 40 speak fluent English, outside of Vienna not everyone in Austria and Germany did. However, since we were being lead around by the hand, it wasn't a big deal.

I had emailed myself a list of Czech words, so I could study them prior to arriving in Prague. As we all know now, our interet availability was very limited. I hadn't really even thought about it until Tuesday when boarding the bus. I walked up to our bus guide - Bart and asked if he knew any Czech. He said a little and would teach us a few words on the ride to Prague. Before that we stopped at a rest stop just over the German/Czech border. I walked into the store and got my first look at Czech words. Oh no! Each word had multiple consonants, few vowels and stange accents, too. With a sinking stomach I realized this language was closer to Russian than German.

As promised Bart tried to teach us all a few words before arriving in Prague. When all was said and done, I learned the word for beer - pivo. (Bart was right he only knew a few words). The funniest part was learning the word for Thank you. Bart taught us 'De koo i um" like requiem with a 'd'. Eager to try out my new word, I said it to the bellhop, who looked at me like I had a speech disorder. Michal was great and taught me 'dee koo yi' the correct pronounciation.

We made it through Prague with gestures and smiles. The Czech people were very kind and those who spoke English were happy to assist. I had engaged the services of a private guide prior to our arrival. In addition to English, Czech, German, Eva spoke Slovakian, Polish and Russian, too. Bart, Kate and Rolf from Gate 1 in addition to their native languages (Bart and Rolf Dutch and Kate Hungarian) spoke 4 to 5 additional.

David has been asking me for years, once his doctorate is complete - what do I want to do? Hearing my new aquaintances navigate many tongues has inspired me. I plan to improve my Spanish and Italian and eventually learn German as well.

So, long story long. no matter where you are headed learn a few words of the local language. You'll feel more confident and your country hosts will appreciate the effort.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Vienna to Regensburg - Nov. 27 - Dec 1

Vienna, Austria
Memories of two gentlemen who spoke at the top of their lungs for five hours straight, several crying babies as well as three and a half hours in the Frankfurt airport quickly faded as the sun and Vienna broke through the clouds. Once on the ground all went smoothly and by 15:30, we were enjoying a snack in the Panorama Lounge of the Amadeus Royal. After unpacking, we were served a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

By 20:15, we were on a bus headed out to our first Christmas Market the Rauthaus Christkindl Market at the Viennese city hall. Coming around the corner and seeing all the brightly decorated stalls was very exciting. Local Viennese mixed with tourists walking their dogs and sipping the local Gluewhein. I quickly got in the retail therapy swing and began checking out the wares. I was disappointed to see 90% of the offerings were from China. There were many stalls featuring honey and beeswax that were clearly locally made, and the food stalls were unbelievable with amazingly decorated cookies and candies. By 22:00, we were delivered back to the ship. Most of the group went straight to bed, but David and I wandered down to the lounge and watched the lights twinkle off the Danube.

On Friday, we uncovered the surface of the beautiful jewel of Vienna city center. The Gate 1 bus whisked the group to the 1st district, which is city center. We quickly realized that simply driving by stately building after stately building would not do the city justice and that we should consider Vienna a future destination. That aside and possibly the topic of a future entry on another vacation we forged ahead on the guided bus tour. We met Heide, our guide for both the bus and walking portions of the tour. She gave us an overview of the role of the Babensberg and Habsburg families in the rich Viennese history. The Babensberg family is responsible for the fascinating county Melk Abbey – the subject of Saturday’s entry. The Babensberg family rule for approximately 400 years until their extinction in 1246. Vienna briefly came under the rule of King Ottokar II of Bohemia until King Rudolf I expelled him in 1278. From that time, the city was a possession of the Habsburg family. They ruled Austria from approximately 1278 through the early 1900s, until WWI and the murder of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. After WWI and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna became the capital of a small Austrian republic. Between 1938 and 1945, it was a provincial capital in the German Reich. After WWII, Vienna reemerged as the capital of a neutral Austrian republic and became one of the world headquarters of the United Nations in 1979.

