Yesterday evening Helen, Chloe and I left for the US. We are going over to celebrate the wedding of one of my nieces. This will be the 2nd wedding of that generation.
The trip didn’t start brilliantly. The previous night American Airlines called and left a message on my work phone to say they were oversold on the flight across the Atlantic and they wanted us to re-route via Chicago but unfortunately they only had two seats on that flight. WHAT?! (stronger language would have been appropriate) Why did they think that I would be happy with that? What did they think I would say “Sure 2 seats is fine, one of us will just stay behind in the airport lounge”? Given how much I fly, I have a high frequent flyer status on American Airlines (because they are part of the same grouping as BA) and so in fact does Chloe (Helen also actually but not the same level as the two of us). Why are they not finding someone else to dump off the flight!?!
After many phone calls by the travel agent she finally spoke to someone at AA and told them to get lost. They said OK. But we hadn’t been able to check in and get our boarding passes. So we went to airport early to hopefully get it sorted out there. Fortunately we were dealing with a BA check in person and he was extremely helpful and after a reasonably length time he managed to check us in and issue our boarding passes for the US flights as well. A reminder again of the shocking service American ‘airlines’ (to encompass all of them) give!
Helen is becoming a bit of celebrity spotter in the lounge. On the trip home from the UK in July she saw Frances O’Connor (no I would have never known who she was but Helen did … Mansfield Park apparently). Yesterday evening she came back from toilet and said ‘Ben Kingsley’ sitting behind us. And now him I know … Lawrence of Arabia; Ghandi … Oscar winner. Chloe kept trying to get a photo of him and eventually got one this morning when we disembarked in London.
The flight from Cape Town to London was uneventful and pretty smooth so we all were able to get some reasonable sleep. We had a 3.5 hour layover in London before our flight to Philadelphia. I was again reminded of the different service level of American airlines. Just checking into the lounge took 5 minutes (not exaggerating). It has never taken me that long to get into a lounge. Usually they just scan your boarding pass and you’re in. Not with AA though – passports; security questions and an access controlled door to the lounge. They did eventually let us in.
As I type this we are mid-Atlantic. I love modern technology … WiFi on planes. Had a WhatsApp conversation with Michael, dealt with some emails and typing the blog. Good use of the 8 hour flight. Hopefully the rest of the travels go smoothly (as they have so far).
This morning we met Daniel (my nephew) at a coffee shop in his neighbourhood for brunch. It is an Australian coffee shop (underlines the multi-nationalism of Berlin) and they served a very nice breakfast (and the coffee was good to). It was raining when we left and we were waiting outside for our taxi to come when a lightning strike hit the telephone/electricity pole about 15 meters away from us. The thunder struck almost immediately afterwards (not surprising because the lightning strike was right there). We could actually see the sparks from the strike. It was the closest I have ever been to a lightning strike (and certainly don’t want to ever get closer!).
We headed for KaDeWe which is the largest department store in continental Europe and only 2nd to Harrods in Europe. The displays (from the food to the kitchen items to stationery) are beautifully done. It is really quite high-end in its range and prices but worth a visit if you’re ever in Berlin. Helen and I had visited the store 24 years ago and we bought a raclette machine from there so it also held some good memories (though Helen says she didn’t remember it at all).
Back to the hotel to pack up and head for Berlin Tegel airport for our flight back to London. Berlin Tegel airport is the weirdest airport I have ever experienced (and I have experienced a lot of airports). We had to check in a at section D which required us to walk through the whole of the terminal and then exit to get to D. We boarded on time but then sat on the tarmac for an hour due to air traffic control restrictions to due thunderstorms over London and the channel. We eventually landed at about 7pm UK time and got to the flat at about 7:30pm.
Michael rushed straight off to go buy an Apple iPad for himself from the Apple store while Chloe and I went to buy dinner from Waitrose down the road. After dinner, Helen, Chloe and Oli went shopping in Oxford Street (like they don’t have 2 days to do that!) tonight and just got back about 10 minutes ago.
I’m not sure about the rest of them but I am going to bed now!
P, H, S, C, M & O (straight back from the shops to insult me while I was typing the blog got her that position)
After all the walking of the last week, we opted for a more chilled day with a little less walking. The plan was to have breakfast at a coffee shop at 9:15am and then take a Berlin city hop-on-hop-off bus tour to get a better overview of the city. The tour we chose was a 2-hour round trip and we hopped on Gendarmenmarkt (in front of the Conzerthalle). We stayed on the bus until the stop before we go on (which was Checkpoint Charlie).
