Prague

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).

Until tomorrow

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

 

 

 

Vienna Day 2

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!

Until tomorrow …

P, H, M, O, C & S

Grindelwald to Cologne

Yesterday was my last day in Grindelwald but Stephen, Michael, Lara and Oli are staying on doing sightseeing, snowboarding and skiing. It was a stunning day yesterday with the sun out. It was -8 degrees in the morning but when the sun comes out it really does change the complexion of the place entirely. Even though the temperature is still low it just feels much warmer when you can feel the sun.

Stephen & Lara tried out snowboarding yesterday morning and made some progress in getting the basics under control. Oli & Kirsten ski’d down the Bodmi slope 10 or 11 times to build up some confidence while Michael and Daniel went to ski in Mannlichen (which is at about 2300m and requires you to take a gondola to get to the ski area).

I had to leave to catch a train from Interlaken to Basel and then change at Basel and take the train to Cologne. It was 3 hours to Basel in a train and then 4 hours from Basel to Cologne. I had worked out that it took the same time to take the train as it would to fly (as I would have had to take the train to Zurich airport, check in, security etc).  At least on a train you can work, read, answer emails etc and there is WiFi so it was a lot more productive. What did strike me was the fact that there was snow the whole way during the train journey. It is unusual for there to be snow in Cologne but there were even places I could see snow when we pulled into Cologne last night. The other noticeable thing is that immediately you leave Switzerland (i.e. from Basel onwards), the landscape becomes flat and (dare I say) boring. It was an immediate transition.

Unfortunately it is back to work for me. So don’t expect much of a blog in the next few days. I will try to blog a few more times before I get back but given I am no longer with the rest of them I doubt I will be able to give a lot of what they are up to.

P (and for 1/2 day S, M, L & O)

Grindelwald Day 2

We woke up to see that more fresh snow had fallen overnight though the temperature had risen to around 1 degree. It was still overcast. Michael, Oli and Daniel were going skiing at Kleine Scheidegg. It involves taking the train from the Grindelwald Grund station to Kleine Scheidegg (KS). KS is at about 2061m above sea level and is about half way up the Eiger and on the train line which goes up the Jungfraujoch (which is at 3466m (described as the Top of Europe and is the highest reachable point in Europe by rail). About mid-morning it became very cloudy with really poor visibility in Grindelwald and we messaged them to discover it was what is known as a ‘white-out’ up there too. Shortly after that it actually started snowing in Grindelwald.

Stephen and Lara spent a reasonable chunk of the morning out walking around the town. In fact they walked down to the river (which is really at the end of the town or in another town probably more correctly) and back again to the chalet and so they were out walking when it was actually snowing (a first for Lara).

Michael and Oli got back just after lunch time. Oli had coped well for a few runs on the mountain and then lost her confidence (by her own admission). Both Michael and Oli were pretty tired when they got back. Oli was so tired she couldn’t actually eat (which if you know Oli is a clear indicator of how tired she really was). It was Michael’s birthday yesterday and so I think skiing for him was the best way to spend most of his birthday.

In the afternoon, Stephen, Lara and Kirsten went to get their boots fitted as they planned to go up to Bodmi this morning.  Oli decided to join them to try to get her confidence back in skiing something easier than KS. My Dad and I also went for a short walk around the town to get some fresh air. I failed to wear a beanie and when I got back everyone was laughing at how red my ears were.

Dinner last night was raclette which is a Swiss specialty. It was Michael’s choice. It is basically melted cheese which you eat over potatoes (you get special potatoes for the purpose too). You eat sausages (bratwurst) with it. It is fairly rich but very nice and by the end of the night all the potatoes were consumed and most of the cheese was gone too. Michael asked for treacle sponge with custard for dessert which is a Temple family special (and I guess an English dessert).

Everyone was in bed earlier as the skiers were pretty tired. I have never seen Daniel in bed as earlier as last night (admittedly he only got back at about 6:30pm after leaving at 8am!).

It was a nice day but missing Chloe & Helen’s presence …

P, M (because it was his 19th birthday), S, O, L (because she laughed at my red ears)

Grindelwald

We woke yesterday to a snow-covered Grindelwald. You might think that was to be expected but until a few days there was hardly any snow in the area. Our wider family had been here over Xmas and they hadn’t been able to ski because of the lack of snow. Given that the 4 of them (S, L, M & O) are here to ski and snowboard, this was obviously a great sight.

As we had arrived so late on Friday, I went down to the supermarket with Daniel (my nephew) to buy some breakfast items. I know it is really easy to comment on prices in Switzerland but it really struck me how much more expensive it was to Portugal (let alone to SA). For instance, mangoes (imported from SA no doubt) were the same absolute price in Switzerland as they were in SA – just a different currency which makes them about 14 x more expensive here! That is a staggering difference because there is no way importing them should result in the price being 14 x more. I wonder who is making all the profit out of them along the chain of supply?! In case you need help translating that it was over R100 per mango.

The kids went later to have a walk around Grindelwald and then we met them at the supermarket again to do a bigger shop for the next few days.  The bill for that shop came to almost R10000 for a full shopping trolley. That is probably 3-4 x what we would pay in SA for the same thing. It really does amaze me in a world that now has a global economy how one country could be so much more expensive than the other countries surrounding them. I travel regularly to Germany and while Switzerland borders Germany, I reckon Germany is at least half the price for the same things.