Heide was a wonderful and knowledgeable guide and apparently, somewhat of a celebrity as she stated she had a past as a champion skier and ski instructor. She was from the southern part of Austria, specifically Corinth. Back to the tour, Heide guided us through the city center, the Innerstadt, and its main shopping street Grabin. Vienna holds some 1.6 million residents and many actually reside inside one of the city’s 23 districts. This day, the city bustled with people even as the wind and cold were brisk. Just outside the wonderful landmark, church of St. Stephens Cathedral Heide bid the group a fond adieu and pointed us to the meeting spot for the return buses back to the ship.

We asked Heide where she would recommend having a coffee and warming drink. She stated that the Wienwurm café was a nice spot and we entered a modern and quaint café. To our surprise, Heide joined us a few minutes later. Now just the five of us got to know Heide with a warming espresso and hot chocolate. After a pleasant talk, we said goodbye to Heide and ventured back to the cold and meeting point in front of the Cathedral where Rolf from Gate 1 led the entire “mellow” yellow group back the bus for the return trip to the ship.

Friday after lunch found most of the group heading off to the Habsburg summer residence, Schonbrunn Palace. David and stayed back to prepare for our Viennese Waltz lesson at the Elmayer Dance School. Situated in the former horse stables of the Pallavinici Palace and next to the stables of The Spanish Riding School, the Elmayer has taught Vienna’s youth since 1919. With our appointment at 18:00, we headed to the Hofsburg for a quick visit. Although the door said the palace was open until 18:00, we found it locked. We wandered into the palace’s café and for the second time that partook of that Austrian favorite – coffee. Coffee and coffee houses have been important to Austria and especially Vienna since the Turkish invasion of 1683. The Turks have been long gone, but the practice of buying one coffee and lingering for four or five hours still goes on today.

We left the café and headed to the school. We arrived a few minutes early, but our instructor, Marion was ready and waiting for us. Marion was in her twenties. She had studied dance at the Elmayer for three years and had been an instructor for five. Marion in a former life was probably the sweetest, gentlest drill sergeant in the Habsburg army. “Now we are starting with the right and then the left and now the turn and the turn and the turn”. Within one hour, she taught us the basic Viennese Waltz step as well as quarter and half turns. Viennese Waltz is completely different from the waltz we have previously studied. Marion instructed David and me to, “Stand together as tightly so that a piece of paper could not slide out between your bodies”. Also new for us was the practice of our feet fitting between each other’s feet while dancing that meant when David came forward he placed his foot on the floor between my legs and when I went backward the same thing. The hour went very quickly and it was time to go. David asked and we were granted permission to watch one of the group classes. About 100 teenagers from the ages of 14 – 17 were learning ‘Boogie’ in preparation for the ball season, already in full swing in Vienna. Take a look at the video; it’s really thrilling to watch.

The evening ended with a concert at Vienna’s famous Kursalon Concert Hall for music by Mozart, Strauss and Schubert. In addition to the orchestra, a male and a female opera singers performed several opera pieces. A ballet couple danced both ballet and Viennese Waltz as well. It was a great way to say goodbye this wonderful city, with a nod to its loves, coffee, music and dance.

The Wachau Valley and Melk, Austria

A deep shudder of the ship roused me from a deep sleep; the clock said 4:30a.m. David seated on the window seat looking out. I groggily wondered what was going on. We knew the boat would embark from Vienna at 3:00am and had missed the engines firing up. However, the boat’s entrance into the first lock on the Danube woke us both. We watched the water level rise and the boat continue down river.

All of Europe’s great cities are located on riverbanks. I thought about the cities and the rivers I have visited, London and the Thames, Edinburgh and the Forth of Firth, Dublin and the Liffey, Rome and the Tiber as well as Florence and the Arno. Rivers were necessary for not only the fresh water they provided but security and trade as well. Sometimes it is the river’s reputation and not the river itself that is mighty. The Nile in Cairo is slightly wider and a little deeper than a small stream. I was stunned to learn Israel’s Jordan was only a small creek as it wound through Jerusalem.