It was overcast the whole morning – which was nice not having to sit in the sun on the bus – but unfortunately with the windchill factor it was pretty cold (and some of us didn’t have jerseys). It was still a good trip though the English commentary was a lot less than the German commentary particularly because the driver was adding to the German commentary. The trip does take you past all the important sites including Berliner Dom; Humboldt University (where numerous famous people including Einstein attended); Holocaust Memorial; Brandenburg Gates; Reichstag; Tiergarten; Schloss Bellevue (official resident of President of Germany) and then finally Checkpoint Charlie.
As I mentioned above we got off at Checkpoint Charlie and went into museum shop. They sell bits of the wall by weight in the shop. Pieces of concrete … I wonder how many people buy those believing it is really a part of the wall?! Could be from any random piece of concrete chopped up. Pretty good business if people are foolish enough to buy it. We did wonder down a block to a place where a section of the wall is preserved. It is the site of the Gestapo Headquarters from WWII which was destroyed in bombing and totally destroyed after the war. They now have a museum called Topography of Terror which is both an inside and outside museum. Matching in length to the piece of the wall still standing are displays talking about the rise of the Nazis, aspects of WWII, persecution of the Jews etc. We walked along and read and looked at the photos. It was quite sobering. There was so much it took us an hour to walk and read the whole thing. You finish one panel and think ‘I’ll skip the next one’ only to be drawn in by the title and then you start reading and simply cannot stop. It reminded me again to be thankful for those who fought and lost their lives in WWII for the Allies. It was for a good and right cause. It reminded me of my grandfather who fought (and fortunately survived) in WWII.
After lunch, some of us headed back to the hotel to rest (me, S & C) while Michael and Oli went to the Berlin Cathedral and the Holocaust Memorial. Helen went to the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Memorial. For dinner tonight we ended up as the same place as last night. We really enjoyed last night and figured there was no point not going back and doing the same thing again. Coffee, hot chocolate and whiskey (for S) back at the hotel and soon time for bed.
P, H, S, C, O & M (because he did the least today)
Given it is the 500th year of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, we had always planned to make that a stop on our European tour. Originally we thought we would take the train from Prague to Wittenberg (as it is south of Berlin) and then on to Berlin but I discovered when I tried to book the train tickets that the train to Wittenberg from Prague actually went through Berlin first. So it made sense to rather just stay 3 nights in Berlin and take the train down and back again one of the days. That is what we did today.
Our train was at 9:30am – it is only 40 minutes down to Lutherstadt Wittenberg (the town renamed itself relatively recently so important is Luther to its history). Helen and I visited Wittenberg in 1993 shortly after reunification (Wittenberg was part of East Germany) and we could see the effects of East Germany on the town at the time. It was very run down but today we got a totally different impression and it is now a quaint small town proudly celebrating its history and connection to Martin Luther and the Reformation. The whole town is focused on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church and there are numerous special displays for the event.
Our first stop was Lutherhaus which was originally the monastery that Luther took over and then became his personal house. It is much larger than I expected and you had to keep reminding yourself it was actually originally a monastery. The displays and history of Luther’s life are very informative and well done. Definitely worth the relatively low entrance fee. What struck me about Luther was (a) how hard-working he was and (b) what a huge impact he had on both Church and secular life (not just in Germany but throughout the world). I could write a blog post just on Luther (and I might still) but I’ll restrict myself for now to illustrate the (a) and (b) above.
Regarding how hard he worked, he translated the New Testament from Greek to German in 11 weeks. Admittedly he was in isolation at the time (to keep him from further threatening the Church doctrine and in particular indulgences) but it shows how he was prepared to turn difficult circumstances into something positive by simply working hard. In addition, Luther wrote a lot challenging many of the traditional Catholic doctrines. In 1924, 15% of all the printed books in German came from Wittenberg and most of them were written by Luther himself.