It is pretty cold here. When we arrived Friday night is was -15 and yesterday the temperature rose to -3.5 degrees. There are some advantages of this in that if the fridge or freezer is full all you do is put the items outside. For instance, the cooldrinks weren’t cold when we got back from the shop so Stephen simply placed them outside and surrounded them with snow. Problem solved in that about 10-15 minutes later you have cold drinks.

After lunch, Michael and Oli went to get their ski boots and ski’s fitted and then we all went up to Bodmi (small village just above Grindelwald where the ski school is located). There are a few gentle slopes to practice on and given Oli hadn’t ski’d since she was 6, it was a good place to start. She seemed to pick it up quite quickly again. Michael looked remarkably comfortable on ski’s despite not having ski’d for 2 years. The rest of us  decided to toboggan and everyone had great fun coming down the short slope. There were probably 20 people doing the same thing so the biggest challenge was ensuring you missed the other people. Michael & Oli decided to ski back to the chalet and Daniel tobogganed back with them and the rest of us drove back down again. Everything closes at about 4:30pm as the sun sets just before 5pm so there is no point in staying out after that (though there was some snowball throwing before we headed back).

Everyone was pretty tired by around 10pm last night and headed for bed.

Until later today (or tomorrow depending on how I feel) …

P, S, L, M & O

(PS: Helen and Chloe arrived home safely yesterday afternoon and told me they were swimming in our pool at 28 degrees C … bit of change of climate!)

 

Traveling day

Yesterday was the day of travel. We left for the airport at just before 11am. We dropped off the family with the luggage at the terminal and then Michael and I took the car back to the rental car company (which was offsite). It was pretty painless to do the drop off and then we headed back to check in. Helen and Chloe were heading back to Cape Town via Zurich and Johannesburg and the rest of us were going to Zurich and then catching the train down to Grindelwald.

We were actually on different flights as Chloe and Helen were on Swiss Air but the rest of us were on TAP. Both flights ended up being delayed by at least an hour. They announced that the delay was due to staff shortages – we were hoping not a shortage of pilots. I think it was because they still have some strike action amongst the ground staff.  The delays weren’t really an issue for either of the groups as it just meant we ended up taking a later train and Helen & Chloe had a 4-hour layover which just became three hours.

img_2155The TAP flight was pretty uncomfortable. I have never flown on a flight with such little48b3884b-7340-419e-912a-7d9b122f295b leg room. It was quite ridiculous. I actually had a business class seat and my knees were touching the seat in front. I couldn’t even put my legs under the seat in front of me without turning sideways first. And unfortunately it is quite a long flight (3 hours). We landed at 6:30pm and got our luggage and had time to buy some dinner before catching the train. We bought takeaways for dinner which cost R220 per person (not kidding!). Switzerland is another whole league in terms of price versus any other country in the world.

75c5e6d9-c898-4728-9df9-19f23dc14b8dThe train left at 7:40pm and we had to change at Bern and then again at Interlaken Ost. The trains run precisely to the minute usually in Switzerland and so it was surprising that we arrived 2 minutes late into Interlaken Ost. The train to Grindelwald left 2 minutes late and I suspect it was compensating for the late arrival into Interlaken.

There is a lot of snow around and it is pretty cold outside. I checked the temperature in Interlaken and it was -15 degrees C. My Dad kindly met us at the train station in the car so that he could take the luggage up to the chalet and the ladies went with him while the rest of us walked up. There are 9 of us staying in the chalet at the moment as one of my nieces and one nephew are also here (as well as my folks).

Helen and Chloe were killing time at Zurich airport and their flight left at 10:45pm for Johannesburg.  They have just arrived back into Cape Town as I type this.

Until tomorrow (or possibly later today)

P, H, C, S, M, L & O

Lisbon

Today was residency renewal day. That meant breakfast at 9am and then a walk over to the lawyers office (about 20 minute walk). It was very misty this morning but not particularly cold (and I see as I type now it is becoming very misty again tonight). We got to the lawyers office at 10am and signed the necessary documents and then had to walk to the Home Affairs office. Home Affairs in Portugal is like anywhere else in the world. Basically sit and wait and do nothing. Our ticket was F33 and they were on F12 when we arrived at 11am. We finished at around 2:45pm i.e. 3 hours 45 minutes of basically doing nothing. Reading, Facebooking, YouTube videos, iPhone games etc. Fortunately we knew what to expect and came prepared.

Lunch at the Burger King on the corner which is now becoming a tradition.  3rd time to visit Home Affairs in Lisbon and 3rd time we had Burger King lunch. The day was basically consumed doing the renewals so we went back to the hotel for a rest. We went out for dinner at 7:30pm and found an Italian restaurant. It was definitely the worst food and worst service we have had since we arrived. The waiter was grumpy and unhelpful and the food was average at best. Not a great way to finish off our last night in Lisbon. I at least found a MacDonald’s on the way back to the hotel so I could get a Chocolate Sundae.

Tomorrow is a traveling day as we split up – Helen and Chloe going back to SA and the rest of us going to Switzerland.

Until tomorrow …

P, H, S, M, C, L & O