The Danube stretches from Amsterdam, Netherlands to the Black Sea. Hungary, Austria and Germany to this day depend on the river for commerce, fresh water and tourism. Just after breakfast, the boat arrived in Austria’s Wachau Valley, stretch of the Danube from Krems to Melk. Breathtaking vineyards carved into the valley walls led gently to the village of Durnstein. Durnstein is where Richard the Lionhearted was held prisoner on his way back from the crusades and the crown gemstone of the Wachau Valley and cruising through it was like drinking a rare wine.

Later in the afternoon, we dock just down river from Melk Abbey. To our luck, weather broke and sunshine revealed a quiet and surprising opportunity to be out on the lookout deck of the Amadeus. On to the buses, this led us on a five-minute ride to the base of the Abbey grounds.

The Melk Abbey is a working Benedictine Abbey once accommodating many monks and today houses 30 or so live-in residents. The Abbey dates back to 1014 when it was a convent. The Babensbergs’ chose Melk as their residence and place of burial. However, Melk’s lasting fame was when in 1700 Berthold Dietmayr was elected abbot. He authorized the construction on a new abbey to replace fire damage long ago. Today, the Melk Abbey stands as one of the outstanding baroque creations. With over 400 rooms and over 1100 windows, the Abbey and grounds is spectacular and largely depends on the contribution and visitation of thousands of tourists yearly.

The guides explained to the group “right is right and left is wrong” to return to the ship. To understand this, after the tour we walked down always bearing to the right to the town of Melk in the shadows of the protecting Abbey. The town is really more of a village and a few main streets with less than 50 retail stores and an even smaller Christmas market. The small nature of the town did not quell its picturesque impact. A short ride back to the ship and we look forward to another dinner and travel scheme for tomorrow in fabled Salzburg.

Salzburg, Austria
We began our adventure at the Mirabelle gardens, which was the palace that Prince Archbishop Wolf Von Dietrich built. Up until the early 20th century, Salzburg was an independent city-state ruled by the Prince Archbishops (a combination of Royalty and clergy) and the most notable of these was Von Dietrich. His mother was a Medici from Florence and his father was from Salzburg. The garden centerpiece is the fountain. The palace edification and grounds represents the only Italian palace/garden outside of Italy. Surrounding the fountain are four marble statues from the quarry in Salzburg. The four statues represent the four elements fire, water, air, and earth. Most Americans know the centerpiece fountain and surrounding gardens from the movie classic Sound of Music, which depicts Julie Andrews running through the gardens singing the song “Do Re Me”.

From the Palace and the new town, we walk with our guide Alexander to cross the River Salz to the old town. An interesting point about “old” town and “new” town was that the Palace was built in the new town for the Prince’s mistress. Although he conceived 15 children with this woman, he could not allow the mistress to live in the city. He instead built the Mirabelle across the river Salz in the “new” town. Weaving through the old-world streets of the old town, we quickly understand the charm and allure of Salzburg as a holiday destination for Europeans and a tourist destination for the rest of the world. From the best Christmas markets, we have seen yet to an alley after alley of shopping and scenic surprises, the old town offers something for every traveler and romance for all who enter. Sparkling holiday lights around every turn, the bustling sounds of crowded city streets, and scents of wooden smokers and holiday cheer offer a robust holiday and sensory experience.

Salzburg was an optional tour through Gate 1 (a quick aside, I have never met so many pleased prior customers of a tour company. All said the quality and value of their many Gate 1 experiences made them return). After group discussion, we all decided we could not imagine visiting Austria without seeing Salzburg. As David has mentioned, Salzburg did not disappoint. My personal favorites, the Christmas market where we crossed paths with many locals dressed in traditional Austrian garb, lunch at St. Peter’s restaurant (the oldest in Europe – 803AD) and the cemetery at St. Peter’s. The fact I loved a cemetery will be no shock to those who know me. What set St. Peter’s apart from the rest was the feeling it was a living cemetery, all the graves had fresh greens and were decorated for Christmas, no matter how old the tombstone.