Regarding the impact on Church and secular life, here are some of the impacts Luther had:
he believed each person to be equal in God’s eyes (both men and women) and so his wife ran the household as her domain entirely (totally against the culture of the day). She was also a pretty good business woman it seems as they ended up with the largest amount of property in Wittenberg and definitely had the most sheep, goats & cows at the time Luther died (sign of their wealth).
he introduced schooling for girls (again a totally unique concept at the time)
he introduced a ‘community chest’ in the town square where people with wealth could contribute to those who were struggling financially (I wonder if this is the origin of the charity Community Chest?)
he allowed parishioners to partake of both the bread and wine (Catholic Church only allowed them to have the bread)
he stopped the use of the confessional booth and said confession of sins for salvation was sufficient and that your daily walk with God in faith was what was important
he stopped indulgences entirely (which was just a way at the time of taking money from the poor in his view – and he was right)
most importantly after studying Romans he concluded that we are saved by grace alone and no works at all matter
He always encouraged non-violence and even during the Peasants War in Germany he kept stressing to both sides that war was not the way to resolve the conflict and when the peasants were defeated he stressed the need for grace from the victors (though it seems this wasn’t heeded). He believed the way to change people’s minds was through dialogue and discussion and so each night he would discuss a variety of topics with the students who were living in his house (the students started taking notes and these were eventually printed in what is known today as Table Talks).
Luther also had some priorities sorted out. He built a cellar under his house to store his wine and beer. We preferred wine to beer though he drank both. In fact his wife (Katharina) brewed the beer herself (I have asked Helen why she hasn’t been doing that for me?!). The only annoying thing about the visit to the house was that there were a large group of Asians touring too. They were taking photos of everything and had to pose next to each picture of Luther (and I’m not exaggerating). But they also took photos posed next to random items (like a chair or a book or leaning on the railing .. see example of photo of Chloe!). They will have to spend hours going through all those photos! After the visit to his house we went to the Stadtkirsch where Luther used to preach. We unfortunately couldn’t go in as there was a prayer service operating at the time. Finally we went to Castle Church which is where he nailed his 95 theses on the door 500 years ago. The door is unfortunately no longer there but has been replaced by commemorative doors with the 95 theses engraved on them (this was done in 1858 to commemorate Luther’s 375th birthday).
We took the train back into Berlin and decided to walk from the station back to our hotel (about 2.5 kms) as the walk takes you past the Reichstag building and through the Brandenburg Gate. The Reichstag building now houses the German parliament but in fact wasn’t used from 1933 to 1999. It was damaged by fire in 1933 and then damaged further during WWII. It was right on the border of East & West Berlin (the wall ran right behind the building). It was almost torn down in 1950s but they decided against it and eventually after reunification the building was restored and parliament moved back to Berlin and into the building from 1999.
By the time we got back to the hotel it was 4:30pm and our feet and legs were very tired. We had dinner tonight at an Asian restaurant near the hotel (we didn’t feel like walking very far!). The food was pretty good and as always the company was good again. My nephew joined us for most of the day. He was offended I didn’t include him in the sign off from yesterday so I’ve added him today (but because he was offended I’ve added him to the appropriate spot).
H (because she ordered breakfast in her broken German today from a grumpy lady and because she said no one ever gets above me .. #provedwrong), P, S, M, O, C & D
We left Prague (photo view from our hotel room this am) today on the 10:28 train to Berlin that actually left at 10:58. Prague station seems totally disorganized. About 75% of the trains were reflected as arriving or leaving late. Ours wasn’t but left 30 minutes late anyway. At one stage the platform number of one train went up 1 minute before its due departure time and everyone had to run to get to the train. It was total chaos. When we got to our train, the doors to the carriage we were booked on were locked so we had to board through the neighboring carriage and walk through. By the time everyone was on, there were not enough seats and people had bookings for the same seats – they just sat down in the aisle and waited. No conductor in sight and it didn’t seem like anyone cared to sort out the issue.
The train was pretty slow going as well. It was meant to take 4.5 hours but it took longer (because we sat in the middle of nowhere for about 15 minutes as well). Before the Czech border no-one even checked our tickets, it was only after the Deutsche Bahn people came on the train that they bothered to check the tickets and two people behind us were in the entirely wrong carriage (which might have explained something of why there were no seats for people with bookings). The WiFi on board worked well until we crossed into Germany and thereafter it didn’t work again. And I think the Germans must have thought the train was actually a sauna because it was very hot inside. Not the most pleasant of train journeys I have had in my life but we got to Berlin eventually.
What I also cannot understand about Germany is how poor the cellphone signal is in most parts of the country. We traveled for about 2 hours on the train either without cellphone reception at all or the signal was Edge (basically so slow you can’t use your phone except to send a text message and even that will probably take 5 minutes to go through). Smoke signals would be faster. This is not the first time I have moaned about German cellphone coverage and speeds though – if you have ever read any of my other blogs while I have been in Germany you would have heard me moan about this numerous times. South Africa (supposedly a much more backwards country than Germany) has much better coverage and speed than Germany. To prove my point I am battling to upload photos to the blog now as the speed in the hotel is only 2Mbps. I thought maybe my cellphone would be better as it was showing 3G but alas that in came at 0.2Mbps (don’t think the speed test registered that low!).
The other thing that I notice every time I am in Germany is that all the announcements on the train are only done in German. In Czech Republic, notices done in Czech and English. The moment we crossed into Germany all the announcements done in German only until we arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. The train was full of English-speaking people (I reckon 75% of the train were tourists who were English-speaking) but no announcements in English. At least I can understand the German and follow enough to be able to understand the announcements.
We are staying at Cosmo Hotel Berlin Mitte (http://www.cosmo-hotel.de/) – photo from our room window again. The area (not the hotel) was recommended by my nephew who is currently staying in Berlin. We had agreed to meet him for dinner tonight. We took a taxi to meet him and the taxi driver dropped us off and pointed down towards the river. It looked fairly dodgy and on the way down someone remarked ‘Where has Daniel taken us to’. We arrived and discovered it was a private party (with the same name as the restaurant) but it wasn’t the restaurant! And at precisely that moment the heavens opened and it pelted down with rain. We had to call another taxi and by the time we got into it we were all drenched (and I mean drenched). We had to go back to the hotel to change and then back to the actual restaurant.
We eventually arrived about 45 minutes late at Spindler Restaurant (https://www.spindler-berlin.de/) and so by the time we finished eating it was 9:30pm. The restaurant is rated Top 10 trendy places to eat in Berlin (well done Daniel on selecting it). After dinner, we went to seek out ice creams for desert and then walked back to the hotel (and got back about 10:40pm). Our clothes are still seriously wet (they’re going to need a day to dry it seems).
For some reason even though we spent most of the day on the train, we are all pretty tired.
So until tomorrow
P, H, M, S, C, O (she lost her ranking today based on not understanding why Michael wanted to sit next to me on the train so we could watch cricket on my iPad)
Breakfast was included in our room rate at the hotel and it was a pretty good spread including fruit (a lot of varieties), eggs (scrambled, boiled and fried) and usual extensive selection (for Europe) of breads, rolls, meat & cheese.
We headed for the Museum of Communism after breakfast. Ironically it is situated in one of the Palaces which it shares with a swish casino and downstairs is MacDonald’s. It is a street with shops both ways and those included all the major chain stores like H&M and even a Hamley’s. Communism long ago it seems. It wasn’t the best museum I have ever been to and given how much they charged (190 Koruna per person which is about R115 or just under $10). But we did get a bit of history of Czechoslovakia especially post-WWII which was helpful in understanding the country a little more. The most interesting part was a video that was playing perpetually of the civil unrest in the 80s that eventually lead to the fall of the communist government. It only took 10 days of protests (17-27 November 1989) for the communist government to resign and Vaclav Havel (a political writer, dissident & philosopher from 70s) to take over as President and he also presided over the separation into Czech Republic and Slovakia and then became the first Prime Minister of Czech Republic as well.
The other thing that struck me about the museum and movie was the brutality of the police against their own people. But then again who am I as a South African to be surprised by that given our country’s history. The video did make me wonder how a handful of policemen can dominate thousands of people. If the people just turned on the police they could have easily dominated them given their numbers. But fortunately the protests were very short-lived and democracy restored. It is also clear that capitalism became firmly entrenched very quickly thereafter despite all the communist propaganda (some of the cartoons against America in the museum were pretty good). It seems the Czech people never really believed the propaganda and their love for America was restored quickly (as evidenced by the number of Americans in Prague and the American brands).
We had hoped to go the National Library (because it has a beautiful interior) but it is closed for renovation (like a lot of things across Europe). We decided to walk over the Charles Bridge again (and it seems every other tourist in Prague had the same idea). We wanted to go the place on the other side that were making Trdlo (they are places all over Prague making them but we liked the look of this place from last night). Trdlo is like a rolled donut and you can put things inside it (like ice cream, strawberries & cream or savory ones with sausage and fries). We had our’s with ice cream inside.
We then walked along the river (but on the other side of where our hotel is) which takes you past some of the palaces which are open to the public. One of them is the Senate building. We didn’t go into the senate (though I believe you can) but we did wander around the beautiful gardens outside. Both yesterday and today are actually public holidays in Prague. Yesterday was ‘The Day of Slavic Missionaries Cyril and Methodius‘ (they brought Christianity to the area in 863) and today is ‘Anniversary of the execution of John Huss’ who was a Reformer that was burnt at the stake on 6 July 1415. Huss was significantly influenced by reading John Wycliffe and spoke out against the corruption of the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was influenced by Huss as he read Huss’ sermons as was astonished that he had been burnt at the stake for heresy when all Luther could see was his clear defense and exposition of the Bible. He was burnt at the stake 102 years earlier than Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door so in fact he was pre-reformer.