After Salzburg, we traveled into the approaching dusk and into a new country – Germany. Until early 2000, travelers passing from Austria and to Germany needed to follow traditional border and customs procedures. Under the EU agreement, travelers benefit from the agreement and we were no exception. We waived with little slow down at the vacant border station to enter Germany. I should however comment on the lovely Austrian countryside on the way to the border crossing. The farmland and spattering of snow-covered grounds were brilliant and a real treat. Bus coma set in and we awoke to the sounds of Rolf (the multi-talented Gate 1 guide) informing us that the buses just moved onto the ramp of the German Audubon. Although cars and traffic did not appear to be moving at the fabled speeds of the famous motorway the mystic was no less magic. We arrived in Passau, Germany and back to the ship an hour or so after nightfall to warm towels and tea at the door.

Regensburg, Germany
Cruising overnight into Germany, we arrived at Regensburg, Germany in the early morning. The night once again brought the ship through a series of locks. However, as usual the ship navigated flawlessly. Regensburg dates back to the Stone ages as a settlement. The Celtic name Radasbona was the oldest name given to the settlement near the present city. The history of Regensburg can be condensed into the distinct historical periods. First, the Romans wished to set a city fortress on their eastern border to protect against barbarian invaders so they migrated to the area and settled the armament around 90 AD. This settlement remained in effect until 843 AD when Regensburg became the seat of the eastern Frankish ruler, Louis II the German. From about 530 until the first half of the 13th century it was the capital of Bavaria. In 1135-46, a bridge across the Danube, the Steinerne Brucke, was built. This stone bridge opened international trade routes between Northern Europe and Venice entering Regensburg into its second important period as a rich and powerful city in Bavaria. It became the cultural center of southern Germany and was celebrated for its gold work and fabrics. In 1245, Regensburg became a Free Imperial City and was a trade center before the shifting of trade routes in the late middle ages. This ushered in the history of Regensburg to present day. In 1803, the city lost its status as a free city. It was handed over to the Archbishop of Mainz and Arch chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire Carl von Dalberg. Regensburg became a new state within the Empire. In 1743, German armed forces bombed their own bridge in an attempt to slow the advancing allied troops. However, the allied troops advanced from another direction and the bridge, city was spared further damage, and bombing, which was the unfortunate fate of many European cities during WWII.

After our short morning tour ended and we began the rest of our Regensburg visit, we hoofed it to the nearest internet café since David needed to check into his Ph.D. program. Once he had checked in, I logged on and let my brother know we were all fine and to explain our internet availability was nil until then (side note, we are now in Prague and our anticipated internet usage has not exactly panned out – we will probably on post twice before leaving to return home). Lunch followed our internet jaunt at the oldest sausage kitchen in Bavaria 1243. Tim, Andrea, my mom and I ordered six sausages – David, eight. I ended up eating 4.25 and David 10.75. We walked off lunch by a visit to Regensburg’s three Christmas markets, the local department / grocery store for local mustards, wine and schnapps.

We ended our last night on the riverboat with the Captain’s dinner and a late night final visit to the lounge. We said goodbye to our favorite Amadeus Royal staff members, Beatrix, Adrienn, Tamas, Zoltan, Pieter and Miklos. Our Gate One tour director, Rolf was extremely professional, interesting and an all around great guy. David lost his camera case (and full photo card, unfortunately) somewhere Friday night. When David mentioned to Rolf that he might have left it at the Elmayer dance studio, Rolf offered to call the studio, find out if they had the case, pick it up and ship it back to us. He checked with the studio a couple of times and it was finally determined the case was not there. As we disembarked today, he apologized that he could not find our case. Definitely beyond our expectations.

Today, Tuesday, December 02, 2008, we arrived at Prague Hilton after an uneventful bus ride from Regensburg, Germany to the Czech Republic. Stay tuned for Prague adventures in our next posting.