I hope you’re reading these blogs and being suitably impressed by my history knowledge I’m building up. While Prague isn’t my favourite city it hasn’t stopped me from learning about Czech history & politics. What was also impressive today was that O also learnt an important thing (or at least displayed her learning). While M & I were discussing the start of today’s cricket, she asked ‘Is it an important game’ and just from a look from me she immediately corrected herself and said ‘oh that’s right, every cricket game is important’ … finally something worth promoting her for on the blog. We had also finished walking around for the morning so that gave me some time to watch the cricket and relax in the hotel room. The photo shows the nature of a symbiotic relationship – H leaning her kindle against my iPad while I watch cricket!
Late afternoon we headed for the other side of the river and up the hill to the metronome in Letna Park. It replaced the statue of Stalin that was built there in 1955 only to be taken down (actually blasted with dynamite) in 1962 when the process of de-Stalinization was taking place across Europe. It stood empty for many years and then eventually in the 90s the metronome was erected in its place. The views of Prague were pretty good from the top though it did require climbing about 200 steps to get there.
As we had pretty much skipped lunch, we decided to have an early dinner and picked out a place right on the side of the river (mainly because we could feel a cool breeze off the water … it was 29 degrees here today). Nothing special in terms of food – more like pub food (burgers x 2, ribs x 2, prawn pasta x2). Stephen and I did try out another local beer (pilsner this time) which was good. We have had 4 different beers in 4 days between Austria and Prague and all of them have been good. Another walk across the Charles Bridge as we headed back to our hotel (this time was the emptiest it has been but it was still pretty busy) and no doubt an early night for most of us.
This morning we headed to Prague by train. We had originally wanted to drive but you cannot rent a car in Austria and drop it off in Czech Republic. You would have thought that would be possible since they are all part of the EU but after trying at least 6 rental car companies and getting the same story I gave up and we decided to do it by train instead.
The train trip takes just over 4 hours and we discovered later in the day (when we arrived in Prague) that Vienna was the first city to connect to Prague by train in 1870. The train was fully booked (as they announced on the platform at Wien Hauptbahnhof but fortunately I know you must always make a reservation on European trains otherwise there is a good chance you won’t be able to get onto the train you hoping to take. The train trip was pretty uneventful (as you would hope). The only annoying thing was that an Australian couple and an American couple ended up together in a 4-seat and didn’t stop talking at the top of the voices the whole 4-hours. I ended up watching TV shows on my iPad just to block out the constant talking. Note to self: book the quiet carriage next time.
We arrived in Prague at 3pm and decided to walk to the hotel from the station. Not a particularly long walk and we thought given we had sat for 4 hours it would do us some good. The only thing we didn’t think about are the cobblestones for both roads and pavements which does not facilitate dragging a piece of luggage behind you. The other annoying thing about Czech Republic is that they are not part of the Euro so you have to get separate money (Koruna) because they rip you off otherwise on the exchange rate from Euros. From a little research it seems they have been promising to join the Euro since 2007 and now the earliest likely date is 2020 but that even seems unlikely. The Czech people are seriously against joining the Euro now as general opinion in the country seems to be that the EU won’t survive. More than 70% of the population believing taking the Euro to be a bad idea.
We are staying at the President Hotel (https://www.hotelpresident.cz/). It doesn’t look particularly impressive from the outside (looks like a 1960s building – building in the middle of the photo) but it is on the river (Vltava River). However, the rooms are quite nice and we have a view over the river the red roofs on the left. Most importantly they have a Nespresso machine in the room.
At 5pm we headed out to walk around Prague and walked up to the Old Town Square. The walk there dispelled any notions that Communism survived in any shape or form. The road to the square has shops such as Prada, Gucci, Hugo Boss etc etc and also included a Rolls Royce dealership. There was also a Ferrari parked in the road. The square itself was teeming with people (aka tourists). We had no feel for the city at all and we are pretty poor at preparing in advance for what we want to see. We arrive in a city and then we do some research. We decided to get a better view of the city we should do a short (1-hour) city bus tour and as one left at 5:30pm we took that one hoping it would give us some insight and perspective into the city. While we did understand where everything was after the hour, I had a distinct lack of connection to the city at all. None of the people mentioned on the city tour meant anything to me and the none of the buildings pointed out were famous in their own right or had special significance to me. It seems my feeling was also how at least H & S felt too (H said she was trying not to be too judgemental and hadn’t said anything; S said he had used the same words when describing the city to his girlfriend).
It is quite a strange feeling for me because I have traveled many places already in my life and never felt like this before. The buildings are beautiful but I just don’t feel any form of connection to the city at all. The fact we don’t understand any of the language probably doesn’t help either. At least in Austria I can understand what people are saying and I can read and pronounce the words but here in Czech Republic I can’t do any of those things. It’s making me wonder whether I would enjoy any of the Eastern European cities/countries (I guess I won’t know until we try somewhere else).
For dinner tonight we went to a Czech restaurant/pub which was recommended to us by a friend who grew up in Prague but now lives in Cape Town. It was called U Fleku (http://en.ufleku.cz/). It looked closed when we arrived but we discovered that everyone was sitting in the courtyard at the back and it was buzzing and busy. Clearly very popular with locals and tourists. They only serve one type of beer (which was rated 92 out of 100). It is a special beer only produced in Czech Republic and Germany and this particular one is rated the 7th best in the world (it was pretty good). I would describe the food as typical pub food – I had half a chicken and potatoes; S, M & O had half a duck and dumplings and cabbage; H had roasted sausages and C had roast pork & dumplings. On the way back from the restaurant H said she is now over Czech food and can we eat something else tomorrow (like Italian). The service was also pretty poor – they simply ignore you most of the time, don’t explain anything etc. One review on TripAdvisor said “the service is terrible but that is part of the charm”.
We walked back along the river and across the Charles Bridge (and back again) which is famous in Prague. It is a pedestrian only bridge and it’s construction started at 5:31am 9 July 1357 under the reign of King Charles IV. Charles supposedly laid the first stone himself and he did at that precise time because he was told it would bring strength to Charles by his astrologers. The start time is a perfect palindrome (1357 9, 7 5:31) and Charles was a great believer in numerology. There is also a belief that if you touch the copper statue of St John, your secret desires will be fulfilled. Stephen tried it out (as you can see) … the impiety was hard to capture on camera though. The bridge is incredibly popular and was teeming with people (aka tourists). Prague seems a much bigger tourist destination than Vienna (especially for Americans).
P, M (because he chose well when he booked the hotel), H, S (because he shared my lack of connection on Prague and had some funny quips today), O & C
The weather remains very pleasant in Europe. Today got up to around 28 degrees in Vienna and even when we went out late afternoon it was still around 26 degrees C. H and O went for an early morning run and by all accounts enjoyed the experience of running next to the Danube, through parks filled with statues of composers and past other historical sites and impressive buildings.
We had breakfast at one of the nearby cafe & coffee houses. Food is never cheap in places like Vienna but €5.70 for 200ml orange juice (almost R100) does seem quite excessive. It was a nice breakfast though despite the cost. We wanted to go visit Schönbrunn Palace this morning. As the cafe was right next to the U-bahn we decided to figure out how to take the U-bahn there (which turned out to be pretty straightforward).
The Palace was the summer home of the Habsburg monarchs and was finally the home of Franz Joseph (Austria’s longest reigning emperor) who was born and also died in the palace (he died in Nov 1916). In Nov 1918, the Habsburg monarchy came to an end and the Palace was taken over by the Austrian Republic. Franz Joseph seemed to be quite a good leader and really believed he should act in the best interests of the people of Austria. It is clear that the Austrians still love him as many buildings and roads bear his name. He was also pretty hard-working and used to work from 5am in the morning through to dinner including taking his breakfast and lunch at his desk (a man after my own heart).
The Palace and its grounds are very impressive. We had access to 40 rooms on the tour (which took about an hour to complete) and the Palace actually has 1441 rooms. For the age it was built it was also pretty sophisticated including a form of central heating (through stoves) and separate bathrooms. Franz Joseph also had a separate toilet installed (according to him in the ‘way of the English’). The gardens lead up to the Gloriette which is apparently the best known Gloriette in the world (didn’t know what a Gloriette was even until today and now I have seen the best one in the World … amazing day). The view from the Gloriette is back towards the Palace and across Vienna (that’s what the picture shows and is also evidence that we climbed the pretty steep hill).
By the time we got to the top everyone had started to develop sore feet but we still had to walk back down and to the U-station. We took the U-bahn back to the hotel, bought some lunch from the Spar (cheapest and easiest option) and went and ate lunch on the grass in one of the nearby parks. The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to reclaim our feet and legs.
A late afternoon walk to the museum quarter, up to the Rathaus Park and to the University of Vienna. A quick look around the university main building and then we headed to the other restaurant I had been recommended (by the Vienna branch manager). Unfortunately it was about a 25-minute walk away and the complaining started around 15 minutes of walking … “are we there yet”, “how much further” … I thought we were past that stage but clearly not. I just hoped that when we got there we could actually get a table otherwise I might have had a riot on my hands.
Dinner was at Plachutta (https://www.plachutta-wollzeile.at/en). Last night we did Weiner Schnitzel, tonight it was Tafelspitz and that is what Plachutta is famous for. It is basically boiled beef (you can choose which cut of meat you want) served in a beef broth with a marrow bone and in a copper pot. It was Franz Joseph’s favourite meal. 4 of us decided to go for that as our main course and M & C went for a variation in Weiner Schnitzel for M and Fillet Tips (basically beef stroganoff) for C. They were also traditional Vienna dishes. The way you eat Tafelspitz is to first have a bowl of the beef broth, then you eat the marrow on black bread and then you eat the boiled beef with applesauce & horseradish. It was a great experience (washed down with a local beer which even Helen had). It is a dish I would put on my weekly menu but I am glad we gave it a try. As S said, the beef did taste like you would expect boiled beef would taste. A 15-minute walk back to the hotel had everyone moaning again but shoes and sore feet. My FitBit app said I walked over 20000 steps today which is over 15 kms. No wonder our feet are sore!
We left at 7:30am from the flat for Heathrow to get our BA flight to Vienna. We had some breakfast in the BA lounge and by the time we were finished it was almost ready to board the plane. I used air miles for the flights and could only get 3 business class and 3 economy class seats and so O, M & S were in economy where you get no food on the flight at all so they went to buy some lunch and drinks for the flight before we boarded. We left a few minutes late but landed early into Vienna (at around 1pm). The guy at passport control was the grumpiest guy ever … matched US passport control guys (or at least my experience of them). He insisted we each come one at a time even though everywhere else in the world you go together as a family. Not the best start to an arrival in Austria but it wasn’t going to affect our view that much.
We took a Uber to the hotel from the airport (needed a van for the 6 of us). We are staying at Motel One Wien Staatsoper (https://www.motel-one.com/en/hotels/vienna/wien-staatsoper/). It is perfectly situated for us and even though the rooms are slightly small and there is no in-room safe or coffee maker, the hotel’s position makes up for that and the quality is quite good. It was recommended by the branch manager of the Vienna office of the company I work for and it was a good recommendation.
We went on a walking tour before dinner. As you can guess from the hotel name, we are very close to the State Opera House in Vienna. From there we walked to St. Stephen’s Cathedral (St Stephen definitely isn’t with us on this trip though). As usual the Cathedral is shrouded in scaffolding as they clean & renovate (as you’ll find for many European Cathedrals). From there we went to Mozart Haus which is now a museum to Mozart. It was where he lived while in Vienna and where he wrote the music for Marriage of Figaro (opera). It was until recently known as Figaro House (for that reason).
I learnt more than I had ever known about Mozart (my knowledge was limited to the movie Amadeus which I realised I had forgotten anyway). I didn’t for instance know that Mozart was a Freemason, nor that he was a big gambler (he lost over half his earnings on gambling and he earned a lot), nor that he was that well paid for a young man (who died young too). He earned more than professionals living in Vienna and was closer in earnings to some of the royalty of his day. I also learnt that Figaro was a political statement against the elite of the day (like most musicians over time he used his music to protest). For the times, the apartment he lived in was quite spacious and again showed his wealth (the rental was about 50% of what the average middle class person would earn in year).
By the time we finished at Mozart Haus I was starving and following the restaurant recommendations of my colleague (branch manager in Vienna again), we walked to Lugeck Figlmuller which is an Austrian restaurant specialising in Wiener Schnitzel. You probably need to make a reservation to get in but we were fortunate that we got a table so long as we finished before 8pm (it was 6:30pm so we thought that perfectly possible). We went totally local including local drinks – Lugeck beer for men and Pear (C), Apricot (H) and Rhubarb & Raspberry (O) juice for ladies. We all went for Wiener Schnitzel and none of us regretted that decision. It really was very nice Schnitzel and the service was excellent as well.
We were so full we went for an after dinner walk on the way back to the hotel. Vienna is a very beautiful city. The buildings and parks and particularly striking. We walked past a lot of museums, the national library, Burggarten, Hofberg etc etc. It is an easy city to walk around despite the throngs (and I really do mean throngs) of people milling around (especially near the Cathedral).
It was a really good afternoon and enjoyed by everyone (Chloe even declared she was feeling really happy).
Until tomorrow P, C (because she’s so happy), H, O, M & S (S should actually be on his own line after today after amount of irritating he did – he was taking the view he was already at the bottom so why not make the most of it)
I can’t believe it has been a week already in Portugal. We arrived last Saturday and the week had simply flown by. Feeling like we should have had 2 weeks instead of only 1 week. Nothing to be done about that now though.
Saturday was our last full day in Portugal. Every Saturday there is a market at a nearby town called Loule. Helen had planned to run in the morning before we left for the market but the wind was blowing so hard during the night that neither of us had slept well. We had a constant high-pitched whistle which Helen figured out in the morning was coming from the door to the balcony (if only we had figured that out in the middle of the night). I eventually got up at about 2:30am and went downstairs and did some work on my computer until about 4am. Finally fell asleep after that but was awake at 6:30am because the wind blew over a chair or two and the outside umbrella (it really was blowing very strongly).
The market was very busy – much busier than we went the last time. It really is the place to go at the start of the trip not at the end. They have really nice looking fruit & vegetables; fish and meat. Hardly useful on the last day of the trip though. We had come for the specific purpose of restocking on smoked paprika. We have never found it anywhere else except at the market and Helen had used the last of her stock about 2 months ago. We found the same seller as previously and made sure we got enough to last us through to the next time we go (well at least we hope we did). It is a very pretty town and we walked around a bit before heading back to Vilamoura and the house for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Our last supper was a braai of veal cutlets; lamb kebabs & pork sausage.
This morning we packed up and headed back to Faro airport to drop off the cars, check in the luggage and head for our flight back to London. The weekend has got to be the worst time to travel out of Faro because the rest of England also seem to be traveling home then too. The airport was packed full of people. It took us an hour and 15 minutes from when we left home to be heading through security. A quick trip to the BA lounge for our last Pastis de Nata and then it was time to board. In fact we were sitting comfortably with an hour to go to the flight when the lounge staff came around and said the BA flight was boarding already. We still needed to get through passport control and by the time we got to the gate, the flight was on final call (about 45 minutes before departure time).
Everyone was on board about 20 minutes before departure time but that made no difference because the pilot announced there were severe restrictions on air traffic control over Europe due to the number of flights and so we couldn’t leave until 12:35pm (we were ready to leave at 11:35am) so we had rushed to the plane only to have to wait for an hour to take off. We finally landed in London at 3:10pm at Gatwick airport. It is a terrible airport – a close match for Faro. Unfortunately we came in directly behind a US flight and so the passport control line was quite long and it took us about 30 minutes to get through. Oli has a UK passport and so she was through in a few minutes and went to get the luggage. By the time we found her she had thought we had abandoned her with the 8 pieces of luggage. She definitely gets a blog promotion for getting all the luggage off before we got through passport control. Pretty impressive that she actually knew what all the luggage looked like and even more impressive that she managed to get the golf clubs off the belt.
We took the Gatwick Express into Victoria station. Of course the line that operates it (Southern trains) is on industrial action (there is always some transport company on strike in the UK at any point in time). Fortunately only one in every 3 trains was being cancelled and so we were able to get onto the 16:20 train (this after Oli and Chloe headed down the escalator without realising that we left a lot of luggage with only a few of us at the top. I was worried they would get on the train and it would take off without the rest of us. Once we got onto the platform they had vanished (they came looking for us and had gone back up again). Fortunately they came back down again (thank goodness for whatsapp).
Our flat in London is about a 10-minute walk from Victoria Station but doing that with 9 pieces of luggage, backpacks, handbags etc is not as easy as it seems. It was also 24 degrees (heat wave in London) and so by the time we arrived we were all dripping with sweat. My sister and brother-in-law and family had been staying in London in the flat and the plan was to meet them and have dinner together before they headed to the airport (they fly home to the US tomorrow). We had booked at Jamie’s Italian (of Jamie Oliver) for dinner. The youth pastor of our Church in Cape Town was also in London and he came and had dinner with us as well (once we tracked him down). It was a great evening of catching up with family.
Now we’re off to bed because we also have an early morning flight actually.
Until tomorrow ….
P, O (she fully deserves the promotion all on her own today), M (because he dragged both sets of the golf clubs from the station to the flat), H, C & S (he deserves to be at the end for numerous reasons but his constant annoying of Oli would be reason enough)